A juvenile Silver/Amethyst Dragon, checking out a trio of humans that came close to his father's den, saw a wondrous item appear seemingly out of nowhere before his eyes about 100 yards before him, and about 200 from the intruders.
/I _should_ tell my dad of these three,/ he thought to himself, /but that object may need protecting from them./
The object spins in the air all on its own for a couple of seconds, then falls onto the ground. Amethyst Dragon comes closer and, after carefully prodding the thing with a stick, picks it up with great curiosity and turns it around in his hand. It's a smooth, fist-sized orb of a greenish hue, warm to the touch, with a deep crack running right through the centre. After holding it for a while, young Dragon feels as if the orb is pulsating in his hand like a warm beating heart.
He looks at it transfixed, until he suddenly remembers about the three humans that are now just behind the tall shrubs a few metres away. He can hear them, too, and they do not sound at all dragon-friendly. Indeed, they behave just like a bunch of dragon-hunters father often told him about, so, pocketing the mysterious orb, he tiptoes back into the family cave.
"Father, there are three human men out there! I think they've got Dragon Poison with them!"
"Do they now?" replies the elder dragon, rising from his favorite reading couch. "I was hoping I wouldn't have to use any more of my spells so soon."
The elder Dragon, like his son, is a Silver/Amethyst Dragon; however, unlike his son, Argent was able to cast some of the highest spells known in the universe (what they know of it that is) using only his mind. It wore him out almost constantly when intruders came nearby, but the necessity for security in those mountains was paramount!
"Dad," Amthet continued, "I found something near the lookout spot that I think you should see..." pulling it out from behind his back, Amthet and Argent both stood in awe at the cracked Orb, not knowing what it was.
"Anyway, let's deal with those no-good humans first," grumbles Argent, then sighs. "Why can't they just leave us alone?"
He closes his eyes and breathes in deeply. With his inner sight, he visualises a mantra so complicated it would shatter any lesser mind, then he directs the generated energy towards the ominous trio that are treading warily towards the main cave entrance. All of a sudden, a silver cloud envelops them, and before anyone can even gasp it whisks the would-be dragon slayers to the other side of the world, straight into the middle of a vast marshland.
"Nobody can say I don't give people chances," says Argent with satisfaction. "Now, let me look at that strange sphere again, son."
The younger Dragon hands the object to Argent, and he begins to examine it closely. As he does, a brief history of what has transpired over the last 100 Millennia of its history, including just passed events, washes over him like a flash flood of knowledge. Stunned, Argent releases his hold on the Dragon Orb, and Amthet barely catches it in time to hear him say:
"Four will come to protect this orb from a great evil that is to come.."
"A great evil, papa?" Amthet asked out of curiousity, "What great evil?"
"A Dark Lord comes with the most foul of Queens at his side... (Not that Brittanian story again! muttered the young dragon angrily.) The Triad that was here was only the first of many underlings that may try to find what you hold."
After the prophecy was spoken, Amthet's father collapsed on the floor, exhausted after his ordeal.
/Who'd have thought that the Brittanian story would become real here?/ Amethyst thought excitedly to himself. /But taking care of Dad takes first priority./
After Argent was brought back to his senses, he got on the couch with his son's help and stared blankly again at the Dragon Orb sitting on a low desk in front of him.
"So what are going to do, Dad?" ventured Amthet, but his father waved impatiently at him: "Shush, son, I'm trying to think."
"So," he continued his thoughts, "A lost Dragon Stone of Casthellea finally escaped its prison! But who sent those three wretched hunters? I don't believe for a second that any self-respecting Dark Lord or Queen would rely on pathetic feeble humans to try and retrieve this most prized possession. And from what I could gather neither Queen nor the four protectors know of the Orb's whereabouts yet. No, some much lesser creature has a hand in all this... somebody with a profitable trade in mind, perhaps?" Argent smiles a grim smile as he realises that the person in question may well be known to him.
Far away, but same planet...
Three objects fall unceremoniously through the roof of someone's house.
"Now do you believe me about the Silver Guardian?" the youngest of the three said, rubbing his back.
"Yeah, Leon," replied the others as one, also massaging their backs, "Now lay off it awhile will ya?"
Looking up, one of the elder hunters saw the hole in the roof and gasped.
"What are you looking at, Stephen?" asked another, then getting a good look himself, "Gripes! If the Master saw that!"
"'If the Master saw that!' what, Justin?" asked a sinister voice from behind the trio. "Ah, the hole in the roof."
"Sir," Leon began, "the Silver Guardian caught us and... Please forgive us!"
/Silver Guardian now eh, Argent?/
"Was there anything else to report, before I punish you?"
Stephen took up that challenge by saying, "We saw, briefly, a green orb hovering about a couple meters from our position before.."
"Before a little dragon took it away and we flew here!" Justin finished quickly, covering his head.
But nothing happened. Nothing that is, except hysterical, happy laughter coming from their master. "You idiots have done the first thing right since you have come into my service!" He rewarded them with treats of every variety, and left them to wonder what they did right.
Back on Casthellea...
The Great Siberian Cousins and their companions were resting after a game of Dodge Energy Ball, when Jacrose heard a strange voice.
/The time has come for you to find me... Although I may be far away... Your Cousin may safely "thread" you... to the Weyr of where I stay.../
/W..what?/ Jacrose asked, both out loud and in thought.
/Hurry!/ the plea continued, /my current protectors need assistance./
Quickly waking from his nap, Jacrose morphs into Coldmist and begins to wake everyone up.
"Yeah what's the deal with waking me up, Coldmist?"
"Patience," Altheus said with a yawn, "let him explain him self. Coldmist, if you please."
"The Dragon's Orb called to me, saying that it needs our help."
Nearly everyone started to laugh at him at this point. "You don't seriously believe that -the- Dragon Orb spoke to you, Coldmist?"
"Daria may "thread" us to it so we may help its current protectors..." he, Coldmist, continued despite the laughter.
Altheus doesn't laugh, but looks thoughtfully at Jacrose, then at Daria. "I think that perhaps Coldmist's mind isn't playing tricks with him after all," he says, interrupting the hilarity.
"Altheus, are you seriously suggesting I try to locate the Dragon Orb?" says Daria incredulously as her face gets slightly drawn of colour. "If so, it's sheer madness! The Spirits told me that the Orb would shatter my mind and grind it to dust if I try and pull its thread!"
"Coldmist's mind would have crumbled if the Orb tried to communicate with him, but your cousin still sounds remarkably sane if overexcited," replied the Guide. "I'm thinking of that explosion and what it might have done to the Dragon Orb. If it suffered a great damage and lost a part of its true power, then it could have contacted mortal minds of the Dragons without causing destruction. It has done so in the past."
/There's still another possibility,/ says the Spirit, /the Orb has gone down the drains and this is just a trap set out for you by your enemies./
"True," sighs the Guide, "but I think the risk is worth it. However, in case that every single of my assumptions is wrong, Daria, withdraw your magic at the slightest sign of danger."
The girl gives him a grim crooked smile, then sets out to work.
Back at the Argent's cavern on the unknown world...
"So who is this Firesting, Dad?" asks Amthet, looking nervous.
"Only the biggest slimiest scumbag of a second-rate magician that I had a misfortune to know, son," says Argent wearily. "He's basically a scavenger with an unlimited ego and a limited gift of future-sight. He uses it to sniff and poke around in hope to put his hands on something valuable that he can trade or sell. I just hope he doesn't know the full value of this Orb..."
In the Lair of Firesting...
/What news do you bring to us, minion?/ asks a sinister masculine voice.
"My servants have found the orb that we seek, my Lord; however..." Firesting gulps. "However my long-time foe, Argent, and his son currently have it." Cowering he awaits the reply of his masters.
/Rise, Commander Firesting,/ a sinister feminine voice replies. /You now have control over more powerful minions than the three mercenaries below./
/GO!/ ordered the Dark Lord. /Retrieve the Dragon Orb from your nemesis by any means possible and bring it back here!/
"As you wish, My Lord!" Firesting bowed, and left to rejoin his minions below.
/Soon we will be able to walk amongst them, my love, and show them our true power!/
/This world will be the first to go, then Britannia! MWAHAHA!/
Meanwhile.. Daria tried to focus on the Dragon Orb's thread...
"I found it!" she shouted to the others, "but it may be a good idea to hold hands!"
/Just link all of our threads to its thread, Daria,/ the Spirit suggested. /We will hold hands anyway./
Everyone held on to a hand, Coldmist, now Jacrose, making sure he held on to Daria's.
"Everybody ready?" Atheus asked the companions. With a nod as a response from each, Daria "threaded" them to the Weyr of Argent and Amethyst.
Firesting the Magician's stomach feels knotted as he looks sideways at the four dark figures that flank him on each side, with an outward respect that doesn't fool him one bit. For the umpteenth time he wonders whether it was a good idea to get involved with... those two. Sure, "Commander Firesting" had a very pleasant ring to it, but sometimes he longed for the times when he was just a freelance magician unbound by servitude to the terrifying masters that probably wouldn't take kindly to a resignation. And that woman's laugh! It could drive a man insane!
/Oh well, better make the best of it, Commander Firesting,/ he thought to himself as the three shapes sped towards the Perilous Mountains.
Back in the Argent's cave...
The four travellers materialise slowly in the middle of the room, and are faced by the fiery crackling point of a Firedoom Staff, held shakily by a very frightened young boy, who is shielding the couch with an older-looking Dragon on it.
"Go away and leave us alone!" Amthet screams at them.
\Be at peace, young one,\ says a voice out of nowhere. \These are the ones who are to protect me.\
"So the legends -were- true!" Altheus exclaimed with a gasp, and continued, "when in peril the Dragon Orb sometimes lowers its defenses enough for its chosen defenders to find it.."
"I don't care!" the boy exclaimed, pointing the deadly staff in the quartet's direction. "We found it first, and we're protecting it. So VAMOOSE!" A ball of fire was shot from the staff and hit the roof of the Weyr!
/We come in peace and we are more than what we seem,/ Jacrose smiled at the boy.
"Listen to him, Amethyst," the dragon told him, "and remember the prophecy." Utterly exhausted, the elder dragon collapsed on the sofa, and falls into a deep sleep.
"Now look what you did!" Amthet accused as he ran towards the dragon. "Daddy, are you ok?"
Nothing but snores.
"Where are we, anyway?" Jostanos asked, but all he got was a Firedoom Staff pointed in his face.
/Definitely not Casthellea,/ the Spirit replied. /Maybe we should go outside and regroup?/
/Where is Ramjen?/ Jacrose asked, looking peripherally to his cousin Daria.
"Oh no," gasps Daria, vainly trying to find Ramjen's thread, "we seem to have lost him! What happened?"
"I think this leap between the worlds was too much for our valiant guard," says Altheus. "Ramjen's magical gift is impressive for someone who never really had a chance to flex and develop it, but it seems like it wasn't powerful enough for this trip."
"I hope he's alright..." says Jacrose sadly.
Meanwhile, on the strange and distant world far, far across the multiverse...
With a loud groan, Ramjen picks himself up from the ground and looks around. The sight is not pretty. There is nothing around him but a barren wasteland stretching for miles in every direction, with nothing to break the monotony except for a small speck in the eastern direction that looks vaguely like some sort of a building.
"Daria? Altheus? Anyone??" Ramjen says hoarsely, not really expecting a reply. Waiting some more, he shakes his head and starts to walk towards the building, cursing all Dragons under his breath.
"So what is this prophecy about?" asked Jostanos, seeing that Amthet, who is still clutching at the Firedoom Staff, has nevertheless calmed down a bit.
They all listen carefully to the boy's story of how he found the Dragon Orb, the luckless hunters that tried to snatch it, and the foretelling of the four protectors that would come. (/So, obviously the stupid Prophecy didn't count -me- in,/ grumbled the Spirit.) Altheus' face darkens as they learn also of the evil Dark Lord and his Queen.
"My dear fiancee, no doubt," he mutters under his breath. "We know of who the prophesy speaks about," he says to Amthet. "They are an enemy of all Dragonkind and will stop at nothing to reach their ultimate goal. Their minions might be onto the Orb's trail at this very moment, and your father will need help to defend your home. If you will not trust us, trust the Orb and the words of your father. Let us help you."
Searching his feelings, Amethyst put the Firedoom staff away and said, "If you are what you say you are, I'll show you my true self too."
Watching in awe, Amthet saw the Cousins transform into their dragon selves.
"Now you," he said to Altheus, who replied, "Were I to return to my original form, my boy, our enemies would arrive here all quicker."
"Play me you idiot!" shouted a voice.
"Who said that?" the boy asked, looking in all directions.
"If you want this brat to pay attention to the facts of the matter, play me, Coldmist!"
"Alright, Mr. Fipple," Coldmist laughed, as he drew the Fipple Flute from his back. "What shall we play?"
"Whatever come to mind! JUST PLAY!"
Coldmist then began to play a wonderful melody. The name of it has been forgotten by everyone except the orb, but it remains silent, listening to the tune, as if re-energizing its reserves for whatever may lie ahead.
On the other world...
Ramjen continued his trek across the wasteland towards the building, every now and then sending out a thought-wave hoping to reach any of his companions.
/Daria?/ /Jacrose?/ /Altheus?/ /Jostanos?/
/Will none of them find me?/ he asks no-one in particular. /Where am I anyway?/
Then he hits his answer square on the nose-guard! A SIGN! A sign that says "Bomb Test Site & Weapon Proving Grounds."
"A little early for the Renaissance Fair, isn't it fella?" asks a voice.
"Never mind. Do you need a lift someplace?" the stranger in an even stranger vehicle asks him.
"S-s-sure," Ramjen answers. "Back to Casthellea, please."
"Oh, a Spanish gent," the stranger laughs as they head on their way. "I should have known!"
/Spanish?/ Ramjen thinks to himself, /What is that?/
"Say, how did you end up walking the desert in this costume of yours?" says the driver as he hands Ramjen a bottle with a drink that crackles on Ramjen's tongue and nearly makes him choke.
"I don't really know," he says finally, "I was travelling through the Void with my companions when suddenly, it seems, I was left behind."
"Ah," nods the driver understandingly, "dumped you in the middle of nowhere with nothing but the clothes you're wearing, eh? No decency left in the wor... Shiiiiiiiiiiiit!" he screams suddenly and squeezes the pedal as hard as he possibly can. The strip of hard cloth that the kind stranger had insisted Ramjen put across his chest nearly knocks the air out of the former guard as he's thrown towards the glass.
Sitting in the middle of the road is a huge black cat, who looks with interest at the strange vehicle that came to a screeching halt a few inches away from its whiskers.
In the Weyr of Argent...
Coldmist suddenly stopped playing and morphed into a Great Black Cat!
"Pet," he began, "your human companion has been found on a most peculiar planet."
"Is he safe, Blackthorn?" Daria asked with worry.
"At the moment he is with a stranger in an even stranger looking device, but safe." he replied with a purr.
As if in the distance they hear a voice say, "What is a panther doing here?!" And another replying, "That is no panther, sir. That is Blackthorn! Daria! Jacrose! Altheus! Jostanos! Where are you?"
\Your destiny is where you are, Guard of the Cousin,.\ said an unexpected voice, \to prepare their way and to help protect them when it is time to help with that world's defenses.\
"Was that the..?"
"Yes," Altheus replied, "it was the Dragon Orb that spoke to you, Ramjen."
Just then, another transformation took place. The cat in front of the car morphed into a human male dressed as a bard, whilst the cat in the Weyr shifted to normal size and walked over to Daria.
\T-t-t-temporary placement for your cousin, Daria,\ the Orb explained. \His training continues there.\
On the other world...
"Where am I?" Jacrose asked as he tried to get up.
"W-w-welcome to Earth, sir," said the stranger as he and Ramjen helped Jacrose to his feet.
"I wish I could speak cat language to ask Blackie where he's been all this time," mutters Daria as Blackthorne walks around the cave with lazy curiousity.
"Tell her I've been here and there," purrs Blackthorne to Altheus. "None of your business anyway. I saw your fight with that human woman, very impressive. Tell that Orb of yours that no one orders Blackthorne what to do or where to go, so it better not jerk me around anymore."
With a malevolent hiss directed towards the Dragon Stone, Blackthorne weaves his way to the kitchen is search of something edible, brushing his tail against Amthet, whose mouth has been hanging open for the last few minutes.
"Not to say anything against it, but I do hope that the Stone knows what it's doing," whispers Jostanos to Daria. "Saihve's minions might be here any moment, we lost two of our fighters, and that cat of yours is obviously of no use."
"Oh, Blackie is an unreliable selfish bastard, what else can you expect from a cat?" chuckles Daria. "But useful to have around anyway. You're right though, it's probably not a good idea to linger."
She turns to Argent, who by this time has been brought back to his senses by the magic of the flute. "If I may suggest, it's probably not safe for you and your son to stay here as well, sir."
The trio drove towards a set of buildings, not too far from where the companions landed.
"Earth?" Jacrose wondered out loud. "Ramjen, this is where the Avatar comes from!"
"The who, sir?" asked the driver. "There is no such person outside of the Ultima game series."
/Uh oh!/ The former guard thought to himself, /now he's done it.../
"My home is in Britannia, SIR!" Jacrose roared, leaping from the jeep. "And if you still think that dragons and mages are just game material... FEAST YOUR EYES ON ME NOW!"
Coldmist was livid and didn't realize the danger he put himself in by draco-morphing.
The driver, stunned and afraid for his life quickly pulled the jeep over and brandished his pistol.
"I wouldn't if I were you, friend," the former guard said to the cowering driver. "Besides, we have no idea if your weapon would have any effect on him."
At the buildings...
"Sir, we have an unidentified flying object about 2 miles east of us. Your orders?"
"Send out our Top Guns and see what its intetions are, then blow it sky high."
"Yes, sir! SCRAMBLE! SCRAMBLE! SCRAMBLE!"
Four fighters took off heading towards Coldmist.
Back in Argent's cave...
"Normally I'd say that I can protect my ancestral home from anything and anyone," says Argent glumly, "but I fear that my enemies this time around cannot to be defeated with might alone. And I can't let the Dragon Stone fall into the wrong hands if I can help it."
He sighs and turns to Amthet. "Help me pack some necessities, son, we're leaving."
"Father!" gasps Amthet, who now truly realises the gravity of the situation. "How can you do this? Why do we have to leave our home and flee like cowards just because some stupid rock decided to drop by?" He gives Dragon Stone a baleful glance, completely forgetting that only a few minutes ago he was ready to fireblast the travellers just to keep it.
"Why don't they just take it and be off?"
"Quiet, boy," says Argent firmly. "There are things in this world that no Dragon can watch idly from the sideline if he still wants to be called a Dragon. There's a reason why we got involved into all of this and I have to see it through. Now why don't you stop sulking and lend a hand?"
"Where do you propose to go, kind sir?" asks Daria.
"Call me Argent, miss," replies the Dragon. "When my mind was open to the Orb, one particular image stayed in my mind: a face I can't put a name to, a house I know not of, a city that I left some years back. I think that the Dragon Stone wants you to come to Harmeyn."
"What is Harmeyn?" asks Altheus.
"The biggest, richest, most glorious city on the face of Tiemirion," replies Argent. "The jewel of the north, or at least it was when I still lived there... many, many years ago," he adds softly. Daria can sense that Argent's last words hide a pit of sorrows from the older Dragon's past.
/So that's where we are!/ Jostanos thought to his companions. /It would have been nice if the squirt with the staff didn't ram it in my snout when I asked though./
/I heard that,/ said a voice in Jostanos' head. /And that same staff may be up your nose again if you don't behave yourself around my dad!/
"Now Amthet, I warned you about using your telepathy overmuch," Argent scolded with a smile.
"Well, he started it!" the youngster pointed at the remaining male GSC. Jostanos scoffed at the idea and said "Did not!"
"The lad does have a point, Jostanos," Altheus warned. "Like your cousins, and Ramjen before you, you also have to learn when to and not to use telepathy."
All was ready by then and the journey to Harmeyn began!
Cousin Coldmist was getting harried by a squadron of fighter jets. Ramjen and the driver watched as the dragon tried to do all sorts of tricks to get out of the way, and to fry the jets.
"I just knew this would happen sooner or later," the former guard murmured, "but why now?"
/JEEZ, these things are a pain in the tail!/ Coldmist thought to himself, dodging another attack.
"I come in peace! Stop firing already, will ya?"
"Did you hear something Ace?" one pilot asked another.
"Not a thing, Maverick," was the response.
"Then lets shoot the sucker down boys! YEAH HOO!"
The dog/dragon fights began anew, and this time Coldmist had had enough. *SHATTER STONE* was cast by the dragon, and thousands of stone fragments hit each of the four jets, causing some damage, but not enough to make them quit harassing him.
"What the?!" asks another of the 4 pilots, "What did that thing just do to our jets?"
"I don't know, Bubbac," replied the fourth, "but I don't think he likes us bothering him anymore. Let's scoot."
"Negative, Ward," Maverick answered, "we have orders to shoot this overgrown turkey down, and that's exactly what we are going to do!"
/That's what he thinks,/ Coldmist thought to himself, and cast *SHATTER STONE* again. This time it did more damage to three of the jets and the pilots bailed.
/Care to face me one-on-one, Maverick?/ Coldmist thought to the lone pilot, /or are you going to go back to base and tell your superiors that you lost to a mythical creature known as a Dragon?/
"Base, the Unknown is a Dragon, and it just wiped us out." Maverick radioed, and laughter was part of the response.
"Do you expect us to believe that?"
"Yes, sir," the lone pilot gulped, "I do."
"Sir, the bogey matches something that was noticed in our airspace two weeks ago," another voice chimes in.
"It is a match, although not an exact match, Sir."
"It -is- a Dragon, Sir."
"Told ya so," Maverick said as he landed outside with the driver, Ramjen, the 3 pilots, and Coldmist following behind him.
Back at Argent's cave...
Firesting and his four silent companions cautiously approach the entrance to Argent's cave. Increasingly nervous, Firesting mutters an Invisibility spell under his breath and earns a look of derision from the dark creatures.
/An Invisibility spell?/ snorts one of them to another in their own language. /What next, a bloody umbrella?/
/The Masters show us nothing but contempt by putting this pathetic creature in charge,/ replies another demon resentfully. /I think it would be to everyone's benefit if this human weakling has an... unfortunate accident. The Dragons were obviously too powerful for him to handle./
They glide noiselessly along the corridor until they come to the large hall, lit brightly by a few glowing orbs floating near the ceiling. There're remains of a late dinner on the table, traces of hurried packing scattered across the floor, and a huge black cat sleeping on an old couch with his paws up in the air. No one else is to be seen.
"Damnation!" mutters Firesting. "Who could have warn...."
He is interrupted by a blinding surge of energy that seems to come from nowhere and makes him feel as if his body is being dipped into molten metal. The power of the blast hurls him flying through the walls of the cavern and far into the woods, where he slumps unconscious onto the ground.
Back in the hall, Blackthorne the Cat watches curiously as the four dark shapes crumble into dust with hideous shrieking and howling. As completely unaffected by the blast as the rest of the hall, Blackthorne yawns and goes back to sleep.
In a farthest, most forbidding corner of Tiemirion, a dark castle covered with snow is lost amidst the mountains. Inside, a tall woman of striking but cruel beauty paces the floor furiously, her long nails almost tearing the flesh of her palms. A pathetic, broken figure covered with hideous burns grovels on the floor before her.
"The Dragons fled before I had a chance to retrieve the Stone," Firesting croaks, "and they left a terrible trap behind them. Have mercy on me, my lady!"
"Mercy?!" Saihve screams. "Useless wretch! A fiery death is far too good for you!"
She snaps her fingers, and a couple of silent guards pick up the whimpering magician and toss him out of the castle's window. They hear a piercing scream as Firesting lands into the snow and rolls down the mountain side until he disappears from sight. In the castle, Saihve turns towards a motionless figure floating inside what looks like a giant pillar of light.
"I've had it with those fools!" she says angrily. "No more minions! This time around, I shall rely on myself to get the accursed Orb!"
"You're being unreasonable, my love," answers the Dark Lord. "Some servants may fail, but others have proved their use more than once. I wouldn't want you to risk yourself."
"Do you think me a weakling?" sneers Saihve. "I have won the Dragon Stone before, back when my power was but a shadow, with the whole Dragonhood of Casthellea standing against me! No, beloved, you know nothing of what I'm capable of."
"I cannot stop you," says the Dark Lord sadly, "I only wish I could be at your side..."
"Are we there yet?"
"For the thousandth time, Jostanos," an irritated voice replied, "NO!"
"Chill out, Argent, I was only curious," the lad cajoled, but it was no use, the old dragon had had enough.
"Morph now, Jostanos, into your dragon form so we may have it out now."
/Uh-oh,/ Amthet thought to Atheus and Daria, /Dad has done that only to one other person, and that was his rival./
"Stay out of this, three of you," Argent ordered. "It is time to teach this young drake a lesson."
Shardspray was bewildered by all of this. "Just because I asked if we were at our destination yet?"
"Over 100 times? YES!" came the reply. "Prepare yourself, Drake, for I won't be as gentle as your cousins!"
Out of Argent's maw came a lozenge-like grenade that exploded, turning into shards of Amethyst and Ice, causing some damage to some of Shardspray's body.
"WHAT?!" Argent was stunned. "You are still standing?! That attack should have knocked you out at least."
"I am a Great Siberian Dragon, Argent," the younger dragon replied with a grin. "We thrive in cold temperatures..." *CONE OF COLD*
Not entirely ready for the blast, the elder dragon receives some damage as well.
"Impressive. So you are immune to Cold attacks?"
"Ice at least, if memory serves. You have been wanting to spar with either Coldmist or myself ever since we have arrived, in the place of your son, haven't you, Argent?"
"How did you guess?" the elder dragon backed down and made a 'time out' sign with his talons.
"Intuition," Shardspray replied. "It just took me awhile to figure out a way to prove it," he grinned.
"I guess I was the one that learned something," Argent admitted. "Shall we rejoin the others?"
"Kissed and made up, I see," the Guide said with a smile.
"You -could- say that, Altheus," Jostanos replied, scuffing his boots in the soil nearby.
"I think we better resume our journey," says Daria curtly, looking not one bit impressed by the spectacle.
/Ah chill out, girl,/ chuckles the Spirit inside, /let the boys have their fun. Everyone's nerves have been tested to the limit in these last three days. And admit it, you wanted to give Jostanos a smack yourself, didn't you?/
/It's not that I want him to go,/ sighs Daria. /It's just that.../
/It's just that he behaves like a brat and you -still- do not trust him completely, do you?/ nods the Spirit. /Those who have been under Saihve's shadow do not emerge unchanged. But Coldmist and Altheus seem to have faith in him./
/Coldmist... I hope he is alright wherever he might be. I miss him, and Ramjen, too./
"Don't take this as another taunt, Argent, but really, how long have we got to go still?" asks Altheus, interrupting Daria and Spirit's invisible dialogue.
"Probably another week or so," says the older Dragon. "But this part of the trip will be much easier and, dare I say, pleasant. My homeland is one of the most beautiful places you could find anywhere in the multiverse, and I used to have many friends in these parts who could help us in our quest."
Coldmist was getting a reception at the base the likes of which he had never seen before. He was surrounded by soldiers with guns, and so was Ramjen, who was told to release his prisoner.
/Wouldn't you know it,/ he thought to Ramjen, / I can't morph back into my human form./
/Take it easy, Coldmist,/ the former guard coaxed. /Here comes someone./
"So this is the Dragon that brought down our fighters?" a voice asked from behind.
"If I wasn't angered by your driver here I might have been able to remain in my human form, sir." Coldmist replied, but the official heard growls, whines, and hisses.
"Can't you speak?"
/I guess this is the only way for you to hear me, sir,/ Coldmist broadcast to the official, who stood wide-eyed for a moment.
"I heard that clearly," he replied with a stunned look upon his face. "Why are you here? And why did you attack my fighters?"
/I came with my companion to learn more about the fine arts of music and magic.../ the juvenile dragon explained. /However, on the way here, your driver angered me enough that I can not resume my human form./ Coldmist thought for a few seconds. /At least not right away,/ he amended with a slight grin.
/Too much information, Coldmist,/ Ramjen thought to the dragon, then said, "Sir, we are from Casthellea, Homeworld of the Dragons."
At this news, one of the pilots gasps.
"Too much information, Ramjen? Puh-lease!" Coldmist laughs, but the official still doesn't get it.
"Do you understand one another, soldier?" he asked the former guard.
"Yes we do, sir," Ramjen replied, "Anyway, here is your driver." The young man fled for his life and hid in a hanger.
/As for the attack on your fighters,/ Coldmist began in an offhand manner, /they attacked me first without provocation./
After days of travel, the gloomy mountains gave way to green pastures and rolling hills, with small villages scattered here and there. The air was sweet and fresh, and every night they were treated to a glorious sunset that would make any master painter throw away their brushes in shame. In other circumstances, it would have been a great holiday, mused Daria, but as it was the tension was ever-present.
On Argent's advice, they all kept to human shapes, and Jostanos and Amthet were warned firmly against any foolish enterprises.
"People are generally accepting of our kind here in the north, but it's best not to attract any extra attention," said Argent, with a sideways glare directed at his son and Jostanos who at once put on the looks of puzzled innocence. "We especially don't need any whispers of silver-scaled dragons, which are not common to our world."
Just as Argent promised, on the seventh day of travel a city appeared on the horizon, it's spires and towers unlike anything Daria has ever seen on Britannia or Casthellea. Even Altheus, an experienced multiverse roamer, looked impressed as they entered the vast maze of Harmeyn and mingled with the colourful-looking crowds that were obviously used to strangers.
"Where now, friend Argent?" he said as the company managed to find some peace and quiet in a corner of a rather unremarkable and shabby tavern. Once again, Daria was aware that the question, or possibly the answer, gave the older dragon some disquiet.
"S'Argent, is that you?" asked a husky voice from the bar.
After taking a quick swing of Gingermint Ale, the person behind that voice strode over to the companions' table and said, "It -is- you, after all these years..."
The person danced with glee for a moment, then announced, "The food and drinks are on the house, S'Argent, will ya be needin' anything else?"
Baffled at this development as the rest of them were, the elder dragon asked, "Who are you? And what news since I have been gone?"
Each of the companions got a picture of another dragon in their minds holding a sign with the phrase: "Andreus'/'Andy, at your service, once again, Argent," painted on it.
"No special news, except that a mean woman came through last night looking for something called The Dragon Orb and nearly leveled the place when I told her that it wasn't here."
"Which way was she headed, Andy?" Altheus asked the Tavernkeeper.
"Towards the mountains in the west, if I remember correctly."
"What did she look like, that woman?"
"Oh... shortish, blond, harmless-looking right until she started to raise her voice. Looked like one of them travelling mages of the Necromian order, in fact."
/You think it was Saihve?/ asks Jostanos anxiously.
/Could be,/ replies Altheus, somewhat hesitantly. /But to be honest, I'm not sure. Remember, there are many people - and creatures - in this multiverse who would love to put their hands on something like Dragon Orb. And this just doesn't sound like Saihve's methods. My dear fiancee may have a furious temper, but in matters like this she prefers to work with silence and cunning of a snake./
"Say, Argent, are you going to visit you-know-who while you're in the city?" Andy interrupts their thoughtflow cheerfully, and gives Argent a wink. "It's about time you patched up things between you two."
/I think I'm speaking for all of us when I'm saying, who on earth is he talking about and does it happen to be this mysterious person we're supposed to meet?/ says the Spirit.
Argent, who is still rather confused about the whole idea of two minds in one body, gives Daria a scowl, then realises his mistake as the girl looks puzzled at his displeasure.
"Sorry, Daria, that was meant for that nosy wraith you carry." He sighs, then continues in mindspeech.
/I'm as confused as you are. He looks just like the Dragon from the vision given to me by the Orb, but this tavern is not the -place- from the vision!/
He turns back to Andreus. "I'm sorry, sir, but do I know you?" he says, with an almost pleading note that doesn't go unnoticed by anyone this time.
"Oh, I do apologize," says Andy, suddenly looking embarrassed. "What a fool I am, of course you wouldn't have recognised me now, I was but a little drake then, but then people do say I look a lot like my sister, so I just presumed..."
He is cut mid-sentence by a terrible groan as Argent buries his face in his hands. Oh Dragonlords, he thinks, all this time I felt that it is -her- I'm meant to meet again, I go into the nearest tavern to boost up my courage, and who do I run into? Her bloody brother!
"Stand down, gentlemen," the official ordered. "These two mean us no harm."
The soldiers slowly began to follow their commander's orders, but one was tentatively keeping his rifle aimed at the dragon.
/There is no way that this one could be from Casthellea,/ the soldier thought to himself. /He is a spy and must be dealt with!/ BLAM!
/IDIOT!/ Coldmist and the commander berated the soldier as one, then the dragon turned to look upon the one who shot at him. The soldier, the pilot Bubbac, was stunned with dragon fear and dropped the rifle.
/You are very lucky that you had missed, Bubbac,/ the dragon warned. /And yes, I -do- know that you are a dragon from Casthellea./
After a few moments of stunned silence the panicked soldier polymorphed into his dragon form and announced: "I too have a Draco Form and am from where these two are from. I admit it!"
"You were the dragon we sighted two weeks ago?"
"In all honesty, commander, yes," the new dragon replied with relief. "Staying in human form day after day for over 29 years is hard work for a dragon like myself, and I needed to stretch my wings."
To prove his point, Bubbac moves to a clearer part of the area and lightly flaps his wings.
/That's nice, Bubbac,/ Coldmist grinned, /but have you been practicing your other skills?/
"Other skills?" the other dragon asked. "What other skills?"
/Uh-oh,/ Ramjen semi-thought to himself. /May I, Jacrose?/
"Bubbac," the former guard began, "Coldmist and I will help you to understand what and who you are. When your duties permit that is," he added, looking over at the commander, who in turn nodded in agreement.
With Andreus leading the way, the small group weaves its way along the crooked streets of Tiemirion until the grey-faced slums make way for a quiet alley lined generously with strange silver-leaf trees. Along the way, their guide keeps glancing curiously at Argent, who seems locked in grim silenece, and Argent's strange companions, but asks no questions.
Finally, they stop at the front porch of a small house, which is overgrown with weeds to the point where it's impossible to see the material it was built with.
"Ready, Argent?" asks Andreus. The older Dragon grunts and makes a dismissive gesture that says, I will never be.
"Oh Marion, you've got a visitor," says Andreus cheerfuly as he knocks loudly on the door.
"And now we are nine," Altheus murmured with a smile as a beautiful woman opened the door.
"Argent, what a pleasant surprise," Marion smiled benignly. "Please come in, and join me for dinner."
As the companions filed in, Daria felt a tug from a web.
/Cousin Daria, do you read me?/ came the transmission, although a bit sketchy.
/Yep! And do I have news for you and the rest of our crew!/ Jacrose replied and proceeded to tell of his, and Ramjen's, discovery at a base on a planet called Earth.
Daria listens with great interest until something in her cousin's story catches her attention and makes her gasp. /So, how much time has actually passed since you and Ramjen has been on this Earth of yours?/
She nods at Jacrose's estimation. /It seems that time passes slower here on Tiemirion than it does on your world. Who knows, I might age into an ancient crone the next time we meet!/ And she recounts the events of the last week or so... until the link suddenly gets severed...
"What did you do to Coldmist?" the agrieved former guard asked Bubbac, who replied, "He was transmitting classified information to an unknown and had to be stopped."
"That "unknown", as you put it, was your Cousin Great Siberian, you IDIOT!" Ramjen shouted as he punched the new dragon in the snout. "She needed that information to know how we were doing here because we were sent here to learn, and to protect your realm!"
Argent keeps looking sideways at Marion with a puzzled expression in his eyes, until she smiles at him with understanding. "Now, Argent, do you think I'm still angry at you? We were both young and foolish, and made mistakes. Drink a cup with me, old friend, and let the bygones be bygones. And you still haven't introduced me to your son and your friends!"
"I guess I haven't, haven't I?" he sheepishly grins, and begins the introductions. As Argent introduces each of the companions to Marion, Daria gets another transmission, this time from Ramjen.
/Daria, Coldmist is OK. He was just knocked out by our latest find who thought we were sending military secrets out to an enemy./
/Military secrets? Oh dear. Whatever you dragged yourselves into, Ramjen?/ says Daria. /And for how long are you going to stay in that bizarre place?/
"Hey, have you seen Amthet anywhere?" Argent's puzzled voice interrupts the girl's concentration and she loses the connection again. She vaguely waves around with her hand.
"I saw your son just a few minutes ago, Argent, I think he was talking to Jostanos." But her cousin's helpless expression tells everyone that he's just as clueless about the youngest dragon's whereabouts.
"That little rascal must have slipped out of the room without anyone noticing," says Altheus with a chuckle. "He probably went down that corridor on the left... what is there, my lady?"
"Oh, nothing special," says Marian a little bit too quickly. "Just a bathroom and a couple of old bedrooms I never use anymore. If you just wait here, I'll go and fetch your son, Argent."
In fact, it -was- a bathroom Amthet was hoping to find, and he was also hoping to return quickly, before his absense was noticed and his father had a chance to chide him for bad manners. He was too embarrassed to ask the strange, slightly intimidating mistress of the house, and so he decided to investigate the matters himself, a decision he regretted a few minutes later when it became obvious that the old, tiny house they saw from the outside wasn't at all tiny on the inside. The dark corridor stretched further and further, livened up by nothing except ornamental-looking doors, all locked and none looking like a bathroom.
When it was obvious that Amthet wandered off too far and for too long, the young dragon sighed loudly and was ready to turn back... when a sudden noise attracted his attention.
Amthet froze on the spot and felt his skin turn prickly with fear, and was only shaken back into motion when the noise repeated. This time it was clear that it was coming from behind the door to his right.
"Er, hello?" Amthet ventures awkwardly.
"Who is there?" a muffled, yet familiar-sounding voice asks from the other side of the door.
"Um... my name is Amthet."
"Amthet? Argent's son? Is Argent here?" the voice says with a sudden edge to it.
"Yes, but... er... who are you?"
The voice is silent for a while. Then: "I'm Marion. Perhaps your father mentioned my name, or perhaps not considering our past history. What matters now is this, boy: your father is being fooled by a deadly impostor. I've no idea who she is or what she wants with your father. She didn't have time to kill me, she didn't even do a good job of gagging me, but she may well be on the course to finish off both of us right now if she suspects anything. You must warn your father, quickly!"
In the main hall...
/FATHER!/ came Amthet's frantic call.
/Amthet?! Where are you?/ his father replied angrily. /Nevermind that, just come back here now!/
/I'm with Marion, Father. The one you are with is an impostor, be careful!/
/We will be, son. Get back here, with Marion, when you can./
Amthet tried the door to the room, and it opened to greet him with a swirl of dust and unaired smell. It looks like it was once a luxurious room, before time ate away at the heavy furniture and tapestries. Lying on the floor there's a human figure who, disheveled look and ropes around her arms and legs aside, looks just like the stately woman Amthet met a few minutes ago.
With just a moment of hesitation, Amthet hurries to release the woman from her bonds and helps her stand up. She leans on his shoulder and tries to rub some life into her wrists... when they both hear someone walk along the corridor outside, the sound of steps getting closer.
"It's her!" Amthet gasps and looks desperately at Marion. "What are we going to do?"
"Do?" the woman asked him, "why nothing, you little, gullible fool. Come in, dear sister," she chimed, and the first Marion entered the room.
"They are waiting for this whelp in the main hall," Marion 1 began. "What shall we do with him?"
"He looks like he needs to go potty badly, so let's lock him in there," replied Marion 2.
"Where is the real Marion?" Amthet asked the twins.
"Not here, kiddo. Thank Saihve for that!" and they did as they threatened to do.
"What is taking her so long to get back with your son, Argent?" Jostanos asked impatiently. "We -do- have other business to attend to, you know."
"-That- Marion isn't the true Marion," Argent growled at the GSC, "so it would come as no suprise to me if Amthet was captured by her while trying to free Marion!"
On Earth, a few days later... Jacrose was coming to in an infirmary at the base.
"Good morning, Sir," greeted a young man in a pilot's uniform, "or should I say 'Cousin'?"
"I....Should...throttle...you....for what...you did...to me," came the raspy reply.
"I do apologize, Cousin Jacrose, I didn't know about our other cousins until Ramjen explained it all to me."
"Is he here?" Jacrose asked, his breathing getting better.
"He is sleeping in the next bunk over," the pilot replied. "He spent all of last night watching over you. By the way, I am Jonathan a.k.a. Bubbac."
"Jacrose a.k.a. Coldmist."
The cousins shook hands and smiled.
As Amthet collapses on the floor of the room, a weird sensation comes over him and he feels a stinging itch coming from above his left elbow. Before he can even call for help, the sleeping poison from one of the Marions' needles takes over him and he drifts into the clouds.
Outside the room, without changing pace, a dishevelled and dust-covered Marion 2 morphs smoothly into a perfect copy of Amthet. The sisters nod to each other as they continue their way back into the living room.
/What about the telepathy?/ suddenly asks "Marion".
/What about it?/ says "Amthet".
/The old Dragon may try mindspeech to contact his brat./
/Dear Saihve,/ flusters "Amthet". /Who do you take me for, a hedge magician? I'm a perfect copy down to every single detail./
/Didn't mean to offend you, Sarwe,/ says "Marion". /I may not trust henchmen anymore but I -can- rely on my own family, eh?/
The companions saw young Amthet and Marion coming down the hallway and nearly ran to them except for one fact...
/Argent! That's not Amthet!/ Daria quickly announced to the leader.
/What happened to him then?/
/His web just went slack before they arrived,/ she replied,/ but he is o.k. for the moment./
/Did they say something?/ "Amthet" asked "Marion"
/Must have been too tight a beam like ours for us to catch. Drat!/
Ramjen wakes up to find the cousins chatting about both of the worlds that they have been staying on for so long.
"So the prodigal guardian awakens at last, eh?" laughs Jacrose and hugs his former guard.
"-ME-?!" Ramjen faked being shocked. "-YOU- were the one who was out cold for about a four days, not me, amigo."
Just as the three of them were about to chat some more about lessons...
"ALL PILOTS TO YOUR PLANES! REPEAT! ALL PILOTS TO YOUR PLANES!"
"Gotta go, cuz!" Jonathan saluted, and bolted for his jet.
"Maybe I could help out, Ramjen," Jacrose suggested, "I mean, I can fly after all, when in Dracoform, and I may be of use."
"You -may- have to take that up with the commander of this base, Jacrose," his former guard advised. "He may not want an outsider getting in the way."
"Then again," chimed a new voice, "He just may allow Jacrose to morph Dragon and fly with our boys for support."
"Sir!" Ramjen and Jacrose saluted.
"Marion, Amthet, thank Dragonlords you're back!" says Argent with a picture-perfect expression of relief on his face, while he frantically asks Daria, /Who the hell are these??/
/The "Marion" one is Saihve,/ replies Daria grimly. /I'll recognise her thread anywhere. The one pretending to be your son is... somehow similar... maybe a relation? And she is much, much weaker, too./
"Your son is full of mischief, Argent," replies "Marion" with a smile, patting "Argent" on the head.
/I don't like these secret exchanges at all,/ she broadcasts to her sister. /That damned webweaver is studying us a little bit too intently. Damn and curse her!/
/You think we've been found out?/
/Maybe, maybe not... still, be prepared to switch to plan B.../
On Earth the pilots were fighting a force that they had never seen before, but Ramjen and Jacrose had...
"Son, your morphing abilities are an asset now because we got trouble the likes we have never seen," the commander told the GSC.
"What is it, sir?"
"Dragons, Jacrose. Black Dragons," the commander replied.
/Shadow Dragons here?/ Jacrose broadcast to Ramjen.
/The Dragon Orb -did- mention something about a battle here,/ the former guard replied as his friend morphed into the dragon. /Could that battle be going on now?/
"May I be part of the jam session, boys?" the Commander asked.
"Sorry, Sir," the companions apologised as one, then Ramjen reiterated everything to the CO verbatim, "and that's about the size of it, Commander." The CO considered the matter for a while, then said, "Ramjen, help your friend out there and the guys down here when they need it with supplies and information." Ramjen saluted and headed towards his post.
"Coldmist, help out our flyboys with the menace up there, and please give us any information you may have about our common enemy."
"Will do, Commander," Saluted the GSC, then he flew out of the hanger/recovery room to join the fight above.
In the Skies above..
"Bubbac, you have a bandit on your six!"
"Can you get him off of me, Maverick?"
"I have my own problems, amigo," came the pained reply, "but here comes some -real- support!"
Coldmist flew past the enemy, strafing it with *Shatterstone* as he went by. Several of the Dark Dragons saw the new arrival and decided that Coldmist was the -real- threat, not the fighters, and started their attack run. The GSC saw his target fall, and paid little attention to the attackers coming at him. /Cousin look out!/ Bubbac warned, but it was too late, Coldmist was hit, and hit hard.
Bubbac growled in anger at the Shadow Dragons for what they did to his cousin and fired everything at the enemy squadron, dropping two of them.
/Keep your cool, Bubbac,/ suggested Ramjen, /Coldmist is pulling out of his dive.../ "I think," he muttered. But Coldmist was still falling.
/GEEEZ! THAT SMARTS!/ the GSC broadcast.
"Get to flapping your wings or we'll be food for the fauna of this planet!" scolded a familiar voice.
The GS Dragon known as Coldmist reopened his wings and landed safely on the ground next to Ramjen.
"What the heck was that loud sound a moment ago?" the CO asked the companions.
"Mr. Fipple, the Fipple Flute, at Jacrose's service, Sir," announced the flute shortly after Coldmist morphed.
"Magic?" The companions nodded.
"Jack," the commander began, "you are worse for wear, at the moment..." After a brief moment of thought he continued, "I don't care for magic myself, but if it is only way to get rid of these guys then..."
"Yes, sir!" Bubbac's cousin saluted, sat down on a nearby barrel, and started playing a climax when he saw his cousin's plane head into the remaining Dragons in the Squadron.
/NOOOOO!/ Ramjen and Jacrose broadcast together... and Mr. Fipple was dropped...
As it so happened... Bubbac Survived! He ejected in time, morphed into his Dracoform, and immediately began to fight the Squadron as a Dragon himself! He had no time to tell his cousin that he was ok, but -did- take down a few more enemy dragons before heading for the base.
At the base...
"Will one of you pick me up?" the Spirit of the Flute asked angrily, "I can't see, and he isn't dead."
Startled by this revelation, Jacrose asked, "how do you do this, Mr. Fipple?" as he dusted the Fipple Flute off.
"You would have seen him eject too, if your mind eyes were any clearer."
Both the cousin and the guard looked at the flute, stunned.
"He -broadcast- it before he made the move, but your minds were too busy with other thoughts and ideas." Mr. Fipple explained. Feeling chastened, the twosome welcomed Bubbac back into the fold when he landed. "The enemy is retreating, Cousin," he reported, "and I am sorry that I didn't let you know I was ok."
Not only did the remaining Dark Dragons retreat, they disappeared! All around the base soldiers and fly-boys alike cheered at the victory; however there were losses.
A soldier with a com unit ran over to Bubbac and said, "message for you from Maverick, Bubbac, Sir."
"Go ahead, Maverick," Bubbac began, after receiving the phone.
"We lost Ward and Brickwall, Bubbac," came the response, "and my jet was hit hard too."
"Will you be able to land, Andy?"
"To tell the truth, Jon," he sighed, "if I do land I'll be lucky she doesn't blow up with me in it."
"Can you eject?"
"Already tried, buddy."
"Play me," said a surly voice.
"What?" Jonathan asked, putting a hand over the receiver.
"Play a tune on me to save your friend," the voice continued, "the Flute in your cousin's hands, nitwit, play!"
Bubbac gave the receiver back to the Com man, and walked over to Jacrose. "Are you a ventriloquist or something? 'Cause I thought I just heard that flute tell me to play it."
"I -DID- tell you to play me, Stupid!" the flute shouted, "so don't blame Jacrose for your mistakes!"
Taken aback, Jonathan warily received Mr. Fipple from his cousin and began to play. Discordant notes came out at first, but after a while, a melody played that Jacrose never heard before.
Back at Marion's house, the tension rises to an unbearable level as both parties try to figure out what their imediate-future actions should be. Mercifully it doesn't last for long: without any warning, "Amthet's" shape suddenly shifts and morphs into a short, blond, plumpish woman whose facial features bear an eerie familiarity that makes Daria, Jostanos and Altheus shudder.
"That's -her-!" gasps Andreus fearfully from behind. "That's the woman who wrecked my tavern the other night!"
"You bloody fool," hisses "Marion", her lovely features contorted hideously into a mask of rage. "You lost your nerve too soon!"
"This masquerade clearly isn't fooling anyone here, dear sister," replies Sarwe coldly while shooting a look of pure hatred towards Daria. "How about we lay our cards on the table, now?"
"Very well," "Marion" says icily, then shifts her attention to Altheus. "You know what I want, fiancee, so I'll get straight to what we've got to offer in return. We have had the pleasure of meeting your friend's son," she points at Argent, "and we gave him a parting gift... a drop of exquisite poison of my own making that has no cure by either magic or any substances known to you. I alone have got the antidote, and as a bonus I might even tell you where your precious Marion is kept... so what do you say?"
"We get the antidote and the location of Marion?" Argent asked skeptically.
"I'll give you a free clue," Sarwe cackled. "She's not in -this- world!"
"No trying to feel her out, Daria!" warned Saihve, sensing her ability, "or Amthet dies and Marion stays hidden forever!"
Jostanos tosses over the Stone, and both Saihve and Sarwe cackle with insane glee: "FOOLS! THE DRAGON STONE IS NOW OURS AND THOU AIN'T GETTING NOTHING FROM US!"
Both disappear in a puff of smoke.
"Now I know that you can't be trusted, Jostanos!" shouted Daria.
/It was a fake,/ quipped the Spirit.
/WHAT?!/ broadcast Argent, Daria and Andreus to the Spirit.
/It was a fake that the real Dragon Orb created while we were on our way here,/ the Spirit explained. /With the help of Altheus and Jostanos, that is./
/How long will it fool them for, then?/
/As far as I've seen, it was a -very- good piece of forgery. It should buy us some time... hopefully./
"Well, you saved your precious Orb," says Argent bitterly, "but what will now happen to my son and Marion?"
After a short search, Daria's webweaving leads them into the dark room Amthet had stumbled upon so unfortunately. Pale-faced and distraught, Argent rushes to the motionless body lying on the floor and tries to wake the boy up. Amthet's breathing is normal and even, his face is serene and glowing with health, and he'd look as if he was having a fine and peaceful nap if not for the sinister black-blue spot on his skin where the needle had stabbed him. Quietly, Altheus kneels down next to Argent and inspects the mark, his brow furrowed.
/The witch was lying,/ he says to the rest, tactfully barring Argent. /I recognise this poison and it has NO known antidote; that's why it is Saihve's favourite. He's got perhaps an hour or two... no more./
"Is he going to die?" says Argent aloud in a strangely calm voice.
Altheus hesitates, then replies: "The Dragon Orb might be able to heal him, if it was restored back to its powers. But until then, all I can offer your son is what I've done for Jacrose all those years ago, when I put a hibernation spell on him to keep his body and mind indestructible."
"Neither alive nor dead..." mutters Argent. "Stranded in timeless limbo, without a thought or even dreams..." He sighs with resignation. "I suppose we have no choice. Do it."
"What about my sister?" asks Andreus after Altheus finished with the incantation. "How shall we find her now that her abductors fled?" He turns to Daria. "Can you work your web-weaving magic to trace her, miss?"
"You don't understand, it's not that easy," says the girl, shaking her head. "I cannot simply locate any person on a whim. I need to have had a contact with someone, to have learnt the..." she searches for an appropriate word, "-feeling- of their individual thread. All these threads I have at my fingertips... they speak to me of places and people, but without knowing what to look for I'm sifting through the tons of sand for a grain of salt with my eyes closed."
/Ah, Daria, but there's another side to your gift that I don't think you've explored before,/ says Altheus. /See, your thread magic can lead you to the place where someone -is-... but also to the place where someone -was-.../
** Sometime later, in Argent's former nemesis's home...
"AAARGH! WE'VE BEEN HAD!" shrieks a furious female voice, after discovering the truth about the Orb.
"I told you that we played our hand too soon, sister," shouted the other, "but you didn't listen."
Meanwhile... On Earth...
The companions there are seeing to the pilot of the Dragon damaged jet.
"Are you badly hurt, Andy?" one asks.
"Not too badly, Jon," the pilot replies, "I will survive to fight again some other day." He faints.
"The best place for Maverick is my bunk, for the moment, cousin," Jacrose suggested. "At least until we may move him to a medic tent." Bubbac nods, and does as his cousin suggested.
/If I could make a suggestion, I don't think we should stay in this house any longer,/ says Spirit to everyone.
"I agree, we shouldn't push our luck," nods Altheus. "But first we must take care of Amthet. Wherever our search leads us, we cannot carry him with us. He needs a safe place to stay." He looks questioningly at Andreus and Argent.
"The Head Priestess of the Itryth Healing Order is a good friend of mine," says Andreus slowly, "and will help us, I'm sure."
"But would the walls of Priesthood be enough to protect my son from Saihve?" asks Argent.
"Oh, be sure of that, dear brother-in-law," laughs Andreus. "The Healing Order may not command armies or boast any political power, but the power they wield is one of the greatest in this world. No evil may pass the steps of their temples."
"In that case, we mustn't linger any longer," says Argent decisively as he gently picks up Amthet off the floor.
As the companions were heading out of Marion's home, Daria recieved a transmission from her cousin Jacrose who was stationed on Earth...
/Daria, Cousin Bubbac has suffered a major blow./
/What happened, Jacrose?/ asked with concern.
/A whole lot of his flying companions didn't make it during a Shadow Dragon Raid earlier today and Maverick just passed on not too long ago,/ her cousin replied, then Ramjen took over:
/I don't know if our time here is over or not, Daria.../ he began. /But we are definitely ready to rejoin you now/, Bubbac included./
From the pocket of Altheus, a voice said: "Their time to come here is yet to be. When hybrid's son rests safe, you will see."
"Cryptic," was all the Guide said, but after he noticed the others looking at him he explained, "The Orb's prophecies often are."
The group of travellers make their way along the streets of the city, largely ignored by the indifferent crowds minding their own business. As they pass through yet another busy square, Andreus points to an unremarkable-looking temple stuck between the two opulent buildings on the other side.
"This is the place," he says with an unmistakable relief in his voice. "We're almost there..." he stops mid-sentence.
"What's wrong, Andy?" asks Jostanos, then his face turns pale as well as they see a couple of familiar faces pushing their way grimly through the crowd.
"Thought you fooled us, you pathetic little lizards?" hisses Sarwe, shaking with rage.
"Run!" screams Altheus, and rushes towards the temple, the others following suit. The company practically busts through the heavy copper doors into the inner courtyard, and Daria catches a brief glimpse of a round face gasping in surprise before she crashes to the floor with the unfortunate passer-by caught under. Breathing heavily, Argent and Altheus bold the door behind them and slump to the floor.
"Forgive me for interrupting," says an icy female voice behind them, "but who do you think you are, behaving like masters in this place?"
"We seek sanctuary, Madame High Priestess," Andreus bowed.
"Indeed," came the icy reply.
"LET US IN THERE THIS INSTANT OR SUFFER THE WRATH OF SARWE!" screeched an angry woman's voice.
"We are protecting a valuable artifact from Sarwe and her sister," Andy continued, and Altheus produced the Dragon's Orb as he said, "the Dragon's Orb of Casthellea."
"And my son needs a place to rest until a cure maybe found for the poison that is within him," Argent sobbed.
"Sarwe and Saihve can not enter here in any case," the High Priestess announced. "You may have your sanctuary, Andreus, but be carefull when you leave."
The companions were shown to a room where they may place Amthet temporarily. Then, to everyone's suprise...
"Their duty has been done. Now is their time to come home. Though it is too far to run... they will no longer have to roam." A portal, green in hue, appeared and Ramjen, Jacrose, and Jonathan stepped out, then closed again.
"What now, Altheus?" says Ramjen after Jonathan is introduced briefly to everyone. (/My, our travelling circus will soon require a cook and a maid at the rate it's been growing!/ jeers the Spirit.)
"Well, it's up to Daria now," says the Guide, nodding at the girl, who looks rather unsure. "In a strange way, we've been lucky that the sisters followed us. You'll find it easier to search for the places they've been to with their thread so close by."
With a nervous crooked smile, Daria closes her eyes and concentrates. Saihve's thread streams through her fingers, with Sarwe's dimmer one trailing behind, and the brief glimpses of the temple doors flash in front of her inner vision. With all her strength, Daria tries to follow the thread further, disappearing into the mists of time, until the tension is such that tears are flowing down her cheeks. As if by a miracle, the tension eases and Daria feels herself hurled across a silver pathway, myriads of images bombarding her head... a dark castle... a house that she recognises as Marion's... their own group standing in the hall... then... She screams and releases the thread, clutching her head.
"Cousin, are you alright?" gasps Jacrose.
"What did you see?" asks Andreus anxiously. "Did you see Marion?"
Daria says hesitantly, "I have seen her, yes."
"Where is she?" Then, picking up on Daria's expression, he adds, "is she... alive?"
Daria looks away, seemingly unwilling to answer. "She... exists, although I'm not sure if she's alive. I saw a castle, somewhere up in the western mountains, and a large hall... and inside, a pillar of light. There was a human shape inside... that was her."
"Can you 'thread' us there?" asks Jostanos.
"No," replies Daria. "I can trace places back in time but I cannot transport us there."
"There is a tune that I can help Jonathan play if Jacky accompanies in song," Mr. Fipple The Fipple Flute mused, "but it is tricky and requires all that wish to travel to the location to stand with the players."
"We just can't leave Amthet here alone like this. Can we?" Argent asked with fatherly concern. "Can't one of us stay with him while the others go on the journey?"
"That may not be an option." Altheus replied, "Let us rest for now and decide on our actions later."
"May we stay here for the night, my lady?" asks Daria. "We are more than happy to pay for our beds and whatever meal you could spare."
"Our temple is no common inn," says the High Priestess coldly, "but for the sake of our friendship, Andreus, I shall let you stay." She gives him a look that clearly says, you would be wise not to abuse that friendship again, then waves to the lesser Priestesses to accompany the travellers to their quarters.
Outside the temple, several hours later, two figures still hide in the shadows of the night... "We might as well give up, sister," says Sarwe. "This accursed place will not let us in. They cannot hide in there forever, let us try our luck once they hit the road." "And I suppose you have a way to track them wherever that damned webweaver might take them?" snaps Saihve. "No, there must be a way in..." She smiles fiendishly as a sudden idea occurs to her. "If we may not break in, let one of them helps us out... My dear former Shadow Dragon, you shall learn that no one can escape Saihve's will once she brings them to the heel..." Inside the temple, Jostanos tosses and turns in his sleep which is rapidly turning into a nightmare...
Shardspray's nightmares began that very night, and they were not pretty...
"Come back to me, Shadow," commanded an eerily familiar voice, "come back to me, and help me regain the Dragon Orb."
Shardspray woke up with a start the first night, but as the days progressed... the nightmares worsened and his cousins began to get worried.
It was almost a week now that they left the House of the Itryth Healing Order and made their way north-west towards the mountains. After many arguments and a near-screaming row between Argent and Andreus, it was agreed that the latter would stay back in Harmeyn and look after Amthet, whose condition remained the same. To the acute embarrassment of Mr. Fipple Flute, the tune that was supposed to transport them to the mysterious castle with no sweat refused to work steadily, as did all of Daria's attempts at web-weaving travel.
"I don't understand it, Altheus," Jonathan said after an umpteenth attempt. "Jacrose and I have learned the bloody tune - no offence Mr. Flute - so well we could recite it in our sleep, so why does it fail?"
"I'm sure there's nothing wrong with our magic," replied the Guide, while helping himself to a generous slice of journeybread, courtesy of Andreus. "No, I suspect that there's something about our destination that repels all transportation spells."
"Which means we'll have to travel by foot all the way," says Ramjen glumly, "and risk another attack by Saihve and her sister."
"Don't worry, they won't take us by surprise again," interrupts Daria, "Spirit and I are on a constant lookout - they may shapeshift until they turn blue, but they can't mask their threads from me."
/You know it's not Saihve's physical attack I'm worried about,/ says Spirit to Daria. The girl, who was now attuned to the moods and inflections of her "guest", stole a look at Shardspray who looked like he was in a world of his own...
Not very far from the Companions...
"They are getting close," said Sarwe darkly to her sister. "Don't you think it's time to think of a back-up plan in case the dragon's mind proves too powerful for you?"
"Too powerful for me? For me? How dare you!" hissed Saihve, her eyes flashing. "I brought him to the heel once, and I'll do it again! He will not resist for long. And why do you worry anyway? They will never be able to get inside the castle. Even their precious flute won't be much help."
"That may be true, but they have been strangely fortunate in the past," replies Sarwe. "Sister, I do not doubt your powers. But I think that in your desire to lure back your most powerful servant, you forgot about our ultimate goal. There will be other servants to acquire once we get back the Dragon Stone. And I believe there are other ways to go around the problem."
"Meaning?" says Saihve, who notes "we" with distaste.
"Meaning that there is another former servant of yours amongst our enemies. One whose mind is so much weaker."
"The guard Ramjen?" says Saihve, startled. "But of course. How could I forget him!"
"We were as blind as our enemies are hopefully still are," continues Sarwe triumphantly. "The webweaver suspects that we're trying to regain control over Shadow, no doubt. Let her suspect him.You may suceed and bring forth darkness in Shadow again. But when the right moment comes," she adds quickly, seeing Saihve's rage mounting again, "you must strike at Ramjen. Not like with Shadow, but fast and hard. It's one shot, but it's a shot nobody expects."
The Cousins and their companions were nearly at their destination when the unthinkable happens...
"We have it now, my Queen! MUAHAHAHA!"
Both Ramjen and Shardspray turn back to their dark selves, steal the Dragon Orb from their former friends, and immediately teleport to the Dark Queens lair!
"Both of you have done well and will be rewarded..." the Witch Queen told them upon arrival. /As if!/ she thought to herself.
"So you have forgiven us, my Lady Saihve?" asks Ramjen anxiously. "Forgive you, my dear Ramjen?" says Saihve brightly as she lovingly puts away the Dragon Stone. "Why, there's nothing to forgive..." she turns away and gives Sarwe a barely noticeable nod.
The mage grins, and before Ramjen and Shadow can react, they are lifted into the air off their feet, paralysed.
"Do not worry, I have no intention to kill you," Saihve sniffs as she looks at the helpless shapes. "But I'm not taking any chances - you've been wrestled from me before and thus proved to be undependable. Think of it as a long restful holiday, if you'd like. When I've taken care of your former associates, I shall awake you... maybe."
She turns to Sarwe. "Put them into the pillars, next to their precious Marion. Speaking of which, it's time for our sleeping beauty to wake up..."
Back outside the castle... The company stands in shock, staring at where Ramjen and Shardspray were just a moment ago, as Saihve's mortal blow sinks into their minds. Daria breaks the silence by screaming, "damn, damn, damn!"
"What do we do now?" says Jonathan, ashen-faced.
"There's nothing we can do!" snarls Daria. "Saihve won! She has got the Stone, she has Marion, she is hiding safely in a place we are powerless to get into! What -is- there to do? We should have let that son of a... Shardspray take a hike a long time ago!"
"Even if we had, noone thought of Saihve getting through to Ramjen, too," says Argent in a hollow voice. "It is too late now."
"Never too late, friend Argent, never too late," says a voice that noone but Argent recognise. The cousins turn around to face a cowled figure that steps out towards them from behind a large tree.
"Firesting??" croaks Argent in disbelief.
"Argent," replies the figure coldly. "Long time no see. Tell you friends to put their weapons away. I believe that for once you and me can help each other out."
"You have some nerve, you!" Argent hisses. "Go back to your mistress before I rip your face off?"
"Oh, but you already have ripped my face off, dear Argent," says Firesting, throwing back his cowl. "Remember the fire trap in your lair? Ingenious! In fact the only thing that stops -me- from ripping -your- face off is, I need a favour from that former paramour of yours, Marion. She is the only healer strong enough to give me back my face," he raises his hand and traces the hideous burns than had transformed his face into a grotesque purple-black mask.
"So how about it? I could get you into the castle, and you could put a word for me to your ex-girlfriend..."
Argent was shocked, but Tigre blurted, "I'm ok with that."
/COUSIN!/ Daria and Jonathan shouted to him telepathically, making him wince. Obviously they wished he talked it over with them first. Altheus only smiled and muttered, "Everyone is nearly in place and ready for their part.."
"Healer?" says Daria with a frown. /Girlfriend?/ adds the Spirit.
"Hah, he hasn't told you?" says Firesting. "Not just -a- healer, -the- healer! The most powerful one on the face of this world, and probably multi-verse, too."
"Powerful enough to mend the Dragon St..." blurts Jacrose, before stopping himself and looking guiltily at his cousins again. But Firesting nods, "quite probably. Saihve seems sure of it, at least." He turns to Argent again. "So you see, you don't exactly have much time left."
"He comes with us," Altheus announced to the group, and as the companions gazed at him in wonderment, and Firesting staring at him with glee, he advanced towards Saihve's Fortress.
After about ten steps he stops and asks "Well, aren't you coming?" Tigre and the crew were stunned yet again, "Marion and the Dragon Stone aren't goin to save themselves you know."
"Hurray! Hurray! They're on their way!" Sarwe announced to her sister when she looked out the window. "Excellent!" the Witch Queen replied, "There are even more suprises for those meddling Siberian Cousins than the last time we met!" Cackling in insane glee Saihve and Sarwe set the traps for the Companions arrival..
Altheus doesn't advance any further before he hears a cough behind his back. "Er.... friend?" says Firesting, "I'm afraid you're walking in the wrong direction. The way into the castle is the exact opposite of where you're heading." Seeing the puzzled faces all around him, he adds wearily, "what I'm saying is, there's a secret entrance into the castle not terribly far from here. By a happy coincidence, it is also well away from Saihve's field of vision, so she won't see us entering."
"And you're saying she doesn't know about it?" asks Argent incredulously.
"You see, this castle did not always belong to her," says Firesting. "And as far as I understand it, it's only a temporary lair she used on very few occasions, so she doesn't know it as well as she should. And the entrance is so well masked that I only stumbled upon it by sheer chance. It saved my life, too," he adds darkly.
"Very well," says Altheus, who has the decency to look at least a little bit embarrassed, "lead the way, Firesting."
"Saihve!" gasps Sarwe as she looks at the distant figures down below retreat. "They're leaving!"
"Look for yourself!" Sarwe is pushed away unceremoniously as the Witch Queen peers at the snowy landscape.
"No, I can't believe they've given up," she mutters under her breath, "they're planning something, that's for sure. Oh, nevermind. Even if they do manage to get in, our traps will take care of them. Still, I think one of us must stay vigilant. There's important work to do that cannot be disturbed by those pesky Cousins." "When you say "one of us" you mean me, of course," says Sarwe sourly, but doesn't argue further.
Inside the secret passage... "Are you sure this will lead us to Marion?" Argent asked his nemesis. "As sure as you and the fools with you have a better chance of defeating Saihve and Sarwe before they use Marion to bring Dark Lord Gargos."
There's a sharp intake of breath as Altheus stops abruptly, and even in the half-lit of the passage Daria can see colour drained from his face.
"What's wrong? Who is this Gargos?"
"Is he by any chance the Dark Lord the Orb has spoken to me about?" asks Argent sharply.
"Afraid so," says Argent grimly. "And I forgot all about it! Saihve has tried to bring him back a few times before, but never succeeded, even with the power of the Dragon Orb. She must be desperate now to try it again." He picks up the pace. "Our haste must be even greater!"
Whilst the companions outside were shushing Jacrose, Saihve and Sarwe were having problems of their own...
"YOU TOLD ME THAT I WOULD BE OUT OF HERE BEFORE NOW!"
"Patience, my liege. Patience."
"PATIENCE MY FOOT! Saihve, darling, I need to have that gem in my hand to rule this world and I also need to be out of this frame!"
The quarreling couple don't notice a cowering figure sidling through the doorway, in a manner of someone who'd rather be several multiverses away.
"My Queen..." he stammers, interrupting Lord Gargos mid-word, "I've been brought the news from the world "Earth"..."
"Ah, marvellous, just in time," Saihve beams, then takes in the expression on the face of the messenger and says sharply, "the Dark Dragons were victorious, weren't they Elminio?"
"Alas nn-n-no my Lady," says Elminio, trembling like a leaf, "Something went wrong... they had two dragons assisting them, two silver dragons the survivor said, and the machines of war those humans had! They've seen nothing like them!"
"So my servants have failed me once again and the Shard remains on Earth..." says Saihve, her voice cold with fury. Abruptly, she raises her hand, and a bolt of energy strikes the unfortunate messenger square in the chest and engulfs him in brilliant blue flames. "Blast those Cousins!" she screams.
Back in the passage... "Gargos goes back to the old days of magic wars that tore the multiverse," says Altheus. "He was said to possess such power that had he recovered his strength now he would be unstoppable. And so enduring is his lifeforce that even when he was finally brought down by his enemies they could not destroy him completely. Instead, they split his essence into several fragments, and scattered them across the dimensions. No one remembers anymore how many of them there were or what shape they were put into or how powerful each one is. I myself only know of one - but if the rumours are correct it is the one that holds the most power."
"The Dragon Stone," says Jacrose.
"Precisely," nods Altheus.
"The Dragons of old told me of its true nature, a long time ago. I don't know how or when Saihve learned about Gargos and his connection to Dragon Orb, but it was the start of her downfall into darkness. She used the Dragon Orb to achieve her own ascent, but her true aim was always to revive Gargos and rule by his side as a Queen."
"Do you think then she might have learned the whereabouts of another shard?" gasps Daria. "You've said that she never succeeded before - so obviously the Dragon Orb on itself is not strong enough!"
"That's what I'm afraid of, Daria," replies Altheus. He wants to add something else when Firesting suddenly stops in his tracks and says, "there's something ahead of us!"
A few metres ahead, the dark tunnel ends abruptly with a doorway. Though the door is shut, brilliant rays of light escape through the cracks around it. "This is Saihve's crystal room!" gasps Firesting. "I never knew the secret passage went that far!" "Hush you!" hisses Argent. "I think there's someone in there..."
In the other part of the castle...
The pillar of light that until now has housed the body of Marion is gone. The healer stands listlessly in front of Saihve, her green eyes as dead as that of a zombie.
"What are your orders, my Queen?" she says dully.
The Queen beams and claps her hands together, delighted by her work. /Sarwe?/ she says. /Go to the crystal room and bring the Orb here. It's time to begin./
In the Crystal Room...
"Sarwe do this... Sarwe do that..." Saihve's sister rants quietly. "Since we've started this quest to find the Orb and Master Gargos she has sent me to do things."
The Orb listened quietly as the witch began to pick it up...
Outside the Crystal Room...
"Shall we enter now?" asked an impatient Jacrose.
"I say we do!" says an equally impatient Jonathan and reaches to push the door open. Instead, the young dragon's arm sinks into the door with a loud sucking sound, and before his astonished companions can do anything he disappears from view as the portal trap swallows him whole.
"Jonath..." gasps Jacrose before the Guide clasps his hand over her mouth.
"Quiet!" he says, listening intently, but there seems to be no sign of commotion in the Crystal Room on the other side. "I think this portal doesn't lead into the room behind it! It's a trap."
"Where did it teleport Jonathan to then?" says Daria, pale-faced. "Should we go after him?"
"Let's calm down first so we may think this through." Altheus suggests, tugging at his beard.
In the other part of the castle... Jonathan crashes onto the damp floor with a loud yelp. Behind him, the portal closes and disappears, leaving him in the centre of a pitch-black room.
Before anyone can answer, the companions are suddenly aware of the terrible noise coming from the tunnel behind them. Daria turns around, her heart full of dread.
Two Shadow Dragons and a squad of Dark Knights were blocking the way ahead of the Cousins. "Lord Gargos sent us this way fools!" a Shadow Dragon roared, "Queen Saihve isn't the only one who can see in this castle! MWAHAHAHA!"
The Cousins, now trapped between the advancing foes and the treacherous portal leading into unknown, groan in despair.
"Well, we have little choice now," gasps Argent. "We must try our luck with this damned door!"
He disappears through the portal trap, followed almost instantly by the rest of his companions.
"Where are we now?" Argent asks.
After a quick look around Jacrose exclaims, "NOT ANOTHER RED ROOM!"
"*Moan* Will ya quiet down some, Jacrose? I'm trying to sleep over here," said a sleepy voice in a corner of the room.
In Saihve's lab...
"Time to heal the Dragon Orb, Marion," croons a seductive woman's voice.
"Time to heal... Time to heal..." Marion chants as she approaches, and takes the orb from the Witch Queen's hands. The Dragon Orb remains silent and dark as it gets healed, awaiting the cousins to arrive...
"Jonathan?" says Jacrose anxiously. "Is that you?"
"No, it's Lord British, you dolt," came an ungracious reply. "Now could you please shut up and let me sleep?"
"Now that I think about it," says Argent with a wide yawn, "I'm up for a little nap myself. Can anyone please wake me up when it's time?"
"Not me," replies Altheus, settling comfortably down on the floor and tucking his backpack under his head. "Dragonlords, I feel like I haven't slept in ages!"
/What on earth is wrong with you all!/ screams the Spirit to Daria, who is ready to drift off herself. /Can't you see this is a trap! WAKE UP!/
"-That- should wake those sleeping beauties, Dearie." Mr. Fipple announced cheerfully to the spirit in GSD's head.
/If it doesn't,/ the Spirit began, /we're going to be in a whole mess of trouble./
In Saihve's lab...
"Time to heal... Time to heal..." Marion continues to chant as she caresses the Dragon Orb.
"Soon, Sister, our master will be free and we'll be able to conquer both this world and Britannia!" the Witch Queen cackles. Sarwe joins in the laughter, briefly, then heads towards the two pillars where Shadow and Ramjen are captured.
Back in the Red Room...
"WHAT THE FRELL JUST HAPPENED?" Jonathan asked angrily.
"Mr. Fipple broke the 'sleep spell' that was cast on us, cuz," Jacrose replies with a yawn. "Chill."
"Chill?" Jonathan asks as he morphs into Bubbac. "CHILL!? HOW ABOUT *CONE OF COLD*!"
Bubbac's *Cone of Cold* not only hits its target (Jacrose), but also Argent, and GSD.
In the Lab (again)...
"WHEN WILL IT BE HEALED!?" bellowed a voice from a mirror nearby, "'cause I want out of here."
"Soon, Lord Gargos, soon," Saihve promised. "Soon we shall be standing side-by-side conquering this world and Britannia!"
Sarwe wasn't too suprised at being left out of their schemes beyond getting Lord Gargos back into this dimension. However, she had some plans of her own concerning the two pillared prisoners.
"Stop this bickering -now-!" says Altheus impatiently, glaring at Jonathan. "We must get out of here as soon as possible, no doubt Saihve's servants are on their way to pick up their sleeping victims."
"Too late!" groans Firesting, as they all hear the distant sounds of clinking armour getting closer to the room. "We'll be caught anyway!"
"Not if we have the advantage of surprise," says Argent firmly. "No doubt they expect us to be asleep and helpless."
He looks at Jonathan. "So hold your horses and keep your cold magic for the -real- enemies, you hothead!"
Everyone falls silent as one of the room's walls suddenly reveals a white rectangle of a door... which bursts open to reveal... Sarwe with Ramjen and Shadow...
"Quickly, before my sister realizes what is going on."
"What are you playing at, witch?" Argent asks critically. "Why are you switching sides?"
With the rest of Argent's party staring at her, waiting for an answer, she replies: "Lord Gargos and Saihve have no more need of me."
/Yeah right!/ the spirit inside Daria humphed. /Quiet, and let her finish./ Altheus warned it. "Please go on."
"The Orb is almost ready for Saihve to bring her Lord back from the Prison Dimension," Sarwe continued. "To stop her from doing so you need these two in your party, and..."
/Oh why don't we give her a knock on the head already?/ says the Spirit vehemently, causing Daria to startle. /Are you seriously going to trust her?/
"...and you will also need to know how to get to the Great Hall where my darling sister is getting closer to her goal as we speak," continues Sarwe coldly. "So you see, you have no choice but to trust me."
"What is wrong with Ramjen and Shadow?" says Jacrose worriedly. Indeed, the pair's eyes look glazed over and everyone realises they haven't said a word ever since they walked into the room with Sarwe.
Sighing, Sarwe explains that the twosome were in a couple of Saihve's 'Stasis Columns' and that they had just been freed to help regain the orb before Lord Gargos could be freed.
"And we don't have all that much time to waste bickering here about it!" Saihve's sister continues. "She and Lord Gargos could be onto me, and you, any moment now!"
"Very well," says Altheus. "How do we get to the Great Hall?"
"Not so easy," says Sarwe. "There is only one passage that leads into the Hall and it is well watched, by magical eyes as well as human. We shall need disguise."
With these words, she pulls up the right sleeve of her robe, exposing her forearm. Gripping her right arm tightly around the elbow with her left, Sarwe then does something that makes everyone in the room gasp in surprise and horror. With one swift movement, the skin just below the elbow comes off her arm as if she was taking a glove off. But there is no blood or exposed flesh underneath - just strange metallic-looking surface that gleams dark blue. Looking at the astonished faces, Sarwe smiles and flexes the fingers for a dramatic effect.
"You cannot use magic to transform yourselves, because the defensive mechanisms will detect it. However, if you would shake hands with me, I could share my natural gift for shapechanging with you all, for a short while, of course."
"You mean... we could borrow your ability just by touching your hand?" enquires Jacrose.
"Yes!" smiles Sarwe. "As easy as that, drake. If you're brave enough, of course."
"Oh I'm brave enough!" boasted Jacrose. "Just you watch!"
And with that statement, the young dragon walked proudly over to the Witch Queen's sister and shook her hand. He suddenly shakes like he has been shocked by an electric eel and falls to the ground. As his companions crowd around Sarwe, to give her a piece of their minds, they fail to notice the change in Tigre's appearance.
He stands up and yells "Can't you take a joke? Goodness!" As his cousins, and his companions turn towards him, they notice that he too has the same metallic hue as Sarwe's arm.
"Jacrose, you look... scary..." says Daria, clearly unnerved by her cousin's new appearance. "Is -that- supposed to be our disguise?"
"Of course not," sniffs Sarwe contemptuously, then turns to Jacrose. "You need to concentrate now and think really hard about what appearance you wish to take on. My suggestion is that you mask yourselves as my dear sister's guards. I'm sure you've had an opportunity to observe them at some point."
Tigre tsks, "Tcha, the first day we entered Firesting's Fortress, she threw us into the dungeon with them surrounding us!"
Ramjen, as if waking from a dream, hears this and replies, "You broke that witch's spell over me then, when I was one of them, Jacrose." The former guard shook the young, transformed, dragon's hand. "And you have done so again, my friend. Thanks!" Ramjen, from the contact with Tigre, started to morph into a modified version of his former "Guard" self.
Firesting, who had been silent for awhile now, was a tad miffed. "It wasn't -MY FAULT- that you got captured then," and he turned his back on the lot of them.
After everybody had their turn adopting the guise, Daria, who was at the back of the queue, reluctantly approaches Sarwe with her hand extended for handshake. The witch, however, gives the girl a penetrating look and clicks her tongue.
"You, my dear, are going to be a problem," she says, casually pulling her "skin glove" back over her metallic hand.
"W-what?" says Daria, startled.
"Well, not you precisely, but rather the pest you're carrying around with you," replies Sarwe.
/What??/ The Spirit barks indignantly as Daria says coldly, "I'd appreciate it if you did not insult my friend, sorceress."
"Begging your pardon, I didn't realise you were so attached to it," says Sarwe."Of course you don't really have much choice about that, do you..."
/-It-? -It-???/ fumes the Spirit, but Sarwe continues: "You see, the forces that guide the passage into the Hall will sense two souls sharing your body... which is not a common trait amongst my sister's servants. It will raise their suspicions."
"Well, what if I go without disguise?" says Daria. "You can pretend to have captured me."
"That could work, I suppose," replies Sarwe. "I'm almost sure that my sister won't wish to do something unpleasant to you... at least not at once."
Saihve claps her hands in delight as she watches Marion finally take her palms off the Dragon Stone. The healer's eyes look as glazed as they did before, and she stands perfectly still, but there are signs of great exhaustion on her grey face.
"Marvellous," Saihve breathes out, looking at the newly repaired Dragon Stone. "At last, my love, the time has come."
She mutters a brief spell under her breath. Ten narrow pillars of light erupt from the floor to form a perfect circle around the witch, six of them trapping various objects inside each: a golden cup, a jewelled dagger, two orbs that look simillar to Dragon Stone although not as magnificent, a book and a locket. The other four remain empty.
"Seven shards out of ten," says Lord Gargos. "Are you sure these will be enough?"
"I know I promised you eight, my love," says Saihve. "But my servants failed me once again... the shard hidden in the world called Earth was too well protected for them. No matter. We have recovered the most important piece and we have one more shard than the last time I tried to revive you. We -shall- succeed."
"What do you wish us to do with the healer, my lady?" asks one of the guards.
"What? Oh." Saihve looks briefly at Marion's impassive face. "Take her outside and throw her in the snow. I have no more need of the wretch."
A few minutes later..
In a nearby hallway... "Where are you going with her?" asks a cruel voice.
"As my queen ordered me to do: Throw her into the snow," the guard replies.
"Hand her over to me. I have a better use for her," the voice cackles, and her supposed minions laugh with her.
After a few tense moments...
/Is that Marion?/ Altheus asks GSD.
/She is, but she is very weak,/ the GSC replies. /She needs to be healed quickly, but will my cousin's magic be detected?/
"Unknown are the ways of the magic of the void..." Sarwe sings in response.
"What are you suggesting then, witch?" says Argent angrily. "We cannot leave Marion to die!"
"Temper, temper," replies Sarwe mildly. She gestures at the nearby door and mutters a brief incantation.
"We are passing through the cellblock right now," she explains, pointing inside a small, bare room with two pillars of light stretching from the floor up to the ceiling. "No harm will come to your healer friend if she's put inside one of these. She can remain here, safe and sound, until you have time to aid her properly."
"And how are we to do that, Sarwe?" Ramjen asked suddenly, for he had been silent for the longest time now, "How are we to heal the healer without being detected?"
"By letting Jacky play me here, of course," a mysterious, forgotten voice replied.
"Who said that?" the Witch Queen's sister asked, and was suprised when she got her answer. Jacrose unsheathed his friend "Mr. Fipple" from the case on his back, and he, Mr. Fipple, replied, "I did, witchy." Sarwe looked stunned. "And if you have any doubts of this lad's abilities, ask his family here... and me! We know better."
After a few minutes a stunned silence from the entire party, Mr. Fipple continued, "if you have any better ideas you had better bring them out into the open for you don't have much time to dilly-dally here if you are going to stop your sister from making the biggest mistake of her life!"
Sarwe was even further stunned when she heard that from the enchanted instrument.
"Amazing things are happening these days, under our very noses and we haven't time to lose as our musical friend advised," the Guide quipped. "Now let's get moving and allow Coldmist to do waht he may for Marion!"
Sarwe, obviously annoyed by someone else other than her taking charge, gives Altheus a nasty look and then turns to leave. With her back to the others, she doesn't see Firesting look at her, and then at the pillar of light in the cell, in a calculating manner.
Without a warning, he darts forward and grabs the witch by the shoulder. Before Sarwe can react, Firesting shoves her straight into the nearest pillar. The shining surface swallows the woman and she stays frozen inside like a life-like mannequinn, her eyes widened and mouth opened in scream.
"I don't know about you, but she really started to get on my nerves," says Firesting to his shocked companions.
"What... what on earth have you done?" cries Argent.
"You should thank me, you know," bristles Firesting. " Do you really think she's your ally, that she's helping you out of goodness of her heart, maybe? Rubbish! She intended to use you all for her own gain!"
"Just like yourself?" hisses Argent, but Altheus stops him. "Enough... the heart of the matter is, how are we supposed to get to the Great Hall now?"
"I know the way," says Firesting. "We've got our disguise thanks to the witch, we don't need her anymore, let's go."
"But what about my dear Marion?" Argent asked. "We can't bring her with us and we can't just leave her here!" Jacrose clears his throat for attention, then replies, "Mr. Fipple and I could stay behind and keep watch over her while you continue." The companions were again stunned at the very idea, but there was little time to waste...
In the lab...
"My Dear," croons a wonderfully evil voice, "you have done very well to get me out of that prison with only seven of the shards..."
The witch queen began to look a little worried.
"...But next time, get them all so I wouldn't look like the 'Phantom of the Opera!'"
Saihve visibly cringed.