To the esteemed Lord of the Isle of Fire,
Greetings, my old comrade! I hope this letter finds thee in good health. 'Tis now almost a year since thy defeat of the Guardian. In that time we have repaired much of the damage done in the Guardian's assault. But though the task is great, the time has come to take pleasure in what we have acomplished. On the Anniversary of thy triumph, we shall hold the Festival of Rebuilding at my castle in Britain. There we shall honor thy victory, and relive past adventures. I shall be honored if thou dost attend.
Ever thy ally,
I chuckled as I glanced over the letter. The messenger stood before me,
fidgeting uncomfortably, uncertain of how to behave in my presence. A young
one, he was. To his generation, I was a legend, a myth. He feared me, he
worshiped me, he trembled in awe at my presence. And yet, inevitably, he
was disappointed I was not what he had imagined. I was not the great hero,
the mighty warrior, the wize sage that all these foolish Britannians thought
of me, the person they told tales to their children of. No, if I did not
despise interruptions so dreadfully, I would show those ignorant
louts who their savior truly was, who the "virtuous" god they revered
"Tell me," I spoke suddenly, catching the messenger off guard, with mock casualness that almost disguised my contempt. "How does Britain fare in this age?"
"She continues to grow, sire." The messenger flushed. "Milord, I mean. My pardon. Th-- the city has spread north, nearly to the base of the Serpent's Spine now."
"Has it now?" I replied condescendingly. "And Castle Britannia… what of it?"
"Decorated gaily in preparation for the festivals, milord." The messenger responded with naïve enthusiasm. "I doubt there'll be such a spectacle in the land again in centuries!"
"Well, that hardly troubles me, little one, perhaps in a few centuries I will have become more tolerant of you silly mortals and your constant need to celebrate even the most morbid of occasions." I replied sharply, crumbling the scroll within my fists.
"Tell Lord British to enjoy his damned festival and his thrice-damned city!! Tell him how much I admire that he can celebrate the fact that I destroyed our world of birth! But tell him that even the fallen Lord of Fire, the one foolishly once called an 'Avatar of Virtue', is not that brazen and not that stupid yet!!"
The messenger backed away slowly, trembling with fright. In my anger, I almost enjoy the spectacle.
"Get out and go, go back to your damned Britain!!" I shouted as I rose from the throne. Before I had taken a step forward, the messenger had turned and fled for his life back to his ship, certain no doubt that I would reign down lightning or famine upon the land in my fit of anger.
In less than ten minutes, the messenger had apparently overcome his hysteria and explained the situation to the captain, for the ship sailed away through the narrow channel that once held the Great Earth Serpent. I sighed as I sat back on my throne, fingering my ankh amulet in one hand whilst stroking my goattee in the other.
"Damn you, British." I muttered to myself. "But no matter. Enjoy your banquet, I have no stomach for company, especially those who would remind me of the evils I have done."
The Lord of Fire
But one companion remained with me here upon the Isle of Fire. He and I
rarely spoke, but I knew we both prefered it that way. We were both prisoners
in our manner, and we had both lost our worlds. In this, despite our differences,
we found a bond between us, we found one who could share our burden, and
even be called a friend.
"Arcadion," I drew the Black Sword from its hilt.
"I heard thy conversation with the Britannian, if that is what you wish to speak of, my master." The Gem of Dracothraxus glowed faintly.
"Yes, yes…" I replied, sighing. "It has been so long since a human dared come here, I was uncertain as to how I would react."
"Tis rubbish, of course. British might be grateful, but he is also terrified of me, searching for new ways to fawn before me." I sighed and leaned forward.
"How I hate him. And Britannia."
The azure gem flickered briefly.
"It's just that-- that, well, I can't stop thinking about Earth. Earth, now locked away from me forever, now left to the mercy of the Guardian. And what did I acomplish that warranted its sacrifice? The salvation of one tiny, backwards little corner of the multiverse that would have been content to fall gradually under the Red Titan's domination. It was… pointless, Arcadion. Pointless… And these fools worship me as a god for it…"
"They are ignorant of your world. Britannia is all that is known to them. You have come to them in their hours of need from centuries, since the time before their land even carried this name. To them, you are a god."
"Perhaps so… But what of British? He hails from Earth as well... Why does he not care of what has happened?!"
"British abandoned Earth long ago, my master. He despised the world of his birth and sought Britannia as a land in which to build his dreams. Now he has not ventured from this plane in many of a mortal's lifetimes. Earth means nothing to him any longer."
"Nor does Britannia to I… yet I am cursed to remain." I sighed. "Ah well, he may do as he wishes, celebrate what he wishes, rule the land he built and loves. But he is no friend of mine, nor shall I join him in mocking our homeworld's fall."
"So be it." The gem faded. Quietly, I placed the Black Sword back within its sheath.
I felt heavy, tired. My feet dragged as I stumbled forward, as though I was walking through a great bog. I flailed my arms blindly through the blackness, feeling the wind rushing by me, desperately trying to find a way to orient myself.
I stopped, listening intently. Fear washed over me, I felt as though a stone had been thrown without warning into a serene pool. The voice was a woman's, light yet harsh, with a twinge of mockery to it.
And then came a second laugh. Deeper, seemingly jovial, yet… cold, and every bit as disconcerting as the woman's laugh. For an instant, I could not place it, yet it was hauntingly familiar. And then I realized that it was a sound I had not heard in a year, one which I had prayed never to haunt me again.
"We meet again at last, Avatar. Did you truly think I would give up such fine game as Britannia and yourself?" There was a brief chuckle. "No… I have much in store for this world… Though of course, you would hardly care, would you?"
I felt the wind rush past me a second time, and in the distance I heard a horse trotting towards me.
"I have my dream and you have yours, Avatar. Perhaps we might serve each other rather than remain at odds over this filthy little world…"
Despite the darkness, I could see the approaching figure clearly. A young, fair-skinned woman rode atop a horse of the purest black. A black cloak hung down from her shoulders, and her robes of greens and golds did little to hide the suit of armour that she wore.
Silently she approached me, stopping as we stood but a few feet from one another. In a swift motion, she drew a jeweled sword from its scabbard and pointed it towards me.
"Are we enemies…?" Her voice rang soft and pure.
"No… we are far too alike for that." A sad smile crept up her lips, and she shook her head sadly.
"To Pagan, my brother!" Her voice rose to a shout and she galloped off into the darkness.
"Seek out thy Adversary…!"
I awoke with a scream, dripping with sweat. I looked around frantically,
trying to assure myself that it was only a dream.
Yet it was not I dream, I knew. The Guardian had invaded my sleep before, taunted me with his threats and jeers. Now… has he returned? Has he found a new way to enter Britannia?
If so, I must stop him. I did not bother to remind myself of the hatred I had developed towards Britannia, for that was irrelevant. The Guardian was my true nemesis, for it was he that brought me to this state. I would see his plans thwarted once more, I would not let him have the satisfaction of damning other worlds as he had damned Earth.
"Arcadion!" I lept from the ancient bed that had once belonged to Erethian, rushing over to the wall upon which the Black Sword was propped.
"Arcadion… Tell me, can you sense anything within the Ether? Has the Red Titan come forth again…??"
"Naught that I know of has transpired, my master." I sensed that Arcadion was frowning. "What has happened?"
"I was plagued by a… vision, Arcadion… I fear the Guardian has returned…"
"If so, then do not depend solely on me, my master, for your adversary's power greatly exce--"
"Adversary…" I shuddered, trying to remember the appearance of the woman, to see if I could spark a memory of who or what she was.
"Master," Arcadion continued, "Save for your single vision, we know no more of what transpires upon Britannia than we did last eve. Unless we venture forth from this Isle, that will not change."
"Leave…?" I echoed. "Of course, of course…" I winced. I had been a hermit for so long, it would be hard to go out amongst the people once more. But I would have to, I would not give up this crusade over my own petty agoraphobia.
"Where to, then?" I pushed myself out of my reverie. "And how? We have no ship, I gave the Eight Stones to my companions… I suppose I'll have to summon forth a moongate." I stood up and walked outside. In the blue haze of dawn, Felucca was less than full, and would approach 3rd Quarter in a few days.
"To Trinsic, then, at nightfall." I sighed. "Ah well, it could have been worse. Up the King's Way to Britain should only take a few days, even without horses."
I returned to the castle, saddened to leave this citadel that had been my sole refuge. I laid on a great banquet of my own to celebrate my departure, for I certainly had enough garlic, mandrake root, and ginseng to spare. From the stores below, I took my last bottle of Abbey Red, brewed in the two hundred and twenty-second year by the Britannian calender.
As evening drew on, I dressed myself in padded clothes, and put on a pair of heavy riding boots. I strapped the Black Sword across my back, over my quilted black cloak, then gathered together my decaying reagents and a month's worth of dried rations into a small bag, which I hung from my belt. Other than these necessities, there was nothing in the castle which I needed or ever would have cared if I never saw again. Except…
Feeling a faint twinge of nostalgia, I took my battered, ancient ankh and hung it about my neck. With a smile, I crumbled the reagents within my hands and began the incantation.
"Vas Rel Por!"
I reached for my sword, but it was gone. I looked around frantically for a weapon, but could see nothing.
"I am making many new friends in Britannia…"
The Guardian's voice died away, and I saw light, approaching me rapidly…
A warm breeze passed by as I stepped out of the moongate. The sky, filled
almost entirely with the black clouds of a storm, was lit in the dim red
"Wha… Strange, it was not even midnight when I left the isle, and now the new day is upon us… The spell should have been instantaneous…"
"Much has changed of the Art since the destruction of the Moongates and the Orbs of the Moons." The Black Sword remarked. I pulled the sword out, startled to find that it was with me once more.
"Where did--" I stopped. "No, tis nothing, Arcadion, save the Guardian continues to play within my mind."
The gem flickered in response. I pulled my cloak about me and made my way north through the thick forest, certain to reach Trinsic or the King's Way before long.
We journeyed on in silence until noon, or what we thought was noon. The clouds did not clear in the slightest over the hours, and I could only guess at the time from the occasional streaks of light that shone down upon us.
At last we arrived at the walled city of Honor. The massive stone battlements seemed as grand as ever, yet there was something… cold about the city. Fear seemed to permeate through the walls, mixed with a morbid anticipation. I tried to shrug this train of thought away, making for the southern gate.
The gate was barred, both with sturdy wooden doors and with the portcullis. A guardsman called down to me from a window, too frightened of someone or something to step out onto the battlements.
"Who're you? Wha'dye want?"
"Should I merely tell you, you would surely disbelieve me." I called, drawing the Black Sword. "But gaze upon this sword of Blackrock and the enchanted jewel in its hilt to dispel your skepticism.
"I am the Lord of Fire, I am the one once called the Avatar of Virtue. Bar me not from entrance to this city, or I will leave this entire gate in a smouldering ruin."
A long silence followed. Then, ever so slowly, the portcullis was drawn up and the doors creaked open. A dozen-some horsemen in silver armour waited silently behind the gateway, watching my every movement. At their head was a middle-aged man with receding black hair and a well-groomed goatee.
"Welcome, milord." He nodded to me in greetings, "I am Kammas'gar, lord over this city for the time."
"Lord?" I responded. "What became of Finnigan?"
"Martial law has been imposed, milord. The city is best left in the hands of a warrior rather than a bureaucrat. Come, the day is yet young and there is much to be done."
The paladin motioned to a saddled but riderless steed among his retinue, which I mounted. The streets were almost completely deserted save for a score of guardsmen on patrol. Fearful faces peered out at us from latched windows as we passed by. Several dwellings appeared to be either burned down or ransacked, with yet more guardsmen milling about this rubble.
A mob of filthy, ragged peasants were gathered in the town square, crowding towards the mayoral residence. A half dozen armoured soldiers guarded the building, watching the mob warily.
"Damnit!" Kammas'gar shouted with sudden fury. Many of the peasants cringed and shied away fearfully. "I thought I ordered this bloody rabble driven off!"
"They keep returning, milord." One of the guardsmen replied.
Without a word of response, Kammas'gar galloped his horse into the throng. The crowd dispersed instantly amongst a few screams and pleas, and the peasants ran off in various directions. Kammas'gar sighed in contempt.
"Hardly worth saving, they are. Come along, milord."
"Tis quite a tale, milord, but no matter, we have all day."
Kammas'gar and I sat at an oaken table in what had been Finnigan's mansion. The meal before me was light but rich; certainly better than the rations I had brought with me.
"Yesterday morning, after the night of the banquet, a cartload of travelers passed down the King's Way into Trinsic. They mumbled hysterically of a black dome and of Castle Britannia destroyed utterly, and all within it. Though they might have been merely drunkards, Finnigan still sent several courtiers to Britain, as a precaution. They have not yet returned.
"Throughout the day, however, many townsmen said that they saw… visions."
"Visions?" I put in.
"Aye," He nodded sadly. "They claimed to see the Guardian himself, asking them to repent and forget their hatred towards him, and bow to him when he entered Britannia.
"The weather too was strange. Dark clouds hung on the horizon, but the air was still warm, nor was there any sign of rain. Still, far stranger things had happened, and we tried to keep order within the city.
"As evening wore on, a single man, on foot, came to the northern gates in a fright. The guardsmen at the gate recognized him from paintings and brought him to Finnigan immediately."
"It was the great ranger and onetime ally of thine, Shamino." Kammas'gar cut me off. "He told us briefly of the events in Britain, which confirmed the tale we had heard earlier that day, and revealed far more. Already, he said, an army was rising within Britain and Paws to the call of the Guardian. The poor; the destitutes; the impoverished; the unwanted; the lowliest of Britannian society, the ones who found hope in the Red Titan's Fellowship, those were the ones who now rebelled against the kingdom."
"I am making many new friends in Britannia." The Guardian's words echoed in my head.
"In but a day, then, Britain and Paws have both fallen, according to Shamino." Kammas'gar continued. "He thinks the mob of an army will go south, towards Trinsic, and we must be prepared. That night, while Shamino rested at the Honorable Hound, Finnigan handed control of Trinsic and its forces over to me, for the duration of this crisis."
"Is Shamino still here?" I stroked my goatee thoughtfully. Though of course it was inevitable, I had not expected to meet one of my old companions so soon.
"No," Kammas'gar shook his head. "At dawn today he departed by ship with a small but stalwart crew." The paladin frowned slightly. "He wanted passage to Terfin. He thought the Gargoyles might be able to help us."
Kammas'gar sighed. "Bloody useless, I'd say. Backstabbing daemons have probably turned on us already, assuming the Red Titan even wants them when he can have Britannians. But he insisted, and I could hardly refuse a living legend such as he. At any rate, that is all I know of the situation in the realm. I've no plans to head north for now, tis best to guard the city."
"What steps have you taken so far since assuming command?"
"Primarily, the former Fellowship hall has been barricaded. We're using it now for grain storage. The rest of this manor is a rudimentry barracks and our base of operations. We're using some of the old guard towers as prison houses; I've rounded up most of the more vocal and well known former Fellowship members, as well as many others who have reported visions. Their houses have been searched for any evidence of treasonous conduct, then raised."
"And what of the mob outside when we first arrived?"
"With the city closed off, the farmland outside the walls has been abandoned for the time being; the only major source of food left is our storehouse, from which we shall ration out as little as possible. Keeping the army fed is more important than the peasantry in this situation." Several shouts came from outside.
"Damnit," Kammas'gar sighed and rose. "They're at it again, I'd wager. Not worth saving, I tell you."
I waited silently for several minutes. A chorus of screams echoed from outside, but I ignored it. At last Kammas'gar returned.
"I'm afraid there's little else I can offer you, milord. Right now, I think it best to make a round over the city."
"I'll join ye." I replied, rising from the chair. The paladin nodded, and we proceeded outside and mounted our horses without another word. Blood littered the streets of the square, and several guardsmen were dragging away bodies and throwing them into a burning ditch. One of the fallen began to moan and struggle, but was ignored and thrown to the pit regardless.
It was getting on for late afternoon now; shortly after we set out, a light shower began, though the black clouds remained unchanged. We said nothing to each other, nor even spared a glance. Four other knights rode to our sides in a flank.
As we passed along one of the narrower streets, a discarded canvas caught my eye. Five emaciated peasants were cowering under it, using it as a canopy from the downpour. One of them appeared to be speaking while the others listened in rapt fascination; he was fingering a small necklace, the details of which I could not see from here.
"And He shall come to feed and clothe us…"
Kammas'gar glanced at me. I shrugged, and started to continue on.
"For He is our companion, He is our provider, He is our master…"
"Wait!" I shouted to Kammas'gar. The speaker noticed us and paled with fright. Before he could run, the paladins were upon him. He kicked and screamed to no avail as Kammas'gar casually approached him and tore away the necklace. He held it for me to see; it was an all-too-familiar shape, a triangle pointed downwards.
Kammas'gar pocketed the necklace and made a signal to one of the guardsmen, who promptly cleaved the peasant's head in two. The listeners were paralyzed with fright for an instant, then ran as fast as their legs could carry them.
"After them! Don't bother to bring them back alive!" Kammas'gar shouted. The other knights galloped away, leaving us alone. He sighed.
"I knew it would happen. Sooner or later… but no matter, if we nip them as soon as they appear, we might make it through this alive."
"I must leave for Terfin."
"Wha…?" Kammas'gar blinked.
"Now." I spat the words out. "I must get to Terfin and find Shamino."
"But… You've barely arrived, milord."
"I haven't anything to acomplish here as it stands. I was only planning on passing through at any rate."
"Very well, then." Kammas'gar sighed again. "What will you need?"
"A skiff. I have no desire for company, nor would I need a frigate to cross the Great Sea, for I can bend the winds to my will."
"There is doubtless one at the docks which we could give ye, milord. When shall you de--"
"Immediately." I strode off.
In less than a half hour, I was aboard a small vessel, taking a last glance at Trinsic as she faded into the distance.
"A self-righteous and arrogant bastard." The Black Sword spoke up for the first time in hours.
"Aye," I replied, "Trinsic will not last long under 'Sir' Kammas'gar. Tis his kind that drove me to the Isle of Fire."
"What would you have done back there if thou… if thou were as you were before the Guardian stranded ye here?"
"Eh?" Arcadion's question caught me by surprise. "I don't know… Perhaps I would have spoken to him, tried to convince him of his wrongs. But his kind would never learn…"
"And then?" The azure gem glowed brightly. "You would not have left this quickly."
"And what of it?!" I snapped. "Depose him and take his place, eh? What would the point of that be? Yes, Arcadion, I have grown apathetic… But truly, there is nothing more I could have done."
"Perhaps." Arcadion grew silent.
"And what of you, old friend?" I spoke up. "Assuming you were free of the Shade Blade and that you were human."
"I…" Arcadion paused, then chuckled. "I would have killed him, but I am hardly an Avatar of Virtue, any virtue."
"Nor am I, any longer…" I sighed. The gem dimmed. I sheathed the Black Sword once more, so that I could concentrate on the course ahead of me.
On the third day out at sea, the mountainous isle of Terfin at last appeared
in the distance. My skiff was inevitably spotted long before I reached
the isle, for several dozen gargoyles waited anxiously at the southern
docks as I disembarked.
"De sarp vaslapter?" Their leader asked hopefully.
"An." I shook my head.
"An agralem por?" The Gargoyle looked disappointed.
"An. U sa lok hiuman ling?"
"Yesss…" The Gargoyle replied slowly, with a heavy accent. "To be Arbvaslem, a. To… remain."
"Draxinusom?" I looked around. As with all Gargish cities, Terfin was built along a single vertical street aligned to the poles, yet all along the road to the north, the town appeared deserted.
"To remain. To be Arbvaslem." The Gargoyle repeated. "War-- war--" The Gargoyle fumbled. "Agralemmur, Draxinusom usagralem. Hiuman vaglem timpor, Shamino."
"Shamino?" I looked about excitedly. "Wh-- quater Shamino esh Draxinusom?"
"Gargl esh hiuman ter. Teranmir." The Gargoyle pointed vaguely out towards the sea. "Vesss-par."
"Vesper?" I sighed. "Of course, the only other Gargish city. Quatim agralemmur inpor?"
"Grat ulem." I bowed my head and turned to the ship.
"May your persistance and precision lead you to success." The Gargoyle spoke in a slightly steadier voice, but still deeply accented; this was apparently one of the few human phrases which he had memorized.
"Grat ulem." I repeated, and boarded the skiff once more.
"My troops encountered thy friend, Lord Draxinusom. I shall send thy regards…"
I awoke with a start. It was the dead of night, the fourth since my stay
at Terfin. The sky remained covered in the thick sheet of black clouds;
I could not see a single star from my tiny skiff.
"Arcadion," I drew the Black Sword. We had not spoken in nearly a week, but now I felt a longing desire for his counsel.
"Yes, my master?"
"Again the Guardian has plagued me with a vision. I fear his Britannian armies have bested Draxinusom and Shamino, and whatever forces they have mustered."
"Perhaps it is so." The daemon replied casually. "Still, for the moment you have no other goal save to reach Vesper and discover the fate of the Gargish army, unless you plan to march to Britain alone."
"Of course not." I sighed. "Of course I shall continue on to Vesper. Yet, it's just-- I don't know… Something is wrong, not merely with Vesper, or even with the world itself…
"I have saved Britannia from danger many times… Indeed, from calamities far greater than this… Yet… I cannot explain it… Something is… different…"
"Do you want to succeed?" Arcadion asked quietly.
"I…" I trailed off. I felt a chill in the wind. "I don't know…
"Arcadion!!" I grabbed the Black Sword and peered into the azure gem of it's hilt. "What hast happened to me, what have I become??!
"Once… once, I was a man… but now I am, to them, almost a god… Have I distanced myself so much from them, the Britannians, the mortals…? Have I, in each step of my ascension to power, made myself less understanding of their flaws and their struggles…? Have I become this arrogant…?"
"Your last true tie to humanity, perhaps, was Earth, now barred from you forever. There you were one of many, here you are a messiah.
"But still you have some goal, some purpose, else you would not have come this far. My master, you must find that purpose, you must find thy dream, destiny."
"Yes… thy words are wise, Arcadion…" I wiped aside a tear as it trickled down my cheek. "You have done much for me, my friend. If I could, somehow, find a way to free thee from thy prison, I swear that I would."
"We are both prisoners, my master, and you too are as much my slave as I am yours." The gem's glow faded. "But such is a talk for another time…"
At dawn the next morning, the coastline of Vesper showed herself to the
north. I docked my skiff at the harbor and looked around. All was silent
save the rustling of the wind across the sand. There was no sign of life
in the streets, and the nearby buildings appeared shoddily barricaded.
I strode down the empty roads, finding the rest of the town in the same state. Yet I knew the city was not deserted, I could feel the fearful eyes peering out at me from within the buildings.
"H-- hey!" A weak voice called from a rather small, oaken cabin. I heard something large being moved from within, and the door was opened by the tiniest of cracks. A withered hand appeared in the doorway and beckoned me towards the hovel.
A musty stench hung within the one-roomed cottage. Most of the furniture was strew about in disarray, for the most part in an attempt to block the windows and door. The sole occupant of this dwelling was a short, balding, middle-aged man with ragged wisps of light-brown hair.
"Daemons!" He hissed in my ear. "All over town… They'll kill yeh if they see yeh…"
"Where?" I deliberately raised my voice. "When did they arrive?"
"Th-- they haven't left the west part of the city yet, but they're coming…"
"When did they arrive?"
"Day before last… The militia got 'ere two days before that…" The man wiped his brow, he seemed to relax slightly. "They've helped us a lot these last days, the militia. 'Not for them, we'd all be dead by now."
"They've driven back the… daemons? Where is this militia now?"
"Probably north of town, takin' care of those three they caught last night. They're doin' a fine job 'gainst the daemons, but-- but it can't last." The old man sighed. "Most of them are leavin', too…"
"Leaving?" I raised an eyebrow. "For where? And why?"
"Cove. They-- I don't know, they seem to think there'll be even worse trouble there, near Britain. They think the townsfolk themselves will rise up 'gainst the gov'ment. A third of 'em left last night by ship, and more'll be goin' as this wears on. Leave us to th' daemons, they could, if they want'd…"
"Hmmm…" I studied the man. "Who is the leader of this militia, do you know?"
" 'E's from Minoc like the rest of 'em, but that's all I know. Yeh… yeh should go see them for yourself. A young, well-built man like yeh, and with a sword like that…" The man nodded. "Yeh'd be a boon to them, aye."
"Yes, perhaps… Well, thank you for the information, I'll seek out this militia."
As I left the cottage, I noticed a small column of smoke further inland, barely visible amongst the black layer of clouds that still loomed even here, over the Drylands. I proceed north through the city towards the smoke, until I saw a crowd gathered in the distance.
All told, there appeared nearly two hundred men, gazing on silently at an unfolding spectacle. Three wooden stakes were planted into the ground, several feet from each other. Coals and torches were piled around each stake, each alighting a steadily growing fire. And tied to each of the stakes was a red-skinned, horned creature, each bearing a mixture of pain, fear, anger, and resignation upon his face.
Two, two of the three were already dead as I approached. The third, the last, clung to life desperately as the flames rose. And in his final moment, the gargoyle gazed upon me; the green pupils of his coal black eyes fixed themselves upon my face, and upon the worn amulet of an ankh that I yet wore.
"An Bal Sil Fer…"
And with these words, the final gargoyle died, and I stared on in silence as I was approached by a tall, dignified yet rugged man with jet black hair and a short mustache, the leader of this militia.
"Welcome," The man eyed me cooly. "You are not one of the townsfolk, are
you? You have the look of a traveler about you."
"Aye," I replied, "I arrived from… Moonglow, less than an hour ago. A townsperson spoke of an invasion by… daemons, just now."
"Why yes," The man nodded, "Though this… invasion is hardly a recent development. It had its beginnings centuries ago, and it is only now, now that the realm lies weak, that the daemons see their chance and rise up against us."
"And what measures have you taken?"
"The western half of Vesper, which always belonged to them, is now blocked off from the east. Their army arrived two days past, and the small area we have left them with cannot support such a force for more than two or three weeks at the most.
"The coastline is also watched, and thus now we have them trapped, for to the north lies a great ridge of mountains, and to the west, the channel separates the Drylands from the Bloody Plains. If we continue to watch the borders and fend off any attacks, we will be able to destroy their entire army without a single major engagement."
"And these?" I motioned to the Gargoyle corpses. "I take it the… daemons have already tried to break free?"
"Yes." The man nodded, but his voice only grew colder. "At around noon on the day of their army's arrival, four of their number approached us. They were unarmed, apparently diplomats. But we are not ones to listen to the silver tongues of such dark creatures. We drove them back, sparing their lives for the time, for there would be no honor in killing those armed only with words.
"Late last night, then, the daemons launched their first attack. A half dozen of the greater, the winged, and thrice as many of the lesser. We slew all of the great daemons, and many of the lesser, who fled as their masters fell in battle. These three we captured as they tried to escape, and so they have been used as examples to show these daemons what shall become of them all unless they surrender to Britannia."
"Tell me…" I felt a slight chill, and I knew somehow that I would regret the answer offered to me. "Why did you come to Vesper? How did you know there was a… threat here?"
"We learned from the Inner Voice." The man replied, and for the first time, I noticed a triangular medallion hanging from his neck.
"No," He replied, his voice falling even lower, "The Inner Voice."
"How-- how long--"
"He has spoken to us, assured us, for years, and now He tries to warn us. He speaks of that which He calls the Destroyer of Worlds, who revels in bloodshed and torment, and who now seeks our realm as well. He will save us from the Destroyer of Worlds, but only if we follow Him, trust Him.
"This army…" For the first time, the man's voice seemed enthusiastic, almost elated, as he made a wide sweeping gesture with his right arm over the militia. "If not for Him, this army would never have been formed. In mere days He inspired us to assemble this force, to take the Minoan rabble and train them into a disciplined, ordered regiment! We follow His orders, through Him shall we save Britannia from the Destroyer."
"And… Cove…? Why-- why are you going there…?"
"It has been so commanded by the Inner Voice." The man's voie grew cold again.
"I see… Best of luck to you, then, but I cannot tarry here any longer…" I turned to leave, but felt the man's hand rest upon my shoulder.
"Where are you going?"
"I-- Back to my ship, there seems no reason for me to stay here."
"No," The man shook his heard. "You shall not leave. We cannot allow one such as you to traverse the lands in this foul time."
"Eh? What is it that makes you distrust me?"
"You bear the sign of an infidel." The man glanced at the ankh I wore.
"Oh? Does your Inner Voice condemn the 'virtues' as well, then?"
"How can any virtue justify the evils committed in the name of that symbol?"
"How indeed?" A contemptuous smile spread across my face. "Yes, many evils, notably towards a people who followed a principle called Singularity. Shall your Inner Voice show a greater kindness to them?"
"Ah…" The man chuckled coldly, and unexpectedly smiled back at me. "I know who you are now. It is no surprise that you would have come. Go, go if you wish, you would be a greater danger here than elsewhere."
"And what of the… daemons, aye?"
"Those who embrace the Inner Voice shall be spared. Those who reject it shall be granted the reward they have shown themselves worthy of."
"Or you shall die." I replied.
"The Inner Voice protects us."
"Of course." I shruged, turning to leave.
"You know that they are doomed, Lord of Fire." The man's voice grew harsh once more. "Don't delude yourself into thinking they might triumph, or that you are not abandoning them."
"Yes…" I sighed, feeling pained, "My motives in this are far from selfless, though I have yet to realize truly what I am seeking. Revenge? It is far more than revenge. But when I have discovered this, when I have saved myself, then I shall return, and I shall see this people saved."
"So be it." The man nodded.
"One last thing…" I turned to face him briefly for a final time. "I don't believe I caught your name."
"Farewell, then, Kalen, we shall meet again."
"Aye," He replied. "We shall."
Upon leaving Vesper, I decided my next destination would have to be Cove.
From there, it would only be a day's walk to Britain, and more importantly,
I was yet curious as to why the Guardian was sending the majority of his
forces there, to a small, unremarkable village.
I reached the docks of Cove at noon (if it could still be called noon, with this layer of darkness covering the sky) the next day. Even as the shoreline appeared in the distance, however, I felt a strange feeling of dread. Whatever I found here, I knew somehow that I would regret having come to this village.
As in Vesper, a foreboding silence followed me as I entered the city, yet this town appeared far different. Rather than barricaded, here the houses lay deserted, ransacked, upon some the doors were ripped from their hinges. The occasional body also lay amongst the rubble, covered with various cuts and burns. As I progressed onwards to the center of the city, still more corpses could be seen, littering the cobbled streets. The devastation here appeared more recent; small fires still burned among some of the wreckage.
And the silence was no more; to the north, I heard faint cries of battle. Cursing under my breath, I rushed forward, but stopped as a single body caught my interest. A spear still lay impaled in its thick, leathery, red-skinned back, sticking out between the two charred wings.
Questions raced through my mind, but I put them aside, more detirmined than ever to reach the battlefield. The air became thick with smoke, and I could see flames in the distance. More bodies appeared, including several gargoyles. Many of these corpses were armoured, and upon one I saw a triangular medallion hanging from his bloody neck.
Yet as I came closer, the sounds of the battle faded, replaced with the crackling of flames, until I came to a dirt path leading uphill to a medium-sized hovel hidden amongst the hills, yet still plainly visible from the city. A great pillar of flame rose up from its center, and the building slowly collapsed before my very eyes. Debris was scattered about all around it, together with numerous more bodies, human and gargoyle, and among this rubble stood two dozen-some men, many wounded, in blood-stained armour, each with the inverted triangle upon a necklace. They appeared exhausted, yet eyed me suspiciously as I stumbled up the path in a daze.
"What has happened here??!" I called.
"What is it to ye?" The leader called back. "We have but cleansed this poor city of its traitors and driven back a daemonic army."
"Daemons…" I walked up to the group, glancing about them. "You have done this to the village of Cove… burned down and slaughtered this entire town, all in the name of your own 'virtue'… who are the true daemons here?"
"There were a hundred of us when we arrived here, milord," The leader responded gruffly, "Now we are all that's left. Look at those who have died to do this, to protect this city. They are proud to have given their lives."
" 'Protect'…?" My voice dropped to nearly a whisper. "You call this 'protect'…?"
"The traitors lie dead, the invading army has been annihilated. Whatever the cost, this is a victory for Britannia."
"For Britannia, mayhaps… but not for virtue of any kind… Traitors… You dare to call these others traitors… when you would slaughter a village of innocents in the name of your precious Inner Voice…?"
"We have done what we must, fool!!"
"Your kind is a blight to the land under any name!!" I cried. "Whatever you profess to serve, you are ruthless, despotic hypocrites. You have shed the blood of this city, you have caused so many deaths for your 'Guardian', and you dare to take pride in what you have done…?!"
"Do you yourself wish to lie here 'mongst the dead as well?!" Many of the men drew their swords.
"I have suffered thy sort long enough, wretches!!!!" I called as I pulled forth several reagents from my pouch.
And then a silence fell across the plain. Two dozen-some rotting, decaying
corpses lay before me, many with their swords half-drawn, the flesh already
dripping away from their faces. Rain began to fall from the black clouds
above, and I felt a strange sense of resolution, and yet of loss. All this…
all the actions of myself and of these men… it all felt pointless now.
Where shall I go now? I wondered as the rain splashed down my face. What is left for me to acomplish here?
As the rainfall grew heavier, I could have sworn I heard a soft moan. A bit farther up the path, I noticed a prostrate man whom I'd taken to be dead, now trying to drag himself to his feet. I rushed over to help him, still somewhat curious as to what the purpose of this massacre had been.
The man was a sorry sight. His green-brown garments were tattered, barely shielding his tanned, muscular body from the downpour in the slightest, and his boots were worn to the soles. His longish blond hair hung down across his shoulders in a disorderly heap. Blood poured out from a wound in his left shoulder.
I took this man's hand and pulled him to his feet. His face was splattered with mud, but there was something in his jawline, and in his eyes, that struck me as familiar. Then, at the same instant, we both recognized each other.
"A-- Ava--" The ranger panted, feebly making to wipe away some of the mud from his face. His legs buckled out from under him, and he fell to his knees. As I reached out to help him up again, a thought occurred to him. The ranger felt through his belt quickly and brought out a thin object wrapped in an old rag. It was a small wand, undecorated in any manner, yet with an almost metallic shimmer upon its dark purple surface.
"Thank the virtues… I still have it…" Shamino panted, grasping Rudyom's Wand tighty in his hands.
"I-- It's a long story…" He wiped his brow. "Oh my… I need to… rest…" My companion collapsed in a heap. I tucked Rudyom's Wand within my belt, then half-dragged, half-carried Shamino back down the path to the ruins of Cove, where we found shelter from the rain in one of the ruined houses.
"I am… weak." I drew forth the Black Sword whilst Shamino slept soundly. "Arcadion--"
"As you wish, my master." The daemon interrupted, and I felt a surge of power wash over me. His voice had grown sullen, and I realized that this was the first time since I departed the Isle of Fire, the first time in nearly a year, in fact, that I had directly commanded him.
"I-- I'm sorry."
"We are both slaves, isn't that what Erethian said? Yet for all I have ever asked of you, Arcadion, I have ne'er been able to repay you."
"It matters not." I could have sworn I heard a faint sigh from the Shade Blade. "Go, heal thy friend, as you called upon my powers in order to do so. We have naught else to speak of now."
The azure gem grew dim, and I propped the Black Sword up against the wall. I tended Shamino's wounds, then huddled up at the other end of the shack. The pitter-patter of the rain continued incessantly, until at last I felt sleep overtaking me…
The rain lasted until about seven the next morning, two hours after I awoke.
I spent the day searching through the ruins of Cove, and found some slightly
less worn garments for Shamino to wear, as well as a nondescript bow and
quiver from one of the corpses. I left the ranger to sleep, and it was
not until the early evening that he left his slumber.
"How did you come to be in Cove?" Shamino remarked after we had consumed a meal conjured through the Ether (we were both famished, and dry rations seemed hardly fitting to celebrate our timely meeting). "I knew you'd come back from that isle sooner or later in this crisis-- anyone can see that something's amiss, just from the sky-- but I hardly expected to meet up with you just like that."
"I've been following your trail since the night of the banquet, my friend." I responded with a sigh. "Twas pure luck, I ended up in Trinsic the very night after the banquet. But I'd thought you would have been trapped in Vesper with Drax--"
"Trapped?" Shamino echoed.
"Then you didn't go to Vesper with the gargoyles?"
"No," He shook his head. "Lord Draxinusom took half his army to Vesper to rally the town's gargoyles, and hopefully some of the humans as well. A winged gargoyle named Harmdesek took the other half here at my insistance. We planned to recruit whatever villagers we could, since the army in Britain was moving south towards Trinsic and apparently ignoring Cove, and to contact Rudyom--"
"That was Rudyom's hovel you were fighting at, wasn't it?" I put in. "What has become of him?"
"Gone." Shamino sighed. "Before we even arrived, he'd apparently disappeared without a trace. It's impossible to say how long he's been gone, sometimes he's spent months in isolation there in his experiments, so the townspeople had not noticed his disappearance until the clouds began to form after the banquet.
"That was two days ago. We didn't reach Cove until late that evening, and so we rested up in the hills, as many of the villagers were frightened by the sight of gargoyles. Yesterday morning, the army arrivd at the docks. They immediately tried to subjugate Cove, and were also apparently searching for Rudyom. We came down from the hills to drive them back, but we underestimated their number and their fighting spirit. This… this is what has come of it."
"They came for Rudyom's Wand, didn't they?"
"Aye…" Shamino frowned as I took the wand from my belt and ran my fingers over its surface. "But whether to use it or to prevent its use, I can't say."
"Indeed. On one hand, it might be used to destroy this 'black dome' around the castle and free British, on the other it could induce an explosion that would annihilate Castle Britannia entirely, thus saving the Guardian the trouble of waiting for his prisoners to starve to death."
"We can't risk using it ourselves, then."
"Aye. That puts us in only a slightly better position than if the Guardian had succeeded in taking the wand; if it will destroy the dome without seriously harming the castle, then the Guardian's purpose in seizing it would have been to merely prevent us from using it, and now we shan't use it despite this, as we are uncertain of its effects. Of course, as you said, tis too big a risk, my friend, for now we are at a stalemate regarding the wand."
"Yes." Shamino stroked his mustache. "Now then, what was that you said about Draxinusom and Vesper?"
"The Guardian's main army is forming in Minoc, apparently. Their leader, one Kalen, arrived in Vesper at almost precisely the same time as Draxinusom, and has managed to get the gargish army bottled up with the western section of Vesper. The two armies fought one minor engagement and the Guardian's forces won. I also found out that a third of the army was traveling by ship to Cove, which was why I set out for this town. I found this all out the day before the battle. The gargoyles arrived in Vesper two days before that, the humans four.
"Four days? Hmmm… Did the human army have many horses?"
"Horses? I'm… not sure, I don't recall seeing any, except maybe belonging to one of the commanders."
"Really?" Shamino nodded. "Then they marched from Minoc to Vesper, across the Drylands. Even if they made great haste and the journey lasted only three or four days, that would mean that the army was drafted and trained within, again, a span of only three or four days, and that's assuming it began immediately after the banquet."
"Then either the Guardian has been extremely active in planning this conquest, or…" I sighed. "Yes, I see now. Or this war had its beginnings long before the castle was sealed 'neath this dome, but we were all too blind to notice it."
"Lord British did what he could to reassure the masses of either philosophy after disbanding the Fellowship, but--"
"But what?!" I put in sharply. "They did not see the bodies, they did not know the evils that were being done. And there are those who worship me and virtue with as much fanaticism as any of the Guardian's servants. What atrocities have they committed this past year, all in the name of Britannia…?"
"That is the most chilling part of this all…" Shamino looked away. "I'd arrived in Britannia well past midnight on the night of the banquet, collapsed in a drunken stupor at the Wayfarer's, and thus through strange luck escaped being trapped as Iolo and Dupre have.
"I was there the first day when the dome of blackrock was discovered. I saw how the people descended into irrationality, how those who had once been of the Fellowship now beseeched their Inner Voice to save them.
"They do not know that the Guardian and the 'Inner Voice' are the same! They think it a lie spread by British, the same 'tyrant' British who outlawed their beliefs in the first place. They worshiped this flimsy disguise of the Red Titan, just as you hath always feared being worshiped yourself, old friend. And then their hatred focused on me… Me, for I was a servant of British, and a servant of the 'virtue' which had been followed by the enemies of the Fellowship.
"And I was not alone… Others, those others who also believed still in the virtues, they too were targets for hatred. And these people…! They believe now that they are working to save Britannia! They have become monsters, cold-blooded killers who do not care if all Britannia becomes like Cove is now, and they do it in the name of salvation.
"But we are no better… I learned that in Trinsic. We are the same, we are becoming just as heartless… Just as they will slaughter all who oppose the Fellowship, Kammas'gar and his kind will slaughter all who oppose the virtues. I… I do not think the Guardian cares which side wins…! Chaos, destruction, anarchy, that is what he has brought about merely by taking away British, the one source of stability left in Britannia.
"What we must do… it must not be done in the name of either army… Avatar, if I may still call you that, we must see to it that both peoples can exist together in harmony, whatever their beliefs. This chaos would have split Britannia even without a Guardian, it is clear now. Nothing was concluded by destroying the Black Gate, by banishing a creature that was not the true source of the problem, only a catalyst. This time, a true end must be reached… or Britannia will be doomed, whether or not the Guardian seeks to claim it."
"Aye…" I responded. "Aye, thou'rt right. And what of the gargoyles, I wonder…? I would have thought their race too small and dependant on one another to become divided as we Britannians have, but then again, many of their people also joined the Fellowship."
"Indeed. Unlike us, however, they still have their leader, at any rate, and despite his age, I still have confidence in Draxinusom."
"His army is trapped, however, and will probably be either destroyed or surrender to Kalen. And what of the regiment you were with, Shamino? Were they all slain?"
"I don't know." The ranger sighed. "I saw many fall, but as the battle worsened and the our defeat became inevitable, I saw many flee up through the hills. If they were anywhere near here, though, I'm certain they would have come back down once they saw the battle was over and the enemy was defeated, at least assuming their leader was still alive and commanding them."
"Yes, their leader… Who is he, that Draxinusom would give him such an important position? The name is not familiar to me. And if he's still alive, he stands the greatest chance of any of keeping the gargoyles united, with Draxinusom lying on the brink of defeat."
"Harmdesek, yes… Before this, I'd never heard of him either. He struck me as honorable and trustworthy, though. Something familiar about him, I must say, though I suppose all gargoyles, especially the idealists, have much in common."
"Hrm. Ironic, isn't it, that for now, the gargoyles seem to be practically the only major force opposing the resurrected Fellowship, with the exception of the army in Trinsic, which is remaining on the defensive.
"That reminds me, when I arrived at Terfin, a gargish farmer asked me if I was from the Serpent's Hold, and if I'd brought soldiers. Tell me, do you know if Draxinusom sent an envoy to the Isle of Deeds asking for reinforcements?"
"Aye, he did, and one to Jhelom as well. We can't be certain if either of them have taken any action or ignored the gargish messengers, however, since the letters he penned both spoke of the siege at Trinsic and the importance of keeping that city from falling into the Guardian's hands.
"Even if the Order of the Silver Serpent ignores the crisis, however, Jhelom will probably send soldiers. Lord British gave our old friend Sentri a fief on the northmost of the Valorian Isles this past autumn, and I know he'd take the envoy seriously."
"Sentri, yes… What has become of the rest of our companions, my friend? I've paid little attention to events outside the Isle of Fire this long year, and now they may be the only ones in whom we can completely trust."
"I don't know about them all," Shamino sighed. "Iolo and Dupre were both in Britain, from what I heard on the day after the banquet, but had been thus trapped within the castle. Geoffrey'd most likely be in there as well, I saw no sign of him outside the dome, and I know he would have done something to calm the populace and stop the Fellowship uprising.
"And the others… Probably more were in Britain as well, and also found themselves imprisoned. Little Spark is most likely also at Jhelom, I heard that Sentri had taken him as a squire. Tseramed was still in Yew when we last met, about a week before the banquet, and the others are presumably still in their respective home towns. I worry about Julia and Jaana in particular… It hardly bodes well if Minoc has become a base of operations for the Guardian's forces, and, well, you can see what's happened to Cove. I don't think Jaana was here when the battle broke out, at any rate, though where she's gone I can't say, mayhaps she's with Rudyom."
"Hmmm, a pity Rudyom is missing, one of the great archmages would be useful in trying to dispell the black dome. Nystul is trapped inside it, we haven't the faintest idea what's become of Rudyom, Wis-Sur is stuck in Vesper with the other gargoyles, and Horance can do little save advise us, now that he is but a wandering shade. That leaves Mariah or Nicodemus; Moonglow or Yew, neither town of which we know anything about yet, following this assault by the Guardian."
"Nor do we know of nearly every of the island towns, Avatar." Shamino nodded. "Buccaneer's Den worries me the most, though; the Fellowship had a very strong presence there, and if we were forced to fight a war against that city, it is rendered virtually impregnable by the tall mountains on all sides of the isle save the narrow straight leading in to the central lake, where a devastating and unavoidable ambush could be placed."
"Aye, but for now, let's not worry over the Den. We have other goals to achieve first."
"What do you plan to do next, then, my friend?"
"I am going to Britain. The city should be nearly deserted by now, if the peasant armies have really gone south to attack Trinsic, and I want to see this blackrock dome for myself. From there, assuming we find nothing in Britain, we should probably head on to Yew, as it’s the only mainland town we still haven't heard from in this crisis."
" 'We', eh?" Shamino smiled. "I'll be joining you, then?"
"Of course!" I chuckled, "We've journeyed together on countless adventures in the past, old friend, we can hardly go separate ways now."
"Of course." The ranger grinned. "I'd heard you'd become… different… since the destruction of the Black Gate. I'm glad to see that we're still friends, despite all that has happened."
"Yes, there is so much I am still uncertain about, Shamino… But for now, I can hardly go back and sulk at Exodus' keep whilst the world destroys itself about me. Come, it's getting late, we should set out as soon as possible."
In less than an hour, we'd gathered up our supplies and made our way along
the western road to Britain. We passed over the small, curved bridge marking
one of the many channels from Loch Lake, marking our departure from the
town of Cove, and then a memory struck me. I felt a slight chill pass over
me, and I knew I could not ignore it.
"Wait here, my friend." I whispered to Shamino. "I'll be back in a moment."
A narrow path led south along the west bank of the channel. As the path turned and twisted and still continued farther down, I felt my strides grow, until at last I was running in a mad frenzy.
I stopped. Before me was a small clearing. It was marked by eight stone monoliths forming a circle, and within them was a smaller circle marked by eight large stones. In the very center of this lay a stone pedestal, upon which an old ring had been placed.
I glanced around the Shrine of Compassion warily, halting at the slightest sound, the faintest rustle within the leaves. What I feared, yet what I sought, could have been called a ghost, and it was a ghost of my past, a remnant not only of what was, but also of what might have been.
Just then, I noticed a patch of blood beneath my feet. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I continued to search about, until I saw a faint shape huddled near one of the monoliths.
It was a body, that of a young woman, garbed in but the cloths of a peasant, yet possessing beauty greater than the fairest princess. An arrow stuck out of her back, and a puddle of blood lay beneath her.
And so I had found here what I dreaded and yet expected. I wiped a tear from my cheek, and looked up into the sky. The black sky, without a star that could be seen, all covered in this unknown layer of myst.
"Damn you, Guardian…" I whispered to myself. "You shall regret this…"
"Patience, Avatar, I shall be with thee shortly…"
Shamino and I reached the outskirts of Britain at about sundown the next
day. The sky was only slightly dimmer in the night now than in the day,
and telling time had become harder and harder. Still, the clouds took on
a faint, reddish tint at dawn and dusk, allowing us to still keep some
sense of time. (It was during our trip to Britain that I suddenly remembered
my pocketwatch, my only remaining possession from Earth, which I had foolishly
left on the Isle of Fire. More than any other memento I had left behind,
I truly felt a deep longing for it.)
The blackrock dome towered over the rest of the city. It appeared only slightly taller than the highest spire on Castle Britannia, but nonetheless, it was a disconcerting sight to say the very least. I wouldn't be able to examine it until we got closer, but already I could see why the sight of it had driven all of Britain into a panic.
As we'd suspected, the city was nearly deserted. We encountered maybe a half-dozen folk, all of whom ran at the sight of us. They did not appear to be of either side; they were merely wandering thieves, taking this opportunity to loot the mansions of the richer folk, apparently none too concerned over what fate had befallen the castle.
From what we saw of Britain, the great city appeared in much better condition than we'd suspected, on the level, perhaps, of Trinsic when I'd passed through it. A few buildings appeared decimated or ransacked, but the majority of the town seemed untouched, which led us to believe that there had been almost no resistance against the Fellowship, unlike in Cove.
A rumble of distant thunder echoed as we approached the blackrock dome. The dome's circumference appeared almost perfectly formed around the castle, for all of the moat remained outside, persumably to prevent the Guardian's captives from taking advantage of their most obvious source of water.
Several large gusts of wind blew about us. I began to feel that something was wrong, more than just the dome itself. We were being watched; there was a presence here, one expecting us, waiting for us, coalescing about the dome. As the wind crackled and the clouds darkened, I could have sworn I heard faint laughter, but it was not the Guardian's laugh.
Just then, a single streak of light pierced through the clouds, down upon the side of the dome, directly behind the drawbridge of the castle. And in an instant, it was gone, yet still that spot of the dome seemed brighter than the rest, somehow. The winds raged on, gathering power, letting forth their shrill cackles across the city.
Another rumble shook the ground, but it was not thunder. The blackrock dome began to crack and waver, yet somehow it appeared stronger than before. The spot upon which the light had shown grew still brighter, until it was a blinding white.
Then there was a scream, a high-pitched wail that echoed across all the realm. And with it came a shattering noise. Behind us, the great wooden and stone buildings of Britain creaked and crumbled, as if a force seemed to drive them away from the dome. A great flash of light blinded me, and as the two of us shielded our eyes, we heard a deafening explosion.
The force threw us to the ground. I felt blood dripping from my ears. As the two of us staggered to our feet, we saw that the illuminated part of the dome was gone. Not even fragments remained; it had simply disappeared. But there was more… Standing in the newly-formed archway was a single figure, a fair-skinned woman in robes of greens and golds, with a cloak of the purest black, and a jeweled sword hanging at her belt.
"Who are you…?"
"I am Mors Gotha, the Avatar of Virtue."
"Wha-- Avatar, who is thi--" Shamino blurted.
"What 'virtue', Gotha?"
"Sobriety, Punctuality, Obedience, Vigilance, Conformity, Efficiency, Silence, and Diligence. These are the beliefs which my people strive to attain, though that hast not kept us from still worshiping our saviour, our Guardian. Thy people are divided, my brother. When the Guardian comes, they shall once more live in harmony."
" 'Harmony'…? And what price do they pay for it?"
"You think the Guardian a tyrant, but he is no more or less than British or Draxinusom or any other champion, even you or I." The winds wailed louder. "Do not mask thy quarrel with him in so noble a veil. You fight not to save Britannia. Britannia cannot be saved, Britannia does not want to be saved. You have abandoned your virtues, my brother, and all you seek in your quest is revenge."
"And what of it?!" I called back. "How many, how many have died thanks to the Red Titan and his quest for power?!"
"How many have died in the name of your virtues or mine?!" Mors Gotha strode forward. "But you need fight no longer. You have found your goal, your quest is at an end."
"Do you not know?" A smile crept up Mors Gotha's lips. "Can it be that it has not occurred to you yet? What do you think the Blackrock Dome is, Avatar?! How do you think I came to be here?
"In its centre, far beneath the surface of this world, there lies a gem of blackrock. This gem is a portal, my brother, a portal to countless different worlds, different planes across the multiverse!"
"Earth…" My voice faltered. It had all become clear to me. In but an instant, I realized why I had truly felt myself beckoned here, to the dome. I knew now what I had searched for since first I left the Isle of Fire, even since first I destroyed the Black Gate a year ago… Earth…
"Yes… Your world, my brother, untouched and unscathed by the Guardian… That is all you ever wanted, it is not? It is thine, go and claim thy world. He whom I serve shall not try and take it from thee."
"What of Britannia? Do you care for Britannia? Britannia drove you to the Isle of Fire, Britannia now tears itself apart despite your efforts to save it; now you can leave Britannia, as you always wanted."
"No, Avatar!" Shamino called. "Tis a trick, be wary!
"Gotha," He turned to the woman. "So you have come from another world, then, through this 'gem', and arrived up in our liege's castle… Tell me, what has become of British himself and those others trapped in there? Have you disposed of them as you plan to do to the rest of us as well?"
" 'Dispose'?" Mors Gotha laughed. "They have fled, fled through the gem, in search of a new world. You may join them if you wish, I shall do nothing to harm Britannia. Thy kingdom's fall is its own fault, hardly that of my lord. Nor shall I do aught to hasten its downfall; the war shall proceed as the Britannians choose to wage it, and when they realize that they have decimated their world, I shall offer aid, I shall do all that I can to help them, and in return, they shall bow before my lord.
"I am not evil, ranger. I am no different than he whom you call your companion. He saved this land many times, and thus became honored as a champion, then worshiped as a god. How are my actions any different?
"But I need not justify myself to thee now… Tis his decision, whether to claim a thriving world or a dying one." Gotha turned back to me. "Brother, have you decided yet? Shall you return Earth, or oppose my lord here upon Britannia?"
"Avatar--" Shamino began.
"Do not meddle in this affair, ranger! Let thy friend choose his own path."
Earth… How I had dreamed of my world, lost to me forever… How I had longed to be able to return there, and leave the cold, desolate Isle of Fire…
And yet… I remembered the destruction at Cove, I remembered Nastassia… These atrocities had come to pass because of the Guardian, and I could not, could not, leave Britannia, however much I loathed this world, whilst knowing that still more would occur, and I would do nothing to attempt to save them.
"Earth is lost to me already, Mors Gotha. I shall not submit to the Guardian's will."
There was a distant rumble of thunder. The winds shrieked. Gotha gazed at me with pity.
"So be it. Then we must do battle, and one of us shall die."
"Yes, one of us…"
"Let me deal with this wench, Avatar, you must find Lord Brit--"
"No!" I snapped. "No, Shamino, I must fight Mors Gotha, for we are both… Avatars."
Silently, I drew the Black Sword. Gotha slid her jeweled sword from its sheath. We circled about each other, making not a move, waiting silently for an opening.
"Wait… I have one last question for you."
"What is Pagan?"
"Pagan?" Mors Gotha echoed.
"You spoke of it in my vision. Is that where you intended to lure me to, under the pretext of sending me to Earth? What is Pagan?"
A smile curled up Mors Gotha's lips.
"Ask your companion."
"Sham-- No… Oh no…" I stopped.
The Black Sword remained silent.
"Arcadion, answer me!!"
"Difficult, isn't it, Daemon? One who serves two masters, one who is bound by too many oaths, one who in his ignorance serves his greatest nemesis."
"Arcadion, do you know of Gotha?! Do you know of Pagan?! Answer!!"
"He would see you go to Earth as well, he would have pleaded with you were he not so proud. On a world split from the Ether, mayhaps magic done would become undone, and this farce could be brought to an end."
"What do you know of Arcadion, Gotha?!" I spat.
"Far more than he would ever tell you, brother. Shocking, was it not, daemon, when you learned what the Guardian truly was? How wise you were, and how the ignorance imposed upon you has weakened you. How did you feel to discover that you now served he who slew the only man whom you willingly bowed to?"
The azure gem flickered, but Arcadion still made no response.
"No, that's enough, I shan't torment thee any further. But when this one has met his fate, you shall be freed once more."
With that, Gotha charged forward. I parried her blows as best I could, but she appeared quite skilled with the blade. Moreover, she wore chain-linked armour beneath her robes, whilst I had none.
"A pity you must die, brother, there is still so much you don't know." Gotha shook her head sadly. "If you only knew how we created the dome, and the gem…
"I carry the tome from which the incantation was cast, but it was not I who intoned the spell, I could not have even reached Britannia of not for it."
"Who, then, was it, Gotha?" I backed away, preparing to strike the instant she launched a new attack.
"Batlin." The single word came from her lips, and I felt as if the winds were laughing at me as they wailed.
"Batlin?!" Shamino gasped. "How--"
"He has remained quite active, your friend, this past year. This tome had been given to him long ago, by a liche upon the isle of spirituality. He came from the caverns beneath thy castle, crept to the very throne room itself, and there conjured forth the gem and the dome. And when he had succeeded, he went through the gem himself, as our lord had planned, to carry out another mission on a different world.
"But do not think that you shall ever track him down, even if you defeat me. He is far away by now, and he shall act exactly as the Guardian has planned."
"And the clouds…? What hast caused this great mist…?"
"That is but the first affect of Batlin's coming mission." Mors Gotha chuckled. "You cannot hope to win, brother, no matter what you do. I gave you a choice, I would have allowed you to escape, but you refused, and thus now I must soil this ground with your blood."
Our swords clashed as we fought onwards. I felt myself weakening as the battle wore on; it had been too long since I'd practiced my skills in battle. Gotha wielded her sword single-handed, and though she bore no shield, this gave her movements a grace and fluidity that I lacked with the cumbersome Black Sword.
"I cannot lose, Lord of Fire, for unlike you, I know my purpose. I fight for my lord, I fight for his empire. You fight for conflicting values: How can you uphold your virtues when revenge clouds your mind? How can you claim to save a Britannia that his risen up and pledged alleigance to the Guardian?"
Gotha lunged, her sword slashing across my abdomen. I felt a sharp pain down my left side as I stumbled back. Mors Gotha smiled wickedly as the winds howled, her sword now smeared with my blood.
"What do you hope to acomplish by facing the Guardian? His powers dwarf thine, he could crush you like an egg if you confronted him. Britannia is his already, and when he controls this world, he shall move on to your beloved Earth."
"No!!" I charged forward with a sudden fury. Our blades met several times, but I did not relent in my assault. With a final blow, Gotha's sword fell from her hand. She backed away, blood dripping down from a slash through her right wrist.
"You think you've won…?" She chuckled wearily. "We shall meet again, my brother…"
Before I could stop her, Gotha pulled forth a black spellbook and shouted an incantation from a language unknown to me. Mors Gotha disappeared, leaving Shamino and I standing there, dumbfounded. The winds continued to rage on, but somehow, it seemed as if the greatest of their fury was past.
"And what now…?" Shamino broke the silence.
"The archway is still open." I replied. "Now we find this Blackrock Gem, so that we might find Lord British… and Batlin."
The number of different ideas which ultimtely coalesced in my brain to
form "The Lord of Fire" is truly staggering, it's probably my first work
of fanfiction that isn't expanded from a single idea. On one hand, I've
always had an image of a depressed, rather nihilistic Avatar who despises
the Britannia that worships him rather than trying to follow in his footsteps
and lead virtuous lives themselves. I'd expanded this idea for a long time
into something which I was thinking of titling "Redemption". The story
would basically have followed the first bit of Lord of Fire: The Avatar,
alone except for Arcadion, lives sullenly in Exodus' ancient castle. I
wasn't aiming for something more than a few pages long, probably devoid
of any action. But even as I wrote, a number of other ideas gradually came
For starters, I'd always wanted to do something UW2-related. So far, my only fanfic that revolved primarily around the second Underworld game was "The Soldier's Tale", which I wrote in one day and which was hardly complicated. In particular, I had many ideas surrounding the events directly after UW2, with the Guardian's armies already ravaging Britannia. I ultimately gave up writing this fanfic because Shadow of Light Dragon, author of the famous The Dark Realm, began writing The Black Ankh, a sequel to Dark Realm, which dealt with pretty much the exact same theme I'd been thinking of. Still, I took numerous ideas from my plans for the UW2 fanfic, such as the reemergance of the Fellowship and the alliance between Draxinusom and Shamino. Ironically, just as I was writing the last parts of Lord of Fire (I was up to the point where the Avatar CORP HURs the Fellowship soldiers at Cove), Shadow of Light Dragon released the second and third parts of Black Ankh (which will be up on the LotE_F within a few days), which gave me a chance to smile at both the similarities and the differences between our fanfics.
I'd also wanted to do an alternate-history, "What If" type of story for a long time. Of course, one could argue that my Ultima IX, plus every fanfic tied to it (including the entire Valoria series), is already an alternate Britannian history itself, but my real goal was to do something different regarding the direct plot of one of the major Ultimas. An alter-UW2 seemed simple enough: The Avatar doesn't go to the festival in Britain, and is thus outside when the Blackrock Dome is formed, and has to work with Shamino to save Britannia from this side. It was this idea and the Redemption that both primarily influenced me when I began Lord of Fire, though there was one final inspiration, perhaps the most important of all:
I still wanted (or perhaps I should put that in present tense) to write an Ultima IX, a true, great, final conclusion to the legacy of Britannia and the Avatar. Of course, there have bene and still are so many Ultima IX remakes out there, and I've been involved in far too many of them (I wrote two Ultima IX fanfics, one designed as a script for an actual game as proposed at Horizons, was one of the core team on the U9 dialogue patch along with Grandor and Maigo Dragon [though they outvoted me on nearly everything ;P], and Chlorthos Dragon has consulted me several times on plot ideas for Eriadain), but I'm still no satisfied. Even with the praise I've received for my fanfic, even if I consider it good enough to base my entire Valoria universe around it, I still don't think it's a good enough ending for Ultima. Of course, the point would arise that perhaps everyone's expectations are too high and there'll never be a possible Ultima IX that could be everything we've all dreamed about, but I still have some new ideas that I think could ultimately be developed into a "perfect" U9. However, all the same, I've done enough of U9s for my health and sanity, I've spent too long pondering over the Guardian's origin and purpose and how the Avatar ultimately defeats(?) him.
And so, then, I originally wrote Lord of Fire intended full well to have the Avatar slay Mors Gotha at the end, perhaps destroy the Blackrock Dome and even do something that would help to save Britannia. Or if the fanfic turned out darker than I'd expected (and it did), I'd put on a twist: As the Avatar confronts Mors Gotha, she leads forth the Guardian's armies from various worlds to invade Britannia, including armies from Earth, which has apparently fallen to the Guardian after all, as the Avatar feared. Regardless, though, originally, Lord of Fire was going to have a conclusion; it was going to end. Then, once I'd finished it up, I'd get back to Valoria and put it out of my mind.
Instead, though, all my U9 ideas drifted back to me. Primarily, of course, was the fact that I had to know what the Guardian's motivation was, otherwise I couldn't really plan his actions out, and so I couldn't help but think of all my different origin theories for him. Even so, I thought to myself, I'd keep everything subtle, I wouldn't pull off another U9 here, I'd never reveal what the Guardian's backstory was, and I'd try to keep it so that it didn't really matter.
However, as I continued writing, I just got more and more ambitious. I realized that Lord of Fire couldn't end just with Gotha being defeated or killed. I'd have to go on, to write a whole new series of fanfics, to ultimately bring the Avatar and his companions to Serpent Isle or perhaps even Pagan, and finally back to Britannia, where they wouldn't merely stop the Guardian from succeeding in his latest evil plan, but would ultimately defeat him utterly.
I can't really say the reason for this change. On one hand, one theme that I'd always thought would be essential in a true U9 is the collapse of Britannian society and the decline into barbarism (which I aimed at in my original fanfic, but which wasn't really well done, since the world was already conquered by the time the Guardian got there), as well as the theme that Britannia and the Britannians are bad enough already, that perhaps they don't really deserve to be saved, that perhaps the Guardian is a messiah, a saviour who will lead them to a new Age of Enlightenment. As Lord of Fire essentially dealt with the same theme, some U9 elements sinking in were inevitable. On another hand, I suppose I probably just really wanted to write a new U9 as well. ;)
Still, right now it seems inevitable that The Lord of Fire will end up leading to another long, U9-esque series of fanfics, but I can assure you that you won't see the sequels anytime soon. I'd planned to just right Lord of Fire as a breather before getting back to Valoria, and that is precisely what I still intend to do. Probably some of this leaked over into the last bits of LoF, where I had the Shamino and Mors Gotha conversations drag on and on just to show the scope of everything I was imagining here in the event that I never wrote any sequels. Anyhow, for now and for a long time to come, Lord of Fire will stand on its own. I hope you enjoyed it. ;)
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