Dark Mirror (TS)
Finally, after nearly an hour, Beorn had arrived at a position north of town from which he could survey the Castle and its surroundings. He not been in this position for more than five minutes before he heard voices nearby. Glancing around quickly, he saw no hope of cover other than the tree he was now crouched under. Sighing internally, Beorn quickly climbed the tree and hid himself among the upper branches. Then, he waited as the sound of the voices drew closer.
"This will never work," someone said gloomily.
"Demodocus, your constant complaining is becoming very tiresome," another voice replied quietly. "Are you trying to make me forget my orders—specifically, the part about not harming you?"
"No, of course not," Demodocus hastened to reply.
At this moment, he and the person to whom he was speaking came into view. Beorn recognized the bard at once, although he was not initially certain of the identity of the magess walking next to him. Mentally running through the list of mages he knew of, he finally identified her as Alcyone, a freemage. Beorn was momentarily surprised to see several other people behind them. Most of these appeared to be guardsman; however, three of them were also mages, specifically the Judge Berossus, the magess Anisa, and the mage Bryaxis. They walked along as though unaware of their surroundings, staring vacantly ahead.
"It's just that I still don't understand how we can expect to fool all those mages and house leaders," Demodocus continued, his voice rising slightly as he spoke. "They know this world's versions of us, and, besides, won't they recognize those three are not exactly acting normal?"
"Keep your voice down," Alcyone hissed angrily. "Do you want everyone to hear you yelling? I've already told you: their trance will fade when we reach the road. Beyond that, I don't know what the Master has done with them, but you, if you are so foolish, may ask him when you next see him."
Demodocus's face went pale as he weakly shook his head.
"As for you, Demodocus is already overdue, so no one will think your arrival suspicious. You're going to be tired when we reach our destination and will need to rest for some time."
"What about you?" Demodocus asked nervously.
"Never you mind," Alcyone replied. "Now, come on. I don't want to be late."
The bard nodded nervously and hurried after her. The conversation stilled, as the group of people passed silently under Beorn.
After they had gone, Beorn descended the tree, thinking quickly. He had little doubt they were headed for Land King Hall and their conversation clearly indicated they were not who they seemed to be, which meant he could no longer wait but must find some way to arrive first. Carefully, he considered his options: Alcyone had indicated they were heading for the road but had headed in a northern direction. Thus, it was not likely they meant to cross the bridge at the eastern side of Cademia. It was more probable that they intended to ford the river and head through the forest until they reached the road. In so doing, they would take one of the shortest routes to Land King Hall and avoid any potential travelers on the roads from Catamarca or Odemia.
For a moment, Beorn hesitated. He knew of one faster route, but it was potentially risky in his weakened state. Grimly, deciding that he had no choice, he hurried to the southeast until the bridge over the River Sitia came into view. He expected the bridge to be guarded, but, strangely, he found no one present. Still, he wished to take no chances being spotted on the bridge. After watching the area for a minutes, Beorn finally scurried across the bridge.
Immediately, he turned to the north and approached the standing stone that marked the entrance to the caverns under the northern part of Cythera. The entrance had been left open after Bellerophon had departed but few people—other than the occasional band of adventurers—had ever entered the caves. Fortunately for him, he had been one of those few; unfortunately for him, he had been much healthier the last time. Despite the risk, Beorn knew this was the fastest route to Land King Hall and began to prepare a torch. He suspected that the exits in the Hall would be guarded, but he would have to deal with that when the time came.
Lighting his torch, he approached the entrance and gazed into the dark recesses beyond. Momentarily, he hesitated, feeling strangely claustrophobic about entering the caves. Shaking off the sensation, he lifted his torch and plunged into the darkness.
Carefully, the group approached the entrance to the Castle, stopping momentarily to survey the damage. The front gates lay twisted in ruin, and the roof of the front hall of the Castle was broken and battered. There was no sign or sound of movement all about the great edifice.
"This is not right," Shanadar said, eyes narrowing. "I know the men of this guard. They would not allow the Judge's home to sit in ruin so."
"Well, maybe, he's moved," Rapierian said. "After all, his house is a wreck."
"Quiet," the Enforcer barked at the necromancer. He turned to Wizard. "What do you think?"
Wizard closed his eyes for a moment and focused on the Castle. Suddenly, he opened his eyes and staggered back. The others turned toward him in surprise.
"Are you all right?" Katerei asked, as she helped him stand.
"I'm fine. I was just surprised. Whatever was blocking telepathy is weakening," he reported. "But something very powerful is in there . . . I have not felt it's like before."
" I could have told you that," Rapierian replied. He took a deep breath, "sniffing" for the "smell" of magical power. "Can't you smell the scent of power? Oh, I forget: you're an old man and your sense of smell doesn't work—nor does your sense of balance or your—"
"Quiet," Shanadar repeated, irritably. Ordinarily, he would have taken the time to knock the necromancer over the head, but concern for the Judge distracted him. "Do you think Berossus or any of the other mages are in there?" he asked Wizard.
"I can't tell," the old man replied, grimly.
"We have to find out," Shanadar replied, eying the Castle doubtfully. "I don't like the thought of taking the main entrance. It could be a trap."
Selax turned to Katerei and asked, "Can you smell anything?"
Quickly, she changed into her wolf-form and scented the air. Changing back, she shook her head and replied, "There's been too much coming and going over the past couple of days. It's hard to determine anything specific."
"I could check it out," Silverfish offered. "They might not notice me."
Selax stated, "It is dangerous to split up if we are expected and if this being has power of the magnitude Wizard suggests."
"It does," Wizard assured them.
"We could take a secret entrance," Shanadar offered. The Enforcer regretted risking exposing such secrets to Rapierian but he vowed to make sure the entrance was blocked up later. "I know one or two."
"Can we get there without being spotted?" Talos asked.
"I'm not sure," the Enforcer replied, honestly. "But it won't be as dangerous as going into the main gate."
Quickly, he turned and led the group toward the western side of the Castle. Entering one of the sewer drains, the Enforcer took a few steps forward and, placing his hands against the wall, pushed. The wall slid back revealing a secret passage.
"Nice trick! Tell me do you do birthday parties?" Rapierian asked.
"Quiet!" everyone else replied as one. Entering, the small, narrow passage, they proceeded forward silently.
The passage was short, ending in a ladder that led up to a trapdoor. Shanadar climbed the ladder, pulled out a key, and opened the trapdoor. Carefully, he raised his head and looked around him.
"It looks like the coast is clear," he said, as he climbed out. The others followed him and found they were in the Judge's kitchen.
Even here, there was no sign of life. The room was silent and dark with the only light coming through the windows.
"We should head for the throne room," Wizard said. "I think we'll find our host there."
The group headed down the hallways of the darkened edifice. Nowhere did they see any sign of activity or indeed any sign that anyone had been in the building for some time.
Finally, they reached the entrance to the throne room. Selax carefully stepped forward, followed by the rest. For a moment, there was a silence. Then, abruptly, the candles around the room flamed up, illuminating a single figure sitting in the throne with his back to them.
Rising, the man turned to them, showing his face—the face of Berossus.
"So, you have come, my friends," he said.
Before anyone else could reply, Wizard stepped forward and raised his hand.
"You are not the Judge," he stated decisively as he pointed at the man.
"Me? Not Berossus?" The man seemed surprised at the accusation. He looked at the others in the group with a puzzled expression. "What insanity is this?"
Again Wizard spoke, "It's not insanity. Something's been wrong here the entire time. . . and I have been too blind to see it. You have been interfering with my powers."
"You come here -- without an invitation I may add -- sneak past my guards, and confront me with these ridiculous lies?" Berossus face reddened with anger, "You have abused my hospitality. Leave me now!"
"If you do not show yourself, I shall remove the disguise for you!" Wizard responded. He closed both eyes, focusing on breaking himself and the others out of this illusion. Berossus' form began to quiver; then, before the group's eyes, he faded away. In his place, there stood an emaciated figure. His face was virtually identical to Wizard's, except that he had no beard and his hair was long and pure white.
Wizard stared for a moment in shock. Behind him, the others, obviously surprised as well, raised their weapons.
"Who are you?" he said in a voice that was almost a whisper.
"Your worst nightmare," the other replied with laughter. At this moment, there came the sound of many footsteps around them. From the side doors, guards suddenly poured forth, taking position to defend the other Wizard.
"It's too bad you had to try to spoil my fun," he sighed before smiling again. "But, no matter. After all, this game has only just begun."
Around him, the guards raised their weapons and began to close in on the group...
Katerei last edited by
"No wonder Berossus claimed this chaos was the work of a shape-shifter," Katerei hissed.
She couldn't be sure that it was even the Wizard they faced now, or if it was merely another disguise; but as her mind raced, she recalled the brief glimpses she had seen of the Wizard she knew when his guard was down, time and battle worn on his face. If he could alter his appearance, perhaps complete shape-shifting was not beyond him. Another Wizard could easily have the same capability – for she no longer had any doubts about the existence of these duplicate people – so it seemed safe to assume that Berossus-in-disguise was indeed a duplicate Wizard. Not that it made her feel much better.
And what of that? How long had the ruse been going on? How much had they inadvertently revealed to their apparent enemy in their dealings with the judge? Perhaps more worrying, what had happened to the real Berossus?
There was no time to think it through before battle was upon them. "Aim to disable, not kill!" Shanadar instructed the group as guards closed in. "We don't know if they are duplicates or not!"
Talos and Selax immediately swept forward to meet the onslaught, swords flashing in the candlelight. Silverfish fluttered overhead, ready to strike nimbly at any second. Katerei stepped backward to prepare both for a ranged offensive and to heal her companions if needed. She didn't know if the guards had such noble intentions as Shanadar and wasn't about to take the risk. Wizard and Rapierian were also preparing spells, though Katerei couldn't be sure what kind. Shanadar himself stood near the spellcasters, staff at the ready to meet any guards that slipped past the front line – and, she speculated, to keep an eye on Rapierian. At least the necromancer could be trusted to fight to save himself, but she wouldn't put it past him to change sides on a whim.
Katerei felt the familiar shock of cold on her palms as she pulled water out of the air and shaped it into a long, wickedly edged shard of ice. "I hope you're not one of Shanadar's friends," she muttered as she took aim at a guard and flung the shard like a dart. It soared across the room and grazed the back of his sword hand, leaving a nasty red gash.
The sound of the ice shattering as it collided with the wall behind him confused him long enough for Katerei to create a dense ball of ice and hurl it as his head, but he turned back in time to see it coming and ducked. Now that he knew who his attacker was, he began to advance toward her.
Katerei pretended to cast about for something to use as a weapon as she hid one hand behind her back, relying on her full skirt to conceal the long whip of water she was quickly shaping. When the guard was within range, she suddenly lashed out with the whip and coiled it around his ankles. A swift tug had him flat on his back, sword clattering to the ground where he'd dropped it in surprise. Katerei darted forward and stomped on his fingers as he scrabbled for his weapon. Water whip dissolving back into midair, she scooped up the sword and slammed the hilt into his head. The guard groaned in pain and passed out. He would live, but have a terrible headache upon waking.
Gripping the "borrowed" sword a bit awkwardly, as it was too heavy for her, Katerei looked around the room. She noted with some puzzlement that there appeared to be far more guards than had originally entered the room. Her allies were fighting well, but they were severely outnumbered. "Shanadar!" she called to the Enforcer, who stood nearby fending off two guards with the opposite ends of his staff. "Where did all these guards come from?"
"Well, when a man and a woman love each other very much-" Rapierian began, but Shanadar roared something impolite so loudly that Katerei didn't hear the rest of the necromancer's comment.
"I have no idea," Shanadar confessed to Katerei when he had rendered the two guards unconscious and she was finally able to maneuver close enough to for them speak without being overheard. "I'm sure Berossus didn't have this many guards, but they just seem to keep coming. Look out behind you!" he warned suddenly, and rammed the end of his staff into the ribs of a guard who stumbled away, gasping for breath.
"We won't be able to fight our way out of this gray," Katerei said worriedly. She gradually found herself fighting back-to-back with Shanadar as more and more guards pressed in around them. There wasn't enough time to form proper combative spells, so she resorted to tactics of desperation: attacking with the flat of the sword blade, scalding guards' hands with hot water so that they dropped their weapons, flinging dirt and rubble into their eyes.
She'd lost track of the rest of their group, though the sounds of combat still echoed throughout the increasingly cramped room. The dust that had coated the floor after the golem's assault on the castle roof now filled the air, disturbed again by battle. Between that and the flickering candlelight, it was hard to see far. Only in the centre of the room, where a small section of the ceiling had collapsed the night before, did the morning sunlight stream through.
And were they getting pushed toward it by the fray, closer to the other Wizard? "Shanadar, look over there!" Katerei cried, pointing at the bright patch that illuminated a guard nearby. The man seemed to flicker insubstantially in the sunlight. There was something not right about it, but she felt oddly disoriented and couldn't quite get her mind around it.
"What's going on?" Shanadar asked, sounding as puzzled as she felt. "Where's our Wizard? I feel like we should ask him-" but his words were cut off with a sharp cry of pain.
"Shanadar!" Katerei spun around in alarm to see that a guard had broken through his defenses, and the Enforcer was clutching a gash on his side. Blood seeped out through his fingers.
"I'll be fine," he said, gritting his teeth. "We have to find the others and get out of here somehow."
Angered at her friend being hurt, Katerei drew back her free hand and decked Shandar's attacker in the face. She was rewarded with the sound of his nose breaking and the guard stumbling backward, mainly out of surprise as blood poured down his front.
But she had left herself vulnerable in the process, and only saw the glint of a guard's sword when it was almost upon her. Katerei shrieked as the blade tore across her upper arm. The guard was already drawing back for another strike, when a shower of dust and rubble rained down upon them as part of the ceiling collapsed on their heads.
It hadn't been hard getting the roof to give way. The golem had done enough damage already that a few good blows from K's flail at the edge of the small hole had caused it to cave under her feet. She rappelled down in the midst of the falling debris, the other end of her rope anchored to the chimney on the roof.
A swift kick to the head forced one guard to recoil. K leaped lightly to the ground and and swung her flail at the guard that had been set on skewering the other her. The spiked flail head connected solidly with his chest, leaving bloody tears in his leather armour. The man staggered backward and collapsed as quickly as the roof had.
The guards weren't the real problem though. K squinted through the dust and sunlight into the murky candlelight at the back of the room, where a gaunt, white-haired man stood observing the room. "Come with me," she commanded, and seized Katerei's uninjured arm. The other woman protested, but K kept a firm grip as she dashed away from the patch of sunlight toward the front of the room.
"We're running through people!" the other woman yelled behind her, but K ignored her astonishment and kept going. She flung open the great front doors of the castle, and bright sunlight streamed past them into the entrance hall as they raced toward the mangled gates and the rest of Cademia.
Distantly, K heard Selax calling out Katerei's name. "I can't leave them there!" the woman cried. "Stop, let me go back!"
"Keep running!" K yelled over her shoulder. "It's just some sort of mind trick going on back there, they'll be fine!"
It wasn't until they were past the western edge of Cademia, sheltered by trees, that K finally slowed and let go of the other woman's arm. They both doubled over, panting with the exertion of their madcap escape.
"You might have killed that guard," was the first thing Katerei said reprovingly when she caught her breath.
"He might have killed you," K replied tonelessly.
There was a tense silence as they stared at each other. Now that they were out of danger - or so K hoped - they had only each other to deal with. She felt a little like she ought to introduce herself, but wouldn't that be the most pointless thing in the world? "You're bleeding," K said finally, indicating the other woman's arm.
"It's nothing," Katerei muttered, although she turned away for a moment to tend to it. K noted with some interest that the woman seemed to be using a healing spell with which she herself was not familiar. Something to think about later.
"So what was that all about?" Katerei said when she was finished. "You were so urgent about getting out of there, and now..." she trailed off pointedly.
K exhaled and rubbed her eyes with her wrists, the only part of her hands that wasn't smeared with dirt. "It's... complicated," she said lamely. "You - we shouldn't both exist. That's not something you can just ignore. And it's kind of a long story."
"Fine." Katerei sat down on the grass in the shade of a tree, arranging her skirt neatly about her. "Start talking. I'll listen. But it had better be a damn good story after you forced me to abandon my friends to people who were trying to kill them."
The other woman didn't look angry, but she was. Furious even. K looked at her duplicate in astonishment. Not astonished that she was angry, because she thought she could understand that, but that it was so easy to tell. Something about the set of her eyes and the straight line of her mouth.
She'd have to make amends though if she wanted to get any help out of the woman. At least she could take comfort in the fact that Katerei wasn't yelling anymore, or trying to attack her or something equally unpredictable. "I'm sorry I made you leave them behind," K acknowledged. "They'll get out of it all right though. They were fighting well, and there weren't nearly as many guards as there seemed to be... I think the Wizard was casting some spell to confuse us, make it seem like there were more guards than there really were. It didn't seem to hold up as well in the sunlight though, so I made sure to leave the doors wide open to help your friends clear their heads. Things always seem clearer during the daytime." She shrugged.
"How did you figure it out?" Katerei asked immediately.
The question automatically made K a little suspicious - was she prying to see how their knowledge differed? To check her allegiances? But at the same time she knew it was the sort of question she would ask in that position. She, too, wanted to figure out just how they stood in relation to each other, in skill and knowledge and personality. Plus, talking about present events was a way of skirting the titan in the room, so to speak.
"I was watching from the hole in the roof. The spell didn't seem as strong up there; I noticed it more as soon as I came down. That... disoriented feeling. Maybe the Wizard couldn't target me well because he didn't know I was there. I could also observe the guards better from outside the fray. Most of them weren't actively attacking. I figured out to only attack the ones that came after me. Those were the real ones."
"How did you get onto the roof in the first place? Why did you wait so long to help us? And how did you know where we were?" Katerei's questions came quickly one after another, as if she was struggling to fit the pieces together, but the last one caught K entirely off guard. "And why are you wet?"
K flushed with embarrassment. She'd forgotten about that part. "I'd better start at the beginning," she said, then paused. What was the beginning? There could be twenty-three years to cover. No, today was all that mattered for now. Today was the first time they had come face-to-face with each other. Everything else could wait.
"I had to talk to you about something alone. I tried this morning, in the slums, but Selax appeared out of nowhere. I... well, I thought he was somebody else, so I ducked out of sight. But I followed you and your companions to the Judge's Castle in hopes of getting you away from the others. I thought I could remain unnoticed, until you... changed shape. I panicked and doused myself in water to hide my scent from you," she said sheepishly. "It seemed to work, but you all began to leave and I realized you were working out a way to enter the Castle."
K took a deep breath and turned slightly aside to gaze out over the Cademia that belonged to another people, another land. Leaves brushed lightly against her hair as she leaned on one of the tall trees that surrounded them. "I knew who would be in there waiting for you, but not with what. I couldn't let you just walk in there and get slaughtered. The roof looked damaged enough that I thought I might be able to get in that way, so I followed you and your companions into the castle and found a maintenance ladder in the grounds."
"I was lucky," she continued. "Did you notice how all the windows were covered up to keep the daylight out? Maybe the Wizard didn't notice the hole in the roof because it wasn't obvious during the night, or he hadn't got someone to repair it yet. Anyway, it took me some time to get up there, and then to figure out what was going on. I intervened as soon as I could."
"Why did we have to leave right then? What's so urgent that you couldn't come back later to talk to me?" Katerei looked suspicious.
"I gave myself away by helping you." It was frustrating, and worrying, but there had been no way around it. "If they didn't know I was here already, they certainly do now. It was my only chance to get out, and it was easiest to bring you with me."
" Who knows?" Katerei pressed. "Who's "they"? We only found out about this other Wizard just now. Who are you people, anyway?"
It was a chilling reminder of just how far from home K was, but as she looked back at her duplicate, she noticed that the traces of anger had left her face to be replaced by worry. Maybe all we both want is for our lives to go back to normal , she realized with a sudden pang of sadness. It wasn't much, but maybe Avatara had been right. Maybe that would be enough to persuade her to help.
"I don't know much for sure," K said cautiously. "I came here by accident, really. I know that this isn't my land. It looks just like the Cythera I lived in, but it... feels different. I can find my way around Cademia like it's the Mother City I know, but there's always this sense of not belonging."
K pressed her fingers to her lips anxiously, and saw the slight widening of the other woman's eyes as she recognized the gesture. There was an odd twisting in her stomach as she recalled that same moment of recognition, days ago in the woods near Kosha. It made her a little nauseous to be this close to her duplicate, like a defilement of nature. But somehow they were going to have to work together.
"Once I started to figure out what had happened, I only planned to pass through. I was going to set sail and leave this island forever." K's voice shook slightly as she thought of how quickly everything had changed. "Not everyone from my Cythera seems to have the same idea though. You met one of them this morning, but the Wizard isn't working alone. There is someone else who I believe is behind all the chaos lately."
"The person you know as Selax - your companion who fought alongside you just now - is, in my world, a murderer and terrible tyrant who rules alongside the Wizard. They appear to have set their sights on your world now. If you want to have any hope of avoiding our fate, the curse of living either oppressed or forever hunted and in fear... you and your allies must help us take out Selax."
"However does the asp coil, to meet the gator's inviting smile. As rubbing scales cause blood to boil, and fuel hunger all the while." The voice laughed in the darkness.
The course white clothe of a twisted headband softly creaked as the final knot tightened the loop around Athes's head. The small act brought him a sense of calm and focus.
At his side was his swallow, a weapon only used by those his bloodline. Slowly he pulled forth the instrument: the two adjacent blades black and smooth as the most resilient obsidian he could find forge from his homeland, with the middle covered in the tanned strips of titan leather. Following two quick swipes from a small, old clothe, the strange and beautiful blade was quickly fastened onto it's wielder's back.
The constant stream of air rushed passed Athes who now rose at the mouth of a cave. The shadow cast by the cave's jagged mouth wasn't enough to hide Athes, nor did he want it to; his fiery red skin always had a way of being easily visible. Athes embraced it. He was proud of his lineage, his fathers before him had not allowed their bloodline to be tainted as other had, and he would do the same. The forces of nature could not be stopped or controlled,only slowed or helped along, and the proof was him and his weapon.
He closed his pitch black eyes, letting the world of the surrounding forest overtake him, trying to clear his mind of the foulness that lurk behind him in the darker depths of Cythera.
Athes cleansed his mind say for one uninvited thought, "Tsk Tsk. I can't see how anyone can follow or lead the followers and leaders. Then again I can't see much anything at all." The voice spoke into Athes's mind.
The demon remained still, letting the soothing air breeze past his bare and scarred chest.
Feral's dead, and so is Biter. As far as I can tell, Black Horn began to lead the rest of us, but rumor is that he's under command of some other man, or two, I wasn't there when it happened. It doesn't matter though, this idea of unity was a lie to begin. We had started progressing underground, we stopped and for some reason we began moving our supplies forward, but a fight broke out. The freaks started taring each other apart, and then they caused the cave to return to unspoiled earth. A large group of us made it out, most of the others scattered or killed each other for supplies like the vultures they are.
"Oh? But it's only natural I suppose." The voice spoke ringing through his mind.
Natural?! Athes thought in outrage, There's nothing natural about this filth, the earth taking them back is proof that those mana soaked deformities don't have a place in this world.
The voice laughed ever so lightly, it annoyed Athes to no end, "And how much of this 'filth' still ravages your precious world?"
Athes scoffed, No way remains for me to tell, nothing's come out of the cave, and nothing's going in. I don't know how many of the one's that made it in are dead or even if any left are still active, and this place is not my world. I-
Athes reached up and pulled away a leaf that had gotten caught by the left of his gray horns. He looked at it for a moment, it reminded him of his old world and made him yearn for the departure from this abomination he found himself in. He set it back off into the wind current, where it flew down into the cave.
I saw other passages branching off as we made our decent. It's possible there's another way to get to where the others might be. I don't know for sure though. It depends on what you want me to do next, rebuilding an 'army' is definitely not an option.
"Options are options and some stop being either." The voice laughed.
Athes did not engage Firecat's 'playful' banter, it was beneath him.
"Oh? Becoming optional are we? Well it doesn't really matter, it's not your decision after all. If you wish to go back then you can become completely optional, but if you don't... well that's still just an option now isn't it? Which to choose. Which to choose."
Clearly the right path is not be as unreal as an idea.
"Oh-ho-ho." Firecat remarked playfully, "Not quite the same spark as before are you?"
"Very well, conjecture has gone to sleep, and now reality takes his dreams. The Eastern city has such growth, enough to merit a trimming, wouldn't you say? Or think? Which do you prefer?"
Firecat's last thought lingered in Athes's mind, but it was fleeting, he would head to the city of Catamarca in a moment. First he would attend to the three demons slowly moving in on him.
A deafening voice broke the serene peace of the forest. "Halt, filth. Come no further or die." Athes boomed with the crackling of a raging fire.
A voice screeched from behind a tree, "Creed says no! No for red! Die! Die and feed us, slime!"
A demon of black fur and mangled horns emerged and launched a fireball at the mouth of the cave.
"HeheheHAHAHA! Mmmm, smells delicious!" The demon spoke wildly as smoke poured into the sky.
From the roaring blaze at the entrance to the cave the red demon Athes emerged. "Fire? You dare try to slay me with with which I was born from? Fools."
The demon named Creed stumbled backwards, his other two companions came out of hiding and drew their weapons.
Athes reached down by his left and pulled forwards his obsidian counterpart. "Your perversion will no longer be tolerated by this world."
Creed was the most defenseless of the three having apparently no remaining mana. Athes darted forward severing the beats head with a single swing of his swallow.
The attack left Athes open for only an instant, but in that moment the demon adorned in blue paint had struck him with a dagger in his left arm.
Athes did not cry out, only growled and grit his fangs as he pulled the dagger out and proceeded to grab the blue demon by the throat and lift him off the ground. The other demon, covered in piercings, began to glow as he casted a lightning spell.
Athes quickly threw the demon in blue towards the other, and in a blur of blood and pieces the demon in blue was blown apart by the blast.
The demon covered in trinkets was in shock at what he had done, and in those defenseless moments Athes cast a spell on the him, causing him to become deathly afraid. Athes threw the beast to the ground before he could escape.
"Foul being, you're unfit for the natural order. Worry not, the land will be restored." Athes's Raised his swallow, looked into the frightened creatures eyes with soulless black ones of his own, and struck it through the demon's thick skull and minuscule brain.
The lone red demon stood above the two corpses and flicked the blood off his wild instrument.
After a pause he returned his curved and crooked blade to his back, and went off east, towards Catamarca.
Lysander waited patiently on the outskirts Northwest of Catamarca. The city had already been infiltrated by the first wave. His own troops remained hidden near the city. With everything in order, his only concern now was waiting for the orders to drop the guise and take over this pitiful and un-mastered land. However Lysander's patience could only be stretched so thin, and soon he would station more troops by Odemia if he was given nothing to kill the boredom in the near future.
This post has been edited by Two Jacks : 13 January 2011 - 04:19 PM
Cademia was burning. Even from where she was, Moonshadow could see the smoke rising from the city, dimming the pre-dawn light even further. The sight was shocking, giving sudden credibility to the rumors she had heard at Pnyx.
She had arrived there barely a day previously, returning from her homeworld, to find the mages in a state of unrest that was quite unlike the usual atmosphere. Apparently, both Alaric and Magpie had suddenly fallen ill, and some of the most prominent house leaders and mages, including Headmaster Lindus, were traveling to Land King Hall to help. The remaining instructors had been doing their best to keep the students calm, yet they couldn't quite quell the whispered tales of gruesome murders and invading armies. It had seemed ridiculous at the time - where would the invaders come from? Cythera was an island nation and it seemed unlikely that any army could approach unnoticed across the oceans. As for the tales of murders, even if they were not exaggerated, she had been confident that her friends would be able to deal with any trouble that arose. Even though it wasn't what she had returned to Cythera for, she'd decided to head to Land King Hall herself, to offer her own healing abilities, and then to find her companions.
But now, watching the columns of smoke rising from the biggest city of Cythera, she wasn't sure of her decision anymore. At the least, she felt like she had an obligation to find out more and lend assistance if she could.
As Moonshadow approached Cademia, she could see that her initial assessment of the situation had at least been partially wrong: though smoke was still rising from the southern part of the city, it seemed like whichever fire had caused it had been put out. She had a hope that the fire had been caused by nothing more than an accident, yet as she circled around the city, she noticed that the Judge's Castle also seemed to have taken some damage - damage that did not look as though it was caused by a fire. Worried, she completed her circle around the city and finally landed near the southeastern road into Cademia, transforming back into her elven form. The first thing I need is information , she thought. Her stomach growled, choosing that moment to remind her she hadn't eaten since shortly after arriving at Pnyx. And food…
Despite the early hour, she managed to find a stall at the market that sold food. As she ate, she listened to the stallkeeper talk in hushed tones to another older man.
"I'm telling you, this city is going downhill! First that… THING... at the Judge's Castle, then the explosion… this can't be good."
"I'm sure that group of heroes will deal with the trouble," the other man opined.
"Like they dealt with the trouble in Kosha?" the stallkeeper inquired scornfully.
"We don't know anything's wrong in Kosha," the older man said.
"We don't know anything's right in Kosha! These so-called heroes -"
"Are doing their best to keep all of us safe! You should be more grateful."
"Excuse me," Moonshadow interrupted before the two men could argue further. "These heroes… could you tell me where I can find them?"
"Huh…I think they're staying at the inn," the older man replied.
"Thank you," Moonshadow replied, inclining her head towards the men and turning to leave.
She went around the burned part of Cademia on her way to the Two Tailed Rat, and when she arrived she was told by the harried-looking innkeeper that the group she was looking for had left not too long ago. This is typical.
"Can you tell me where they went?" She asked.
"Not sure exactly… but I think one of 'em mentioned talking to the Judge. Might wanna try there."
She approached the Judge's Castle slowly, wondering at the destruction - the southern part of the wall that had once surrounded the keep was destroyed, and she could see that part of the building behind it was ruined as well. The stallkeeper seemed to think the damage had been caused by a single creature, yet how… and something else was strange about the scene. She stared for a few seconds, frowning, trying to put her finger on it, then it occurred to her. Where are the guards? This much ruin, surely there should be people around, even at this time of day. Yet the place seemed deserted. She walked along the ruined wall until she reached what remained of the gate. The fountains were gone, yet strangely the hall behind them seemed undamaged, the great doors closed. Still nobody was visible.
As she regarded the scene before her, she became aware of sounds. She frowned, tilting her head - fighting? Yet the sound seemed faint, as if coming from far away; she doubted a human would have heard it. She stepped carefully up to the doors, focusing on the sounds, trying to figure out where they were coming from. Somewhere inside? She reached out a hand to gingerly push against the door, intending to open it just a crack - and paused as her fingers slid right through it. An illusion? But why? For a moment, she debated just stepping through, but common sense prevailed. If her friends were inside they might need help, yet stepping right into what might be a trap was not the best way to go about it. She climbed over what remained of the right fountain, peering carefully through the window, and gasped at what she saw. Guards, more than should have been present in all of Cademia, were fighting - no, attacking another group of people. Most of them looked unfamiliar, yet she quickly recognized a few faces. Selax and Wizard were surrounded, fighting back to back, a few steps away from where another man she thought looked familiar was trying to hold off three guards at once, bleeding badly from a wound in his side. Yet not all the guards seemed to be fighting - some were standing, looking blank, others seemed to be merely going through the motions.
What is going on here? she wondered, worried and more than a bit confused. She did not want to hurt the guards, yet one thing was clear - she could not let them hurt her former companions. Determinedly, she stepped away from the window and through the door that wasn't really there. She skirted around the edge of the room, making her way closer to the fighting adventurers, grateful the guards were too engaged in the fight to pay much attention, until a guard appeared right in front of her. She'd almost stepped through him before noticing him, and her eyes widened in understanding. Another illusion! She reached forwards, infusing her hands with a touch of magic, dispelling the illusory guard, then turned to survey the room. She did not need to fight anyone - if she could just destroy the ones that were not real, the others would stand a much better chance.
This post has been edited by Moonshadow : 13 January 2011 - 06:49 PM
Outside of the Castle, Rapierian moved forward cautiously. He had seen the group arrive earlier, but he had not seen them come out nor seen any sign of activity at all at first. Then, both Katereis had come running out of the Castle. Moments later, an elf had entered the Castle, also running through the gate.
The ranger slipped into the Castle grounds. Hesitating a moment only, he began to climb the ruined roof. As he did so, he began to hear faint sounds of battle coming from below him...
Selax and Talos had been attempting to fight their way through the guards to reach Wizard's strange double. Their progress had been hindered by the seemingly endless influx of guards and the fact that the old man never seemed to be in the same place twice. Although they had quickly realized that illusions were involved, they were still not quite able to determine how to penetrate them. Wizard was staring at his double without moving, seemingly locked in some sort of mental battle. Silverfish hovered around him, keeping the guards from reaching him.
The collapsing roof caught everyone by surprise.
Digging himself out of the rubble, Selax stood up. Casually backhanding a guard into a nearby wall, the elemental glanced around and assessed the situation.
The first thing he noticed was Katerei being dragged out of the room by what appeared to be another Katerei. The next thing that he noticed was that sunlight seemed to be interfering with the illusion of the false guards, enabling him to more accurately determine how many foes they were facing.
Unfazed, he called, "Katerei."
Neither woman stopped, and Selax could not take the time to pursue them. He could see no sign of Shanadar, Silverfish, Rapierian, or Talos. He found that he was now closer to Wizard than to his double and that the former now had no one to cover him.
Leaping over to the old man, Selax knocked three guards away from him. Stepping in front of Wizard, Selax found himself facing several guards. When he stepped toward them, they backed up and he noticed two or three others attempting to close in on Wizard from the sides. He stepped back and considered the situation. The guards did not want to engage him in combat directly—a wise decision—and were attempting to pin him down by threatening Wizard.
Of course, this depended on the guards being fast enough to avoid his engaging them. Catching one guard who was too slow to dodge, he lifted the man and threw him into the others in front of him.
Surveying the situation once more, he finally spotted Shanadar and Rapierian. The former was wounded and in a fight with three more guards. The latter was strolling toward him and Wizard, occasionally using a spell to keep any attackers away from him.
"The quality of the Judge's reception sure seems to have improved," the necromancer said cheerfully as he reached them. "I'd even go so far as to say—"
"Help Shanadar," Selax interrupted, as he stabbed one of the guards facing them.
"Alas, I fear he is beyond my help!" Rapierian sighed dramatically. He opened his mouth to continue, but, before he could do so, Selax spun toward him and, lifting him off the ground, threw him across the room into one of Shanadar's attackers.
Turning back to his immediate opposition, the elemental noted that there seemed to be fewer of the guards opposing him. Indeed, as he looked around the room, he realized that the illusory guards seemed to be disappearing. Glancing toward Wizard, he observed that the telepath also seemed surprised.
"Not me," Wizard said, sounding strained from his mental battle. He pointed toward the wall. "Moonshadow."
Turning, Selax spotted the elven woman standing against the wall near Shanadar and Rapierian. Her hands were upraised toward the room as she took advantage of the other Wizard's distraction to dispel his illusions. Having finished off most of the illusions, she rushed over toward the wounded Enforcer and began attempting to heal his injury.
The guards hesitated, caught off-guard by the unexpected attack. Suddenly, from among the ruins piled near the opening in the roof, arrows began to fly, striking the startled guards, who momentarily drew back to regroup. Some of them turned toward the new source of attack and began to advance slowly, keeping behind their shields.
Shanadar, Moonshadow, and Rapierian took advantage of the relative lull in the combat to regroup with Selax and Wizard. The Enforcer moved stiffly, clearly better but not quite recovered.
"Thank you—" Shanadar began to say to Moonshadow.
"You're welcome!" Rapierian interrupted. "How nice of you to appreciate my inventive rescue."
"I'm not talking to you!" the Enforcer roared. Calming himself, he turned toward Moonshadow and continued, "I apologize if this sounds strange, but how do we know you're the real Moonshadow?"
Surprised by the question, the magess blinked, but, before she could reply, Silverfish flew down from the ceiling and said, "I don't think we have time to check right now."
He pointed toward the other side of the room. The guards had regrouped around the other Wizard and were beginning to advance slowly toward the group. Others were still attempting to reach the mysterious archer hidden in the ruins.
"She has helped us so far," Shanadar answered. "That will have to do for the moment."
Deciding that Wizard had sufficient protection, Selax stepped toward the oncoming guards and lifted his swords.
"Failure to surrender strongly indicates a lack of self-preservation," the elemental said calmly.
"Try not to kill them," Shanadar repeated from behind him, as he lifted his staff.
"If possible," Selax replied.
Leaping, he landed in the middle of the attacking guards and began to cut his way through them. Behind him, the other group members charged forward.
Avatara wandered down one of the narrow streets in the slums, the smoldering ashes from the fire blanketing the passageway with a light gray haze and the acrid smell of smoke. He had managed to piece together snippets of conversations to form a rough idea of what happened the night before. More than ever, he was sure Selax would be coming to this city, if he wasn't here already. Yet, surely he would move on soon. Time was running out and most of the pieces were still out of place.
He was supposed to wait out of sight for Katerei to return. By now, Iannah had to suspect she had been abandoned, and the attackers from the night before had shown no qualms about being seen openly. Being caught up in a heated battle could destroy any hope he had of mustering enough strength to bring down Selax. Yet, when he was sitting idle, memories of Katerei's revelation flooded back to him, mingling with fragments of happier times, when everything in the world had seemed right. Trying to sort out the grief, anger, and hurt from her betrayal became so unbearable, he shoved his emotions aside and took a walk to help clear his mind.
And now he found himself standing over the blackened remains of a makeshift structure that had been devastated by the fire, thinking about the very things he was trying not to focus on. A part of him couldn't quite accept that such a close friend could be responsible for such a terrible betrayal. He wished it wasn't true, but the guilt and shame he had witnessed from her while she had confessed her dark secret was real. Even more frustrating was his inability to decide what to do with her now. He should push her away, it would be the sensible thing given her violation of his trust, but she was also the only living connection he had to the world. The past few days had reminded him of how much he hated being alone, of how much he had locked away in his isolation.
Mulling his thoughts distracted him from his surroundings. Where he would normally be attentive and alert, he was fixated on the tendrils of smoke slowly wafting into the air, reminding him of silver hair waving in the wind. And so, he was completely unaware of the man behind him until it was too late.
Without warning, Avatara felt a heavy weight crash into him from behind. His arms were quickly pinned to his sides and his attacker attempted to force him to the ground. He strained to reach his weapon, but his opponent was stronger. Unable to break free, his mind raced through his options. The doubts clouding him a moment before were pushed aside; there would be time to dwell on them later.
Avatara lightened his struggle as his assailant forced him to one knee. He knew if he was pinned to the ground, it would be over. Almost... The oppressing presence seemed to grow more confident in its victory. All he needed was an opening... there! Avatara pitched forward and twisted. The sudden change in pressure flipped his opponent over his shoulder and threw them on the ground.
As Avatara landed his shoulder heavily on his foe, he got his first glimpse of his opponent. He didn’t recognize the face of the man underneath him, but they were bigger than him, and they had managed to maintain their grip on his collar. With sudden force, the man yanked Avatara’s head closer and slammed his forehead into him. For an instant, Avatara was stunned by the pain flashing through his skull. Seizing upon the opportunity, his opponent pushed Avatara back onto the ground, trying again to restrain him. Gritting his teeth to banish away the pain from the concussion, Avatara used the momentum from his opponent to push him to the side, the two of them rolling through the soot and debris from the burned-out ruins.
Unable to free himself from the man’s grasp, Avatara brought his knee up, jabbing it into the enemy’s gut. The man grunted and slackened his grip enough for Avatara to tear away and rise to his feet. Free at last, he quickly drew his sword, but with the flash of a boot his sword hand exploded in pain, and he dropped the blade.
The man had recovered quickly, already standing in front of him. While Avatara reached for his offhand sword, the man lunged forward, grabbing his neck and pushing him back into the blackened brick wall of the adjacent structure. He abandoned his futile effort to draw his weapon and grabbed the man’s hands, frantically trying to stop the fingers closing around his windpipe.
“Stay your hand, I only desire a few words,” the man hissed.
Avatara used his opponent’s arm to support himself as he swung both feet up and kicked his enemy away. Quickly gasping in breath, Avatara pressed forward during his brief advantage. A punch to the head followed by an uppercut to the chin staggered his opponent backwards, leaving him momentarily vulnerable. Now he had to make a choice, and make it quickly. There was no guarantee the man would tell him anything, but someone had obviously recognized him and tried to kill him. It was worth the extra risk to keep his opponent alive and find out who was after him.
He grabbed his enemy and threw him against the wall, using his forearm to try and choke the man unconscious. His opponent, realizing what was happening, used his chin to pin Avatara’s arm in place, freeing up a hand to reach for something. Seeing the movement, Avatara tried to stop it but was at a disadvantage trying to pin two arms with only one hand. The man was slowly but surely raising up some kind of weapon, intent on ending this struggle. Positioning himself so he could dodge the inevitable blow, Avatara looked up and saw... a red hat? The man’s hand released his grip on the hat, and it plopped down snugly on his head.
The next moment, Avatara felt himself lurching at the wall, grasping at air. The man was gone, leaving behind only a cloud of smoke. Slightly confused, Avatara looked around, up, and down, but he saw no trace of his assailant. He waited a moment, taking a defensive crouch against the wall, but nothing stirred. The only sound was the faint noises from the waking city, as people began sifting through the rubble.
Somewhat wary of another attack, Avatara finally moved away from the wall. He walked slowly towards his discarded sword lying on the ground. As he leaned over to pick it up, he saw a shadow, and abruptly twisted away. The hilt of a spear whooshed through the air, barely missing his head. The man stepped forward onto the sword, trapping it beneath his boot, and readied his weapon for another attack. The red hat was nowhere to be found.
The man lunged forward, using the spear as one would use a staff. Avatara ripped his belt knife out of its sheath and parried a pair of blows with the flat of his blade, but the superior reach of his opponent’s weapon put him at a disadvantage. He was quickly being backed into a corner again and his other defenses might kill the man.
His adversary quickly tapped his spear against the ground and then swung it broadly. Avatara raised his left arm to easily block the attack, but as his forearm connected with the metal shaft, a jolt of electricity surged into his body, momentarily dazing him.
His attacker rushed forward, using the spear as a bar to pin Avatara against the wall. As his opponent forced him backwards into the brick, Avatara brought up his dagger in a feeble attempt to stop the assault, but stopped as the cold metal shaft pressed harshly against his neck, threatening to fatally crush his windpipe.
“Please, all I ask for is your cooperation,” his attacker pleaded.
“You have a funny way of asking,” Avatara managed to gasp out.
The man opened his mouth to reply, but then froze as he noticed the dagger pressing up against his neck.
Yomu and the man stared into each others eyes, each with a grip on the others life. The only thing hold them back from killing each other was calculation if it would take longer to crush a trachea or slit a throat, that and the moral dilemma of killing someone; however Yomu felt reluctant to free the man. After finally coming so close to the truth, he couldn't seem to bring himself to pull his spear away from the man.
The man was the first to break the silence.
"We could do this all day, but I don't think it'll do much good."
Would he run if given the chance, would even try to kill him? Yomu couldn't tell, but the man was right: he had no choice, and so Yomu began to slowly pull back his weapon. They were both cautious at first, but once it was safe Yomu jumped back away from the man. Both stood still with their weapons ready.
Yomu watched the man closely. It didn't seem like he was going to run off anytime soon.
"Will you agree to help me?" Yomu asked plainly.
"After all that? Seems like you want a little more then my 'help' stranger."
"I didn't want things to proceed to this, but I could also not risk your escape again."
The man's expression changed, he seemed to be scrutinizing Yomu.
"Just who are you, stranger, have we met? I can't seem to place a name to that face of yours."
"They call me, Yomu. Our paths crossed once before, a past night at the judge's castle. I saw you there with another, and then you both ran."
The man paused once again, as if trying to remember the night more carefully.
"And my I ask what is your name?" Yomu questioned, waiting for a reply.
EDIT : Forgot to add disturbing content warning for the first chapter. I won't blame anyone who skips it should blood and gore in detail not be where you get your jollies. Warning in place, conscience relieved.
The twisted caverns beneath Cademia claim no god god but Darkness now. That was what the man-creature Rythan said to the Daemon before leaving him alone to keep watch on the black altar. Hidden by a maze of tunnels worming their way beneath the city is a great chamber. Fangs of stone bite down from the shadows above. Flames from a handful of iron braziers give off a weak untrustworthy light. Shadows dance where there should be none and are wholly absent where there should. The silhouettes of nightmare creatures that aren’t in the room come to stand by the daemons shadow. To stare at him. When they brush against it he flinches away from their touch.
At the heart of the floor is a circle of bones and blood that cradles a pool of black ichor. Its surface is like a dark mirror reflecting the cave loyally. Looking at your own reflection is not something you would ever do more than once. You can see the horrors it wishes for you if you look. Sometimes it speaks to him in a language that he’s terrified he may one day understand. He is no longer curious about what the altar is for. He just wants to leave.
He is the Daemon called Black-Horn. Once proud and strong. Now broken by fear. Leader of nothing and no one. He keeps no company but the shadows that mean him harm and a stench of death so powerful that if it were alive it would be worthy of your fear.
He commanded many of his brethren until... The tremors from topside sent dust trickling down the night before. Rythan left him with orders to send his Daemons out in the confusion. They would retrieve sacrifices from the city for his altar. Black-Horn’s charges had different plans. Mutiny broke out as he made preparations. They fractured into bands of varied bloodlines and allegiances. He and his most loyal slayed all who opposed him for leadership. Other bands decided they would leave and fend for themselves. The best of his brothers found their pride and struck out on their own, Athes was boldest and strongest among them. He was unkind to those who barred his path. Black-Horn did not bother. He would lose loyal warriors trying and failing to bring Athes to heel.
At the end of it there was only he and three others remaining to guard the altar. The sounds of other bands fighting echoed faintly through the tunnels. Then the shadows beyond the chamber darkened. That was when the screaming started.
It is hard to judge time underground but the horrible sounds seemed to last hours. His warriors kept their nerve. They were used to inflicting pain and suffering. But then those creatures came marching out of the darkness. If you flayed a man of all his skin and sealed half the wounds with fire. Fractured his bones so splinters ripped free of his flesh at every joint when he moved. Smashed a rock into his mouth and shattered his teeth until he smiled at you with two rows of jagged fangs. Carved out his eyes so the empty voids stared at you with all the torment he felt. If you did that to a man and somehow let him live he would be one of those things. For much of the night they dragged in the bloody pieces of Daemons who left. Chunks so ragged none could be recognised.
They worked in silence. One after another they fed his kin to the black pool. It spoke fervently then. One of his warriors, Tartarus, began to grasp what it was saying. It made him weep from the fear. He clawed his own face and neck so badly he died before they could fully restrain him. The ghouls dragged him to the pool before the body went cold. Rythan returned before the night was through. Black-Horn’s followers demanded to know what was happening. Rythan fed them to his altar. Black-Horn whispered something unbidden. Something to whatever higher power might have been watching. Then Rythan turned to him, most of his face hidden by that black veil, and said, “All was born in darkness. To darkness all returns. These caverns claim no god but Darkness now. Do you not feel him?” His crimson eye burned with madness and something the Daemon had not seen from him before. Something even more disturbing. Reverence.
Rythan told him the altar needed to be fed and disloyal followers were of no use. There was no threat there. Just a statement of cold fact. It sent a shiver through the Daemon’s soul. And then Rythan left him. Alone. With no tasks to occupy them the ghouls stay just out of sight, eerily silent. He wished they were always that way. But they aren’t. And that’s why he can’t bring himself to leave. Sometimes when they wander close he can hear them. Whispering through their mangled jaws or the mutilated holes with teeth he sometimes sees on other parts of their bodies, “ The pain... why won’t it stop... gods why...”
“KILL ME!” one of them screamed in his ear and he scrambled away in surprise. It stared at him eyelessly. Drool hanging from its lipless mouth. No, not drool. Its own blood leaking from the holes where its eyes had been. It stood there crying or glaring or both. He couldn’t leave because he knew this was the fate waiting for Rythan’s victims. Eternity spent in unimaginable pain with your mind and soul bound to a mangled slab of undying meat, “Kill me...” The creature half rasped half sobbed.
Tartarus wielded an iron and stone battle-axe that Black-Horn had taken to carrying. A wicked looking weapon that lessened his own fears by a hair. Tartarus wouldn’t be needing it anymore. He raise it up over his head and slashed down through the ghoul. The weapon cleaved through flesh and bone like it might a bolt of cloth. Red splashed across the stones and two halves of the creature fell to either side. For a few blessed seconds there was quiet again. It didn’t last.
The pieces convulsed violently. Bones crackled and snapped muffled by disturbing wet sounds. Spindly insect legs of bone and sinew tore free as each chunk stood on its own, already unrecognizable as what they were moments before. Flesh split in more than a dozen places to reveal hungering teeth. They all rasped in sorrow and pain, each a variation of the same voice. The tick-like monsters didn’t even say words anymore, only insane gibberings. He could feel his mind fraying just listening to them. But then they skittered away. The monsters disappeared into the shadows. Likely to join the greater swarm of them stalking the tunnels. At night he heard their pointy legs scratching against the smooth stone out there. He pitied anything they stumbled across in the dark.
The old houses
In the night, the fires were hungry. A graveyard of houses stood blackened and stripped to the bone. At dawn people wandered the streets unable to look at the charred timbers that were once their homes. Or unable to look away. But one of those burned out husks wasn’t what it seemed. Inside a home miraculously untouched by the flames Krys sat on a couch, eyes closed. She used her powers to project the image of smoldering ruin to everyone who passed. Ral leaned back against the wall beside her wearing a worried frown, “Jacob, is this really necessary?”
The leader of the Hand considered the question for a moment. To his right Scry hung in the air, arms pressed to her sides and feet dangling inches above the carpet. In front of him glared Kain, also suspended by Jacob’s powers. The pyrokinetic sported many fresh bruises and a busted lip. “I wonder about that.” the leader said slowly.
“Let me down damn you!” Kain snarled, “You have no right to--” Kain went flying across the room. WHAM!. He slammed into the far wall. Again. Ral winced as his companion floated slowly back to Jacob. If Scry cared an ounce for her master’s well being she gave no sign of it. She simply hung there, expressionless, in the grip of a massive invisible fist.
“I don’t think you grasp the consequences of what you’ve done Kain.”
“It isn’t my fault! Iannah attacked me without cause I had to--” he trailed off making strangled sounds as something unseen tightened a grip on his throat.
“I wasn’t finished.” Jacob continued calmly. The grip loosened and gave Kain the chance to gasp for air, “Krys looked into your mind. I know exactly what happened.” a hint of amusement entered his voice, “You deviated from the plan. You instigated a confrontation. And for what? To boast? To show up a rival? We don’t have rivals. We are the Hand. The Master commands and we obey. Nothing else is important, especially not your fool pride.” Even through his pain Kain shook with an uncontrollable rage. It was the fight with Iannah all over again. Ral stepped forward to intervene. Their leader spoke first, “Do it Kain.” Jacob smiled, “I can snap you in half before you singe my clothes, but do it. Give me a reason.”
There matched stares for a hard minute. Kain was first to look away, “It won’t happen again.”
“I know it won’t.” Jacob said cheerfully, “Because we’re going to meet with the Master now, you and I. And you are going to open your mind to him so he knows fully what happened last night. And then,” Jacob leaned close, “he will judge you. And if he wishes I will tear you into very small pieces for his enjoyment. Unless he already has something more special in mind. At the very least he already knows we failed our mission.” Kain paled. Whether from Jacob’s threat or what he feared the Master might do was hard to tell.
“Jacob.” Krys spoke up for the first time, concern coloring her features, “I’ve reached the Master.”
Kain unceremoniously dropped to the floor as the leader released him and went to her, “What did he say?”
“There’s a problem.”
The Throne room
Talos stepped back and turned aside another slash. Moonshadow’s timely appearance broke the illusions surrounding them but more than a few enemies remained to press the group. The warrior struggled with the task of disabling his foes. It required far more skill than simply killing a man. The guard facing him now was no novice either. The man’s sword darted in to punch holes in Talos’s defence and scrape his armor. They picked their way across the rubble strewn floor with other battles all around them. Talos didn’t have the time to see how his allies fared.
The guard snarled and swung his sword in a deadly arc. Talos brought Shimmer to meet it. The golden blade flared against the guard’s iron and the man staggered back. Talos rushed in and slammed his fist into the man’s gut, lifting off the ground. As the guard doubled over Talos smashed Shimmer’s hilt over the back of his head. A glint of sunlight was all the warning he had from another blade slashing at him. He dodged by a hair but the new guard’s next attack would strike true. With an audible crack Shanadar’s staff broke the guard’s wrist and sent the weapon clattering to the floor. The other end of the staff slammed into the man’s temple and he dropped like a sack of grain. The enforcer gave Talos a nod before scanning for his next challenger. But none stepped forward.
The floor surrounding the adventurers was littered with bodies. Most of them groaning in pain or unconscious. Someone started clapping. A gray haired man Talos had never seen stood at the side of the throne room. He sported a think beard and regal robes of red and white. A massive set of doors loomed behind him. The three remaining guards were defended the stranger. Each seemed to wear odd, heavy armor beneath their clothing. “Impressive.” he smiled, “For uninvited guests you were very entertaining.”
“Who are you?” Talos asked.
“Oh?” the stranger arched an eyebrow in amusement, “You peasants don’t even recognise your King?”
“That is not Alaric.” Wizard assured the group, “He is projecting another illusion.”
“Not one so easily dispelled this time.” the false king chuckled, “My attention isn’t so divided as it was.”
“I know those men.” Shanadar but in, meaning the three defending their enemy, “I don’t know how you’re doing this to them but you will release them from whatever spell they’re under or so help me--”
Wizard laid a calming hand on his friend’s shoulder, “It’s over.” he said, stepping forward, “You are outnumbered and cornered. Your tricks won’t help you now. It is done.”
“Nonsense.” The other said icily. The doors behind him slammed open and out poured a dozen more guards along with a lone man who came to stand beside of the mysterious villain. It was the bowman who injured Talos the night before with those strange powers.
The man dropped to a knee, “Master.”
Something streaked down through the sunlight pouring in from above. The kneeling man looked up angrily and the arrow froze in midair. It spun and roared back where it came hitting the roof with a great crash. Talos looked up to the hole in the ceiling as more debris broke off from the impact and smashed down to the floor. He caught the barest glimpse of the archer who had helped them earlier, chased away by plumes of fire.
The old man’s eyes flashed with anger but that melted away almost as soon as it came. “Stand.” the Master continued in that cold voice, “You’re lucky. Had you been any later your punishments would have been dire. I’m almost disappointed that I won’t have the chance to kill that one personally.” He looked to the roof and grinned, “No matter. The fun’s only beginning.”
Talos’s allies squared off against the new force arrayed against them. But Wizard... The old sage couldn’t stop staring at their strange foe. Beads of sweat ran down his face as if he’d been running through the fray. In fact they same was true of the Master now that Talos had the time to notice. A separate battle was being waged between the two, one that had gone on since the fighting began, “Who are you?” Wizard asked, “Really.”
The Master turned his attention back to them, “Isn’t it obvious?” he sneered, “Honestly, I thought I would be smarter than this.”
“Is that possible?” Shanadar asked.
“It is.” Wizard replied solemnly, “If there can be a second Katerei, and even a second Raperian as we have suspected, why not another Wizard?”
“Ah.” the Master intoned, “There we are. And I worried your mind was too feeble to puzzle it out.”
“No.” the old mage shook his head, “That I could be capable of such perversion... I simply did not want to believe. Why do these things? I need to understand what made you into this.”
“Why?” the Master echoed, “ Why? ” he laughed, “You old fool. Because I can. Now, you’ve been such wonderful guests. I would be a poor host if I didn’t give you a gift.” he snapped his fingers and the three guards in his control slowly walked forward. They opened their vests as they did. Misshapen black rocks were strapped across their chests, “My men found these beautiful stones just lying about after the attack last night. Can you believe someone just abandoned these treasures?”
Raperian edged backward, “This is slightly less amusing than it once was.”
“Pieces of the golem...” Shanadar breathed. Realization washed over the party quickly and they shied away from the slow approach of the guards rigged with explosives, “What do you want?”
“There is no fire here.” Talos said quietly, “If there is no spark there is no danger. We can disarm them before they become a real threat.”
“Are you sure about that?” The Master asked as if he heard every word clearly, “Are you ready to risk all of your lives on that gamble?” he cast his gaze over them. Suddenly Talos was not so sure of his plan, “I didn’t think so. You will all stay where you are while I walk away. When I feel you’re cooperating I will release these fools and you may do with them as you wish. Follow my instructions and I promise I will not harm them.”
The group traded looks but no words. Selax answered for them, “No.”
Dust and pebbles rained down from the widening hole above them as a small boom shook the roof. Flares of light and heat that were not the sun went off every few seconds, “A brave one are we?” The old villain remarked.
“You will not trigger those explosions.” the elemental responded, “Not while they are close enough to endanger your own life.”
“And what makes you so sure?”
“You would have already done so.”
“Clever.” the Master said slowly, “It seems we’ve reached a stalemate. I suppose there’s nothing for it then.” he grinned wickedly. All three guards suddenly charged the group. Talos caught the eyes of the man who ran for him. Distant and dazed as if caught in a trance. He tackled the man. They landed hard against the stone floor.
The guard’s eyes snapped into focus as he winced in pain, “Where?” he grunted under Talos’s weight, “Where am I?”
“No time to explain.” Talos grabbed the man’s vest. Strips of leather and rope held the stones in place. Flint stones were scattered through the mess. Each threatened to scrape the other and ignite the whole thing. Talos’s breath caught. It was a miracle that he didn’t kill the man, and himself, with his reckless tackle. He drew Shimmer and the golden blade became a dagger.
“Hey wait!” The guard panicked, still without an understanding of the situation.
“Be still.” The warrior ordered as he carefully cut the straps. Swords clashing beside him only maded matters worse. Shanadar and Silver each struggled with another rigged guard but everyone else was pulled into fighting with the reinforcements who arrived. Wizard and the Master seemed to be on their own islands of calm in the chaos but something told Talos that their battle was the most intense. Strangely the man called Jacob contented himself to watch.
Talos cut the last strip and ripped the explosive stones away from the guard and the flint stones still bound to him. The warrior chucked the volatile rocks to a darkened corner at the far edge of the room. Silver had already disarmed one of the guards as well and he helped them fight off their attackers. Shanadar though, only yards away, still struggled with a young man who hadn’t snapped out of the Master’s control.
“”Don’t worry kid.” the enforcer told him, “We’ll get you out of this.”
“As amusing as this has been.” the Master said loudly, “I have places to be.” Jacob focused on Shanadar and the youth.
The guard was violently ripped from the enforcer’s grasp. A move that finally snapped him out of it, “Shanadar?” he asked in his confusion.
An invisible force turned the youth in the air to face the Master, “Any last words young man?”
“Don’t.” Wizard strained with the effort of his unseen struggle as Selax fought to protect him from would-be attackers, “Do not do this.” the Master ignored him.
“Who are you, wh-what’s going on?” the young guard stammered.
“Oh.” the Master tsked, “Poor choice.” Sparks danced across the villains outstretched hand.
A lance of light streaked from the villain’s palm. The guard screamed in surprise. Talos sprinted forward, grabbed Shanadar, closest to the guard, and hurled him back. Then the thunderous boom. Some bored god smashed Talos with a hammer of burning wind. He flew through the air, skipped across the ground, and smashed into the far wall. If not for his armor he would have died. As it was his world went black.
An unblemished cloudless sky mocked the pock marked and fire scarred roof of the Judge’s castle. Raperian rolled away from another flaming wave, landing in a crouch and loosing an arrow in fluid motion. A whirlwind of fire swirled around Kain and reduced the missile to smoke and ash. The bear of a man smiled menacingly, “Today is the day Raperian. You’re going to burn.”
“Really?” the ranger quipped, “And how many times have I heard you say that? I’ve honestly lost count.” he sprinted off as fire consumed the stones he stood on. Raperian ran in a wide arc around the pyrokinetic, dodging fireballs and narrowly avoiding burning blades of death. Don’t stop moving. He warned himself. He doesn’t need to throw the flames at you if you stand still. Years of skirmishing with the Hand gave him as much knowledge as anyone about their attacks. If only beating them were as simply. He fired off arrows on the run with no real intention of causing damage. It kept Kain angry and off balance. The ranger slowed only long enough for can to focus his attack on a specific spot then darted off before it could kill him.
“Damn you.” Kain growled, “Just die!”
“Someone’s agitated.” Raperian huffed, sweating as much from exertion as from the staggering heat of Kain’s attacks, “Could it be you have a lot riding on killing me? Maybe trying to make up for all those recent failures?” The pyro swore in wordless rage and redoubled his attack. The roof shuddered the way Raperian had hoped. Kain lost his footing. Enough damage had been done in a circle around him that some of the stones under his feet gave way. The ranger fired another arrow. Kain’s powers weren’t fast enough. He threw up his hand at the last second.
The projectile skewered Kain’s palm as he tried to protect his face and he howled in pain. As he lowered his right hand he revealed his left eye to be a bloody mess. A second arrow was already on its way, but too late. A blazing serpent seared it out of the air and streaked through where the ranger had just stood. It was close. The side of Raperian’s shirt was charred and he winced from the light burns he had along his ribs.
Kain snapped the arrow shaft in his fist and pulled it out of his hand. It was blackened dust before it hit the floor, “I’m going to--” a sudden explosion from the room beneath staggered both me. Kain looked about in confusion, then spoke to someone who wasn’t there, “No, he isn’t dead yet but... But Master I can end it I can...” His face suddenly paled, “Yes Master.” he answered obediently. Kain glared at Raperian, “You’re lucky.” he snarled, blood dripping down the side of his face. His raised his left hand high overhead and a geyser of fire erupted skyward. In seconds the flames began to rain heavily back down on the roof.
Kain just stared at the ranger angrily but it was difficult to keep an eye on him and the storm of fist sized flaming hail at the same time. But the difficulty came from the sheer number of them and not from Kain trying to hit him directly. So what was the man trying to hit? A heavy explosion went off far behind Raperian and the force almost knocked him off his feet. A second blast came from his right and that did stagger him, making him lose sight of Kain. He quickly scanned the rooftop but the man was gone. Another set of explosions went off on other corners of the roof. Cracks rippled across the ground in a drunken spiders web and the whole thing began to crumble under Raperian’s feet. He wasn’t very confident in his ability to discover the power of flight. It was time to run.
Talos’s vision was slow to clear as he opened his eyes. When it did he saw the newcomer looking down at him. Moonshadow he thought it was, “Good, you’re passed the worst of it.”
“Thank you.” he croaked out, “The others?” He tried to stand.
Shanadar walked over and offered him a hand getting up. He gingerly accepted, “Wizard raised a barrier in time. Aside from minor injuries everyone is fine.”
That was hard to believe. Talos glanced at the blackened crater where the young guard had been. The only evidence of him was an unsightly stains on the floor. There was far more rubble than before. The warrior realized sunlight streamed in from above completely unopposed. The ceiling that had been there was merely a memory. The explosion must have cracked more off, “I am sorry about your friend.” was all Talos could think to say. He tried to take a step, but everything hurt. Silence was anything but. It admonished him for mistaking recklessness for valor.
“You’ll want to take it slow for a while.” Moonshadow instructed, “I said you were passed the worst but the healing has left you weak. You’ll recover but you have to give it time.”
Talos nodded in understanding. Shanadar stood beside him. The enforcer ran a hand through his hair, “So am I. But it isn’t your fault. Thank you for the save by the way.”
Talos shrugged, “I owed you four or so.” The enforcer grunted. The rest of the group seemed to be discussing a new plan of action, “Are we giving chase?”
“No.” Shanadar replied bluntly, “Some columns broke off and blocked the doors from the other side. Even if we caught them going around the long way there might be another trap there waiting to be sprung.”
“You think this ‘Master’ was expecting this?” Talos asked incredulously.
“I don’t know what to think.” the enforcer replied honestly, “If he really is some other version of our Wizard anything is possible. Our Wizard is too cunning by half to have for an enemy.” Shanadar gestured to the destruction around the room, “This Master had to have seen at least some of this coming. Those guards were ready for a fight. And those explosives had to be prepared well in advance, crude as they might have been. And then there was the man from the inn yesterday.”
Talos remembered his brief meeting. He was tossed aside like a child’s toy, “The man in black armor.”
“The same.” Shanadar confirmed, “He mentioned the Master to Wizard personally.” Talos hadn’t witnessed that specifically, having been thrown through a window to the street below.
“We’ve been chasing or fighting one strange enemy after another for days now. That cannot be coincidence, but what does it mean?”
“It means we have to stay on our toes.”
Raperian stood apart from the group and paced the room. He cut into the conversation as he reached Shanadar, “You know,” he started, “At first I really didn’t want to come to this stuffy old castle but I love what you’ve done with this place. I mean the sun roof and the new paint job. Sure the splatter is pretty spotty but I think you’re onto something here. If you want a pointer or two I’d b happy to--” he jumped back as Shanadar lunged for him.
The enforcer regained his composure with visible difficulty, “Not now Raperian.” he said darkly.
“Ah, right.” the black mage replied, “I, uh, I’ll be over there. Out of strangle range.”
“You do that.” Shanadar bored a hole through Raperian with his eyes as the mage walked away.
“Are you okay?” Talos asked.
“I’ll be fine.” the enforcer said, “For once there’s someone I want to take down worse than that scum.”
The old houses
Ral was pleasantly surprised to learn the former residents of his current hideout knew how to make a decent cup of tea. It wasn’t long before he was able to brew a pot for he and Krys. The mage brought her a cup and took the seat across from her in the study, “Ah.” he said, after a nice sip. He set his cup down on the oaken table between them with a faint clink. Old but very well cared for, “I’d give anything for a cookie about now. Something light and sweet.”
“They don’t have any?” Krys pouted. She shared his love of the simple pleasures, “Barbarians.” she mocked. Technically neither of them should have been slacking that way. But with nothing to do but wait for word from the Master or Jacob’s return tea time seemed a better choice than time spent staring at the walls, “You weren’t all that generous with the honey either.”
He spread his hands, “There was little.” He looked out the window as Scry passed on the street. She was making her rounds on patrol. A precaution now that Jacob suspected an outsider knew of their presence.
“I doubt Iannah and hers would try to find us now. They aren’t fools.” Krys was of the opinion that the assassins had laid the many traps which confounded Scry in the escape after the battle, “And even if they were,” she continued, “They can’t find this place.”
“It wasn’t them.” Ral assured her, “They’re a skilled group but have no mage. Not one with the prowess to lay traps like that. It was the work of a master, I could barely understand it.”
“It sounds like Kain wasn’t the only one whose pride took a hit.”
“Maybe.” he took another sip of his tea.
Krys cocked her head to the side, the way she did when she sensed something or listened to a telepathic message, “A few of our men are about to arrive. And Jacob has met with the Master. We need to meet them.”
“He didn’t say yet but should get ready.”
For Ral getting ready consisted of finishing his tea and placing a few texts back in his small pack. By the time he had finished their guard escort hand arrived, “My Lord and Lady, are you ready to depart?”
“We’ll be right out.” the mage replied, “let me grab my bag.”
“I’ll meet you outside Ral.” Krys said on the way to the door.
A howling wind cut through the house sending splinters flying through the air like shrapnel and knocking Ral back. Knives of wood stabbed into the arm he just to guard his face. When he looked up a literal slice ran through the front wall and two halves of the door were sprawled out on the floor. Dust and ash from the street choked the room. Carried in by that gust of wind. The soldiers were already falling over with massive gashes on their backs. They were too close to whatever cut the wall in half.
Krys struggled to rise as a man in fine clothes and a green cloak stepped through the door. He was dressed like dark nobility and held a sword as black as all night. Galahad, one of the Dread who should have still been confined to their world, “Call for help!” Ral urged Krys.
Galahad grabbed her by the collar and pulled her up with ease, “ I would rather you didn’t.” She gasped as his sword blossomed from her back. He pulled it free and dropped her to the floor where she writhed in pain.
“I’ll kill you!” Ral swore, raising his hand to hurl a nasty spell. Someone else grabbed his arm and made a fist. The spell somehow died at the touch. His bones snapped under the strength of the grip. Ral cried out in pain and stared up at his attacker. The blood drained from his face. Rythan stared down at him with that one crimson eye, “How?” he whispered.
“Don’t kill him.” Galahad instructed, “He comes with us.”
“As you wish.” the monster replied. Why is he taking orders from Galahad? Why is he alive?! The mage’s panicked thoughts fought each other even as he wondered what happened to Scry.
As if summoned the blademistress burst through a window with a shower of glass and flash of steel. Galahad was a blademaster, and powerful besides, but in the first few moments all he could do was fight to stay alive. Rythan seemed content to watch him struggle and indifferent to the outcome. Ral used his chance wisely. FIRECAT! He concentrated as hard as he could through the pain. Where are you? This is an emergency!. But there was no reply. No, worse than that. He couldn’t sense the telepath at all. He could always feel something. Now there was a strange emptiness where that feeling should have been.
Scry sent Galahad smasing through the oak table with a kick. She rushed in to finish him off. Rythan burst across the room grabbed Scry by the shoulder and tossed her into the closest wall. The mage gaped in complete shock. It wasn’t that she had been too slow to react. She hadn’t reacted at all. Scry stood up looking as confused as he felt, “Are you injured?” Rythan asked his fallen comrade.
“Only my ego.”
When Rythan spoke Scry turned to face him as if surprised he was there. He took a few steps to the side but she didn’t seem to track his movements, “And what about this one?” Rythan asked of Scry. She whirled to face him at the sound of his voice. Her confusion was gone, replaced with extreme caution. Ral began to realize just how bad the situation was. Scry’s powers could not see or sense the monster. For all intents Rythan was invisible to her.
“She’s dangerous.” Galahad admitted, “Kill her to be safe.”
”Understood.” Scry’s blade struck at Rythan’s neck the moment he spoke but he dodged and stepped in. She jumped back and barely escaped an uppercut that would have killed her. Perhaps she heard him move in. Whatever happened she was lucky. The gauntlet on the monster’s right hand was bladed. A drop of blood trickled along the edge. A thin cut appeared on Scry’s cheek.
“Scry.” Ral groaned, fumbling through his pain to cast a spell, “ Run. ” she hesitated until he raised his good arm and hurled a weak fireball in her direction. She leapt out of the way and the burning orb splashed across the wall behind her. The wood was quick to catch. The home would not be lucky enough to survive a brush with flames a second time, “Find Jacob!” he bellowed. She vaulted over a chair and sprinted through the front door.
Rythan moved to chase her but Galahad waved him off, “There’s no time. Grab the mage and get out of here before this barn fire attracts too much attention.” the swordsman followed his own advice and disappeared into the street.
Ral put on a brave face as the monster came to claim him, “We stopped you once before.”
Rythan lifted him so they could see eye to eye. Chills went through the mage even as the fire spread around them, “There will be no second time.”
Krys faded in and out of consciousness as she lie there bleeding to death. She coughed from the dust and ash on the floor. Blessedly she was low enough not to worry about smoke just yet. Though she might not have chosen that precise word as she watched the fire march across the house. First I miss out on cookies. Now I’m not dying fast enough to avoid burning alive. This was not my day I think. She was hoping to be unconscious when the fire finally claimed her but it didn’t seem that luck was on her side.
A pair of shiny black boots stopped in front of her. She looked up at a man in a black hood and cloak with impressive plate armor to match. Runic red patterns ran across it. Death was much better dressed than she imagined he would be, “You’re late.” was all she could manage to say. He knelt over her and the world seemed to melt away.
This post has been edited by Ragnar0k : 19 January 2011 - 09:49 PM
The caged bird
Scry’s senses led her through the streets. She stuck mostly to shadowed back alleys. Dark or bright didn’t matter to her but she had a sense for places where she would not be seen. She viewed the city with more clarity than most of the people who ever walked it thanks to her powers. The powers of others, which seemed invisible to her masters, appeared to her in clear bright colors. Even the future was open to her when times of need arose. But those same powers of sight had failed her. Something... Wrong had attacked her. A shadow across her all seeing vision. It left her lost and confused.
Her last orders had been to run. To find Jacob. But she had no idea where to go. She was an arrow fired blindly into the air at a target that no longer existed, for all she knew. Her powers were her whole world. The essence of her being. If they could not be trusted, what could? She stopped dead at the mouth of an alley. Fearful citizens passed on the street without seeing her hiding place. There was one person who could make sense of this. one who could help her. She reached out with her mind.
" Ah, poor little bird. It has been some time hasn’t it? What troubles you in your cage? "
Her mental communication with Firecat generally relied less on words and more on images until he saw fit to help her clear her mind. That’s what she wanted but she’d first have to prove it worth his while. She projected images to him a replay of the last hours all the way back to the night before. But her concept of time was different than others. Present and future events often overlapped and melted together.
"Too much little one. Too fast. You’ve given me a puzzle but the pieces don’t fit together. This is many puzzles, many mysteries." he puased, thinking. " Galahad in that world? Curious. When did the fox leave his den, and with such a toy no less. I thought all the other cat’s play things were still in our world." He mused a bit more, "Your morning song brings intrigue this day, little bird. Very well, I know what you know you want to know. That bit of seed your Master keeps hidden from you.
Scry felt Firecat reaching into her open mind. Navigating tunnels and locked doors she couldn’t sense but knew were there. Something creaked open just a hair...
Scry sat in a chair on the back porch of her home. It was a small thing, nothing she could ever brag about, but it was beautiful in the spring and all she ever needed was there. Lisa, her baby girl, fussed in her arms. She smiled down at the infant and cooed to her till she was calm.
“Why can’t she behave like that for daddy?” Evan asked as he brought some fresh firewood inside.
“Because she doesn’t like you.” Scry smiled without looking up.
“Ha. Ha.” Her husband replied, stopping only long enough to lean in and kiss her...
And then she was back in that alley in Cademia. The memories slipping through her fingers and back into whenever the Master had sealed them She struggled desperately to hold on but it was pointless. In seconds they were a half remembered dream.
" Better? " The voice inquired.
A bit. The swordswoman whispered in her mind, Can you take me there again, t-to my past?
" Patience little bird. Let’s see what other songs you can sing. "
She showed him the images again, only this time around they were in a timeline that made sense to him. She leaned back against one of the buildings. A breeze swept through the alley. For some reason she recalled the scent of flowers in bloom. But then it was gone, replaced by a deep sense of loss. Last night, she thought, after I fought off the assassins there were traps waiting for us. Many. It took most of the night to get around them.
“ Someone else is playing the game too I see. ” Firecat replied. “ Setting mouse traps and having you scurry through his maze. But I’m more interested in how the fox manged to chase you off. His claws can’t touch you. No one’s can. ”
It wasn’t him.
" Oh? " The voice spoke playfully. " These games we do not play little bird, for by your rules, if I've seen what was there, then what was there wasn't what I saw. "
Something... was there. Something, I couldn’t truly sense.
" Not truly? But you sensed something did you not? A description, if you would be so kind. "
Scry thought for a time, trying to build an image in her mind's eye. A shadow. A wrongness in the world around me. It felt like something that should not have been.
“ That is... peculiar. ” Firecat echoed after some time. " But it is... interesting. I suppose seed for your troubles is in order? "
Scry felt very few emotions to any degree without Firecat’s help, but in this she allowed herself to feel the smallest measure of accomplishment. The spectre escorted her through another soon forgotten dream about a life stolen from her.
While the injured received healing, Silver hurriedly brought buckets of water for his companions' refreshment.
Avatara lay the fallen timber gently against the wall, blocking the rest of the window. Small rays of the morning sunlight still shone through the cracks between the wooden barricade, but to the casual observer passing by, it would look like just another ruined building.
A ruined building indeed. Dust swirled visibly in the beams of light. All four walls had managed to stay intact, but the humble furnishings of the small one-room house were in shambles. The other man, Yomu, tried to sit on the old bed, but quickly changed his mind when it started to give way beneath him.
Avatara had refused to reveal more than his name when they were standing in the open. The fire had displaced many, and with the fear and uncertainty among the populace over recent events, it hadn’t been too difficult to find a quiet place, for the moment.
He took a moment to collect his thoughts as he turned away from the window. For almost a week now, he had pursued Selax in this world, with little gain. If his suspicions were correct, it wouldn’t be long before Selax escaped into the void forever. Time was growing precariously short.
This Yomu was a stranger to him. The lack of reaction when Avatara revealed his name led him to believe that this world’s Avatara hadn’t encountered Yomu before either. Yet, Katerei had been at the castle that night, and she had recognized Avatara. What did that imply about his other self?
He pushed all those thoughts aside. There was no time for that now. The nightmare that haunted him, the being that had twisted and destroyed his life, that was more important now. He had to focus everything on this slim chance to bring the elemental down.
In their Cythera, Selax had been almost untouchable, but in this alien world he would be vulnerable. His minions were openly fighting each other. The invasion couldn’t have been going as planned. Avatara surmised Selax was probably displeased with recent events. Unable to rely on his subordinates, he would start taking on most of the work himself, which would cause delays. Now, more than ever, would be the time to strike. If only I knew where he was.
Avatara looked over at Yomu, who was leaning against the far wall, staring expectantly back at him. Breaking the silence, he began, “Before I answer your question, I have a question. What is the Selax of your world like?”
Yomu stared blankly for a moment, as if caught off guard. “I don’t see why it’s of your concern,” he started slowly, “but from my eyes, ears, and travels, I have come to see a somewhat quiet man with a voice of authority, and mind that has delved into the pages of this land’s history, which is not his own. Despite the lack of his foot prints in this world, he has aided it and done no wrong that I know of.”
Avatara nodded, not quite sure he fully understood what Yomu had just said. The Selax of this world was amicable? Nonsense! He probably hid his scheming behind a mask here as well.
Avatara took a deep breath and started, “The Selax of my world is a blight upon the land and its people. An anathema that takes what he pleases, and crushes those who stand in his way.”
Seeing Yomu’s skepticism, he gestured to the city around them, “From what I’ve gathered, the elements on this world still live in balance. The Land King too, still lives!”
“Of what do you imply?” Yomu frowned.
Avatara’s voice dropped, forcing Yomu to lean closer to hear. “In my world, Alaric is dead, betrayed by Selax.”
Yomu became visibly disturbed.
Avatara continued, “The elements also are dead. Selax tricked them all into a devastating war that left the land forever changed.”
Yomu shook his head in disbelief “But why would he-why would anyone-?”
“Power. With the king dead and the houses caught off guard by the elemental war, he was able to step in during the chaos and bend some of the weaker factions to his will. The mages and the nobles were too caught up in their distrust of one another that they failed to notice the real threat until it was too late. Now, those that are left are chained to the iron rule imposed by his puppet.”
The room fell silent now, save for the creaks and snaps of scorched ruins. Yomu wondered if any or all of this was true, it seemed almost too radical to believe.
Another Cythera? Alaric and the elementals dead? It's impossible.. isn't it?
And now this man stood before him, supposedly living proof of his tales. Yomu wanted to believe him, wanted to bring an end to these cursed affairs, but he acted cautiously. Too many dangers had presented themselves thus far already.
"Then what you mean by all this, the Selax from your world is here? But why? What does this world hold for him?"
"Power he cannot attain in my world." A wave of sadness seemed to pass over Avatara for a moment. "There is one thing that lies outside of his reach, defying his will. But here, in this world, it is possible for him to get it."
Yomu's goal was ringing in his head once more, the answer for why all of this was even happening, and now it seemed within his grasp. "Yes? What is it, what does he seek?" He asked the man desperately.
"The Void," Avatara replied.
Something about that answer struck a grim chord inside Yomu.
"Somehow during the elemental wars, my world became cut off from it. Ever since, Selax has been trapped there. It is hard to tell with him, but I think that is a source of endless frustration. He even-" Avatara stopped and looked away for a minute. When he turned back, he looked far less composed than he had earlier. He continued on in a soft voice, "His desire for the void is so great he even subjected himself to asking me for help." Avatara looked sadly at Yomu, "I refused him, of course, and ended up paying a terrible price."
All the pieces began falling into place in Yomu's mind. The strange killings, the attack on Cademia, all a mad conquest of a man and his minions seeking something few spoke of and even fewer had seen. But was this enough?
No.. he thought. Firecat still remained a mystery with solutions now only more detailed. If Selax was behind all of this, and had committed such terrible acts in a parallel world, then he could not be allowed to continue on in this one.
Yomu leaned his arm against a window frame, and looked out into the smoke and ash, to where the former residents were looking for past belongings. "This cannot proceed. This land has seen enough anguish."
Avatara remained silent, as if he was absorbed in his own thoughts while Yomu continued.
It was hard to decide what to say next. Yomu couldn't tell whether to ask about the voice, Firecat, or if it even mattered. For now, it seemed it didn't, so there was no need.
"So then, who are you Avatara? In my foolishness, I suppose I never did ask you what your intentions are." Yomu questioned, bracing himself for what might happen next.
Avatara hesitated before replying, "Who I am doesn't matter anymore. I am here because Selax is here." His voice took on a hard edge, "He took my life away from me, and I intend to return the favor."
Yomu was reluctant to the idea at first, but now it seemed the best option he had, and the one closest to the truth. "It seems our goals are intertwined." Yomu stepped closer to Avatara, "So then. What is our next step?"
This post has been edited by Two Jacks : 21 February 2011 - 06:14 PM
Satisfied that Talos was out of danger, Shanadar turned to Moonshadow.
"I know this sounds really strange—" the Enforcer began.
"—but how do you know I'm the 'real Moonshadow'?" the magess finished, looking confused. "Would someone explain what is going on here?"
"We've encountered doubles of several people recently, similar to that one of myself that you just saw," Wizard answered, looking shaken. His encounter with his own doppelganger had clearly rattled him. "I'm afraid that we need to determine whether you are who you say you are. Perhaps, you could tell us of our previous adventures?"
Moonshadow paused, absorbing the information.
"Well, I have been on a couple of quests with you before—"
"She is who she says she is," Rapierian's voice echoed from the ceiling. "Of that, there is no doubt."
Spinning to the necromancer, Shanadar roared, "Rapierian! When I want your opinion—which I don't—I'll ask for it!"
The necromancer did not reply. He was staring up at the hole in the ceiling with a look of complete disbelief. Momentarily, Shanadar himself was stunned at the look on Rapierian's face.
Recovering, the Enforcer turned to see what the other man was looking at.
Another Rapierian—the ranger he had encountered at the Castle gate mere days ago—was standing over the opening, lowering a rope down it. It was he who had spoken.
"But I don't—that's not—" the Rapierian standing next to Shanadar stuttered, still seeming to be in shock.
"Two Rapierians," the Enforcer muttered, looking almost as horrified as the necromancer.
The ranger did not reply, nor did he react as Selax and Silverfish came to hover next to him. Instead, he slid down the rope and slowly approached the party, holding his hands up to show he held no weapon.
"She is the Moonshadow from your world," he said, stopping a few feet from the group.
"Who are you?" Shanadar asked.
"Rapierian," the other answered rhetorically. "But not the Rapierian from your world."
The other Rapierian said nothing. Indeed, he did not react at all but continued to stare at his counterpart although his face had now turned into an expressionless mask, very different than his usual mocking sneer.
"Our world?" Wizard asked. He glanced at Selax, seeming surprised. "Are you saying that you are from another world?"
The other group members glanced at one another. They had carefully spread out around this new Rapierian, leaving him no chance of escape.
"Another Cythera, more specifically," the ranger nodded.
The various adventurers glanced at one another. None of them knew quite how to react to this information. Shanadar was still reeling from the thought of there being two Rapierians. The necromancer, staring at his counterpart, didn't seem surprised, acting as if he had not even heard the claim at all. Moonshadow, for her part, was intrigued. She had heard theories of the existence of alternate realities in the past but had never been able to study the phenomenon. Wizard, still glancing at Selax, looked extremely unsettled. Recovering, Shanadar glanced at the Rapierian standing next to him.
"What do you know about this?" he asked, sound suspicious. "You once warned me of an alternate Cythera."
The necromancer did not reply, still seeming to be in some sort of shock.
"What do you mean?" Wizard said.
"This Rapierian once gave me some sort of prophecy describing an alternate Cythera. I gave it to Lindus and the other mages at Pnyx. They studied but didn't think much of it," the Enforcer explained.
"They were correct to do so: some realities do indeed spawn alternates, but Cythera is unique in the Void," Selax replied calmly, stepping toward the ranger and raising his swords. "The barriers around it would crush any alternate reality that attempted to form. Such a world could not exist."
"My world does exist," the ranger insisted," and it needs your help. I can't say how this other version of me would know anything about it." He turned toward Wizard. "You're the telepath. You can tell whether I'm lying or not. Am I?" he challenged.
Wizard paused, examining the other man's mind. The ranger made no effort to stop the telepathic probe. After a moment, Wizard reeled back, looking stunned. He turned to Selax.
"At the least, he believes that he is telling the truth," he said grimly. "And what he has to tell is not good."
"Could it be that Cythera's unique nature somehow enables it to do the impossible?" Moonshadow asked Selax, clearly intrigued.
Selax was silent, considering the question.
"You said you were certain this Moonshadow is not from your world," Wizard asked. "What makes you so sure?"
The ranger sighed.
"Because the Moonshadow in my world has been dead for some years," he answered bluntly.
Everyone glanced at one another.
"Oh," the magess replied, not quite certain how to react to this news.
"What is going on? How and why did you come here if your story is true?" Shanadar asked.
"A complicated question," Rapierian answered. "I came for two reasons. First, to protect you world from the evils that have destroyed my own, and, second, to get your help in freeing my homeland."
The other Rapierian gagged, looking ill at the thought of saving someone.
"How did you enter this land?" Wizard asked.
"There is a . . . rift of a sort in the mountains in the south, west of Kosha. I passed through it nearly eleven days ago. How it formed I do not know." He paused, remembering. "I was abroad in the forest of my Cythera at night, when I saw a strange glow in the sky above the mountains. Fearing some new devilry on the part of my enemies, I investigated and found the rift, a strange glowing tear in the fabric of reality. Finding it unguarded, I approached it to investigate. Next thing, I knew I was being pulled into it. When I emerged, I found myself in your world. I was not the first to do so and have not been the last."
"You're saying that all of the doubles we have encountered are from another Cythera?" Talos asked.
"Yes. In your world, Bellerophon cured Alaric and saved the land. In mine, Selax—"
"Unlikely," Selax interrupted. "Alternate worlds do not spawn alternates of beings who are not native to the parent reality. It is not possible."
"Oh really? Then that alternate Wizard just appeared out of nowhere?" Rapierian said sarcastically.
"Doubles can be produced in many ways," Moonshadow pointed out, having heard stories of magically created clones before.
"I know, but have you ever seen so many produced at once? Or without the knowledge of any mages in the land?" Rapierian replied. "In any case, I can only tell what has happened in my land—"
"Oh, wonderful! Time for 'Story Time with the cheap imitation!'" the other Rapierian snarled, seeming to emerge from his shock with none of his usual mocking humor.
Undaunted, his counterpart began his explanation.
"From my exploration of your land, I have learned that, in this world, Alaric summoned Bellerophon as he did in my own. However, in yours, Bellerophon successfully healed Alaric, while events in mine did not progress so smoothly. Bellerophon was unsuccessful in saving Alaric, although it's hard to say what actually since none know what happened to the hero."
"Did he use the corrupted Crolna on Alaric?" Shanadar asked.
"No, but from what I have heard, someone else did." The ranger glanced Selax before continuing, "In my world, Selax killed Alaric and fled Land King Hall. Tales say that he slew all of Bellerophon's companions as he did so, but I don't know the veracity of such stories. Alaric's death sent the land into a downward spiral. The elementals emerged from hiding and began open war with one another, with the people of the land caught in the middle and with no choice but to fight back as best they could. The mages tried to do what they could to restore order, but people's mistrust of them prevented them from maintaining control. The land rapidly split into factions, some allying with the various elements and some choosing to take on everyone else at once. Gradually, many forgot the honorable code that Cytherans had lived by for centuries as everyone fought to survive. . ."
The ranger's voice trailed off and, for a moment, he was lost in thought, remembering that tumultuous time. Rousing himself, he continued, "When Wizard first appeared, it seemed that he was going to save the land. He rescued the city of Cademia from destruction at the hands of the Undine and stirred its people to fight back against their enemies. Given his power and charisma, he soon lured many of the survivors to his cause. The fact that he openly derided Cythera's former values only enhanced his standing in the eyes of many. The mages refused to follow him but they were ultimately betrayed by one of their own. Pnyx was overthrown and many of its inhabitants massacred. After this victory, Wizard became increasingly harsh, killing any who dared threaten his will. Things became much worse when it was known that Selax was among his forces. All hated him, but Wizard made it clear that threats against him would not be tolerated. Their combined might made any challenge against them quite hopeless, and Wizard's power only increased further as the wars continued to ravage the land. Eventually, the remaining elementals were killed by each other and by the work of a few brave humans."
"I'm guessing this did not end your land's troubles" Talos interjected.
"I'm afraid that you guess correctly. Wizard controlled and still controls much of the land, but he does not yet control all of it. There remain rivals to his power, both within his organization and without it. Unfortunately, many of his rival warlords only share his brutality and cruelty. I, perhaps, am alone among the warriors in Cythera who still fight for its code of honor."
"How dare you ruin my reputation!" the other Rapierian snapped. "I ought to—"
"Quiet!" Shanadar roared. Glancing around at the others, the necromancer settled back into a brooding silence. He could afford to wait.
"Instead of finishing off his remaining opposition, I believe now that the Wizard from my world seeks to extend his power onto yours. I also have strong reason to believe that the Selax from my world is also in your land. Please, I beg you: you must help me. It is the only hope my world has left and it might be the last chance your own has as well."
Katerei last edited by
The warm sun of late morning shone down on Cademia, illuminating the traces of colourless haze that still hung above the city. To the southwest, a slight breeze stirred the grass around the feet of two women who walked together in silence.
Katerei felt almost more muddled and confused than before. K had only said that they needed to go meet up with someone before they could decide what to do, and no more. She doubted it was a trap, though - it would have been easier for K to just leave her to her death back at the Castle. So she reluctantly agreed.
Something was nagging at the back of her mind though, until it finally clicked. "This person we're going to meet," she ventured finally. "Is it your... I mean, the Avatara from your world?" She wasn't sure how she knew; there was just something familiar in how K had spoken of him. Cautiously, but... defensively.
K gave her a sideways glance. "You met him already, didn't you?"
It wasn't really an answer, but Katerei took it as a yes. "Just briefly. At the castle the other night. We... didn't talk much."
"Well. It was him who suggested we ask for your help." K spoke pointedly.
That came as a surprise. He hadn't seemed to take to her too kindly at first. It was a little unsettling, like she was just a tool to borrow when needed. "Avatara was with Rapierian that night. Are we going to meet him too?"
"We're not travelling with him," K answered a little too quickly, a little too forcefully. "I don't even know where he is right now."
"Neither do I," Katerei murmured, though her thoughts had strayed to the other Rapierian. So much had changed since she, Shanadar and Yomu had frantically pursued the necromancer from Kosha. Now, she felt more alone than ever.
"He should be here somewhere," K said, shading her eyes with a hand as she surveyed the shoreline southeast of Cademia. Washed-up logs and bits of seaweed scattered the rocky beach. It had taken them some time to skirt around the city, but K insisted he would be here.
Katerei squinted down the shore. The sparkles of sunlight on the ocean made it hard to see, but she thought she could see a figure standing on a rocky outcropping, staring out at the water. "Is that him?" she asked, pointing.
As K turned to look, her expression quickly grew worried. "Yes, but who's standing on the beach next to him?"
"It's Yomu!" Katerei exclaimed with sudden realization. She wasn't sure whether to be elated or scared. Why in Cythera were those two men together? Was that why Yomu had been acting so oddly before?
"You know him?" K enquired.
"Yes, he's a friend, but... I didn't think he knew your Avatara. It doesn't make any sense. Unless he's the Yomu from your world," Katerei said with a sudden thrill of shock.
The other woman shook her head. "I don't know anyone of that name, nor have I ever heard Avatara mention it. But look - they've seen us. We may as well go find out what's going on. Perhaps he was already successful in recruiting help from your companions."
"It wouldn't be the strangest thing to happen today," Katerei shook her head dazedly as she began to follow her copy down the shoreline.
Echoes wrapped in darkness shot through the void and through the city's coarse veil. A message of utmost importance was being relayed.
A haunting silence filled the mind of the recipient. The terrifying telepathic disturbance was enough to know a connection had been made.
"Ghosts haunt the streets, so shriek the local kitty cats." the voice spoke playfully.
There was no response, only a greater intensity in the static.
"Care naught for the rivals of old? Rivals once embraced by earth and shadow?"
A clearer connection prompted Firecat to continue.
"The second's fingers have been claimed by the ghoul. Two now remain, close to their former brothers."
Firecat paused a quick moment, invisibly grinning to himself beyond the veil.
"It is him, all other options are.. unacceptable!" he giggled.
The static seemed to be slowly phasing out the connection now.
"Oh and there was one other thing.. A bird on the ghost's shoulder, whispering into his ear. Quite peculiar, wouldn't you agree?"
The echoes recessed back into the darkness, leaving the city veiled in disillusion behind.
Avatara stood staring out over the ocean, watching the small waves crash upon the rocks. A light breeze blew past him, cool against the warmth of the sun overhead. Behind him, Yomu was occupied with skipping pebbles across the water.
A woman’s voice called his name. So they’re here. He paused a moment to calm the anxiety rising within him before turning away from the sea. True to her word, Katerei had brought her copy from this world.
She was still wearing the long purple dress she wore that night at the castle. Her white shoes were stained with red mud, and her sash barely retained a hint of color. Her long blue hair hung down to her waist in a tangled mess. Her pale blue skin was marred with scratches and blood, hopefully not from a fight with his Katerei.
Next to her stood the Katerei from his world. Clad in far less modest black garb, she seemed more self-assured than her counterpart. Her hair was cut shoulder-length in front, but also cascaded down her back to her waistline. For some strange reason, it looked more wavy than usual, as if it had recently been soaked. Her flail rested in its sheath, but looked like it had been used recently.
There was no mistaking the resemblance; standing side-by-side, they looked like twins. The way they were shaped, the way the two of them were fidgeting nervously, even the sound of their voices, it was all the same. It was a sight both incredible and eerie, and neither Katerei looked happy about being so close to another version of herself. Avatara struggled to imagine what it must be like to meet someone who was so like himself, yet a different person entirely.
Standing off to the side, looking almost as nervous as the two women, was Yomu. They were talking quietly about something Avatara didn’t hear, but it seemed as if Yomu knew both of the Katereis. Interesting.
As he stepped down onto the beach, the three of them stopped talking and looked at him. Avatara silently studied each face in turn, noting the confusion, the fear, and the impatience.
When he finally spoke, he spoke to this world’s Katerei. “You’ve undoubtedly heard about what has been going on.” When she nodded, he continued, “I’ll be blunt.”
“We are not from your world. No matter how much we might look like you, or act like people you know, we aren’t. We are foreigners, here for a single purpose,” Avatara said before pausing briefly.
“There is a malevolent being who is seeking to consume your world in an attempt to escape to dominate other worlds. I’ve followed him here in an attempt to stop him. But, I’ve come to realize, I don’t stand any chance on my own.” He looked directly into Katerei’s eyes and said, “I need your help.”
“Selax...right?” Katerei asked hesitantly. A gust of wind blew through her hair, fanning it out behind her purple dress. “Where will we find him?”
“There is only one place where we can be certain he will appear,” Avatara replied.
“Land King Hall,” Yomu finished.
Silverfish for one found this other Rapierian's tale to be credible, not that he really knew anything about the nature of reality anyway, but it did seem to explain the troubles the magi were having with some of their magics. At any rate there was certainly a large spell upon the land, his bones ached with its energy & his skin tingled as if someone had been sitting on it.
"So it was other Selax killing all the animals which started us on this quest?" Silver queried, "I think he's even naughtier than Rapierian!"
I wonder if I have an other & what it's like?
"I'm not sure about that, but I think they can both be trusted," Wizard said after a moment. "At least, we can afford to spend no more time here. We must pursue this . . . other me at once."
Nodding, Silverfish flew over to the rope and began to examine it.
"We can't leave Cademia in this state," Shanadar replied. "What about the other people who live in the Castle? The other Diomede might be able to shed some light on events."
Wizard closed his eyes for a moment. Opening them, he answered, "I don't think there is anyone else in the Castle besides us. They were probably moved over the night."
"Regardless, the city must be left protected," the Enforcer insisted. "Also, we should search for Katerei."
"The rope seems safe," Silverfish reported, drifting back down from the ceiling.
Selax flew upward through the hole in the ceiling. Quickly, the others followed him. As they climbed, Moonshadow answered several of Wizard's questions concerning the group's previous adventures, satisfying them that she was indeed who she said she was. Moonshadow was then quickly informed of the recent events. Shanadar climbed out at last, still grumbling about having to keep an eye on two Rapierians. The alternate Rapierian had surrendered his bow and arrows, although he had requested that he be allowed to have them back when trouble started.
Once they were all on top of the roof, it proved fairly easy to find a way down to the ground by climbing over the rubble left from the golem's assault. As they went, they debated about what to do next. It was reluctantly agreed that they would have to take both Rapierians with them whatever they did. The ranger might have valuable information, and it was plainly too dangerous to leave the necromancer unguarded.
Shanadar turned to the ranger when they reached the ground.
"What about that other Avatara? Do you know what he and this other Katerei want with this world's Katerei?"
Glancing at Moonshadow, Rapierian replied, "He is here to pursue vengeance against Selax. Perhaps, he wishes to ask her aid."
"Why were you with him?"
"We had a common enemy and thus a goal for a time; however, I fear that he is willing to do whatever it takes to have his revenge and that he does not greatly care if others are hurt in the process."
"We don't have time!" Wizard burst in, sounding very frustrated. "We must pursue them!"
Surprised at the old man's outburst, the others turned toward him.
"I fear this other me will cause great devastation, and I can sense no sign of the mages anywhere near here. I think he may have taken them with him."
"We can't just leave Katerei," Moonshadow interjected.
"Nor can we leave the city in this state," Shanadar added.
"Wizard is correct," Selax stated, speaking for the first time since they had left the Castle. "If there are doppelgangers of myself and Wizard loose in this world, we must stop them at once."
"What do you think an alternate version of you would do?" Talos asked the elemental.
"Without more knowledge of his situation, it is impossible to say." Selax turned toward the ranger. "What do you know of this alternate me?"
"Not much beyond what I have already said," Rapierian replied. Pausing, he thought for a moment before saying, "Avatara did seem in a hurry to get to him, as though he were afraid that Selax might escape him forever."
"Escape? Did he say this other me was intent on leaving?" the elemental replied sharply. The others glanced at him in surprise.
"Not exactly, but he seemed afraid of something like that."
"He will head to Land King Hall, won't he?" Wizard asked, looking at Selax.
"If he wishes to leave this world, that would be his most logical destination," the elemental answered.
"You think he's going after the Crolna?" Shanadar questioned.
"But he can't get in," Moonshadow said. "Alaric may be ill, but one of the reasons the other mages went was to place protective enchantments on Land King Hall. Most likely, many of the House leaders and mages will be returning to their homes by now, but they will have surely already completed the spells. It would take a considerable force to enter."
"The Wizard from my world has such a force," Rapierian answered. "You have only encountered some of his most formidable servants, not all. Still, it would take time to get them into posit—"
"Time he now has thanks to you all annoying me," the necromancer interrupted angrily. "While you have been after me or been burning Cademia down or watching the mages almost all die, this other Wizard has undoubtedly bringing ever more forces to our world."
"He's right," Wizard said, eyes widening in realization. "These past fews days must have been a diversion!"
"Which suggests this Rapierian may be in league with him," Shanadar ground out, turning to face the necromancer.
"Or that I was framed by this other Selax," the necromancer answered. "He does seem to be a step or two ahead of you . . . not that that is saying much."
The Enforcer stepped toward him angrily, but Selax said, "We have no time for this. We must proceed to Land King Hall at once."
"We have to secure the city and to make sure this necromancer is secured," Shanadar insisted.
"How kind of you to be so worried about me," Rapierian exclaimed. The necromancer seemed to be recovering from his early rage and was now smiling. "However, I think that you will probably want to return the items you stole from me earlier and allow me to accompany you to Land King Hall. I still have my little book of prophecies and I think you will find you need my help." Here, he doubled over laughing.
"If you think for one moment that I will ever ask for your help—" Shanadar began to yell, but Selax interrupted him.
Everyone turned to look at the elemental.
"He is correct. If he has such a book, as Shanadar has said he does, his help will be of use to us. Allow me to have the items confiscated from him earlier, and I will make certain he does not betray us."
"I cannot leave the city in this state. Leave if you must but I have to ensure the security of Cademia," the Enforcer said, determined.
"I'm still not quite recovered yet. I can stay to help and to look for Andru and Katerei," Talos volunteered.
Nodding, Shanadar turned toward Selax. "I still don't like allowing Rapierian to go free."
"I will keep watch on him and kill him if he does anything suspicious," the elemental replied.
Smiling at that thought for just a moment, Shanadar sighed and reluctantly handed Selax the potions and other items that had taken from the necromancer earlier.
"We should still look for Katerei, Andru, and Yomu, for that matter," Silverfish said. "No one has seen him in some time."
"I agree with Selax," Wizard answered. "I'm afraid that we have no time to look for any of them just now. I'm certain this other Wizard is headed for Land King Hall."
"I'll remain here with Talos and secure the city. Silverfish can also remain if he wishes to help search for the others," Shanadar said. "If we can, we'll come after you."
"If we split up, how will we know who is from which world?" Moonshadow asked.
"Perhaps, a codeword of some kind," Talos suggested.
After a hurried discussion, the members of the group settled on "zetacomb" as a code phrase to ensure they would be able to identify each other. Having agreed on this, they split up into two groups. One stayed to secure and protect Cademia, while the other turned north and headed toward Land King Hall as fast as they could…
"I must say it is a relief that you have come," Hector told Wizard as they proceeded down the main hallway of Land King Hall toward Alaric's room. "Many of the house lords and mages had to leave yesterday. They left some additional guard here, but, with all the troubles going on. . ."
The group had arrived at the Hall, after nearly two days of rapid travel. To their relief, they had found the magical protections intact and the structure seemingly untouched. They had entered to find the city strongly guarded, although not much occupied otherwise.
Hector, currently captain of the king's guard, had met them at the gate. He had been quite surprised (and disturbed) to see two Rapierians. Hurriedly, and leaving out a great many details, they had explained the existence of the alternates. Now even more worried, he had asked the group to come with him, hoping that they would be able to help heal Alaric
"Were they able to determine what is wrong with Alaric?" Moonshadow asked.
"Not completely, only that he seemed to be in some sort of shock. They think he might emerge from it on his own, given time . . . but they can't say how long that might take."
Reaching the door to Alaric's room, Hector told the guard stationed there to open the door. Turning back to the group, he continued, "Not even the arrival of the mages from Cademia was able to help him, but perhaps—"
"Mages? From Cademia?" Wizard asked sharply, glancing at Selax.
"Yes," Hector replied, sounding confused. "Why should that—"
He got no further, for, at that moment, the guard opened the door and yelled.
Bending over the unconscious form of Alaric, with his hands held over the king's forehead, stood the other Wizard.
Several things then happened at once.
Without waiting, Wizard unleashed a telekinetic blast at his double, pushing him away from Alaric. He and Selax rushed into the room, charging as the other Wizard recovered and released a telekinetic push of his own.
"What in Cythera?" Hector burst out.
Behind him, Rapierian, the necromancer, stiffened and looked about him. Sniffing the air, he said, "You know I think that—"
"Someone's weakening the protective barriers!" Moonshadow cried out, having sensed the same thing.
"Correction: someone has already done," a new voice cut in. "They just did a fairly good job of hiding it." Turning, they saw Alcyone standing in the hallway that ran from the library. Behind her, several guards were gathering, drawing their weapons. From the rest of the hall came the sudden sound of combat.
"Hold them off," Moonshadow told Hector. "We'll protect Alaric!"
Nodding, Hector joined the other guards who were responding to the sudden attack and rushed the invaders. Moonshadow and both Rapierians followed Wizard and Selax into Alaric's room.
There, the other Wizard stood backed against the wall, facing both his original and the elemental.
"Well, well, you seem to have walked into my little trap."
"Really?" Wizard asked him, as the group spread out to surround him. "You're the one who seems trapped to me."
"Quite so, quite so," the other mused. "Except that statement requires making one small assumption . . . doesn't it?"
Before Wizard could respond, there was a whisper of movement behind him, and one of the Rapierians (the ranger probably) yelled, "Look out!"
With that, Selax hit Wizard on the back of the head with enough force that the other left the ground and soared toward the wall.
Casually stepping aside, the alternate Wizard telekinetically pulled him into the stone face first.
In the stunned silence that followed, Selax turned to face Moonshadow and the two Rapierians.
"You assumed that everyone with you on this quest was not an 'alternate.' That was most unwise," the elemental stated, as he closed in on them and raised his swords.
Moments later, the outer door to Alaric's quarters splintered as the necromancer came flying through it and struck the wall on the opposite end of the hallway.
"Please stop the room from spinning," he said, dazed, as he tried to stand. "I'd like to get off."
Managing to lift his head, he saw Moonshadow, blood running down her side, staggering toward the ranger. The other Rapierian lay still in the splintered remains of Alaric's desk, into which Selax had casually thrown him.
Wizard was still on the ground with his double bent over him. From the strain evident in both their faces, it was clear that they were locked in some sort of mental combat.
Behind them, in the farthest corner of the room, Selax was smashing in the metal door to Alaric's private study. . .
Easily removing the mage lock, he stepped through the door and into the room beyond.
This room was expansive, well-lit by the gleaming braziers on the floor, with a pool of water in each corner. At the northern side, the Ethereal Void was visible.
Still, he noted these things only in passing.
Instead, he focused on the man standing in the middle of the room . . . standing next to an empty pedestal, on which the Crolna should have sat.
Stopping, Selax faced Avatara. He held out a hand.
"Give me the Crolna."
There was a sense of peaceful unrest coursing through land, like something was just waiting to happen. Athes couldn't bare it, not when there's a mission at hand. He began to depart from the area surrounding Cademia and noted a small family foolishly walking along the outskirts of town.
Don't they realize they could be killed wandering there? he thought, continuing on his way. Not that he cared if this Cythera's citizens, or if they were too dumb to know what was good for them.
After a moment, he arrived at the river Styx East of the city. Athes, born of fire, had no fond memories of the water, still he was still a good enough swimmer and beyond the adjacent bank was his target. The cool waters splashing against him only fuel is ever growing aggravation.
What good is any of this? Just to be able to control those unintelligent pigs? he thought, "Bah! To hell with monarchs and kings."
The proven general Lysander sat in unrest tucked in his stagnant tent awaiting orders. He had done so for the past few days. The general sighed, "Damn. I shall wait no longer."
His subordinate spoke out hesitantly and without eye contact out of fear and respect, "But my lord.. we have not received orders yet."
Lysander snarled and placed his hand on his brow, "Oh? Then tell me boy, what do you suggest? Tell me in your infinite wisdom, shall we catch some chickens and start a merry farm? How did you know I was craving scrambled eggs?" The sarcasm was overwhelming.
The subordinate stuttered under the pressure, for the general was known to punish men harshly for insubordination and one could never know the end was around the corner, "W-well we do have that prisoner don't we? He could be of use."
"What? You mean that demon? What about him?" The general pulled aside his tent curtain to peer at the cell they had made for the beast. It wasn't the greatest fea of construction, but it seemed to work well enough.
"Sir. We could put him in the pit, give the soldiers something to do."
"You mean that crude ditch the men dug out to pass the time fighting in? Hm." Lysander turned and thought for a moment. "He did claim he was a messenger from The Master... but," Lysander leaned to the other side, "they don't use demons like that. Choices, choices."
"If he really was a messenger, then shouldn't something have happened, or at least another message would have come by now, right?"
"Of course, I knew all this from the start." Lysander concluded with the clever smile worthy of a fox, "However since this, 'Athes' really is just a spy, I suppose we had better fulfill our duty and eliminate him for out master."
Lysander rose and grabbed his blade. "Very well, rally the men. I'm going to give a large prize to the man that can fell this beast."
Through the dank, griming bars Athes looked over at the commotion coming from the barracks. He had been waiting for this moment. The makeshift cell they had placed him in was a a cruel joke he had been forced to be a part of, and the sweaty pigs of soldiers had been messing around with his weapon ever since he had arrived, with the only upside being one of them lost their finger from carelessness.
Athes was hoping to attack during his 'execution' as to have a clear shot at the general, though this new predicament would work all the better. He knew what was coming, and couldn't wait for the battle.
The guards threw Athes into a large dirt pit with wooden spikes all around it. After getting his bearings, he noticed the only way out appeared to be a shabby ladder on one side. Above and around the tops of the spokes he saw the faces of soldiers, and above them all was their general, Lysander, looking just as cocky as when Athes was 'captured'.
"Athes, we have determined you a spy of the enemy. Your sentence is death." Lysander spoke with a murderous gleam in his eyes, and his twisted smirk to match. "However.." he continued, "my men grow wearing waiting for battle, so to keep us in top shape we're going to have some practice with you." Lysander turned to his men, arms wide. "To the man that can fell this beast, I offer a blade of mine that has seen the death of hundreds. The contest begins now!"
At those last words,three men in full armor began climbing down the walls. One held a large axe, another with a long sword and small metal shield, the third had nothing but two metal gauntlets, a recently popular weapon in his world.
Athes on the other hand stood alone, arms chained behind his back.
The second man came forward ready to pierce Athes in the chest and claim a new weapon. He was swift but did not expect Athes to dodge so strangely. In a blur, the demon had ducked down and bitten wildly into the mans forearm, crushing the bone. The man cried out in pain, now disarmed (so to speak).
Athes kicked the bellyacher against the wall, finishing him. While the other men looked on in shock, Athes turned to Lysander, "Do you wish all your men to die as this one did?" he spoke, spitting out the blood of his fallen enemy.
"Hmpf." The confident general merely made himself more comfortable in his chair. "Don't take the forces of The Master lightly, fool." Lysander's stare was more serious now, a fire was in his eyes that seemed to be a challenge to Athes. Could he have figured out his plan?
Athes knew he had to act quickly now, in this state there was only so long he could hold out. More men were readying themselves to avenge their comrade, bracing themselves in the pit's soft dirt. Behind them archers set their sights on Athes, ready for if he decided to brake his chains or attempt magic.
Without his blade he only had one shot of getting out of this alive.
The other two men who had first entered now began their assault, with more caution than their former ally. Athes dodged the swing of the axeman easily, he was still clumsy with the weapon. However every time he got away from the axeman, the man with the gauntlets was able to get in a few quick blows, nothing serious, but they were starting to add up.
Lysander also looked ready for any attempt on his life by Athes, hand grasping his sheathed blade.
The first step was breaking his chains. The axeman would do that easily enough. Athes deliberately took more light blows from the gauntlets, leading the man closer into the ring.
Fool! he thought, they were now close to the axeman, and he was winding his swing for the killing blow. Swiftly, Athes first dropped down, tripped his foe with the hand-gear, and then jumped onto his side leaving the chain binding him dangling in the air. As he planned, the man swung the axe with full force, snapping the chain, as well as his ally.
The archers began to release their arrows at once. The second problem.
Using the large, startled axeman as a shield, Athes threw him onto his back and began scaling the walls. No spear or arrow was fast enough to act in the chaos and within moments the red demon was closing in on the general.
"Hahaha, you fool! Fine I accept your challenge." Lysander cried out. Sword brandished, the general charged at the red monster before him. Athes cast the arrow-full axeman aside and launched two fire balls at the soldiers all gathering round. All that remained in the new clearing now was Athes and Lysander.
Lysander wasted no time and swung skillfully at Athes, who was having a hard time dodging the blade. This man had definitely seen many battles before.
"Those were some of my best men you killed! You pay for this with your life, scum!" The general cried out. Even if he didn't look it, at heart Lysander lived to be a general, just as Firecat had mentioned earlier.
"Scum?" Athes chuckled in his low and crackling voice, "You and your men are pathetic. None of you deserve the honor of such a name."
"Fool!" The murderous glare in Lysander's eyes was even stronger now. "What would the pet of humans know of honor?"
It was working: Athes's taunts and dodging were wearing down the general well enough, and he only had to be cut into a half dozen times to do so.
He saw the opening in his opponent coming, his left to right wing would always waver, a war injury perhaps. As lysander readied the attack, Athes turned up and spoke with the wrath belonging to such a demon, "Look at me now, and remember: it was a being born of fire that took your life, a superior being."
"Ha! Don't make me! Ugh!" Lysander was caught, and froze as a burning grip was placed around his neck, and slowly tightened.
"Look." Athes spoke to the dying man, trying to peel away Athes's red fingers. "Do you see?" The demon glared into his victim's eyes and spoke, "You are unfit for this world."
After a final crack, the general was cast into the pit with the other corpses.
Athes heard the reinforcements coming. Now in this chaos it would be easy to pick off the rest of them. Though first he would have to retrieve his swallow.
It was night now, Athes had just finished taking care of the remaining soldiers. Some might have gotten away but they'd be defectors now. Death on sight for such cowards. Whoever was left in Catamarca would be so without guidance. All to plan, eh Firecat? He sat again and cleared his mind, waiting for the words of a specter to fill his mind.