"I see you, Avatar. Rest while you can, for I am coming."
I woke with a start.
"Guardian?" I whispered.
"How long have I been asleep?" I groaned, rolling over. It couldn’t have been long as I still felt tired. Sure enough, I was asleep a second later.
A mirror. I remember a mirror. A mirror topped by a black Ankh. But
it’s unbroken. Didn’t I break it? I can see my own reflection in it, whole
and alone, staring back at me.
The reflection. It’s me but at the same time it’s not. It doesn’t follow my movements. Is it me? Is it someone else?
My voice. From her lips.
"We are one. I am you. You are me. One mind, one heart, one life."
There is a shimmering white sword in my hands. I lift it, bring it down with all my strength. "I’m not going back. Not there. Not ever."
"You don’t have to."
The mirror darkens and breaks. Infinitesimal shards fall away in a flash of rainbow colour, but some still cling to the frame of the mirror. All the black pieces…like splinters of night…every fragment reflecting a part of me…a part of my soul…
I can’t breathe.
Virtues! I can’t breathe!
"Soon, we’ll be two. I’ll be me and you’ll be you. But it will be my mind, my heart, my life."
"You made me. I am the parts of you that you wish didn’t exist. All those dark shadows and black shards rolled into one. My name is Mellorin."
The bracer…take it off! Someone help…
"How does it feel to be helpless, Elora? This is how I have felt all our life - you controlling everything while I look on without a choice."
I look up from where I’ve fallen, gasping for air. She stands above me…she’s holding my sword. There are people behind her…who…my friends?
"I’m going to enjoy this job."
I CAN’T BREATHE!
"The Guardian is coming, you know. But I have always been here."
"I will endure! I am the Avatar…"
Her voice comes from far away. "I am the Avatar. Remember that even if you forget all else. Goodbye…for now…"
When I awoke, I slept in. I loved sleeping in and I hadn’t had the opportunity
to do so for quite some time. There wasn’t any way for me to guess what
hour it was short of a spell, and I couldn’t be bothered in any case. More
sleep was definitely a priority. As the minutes slipped by, however, I
found myself staring at the faint light coming from beneath the curtained
doorway to my room.
"Arcadion?" I said.
"Did I talk in my sleep last night?"
"Haven’t you always?"
"Don’t get smart with me," I said somewhat peevishly. "Can you remember anything I said?"
"Oh, the usual…’Name’, ‘Job’, ‘I am the Avatar’, ‘Bye’."
Eventually, hunger and the desperate urge to have a good wash forced me out of the bedroll. There wasn’t anything to wear but the clothes I’d used yesterday. Cringing slightly, I put on the leathers – which were still stiff from the seawater – and located a rough drying cloth. En route to the bathing lake, I ran into Julia.
"Elora! I was looking for thee! Mariah just gave me directions to thy room a few minutes ago and– "
"Wait, Julia, what day is it?"
"According to Mariah, thou didst go to sleep yesterday afternoon. It’s about ten o’clock in the evening." She grabbed my left arm. "Quickly! Lord British wants to speak with thee!"
"Julia!" I complained. "I want a bath!"
She laughed. "Thou wouldst keep our lord waiting for that?"
"Today I would," I replied grumpily. "It’s not urgent, is it? I want a bath. I need a bath. I need a change of clothes, I need a good meal, I need to oil my armour and sharpen my sword-"
"Thou needest a few more hours sleep," she retorted. "What’s gotten into thee?"
I stopped to stare at her. "I just woke up! Isn’t everyone irrational first thing in the morning…argh…evening…whatever." I resumed walking, though at a faster pace.
Julia shook her head. "Fine. I’ll tell Lord British. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled."
"Go on and tell him then," I said, irritated. "I'm not coming!"
"Yet!" I amended. "Oh, and on your way out, could you have someone send me some new armour? Just have them take it to the lake."
"And here I thought thou wert always virtuous and wouldst never hesitate to answer duty's call."
"There's nothing virtuous about being dirty."
"I'll quote thee on that!"
"Yeah? Well you can quote me on this, too!" And I turned my back on her and kept walking without saying another word.
The tunnels were quiet at this time. They were very dark - less than half of the candles set around the areas were lit - and quite peaceful. Only a few people were still awake; there was always someone stationed at the healers' makeshift hospice, for example, but otherwise, all was still. The only audible noises were faint echoes of distant conversation and the thud of my boots on the earthen floor.
The lake was almost as silent. There were a few people taking an evening dip and I was glad the place wasn't crowded. I wasn't ashamed of my body in any way, but I wasn't really one for casual nudity. Just having people know I was the Avatar was guaranteed to attract a crowd.
With a faint sigh, I undressed down to my Ankh and waded out into the water, armed with a rough bar of soap. I'll confess that I took my time. If there's one thing I enjoy as much as sleeping in, it's relaxing in a hot bath. The lake water, although not hot, was still distinctly warm - probably because of any volcanic activity that still lingered on the Isle. After washing off as much of the dirt as I could, I tossed the soap ashore and swam deeper. When I could no longer feel the ground, and the glimmer of candles seemed distant and far off, I closed my eyes and floated.
Time was suspended. There was no noise, no light, nothing. The troubles of the world fell from my shoulders and I felt completely at peace...nothing around me but warm water and soft darkness.
Eventually, I made my way back to the shore. There was a guard waiting beside my belongings when I got there. She turned her back politely as I left the water and wrapped myself in the cloth, then asked, "From thine Ankh, I take it thou art Elora?"
"Julia sent me to bring thee some new clothes, Milady." She handed me some leather trousers, a clean shirt, a supple leather vest, a pair of boots and gloves, a dark green cloak and some undergarments. "She awaits thee in the statue room."
"Thank thee. Wouldst thou do something with these, please?" I gestured at my old armour.
"Yes, ma'am." The guard saluted, picked up the pile and left.
I dried myself off and dressed, but didn't follow yet. Instead, I sat down, wrapped my wet hair in the cloth, and watched the candlelight glisten against the ripples of the dark lake.
"There thou art."
I gave Julia a sunny smile.
"Thou art feeling better, I take it?"
"Much better," I assured her. "Now, we were going to see Lord British, weren't we?"
"Amazing," she drawled. "Thou hast not forgotten, after all. He's up on the battlements."
"Thanks for the clothes, by the way," I said as we headed for the courtyard.
She shook her head. "I don't see why thou didst make such a fuss."
"How do you think the guards on duty would have felt seeing me in that state? If I'm here for morale, Julia, I'll do a much better job if I don't look like a walking corpse!"
There was a group of humans and gargoyles working the forge together as we passed toward the stairs. Julia raised her voice above the hiss of steam and clang of metal, "Thou'rt right. I'm sorry."
"I think the question is, why were you making such a fuss?"
She gave a rueful laugh. "I've been working around the clock since we got here. The fort itself may be complete, but we're dangerously low on weapons, armour and ammunition. The sooner I get my 'students' to perfect fletching, the sooner I can sleep."
"You'll sleep as soon as I finish talking to Richard," I said with a snort. "Even if I have to 'In Zu' you. A sleepy teacher makes for careless students."
We mounted the stairs to the rampart where Lords British and Draxinusom stood beneath the star-filled sky, gazing out at the southern bay of the Isle. The silvery glow of the twin moons Trammel and Felucca played over their features - so different, yet, in their calm, pensive expressions, so alike. They turned as we approached, Draxinusom's blue eyes shining faintly in the darkness.
"It seemeth to me the time thou didst spend at the lake was not wasted," Lord British said, giving me an approving look and a smile.
I ran a hand through my drying hair and smiled back. "Good evening, my friends."
"To greet you this evening, Elora," Draxinusom said. "To ask how you are feeling?"
"Better, Draxinusom. Maybe not perfect, but much better."
"And thou lookest it." Lord British's eyes went out over the bay again. "This is the first night I can remember in a long time in which I got the chance to look at the stars." He sighed rather wistfully. "I don't suppose anyone on the Isle hath a telescope, Drax?"
"To say that there is, Richard, but to add that their use is restricted to the lookouts. To think that there might possibly be a spare - somewhere."
Lord British laughed, and I felt myself smiling. I had seen these two together very rarely, and while I'd guessed at their friendship, I hadn't known how deep it really was. The use of first names and nicknames clearly proclaimed the fact that these monarchs were very close friends.
The gargoyle king stretched his wings absently, then said, "To remind you that you asked Elora up here, Richard."
"Ah, yes." He faced me again. "We want to keep thee abreast of the situations here, Elora. I've no doubt that thou wouldst be able to help us on some. What hast thou heard or seen so far?"
"Not a lot, I'm afraid. The fort has been fully repaired, we're low on weapons, armour, ammunition, reagents, wood, we have functional teleporters between here and Ambrosia..." I shrugged. "What can you two add?"
"Hast thou heard of the ether disruptions the mages are investigating?"
I nodded. "And I can shed some light on that matter." With a gesture at the bracer, I went on, "The scrying shield on this Isle fell at the precise time I teleported here with the Blacksword. Likewise with Ambrosia and the teleport pads."
Draxinusom peered closely at the bejeweled bracer. "To ask what it is?" He passed a scarlet hand over it. "To think it is alive!"
"Undead, Drax," Lord British replied, his face somber.
"It was previously worn by Mors Gotha," Julia supplied. "Warleader of the Guardian's armies."
The gargoyle's eyes flared slightly at this, brightening as if fuelled by some strong emotion. "To remember her. To remember fighting her."
"I think there's some kind of tracking spell on the bracer," I said. "Whoever wears it can't conceal any location they teleport to." I frowned. "But I never felt these ether pulses."
"To think it might be because you're wearing it?"
"Possibly. At any rate, I can't remove it."
"Well, this solves one mystery, at least," Lord British said.
"What else is going on?"
"In a couple of days, some of our ships will be sailing for Buccaneers' Den for more supplies. Reagents, cannonballs and the like. Julia is going with them."
I looked at the tinker. "Any special reason why?"
Julia shrugged. "I have a few contacts there. From reports, the situation at the Den was a bit hostile the last time we sailed in. I'm going to lend our people whatever authority I can provide over the pirates." Then she grinned. "And I'm not famous enough for them to try holding me ransom."
"They can't be that bad, can they?"
"Who can tell? Britannia's at war, and that's a pirate's favourite pastime. I'll talk around and see if I can convince them to sink the enemy instead of us."
"That would be nice."
She grinned again.
My eyes wandered to the moonlit outlines of the cliffs leading into the bay. I could barely make out the two stone watchtowers - one on either side - on which stood a man or woman keeping night long vigil. Absently rubbing the water-polished Ankh I wore, I asked, "Any other news?"
"To say that Britannia's state has not changed," Draxinusom told me. "To have seen myself that Trinsic, Jhelom, the Lycaeum, Serpent's Hold and Castle Britannia are still under siege. But to have discovered an interesting thing."
"What?" I asked. Julia and Lord British also looked curious.
"To have seen neither prisoners nor hostages - none of our people. Not even bodies. Not one."
"Graves? Pyres?" Julia asked.
Draxinusom shook his head. "To say that this is so in every city except Minoc. Britannians still live there, though under enemy rule."
"But they're free?" Lord British pressed, this news obviously new to him.
"To say it seems so. But to think it was because they surrendered."
"Minoc surrendered without a fight," Julia echoed softly. "Do we know why?"
"The Fellowship," Draxinusom said. "Maybe not the organisation itself, but people who had once run it."
"Are we sure about this?" I put in.
"To tell you that before the invasion, enemy scouts were sent to members of the disbanded Fellowship with news of the attack and a strong recommendation that they persuade their cities to surrender. Had a person of power with such a connection been in Britain, like Mayor Patterson, things may have gone very differently for us. To say, as it was, the messenger contacted a lesser man, but one who had come to believe the truth of the Fellowship. The truth of the Inner Voice."
"'Had'?" I interrupted.
"He stayed behind to help defend Britain," Draxinusom said, his eyes dimming a little. 'To know it was a futile act, but to not have argued against it. To think he wished to fight against the force he had supported before. At any rate, it was he who warned us of the invasion while we still had a chance of escape." He glanced up at the sky. "The band of humans sent to retrieve Rudyom's wand had already departed - were already dead or captured - when the man came forward with his information. To say my eyes searched the skies near Cove that day. They saw the enemy, then to have ordered the evacuation."
"Thou didst rightly," Lord British murmured. "It was a wise move that saved many lives."
"To not be certain of my wisdom," the gargoyle replied heavily. "To have lost more than half your land."
"Our land Drax," he corrected gently.
"I wouldn't say you lost anything," I said, my tone just as soft. "Rather, think of what you saved. Had you not acted, we might not even have this." I waved a hand around to indicate the moonlit Isle of Fire. "Not to mention uncountable, invaluable lives."
"Did that former Fellowship man ever speak his name?" Julia asked presently.
"To say no."
"Wait," I interrupted again. "Excuse me," I added with a grimace at my manners. It seemed I'd left my brains back in my bedroll. "Might I ask a question?"
Draxinusom smiled. "Of course, Elora," he said magnanimously.
"Thanks," I drawled. Then, more seriously, "I was just wondering what you'd planned to do with Rudyom's wand once you'd got your hands - uhh, claws - on it?"
His smile widened. "To say that Rudyom was going to come with it. Our friends Jaana and Mariah had thought that the mage might have been able to find a way to blast a hole in the blackrock dome without - "
" - blowing up the whole dome along with everyone in it." I nodded. "I see."
"But to not know now if it would have been possible." Draxinusom shrugged his shoulders and wings. "To believe it would have been worth a try. On other news, those at Minoc have been the ones responsible for the ships the enemy now possess."
"Too bad Owen isn't the one building them any more," I said with a grin at Julia.
The tinker laughed. "Elora! If some of those floating wash-tubs are Owen's, I know exactly where to have them hit to make them collapse!"
"They're building more," Lord British told us. "Whether to Owen's plans or someone else's."
"But the ships that were in Minoc when the enemy arrived were all put to use." Draxinusom's hairless brows lowered. "To say I had as many ships in Britain fitted out and sent to Trinsic as was possible. To have burned the rest. We have five frigates, three sea-serpent cutters and two merchantmen here at the Isle of Fire."
The wind started to pick up and I felt a definite chill. It was nearing the end of Autumn. Winter was coming early and it was likely to be unpleasant for both the enemy and us. "There was one other thing I wanted to ask, my friend," I said, meeting Draxinusom's glowing eyes. "It's about the silver serpent venom."
The gargoyle nodded. "To assure you that nothing more will go wrong," he answered. "To be keeping the store under tight control. What happened at Trinsic will not happen again."
Satisfied, I nodded, knowing that his word could be trusted. "If that's all then, I think I'll go back to bed."
"Not a bad idea," Lord British said, "but I don't think I'd mind a stroll around Ambrosia before retiring, myself." He stroked his bearded chin. "I'm told it's a place of magic by night. Wouldst thou like to come, Drax?"
"To accept, with thanks. Ben an-lor-tym, Elora and Julia."
"Ben an-lor-tym, Draxinusom," I returned, then watched as he and Lord British left the battlements.
"Good night," Julia said with a sigh. She rubbed her arms absently. "A bit cold for my tastes."
I wrapped my cloak a bit tighter around myself. "It doesn't snow on islands, does it?"
"It might up in the mountains."
I grunted, then remembered something. "You are going to bed."
"Good evening, ladies," Dupre interrupted. The knight had just ascended to the battlements and crossed over to us. The warriors streaming behind him moved to relieve those still on guard.
"Sir Knight," I said dryly.
He made a face at me. "Damned cold night for a patrol. Julia, please bring a good supply of torches back from Buccaneers' Den. If it isn't bad enough up here being so dark!"
Julia gave his shoulder a consoling pat. "I'll try to remember."
"Good. Until then, I'll just stand above the stairs so I can catch the heat of the forge." He walked us over and when we got there asked, "Art thou planning to be awake tomorrow, Elora?"
"Maybe," I said with a smirk. "I may just sleep in again."
He snorted, breath steaming in the cooling air. "Well if thou art, I could really use some help."
"We need experienced warriors, Elora. Most of ours stayed back to defend Trinsic, with the exception of the gargoyles. The gargoyle warriors - they call themselves agra-lem - are good trainers, but the techniques they use are more difficult for humans to learn. I wanted to know if thou wouldst mind playing teacher for a while."
I shrugged. "Sure, I'd be happy to help. Where and when?"
"Just catch me here before the ninth hour. Thank thee."
"Any time. Good night, Dupre. See you tomorrow."
Julia and I descended the stone steps to the courtyard forge and walked toward the statue room.
"And if thou dost ever get bored as a trainer," she was saying, "thou art always welcome as a sailor."
I chuckled. "No offence, Julia, but I'd do almost anything to get out of an ocean voyage."
"Ha! I've only seen thee get sea-sickness once!"
"Once is more than enough." I gave her a grin. "Not that I don't love the sea. It's the floating."
"Why seasickness?" she complained good-naturedly. "Why not air-sickness? By the Virtues, if even half of Iolo's stories about thee and thy magic carpet stunts are true -"
"Hey, I want to state right now that I only did the double-inside-out-pinwheel-of-death-loop or whatever he calls it once."
"Thou dost disappoint me, then." Julia laughed. "If I were flying that thing, I'd be doing that trick on a regular basis! I'm pretty sure Iolo was trying his best to scare me with that story, but- "
" -it ended up sounding like fun?" With a smirk, I said, "That's because he was the one who dared me to do it."
She missed a step. "He didn't!"
"He made a bet with Dupre on who could keep his breakfast longest."
"Stakes were ale again, I presume?" We stopped at the statue room and she shook her head. "Iolo won, right?" When I grinned, she added, "Did Dupre honour this wager?"
"Before we even landed."
"He'd had an ale with his breakfast, you see, and- "
Julia groaned. "Spare me. I think- "
She was interrupted by a voice that spoke straight into my mind.
"Avatar! Champion of Infinity, hear me!"
I held up my hand to silence Julia and turned to face the statue of Courage. "I'm here."
"Warriors have invaded the keep of Courage. Avatar, they seek to quench the Eternal Flame within. In the name of Valour, thou must stop them!"
"How?" I demanded.
"The bracer on thine arm can take thee there. First, touch the small white jewel that doth not touch the larger gem in the middle of the bracer. Then touch the central facet of the large jewel and the facet edged by the red jewel at the same time. I sense this will take thee to Serpent's Hold."
"But isn't the bracer evil?"
"Nay, Avatar. The bracer itself beareth no malice. Like so many other things, though, it can cause or be used for evil. Hurry!"
"Serpent's Hold is under attack," I said to Julia. "I know how to teleport there."
Julia touched the sword at her side. "Then let's go!"
I shook my head. "Listen; there's not much time, I think. Go back to the battlements and tell Dupre to bring as many warriors as he can to the First Sanctuary. I need to get the Blacksword." Moving toward the statue of Truth, I added, "Then chase Richard and Draxinusom and tell them what's going on!" I touched the statue and entered the test. After passing through the illusionary wall, I sprinted for my room. Halfway there, I caught up with five guards from the patrol Dupre had just relieved. Two saluted when they recognised me.
"We have a dangerous situation," I told them quickly. "I need your swords!" Then I was running again and they were following, their mail shirts jingling as we went.
"Avatar!" one called. "Where are we going?"
Fifteen minutes was as long as I dared wait. Almost fifty warriors, human
and gargoyle, along with Dupre and Katrina, crowded the First Sanctuary
when I stood to face them with the Blacksword unsheathed in my hands.
"We're ready, Elora," Dupre said tersely.
"All right, everyone," I announced. "Listen up! We're going to Serpent's Hold by a teleportation spell. The keep is under attack and you're going to save the day."
"What? Thou'rt not going to help?" A warrior yelled, and there was a ripple of laughter.
"I'll do my best," I drawled. "Now, are you ready?"
They roared their assent and I touched the bracer...then we all stood on the Isle of Deeds.
We were standing on a stretch of grass not far from the keep. A few smouldering campfires dotted the ground nearby, but no one tended them. The roar of fighters could be clearly heard from up ahead. I pointed at the proud form of a stone castle to the north. Torches winked from the battlements and swarmed around the walls in the hands of enemy warriors.
"Step one," I muttered. "Get inside." Time Stop wouldn't be much good here. We'd get past the enemy easily enough - provided the spell didn't wear off while we were still in the middle of them - but trying to open the heavy gates from the outside might prove troublesome. Unless I could see the winch.
A group of soldiers sighted us from the assault on the Hold. About twenty of them broke off from the army and started toward us.
"Go that way," I instructed a nearby warrior, pointing south. "There's a branch of Iolo's Bows on the eastern edge of town. See if there are any firearms and ammunition left and, if there is, come back here, grab some of our people and bring the weapons here."
He saluted, "Avatar!" and ran off.
"Not stealing are we, Elora?" Dupre smiled as he unsheathed his sword.
"Avatars don't steal! They just...borrow. Besides, Iolo won't mind." I grinned at him and leaned on the Blacksword. Turning to half-face our people, I added in a soft voice, "Do these ones know how to fight?"
"Most. Those that don't at least know which end to stick the enemy with."
I rolled my eyes. "I'm glad you're such a good trainer. Excuse me a minute." Looking at the approaching enemy, I said, "Arcadion!"
"Yes, Master?" the Blacksword's inhabitant replied.
"Your target, O Bringer of Ultimate Destruction?"
"Right...there." I pointed him at the ground where the soldiers were about to cover. The sword glowed briefly, and then a snake-trail of flames sped across the ground in a straight line to the enemy.
Just as I'd suspected, they stopped warily as it approached them, taking nothing more than a cautious step backwards as it stopped in their midst.
Soldiers flew in every direction as a billow of sooty flame shot up with a deep-toned detonation.
"That will attract their attention, thou knowest," Katrina noted calmly.
"I'm counting on it." To Dupre, I said, "Organise our people into a tight defence suitable for the terrain. We're not going to launch an all-out attack just yet."
Katrina asked, "Why not?" but Dupre nodded.
"If we draw enough of the enemy away from the keep," he said, "the knights can charge them from behind."
"And they'll do much better attacking than defending." I looked up as ten Britannians hurried over, loaded down with bows, crossbows, arrows and bolts. "Oh yes," I murmured. "Perfect! Put the ammunition down here."
"Those soldiers are coming back for more," Dupre said as my request was followed.
I enchanted the ammo with a quick spell, picked up a heavy triple-crossbow and grinned viciously. "Nothing like one of these things to whittle down an advancing army." Sticking Arcadion point down in the ground, I raised my voice and said, "Anyone who knows how to use a bow or crossbow, arm up!"
Fourteen stepped forward and suddenly became archers. In under a minute, we loaded our weapons and aimed at the seventeen Killorn soldiers stumbling in our direction, their orange tabards still smoking. Bowstrings creaked as they were pulled taut, and I sighted down my triple crossbow.
Crossbows clacked and bowstrings sang. Seventeen shafts shot through the air and embedded themselves in enemy chests. Ten foes died instantly. The remaining seven remembered pressing engagements elsewhere and fled. A second group - larger than the first, though not by much - left their assault of the Hold and headed our way.
"This could get very boring very quickly," I complained. "I don't know whether to be insulted by the paltry numbers they keep sending, or flattered they they even consider us to be a threat."
"I think I'd rather have them in bite-sized chunks," Dupre remarked, scratching at his moustache. "I don't think I could stomach a full meal."
"Dupre, thou soundest as if thou'rt likening the Guardian's army to an all-thou-canst-eat tavern!" Katrina said.
"Of course. With the Guardian as dessert."
I made a face. "Please. I don't even want to think what he tastes like." I waved a hand, signaling my archers to get ready to fire again. "Wonder what kind of dish he'd make, though."
The knight shrugged and pointed at the advancing foe. "I think they’re getting a bit close."
Twelve soldiers were shot down. As they fell backwards, those with bows let fly another volley of arrows and five more were killed. The next round, both bolts and arrows bounced off their targets without harming them. And sped back at us.
I barely managed to raise an Energy Field before all fifteen bow or crossbow wielders were slain by their own weapons. All humour vanished as the shafts shattered against the invisible wall. Britannians ducked instinctively and I was no exception, even though I knew there was no immediate danger. "Steel!" I shouted, dumping the triple crossbow and picking up Arcadion. I heard the steely rasp as those who hadn't drawn weapons now did so. "Don't attack until I give the order."
Dupre quickly ran a check over everyone's position then nodded to me. As the nine remaining soldiers closed in, he pointed out two large groups preparing to draw away from the main attack on the keep.
"These soldiers are braver than their fellows," Katrina said, gesturing at the nine who had slowed as they drew still nearer.
"Else there's not a brain among them."
"They're not stupid," Dupre muttered. "Can't figure out why we're not running them when we have the advantage of numbers." He frowned as if something had just occurred to him. "Elora, why aren't we attacking?"
"Some of those soldiers," I answered bluntly, "aren't soldiers."
"Like the one in Nystul's room? How canst thou tell?"
"A very strong hunch."
There was a loud explosion from Serpent's Hold and a thick column of smoke rose from one of the eastern turrets, twisting high into the sky and staining the pristine glow of the moon Trammel a sickly yellow. At the same time, a loud cheer came from the sieging army, which was followed by the clatter of falling masonry.
"That can't be good," Dupre muttered.
The nine soldiers had faltered at the cheer and turned to look back.
"Now!" I gasped, dropping the Energy Field.
As one, the Britannian's surged forward with their weapons upraised. Four foes were cut down almost at once, the other five were quick to recover and retaliate even against these odds.
"Which are daemons?" I asked Arcadion quickly.
The Shade Blade vibrated, swung in my hands to point at a short, black-bearded man wielding a curved sword. "Him."
"Just the one?"
"Of this group, yes."
That soldier looked straight at me, sneered and slashed at the two Britannians trying to kill him. Then he vanished, reappearing almost right next to me.
Two of the other Killorn soldiers let out enraged cries and ran after him only to be stopped by Britannian steel.
"Did you want something?" I asked him calmly.
Dark eyes flicked to my right arm and widened at the sight of the bracer. Clear disbelief scrawled itself across his face as he stared at me. "The Avatar? Ka-thra?"
"That's me," I drawled, watching from the corner of my eyes as the four human soldiers died.
"Thou hast no place here! The Keep of Courage belongs to the Guardian!"
"Ah, I think not." I gestured for everyone else to stand away. The daemon-soldier glanced around at them contemptuously, but when he looked at me I could see a deep fear in his eyes. Not of fear of them, but of me. I thought it a little strange. I'd never really inspired fear in the greater undead. A grudging respect, yes, some wariness...but no fear. Unless they were just too proud to show it.
I realised that this daemon could be the ticket for drawing the attack away from the Hold.
"Your master will never have this keep," I said. "And this should be good enough proof." Raising Arcadion, I took a threatening step forward.
The soldier gave a startled screech, turned and blinked some distance away toward the Hold. When he started running back to enemy lines, I said to let him go.
"The enemy will come to us," I told the Britannians, "and when they do, the knights can charge them from behind."
"They will think we pose so great a threat?" a warrior asked doubtfully, and rightly so, for it seemed ludicrous that an army in excess of two thousand soldiers would worry about a small band of fifty.
But they were discounting the fact that one among that fifty was the Avatar.
"They will. Was anyone hurt just now?"
A gargoyle had suffered a head wound. It wasn't too serious in itself, but since everyone here needed all his or her fighting skill, even a wound like that could prove to be a death sentence.
Drawing out garlic, ginseng and spider silk, I touched the wound, gestured and intoned, "Mani."
The wound healed as much as I could manage with the spell's limited power - barely a scar remained.
"Now it's time to let the knights know we're here." Raising my arms, I added to Dupre and Katrina, "I learned this one from our esteemed Lord British. Bet Ort!" Tracing a symbol in the air with my right hand, I thrust the left into the sky and sent streamers of glittering, golden light high above us. When the fireworks exploded, a perfect Ankh appeared in the night sky to cast its bright, gold light across half the island. Shimmering silver highlights rippled across the edges as the air was filled with crackling and hissing noises, flecks of gold and silver falling away in sparkling clouds to indicate our position to Serpent's Hold...and the enemy.
Shouts and cries rose from the army at the sight of the blazing Ankh. Without apparent order, many simply began running in our direction, seeing nothing more than an enemy behind their ranks. But when the daemon-soldier reached the main bulk of the opposing force, I felt a sudden disquiet.
Then the entire enemy army on the Isle of Deeds turned in our direction and started to march.
"That worked," Katrina said, her hands white-knuckled where she gripped her wooden crook. "Now what?"
"Now I make their evening a little more exciting," I replied, trying to keep a tremor of doubt from my voice. With the Ankh fireworks still shining above me, I incanted another spell. "Vas Ort Hur!"
With a rumbling sound, a dense black cloud came into being directly over the enemy host. There was nothing slow about its formation - it simply appeared. Then a blinding flash of incandescent lightning struck amidst the enemy ranks and a clap of thunder shook the ground.
"Avatar? To ask if it is really you?"
I half-closed my eyes to concentrate on the telepathic voice. "Sir Horffe? Yes, it's me. How go things on the inside?"
"To think things could be better. To say you diverted the attention of the invaders just in time - there's a massive breach in the east side of the southern wall. To notice also that you have put yourself in danger by saving us."
"Yes. How soon can you mount an offensive against these Guardian-lovers?"
"Now that they are withdrawing from the Hold, to think not long."
"Then move quickly, Sir Knight, and don't mind the magic at play here. It won't harm you."
"To go now!"
I let out a deep breath and exchanged a look with Dupre and Katrina. "They're coming."
Both friends glanced at the advancing foe with bleak faces and didn't add that the knights weren't the only ones.
Using Arcadion, I created two more explosions in the already confused army. The combination of lighting and fire and thunder wreaked absolute havoc. Soldier flung themselves left and right to avoid getting fried inside their own armour, tripped over their dead or merely ran in a blind panic.
"Why not create a Death Vortex?" asked Dupre in a tense voice.
With a wave of soldiers coming our way, I knew how he felt. "Too difficult to control," I said. "It would probably turn and engulf the knights as well as the enemy."
The first few soldiers running ahead of their main forces reached us and hurled themselves against us with frenzied screams of "Guardian!" I ducked under a scythe-like blade and tore open a man's chest with a single precise motion. Kicking him backwards as blood fountained from his wound, I thrust at a second soldier. She parried and sliced at my left side, which I avoided easily. When she turned to block Dupre's blow, I brought the Blacksword up from right to left then straight right, taking the soldier's head off.
Dupre wiped some splattered gore from his face. "Thanks," he said sarcastically.
"Sorry," I said, rubbing my eyes. "I'm more tired than I thought. I'll be fine," I added as he gave me a worried look.
The knight roared, "Form up, people!" and the Britannians hurried to comply before the next Killorn soldiers reached us.
"There's too many of them," he whispered to me. "Thy storm is doing well, but there must be at least two thousand of the bastards left. How can we win?"
"I have one plan." From the Hold, there was the distant sound of the gates being opened and the thunder of hooves. I couldn't see it, though, and was surprised enough that I could hear it. Quickly, I pulled garlic, ginseng, mandrake root, nightshade and blood moss from my belt pouch and fused the reagents together. Putting the mixture in a safe place, I met Dupre's eyes and said, "Mass Death."
He closed his eyes briefly and sighed.
"The knights will get here soon, but then we must get everyone back into the keep."
"Thou canst not simply cast the spell?"
I shook my head. "It's a bit like Death Vortex - difficult to control. It won't kill friends, but it will kill people I don't know, including most of our people here, our knights and the enemy." Picking more reagents from my pouch, I added, "But I can still curse some of them. Vas Des Sanct!" Targeting the middle of the army, I let the spell fly. Anyone within the area of the spell's effect would immediately suffer loss of agility and skill in fighting. It would aid the Serpent's Hold knights immensely.
But the enemy were still going to get here first.
"It's time to attack," I stated grimly, watching the inexorable approach of the Guardian's army. The knights had already reached their back and were hacking their way through, warhorses causing equal damage as they reared and plunged.
Quickly, I cast a Mass Protection spell over our group from the Isle of Fire and felt a familiar pain in my chest when the energy was released. "Restore my powers, Arcadion."
The Blacksword glowed and a rush of energy infused me. "I hunger," the daemon growled, though blood already stained the length of his blade.
I looked at the advancing enemy, well within range of arrows and bolts we dared not fire. Step by step getting closer...
"You'll get fed soon enough." I threw two wide Sleep Fields to the left and right, which would force the enemy to either go around them or suffer the obvious consequences. Then I used Arcadion to hurl another explosion between the fields.
"Virtues be with us, Britannia!" I shouted, gripping the Blacksword firmly with both hands. "ATTACK!"
We ran forward to intercept those attempting to pass through the bottleneck created by the sleep fields and twisting columns of fire. Not even those who had entered the fields were spared. Soldier after soldier fell with agonised screams until all three obstacles I'd created vanished in a flash of pain.
Someone had dispelled them.
Quickly, I caught both my breath and my balance before plunging into the milling ranks of the enemy; my eyes firmly fixed on the forms of the embattled knights fighting astride their tall steeds. Dupre and Katrina were stuck to my sides like glue, both fighting to clear a path for those following behind.
Then we were adrift in a fire-lit, night-dark sea of orange-tabarded enemies. Bolts of lightning rained down from above, the ground trembled at the almost continuous roar of thunder, screams tore the air and the stench of burning flesh was strong.
Steel flashed in the erratic light, flying droplets of blood stood out ruby orbs, sweat and tears like diamonds. Metal slashed my face. Dashing blood from my eyes I charged forward and narrowly avoiding slipping on the blood-slick grass. The soldier fell back with a startled look, desperately defending himself from my sudden attack. I lunged. The Blacksword sheared through his mail shirt and emerged dripping from his back. Pulling at the sword, I found it it wouldn’t come. Stuck in the dead soldier’s ribcage. Bracing my foot against the body, I heaved, but to no avail. "Arcadion, return!" I commanded, ducking under a sword-stroke.
The Blacksword shimmered with a violet glow then vanished from the soldier’s corpse, reappearing in my hands. Shifting it to my left hand, I kicked the body aside and grabbed a discarded hand-axe. Finding the loopy ropes of someone’s misplaced guts twisted around the wooden haft made me gag, but I gritted my teeth and shook it off.
I hacked my way through the enemy, sword and axe whirling in harness as we cut deep into the army, making straight for the approaching knights. There were screams and shrieks of pain as I passed through, my weapons smashing heads to pulp, tearing limbs from bodies and ripping gaping holes in every Killorn tabard.
Dodging an axe-blow to my head, I threw my axe into my opponent’s chest and stepped past him to engage another, the Blacksword in both hands again. Something wet struck my face and I quickly dashed it away before it could run into my eyes then lunged forward and stabbed a foe in the shoulder. Seizing the haft of the mace that whirled at me in retaliation, I tore it free from my opponent's grasp and used it to smash his head in. Then I pulled Arcadion free and took another step forward, engaging two more soldiers. Both fell as the knights rode them down and moved to circle us in a protective ring. I took the opportunity to heal everyone with a Restoration spell, then cast Mass Might.
"It's good...to see...thee, Avatar," a human knight panted. She raised the visor of her helmet and tried to calm her restive horse. "What are...thine orders?"
"We need to get back to the keep!" I shouted above a sudden roar of thunder. "I can give us a good start, so just say when thou'rt ready!"
"We're ready, Avatar! The sooner we get out...of here the better!"
I nodded then incanted, "Vas In Flam Grav!"
Fire blossomed at the feet of every foe in the field. I winced as the number of pained screams escalated, echoing through the storm clouds above, but hardened my heart. They were the enemy - it was either them or us.
"I hate this," I whispered.
Nobody heard me.
"To the Hold!" the knight bellowed, and we were fighting again.
The field was completely lit up by the gouts of crimson flame and streaks of lightning. Many soldiers limped or bore livid burn marks on unprotected skin, others were barely touched, and few unwounded. Even so, there were a lot of them and we were struggling for every hand-span of ground. Most of the knights had forsaken their steeds and now fought on foot, though the warhorses continued to lash out with their iron-shod hooves at anyone foolish enough to approach them.
Fuzzy darkness clouded the edges of my vision and it was hard to breathe with the cloying, sick-sweet smell of roasting human flesh and blood. Combined with that was a tight feeling in my chest, a throbbing pain whenever my heart beat or I drew breath. I knew it was because I'd pushed myself casting too many spells and the choice to do so was now costing me. Only my superb skills as a swordswoman kept me going and focussed.
Both my arms were blood-soaked to the elbow. Crimson rivulets ran down inside my leather gauntlets to mingle with the sweat on my palms. As I claimed another life more blood splashed across me, but this was no time for Compassion. Not yet.
Now I had to play my part as a killer.
A touch on the edge of my mind warned me someone was trying to take over the Magic Storm. I fought back, struggling to keep my mind with this psychic battle as well as the physical one around me, but there was more than one mind pitted against me and none of them were human.
My opponent saw an opening and lunged, his spear low. I twisted aside, gasping as steel sliced a shallow wound across my side. The Blacksword came down in a dark blur to shatter the spear haft, then lashed out again to shear the soldier almost in two at the waist.
Pulling Arcadion free again, I ducked a sword blade and felt the storm shift. Lightning lanced down and incinerated a tall knight barely two metres to my right.
"Arcadion, restore me!"
The daemon, drunk on the carnage and bloodshed, let out a primal howl as the Blacksword flared brightly and power flowed into me.
But not enough of it. Killing humans with no magical talent wouldn't increase Arcadion's powers; it would only sate his appetite. The small measure of energy he'd just given me was all I had left to work with.
Gritting my teeth, I whirled and slew two more foes, ignoring the sound of tearing flesh and bones grating against steel. Then I sent my mind into the Magic Storm and attacked those who had turned it against the Britannians.
Five daemonic minds rallied against me in the dense clouds. I crushed two with the mental equivalent of a Swordstrike - spinning needles of pure, chill-ice energy that tore defences and minds to shreds. The other three threw spells back. I brushed each one aside with ease at first, then with growing difficulty as half my attention was drawn back to the lethal battle at Serpent's Hold.
Finally, I abandoned the mental combat through the act of canceling the storm. The clouds dispersed as if by a fresh wind, but the sky was still cloaked by the roiling columns of greasy black smoke.
Now I could see how close the stone walls of Serpent's Hold were. We were within range of the archers on the battlements. Although these archers still loosed shafts at the enemy, they kept their aim well away from the Britannians striving to reach the safety of the keep.
Abruptly, I found myself trying to break past three soldiers blocking my way. Throwing a Paralyse spell on the left foe, I sidestepped the thrust of the right one and smashed Arcadion against the side of his helmet. He staggered into his companion and I drew back the Blacksword to kill them both when pain exploded in my right shoulder. Giving vent to a sulfurous curse at my carelessness, I wrenched myself free and gripped my sword tighter with my left hand, spinning to defend myself. It was the soldier I'd tried to paralyse, and from the wicked red light in her eyes, it was also a daemon.
"Die, Avatar!" she screamed, lashing at me with a bloodstained sword.
Bringing Arcadion across in an answering blow, I shattered her blade, reversed my own and thrust backwards to dispatch the soldier sneaking up behind me, then kicked the daemoness in the head. The Blacksword was wrenched from my grasp, but I didn't need a weapon to fight. Ducking, I drove both fists into the creature's stomach - left right left - and spun, extending a leg to kick her feet out from under her.
She landed hard and snarled, rolling aside as a Britannian tried to relieve her of her head. Then she cast a bolt of fire at me. In avoiding it and then the attack of another soldier, I was struck by a second fireball.
Biting down hard on a cry of pain as the flames seared my already maimed right shoulder, I blinked back tears and advanced as she stood and tried to slash my face with her broken sword. Leaning aside, I grabbed her arm, got my shoulder under her and threw her to the ground before crushing her neck with a well-placed kick.
"Elora, keep moving!" Dupre shouted from up ahead.
Seizing the Blacksword I hurried forward, claiming more lives as I went. Katrina was suddenly beside me again, her crook broken to the length of a quarterstaff.
"Thine arm," she shouted.
"I'll make it," I replied, plunging Arcadion into another heart. My shoulder burned painfully and I did my best to ignore it.
"Watch your side!"
The shepherdess spun and cracked her shortened weapon across an enemy neck, breaking it instantly. I killed another soldier who tried to take her from behind, wincing as the action jarred my shoulder.
Katrina urged me even closer to the Hold. "Heal thyself!"
"No - I need what's left for the Mass Death spell or I won't make it!"
She blocked a sword and evaded another, not bothering to answer.
I skewered a soldier, ignoring the blood that splashed over me in favour of a wide-eyed roan warhorse that suddenly reared up beside me with a frenzied animal-scream. Sharp hooves lashed out, one glancing against my sore shoulder. A guttural snarl escaped my lips as bright sparks exploded behind my eyes and a roaring sound reverberated within my skull.
"Stand!" I shouted, half-blind.
The horse's ears swiveled forward and he bared his teeth, rearing again.
Evading, I again commanded, "Stand!"
That was no Britannian voice. I suddenly realised I was cut off from the others, alone in a small circle of calm where beyond that, soldiers either stumbled around dwindling pillars of flame and smoke or tried to decide which way their adversaries had gone.
I could barely see them myself. A rain of arrows kept pursuing soldiers away as the small group of Britannians pelted toward the rapidly opening portcullis. Katrina, Dupre and three others fought a furious backguard action, but the eyes of my two friends kept flicking over to scan the army for a familiar face.
Seven soldiers ran at me, weapons whistling above their heads.
The warhorse's nostrils flared and he reared again, screaming a battle cry.
"STAND!" I roared and, grabbing a fistful of mane with my left hand, vaulted into the saddle and gave the animal a hard kick.
The stallion tossed his head and plowed forward at a dead gallop almost at once. I was almost thrown when he lurched to one side, his teeth tearing at a soldier. Shifting the Blacksword to my left hand, I swept the weapon out and cleaved a skull, hacked off a hand that tried to drag me from my seat...another...another...too many. Beset on all sides, my horse stopped, rearing up with a scream of rage as hands grasped at his bridle and rider.
I needed a good distraction and I needed one now…or I wouldn’t make it.
"Kal Vas Xen!" I shouted, sending my will to bring forth the most powerful creature I could with my waning energies.
A deafening, smashing sound - as of a giant mountain of glass being shattered - rang in my ears alongside screams of terror. Fully ten feet high, a massive balron bellowed its fury. Flaming blue eyes fixed on the panic-stricken soldiers and in its hands was a mighty whip that cracked the air like a band of black lightning.
That got the attention of the enemy.
Grimly, I kicked the stallion again and simply hung on, keeping low as an arrow zipped past my ear from the Hold and a ball of flames hurtled over my head from the enemy to strike the wall of Serpent's Hold. Dupre and Katrina ducked as brickwork fell near them and waved frantically for me to hurry.
"Get inside!" I yelled. "Get everyone out of sight! I'm going to cast the spell!"
"We cannot leave thee, Elora!" Dupre shouted back. "We're thy friends! We must stand with thee!"
The warhorse ran down the last soldier in my path and kept galloping, ears laid back and neck lathered. "You must warn those inside! Go!"
The two turned to face each other and I could see they were having a heated discussion. Finally, Katrina cast me a last glance then ran through the open portcullis.
"They're coming!" Dupre yelled as he pointed his sword behind me.
Suddenly, I caught sight of a fallen Britannian. Reining in, I swung down from the stallion and spared a glance over my shoulder.
They had bested the balron and were chasing me.
"Quickly, get on the horse!" It was a wingless gargoyle I helped to his feet. He had a horrible wound in his lower chest, but it would only prove fatal if it was left untended.
"Avatar- " he gurgled, then went into a fit of coughing.
I pushed him into the saddle and made sure he held the reins. "In-por!" I shouted to him, smacking the stallion's rump with the flat of the Blacksword. I waited long enough to make sure he made it to the gate. Dupre caught him as he fell from the saddle.
Thrusting Arcadion point down in the steaming, blackened earth, I met Dupre's agonised gaze calmly and said, "Go." He couldn't have heard it, but there'd be no mistaking the formation of the word on my lips. The knight grasped the gargoyle firmly in his strong arms and stumbled through the gates into the safety of Serpent's Hold.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I turned to face the enemy. All one thousand-some-odd of them. I had a very good reason for not wanting even my dearest friends at my side now.
I didn't want them to watch me die.
Even now I could feel it. I'd exhausted my magical reserves, drained some of my vital energies as well. My heart was beating unnaturally slow, my breathing was unlaboured...every detail of the advancing army stood out in stark detail...moved in slow motion...and all I could hear were my heart and breath, the two sounding in unison as I pondered what I was about to do...
I'd seen the huge breach in the eastern side of the southern wall of the Hold. With the entire army running it as they were running me, Serpent's Hold - and the Flame of Courage - would fall.
There was only one thing left to do.
Stripping off my gloves, I knelt beside the Blacksword, eyes fixed unwaveringly on the slow approach of the foe. My right hand rested flat on the blood-soaked soil of Britannia, the left pulled forth the mixture I'd prepared for the spell, bloodied fingers clenching around the reagents as I extended my closed fist towards the enemy.
Eyes still firmly open, I poured every ounce of will, power and heart I had into the two simple syllables of an incantation that would spell the death of every living creature I could see, then spoke them.
With a great rush of ether, the very air exploded into a brilliance of light incandescent. Moving so swiftly that it almost seemed instantaneous, the brightness surged out in all directions like some massive, white wave, and I found myself swept along within it - the last vestiges of both my power and my life-force having caused it to be. Formed of my very being, my need and resolve to defend Britannia to my last breath, I suddenly realised that I was the spell. Reaching out with blindingly white arms, I rushed upon the enemy and tore through their ranks with more power than a gale-force wind. Each soldier, human or daemon, flew backwards as though struck by some titanic hammer, and I passed them by to hurl my huge, shimmering form upon those behind them who watched in a kind of rapt terror at my inevitable, fatal approach.
Then it was over. The dazzling light faded and, as a complete, utter silence greeted me, I suddenly found myself looking through my own eyes again. Night's darkness, although quick to return, did nothing to hide the fact that the field before me was absent of any living creature. Over two thousand enemy dead, and more than half that slain by me.
I was overcome by a dizzying sense of relief.
Serpent's Hold was safe...the enemy were dead...
As I felt the somewhat distant sensation of my head hitting the ground, I suddenly realised that I was, too...
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