Batlin had heard us coming and turned to face us, grinning in obscene triumph. He laughed as we came near, drawing himself up. “Thou art too late, Avatar!”
“Surround him!” I shouted, ducking to one side… or trying to. Another force had taken over, immobilising me.
“I can’t move!” Iolo growled, and from the expressions on the faces of Shamino and Dupre I knew they, too, were being held.
“Too late,” Batlin crooned. “Thou canst not stop me. I’m opening the Wall of Lights, and when I enter I will become immortal! With the Banes at my command I’ll be mightier than even the Guardian!” He laughed again, then crouched near a serpentine depression in the floor. Producing a blackrock serpent, he fitted it into the slot and stood again, turning to face the northern wall…
…which was suddenly aglow, blazing with a radiance that shifted blue and white and back again…
Smirking, Batlin glanced at Iolo. “I would say I’m sorry about thy wife,” he said, “but I cannot deny the pleasure I took gutting her.” Ignoring the bard’s furious roar, he added wistfully, “Reminded me of old times, back in Britannia…”
Then he was looking at me again. “I will see thee and thy pathetic friends again soon enough, Avatar. Once I fulfil my destiny beyond the Wall of Lights, I will return and crush you all like the worms you are. We will see if thy precious virtues save thee then.”
Victorious at last, gloating over our defeat, the leader of the Fellowship stepped towards the Wall of Lights…
…then stopped, his eyes widening and his triumph becoming shock. “No… this cannot be… the Wall of Lights hasn’t opened for me, it’s opened for…”
He spun towards me, panic in every line of his face. “The Banes! I’ve been tricked!” To my astonishment and disbelief, he fell to his knees before me and pleaded. “Avatar, thou must help me! Please! I didn’t mean--!”
An explosion ripped through the room, centred on Batlin. I had one, horrible sight of his body tearing apart before I was thrown backwards by the blast and heard, briefly, an agonised scream amidst the detonation.
*See how I reward those who fail me.*
I shook the Guardian’s Voice, and the ringing the blast had caused, from my head. What had just happened? With a groan, I got up and looked around for my friends, who had already regained their feet.
“Iolo—“ I began, and frowned. My first thought was that I’d hit my head a little too hard on the brazier I’d slammed against, for the bard seemed to be wearing a motley of colours and clothes rather than his leather armour. His eyes, when he looked at me, were red and crazed above an insane grin. His white hair was wild around his face.
My eyes sought Shamino, who looked normal unless one took the blue glow surrounding him into account.
Dupre..? If the last figure was indeed my third friend, his entire head was unrecognisable. Rising from his neck was the blunt, red-scaled head of a snake, enlarged to be proportional to a human body. His slitted eyes were wide with an awful hunger.
“What—“ I tried again, and my three friends laughed. The shrillness of it made me want to cover my ears. It was the laughter of the insane, and it echoed endlessly against the far walls and in my own ears…
“Anarchy,” Shamino said.
“Wantonnessss.” This from Dupre.
“Hahahah! Insanity! Hahaha!” Iolo…
“Once friends, now enemies. Catch us if thou canst, Avatar…”
A second explosion tossed me back like a rag-doll. I hit the brazier behind me hard, striking my head for the second time against the heavy brass bowl. When my vision cleared and I’d again staggered to my feet, the ground was spattered with blood and worse… littered with the possessions of my three dearest friends… and they themselves were nowhere to be seen. Batlin’s remains were crumpled at the foot of the now-closed Wall of Lights.
I stood in the ringing silence of the Grand Shrine of Order, still trying to work out what had just happened. When I finally moved, it was to grab the Hourglass of Fate. I shook it viciously, willing the monk Thoxa to appear and explain what the hell had just happened, but she didn’t.
The Horn… ssseek the Gwani Horn… Deep in the Ssskullcrusher Mountainsss…
The voice of the Great Earth Serpent that time, and I had no patience for it. “Why?!” I shouted at the ceiling. “WHY? What does it do? Will it bring my friends back? Tell me something virtues-damned USEFUL!”
Nothing returned but the echoes.
I was on my own.
I leaned against a wall to regain my breath, the Blacksword hanging limply from my right hand. My arms ached horribly, my shoulders were tight with tension and my lungs burned. In the next room I could see three thrones at the end of a long, half-rotted carpet. Upon each sat a Bane. My friends…
The fingers of my right hand tightened convulsively around the hilt as I rubbed sweat and dirt from my face with my left. I wasn’t sure I could do this. Not just defeat them, but kill them…
These aren’t your friends, Elora… I thought to myself with deliberate harshness. Remember that! If you don’t, they’ll kill you. If you don’t… you might lose your mind…
I drew a deep breath, closed my eyes and searched for a calm I couldn’t seem to find.
These creatures decimated the people of Serpent Isle. Your friends would never, ever have done something like that. These aren’t them! When it’s over, the monks can Resurrect them. Who knows… Iolo, Shamino and Dupre might not even remember what Insanity, Anarchy and Wantonness did through them… They might not even remember you killing them…
…but I will. For the rest of my life.
I glanced down at the Blacksword. Funny… a time comes when I am forced to slay three of my companions with the Shade Blade, and Arcadion isn’t here to enjoy it. How he would have loved this moment. But even if the daemon wasn’t around, the Guardian undoubtedly was.
Don’t think about that either. Concentrate, damn you…
Gripping the hilt more tightly, I stepped forwards and made my way towards the enthroned figures. I had intended to stride straight down the carpet, calmly, head high. Perhaps with a brow slightly arched, to indicate their traps had failed to stop me and it was now their move. But the Banes didn’t have my dignity in mind when they’d anticipated this moment. No sooner had I begun my approach then blasts of fire and jets of magical energy spouted from the statues lining the walls. I was forced to dodge, skip and stagger my way towards the three thrones, and I didn’t reach the foot of the dais unscathed.
Their laughter surrounded me the entire time, and the sound hardened my resolve. It was nothing like the laughter of my true friends. This was distorted. Wrong.
The three rose to stand on the dais. I lifted the Blacksword in both hands, almost in salute, then swung it back and waited.
“All alone, Avatar?” Anti-Shamino leered.
“All alone…” Wanton Dupre echoed. “What shall we do with her, my friendsss?”
Mad Iolo cackled. “Kill her fast or kill her slow? Or keep her alive and… play…”
“You must think me easily defeated,” I said, keeping my voice level. “Or are you afraid, and think to stall me with talk?”
“Afraid?” Wanton Dupre’s forked tongue tasted the air as he stalked to my right flank. From the corner of my eye, I saw Mad Iolo heading to my left.
“Does she think to taunt us?” Anti-Shamino mused.
“Perhaps, hahaha, perhaps she is the one who seeks to delay this confrontation!” Mad Iolo put in.
“I must say that I am looking forward to it,” Wantonness said, his serpent eyes avid.
“Really?” I said coolly, trying to keep all three in view. “You were quick enough to flee from the Grand Shrine of Order.”
Mad Iolo lunged at me, but I knocked him sprawling with ease and followed through, ready to finish it—
—but my friend was on his knees, looking up with pleading in his eyes—
“No, Avatar! Elora! Please, don’t give me to Arcadion!”
The second of hesitation was enough of an opening for Wanton Dupre to lock an arm around my throat. I was wrenched back, choking as Mad Iolo leapt up with a gleeful shriek. A forked tongue tickled my right ear as I strove to break free. I was physically strong, but Dupre could have beat me in an arm wrestle just about any day of the week. My darkening vision could make out Anti-Shamino descending the dais, his glowing hands weaving the motions of a spell.
Twisting violently to one side, I made the only move I could think of and fervently hoped that the real Dupre would neither feel nor remember it.
I thrust the hilt of the Blacksword backwards as hard as I could, aiming for the Bane’s crotch.
The stranglehold around my neck fell away and I pushed half-blindly towards Shamino, now lunging with the Blacksword outflung and hissing through the air with the softness of a whisper. The blade took the ranger full in the chest, and I made the mistake of looking into his eyes as life fled them.
This time, Mad Iolo got me around the neck with a length of what felt like twisted wire. As I was jerked upright, choking once again, Wanton Dupre’s fist slammed into my stomach. The act of trying to double over while wire was cutting into my throat left me screaming with pain. Blood flowed freely. Iolo’s laughter was shrill in my ears, and for a time, as a second and third blow struck my gut, I thought that I, too, was descending into insanity. The part of my mind that could still think wondered if they’d continue like this, until the wire had cut so far through my neck my head would flop off…
But it broke before the fourth punch fell. I don’t know how I managed to retain my sword, balance, or wit enough to deny either of the two remaining Banes the chance to subdue me again. All I knew clearly at that point was that I wanted to stay alive, that I hurt very badly, and that whatever I was facing was the enemy. I remembered nothing about killing either of them, and as troubling as this was when I was calm enough to think back on the fight, I also considered it as something of a blessing. Seeing Shamino die had been more than enough.
It was quiet, at the end. The ringing sounds of combat and the mad laughter of the Banes had echoed off into silence. There was just the sound of my harsh breath as I stood, slumped and bleeding, above the corpses of my three friends.
Don’t think. Just… don’t…
If the instructions I’d received in Moonshade were correct, I could purge the Banes from my friends and bind them into the three crystals I’d prepared. I set to work, my mind numb with exhaustion and pain. As I brought the Shade Blade to each crystal, a different coloured glow suffused them and the wrongness distorting my friends’ appearances vanished. I stuffed all three crystals into my bag and brought out the Hourglass of Fate.
Done… Now… for once, these monks better be useful.
I tipped the hourglass over, sending the glittering sands to falling. Instantly, the monk Thoxa appeared before me. Her eyes widened at the carnage and I spoke before she could do more than draw breath.
“Resurrect them,” I ordered, my teeth gritted. “No prophecies, no vague fortune telling. Just bring them back. Now.”
I must have looked a sight, with the Blacksword still in hand and uncleaned, blood running down my slashed neck and soaking my shirt. Thoxa actually took a step back. But she nodded, murmured agreement and bowed her head over Dupre. There was a choral singing, as though from a vast distance, and Dupre’s eyes opened. Thoxa moved quickly on to Iolo as I crouched beside the knight.
“Dupre?” I whispered, waiting for him to get his bearings.
“Blood,” he said, fixating on my neck.
“I want thy blood!” he shouted, throwing himself at me.
Shocked, taken by surprise, I still managed to roll out of the way. Dupre had fallen to his knees beside a crimson smear on the floor, and now a laugh burbled up from his throat.
“Blood! Blood everywhere!”
I rounded on Thoxa, who had turned to observe the disturbance.
“What the hell is wrong with him!” I screamed at her, but my anger froze when I saw Iolo sit up. The bard looked around in silence for a moment, then started gibbering and giggling to himself.
“Thou told me to bring thy friends back and speak not a word,” Thoxa reminded me, with such a serene expression that I longed to lay her face open with my sword.
“What is wrong with them?” I repeated, trying to control my rising temper.
“Is it not familiar, Hero?”
I fumbled hurriedly through my bags. I hadn’t known if I’d need the waterskins I’d filled from the Serpent Isle shrines, but I’d long ago learnt the lessons of being safe rather than sorry. Besides, some of the water had already proved useful in curing Gwenno’s insanity, so maybe it would help my other friends now…
“Insanity,” I muttered stared fixedly at Iolo and kicking my tired brain into action. “Same as Gwenno, so I need water from the Temple of Discipline…”
“One of you must do this,” Xenka said, her gaze intense as she faced me and my three friends. “It cannot be someone from Serpent Isle who binds the Serpent of Chaos, nor someone without the will to serve the cause. One of ye must sacrifice your life.”
“Thou expect one of us to just… volunteer?” Iolo said incredulously. He, Shamino and Dupre looked as disbelieving as I felt. Was there no end to these people and their demands?
“I have some straws for ye to choose from,” Xenka replied. When none of us spoke or moved, the aging prophetess said, quietly, “If ye be here to save Serpent Isle, and indeed your own Britannia, Earth and the myriad worlds connected to them, ye will do this. There is no other way.”
“This is foolish,” Dupre muttered darkly, but each of us took one of the straws from Xenka’s hand because none of us could think of anything else to do.
I fervently hoped it wasn’t Iolo. He’d only just been reunited with Gwenno. And Shamino? He had Amber awaiting him back in Britannia. Dupre had Kra’lysie to return to and—
… and… I had the shortest straw.
We all stared at it.
“The fates have spoken,” Xenka said. “I’m sorry, Hero. The sacrifice is thine to make.”
“Nay!” Dupre said angrily. “This is the Avatar! She can’t throw her life away like this!”
I managed to find my voice, at last. “Dupre, stop. I can—“
“Nay!” The knight’s eyes flashed as he rounded on me. “We need thee—Britannia needeth thee! And alive! Not in some decorative urn, or trapped in the Void with a snake!”
“Who will stop the Guardian, if not thee?” Shamino put in.
“You will,” I said, putting more strength into my voice than I thought I had left. “Hear me, my friends… I cannot always be there for Britannia. You will not always be able to look to me! You must look to yourselves, and to each other.”
“Stop.” I lifted one hand, scowling. Everything seemed so simple now. The future stretched out but a short distance before me—then ended. What happened after wouldn’t be up to me. I could rest…
“Please reconsider,” Dupre said, anguish in his eyes.
“You heard what Xenka said,” I replied. “This… is the decision of the fates.”
Dupre’s temper sparked again. “To the Abyss with the ‘fates’! When didst thou ever put any stock in any destiny but the one thou made for thyself?”
“What if this is the fate I want?” I snapped at him, and regretted it instantly as hurt registered in the faces of all three men. “We must go to Monitor,” I went on. “The cremation facilities there… you should be able to carry my ashes to the Shrine of Chaos for the ritual Xenka described.” I tried to take a steadying breath, but it sounded more like a gasp. “You three… you three and Gwenno have already died in this land. Well now… now it’s my turn.”
They tried to talk me out of it. When they weren’t, they were arguing with each other as to how my mind could be changed. I wished they would stop. I didn’t want my last hours with my dearest friends to be like this. Stress, futile wrangling… I didn’t need their doubt. Every step that drew us closer to Monitor’s crematorium felt harder to take. I walked with arms folded tight to hide my trembling. If we stopped walking, I feared I’d never be able to push myself to start again.
I don’t… I don’t want to die.
And that was the heart of it. As much as I wanted this to be over, as much as I wanted rest, I didn’t want this kind of the rest. But always, there was the deeper undercurrent of my thoughts.
I don’t want them to die!
So I kept walking, my ears deaf to all but the voices clamouring within, the thundering of my heart, the thoughts that this would be the last time I felt the touch of sunlight, the smell of grass, the caress of the wind, the sound of birds…
…and the furnace loomed before me. The stone steps seemed to reach impossibly high, but I forced my leaden feet to climb them. I forced my hand to pull the lever, opening the aperture through which bodies were thrown to the flames. The heat blasted against my face like the flames of an angry dragon, causing my eyes to tear.
I don’t know how long I stood there, irresolute. Visions seemed to swim in the fire… So many people I’d never see again. So many places I’d never revisit. The Guardian… well, he’d have to get over me, wouldn’t he? And my friends… they’d have to go on without me.
Surely they could continue the fight…
I saw Britannia in the flames.
…continue the fight, yes… but win it?
I saw Britannia in flames…
“…cannot allow thee to throw away thy life!”
I felt my arm grabbed roughly and I was spun away from the maw of the furnace, straight into someone else who stumbled as he tried to catch me before we could both fall down the stairs. Someone had pushed past me—
I struggled to extricate myself from Shamino and Iolo, both of whom were attempting to free themselves, and lifted my eyes to the top of the furnace. Dupre stood there, limned by the inferno burning in the trapdoor at his feet. He glanced back at the three of us, the waves of heat blowing his hair around his face…
“Dupre—“ I tried to say.
A very small smile seemed to touch his lips. “Let it be said that Sir Dupre died bravely.”
“Dupre,” I tried again, once again struggling to free myself.
He stepped off the brink.
A scream… echoed… and tears…
The Grand Shrine of Chaos.
“Did you know he’d do it?” I asked Iolo and Shamino. I held the urn containing Dupre’s ashes, so there was no mistaking what I meant.
Both of them shook their heads.
“Dost thou think,” Iolo asked, his throat working against renewed grief, “that we wouldn’t have tried to talk him out of it as strongly as we tried for thee?”
“Damn this place,” Shamino whispered. He glanced at the Soul Prisms where the Banes were contained, then away. “How much more will it take before we can go home? How much more blood will be asked?” His eyes went to Dupre’s urn. “And how much more will be given?”
I set the urn on a pedestal, as the ritual demanded. The last piece required for the reunification of Chaos.
“Chaos will be restored,” I said, tightly. “It’s what he died for.” Inhaling deeply, I spoke the incantation to reunite the Banes into the Chaos Serpent, and fire erupted from the four pedestals, immolating the Prisms and the urn, leaving nothing behind. There was a rush of energies, as though something huge had sped past us and into the Wall of Lights.
And a voice spoke, echoing against the stone walls.
“Avatar! It is I—Dupre! My soul has fused with the Serpent of Chaos. I’m trying to keep it from attacking thee but don’t know how much longer I can hold out. Quickly! Thou must go to Sunrise Isle!”
The voice was Dupre’s. We all heard it. But it was overcast, struggling for supremacy against a second voice. The second voice was deeper… and sibilant.
Sunrise Isle. The Grand Shrine of Balance.
I met the eyes of my two remaining companions, saw the same sense of purpose renewed in each.
“We must hurry,” Shamino said.
“Slay me! Slay me with the Serpent Sword, and send my soul back into the Void!”
The gigantic statue of the Great Earth Serpent swayed before us like a thing come alive. I lashed out with the ancient, sinuous blade given by Xenka, expecting the weapon to shatter as soon as it struck the stone. But it was the statue that splintered. The sword sheared through it as easily as tailor’s scissors through silk, but the sound was deafening. Again, I felt the great rush of energies fleeing past me, into the Wall of Lights.
And I heard a voice beckoning me to follow.
“I’ve read their histories,” Gwenno said, eyeing the glowing wall askance. “Only the Great Hierophant of Balance can enter the Wall of Lights. All others lose their way in the Void.”
“I should be all right then,” I replied lightly, unfastening my pack and letting it slip to the floor. “I just have to wear the Serpent Armour and Crown, and carry the Staff.”
“Avatar—“ Iolo began, but I interrupted.
“I’ll be fine. I have to see that this is over, that Balance is restored. That Dupre…” I looked away from them. “I have to know. We all do.”
Iolo put a weathered hand on one of my shoulders. A second later, Shamino’s hand clasped the other one. I gave them both a grin, turned, and strode into the Wall of Lights.
“Worry not about thy friend Dupre. He is one with us… and content. Farewell, Avatar. We thank you.”
Then another voice… familiar… one that makes her fists clench… it surrounds her, coming from all directions. Then comes the titanic red hand, stretching from the blackness with frightening swiftness, curling its claws around her, dragging her away…
Away from Serpent Isle… away from her friends…
*We do have a score to settle…*
On Sunrise Isle, the Wall of Lights closes.
--So yeah, now you know the frame of mind Elora is in after leaving Serpent Isle... if not her frame of mind when she leaves Pagan. And yeah, the U9 fic is in the (slow) works. :)