Dark Mirror (TS)
Not far from where Shanadar, Talos and Andru were locked in combat with their ambushers, Katerei stood huddled in a doorway, trying to keep out of sight. Wizard still stood out in the narrow street, a safe distance from the fighting but close enough to shield the men from the arrows of the few remaining archers. Selax had said something about protecting civilians that even Katerei only barely heard over the crackle of burning timber and the clash of blades, before he swept nobly off in an airy blur.
So she found herself alone, left to determine how she could get near enough the battle to be of any use without drawing the attention of one of their opponents. There was no doubt that she would lose if confronted in hand-to-hand combat, but she was anxious to protect her friends: Silverfish, fighting the archers on his own; Talos, who had rushed blindly forward to save him; Shanadar, her protector for so many days, who had cast one worried look back at her before running off to save Talos in turn; and Andru, who had endangered himself to help people he barely knew. Her thoughts turned briefly to Yomu, too, and she bit her lip with worry at what might have happened to him since his sudden disappearance.
Perhaps if she stayed close enough to the buildings, she could sneak closer and attempt to heal them. Katerei stepped out of the doorway cautiously, but the oppressive heat pushed her back. She glanced sideways to the burning building they had escaped through, and realized with alarm that the blaze was expanding quickly toward them. Both sides would be soon roasted alive if the fighting didn't end soon.
Katerei braced herself against the heat and strode toward it, in the opposite direction of the fighting. Sweat made her dress cling to the small of her back, and she bent low to avoid the smoke that stung her eyes. The roar of the fire drowned out everything else from her ears, consuming her mind as it consumed the building. Through gritted teeth she whispered to herself, "I will not be afraid, I will not be afraid."
She knelt on the baking earth and made a sweeping gesture with her arms. A wall of water rose from the ground and crashed against a burning wall like the ocean tide, billowing instantly into steam. Katerei flung another wave of water, and another, but the clouds of steam mixing with acrid smoke were testament to the fire's strength. She would run out of water at hand long before making a difference this way, and she was too far from the river or the ocean to make easy use of them.
Instead she focused on the surrounding buildings that were as yet untouched, dousing the old and worn wood to make it unburnable, but removing her attention from the fire itself filled her with a sense of nameless dread. She bit her lip until it stung and tried to concentrate. To contain the fire, she would have to get around the other side of the building – back the way they had come. Even if she could figure out which walls were real and which were still illusions, smaller fires burned haphazardly where the archers' arrow had struck pools of oils, impeding her progress.
Katerei cast a nervous glance back down the street where her allies still fought their attackers, neither side seeming to have gained the advantage. They were running out of time before the entire slums went up in flame. Steeling her nerves, she stood up and darted toward the building that she had just drenched. Smoke choked her breath as she kicked out the shutter on the window, grabbed the eave above her head and used the now-open windowsill as a foothold to propel herself onto the rooftop. It was still hazy above the buildings, but a cool wind from the ocean fluttered her dress and pushed clean air into her lungs; she gasped with relief and looked around.
Electricity flashed where Silverfish bombarded the last of the archers. At least she wouldn't be a target for them up here. She was turning back to assess the fire when she saw something that made her stop short. A colossal stone figure loomed on the northern horizon, towering over the walls of Berossus' castle as it smashed a huge fist against the roof. Katerei swayed and felt faint. How had she not noticed that just moments ago?
Suddenly feeling much less safe on the roof, she ran to the other side and dropped nimbly onto the ground below. There was nothing she could do to stop a golem of that size, and the fire raged just as strongly on this side, demanding her attention as pieces of burning ash drifted through the air. Katerei quickly sent up another wave of water to stop the street itself catching fire. Coughing thickly, she flung whips of water at everything she could see that wasn't already charred black or burning, but the smoke and heat were making her dizzy. As she tried to navigate around the worst of the blaze to corral it in from the other side, she stumbled and fell.
As she struggled to rise, an ominous creaking sound came from one of the buildings. Katerei shrieked as a section of the wall gave way and crashed ablaze to the ground next to her. The damp earth she had created muffled it slightly, but as she turned to escape, she found that the drifting ash had ignited the building across the street as well.
Surrounded on three sides by flame, her well-frayed nerves finally unravelled completely. Suddenly feeling very small and vulnerable, she crumpled to her knees and buried her ash-smeared face in her hands. Closing her eyes brought her no respite though, as faded images from years ago flashed behind her eyelids. I suppose we'll all burn along with the city , she thought dazedly as the heat bore down upon her.
She almost didn't notice when a hand seized her arm and pulled her upward with surprising strength. Her eyes flew open, but they were running before she figured out what was going on. "Selax?" she sputtered as the pale, cloaked figure half-led, half-dragged her down the only part of the street that wasn't on fire.
It took another moment for her to realize where they were going. The stone leviathan was visible in the distance ahead of them, still determinedly smashing away at the castle. The ground shook faintly underneath them. "How is this any better?!" Katerei cried in alarm, her voice fading into nothingness as they ran full-pelt through the slums of Cademia, surrounded by the roar of burning wood and the crash of falling rock.
The dark red stone colossus towered above them, stretching upward beyond the roof of the castle into the fading twilight. At last, Selax halted their frantic pace, allowing Katerei a chance to catch her breath. They had left the thick smoke of the burning slums behind only to be greeted with a cloud of stone dust mingled with a sickening trace of sulfur. The clamor of battle and the roar of the fire were drowned out by the steady boom of the golem pounding its way through the castle roof.
The courtyard was full of devastation, in stark contrast to the tranquil fountains and well-kept foliage she had seen here just two days ago. The fountains had been crushed, the foyer was on the verge of collapsing, and a large swath of earth was missing, presumably molded into the monstrosity before them.
“We must stop it,” Selax spoke for the first time since dragging her out of the slums.
“But how?” uncertainty plagued Katerei’s voice.
"Presumably through it's destruction," Selax calmly replied. He stared past her, gray eyes fixated on the creature. Before she had a chance to retort, he charged forward.
The underside of the golem was dark, as the bulk of the beast blocked out the meager light from the sky. Two thick cylindrical stone columns served as legs, each large enough that three people holding hands would barely be able to wrap around it. Giving no heed to the closer leg crashing down as the golem landed another devastating blow, Selax slowed his charge and delivered a massive two-handed blow to the base of the far column. As his sword connected on the rock with enough force to shatter an ordinary blade, sparks flew out around him, briefly illuminating his target in a fiery glimmer. A strike that would have easily felled a tree left hardly a scratch on this monstrousity. Unfazed, he continued his assault with both weapons, unleashing a flurry of blows in a steel whirlwind that sent sparks and stone dust everywhere, but in the end, he only succeeded in causing superficial damage.
Determined to be of some use, Katerei shut out the world around her, pushed her nagging doubts into a dark corner, and concentrated on gathering water. When she felt she had drained everything she could from the nearby earth, she unleashed it in a torrent, drenching the nearer of the two legs. As the wave of water faded, she looked hopefully for some sign of erosion.
"This is hopeless!" she exclaimed in disappointment.
"Katerei!" a familiar voice called out. She turned to see Shanadar running towards them, with the two newcomers close behind, one of whom was limping. "What is that thing?" he asked when he arrived.
"Doesn't matter, we still have to destroy it!" Without stopping, Andru charged past, running headlong toward the stone leviathan. Caught by surprise, Shanadar took off after him.
“You wait here,” Katerei blocked Talos’ path when he tried to follow. “That won’t let you move very quickly,” she pointed at his injured leg when he tried to protest.
Andru and Shanadar came to a halt at the base of one of the giant legs. “What do you suppose we do now?” Shanadar asked.
“Aim for the sealant between the stones; it’s bound to be weaker than the rest.” Selax called out.
“Sounds simple enough,” Andru replied nonchalantly, but most of the underside was shrouded in darkness. Unable to make out the tiny gaps between stones, he was just about to give into his frustration when Shanadar called him over.
“There!” he said, pointing to a small recess. It was only a couple of inches thick, but it was the best sign of a seam they had seen yet. “I almost didn’t notice it. Somehow water must’ve gotten trapped in there. When the golem shifted a minute ago, I saw some of it shake loose.
“Then, the next time it stops moving…”
Before long, having nearly leveled the western side of the entrance hall, the stone colossus took a lumbering step, bringing it in range of the kitchens. Seizing the moment, Andru stepped back and threw all of his might into a heavy overhand swing, slamming his quarterstaff against the crevice. The runes on his weapon glowed as they activated on impact, sending a concussive blast deep into the beast’s leg.
They were rewarded with a loud cracking noise, as a large swath of the leg around the impact point splintered and crumbled to the ground in pieces, kicking up a thick cloud of stinking dirt. Shanadar grabbed Andru and dragged him away from the creature, both of them coughing heavily. “A couple more hits like that and we can cripple it,” Andru managed to choke out as they paused near the others at the remnants of the castle gate.
“Well, you certainly got its attention,” Wizard remarked wryly. Sure enough, the golem had stopped its assault on the castle and now had turned to face them. As it began to lurch forward, they were able to see the extent of the damage their attack had wrought. A full third of one of the legs had been reduced to a large pile of debris, though the remaining stone was sturdy enough to allow the golem to maintain its balance.
The group split into two as the vile beast crashed a heavy stone arm into the ground where they had been standing.
“Do you think you can shield us against one of its attacks?” Selax asked Wizard, as the two of them led Katerei and Talos around to the west side of the beast.
“I might be able to, but I don’t really want to find out,” was Wizard’s hesitant reply.
Finding themselves split from the others, Shanadar and Andru backed up to put some space between them and the creature’s next attack. “If only we had a diversion,” Shanadar muttered as the beast turned and lumbered towards them.
As if on cue, a silver streak raced overhead, delivering a jolt of lightning to what passed for the golem’s head. Aside from a small shower of sparks, the attack seemed to have little effect, but the golem halted mid-charge and tried to swipe away the flying creature. Silverfish easily dodged the slow swing and countered with another blast of lightning, sending more sparks spiraling towards the ground.
Before he could react, Andru had rushed forward again to try and cripple the beast. “Wait!” Shanadar started after him, but stopped suddenly as he caught a strange sight out of the corner of his eye.
Sparks continued to spiral downward from above. He had expected they would die out as they cooled off in the air, but instead they glimmered and flashed as they traveled through the expanding dust cloud. As if the dust itself was igniting. Which meant the powder in the debris was volatile as well. The same pile of debris Andru had just entered as he angled for his next assault.
He wanted to call out a warning. He wanted to scream at Andru for being too reckless. He wanted all of these bad occurrences to stop happening. Shanadar opened his mouth to try and say something, but he never got the chance.
A bright flash blinded him before he was knocked off his feet by a loud explosion. Temporarily unable to see clearly, he rolled over and pushed himself to his feet. Something warm and wet trickled down his neck. He ignored it, blinking frantically to clear his vision.
The entire section of the southern wall around the servant’s quarters and much of the kitchen was gone. In its place was a pile of rubble pouring out thick white smoke. And yet, through it all, he could make out the towering shape of the stone golem, emerging relatively unscathed.
At this moment, Rapierian was casually strolling around the west wall of the Castle, completely oblivious to the giant golem hammering on the structure.
The necromancer had spent quite some time working over the Chronicles of Therac —the prophetic book that he now carried with him—laboring to translate its archaic script. He had found that some parts of the book were at best vaguely prophetic while others contained seemingly detailed information. From one of these latter sections, he had discovered something about an attack on the Castle. Further attempts at translation had enabled him to identify the attacker as "a tiny golem, towering over its surroundings."
Rapierian had thought this passage somewhat odd but had decided that Therac must have been a rather short individual. Having never before seen a tiny golem, the necromancer decided to have a look. Sitting outside the city, after all, was rather boring.
Currently, he was walking around the walls of the Castle, studying the ground. Perhaps, the golem was surrounded by anthills . . . it would certainly explain how a tiny golem could tower over anything. As he rounded the front wall, there a was a loud explosion ahead of him. For a moment, he stopped, looking somewhat annoyed. The dust and debris generated by the explosion greatly hindered his search, although it did, unbeknownst to him, mask him momentarily from the view of the group.
Abruptly, Rapierian bumped into something and looked up . . . and up and up. Towering over him was the largest golem he had ever seen or even heard of.
"Hmm," he mused. "Why would Therac report a tiny golem and completely miss the large one? Perhaps, he had vision troubles…" (Of course, there was always the possibly that his translation was not quite accurate, but what were the odds of that?)
As Rapierian considered this puzzle, there was another explosion and he was sent flying back into the debris of the Castle. Getting up, he laughed (the sound being lost in the din) and mused, "That was the most fun I have had in weeks."
When Silverfish had attacked, Selax had also resumed his attack on the giant golem. Along with Silverfish, he continued to fly about the towering monster, dodging its attacks while hammering it with his own. The elemental estimated that this current mode of attack would finish off the creature in some hours, perhaps days. Obviously, shortening the conflict was desirable, and he had already several plans in mind for doing so, when an explosion from below him sent him hurtling upward. Quickly regaining control of his flight, Selax looked down and observed what had happened.
Of Andru, he could see no sign, but he observed Shanadar stumbling to his feet. The golem, its attention now fixed on its attackers, had also noticed. It raised its hands and swiftly brought them down. At the last moment, however, Shanadar was suddenly pulled clear by an invisible hand. He sailed through the air before landing on his feet next to Wizard, who had telekinetically yanked him to safety.
"Thanks," the Enforcer said, rapidly regaining his bearings. "What about Andru?"
"I can't see any sign of him," Katerei called.
"We have to get this beast away from here," Talos interjected. "It'll destroy the city!"
"But how—" Wizard began, when the golem let out a deafening bellow.
The creature had been momentarily puzzled by Shanadar's escape and had been looking for him again. However, when it had sighted him next to Wizard, it had gone berserk. The golem charged forward right at Wizard, surprisingly nimble despite the damage done to its legs.
It tried to bring both of its fists down upon the group, but Wizard raised his hands. He couldn't quite stop the tremendously powerful blow, but he slowed it just enough for everyone to leap clear. The impact sent them spinning.
Staggering to his feet, Wizard saw the creature had turned toward him again. The monster lunged at him, but Silverfish hit it in the face with a bolt of lightning that slowed it. At the same instant, Katerei hit the beast with another wall of water. Talos started to circle, looking for Andru or at least for his weapon (which had seemed more effective against the monster than anything else they had tried). In that moment, Selax swept down and grabbed Wizard. Soaring upward immediately, he lifted the old man out of the golem's reach, just barely avoiding a flying fist.
"What did you do to it?" Selax asked Wizard as the beast started toward them.
"Nothing that I can recall," Wizard replied, quite surprised by the golem's response to his presence.
Enraged, the magical construct began hurling pieces of debris at the two. Some of these Wizard deflected partially with his powers, while Selax dodged the others. Selax, still carrying Wizard, started to back away. When they retreated, it began to follow them.
Unable to find Andru, Talos started to limp back toward Katerei and Shanadar. Shanadar had also been looking for Andru, while Katerei had been gathering her strength for another attack. Silverfish continued to fly about the golem, raining lightning down upon it, but it remained determined to destroy Wizard. Stumbling, Talos almost fell onto the wet mud created by Katerei's attacks.
Wait a minute! he thought to himself.
"The River!" he called to Shanadar. "If we can get into the river, it will sink into the mud!"
"And become trapped!" Katerei finished, looking hopeful for the first time since the battle had started.
"Silverfish!" Shanadar called. Momentarily, the small creature came down to them.
"Tell Selax to lure it to the River."
Silverfish nodded and flew up to the elemental. Momentarily, Selax began to retreat back toward the River. The golem followed them, seemingly bent on Wizard's destruction. Silverfish followed, blasting the beast with lightning if it seemed to be getting too close to its target.
"Why does it want him?" Katerei wondered aloud.
"No time to wonder about that now," Talos replied. "We should try to reach the River and see what we can do there."
"But what about Andru?" she protested.
Shanadar looked about again.
"I'm afraid we'll just have to leave him for now," he said gently. "He seemed to be a skilled warrior. He'll be fine."
Katerei looked uncertain but nodded. Hurriedly, the three of them followed the bellowing golem.
Still hidden in the cloud of smoke and debris around the Castle, Rapierian considered what he had seen. He had heard the shouts of the others and deduced their strategy. The necromancer followed. After all, he had never seen a giant golem attempt to swim before.
Hmm, I wonder if I still have those acidic potions? he mused to himself as he followed them.
Katerei was unnerved as she followed the golem at a half-run. Somewhere in that pile of rubble that used to be the southwest corner of the castle, Andru must be buried, and she wondered if she ought to go back, search for him, do anything to try and help him. Had he just sacrificed himself for a city and people he'd just met, only for them to abandon him when he most needed help?
Some nagging, pessimistic part of her mind recognized that the chance of Andru having even survived that explosion was next to nothing. She cast an anxious look back at the castle and murmured under her breath, "I'm sorry, Andru. I'll come back to find you later." More for her peace of mind than anything else, she felt compelled to invoke an old phrase in her native language, a blessing for the dead – but it left a bitter taste in her mouth from too-oft repetition over the last several years.
Her private requiem was interrupted by the sight of something – or someone – through the cloud of settling dust over the castle. It had only been brief, but that glimpse of white looked oddly familiar. Katerei turned and squinted through the haze, then gasped when she saw a person emerge again.
"Shanadar!" she yelped, her voice rising with shock. "Shanadar, Talos, wait!"
The two men immediately stopped running and came to join her. "What's wrong?" Shanadar asked with concern.
"Look," Katerei said faintly, and pointed at the white-haired figure in mage's robes. Carefully picking his way over the rubble, he appeared not to have spotted them yet.
"Who is that?" Talos asked, peering into the distance by the last sliver of twilight.
Shanadar had already figured it out. "Rapierian!" he roared angrily. "We've been scouring the city for two days and he's been here all along! I bet this oversized pet rock is his handiwork!"
Katerei barely heard him over the sound of blood pounding in her ears. She wasn't sure whether to be disconcerted or relieved; all she felt for sure was slightly dizzy. It definitely seemed to be the Rapierian they knew and loathed, but if he was here in Cademia, was he the same Rapierian they ran into at the castle two days prior? Or would they have two Rapierians to contend with in the same city?
Neither was a particularly comforting thought.
Rapierian hopped down from the pile of stones that had blocked his path. Feet firmly on the ground, he brushed the dust off of his cloak and smoothed out the wrinkles that had gathered. If he didn't hurry, he would miss the show at the river, but he didn't want to ruin his favorite cloak.
"YOU!" a booming voice interrupted his thoughts. The man's voice was both familiar and unwelcome. He straightened up and found a very angry Shanadar closing in on him.
"It's a pleasure to see you as well," Rapierian replied dryly. He decided he wasn't really interested in seeing what Shanadar wanted, and the golem was getting further away. "I'd love to stay and chat, but I simply don't have the time," he said as he turned and started walking the opposite direction, only to find his path barred by a stranger adorned in what looked like very deadly battle gear.
"Have we met?" Rapierian asked him, in a tone of voice higher than he'd have liked.
"No, but I think you should stay where you are, for now," The man told him calmly.
"I don't think that's a good idea..." With both forward routes blocked, the only way to keep all of his limbs intact would be to backtrack through the castle, wasting precious time. Yet, he wasn't really surprised when he found Katerei standing above him, blocking his last escape. Well, maybe if I ask, they'll let me go.
He turned back to Shanadar. "I don't suppose you would mind moving out of-" he let out a choked shriek as Shanadar grabbed his collar, hoisting him into the air.
"I bet this was all of your doing!" Shanadar fumed.
Having difficulty breathing, Rapierian managed to gasp out, "Have I ever given you a reason to suspect me?" When Shanadar tightened his grip, he continued, "I mean, recently?"
"What were you thinking by creating such a monster? People have been killed tonight by that thing. Is this all just some kind of sick, twisted game for you?" Shanadar was livid. Unable to speak, Rapierian just made gagging noises.
"Shanadar," Katerei interjected calmly, placing a hand on his arm. "He can't tell you how to undo it if you kill him now." Rapierian noticed she wasn't looking at either of them, but rather at the stranger observing all of them warily.
Visibly frustrated, Shanadar finally let him go, throwing him to the ground. Great, I just cleaned that. He rose back to his feet, dusting off his clothes again in an attempt to regain his dignity.
"Well?" Shanadar was getting impatient.
"Unsummon your golem. Or better yet, tell us how to."
Yeah, about that... "What makes you think I did it?"
"Rapierian, just give it up and help us stop that thing before it can hurt even more people," Katerei snapped.
Rapierian looked at the three of them. Shanadar seemed on the verge of resorting to violence, Katerei was growing angry, and the strangely-clad man was still silently staring at them all. "I mean it, this golem was not my doing."
"Why should we believe you?" Shanadar asked. "You've lied to us in the past."
"If I had summoned such a magnificent creature, I'd be bragging about it," Rapierian countered.
After a brief pause, Katerei broke the silence, "He...does have a point." An almost comical mix of conflicting emotions crossed Shanadar's face, making the whole ordeal almost worthwhile.
"If what you say about him is true, then he still may have the ability to destroy it," the stranger broke his silence.
"No way, we cannot trust him!" Shanadar roared back angrily.
"I agree, I cannot be trusted!" Rapierian chimed in. After all, they wanted to make him do all the work.
"Shanadar," Katerei sighed. "We may not have a choice."
"We could get out popcorn and watch the others attempt to drown it," Rapierian suggested. "That seems like a good choice to me. It would probably be pretty fun."
"I think not," Shanadar countered grimly. "However, you are correct about one thing."
"I am? How nice of you to say so!"
"We have wasted too much time here. We are going to stop that golem and you are going to help."
Having said this, the Enforcer turned and, pulling the necromancer along, hurried toward the river.
Meanwhile, Selax and Silverfish had continued to guide the golem toward the water. They had headed due east from the Castle across the northern part of town. Fortunately, that part of Cademia was relatively devoid of houses and people (most of whom were now running to the fires in the slums and attempting to put them out). Nevertheless, the golem continued to grab at whatever it could find and to hurl it at Wizard.
At last, they reached the river. Still holding Wizard out of the golem's reach, Selax paused at a point just midway across the river. The enraged beast waded out into the water after them, showing no sign of hesitation. It did not even appear slowed by the water. Despite the dirt used in its construction, it showed no sign of damage. At last, it paused below them and roared furiously at its quarry, which was still out of its reach.
Selax then began to move south, planning to lead the creature toward the deeper water where the river emptied into the sea. The golem followed them. As it went, the water slowly climbed up to its chest but still it came after them. However, it soon began to have trouble lifting its legs out of the thick mud along the bottom of the river. Slowly, the monster's pace slackened until, quite suddenly, it found itself completely stuck in the mud.
Furiously, it roared and struggled to free itself. However, its great weight had caused it sink deep into the earth and not even its strength sufficed to loose its legs. Still, it fought tirelessly to free itself, all the while continuing to bellow defiantly at Wizard and Selax. All the while, Silverfish continued to pummel it with lightning, and Wizard soon began to batter it telekinetically.
Moments later, Shanadar, Katerei, and Talos reached the shore, still pulling necromancer along with them.
"It worked!" Talos yelled. "It's trapped!"
"But for how long?" Katerei responded, eyeing the golem worriedly.
Sparing only a glance at the raging giant, the Enforcer turned to Rapierian.
"Even if this isn't some abomination you've created, you deal with the likes of these, necromancer," he growled. "Stop it."
"Why certainly . . . oh wait, I left my Giant-golem-be-gone formula in my other cloak," the necromancer replied. Before Shanadar could do more than take a step forward, he continued, "Of course, I could try an unsummoning spell, but that doesn't seem like it would be much fun, unless you were willing, perhaps to listen to my side of the story afterward and perhaps to let me tag along with you."
"If you think for one moment that—" Shanadar began angrily.
A deafening roar from the trapped golem drowned out the rest of his statement. The beast succeeded for just a moment in pulling a leg free of the mud before it sank down again.
"I'm not sure we have a choice, Shanadar," Katerei said.
"We can't trust him!" the Enforcer replied, eyeing the golem warily.
"I don't think we have time to debate," Talos replied.
For a moment, Shanadar stood, obviously weighing his options. Finally, he gave an irritated sigh.
"All right," he ground out. "You can tell your story afterward. But one trick—or even the hint of one— and I will make you regret all of your evil deeds."
"Always cheerily optimistic and full of happy sayings," Rapierian replied. "You could teach a course about making friends and influen—"
Shanadar grabbed the necromancer's collar and shook him for a moment.
"For an Enforcer, you sure have appalling manner—"
The golem roared again. Rapierian turned to regard it for a moment.
"Ah, yes. Now, let me see . . . how did that spell go again? Ah yes, now I remember. Hmm, this is a bit oversized for a golem, probably won't unsummon all at one go," he stopped a moment. "Could you shrink a little maybe?" he called.
The creature ignored him.
"Maybe you'd like to join this group of 'heroes?' You'd fit right in, you know!"
The golem continued its struggles to free itself and reach Wizard.
"Well, that's too bad," Rapierian sighed. "He would have made it a lot easier to cut in line. Oh well, these things happen."
Raising his hands, he focused on the creature. For long moments, nothing happened. Then, blue energy began to gather around the necromancer, and the golem suddenly seemed to stumble slightly. Its form seemed to be losing cohesion for a moment.
Suddenly, there was a bright flash and a loud explosion was heard. Rapierian went flying back against the wall of a nearby building. Talos ran over to him.
Shanadar and Katerei gazed toward the river. The golem could not be seen.
"Do you think—" Katerei began.
Then, with a roar, the golem broke above the surface of the river. Again, it flailed at Wizard, but this time it did so with only its right arm. The other ended in a stump about halfway along its length.
"At least, he damaged it," Shanadar sighed.
"Is he in condition to try again?" Katerei asked, turning toward Talos.
Bending over the necromancer, the warrior shook his head and replied, "He's conscious, but his power seems drained."
The giant seemed undismayed by the loss of half of its left arm and continued single-mindedly to attempt to reach Wizard. Wizard and Silverfish continued to attack the golem, but it still showed no sign of stopping.
"What are we going to do?" Katerei said to no one in particular. "The mud doesn't seem to be holding it, and it's still dangerous even without arms."
Talos turned from examining Rapierian to look out at the river, but he was unstable on his injured leg and stumbled as the sand shifted underfoot. "Oh, Talos, careful–" Katerei said worriedly and reached out to steady him. She scooped up a long piece of driftwood, worn smooth from the river water, and offered it to him. "Here, use this."
"That golem might mistake me for the Wizard," he said with a dry chuckle, politely waving away the makeshift cane. "Then again, Andru did a number on its leg back there, maybe we have something in common."
"Perhaps we could use that to our advantage. If we could knock it over, the water might hold it down long enough to get some good blows in," Shanadar said thoughtfully, and turned to Katerei. "How do you feel about tidal waves?"
It was too dark to see Katerei's expression clearly, but her tone was surprised. "I... guess I could try?"
"We're running out of options," Talos said, then paused and frowned. He looked down at the barely-conscious Rapierian. "Is he saying something?"
Shanadar furrowed his brow and leaned over the necromancer's prone form, listening carefully to the faint mumblings. "He says if we get Silverfish to channel enough electricity through a wave that Kat creates, it might interfere with the magic that binds the thing together, and–" Shanadar's eyes widened as Rapierian mumbled something else– "I'm NOT repeating that!"
"Is that such a good idea?" Katerei asked uncertainly. "I mean, what if there are fish in the river? I don't want to kill the fish!"
Shanadar stepped away from Rapierian, as if tempted to kick him otherwise. "Rest assured, no one has ever seen any fish in that river," he said, sounding grumpy.
"Well, if you're sure," Katerei said with a note of hesitation, but she cupped her hands around her mouth and called out to Silverfish. When he had flown over to where they stood on the riverbank, she quickly explained the plan to him. "Are you okay with that? I mean, you're not too exhausted?"
"Not yet, but I will be after that," Silver chirped. "Let's hope it works!"
Katerei nodded and raised her hands, putting all her concentration on guiding the water from out in the ocean toward the shore, willing it to move to where the golem stood half-immersed in the mouth of the river. She knit her brows together as she focused, sensing her magic meet with the sea and swell into a single, colossal wave. The golem seemed completely oblivious, bent as it was on beating Wizard to a pulp.
Overhead, Silverfish fluttered silently as he waited, until finally the wave crested and rose in the air higher than the golem's head. "Now!" Katerei cried out, and Silver dove toward it, flinging bolts of lightning into the water as he skimmed along the surface. He spun away just as the wave struck the golem with a mighty crash, sparks flying haphazardly.
Katerei looked skyward as Silverfish flew back toward the shore in slightly askew spirals. "Somebody catch him," she said faintly before slumping to the ground in exhaustion.
A plume of smoke rose from the water, momentarily obscuring the golem. Swooping down toward the shore, Selax caught Silverfish. Coming over to where Talos knelt over Katerei's limp form, the elemental set down Wizard and Silverfish down. Shanadar was gazing toward the river, clearly ill at ease.
"Is she all right?" Wizard asked, as Talos straightened. Looking about, he noticed Rapierian, and the old man's eyes widened. "And what is he doing here?" he asked in shock, not waiting for a response to his previous question.
"She'll be fine. I think she's just drained," Talos replied. "That one," he added, glancing at the necromancer, "showed up at the Castle after you left. He claimed innocence in all of this matter and, in exchange for being able to tell his side of the story, agreed to help us with this monster."
"We have to listen to one of his stories?" Wizard sputtered indignantly, looking about as furious as Shanadar looked.
Before anyone could reply, another earsplitting roar shook the air.
"Again?" Wizard sighed wearily, turning to face the water. The golem rose above the surface of the river, roaring once more in defiance. The creature struggled to free itself and to reach Wizard, but it no longer possessed its impossible strength.
The stone that made up the creature had become sieved and porous, as the magic that had held it together had been damaged by Katerei and Silverfish's combined attack. Its face was cracked and rent. One of its arms was missing and the damage of the earlier explosions was now starkly revealed. However, it still roared and struggled, showing no signs of giving up.
Throwing up his hands, Wizard flung another telekinetic attack at the monster. Unlike the previous assaults, this attack succeeded in slashing the creature's stone chest—weakened by the assaults upon it—leaving a dint.
"The creature must be destroyed before it can recover. It has been damaged enough that a conventional attack has a probability of success," Selax said, still sounding eerily calm. He turned to Wizard, "Prepare all of your strength. It is unlikely we will have another chance at this."
Wizard nodded. He had worked with Selax long enough to know what the elemental intended to do.
Suddenly, Selax drew both of his blades and soared upward, rapidly becoming a dark speck high in the sky above. Circling, he began to descend in a steep dive toward the golem. Meanwhile, Wizard closed his eyes and began to concentrate. Slowly, he raised his hands. As Selax passed over the group in a rushing wind, Wizard threw him forward, placing all of his telekinetic might behind Selax's strength and the speed of his dive. Momentarily winded, the old man staggered, leaning on Talos for support.
In a collision of sparks and a loud echoing crash, the racing elemental struck the golem squarely in the neck. Before its earlier damage, even this attack would have failed to do more than scratch the beast, but, now, the blow smashed the golem's head off of it shoulders and crumbled part of the upper portion of its chest. Smashed almost flat by the force of the attack, Selax went spinning off to the side. The golem staggered, unable now to bellow. Nevertheless, its remaining arm continued to flail, attempting to hit the falling elemental.
For a moment, Selax floated seemingly stunned. Then, his physical form seemed to waver and rapidly began to resemble his regular appearance. Recovering, he regained control of his flight and turned back toward the monster. Drawing his weapons again, Selax flew at the creature again, approaching from the side where it had only the stump of an arm.
Somehow, the golem still detected his presence and tried to strike him, but the wounded beast had lost much of its strength and dexterity and was no longer able to move as rapidly. Easily dodging its strikes, Selax hacked at the creature's chest. As he recovered, Wizard began to fling more telekinetic attacks at the creature. The creature's hide had now become softer and the blows of both were able to score deeper slashes in its hide. Nevertheless, its durability remained high.
The process was slow, but, after what seemed like hours, the golem's chest at last crumbled. This damage proved too much for the creature, and, finally, it crumbled, its remains falling with great splashes into the river. For several moments, the group waited, but the monster was finally defeated.
Still seeming unaffected by the difficult events of the day, Selax returned to shore and landed next to Wizard.
"So, what now?" Wizard asked, looking around at the various group members and their injuries.
"We need to get them to a healer," Talos replied inclining his head toward the others. "We also need to do something about this dark mage."
"We can't just leave the city burning!" Shanadar replied, looking toward the smoke still rising from the southern part of the city. "But we can't let Rapierian out of our sight." The Enforcer sighed, clearly uncertain what to do next.
"Don't forget Andru or Yomu," Wizard interjected. "We must see if we can fi—" Suddenly, the old man stopped speaking, looking as though something had suddenly occurred to him. "Why was that creature attacking the Castle? What happened to all the guards?"
"It seemed to be after you. It might have believed you were in the Castle," Selax stated.
"Perhaps, but what about the Judge? Or any of the other mages? We saw no sign of them. With their help, we might have finished this much sooner."
"The creature might have been a diversion," Talos said. "Maybe it was to draw us off while someone struck at the mages!"
Shanadar turned toward the Castle, no longer looking uncertain.
"You're right, Talos," the Enforcer said. "We must investigate the Castle. We have no clue where that creature came from or what it's purpose was, but we must determine what damage it caused."
Elie screamed in pain from where she lay on the makeshift cot in the corner of the room. “Hold her still,” Katerei sternly commanded Iannah as she leaned over the injured girl. As she applied another dab of a healing paste to the blackened flesh streaking down Elie’s cheek, the girl screamed again and violently kicked Iannah before elbowing Katerei and withdrawing to the corner.
“I told you to hold her still!” Katerei snapped harshly as she rubbed her bruised collarbone.
“I’m trying!” A visibly flustered Iannah retorted, “Elie, you need to stop this and let her treat your wound.” The blond girl on the cot just stared silently back, tears running down her face. A long black streak of burned flesh streaked from her right cheek all the way down to a mess of charcoal and dried blood on the inside of her right thigh.
“If you need me to, I could-” Bastian began.
“No, I can handle this,” Iannah cut him off without even looking at the two men standing watch near the door. “Listen to me Elie, you need to let her finish so you will heal properly. I know it hurts...” Iannah paused for a second, just long enough for the silence to be noticeable, “Just be strong for me, okay?” The injured girl nodded, wiped away her tears with her left arm and slowly lay down again on the bed.
“Here, use this,” Katerei offered Elie a bunched up linen rag. “It’ll stop you from biting your tongue.” With Iannah firmly pinning down Elie’s chest, Katerei resumed applying the salve. Elie writhed from the sting of the salve, but much less forcefully than before.
Avatara watched quietly from the door of the single-room house they were “borrowing”, replaying the events from an hour ago. He had thought this Iannah was someone who remained in control of the situation, only to have her suddenly risk everything in a fit of emotion. If her pride continued to get in the way of reason, they were all in danger. Especially now that the Hand would be after them.
Moreover, he had hoped Selax would have shown up, yet the treacherous elemental was nowhere in sight. Nor would he be, once he learned what had transpired in his absence. The fact that he had not attempted to contact Iannah after the failed meeting implied he had probably cast the assassins off as a useless liability, but that was not a suspicion Avatara dared voice aloud. He resolved to split off from the assassins as soon as they could manage to break away.
Avatara heard the quiet footsteps of Bastian approaching him. “She won’t admit it, but she’s scared,” the big man spoke in a voice only the two of them could hear.
“Seems like there’s a history there she neglected to mention,” Avatara replied.
“It’s never been as bad as today,” Bastian admitted. “I think she has been rattled by everything that’s happened recently. This whole invasion hasn’t exactly gone as planned.”
“Some people are more interested in looking after themselves than in doing what is best for the empire,” Avatara admitted.
“At any rate,” Bastian’s voice became a lot more serious, “I know you two risked a lot to come here, and I wanted to thank you for sticking around and helping out.” When Avatara didn’t reply, he continued, “I had my doubts at first, but now I think I can trust you.”
K slumped against the wall where she sat on the floor next to Elie's cot, knotting a piece of threadbare fabric between her fingers. It was all that remained of the spare linen she had purloined from the house, the rest being used for poultices. She had unbuckled her belt and her two sashes lay spread out on the ground, the various hidden pockets of herbs readily accessible. Her long blue hair, tied up in a high ponytail to keep it out of the way while she tended to Elie, hung limply over her shoulder. She felt absolutely bone-tired.
She cast a glance over at the cot, but Elie glared moodily back in a half-conscious daze. K couldn't really blame her. She didn't think the younger girl liked her all that much to begin with, but it came with habitually avoiding fire that K knew rather little about treating burns. She had no doubt put the poor girl through more pain than a qualified healer would have, and to less benefit.
We need to get out of here. The thought had weighed down heavier on K since their near-death confrontation. She sighed and looked out the window. It was well past sunset, but an orange glow in the southwest corner of town lit the night. They had seen the fire on the horizon as they searched for a house to commandeer. Nowhere in this city is safe.
The problem was getting away without raising the assassins' suspicions. She wasn't sure if Avatara wanted to leave yet, but maybe if she could come up with an excuse that would allow them to return later... K dropped the scrap of fabric onto the dirt floor and pressed her fingertips to her forehead, knuckles whitening with frustration.
A hacking cough interrupted her thoughts. K looked up to see Elie doubled over, whimpering with the pain of moving, but Iannah had already jumped up to press an earthenware cup of water to the girl's mouth. The dust and smoke from the collapsing house had settled in all of their lungs, but Elie seemed to have received the worst of it.
"Are you sure there's nothing else we can do?" Iannah asked anxiously as K gently re-applied the poultices that had fallen when Elie sat up.
"There's very little else I know how to do," K replied. Ignoring Elie's protestations, she checked the girl's breathing and heart rate and frowned slightly. She didn't like it, but an idea was forming in her head.
"Ia, can I talk to you for a moment?" she asked quietly. Iannah looked surprised, but K took her good arm – the one that Scry had hit still hung disconcertingly limp at her side – and led her over to where the men stood at the doorway.
"How is she?" Bastian asked as they approached.
"Not well," K whispered truthfully. "The burns are bad, but I'm concerned about giving her something for the pain. Her heart rate is erratic and I don't know what could happen. I don't want to know."
At these words, Iannah's fractured composure began to visibly break away. "You mean she might..." The assassin's voice shook and she fell silent.
"There's one thing I do know," K continued. "She needs rest, but she seems stressed out by me. Her vital signs seem to fluctuate more when I'm tending to her. I think Avatara and I should leave for awhile, a few hours at least, so she can rest."
"You can't leave!" Iannah immediately cried in a hushed tone, then quickly amended, "I mean, where will you go? Kain and the others will be in the city still, and now they know you are too."
K looked at Avatara, who gave her the tiniest of nods. "We'll figure something out. You and Bastian will be fine in this house; the people who live here must have fled when the city fell. I doubt they'll be back tonight. I won't stay here and endanger Elie though. I can't do that to her – to either of you."
"But-" Iannah sounded desperate. Next to her, even Bastian's normally impassive expression had turned grave. "I need you, Kat," she said plainly and helplessly.
K seized the assassin by the shoulders and stared at her levelly. "Iannah, listen to me. I am not a healer. I never have been. I'm just a herbalist, and in this case I don't know anything more than I've already taught you. I'll leave you all the supplies you need, and if her vitals get better, you can give her something to ease the pain. But she won't get better with me here. She trusts you to take care of her."
The other woman seemed to crumple under her gaze. "All right. But you'll come back in a few hours, won't you?"
"Yes," K said, not even knowing if that was true. She would settle for just a chance to talk to Avatara privately, but she wouldn't know what he wanted to do until then. If I don't return, I'll try and find a healer to send here instead, she promised herself in a weak attempt to assuage her guilt.
She was about to turn back to the cot and retrieve her belt, but Bastian reached out a hand for her to wait, and she looked at him in surprise. "Thank you," he said simply.
"You're welcome," she stammered, before beckoning Iannah to follow her, leaving the men alone again at the door. At the cot, K quickly sorted through her collection of herbs and left the required ones in neat piles, reminding Iannah how they were to be used. Elie watched them through half-closed eyes, but K had the odd feeling that there was less resentment in the girl's stare now.
"So what do I do if she gets worse?" Iannah asked hesitantly when they were back at the door, preparing to leave.
K finished re-buckling her belt and straightened her sash before looking up at the assassin, perhaps a bit sadly. "I suggest you start praying to whatever higher power you believe in, because that's the best chance she'll have."
This post has been edited by iKaterei : 09 September 2010 - 06:18 AM
He looked out over the last smoldering embers in the city below. The stars were partially obscured by the smoke rising from the remains of the slums. The damage to the city was irrelevant to him: Wizard's minions had been tasked with removing the heroes of this land and they had failed. Evidently, so too had Iannah and her assisants. Yet, even this would not set back his plans. It was always expected that one's servants might fail in a task and he always was ready for such occurrences.
Indeed, Selax made a habit of planning for everything.
He had been waiting quite some time for this, almost since the beginning of Cythera itself...
_The rise of Alaric had not been unanticipated.
Bahoudin–called Magpie among mortals—was more clever than others of his kind and his motives different, but Selax had had ages to anticipate him.
Whether Bahoudin knew it or not, the birth of his son had greatly accelerated Selax's plans—making what would have taken millennia instead take mere centuries. The ancient entity knew that the Undine would not be able to resist the chance to corrupt Alaric with the Crolna and so defeat the Seldane at last. To Selax, this meant only that the Crolna would at last be brought within his reach and that his chance to remove the elementals of Cythera was at hand.
For many ages, Selax had pondered how he might escape this alternate Cythera—that it was indeed an alternate version of Cythera and that he himself was only an alternate of another, original Selax he had long ago realized—in which he found himself trapped. The great barriers that surrounded the original Cythera within the Ethereal Void also enshrouded its alternate—cutting off its access to the Void. Ironically, it was these same barriers that made Cythera itself so accessible to the Void. Not even Selax could enter the Void from this mirror-Cythera, unless perhaps he could somehow reach the original Cythera. However, even this short jump would require a brief transit through the Void. . .
Selax was undeterred and set to work immediately. The boy Wizard grew to be a powerful ally and together they sought an answer through many ages of men.
Nonetheless, the arrival of the humans in mirror-Cythera took them by surprise, but they were quickly folded into the web of planning that had been cast over the land. Once he had had a chance to study the newcomers, Wizard was delighted. The domination and rulership of these lesser minds appealed to him, and he did not doubt they would be most useful to him. Along with Selax, he bided his time, watching as the Tyrants rose to power and then fell from it.
When Alaric at last became ill and Bellerophon was summoned into mirror-Cythera, Selax and Wizard were ready. When the hero and his companions had finished gathering the scattered fragments of the Crolna, they struck. It was not easy, but Wizard was able to separate Bellerophon from those who traveled with him. Then, Selax attacked and killed the man who had been destined to save Alaric. At long last, the elemental seized the Crolna.
Although he had never had access to more than a fragment of this powerful artifact, Selax had long studied it and its properties. When at last he took it, he knew its powers better than perhaps any other. Disguised as Bellerophon, he went at once to Land King Hall. Using his knowledge of the device, he slew not only the Land King but also the Undine lord who had been hidden inside the Crolna.
But Selax had made one mistake: he had underestimated Bahoudin.
Somehow, though it cost him his life, Alaric's father shattered the Crolna into many shards. Not even Selax could restore it.
Undeterred, the elemental gathered the shards when he left Land King Hall.
He was determined that their power would not be wholly lost to him. . . _
"I need to tell you something," K said, "before it's too late."
It was dark where they stood in the trees outside Cademia, branches concealing them from moonlight, though they were still near enough the sea that the taste of salt stuck on her tongue. It was hard to make out Avatara's expression as she looked at him sideways, her body angled away from him. She felt calmer than she expected she would; deciding to finally confess had been so agonizing that she almost wondered if it couldn't get any worse. Now that she was committed to the prospect, doing anything else seemed out of the question. Even so, she had trouble meeting his gaze as she spoke.
"I want you to promise me something first though," she continued. "I know you're not going to like what I have to say, but please hear me out first and let me explain. It's... it's important to me that you understand."
He raised his eyebrows slightly, but nodded. "All right."
In a distant part of her mind, she noticed that her hands were shaking slightly. She twisted her fingers together and took a deep breath. "Five years ago, after Selax came to you and asked for your help, you told me that you had no interest in doing so. You'd gotten married not long before, and you seemed... happy finally, with your wife and everything else. I knew you didn't want to risk that, but I still thought it was the wrong choice. I thought maybe if you helped Selax, he would move on and relinquish the control that he and the Wizard had on Cythera. I couldn't just let an opportunity like that go by. So I... I did something terrible. I went to Selax myself and told him why you refused to help him."
She dug her nails into her hands until the skin stung painfully, steeling her nerves for the next part. "We negotiated an agreement. Once Selax knew that your wife was the main thing keeping you from helping him, getting you on his side was as simple as removing her, or so he thought. He would make it look like ruffians had done it. I... I promised that after she was gone, I would try and persuade you to help him, since I knew you would still be reluctant. In exchange, I made Selax promise that you would be safe after you aided him, and that he would never ask you for help again. It was the only thing I could ask for to make up, even a little bit, for what I had done to you."
K had expected some kind of obvious reaction, an angry protest or a look of betrayal, but whatever he was feeling, she couldn't read it. Maybe he was taking her request for silence a little too literally. She finally looked straight into his eyes, mentally hoping, praying that this wouldn't be the last conversation they would ever have. "I know it was awful. Please understand – I thought it was the only way that any of us would have a chance at living a normal life, free from tyranny. I have never believed that we could overthrow Selax. I only hoped he could be made to leave once he had what he wanted, and it seemed inevitable that sacrifices would have to be made to get there."
"I couldn't go through with it though. It didn't take me long to realize that this wasn't my decision to make, and... that maybe I had done it for the wrong reasons. I went back to Selax and called it off, prepared to give my own life if he demanded it instead, but he said it was too late." Tears stung at her eyes, but she bit her lip to hold them back. "I won't ask for your forgiveness. I don't deserve that. I just hope you understand that I at least tried to make it right again. As soon as I left Selax, I came to your house to confess and to warn you what was going to happen. But it was too late. She was already dead."
"After that... I did try to persuade you to help Selax. I hated to do it, but nothing I could do would bring her back or make it right, and it would have been worse if her death was for nothing. I didn't tell you that Selax had killed her because you never would have agreed then, but you suspected him anyway. And then you were determined to avenge her, when fighting Selax openly was the one thing I'd been trying to avoid the whole time. So two days ago when you asked me why I disappeared for good after we fought... well, what I said then was part of it. But I couldn't bear the thought that it was my fault you were bent on going to your death. And I'd messed things up enough already, and if you found out what had happened you'd never want to see me again, and I was scared that Selax would come after me because I'd turned you completely against him. The only thing I could do was to leave forever and hope I never saw anyone who knew me again."
"Five years ago, after Selax came to you and asked for your help, you told me that you had no interest in doing so.”
Avatara stood very still, the chill of the night seeping in through the fabric of his clothes. From the sound of her voice earlier, he knew he wasn’t going to like this.
“You'd gotten married not long before, and you seemed...” Katerei paused briefly, a slight hesitation that was barely noticeable, before continuing, “...happy, finally. With your wife...and everything else.”
Even now, after all this time, disjointed images of her rose unbidden and rushed through him. He remembered her tending the garden outside their new home. He stood among the charred remains of a castle, aware of her beside him as they prepared to fight their way to freedom. They were on top of a great mountain, watching the orange sun set over the ocean in a brilliant display of color. He was warming up a leftover broth while she leaned over the bed, calmly attending the nearly comatose blue girl they had stumbled across. And then they were both kneeling, hands locked, exchanging vows to share both fortune and misfortune, for all eternity.
He had spent years of his life longing for a family, a place to belong, and when she had agreed to share in his dream, he had been overjoyed. It was all he could have hoped for, and more. He had gained a sense of peace and fulfillment that he hadn’t been able to attain from years of reckless adventuring.
“I thought maybe if you helped Selax, he would move on...” Katerei had continued to talk while he was engulfed in a wave of memories. He tried to clear his mind and focus on the present, but figments of the past swirled around him, mingling with the despair of shattered dreams.
“I couldn’t just let an opportunity like that go by.”
What are you saying?
“I did something terrible.”
What do you mean?
“I went to Selax myself and told him why you refused to help him.”
It felt as if the temperature had dropped several degrees. Avatara resisted the urge to shiver. Part of him wished she would stop before it was too late and she completely changed their friendship forever. Part of him knew it was already too late, the suspicions she had just sown had already taken root and he knew she was irrevocably implicated in the single most painful moment of his life.
“We negotiated an agreement,” her voice took on an unsteady tone, as if the words were difficult to say. “Once Selax knew your wife was the main thing keeping you from helping him, getting you on his side was as simple as removing her...”
He had known something was wrong before he caught sight of the smashed door on the house, the broken windows, the ravaged garden. Racing inside in a frenzy, ignoring the possessions scattered about in disarray, he was greeted with the body of his wife. She was lying face-down on the floor, her long silvery hair matted with blood near the wound on her back that had taken her life.
“...or so he thought,” Katerei continued.
He thought wrong.
“He would make it look like ruffians had done it.”
Superficially, it had seemed like a group of ruffians had broken in and taken her life. But they had encountered far more dangerous foes than a band of ruffians. If nothing else, her magic should have saved her.
“I... I promised that after she was gone, I would try and persuade you to help him, since I knew you would still be reluctant. In exchange, I made Selax promise that you would be safe after you aided him, and that he would never ask you for help again.”
A hollow promise. What else was there left for him to take?
“It was the only thing I could ask for to make up, even a little bit, for what I had done to you," Katerei said quietly.
A moment of silence passed. She looked up, staring directly into his eyes. Avatara could see she was expecting something from him, but she was uncertain what it would be.
What do I feel? They had taken in a badly injured girl, nursed her back to health. When they found out she had lost her home, they even let her stay with them. For almost half of a year, she had shared their life, and yet she had been the one to betray them and end it all. What did he feel?
He felt empty. The anger and fury he had bottled up, the determination for vengeance that had sustained him had been drained away by her revelation, replaced by despair? Helplessness? Fatigue? He wasn’t sure.
Katerei took a deep breath and continued, “I know it was awful, please understand...”
What do you want from me?
“I won’t ask for your forgiveness.” Tears were forming in her eyes now. “I don’t deserve that. I just hope you understand that I at least tried to make it right again.”
What am I supposed to do now?
“As soon as I left Selax, I tried to warn you about what was going to happen, but it was too late.”
She had stumbled across him later that night, cradling the lifeless body of his beloved in his arms. He remembered looking up as she entered, the full moon behind her casting a shadow across the floor. At first, she had been as grief-stricken as he was, but then as night turned into day and he refused to move, she began to try to get him to let go, to distract his mind with work. At the time he thought she was concerned at his sudden withdrawal, but now he knew the truth.
Katerei finished her story. He always suspected his stubborn refusal to leave the confines of his home had driven her away. He had shut out the world, choosing to wallow in self-pity, and from there a grudge began to fester. He loathed his solitude, and above all the one whom he suspected had been responsible. Selax.
Even now, he still hated the elemental. Despite Katerei’s confession, it was still Selax’s hand that had irrevocably scarred his existence. He still believed as firmly as he did then, that the world would be a better place without Selax’s tyranny. His mission hadn’t changed then; he still needed to stop Selax before the elemental could ruin someone else’s life. But, alone he would be no match, not even with the reserves he had painstakingly stored up over the last few months.
Katerei shifted nervously in front of him. “I’m sorry,” she said softly, “If you want me to go away forever, I will understand. Maybe that is what I should have done all along.”
“That won’t be necessary,” he broke his silence, startling her. What was she expecting from me? He took a deep breath, “If you were so worried about me finding out, why did you agree to follow me here?”
“I...” she looked away, embarrassed. “When I found you, I was running from myself - the other me, in this world - and I thought it would be safer to travel in company,” she said unconvincingly.
He paused before replying, considering his words carefully. What am I expecting from her? “You know I am hunting Selax, that hasn’t changed. Are you still so willing to follow me, even though you would have to face everything you’ve been running away from?”
“Yes.” She didn’t take very long to reply, but her voice sounded less than certain. “If you can tolerate me.” She directly stared at him and said in a much more steady tone, “I want to make amends for what I have done.”
“Help me take out Selax,” Avatara replied quietly. Katerei nodded in understanding. Is this a fair price to ask? He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly before continuing, “I don’t think we stand a chance alone. We’re going to need the assistance of others.”
“Iannah will never agree-” she started to protest.
“I’m not talking about her,” he interrupted. She looked at him in confusion. “I’ve been considering this for a while, but I think there is one person from this world who would listen, at least.”
“You.” Katerei’s eyes widened in surprise, as he knew they would. Preferring to avoid conflict, the very idea of her of having to face herself would run against all her instincts. But, it would be necessary. “I think the other you will listen, but her companions may not. If you can separate her from the others, we may have a chance to win her over to our side. That’s where you come in.”
“Me?” Katerei’s asked more shrilly than she had probably intended.
“I don’t think I would be able to meet her alone, but you could.”
“What makes you think she would actually listen to...” her voice trailed off. “I’m not sure I can do this.”
“You can,” Avatara told her. “And you will, if you truly meant everything you said.”
“I...Of course I did!” she retorted indignantly.
“If you really want to atone for the past, if you truly believe the world would be a better place without Selax, if you were sincere when you said you would help me bring him down, then you will need to help me find allies for our struggle. And our best chance at winning over people from this world lies in you, meeting face-to-face with yourself.”
Carrying their wounded as best they could, the group struggled toward the Castle.
When they were almost within sight of the Castle's gate, they spotted someone running toward them. Wary of an attack, they paused and waited for the runner to approach them. The man spotted them and hurried toward them.
Squinting, Talos said, "That looks like one of the guards."
"It is," Shanadar replied, having recognized the man as the guard that he had spoken to after the earlier attempt on the Judge's life. "He's a friend of mine."
At that moment, the guard reached them and stopped, momentarily gasping for breath.
"Shanadar! I'm glad I found you!"
"What happened? Is the Judge safe?" the Enforcer demanded.
"Yes! Just exhausted." Pausing, the guard composed himself and continued, speaking rapidly. "That monster came up right outside of the Castle and slaughtered most of the guards, except those lucky enough to be out on errands. The mages were able to hold it off until you arrived, but the effort weakened them greatly. They can't do anything about the fires, and Berossus fears to send the remainder of his guards away in case this is a diversion. He sent me to find you and to implore you to do what you can about the flames, before the city burns down!"
"The Castle can send no aid?" Selax asked.
"No, none can be spared. Please, you must help!"
For a moment, Shanadar considered all that he had heard, pondering how it affected the group's earlier conclusions. He did not like the situation, but the Enforcer realized that, if no help was to come from the Castle, the group would have to do what it could. Even if something did happen to the Judge, the safety of Cademia itself took precedence.
"If the mages are safe, I believe that we must go," he said.
"Agreed," Selax answered. He turned toward Talos. "You are injured but less than these others. We will get them to safety if you can care for them and make sure the necromancer does not recover and escape." Speaking to the guard, the elemental added, "Inform the Judge that we will deal with the fires."
Talos and the guard both nodded. The latter turned and hurried back toward the Castle.
The group hurried south, turning slightly toward the western part of the city. As they approached the buildings north of the slums, the smell of smoke became stronger and the roar of the flames louder.
After a few minutes, they reached Apis' Inn, where they left Talos with Rapierian, Katerei, and Silverfish. Selax, Shanadar, and Wizard then hurried eastward toward the raging inferno. Talos, meanwhile, sat down in a chair in the doorway of the room they had chosen and waited.
Hours later, the other returned. Talos stood up to greet them. The injured and exhausted group members were still resting, but the warrior suspected they would all be much recovered by morning.
"How it'd go?" he asked the returning group members as they came up the stairs. Shanadar and Wizard were covered in ash and soot, and both looked somewhat weary. Selax seemed untouched.
"The fire has been extinguished," Selax replied.
"No one was killed," Wizard added, "but there was a great deal of damage done in the slums."
"And no word or even sign of life around the Castle," Shanadar growled. "I don't like it."
"Nor do I," Wizard agreed. "But I don't think there is anything we can do until the morning." The old man turned toward Talos and asked, "Any change in the others?"
Talos shook his head.
"Then, I think we have little choice but to rest and prepare for the morning."
The others nodded in agreement.
With their course of action decided, Talos climbed into one of the empty beds and was soon asleep. Shanadar sat down in the chair that Talos had been using and fell into a light doze. Selax and Wizard, who had both volunteered to stand watch, sat down in chairs outside in the hallway.
The night passed slowly and uneventfully.
What happens when matter meets antimatter? I'll tell you what. The world ends! Even the Void could not fully contain the damage... Why should I care!? I don't know why. The Masters direct me... I am but a pawn in their game! Or maybe I'm a bishop... yes... or a rook! caw caw hee hee hee! ...What! don't go! the dream's not ove-
Silverfish didn't know where he was. A moment ago he was flying toward that giant golem, preparing an electric storm... A dream! Garbled meaning... Was it all a dream? He looked around. This was definitely not the Tavern, not noisy enough. He was laying on a bedside table... The Two-Tailed Rat! It was real at least until the return to Cademia. Cythera was in trouble. He glanced over at his companions. No, last night was real. Cythera is in Major trouble.
Silver slipped into a light trance-like state as he began restoring his body to its proper condition.
Katerei stood alone in the harsh gray light from the early morning sun. Directly in front of her lay the blackened husk of a burnt home. Light bluish smoke rose from smoldering charcoal in one corner, filling the air with an acrid stench. The far wall was completely devastated, revealing blackened ruins beyond. A few bleary-eyed stragglers wandered solemnly through the charred remains, surveying the damage and looking for salvageable valuables.
Most of the city appeared to have escaped relatively unscathed, but the heart of the slums had been torched fairly thoroughly. Years of poorly-built makeshift shelters all packed together had only fueled the frenzy of the inferno that had descended upon Cademia throughout the night.
She was exhausted both from the ordeal from the night before and a poor night of sleep. Her head hurt and her insides felt queasy. She knew she wouldn’t be able to hold down any food she tried to eat, which did nothing to soothe her rumbling stomach.
A brief movement off to her right caught her eye. She turned towards the source, and all thoughts about herself and the injured city fled her mind. At the end of the block in front of her was a woman, clad lightly in black-laced garb, with long hair flowing behind her, brushing lightly against her hips. Yet, the most distinguishing feature about the foreign woman was her unmistakable blue complexion.
Katerei inhaled sharply as she stared at the mirror image of herself. The other woman looked so much like her in many ways, yet there were some differences as well. The other Katerei seemed much more sure of herself, betraying no hint of nervousness or uncertainty at all as their eyes met.
Katerei blinked. Did she just beckon me over? She felt a sudden rush of excitement at the prospect of meeting herself, but it quickly turned to a cold terror. A thousand questions swarmed through her head. What does she want? What kind of person is she? What would she think of me? Do I really want to find out?
Despite her fears and doubts, a small part of her was curious to find out. She almost had the urge to follow after her alternate, to see another side of herself.
“A terrible tragedy, isn’t it?” The voice jarred her back to reality. Katerei turned and found Selax standing behind her. She followed his gaze back towards the ruined slums and nodded.
“Have you recovered?” Selax turned his attention to her. Somehow that made her feel more nervous than she had been earlier.
“I’ll be fine,” she managed to say in a steady voice.
“We’ll probably need your strength again soon,” Selax replied, before turning and leaving.
Somewhat dazed from his sudden appearance and rapid departure, Katerei turned back to where she had seen her alternate moments before, only to find a deserted road. There was no trace of the other woman, yet Katerei was certain that she had been searching for her.
Rapierian woke up in a daze—a state of mind which, incidentally, did not particularly bother him.
Disoriented, the necromancer had a vague feeling that his magical energy was greatly depleted and that did bother him. It made having fun so much more difficult…
Sitting up, he looked around. The room was empty, although he heard voices coming from outside the door and surmised that the others were already up and about. Recalling the events of the past day, the necromancer frowned. Rapierian had the feeling that there was something that he wanted to ask somebody and that it was potentially important; however, just now, he couldn't recall what it could possibly be.
He laughed. It would come to him eventually.
As he got up, the door swung up and Shanadar stepped in, glowering at him.
"Good morning! What time will breakfast be served? I must say, you run a lousy form of room service! Although I guess you could curdle milk with that face—"
"Be quiet," the Enforcer growled. "We're going to the Castle and you'll get a chance to talk there. Afterward, it is my sincere hope that we will be able to lock you away for a very long time."
"It's nice for old men such as yourself to have goals," Rapierian replied, as they exited the room.
Meanwhile, another Rapierian was crouching in a darkened alleyway near the Castle.
The ranger had followed the members of the Hand all night, taking care to avoid the traps that Iannah and her compatriots had placed; however, he had not expected the trail to lead him here.
Studying the Castle, he shook his head. When he had trailed Kain, Ral, and Scry on the previous night, they had at first headed south along the river, seeming intent on leaving town. Then, for some reason he could not discern, they had about-faced and under cover of night had headed back toward the Castle. He had barely avoided being caught by them and, suspecting a trap, had waited nearly an hour before resuming his pursuit.
As nearly as he could tell, the trail had continued for the Castle. In the bright morning light, it was too dangerous to follow the trail any closer to the Castle, so he could not be certain that they had entered the building…
Rapierian shook his head again and settled down to watch. He had a very bad feeling about this.
In a grove of trees, south of town, Beorn staggered to his feet and almost fell over.
His uncomfortable sleeping position (in the top of one of the trees) had made getting to sleep difficult in the first place. Now, it was causing him all sorts of uncomfortable cramps and muscle twinges. Painfully, he fell back against the tree and made a mental note to be more careful about such things in the future. After a few minutes, he was able to stand up and to begin again his physical exercises.
Carefully, he contemplated the situation.
Escaping the locked room that he had been confined in had not been as difficult as he had at first feared, and it seemed his timing had been fortuitous. Wizard and his companions had arrived shortly afterward. Beorn had spent the rest of the day following them around town, attempting to catch Wizard alone. Unfortunately, before he could succeed, the group had been attacked by a well-armed and well trained force. Not wanting to get caught up in the battle, he had been forced to flee.
Barely had he avoided that fight when he found himself in the middle of the slums as a massive fire swept through them. In his current weakened state, he had again been forced to flee again, staggering blindly through streets that he could not discern through the smoke and flames. In the process, he had been half-choked by the smoke, but, fortunately, he had managed to find a way out to the south. (He reflected that he was not coping with his injuries as well he had hoped and made another mental note to deal with that.) Knowing that the armed force that had attacked the group had also escaped, he had been forced to take shelter in a tree.
Matters were progressing much as he had feared. Beorn was beginning to think that he might not be able to reach Wizard in time after all. If that was indeed the case, then his options were greatly reduced. It might be that he would be forced to head for Land King Hall at once. Only from there might he still have a chance of staving off total disaster.
Finishing his exercises, Beorn made up his mind. He would head around to the north of Cademia and wait. From here, he would be in a position to observe matters and still be ready to head for Land King Hall. Still, he would not be able to wait long. Time was running out…
Carefully, he looked about. Seeing no sign that he was being watched, he crept out and began to work his way north, moving west and avoiding the city.
For as much as the Necromancer liked to derisively call the Shanadar an "old man", it would have seemed that he had no designs to live anywhere near as long. The role of Enforcer was perhaps the most dangerous occupation imaginable for a 'mundane' person, and Shanadar had survived -- while his compatriots perished one by one -- in a career of law enforcement that had lasted greater than three decades.
Yes, let the youthfully arrogant idiot mock his age all he liked; let him brag and rant about how superior his dark magics were over a 'mere' strong arm. When it came down to it, the Enforcer had endured when the foul Necromancer had exhausted himself. Ha. Rapierian would be fortunate to be half as spry in his mid-forties; dark magic or no, the Necromancer could hardly keep up at his present age.
Assurance of the fool's bravado was no reason to become overconfident, however. Shanadar had survived through caution as much as physical fitness, and it would be unwise to revise that particular policy.
While Rapierian was unconscious, the Enforcer had rifled through the Necromancer's possessions, confiscating various things both as evidence and for the safety of the party. Rapierian was prone to traveling with an assortment of blades, poisons, potions, a few decaying tomes whose contents he couldn't identify (undoubtedly grimoires filled with secrets of dark magic), and even a few lockpicks hemmed into his clothing. More interesting, however, was his possession of the personal journal of the local Judge. With that, he could at least pin Rapierian with petty theft if nothing else; Shanadar knew from experience that Berossus tended to be rather protective of his private memoirs.
Still, as a practitioner of the magical arts, he was to be considered dangerous even when unarmed. The mysterious exploding golem that had appeared last night had been proof enough of that wisdom if nothing else. Still, in his current state he would hopefully be unable to prevent being brought before the Judge for his own private session of justice.
Alaric willing, Rapierian would be locked behind bars (hopefully for good this time), and everyone else could resume their focus on solving the present situation. Certainly, Shanadar did not relish the thought of there possibly being another Rapierian out there, and Katerei had become increasingly agitated at the very thought of her own double. It was a little confusing for Shanadar, since the thought of encountering a double of himself didn't really bother him, much less unhinge him to the point of near-hysteria, but then the shape-shifting blue elf/wolf whom he had befriended had a rather different perspective than he did.
At any rate, the sooner he delt with the Necromancer's distractions, the sooner he could focus his full support on the matter at hand.
Deep within the hollowed corridors of growth snaking through forest north of the mother-city, the world slept, blanketed in a dark silence. Quickly coming about from behind the trees, the footsteps of a man could be heard. The woods' stillness was broken and now filled with the blue sound of weeping.
The stranger tried to calm his mind and body, carrying away the fog in his eyes with the end of his sleeve. The memory of fire still burned in his legs, running for so long hadn't helped it. The confusion that had grown in his mind was like the tears he couldn't seem to wipe away fast enough, it was enough to make him sick; but still one thought stuck out in his mind like a dagger.
"Why?" he asked the night, to which no reply was given. He arose off the ground and in anger slammed a fist into the old trunk of a tree, "Why did they have to die?!"
Regaining his temper, he returned to the soft bed of the forest. "There was another way, there had to be, there always is-always." I just didn't see it.
The man turned his focus inward, into pondering what had happened surrounding him once more.
One name kept popping up like an echoing laugh, Firecat. The haunting voice hadn't made the best impression on the man, too many 'something's kept seeming slightly wrong to the man, and what had happened tonight was definitely one of them. It also felt so clear that if the man had never been contacted by this specter, for whatever reason, that he would still be with his friends, fighting to save the land, if they were ever actually friends that is. The night at the judge's estate still left a question in his mind. He had seen two Katerei's, what did that mean, and who then could he trust?
Still, he had found a new role working with Firecat, one that seemed closer to the truth at least, even if it didn't feel close to his conscience.
Why do I still ask myself who this being is? That was probably the most frustrating aspect of all. So be it, if the answer shall not be given, then I shall fetch it.
The stranger's tears had gone, and clarity had returned to his mind with a keen focus. The man now sat in the comforting silence of the forest, looking deeper into his own thoughts.
He does not reveal himself. Either he can't or it would jeopardize him somehow. He also has not acted directly in any detectable way I have seen. Again he either can't or the action is endangering. He does have adequate knowledge of this world however, making him at least somehow linked to it. I can't recall mention of a someone like this, and the places he lead me to had been untouched for years until recently. Why had he not been there himself?
His mind paused, he seemed only to be generating more questions.
But what does this mean? He 'appeared' after the strange happenings began, and does come off as being interested in the halting of whatever is causing them. Damn, if he didn't have such strong knowledge of these matters I'd have no reason to trust him.
The man sighed again, the pain in his legs was coming again.
This whisper, he operates from the shadows, has knowledge of the enemy and how to stop them, but does not do so himself. A traitor? Could he be working with the enemy? That would explain why he uses me, but why would a traitor not work with the whole of the enemy? No, maybe this person is unable to act, or is occupied with something else. A prisoner perhaps. Again no, if he had such an innocent role he would have no reason to hide it from me, unless he also has some reason to fear me. Perhaps I pose a threat to him in some way? What I know? This man, he's planning something. His knowledge of the enemy shows he's close to them. Whoever Firecat is, he seems dangerous, operating alone or with others, and not to be trifled with.
Firecat's assistance had now become something too costly to use by Yomu's thinking, so for now, Yomu would block his mind from the intrusive specter, or at least attempt to.
Night enveloped the forest in silence once more, now with the man along with it.
Yomu looked up to the stars and sighed. His mind started to wander as his gaze wandered across the heavens, but out of the nothingness a pain worse than anything he'd felt pierced his mind, as memories of the men he'd just seen brutally slaughtered rushed back into his head. He nearly lost control of himself again, trying not to remember.
Yomu never wanted to experience a sight like that again, let alone remember it. He turned towards the south Cademia was a ways away; remorse was dying in his eyes now, with determination taking its place. As he readied to leave the forest he promised himself that he would not see another life disappear in pursuit of someone's selfish desires. He would find his own answers now (without otherworldly aid) and there had to be plenty floating around the tangled streets and back alleys of Cademia.
Like the rest of his problems, the pain in Yomu's legs was starting to become bearable again, although he still wasn't looking forward to the scars. Rising up from the leafy forest bed, the determined fetcher reached into his pouch and withdrew a familiar metal contraption attached to a harness. After it was strapped to his back he spoke the words, " To the heavens. " And went off towards the mother city with the forest disappearing below.
Morning had come to Cythera by the time Yomu had reached the perimeter of Cademia. Not wanting to attract attention, the discreet visitor took back to the ground as he drew closer to to the city.
The city was obviously in distraught, not that he couldn't smell the smoke miles away, but with groups of guards hurrying from location to location and great lack of any normal activity Yomu began to wonder just what had happened after he left.
He could not spot any force or soldier not belonging to Cythera, and definitely not a hulking golem.
Then.. did it succeed? Were my actions not in vain? Was Firecat truthful, and fend off the coming storm? Yomu pondered, while moving eastward to examine the city in the distance more closely.
The judge's estate was heavily damaged in the front, the site of a fierce battle. A strong guard presence occupied the area. But that wasn't all, the fight seemed to move... south.
Yomu hastily made his way down the eastern border of the city examining the trail of debris and scorched holes that scarred the soft earth. The trail led him to the river banks east of the city, This is where it was finished.
Covering the shore were black marks and streaks, fallen dust, the same obsidian color Yomu had seen before in the pile of powder he had gathered for Firecat. Downstream, Yomu spotted something more unsettling: across the river, half submerged, lay a large stone object, a mask of some sort. The expression the mask bore was terrible and stoic, with strange engravings like tattoos all over it.
_Was this what came to be when I took flight?
I hope it was worth...
No.. it wasn't._
A lack of clues at the river led the fetcher to no definite conclusions, and so he took back to the city where in the distance he could make out smoke rising off the west end of the city, in the slums.
After running along the southern border, Yomu had managed to get to the slums undetected with relative ease.
These grounds must have been the beginning.
Smoke and dust emanated from the fallen walls and ceilings of the old slums. Echoes and far off calls and cries could be heard every now and again, but for the most part the area was deserted.
Yomu could make out most of the battle, many soldiers by the pieces of armor and weapons, magic from the strange burn marks and strucural damage, They were here too then.
A steady wind blew through the remains. Yomu had surveyed the area but had come up with little useful information. Perhaps his old companions would have learned something new by now, he thought, after all they were the only ones he knew involved in all of this besides an untrustworthy voice.
But that truth is more intricate than that.
Yomu was right, after all he did know of more people that had to be involved with the developments in Cademia: Rapierian's strange disappearance and escape from custody in Kosha, the drifter Beorn seemed to know something but wouldn't say, the woman and doppelganger of Katerei he had caught talking at the judge's estate not to mention the two men that took flight when he rejoined his past companions in the judge's front garden.
Yomu was stuck for a moment on his relationship to his former companions, especially Shanadar and Katerei. He wondered if Katerei had yet reconciled with the fear of her duplicate, and if Shanadar had finally put Rapierian back under lock and key (and maybe some stronger enchantments this time..). It felt distant to him now, almost to an extreme.
A brief gust of wind parted the discolored fog in front of him, and he nearly disappeared from the slums at the sight of a man in the distance, but he stopped himself. He had seen this man before.
Yomu crept closer, unknowingly to the man. He looked lost in thought, or examining something, all the smoke made it hard to make out exactly.
This man is! From that night! The night I shall never forget, he ran! Surely his presence that evening shows his relation to the troubles of the mother city, and the connection to knowledge I desire.
Yomu crept closer still. Possibilities and ideas swirled through his head like a mighty ocean torrent, but only one answer prevailed.
He ran before, he might run again, and wisdom would strongly paint him an enemy. No, I can't let such good fortune pass away. Yomu decided: he would tackle the man, pin him down, take him away if he had to, and get the answers he so desperately wanted, in order to save Cademia, or even Cythera itself.
I shall unveil my enemies and bring them into the light, and in that light, they shall fall.
A strong breeze swept past the two as Yomu leapt at the unknowing and unprepared, Avatara.
"Cowards!" the voice announced in the dark, "It's not dogs we've raised, it's mice!"
Sparks flew off the fire into the shadows.
grumble "And my pebble, so meticulously crafted, washed away with the tides?!"
"No matter I suppose, the pebble did manage to skip at least once before sinking."
The voice snickered to itself.
"Yes.. Once my mouse comes back to me, then that ripple shall become a wave, and carry all the water in the pond away with it! And even if he doesn't.... I still have another mouse to play with.."
Berossus thumbed through the pages of the dusty tome he had just removed from the bookshelf. He chuckled to himself as he skimmed over the contents. Closing the book, he wiped the dust from the cover. " Alaric's Government, an analysis by Meclemelus. . . Ah yes, Alaric's 'government'; I had forgotten how inefficient his system was," Berossus muttered to himself. "Fortunately for the people of this land, they'll also be able to forget it soon enough, if all goes well."
Berossus replaced the book to its place on the shelf and returned to his chair. He was expecting the party of heroes at any time. They would have questions -- and understandably so. That giant golem was not part of the plan, after all. It would be irresponsible for the heroes to let such an event pass without careful examination. Berossus leaned back and shut his eyes, recalling his own discussion of the event the previous night.
"Yes, I'm fine." Berossus smiled warmly, satisfying the concerned guard that he was all right.
"I am relieved to hear that. After seeing the damage the front hall sustained, me and the others feared the worst. Unfortunately, many of the men are now dead. We do not know the exact number, nor have we found any bodies, but the front entrance is a disgusting sight. Blood everywhere. . . " the guard's eyes dropped to the floor.
Berossus sighed deeply. "I know. . . such a tragedy. But do not be concerned; all will be put right soon." He smiled knowingly, "We have those wonderful heroes who came to the rescue. They've helped before, and they'll help again, I'm certain of it. Now, why don't you join the others standing guard and try to get this place back on its feet?"
"Yes, sir!" the guard turned to leave.
"As for me, it is very late. I think I will retire for the night." Berossus disappeared into his private chamber.
Later that night, long after the activity around the castle had died down and everyone had gone to sleep, Berossus sat silently in the dark council room. A single candle flickered on the table beside him, illuminating a small portion of the vast hall. The flame began to dance and was nearly extinguished by a chilling breeze that seemed to emanate from the darkness.
"I've been expecting you," Berossus spoke quietly.
"We have matters to discuss," a voice echoed from the darkness, almost as though the shadows themselves were speaking. There was no one to be seen, yet the chair across from Berossus vanished as though it were veiled in shadow.
Berossus face began to melt away, as did the rest of his form. Another man sat where Berossus had been only a moment before. He was short but very thin, almost gaunt. Underneath long, flowing white hair was a clean-shaven, yet weatherworn, face. His features were very similar to those of his alternate, Wizard, but he did not look as sturdy, mostly due to his slender appearance.
"That strange golem and the little 'misunderstanding' between Iannah and Kain," the old man surmised.
"Among other things," the voice replied, slipping easily into an ancient Cytheran dialect.
Wizard chuckled. It was an old precaution of the two when they met: speaking in long-dead languages to prevent eavesdropping. It was not uncommon for them to alternate through a dozen different languages in any given meeting, many of them ones never before heard in either Cythera.
"You refer, of course, to the rumors that the Avatara, Katerei, and Rapierian from our world have been spotted here?"
"Yes. Have the mages been prepared?"
"Of course," Wizard replied, sounding amused. "It took a bit of work—I had to work on one at a time—but they have been 'prepared.' They have also been moved to a safe location."
"Any word from the Hand or from Iannah?" the voice replied.
"No, not since they violated my orders again." The old man's tone changed to an unsettling growl, "Very wise of them if you ask me." As he spoke the candle's flame began to leap around, desperately grabbing for air.
"Indeed, the matter of their punishment can wait, but they must be found soon. We might have need of their services."
"Agreed. Aremis and Devlin are dead, and I have not heard from the daemon's in quite some time. There is a traitor in the ranks."
"Or several," the voice pointed out.
"True, but they do not concern me. If the daemon's begin causing trouble we shall simply banish them back to the darkness from whence they came!" Wizard paused at his last line, grinning broadly. Then he laughed as though he were a little child. "Sometimes I do sound rather poetic, don't I?"
"I am sure," replied the voice, emotionlessly. "What of the golem? Did you detect any hint of who might have summoned it? It seemed interested in both you and this world's Wizard, but it was summoned next to you."
Wizard's expression turned deathly serious; the possibility that someone had dared to attack him directly was unacceptable. "Unfortunately, I was working on trapping a master mage inside his own mind with an illusion, not an easy task. I do not know who was behind that monstrosity, but I have my suspicions."
"As do I. The location of its summoning suggests an awareness of your presence here. Only a few of our allies have such knowledge," the voice answered. "Send someone to check on our allies in our world. Not all of them are where they belong. We must be prepared to act if the summoner is who we suspect."
"Well, whoever it is, they have succeeded in disrupting my masquerade here," Wizard answered. "The 'heroes' will surely come tomorrow. I don't care to gamble on being able to deceive them."
"You should not. Your disguise has served its purpose."
"Good," Wizard replied. "I plan to amuse myself tomorrow then. Will you join me there?"
"Not yet. There remains one other matter."
"Ah, let me guess. . . Avatara?" Wizard answered, sounding amused. "Come to kill you, no doubt!" He laughed.
"Without a doubt. He seems also to have Katerei working with him. It is unlikely that Rapierian is aiding him much: he would not gamble on such a chance."
"Too bad," Wizard said bitterly. The ranger's continued resistance had long been an irritant to him. "We might have been able to grab all three of them."
"That is not outside the realm of possibility. I will be ready for them when they come," the voice answered. The shadow shifted slightly. "Despite minor difficulties, all proceeds according to plan."
"By which you mean that you will return to the shadows for a time and leave me to do all the hard work?" Wizard concluded.
"Briefly, I am not yet ready to deal directly with our counterparts."
With that, the shadow on the chair lifted. The air in the room shifted slightly as a chilling breeze fluttered past the candle again. Then, there was silence, as though the past five minutes had been a dream.
"Master," someone spoke, pulling Berossus back into reality again.
"Yes," he opened his eyes. Berossus was glad he had taken advantage of the opportunity presented by the death of so many guards yesterday. By now, he had replaced most of the guard force with alternates from his Cythera. These were his real guards. He found it very refreshing to be called "Master" again.
"Everything is ready, Master." The guard withdrew.
"Excellent," he smiled. "Now everything is in place for our heroes to visit."