The Black Ankh
by Shadow of Light Dragon
Book VII - Duel of Fates
Good and Evil,
Death and Life,
Dark and Brilliance,
Peace and Strife.
A sword of black,
A blood red star,
Someone had unplugged the heavens.
Rain bucketed down on us and the surroundings of the Shrine of Justice. Everyone instinctively shielded their eyes, except for the mezzini (most of whom looked baffled) and a few archers who swore and tried to cover their bows with already-sopping cloaks. It was very dark, but not enough to be night. To the north, where the ground fell away precipitously into the sea, raging waves broke against the cliffs and foam splashed high enough to kiss grassy ground.
“Keep those bows uncovered!” Talaac roared. “What are you planning to do if we’re attacked?”
There were a few tense moments as we waited for Mellorin and her army to appear, but they didn't.
"Shouldn't we find shelter?" Shamino shouted at last. He had his heavy cloak up over his head and rain hissed off it, surrounding him with a haze of spray.
"You won't melt," I replied over the noise.
"I'll rust," Dupre called from nearby, and others laughed.
Despite myself, I felt a smile coming on. Those who had laughed were Britannians.
We were home.
"We could head for the Deep Forest," Shamino suggested, nodding to the south.
"I doubt it'd be much drier than this," I disagreed. A thought suddenly came to me. I looked up, smiling at the threatening clouds... and the rain abruptly cut off. The clouds rolled back in all directions, leaving a wide circle of deep, beautiful blue sky directly above us through which the noon sun blazed.
"Welcome to Britannia."
We actually did end up heading for the somewhat dripping shelter of the Deep Forest. We had to decide where our next destination would be, and scrying from there would be safer than out in the open. Just because Mellorin hadn't come running as soon as we'd arrived was no guarantee she wouldn't turn up at all.
I found myself having to concentrate on holding the storm back. It was too powerful to be ordinary, yet I could tell it was not magical in origin. It pushed against my mental barrier constantly, and the clouds around the circle of sky resembled a celestial whirlpool.
Draxinusom came to me while the mages among us, most of whom were in Cale's Chosen, continued to scry and the others waited around or had a bite to eat. I hadn't spoken to the gargoyle Lord since I'd felt Lord British die - hadn't really seen him, in fact. Any doubts that Draxinusom didn't know what had happened faded when I saw his drawn expression and the dullness in his glowing blue eyes.
He shook his wings and rubbed his bare arms. "To say it feels like Winter."
"I wouldn't know what time of year it is any more," I said, squeezing water from my cloak with a grimace. "What's on your mind?"
"To have brought only personal concerns, Avatar. To need to hunt?" I shook my head. "To be good." He heaved a deep breath, then, frowning: "To think it is Richard."
The levity of my mood at being back in Britannia faded. I didn't want to think about this topic too much. It hurt. "We should have come back sooner. It's my fault."
"To not second-guess life. To think things could have been worse... somehow."
"We could all be dead?" I suggested with morbid humour.
He shrugged his wings and looked at the swirling clouds. "To feel something wrong in the air, Avatar."
"Not just the weather," I said softly, knowing what he meant. There was a wrongness. The mere
sensation of being back in Britannia felt... different. Tainted. Sick. "The land itself," I murmured, feeling it all through my being the more I concentrated on it. "Britannia is dying. It's hanging on, but just barely."
"To Resurrect him?"
I shook myself, frowning. "We have to find him first." I paused. "Was anyone scrying the Isle of the Avatar?"
Draxinusom nodded. "To believe so." He went off for a minute and returned with a Britannian in chain with a shortsword and thick green cloak. Shivering, the man saluted.
I blinked at him. "Aren't you the one who was with me during the battle against the goblins and daemons?"
"You're a mage?" I asked, raising a brow at his military garb.
"I have some skills in the area, Avatar."
I shrugged to myself. Warrior mages were very rare, but not unheard of. It just took me by surprise. "Lord Draxinusom told me you're scrying the Isle of the Avatar."
He straightened, as though reporting to a commanding officer. I suppose he technically
was, though I never thought of myself in those terms. "Yes, ma'am. There are strange things to see. Those two statues people call the Guardians - the ones that kneel on either side of the path like winged gargoyles - they are not stopping people from passing into the Shrine of the Codex."
"Did you scry inside the shrine?" I asked intently.
He nodded. "The only things that I really noticed were those two lenses that used to be in Britain's museum, Avatar. The ones the stories say thou used to send the Codex into the Void. Oh, and that black box."
"The Vortex Cube," I said. "You didn't see the Codex, did you? It looks like a golden book."
"No, I didn't."
I thought for a moment. "There's an entrance into some caves just west of the path leading to the Shrine of the Codex," I told him. "Can you look in there as well?"
"At once, Avatar."
"Thanks. And call me Elora."
He looked awestruck at that, as though I'd just offered to knight him. "Ferran," he said at last, smiling. He inclined his head to Draxinusom, "M'lord," and hurried off.
"What would Mellorin or the Guardian want with the Codex?" I asked Draxinusom.
He stared at me with blazing eyes. "To remind you that my world was destroyed when the Codex was removed. To wonder if she might have pulled it back from the Void. To wonder… if she has delivered it to the Guardian."
Our gazes were locked until I tore mine away to look at the sky again. The circle of blue was surrounded on all sides by a raging storm.
“What should we do?”
“Priority is finding Lord British and Resurrecting him,” I said, staring down at the damp map stretched out on the ground. A group of us crouched around it in a ragged circle—my friends and I, those from the other planes that were deemed ‘in charge’ one way or another. “Our first problem that is I’m not sure where Mellorin will have put his body.”
“Dost thou know where he was killed?” Felix asked.
I hesitated, exchanging a long look with Lord Draxinusom. The gargoyle said, quite softly, “To believe it was the Isle of the Avatar.”
I pointed out the island on the map and Zaria said, “I took a look over there. That place has so many Atarkans crawling over it I’m surprised they have enough supplies to feed them all.”
This time the lengthy glance was with my Companions. “The caves under the island,” Iolo said.
“Didn’t the Guardian have a throne built down there by the Fellowship?” Dupre put in. “Soundeth like the kind of place his army would rally.”
“Virtues, thou dost not think they’re building another Black Gate, dost thou?” Julia asked, sounding alarmed.
“Hrm.” I shook my head quickly. “No. The Black Gate’s power relied on the Astronomical Alignment. There won’t be another one of those for another few centuries, I think.” I glanced at the non-Britannians. “Sorry. There are a large number of caves and such under the mountains on the Isle of the Avatar. The Guardian’s servants used them as a base little over a year ago.”
“So it’s possible they’re making further use of them,” Bishop said. “Fair enough, but why? This island has no strategic advantage that I can see.”
“I think the advantage last time was that no one would think to look there,” Dupre said. “The Fellowship—that’s the name of the group that was serving the Guardian,” he added as an aside to the outworlders, “was trying to keep their activities secret. As for now…” he shrugged and looked at me quizzically. “It’s defensible, but why wouldst thou care about that when thou hast thy choice of cities and keeps to pick from?”
“Long and the short of it is we don’t know,” I said wryly. “But someone will have to sneak in there and find Richard. We can’t bring him back without his body.”
“Infiltration attempt, eh?” Dupre rubbed his chin.
“I don’t know, Elora,” Bishop said, frowning slightly. “The Guardian has ways of picking out spies—“
“I will go.”
We all stared at each other for a while before realizing where the words had come from. The representative of the tril’khai, Swift, regarded the map with unblinking green eyes from where she lounged in the wet grass.
“If thou canst get me to this island of thine, and back again,” her mind-voice continued calmly,
“I can discover this information for thee. The Atarkans don’t know we’re telepaths. They use us as beasts of burden and guard animals. They will not
“Are there any tril’khai on the Isle of the Avatar?” I asked Zaria.
“Big cats like that one? I can’t say I saw any.”
I frowned and looked at Swift.
“It is too far for me to find out telepathically. Even if there are none there, I can still try
“It will be a great risk…”
“I believe it will be a great risk to any who attempt to undertake it.” Swift blinked lazily.
“I will be careful. I will even pretend to be subservient, and purr like a house-cat when it seems
Several around the circle grinned.
“Or… a thought, Avatar, but thou couldst send a group of us. Several tril’khai would of course draw attention, but a group would look less out of place than just
“It would also increase the chances of learning something,” Katrina pointed out. “I think I’m liking this, but how do we get them to the isle without it looking suspicious? They can’t just all appear out of nowhere, can they?”
“And how do we get them off the island?” Shamino asked.
Swift growled softly. A feeling of concern came from her mind. “Perhaps it would be better to just risk one. It is sounding too dangerous to attempt more than
“I don’t think we can slip anything onto the isle unnoticed,” Zaria remarked. “Everywhere is watched, and I’m sure any area thou wouldst think of teleporting to is under even closer scrutiny.”
“Then what about a distraction?” Dupre pointed at the Shrine of Humility on the map. “Elora, if thou canst teleport here with a decent group of us, we can sneak Swift here in with us. Invisible, maybe? Anyway, while we’re keeping whoever’s at the shrine busy, Swift can run off somewhere, wait for the Invisibility to wear off, then sneak around pretending she was always there.”
“Why can’t that work for several trilk’khai?” asked Iolo with a smile.
“Might look suspicious,” Bishop replied. “A sudden unexplained attack, easily beaten back, then there’s suddenly an influx of felines? Even if I didn’t know they were telepaths, I’d wonder.”
“Mellorin knows they’re telepaths,” I said suddenly. “She knows because I know. No… I think one is the way to go, but it still worries me. If she’s had anyone spy on us, she might know we have tril’khai with us.”
“I could go with her,” Jae’tar volunteered, and Swift’s ears twitched towards her. “An attended tril’kha may look less out of place. Besides, I am Atarkan, same as the cat. My mother Altara told me much of the inner workings of the High Council. Last but not least, if thou hast some way for Swift to escape the island, but this way requires opposable thumbs, perhaps I could be of use.” The desert nomad suddenly gave Swift an irritated look. “I also promise,” she added testily, “not to go off on any foolish acts of vengeance.”
“Zaria,” I said, “please take another look at the Shrine of Humility. Let us know how many Atarkans are hanging around. Dupre, go with her, then organize a large enough group that we’ll be able to hold our own when we drop in.” I paused, then looked at Bishop and Felix. “Can you please ask if some of the drakelings would mind helping out? They’re interesting enough to look at that they might give our enemies reason to hesitate.”
Bishop actually grinned in reply. “If it’s ‘something interesting to look at’ thou’rt after, Elora, I’m sure the drakelings can rise to the challenge. But art thou sure thou wantest to reveal them so soon?”
“Mellorin will find out about them sooner or later. And I’d rather take advantage of them now.”
“Take this.” I gave Jae’tar a small red orb. “Use this once you’re ready to leave, or if you’re in trouble. You don’t need any magical aptitude to make it work, so don’t worry. Just turn it in your hands like this—“ I demonstrated with a rock “—and it’ll take you to the Isle of Fire… Zaria’s mages had a look and it’s empty from what they can see, so you and Swift can take shelter in the keep until we pick you up. We’ll have someone keep an eye on the location every hour so we’ll know when you arrive.”
The nomad nodded and pocketed the token. She’d shed her desert robe and now wore armour similar to what Atarkan soldiers wore, which would serve for now. Someone clever had managed to fashion a serviceable collar and leash from some leather cords, which Swift was wearing. Not only would they signify some level of ownership to Jae’tar, but they wouldn’t have to worry as much about being separated while running invisible.
According to Zaria, there were twenty foes guarding the Shrine of Humility. Dupre had organised a party of thirty to counter that, ten of which were drakelings. Dupre, Bishop and myself would be accompanying them. Lord Draxinusom would retain ultimate command of the remaining forces until we returned.
“Take out as many of them as we can,” Dupre was advising the group. “We want to make it look like we’re there for a reason. If we kill them all, we’ll venture a little further as though we’re testing the defences. Do not
run on ahead or stray too far! I don’t want anyone left behind. Got that?”
There was a chorus of assent.
“Guess that meaneth we’re ready.” Dupre drew his sword and nodded casually in my direction. “Avatar?”
I unsheathed my own blade. The Lifestealer, as usual, hung strapped across my back. “All right everyone. Stay close.” After willing Jae’tar and Swift invisible, I touched the aeth’raesh’al.
The Shrine of Humility came into sharp focus, and our ears were immediately assaulted by the cries of the enemy. Before I’d even chosen my first target, two soldiers burst into chill, silvery flames and went down screaming. As the drakelings puffed bursts of coldfire at hastily raised shields, the rest of us charged those who were either making a break for it or attempting to claim a kill of their own.
Swift’s thought broke effortlessly through the actual noises of the fight. I nodded mentally, keeping an eye on the carnage around me. There hadn’t actually been an opportunity or need for me to step in to the fight yet. Everyone seemed to be doing fine without me, and the drakelings were wreaking merry havoc—
--but then I felt it.
Even as I reached for the aeth’raesh’al to teleport us out of there, I could see Mellorin and a group of reinforcements appearing right in our midst. It registered then that if we teleported, we’d be taking them with us. And there were more of them…
And they were here.
Shouts rose from both sides, but my side faltered at the sight of the overwhelming odds. She must have known, I thought. She must have been ready, to have this many people armed and ready and prepared…
Mellorin smiled down at me from where she lounged against the Shrine’s altar. “Surrender or die, Elora? Or let’s look at your other options. Fight and die. Teleport
all of us and die somewhere else. Save yourself? Believe me when I say all your friends here will pay the price.” Her green eyes roved over my small invasion force, resting on Dupre for a moment before returning to me. “Oh, or you can cast Mass Death, killing everyone here. Since that includes me, it will also include you. Have I forgotten anything?”
I forced my voice to remain calm. “I’m only dead if I kill you, Mellorin. How would you like to become a small pile of ashes?”
Her smile froze. “You wouldn’t d—“
A respectable gout of silvery flames burst at the ground near Mellorin’s boots. She dove aside, cursing, and as though it had been a signal, my party took the moment of surprise to jump back to the offensive. Fire seemed to pour from the sky as I fought my way through the struggling bodies, simply trying to kill as many Atarkans as I could. I had no destination. There was nowhere to go, and my stomach churned at the thought it would be over all too soon. That we were all about to die.
A nagging voice screamed inside my head, telling me I should leave the others to their fates. Save myself! They were expendable. It was only if I was taken that all was lost. That was the logic of it, cold and sharp and inarguable…
And impossible. I couldn’t…
“Arcadion,” a voice said directly behind me. “Death.”
I turned, very slowly.
“It’s been a long time coming… Master.”
There was a gut-wrenching pain and a scream I couldn’t seem to stop… followed shortly by the blindness of the newly undead.
The next thing I remembered was an empty, windowless cell. Manacles attached to the roof bound my wrists, stretching my arms in opposite directions. The aeth’raesh’al was still encircling one of them…
Relief, and hope, sparked within me. I didn’t know why Mellorin hadn’t taken the bracer, but so long as she hadn’t—
The door opened, admitting my double. She closed it behind herself and leaned back against it, appraising me by the light of the In Lor spell hovering above her. The angle of the lighting hollowed her face. “I see you’ve regained enough strength to make yourself look decent,” she said. “The reality is quite nauseating, you know.”
I arched a brow at her.
She returned the facial expression. “Nothing to say?”
“What do you want to hear? ‘You win’?”
“I was expecting you to ask why I haven’t destroyed you.”
“It was preying on my mind, but I figured if you wanted to tell me you would, and if you didn’t want me to know there’d be little point to my asking, except to give you the undesirable pleasure of saying, ‘What? Tell you all my plans?’ and laughing in my face.”
She pushed away from the door and circled me slowly. In the blackrock hilt poking above her right shoulder, Arcadion’s crystalline prison glowed.
“Why haven’t you destroyed me?” I asked, finally.
“He wants you broken.”
“What do I matter if he has you? Wasn’t that the idea?”
Her lip curled into what could have been a sneer, but it lasted only for a fraction of a second. A shadow of fear passed across her face and she looked down, as though examining the path she took around me, and folded her arms. “You know him. He wants what he can’t have.”
“Yeah. I know him.” I pulled lightly at the chains and sighed. “So what are you going to do? Lead a parade of Britannians through the door and kill each of them in front of me until I beg you to stop? Ultimately it won’t mat—“
I stopped, and felt the iron cuffs dig into my wrists. “What?”
“If you beg him nicely enough, he will allow Lord British’s Resurrection. Britannia will not die.”
I gritted my teeth.
“You have a week before your decision will no longer matter.”
“Why did you do it? Why did you kill him?” My hands clenched. “Virtues, you may be a twisted version of me, but that means that, deep down, there is still a part of
me in you. I can’t believe you felt nothing when you butchered him.”
Mellorin pursed her lips, but didn’t meet my gaze. “A certain feeling of satisfaction, perhaps?”
“And the Guardian? You’re his loyal dog?”
She smiled fleetingly, humourlessly, and turned for the door. “Think on what I’ve said, Elora. I’ll be back later.”
“If you destroy me,” I said, “you belong to him forever.”
Her hand paused on the latch. “How is that any different from belonging to
you? Being your dog?”
“Having been in both situations, I’m sure you know the answer to that.”
Mellorin turned back to me. “You’re right. I don’t want to belong to him. But I don’t want to be under your thumb either.” She took a breath. “I have a way out. A shot at freedom.” She twitched then, and her face clenched like a fist. “Let go,” she muttered.
“Let go! Or I swear I’ll—“ Her hands raised to her temples as she gasped. “I’ll… release… her… and—“ She took one step towards me and dropped to her knees, shaking violently.
The thought arose that even if she wanted to free me she wouldn’t be able to. If the Guardian could bring her down so easily… But that said, he couldn’t force her to do what he wanted through pain. Pain incapacitated.
I stared at the writhing form on the floor. This was the person who’d killed Richard and countless others, yet it was almost impossible not to feel pity. I knew what it felt like to have my head in the Guardian’s vice.
Then one of her hands gripped the Blacksword’s hilt and ripped it from its scabbard. Her face lifted and her eyes were wild when they fixed on me. The blade scraped across the stones as she stood, and her voice rasped. “I told you—“ the sword lifted, clenched in both white-knuckled hands, “—to let me—“ it pulled back in preparation of a swing. I tensed, not knowing where it would land,
The Blacksword sheared through the chain binding my right arm then kept going until it and Mellorin hit the wall of the cell. She screamed—at the impact, at the Guardian’s reaction, I didn’t know. The agonised sound bounced endlessly against the stones and in my own ears. It was the only thing that stopped me from bringing my right hand to my left and escaping. I couldn’t help staring in horrified pity, or help feeling my insides twist at the sight of my own pain. I had to do something.
“Arcadion,” I whispered, reaching my free hand towards the abandoned Blacksword. The sword glowed, and I had the faint impression that the daemon was thinking about its options… but then I could feel the hilt taking form against my palm. The weapon had barely made the transition from floor to hand before I swung it against the chain holding my left hand, severing it. Without a pause for thought, I brought the hilt across Mellorin’s head and she crumpled into silence. But my ears still rang with her cries. Hesitantly, I knelt down and tried to remove the bracer she wore, but Kra’lysie had been right. I couldn’t open it.
“All right, you,” I said to the Blacksword, trying to keep in mind that the daemon blade had been stuck through my chest (not to mention Richard’s) not so long ago. “Where are we?”
“I don’t know,” Arcadion replied. “Not Britannia. Mellorin took you elsewhere so you couldn’t communicate with anyone.”
“Did she bring anyone else with her?” I had an insane urge to shake the sword when it didn’t reply at once. “Answer me!”
“What are you going to do, Master? Strangle me?” The voice was a sneer of contempt. “I don’t see why you’re angry at
me, anyway. Is it my fault Mellorin used me to kill your precious king? Or those people on the Isle of Fire?” Arcadion’s voice became a malicious whisper. “Or Mariah? Or Jaana?”
“No.” My hands clenched around the hilt as though I were trying to throttle it, and I stared into the glowing jewel. “You’re lying…”
“Am I indeed?”
I turned on Mellorin’s prostrate form, flames burning in my mind. The pity I’d felt for her before was forgotten, replaced by a need for blood like nothing the Lifestealer sword had inspired in me.
“Kill her and you die,” Arcadion reminded me sharply, swiftly. “But you can break free. She said she knew a way to break free, remember? I can tell you how. You can do the same. You can end this, Elora, without her compliance, then safely pursue vengeance if you so desire.”
As attractive as the offer was, the daemon’s voice was too eager. “I should bring her back,” I muttered, staring at Mellorin. The fire retreated, under control again, but it smouldered still. “This will be much easier if she’s our prisoner. And I have to find Dupre, Bishop and the others…”
“They are still on Britannia,” Arcadion said. This time his voice was sullen, but it still carried an undertone of anticipation that made me feel uneasy.
“What aren’t you telling me, Arcadion?” I narrowed my eyes at the ether gem. “Mellorin may have a stronger claim over you than I, but you are
still bound to me in some way, and I demand a true answer from you!”
The daemon hissed. “When you return to Britannia, the call of the Undead will claim you. You will be unable to resist it, Avatar. You will go to Stonegate and bring about Armageddon. And with the aeth’raesh’al upon your arm, Britannia will only be the start of it.”
I tried to ignore the chill. “I know about this ‘Call’, Arcadion, but I’ve never felt it. Why should I succumb to it now?”
“You would have when you returned to Britannia, but for the stolen life-force in your veins. That is gone now—“
“Thanks to you!”
“—and I expect you will heed the call as soon as you go back.”
“If I’m undead.” I glanced at Mellorin as she groaned. Her body was twitching, as though someone was trying to kick her awake…
Damn that red bastard.
“Where is my sword?”
“Excuse me?” Arcadion sounded offended.
“Back in Britannia… Master.” The daemon’s voice took on a smug, drawling note. “What now? Will you wait until she awakens? A word from her and I will be in her fist, and you looking down my blade… if not impaled upon it again. Will you try to speak reason to her while the Guardian rends what’s left of her sanity?”
“It seems,” I replied softly, “that the only other choice you present is to return to Britannia and go to Stonegate, whether I like it or not, and end the world.”
“The world is ending anyway, isn’t it?”
“I plan to stop that. Where’s Lord British’s body? And don’t just say ‘Britannia’, Arcadion. Where
exactly is Richard’s body?”
“In the Shrine of Spirituality.”
Of course… who would think to scry there? Could you, when it’s not a part of the land mass that is Britannia? With the moongates out of order, only she or I can get there. And what reason would I have to pay a visit to the Shrine of Spirituality with all this going on?
“She wanted to drop him into another plane,” Arcadion went on, “but apparently he must be kept in contact with Britannia if the world is to… continue. The Guardian doesn’t want Britannia to perish. Until he’s ready, that is.”
“Then why kill him at all?”
“To lure you back. He can be very impatient.”
Mellorin groaned again. One of her hands clawed at the stone floor as she folded in upon herself.
“And the Crown of the Liche King is like the Horn of Praecor Loth,” Arcadion said. “An item of legendary power that the Guardian covets, but can only attain through the efforts of others. Mellorin cannot serve him in this, but you can. Another reason why your bracer wasn’t removed.”
“Who else serves him?” I asked suddenly. “Who is the traitor?”
“What?” Arcadion replied.
“Who betrayed what we were doing to Mellorin? I know there’s a spy in my army, Arcadion. Tell me who it is.”
The daemon’s voice conveyed a shrug. “It is a daemon. To tell you the truth, Avatar, I’m surprised that
you, with your undead abilities, haven’t figured it out for yourself.”
“I haven’t been using my undead abilities… much…” I muttered. Silence returned to the cell for a minute. “Can you protect me, if I go back to Britannia? Stop me from… you know… forgetting who I am?”
“Do you remember,” Arcadion said, thoughtfully, “that you promised to release me once?”
There was another silence, in which I had the impression that Arcadion was envisioning myriad potential futures. At length, a sigh came from the Blacksword. “I will endeavour to remind you that you are the… Paragon of Virtue. However… I will not be able to help you if Mellorin recalls me.”
I reached for the aeth’raesh’al, and hesitated. I went and crouched beside the twitching body of Mellorin and brought my mouth close to her ear. “I don’t know if you can hear me,” I said, “but leave Arcadion with me. Please.”
“You think she will listen?” Arcadion asked, darkly amused.
“I don’t know.”
Extending the aeth’raesh’al’s field over Mellorin as well as myself, I took us to Britannia. To the Shrine of Justice.
Shamino and Iolo were there when we appeared, and both men viewed the arrival with mixed expressions of relief, horror and caution.
“That’s Mellorin,” I said without preamble, pointing the Blacksword at my unconscious double as I rose from my crouch. “If it was me, she’d look like…” I shook my head. “I don’t know. A decomposing corpse. Gag her. Tie her up or something. Don’t let her have the ability to use her bracer. Make sure she’s watched so she can’t cast any—“ I stooped again, and pulled the reagent pouch from Mellorin’s belt, “—spells. Oh, and if she starts screaming or anything like that, use Sleep magic.”
“She—“ Iolo began.
“Richard’s body is at the Shrine of Spirituality,” I went on quickly. I could feel something in my head clamouring for attention. Something I hadn’t felt previously. “And there’s a daemon spy in the army. Get the mages to sniff it out.”
Mellorin stirred again.
“I’ll handle things,” Shamino said. “Kra’lysie could handle the daemon problem, if she can be bothered to listen to me.” He turned and ran for the forest.
I opened my mouth again, but Iolo said, “Dupre! Where’s Dupre? Elora, what
happened? Zaria’s mages said that all of ye were captured! Even Jae’tar and Swift didn’t get far!”
The call was becoming more insistent. I tried to drown it out by talking louder. “I don’t know! I think he and the others, whoever survived, are on the Isle of the Avatar. I was taken elsewhere.
Listen, Iolo.” I shoved the reagent pouch into the bard’s hand. “I don’t have much time, even to explain. I have to get to Stonegate, and it’ll be too dangerous for you guys to come with me. I can’t do anything else before I handle this. The world will apparently end in a week unless Richard is Resurrected.”
“Or sooner, if the Stonegate thing doesn’t go as you intend,” Arcadion muttered.
“Thou’rt taking that with thee?” Iolo said, glaring at the Shade Blade.
“Yes. While Mellorin’s out of action, it might be a good idea for you guys to move. Retake Britain or Empath Abbey, whatever’s closer.” I glanced past Iolo, just in time to see Shamino reach the edge of the trees and vanish beneath them. “No reinforcements will be coming to stop you, so long as we have our prisoner here.”
Then I looked east. I had to go that way…
“Thou canst really not just take her bracer?” Iolo asked, hopefully. “All this, or most of it, could be
over if thou couldst.”
“I can’t.” I glanced back to him briefly, with glowing eyes. “But you can try to talk her into taking it off.” I felt a smile curve my lips. “I suggest during one of the screaming sessions, when it sounds like the Guardian’s attempting to run her brain through a mincer.” At his shocked expression I turned east again, and began to walk.
After a few minutes, Arcadion asked dryly, “So, Miss Paragon of Virtue… what is the Mantra of Compassion?”
“Shut up, Arcadion.”
The sun was setting, but I saw it only as a sullen haze through the heavy clouds back to the west. Eastwards, above the swamps and scattered mountains, the sky was dark with yet more storm-clouds. I had not been walking the entire way. Judicious usage of the Blink spell was speeding my progress. If I hurried, I could be into Stonegate and out with the crown before midnight. Then I could pick up Lord British…
Virtues, how it pained me to think his Resurrection was coming second. But this undead Call was pulling me like a magnet, like the moons pulled the waters. I had feared that this would affect my mind somewhat, in that I’d start to
think more like a liche, but it wasn’t happening. Yet, anyway. I could feel the call trying to drown my thoughts, make itself the only thing in my mind, but that I could resist.
I had not taken Mellorin’s shoulder scabbard, which forced me to hand-carry Arcadion as I went. I tended towards propping the blade against one shoulder while my hands cradled the hilt around waist-height. As time went on, it surprised me when I realised that I’d actually missed the daemon’s sometimes caustic conversation.
“Why are you wasting your power on that storm back there?” Arcadion had asked once, referring to the unnatural rain above the army I’d left behind in the Deep Forest.
“To keep my mind anchored,” I’d replied. “To remind me of my friends and my purpose. Now, tell me how Mellorin plans to break free of her aeth’raesh’al.”
Her plan had been along the lines that Kra’lysie had speculated on long ago; an attempt to surpass the power contained within the bracer. An undead could theoretically achieve this, given time. A living being, on the other hand, was limited in their capacity to store mana. Mellorin had hoped to get around this by using none other than the Blacksword.
“Within the Ether Gem,” Arcadion said, “I can contain and store energy, as you know. As I am used to slay powerful entities, I can absorb a measure of their essence and filter that back to my Master on request. Mellorin doesn’t know how much energy she needs, nor do I, but she’s been pinpointing those she deems powerful and using me to kill them.”
“Richard?” I asked.
“He was certainly one of them. I cannot describe what it felt like to feed off—“
“Then don’t,” I interrupted sharply. “I suppose she’s been targeting all my friends. You mentioned Mariah and Jaana as well.”
“This is correct, but she selected them for their relationship to her… I mean you… as much as for what power they might grant her. She used them to defile two of the Shrines. That’s the fate in store for all your Companions, Master.”
“She might find it hard if she’s tied up and in the keeping of those Companions,” I said.
“I also stole quite a measure of power from yourself.”
“Really?” I quirked a brow at the Shade Blade. “Acradion, restore my powers.”
The daemon had no choice. But when he answered my command, the influx of energy almost staggered me. I had to halt until the world stopped swimming and until my thoughts stilled, for my head was briefly filled with voices and memories not my own. A hundred faces played before me in a fraction of a second. A hundred
A thousand deaths.
I shuddered, taking a moment to regain my balance. Had I not been undead, I had the nasty feeling that such an ether surge could have blown my mind out like a candle in high wind. Could Mellorin have even used it?
“You realise you’ve effectively ruined what she’s been working towards with that little stunt,” the daemon remarked.
I moved forwards again. “You should tell her, when she recalls you. She might give up if she hears she has to start all over again.”
“More likely she’ll kill twice as many just to spite you, Master. She has all of your temper and none of your restraint. She likes killing things, too.”
I shrugged. “Kra’lysie said there was no guarantee the energy thing would work. It’s never been tried.” Nevertheless, I made a surreptitious attempt to remove my bracer… which failed.
“Kra’lysie? Ah, your pet dragon.”
A troubling thought occurred to me. “She’s not the daemon, is..?” No. She’d been the first one I’d seen through my undead eyes, and her appearance hadn’t been remotely daemonic. She’d looked like a rainbow.
“No,” Arcadion said when I didn’t finish my sentence. “She’s not a daemon.” Then he too was silent.
I had crested a hill. Spread out below me, half-sunk in the marshy ground, were the blackened ruins of what had once been the stronghold of the Shadowlords. Surrounding it, wandering between the weathered remains, was a mass. An army of the undead and the unliving.
Ranks of skeletons, some unadorned, some bearing the remnants of rusted armour and weapons. Ghosts, which passed through the broken walls as though they weren’t there at all. Liches, some gathered together in secretive groups, others maintaining a lofty separation from the rest. And there were daemons who looked on as though this were something to see. Here and there I also saw mages; living mages, robed, cowled and silent. Dark mages, I supposed… people whose only difference from a liche was a ritual, as yet unperformed.
Heads and skulls turned in my direction and an expectant hush fell.
The call tugged me onward, down into the ruins. Gripping the Blacksword tightly, I began my descent.
Behind me, the last of the sun’s light faded from the sky.
They crowded around me. Not so close that I couldn’t move, but near enough that I was almost rigid with tension. Glowing eyes and empty sockets watched my progress with avidity. The silence was not complete… there were sounds of movement, naturally. Bone, rusted chain, rotted robe, the noises of the swamp… but whispers, too. Sometimes even what sounded like amused chuckling.
I found myself wishing my friends were with me. Dupre would make some remark or other, Shamino would comment on it, Iolo would roll his eyes…
My feet took me into the ruin, where it looked like the undead had been hard at work. A deep pit had been dug here, by skeletal hands. There was no clear way to climb down, so I simply jumped and used magic to slow my fall. Although the bottom of the pit was big enough for maybe ten people to comfortably stand, no one followed me down. When my feet touched the bottom I could hear jostling overhead as undead strove to get a better view. Of what though? I didn’t even know yet.
“So how do you propose to get in?” Arcadion murmured.
I crouched down on the muddy stone. It was black down here, but I didn’t need light to see by anymore.
“For a while,” I said quietly, scanning the rock for any symbols or clues as to where the entrance was, “I thought the Lifestealer was the key to getting down here. An undead with life, you see. But the answer to that… riddle? ‘One with life still at their chest’ or something…” I raised one hand to touch the Ankh through my shirt. “I already fulfil that in a much simpler way.”
“Maybe not as simply as you think,” the daemon replied, but I didn’t ask him what he meant. I’d found the gateway.
There was a large rectangle etched into the stone, large enough to enclose me should I choose to lie down within its boundaries. In the very middle was scored a five-pointed star. The pentagram was as wide as my splayed hand, and the water-filled edges shone faintly.
Slowly, unsure if this was how it worked, I lowered my hand from Ankh to pentagram and pressed my palm against the symbol. At once, red light bloomed in the darkness. It seeped from under my hand, and when I removed it I saw it was emanating from the star. A collective sigh came from above me as I stood and backed away, stepping outside the rectangle.
As I did so, the Gate of Stone, and the red light, vanished. In its place was a yawning black passage leading deeper into the earth.
“Well, well…” Arcadion murmured appreciably.
My shoulder blades itching slightly at the thought of all those gazes fixed eagerly on my back, I entered Stonegate.
The tunnel was high enough that I could walk without bending over, but narrow. I expected there to be even less light down here than above, but there was a red glow far down the passage. Since there was no way to go but forwards or back, I continued towards it.
“What do you know about the Crown of the Liche King that you haven’t already told me?” I asked Arcadion.
“Hmm? Oh, I’m sorry. I was just remembering Stonegate of old. Balinor would have been very put out to see the place so messy… tch…”
The daemon sighed. “Patience, like Cleanliness, is not exactly a Virtue. Or some of your friends would bathe more often… What do you want to hear, Master? The crown, if you put it on, will grant you the ability to manipulate life with magic—something undead normally can’t do. Yes, you can do all those useless little healing spells you’ve missed so much and make people happy.”
I rolled my eyes in the darkness.
“I saw that.”
“What’s the catch, though? Can’t any of those other undead just take it off me? Because I’m sure as hell not casting Armageddon.”
“Ah, well, there are several catches. Once you wear it, for example, they have no need to take it off you. You see, you are not the only undead who will be bestowed with the crown’s powers. It’ll affect any undead or unliving nearby, splashing out like ripples in water.”
“Wonderful.” I reached a small opening into a chamber and squeezed through it. “Why don’t I just destroy it, then?”
“If lava didn’t do the job, Master, what could?”
The chamber was rock. The domed roof and flat floor were slightly bumpy, but unimpressive. In the middle of the floor, lacking even the customary velvet cushion, was a crown. It was black with the texture of stone, but wasn’t blackrock. It didn’t have the little ‘points’ that one normally associated with crowns, but ‘blocks’ instead, like battlements. In one side of the crown was traced the five-pointed star, from which the red light issued. It was bright enough to illuminate the whole of the small room.
I picked it up, and decided it was heavy enough to warrant looking like stone. A closer inspection revealed two incantations etched on the inside of the crown…
“This is the incantation for Armageddon,” I said, frowning. “But I don’t know the other one.”
A voice that wasn’t Arcadion’s said: “Popular belief is that it’s a… Mass Resurrection spell. Of a sort.”
I tightened my hold on the crown and looked around. “Who said that?”
A shining blue ghost appeared with such suddenness that I jumped back and almost took a swipe at it with Arcadion.
“Watch it with that thing! We’re not exactly on the best of terms right now.”
I stared. “Richard?”
The Lord of Britannia’s ghost smiled at me. “Greetings, Elora. Is it time yet?”
“Time..?” I said blankly.
“For my Resurrection.”
“Almost. I… know where your body is.”
“Thanks to me,” Arcadion muttered.
“Aye, well at least thou’rt good for something besides killing people,” Richard said to the sword.
“Richard, how did you get here?” I asked, still hardly believing what I was seeing. “And how did you know what you just told me?”
“Ah, well, as to the latter, I’ve had plenty of time to listen to what’s going on around these parts.” The king grimaced slightly. “It’s not entirely pleasant. But thou wouldst be amazed at how many faces thou might recognise, given the time. I had a nice talk to Horance of Skara Brae, for instance. His company was much more tolerable than most.”
“And as to the former?” I prompted.
“I had help,” Richard said. He looked to his left. “Thou dost not have to hide.”
“I was just choosing my moment,” another voice, a woman’s, said tartly. “Thou’rt not meant to just pop in and out like an amateur, Richard. A ghost’s entrance must be properly dramatic.” There was an ethereal sigh, and her ghost wavered into view. “Never mind. I was hoping to make a good first impression on the Avatar, but…”
Richard grinned. “Elora, may I present a very old friend of mine—“
“Old?!” the woman’s ghost protested.
“Er…” Richard paused. “Actually, I’m quite sure thou’rt older than I am.”
“Hmph. Well it’s rude to draw attention to a lady’s age, thou knowest.” The woman bowed to me. “I am called Arthalan. And thou needest not worry about my present state, Avatar. I’ve been a ghost for a very long time now.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “Any friend of Richard’s is a friend of mine.”
“Arthalan knew thou wouldst come here sooner or later, Elora,” Richard said. His semi-transparent face became serious. “Britannia doth not have much time.”
My joy at seeing Richard again faded. “I know. Richard… I’m sorry—“
He interrupted briskly. “Thou hast nothing to apologise for, Elora. We both expected she would kill me.”
“I had hoped to return soon enough to prevent it.” I made a vague gesture with the crown. “At least I can Resurrect you now.”
“Do not be so hasty to wear that thing,” Richard warned.
“Arcadion told me that if I wear it, its powers will not be limited to me.”
“Any undead or daemons in the area,” Arthalan verified. “Horance told us all about it. For so long as thou wearest it, any undead or daemon who gets close enough to thee will be able to use its powers.”
“So I just put it on where it’s safe, then take it off again,” I said. “Where’s the problem?”
“Elora,” Richard said, looking at me strangely. “Surely thou hast healers capable of Resurrecting me back wherever thou left our friends. Thou dost not have to do this thyself. Certainly not if the risk is something gaining the ability to cast Armageddon on Britannia.”
I looked down and sighed. “All right. I’ll just keep this somewhere safe, I guess. Do you know if it can be destroyed?”
The two ghosts exchanged a glance and shrugged.
“Hadst thou a choice,” Arthalan said, “leaving it sealed down here would have been the best option. But this is not the place for lengthy discussions. Those above will descend after thee once they tire of waiting.”
“Where art thou encamped?” Lord British asked me.
“In the Deep Forest, south of the Shrine of Justice,” I said. “Oh! And I captured Mellorin. Maybe things will go more our way with—“
“Avatar?” Arcadion began. Then he glowed violet and vanished.
“I better get back,” I said grimly. “Find me as soon as you can and we’ll get you fixed up.” I then looked at Arthalan’s ghost and hesitated. She smiled at me cheerfully. “And you… uh… try to keep him out of trouble, please.”
Lord British made a face at me as Arthalan sniggered. “Thanks. We’ll see thee soon.”
I grinned. “I’m glad thou’rt still with us, Richard.” Then I touched the aeth’raesh’al…
…and was back at the Shrine of Justice.
Shamino was there, slumped near the pedestal. I called out to him when I saw him and he looked up, grief twisting his face in the night’s darkness.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, crouching down. He was cradling something in his arms and I tried to see… “Shamino?”
He held it out.
It was Iolo’s crossbow.
“What happened?” The world came crashing around me again, destroying any levity I’d felt at seeing Lord British’s ghost. “Did you see? Shamino,
talk to me.”
“I don’t know,” the ranger shouted, jumping to his feet. “I don’t know,” he repeated, more quietly. “I sent someone up here with rope and a wooden pole to secure Mellorin’s arms while I sorted out the spy business, and it was only when I realised no one had come back that…” He looked like he was resisting the urge to swear, and swear loudly. “Virtues, I was so
stupid, Elora! Why didn’t I ask Julia or Katrina? Anyone I knew I could trust!”
“Don’t worry about that now. What’d you see when you got up here? Who’d you send?”
He shook his head angrily. “I don’t know who I sent. One of the outworlders. He just happened to be the first person I passed on the way in—I didn’t want to leave Iolo alone out here with Mellorin any longer than necessary. And when I got up here…” Again he shook his head, pacing a few steps in frustration. “All three of them were gone. There was just the crossbow. And this.”
He held out a broken bolt this time, bearing Iolo’s familiar fletchings. There was blood on the steel head.
“Iolo and Dupre gone in the same evening,” Shamino whispered. “Not to mention those others on the Isle of Fire…”
“No.” I looked away from the bloody bolt and stared hard at the circle of sky above. It was black now, and filled with stars. The clouds still roiled around the edges but only those near the opening were visible, limned in silver moonslight.
“Is she just going to pick us off one by one?” Shamino asked. His voice was one of desolation, and it filled me with sudden rage. What right did Mellorin have to do this to my friends? Why had I been so foolish as to endanger everyone by bringing her here in the first place? I should have just left her to the Guardian!
I clenched my empty right hand, and suddenly remembered Arcadion. Arcadion being summoned. Arcadion saying that Mellorin was using him to slay my friends at the Shrines of Virtue…
I turned to Shamino quickly. “Do you have a sword?”
He blinked at my urgent demand. “No, just my hammer—“
“Give it to me. Quick!” When he’d hurriedly handed over the Juggernaut Hammer, I said, “I’m going to get Iolo back. I saved him from those Virtues-damned undead cats back on Atarka, and not so he could be slaughtered here in Britannia.” I tossed him the Crown of the Liche King. “Keep this safe. Do
not let it out of your sight. I’d keep it on me, but I don’t want to chance Mellorin getting it.”
“Dost thou not want me to come with thee?” Shamino asked, frowning.
“Normally I’d have no trouble with that,” I said. “But… I’m sorry, Shamino… I just don’t want to risk losing all
three of my dearest friends in one day.” I looked away. “I better go. I don’t know how long I have, and Mellorin could be torturing Iolo as we speak…”
He nodded once. “Go. And… Virtue be with thee.”
“Get back to the others. Staying up here alone is a good way to get jumped.” Giving him a small, grim smile, I used the aeth’raesh’al to teleport myself to what would hopefully be the Shrine of Compassion…
…it was. And the night sky was clear. The air was dead calm. Mellorin’s voice rang out from the standing stones nearby.
“Clever. How did you know I’d be here? I thought I’d masked my teleportation.”
I gripped the Juggernaut Hammer in both hands. Iolo had been tied against the pedestal with rope. He was sitting on the ground with his back to the stone, as it was neither high enough for him to be standing, nor wide enough for him to be lying atop it. From the blood on his shirt, it looked like Mellorin had only just gotten started. Nevertheless, his head was hanging and I couldn’t tell if he was conscious, though I was sure he was alive.
A quick glance around didn’t reveal anyone else. I’d expected a daemon to be here too… Maybe it was hiding.
“I put the pieces together,” I told Mellorin. “Now why don’t you let him go?”
She grinned at me. “Come on, Elora. Why don’t I just kill him, then leave you the body? You can Resurrect him later. You
do have the Crown of the Liche King by now, don’t you?”
“You’re not wearing it, though.”
“Crowns aren’t really my thing. You should know that.”
She tapped one finger against Arcadion’s hilt while I maintained a neutral expression. “You left it back with your army, didn’t you.”
“I see the Guardian didn’t want to mess with my intelligence when he created you.”
“That all depends on who you gave it to.”
I snorted. “And I’m supposed to tell you so you can hunt them down?”
She was silent for a moment, regarding me with a look I knew only too well. When faced with it, most of my friends would ask if I was trying to read their minds. “No matter, I suppose,” she said at length. “I’ll find out sooner or later… I
am hunting all your friends down anyway, and I suspect they’re the only ones you trust enough to hand something that valuable to.” She reached down with one hand and tousled Iolo’s grey hair. “I just have to go through them all one by one.”
There was a crude bandage around her right wrist, I noted. And it was soaked with blood. “So you have enough power at the end of it to free yourself?” I asked. “It won’t work. Arcadion isn’t storing all that energy anymore.”
Mellorin’s fingers curled in Iolo’s hair and slammed the bard’s head back against the pedestal.
I winced, and was suddenly grateful Iolo was unconscious. I just hoped he’d be able to wake up again after that.
“Elora commanded that I restore her powers, Master,” I heard Arcadion say. “She took all that you had been storing.”
Mellorin looked skywards and sighed deeply, the fingers of her right hand still locked in Iolo’s hair.
I didn’t hesitate.
The Juggernaut Hammer took her full in the stomach and threw her clear out of the Shrine’s circle of stones.
I ran up to the pedestal, catching the enchanted weapon in its return flight on the way, and stopped there. Mellorin was doubled on the ground, trying to get her breath back. Should I try to subdue her again and drag her back to my army? No… I didn’t want to risk it a second time. Besides, doing so would get her that much closer to the Crown of the Liche King, which I didn’t want.
Whether because she was genuinely incapacitated, or disinclined to act as though she felt I was a serious threat, Mellorin didn’t bother to regain her feet. She sank into a sitting position on the grass, one knee close to her chest. And just watched me.
Keeping an eye on her, I pulled out a boot dagger and sliced the ropes binding Iolo before gently slapping his cheeks and trying to rouse him. Unsuccessful, I checked his wounds and located the most serious: a puncture right through the right wrist. Bright red blood flowed freely from the injury. It stained the shrine’s pristine altar. No wonder Iolo was unconscious… and no wonder his face looked so pale. Cursing under my breath, I dragged him away from the pedestal and reached for the bracer. He needed heal—
I stopped, staring as Mellorin casually wove a spell of Greater Healing around Iolo. The horrible wound on his wrist closed, but I didn’t trust how effective the spell would be. The wrist was a very delicate area… Why was Mellorin bothering, though? Bitterly, I suspected it was because she wanted the death to be by Arcadion’s blade, not blood loss. I looked away from Mellorin’s smirk as Iolo groaned.
“Hey,” I whispered, crouching down to support his head and smiling when he squinted at me. “Why do you always manage to get yourself in trouble? You’re meant to be the careful one.”
“Elora?” he managed, the initial fear passing from his eyes. “Where..?”
“The Shrine of Compassion.”
His eyes rolled back and I was afraid he’d faint, but a second later he was shaking his head violently. “Nay… nay we must get back! Back to the others! I know… I know who…”
I glanced at Mellorin again, who was lounging back with every impression she was enjoying the show.
“Who?” I prompted Iolo quietly, still watching my double.
“Shamino!” Iolo’s gasp snapped my eyes back down to him again. “The spy! The daemon! It’s
“That’s impossible,” I said. “I spoke to him right before I came! I gave h—“
And Mellorin smiled when I looked at her. Knowingly.
Mellorin stood, sheathing the Blacksword across her back. “What a beautiful night,” she murmured to no-one in particular. Then she slapped a hand against her bracer and disappeared.
Holding Iolo tighter, I touched my own bracer.
There was no one at the Shrine of Justice this time. I supported Iolo every step of the way to the Deep Forest, uncertainty and fear gripping me.
“It’s not true,” I muttered from time to time. Iolo never gainsaid me. He’d lapsed into semi-unconsciousness, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. At one point I gathered enough courage to look at him through my undead eyes, and the colours they received verified his human appearance.
We were under the trees and halfway to the encampment by the time Julia and Katrina, mounted atop drakelings, ran out to meet us.
“The scouts keeping a watch on the area around the forest saw ye coming!” Julia shouted as they drew near. When they were close enough, she swung down and helped me push Iolo up into the saddle. “Let me know if he’s slipping off, Draskis,” Julia said to the drakeling, who bobbed a nod.
Katrina had noticed the Juggernaut Hammer gripped in my hand. “Where’s Shamino?”
“He didn’t return to camp then?” I asked, my heart sinking.
The two women exchanged a glance, shook their heads and looked at me.
“I think,” I said, sagging, “that we have a very big problem.”
“But he’s been with us since the start,” Julia argued after Iolo had been given into the capable hands of a healer and I’d taken a moment to ask some mages to keep a close eye on the Shrine of Honour.
“Nay,” Katrina said quietly. “We had to find him first. Remember, Elora?”
“The Bee Cave,” I muttered, staring at the campfire the three of us were clustered around. “We were afraid Mellorin would get to him first. I guess she did.”
“Thou’rt positive this isn’t another trick?” Julia said.
I sighed. “When Iolo recovers we can ask him the full story. I’m inclined to believe the worst.”
“The disguise was perfect,” Katrina said. “He acted… just like the real thing. He even had Shamino’s memories. How dost thou suppose that doth work?”
I flicked a twig into the fire and didn’t answer. “I don’t know what we can do now,” was all I said.
The other two were silent.
After a minute or so, Lord Draxinusom arrived at the campfire and hunkered down with us.
“To say there is no sight of Shamino or any daemon within the camp,” he said, folding his huge wings.
“Kra’lysie?” I asked.
The gargoyle shook his head. “To be no sign of the dragon, either.”
I sank my face into my hands. As much as I wanted the dragon-woman’s help right now in locating the spy, I dreaded the inevitable explosion when she was told who the spy
was. She had never seemed to like Shamino. I couldn’t help suspecting that this was because she’d known what he was all along. Thinking back on some of her odd remarks towards him, I was positively sure of the fact.
And I had told her that, without a doubt, that thing had been Shamino.
Visions of Armageddon filled my mind with horror. No matter where I might attempt to evacuate the Britannians and our allies to, it wouldn’t matter. Mellorin could transport the daemon and the crown to any of the planes I could reach, and destroy each one.
“Well, we’re not doing any good here,” I said. “And the world hasn’t ended yet. We might as well make good use of whatever time we have left.”
“What dost thou suggest?” Katrina asked.
There was no point going to the Shrine of Spirituality yet. Resurrecting Lord British would have to wait until his ghost got here from Stonegate. I wasn’t worried about Mellorin moving the body, because technically she could now end the world whenever she pleased. Jaana and Mariah? I had no idea where to start looking for them, and the chance to ask Arcadion for more information had passed.
“To suggest that what we might need,” Lord Draxinusom said, “is a way to prevent the possible casting of this deadly spell.”
I nodded. “Yeah, but prevention might not be possible if the daemon wears the crown. I saw the number of undead at Stonegate, and if every one of them had the ability to cast Armageddon—“
“To think otherwise, then.” The gargoyle smiled. “Protection.”
“Anti-magic fields?” Julia offered.
I frowned. “I don’t know. I’m not sure it’d work if Armageddon was cast outside the range of the fields. Virtues, I don’t even know if Armageddon can be protected against. It’s Eighth Circle! And have you looked at the syllables in the damned incantation?”
“Elora,” Julia said. “Thou’rt sidetracking.”
I shook my head. “Sorry. It’s been… a long day.”
“To think some of us could use sleep,” Draxinusom said, at which I felt guilty. It must have been near the third hour in the morning, and I wasn’t being much help. “To ask what else protects against harmful magic?”
“Storm cloaks, of which we’d be lucky to find one…” Julia said. “They’re practically relics by now.”
“Amulets of Turning?” I said.
“They haven’t been around in even longer,” Katrina said.
Julia sat up straighter. “Blackrock!”
“We’d need a good way to manipulate it,” I said, “and I’m afraid the Guardian’s better than any of us.” I looked at Draxinusom, who was shaking his head and smiling. “What?”
“To think you are forgetting something.” His glowing blue eyes regarded us in turn. “All of you.” When none of us answered, his daemonic grin widened. “Lord British’s Crown.”
I stared. “Brilliant. I don’t know how effective that’ll be, but some
protection is vastly superior to none.”
Only Katrina looked dubious. “It might protect the people we have with us, Avatar… my lord… but Armageddon is rumoured to rip through the world itself. Humans, gargoyles, trolls… creatures that walk or fly or crawl are not the only living things in Britannia.”
“To not be perfect,” Draxinusom agreed. “But to hope protection will ultimately not be needed.”
“It’s the best option we have right now,” Julia said. “So where is it?”
“Richard left it in the Castle,” I said. “You three get some sleep. I’ll go pick it up.”
Draxinusom regarded me with surprise. “Avatar, to remind you that a sizable force of Atarkans still surrounds Castle Britannia. To ask if you plan to walk through them?”
I grinned. “Not quite, Drax.”
“I know that grin,” Julia remarked in amusement. “Thou wearest it when thou thinkest thou’rt about to do something clever.”
I patted her on the shoulder and stood up. “See you in the morning. Oh… and if Iolo tries to go anywhere on his own, have someone sit on him.”
Julia and Katrina exchanged another long look. “Lord Draxinusom can have that honour,” Katrina said with a smile. “I don’t relish the idea of telling Gwenno why I was sitting on her husband.”
“Nay. ’I was trying to stop him from going anywhere’, isn’t an excuse a married woman would be satisfied with,” Julia agreed.
The Gargoyle Lord snorted amusedly. “Women. To have none in our race, but to sympathise more with the males of your species every day.”
Katrina leaned over to whisper something in Julia’s ear, which made the tinker burst out laughing. Draxinusom regarded them both with deep suspicion.
“Tell me when I get back,” I said wryly, reaching for my bracer. “I could use a good laugh.”
To say I felt horrible would have been an understatement. When I appeared again at the Shrine of Compassion, I wanted to scream. I wanted to smash something to pieces and just let all my anger out on something where there was no one to witness it. How could I, how could
we, have been so duped by this pretender? What had happened to the real Shamino? Dead? Imprisoned?
I paced around the Shrine for a time, waiting for my blood to cool from a boil to a simmer, but the sight of Iolo’s blood on the altar just fired me up again.
Virtues… how I want to make her bleed for all this. But that kind of vengeance will never be mine…
At times like these, being ‘the good guy’ really, really sucked.
I struck out west towards Britain, cloaking myself with an Invisibility spell in case I ran across any patrols. The quiet of the night gradually calmed my anger, but at best I settled into a moody sort of depression. The earth beneath my feet was uneasy.
How in the Abyss are we going to get out of this mess…?
I’m running out of ideas. I’m running out of friends.
And I’m so tired of it all…
The walls of Britain were in sight when I ran into my first patrol. Ten soldiers, and a cursory scan revealed one of them to be a daemon. I hesitated as they approached, staying to one side of the road so none of them could accidentally walk into me. I knew the Atarkans hated daemons. None of them knew the Guardian had daemons walking in their ranks, serving as officers and messengers…
With a small smile, I ripped away the daemon’s illusion of humanity.
It didn’t notice at once. The soldiers around it blurted in surprise and shock. Some stumbled as a seven foot, horned and winged hellspawn with red skin and burning eyes suddenly
appeared in their midst. Swords were torn from scabbards and axes from belts as the daemon stared around, quite unaware of how this had happened. It didn’t even have a chance to defend itself.
I turned my back on the scorch mark now decorating the road and continued west, turning thoughts and ideas over in my mind…
It was a simple matter to enter Britain unseen, made even easier by distracting those on watch by unmasking every single daemon I saw. This was how I managed to slip into the sewers undetected; soldiers were too busy dealing with daemons to notice the opening and closing of the sewer entrance I selected.
Invisibility, however, couldn’t do a thing about the splashing I made in the sewer water, when I was forced to step in it. Nor the footprints in the green sludge. I picked my way carefully, relieved when the muck of the sewers gave way to firmer ground near the heavy metal doors that opened into Castle Britannia. It was unexpectedly free of enemy guards, but I didn’t waste time to count my blessings. Balling my fist, I banged on the door and winced at the echoes it produced.
“Who goes?” a muffled voice on the other side said.
“Elora!” I called back, as loudly as I dared. “The Avatar!”
“Pull the other one! What’s the password?”
“Thou knowest I don’t know the password! How would I? Canst thou not get Geoffrey to verify who I am?”
There was a conversation on the other side of the door and I thought I heard footsteps retreating.
“If I have to wait out here much longer I might get caught,” I called after a while, keeping an eye on the passage behind me. “Is Geoffrey there yet?”
“He’s here,” a familiar voice said from the other side. “Canst thou prove who thou art?”
“I appreciate your caution and everything, but it will be very hard to do that if you won’t open the door.”
“We’re not that stupid.” Then I heard him say to the guards to keep the doors closed.
I suppressed a sudden urge to blow the door off its hinges. “I’ll just find one of the other secret doors then!” I shouted, not a little annoyed.
There was a sudden commotion on the other side of the door. I could make out Nystul, slightly breathless, saying to let me in. Geoffrey’s response was that to do so would endanger everyone. Then the two started arguing about who was the more senior in rank. Geoffrey would win, I knew, but rank wouldn’t help against someone who could float him to the roof and make him stick there. It eventually dawned on me, as the argument dissolved into name-calling (“Rust bucket!” “Garlic breath!”), that I could open the door myself. I’d forgotten I could cast spells in the Castle since the dome had collapsed.
The lock clicked with a thought, then I stepped back a little and opened the door telekinetically to allow the two guards and Geoffrey to charge through the opening without skewering me. Even Nystul, startled and dressed in what looked like his nightclothes, had a spell ready to throw.
I’d also forgotten I had no weapons. I’d left the Juggernaut Hammer back with the others, and hadn’t thought to pick up a new sword. Rolling my eyes, I held out my arms and crossed them at the wrist.
“Now dost thou believe me?” Nystul demanded of Geoffrey.
Geoffrey looked at my bracer, then my Ankh, then my eyes. “Come in, Elora.”
The guards drew aside and followed me over the threshold, pulling the door to with a metallic boom. Geoffrey told the two to continue the watch, then led Nystul and me down the passage and into the better-lit training room. Even at this hour a couple of off-duty guards were practising swordplay with each other, but they stopped when we entered and whispered to each other at the sight of me.
“Hath the time come for us to join thine army, Avatar?” a short man with red hair asked.
Nystul whispered to me, “Since I felt thy return I’ve kept everyone abreast of thy movements.”
I nodded to the old mage, my thoughts racing. “Geoffrey? How many people are still here in the castle?”
“There are more than a hundred of us,” Geoffrey told me. “Thirty of those are the royal guard.” He spoke of the most elite warriors ever to step out of training from both Jhelom and Serpent’s Hold—some even from the Lycaeum—trained in all kinds of weaponry and on all kinds of terrain, hand-picked for their loyalty and prowess to serve as Lord British’s personal guard. “We do not want to be cooling our heels for the war’s entire duration,” Geoffrey added, and there was a murmur of agreement from the guards.
“No,” I agreed, studying the general’s haggard face and the unfamiliar light in his eyes. For his ears only, I said, “You want revenge.”
“No more than thou dost.”
I shook my head—denying his words, denying my own thoughts, I didn’t know. “I’m going to Resurrect him,” I said, and they all knew of whom I spoke. “I know where he is, and we’ll be able to do it soon. First, though, we need the magic protection of our king’s Crown. That’s why I’m here.”
“Where wert thou when he was killed?” a warrior asked in a hard voice.
A ringing silence fell, like what you get right after a clap of thunder. Every eye was on me, though Geoffrey had given the speaker a frown at the question. I failed
him, I couldn’t help thinking. I wasn’t there, and she killed him.
“Get back to training,” Geoffrey barked at him, then deliberately turned his back on the man to face me. “Nystul and I will take thee to where the Crown is.”
“Where’s that?” I asked once we’d left the room.
“Canst thou not guess?”
I glanced sidelong at his telling smile and felt an involuntary grin touch my own lips. “He really needs to get a new hiding place set up.”
Lord British’s chamber, though unlived in, had been kept meticulously clear of dust by the servants. Or the Domestic Management, or whatever it was they wanted to be called. I seated myself at the harpsichord and ran my fingers lightly over the keys, my thoughts abruptly far away. I didn’t own such an instrument back home on Earth, though I did have a small keyboard. How often had I played Stones in the hope that its simple tune could somehow open a moongate to take me back to Britannia? How often had I played it and just imagined I was elsewhere..?
I sighed, then, aware the two men were watching, played the first thirteen notes of Stones. With the last note still hanging in the air, a secret section of wall opened outwards.
“Remarkable,” Nystul said, eyeing the opening with curiosity. “I know the Castle hath many secret passages, but this one I was unaware of!”
I hadn’t known that Lord British had never told Nystul about it, but Geoffrey merely said, “Keep it under thy nightcap. I’m sure our lord prefereth to
keep this one secret.”
The ‘passage’ was more like a depression. There was room enough for a couple of people to squeeze in, and this was mostly taken up by the few things Lord British had stowed in there. There was his sceptre, which had the power to dispel any magical fields. There, his Sandalwood Box, in which he kept a now-useless Orb of the Moons. Atop this rested his golden Crown, which, when worn, would protect the wearer and the wearer’s party against all hostile magic.
At least, I thought as I picked it up, that’s the theory. It could be that the Crown prevented all enemies within range from casting spells, rendering it almost as useless as an Anti-magic spell. Carrying the Crown out into the main chamber, I hoped this was not the case.
I must be mad thinking this will protect us…
Geoffrey pushed the secret compartment closed and the three of us looked at each other.
“Nystul,” I said after a moment. “How much do you know about the spell called Armageddon—besides the fact no one’s ever been stupid enough to cast it?”
The mage scratched at his dishevelled beard. “Mostly just what the incantation itself doth tell us. The spell seemeth designed not only to wipe out all life on and
in a world, but also to disrupt the very flow of time and ether. Why dost thou ask?” He looked concerned. “Is Mellorin going to cast it?”
“No, it’s—“ I stopped and blinked. Mellorin knew the spell. She’d known it as long as I had, and that was a
long time ago. She could cast it any time she wanted… she didn’t need a daemon and a crown to do it for her...
Was my double so unreliable in the Guardian’s eyes that he had this as a backup plan?
Was the daemon even working for anyone? With something as powerful as the Crown of the Liche King in its claws…
So many questions. And no answers.
“It’s a long story,” I finished. I glanced at Geoffrey, then at Nystul’s sleeping attire. “You’d better get dressed. Unless you want to stay here when the rest of us leave, that is.”
Geoffrey’s eyes lit up. “I’ll see that everyone’s woken and gathered in the throneroom. The guards will sweep the Castle a few times to ensure no one gets left behind.”
I followed the two out of Richard’s room and closed the door. As they went their separate ways, I headed up to the battlements for a good view of any enemy patrols passing by.
I intended to unmask a few more daemons before we departed.
And maybe get a sword from the armoury, too.
The arrival of the Britannians at the camp in the Deep Forest, when the sun was just starting to rise, caused some celebration amongst the few Britannians that were there. I understood that they’d been feeling a little outnumbered and overwhelmed by the outworlders, so an extra hundred or so from Castle Britannia raised their spirits greatly. After a short reunion with Julia and Katrina, and an explanation about drakelings (he already knew about tril’khai), Geoffrey went at once to confer with Lord Draxinusom about the status of the army. Nystul was meanwhile eyeing the outworld mages at a distance, his eyes afire with curiosity.
“Why don’t you go talk to them?” I suggested, grinning.
“Oh, I will, Avatar,” he assured me. “But before I do, tell me about thine earlier query. Why didst thou ask about Armageddon?”
“I need to know if there’s any way to protect against the spell, short of preventing it being cast in the first place.” I lowered my voice and told him about the daemon and the Crown of the Liche King. Nystul’s face grew more and more sombre as the story progressed.
“Of this crown I know nothing,” he admitted. “And of that one…” he indicated Lord British’s Crown, which I held in one hand. “It may protect a few from the ravages of Armageddon. Or it may just protect one. It will certainly not protect the entire world, Avatar…”
“I know. I mean, I didn’t think it would.” I sighed. “We need more.”
“Well,” Nystul raised his white brows. “Thou couldst try seeking an answer at the Lycaeum. ‘Tis only the greatest collection of magical knowledge Britannia hath to offer.” He grinned behind his beard and headed off towards the outworld mages, leaving me wondering why I hadn’t thought of that myself.
“Thou knowest,” Julia remarked from nearby, “that’s a good idea.”
“I was just thinking the same thing.”
“Thou couldst also consider Serpent’s Hold. I’m sure the knights there would join us.”
“We don’t really need extra swords at this point,” I said.
“Nay? How many surround the Lycaeum? How many do we have?”
“I think we number one and a half thousand, give or take a few. As for the Lycaeum, are you suggesting we
all go there?”
The tinker grinned. “Why not? If thou’rt intending to do some study, thou couldst be there a while. The Lycaeum may be an oversized library, but ‘tis also a fortified keep full of mages. Not only would we all be safer there than here in the open, there might be things like… oh… stores of food? And reagents?”
“Oh.” I frowned. “How short are we?”
“Not drastically, but we’re not prepared to wait here for a week or two, let alone a month. Pretty soon the reagents will be wasted on creating food and water, then the mages will be useless for certain spells—including healing.” Julia looked off into the camp. “So if we’re going to fight our way to the keep, the knights might be useful.”
“Granted.” I sat down near the fire. “I don’t know where we’re even going anymore, Julia. I feel like everything’s flapping loose.”
“Thou’rt used to making things happen,” Julia said. “Perhaps it’s a shock to have things continually happen to thee?”
I shrugged. “Perhaps. Has Iolo woken up?”
“He’s still sleeping. When do we plan to move out?”
“We’re still—“ I began.
At that moment, there was the sound of huge wings beating the air above the forest. The canopy trembled with the force of it.
“—waiting for Kra’lysie to turn up…” I trailed off, exchanged a glance with Julia, then we were both walking swiftly to the northern edge of the trees, sweeping up Katrina and various others in our wake. In the open sky we could see Kra’lysie circling on a wingtip, looking for a good place to land. With her were several other, smaller, Britannian dragons.
As soon as the red and gold Kra’lysie landed, she looked straight at me and grinned broadly. “No ‘welcome back’?”
“Where have you been?” I asked.
“What does it look like?” She tossed her golden crest and turned her gaze skywards as the other dragons hovered around her, choosing their landing sites. “I’ve been recruiting for your army, Avatar.”
For a while I could only stare, the dread of telling Kra’lysie about the daemon-Shamino temporarily wiped from my mind. In my journeys I’d seen many dragons. Unfortunately, most of them had taken exception to my presence and tried to kill me, so the fact that there was a group of them crouched on the muddy grass outside the Deep Forest and none had so much as breathed a puff of flames in my direction was a novelty. With the exception of Kra’lysie, I’d never really
seen dragons up close while they were still alive. Dracothraxus might count a bit there too, but I’d been too focussed on the inside of her tooth-lined maw to fully appreciate the rest of her.
A crowd of the curious were gathering in the trees behind me. There were even a few drakelings, and I could only wonder what was going through
“Recruiting?” I managed.
“Recruiting!” Kra’lysie repeated, looking proud of herself. “You know, like when you go off somewhere and ask other people to join you on your quest? That kind of thing.”
“I know what recruiting is!”
“Then why did you say ‘Recruiting?’ like that?”
“I couldn’t think of anything else to say!”
“How about ‘Thank you’?”
The other dragons were watching me with varying expressions. Despite my limited association with the huge, winged creatures, their scaled faces, gleaming eyes, horned brows and tooth-lined jaws were surprisingly expressive, and I thought I could pick what they were thinking. Curiosity, disinterest, excitement… A green male with gold underwings was not only
smiling, but looked openly amused. Another male, gold, observed the proceedings with no humour at all, but a kind of grim purpose.
“That’s a liche,” a glittering red female observed, blazing eyes scrutinising me down her snout.
“I explained her situation, Nightfire,” Kra’lysie said mildly. “And as for the rest of the introductions, this is Goldenflame-“ the golden male inclined his head, “-Tailrace-“ the green scaled, gold winged male grinned, displaying an impressive array of teeth, “-Arkandor-“ a second green male drew himself up, “-and Flameblight,” a second red female puffed out her chest and swished her tail, narrowly avoiding splattering mud over us. “I tried to get another to come,” Kra’lysie added, “but she said something about being in too many places at the same time already.”
“Five additional dragons is more than I expected anyway,” I said, more than a bit overcome. “Thank you. All of you. Your help means a lot to us. Forgive me, but I didn’t realise the dragons of Britannia had any interest in the affairs of humans.”
“Tir Mordreth,” Goldenflame said bluntly, “concerns us all.”
It took a little while to get Kra’lysie alone. Now that her Britannian kin were here she’d seemed content to remain with them rather than return to the army proper in her human form. Some time after the introductions, however, she’d finally asked where Dupre was. Or, rather, demanded to know. In tones that indicated she wanted to show off her hard work to him, and possibly gloat.
I told her about the failed attempt on the Isle of the Avatar, which she listened to in a seething silence.
“What of the mezzin-thra and tril’kha?” she asked at the end.
“They were caught too,” I said, resisting the urge to squirm uncomfortably. Her golden-eyed gaze was entirely too penetrating.
“She expected you,” Kra’lysie said. “You have a spy.”
“It’s been taken care of. After a fashion…”
“Good. So when do we go on a rescue mission? I might not be able to roast anyone, but my draconic friends could make nice work of the Isle of the Avatar.”
I sighed and took the plunge. “I think you should hear the rest. The spy was Shamino. But not the real Shamino.”
The dragon-woman’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t remember seeing more than one ‘Shamino’.”
“Well… you’ve only met the one that wasn’t him…”
“You mean,” she said slowly, her face like stone, “the one that you assured
me upon meeting in that cave was your friend?”
“I thought it was. I didn’t know he was a daemon!”
She stared. Then, as expected, exploded. “You! Are! A! LICHE! Why didn’t you
look at him?! Kemah-thra! All this time I thought your friend was
meant to be a daemon! After all, you had one of them trapped in a sword! Why not one masquerading as a human? You trusted
it, you had the ability to see it for what it was, and… graaar!”
I winced as her voice rose. “There’s more.”
That silenced her for the moment. Her next words were a growl. “Tell me.”
By the end of my recitation of the disastrous happenings in her absence, she was shaking her head and regarding me with cold incredulity. “Well, Avatar. You’ve really screwed Britannia this time.”
“That’s funny,” I retorted, suddenly annoyed. “I kind of remember a daemon being involved. Why didn’t you ever say anything if you knew what he was?”
“I told you I didn’t trust it. You could have recognised if you’d have looked at it in the last… how many
months has it been? I presumed—stupidly, in retrospect—that you had looked! Why would you not have?”
“I thought he—it, was my friend! Why would I have suspected him
enough to look at him through those eyes? Or am I supposed to have just because I’m a liche?” I brandished the bracer at her. “Should I remind you whose race is responsible for that?”
We glared at each other for a minute, and I averted my gaze first.
“Yeah,” I muttered, staring off at the encampment of Britannians and outworlders, all of whom may well have followed me here just to die. All my eggs in one basket… just like Kra’lysie herself had warned me. “I screwed up big time.”
“Might I suggest something?” Kra’lysie said. Her tone wasn’t entirely forgiving, but it wasn’t condemning either. She pointed at the Crown I was still carrying. “If the point of that thing is to offer some protection, perhaps it would be a good idea if someone put it on.”
I blinked. “Oh…”
“It doesn’t have to be you if you’re too shy,” she added testily, after a couple of minutes of watching my internal struggle. “I just think that sooner rather than later is better, all living things considered.”
“I’ve done it before,” I said, both for her information and my own reassurance. Lifting the glittering thing in both hands, I settled it across my brow.
Behind me, a distant-sounding but amused voice said, “I thought thou said thou hadst no wish to be the Lady of Britannia, Elora.”
I spun, snatching the Crown from my head. “Rich—“
“Nay, Elora, put it back on!” The late king chuckled. “It’s not as though I can make use of it right now.”
“Something I plan to remedy soon,” I said.
Kra’lysie was staring at the shade of Arthalan. “Drakrasath!” she said at last, hoarsely, and bowed her head in obvious supplication.
“Friend of yours?” I asked, raising a brow.
Arthalan only smiled. “Richard,” she said, “thou shouldst get thy body back as soon as possible. Thine absence isn’t doing Britannia any favours…”
“I’ll get it. Er. You.” I glanced north. “You might want to drift over to the Shrine of Justice so we can do the Resurrection right away. And someone find Lord Draxinusom. I think he can handle the spell-casting part.”
The Shrine of Spirituality resembled a morgue.
Bodies, at least fifty of them, were piled around the pedestal. Not arranged in any respectful fashion, no. They’d been dumped. There was Jaana, Mariah… various others I’d only seen around the Isle of Fire. Seen and never known. Others were there I didn’t recognise at all.
There was no sign of Lord British’s body.
I searched carefully, the task of inspecting each dead face not one that I enjoyed for a second. When I was sure, I transported myself and the dead back to the Shrine of Justice, where I was greeted by the disbelieving faces of Julia, Kra’lysie, Richard, Arthalan and Draxinusom.
“She was using the place as a damned meat locker,” I told them, scowling. “And I couldn’t find Richard’s body… this is all of them. Maybe she saw it coming.”
“Thou didst not tell the spy, didst thou?” Julia suggested.
I thought back and shook my head. “I don’t think so.”
“Arcadion knew,” Richard said softly. “Perhaps he told her.”
Kra’lysie muttered something about daemons in general as I shrugged and sighed. “At least we can get Jaana, Mariah and these others back on their feet. I’ll send for some more healers so Drax doesn’t have to—“ I paused as something south caught my eye. Someone atop a drakeling was riding fast towards us, shouting. “It’s Katrina.”
“Not more bad news, I hope,” Julia said under her breath.
“The Isle of Fire!” Katrina shouted as the drakeling pounded closer, tearing up grass and clods of earth with its hind claws. “The mages say there are people on the Isle of Fire! They just appeared a few minutes ago.” The drakeling drew to a halt nearby, hissing something urgently. “I didn’t see it myself so I don’t know who’s there, but Jae’tar and that big cat were with them! So were Bishop and several drakelings!”
“How did—“ Julia began, but stopped and rolled her eyes at my sudden grin. “What didst thou do?”
“I gave a teleport orb to Jae’tar. I meant her to use it so she and Swift could escape, but it seems as though they must have taken some passengers. It was only an experiment the mages on the Isle of Fire were working on, for a better transportation method between there and Ambrosia.”
“There are hundreds of them, Elora,” Katrina said. She slid from the drakeling’s saddle. “What if Mellorin goes after them? They’re unarmed.”
The drakeling chittered something that I didn’t understand, but thought I could guess the meaning of. “If they have drakelings and Bishop with them, they’re not defenceless,” I said, and the creature clicked proudly.
“I could carry you there, Avatar,” Kra’lysie said. “Between us we could have them all here in less than ten minutes.”
I frowned thoughtfully.
“It could be a trap,” Lord British said.
The ghost furrowed his pale brows. “How canst thou be sure, Avatar?”
I blinked. “Sure of what? I didn’t say—“
Mellorin leaned against the crumbling pedestal of the shrine, her arms folded. Before any of us could do more than put hands to weapons, she said, “It’s not a trap. I let them go. Of course, I didn’t know they’d be able to escape the Isle of the Avatar so easily… I’d intended for them to slow the daemons down.” She shook her head. “Some things just don’t go as planned…”
“You just came here to talk, did you?” I said quietly.
“No.” My double’s eyes roved over the group and the bodies lined on the ground, where Lord Draxinusom was putting his magic to the task of some Resurrections. “It’s all gone a bit… pear-shaped, actually. A daemon wasn’t meant to get its hands on the Crown of the Liche King. That’s… not good, apparently.”
“Not good for whom?”
“Anyone. I know you were only concerned about the Armageddon spell,” she added to me. “You shouldn’t be. Neither the Guardian nor the daemons are interested in a dead world. It’s the second incantation you should be more concerned about.”
I raised a brow. “Are we on the same side now?” but Lord British murmured, “Let her speak, Avatar.”
Mellorin looked at the ghost of the king. “The second spell raises the dead… but not to life. To undeath. The daemons have your body, Richard, and they plan to start with it. Can you guess why?”
It was Arthalan’s ghost who said, “The land and the king are one.”
“But that’s not entirely true of Britannia,” I put in. “The Avatar is also a part of the land.”
A thin smile stretched Mellorin’s lips. “Yes. They’ll be coming for us next. They already tried to make a grab for me, actually, but I escaped.”
“And came running to us for help?” I snorted. “Don’t you have an army? Couldn’t you have used it to kill the daemons?”
“Well… do you remember how good that illusion of Shamino was? It’s imitating
me now.” When I didn’t come up with anything new to say, Mellorin pressed on. “Once Lord British is undead and under their thrall, they plan to catch you and me and force us back into one being. Whichever way it goes, we’ll share the same fate as Richard. Once he and we are undead, Britannia will belong to them.”
“What of the people?” Katrina asked.
Arcadion spoke up for the first time, from the scabbard across Mellorin’s back. “I imagine most will be left alive. Daemons need the living… to feed. Britannia will be one big breeding and feeding ground.”
The drakeling hissed softly, fangs bared.
Mellorin unsheathed the Blacksword and reversed it, offering me the hilt. “If you disbelieve anything I’ve said, ask him yourself.”
I did so, and Arcadion verified her words.
“If you attack the Isle of the Avatar now, you might be able to save Lord British,” Mellorin went on. “The Atarkan armies stand between you and the Shrine of the Codex, so you’ll have to move fast.”
“How long will the ritual take?” Lord British asked.
“No daemon has ever cast it,” Arcadion said. “But what will delay the one with the crown is ensuring no other daemons are close enough to profit from its powers when he puts it on. They have broken from the Guardian, and they do not trust each other.
“Know this, Avatar,” the daemon continued. “Britannia—Sosaria, has gone through Armageddon in its ancient past and, in time, it recovered. But that was before it had you and British. Your lives, your deaths… your
undeaths, are intertwined. And the undeath my kind plan to invoke upon you and your world cannot be undone.”
I don’t think there was anyone who liked the idea of Mellorin’s presence. Lord British said he would keep watch over her, since there was probably nothing more she could do to him that she hadn’t already (even so, I’d asked a couple of the mind-reading tril’khai to tag along at a discreet distance). Julia and Katrina took it upon themselves to stay close to Iolo, who hadn’t regained consciousness since the Shrine of Compassion. Jaana and Mariah, who had been Resurrected with the others I’d brought back from the Shrine of Spirituality, displayed no fear in Mellorin’s presence, but anyone who knew them well enough could sense their disquiet. Even Dupre, who’d been brought back with the rest from the Isle of Fire with Arcadion’s help, avoided looking at her if he could help it, and refused to discuss anything that’d happened on the Isle of the Avatar besides the escape.
Only Geoffrey seemed unconcerned by the Dark Avatar’s presence, as he and other military minds discussed tactics for an assault on the Shrine of the Codex.
I wandered through the breaking camp aimlessly, trying to shake the thought that we’d never see the end of this. My feet took me to Lord Draxinusom, who was standing alone on the edge of the Deep Forest, his red skin vivid against the evergreens. He looked away from the still-swirling clouds as I approached, nodded and returned his gaze to the sky where the pale Winter sun shone. I came to his side and stood in silence.
Thunder rumbled somewhere far off.
“To not feel his presence,” Draxinusom said at last, in hushed tones. “To have felt it always before in Britannia. To have felt him in the very air and ether, as real as the grass we stand on, until he died. Even with his ghost near… to not feel him. Or you. To be in Britannia now when he is dead, and you are as you are, it is like…”
I waited quietly, before realising I knew what he was trying to articulate. I knew what he was feeling, or
“It’s like your home,” I said. “The Underworld. When… the world was crumbling.” I hesitated, forced myself to say the word: “Dying.”
He inclined his head, still staring upwards. “To see? To see Britannia struggle… fight for a breath that won’t come. To feel her suffocating, as the Underworld did.”
I can’t breathe…
The words flickered in my mind, vanished. I shivered.
Draxinusom inhaled deeply then looked down at me. “To ask what plans have been decided?”
“The mages have been watching the Isle of the Avatar,” I said. “There are scrying shields over the Shrine of the Codex, but Arcadion is pretty sure only one daemon is in there with Richard’s body… though it’s likely there are human guards there too.
“The rest of the army is gathered all down the length of the island—what parts of it aren’t too rocky. No one can walk the eastern side, so they’re all formed up down the western slopes.” I paused. “There’s a shield over the Shrine of Humility too.”
“That is where we will arrive,” the gargoyle said, and I nodded.
“I’ll go in first, by myself. I discovered a while back that an unfortunate habit of the aeth’raesh’al bracer is that it tears down scrying shields.”
The gargoyle, grinning, wordlessly returned his attention to the sky. After a breath of silence, filled only by the soft patter of raindrops falling from the trees behind us, he said, “To fight.”
Fight for a breath that won’t come…
I looked up at the whirlpool of cloud, hearing again the distant thunder.
“The Atarkans will be focussed on keeping us hemmed in at the Shrine of Humility,” Geoffrey said. “The area around the shrine isn’t small, but it isn’t large enough to contain all our forces. Even if it was, it wouldn’t be wise to bring them all in to an enclosed area. Mellorin… offered an alternative.”
My double stepped forward and overturned a leather bag, sending a collection of smooth, brightly coloured rocks tumbling to the grass.
“The Virtue Stones?” Dupre said.
“When the Atarkans plundered Britain,” Mellorin said, “these were taken from the museum. I thought it would be useful to have a way to teleport besides the bracer, and Marking one of those things for the caverns under the island was more convenient than walking from the Shrine of Humility every time.”
“It’s true,” Arcadion said from my hand, sounding bored. I’d ordered the daemon to verify anything Mellorin said that was true, and denounce anything false.
“Does he really have to keep doing that?” Mellorin asked, annoyed, and rolled her eyes when several voices said “Yes,” as one.
“This means,” Geoffrey said, shooting a quelling gaze around the group, “that while some of us attack through the Shrine of Humility, the rest can enter via the caves using the appropriate Virtue Stone. Neither Elora nor Mellorin are needed in that second group. The teleportation can be achieved by any accomplished mage, and Mellorin has provided a serviceable map of the tunnels.”
“As I recall,” Dupre said, “those caves exit quite close to the path that leads to the Codex.”
Geoffrey nodded. “The force that goes that way, though, won’t be heading for the Codex. They’ll be attacking the Atarkans from behind and keeping
them from the Codex.”
“For those who’re coming with me into the Shrine of the Codex,” I said, “that group will be watching our backs.”
“And hopefully the two-front attack will be such that the Atarkans will be too confused to decide which group to rally against, giving Elora the time she needs to rescue our king.”
“And grab that crown,” Mellorin said. “Unless you want some other daemon picking it up.”
“Destroy it, rather,” Kra’lysie said. “That’ll solve the problem.”
Dupre spoke over both of them. “So if thou’rt going with neither group, Elora, how art thou—I’m sorry. How are we getting to the Shrine of the Codex?”
At this, Kra’lysie grinned broadly. As I nodded for her to speak her piece, Dupre groaned and put his face in his hands.
“Don’t tell me,” the knight said. “We’re flying.”
“I can carry a few by myself,” the dragon-woman said, blithely ignoring (or enjoying?) Dupre’s display. “The dragons of your world can only safely manage one each. That flying horse Cale can carry another. We can fly down the eastern side where no one’s to see, drive away anyone guarding the entrance to the caves so the group down there can safely emerge… and then…”
“Then the dragons can help our army,” Geoffrey said, in answer to her questioning gaze. “They’ll be too big to offer much help in the Shrine of the Codex—saving thyself, Lady Kra’lysie,” he added quickly as she started to puff up, and in response to Dupre’s frantic hand-waving from behind her back.
“Well, good,” she muttered. “I’ll go with the Avatar. I can’t kill humans, but I would
really like to try setting that daemon alight. What are you laughing at, Avatar?”
“Me,” I said, “you, Julia, Katrina… Jaana doesn’t want Iolo to come, but Iolo says that someone has to write down what
really happens and can’t trust any of us to pay attention to the details…”
“So he’s making a full recovery,” Dupre remarked.
I grinned. “Jaana, Mariah, Lord Draxinusom, Cale, Bishop, Kra’lysie—“
“—Sentri, Tseramed, Spark—“
“Art thou sure about Spark? He’s still so young.”
“I thought that at first too, when he asked to come with us, but have you seen him lately? He doesn’t look
Dupre only frowned and motioned for me to continue.
“Only one more. Mellorin.”
“We have to bring her with us?” he asked, looking unhappy.
“Wouldn’t you feel better if she was in a position where we could keep an eye on her?”
“Thou canst not possibly trust her.”
“Of course I don’t.” I tapped my nails on Arcadion’s scarred blade. I’d insisted the Shade Blade remain with me, while Mellorin make do with the Lifestealer she’d previously taken. “But I believe she doesn’t want to be turned into a zombie, or whatever the daemons have planned.”
“I just don’t understand what she’s doing here,” the knight said, glancing around and lowering his voice. “Why would she care what happens to Britannia? She could just transport herself to another plane.”
“She would be chased,” Arcadion said. “The aeth’raesh’al is limited in its destinations, and all of them have been touched by the Guardian’s servants. Sooner or later she would be caught. She doesn’t want to spend her life always running and always looking over her shoulder.”
Dupre shook his head. “But why warn us about Lord British, then?”
“Our lives are intertwined,” I murmured. “Maybe she’s afraid his… undeath would affect her?”
“Did his death affect her?” Dupre asked sharply.
“It did,” Arcadion said.
“Very enigmatic. It just sounds, Avatar, like once we’re done with the Crown of the Liche King, we’re back to square one. Mellorin won’t just say ‘thank thee’ and give thee her bracer.”
“Do you know what she has planned?” I asked Arcadion.
“There’s someone missing from your list,” Dupre said, after a moment.
I nodded. “Shamino.”
“Do we even know where he is?”
Arcadion sighed when my eyes fell on his crystalline prison. “He’s alive. And a lot safer than you’re soon to be. He is not on Britannia.”
“I hope he’s all right,” Dupre said quietly. A moment passed before he spoke again. “I should check a few things before we leave. And someone should tell Kra’lysie how many people she’s going to be carrying.”
He wandered off, leaving me alone.
“You don’t know how to end this, do you, Master?”
I shook my head.
“Perhaps, then, you might be interested in a theory I have. But first I must ask… do you trust
I smiled wryly. “Arcadion, we both know that any plans you share with me, or I share with her, can be betrayed.”
“Just answer the question,” he said patiently.
“I trust you to an extent.”
“You must wear the Crown of the Liche King,” Arcadion said. “I will tell you no more so Mellorin can’t pry it out of me later, but after you’ve put it on I will tell you what to do. If you listen to me and do as I say… you will not have to worry about that shackle on your wrist for much longer.”
“You couldn’t have told me all this before? When I still had the crown?”
“I’m telling you now, Avatar. Whether you choose to listen or not is entirely up to you.”
“Listening to daemons again?” Kra’lysie’s voice made me jump. The dragon-woman was leaning against a tree behind me, her arms folded and her golden eyes disapproving. “Don’t you remember where that leads, Avatar?”
“How much did you hear?” I asked, glancing around to see if I had any more of an audience.
Her eyes narrowed further. “What, you’ll trust it but not me?”
“No! That’s not what I meant. I wanted your opinion. If you heard it all I won’t have to repeat it.”
Kra’lysie raised a brow. “It’s hard to say, considering that the sword seems to be hiding a great deal of this scheme even from you—for precautionary reasons, surely. No need to watch your back at all.”
“Thank you very much for that vote of confidence,” Arcadion drawled.
Kra’lysie scowled at the weapon, then turned her glare upon me again. “We’re ready to go, Avatar. We only need you.”
Kra’lysie fell back to walk just behind me as we reached the edge of the Deep Forest. The allied humans, gargoyles, goblins, trolls, tril’khai, drakelings and dragons of Britannia, Atarka, Tarna and Scaeduen had gathered on the clear stretch of ground between the trees and the Shrine of Justice. I was intensely conscious of heads turning in our direction as we strode from the cover of the forest and between the massed forces. I was even more aware, uncomfortably so, of the Crown of Lord British glittering in the Winter sun.
I heard whispers of my name as the dragon-woman and I strode towards the Shrine of Justice, where the ‘command group’ were waiting. There was hope in most of the voices. Pride. Determination. I could almost hear the thoughts behind the simple vocalisation of my title. It was the same as when I’d brought the Britannians through the heat-blasted desert on Atarka…
But how many deaths will there be this time? Virtues… help us. Help me. Please.
“Thou art troubled,” a familiar voice murmured at my left shoulder. Richard had flickered into vague form and drifted near-invisibly in my wake.
“Aren’t you?” I replied quietly.
The ghost smiled. “Thou canst not take care of everyone, Elora. Focus on thy tasks and let others look to their own strength for this fight. Trust that they will do what they’re here to do.”
I nodded slowly. “I will. What will you do?”
“There is nothing much I can do… I will likely see thee on the Isle of the Avatar.”
One way or another, my mind added as he faded from sight. I tried to banish the thought of my king, my friend, rising from death with incandescence in his eyes and malice in his smile. The possibility, however, was real. If it happened… would I have the strength to end him?
Would I have the strength to end Britannia?
“You don’t have to worry about that, Avatar,” Kra’lysie said, her voice pitched low.
“Listening in again?” I asked mildly. After a moment, when she didn’t answer, I added, “You would… kill him?”
“Not just him.”
I continued to look straight ahead as we walked on, my strides unchecked. Finally, quietly, I replied, “Thank you.”
The assault began.
The first group, the goblins from Tarna under the lead of their regent, used the Virtue Stone Mellorin had Marked for the caves beneath the Isle of the Avatar. We had no idea what kind of resistance there would be down there now that there were no prisoners to guard, but Mellorin was sure that almost six hundred goblins would be more than enough to overpower any patrols.
With the rest waiting, I transported myself, invisible, to the Shrine of Humility.
The first thing I saw, as the new scenery wavered into view, was soldiers. No… daemons. All of them daemons. At least twenty. And all of them reacted with exclamations and curses as the scrying shield I’d just ripped through fell to pieces around them. A couple attempted spells designed to restore the shield, others to reveal what had torn it down. All failed, but my attention wasn’t immediately on their magical endeavours.
There was a glowing… portal. It hung in the air above the shrine’s pedestal like a great cloud of steam, distorting and blurring everything behind it.
They were trying to re-open the old daemon gate that had existed back in the Age of Enlightenment.
”Were I you, Avatar,” Kra’lysie distant voice came to my mind,
”I would either make myself scarce or fireproof.”
I had only a couple of seconds with which to consider that choice before the air above the Shrine of Humility was full of dragons. Mellorin, who’d transported them here, had the presence of mind to vanish almost as quickly as she’d arrived. I almost followed her, before remembering that the Crown would only offer our draconic allies its protection so long as I remained with them.
I put up Flameproof just before fire roared all around me, punctuated by reptilian shrieks and daemonic cries. The advantage was clearly on the side of the dragons, for most of the daemons kept trying to use magic. The quicker ones shed their human guises and took flight, seeking to either engage or flee. None got very far.
“That was all?” Kra’lysie demanded, alighting on a cliff. Her eyes were bright with victory. “If that’s the worst we must face, Avatar, I’m surprised we didn’t try a frontal attack sooner!”
“You did great,” I said, dropping my Invisibility. “Keep an eye on things here and we’ll start bringing people in.”
It didn’t take too long. As soon as a force was brought into the Shrine of Humility, it surged from the canyon to engage the Atarkan troops camped to the west. A group of mages remained with the daemon gate, seeking a way to reseal it.
With the battle joined, those we’d organised to fly with the dragons to the Shrine of the Codex gathered and mounted. Lord Draxinusom elected to fly himself, and while I’d expected to travel with Kra’lysie, I found the
molan Cale approaching me. At that, Kra’lysie only sniffed and promised she wouldn’t be offended. Mellorin was carried by Tailrace, who casually informed her he’d have no trouble eating her if she pulled anything.
We lifted off, flew east past the edge of the island’s cliffs, then skimmed so low across the water I could have almost sworn I could reach down and touch it. The experience of riding Cale was quite different to Kra’lysie. I had to shake my head the longer the journey became, as I started seeing… things. No, that wasn’t quite right. I started getting impressions that I was someone else. There was the faint outline of a helm obscuring my vision, and I could see the black hilt of a sword, as transparent as smoke, hovering before me.
A memory of another world’s Avatar, long dead? Or an offer?
The impulse to reach out and take the hilt was strong.
Cale’s muscles bunched beneath me and his burning wings tilted as we began to curve around a sheer cliff that dropped down into foaming surf. As we swept past, the sloping valley leading towards the Guardian Statues was instantly visible. So were the ranks of Atarkan soldiers massed before it. At the sight of me astride the fire-winged horse, there were distant shouts and finger pointing.
The reaction when six dragons glided into view in our wake was a bit more panicky.
Men and women broke ranks and fled as draconic roars reverberated through the valley. As the dragons sped towards the foe with fire kindling in their throats (except Kra’lysie, that is), my eyes were distracted by the hovering sword hilt once again. I noticed Cale was not hanging back, was instead folding his wings to speed over the heads of the enemy. Thinking I understood what the
molan was trying to convey, I grabbed the sword hilt hanging in the air.
The Voidblade solidified in my grasp.
With dragonfire gushing down on either side of me and arrows thwipping up from below, Cale swooped lower. I flourished the Valkyrie’s sword high.
Beneath us, enemy soldiers toppled like felled trees.
“There!” Kra’lysie bellowed above us. “The goblins are emerging! Give them cover!”
I cast about until I could find the cave mouth leading into the tunnels beneath the Isle of the Avatar. Sure enough, the green-skinned goblins of Tarna were pouring from the entrance. While the dragons kept the bulk of the foe at bay with their fire, the goblins cut into the rest between the burning turf and the Guardian Statues. Then, as though it’d been something they’d practised, the dragons broke off with a furious backsweep of their wings and the goblins charged forward to engage the soldiers who were still reeling from the burning, skyborne assault.
“Take us down!” I yelled, and Kra’lysie repeated my order in her louder voice. Once those of us with two legs were safely grounded (some more gratefully than others), the five Britannian dragons beat their way aloft again to rejoin the fight. While the three males remained to support the goblins, the two females struggled for altitude and veered northwards, where the rest of the army was embattled near the Shrine of Humility.
“Uh, Avatar?” Iolo began.
The bard cleared his throat, and looked at me pointedly. Some of the others were regarding me with curious expressions. Mellorin’s face was carefully blank. After a second, I realised I was still sitting astride Cale, the Voidblade clenched in one hand. With a slight grin, I slid from the
molan’s back and tossed the sword into the air, where it curled into smoke and dissipated.
A few eyes widened.
Kra’lysie, once again in human form, muttered “Show-off,” under her breath.
“That’s a neat trick,” Dupre managed. “How didst thou know… er… how to do that, exactly?”
“I read it in a book somewhere.” Reaching over my shoulder, I drew the Blacksword. The expressions of my friends changed instantly with that small action. Some froze, some looked wary… others looked away.
For a fraction of a second, I could have sworn Mellorin smirked.
“Come on,” I said, turning for the Guardian Statues and pushing myself into a run. “Richard’s waiting for us.”
As Arcadion had predicted, the Shrine of the Codex was guarded by human soldiers and mages. Fifty of them, not counting the daemon. The daemon itself, disguised as me, was standing near the Codex’s empty pedestal, Richard’s body sprawled on the crimson carpeted dais. At the sight of our arrival, the creature snatched something away from its head. The crown? I couldn’t tell if it’d been about to wear it, or had just taken it off… The daemon’s voice, my voice, lifted to command our deaths.
Fifty of them against fifteen of us.
But we weren’t just human. There was Kra’lysie. There was Cale. There was Lord Draxinusom.
There was me.
I smiled grimly as the bulk of the enemy moved to bar the way into the shrine. Their mages began to incant…
Only five soldiers were left protecting the daemon.
Silently, I sent my words into the minds of my companions. “I’m going to Blink us past this lot. Mellorin, you and I will tackle the
daemon.” I wasn’t leaving her to backstab any more of my friends. “The rest of you, keep the Atarkans off our backs. Kill them, incapacitate them, get them to surrender, just keep them
“But—“ Kra’lysie began.
“You’re with me too, Kra’lysie.”
Oddly, there was not a word of protest from my friends. I’d been hoping there wouldn’t be, but had expected some. Then again, it was Mellorin they wanted a piece of, not some daemon.
With a focussed thought, I transported the lot of us into the Shrine, halfway between the daemon and the majority of the soldiers.
Cale reared, spread his fiery wings to their full width and screamed a wild challenge. In the moment of fearful uncertainty this generated in the Atarkans, we all ran to the attack.
“You’re pathetic, you know that?” Mellorin shouted as the two of us rushed forward together, preparing to take on the five soldiers moving to protect the daemon. “You could have killed them all with a few words and spared us the trouble! You could have flattened the entire army!”
I swung the Shade Blade to block an oncoming sword. “And risk my own sanity? Next I could be turning my powers on my friends!”
Mellorin snorted and neatly ran one soldier through. She wrapped her left hand around her bandaged right wrist as she wrenched the Lifestealer free. “You’re stronger than that. The real reason is because you think using that kind of power is evil. Let me ask you something,
Avatar, isn’t it more evil to spare your virtuous self the deaths of an enemy army so that all your allies can bleed and die to achieve the same end?”
“You don’t know what it’s like to be undead, so don’t pretend you can understand!” Taking down one adversary, I moved to engage the second. The daemon, I noticed, was nearing panic. A sidelong glance revealed Kra’lysie stalking one side of the fray, her eyes burning.
Mellorin drew a sharp breath. “I might get that chance soon if we don’t hurry!”
I followed her gaze. The daemon, in apparent desperation, had lifted the Crown of the Liche King.
Kra’lysie pounced forward with a roar, which still sounded oddly draconic even in her human form. Despite her lack of wings, she virtually flew up to the dais.
Mellorin and I, at the same time, smashed through the final two soldiers and charged up the stairs, swords flailing.
All three of us reached the creature at the same time and, after it fell, not one of us could agree who had killed it.
I crouched and pulled the Crown of the Liche King from the pitiful heap of ashes before Mellorin could try to claim it. I hadn’t given much thought as to how the thing could be destroyed. I supposed it would have to be done as soon as possible, if not after the battle was—
“Put it on, Avatar,” Arcadion murmured.
I glanced down at the softly glowing ether gem, feeling a need to shiver. Did I trust the daemon? Did I trust him with my life..?
“You are my only chance at freedom, Master,” the daemon whispered into my uncertain silence. “If I betray you, I’m stuck in this cursed blade forever. And what choice do you have, really? This… or waiting for Mellorin to cooperate.”
I stood slowly. Pitching my voice as low as I could, I said, “I just don’t understand how—“
I clenched my jaw and quickly removed the Crown of Lord British, replacing it with the Crown of the Liche King. Insofar as I could feel heat and cold as one of the undead, the touch of the second crown against my skin burned like ice and I heard myself gasp at the contact. The sound and the sensation deafened me to whatever Kra’lysie had just said, but her outraged tone of voice couldn’t be misinterpreted.
For a moment… I felt it. I felt the power of life flowing through me…
…followed by pain.
I looked down with a kind of detached interest at the length of bloodstained steel protruding from my chest. The Lifestealer.
“Very well done, Arcadion,” Mellorin’s voice murmured near my ear. She gestured, whispering, and Energy Fields sprang up across the width of the Shrine of the Codex, blocking the two of us from the rest of the group. Some of them, upon seeing Mellorin’s betrayal, had shouted in fury or alarm and started towards us. None of them could help now. From the looks on their faces, they knew it as well as I did. I was also aware, belatedly so, of Kra’lysie lying in a crumpled heap at the foot of the dais.
“Enough power, and I’ll be free.” Mellorin twisted the sword a bit, pushing. Burning metal slithered through me until I felt the press of the hilt against my back. I stood as one paralysed, waiting for I knew-not-what. I could feel life-force and power flooding through me like a never-ending wave, and spilling out into the Lifestealer.
My gaze dropped to the Blacksword again, where it hung from my limp grasp.
Traitor, I wanted to say, but I didn’t seem capable of uttering a word. I could feel my end nearing. I could see death approaching through the tidal wave of life, through the stagnancy of undeath, and could only watch…
“Avatar,” Arcadion said again. “Strike.”
Then Mellorin said what I couldn’t, her voice sharp.
“You are wearing the Crown of the Liche King,” he said patiently. “I am a daemon.
I obeyed without fully comprehending, my fingers tightening and my arms making the move a single fluid motion. Reversing the Shade Blade, both hands clenched around the hilt, I thrust backwards and upwards. Mellorin’s cry of pain and shock coupled with the tear of metal through chain, leather and flesh.
I heard my voice as though from a great distance, slow and distinct.
“Arcadion. Restore my powers.”
Memories not my own assailed my senses. It was like two great seas crashing together, merging into a greater entity that, while being neither, comprised both. I drowned in the knowledge of what my double had done, horrified at the truth of her deeds. The death and blood dished out by her hand made me want to rip free of this joining of souls, deny everything. It was too much. How could I retain my own identity if I had
hers layered over it?
“But this is who you are, who you really are… when all pretences of ‘virtue’ are stripped away. Do you think your friends will ever look at you the same way again, knowing that
I lurk beneath the surface? Behind that flimsy mask of morality is the face of a killer. Behind that façade of virtue is
The flood of atrocities battered me, bearing me down into the depths. The more I struggled against them, the deeper I was pulled. My lungs screamed for air even as my mind strove to retain some sense of self…
“Well, now it’s your turn. I’m not going to lock you down in the dark for good… no. That would risk you surfacing again. I’m going to tear you apart. I was here first, you see. Virtue… morals… these
things you learned and chose to cling to as you grew older… I have no use for them. I never did. This life is
Pain. Hate. Power and isolation.
“That is the life you want?” I blurted, aghast. “That?”
“It is preferable to nothing!”
I amassed the memories I knew belonged to me. As I did, I could feel them swirl about me and slow my descent into the abyss.
“Is it preferable to this?”
I let my side of the flood loose, smashing it into her consciousness as hers had struck mine. Memories flashed past. Shining, cherished memories. Things that had made me smile. Things that had made me laugh. Happiness and joy and friendship, comfort and love and camaraderie... everything that made me think that life, with all its hardships and trials, was worth it in the end.
With each recollection I felt myself buoyed up…
“You will destroy me, then?”
I could, I realised with a start. Just as she had said she’d destroy me, I knew I could do the same to her. I could do away with Mellorin, and every aspect of her that infected me. Every shadow, every shard, every evil.
“The Quest of the Avatar, Elora. You could finally finish walking that path. What’s the point of this journey if it never ends? Admiring the scenery while never reaching the ultimate
“Why does it sound like you’re encouraging me to end you?”
“I’m curious. You are supposed to be Britannia’s example of Virtue… and here you are, with the power to achieve the perfection that is the Avatar’s goal. If you refuse to destroy me, you’re a
I floated just under the surface of the waters. Above, filtering through the waves in broken patches, warm golden light shone. My very soul yearned towards that light.
“There are ways… and ways to destroy you, Mellorin. This way is magic. It’s no different to what the dragons of Atarka tried to achieve. There’s no effort to it. To defeat you this way would make me undeserving of the goal. It would undermine the whole point of
Bitter, mocking laughter interrupted me. “No effort?!”
Memories were thrown in my face, ones we both shared. Struggle, pain, sorrow, in a wave that near swept me away with its force.
“Undeserving?!” Fury seethed in her voice. “We endure all this and more… don’t we deserve
something? But no! There is no rest. There never is! There is always more of the same, and additional bruises to bear. The Quest of the Avatar is Forever, but don’t you ever want it to end? Don’t you ever yearn for release? For rest? Or are you seriously willing to do this your entire life, without reward or
“This is the life you want?”
I almost did it. Caught between the cold, dark swell below and the warm, inviting light above, I almost broke the surface and destroyed that other life.
“No,” I said at last. “I don’t want to live this way forever. I do want it to end. There are times I want it to end so badly I can taste it. But… it will not end like this. It will not end
I turned my back on the light dancing across the surface of the waves, not without regret, and plunged down.
“…what are you looking for?”
It was dark. And my chest hurt.
I stirred feebly, reaching to feel how bad it was. There were bandages wrapped tight around my midsection. Cracking an eye open, I tried to work out where I was from the unadorned stone ceiling and walls. A pair of candles guttered on a rough table and there were no windows. The bedroll I was stretched out on was lumpy and the blanket, though warm, was coarse.
I almost jumped out of my skin when Shamino bent over me.
“Sorry,” he said, subsiding onto a stool with a faint smile. “It’s about time thou woke up.”
In a flash, I remembered everything. I remembered finding him at the Bee Cave near Yew, sending the Emps into a deep sleep, transporting him to a prison on another plane… I remembered…
…a daemon walked into the cell, its burning eyes resting on Shamino with something like hunger and contempt. I quirked a brow as the ranger pulled hard at his chains. His efforts served only to further cut into his own wrists, which renewed their sluggish leaking of blood.
“Is torture what thou hast in mind?” he demanded. Even in anger his voice was quiet, I noted.
“Torture?” I shook my head. “Shamino, if torture was what I had in mind, I’d have done it myself. And with great enjoyment, I might add.” I motioned to the daemon, which grinned, stepped forward and tore the ranger’s shirt off with a casual swipe of its claws. A curving talon traced the exposed scar on Shamino’s chest, a mark left by a black arrow. Then the claw plunged deeply into the ranger’s flesh while he arched back against his bonds and screamed—
I jumped violently, half-rising as I tried to shake my head clear. A shudder of loathing shook me from head to toes.
Not me. Her. Not me…
Cautiously, I tried to see if he was the real Shamino or a daemon. It was only when I noticed the hammering of my own heart that I realised why it wasn’t working, and by that time he’d gone to the door and called something down the corridor.
“Don’t sit up,” he warned, coming back swiftly. “Jaana will get angry. She wouldn’t even let thee be taken off the Isle of the Avatar.”
I lay back slowly, still trying to think of something to say. All the appropriate questions, like “Where am I?” and “What happened?” felt much too obvious.
“Is… is everyone all right?” I asked.
Shamino hesitated before answering. “Of our friends… all will live, now that we know thou’rt recovering. But with the war… there will be casualties.”
“And you? You were rescued, obviously?”
The look this comment earned me was strangely measuring. “That odd woman… Kra’lysie? She and Dupre used that bracer thing to reach me and bring me back.”
I reached automatically for my wrist, then looked at both of them in astonishment to confirm it. The aeth’raesh’al had been removed, but bandages swathed my right wrist.
“Lord British died on his knees, you know,” I said, watching Iolo’s jaw tighten. “I always thought he’d take it standing, like a man, instead of some cowardly—“
The crossbow’s string slammed back and I cried out as the bolt speared all the way through my right wrist, the point sinking into the earth beneath. I reached automatically for the wound with my left hand, but Iolo grabbed it, pushed it down and held it there with one booted foot.
“Virtues,” I gasped, when I could form a coherent thought through the pain. I laughed then, looking up at Iolo through tears of pain. “I never thought you’d have the balls to do something like that, Iolo. Always the compassionate one. The merciful. Where’s that mercy now, Iolo?”
“Dupre said she bullied Arcadion into telling her where I was,” Shamino went on, snapping me back to the present. I grasped at his words like they were an anchor to reality. To identity.
“Kra’lysie’s all right, then?” I said, relieved. The last thing I remembered of her was…
…a crunch as my sword hilt connected with her skull—
“Art thou?” Shamino asked, frowning as I put a hand to my brow and growled softly. Any answer I might have given went unsaid as the door opened and Jaana entered with Iolo. Jaana immediately checked my wounds and asked a few questions, while Iolo exchanged one of those ‘long silent looks’ with Shamino.
“Thou shouldst sleep,” Jaana said after finishing her checkup. “It’s the best way to heal, after all.”
“I’ll sleep after someone tells me everything I missed,” I retorted snippily. “You’re all starting to treat me like you did when I first became undead, so let’s get that over with right now.” I paused, remembering that neither Shamino nor Jaana had been with me at that point, then shook my head and continued: “Do I have to do anything to prove I’m not Mellorin?”
“Thou… uh… dost not have to prove anything, Elora,” Iolo said. “Kra’lysie said she could tell the truth of who thou wert by looking at thee.”
“Oh. Good.” I scowled at him. “So why were you and Shamino looking at each other like that?”
Both men shifted uncomfortably. “Like what?”
“Like… like that! You know…” I eyed them in turn.
Iolo looked embarrassed. “It’s… Dupre. And… uh… Kra’lysie.”
“Oh?” I blinked as Jaana coughed delicately. “Oh! Well. Right! How about we… leave that bit out for now, and you tell me what
else has been going on.”
Iolo scratched his beard. “Thou wilt forgive me if I haven’t put all this to song yet. Things have been rather busy. The Atarkan forces, for the most part, have been returned home. Those on the Isle of the Avatar, lacking the daemons’ leadership, surrendered and begged quarter. With Geoffrey and Lord Draxinusom commanding the Britannian forces, the outworlders fighting by their sides and Kra’lysie using the teleportive magics of the aeth’raesh’al, each remaining force of Atarkans hath been confronted. Some surrendered, especially in the face of the dragons helping us, and some tried to stand their ground but didn’t last long.
“It’s only since today that the allied outworlders have begun to be transported to their respective homes. We started with the enemy soldiers, and ran into trouble right from the start. Not with them, but with those nomads. The mezzini. They wanted to just kill them all. Some of them, especially Jae’tar, have very large grudges. Fortunately, those telepathic cats have been helpful in keeping everyone in line.
“There hath been surprisingly little antagonism between the goblins and humans of Tarna. I think fighting on the same side hath given them something to think about. Oh, and Nystul was speaking to Bishop and Prince Felix about their little blackrock problem? Dost thou think the Horn of Praecor Loth and Mors Gotha’s spellbook might help them?”
I blinked. “It’s possible. I had to go through quite a bit in order to make sure the Horn would make a big enough noise though… and that’s just where Castle Britannia is concerned. Who knows how loud it’d have to be for the entire world?”
“Still, it’d be worth a try, wouldn’t it?” Iolo asked, and I nodded emphatically.
“Lord British, though he’s still recovering from his own ordeal, is being kept busy speaking with those who want to make Britannia their new home. He wanted to stay here and help tend all the wounded with Jaana and our other healers, but Jaana forbade him to exert himself any more than necessary, and thou knowest what she can be like. Not even our liege will cross her when she’s in one… of her… er…” The bard trailed off as Jaana smiled serenely in his direction. “Aye,” he went on, clearing his throat. “What else?
“The daemon portal at the Shrine of Humility hath been sealed, and reports tell that the undead forces around Stonegate have dispersed.” He glanced at Shamino, who shrugged.
“Thou knowest more of what’s going on than I do,” the ranger said quietly.
The bard leaned against the wall and frowned thoughtfully. “We have… the other body close to hand,” he said at length. “Next room over, actually. The body thou wert a liche in. Kra’lysie said we could burn it, but we didn’t want to chance something going wrong and… well, even with her saying she could tell thou wert not Mellorin, we just weren’t sure…”
I inspected my hands, reached up to feel the familiar heavy length of my hair… Alive. I put a hand to my throat, but couldn’t feel the Ankh amulet there.
“They’re on the table,” Iolo said, nodding to where the candles glowed.
“They?” I sat up, ignoring Jaana’s exasperated sound, and saw both a gold Ankh and a black one. I picked up the first without hesitation, fastened it around my neck and quickly lowered my head to the pillow before Jaana’s withering glare could bore a hole into my face. The amulet was cold against my skin at first, but warmed quickly.
“What about the other one?” Shamino asked.
“It means something, doesn’t it?” I said, examining the amulet. “I’m a… copy. I get that. A ‘dark’ copy. But why would that affect a necklace?”
“Have you never suspected that your Ankh is more than just a necklace, Master?” Arcadion asked.
“Who cares? It’s an Ankh. I’m not the Avatar, no matter what he might think. He just doesn’t get it!”
“You’re quick enough to claim you’re the Avatar to Elora’s face.”
I snorted. “That’s just to keep her off balance. I’m not the Avatar. I’m just the reason she exists.” I held up the Black Ankh between my thumb and forefinger. “The darkness beneath the shining veneer of Virtue. Maybe this is what you get when you scratch off all that gold leaf…”
“Leave it for now,” I said, aware of the silent stares. “Half of me wants to get rid of it, but perhaps I should keep it. As a reminder.”
“I’d just as soon forget,” Iolo muttered, his face darkening.
Silently, I echoed his words. Aloud, I asked, “What about the Crown of the Liche King? The Lifestealer?”
“The crown Lord British is taking care of,” Iolo said. “I’m not sure what he intendeth to do with it, but I wouldn’t be upset if he had it melted down and turned into horseshoes. Kra’lysie gave the Lifestealer to Jae’tar and said she was returning it to the protection of their people.”
“It sounds like everything’s been taken care of,” I said, wrapping myself more comfortably in the blanket. I was starting to feel warm and sleepy.
Jaana smiled. “I half expected I’d have to tie thee down, Elora. So much is still happening, but thou’rt going to just let things be taken care of without thee?”
“I think I deserve some rest,” I said, grinning back. “With your approval, druidess?”
“A rest soundeth good,” Iolo declared, glancing back briefly as the door opened to admit Julia, Katrina and Mariah. “Perhaps even a holiday.”
“Unless that holiday doth include a long ocean voyage, I wouldn’t count on it,” Julia said. The serious tone of her voice got everyone’s attention. “Glad to see thou’rt awake,” she said first, to me. Then, apologetically, she added, “Katrina and I were helping Mariah to explore the caverns here. We found these.”
I levered myself up with one elbow and took the proffered document. The others crowded around as I unrolled it and spread it across the blanket. It revealed a navigational map.
“A sea chart,” I said slowly. “Peering closer, I read the runes near the bottom aloud: “’To the Serpent Isle’. All right.” I glanced up at Julia. “This is cause for the grim face?”
“It was in a room full of things belonging to Batlin,” Mariah put in. “Along with this.” She held out a much smaller scroll. The edges of this one glowed with a faint, magical aura. “It’s safe,” she added when I hesitated. “Thou… wilt want to see this too, Iolo.”
I took it, glancing once at Iolo’s worried face. His wife Gwenno had been on an expedition to the Serpent Isles. She’d departed over a year ago now. A single pull untied the ribbon which bound the scroll. At once, the glowing parchment lifted into the air, writhing as though caught in a strong wind. Red light filled the small room and the Guardian’s voice sounded from the walls themselves…
*Batlin: In the unlikely event that the Avatar stops me from coming through the Black Gate, I command you to follow the unwitting female human Gwenno to the Serpent Isle. There I shall outline my plan to destroy
I drifted in and out of sleep for the next few hours. My dreams were uncomfortably vivid, and I often woke without being able to tell whether the things I’d seen had been actual memories or nothing more than nightmares. I was too tired and sore to try and make sense of them, and half of me didn’t want to look more deeply into Mellorin’s version of events than I had too. Even so, when I took the time to think back, her memories overlapped mine and were impossible to ignore completely. It was like trying to look out at the world through a pane of tinted glass. Perhaps even two panes… each a different colour.
I gave up after a while and got up. The only clothes in the room, besides the cotton shift I was wearing now, were the leather trousers and boots Mellorin had been wearing. There was no shirt.
I tugged each on in turn, gritting my teeth as the effort pulled at my wounds. I tucked the shift into my trousers, hoping the effect didn’t look too out of place. With luck I wouldn’t run into anyone… But then, I didn’t intend to go far. I had to put some daemons to rest before leaving with Iolo and Shamino to take Batlin’s message to Lord British.
In the next room, like I’d been told, was the body I’d inhabited as a liche. It was the first time I’d actually seen it in full, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. I leaned against the closed door and just stared at the wasted shell for what felt like an age. The corpse was a withered husk, an unwholesome grey colour, and bore many rips and tears in its dead flesh.
“Not very attractive, is it?” Kra’lysie’s voice came from the corner, and I jumped.
“Will people stop doing that?” I demanded, trying to calm my racing heart.
The dragon-woman smirked. “You’re too used to being able to see in every direction and sense the presence of others, Avatar. You’ll have to reaccustom yourself to being merely human again.”
“It’s over, then,” I said, staring down at the body. “Somehow I thought there’d be more to it.” I chuckled a bit. “Even now, I half expect… her… to jump up and try to strangle me, or blast me across the room.”
“I could blast you across the room if it’d make you feel better.”
“Thanks,” I said dryly, “but it wouldn’t be the same. What are you doing in here, anyway?”
She tilted her head. “Those were some interesting dreams you were having. This was the closest place I could listen in without looking obvious about it.” She came closer. “So. What did Arcadion accomplish? You’re not Mellorin, but I never saw what Elora looked like before she became undead. Who are you?”
I opened my mouth, closed it, then tried again. “I’m either Elora with Mellorin’s memories, or Mellorin with Elora’s.”
“Hm.” Golden eyes studied me. “That answers my first question, but not the second.”
“I thought it answered both.”
She snorted. “Oh please. Not another identity crisis.”
“I’m Elora,” I interrupted, before she could make some uncomplimentary remark on my psyche. “I know I am. But sometimes it just gets confusing. I remember doing things that
I didn’t do, but it feels like I did. I remember feeling pleasure in some of those acts, and that pleasure sickens me on a scale I can’t describe.”
“Definitely Elora,” Kra’lysie murmured. “Perhaps it will pass. Did you ask Arcadion? It was his idea, wasn’t it?”
“It was. And I haven’t. Yet.” I considered the dragon-woman’s suggestion. “Maybe it
will pass. Memories fade, right? So in time…” I bit back a sigh.
Kra’lysie shrugged. “I understand you may be accompanying the bard and the ranger to this Serpent Isles in search of the former male’s mate. Will the knight be going with you?”
“I haven’t asked him, but I expect so. Iolo’s his friend. And I doubt he’d pass up the chance to hunt Batlin down.” Shamino, in fact, had been more emphatic about coming than I could imagine Dupre being. Shamino had said it was because he’d missed out on
this adventure, as well as the whole Labyrinth of Worlds ordeal. I had a feeling there was something more to it, though.
“You should encourage him to go with you,” Kra’lysie said.
“What? But I thought you and he… were…”
I floundered. “Getting to know each other?” I suggested lamely.
“There’ll be plenty of time for that later,” she said. “He’ll want to go with you, and he should. I have to stay here for a time and finish helping everyone get back home, then return to Atarka. The tril’khai think the mezzini will do something rash now that the Guardian’s armies are in disarray. They might even try to attack the capital now that Killorn Keep’s fallen.”
I blinked. “What? When did this happen?”
“Before we took them off Atarka, apparently. But I thought Altara said you would—Avatar?”
“I will not serve you!” I shouted. My voice reverberated from the super-heated stone walls. Sweat plastered my shirt to my skin. “I don’t care what you want! I’m not Mors Gotha. I’m not your war leader and I’m not your Avatar!”
*It matters not what you are, only who you belong to.*
The Blacksword came free of its scabbard. “You even try and touch my mind and I swear I’ll bring your little tower cr—“
I ripped myself free of the memory of pain. Kra’lysie was staring at me, but her expression told me she’d seen everything.
“Mellorin did it,” I said quietly.
“Even though you possess her memories, it’s clear you haven’t looked at them all. Aren’t you curious?”
“If you’d had an evil twin, would you want to look at everything she’d been up to? Relive it as though the experience was your own?”
“All right, all right. I was just asking.” Kra’lysie shrugged, then gestured at the corpse on the floor. “What were you intending to do with that?”
“I believe you suggested setting it on fire. I was going to get Arcadion to do that, but since you’re here… would you mind?”
Kra’lysie smiled. “Not at all.”
The dragon-woman muttered an incantation and the body was immediately alight. We made a quick exit from the room before the smoke started to swirl, and when the door was shut a second incantation filled the doorway with stone. Kra’lysie ran one hand over it.
“That should stop the smoke from leaking out. And there should be enough air in there for the fire to do its job.”
I nodded, and we stood in the cold tunnel for a while in silence. I had the feeling that once we parted here, it would be goodbye for a time. She had her tasks to accomplish—tasks she appeared to be taking seriously, and I had mine. Despite her sometimes caustic nature, I knew I’d miss her.
“Thanks,” I said. “For everything, Kra’lysie. We couldn’t have won without your help.” Holding out my hand awkwardly, I added, “I owe you. Anything, anytime. Unless… I’m saving the world, or something.”
“Aren’t you always?” But she shook my hand anyway. “We’re even, Avatar. If not for you, I’d be wallowing in self-pity back on Ambrosia. All this would have happened without me.” She shrugged a shoulder. “Armageddon might have happened, and I’d have been dead without even knowing the why of it.” Her next words seemed to come with more difficulty: “Thank you.”
I noticed a glittering on her wrist as we released hands and asked, “Will you destroy it?”
“The aeth’raesh’al? The main portion of its power has been destroyed. The looping forces of the Lifestealer, the Shade Blade and the Crown of the Liche King basically fed it more power than it could handle. It’s just a teleportive device now, and that kind of thing is always useful.”
“More useful than a teleporting island, hrm?”
She grinned and nodded. I didn’t argue with her right to keep the bracer. Even though I saw the use in it myself, and the ability to travel not only within Britannia but across planes opened entirely new realms of possibility, the bracer had been made by her people.
Plus, despite her assurance, I wasn’t too keen to lock the thing around my arm a second time.
“I guess we’ll see each other again,” I said, before the silence could draw out any longer.
“We will,” she confirmed. “Until then, Avatar.” Abruptly, she turned and walked away up the passage in a swirl of crimson robes.
I watched her retreating back for a second, then likewise turned to get back to my room. Before I’d taken a step, though, Kra’lysie’s voice called down the passage.
“Avatar! One more thing. I understand you intend to free Arcadion one day?”
I looked back at her. “Yeah?”
“You may think that a promise is something to keep, even when made to a daemon, but I just wanted to remind you of something. Arcadion’s connection with Life magic will not have ended once you stopped wearing the Crown of the Liche King. Remember that before you ever think of releasing him. You may have trusted him with
your life, but do you trust him with everyone else’s?”
A lifting of her golden brows, and she had vanished around a corner.