The two old friends sat on a bench outside the cottage. The twin moons of Britannia floated just over the western horizon, and they watched them as they set.
"I am a healer, remember. I am no true mage," said Jaana.
"That wouldn't matter, even if true," replied Mariah. "The power is within thee, and it is power we need, however it may manifest. I am a Mage, by training and calling, and I will be the focus of the spell. We... I... owe him nothing less. My magics would be unavailable still, were it not for he. He put an end to my madness."
"Oh, agreed, a hundred times agreed! We- we- owe him as much as it is in our powers to give." She smiled into the gentle wind. "After all, it was by joining him on his quest that we did meet."
Mariah smiled. “Very true.”
“And so then- where, and when?”
"We shall all gather in the circle of stones just duskward of my home. At the new of both moons. Not," she added, "the one close upcoming, but the one following that."
Jaana nodded. "That is good. No one could make it on time, were it otherwise."
"Oh, indeed. There is time enough for everyone to get there this way, and then time to spare."
Jaana glanced upwards, eyes searching. "I see thee glancing at the stars. Has the time come for thee to take thy leave?"
"Aye, alas. I am sorry to depart so soon, but I go to gather the last of our companions."
"Have a safe trip then, Mariah," said Jaana, and embraced her friend.
"I do hope to, Jaana. I will see thee in just over a month's time. And fates willing, then we will call the Avatar home!"
The sun dipped below the horizon and stained the clouds red. The ship Virtue cut through the waves like a knife, and left Serpent's Hold harbor behind it.
"We'll have to head east, almost to the Isle of the Avatar, and then head north, to avoid the pirates of the Den."
"I assume that Captain Selene doth know what he's doing. At least we have a good wind to begin our journey."
Long moments passed as both men looked over the stern at the sunset.
"Believe it or not, Geoffrey, I have never ventured this way before."
"No, no; I have indeed been to Moonglow. During the quest to find the missing Lord British, for instance. No, I meant the Isle of the Avatar."
"Truly? I had thought thou hast visited there on that same quest?"
"Nay. We did separate, and I did not accompany the Avatar to that place."
"I have been there, several times. But thou knowest that, dost thou not?"
"Aye, I do. Tell me, what was it like?"
Geoffrey laughed. "Which time, Sentri? The first time I went it was a stinking swamp, with creatures that spit poison at you each time you turned your back. Then one traveled deeper into the mountains, where crevisses appear at thy feet without warning, and cracks give off noxious fumes that do burn one's flesh. In the center of it all was the Great Stygian Abyss, where the Avatar destroyed the skull of evil Mondain, and where we finally found the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom.
"Years later it became a much more clement place, holding the Shrine of Codex until the Codex was cast into the void, in the aftermath of the whole False Prophet affair.
"And now, I'm told that a village hath sprung up there. I hath never been there, however."
All sunlight was now gone. The two watched the moonlight reflect off of the ship's wake, as behind them a voice called for the running lights to be lit.
Several minutes later, Sentri spoke again. "So. Why us?"
"I do not follow thee. What dost thou mean, 'why us'?"
"Well, thee I can almost understand. Thou wert his friend before he even became the Avatar. Later thou didst become the captain of our Lord British's royal guard. But me? I got drawn into this more as a friend of Dupre's than anything else. Plus... 'tis a magical ritual to try to call him home. We are mere men-at-arms. Why were we called also?"
Geoffrey laughed. "I have seen thee fight, Sentri. Thou art no mere anything. But, to thy question. Firstly, do not forget that it is not just the Avatar we hope to call home, but his travelling companions as well, including thy dear friend Dupre."
Sentri smiled and broke in with, "True. Which is why I convinced out Captain Selene to allow me to include as cargo a cask of Jhelom's finest."
"Oh? I wish thou hadst not told me that, I think. If this voyage is long enough, I may work up a thirst... but, to continue. Also, dost thou think this endeavor is entirely safe? True, I am certain that all involved here have tried to keep it secret, but just in case, we will be there to guard our friends' backs while they are vulnerable, spellcasting. Remember though the Fellowship be broken, the Guardian may still have friends here.
"And finally, when they finally return home, they will be surrounded by all their truest friends.
"Think on that, Sentri. I, for one, am off for bed."
With that, Geoffrey walked off, to his cabin, and left Sentri contemplating the waves.
"A stowaway!?" Captain Gargan cried. "Bring the little water rat here!" His first mate nodded and quickly left the cabin. The captain considered, and then poured himself a small glass of something out of his silver flask, and sipped it slowly. He felt the warmth flow to his limbs. It had already been a stressful day, and now this...
"Get in here, Ian."
The door opened and in walked the first mate, dragging with him a boy, perhaps twelve years of age, with short blonde hair and frightened eyes.
"All right, boy! What is the meaning of this? Just who out of Deceit dost thou think thou are?"
"Sir? My name is Spark, sir. I didn't mean to make any trouble. But I... I need to get to Moonglow. I can make myself useful, sir... I'll scrub floors or whatever, just please don't put me off..."
"Dammit boy, thou'st put me in a difficult position." He looked closer at the boy. "Wait. Boy! Spark! It hath been two days since we embarked. Hast thou eaten in all that time?"
"A few scraps, sir, that I brought on board with me, is all, sir."
"Harumph. Mr. Fenderson, go and fetch the boy a few more scraps, to eat."
Ian Fenderson nodded, and left the two alone.
"I remember thee, boy."
"Dost thou, sir?"
"Aye. I've been on the waters for quite a few years now. But I'll never forget the events of three years ago. No Britannian will. But specifically, I remember a certain murder in Trinsic, and I remember seeing the boy who was orphaned by it.
"And I remember who solved that murder. Thou didst travel with him for some time, didst thou not? And now thou dost need to travel to Moonglow. Well. Considering who my other passengers are, I can make some guesses that perhaps I shouldn't be able to about why."
Then he looked stern again. "So why didn't thou not offer to work your way across the sea before we left land?"
"I found out about thy ship too late. I did barely make it aboard as it was."
"Harumph again. And I might have said 'no,' aye?"
"Well as of now, consider yourself a dockhand on my ship, boy. My first mate will be back at any moment with food. I will inform him. Oh, and try not to be too surprised when thou dost meet, or meet again if rumor be true, our most important passenger."
"And who would that be? Sir."
Captain Gargan told him.
Spark's eyes widened with surprise, and he grinned with delight.
Singly, and in small groups, they drifted into the port at Moonglow, save one who rode down from the Lycaeum. Finally, by the dark of the moons, they were all together, and they assembled at the circle of stones, just across the bridge.
("That's funny," remarked Geoffrey to Mariah as they walked over.
"Hmm?" murmured Mariah.
"It is drizzling out. I thought these big magic ceremonies always took place either under clear skies or torrential downpours. Says so in the books."
Mariah chuckled, then returned, "Thou canst read?"
Geoffrey gave her a sour look.)
In the darkness, Mariah spoke, "All the Mages, true and otherwise, who will be assisting or lending thy power to this rite, to the center of the circle."
Jaana, dressed from head to foot in her brown healer's robe, nodded, and stepped inside the circle of stones. She was followed, in turn, by her companion Julia; then by the wizard Rudyom of Cove. There was a pause, then Nystul, court magician to Britain, entered the circle. Mariah looked inquiringly at the final person she had hoped to include in the inner circle.
"I am sorry," apologized the deep voice of Lord British, "but I'm afraid that I cannot. I yield to none in my admiration for the Avatar, and I owe to him even more than anyone else. But I also owe it to my people, and I owe it to my daughter, to not get entangled such perilous workings. I will help if it looks that it would tip the balance. I will fight if we are beset from without or if something comes through. I am sorry, but I cannot help more."
"My Lord?" asked Spark shyly, "Then why did thee come at all?"
British looked at Spark fondly but said seriously, "Because I feel the need to be here. And also because, these are my friends, too, that we seek to bring home."
Nystul, Jaana, Julia, and Rudyom joined hands, leaving a space for Mariah.
"Now, others, to their places. Geoffrey, my Lord British, and Katrina- an it please thee, stand just within the stone circle. Thy job is to protect against any foul things that may come through.
"Sentri, Tseramed, Galtraxen, and Spark, form a triangle outside the circle. Spark and Glatraxen, neither of thee are as combat tested as the rest, so do keep an eye on each other and stand together."
"To be honored to serve in any way," smiled Galtraxen.
"Aye aye, miss!" enthused Spark.
"Stand against a stone of the circle, and stay out of the way."
"I will be guided by thy wisdom," Amber smiled, and moved to the side.
"To be not scared?" the gargoyle asked Spark as they took their positions.
"Me? Nah. One of my best friends when I was growing up was a gargoyle!"
Galtraxen laughed aloud. "To be thankful that it to have been a long time since I to have provoked that response! No, to mean of the magic, and the danger."
Spark smiled bravely. "When I was younger I traveled with the Avatar himself!" He chuckled. "Made Iolo and Dupre feel old. But this doesn't scare me." Galtraxen saw Spark's hand tighten on his sling, however.
Mariah stepped finally into the circle and joined hands, Jaana to her right, Nystul to her left. "I believe that, if the gate opens, it will open in the vicinity of the highest concentration of our friends. That way they can more quickly find the rest, and the gate will not need to be held open as long.
"Art thou all ready?"
"Very well then. Let us begin."
There were lengthening minutes of silence then, while Mariah did summon up the energy from within herself and her companions.
The sky began to drizzle with slightly greater intensity, but still merely drizzled.
Mariah began her invocation: "We gather here, now, at this time when the moons do not guard the way between worlds. We gather now, here, at this place where the veil is thinner and a gate once stood. We are gathered, here and now, to open the way, and open the gates, and to call our friends home.
"In Vas Por!"
The circle released hands, and Jaana tossed into the center a handful of sulfuric ash, while Julia on the other side did the same with a small amount of blood moss. Mariah watched with approval, then brought a bit of the root of mandrake to her mouth, and bit into it.
She felt the power surge within her as it increased tenfold. She could see, in her inner vision, the place in the fold of reality that she was seeking to tear, briefly, to call her friends home.
Nystul spoke, "With this we seek to build a web to bridge the gap between worlds, to open the way and the gates." And he opened his hand and flung a portion of spider's silk into the center.
Mariah could see, now, a glow in the air before her. Faint, yes, and only visible to her mandrake enhanced senses- but she was determined to make it manifest.
"In Rel Vas Ort Por!"
"Rudyom, the seed!"
Rudyom nodded, and, with a slow, underhand motion, tossed a small piece of blackrock into the center, a piece that once, not too long ago, had been known as the Orb of Moons. "To give the gate form," he said, "and to contain it, that it not swallow this land whole."
Mariah crushed a black pearl in her hand, and sprinkled the dust over the blackrock.
"Kal Ylem Rel Por!"
A red sliver of light appeared on the ground, and began to spread upwards and grow wider.
"By..." Spark checked himself with a glance at Lord British. "By the Virtues!" he said instead. "It worked!"
"No, not yet," replied British, "there is nothing on the other side."
The gate swelled to its full size, blazing and lighting the clearing red. "Open, open," Mariah intoned.
"This will not happen, yet," a voice called from above, soft but with infinite authority. They all looked up and saw the incandescent figure of the Time Lord, standing in the air above the gate. He was cloaked in a glowing blue robe, its hood hiding his face. In one hand he held close to him an hourglass, and one could see that it was chained to the Time Lord by a manacle on his wrist.
In the blue light of the Time Lord, the glowing red of the portal became sickly and wan.
"It is my responsibility to safeguard the sanctity of this reality. Tell me, then, why I should allow this gate to open."
Mariah looked taken aback, but Lord British called out, "Time Lord! Dost thou know me?"
"Aye, British, I know thee. And I do know that I did grant unto thee the authority to open such a gate. But there are conditions, and laws. Thy gates serve only to call the Stranger to our land from Earth."
"The purpose of this gate, Time Lord, is to call him here from the Serpent Isle, along with his Britannian companions."
"Art thou aware that the Guardian doth still dwell just outside our world, and that he continues to seek a way in?"
Lord British looked troubled.
"This gate could possibly be turned to this design. I cannot allow that to happen."
"Lord. We seek to recall the Avatar, who once already has thwarted the Guardian's plans."
"I understand this."
"Canst thou not guard this gate, and prevent this thing you warn of from happening?"
The Time Lord thought for a moment.
"Yes, I will do this thing. I do not stand in the way of this gate."
He started to fade in the sky. As he faded they heard his voice one last time:
"I, too, owe much to the Avatar."
When he was finally gone, the light from the gate burst into fullest splendor once again. It stood, a solid red, giving off a fierce glow; and then it began to deepen, and shimmer, and colors rippled across its surface.
And then, a sibilant voice emanated from the gate. "I am the Great Earth Serpent, who wards the Serpent Isle. I have communed with thy Time Lord. This gate may open, for a short time. One, and no more than one of thee, may enter, to gather thy friends." Then the voice was gone.
They started looking around the clearing at one another, all except the mages in the center, who remained focused on the gate.
Lord British then broke the silence. "Geoffrey. It falls to thee. Art thou willing?"
"Yes, my lord. Wish me luck, everyone." And with that, Geoffrey took a deep breath, and with measured step strode forward through the gate.
Several minutes passed in silence. Then, all of a sudden, Rudyom collapsed. The other four Mages winced but then stood firm. "He gave as much as he could give," declared Mariah, "and it drained him. Do not worry - we can continue to hold open this gate."
"To require aid?" Galtraxan inquired.
Lord British answered him his position near the stones. "He is unconscious and drained only. Hold firm."
The rain remained a steady drizzle, but then there was a flash of lightning, followed immediately by an immense crash of thunder. These were followed by another, and then a third, in rapid succession. "This is no natural storm," British called out. "Time grows short!"
"What is it?" shouted Sentri over a boom of thunder.
"I believe it to be the Guardian making an attack on the Time Lord. That it is manifesting here makes me wonder if perhaps the Time Lord did underestimate his opponent."
Sentri shuddered, but then quickly breathed a sigh of relief as Geoffrey stepped back through the glowing portal. "They're coming!" He was followed a few seconds later by Gwenno, who winced at the weather change and at a sudden peal of thunder. She opened her mouth but then seemed to think better of it, and closed it without speaking.
A minute passed, and then Iolo and Shamino ran through the gate. Iolo looked about him at the lightning and exchanged glances with Shamino, then cried, "Close it! Close it!"
"But the Avatar!" cried Nystul. "What of..."
"We're it!" boomed Shamino. His mouth moved but thunder drowned him out for his next few words, "...explain later! We promised, close it!"
Mariah nodded, weary, then closed her eyes and concentrated. Then her eyes opened and widened. "I cannot!"
Hideous laughter boomed all around them.
"Time Lord!" a voice that could only be the Guardian's echoed, "I defeated you once before, do you not recall? It was folly to believe you could stand against me now!"
The portal darkened and then, the color rippling outward from the center, turned black. All who looked into it could see through it, and what they saw on the other side struck fear into their hearts. They saw the Time Lord, standing, between the Gate and the Guardian. The means of the conflict was obscure, and all watched them with dread.
Then another shape took form within the blackness, and the Great Earth Serpent said, "Yesss, Guardian, the Time Lord will stand against thee, for he does not stand alone!"
No one could articulate how they knew, but they saw that the battle had become a near stalemate. But still, it didn't end.
"What is happening?" Julia shouted.
Iolo grimly responded, "Only the Great Earth Serpent has joined with the Time Lord. I fear that Chaos and Order are thinking that, should it fall, they would be free of the Balance that the Avatar restored." But soon after he finished these words, another form and voice entered the fray, a voice that was maddeningly familiar to the observers.
"Guardian!" Chaos/Dupre called out, "I too stand against thee, and will for all time!"
"What? How?" sputtered Geoffrey. Sentri looked on, dumbstruck. Shamino looked at them sadly and said only, "Later."
"Order!" Chaos said, "will you not join us?"
"Order!" the Guardian echoed mockingly. "Yes, join them, and stay imprisoned in Balance forever! Look on me, and see that I am the alternative to Balance!"
"Oh, shit," Shamino cursed under his breath. He then spoke aloud, "Balance is much more than the sum of its parts. If Order joins them, the Guardian will be overwhelmed. If not, though..."
The Order Serpent's form appeared in the blackness. "Guardian," it said, "I know thee. And even Balance is preferable to thee!" It slid over to the other Serpents and twined with them. The three called out in a single choral voice, "Guardian! We are the Balance Serpent, and we do stand athwart thee!"
"Begone, Guardian!" the Time Lord's voice came again, once more strong. "This is not thy gate!"
"Your heroics buy you only a little time! Soon my armies will grind your cities to dust. Soon you will all bow..."
"BEGONE!" thundered the Time Lord, and with a wail, the Guardian vanished. The gate crumbled to shards that rained to the ground with a sound like shattering crystal, and then became dust.
The storm ceased, and only a light rain remained.
There was silence for several beats and then everyone began talking at once.
"Where is the Avatar?"
"What in Destard just happened?"
"Was that truly Dupre?"
Lord British looked around him, then called out, "Silence, please!"
There was silence, save for the falling rain.
Then he turned to the newcomers and said, "Iolo, Gwenno, Shamino: welcome home."
"Thank thee, my lord," said Shamino. He then looked around the circle and said, as if in disbelief, "Amber?"
"Oh, Shamino," Amber sobbed as she ran into his arms. "Oh, I missed thee so."
Shamino gave a brief, stricken look to Iolo, then said, "Aye. I missed thee, too."
"See, Mariah?" Geoffrey said then. "I told thee that there are always storms!"
Mariah smiled briefly, then sat wearily against a stone. Julia and Nystul followed her example gratefully, while Jaana walked to inspect Rudyom. "He's sleeping lightly. He'll be all right when he wakes," she said, as she sat beside him.
"Well," Iolo started. "I had hoped to tell our tale in a tavern somewhere, but as it seems we are not going anywhere for some time, let me soothe thy curiosities.
"It galls me to do so, but let me start at the end. Dupre had given his life, nobly, to contain the Chaos Serpent, and in doing so, joined with it. It was both of them, together, that confronted the Guardian just now. The Avatar destroyed the Great Earth Serpent's mortal prison, and freed it, and as he did so there was a flash of light, and he vanished. At first I thought he had entered the Wall of Lights, and found a way home. We were prepared to follow, but then the Wall closed, and we were left alone.
"We made our way, ever so slowly, across the Serpent Isle again, to Fawn, the nearest town of any size to where the final conflict took place. It was there that you found us."
"Well," Mariah said, "even here in Britannia we could feel the Balance go aright. Earthquakes ended, and the sickness that afflicted the gargoyles was lifted. So we gave thee all some time, and when none of thee returned, I proposed this plan to call thee home. I had assumed that there were no ways in that direction between worlds, and so thou wert trapped."
"Well, thou art close. There is one way, but only the Avatar had the means to open it, as in the end he had become the Balance Hierophant, who could open the Wall of Lights. But, as I said, he vanished. Perhaps someday someone will relearn that art.
"But let me now start at the beginning, to put what I have said in some context." He took a deep breath to gather himself and order his thoughts. His voice took on the tones and cadence of a storyteller. "It began when Dupre and Lord British discovered that Batlin had followed my Gwenno to the Serpent Isle. And so there, well outfitted by our lord here, went we, through the Serpent Pillars..."
Iolo then told, embellishing only slightly, the story of their travels to the Serpent Isle. He told them of the fate of the lands of Danger and Despair from the Sosaria that Mondain had known. He told them of Dupre's imprisonment and trial for offering a toast to Lord British, and of the Avatar's unjust confinement in the Mountains of Freedom. Lord British frowned sourly but did not comment when he heard that the daemon Arcadian was free of the Blackrock Sword. Iolo told of the monks, and of their first encounter with the Wall of Lights, and of Batlin's failure and death. Then, his voice filled with revulsion and shame, he told of the Banes. How they, in their freedom, possessed him and his companions, and ran amok throughout the land.
Shamino's face appeared somewhat sick as well as Iolo told of the destruction ravaged throughout the Serpent Isle. This too was put an end to by the Avatar, who imprisoned the Banes' essences in his Blackrock sword.
Iolo cheered some as he told of Gwenno's rescue, and then of the successful quest to restore her mind. He told of the restoration of the Chaos Serpent, who had lost the Imbalance wars long before, and how Dupre's sacrifice prevented Order and Chaos from trying to destroy each other before Balance could be restored.
"With his last words, Dupre hoped to be remembered for his sacrifice rather than his drunkenness, and he hoped that with this sacrifice he might atone for the horrors perpetrated while possessed by a Bane.
"Moments later, all that remained were ashes."
Tears rolled down Sentri's face as he listened, and they all mourned their friend.
"Evidently," Shamino added, "he did not truly die, for that was undeniably Dupre who stood against the Guardian here."
Iolo went on and told of their journey to recover the Silver Seed, and of Shamino's earthshaking discovery of his old kingdom's presence. He told of Shamino's painful reunion with his dead wife.
If people had been a little less tired, and a little less absorbed in the story, somebody might have noticed the strangled noise that came from Amber's throat or the shocked look on her face at the mention of Shamino's wife. She swallowed, hard, then carefully removed all signs of her surprise from her face.
"Finally, in the end," continued Iolo, "we reached the Wall of Lights, where the Balance was restored and, as I said, the Avatar vanished. We were left alone.
"We remained there for a day, against the possibility that he might came back, but then our food supplies began to dwindle and we began a trek south. Along the way we three had a dream, wherein the seeress Xantha spoke to us.
"'Congratulations, and thank thee, Britannians. The balance is put right. For this we owe thee all. All in a vision I did see many of the details of thy final adventure, and I commune with thee now to give thee answers to some of thy questions. Thy friend Dupre is at one with the Serpent of Chaos, and is content.
'But of the Avatar, here news turns somewhat darker. In a vision I did see him, resplendent beyond words in the regalia of the Balance Hierophant, floating in the void. There, he was surrounded by infinite possibilities. It was even within his power to return to Earth, his true home. But before any of the possibilities could become actual, he was confronted in the void by the being that calls itself the Guardian. The Guardian railed at him, then taunted him, and finally stole him from the void. Where he went next I do not know- my vision could not follow. I sorrow that I did have to bear these tidings to thee, but thou didst need to know.'
"Soon after that we made our way to Fawn, a journey of several weeks. We had been there some short time before the day came the Shamino spilled a full tankard of beer in his surprise at seeing Geoffrey appear.
"Shamino and I ran to gather our possessions, and we sent Gwenno through immediately. We started to throw things in our bags, but when he put his hands on something of Serpent Isle, the jawbone perhaps, or a blackrock serpent, the Great Earth Serpent projected its image into the room. It told us that it had allowed the gate to open, and it thanked us once again. We were told that the ophidian artifacts must remain in Serpent Isle, and were ordered to promise that we would see the gate closed once we were through.
"So, here we are. When first I stepped through I saw the lightning and was unpleasantly and frighteningly reminded of the imbalance storms. It seems we did have reason to fear, though it also seems that things have so far worked out well.
"And that is our tale."
The rain stopped as everyone sat in silence, assimilating the story. Coming to terms with the victory, and with the loss.
"So. Now what?" Julia asked.
"We get off the wet ground and go to town?" responded Katrina.
"Sounds good to me," said Geoffrey.
"And for longer term plans, we travel back to Britain for a celebratory feast," added Lord British.
"My Lord?" started Tseramed, which surprised many as they realized he hadn't spoken all evening. "Art thou sure that is a good idea? I mean, if this doth become public... 'tis likely that we would rather it not be well known that the Guardian hath captured the Avatar. If anyone who knows about the trip they took and sees Shamino, or Iolo, or Gwenno, and not the Avatar..."
"And then, what?" demanded Shamino. "Dost thou want us to go into hiding?"
"I didst not say I wanted anything from this. I am just trying to think ahead."
"Remember," pointed out Lord British, "the world doth know that he goes home to Earth when he has saved Britannia."
There was shocked silence for a moment.
"Thou'rt not suggesting that we lie, art thou?" asked Mariah.
"No! Thou needst not lie. But do not volunteer information, either."
"But... the virtues!"
"I am aware of the virtues, Mariah. Sometimes, one must give way to another. To tell the world would cause panic, and fear, in my subjects. Compassion doth cause me to hold this back- and strategy, as well. There is no virtue in allowing my subjects and kingdom to fall to the Guardian.
"But let us not dwell on the negative, not now. Let us hope he will make it out. Let us be thankful for our friends that have been returned to us. Let us get off the wet ground and go to Moonglow."
"Aye, agreed," said Rudyom. Heads swiveled in his direction and saw him, lying on his side, propped up on one elbow, a little pale, but whole. Nystul and Katrina helped him to his feet, and all began to make their way back to Moonglow.
A week was spent in recovery, and finding ships to be chartered to return the entire crew to Britain. Before their departure, some of the companions decided to go back to the circle of stones, in daylight.
"Because it all doesn't seem real. I mean, I can pinch Shamino and see that he's really here-"
"Ouch!" complained Shamino.
"-but I just want to go back and see it," Katrina explained.
"Thou go and do that. I'll be tanning on shipboard." Rudyom turned and walked to the docks.
Katrina watched him go. "I used to think he was a stuffy bastard, thou knowest," she asided to Shamino.
"And now, thou dost no longer?"
"No," she admitted, "he still is. Just now he's stuffy and going to be tan."
"Thought he was too stuffy to lie in the sun?"
"Something like that. Now I know better."
Shamino thought about this for a second.
"Hast thou been making any sense during the last few minutes?" he asked.
"Probably not," she said and grinned.
They turned in unison at the sound of footfalls breaking twigs. Nystul smiled briefly at them. He was followed by Julia, who smiled more warmly.
"We'd like to head there with thee," Julia offered.
"Sounds good," responded Katrina. And without another word, they headed into the woods.
From behind them came a cry, "Wait for me!" as Spark ran to catch up.
Over the bridge and to the circle of stones they walked. At the outside of the great circle they paused, and took in the entire view. The sun shone down on them strongly, and the wind was mild.
"Hard to believe, isn't it?" asked Julia.
"Hmm?" asked Katrina.
"That anything as monumental as conflict between the Guardian and the Time Lord was caused here. Now it's so... prosaic, and peaceful."
They all slowly began moving inside the circle, walking around it, satisfying their curiosities.
"The reagents are gone," commented Julia, pointing to the center. "Consumed in the spell, I assume. They usually are, I suppose."
Spark ran to the center and kneeled down. "I wonder if the Moonstone is still here."
"The Orb of Moons, you mean? I don't see it."
"No, the Moonstone. Buried under each gate, legend says they were."
"Yes, they were," put in Shamino. "And that's a very good question, actually. But unless thou hast a shovel, thou whilst not be finding the answer this day."
Spark nodded, stood, and dusted himself off.
"Are we ready to head back?" Katrina asked. Everyone nodded agreement.
Just as he passed the edge of the circle, Nystul saw something catch the light strangely by his feet. He bent down to pick it up, and found that it was a small shard of the Orb of Moons. It must have shattered when the gate closed, he mused to himself. He tossed it in the air and caught it in his hand, then shrugged and put the shard in a pouch at his belt. It would be interesting to perform tests upon it sometime later, perhaps. The aftermath of strong magics can be an interesting study. He smiled to himself and began the walk back to Moonglow.
The sail home was marked by fair winds and good weather, and the passengers found themselves sitting on deck, watching the bejeweled heavens. The companions, so long separated, spent the time catching up with one another. They told stories and related adventures, embellishing only when necessary. The mood was light and gay throughout until finally, as the rocky hills near Cove slid by off of starboard, Lord British called them all together.
They met in the largest cabin on shipboard. There weren't enough chairs but they were content to lean against the wall or, in some cases, sit on the floor. Sentri, having thrown his cask of ale overboard upon deciding to spend a month sober in memory of Dupre, sat on the floor with a tankard of water which he sipped from idly.
British cleared his throat and the various muffled conversations died. "When I return to my castle," he stated, "I will be calling a council. The Guardian is coming, and we must prepare. But that will be a council of speakers of words. This is my council of doers of deeds." Lord British looked around the cabin, and Julia followed his eyes. All but four of us, she mused, have travelled with the Avatar. Rudyom and Nystul are high caliber mages. Galtraxen, it was rumored, is known among the Gargoyles as a noble spirit with great potential.
Why was Amber here?
Julia's attention refocused on British as he continued, "This may be one of the most difficult tasks I have ever given thee, my friends. Thou knowest my council. Most of them will talk, some of them may even decide something. But decrees do not an army make, and we need an army- and mere words do not leaders make, and we dearly need leaders. Were the Avatar here, one word from him and the peoples of Britannia would rise up and do his bidding. But whether or not he were here thou too wouldst be my leaders. I would put into thy hands my cities. Before I do this I must ask thee- art thou willing? At other times and with other people I might just command, but conscripts will not win this war. But together, if we fight with one heart, we will drive the Guardian back to the pit whence he spawned.
"I have already thy oaths of loyalty. But I choose not to command and instead will ask- wilt thou be my agents in this?"
"Aye," said Shamino and Iolo as one.
"Aye," replied Sentri. Then Geoffrey, and Tseramud; Katrina and Julia; all of the Avatar's companions down to little Spark.
"Of course," said Nystul, and "Yes," Rudyom.
"To have mine oath," Galtraxen said with a smile.
And Lord British turned and looked at the one person in the room who was still silent. Amber looked confused, then opened her mouth. "Yes," she said softly, then looked surprised with herself, and him.
"So be it," said British. "I will give each of thee individual assignments, but allow me to describe my overall plan. Most of thee will be sent to a city, there to coordinate its defense. Thy biggest challenge is to do this quietly. Those among thee who go to take charge of a city must choose a handful that can be trusted and have on their shoulders a level head. We must avoid large scale panic. Most of thee can get away with many things that most could not, for all of thee are well beloved. If it comes to war, we know that it will be the most bloody thing since the ages of darkness. But time is likely not on our side and we do not have the luxury to deal with riots and protests. So rather than try to prepare the populous, with uncertain results, let us be sure there will be capable leadership. It seems harsh and perhaps it is... but let us do nothing that lowers our chances against the Guardian. The peril is far too great.
"This is not, of course, to say that I wish the Guardian's armies to take the peoples of Britannia wholly off guard. But there is an ideal timing, and there we will plant our fulcrum."
British took a deep breath. "Iolo and Gwenno, thou art in charge of Britain's defenses. It is Britannia's largest city, so I assign two of thee to it- and indeed, I doubt thou dost wish to be separated right now.
"And, when watching out for Britain, include Paws in thy plans. Britain hath not quite yet absorbed that small village.
"Sentri, I send thee to Trinsic. Trinsic is one of the most defensible cities already, with its seemingly chaotic street plan and high outer walls. I suggest that thou dost start with some of the members of Trinsic's Guild of Paladins. And also, much as I hate to suggest it, when the time comes Dupre's memory may be able to serve us well."
The Lord of Britannia looked at the man who was once his captain of the guard. "Geoffrey, Jhelom is thine. It is nearly as easily defended as Trinsic, largely of course due to its inaccessibility. Most of its populace is of course already honed to a fine edge. We may in fact need to export some of that fighting spirit.
"Katrina, go home to New Magincia. It is small, and still building, and inaccessible, and therefore unlikely to be a target, but let us not take chances."
"Aye, Lord," Katrina responded.
"Allow me to guess: Moonglow."
"Indeed. I wish all of thee to be in places thou art familiar with and known to. And be careful, and all of thee mages take heed, to watch for attacks on the ether itself. We must not allow ourselves to be crippled in that way again."
Mariah, Nystul, and Jaana nodded. Everyone looked thoughtful and solemn.
"Minoc goes to Julia for protection. Julia, thou hast an additional duty- of all the cities of Britannia it is most important that Minoc go to a wartime economy. We will need weapons and armour and for that we will need metals.
"And also, wood. Jaana, goest thou home to Yew. Gather also the lumberjacks, the bowyers, and the carpenters. Though see that, as much as possible, the treaty with the Emps be not violated.
"Thou'lt of course have to watch out, Yew being so spread out and thereby hard to defend. Minoc, on the other hand, is in a fairly good position. It could perhaps use a city wall on the south face of town.
"I'd like thee to travel to Skara Brae. Look in on the restoration of the town. It pains me to say it but Skara Brae we may have to evacuate.
"Rudyom, I also send thee home, to Cove. To march an army overland to Cove would be almost impossible unless Britain were besieged, but I take no chance. Continue, also, thy researches into the nature of Blackrock."
"My Lord," interrupted Geoffrey, "what of the castles of the principles?"
"I had not forgotten them, my friend. Empath Abbey and the Lycaeum are now almost parts of their neighboring town. Jaana and Mariah, please include them in your plans. As for the Hold- Geoffrey, thy son is there, is he not?"
"On thy way to Jhelom, take word unto him. I give him the Hold.
"Each of thee, by the by, will be given a writ with my deal and signature. Most of thee I do not expect to need it, and in fact please use it sparingly. Geoffrey, thine son may have need of it however."
"Indeed," Geoffrey agreed.
"I am confident, though," British asserted, "that thy son will do fine."
"My Lord," asked Mariah, "what of the Lords of the castles?"
"And also, thou mayest ask, the mayors of the cities. They will be a part of my council of words. But they are of necessity public figures, and while they have their parts to play, so dost thou. No offense meant, of course, Sentri."
"None taken," Sentri smiled.
"Galtraxen. It should come as no surprise to thee that I wish thee to return to Terfin. However, I wish also to send Spark with thee. He has been there before. Spark, thy trouble will be getting them to take thee as seriously as this deserves. But thou has grown well and I have faith in thee.
"Amber. I'm sure thou'rt wondering what thou canst contribute to these efforts. I wish thee to return to thy stage in Britain. Dost thou remember the Fellowship play? Make a satire of it. Lampoon the Fellowship mercilessly. I wish them to be such an object of ridicule that none will ever again consider to join. Do not lessen the Guardian too extremely- I wish him to be taken seriously- but I wish to lessen the chances that any will become his dupes again.
"Dost thou think thou canst handle this?"
Amber looked thoughtful. "I believe I could," she said, her mind already piecing together possibilities.
"However, I regret to say that I will be taking thy Shamino from thee for a time. Shamino- I am sending thee to Buccaneer's Den. I am confident that thou wilt be able to handle thyself there. The writ I give thee will be a little different than the others. Also, thou shalt not leave immediately- timing will be delicate for thy mission. Thou wilt offer amnesty to the pirates of the Den- in exchange for their promises not to raid Britannian supply ships, and their promise to raid the Guardian's. Be careful not to move too quickly- we do not wish to have bored pirates on our hands.
"And finally, Tseramed- I would send thee to Vesper. I know that thou'rt unfamiliar with the area, but then none here are, particularly."
Tseramed nodded. "As thou wouldst."
"Are there any questions, then?" British asked. He waited for several moments, and when none were forthcoming, continued, "We will, of course, have the rest of the voyage to refine our plans, and the time in Britain before each of ye leaves for thy respective destinations. After that time, we will have to rely on magic to communicate with one another..."
"Perhaps a poor idea, my Lord," interrupted Rudyom. "The Guardian's ability to manipulate our ether is known, although just how much control he can have is not. I suggest that we not trust our communications to it."
Lord British nodded, a sour look on his face. "Yes, thou art correct, damn thee. Perhaps thou, and Nystul, Mariah, and others can spend some time coming up with a way to protect communications made in such a manner. Until then, however... yes. Yes, we will have to make due with mundane means. Fortunately, we still have some carrier pigeons, from the days of the Generators, and have not lost the art of training such." He paused for a moment, thinking, and Amber took the opportunity to speak.
"Um... My Lord... plays cost money. Actors will want to be paid. How..." British waved his hand, and she stopped. "Worry not about such things, my dear," Lord British reassured her. "For so long as the money holds out, the royal treasury will cover thine expenses." Amber smiled in response. "I shall try to keep them moderate," she replied.
"For so long as the money holds out..." said Sentri.
"Yes. That is something to worry about for later. We have enough on our hands and our minds. A monumental task lay before us, perhaps the greatest challenge fair Britannia has ever faced. And we will meet it unswervingly, and the Guardian will break before us!" Lord British leaned forward with intensity as he spoke.
The ship knifed through the waves, and continued onward into the night.
The ship pulled into the dock at Britanny Bay, and unloaded its passengers into Britain in the early hours of the morning. Without fanfare, they made their way to Castle Britannia. Along the way, Iolo fell into step beside Lord British.
"My Lord," he began, and amended himself when his friend glared at him, "Richard. We spent the time on shipboard catching up on affairs of state and politics, and world crisis. And I did not find the chance to ask- how is thy daughter?"
British smiled. "Well. She walks and speaks, and falls down a lot. She spends a great deal of time with Sherry, to the absolute horror of one of her nursemaids. She's absolutely and utterly adorable and is the delight of my days. And, she is recognized, now, though illegitimate. Eire is the current heir to the Britannian throne. And thou knowest, there is nothing like having a near immortal on the throne to make the entire issue of heirs and lines terribly confusing."
"Yes, so I've noticed."
"Sometimes, I fear for her, Iolo. This may not be the best of times to be raising a child. Especially a princess. I fear the Guardian."
"Aye. As do we all."
"...but the cup has run dry, and lo, time is no more;
And we shake and we rattle, and we weather the storm.
When it ends, will we fall? I think not, and I say,
We will be here forever, as we stand here today."
"Why, thank you. And now, for my thirty-seventh encore, I will sing yet another version of my famous ballad, 'Stones'... oof!" Iolo flinched as the boot thrown by Shamino hit him square in the back. "Why, thou little, no-accounting-for-taste, ..."
"Shh, Iolo. Let me put my daughter to bed before thou dost wake her with thy tirade." Smiling, Lord British carried the sleeping Eire out of the room.
"So. Didst thou enjoy the banquet?" asked Iolo.
"Hmm. I suppose I did. It wasn't as crowded as I had feared. Still... how many times didst thou get asked where, or how, the Avatar is?"
Iolo touched a long finger to the side of his nose and smiled. "Oh, a few... I told them I was composing a ballad and did not wish to speak of it before I was done. And thou?"
Shamino glowered. "Would that I had thine excuse. Still, I did manage to neither lie nor tell of the Avatar's encounter with the Guardian." He gave a small laugh. "I would confuse them with details- 'There we were, in the Shrine of Balance, with the eyes of the serpents, before the wall of lights...' Eventually, they would wander off without realizing that I hadn't quite answered their question."
"Thou mayest have the makings of a bard, thou knowest."
"Oh, please. Where is Gwenno, by the way? I would have expected her to want to play with Eire."
"She was very tired, and has retired to our rooms above Iolo's bows, where I, in my turn, will soon join her. And Amber?"
"Amber is... not very maternal, I'm afraid."
"Which reminds me," spoke Lord British from the doorway, "that I need one favor from one of thee."
"Oh? Speak, and thou shalt have it," replied Shamino.
"Please, visit the Shrine of Compassion. Nastassia opted not to leave her position as caretaker long enough to join us on Verity Isle. She... deserves to know what has become of the Avatar. And to be told in person."
Shamino sighed. "Thou'rt right, of course. I'm not looking forward to it, but it does need to be done."
"No, my friend. I will do it. I would visit the Shrine, in any case," said Iolo.
"Oh?" prompted Shamino, but Iolo only nodded in reply. Shamino gazed into his eyes for a moment, then said, "Oh."
The companions and friends said their farewells as one by one they drifted out of the city, going home to put their affairs in order. Soon enough, they would leave, perhaps forever. The Guardian was coming. What would be left, should he arrive?
Iolo hiked, alone, along the bank of the Lock River. Behind him, an ettin lay on the ground, a bolt in each of its brows. It had been felled so quickly that its companion had immediately lost heart and fled.
Iolo let it go. He continued his trek to along the riverbank in silence. Finally, he stopped, on the bridge over the river. He realized that he had lost track of time- it was now well after midnight, and he had been walking all day. His legs ached, and he cursed as he rubbed them- there was a time when he could hike the world and back and still be able to dance the next morning. He gazed down at the water streaming under the bridge, traveling onward to the bay. He removed his lute from him pack, and began to play and sing, quietly.
"The dark descended upon me
but the Madness, thou drove it away
with the waters of life thou offered
and the virtue that within thee lay.
In my soul, I can still feel corruption
autumn touches the edge of my heart
But thine eyes showed me understanding
my strength returns, and I do my part.
But thou art gone, my friend,
and my heart is still as stone.
Without thee beside me, my steps have grown unsteady.
thou hast no friends beside you, to guide and bring thee home."
The last notes trailed off into silence. He continued to stare at the rushing water until he could no longer tell it from his tears.
Iolo detoured around the outskirts of Cove, heading south around the town towards the shrine and its caretaker. Mid-afternoon, and shrine was plainly visible, at the top of its small hill. He smiled wearily and pressed on, as the sun beat down upon him. Despite the heat it was a very pleasant day, and for a time Iolo actually found himself enjoying the walk.
When he reached the vicinity of the shrine, he was greeted by the smell of cooking vegetables. He stood gazing at the stones, until his stomach suddenly grumbled, loudly. "Well," he muttered to himself, "I guess I know where my priorities are." He turned and walked towards the rising smoke, coming from the chimney of the caretaker's home. As he reached the door he heard a voice within call, "Come in!" before he even had a chance to knock. He opened the door.
"Iolo, come in. Dinner is almost ready," Nastassia greeted him.
"Dinner?" he asked with some amusement.
"I saw thee coming from the hilltop. I decided thou couldst probably use some time off thy feet." She smiled.
"How didst thou know it was me, rather than a pilgrim, from that distance?"
"There were some distinguishing features..."
"Like what, then?"
"Er, well, I could see thy crossbow, and, well, the sun glinted off of thy lack of hair, right there..." she reached out to point.
"That's enough, methinks! Thou shouldst show more respect for thine elders!" He glared at her sternly, but with a small smirk of amusement on his lips.
"Well, thou didst ask..."
"Aye, all right," he replied grudgingly.
"Now enjoy thy vegetables."
They sat in silence while they completed the rest of their meals. Finally, Iolo was reduced to pushing the last of his greenery around his plate. "Something the matter?" asked Nastassia when she finished.
"Er, no, why dost thou ask?"
"Thou hast not finished thy vegetables."
"Well, yes, thou art correct. I have not."
"Aren't thou going to clean thy plate?"
Iolo drew himself up and said sternly, "My dear Nastassia, when thou dost reach mine age, thou canst choose not to eat thy broccoli."
Nastassia stared at him incredulously. Iolo looked back sternly, straining mightily to keep a straight face. Moments later, it was Nastassia who broke first, bursting into giggling at Iolo's extreme reaction, and finally Iolo allowed himself a chuckle aloud. "Iolo, I do have to wonder how Gwenno keeps thee fed."
"Bah!" exclaimed Iolo. "Do I look like a scarecrow? I don't need anyone to 'keep me fed', especially of foods such as this! Our Lord British couldn't convince me to eat this! Not even the Avatar himself could order me to!"
Nastassia, meanwhile, had near fallen out of her chair with laughter, as Iolo began his tirade. Iolo, however, became strangely silent, and placed his fork beside his plate. Nastassia dabbed at her eyes with a napkin, and stood, and began clearing off the table, occasionally giggling.
"Nastassia," said Iolo, "as much as I hate to spoil the mood... I came here bearing a message. British requested that someone find thee, and I volunteered, for reasons of mine own." Nastassia put down the dishes, and nodded- a slight, wan smile on her face. "Thou canst guess the content, I suppose- for I am here, and he is not. Mariah accomplished her goal, and we are returned from the Serpent Isle. But Arlan did not return with us, and thou dost have the right to know what has happened.
"First and foremost- I do not believe he is dead. The tidings are not that dire. But the story is a tragic one.
"I do not need to tell thee how valiantly he fought, how his quick wit and sharp blade saved us from trouble again and again. We won, in the end, and he restored the balance, and vanished from Serpent Isle. And from the Void between worlds, the Guardian... the Guardian took him."
Nastassia sat down, but said simply, "Iolo... I know."
Iolo blinked in surprise. "Thou knowest? We... we have endeavored to keep it secret from the citizens as a whole... we felt they would panic to know our Enemy has taken our Hero. How...?"
"The Shrine. The Shrine of Compassion showed it to me."
Iolo took a moment to digest this, then said, "Please, what did it show thee? And in what manner?"
"I was outside, somewhere. I do not remember what I was doing at the time- perhaps gardening, gathering food. Something. And I felt an odd pull, not overt or direct. If I had been less experienced, I might not have noticed it was external at all- just thought that I was having a sudden desire to visit the Shrine. But I recognized the touch of the Shrine. It was calling me, subtly. Maybe in the only way it can.
"So I put down my tools and went. I mean, despite feeling that I was being influenced, I still felt the desire to visit the shrine. Even if it was just due to the influence... well, either way, I felt it was important. Who am I to judge the Shrine? It called, and I came. And I sat down before the altar and repeated the mantra, that so many have forgotten in these days. And it spoke to me.
"This didn't surprise me until later- at the time, I was too calm to be surprised. But I have rarely heard the Shrine speak. It said to me: 'There is something that thou must see.' In my meditation, my mind cleared. And then, a I had a vision. I saw Arlan floating in the void. He looked glorious- the finest armor and a regal bearing. He glowed, there, in the void; he had obviously done some great good. I felt surrounded by Compassion, and I also felt his love... and then the darkness came. It came in the form of a voice that mocked, and a giant hand that ripped at the void itself. It extinguished the glow and took Arlan from the Void, to a place I could not see. I was devastated.
"'He still lives,' I heard. 'We will know, should he fall.' And I felt again surrounded by compassion, and a strong sorrow; and I was comforted. I returned to my cottage, and my work, and I continue to hope for his return."
Iolo spent some time considering this. "The shrine- does it talk to thee often?"
Nastassia shook her head. "It... touches me, now and again. I think its influence causes me to notice things I might miss, be in the right place when I need to, or it needs me to. I can sense its wellness from a distance, having meditated there so often and cared for it so long. It also takes care of me, thou knowest? But its voice is rare. Sometimes I will meditate and there will be a new thought, fully struck, in my head. I think this is what others experience when the Shrine sends them on their quests... but that is different from this mental speech. And this kind of direct communication, this showing me things, I had never known before."
"It sounds like it cares for thee."
She nodded. "It does, as I do it. It is Compassion, after all."
"Yes," Iolo said. He turned to look out the window, in the direction of the shrine. "In fact. If thou wilt excuse me, it is time I paid my respects."
"Of course, Iolo. Shall I make up a bed for thee?"
"I would not put thee to the trouble. The inn is not far at all."
"Bah! It is no trouble. Go and do what thou dost need to do, and I will hear no more of it."
Iolo smiled fondly at her. "As thou sayest."
Iolo sat, cross-legged and alone, before the altar of Compassion. He tried to empty his mind of thought, and focus on the compassion he felt. The compassion felt for Nastassia, and she for him, would serve as a seed, to unfold before the Shrine.
He felt peace begin to flow through him, except for a core of resistance deep inside. He felt the pure pull of compassion, but he also felt the horror and fear deep inside, even here, even still, the storm at the heart of the calm. The horror of what he had been, the fear that the darkness was still rooted inside. Iolo was still afraid of his Bane.
Warmth enveloped him. He felt the Shrine's regard. Long ago it had elevated him to the status of Peer- a partial Avatar in the virtue of Compassion. Was he deserving of such status now?
"Of course thou art not." An approach from behind without footsteps, and Iolo knew what he would see should he turn. "Dark one. Madman. Destroyer of worlds." Himself, eyes ablaze with the visage of madness. "You are no peer. You are nothing." The darkness that had haunted him since the Serpent Isle. Iolo listened to the words of the Insanity Bane. Its voice was harsh but seductive. It was his own, made raw.
Around him and through him, however, he continues to feel the Shrine's warmth. A yellow haze covered his world. He spoke: "The Shrine of Compassion doth not seem to agree."
"Thou and I both know, Fitzowen, that it merely awaits thine understanding of this truth, and the light will go out forever."
"Thou dost lie."
"How can I lie? Iolo. I am thee."
"Thou art no part of me!"
"But I am. The core of darkness that will not be made rid of."
"No. I deny thee."
"If thou didst truly deny me... perhaps I wouldst not be here. We will speak again, Iolo. My self."
And then the voice faded, and the shrine blazed with yellow light, and for a timeless moment, Iolo knew peace. And at last, the Shrine spoke.
"Compassion for others has as both its root and its flower compassion for the self."
"Didst thou get what thou didst need?"
Iolo hesitated. "I think... no."
Nastassia, Keeper of the Shrine, said to him, "Iolo, the shrine can only forgive thee. It cannot make thee forgive thyself."
For a moment, Iolo refused to meet her eyes. But then he lifted his chip and looked at her with a drawn expression. "No. That I reserve for myself."
"Iolo... what befell thee, on thy quest?"
But Iolo merely his head.
Shamino was awakened by the soft sound of crying. Sniffles came from beside him, trying to stay quiet enough to not wake him, but not succeeding.
"Amber?" he murmured.
A breath, and then, "I'm sorry, Shamino. I didn't mean to wake thee."
"I always sleep lightly after an adventure," he said lightly, striving against the mood. "Bur what is wrong?"
"Oh, it... it is nothing. Try to sleep?"
"No, my dear." He took her hand in his beneath the blanket. "Tell me?"
Her hand spasmed once in his and then gripped him like a lifeline. "Why didst thou not tell me?" she demanded in a whisper. For a moment Shamino was still. Then he sat up, releasing her hand, and she wondered if it had been a mistake to ask after all.
Flame flickered and he lowered the glass over the tableside lamp.
"Tell thee which?" he asked softly.
"How old art thou?"
He exhaled in a puff of breath. "Old. All the Companions are older than we appear."
"But thou art older then they. And a king. A king!"
He shook his head. "Yes. I am older. I fought Mondain, Amber. And I was a king, but so long ago that I hardly even remember it anymore. I was not trying to hide it from thee- it simply is not something I even think about, anymore."
"How art thou even..." she floundered.
"Alive?" He smiled in the shadowy light. "A king has a tie with his land. They support and maintain each other. I was separated from my land while we warred against Mondain, and then it was lost." His voice shook very little, really, with the regret that was now very distant with time. "Lord British and I were old friends, by that point. As a... reward, perhaps? For my sacrifice, he was able to use his power and tie to bind me to Britannia. The others... I'm sorry, dost thou really wish to hear this now?"
Amber nodded. "Yes, I think so. It helps, just to hear you talk..."
"Many of the others had their lifespans extended by the Codex, we believe. Or the Chamber of the Codex, if there is a difference... those who were with Arlan when he first reached the Codex found themselves no longer aging. Nystul's theory was that something wanted them to still be around, to help him when he next returned... I don't know."
"Are there other ways?" Amber asked, her voice almost entirely normal now.
"Powerful magicians seem to live longer, somehow- Nystul's been around for an age. And on rare occasions, British can do it. Those who accompanied Arlan into Doom itself to free him were granted a boon. Sentri at the least asked to live longer, perhaps so that he might accompany Dupre on further adventures." He took a deep breath. "I am sure there are other ways still. Let us not even think about what beings like the Time Lord could do..."
Amber was quiet for a few moments, and rolled over to face him again.
"And thou wert married."
He was silent for a heartbeat and then another. "Not quite. Betrothed. But Mondain came, and I could not wed and ignore the plight of the world. And so I lost her, and my land, and earned the emnity of my friend and brother king. And I never knew it, until now."
"I'm sorry. I should not have asked..."
He shrugged. "Thou canst ask me anything. But this is, perhaps, less relevant than thou might believe."
"I know that thou wert affected by seeing her again..."
"Well. Yes. That is true. It was a shock. I have spent a hundreds of years thinking that land was lost forever. And she. Let alone that she might still be there in some way."
"Dost thou... still love her?"
Shamino shook his head slowly. "The man I was then loved her more than anything. But I have not been that man in a very, very long time." He smiled and touched her face. "And the man I am now, loves thee." He felt a single tear fall upon his finger before she took his hand in hers, and brought it to her lips.
Lord British sat in the council room, shuffling maps and papers as several candles burned low. All day, he had tried to make plans- meetings with Mayors and Lords, inspecting maps and routes and contingencies. He was quite tired, but feeling like there was so much more to be done. He looked from map to map, at this point no longer really even seeing them, until a shadow fell over the table. He looked up.
"Nystul! Thou art back sooner than I expected."
Nystul favored him with a small smile and, taking waved permission, sat. "As it happened, there was little to do there. Reconstruction has begun but there are not that many people. And we can't evacuate yet, not while we are still trying to maintain a facade of normalcy- which will not last for very much longer, I fear."
British nodded. "Anything else to report?"
Nystul tilted his head. "I think we need an advantage. My Lord, I think we need to investigate with all speed the Moongates. They ceased to work when the ether was restored but we don't know why. There has always been some greater concern, but now- the mobility they allow would be a huge boon, not least because it would allow easier evacuation of Skara Brae and, if necessary, New Magincia."
"And if our foes use them to our consternation?"
"Each Moongate sits near a city. We in essence hold them all. The time may come when enough are taken from us that we may be concerned. But let us consider that as we investigate. Perhaps some defense can be created. A way to turn them back off." Nystul shrugged and then raised an eyebrow. "In truth, perhaps we would just need to dig up the Moonstone before our control of any given gate falls."
British considered this. "Mobility is a strength. In this thou art certainly correct. Very well. See what thee and other scholars and masters of the art can make of them."
Nystul gave a seated half-bow. "As thou sayest. Thank thee." He stood, and then looked uncertainly at his liege. "And, my Lord?"
British looked up at him. "Hmm?"
"May I suggest that thou dost get some dinner, or some rest? I doth not think that thou will solve Britannia's problems tonight."
British chuckled, and pushed himself away from the table. "Aye, thou'rt right. Wilt thou return to thy duties tomorrow?"
Nystul bowed again, with his small smile, and with a murmured "If thou'lt excuse me," left the room.
"I didst think that we were not going to use distant speech?" said Mariah, half a world away at the Lycaeum.
Nystul waved a hand. "Carrier pigeons was an addle brained idea, I fear. We just don't have that many. In any case, I hope I have altered the spell such that it is sufficiently safe- not that it cannot be eavesdropped upon, but I believe that if thou dost inspect the flow of ether carefully, thou wilt see that it should be impossible for an outside agency to touch this spell without disrupting it."
Mariah's eyebrows went up. "So, if someone listens in, they instead break the connection entirely? That could become a problem if we need to speak," she said, but Nystul shrugged.
"If we need to speak we can do it the old way. But for now I think this sufficient. Now to reach the point- I believe, and Lord British has now agreed with me, that we should attempt to restore the Moongates to function."
Mariah nodded. "I will confess to having had a similar thought. I wish that we had spent time trying to solve that riddle before now."
"I too, but there were always more pressing concerns."
"And are there none now?"
"There may be, and if thou dost think of one, speak up. But I would strongly prefer to evacuate Skara Brae and New Magincia by gate than by vulnerable ships."
"Yes. All right then, moongates. On top of our other worries. Hast thou an idea of where to start?"
"Not yet. But let us bend our thoughts, and I will contact the others to the same end."
"Do not forget Penumbra. She may have valuable insights into this."
"I had not, but I thank thee for the reminder. Hast thou anything to report from Verity Isle?"
Mariah shook her head, heedless of Nystul's inability to see it. "We move slowly but firmly. Key positions in the Lycaeum are aware of the danger and making preparations."
"Very good. I will be in touch again soon."
"Virtue be with thee."
"And thee," Nystul replied, and ended the spell with a gesture.
"The monk Braccus is next to see thee, my lord."
"Show him in, Jonathon."
Jonathon walked to the antechamber and said, "Lord British will see thee now, good monk."
The monk nodded his head and entered the throne room, moving with a steady step. He held in his hands a wooden case almost 6 feet in length. His hood and robe were a solid brown, and his hands were tan.
"Please stand still a moment, Monk," Nystul requested, and made a short incantation. He turned to his king. "My Lord, whatever he carries in that box is quite dangerous, and I am made moreso nervous by the fact that I cannot read quite what it is. But the man himself means neither thee nor any other harm in this place."
"Thank thee, Nystul. Good monk, how dost thou wisheth to be called?"
"Braccus will suffice, my Lord. Titles, even ones so small as 'monk', leave me with a foul taste."
"Well spoken, Braccus. I apologize for my magician's investigation of thee, but we prefer to make certain about unknown cargo."
"I take no offense, my Lord, in these troubled times. However, I would like to make an unusual request. My Lord, I would speak to thee alone."
British looked around the room, his gaze taking in the guards and Nystul. "Is thy news from the Abbey of such a nature that it cannot be heard by my trusted guards?"
"Lord, I come not from the Abbey." British motioned for him to continue. "Lord British, I come to thee from Monk Isle on the Serpent Isle, once called New Sosaria. My way here was arduous and strange. I come bearing a token," and with this he placed the box on the floor and carefully opened it.
From within, he withdrew the Shade Blade!
"This I recovered from the Ethereal Void whence it was lost by the Avatar! I leave it here, with thee, for safe keeping." With a quick motion, he drove the sword point first into the flagstone of the throne room floor. "Here it will stay, immovable, until the Avatar returns. You will know when he hath arrived, for this Blade doth know him and will be drawn to him at that moment."
All eyes in the throne room, save Braccus', were locked on the Blackrock Sword.
"My Lord," Braccus began quietly, "thou hast seen what I carry. Thou knowest how far I have travelled. I humbly beg thee to allow me to speak to thee alone."
"Hmm," said Nystul suddenly. He turned from his examination of the sword. "It is true that there the demon is no longer bound here."
"What dost thou know of this?" asked Lord British of Braccus.
"I do not know. I know only that the Avatar did carry it at the end of his time on the Serpent Isle."
British nodded thoughtfully.
"Please, everyone, leave us. I will summon thee when I am ready. I would like to speak to Braccus alone."
Nystul bowed and turned to the door. One of the guards in the room walked up to Lord British and said, "Lord British, I strongly advise against this."
British smiled. "I know thou dost, Jonathon. As is thy duty. And I am always grateful for the concern. But all will be well."
Jonathon nodded, stiffly, and left the throne room, leaving it to Lord British and his unlikely guest.
Braccus walked to just in front of Lord British's throne and kneeled with his head bowed. "Lord British. I have returned to Britannia to beg thy forgiveness."
"I confess myself confused."
"My old friend, I was not known as Braccus when last we spoke."
Lord British found himself somewhat taken aback with surprise. "Old friend indeed. Thou hast broken thy banishment."
"I know. I have returned to beg thy forgiveness. Many things have changed. I have spent decades as a simple monk in the Serpent Isle and was content there. But when Britannia was threatened, I found myself feeling that it was my true home, and that I must return to offer to defend it.
"I am well aware that thou dost have no reason to trust me. Do what thou must. If thou wilt not accept me I will leave again. My pride has been... washed out of me, over the years."
"Even if I come to trust thee somewhat, Blackthorn, few others will. Thy tyranny is well remembered."
"I know. And even, I understand."
"Perhaps thou hast changed, Blackthorn. I find myself grudgingly inclined to believe thy story."
Braccus tilted his head. "I can ask no more of thee."
"Blackthorn. Once regent of Britannia. Once Dark Lord and agent of the Shadowlords, and a symbol of evil that remains to this day. I, Lord British of Britannia, do hereby rescind the order of banishment. Thou art welcome to stand on Britannian soil once more. Thou wilt forgive me, however, if I do not publicize this decree."
"I agree. While here I am simply Braccus. Blackthorn, in a very real way, is no more."
"The Blackthorn I knew was destroyed by the Shadowlords."
"The Blackthorn the rest of Britannia knew was put to rest by years of meditation and toil at the monastery on Monk Isle. Am I again the man I was before? I do not think so. I cannot so easily escape what I have done. I accept the responsibility."
"I hope thou wilt forgive me if I desire to keep an eye on thee. Thou wert once too cunning, and later too dangerous, for me to wish to roam free just yet. Wilt thou accept employ here at the Castle?"
Braccus's eyebrows darted up with surprise. "Aye, I will accept thine offer. Thou mayest even find that I have grown somewhat adept in the kitchen."
British chuckled. "The kitchen it is, then. I will inform the staff and see that thou dost have quarters set up here in the castle. No one will know that thou art anything more than thou has claimed to be- a monk from another world. Though that is strange enough, and the story of thy dramatic entrance here has undoubtedly reached Vesper by now."
Braccus smiled. "I apologize for the dramatic entrance. I wished to be sure."
British waved it off. "Let us get thee situated. We will speak again anon."
Braccus bowed. "Thank thee. It is... good to be home."
It was a warm September evening when Nystul and a small contingent of guards walked to the location of Britain's moongate. Clouds hid the faces of the moons from them, and a light wind rustled the leaves. "Please, wait outside the circle," Nystul asked the guards, and he stepped inside. He sat on the earth, crossing his legs and being thankful that the ground was not wet.
He concentrated on his mission, bringing his mind into a state of focus, and when he was ready, he withdrew a small crystal sphere from his bag and began an incantation.
The sphere glowed softly.
"Nystul?" he heard in his mind.
"Julia," he replied. "Good. Art thou ready?"
"What's that?" one of the guards called from outside the circle, but Nystul waved him away. A sudden look of understanding crossed the guard's face and he returned to his watchfulness. "Aye," replied Julia at the same time, "I am at the moongate now and have my senses engaged. Let's take this apart and see how it ticks, eh?"
Nystul smiled, unseen to his colleague. "As thou sayest. Now I begin." Nystul began a complex incantation as the guards looked apprehensively at each other. Long experience had showed them that near a mage casting long, involved spells was rarely a safe place to be, but to their credit they stood firm and awaited what might come.
He finished and sagged for a moment. "Anything?" he asked Julia.
"No. Sorry. Perhaps it went elsewhere?"
"I do not think so. At least if so my calculations are farther off than we can afford. But no, I felt some kind of... blockage. I am going to attempt to make connection by a different path."
Perhaps she nodded- Nystul could not tell. But she made no audible response, and so he pressed on. With a deep breath to stabilize himself and restore some of the energy he expended in the first attempt, he began a different incantation with a different focus.
Rather than through the earth he attempted a connection more obscure and subtle. It could not open a full gate, but could it make itself felt?
"It glows," said Julia suddenly.
"Aah," said Nystul as he let the spell end abruptly. "Oof," he added.
Julia chuckled. "Tiring? Too bad thou canst not give me the hard part and just watch for things thyself."
"Thou didst see something, then?"
"Aye. A glow. Physically as well as magically, even, above the moonstone."
"That is... encouraging, extremely. I believe that something is preventing the moonstones from... taking root, as it were, in the land. Something about the Sphere's backlash, I can only assume. Unable to anchor to Britannia the gates cannot open."
"OK. That's a problem... what's the solution?"
"I do not know yet. But before today, we didst not even have the problem. Let us consult further with our friends in Moonglow and perhaps we will be able to rectify this after all."
"Well, thank thee for the interesting duty today. Mind if I head back?"
"Go. And thank thee. I shall be in touch." He stood up slowly, leaning on his staff, and waved the guards closer.
"I may walk slow, but we can head back to the castle now," he told them. They looked equal parts disappointed and pleased, but with utmost professionalism said, "Of course, lord. Let us go."
Fortunately, Geoffrey was not actually drilling any of Jhelom's warriors in hand to hand combat when he heard a voice in his head. He did, however, drop the helmet he was carrying in his hands.
"Geoffrey! Canst thou hear me?" a soft female voice said inside his skull.
"Um, yes... wait, Jaana??"
He heard laughter. "Yes, Geoffrey. 'Tis Jaana. I hope I didst not startle thee... too much." Her amusement was plain in her voice.
"Had we not determined that magical contact was a bad idea?" he demanded, picking the helmet up off the floor and giving thanks that no one else saw him.
"We had," Jaana admitted from Yew, "but birds was a worse one. Nystul has come up with a way to secure these communications, and Mariah taught me the spell. We had to adjust it a touch to be able to reach people who have no talent."
"No talent," Geoffrey said neutrally, not rising to the bait.
"Magical talent, of course," said Jaana smoothly.
"Of course," he replied. "Would this just be a test run, then, or is there more to?" He hurried across the field to his rooms, hoping to not have to explain why he was talking to himself to the nearby curious.
"Well, since we are here I wished to see how thou wert doing there. Mariah, Julia and I are to contact everyone else, and then we shall report to Nystul and thus to Lord British."
With a checked sigh of relief he opened his door and went in. "Reasonable," he said. "Things here are... on their way to prepared. But it is growing more and more difficult to prepare without people realizing the extent to which we are. If the Guardian has an army somewhere he will likely need to move it before winter. I would say that we canst no longer afford to try to prepare on the sly."
"Alright. I know Mariah doth feel the same way, though of course she would. And speaking of, the moongates may be restored soon."
"Truly? That would be a boon. Doth not help with the Hold but would be useful here."
"Very much so. If there is nothing more, I shall contact Nystul and tell him of what thou hast said."
"Thank you, Jaana. Oh, before thou dost end the spell..."
"Is there a way to give warning before establishing such a contact?"
Jaana laughed. "We'll look into it," she promised.
Lord British looked solemn as he listened to Nystul's report, summarizing the information gathered from the cities and beyond. Beside him sat Iolo and Gwenno, and Shamino stood, leaning against a wall. "I agree with them, Nystul," British said when his advisor was done, "and had been preparing for this time. Spread the word to the leaders. Shamino, it is time for thee to embark on your mission to Buccaneer's Den. Let us pray it is not too late."
Shamino nodded. "I have booked passage and am ready to sail at thy word."
"Amber has done an admirable job, by the by. Composition, casting, and now opening so quickly. I hope there is time to enjoy it." Shamino chuckled. "Let us hope," he replied, "and hope that it is effective."
"Indeed," said British. "But back to the matter at hand. Nystul, please begin preparing the evacuation of Skara Brae. And let us get Katrina's opinion on whether such is necessary for New Magincia. The moongates?"
Nystul nodded. "I believe we have almost overcome the problem. Allow me to finish that task before returning to Skara Brae- if I am on schedule then it will not actually take any more time."
"Very well. It is time to put our full efforts into defense, for the attack may come at any time. Good luck, and thou art dismissed."
The trouble, mused Iolo, was not in people's reactions to the possibility that the Guardian would again attempt to invade Britannia. That was about as was expected, but the people of Britannia joined together admirably to prepare. Word from Shamino was that many of the pirates had accepted Lord British's offer. Walls were made stronger, militias were joined. No, the problem was that the attacks stubbornly refused to come.
The weather was beginning to turn and soon it would be difficult to move armies by any non-magical means. And yet not only were the Guardian's forces not moving... there was no sign that there were forces. Surely his attempt before the journey to the Serpent Isle could not have been all he could muster. Were his words merely empty boasts? He had shown himself capable of invading, even without a Black Gate. It is surely better safe than be sorry and defenseless, but people were starting to grumble. Some whispered that Lord British was fearing losing control and was tightening his grip. Ridiculous, of course, but said all the same.
Perhaps, Iolo thought with a sigh, this was the Guardian's plan all the time.
"The last of the refugees from Skara Brae are through the gate," Gwenno told him after she returned home from a day of helping find room for the refugees. "Unfortunately they were removed while working on fixing some of the foundations- they may well have to start over after the winter, should things go so long."
"Well. Good enough that they are off the island. And a good test of the moongates, too... I wish we could see a sign that he was up to something. There is only so long we can be at the top of our readiness." Iolo shook his head, and moved his lute off of the other chair for his wife.
"I know," Gwenno said, ignoring the chair and coming to massage the knots in Iolo's shoulders. "So far we are lucky, in as much as people seem to not be blaming thou and I yet. I imagine it will come in time, but for now..."
Iolo snorted. "We have been a fixture of the town for..."
Gwenno laughed, "Yes, as thou dost like. Thou art well loved. And the people here do hew to Compassion, even under strain."
"Virtues be praised, yes. And thou as well, if thou wilt keep doing that."
"Welcome back, Shamino. How didst thou fare?"
Lord British sat in a comfortable chair in his sitting room, and waved Shamino to another chair. Shamino had arrived at the port of Britain just that afternoon, braving the weather that had been depositing snow upon the city just the prior day.
"I would say that the journey was quite successful. Aside from the problem that appears to be growing worse everywhere in Britannia- there is no sign of the Guardian. I surprising and gratifying number of pirates were pleased to accept pardon, but now they worry whether it will still be in force if the Guardian's forces never arrive to be scuttled." Shamino heaved a sigh, and nodded in thanks as British handed him a goblet of wine.
"We shall worry about that as time goes on, if it is necessary. The comfort of the pirates of the Den are of lower concern than the fact that there was a near riot in Yew the other day." He shook his head. "This is not the subject on which I was hoping to speak with thee, however."
"Oh?" Shamino looked at him with interest- this was unexpected. "What concerns my liege?"
This brought out a hint of a smile on his friend's lips. "Didst thou pass through the throne room on thy way here?"
"I did indeed, and a fetching decoration thou dost have now, sticking out of the floor."
"Fetched it was. A monk-"
Shamino interrupted, "-from the Serpent Isle, I heard tell, yes. Which is interesting on its own. Did he bear news?"
British shook his head. "Not such that thou wouldst consider worth the telling. Had thou not yet returned, it would have been most valuable. But no, the primary value was in the person himself, and of this I must compel thee not to speak to any outside this room."
Shamino's right eyebrow rose precipitously. "Very interesting..."
"The monk presented himself as Braccus."
"Ah yes, I believe I met him, actually."
"Oh, had thee? Well." British took a deep breath and met Shamino's eyes squarely. "He is not, originally, from the Serpent Isle. He is here because he wished to return home, and stand with Britannia against the Guardian."
"Interesting. But wh-" Shamino stopped suddenly, frozen in place. Wine sloshed from his goblet and he did not seem to notice when it landed on his leg. "Blackthorn. By the virtues, he seemed strangely familiar, disquietingly so, but I dismissed it. What didst thou do with him?"
British smiled wryly. "I didst give him a job in the kitchens."
"What?" Shamino demanded. Just as he was about to say more, he changed his mind, and closed his mouth.
"I have undone his banishment. He claims to be reformed... and convincingly, mind. He was content as a simple monk, and wishes to be known only as Braccus. Blackthorn is gone, Shamino. This much I believe. It may be that Braccus will be his own danger."
Shamino nodded slowly. "He returns to the land he once defiled to protect it. And perhaps, even make up for the past. I was the Anarch for a mercifully brief time that was still far too long. I..." He chuckled in surprise at himself. "I think I am glad that thou wilt give him a chance. Even he deserves the opportunity to make up for past sins. Forgive my outburst. I spoke without thinking."
British waved that aside. "It is far too late for me to try to convince thee to not speak thy mind before me! As if I would. But I appreciate thy support. I fear that the decision will have ill results. But I do not believe that it is wrong."
It was at the end of an unusually mild winter that everything happened at once.
All through the winter it was feared that armies would take advantage of the lack of snow and ice and move. But the disquiet only got stronger as there continued to be no sign that anything was coming. Eventually the snow began to melt and the rivers to run high, and the enemy was sighted.
"What's that?" Julia demanded of the breathless messenger.
"Troops, line after line of them, coming out of Covetous. They don't have the look of people planning to stay put for very long. They were still coming out when our scout reported to me and I hurried here."
"What kind o' 'troops'?"
"He reported that they appeared human, but didn't get close."
"A'right, thou go to the sergeants and make sure they start preparing. This is what we've been waiting for, though 'tisn't what I expected. Catch thy breath and then go."
"I'm fine, m'lady. I'll go now." Without waiting for a response he ducked out the door and began a sprint down the road. Julia stared at the door after him for some time while her mind raced. She wasn't sure what she expected the attack to look like, but this wasn't it. The question was, was this also true of the other dungeons? Fortunately the ability to investigate was within her means. She stood and went to her workshop.
Setting aside the tools that stood on the workbench in the middle of the room she placed a ball of crystal there and sat beside it. "In Vas Wis!" she incanted, and viewed the world at a distance.
There was Covetous. Humans, yes, but also headless and ettins were visible. Were they being forced forward, or coming of their own volition? She could not tell. She moved her sight on. Wrong. No mass of troops, but a small encampment visible now that she knew to look for it. It had the look of expecting more. If it had its own army, both would likely move towards Minoc. She wondered how much time they actually had.
She cast her view out to the other cities. Nothing unusual there- no surprise attacks yet. That was something, at least. Then to the other dungeons. Shame... no sign of anything. Nor Despise, Destard... Hythloth. There was some movement near the entrance to the dungeon. To what avail, she wondered- are they going to build boats to get somewhere worth attacking?
It hardly mattered- something was happening, finally. Unfortunate that it seemed aimed her way first, but they were as ready as they were likely to get. The walls were thicker and taller, and the militia and armies had been drilling and preparing through the whole of the winter. She cast her mind towards Britain and with another quick incantation made contact with Nystul.
"Hail, Julia," he said. "What dost thou know?"
"It's come finally, Nystul. They're comin' out of the dungeons," Julia informed him gravely.
Nystul's voice showed surprise. "Are they truly? What comes?"
"If I were t' guess, I'd say a force like the one that hit Britain year back. Unless they've been recruiting for a while and then decided to hide in dungeons the whole time- which I guess is possible- they're not from here."
"Aye. So it isn't a force of monsters?"
"They're only really coming from Covetous so far. Dunno if that's the entire force or if it's just first. I see a few in Wrong. Look fer thyself, it'll be better than my words. I ain't Iolo."
Nystul chuckled quietly. "As thou dost say. Art thou ready?"
"We'll see. Stay in touch. Thou wilt spread the word?"
"Yes. Dost thou think that the walls will hold?"
"I see no engines, so we have a strong advantage."
"Wert thou able to shore up the weakness on the corner?"
"Partially. The question will be how strong are their magics."
"Indeed. Well, good luck."
The arrival of a foe sent new energy through the populace of Britannia. Within days, every dungeon had troops marching out save one- Destard continued to be eerily quiet. While Trinsic and Britain were willing to count their blessings, all wished they knew why. Some armies brought the monsters from the dungeon with them, while others seemed to have just fought their way up and out.
Hythloth was the other exception. There was still a force there, but not nearly an army. Mariah proposed that they might be there to investigate the Shrine of the Codex, and the others agreed that this was likely so- but as the Codex was not even there, it did not seem worth expending limited resources attempting to prevent it. Mariah promised to keep an eye on it until the forces from Deceit began making the crossing to Verity Isle. Sentri and Geoffrey believed she had a week. She promised to make it count.
The force out of Despise immediately headed north through the Serpent's Spine. The civilian population of Yew was ordered to evacuate by moongate to Britain, Trinsic, and Jhelom, while forces prepared to take as heavy a toll as possible out of the invaders with bows in the woods. Shamino headed north and joined Jaana there to lead the guerilla defense. But as the troops poured out of the dungeons it became clear that they may be an overwhelming force. In magical conference, the voices were grave and worried.
Nystul found himself being the linchpin of Britannia's defense. Lord British and his advisors and generals communicated orders through him to the cities. He grew tired with the magical expenditures, but had long ago learned to go without sleep for several days at a time, at the least. He began one such period when the sieges of Minoc and the Lycaeum began on the same day. Those in Lord British's Castle watched by means of a crystal ball, though as the battles began some of the enemy forces became invisible to such vision.
"They do have mages," Jonathon noted sourly to Lord British, who nodded in response.
"Dost thou think either city will hold?" he asked.
Jonathon hesitated. "Probably not. 'Tis a question of time. See there, ettins are hurling rocks against the walls of Minoc. As for Moonglow, well..." He shrugged. "I do not know how well mages can defend their town against an army. Our best bet may be as in the Deep Forest- making it costly and minimizing our losses."
"Perhaps," said British. His face gave nothing away as he thought.
"Call back the guerrilla forces in the Forest. While so many of the moongates are still in territory not yet threatened, we can shift them into Moonglow while the enemy out of Deceit takes its time with the Lycaeum. We do not have the same luxury with Minoc. Ask Shamino and Jaana to then dig up the moonstone to deny them that gate, and come here to Britain."
"Interesting," said Jonathon. "Nystul, so far there is no sign of any naval based forces, is that so?"
Nystul nodded. "Save the rudimentary flotilla from Dagger Isle."
"Then the moongates are a strong advantage for us. And with their numbers we will be fighting defensively, so... aye. I agree with thee on retreating from Yew."
"Please relay those orders, Nystul. I must go see to the refugees and see what Iolo may need in assistance."
"Yes, my lord."
"First group, through," said Shamino sharply.
4 dozen bowmen saluted roughly, like the amateur soldiers they were. Or had been, before they began gaining experience with war. They turned and jogged towards the moongate, passing through in pairs- as many as could fit side by side through a moongate. In a good break, the moongate from Yew went directly to Moonglow for the time being. They had 3 hours until midnight, when that would shift to Skara Brae, which was much less useful to anyone- though they could still get there eventually, after a few hops.
Shamino turned towards Jaana and opened his mouth to say something when he was interrupted by a cry from one of the remaining bowmen in the woods near the gate. "Incoming!" shouted a voice, and Shamino cursed in surprise.
"What comes?" called another voice, full of strain and stress. Rather than an answer the next thing to come was a scream which came to an abrupt end.
Shamino looked at Jaana and nodded. No words needed to be said. She stepped into the shadow of a giant Yew tree and he put an arrow to his bow and ran towards the shouts. In short order he came upon a heavily bloodied woman, walking dazedly towards the moongate, and directed her to Jaana for healing. He hoped he could get the rest to her and the gate before they were overwhelmed by whatever came.
He stopped and cocked an ear, but as he listened he was nearly blinded by a brilliant fireball only a few hundred feet away. He blinked rapidly and walked, silent as the grave, towards the source. A gazer. He raised his bow and waited for his opportunity. It came a moment later when the gazer turned, and Shamino quickly placed two arrows in its central eye. It fell to the group with a sickening crunch.
Shamino hurried towards it and found three archers bound in magical sleep. "An Zu!" he called and pulled one to his feet even before he was aware that he was awake. The others were rising as he reached them, and he sent them towards the moongate. He slipped into the woods as a harsh buzzing sound began near the gazer's awful corpse.
He looked back, just in time to be almost blinded by several bolts of lightning that struck in the woods. He recognized the style- something had tried to get near the gate, and Jaana was taking care of the situation.
He took a few steps farther out, but then faltered. As his eyes adjusted again to the dark he saw forces moving. A lot of movement. This wasn't coincidence that they were found. This was an ambush. He began backing towards the gate, wondering if they were fully encircled.
The ground before him cracked as he walked and he threw himself back onto the ground. He crawled to a tree and watched as rock buckled upwards and a dark mist emerged from the ground. The mist solidified- taller than a man, with large grey wings and horns that looked decidedly uncomfortable, a daemon now stood before him. It stretched its wings and claws and gave a shrill cry.
Very slowly, very quietly, Shamino withdrew an arrow from his quiver and set it to the bowstring. The demon had not seen him, and seemed to believe that its quarry was ahead of it. Jaana, quite possibly.
We'll see about that, Shamino thought, and let the arrow fly.
As soon as it had been loosed he dropped the bow to his feet and began an incantation. He had many years of dungeoneering under his belt, and knew better than the believe that a single arrow, even piercing its head, would fell a demon. The demon turned and bellowed a cry of anger and pain and challenge, just in time to take the blades of a dozen swords to the chest.
He had its attention now. And behind it he saw motion, and smiled grimly to himself.
"Ha!" he called out to it. "Would thee like more where that didst come from?" And he began incanting a protective spell.
The demon began to laugh, and lumbered towards him. And Jaana, now behind it, fired a magical bolt at the back of its head.
It fell just feet from Shamino. He shook his head in a shudder, and grabbed his bow. "We need to get out of here," he said to Jaana. "How many got through?"
"There are still over a dozen unaccounted for. But many have gotten through and can warn Moonglow-"
Shamino nodded while he looked around himself for immediate threats. "Dost thou think we can remove this gate?"
Jaana gave him a look that showed what she thought of that idea.
"I know. Let's try. Cover me." Together they stepped, silent and woodwise, though the trees back to the location of the gate. To their surprise there were only a few humans there. Shamino taught Jaana's eye and gestured, in a shorthand that they had all come to understand through years of traveling together- he believed that the others are hunting what remains of their forces in the woods.
Jaana nodded and risked a whisper. "We won't have much time."
Shamino nodded in return. "Thou dost know what to do."
He crept closer to the clearing, and heard her casting as quietly as she could behind him. She concluded her spell and the gate's guards began suddenly looking around themselves, as though a dire threat were very close, approaching, casting its dark shadow upon them...
All but one fled. Perhaps he was of a stronger mettle than the others, Shamino mused as he put an arrow in the man and downed him. He then put the bow down and ran into the center of the clearing.
Jaana followed as far as the edge of the clearing, and upon seeing something moving on the other side immediately began further casting. Shamino cast just one spell, and the dirt at his feet emptied a hole before him as though he had spent an hour with a shovel. The gate flickered and died, and he reached down and recovered the moonstone, just as several bolts of lightning passed over his head.
He waited for a pause in her incanting and sprinted to her side. Without even waiting for him to speak she took his arm and they Blinked.
Elsewhere in the woods now, they looked carefully around them. Figures moved in the dark, but none seemed to have any reason to believe that they were there.
"We need to get out of here," Jaana said.
Shamino nodded agreement. "Lead the way," he replied.
"Vas Rel Por!" she incanted, and a temporary moongate whisked them away to just outside Britain.
A guard located near the gate started, and then saluted the two. They nodded back and began the walk to the city and thus the castle.
"How did they know we were there?" Jaana asked Shamino quietly.
"I don't know. Mayhaps they were keeping close watch on the moongate?"
"Hmm," said Jaana, unconvinced. "Perhaps."
A servant tiptoed hesitantly into his liege's bedroom, and uncovered a dim lantern. "My lord?"
Lord British opened his eyes wearily. "Yes, Sherman?"
"Nystul bid me wake thee. He said, ill news."
"Very well. Thank thee." Sherman bowed and hurried out, and British, feeling every one of his many years, swung his legs over the edge of the bed and got up.
Mere minutes later he arrived at Nystul's laboratory. "My lord," Nystul said. "The wall of Minoc is breached."
"Already?" British said in surprise. "Despite the work that went into reinforcing it? How do they fare?"
Shamino appeared in the doorway, and was waved in by British. He sat down and had the news repeated to him. His face was grim.
"The enemy was lucky. They happened to focus on the portion of the wall that was flawed. Julia was worried about it, but there was nothing more we could do once the dungeons erupted," said Nystul.
"Hmm," British said. Shamino looked about as if distracted.
"There is something..." he said, almost to himself. He shook his head and looked at Nystul. "I am not certain we can chalk it to luck. They laid in ambush when we tried to withdraw from Yew. They found the weakest point in Minoc. How can this be?"
"A spy?" said British. Shamino and Nystul shrugged.
"Perhaps," said Shamino, "but where?"
British shook his head. "I know not. Perhaps it was just luck. Or planning. For now we must see to the salvation of Minoc. What transpires?"
"Well, the wall is breached but... well, allow me to show you." He incanted and the crystal sphere glowed and then showed the scene. Britannian troops held the hole, though they were struggling with several large ettins. Bodies of headlesses were strewn about on both sides of the gap, and rocks continued to strike other portions of the wall.
"Where is Julia?"
"Watching from the next level up, I think... remember, the tinkers have been constructing some defensive devices. I believe they will be deployed as the enemy makes its way up the spiral," replied Nystul.
"That doth not really give them a way out," noted Shamino.
"Interestingly, in Yew and at the Abbey they appeared to accept surrender. They are here for conquest, but not slaughter," said British.
"Dost thou suggest that Julia save the lives and surrender?" asked Shamino.
British shook his head. "She is in command at Minoc. I will not try to make such a decision for her from here. She is there and will know better when the city is lost."
"Should we wake Jaana?"
British looked at the other present. "Nystul? Dost thou wish to rest yet?"
Nystul shook his head. He was tired, more tired than he showed, but there was more yet to be done. "Not yet, my lord."
"Braccus, walk with me, please," said British.
"Of course," Braccus replied. He put down the rag he was wiping his hands with and followed the king outside.
British brought him up to date on what has happened in Britannia since they last spoke. "Dost thou have any thoughts or suggestions?"
Braccus was thoughtful, as he ever was. "If thou wouldst like, I can place traps around Britain, for when they approach. It is clear that they will approach sooner or later. This would allow your other mages here to reserve their energies for other matters."
British nodded. "Very well, do so. What dost thou think will be their next move?"
"They will finish overrunning Minoc and Moonglow first, obviously. They will then have access to moongates, but I dost not know if they will dare them. Then I would expect all of their forces to converge upon Britain. But thy suggestion of a spy concerns me. Dost thou have suspicions?"
British shook his head. "I know not. Those involved are either people I trust entirely, or do not know at all. There must have been many in Minoc who were aware of the wall's weakness- if it was not just coincidence that it was struck in the first place."
"Perhaps. What dost thou think is the Guardian's objective here? It must be more than just military conquest."
"Aye. We have to assume that he still wishes to enter Britannia. We know now that he controls, owns perhaps, many worlds. I doubt that just militarily controlling the world is enough for him. We need to know more. There is something that prevents our scrying, below the dungeons- we still do not know how these armies entered Britannia."
"Yes," agreed Braccus. "I have tried to view there as well, and was unable to do so. Perhaps an expedition to investigate?"
British stopped, and then laughed. "Pray consider what happened the last time I tried that."
Braccus chuckled. "Well, perhaps not thee. But it should be considered. I would volunteer, if desired."
British shook his head. "It may be a good idea, and I will consider it. But if so I would send a group, and for the moment sending thee with a group might not be wise."
"Perhaps so," Braccus said. "But I want thee to remember that I came back to Britannia to defend it. Anything that is within my power."
"I know," British nodded. "I know."
"It's not actually a bad idea by any means. Though consider the source- art thou sure he does not mean to get more of your allies out of the way?" Shamino said to British as they walked back towards Nystul's lab.
British chuckled. "I am fairly certain, my friend. But thou dost think it would be a good idea?"
"He's right that we need that information. I wish I knew how easy it would be to approach. But we do have many people with a great deal of dungeon experience. It could be done. But can we afford to take people away from the defense of the cities?"
"I fear that we will be overwhelmed regardless, Shamino. As such we need to explore alternate means of salvation. If that means another expedition to the underworld... so be it."
Shimano nodded. "All right. Who should I take with me?"
British looked at him. "Art thou volunteering?"
"Aye. And the sooner the better, dost thou not think so?"
"I do, unfortunately. Let us see how fare our cities, and then decide."
They knocked, and upon hearing "Enter" they opened the door and stepped in. Shamino whistled. "Nystul, please believe me when I say that thou dost need some sleep."
Nystul smiled grimly and tiredly. "Perhaps so. It may be time for Jaana to take over communication duties for a time."
"Thou art no good to us if thou dost die of exhaustion, my friend," said British. "Go, now, to thy bed. Unless anything has drastically changed that dost need our attention."
"The enemy has withdrawn from Minoc. They took losses to Julia's improvised devices. She believes that they are merely regrouping and will be back soon."
British nodded. "Still, better than I had hoped. Anything else?"
"The mages of the Lycaeum are withdrawing to Moonglow ahead of the enemy. That is all... all of consequence." He closed his eyes as the exhaustion caught up with him.
"Shamino, wilt thou escort him to his chambers? I fear that he will collapse and sleep against a wall in the hallways if thou dost not."
"That... should not be necessary, my lord. Lord Shamino. I will return to my duties when I have gotten... a little sleep."
"Get thou more than 'a little'," said British, but Nystul merely shrugged and left the room, and they followed him out.
"Might be a good time for a cat nap, Shamino," said British. "I will send a servant to Jaana to ask that she prepare. Let us resume in... 2 hours? The world surely cannot end in two hours."
Shamino clapped him on a shoulder. "Very well. 2 hours it is. Sleep well."
Shamino awoke and wondered if maybe he was getting old. He lay in the dark room and decided that going back to sleep was just not permitted to happen. Five minutes later, he was knocking on the door of the room set aside for Jaana's working.
Lord British was already present, but from the sounds of things had not been there long. Jaana nodded at Shamino as he entered, and started her sentence over. "I can no longer use a Wizard's Eye to see Yew."
"Hmm," said Shamino in surprise. "Dost thou know why?" He looked at British but saw no insight there. "They hath taken the city. There is no need now to hide it, is there?"
Jaana said, "Indeed, I canst even still see the army, when it is far enough from the center of the city. It hath moved out, by the by, and is marching east. It seems we yet have time, here."
"As for Moonglow..."
"Hold on a moment, Jaana," said British. He stepped out of the room without another word.
Shamino and Jaana exchanged a look. "Beyond the war, he doth think that a group should investigate the dungeons. See if we cannot figure out where these foes have come from," said Shamino.
"Not a bad idea," replied Jaana. "What dost thou think?"
"I think I will end up doing so. It is something that would be valuable to know. And now we might want to send someone to view Yew as well."
"Perhaps so. I-" she stopped mid sentence, as a devastatingly loud roar was clearly audible through the entire castle. They exchanged another look and in a flash were heading out at a run.
Before they even reached the front gate they heard a loud voice bellow "I have not come to fight!" Half a dozen guards had already joined them in their run and more were falling in behind.
"Hold thy fire!" Lord British's voice called out from ahead of them. They emerged into the pre-dawn light to see an extremely unexpected sight- a dragon settling into the courtyard! Several nearby guards and soldiers had bows and crossbows out, but were slowly lowering them at British's order.
The dragon was a dark gold in hue, and filled most of the courtyard when it finally, gingerly, landed, and folded its wings. Shamino noted that there were at least 2 arrows sticking out of its side, oozing black ichor. Two horns extended from the back of its head, following the curve of its neck. Its head swept back and forth, taking in the courtyard, before lowering to look Lord British more or less in the eyes.
"Our kind hath never been on good terms, oh surface King," said the dragon. "But against a threat from another land, I believe that all must stand together. Tell me that I am wrong and I will depart now."
Lord British looked fearlessly into the dragon's eyes. "Thou art not wrong. And I hath never been one to encourage the slaughter of thy kind."
The dragon's eyes narrowed coldly. Smoke curled from its nostrils, and it said, "This is not the time to seek to establish moral credentials, for either of us. There is still a darkness at the center of the world, human, and the caves and dungeons of Britannia do still touch it. A doorway has been opened in this darkness, and the Voice does send troops upwards. Some of them tried to come through our home. Thou dost call it the dungeon Destard."
"Ah," said British. "We had wondered why that dungeon alone did not send forth foes."
"It will, soon enough. We held them for days- even armies canst not face families of dragons in their homes! But in time they became too much. Those of us left have fled. They have taken our home, British, and now they seek to do the same to thee. We offer thee alliance. We shall help thee defend thy homes here. And if these invaders are turned back, thou wilt help us retake our homes in turn. And then thou canst attempt to instruct thy adventurers and heroes that dragons are more than a source of gold and magic. What sayest thou?"
Without hesitation, Lord British replied, "I am glad to accept thy terms. Thee and thy kin are welcome here, and so long as there is no cause, none shall turn their hand against thee. And, as there are wounds from before thy intentions were known- I would heal thee, if thou wouldst allow it. And I pray that thou wilt forgive our bowmen. For as thou might well understand, we are quick to the defense, for fear of the Guardian."
"I thank thee, human. I accept," said the dragon.
"Vas Mani" said British quietly, and his hand glowed briefly as the wounds on their new dragon ally closed. "Dost thou have a name by which thou dost wish to be addressed?"
"Thou mayest call me Lumina."
British nodded. "Make thyself comfortable. I will send a servant to thee in a while to see if thou dost need anything. But in the meantime, there are duties which call. But I am most pleased to have seen thee."
"I wish thee luck, then. For the time being I will wait outside of thy city, to reduce the possibility of someone taking unfortunate hasty action."
"Indeed. We shall speak again soon." He gave a bow to the dragon, and nodded to Shamino and Jaana. "Let us return to work."
The dragon Lumina beat its wings and lifted off out of the courtyard as the three went back inside.
Nystul had, somehow, slept through the booming voices from outside the castle, and they allowed him to continue to sleep. Returning to Jaana's room they gathered a larger council of war. Shamino, Jaana, and Lord British were joined by Iolo, Gwenno, and Jonathon.
"Well. That was unexpected," said Jonathon after the situation was explained. British chuckled.
"We shall have to watch Destard now. They should emerge any time," said British to Jaana. She nodded. "When they do, they will head either here or to Trinsic. They will have suffered losses, so we shall have to see how much of a threat they pose.
"In the meantime, what happens at Minoc?"
"Stalemate at the moment. The enemy has not yet resumed their attack."
"Hmm. Well, it is out of our hands, for now. Moonglow?"
"The enemy marches, though not in the tightest formation thou hast ever seen, and the mages prepare. Things are tense. A few civilians have left by moongate but most wish to defend their home."
"Hmm? Yes, Richard?"
"Who and how many wouldst thou take on an expedition to the underworld?"
British laughed. "I am afraid I canst not send him with thee."
"When wouldst thou have us begin?"
"This very night, an it be possible. There is no time to lose."
"Then let me think, and I will have an answer for thee soon."
British nodded. "Now for the rest of us, let us discuss tactics."
In the end, Shamino declared that in an ideal world he would like to take Iolo and Gwenno, Geoffrey, a "potent mage", and "one more person who can carry a large shield."
Jaana spoke by magical means with Geoffrey and Mariah. Geoffrey declared that he was not even necessary in the force from Jhelom. "Gerald here has a masterful grasp of tactics and is a natural leader. Unless thou dost see an invasion coming by sea, I doth not think that I will be much missed," he said when asked.
Mariah was less eager. In the end, however, it seemed less likely that a single mage would turn the tide at Moonglow than that a mage of her skill and familiarity would make the dungeon expedition a success. Jaana also volunteered, but as Lord British put it, "in that case, I wouldst ask Mariah to come to Britain to replace thee. I doth have a feeling that thou wilst be needed more here."
But before they left their respective posts, Geoffrey and Mariah hammered out a plan, engineered by Jonathon. And as Shamino and his party hurried towards the dungeon Despise, the cities they had defended put the plans into action.
The army of the enemy reached Moonglow, coming down the coast and then crossing the bridge. The city had scant walls of stone, but was protected by a dome of magical energy- transparent to their own spells, however, which took a heavy toll on those making the crossing. The foe attacked the barrier, slowly draining the mages whose energy supported it, while mages assigned to offense counterattacked. A series of traps in the fields were triggered, and the Guardian's army found itself split in two, divided on either side of large craters of smoking earth.
At that signal, the troops from Jhelom emerged from the moongate and struck the enemy's flank. The surprise was complete. A swarm of elementals from the city emerged to attack the rear after they turned to face the cream of Jhelom's fighters, while the mages who still had energy kept the other half of the Guardian's army pinned down as best they could.
It could not last, of course- under Gerald's command Jhelom's fighters made an orderly retreat, and then completed a job that the defenders of Moonglow had begun when it was clear that the city was under threat- they removed the last supports that kept the bridge between Moonglow and its moongate stable, and let it collapse in their wake as they retreated through the gate. They had to pass through several gates before they reached home, but none, fortunately, controlled by the Guardian's forces. At each gate, ranks of archers waited in case the enemy should follow.
When the bridge fell, however, the Guardian's forces let them go and returned all of its attention to the city. Unfortunately, while Jhelom's forces' flank attack was devastating, it was not enough to turn the tide- the city's defenders were growing tired, their mana expended. The enemy grew cautious, but not so much so that they failed to press their advantage into eventual victory.
Not long after the barrier fell, the city was lost to view by Wizard Sight.
Braccus and Lord British walked the fields outside Britain as a light, cold rain fell upon them. Braccus pointed out what magical traps he had laid, and they discussed the approach they expected the enemy to take, and how best to confound them. Then too then discussed the fall of Yew and Moonglow.
"Forgive me for speculating so," began Braccus, "but there is a... possible pattern in some of these events. In some occasions, the Guardian's forces have seemed to be aware of our plans and weaknesses- as with the walls of Minoc. But in others they have seemed ignorant. We have too little to speculate from, but... hast thou noticed that orders given through Jaana hath been more successful than those given through Nystul?"
Lord British looked at his companion sharply. "My trust in Nystul is absolute."
Braccus looked off into the distance, his face marred by an unreadable expression. "As was your trust in me, once."
At this, British sighed. "Thy point is taken. But our evidence is markedly circumstantial."
"Indeed," agreed Braccus, "it is barely evidence at all. But I am not sure how well trust can be... trusted."
"Well," said British as they turned back towards Britain. "I will keep thy words in mind."
A massive late season ice storm struck Minoc that day, and all the forces involved seemed to resolve to wait it out. "It buys time, and is better for us than they, by dint of having roofs over our heads," noted Jonathon, "but it also just gives the troops from the assault on Yew time to catch up."
"Suggestions?" asked British.
"None," said Jonathon reluctantly. "There is little left we can do to impose our will on anything north of the Serpent Spine without making ourselves vulnerable elsewhere."
British accepted this, even if there was little to like about it.
And indeed, their ability to see Minoc ceased entirely only two days later. There was no final word from Julia. It was only then that they learned that the storm had been the work of the great mage Nicodemus, who cooled the air ever so slightly enough to turn rain to ice. He escaped the armies of the Guardian and teleported back to his home in the Deep Forest, which had gone unnoticed by the passing troops that had had little reason to explore so far north while en route to Minoc. He had then ensorcelled a scroll and attached it to a bird of prey, and charmed it into taking his missive to Castle Britannia. In it he claimed credit for the ice, and gave warning- at the heart of Yew, there now sits a small blackrock cube, perhaps a foot to a side. It warps magic in the area but worse, it appears to reach out to its kin. Nicodemus promised to investigate, and made it clear that he would not be directly active in the defense of the cities.
"He is old," grumbled British, "and serves what he believes is the best for the world, if not for the nation I am responsible for. So be it. His investigation will prove useful regardless."
In that time, the army out of Destard had made its way to Trinsic and set up seige. Their numbers were clearly diminished by their conflict with the dragons, and it was unclear if they had the strength required to overcome the walls of martial Trinsic. Nystul repeated orders to Gerald, who again took the forces of Jhelom to harry the foe. This time the maneuver was not unexpected by the enemy, though whether simply because it had been used before, or for other reasons, it was unknown.
Shamino and his band reached Despise and entered, and were lost to view- the dungeons having ever been proof against magical sight. He had taken with him his Companions of old, Iolo and Gwenno, Mariah, and Geoffrey, and also an up and coming soldier of Britain who was recommended by Geoffrey and Jonathon both as having the makings of a fine adventurer. And so had Damien suited up and with a glad heart journeyed with the heroes of legend.
"My lord," said Nystul, "perhaps there is a way we can project our force to the north."
British tilted his head wearily. It had been some time since he had last slept. "Say on."
"Lumina and his kin." Nystul looked for his liege's reaction, and when there was little forthcoming, he went on. "As best as we can tell, most of the Guardian's forces have moved on east from Yew. I do not contend that they should confront an army directly, but perhaps they can interfere with the cube Nicodemus reported."
British nodded. "A good idea. I canst not order them but I will suggest it. If they believe that would be a useful tactic they may be willing to go along with it."
"And then perhaps thou shouldst get some sleep," suggested Nystul wryly.
British stifled a yawn behind his hand. "If thou dost think so, perhaps thou'rt right. But first, I shall speak with our new allies."
The new allies were enthusiastic about the idea. "If there is any real danger to yourselves, please return here immediately. But if thou canst find any way to disrupt whatever process is undergoing there, please do so."
"We shall judge that, have no fear," replied Summera, who had introduced herself as Lumina's daughter. "But it will be a pleasure to fly, and to pay them back for their transgressions against our kind."
"Then good luck to you. I shall see thee upon thy return."
They took off, five of them in flight, staying low and flying north. British watched until they were out of sight and then returned to the castle, and took to his bed.
The dragons had been expected.
The flew in low over the trees, and then curved up in formation to approach the city, and discovered that, hidden below the branches the defenders were prepared. Scores of arrows arched into the air, and as the dragon winged aside to evade them, several ballista fired their deadly loads into the sky. One was sighted and promptly burst into flames as a result of Lumina's deadly breath, but two of the five dragons were wounded in the surprise counterattack.
Lumina roared, and their wounded kin fell back and the other three pressed on, more cautiously, their own element of surprise having failed.
Sheets of flame engulfed some of the archers, but others had protection of some kind, and the fire seemed to strike to either side but never actually strike them. Closer in towards the city's center there were a handful mages, but they in turn were unable to land a powerful enough strike on the dragons to sway them. They are creatures of magic, able to shrug aside most mortal spells. But not all, and they were wary in their flight.
The blackrock cube was easy to find. Not because of the way it distorted magic in its vicinity, eating spells and warping the ether, nor because it was itself highly visible. Rather because it had a guardian that stood 15' off the ground. It had a single large eye and a huge club in its left hand, and Lumina dared not get too close. His breath sputtered to nothing as it approached the blackrock, and arrows continued to harass them from below.
Lumina roared again and ordered the retreat. One by one, reluctantly, they turned southward. Reunited with their injured brethren they winged their way to safety, eventually setting down in the mountains of the Serpent's Spine to rest and heal.
"Somehow they knew. This is beyond coincidence now- they were well prepared specifically against a strike by air. But this has not ever been communicated by way of Nystul's telepathic communication, so we can assume that it is not a matter of insecurity there. But how, then? Nystul himself is a common thread, perhaps, but even so..." British paced back and forth anxiously as he brought Braccus up to date on events. He stopped, suddenly, his eyes thoughtful. "Wait."
Braccus looked at him curiously, but said not a word, waiting for what might be forthcoming.
"I have an idea." British started walking determinedly towards Nystul's labs.
"Wouldst thou wish for me to accompany thee?" asked Braccus.
British shook his head firmly. "Nay. If I am correct, it would be best if thou art not in the room. And if I am wrong it will do no good. Bide and I shall inform thee of what I discover."
Braccus bowed fractionally. "Of course."
British entered Nystul's labs having already made his preparations, and he gazed about himself with perception enhanced by magic. "My lord..." began Nystul, but British waved him to silence.
"Nystul," said British quietly, "what is this?" He pointed at a fragment of black on a shelf.
Nystul inspected it for a moment, and then recalled it. "It is a piece of the orb of moons. The orb shattered, and I recovered this piece for study."
"But thou hast not had the opportunity for such study, is that so?"
British picked it up off the shelf and handed it to Nystul. "Please, study it now," he said. Nystul gave him a curious look, but then turned his attention to the fragment in his hand.
In just a moment, Nystul swore, loudly and vociferously. British did not believe he had ever heard his advisor use such language before, in fact. The orb was flung heavily against the wall and shattered once again, into dust.
A wave of pain flashed through the minds of both of them, and they both felt the chill of the Guardian's laughter. It faded, and was gone.
"Yes. That was it," said British quietly. He sat down heavily.
"He must have touched it during his confrontation with the Time Lord," said Nystul, returning quiet for quiet. "Lives lost, due to my carelessness."
The king looked at him sharply. "We cannot afford to think that way. If we self-flagellate after every error we will quickly render ourselves useless. We know, now, and must hope that he can no longer hear our words."
Nystul nodded. "That must have been it. Not listening in on our long distance communications, but simply hearing what we spoke aloud here." He sighed, feeling very old and weary.
"Do not let it drive thee into despair. Too much depends upon us even still."
"Yes," agreed Nystul. "Thou'rt correct. But even so."
British nodded sympathetically, and stepped out the door. He went to Braccus and told him the news.
Braccus shook his head. "Unfortunate."
British could only nod at that.
"Thou wouldst think that by now, we would have learned to be wary of shards, dost thou think?"
British looked incredulously at Braccus, and then smiled. "Aye. Thou wouldst think so." He clapped Braccus on the shoulder. "Thank thee for that. But now I..."
They both turned to see a breathless page round the corner. "Nystul calls for thee, urgently."
From outside the castle, a roar echoed, and then the sound of an explosion. Braccus flinched.
He looked, eyes widened, at the king. "My traps. One has been triggered. But how..."
"My lord!" a second page, breathless as well, ran to find him. "Jonathon stands on the battlements. He has sent me to say that the enemy is here!"
British took a deep breath, and turned to his pages. Calm, so very calm, but Braccus could see the tension in the clenched fist at his side. "Tell Jonathon that I say he is to do as he must." The page waited for half a moment more, in case there was anything more, and then with scarcely a bow sprinted off down the hall.
"Braccus, accompany me please," said British as he took long strides towards Nystul's lab.
"What has happened?" British demanded. "Didst they come through the moongate unwatched?"
"Not at all," said Nystul, pale with exertion. "I caught the end of the ritual. I suspect half of their mages are incapacitated with the strain, and I doth not know from where they got the power, but..."
"They teleported the army," said Braccus quietly and with a trace of awe in his voice. Nystul nodded.
"They teleported their army. Britain is surrounded. I hope that the troops set to watch the moongate have fled through it, cut off as they now are from the city proper."
"I believe they now rest on the towers and on the roof. Not really a long term solution I fear but it doth put them out of reach of the enemy."
British nodded. "I go now to join Jonathon at the battlements. Pray inform me of any changes to the situation."
"Of course, my lord," replied Nystul.
After they stepped out of Nystul's rooms, Braccus turned to Lord British. "I too have preparations to make. Wilt thou excuse me? Know that I will be beside thee as thou dost defend these lands."
"Of course," said British. "Virtue's Bane, but I hoped to have at least a day's warning. Go. We shall do what we can, and do what we must."
He reached the battlements shortly thereafter. "Well? How many?"
"It looks likely to be the Minoc and Yew forces together. Whether it is sufficient to their needs- I do not know. Much depends on their magical support. If they hath expended it all in just arriving here..."
"But we cannot count on that."
"Of course not."
"How are our defenses?"
"Not so well as if we had had more warning, but it could be worse. Civilians are withdrawing into the castle. We are well stocked in reagents and cannonballs, bolts and shields. And dragons, should they return in time. But we must assume that this will be their most important objective, and that they will have something up their red sleeves."
"We cannot give in to the assumption that it will be hopeless. He has failed before, defeat even clutched from the jaws of victory."
"Aye, but there we had the Avatar."
British sighed. "Aye, we did. And now we must do without. And by the virtues, let us show that Britannia doth not wither and fall just because we lack one man, whoever he may be." But in his heart he too wished for the Avatar. Feeling his heart like a stone within him, he turned to prepare for war.
"This has been far too easy so far," said Iolo.
Gwenno hit him on the back of the neck. "Don't say that. Thou wilt jinx us."
He was right, though, thought Shamino. Perhaps the outgoing army had slain what denizens of the dungeon they did not conscript. But they were already two thirds of the way through its tunnels, perhaps, on their way to the underworld, and so far the worst encounter they had faced had been a flight of mongbats at wing.
Shamino peeked around a corner, and ducked his head back once he had gotten a look. "Reapers. At least two."
"See?" demanded Gwenno, taking care to keep her voice down.
Iolo fitted a quarrel to his crossbow. It glowed, impatiently.
He looked at Mariah and mouthed the word 'Ready?' She nodded.
He quickly turned around the corner and fired, fitted another bolt, and fired again, and then jumped back behind the corner just in time to dodge a bolt of lightning. Immediately after the bolt's passage, Mariah stepped into the space and made a quick incantation. There was a shockwave and silent flash of light, and suddenly both reapers caught fire. The one that already had two of Iolo's bolts stuck in it twitched and was still. The second was silenced by a second spell from Mariah.
"Remarkably quietly done," said Damien.
"Yes, well," said Iolo, "we've had a lot of pract-"
An earthshaking roar bellowed from just beyond the fallen reapers.
Iolo closed his eyes in resignation. "Great."
Shamino looked around the corner. "I... hath no idea what that thing is. But it's found the corpses."
"Don't suppose it's likely to consider them to be food and just ignore us?" asked Geoffrey rhetorically.
"I doth wish," said Shamino, "but no. Not likely. Mariah, eyes?" She nodded, and cast a quick spell, and the night vision allowing the companions to see in the dark was refreshed. "Thanks," he said. "I didst not want that to wear off at a very poor time." The creature roared again. "I think it hath scented us. Be ready."
Iolo had already readied another glowing bolt for his crossbow. Geoffrey and Damien stepped in front, swords out, shields on. Gwenno's crossbow was ready, and Shamino had two short blades in his hands.
An insectile leg came into view as the creature skittered around the corner towards the band. It looked like an eight foot tall beetle, except with the head of a hound and diaphonous wings, and the tail of a scorpion. No one had ever seen anything like it, but that did not stop them from striking unhesitatingly. Shamino dove forward and underneath its belly while Damien and Geoffrey each swung their swords at separate legs. Damien's bit in but did not seem to do any lasting damage, and Geoffrey's was unable to even penetrate the solid hide. It reacted more strongly to the crossbow bolts that sunk into what passed for its chest, roaring again with a sound that seemed very out of place for its body. A ball of fire streamed from Mariah's hand, but upon striking the bug-thing's carapace it seemed to be reflected away harmlessly. Mariah narrowed her eyes.
The hound head bit at Geoffrey, who was able to dive out of the way before its fangs could try to pierce his armor. As it bent down to strike, Shamino thrusted his sword at its underside. It was harder to penetrate than he expected, but all the same he drew some kind of black ichor. It dripped on him, and he dove forward and behind the thing, keeping a wary eye on the tail and trying to determine if it was poisoned, or just dangerously sharp.
Mariah tried again, with lightning, but to the same effect. She conjured a storm of swords to keep it occupied while she considered a better move- the swords may be created by magic, but struck its carapace with the same effect as any purely physical weapon.
A leg swept Geoffrey aside, and Damien backed up slowly as he used his shield to keep its mouth off of him as it tried to drive him back and get within range of the crossbows, which continued to sink arrows into its body. Shamino dodged a strike by the tail- evidently it didn't need to turn its head to see- and decided it was probably just sharp.
Damien prepared to stop retreating and try to hold his ground when Mariah called out, "No, let it come just a few more feet!"
Geoffrey made a mighty swing and chopped off one of its legs below it's lowest bend. With as many legs as it had this didn't slow it down much, but it did upset it, and it tried to stab at him with its tail. Geoffrey managed to interpose his shield just in time and Shamino struck a strong blow to the tail. He did not sever it, but it flailed wildly and he hoped he had just damaged some nerves. If it had such things.
It stepped forward again and roared deafeningly.
Mariah cast another lightning bolt. But not at it, this time- at the stalactite that it had just walked underneath. There was a crack, and a chunk of stone fell from the ceiling of the cave and struck their foe on the back. All of its legs splayed out as it was slammed to its belly by the force, and Geoffrey was there to immediately strike for the blood vessel in its neck. Its eyes closed and did not again open.
"Anyone hurt?" asked Iolo. Gwenno shook her head and Damien replied, "Only some bruises and scratches, methinks."
"Nice trick," said Shamino to Mariah, who smiled in reply.
"What was that?" she asked. "I hath never seen anything of its like in my studies."
"Nor I in my years both above and underground. And so I suspect it to be from another place- much like the soldiers, I fear."
"So we may be close," said Geoffrey.
Shamino shrugged, "Perhaps. Or it may just be claiming a new home." He smiled, wearily but triumphantly, and added, "We'll just have to move on and find out."
Britain was surrounded. Cut off from its moongate, there was no retreat. The civilians had been evacuated to safe rooms in the castle, and it was crowded, hot, and smelly inside.
As the enemy troops had appeared, some of them set off Braccus's traps as they teleported on top of them, but many were missed by virtue of having appeared inside the ring of them. Unfortunately, alerted as they were to the fact that there were some traps, squads appeared to have been immediately mobilized to find and neutralize the remaining ones. Nystul muttered about the wasted energy, but Braccus shrugged it off.
Despite the porous defenses of Britain, the enemy had made no attempt to try the walls yet. Worry over the reason was the main topic of discussion in the council inside the castle, but no conclusion was reached. "It is likely," Jonathon noted, "that the force from Destard, while too weak to actually topple Trinsic, still serves an important purpose. Trinsic is bottled up and unable to come to our salvation."
"Then we will make due with what we have."
The answer to their question was revealed just before sunset, while Jonathon was weighing the merits of sallying out while the enemy mages were still recovering from their incredible spellcast. A single figure, human by all appearances, stepped forward out of the front line of troops, and with a clear voice he called for parlay with Lord British.
He was dressed in armor that looked like the plate worn by most of the Guardian's troops, but it was a strange greenish-blue hue. At the chest a strange device was featured- a red cogwheel of a solid color, with a small hole in the center. Such an icon had never been seen in Britannia before. It was reproduced on several battle standards throughout the army's ranks. A sword hung at his side and he wore a short cape of red that matched the wheel.
A messenger quickly ran to the castle to inform his Majesty of the development.
"What shall we do?" asked Nystul.
British turned and began walking to the castle gates. "I shall speak with him."
Jonathon gasped in horror. "Thou mayest be walking into a trap. Art thou sure?"
"Tis the only way to find out. I believe they will find that I am not so easily held and trapped. Pray ask two of your guardsmen to accompany me. And if this man who presents as perhaps being a leader does indeed wish to parlay, perhaps we can use it to buy us some time."
Jonathon nodded reluctantly. "In that case, allow me to go with thee myself."
"Nay, my friend. Thou art to remain here, in case something doth happen to me. Thou wilt be needed to command the forces. Without thy strategic vision we will be in much worse straits than those we now swim."
"...As thou sayest."
"Thank thee. Nystul, thou'rt to remain as well. But, do keep watch as best as thou canst."
"My lord, I shall."
"What in the name of all the virtues are we looking at?" Geoffrey asked.
The dungeoneering party looked down from a ledge overlooking a large cavernous clearing, below the bottom of the dungeon. Their night vision was overwhelmed and unnecessary from the red light shining and filling the cavern. Unrecognized monsters and a small troop of human soldiers stood in loose collection around the center of the clearing.
In the center were two gates. One large red moongate, and one small black one.
"Moongates. This is their beachhead?" said Iolo.
Gwenno leaned out to look closer. "But two of them? Different sources?"
"And a black gate. Is that truly a black gate? What doth stop the Guardian from entering now?" asked Geoffrey.
Mariah shook her head. "There are two reasons why not. For one, the other gate was only open for him during the planetary alignment. Who canst say who this one is open for now? And second, remember that the blackrock gate that the Guardian did try to enter through was much larger than this one. I doubt he could fit."
"They may have different destinations," said Shamino, "but they may not. There may be reason for both gates to go to the same place."
"What might that be?" asked Damien.
"It is speculation," replied Shamino. "Nystul and Rudyum did studies some years ago. A blue moongate mostly connects locations within a world. A red one can connect anywhere. If it goes somewhere that could be connected by a blue moongate it acts mostly the same. But if the connection is more tenuous, someone who uses the gate emerges... diminished. Drained of magical power and prowess."
"And a black gate?" said Geoffrey.
"Anywhere to anywhere without limit... if thou canst make it open and keep it open. So if I had to guess..."
Mariah picked up the thought. "The red moongate is for the troops. The black one was for the leadership."
Shamino nodded. "It could be so. Or we could be wrong. We'll have to peek in and see."
"We'll what?" said Iolo in surprise.
"We didst already know that they arrived here. For useful information, we need to learn more."
"What canst we learn from looking through? Can we learn the name of the world it leads to? Tell us the color of the sky?"
"I was more thinking of seeing if there was another army available to march through in a pinch."
Iolo's mouth twisted. "I see."
"Also," added Mariah, "whether the black gate there is even still open. Mayhaps it was so only long enough to transport a group and then didst close."
"Possible," said Shamino. "In which case I wouldst need to determine whether I dare risk the red gate."
"It is only a theory," noted Iolo.
Shamino nodded. "Well, 'twould be research of its own sort to find that out, I suppose."
"Canst thou get near enough to try?" asked Damien.
Shamino smiled in response. "I do have certain talents," he said modestly. Geoffrey snorted.
"All right," said Iolo. "We'll give thee... an hour? Make it two."
"And then what?" said Shamino. "Come after me? That would be foolhearty in the extreme, my friend."
Iolo gave him a level look. Finally Shamino shook his head. "All right. If you see an opportunity, thou mayest try to recover me. But otherwise take what we hath learned and go! Return to Britain's moongate."
Geoffrey shook his head. "And if the enemy hath reached Britain already?"
"Unlikely," responded Shamino, "but possible. Jhelom's, perhaps, until the situation can be determined. But let me be off, and if the virtues are with me I shall return quickly."
"Virtues be with you," said Geoffrey, and Iolo put his hand on his shoulder, squeezed once, and let go. "Good luck."
Shamino looked around him and crept off into the darkness.
Accompanied only by two guards, Lord British stepped up on the battlement of the west wall of Britain and faced an army. Inside he felt the touches of despair- it was larger, more professional, more dangerous than he had expected. But outwardly he showed so sign of such thoughts, and he turned to face the man, presumably a leader, who had called for him to come.
"I am here. What wouldst thou say to me?" he called down.
The man removed his helmet and looked up at the king. He bowed his head respectfully. "Your majesty. I thank you for coming. I would like to propose, however, that rather than both shouting for all to hear, perhaps we may meet at the gate of your city. Do not open it- but we can speak through it in a more comfortable fashion." He seemed to recall something, and inclined his head to the side. "Wilt thou agree?"
British stared at him, his mind racing as he fought to find a catch or trap in the other's words. Finally, he nodded. "Very well," he said, "though I will not leave the hearing of these guards."
The other bowed. "I would not ask it. I shall have an equal number accompany me." He began walking towards the gate, and British looked at his guards, saying nothing, and began walking to the stairs on the inside of the wall. They reconvened at the gate.
"Lord British of Britannia. I am Commander Larech of Saryn. I am here to bring Britannia into the fold and bring the light to this new land. As you can see, it is within my power to do it." He gestured at the troops standing a distance away. They made no move during the parlay, and British allowed himself to believe that he would not, in fact, be pierced by arrows during the discussion. "I ask that bloodshed be averted. Surrender to me now. We will take only you and your highest commanders. Your soldiers will lay down their arms, and no blood need be shed."
British looked at him in deep surprise. "Thou dost expect me to hand off my kingdom, just like that? Give my people to the Guardian at thy word? I think not."
"As I understand that you are a man who values honesty, I will tell you- no, I do not. But I ask anyway."
"Why dost thou insult us by asking, then? I will never cease to defend my people so long as I draw breath."
"I ask because I feel it is the moral thing to do. Perhaps in time you will see that this is so." The commander reached up and leaned a hand on the wall of the city. "I grant you and request an hour to return to our lines. Will you accept this?"
British tilted his head regally. "Commander, I will. If thou dost truly wish to prevent bloodshed, then withdraw. Return to thy homes and trouble Britannia no more, and no more blood need be shed."
Commander Larech, who had half turned away, faced British once more. "Would you truly allow that? Allow us to withdraw from even the cities we have taken, and make no strikes for vengeance or blood?"
British nodded. "Of course I would."
"I cannot accept your offer, Lord British. We will continue our conquest for so long as it is necessary until Britannia is brought into the light. In time you will see that this is the best thing for Britannia." He held up a hand. "I know you do not see it now. But I am grateful to know that you are such a King." He bowed, in a style unlike any Lord British had ever seen, but with good intention. "One hour," he said, and turned to walk back to his lines.
British stared at the commander's retreating back for the space of several heartbeats, and then turned to walk the streets of Britain to his castle.
"What do you think?" British asked.
"I didst continue to watch after you left the gate, my lord," said Nystul. "They did nothing to prevent me, or perhaps were unable to feel my scrying. As usual I could see but not hear, but their leader-"
"Commander Larech," supplied British.
Nystul shrugged and continued, "their... commander, then, had an acrimonious discussion with some of what I would guess were his advisors."
"Tis the best way I canst find to describe it. Gesticulating and possibly even shouting."
"What," said Jonathon, "did they expect our Lord to actually accept Larech's terms?"
"I do not believe so," replied Nystul.
"Perhaps," mused British, "it was the mere fact that he made the offer?"
"Dost thou think so?" said Nystul.
"He seemed... a man of honor. As surprising as it is to find such in the Guardian's employ, but then we know full well how deceptive the Guardian can be. He didst say that he made the offer because he felt it was... the right thing to do."
"And thou dost believe him?" demanded Jonathon.
"I doth not know for certain. But I consider it to be possible."
"Well. Knowing that, doth it change what we will do?"
British and Jonathon both shook their heads. "He doth still come as a conqueror, and I will make him bleed for every inch of Britannia he doth seek to take."
"Shall I order the attack, then?" asked Jonathon.
"Not yet," replied British. "I did grant him an hour to return to his lines, and while he is there the hour is not yet up. A time may come when we may need such consideration from him again, and I would like to not have closed that door."
Jonathon nods. "But we should be prepared to begin as soon as that hour is up, I feel."
"I do agree. See to it."
Jonathon nodded, then stood and bowed before leaving the room.
"Hath it been two hours yet?" asked Geoffrey.
"I believe so," replied Mariah. "What shall we do?"
Iolo and Geoffrey exchanged a long look.
"We canst not leave him," said Iolo.
"And we must inform Lord British, if at all possible, what we hath learned," countered Geoffrey.
There was silence for a pair of heartbeats.
"It is my belief that Damien, Iolo, and Gwenno should return to the surface. Mariah and I will proceed to the gate and find out what has happened to Shamino." He looked at Mariah, who met his gaze and nodded once.
"But..." started Iolo.
"We hath not actually learned very much," said Gwenno.
"Tis enough," said Mariah. "The presence of two gates, of blackrock-"
"Well, only one gate is of blackrock," said Iolo.
"I meant, the presence of blackrock. And the presence of two gates. Unfamiliar monsters. And the gate is still open to somewhere. These are important things to know."
"Perhaps he will wish to send a regiment here," said Damien. "Clear out the guards and secure this foothold. To be sure, they are not guarding it with sufficient strength."
"These are decisions he cannot make without the knowledge we hold. Doth anyone disagree with my division of labor?" said Geoffrey.
Iolo stared at him for a time. "I wish to see that Shamino is ok. But I doth see thy point. Thou'rt right." He stood and heaved a deep breath. "I shall see thee on the surface, my friends."
"At the pace thou dost walk, we may beat thee there," smiled Geoffrey.
Iolo smiled back. "Good luck."
After the others departed, Geoffrey looked at Mariah with a smile. "Well. Now what?"
"Bravado hath passed now that thou hast convinced the others to return?"
Geoffrey chuckled. "Perhaps. I doth not think that a frontal assault will get us close enough, and certainly not get us away. Thou didst seem to have an idea- what is it?"
"Simplicity in itself. First, I render us invisible and silent. Then we approach... around there." She pointed to a path with a minimum of watchers who might discover them as they passed.
"And when we pass through?"
Mariah shrugged. "Then we make it up as we go."
"Perfect. Let's go."
She smiled, and began casting, and soon they were lost to sight. They climbed down from their overhead vantage point, after memorizing the path they sought to walk, and then began their slow progress.
"Did you hear something?" asked a sentry as they slowly passed.
"Nope," said the other. "Just bats. Big ones, they have here."
The other strained to hear, while Geoffrey and Mariah froze in place, against a cave wall. "There it is again. Yes, you're right." He relaxed, and in turn so did Geoffrey and Mariah.
After a few moments they began moving forward again, and soon enough reached the two gates. The moved unhesitatingly towards the black one. It seemed to absorb the light cast by the red gate glowing and shimmering nearby, and the sentries seemed to give it a wide birth.
Geoffrey looked at Mariah, glad that her spell didn't cause them to lose sight of each other. She held up three fingers, then folded one down, then another. Then they simultaneously stepped through the gate.
"FIRE!" shouted Jonathon, and the cannons on the battlements of the castle thundered. For the first time in memory, the cannons of Castle Britannia fired as an act of war.
Under a turtle shell shield formation, the enemy crashed large logs into the gates of Britain, and they would not long stand up to such an onslaught. Britain was a merchant town, not a military one. Archers fired back and forth over the wall while the cannons ripped holes in the turf, ruining enemy formations. Enemy spellcasters sought to neutralize the cannonfire, with mixed success. One cannon's barrel was quickly cracked beyond repair, and another developed an annoying tendency to refuse to fire accurately.
It was scarcely an hour after the first cannonball sailed that the gates of Britain began to buckle and fold. One burst from its support and the first influx of trolls and headlesses was repulsed by Britannian pikemen, and Lord British, watching from a battlement, turned to Nystul, and said, "I think it is time."
"There is only profit to waiting if I thought there was a chance it might not be needed. But look: dost thou believe that we will stand without help? I cannot take the risk that our sorcery will not be enough."
Nystul only nodded.
British stood upright and extended his hands. Nystul, who stood close by, was the only one to hear him say, "Forgive me, Britannia, for what I must do."
The wind stilled and he began to glow with a brilliant white light.
Outside the walls of Britain, the earth began to shake. And then split, as crevasses appeared underneath the opposing troops. As the ground rumbled clouds descended from nowhere, and upon the enemy alone it began to hail and rain, as great bolts of lightning cascaded throughout their encampments.
To their credit the enemy soldiers did not break down and wail, but the monsters from the dungeons did not have the discipline showed by the foreigners. Many broke and ran, or fell to the ground, clutching their heads if they had one.
The cannons continued to fire, almost unheard in the din.
Having swallowed many soldiers and much equipment, the earth eventually closed gently again, though there would always be new cracks and crevasses in the land around the city. The army standing without had lost perhaps a quarter of its strength.
The light faded around British, and he sagged to his knees, and then all the way to the floor.
"My Lord!" said Nystul, concerned. "What is wrong?"
British coughed. "I am the land, Nystul, in a very real way. And in order to have a chance to win a war, I broke the land, deliberately. It hurt. I am going to have to leave our defense to you and Jonathon for now..."
Nystul nodded, and touched British's forehead. Relieved not to find him burning up, Nystul flagged down a soldier. "Get someone to bring him to his quarters. He doth need rest now, after what he has done." The soldier nodded, saluted, and ran off.
Jonathon's troops pressed the attack while the enemy was disheartened. It would not last for long, he knew, but he would not fail to press the advantage while he had it. The enemy was driven out of Britain and short forays were taken into the enemy's camps, but never for long. But in time the Saryn troops regrouped, and seeing that 2 of the gates had fallen and a third was bulging inwards, Jonathon called a withdrawal. He feared it would be impossible to retreat safely if too many troops made it onto this side of the wall- fields of fire and lightning were placed in the gateways, buying moments only, but enough. Britain's army withdraw step by step over the drawbridge, a gust of wind cleared it, and it was lifted and closed. Britain was ceded to the enemy, but the heart of Britannia still beat in the castle.
It was midnight when the note of doom sounded. Inaudible but felt in their souls, it woke Lord British from his slumber, and caused sleepers throughout the castle to cry out wordlessly.
Still weary from his exertions, British left his chambers to find troops and messengers running to and fro. He went to the council chamber and found Nystul, Jonathon, and Jaana there, along with several other soldiers and mages of lesser power.
He waved them to their seats as some of them began getting up to bow. "What transpires?" he asked.
"We had been concerned that there might be an attack through the tunnels, so we set them to be watched. At midnight, a powerful magic was rendered, and soon after the watchers were killed- from something that struck them from behind," reported Jaana.
Lord British sank into a seat and closed his eyes. "Has a gate been opened under our feet?" asked Jonathon. British shook his head slowly, as he concentrated on feeling the nature of the land...
His eyes shot open. "No. My works did weaken the fabric of the land in this place, and the enemy hath torn the very ether and admitted something dire. We to the courtyard, quickly!" He got to his feet with a burst of adrenalin and the others, rightfully frightened of anything that could so scare their liege, followed suit.
As he hastened through the corridors of the castle, British extended his right hand. A white staff, topped with an ankh, appeared within it. The robes he wore took on a sheen, as through sprinkled with metallic dust. "The Mystic Staff..." murmured Jaana in awe.
"Wait," said British as they stood in the doorway to the courtyard. As if cued by their presence, a fountain of earth and stone arched upwards, and red claws and wings were seen on tremendous forms digging their ways out of the ground.
"Daemons," said Jonathon. "Two daemons are hardly a sufficient force..."
British waved a hand and he fell silent. The archers on the battlements rained arrows downwards but they were deflected by a shield of magic... and a third form rose from the tunnels beneath the ground.
It was black, nearly 10' tall and insectile, with gossamer wings like a dragonfly and a tail with a red stinger. It had four large forearms, two smaller and lower, and two vast and gleamingly sharp which extended from its upper body. Merely to look upon it was to feel the bite of despair. To meet its gaze was to feel the life force begin to leave you.
"Slasher of Veils," said Nystul in horror.
From the far side of the Britain Moat, the enemy army withdrew towards the walls and out, feeling instinctively that something was present that they did not wish to be near. Cries and orders could be heard being shouted, but they could not be made out.
The Slasher of Veils flew five feet above the ground and turned its gaze on a cluster of nearby soldiers.
"What do we do?" said Jaana, fear edging into her voice.
Jonathon looked at it, face pale. "Any chance we can drive it towards the enemy?"
British shook his head. "Perhaps. But it cannot be permitted to live. It could destroy all life in Britannia, if fully unleashed."
He started forward, but was arrested by a hand on his arm. "My lord, art thou well enough?" asked Nystul, full of concern.
"I see no other choice, my friends."
One of the demons cried out- archers on the walls had switched to magical arrows, and were piercing its hide. But to the surprise the Slasher of Veils had turned its gaze to Britain, and from Britain came two piercingly red beams of light. They both struck the flying daemon, and it struggled against them.
"They seek to control it?" said British. "No matter. They will not succeed. It is uncontrollable."
"I think they are just angering it," said Jaana.
A brilliant ball of flame issued forth from the winged creature, striking at a distant target in Britain. Whatever it struck, it did not interrupt the crimson lines of magical force.
Jaana and Nystul shared a look, and then Jaana pointed at the uninjured daemon. The wounded daemon was taking wing, turning towards the troops on the battlements of the castle... and flew directly into the path of a cannon. It discovered, to its dismay, that it's magical shields were unable to deflect a projectile of that power.
It disappeared into a haze of mist just as Jaana and Nystul began casting at the remaining daemon, taking advantage of the Slasher of Veils' distraction from outside the castle. In a trice they had the daemon bound in magical knots, causing it to be unable to harm anything until it found its way out of the bindings.
The Slasher extended all four of its arms and shrieked, and the air around it rippled as if it was being viewed through a wave of immense heat. The red ribbons of light rippled and distorted even further, and then evaporated as if they had never been.
British, seeing that the Slasher was no longer distracted or held at bay by the mages outside the castle, strode forth from the doorway from which they were watching. The Slasher turned, facing the castle, and flew closer, slashing with one forelimb into the stone wall of one of the towers.
The tower wall collapsed, and the tower, and the soldiers who stood within it, began to fall.
The Slasher of Veils moved in towards the battlements, and the soldiers upon it quailed and shrank back, until the Slasher was struck from behind by a brilliant white bolt of energy, issued forth from the ankh atop British's staff. "Turn, monster," British's voice thundered. The Slasher turned to face its new assailant.
Behind it, the tower collapsed onto other parts of the castle, but those within it had their fall arrested part way to the ground. Nystul and Jaana looked at each other in surprise, and quickly decided not to question the good fortune as they turned to stand with Lord British.
From within the broken portion of the castle, Braccus guided the slowly falling, panicking soldiers back into the castle, and then released them from his spell.
A voice, dripping with malice and hatred, echoed through the minds of all who were within the castle. "I am the Slasher of Veils. And now, at long last, I am here. The Tsoruhai could not contain me forever. This world is mine now to consume." It began to shimmer, giving off an aura that was completely unlike a glow. A shimmering darkness, that drained light from the world.
Lord British began to glow pure white, pushing back the darkness. "I am the true warden of this world, daemon. Thou wilt find that the world will fight thee, to thy inevitable destruction."
"My kin and I have heard this from many lands and many spaces, oh King. Now prove thy boast."
The way up was far easier than the path down. In part, no doubt, to the fact that they have overcome all obstacles on the way down already. And so it was with a sense of anticlimax that Iolo, Gwenno, and Damien emerged onto the surface again, and began the trek back to Britain.
But upon their arrival, late the following day, they discovered that they were too late. A vast army surrounded the city, and the castle, scarcely visible through a strange dark haze, was in shambles.
"Damnation," said Gwenno. "Now what?"
Damien carefully examined the ground on which the enemy stood, but found no way to sneak through their ranks and win their way into the city. He shook his head mutely.
"Through the tunnels?" suggested Iolo, but Damien and Gwenno both shook their heads again.
"The Guardian knows of them. As such we must assume his army does. They will be watched if they are not being actively used," said Gwenno.
There was a pause, as they all watched disconsolately the battle occurring in the distance before them. "What do we do?" asked Damien.
Iolo and Gwenno looked at each other, and back at their beloved city, and the smoke that rose above it.
Softly, Iolo replied. "We wait and hope for an opportunity."
A voice in the back of his mind whispered dark thoughts.
The land was injured, true. Injured by its own hand, in a way. But it knew the necessity, and forgives. The Bearer of White Light held forth the strength of the land, and rose into the air to match the Slasher of Veils, despoiler of worlds. It gathered darkness to itself, until from outside the city the castle entire was removed from view. But not Lord British- even through the darkness, he was visible, a spot of light that would not be shadowed.
Nystul and Jaana made short work of the remaining demon. The stared at the light and darkness, and then Jaana looked beyond the castle as best she could. "The enemy. They aren't attacking. They're as transfixed as we are."
"Alright. Can we help Lord British?"
"I don't know if we can. But we are certainly going to try."
They stepped out into the darkness and began casting their strongest attack spells. Bolts of force capable of snuffing the life of a balron issued forth from their hands, but the only result was that the Slasher of Veils turned their way. A ball of frozen fire descended from the heavens, straight down upon them... and then struck the ground just feet from where they stood.
Braccus stood in the air behind the daemon. He nodded to the two mages, and his voice was heard in their minds. "We cannot overcome a Slasher of Veils with force of magic. We must support our liege in his battle, or all will be lost."
Braccus walked on the air until he stood beside his old friend and once enemy, and laid a hand upon his shoulder.
Nystul and Jaana walked into the darkness until they stood just below the light. They joined hands and opened themselves to their king and friend.
"It does not matter," the voice of darkness spoke. "One life or many, peasant or king. It is all the same. I come from beyond the veil through which you must pass. Let me show you."
They were assailed in their minds with nightmares, visions of the worst things imaginable and beyond that. Jaana felt Nystul's mind, near her, beginning to crack and weep, and the torrent of terror threatened to wash her away such that she would never return. She clung to what hope she could imagine- she clung to the images of her friends, of the Avatar, of Britannia... and she clung to Justice, to which she had dedicated her life.
"Yes." She heard a whisper from Lord British. "That is it."
And then his voice echoed through the minds of all nearby. "Thy power may be over death and decay, oh daemon. But we have the power of Virtue, and thy kind may not stand before it!"
Throughout Britannia, people felt the conflict deep inside their inner hearts. Somehow, in every place on the continent and the islands beyond, they were aware that their fate hung in the balance. And they felt Lord British at the heart of it all, and instinctively, they felt his need. Through all the land, the people offered up their virtue. Their compassion for strangers, the sacrifices made for others, the fighting for justice. The humility of the humble, the devotion of the spiritual, the devotion to truth that drives the honest. The dedication of the honorable. The valor of the brave.
In the keeps of the principals, monks put on their robes and walked to the mystic flames. The Flame of Courage was lit to the tolling of a great bell. In the Lycaeum and in Empath Abbey, the soldiers of the Saryn armies stood aside, somehow knowing the necessity. The monks were allowed to pass, torches in hand, and the Flames of Love and Truth were lit.
The darkness at the heart of the land retreated before the light. "This cannot be!" the alien voice cried in a thousand minds, while aloud it screeched a sound that threatened to drive those nearby to deafness and beyond to madness. Its tail thrashed and masonry crumbled. But it seemed to diminish- it was merely man-sized, now, its wings twitching rather than beating.
"Very well. If I cannot have thy Britannia... then I shall have thee!" It moved towards Lord British, pincing arms open wide. British was all but unaware of his mortal form, his self being everywhere in Britannia to call forth the power to drive out the darkness. But Braccus was there, with a wall of energy to impede the daemon. Nystul was there, with a bolt of fire into its weakened form. And Jaana was there, her healer's voice calling British home.
A tremendous bolt of white light and flame burst forth from the ground beneath the Slasher of Veils, and the darkness retreated from the eyes and hearts of Britannia. Until there was a solid sphere of blackness, the height of a man in diameter, and that surrounded by a glorious sphere of light.
There was an explosion of force. Stone fell freely from the turrets of the castle, and all in Britain were knocked from their feet.
And then it was gone.
In the silence that followed, Lord British and Braccus drifted slowly to the ground, and British collapsed, exhausted, like a rag doll.
Jaana rolled over and got up to her knees, and then crawled the handful of paces to her liege's side. There she satisfied herself that he was not in immediate danger of expiring, before she turned to Nystul.
"It is too bad," she said musingly, "that we cannot use such an outpouring of... virtue to defeat an army. Or canst we?" She smiled, wanly. "Why not?"
It was Braccus who answered. Shaking his head wearily, he replied, "A daemon is a thing of darkness and evil. It opposes and is opposed by all virtue. But those..." he waved his hand at the moat and the city beyond. "Those are men. Perhaps even virtuous men, in their own hearts. There is no entry there."
Jaana stood, and helped Nystul to his feet, while Braccus lifted British off the ground. He looked around and said, "We may have little time before their assault resumes. We need to get him inside." Without waiting for a response, he began walking into the castle.
He was correct. Within minutes, the enemy was taking advantage to the damage to the castle walls and the losses of many cannons to once more begin their press forward.
Just stepping through will be the most dangerous part, thought Shamino as he crept closer to the portal. He considered and discarded as implausible attempting to acquire an enemy uniform.
Using what magic he possessed he blended with the shadows, and moved to cover the remaining distance to the gate. Surely, he thought hopefully, they won't feel the need to guard against intrusion from this side?
He waited patiently for his moment. It came when a flock of mongbats chose to suddenly take wing, going from wherever they were roosting to who knows where. The soldiers near the gate looked up and over, startled, and Shamino ducked through the gate, prepared to jump back in an instant if necessary.
Fortune was with him, twofold. First, in that through the gate was a land at nighttime. And the second in that he saw no soldiers, no guards immediately to hand, and most importantly no army of troops prepared to step through.
He looked upwards. The moonless sky held unfamiliar stars. Not Britannia or the Serpent Isle, then. So they had assumed, but it was good to have confirmation.
He took a step away from the gate, but then heard a light step from behind him. He whirled around and saw nothing, but was not deceived. His hand was halfway to his sword when he heard Mariah's voice whisper, "Shamino?"
"What in the blazing hells art thou doing here?" he demanded in a hiss.
"After thou'rt gone for several hours," replied Geoffrey, "we didst come for thee."
"Hours?" said Shamino, bewildered. "But I hath only been here for... oh. Oh, damn." His eyes widened as the implications became clear to him. He wished he could grab an arm for emphasis but his friends were still invisible to him. "Dost thou not see? 'Tis like Arlan's Earth... time is different here. We must get back before-"
He was interrupted by a grasp to his wrist. "Shut up and let's go, then!" said Geoffrey, and they stepped back through the gate.
A circle of at least a dozen soldiers stood around the gate. Their crossbows were out and pointed.
One soldier stepped forward, keeping his crossbow carefully aimed. "Keep hands away from weapons, Britannians, and you may yet live. One mystical looking gesture and you'll be full of wood," he said, shaking his crossbow for emphasis.
They froze in place.
"Very good," said the speaker. "Now. Back through the gate."
Lord British awoke in the darkness. His head was filled with the echoes of the Guardian's taunts which had filled his dreams, mixing with the feeling of dark dread engendered by the Slasher of Veils. He knew somehow that it had not been destroyed, and could only hope that it would never again find the opportunity to make the shift required to enter Britannia.
His eyes adjusted to the dim light of the single candle, and he saw Braccus sitting by the bed. He struggled to sit up, and Braccus leaned forward, and placed an extra pillow behind him. "There."
"Why art thou here?" British whispered.
"We only have so much power to expend. So Jaana, Nystul, and I are taking turns watching over thee. It is likely a matter of hours only, if that, before the castle doth fall. I am sorry, my lord."
"She is fine, as are the other children. They are in the shelters in the cellars. I understand that there were plans to evacuate them, but the sudden appearance of the army meant it was impossible."
British reached an arm out and grasped Braccus on the arm. "Eire. She cannot be here when the castle falls. Not if there is any chance that they know she is mine- and we speak of the Guardian, who hath been in the minds of many Britannians, and may still. We must assume they know. They will take her. They may kill her. Please. Wilt thou take her from here?"
Braccus sat back, stunned. "My lord, consider to whom thou dost speak! To trust me to aid in the fate of why kingdom I can see, but... thy own daughter? And thou dost not want my power here, defending thy people?"
"Thou hast said it thyself- the castle will fall. And indeed, the Guardian doth know of Nystul, hath met Jaana. Thy return may yet be hidden from him. Dost thou see?" His grip tightened on Braccus. "I remember who thou wert, before. And I see who thou art now. Passed through darkness, tempered by silence... I doth trust thee." He took a deep breath and let go, and sat forward, unsupported.
"Wilt thou do it?"
"My lord... I doth know nothing of protecting a child. Should anything happen to thee, of raising one..."
"That is a concern for next week or next year. For tonight she doth just need protection. Lest she become a game piece- or a sacrifice. Other children are as safe as their families. But not Eire."
A hint of a tear gleamed at the corner of Braccus's eye. "Very well. I swear to thee. I shall protect her until my last breath."
"Thank thee, Black- I am sorry. Braccus. My friend. Go now. And may I see thee again."
"Aye, my lord. I go." He stood, and walked to the doorway. There he turned to look back, but could find no more words that needed to be said. He bowed, deeply, and without further sound he hurried to the cellars.
Later it was known to all that in the final assault, part of one of the cellars did collapse. The body of the king's daughter was found, and mourned.
The simulacrum did not disappear until long after the body had been buried.
Lord British emerged from the castle, flanked by Jaana and Nystul walking just behind. At his side hung an ancient sword, belted over his regal robes. In the Courtyard of the fractured castle stood Commander Larech, himself flanked by two people in dun robes. The Commander bowed, with real respect; his companions stood stock still.
"Lord British," said the Commander. "I am here to accept your surrender."
British looked long into the Commander's face.
"It is," British said slowly, "the hardest thing I have done, in my many years here."
Larech nodded. "I know."
Slowly British unbuckled the sword belt, and handed it forward to the Commander. "Commander. I give..." His voice choked. He took a deep breath and continued, "I give thee my surrender."
Commander Larech accepted the sword. "Thank you, Lord British. I wish to say to you that I mean no ill or harm to your people. They will not suffer for our administration."
"Thou mayest not, Commander. But the Guardian must do, even if thou dost not see it now."
The Commander shrugged uncomfortably. Then, he extended his hand holding British's sword and belt. "Your sword."
The robed figure beside the Commander exploded into vehement speech in a language unknown to the Britannians. The Commander listened for several sentences but then waved his free hand to silence them. "No," he replied for all to hear and understand. "He has comported himself with honor throughout. By our ancient tradition, in expression of my respect for an opponent, I return the sword. Please, wear it, my Lord."
British stood, stock still, for a moment, and then accepted the sword. Carefully, he buckled it into place. His companions maintained straight faces, but he felt their surprise as his own. "Commander. I wish that we could have met under other circumstances."
"As do I. But unfortunately I have my instructions. Even with your sword, I must take you three as my prisoners. Please... come with me."
"Where shalt thou take us, Commander?" British asked, as the three began to walk forward with him.
As they crossed the makeshift bridge over the moat, and moved into the city of Britain, they could see a cube of pure black, placed near the center of the city and castle's area. "I believe," replied the Commander, "that you knew it as Stonegate."
"Look- the serpent flag is coming down. Britain has surrendered," said Iolo.
Gwenno nodded. "And look here- a column is preparing to move off. Going north...east? And most of the army looks to be heading south. Towards Trinsic, I assume," she replied.
"We could probably get to Trinsic ahead of it. Perhaps we could warn them?" suggested Damien. But he shook his head before anyone else could reply. "No, they are surrounded already, last we knew. Would be dangerous in the extreme to try to get into the city, and to simply tell them of an army they already expect... not worth the attempt."
"Indeed not," agreed Iolo.
The three shared a glance.
"Follow the column, then?" Iolo proposed.
"Aye," said Gwenno.
Damien turned to go, but Gwenno and Iolo spent another moment staring at their home, shedding a tear at its falling.
"The ruins of Stonegate," Jaana said to her two fellow prisoners. "Once the most evil place in the land."
"But more than that," said Nystul. He was extremely weary- he felt his extended age, every decade of it, now in the despair of their failure. "It was erected here because it is the closest place in Britannia to a being... magically equidistant from each moongate."
"And thus," said British, "from each city. But what..."
"It is ready," the Commander said, from another part of the ruins. "Our forces place the final cube now." He got onto his knees, and all of his troops and advisors did the same. "I pray you, show your respect for the High Lord of Saryn."
A humming noise pervaded the ruined tower. In Jhelom, the final cube was placed, and an elaborate magical pattern was formed between the 8 cubes, each placed in the etheric center of each of the great cities of Britannia. They drew in power and channeled it to a center, and that center was here.
A distortion appeared in the air, and a doorway of solid blackness appeared.
"What powers it?" demanded Jaana.
British looked sick as he gazed at it. "Blood," he said. "So many soldiers on both sides, and all for this..."
A red hand appeared in the doorway. Came through. Gripped the edge, as though it was a frame.
And the Guardian stepped through.
The Guardian smiled a smile of pure triumph at the three Britannians, and then turned his massive body and faced the Commander and his advisors.
"Commander Larech," said that voice, oh so familiar. "Well done."
"High Lord," replied the Commander, his eyes still on the ground before the gate, "it is an honor to serve."
"Yes. I know."
He turned back to Lord British. Gestured to the soldiers. "Take the prisoners through. They shall await our pleasure."
They looked at each other, but there was nothing they could do. It was far past that time. And so it was with despair in their hearts that they allowed themselves to be escorted, to another world.
The Guardian smiled as he looked up, at Britannia's shining moons. "Britannia," he said, "at last, you are mine."