Cold be our hearts,
Bright be our eyes,
Pale be our skins,
Breathless, our sighs.
Power, our hunger,
Hate be our drives,
Magic be lifeblood,
Death be our lives.
Voices emerge from the silence. Indistinguishable, incomprehensible. They
float through the darkness, unheard amidst my own questions.
Where am I?
How long have I been here?
Who am I?
"The waiting period has passed," one of the voices states. Its tone is sibilant - reptilian. "You must return from death."
"Did I die?" The last word echoes as if through some impossibly large cavern. "die...die...die...die..."
"That is correct. But you still wear the aeth'raesh'al. Your New Self needs you."
"New Self? What? What am I?"
"This is the part that thou was. Thou art dead to existence, but cannot yet sleep separated from the part of thee that is."
"What should I do?"
"How do I return?"
"You shall return when I send you an image of that which you would live and die for."
"Why should I return?"
Silence. But the darkness is dispelled by the sudden appearance of a symbol that glows and writhes like living fire.
I am the Avatar.
"Send me back."
The Ankh's light fills the entire plane, bringing with it...Britannia...
It was still dark, but my skin registered heat. There was a hissing, crackling
noise all around. My hands were clasped about a leathery cylinder. I moved
my fingers slightly and discovered that it was a sword hilt. But a common
blade - not the Blacksword.
Then I realised it was dark because my eyes were shut. Feeling a bit embarrassed, I opened them to find no change. It was still dark. The night sky, empty of moons and stars. I was lying flat on my back, face turned towards the heavens, a longsword resting on my body from breasts to ankles.
What was going on? Where was everyone?
Then a hazy, yellow-orange shimmering stained the darkness around me, reaching up higher each passing second. From time to time, small, bright, golden lights, like stars, would leap up into the sky to a cracking sound, then vanish.
No, not stars. Sparks?
A new sound emerged. Someone was singing. A resonant male voice I instantly recognised as belonging to Iolo. The deep, rich timbre that had only been improved with time's passage soared into the night alone at first, but was soon joined by the sad, rippling music of a lute. Only the bard himself could be playing it, I thought, watching the bright flecks of gold flee into the darkness. Voice and instrument combined into a harmony so heart-breakingly pure that I wondered why tears weren't falling down my cheeks.
Finally, I decided that it might be a good idea to get up - there was too much work to do for me to be lying down listening to classical. I turned my head to the right.
With a startled oath, I sat up and held the sword as if it would be an effective weapon against the flames surrounding me.
I was on a funeral pyre!
My nose was suddenly assailed by a strange smell, and I cursed again, knowing that my hair had caught. Wasting no time on sentimentality, I grabbed up all the waist-length strands, twisted them into a single fistful, then chopped them short with the edge of my sword.
The hem of the stupid white death-shroud caught next. I smothered it quickly and stood barefoot on the top of the burning pyre. Which direction to jump? There was no safe way to tell and I had no wish to make a heroic leap from a fiery death that would only end with a spectacularly broken leg. Or worse.
I took a deep breath that did little to calm my nerves, and clutched the sword with trembling fingers. This had better work...or my goose was cooked. "Vas An Flam!" I shouted, swinging the blade wildly.
I'd expected backlash effects for attempting a spell without reagents, but was completely unprepared for them. A sudden chest constriction forced me to my hands and knees while my head started to throb painfully. From narrowed eyes, I saw the fire vanish, leaving the last tatters of smoke hanging in the air above me.
Music ceased and was supplanted by a chorus of gasps from all around. I looked up slowly.
"Who hath dared disrupt this ceremony?"
Lord British's voice. It was soft, but carried around the entire area on impressive undercurrents of anger.
Turning towards the sound I somehow made out the standing figure of Britannia's king through the darkness; his silver serpentine amulet hoarding what little light there was.
I made my careful way down the charred wood and warm ashes to the blessed safety of the ground. The grass was cold and wet; someone had probably soaked the area around the pyre to prevent any accidents. The silence was profound as I stood before Lord British - Iolo and Dupre at his sides.
"Elora?" the king suddenly said, incredulity and a wild hope lighting his bearded face.
"Yes, my Lord?" I answered, mindful of the fact that we seemed to be in public.
"Yes, my Lord."
"Considering thou didst almost cremate me." The full import of my words abruptly registered on me, and I pointed the longsword at him accusingly. "Thou didst almost cremate me!"
Lord British shifted his black mourning robes and gave me a rather defensive look. "Thou wert dead for a week!"
Conversation started through the crowd around the pyre. I saw that we were all at Serpent's Hold and - apart from Lord British, Iolo and Dupre, - Katrina and Mariah were the only people here I really knew. They, like everyone else, were dressed in black.
My eyes slid over to the small knot of gargoyles and I saw Lord Draxinusom among them. He and the other gargoyles wore a purple ring around their left horns.
Lord British gestured slightly and the torch held by the guard beside him sprang to life. Evidently I'd extinguished more than the pyre. Other torch bearers moved to light their torches as this one sputtered into golden flames.
"Why didn't you Resurrect me?" I whispered plaintively. "Why?"
Katrina said, "The healer here - Lady Leigh - tried without success. By the time Lord British got here..."
"You could have recalled my spirit like I did for Spark!"
"We tried," Lord British assured me gravely. "Nothing happened." He lowered his gaze. "We tried everything."
I stuck the sword point down into the turf. "Then why didn't you take the bracer off?" I asked softly, my anger returning. The sight of the armband made me pause. The central gem had gone opaque black, the others translucent, and the bracer itself as clear as glass. It looked the same as it had the day I'd found it on Mors Gotha's body.
Then I remembered the black mist.
Lord British met my haunted eyes steadily, as did Iolo, Dupre and Mariah. Katrina, though...her gaze was as disturbed as my own. When I put a scarcely perceptible, questioning frown into my expression, she looked away.
She knew. But knew what? What had she seen?
And where was the Blacksword?
"We tried removing it," Lord British said softly, referring to the bracer. "We...we gave up hope."
There was such guilt in his voice, such pain...I couldn't think of what to say. For a minute, there was complete silence. Then Iolo put down his lute and stepped forward to stand directly in front of me.
"Thou art alive!" he managed, his voice thick. A second later, he'd thrown his arms around me in a crushing embrace. "Alive!"
"Rejoice, Britannia!" Lord British shouted in so great a voice that I almost jumped. "Thine Avatar lives!"
Mourning turned to celebration in the form of a tumultuous cheer. I understood the king's motives, of course. He didn't want his people to worry that something was amiss. But I knew something was wrong...looking down at the bracer's black jewel...I knew. No one had resurrected me. I shouldn't be alive.
Gently, I disengaged myself from Iolo. The old bard was actually crying!
He could get so emotional at times.
Now don't get me wrong. I love Iolo's sentimental side - it's one of the
reasons he's such a superb bard. I have nothing against a scene where emotions
are flying and eyes glisten with unshed tears of joy - I'll even admit
that I got a lump in my throat when I saw him standing there all weepy-eyed.
But I had other things to think of that were more important than friendly
After Dupre, Katrina and Mariah had given me fierce embraces of pure relief,
Lord British noticed my shivering.
"Thy pardon, Elora," he exclaimed, showing a smile for the benefit of the people. "Thou dost need some warmer clothes and a bath."
I wiped a smudge of soot from my face to hide my expression. I hadn't been shivering from the cold.
The king casually turned to Mariah. "Wouldst thou?"
"Of course, your Majesty," she replied quickly.
As she led me through the cheering throng of black robed Britannians, I looked back at Lord British and Katrina, knowing that I'd been given over to Mariah's care deliberately. The shepherdess kept her eyes away from mine while the king continued to smile.
"Smile, Elora," Mariah murmured. "After all, everyone's happy thou art alive."
"Did we save the Flame?"
One of her brows raised a fraction. She'd obviously been expecting a different question. "No. As far as I can determine, it went out when thou didst sacrifice thyself." She shook her head wryly. "I have no idea how thou didst manage it, Elora. Thy spell completely annihilated the enemy army. Not one soldier was left standing, according to Katrina."
"It worked?" I asked, relief flooding in on me.
"Indeed it did. Thou didst save everyone in Serpents Hold." An almost dreamy note entered the mage's voice. "I just wish I could have seen it. Feeling all that energy explode into one spell would have been something to witness." As we entered the Hold, she added, "I'm sorry about thine hair, though."
I raised a hand to touch the cropped remnants which hung just below my shoulders. "It probably doesn't look very good at the moment. Do you suppose you could, well, neaten it up a little for me, please?"
The mage stopped and took my hair in her hands. "I'm sure I could give it a try. I'm afraid it will only get shorter, though."
"At least it won't take as long to dry any more," I conceded. I paused a minute, wondering if I should ask about Arcadion or anything else that was pressing on my mind, but such thoughts fled when I noticed Mariah hadn't moved. Her hands were resting lightly on my shoulders near the base of my neck and were very still. "Mariah?"
She withdrew a little too quickly for comfort. "Sorry. Yes, I'm sure I can fix thine hair for thee. I'm pretty handy with a pair of scissors, actually. Shall we?"
Serpent's Hold, bastion of the Order of the Silver Serpent, Castle of the
Isle of Deeds, and Keep of the Eternal Flame of Courage was in a festive
mood the next day, despite the overhanging threat of war. I wandered the
corridors of stone walls and carpeted floors, just watching the sun stream
through the thin, rectangular windows set into the walls. The keep's inhabitants
went about their daily routines - changed somewhat to account for possible
attacks by the enemy - and a few hailed me as they passed.
Mariah had done me the favour of trimming my hair so that it actually looked neat. I did have to maintain appearances, being the Avatar and all. With leather trousers, a clean, white, sleeveless shirt, a longsword and soft leather boots that, being imbued with that strange quality all new shoes have, were wearing blisters into my feet, I travelled aimlessly down the passages of a keep I had recently died protecting.
I felt like an entirely different person.
I was also feeling very much alone. I never would have thought that I might miss Arcadion's somewhat caustic conversation.
"Return to me, Arcadion," I whispered again, half extending my hands as if to grasp a sword hilt.
For a split second - like every other time - I felt something solid appear between my fingers and a faint, violet light teased my eyes. Then, just as quickly, it was gone.
*"Maybe I can serve as a substitute."*
"What are you talking about, Guardian?" I demanded of the Voice silently. I wasn't this starved for company.
*"You know, a substitute; something different that is just as good. If not better."*
"Ok, I give up. I fail to see your double meaning."
*"What makes you think there is one?"*
"With you, there always is."
*"You know,"* he replied with mock wistfulness, *"I think I'll miss all these quaint little conversations with you, Avatar. There aren't many people who have defied me to my face."*
"And lived," I muttered aloud.
*"Your arguments have been amusing, but it's time for me to move on."*
"You're leaving Britannia?" I asked hopefully.
*"Now, now, Avatar. You belong here no more than I do. Are you planning to leave?"*
"Do I have a choice?"
I got the irrational feeling that he was laughing, but all he said was, *"I don't think we'll speak to each other again, Avatar. I'd bid you farewell, but that's not particularly appropriate under the circumstances."*
Then he was gone.
I stood like a statue in a bar of sunlight, not knowing what to think. An unaccountable sensation of loneliness welled up within me and I waited to hear the Guardian's taunt of "Poor Avatar!" but there was nothing. He was gone...and why didn't that make me feel in the least bit elated?
What the Hell was going on?
A servant answered the door.
"Is Lord British available?" I asked.
"I'll just go see, Avatar. And might I congratulate thee on an excellent recovery?"
I smiled wryly and the servant went back inside. Gone were the days when no one knew - or rather, believed - who I was. Anonymity did have its advantages.
When the servant reappeared, he gestured for me to enter. In the inner room, I found that Britannia's king was not alone. Iolo, Dupre, Mariah, Katrina and Draxinusom were also present.
I felt a little hurt that I hadn't been invited to their party.
Conversation had stopped, but they didn't try to hide their previous topic by starting another one about the current price of fish.
"Am I disturbing anything?" I asked.
"No," replied the king brusquely. "I was about to send someone looking for thee, as a matter of fact." He waved a hand at an empty chair.
I sat and accepted a goblet of wine the servant offered me. I had little taste for the stuff, nor was I thirsty, but I needed something to steady my nerves. After one bracing sip, I said, "I came to find out what's happening. Something has changed and I want to know what. Even the Guardian has stopped talking to me."
Lord British made a discreet motion to the servant, who bowed and took his leave, then dipped his hand into one trouser pocket. It emerged with my Ankh. "Before we begin, I believe this is thine."
I reached out my hand to take it, then paused halfway. The silence and almost palpable tension in the room rang warning bells in my head. A frown creased my brow as I realised every eye was on me, every breath held. I looked at the hand holding my Ankh.
It was trembling.
Withdrawing my own hand and relaxing back into my chair, I felt the tension mount.
Lord British shrugged and put the Ankh on the coffee table then clasped his hands tightly together.
"Well?" I asked finally. I hated long silences.
"What wouldst thou know?"
I smiled slightly and shook my head in exasperation. "Anything! What happened after I died would be an excellent place to start. How long has it been? Where's the Blacksword? Anything!"
They exchanged glances.
Katrina said, "The Blacksword was nowhere to be found after the fight. The area was thoroughly searched, so we have no idea where it is. Maybe it was destroyed?"
"That can't be right," I disagreed. "I called it to return and I felt it...then it pulled back. My bond with Arcadion still exists, and only some kind of magic can disrupt it."
Katrina frowned. "I can only say what I saw. Or didn't see, as the case may be."
Her slightly stiff tone made me pause. Had I said something wrong? "Well, what else did you see?"
Her eyes suddenly hardened. "I saw thee get killed."
What did it take to get these people to talk, I thought a little angrily. Capturing her eyes, I demanded, "What else?"
"I saw the Eternal Flame quenched!"
"I saw the healer, two Lords of Britannia and my friends try to revive thee without success!" she half-shouted.
"What else, Katrina?"
Her mouth snapped shut. I noticed Dupre had one hand on his sword hilt. There was so much animosity in the room that it was oppressive. Something was very much amiss and I got the feeling that I wouldn't like the answer as to what was wrong. But that didn't mean I didn't want to know!
"Thou wert about to send for me, my Lord?" I said to my king with stiff formality. "Here I am. What wouldst thou say to me that hath more importance than this?"
"That this ruse will not work," he replied coldly. "And that unless thou dost tell us where the Avatar is, thou wilt curse the day thou didst choose to serve the Guardian."
From there, what happened next passed so quickly that I could scarcely register it all.
Dupre leaped to his feet and drew his sword as Iolo pulled the blanked from his lap to reveal a loaded crossbow, which he levelled at my chest. Katrina stood, staff in hand, and Mariah's hands shimmered with the aura of a spell awaiting release.
The two kings remained seated.
"I don't know what you're talking about," I whispered. "I am the Avatar." I looked at my friends. "Why do you doubt me?"
Lord British said, "Don't move."
Dupre reached out his free hand and touched my neck. At first I got the frightening impression that he meant to strangle me, but all he did was leave his hand there for a second then withdraw. "It's true," he said.
"What's true?" I demanded as the others sidled and the kings frowned.
Dupre brought the flat of his blade up under my chin and forced my mouth shut. "Quiet."
"Sorry to doubt thy word, Mariah," Lord British said.
She nodded, but kept her wary gaze on me. "I understand, Richard. It was my word against the supposed Avatar's, after all."
"I can't say I'm happy to find that I didn't imagine what I'd seen," Katrina said.
This whole conversation was going way over my head.
"They didn't escape by ship, did they?" Lord British asked her.
"No. There were none reported nearby, and nowhere to embark without beaching the ship - or using smaller boats. Either way would have taken too long and we would have seen something when we gave chase."
"Magic, then." Mariah flicked her gaze meaningful at my bracer. "If Elora still wore that, the enemy could have used her to teleport away."
"So what do we do?"
I opened my mouth and Dupre shut it.
"Would you stop that?" I thought irritably at him.
A flicker of uncertainty crossed his face.
"...are ways of making people talk," Draxinusom was saying. "To think that even in her case, something could be arranged."
"I've never liked using torture," Lord British began.
"To say that this is different, Richard. Pain won't work with her, but there are spells that will cause a similar effect." He raised a hairless brow at Mariah, who nodded.
"I can try this," she said, then flicked her spell at me.
I moved. My chair toppled backwards and I rolled away and to my feet. Something whistled past my ear.
"Don't move!" Iolo shouted. "That was a warning shot, liche. The next one will strike thine unbeating heart!"
The spell struck without warning.
I couldn't see.
Run, was my first thought. What were they doing? I stood still and tried very hard to keep my head. There had to be an explanation, and I'd never get it if I panicked and Iolo shot me full of bolts.
"It's been well-trained," Mariah said. "That spell would panic most undead."
"How would that have helped?" Lord British asked.
"The undead are very susceptible to suggestion when they're unnerved like that. I could almost guarantee that she'd answer any of thy questions in all honesty just for the promise of restoring her sight. This creature, though, still acts as if it can see. My spell blinded it."
"Is there any way to change what it looks like?" Iolo's voice asked. "This...is hard. I really thought she was alive when she came down from the pyre..." he lapsed into silence.
Steel touched my chin again and I flinched involuntarily. "It's a very good illusion," Dupre said. "I can't tell the difference."
"As far as I can tell, it's no illusion," Mariah cut in. "A clone?"
"Richard," I thought to Lord British. "Can you please tell me what's going on?"
There was a brief silence.
"She's talking to thee, isn't she?" Dupre's voice said.
"That she is."
"A very good illusion," Dupre said darkly. "Now listen, imposter. Thou art going to tell us where the real Avatar is, and thou wilt tell us now."
"I've had about enough of this," I muttered. A mere concentrated thought returned my sight. I heard Mariah gasp as her spell was broken, but focussed my eyes on Dupre. "An Por!" I said, and, as every muscle in his body was paralysed, sidestepped his unmoving sword to blast Iolo's bolt into splinters before he could fire it.
Katrina's staff broke as she lashed it across the base of my skull. As surprised as she that the blow hadn't even hurt me, we stared at each other incredulously for a full five seconds before I said, "You tried to kill me!" then paralysed her.
Barely countering three spells thrown at me by the two lords and Mariah, I pointed at Lord British and shouted, "Stop!"
"Art thou threatening me?"
"Weren't you threatening me?"
"We have cause, liche."
"Liche? What are you saying? That I'm..." I trailed off, staring at him in sick realisation. With what seemed a great effort, I lifted my hand to the place Dupre had touched on my neck and felt for a pulse.
Then I discovered an equally disturbing fact...I wasn't breathing. I was still holding my breath from several minutes ago.
"...undead?" I whispered.
Draxinusom negated my spells, releasing Dupre and Katrina. Both regarded me with distrust.
"I'm the Avatar," I said. "I'm Elora! Tell me how I can prove it."
Lord British pointed at the Ankh on the table. "Pick it up."
Then I understood. The 'evil undead' would most probably have been reduced to a puddle of goo for so much as touching my Ankh. It was enchanted, I knew that much. The question was, would it recognise me in my current state? If not...what would it do to an undead?
"Pick it up."
I stepped close to the table, bent, lifted the Ankh by its chain, then fastened it around my neck. There was a flash of heat when the golden amulet touched my skin, but nothing else. I was still alive...sort of. "Satisfied?" I asked softly.
"Elora," he whispered.
Dupre's hands were shaking so badly that he missed his first two attempts to sheathe his blade. Iolo gave the crossbow bolt buried in the door a white-faced look then leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and murmured, "Virtues preserve us..."
"I can understand why you doubted," I said. "I can barely believe it myself, but please. You must know how this has happened. Tell me."
Katrina touched the broken end of her crook then said, "I'll tell thee what I can."
"Thy Mass Death spell worked. I was up on the battlements when thou didst
cast it, so when I looked down on the field I could see everything. Not
one of the Guardian's soldiers had survived, but it seemed thou hadst.
Thou wert standing in the same place thou hadst cast thy spell and a black
mist was surrounding thee.
"Then there was something like an earthquake. I learned from others that at this time the Flame of Courage went out. No one seems to know how. After the quake I saw daemons rise from the ranks of the slain soldiers and they all closed on thee. Thou didst leap on one and kill it with the Blacksword, but there seemed too many for thee to fight alone - particularly after casting a spell of the magnitude thou didst use to flatten the Guardian's army!
"I ran down to the gates to rally some knights and come to thine aid, but by the time we passed without the walls of the Hold...thou wert gone and the daemons with thee. We approached the black mist and even it vanished. There we found thy body and I thought all I had seen to be a dream. I was the only one who had seen thee, after all. All on the battlements had been forbidden to stand and risk exposing themselves to thy spell until I allowed them. Dupre...well, he had been watching thee when thou didst cast Mass Death. That resulted in a temporary blindness.
"Yet if what I had seen had not happened, where was the Blacksword? No one was alive to take it, and would it even be possible with the bond to thee?
"Seven days passed during which we tried everything we could think of to revive thee. Nothing worked and we eventually gave up. There is still a war in Britannia and we would continue to fight it, even without thy leadership.
"On the eve of thy funeral...thou didst awaken! No act of our own caused this, so we were doubly surprised. But upon descending from the pyre, the mages among us - Mariah, Richard and Draxinusom - sensed something strange in thee. Mariah accompanied thee to the baths hoping to verify - or rather, prove false - what our lords suddenly suspected was occurring: That thou wert not Elora.
"Mariah was able to check thy pulse when she was attending thine hair. That showed thou wert not even alive. Yet thou wert under no illusion, so what was going on? Thou didst certainly look like Elora.
"We gathered here today to discuss what could be done. Where was the real Avatar? Who was this undead imposter? If the Ankh doth not harm thee, thou must be Elora...so what hath happened that thou art a liche? And if thou art Elora, why won't Arcadion return to thee when summoned? Moreover, where is Arcadion?
"And that's the story, Elora. Thank the Virtues that we didn't try doing anything permanent to thee."
There was a brief silence.
"I'm a liche?" I said.
Lord British nodded slowly.
"I..." I'd cast those spells without reagents. "I'm undead. So what can I do about it?"
"Canst thou remove the bracer?"
I tried. "No."
"And thou canst not summon Arcadion?"
"No, but I can still feel the bond so it doesn't explain why he doesn't come."
Iolo opened his eyes. "Unless there is another Elora out there. Mayhap Katrina's eyes didn't play her false. 'Twould explain where the Blacksword and those daemons went."
I sat down before I could fall over. "I've never seen anything like this."
"To know only one thing," Draxinusom said. "To know that the Blacksword can teleport people to the Isle of Fire. To suspect that if the Blacksword is not here, then the enemy must have it...and will they not use it to go to the Isle?"
Lord British frowned. "Thou art right, my friend. We've lost a primary defence if the enemy are not obliged to sail down the channel into the Isle's bay. They can teleport themselves right onto our doorstep."
"Over it, rather," I corrected softly. "The Blacksword teleports to where it was created - the forge within the fort."
"Then we should go back," Dupre said. "Immediately."
"None of the gargoyles have had opportunity to rest yet," Richard warned.
Draxinusom shook his head and regarded his fellow monarch with glowing eyes. "To say that we will persist and endure. To say we will succeed."
Lord British sighed wearily. "I do not ask this of thee. There is much risk."
The gargoyle smiled. "To say there is more at risk if we don't return. To know the dangers of using the venom, but to assure you that every precaution will be taken."
"How many gargoyles are here?" I asked. "If there are enough, you may not need the venom."
"To say there are only seven winged gargoyles here, including myself."
"And including Sir Horffe," Dupre put in. "He came back with us from the Isle of Fire."
"What was he doing there in the first place?" I asked, perplexed.
"He carried word of thy death to me," answered Lord British, "then returned to the Hold with us."
"Seven gargoyles and six humans," I said, looking around at the circle we were sitting in. A flight from here to the Isle of Fire would not be fun. We would be above the ocean a good percentage of the time, with few hospitable places to stop and rest. "And no time to waste."
No one answered. It was time to leave.
The next five days were unpleasant for all twelve of us: Draxinusom, Lord
British, Inmanilem, Iolo, Terhurflam, Dupre, Ruaki, Mariah, Ortlem, Katrina,
Forvol and myself. I say five days because a storm blew up from the west
on the second night and we were forced east for several hours before taking
up refuge on a tiny island - barely more than a large rock with a deep
cave amidst the whitecaps - where we waited until the weather improved.
Horffe had been left behind. He hadn't seemed happy about it, but had submitted to Draxinusom's request that he remain. The gargoyle held a position of authority at Serpent's Hold that required his presence, especially during a time of war.
Food was a problem. We'd taken little from the Hold for fear of overweighting the gargoyles. Flatbread, dried fruit, jerky and water were cheerless fare and completely inadequate for the needs of the gargoyles - they were under a lot of strain carrying us and needed nutrition. Because of all the healing magic being used at Serpent's Hold there were no reagents to spare, so casting Create Food spells was not an option - not even to me. I attempted the spell a few times, but failed, even though the other spells I'd cast since coming back to 'life' had worked without reagents. Lord British suggested that maybe the undead couldn't use the syllable 'Mani', which meant 'Life'. It seemed he was right - any other spell I tried succeeded.
Food ran out on the third day, and, on the fourth, the strength-enhancing silver serpent venom. This second shortage was both good and bad. The gargoyles wouldn't keel over and die from an overdose, but the extended use of the drug had left its mark on our winged friends. For half the evening of the fourth day the gargoyles had gone into a period of withdrawal, alternating between sitting listlessly and muttering in irate tones their craving for more venom.
By then, we were on the edge of the smattering of volcano-made isles on the outer perimeter of the Isle of Fire.
On the fifth afternoon we dropped in to the fort that was the chief stronghold of Britannia's defence.
"Ouch!" I exclaimed, rubbing my hip.
"To be sorry," Forvol said in a weak voice. He landed wearily beside me and I scrambled to my feet, helping him regain his balance.
"I'm all right - the fall wasn't very high." My exclamation had probably been an automatic reaction, I admitted a bit shamefully. Just like breathing, which did nothing more than empty and fill my lungs. I could still breathe, but it was no longer necessary. The fall hadn't made me feel sore at all, in fact, and I'd held up best over the journey. I didn't feel particularly healthy, but I wasn't suffering from dehydration, I wasn't at all hungry or tired, and I wasn't sick. My human companions were all the worse for wear and the gargoyles looked near to collapsing from exhaustion.
"To call to you for aid!" I shouted in gargish. The workers above us, who had been assembling a cannon on the rampart, hurried down.
"Thou must rest," Lord British was telling Draxinusom.
The gargoyle's usually bright eyes were dim as he smiled tiredly. "To not argue with you this time, friend." After his first unsteady step, Lord British took one of his red-skinned arms and flung it about his own shoulders.
"Thou hast carried my weight many times recently," the human king said. "Allow me to return the favour."
"To thank you," Forvol said as I supported him.
"To say it's no problem. To ask how you feel?"
He groaned. "To think a few days of sleep would not go amiss."
When we reached the fort's entrance the gargoyles were assisted to their chambers in the Test of Courage by others willing to lend a hand. This left the rest of us at the forge just inside. I found myself instantly looking around the forge, almost as if I anticipated enemy soldiers to be hiding around every corner.
"Everything looks normal," Katrina said. She rubbed her nose and sneezed.
"By which thou meanest an army hath not landed," Dupre replied. "Milord," he said to Lord British, "I think I should find Sentri and ask his opinion on what hath been going on in our absence."
Katrina scowled, but didn't bother making a snippy retort. Everyone was tired and Dupre probably hadn't intended any insult.
"And I'd best see if the mages have aught to say," Mariah put in.
Lord British nodded and both set off - Mariah for the Statue Room and Dupre for the battlements. As an afterthought he asked Katrina to check on the Isle of Ambrosia, and the shepherdess left for the teleport pads at once.
I tried a simpler method. "Excuse me, sir," I said, snagging a passing warrior by the arm. "Knowest thou where I might find Sir Sentri?"
He looked at me as if I were insane - the wrinkled clothes I wore wouldn't have helped matters. "Sir Sentri is in conference with the Avatar, Huntmaster Tseramed and acting Archmage Praetymdelem! Everyone knows that!"
I blinked, then carefully replied, "The Avatar?"
"Aye," he answered moodily. "She shows up a few days ago and orders a meeting as if she were Lord British." He either didn't notice or recognise Lord British himself moving closer to better hear the conversation, Iolo at his side. "They haven't moved from those caverns in four days!" He frowned. "Or is that five? In any case, it was not long after Lords British and Draxinusom flew off bound for somewhere with Lord Iolo, Lady Mariah and some gargoyles who for the life of me I can't remember the names of. Thou knowest how it is with them."
"Can we go back a bit? What caverns?"
"Oh...I don't know. Somewhere on Ambrosia, I believe."
"The Avatar did this?" I asked intently.
"Would anyone lie about something like that?" he demanded angrily.
"Yes, of course, Lady. And I beg thy forgiveness also. Most of us 'commoners' have been jumpy of late, what with the mages being thick as fleas on a dog around both our islands. Some 'surge of power' thing." He shrugged.
I extended my hand. "Thank thee, Sir. Thou hast been a great help.'
He shook my hand, some of the wariness leaving his eyes. "Pleased to be of assistance, Lady."
"What of Julia?" I asked Lord British. "Isn't she here?"
"Two days after thou didst vanish, she left with our ships for Buccaneers' Den to get supplies. If all went well, she should be back any day."
Dupre chose that moment to descend from the battlements. "No sign of Sentri above, Milord," he reported to his king. "I'll try his 'office'."
"No need. Elora hath discovered where he is." Lord British looked concerned. "We should make haste in finding him and the others, Avatar. I have an extremely bad feeling about this double people are speaking of."
I told Dupre what I'd heard and he also frowned.
"I agree with our lord on this," he said. "We must hurry."
"Then let's go."
The instant we arrived on the lush green meadows of Ambrosia I felt a sense
of unease. A strong sensation - as if someone had just released a very
powerful spell - batted at my mind from the south-west. For a second, I
got the impression that it was coming from the Isle of Fire.
"Did you feel that?" I asked the others quickly.
Lord British winced. "Any mage within several leagues would have, I think. Dost thou have to make so much noise?"
"That was me? But I thought it was coming from somewhere out there!"
The king looked at me closely. "I only felt a surge coming from thee, Elora. Just as we arrived here. Didst thou not feel that?"
I shook my head, frowning. "I wonder-" I stopped as I was interrupted by a different feeling. Something was tickling my mind...someone was calling for help. No, not calling...demanding. I turned my eyes to the mountainous peaks lining the north coast of the island and frowned thoughtfully. That's where the caves lay.
Then Katrina hurried over from where she'd been speaking to two other shepherds. "Thou wilt not believe this- "
"If it's about the Avatar being in two places at the same time," said Dupre, "thou'rt right. I don't."
The shepherdess nodded and pointed to the north. "In the caves, with Sentri, Tseramed and a gargoyle called Praetymdelem." She looked at us then hefted a stout staff she'd picked up somewhere. "I'm coming."
The five of us reached the caves a few minutes later. I conjured a light and drew my longsword, then led the way in. The sensation I'd felt upon arriving at the Isle became more insistent, tugging me from the west. I gestured to my friends and we headed in that direction.
"Where do we go first?" Iolo murmured. The old bard strode beside me with a loaded crossbow, eyes peering down every corridor we passed.
"The hydra's cave," I replied softly, squinting further down the passage we were travelling. "If they're not there we'll look elsewhere of course, but I have the strangest feeling..."
"Like someone or something is calling me from this direction-"
A strange, rasping voice interrupted. "There thou art!"
My friends and I cam on guard in an instant, but lowered out weapons when we saw that the voice was coming from behind a magically locked door. Through the heavily barred window I could see a liche's face. The pallid features and blood-red, glowing eyes were fixed on me.
"I've been calling thee for help since I sensed thine arrival," the undead rasped. "What took thee so long?" It paused and looked the others over. "Stop to pick up a bite for us to eat, didst thou?"
"Thy strange feeling?" Iolo asked me.
"Looks like it."
The liche frowned, its brittle skin crinkling like fine white leather. "An undead walking with the living? Now I've seen it all."
"Forget the liche," I said, disappointed that the strange sensation had come from it and not from my missing friends. "Let's keep going."
"'Forget the liche'?" it echoed angrily. "Thou art a liche, in case thou hast forgotten! Come back!" it howled as we passed its prison. "We will meet again! Doors aren't strong enough to prevent me from answering the Call! Come back, liche!"
I didn't like hearing the reminder of what I was. I wasn't comfortable with the notion of undeath and I could tell my companions weren't either. A few sidelong glances were cast in my direction for a while, as if they suddenly expected me to turn around and go on a blood-lust induced rampage.
"Can you tell I'm a liche just by looking at me?" I asked Iolo with some concern.
He smiled encouragingly. "No, Elora."
"Are you sure?" I examined one of my hands for a second. "I'm not developing glowing eyes or anything?"
"Thou lookest the same as always, Elora - except for the hair, of course." He paused to glance down a branching passage before adding, "But I admit I do sense something strange when I am near thee."
I sighed. "Yes. That would be the same feeling that Richard, Draxinusom and Mariah got when I apparently returned to life. You're feeling it as well, but to a lesser degree because your magical power isn't as great."
"Thou canst not feel it?" he asked curiously.
"I'm sort of in a unique position, Iolo. I feel different, but, at this point in time, not so different that I'd immediately think, 'Gee, I'm undead.'" I remembered what the liche behind us had looked like. "I hope I can get my life back before I start feeling and looking differently."
We reached the hydra's cave. Thin rays of light shot through the gaps and holes in the walls of the stone 'house' within. There was an exit from the mountains in there that led to the fallen meteor of caddelite. I stopped everyone at the entrance, wove a spell of Protection, then cautiously peered in.
No one was inside. We filed in and looked around for a few minutes, but all we found was a single rolled up sheaf of parchment that was addressed to Lord British. I picked it up and handed it to him.
He opened it, read it, frowned and handed it back.
I rejoice to tell thee that the Avatar, Elora, doth live! She came here
shortly after thy departure and called a meeting with Tseramed, Praetymdelem
and myself to review all stores and inventory. We are going with her now
to find Shamino, whom she believes is somewhere within the Deep Forest.
After that we know not, for she doth seem loath to settle on another plan
before the first is completed.
Elora doth send her regards and regrets that she could not speak with thee herself. Moreover, she asks that thou be careful, for she hath sensed powerful magic at work these past few days.
The Virtues be with thee, my liege.
I sheathed my sword. "I don't like this. If this clone serves the Guardian,
she may now know everything there is to know of our defences." I paused.
Seeing the uneasy faces of my companions, I asked, "Are you thinking that
the clone, still?"
"We've seen no evidence that the other is...well...is not the Avatar," Katrina said.
"You don't trust me." I turned away from the guilt in their faces. It hurt. It hurt more than I was willing to show. Doubted by my best and dearest friends. Doubted by myself. "I can leave," I offered. "I'm more than willing to find Shamino before whatever's out there does first."
No one answered me and I was out the door before anyone else could. It was pitch black, but I found I could see quite easily. There was something peculiarly comforting about the darkness of the caves. It was almost like a sense of security...I could hide in the shadows and never be found or troubled...never hurt anyone by accident.
"That's what liches do, isn't it?" I whispered to myself. "There's no such thing as a peaceful liche. Is that by choice or circumstance?" I added, even more softly. There might be a way to know, I decided, and walked back up the way we'd come, half-hoping and half-fearing my friends would follow. It wasn't long before I found myself back at the liche's prison.
"I didn't think it would last," the hissing voice beyond the door stated. There was almost a kind of soft regret in its tone. "The undead have no place with the living." Its face appeared at the grille. "Thy friends have abandoned thee?" It gave a short, crackling laugh. "Join the club. Long gone, mine are, dead centuries past. Didn't want to consort with the undead, they said."
"My friends aren't like that."
"Then where are they?" The liche made a show of looking around, then stopped and regarded me again. "Thou shalt discover, in time, that thou hast no need of the living. They will perish before thou hast turned around twice. Dost thou not know? The undead are immortal! We can be slain at great cost, but left alone we will endure forever." It made a dismissive gesture with one pale, long-nailed hand. "Friends are of no moment at this time, anyway. Canst thou not feel it in the ground? The air? Ether itself? The Call hath been sent, kinswoman! We are being summoned!"
"I am no kin of yours."
The liche suddenly frowned. "That mode of speech...where have I heard it before?" The glowing eyes narrowed and its voice fell to a husky whisper. "I cannot tell. The aura of the undead is not false. What dost thou wear about thy neck? Who wert thou in life?"
"I was...I am the Avatar."
A moment of incredulous silence was shattered by insane laughter. 'Thou?" the creature cackled. "The Avatar? A liche? This is not possible!"
I shrugged and made as if to walk by.
"Wait!" the liche shrieked, its laughter cutting off. "Thou must release me! We are kin, thou and I! Kin in death as we were not in life. Our blood runs cold and our hearts beat not; breath doth not stir our bodies, but ether is our life. Our will. Our power."
"What would you do if I released you?" I asked emotionlessly.
The blood-red eyes brightened. "The Call! I will answer the Call! Canst thou not hear it? The undead gather! We must hasten!"
"I'm sort of new to this whole undead thing. Can you explain what you're talking about?"
The liche beckoned me closer, its movements almost frenzied. I took a couple of steps, but no more, and folded my arms. "It's the prophecy!" it rasped. "The prophecy! The living think it relates to their Avatar, but it is not so! 'One will arise with the strength of an army...' that is to be us! An army of undead! The prophecy is at hand!" it screeched. "We must go!"
I felt cold all over. "If the prophecy doesn't relate to the Avatar...then who?"
"Of course it relates to an Avatar, but to our Avatar! Where doth it say that an Avatar must be 'good'? An Avatar is merely blessed by a higher power and a possessor of power! Our Avatar is blessed by the Guardian, kinswoman. We cannot lose!"
"Where is the Call coming from?"
The liche hissed angrily, obviously upset that I wasn't just going to open the door for it. I could feel the magic-inhibiting field in its cell from where I was standing, which explained why it couldn't simply free itself. "We must go! Canst thou not sense the location thyself? How long hast thou been undead?"
"Not long. Not even a week, I think."
The liche looked disgusted. "Trust me to get stuck with a beginner, and a living-lover at that." It snorted - a rather revolting sound considering most of its nose seemed to have decomposed. "Why become an undead if thou dost intend to waste it with them?" Then it shrugged. "No matter. Thou shalt feel the Call soon enough and thou shalt answer it, as will we all. Stonegate, kinswoman." Bloodless claws gripped the grille tightly. "The keep of the Shadowlords!"
The keep of the Vortex Cube, the keep of the Magebane sword...I sighed with boredom. "The keep is a ruin, liche. What's so special- "
The liche hissed again and drew back into the deeper shadows of its prison.
"I'm here," I called, not turning. I'd recognise Iolo's voice anywhere.
The bard walked up to my side, a tiny Glimmer of light hovering at his shoulder. "I knew thou wouldst not leave without us."
I looked at him then. His face was serious, lined with concern, but free of doubt. "I was beginning to wonder if anyone would follow."
"I have always followed thee, Elora, and I always will, no matter where thou mayest go. Thou art the Avatar and thou art my friend. Nothing can change that." He smiled. "Now, wouldst thou mind coming back? We don't have torches or reagents, if thou dost remember. Blundering around in this place with only a few Glimmer spells would be unwise."
I rolled my eyes. "I've been demoted from Avatar to nightlight?"
Iolo's grin widened. "Thou hast ever been a light to those lost in darkness, Avatar." He gestured at the imprisoned liche. "Didst thou talk to it?"
"A little. It claims that there's some kind of undead army massing at the ruins of Stonegate."
"Dost thou believe it?"
"That's not all it said. I'll explain it when the others are here."
The liche was silent as we left and silent when we returned. Its burning eyes peered out from the grill in its prison door, glaring at the living with a malevolence that seemed to grow as I repeated our conversation.
"I'm wondering how the Guardian's army from Killorn Keep relates to all this," Dupre mused.
"Some of them are undead," Katrina said suddenly. "Daemons."
"But still," Lord British said, "their army is big enough. They hold at least three-quarters of Britannia. Why an army of undead?"
I shook my head. "I don't know."
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