Mixed Virtues

by Emowyn

Underground in the prison Wrong, Blackthorn paced around the perimeter of his tiny cell. Alone. Forgotten. The end result of a glorious, glorious plan.

For years he had been masquerading as a man of compassion and of the other seven virtues, a good and dedicated citizen of Britannia. It was a sickening period of his life. Then when the time came, when Lord British had been called away, Blackthorn had solemnly taken the responsibilities of the Kingdom in his place, while trying to hide the desperate temptation to dance up and down with glee. He had worked slowly (In his opinion, those that rushed evil plots deserved anything that happened to them) inching his way closer and closer to victory, and by the time anyone realized what was happening, it was too late to stop him. Blackthorn had turned peasant against noble, turn all who threatened his plan into fugitives, and even managed to dissolved the Moongates.

He frowned in memories. He could remember quite fondly where he had gone wrong-he had underestimated the allies of the Avatar, and how clever they were. A single coin, a single enchantment...and the Avatar was back. From that point on, Blackthorn knew that he was doomed. He fished the coin out of his pocket and held it up to the faint light from the window. Its magic was used and spent. Just like him. The Avatar had fought his way past the Shadowlords, and subdued him not long afterwards.

But later, he and his companions couldn’t agree on judgement.

As he recalled, Shamino, one of the accursed companions of the avatar, wanted to dump him in the middle of the forest of the Wisps-a forest Blackthorn had progressively destroyed during his reign-and then run like hell, for apparently the forest had laws and punishments of there own. Iolo, by far the most disgustingly sentimental of the three, wanted to lock him down in Empath Abbey, there to study the eight virtues for the rest of his life. And Dupre, the constantly drunken Knight, wanted to kill Blackthorn right there and then, a fate Blackthorn could have at least faced with dignity. But it was ultimately the Avatar’s decision, the dear precious Avatar-who demanded that Blackthorn was to be cast into the Eternal void, a fate even worse then death, because in that realm his body and soul would be stretched and torn magically apart. Blackthorn didn’t care, for the look on the Avatar’s face when he destroyed the network of Moongates-the only way to his home, was worth even that.

But that decision was overruled by the only one person greater even then an Avatar-Lord British.

Blackthorn shuffled his feet in the bitter cold. For many years Blackthorn had pretended to be Lord British’s closest friend. Then after Blackthorn betrayed him, Blackthorn really expected Lord British to give him a terrible death at least. But no. He had forgotten how weak and sniveling the old fart was.

So instead had been sentenced to the dungeon Wrong...which was, well, frankly wrong.

It was a hell prison, a place where convicts are dumped and never visited or seen again. Blackthorn had to escape, obviously, but how? The list of allies he had could literally be summed up in one sentence-he had none. The hired mercenaries would have undoubtably fled back to the shadows and worm-infested drink holes where he had found them. The white-robed council of Britain he had bribed will undoubtably deny that any such transaction took place. The people of Britannia will have shaken off the cloud of fear and greed the Shadowlords had placed on them by now. The Shadowlords themselves, who would have served him with undying loyalty before, had flocked back to their master...and his. Thinking of his master made Blackthorn cringe. The master despised weakness, and the fear of what his master would do to him increased Blackthorn’s motivation to escape.

But for many months he had tried to fathom different escape plans, but none of them worked. The whole prison had a spell Lord British had placed, a spell which prevented the workings of the slightest magical enchantments. It had turned even the most dangerous of wizards into meowing babies. Blackthorn hung his head in despair. He was seriously beginning to think that no one could escape this place. Not even an Avatar.

It was at that moment he heard shuffling outside. Nervous shuffling. A hiccup.

Blackthorn looked up. “Toad?” he whispered.

A pause, then two small green eyes peered out at him from the gloom.

Blackthorn’s lips slowly stretched into a grin. He had forgotten one type of people in his equation-the ones he had experimented on, mutilated to his will. He had made it so that they would always obey him, would always come back to him in the end. “Toad, my dear Toad....what took you so long to return back to your master?”

“I tried to fight you,” Toad snarled. “Tried to jump off a cliff and kill myself. But couldn’t. I hate you with a loathing that cannot be-”

“Yes, yes,” Blackthorn said, waving his hand. His confidence, long since disappeared, was slowly beginning to return. It was a good feeling.

“You don’t look so good, Master,” Toad said smugly.

Blackthorn ran his hand through his slimy, uneven hair. He was also three times thinner then he was before. “They forget to feed me most of the time, Toad.”

“How unfortunate.” A playful smile danced on Toad’s lips.

Blackthorn glared at him, vowing that once he was safe and away from this place, he would blast Toad into all sorts of colors of oblivion. “Let your poor master out of here, Toad.”

“I can’t let you out, master,” Toad said with a hint of happiness. “This door is protected both by locks and by wards against magical enchantments.” He flicked his forked tongue to emphasize his point. “And I can’t pick the lock like I used to.” He held up his webbed hand.

Blackthorn frowned and looked away. He began to pace again. Toad waited. He knew his master was deep in thought, creating plot after sickening plot for his own escape.

Finally, Blackthorn smiled. It was a smile with a sharp edge. “She will let me out. She has to...if...yes,” Blackthorn’s eyes practically began to glow. “There might be a way to escape...and inflict my vengeance on those that trapped me here at the same time.”

Blackthorn threw his head back and laughed. It was not an altogether sane sound.

It was the Avatar’s coronation.

Shamino’s stomach was filled with thousands of various foods that Britain had prepared for the Avatar and his party-roast turkey, ham, potatoes done in various ways, thousands of salads farmers had donated to the ceremony, fresh fruit, raspberry shortcakes, and Drakenut, a strange sort of nut from the Silver forests that exploded in one’s mouth and released a pleasant spice, and that was only to name a few. During the feast the Avatar, Dupre, Riana, and himself told various stories of their adventurers, but most people wanted to hear the defeat of Blackthorn. They told the story again and again until even Riana the bard grew weary of it. Meanwhile, jesters sang (except for Chuckles, who was currently in the dungeons once again) and merry dancing proceeded. But the main purpose of the ceremony was only just about to start.

In a few minutes the Avatar would be officially knighted by Lord British, a rare and distinct honor, since no one not being of noble blood could have been done so. But Shamino knew this ceremony for what it was. Blackthorn, in a final fit of venomous rage had destroyed the Moongates, and ever since the Avatar has not been able to return home. And although the Avatar had not spoken much upon the subject, Shamino knew that it was weighing hard upon his soul. And so Lord British and Dupre had thought of this ceremony. And indeed, it seemed to cheer the Avatar up. He smiled and laughed with everyone else, but his eyes looked somewhat...lifeless.

Shamino heard laughter and glanced to the right. Across the room was Riana, the daughter of the long-since retired Iolo the bard. As Shamino watched she winked at Dupre, who smiled back and walked towards her. Shamino decided to join them.

“Enjoying the ceremony?” Dupre asked her.

“It’s made people happy....a lot of people,” Riana said, looking around. “We’ve suffered too much from Blackthorn.”

A look passed between the three of them, so brief but so real as well. By ‘We’ Riana wasn’t referring in general to the population of Britannia, but themselves. Dupre’s face paled, and he hastily gulped down the rest of his wine.

Shamino held her hand. “Not to worry, my friend. I fondly predict that this will be the last time we’ve ever heard of Blackthorn.”

From outside the dark castle grounds Toad lifted the window leading into the kitchens. Although normally there would be dozens, even hundreds of people wandering around the incredible maze of pots, cutlery and food, the feast had already been served an hour ago, and only a few dozen stray people were left for cleanup. A young woman, fairly pretty, was nearby wiping a sink clean.

Toad grinned, and opened his mouth. His forked tongue stretched at an incredible distance and hit the girl’s posterior. The girl whirled around in astonishment.

Apart from the open window, she saw no one there.

Still looking confused, the girl rubbed the back of her dress and went on her way.

Toad stood up from behind the counter. He made his way down the rows of discarded food and dirty dishes, his small beady eyes constantly searching.

Ah, there it was. Just laying around in plain sight...a rather ordinary-looking wooden chalice. Toad snatched it up and frowned. Before he had heard that it was gold and adorned with jewels. He sniffed the contents inside, a dark red wine, and his green puffy lip curled in disgust. He threw the contents against the wall and opened the pouch. Trapped within his curled fingers were three stones. “Click to open,” he recited, clicking all three stones together above the goblet. The stones broke, and a blue liquid poured into the wood. His eyes shining brightly, Toad stirred it. “And the Avatar is about to get a nasty shock.”

He suddenly heard a sound. Wild panic gripped him and he leap-frogged over to the counter into the next row. A squire took the goblet, set it on a silver tray, and left, his eyes detecting nothing amiss.

Still giggling, Toad left back the way he came.

At the main table the Avatar sat alone, by himself. He smiled and spoke when spoken to, but inside he felt utterly drained and empty.

It had been the first time that the Moongates had ever failed him. He could still say the proper words, feel the energies rising from the ground-but nothing would happen. Nystul and the order of mages had studied the circle of stones in extensive detail and poured over ancient drawings of the gate’s designs, trying do undo whatever damage Blackthorn had done. When asked, Nystul would cheerfully reply that they were making great progress, that the answer was only seconds away....but it had been months since Blackthorn had shattered the Moongates, and for once the Avatar had to deal with the possibility of never returning home.

Around his friends the Avatar had pretended that it wasn’t a big deal....but a strange kind of panic fluttered his stomach. It never occurred to him until now how much he missed Earth. On that world he was laughably not a hero, nor was he even really known all that well. Certainly no bards sang songs about the brave deeds of an office supply clerk....but Earth was still his home. The Avatar clenched his fist under the table. Something which Britannia could never be.

Mercifully, the trumpets near the door sounded, cutting through the Avatar’s gloomy thoughts like a knife. The Avatar had to smile. This ceremony did mean a great deal to him. He never won anything on Earth. The fact that people even accepted him here was heart-warming. The fact that he was revered was always impossible to believe. This wasn’t Earth, but it was a good substitute. He stood.

“The Knighthood is about to begin,” Lord British said. “Avatar, please kneel in front of me.”

The Avatar walked down the blue carpet and bowed before Lord British, who was not only his King and a man he respected and admired, but also a fellow Earther as well.

Lord British drew his sword and solemnly placed it over the Avatar’s shoulders. “Avatar, for your previous works of valor, courage, and friendship, notable against the evil poison of Blackthorn-” Lord British’s voice trembled a little as he said his name, but continued normally afterwards. “-and his reign of darkness, and notably for saving my own life in the process, I dub thee a Sir Knight of the realm of Britannia and thank you for your past, present, and future deeds (at this the Avatar’s heart did a quick leap) of this world. You may rise.”

The Avatar did so. “Thank you, my lord,” he said. “I swear by my soul and the virtues to honor this Knighthood to the fullest extent.”

Lord British nodded gravely. “I expect nothing less.” A servant entered, carrying a wooden goblet on a silver tray. “And now, Avatar, to bind this Knighthood, I ask that you drink from the cups of all Knights who have served under Britannia in days long before I was born. Sir Dupre was the last to drink from it nearly a decade ago. Always Remember the many Knights who drank from this cup and who died for our cause, and cherish their memories and spirit always.”

The Avatar stood and took the cup from the tray. He opened his mouth and drank all of the purple wine.

Two seconds later he began to feel really funny.

As Shamino watched the ceremony a small trail of dark blue liquid fell from the Avatar’s lips.

That’s funny, Shamino thought, I wasn’t aware that blueberries were ripe yet at Empath Abbey.

The Avatar’s face suddenly changed. It grew colder somehow, more restrained. He set the cup back down carefully on the tray.

Lord British lifted his hands. “And now, everyone, let us feast and dance until the new dawn!”

Cheers followed this announcements. The Avatar smiled as well, but Shamino saw that it didn’t look anything remotely cheerful.

Right then Shamino knew something was very wrong.

If Shamino was the observer of the group, then Riana was certainly the diplomat. It was one of the many talents she had picked up from her Father, along with a crossbow (although she preferred daggers) and the weaving of tales and songs. And although she had known the Avatar for a long time, she felt that her friendship was still fairly new.

She found him still in the throne room, even though the ceremony was still over. Everyone else had cleared out. The Avatar was leaning against a table, holding the goblet of fellow Knights in his hand.

“It was quite the ceremony,” Riana said cheerfully.

The Avatar’s eyes flickered over to hers and he smiled a little. “Yes it was,” he agreed.

She joined him and leaned against the table. “Not many people are Knighted in a lifetime.”

“Yes, I’m sure they’ll have a plaque with my name on it somewhere in Serpent’s Hold,” the Avatar said, and tossed the goblet over his shoulder. It fell to the ground with a small clatter.

Riana watched him. “Are you all right?”

The Avatar shrugged. “Sure. Why not?” He walked up to the table, and lifted Lord British’s chalice that was set in diamonds and rubies. “Why should an Avatar have problems?”

“I know that it’s a difficult time now,” Riana said gently. She took a deep breath. “It’s a responsibility that we take-”

“We?” The Avatar echoed, cutting her off. “The last time I checked, Riana, I was the avatar and you weren’t,” the Avatar snapped. He paused. “What exactly are you in the group, Riana? The bard? Ranged missiles? Shamino can handle ranged missiles and...I think we can somehow survive without your singing,” he said dryly. He leaned back, the cup in his hands. “So where does that leave you, exactly?”

“I’m your friend, Avatar,” Riana said quietly, shocked by his behavior. “Or, at least I thought I was.”

“Yeah, well,” the Avatar said with a small laugh. “You thought wrong.” He left the dining room, Lord British’s still in his hands. He was whistling happily.

Back in his room the Avatar was stuffing clothes in a backpack when a sudden voice startled him.

“I’ve known Riana for a long time, probably longer then you ever will, and I don’t think you have any idea how badly you’ve hurt her,” Dupre said in the doorway.

“My heart’s bleeding. It really is,” the Avatar retorted.

Dupre watched him awkwardly for a moment. Personal problems was something he never could really do very well. Usually it was the Avatar who solved these problems, and something was very wrong with him. “We’ll repair the Moongates,” he tried hopefully.

The Avatar snorted but did not reply.

Dupre suddenly noticed the backpack on the bed. “You’re leaving?” he asked, his voice rising in alarm.

“Your ability to state the obvious never ceases to amaze me, Dupre,” The Avatar said sarcastically. “Now I know your brainpower’s the only reason I keep you around.”

Dupre took a deep breath. “I think you had better apologize for that, Avatar,” he said.

“And now your ability to control your temper. Well, you’re certainly worthy of being near the Avatar at all time,” the Avatar continued, putting on a light jacket. With one hand he ripped the Ankh off his neck and tossed it to the bed. “Since you’re hear, you might as well tell Lord British that I’m not planning to be around much longer.”

“Where would you go?” Dupre asked.

The Avatar considered. “Buccaneer’s Den,” he said. “They always have interesting parties there. I figure that I have to find some way to celebrate this Knighthood, and there’s certainly nothing in Britain. After that, I’ll find a way to repair the Moongates by myself. You know, because everyone’s certainly trying here,” the Avatar added with a trace of bitterness. “But then, if I found my way home....why would I come back? Certainly everyone knows this. That’s why they’re trying to stop me.”

Dupre stared at him pleadingly. “All these things you’re saying...they’re beneath you. This is not the virtuous way you swore your life to-”

“Yeah, what’s up with that?” The Avatar said, frowning. “The eight virtues. They’re more then just symbols. I know that now. They have a power to them that I don’t like. I certainly don’t have them on Earth, yet they’re so important to Britannia and everyone else. I wonder what would happen if I just...” he trailed off.

“What?” Dupre asked.

The Avatar’s head jerked up. “Nothing,” he said coldly. “Nothing at all.” He shook his head. “I’ve got to go.”

A strong arm clasped on his shoulder. “No,” Dupre said.

An amused smile danced on the Avatar’s lips. “Do you plan to stop me?” He turned to face him. “Sir Dupre, the Knight of the mighty Tankard? I’ve heard what they’ve said about you-even Shamino and Lord British as a matter of fact. They all say that you’ve never met an alehouse you didn’t like. In fact Lord British confided in me that he was truly worried what would happen if an enemy of Britain and the Virtues offered you a drink-”

With a roar Dupre’s fist raised, meaning to knock the Avatar senseless. The next moment, Dupre found himself hurled backwards, electricity dancing along his armor. He hit the wall and fell to the ground with a groan of pain.

“You can’t stop me,” the Avatar said softly. “No one can.”

Dupre could only stare at him in pained astonishment.

The Avatar reached forwards and calmly grabbed his backpack. He slung it over his shoulders. “Let me tell you something else, Dupre. If someone like you could be a Knight, then this Knighthood Lord British gave me is really worthless.”

The Avatar left the room. Just as he rounded the corridor he smacked straight into Shamino. “Get out of my way,” the Avatar said quietly.

“Spur your friends if you like, but it doesn’t change the fact that something is very wrong,” Shamino replied.

For a moment, a thread of fear grazed across the Avatar’s face. Then his eyes hardened. “Leave me alone,” he said, and brushed past him, hitting Shamino’s shoulder painfully as he did so.

Shamino watched him go, his quiet eyes very concerned. Footsteps suddenly raced down the hall. Shamino lifted his arms, stopping a patrol of guards. “No!” Shamino ordered. “Let him go. We don’t know what we’re facing. Not yet.”

Unknown to him, Riana was watching quietly in the corridor. She quickly left in the direction of the Avatar, out through the main gates. “I do,” she said.

In his cell Blackthorn awoke from a pleasant doze by the sound of keys rattling. He stood up, straightening his tunic. He liked a half-way decent appearance. It was so much easier to manipulate that way. He rubbed at his stubble irritably as the metal door opened, and a guard stared at him with burning eyes. A sword was pointed at the guard’s throat.

The next moment the hilt of the sword slammed down against the guard’s skull. The guard flew to the ground and was out cold.

Blackthorn instantly understood. “Lord British made this prison all too well. No one is permitted inside, not even him...or the avatar.”

Riana smiled thinly. “I just became the exception.”

Blackthorn stood up from the bench slowly, as silent and deadly as a cat. Riana slammed the metal door shut behind her. The sound echoed through the dungeons.

“And here I thought,” Blackthorn began, his eyes dancing with glee, “That everyone had forgotten all about me.”

Shamino almost didn’t find the damn thing.

It was still well past-midnight, and his eyes longed for sleep. But he was a Ranger of the forest, and could stay awake for several days if it was necessary to the hunt. And today he might be hunting for a very troublesome foe.

The throne room was empty, but assorted food and chairs were scattered all over the place, as was various food. No doubt the servants had sampled a little too much wine as well. However, he could almost search in the darkness nearly as well in broad daylight. He scanned past every table, on every chair, and various corners of the room. But he couldn’t find it.

Shamino was patient. He lifted up the dining cloth and looked under the tables as well. There he found it, rolling on the floor underneath the avatar’s chair. For a moment fear clenched his heart as he snatched the goblet it and looked inside it.

At the very bottom was a drop of dark blue liquid, stuck between two slivers of wood. He turned to leave, and paused.

He wasn’t alone.

He sensed, rather then saw the dark shadow in the lightless room. It was sitting on Lord British’s throne.

Shadowlords, Shamino instantly thought, and stepped back in fear. His hand gripped his chest uneasily. But even then, his courage only wavered for a moment, and he approached the throne cautiously. His bow was raised.

He could hear mutterings now, and breathed a silent sigh of relief. It wasn’t a Shadowlords, but something else entirely. Something very short who was clutching Lord British’s crown in his grubby hands. “Mine...mine....Kingdom is mine..” a voice croaked. “Blackthorn will reward me well...”

Shamino slowly drew back an arrow.

“You knew that I would be here,” Riana said.

Blackthorn smiled modestly. “Let’s just say that things are coming. Well, more specially, a thing. Something more powerful then you, me, even an Avatar. I don’t intend to meet my destiny from the inside of a prison cell.”

“Really,” Riana said skeptically.

Blackthorn began to circle around Riana. “Did you know that I always liked you the most out of the companions? It’s true. Even though we had only just met just briefly in my regime, you were the only one I truly regret betraying. You’re just so...strong, so capable. Were it possible, I think you above most could replace the avatar. Except that you wouldn’t have the burden of tired cliches and serving the virtues. But then, I suppose the avatar doesn’t have that anymore,” he added with a small giggle, then sighed. “It’s too bad things had to be like this.”

Riana gave him a look of disgust. “You betrayed your lord, betrayed us, declared me, Dupre, Shamino and my father fugitives, captured us, tortured us in some rat-invested dungeon, sent one of the Lord of Shadows tearing into my head looking for answers I did not even know, as a result almost killing me, and tried to kill me again personally at the end fight. In that order.” She paused for breath. “There’s not much leeway on that list for a personal relationship to develop.”

“But I really regret doing that,” Blackthorn said. “Honestly.” He touched her shoulders. “I regret doing a lot of things when I could have been doing others-” His hands strayed downwards.

In one, smooth motion Riana’s boot connected against his stomach, then his jaw. Riana’s gloved hand was pressing against his neck, and a dagger only a millimeter from his eyes. “I should kill you now. I would be doing Britannia a favor. I would be doing myself a favor.”

“But not the Avatar, certainly,” Blackthorn said. He veered his head past the knife, opened his mouth, and gave her cheek a long lick. He calmly walked past her. “You’re a good friend, Riana,” he said. “Loyal. It will be your downfall.” His tone became businesslike. “I don’t have any more time to waste with you...for now. You came here and freed me. In return you seek information on the little potion I made. I will honor this agreement. The potion is magical in origin, not natural, made up of a compound which I shall not tell you, and is not of this world, anyway.”

Riana walked next to the table, her blue eyes very cold. “How does it work?”

Blackthorn smiled again. “The virtues are a force in this world that is not just a belief. They are in fact very real. When the Avatar willingly cast off all evil from his being and accepted a virtuous life, the virtues...oh, how can I describe it? The eight virtues became a part of him-honestly, compassion, sacrifice, honor-for example, all became a part of him physically. Medical science can’t detect it, but it’s right here.” He placed his hand over her heart and listened to it beat for a moment. He smiled. “My little potion changed that part of him-reversed them, you could say. Now he lives only to serve the worst virtues-deceit, cruelty, malice....”

“How do we cure him!?” Riana demanded.

“Well, see, that’s the interesting part,” Blackthorn said. “There is no cure!”

“Then you’ve told me nothing,” Riana said angrily.

Blackthorn waved his hand. “Hold, hold. I am a scientist at heart, remember. If I was to hazard a guess as how to stop it, I would point out that even though the physical virtues are diseased, his overall soul is intact.”

“I don’t understand,” Riana said.

“That’s because you live in a world of idiots,” Blackthorn snapped, growing impatient. “If his soul was whole and intact, then he would be able to combat my poison. But judging by the fact that you’re here I’m guessing that it’s not. Some sort of awful problem is plaguing the mind of your Avatar, perhaps? Maybe he couldn’t help a dog out a tree?”

Riana frowned. “He misses home. Earth,” she said.

“Well, then, I suggest you bring him back there, or failing that, you bring something from Earth to him.” He snapped his fingers. “Oh, right! You can’t, can you? Because I destroyed your Moongates, didn’t I? Whoopsie.”

“Seems easy to assume that the man who broke the Moongates can repair them,” Riana said dryly.

Blackthorn smiled and blew her a kiss. “I will do this for you, lovely Riana, since you’re so beautiful,” he said. “And because I like collecting debts that might be useful in the future...”

Riana said nothing, only waited.

With a laugh Blackthorn turned and muttered a few words. A dark purple Moongate opened before them. “Remember the time difference,” Blackthorn advised coldly. “And my power and generosity do not stretch to helping you find a way back. There are no Moongates on Earth. How will you ever find a way back to Britannia?”

“I’ll think of something,” Riana said.

And then she stepped through the gate.

When Riana next opened her eyes, she was instantly blind.

Her first thought was, naturally, that the world Earth was somehow dimmer then Britannia, and entirely black. Her hand brushed to her eyes and something was knocked down from them. The world brightened a little bit, and Riana saw that it was nighttime. She looked down and saw a dirt-colored lenses beside her hand. With a shudder she threw them as far away as possible and stood.

Remembering stories the Avatar had told her about his home, it came to no surprise that her clothes had changed. Her brown leather pants had changed into something blue which seemed to be made of gritty material she loathed to touch, her white long blouse into a sleeve-less pink shirt which said, ‘I love Ultima’, whatever that meant. Must have been the name of some famous bard or castle.

Shaking her head, she surveyed where she was. She was next to a large three-story building. Some hidden insight told her that this was the Avatar’s house. She walked up to the front door with a feeling of foreboding, hesitated, then entered.

Strange and magnificent sights greeted her when she entered, things that she was terrified to touch. The most understandable and amazing item was a light source. Riana scanned the house briefly. Even though most of the items she could never (and didn’t) want to understand, even she could tell that the rooms of the house seemed a bit too formal-sitting implements, a large screen, and potted plants. That was all. No paintings (Riana had a strong feeling that those thing were here in this world as well) no journals, or even little items that often littered any household. The entire room was bare. ‘As though one who would not bother with provisions or personal items because they know that they won’t be staying here very long’, Riana thought, and felt a stab of guilt.

She observed the safest room of the house, the bedroom. Riana first checked the closet. She selected a few outfits before remembering that, like her own, any clothes she took with her would just convert back to Britannia clothes. Stranger’s clothes. Riana tossed them back in the closet. Next she checked the bed table. There was only a strange item with a flashing light that Anne accidently pushed which said, quite loudly, YOU HAVE TEN MESSAGES! BEEP! (It took a full minute to recover from that!) And a picture set in a wooden frame. Riana held it up and sat down on the bed.

It was a picture of the Avatar, who was smiling and waving in front of some monument. Next to him was a woman. She looked very beautiful, with reddish-brown long hair. The avatar had peaceful blue eyes and was gripping the woman’s shoulder. Although it was hard to see in the photograph, Riana could see a glint of gold on the Avatar’s hand. Riana looked down, and the same gold ring was on the table. Riana picked it up. Although it was hard to be sure, the ring looked about the same.

Riana closed her eyes and sighed. “We never bothered to ask about his other life,” she said in the emptiness of the room. “We didn’t want to know.”

Riana stood, the picture in her hands, hesitated, then put the picture back carefully where it was. She had a genuine fear that the picture would change into something else on the trip back to Britannia, or worse, be destroyed entirely. No matter what the need, Riana could never do that to the Avatar.

That still left the question-what to take back with her?

A sudden noise answered the question.

Rubbing against her leg was a small grey fluffy cat. It looked up with shining gold eyes and meowed.

Riana bent down and picked up the animal. Surprisingly, the cat offered little resistance and purred in her arms. Cats were very well-known in Britannia. Anything living could easily pass through the Moongates, even animals.

She left the house through the small wooden gate, the cat in her arms. Absentmindedly she stroked it and sighed in the night air. Wondering what to do next.

And then she heard music.

It was low and distant, but it was filled with such longing and sorrow that Riana had no choice but to follow it. She left down a small path and arrived up on a small hill. There she saw an incredible sight. In front of her was a colorful purple-and-green wagon. Inscribed on the wagon, in golden letters were words-summ, beh, om, mu-words that made no sense to her. She walked around to the other side. A woman sat huddled on a small wooden ladder which led to the ground and a small fire. She had dark blue hair, almost black, and wore a similar purple robe. She was carefully playing the flute.

Riana stood hypnotized, not daring to move for fear of interrupting the music. It was the most sweetest, most beautiful melody she had ever heard. If she had listened to it, over and over again, for a thousands years until her bones were bleached upon the tiny path it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference to her.

The woman removed the flute from her lips. “Do you like it?” she asked, almost shyly.

“It’s beautiful,” Riana said honestly.

“I made both the flute and music myself,” the woman said. “Sometimes....when the worlds I see are too heavy, too filled with sorrow and pain, this music eases my spirit. It’s the only luxury I’m allowed to have.”

Riana blinked. “You’re the fortune-teller. The Avatar mentioned you.”

The woman bowed her head. “And you are Riana, daughter of the famed Iolo the bard, one of the nine companions of the avatar.”

Riana’s tone turned bitter. “It’s good that someone knows me.”

“You are in many of my dreams,” the Oracle said. “You are the bard in the group. You are the one who provides hope to many, but especially to the Avatar. You do not know how many times you have led him away from his own despair.”

Riana smiled thinly. “I don’t know how I can help him now.” She looked down. “He wants to go home. Here.”

The woman smiled gently. “He loves this world, more then he will ever love Britannia. That will be a hard fact to accept. For you, and for all of Britannia.”

Riana shook her head. “We’ve asked too much of him already,” she said. “This Moongates was supposed to be for him, not me! And, I don’t want to stay here either. It’s not my home.”

The Oracle said nothing, starring at Riana with her deep blue eyes.

She looked away and sighed. “Many hundreds of years ago, we asked for a miracle. The Avatar was our miracle. But none of us asked what he wanted. Now I fear he is not even the same person anymore, and I don’t know what to do.”

“I can’t help you with your problems, nor am I here to help you in your quest,” the woman replied gently. The Oracle stood. “Come with me.”

Riana followed her inside the wagon. Inside was a crystal ball, and a table with Tarot cards. “What are you doing?” she asked, utterly bemused.

The Oracle sat down at the table. “It is time for both of our fears and our hopes to be discovered. It is the time for me to read to you, now, the entire fate of Britannia. I am bound to do this by forces beyond your knowledge, but I will do this only if you ask me too.”

Riana stared suspiciously at the Oracle. “Why are you offering this to me and not the Avatar?”

“Because I’m offering it to you. Yours is not to question, only to make the choice,” the woman said simply with a shrug.

“What would I see?” Riana asked.

For a moment, a shade of fear reflected in the older woman’s eyes. “I do not know,” the Oracle replied. “I may see a world of happiness, or a world of death. I cannot tell you what we will see, but I can tell you this-I will never offer this reading again. Not to you, not to the Avatar, not to another living soul.” She paused. “The choice is yours.”

For a moment Riana stood indecisive. In her arms the cat stared at the Oracle silently with her bright green eyes. Then, Riana lifted her head.

“I already know what thou will say,” the woman whispered.

Riana sat down. “Deal our fates.”

“Nystul has no answers,” Lord British said. “He has no idea what the substance is, or how to create an antidote. He figures that it would take five hundred years to even understand the basic compounds.”

“I’m sure Britannia will be in a very happy state after that time,” Dupre said acidly. He was in a sour mood. All of his limbs were sore from the lightning spells, they had a mad Avatar on the loose, and to top it all off, no one could find Riana. Dupre had the very unhappy thought that Riana took the Avatar’s words seriously. Her friendship with the Avatar was too new, too raw. If so, then Riana was probably hiding somewhere, or had decided to go off on her own. Dupre really hoped that wasn’t the case. But...it could be.

“Nothing the interrogators got out of Toad has been particularly useful,” Shamino said. “Toad was told to deliver the poison, but has no idea what the poison is or how to treat it. Given his current mental state, I believe him.”

“Poor fellow. We will of course, try to reverse everything that has been done for him,” Lord British said, nodding.

“Did he say who told him to deliver the poison?” Dupre demanded.

A pause. “Blackthorn,” Shamino replied.

Lord British closed his eyes briefly. “I am not surprised,” he said. “Interrogate Blackthorn.”

“We’ve tried, but...” Shamino hesitated. “Blackthorn seemed to have escaped.”

A long pause.

What!?” Dupre thundered.

Shamino could only nod.

Dupre immediately launched on a string of curses.

Lord British held up his hand. “Now is not the time, Dupre,” he said, but Shamino could see that a deep pain, a greater pain then Dupre could ever express, was on Lord British’s face. “Our main concern is finding the Avatar and bringing him here before he does any damage.”

Shamino shrugged. “We’re out of options as to where he would go.”

Dupre hesitated. He had rarely expressed an idea before, and certain not an idea that could influence thousands of lives if he was wrong. “My Liege....I think I know where he is. I think he’s going to try to destroy the shrines of virtue.”

Another pause. “Then we have to stop him,” Lord British said softly. His eyes locked with Shamino. “Whatever it takes.”

Shamino nodded so slightly that Dupre completely missed it. Curiosity had taken Dupre’s entire focus. “My Lord, forgive me, but...can the shrines be destroyed? We don’t know anything about them, what they do, the mantras-”

“No one should know the mantras to the shrines or how to use them, not even us. The danger of the knowledge being gained from any of us is just too great.” Shamino said sharply. You understand that more then anyone, Dupre, when Blackthorn only tried to torture it out of us. It was information we could not give him. If we knew then...” he paused for a moment, looking very uncertain.

Lord British stood and stared out at the painted glass window. “I’ve always wanted to believe that the shrines aren’t really important, that Britannia will still have compassion even without it. But if nothing else, they’ve become a symbol. Too much has this world suffered, too much has Britannia lost.” He turned back to face them. “And too much the people are dependent on them...and the Avatar. Now it seems like we might lose both.” He shook his head. “And that is something I will not accept.”

Lord British bowed his head for a moment, then suddenly lifted it. “I will tell you now, what the mantras are. I should have told you a long time ago. My desire to protect the shrines have turned it...into a privilege for only a few. It shall now be open to all my people, especially the ones I trust the most. The mantra is ‘um’, and must be spoken with deep meditation. And the way to destroy it forever is very simple. You just have to say the mantra backwards.” He took a deep breath. “And, one other thing-”

Riana set the cat on the floor as the fortune-teller dealt the cards. On the table was a crystal ball that cast Riana with golden light. Riana knew that they had hundreds of crystal balls linked together in Britannia..but he also knew, without being able to explain how, that this crystal ball was much more important, that it had the power to see the future, present, past, Britannia, Earth, thousands of other worlds..or something as simple as the human soul.

She also know that if she touched the ball, it would certainly kill her.

The fortune-teller looked up. “I am ready.” The Oracle put her hand over the crystal ball, and closed her eyes. “A new power has come to Britannia,” she began, her musical voice echoing through the wagon. “For now it waits dormant, but soon it will awaken. Seeing him, I see only through flame. He wears a mask on his face to hide himself. Be warned-his arrival will bring the end to joy and happiness for every person on your world and others. The final combat between him and the avatar will be his final quest.” She paused. “But it will end tragically.” The woman closed her eyes. The beautiful light of the crystal ball sputtered, and went out over the woman’s withered hand. The woman opened her eyes and stared at Riana. “The Avatar will not succeed. For in her path stands her destruction and the destruction of Britannia...you.”

“What?” Riana demanded.

“I foresee a battle. A terrible, painful battle between two old friends. The avatar will be powerful, but he will have been beaten down by too many wounds, too many pains. He lies in the dust at your feet.”

“That’s....that’s not possible,” Riana said, bewildered. “I would never do that. The avatar is my friend.”

The woman stared at Riana sharply. “Know this also-you will face the Avatar under no one’s influence. You will face her no differently then from what you are today. And you will not kill him quickly.”

Riana slowly stood. Not easy to do, since she was shaking with anger. Her Ankh bounced against her chest. “Why-” she closed her eyes and began again. “Why are you telling me this?”

“I?” the Oracle echoed. “I am telling you nothing. The forces beyond Earth, Britannia and thousands of other worlds are telling you this, and they do not certainly share their feelings with me. Perhaps they told you in a hope that you can change your own destiny. Or maybe...” the woman’s face drew in closer until she and Riana were eye-to-eye. The Oracle’s face stretched into a hideous grin. “They wanted you to suffer with this knowledge.”

Before Riana could even think of a reply the Oracle sat back down in her chair, suddenly weary. “Go,” she said. “I have activated a Moongates near my circle of stones. It will take you back where you belong, no sooner or later then you left.”


“I have no more answers for you, Riana. You must find them for yourself....or discover them in time, at any rate. I can see your feelings as clearly as I can see the future, and I know that you won’t cry a bitter tear for knowing that we’ll never meet again. I also know you won’t tell another soul what you have heard, for you can’t believe it yourself. You just think I’m a crackpot old woman. That I may be, but I’m an old woman with a few answers to the way the universe works.” Her eyes hardened. “Go.”

So Riana left.

The Avatar was kneeled on the green grass, in front of the shrine. It was bright and sunny. There was a light breeze that went through his blond hair.

A shadow in front of him. The avatar looked up, blinking, and saw one other on the other side of the shrine. “I knew that you would be here, old friend.”

Shamino stared back at him.

The Avatar smiled thinly. “The Knighthood ceremony didn’t turn out so great, did it?”

“You’re not going to destroy this shrine. You’re not going to rob these people of compassion.” Shamino stepped forwards. “You’re ill, Avatar. There’s something very wrong with you, and we need to find out what it is.”

The Avatar stared at him patiently. “I know something’s wrong with me, Shamino. The minute I felt that liquid burn down my throat everything changed. I realized how dependent everyone was on me, and the virtues. If I destroy this, then maybe people will stop believing in me,” the Avatar said. “Maybe they’ll start believing in themselves for a change. So you see, what I’m doing is for your benefit just as much as mine.” The Avatar stood. “I’ve already done the meditation. Now all that’s left is just to say the proper word.”

“You’re not going to do that,” Shamino said.

The Avatar looked up, to see that Shamino had drew back an arrow. He raised an eyebrow. “Are you planning to shoot me, Shamino?”

“I’ll do whatever I have to, to protect the shrine,” Shamino said. “These arrows are designed by Lord British himself. They can break through any enchantment, any armor. You won’t be able to stop me.”

The Avatar stared at Shamino with amazement, and pride. “There’s more to you then meets the eye, Shamino,” he said. “But then, I always suspected that you were carrying some dark secret.” He bent down to the shrine and opened his mouth.

Closing his eyes, Shamino released the arrow.

For a moment the arrow flew towards the arrow with deadly speed. But then it suddenly slowed down, and stopped before it even reached half-way to its destination. A green glow surrounded it. For a moment Shamino could only gape in shock. The Avatar had not even moved a muscle.

No,’ Shamino thought to himself. ‘It wasn’t the Avatar that stopped it. It was the shrine that protected him!

The Avatar placed both hands on the alter. ‘Um!” he shouted. His voice thundered over the field.

Shamino held his breath in horror.

The sky suddenly darkened, and rain poured over their heads. Lightning crackled..

But the alter itself stayed untouched.

The Avatar stared at it with utter mysticism. “Um! Um!” he shouted, tossing his wet hair back behind his shoulder. His voice grew silent. “I don’t understand,” he whispered. He touched the shrine with his gloved hand. “It’s just a rock-”

Shamino stepped forwards. “Only the avatar can destroy the shrines, true, but have you forgotten the second part of the ritual? In order to destroy a virtue you have to feel that same virtue, in this case compassion!” His green eyes were blazing. “Can you feel compassion, Avatar? Can you banish the darkness from your soul like when you became an avatar? For that is the only way you will ever have any power over the virtues, or anything else!”

He glared at him. “I may not have the compassion to destroy this pile of-” a crackle of thunder interrupted his next word. He straightened. “But I’m betting that I don’t need any compassion to destroy you!”

Lightning stretched from his fingertips towards Shamino. Instantly Shamino tucked and rolled, but not before he felt the air crackle above him. His bow and air were dropped and forgotten.

The Avatar slowly drew his large sword, magically enchanted by Lord British himself. It glowed a bright green in the darkness. With a roar he lunged towards Shamino, the sword slicing through the air.

Nimbly Shamino jumped back. The sword caught on a bit of his leather vest but that was all. For a few minutes the Avatar lunged, and Shamino dodged the blows. Shamino jumped onto one of the standing stones, then jumped off as he felt the burn of a fireball kiss his skin. Clutching his arm, he ran back to the alter, the Avatar only seconds away.

Snarling, the Avatar brought the sword down with a mighty swing. Shamino dodged to the left. It struck the top of the shrine and bounced off with a ricochet of sparks.

“Stand still, or fight like a warrior that you’ve occasionally claimed to be!” The Avatar snarled, his sword slashing through thin air Shamino had just occupied. They were both drenched in rain.

“I’m not here to fight you, Avatar,” Shamino said quietly.

“Stop calling me that!” The Avatar snapped, his blue eyes burning with fire. He raised his sword, and slashed daintily through the air, left and right. Shamino wasn’t quick enough and received a scratch at his temple. “I have a name, friend, or do you find it harder to believe in a legend if he actually had an identity?”

The Avatar suddenly leapt onto the shrine, his sword swinging low. Shamino’s head jerked to the right, and with a movement born purely out of instinct he reached for his dagger and thrust it into the Avatar’s unprotected leg. With a cry of pain the Avatar bowed to one knee.

Shamino backed away as the Avatar gripped the hilt of the dagger and pulled it out of his flesh with a grimace. The Avatar jumped off the shrine, murder in his eyes.

Nervously Shamino backed away. “You don’t have to do this. Can’t you see what’s happening to you?”

The Avatar laced his fingers together and stared at the ground, muttering. As he moved away from the altar two unnoticed drops of blood on the surface began to sizzle. Vines grew from the ground and tried to wrap around Shamino. Seeing what was happening, he tried to flee, but not quite in time. The vines wrapped around his foot. Desperately he tried to commune with the earth to release him, but it was deaf to his cries.

The Avatar’s face was grim. “The Forest abandons you, Shamino, this one last time.” He raised his sword, about to impale his best friend through with it.

Behind him the air above the shrine sputtered with green sparks.

Resigned to his death, Shamino closed his eyes peacefully, awaiting what worlds came next.

The shrine suddenly exploded with a green tidal wave. The sheer force of it hurled the Avatar against Shamino as green light covered them both, and spread beyond them to Britain. For a moment Shamino was filled with an overwhelming sensation of goodness and prosperity. In that one beautiful moment before the darkness overtook him Shamino genuinely believed that anything was possible.

Then he closed his eyes and knew no more.

Footsteps running hastily up the hill. Shamino opened his eyes, wondering how much time had passed. Long enough for the rain to stop, at any rate. His clothes felt strangely dry. He turned his head slightly to see Dupre and Riana running up the hill. “What happened?” Dupre asked Shamino. “And why didn’t you tell me you were facing the Avatar? You could have been killed! We’re supposed to work as a team-”

Riana ignored him and moved straight to the Avatar. “Are you all right?” she asked.

“Ugh...what?” the Avatar asked. “What happened? The last thing I remember was the Knighthood ceremony....what happened after that?”

“A lot of things,” Riana said with a small smile. “But it seems that the altar did what we could not.”

“The altar? Of compassion?” Dupre asked, bewildered, as Shamino made his way to his feet. “What are you talking about? It’s just a monument.”

They gathered around the shrine. It was shimmering with thousands of green lights. “No, it’s more then that,” Riana said. “Much more. And whatever powers it has, we may never find out.” Her tone turned angry. “Some things are better left undiscovered.”

“Would it kill anybody,” the Avatar began, taking a deep breath. “To please explain what’s happening here?”

An hour later they started walking down the hill.

“What is your name?” Shamino asked the Avatar.

“My name?” The Avatar echoed. “Why do you wish to know that?”

“Whatever it is, I swear it’s what I’ll call you from now on,” Shamino said. “We all will.”

The Avatar smiled, a deep and cryptic smile. “No,” he said. “No...I think I’ll leave it a mystery.”

“Because it’ll drive us crazy trying to figure out?” Dupre asked him.

“Yeah,” the Avatar replied.

A sudden angry meowing cut off Dupre’s reply. Looking startled, Riana opened her backpack and took out a small kitten. She handed it to the Avatar. “Forgot all about it. I know it’s not Earth, but maybe it’s a little piece of home,” Riana cleared her throat. “Besides, I don’t think anyone was feeding it-”

“You went to Earth!?” Dupre asked her.

“For me?” the Avatar said in amazement. “Wait....you were in my house!? What um...things exactly did you find?”

“Oh,” Riana said with a small smile. “Stuff.”


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