Out of Reflection, Into Reality
Beorn moved quickly forward. Katerei followed behind. The undead were spread out around them.
There was now little point in stealth. Even if they reached their goal in secret, they could not hope to remain undetected once he began to weaken the connection between the two Cytheras. Their only chance was that their enemies also had limited resources and that maybe his counterpart was not here.
A sudden slight flash caught Beorn’s attention, and he turned to face Persephone. The undead magess was standing on the edge of the path. She had just triggered what appeared to be a warding rune.
She stared at him defiantly.
“Oops,” she said. “I must not have seen that.”
She was clearly lying, but it mattered little at the moment. After all, dealing with the guardians was part of the reason he had brought the undead in the first place.
Katerei stopped and glanced at him nervously.
“They know we’re here, don’t they?” she asked quietly.
“Quite,” he replied and continued.
All the same, there was no immediate sign of trouble as they proceeded upward toward the gateway. They were almost there, when the attack came suddenly from both sides.
There was a roar and the ground shook beneath them as massive figures suddenly tore their way out of the earth on either side of them. The group broke into a run, gaining a little distance before the monsters freed themselves and began to puruse.
Katerei she recognized the attackers: massive golems very similar to—if somewhat smaller than—the one that had attacked the Tyrant’s castle in Cademia.
Still, they were closing rapidly. In seconds, they would be on Beorn and his companions.
“Distract these creatures,” Beorn told Persephone.
“How? By dying again?” she spat out angrily.
“If necessary,” he replied calmly. “My spell and your dormancy should allow you to rise relatively rapidly. You will comply or be compelled to do so. I remind you it was you who alerted these guardians and in so doing broke our arrangement.”
The magess glared hatefully at him.
“You have no idea how much I want to kill you,” she ground out.
“That is possible,” he answered.
She raised her staff but Sisyphus stopped her. He too was glaring at Beorn.
“Come on, it’s not worth it right now,” he muttered angrily.
Reluctantly, she turned, and the rest of the undead fell back with her, stopping to wait for the golems.
“We’re just leaving them?” Katerei asked in horrified disbelief.
“For the moment. We shall hopefully reacquire them before leaving.”
Katerei froze, uncertain what to do. She hated using Persephone and the others, she hated Beorn’s coldness…and she hated herself for following Beorn up the slope as the battle began behind them.
Rapierian leaned back against the wall. The ranger sighed. The master mages had finally agreed to see him. The result had been several hours of unproductive discussions. The mages might have been prepared to believe in the existence of another Cythera—especially given the reports emerging from Cademia and news of the developments at Land King Hall—but they were not really prepared to listen to the advice of any version of Rapierian. Even his warning of the magic-blocking kesh crystals had failed to sway them. They had judged the security precautions they’d already taken sufficient, but they had at least agreed to allow the ranger another chance to convince them the next day.
He was just hoping that that would be in time when he heard the alarm bells ring.
He scrambled to his feet and tried to open the door only to find it locked. Evidently, the guards must have gone to answer the alarm but had decided to secure the door before doing so. Rapierian grumbled in annoyance and began to work on the lock.
Minutes later, he was free and was creeping cautiously along the hallways. The alarm was continuing to ring, and now he could hear cries and movement along some of the adjacent hallways. Guards and some of the more senior mages were heading toward the main hallway. Suspecting that now would be a bad time to be seen, he said nothing but stealthily followed. As he came closer, he began to hear the ominous sounds of combat.
Rapierian stopped and looked carefully around the corner to peer into the main hallway.
Scattered across it were several groups of guards supported by some of the mages. They were in locked in battle with a few opposing small groups, among which he recognized Jacob and Kaine. Several daemons provided support to the Hand and their companions.
The attackers clearly possessed skills superior to those of the defenders, but they were still outnumbered. The mages should have been able to gain the upper hand, but their spells were far weaker than normal. Some seemed barely able to cast any at all. The ranger recognized the clear effects of kesh crystals. Their enemies seemed to have no such difficulty, using their powers freely. Rapierian had seen this before and had even warned the mages about it. He had long ago found out that Selax had given his servants some sort of formula that blocked the effects of the kesh, but he had never been able to obtain any.
Rapierian frowned. Still, how had the attackers gotten into the pyramid?
The question was answered when he suddenly heard the sound of fighting behind him. Remaining concealed, he spun and faced back down the hallway. A knot of guards had spilled into it and were now fighting frantically for their lives as Selax calmly cut them down.
“Contain him! Contain—“ the command ended with an abrupt scream.
Rapierian realized at once what must have happened. The elemental had slipped into the city earlier and had begun to attack from the inside, creating a diversion and allowing the others to penetrate the main gate. Now, he was continuing to cause havoc by disrupting the flow of reinforcements to the main hallway.
Surrounded by several guards, Selax’s blades were a blur as he deflected the desperate attacks and found holes in the defense again and again. The elemental was in constant motion, sometimes flying, sometimes standing but always pushing forward.
The ranger hesitated, trying to figure out how he could help the men escape or if they could work together and possibly overwhelm Selax through numbers…
Then, it was too late. Another guard fell, and the rest broke and scattered.
Abruptly, Selax paused, stopping his advance. He seemed to listen for a moment. Then, he shot up into the air and flew down the hallway, brutally smashing aside two fleeing guards who were too slow to move out of the way.
The other guards, seeming unable to believe their good fortune, nevertheless rallied and, encouraged by their enemy’s departure, raced out to join the main fight.
Rapierian stayed hidden, uneasy about Selax’s hasty exit—actually, he was uneasy about the whole event. Selax and his minions had apparently relied on “shock and awe” to disrupt Pnyx’s organized response and to prevent them from concentrating their numbers. Still, even with the magic-dampening powers of kesh, Selax’s presence, and the skills of his forces, they were outnumbered. They couldn’t realistically take the city, and they seemed to know it. Already, they were falling back toward the gate, pursued closely by the guards.
Rapierian’s frown deepened. Even as they fell back, they were avoiding pitched fights and focusing more on simply holding attention. They were taking great care to minimize their casualties, even at the cost of minimizing potential damage to Pnyx’s forces. Most of those fallen seemed to be daemons, regarded by the Hand as rather expendable. Then, he realized what was happening.
Stepping into the hall, he yelled, but the tumult of the combat drowned out his voice. Dismayed, he turned and ran deeper into the city.
Beorn proceeded rapidly up the slope, while Katerei followed behind reluctantly. He stopped abruptly at the edge of a large crack in the ground. Pausing, he pulled a scroll out of his pocket just as Katerei caught up with him.
"What are--" she started to ask before he thrust the paper into her hands. Blinking in surprise, she looked at the paper and then back at Beorn. "I can't read this."
"You do not have to. Draw the symbols in the ground. Our odds of survival will be slightly increased."
Katerei somehow managed to look even more shaken than she already did.
"There is no time for discussion," Beorn cut her off again and turned back to the fissure. "When I gesture to the center of the symbols, fall back in that direction. We might not be easily able to hear one another by that time."
He pulled a green crystal from a pouch on his belt that she could not understand having missed earlier. Even in the dim moonlight, she recognized it as the Crolna.
Katerei froze, wanting nothing more than to be a thousand miles away, but, after a moment, she followed Beorn's instructions. She had gone too far to back out now.
Seeming to have forgotten her, Beorn held the Crolna out over the fissure and paused in concentration. For a few moments, nothing happened, but the air around his hands soon began to glow, flashing in odd shades of purple and green. The glow spread rapidly, and the fissure itself began to shine, dimly at first but brighter with every passing instant.
Then, the world around Katerei seemed to explode in a kaleidoscope of color and sound.
Staggered, she blinked madly, trying to clear her vision or to stop the roaring in her ears.
The sound did not diminish, but eventually her eyes adjusted for her to see somewhat and she looked about in stunned disbelief.
The fissure now shone like the sun, creating a wall of green from the fissure to the skies above where it seemed to meet the stars in a battle of purple and black lightning. For miles around, the landscape was lit in the eerie, tortured light. Beneath her, the ground heaved and groaned as if the land itself were in its death throes. About her, the wind howled, tearing at the mountains and the clouds, and she seemed to stand in the eye of the storm which grew stronger every second.
Then, Beorn, eyes glowing the same shade of green as the fissure, turned to look at her, and he glanced down at the scroll in her hands. Hurriedly, she went back to tracing the symbols on the earth. If their enemies hadn't known of their presence here before, they certainly did now.
Miles away, in Cademia, Shanadar and his friends had been up late into the night, arguing with the nobility over how to proceed.
Moonshadow, rubbing her head, was just about to propose the Enforcer give up for the night--although she knew Shanadar was far too stubborn to do so--when the land convulsed under her and several of those present were sent tumbling to the floor.
From outside the throne room, she heard the sounds of panicked shouting and running. Fearing an attack, she picked up her staff and started for the door, just as the guards from outside burst in.
"What is it? What's happening?" Shanadar asked sharply.
Neither could respond but could only point behind them. Stepping carefully to door, Moonshadow looked out and felt her jaw drop in amazement.
Far away, deep in the mountains, a second sun had been borne--a second sun that shone a horrible greenish color and reached from the earth to the sky.
For a moment, no one spoke.
"Well, that settles it," Shanadar said, grimly. "We are out of time and out of options. We'll have to do this the direct way." He turned to the nobles and the guards. "Gather whatever force you can--from the city, the farms, Pnyx, all the cities--I don't care where you get it, but I want whatever you can get as soon as you can get it!"
"What do you intend to do?" Moonshadow asked, although she had a sinking feeling she knew exactly what he had in mind.
"We march on Land King Hall and save the King," Shanadar replied, resolutely.
There was a storm of protests, but the Enforcer silenced them all with a shout.
He pointed at the light display as the ground shuddered under them again.
"Does anyone else have a better idea?"
One by one the gathered nobles nodded solemnly.
Shanadar turned to Moonshadow.
"Take whomever you can trust and go to Pnyx. Bring back whatever you can as fast as you can. I'll send runners to the other cities. Remember the duplicates, and be careful! We can't hope to completely avoid infiltration, but we must minimize the damage as much as we can."
Below Pnyx, Alcyone stumbled as another earthquake shook the ground. Deiphobus almost dropped the mage he was carrying and looked at her fearfully.
"What was that?"
"Never you mind," she hissed. "Stay focused. Even the idiots running this place will catch on to us soon."
The ruffian paled and hastened on his way.
In spite of the upgraded security, it had been easy to slip into the catacombs below the city. The team had consisted of herself, Deiphobus and a few other ruffians like him, and two or three skeletons under her control. Selax had entered the city earlier in the night and removed the security about the catacombs' entrance. Carefully and quietly, they had then began to ambush the sleeping mages and to smuggle them back down below.
Inevitably, they had been spotted, but then Selax had dropped any stealth and opened a full attack on the guards, drawing all attention to himself as the first diversion and even luring the guards away from the entrance. Minutes after the warning bell had sounded and the guard force had begun to recover, the forces outside the city had attacked, creating the second diversion and causing the guards to mistake the intent of the first.
Throughout all of this, Alcyone and her team had--with great care--continued their task, but she knew that time was running out. The Hand was surely falling back by now, and she had no idea where Selax had gone. They had all of the "help" they could get without being caught, and now it was time to escape.
Deiphobus paused again and turned toward her. Irritably, Alcyone didn't wait for him to speak but stormed up to him, intending to solve his reticence permanently. As she did so, the ground heaved beneath her, and she stumbled, saving her life.
The arrow went right through where she had been and struck Deiphobus in the chest. Oh well, at least she had been saved the trouble of removing him herself.
She whirled, sending the "shadows" down the passage behind her in a ravening burst of heat.
Rapierian dove to the side, firing again as he did so. The arrow burnt to ash as the magess snarled venomously at him before raising her staff in readiness and retreating down the tunnel.
The ranger followed.
Rapierian dodged another of the whirling "shadows," feeling the burning heat on his face as it barely missed him. He let fly another arrow at Alcyon, but her answering bolt of lightning tore through the projectile and struck the wall beside him. Anticipating the blast, he rolled with the force of the explosion, closing with his opponent. Alcyon again retreated rapidly down the corridor. The ranger knew she was just stalling to cover the retreat of her allies, but, try as he might, he couldn't close the distance any faster.
Persephone stumbled back, reeling from the heavy blow of the golem. With a roar, Tantalus leapt to her defense, trying to drive his axe into the golem's leg. The stone monster barely seemed to notice, throwing him aside. Still, the moment brought the magess time to recover and throw a fireball into the creature's face.
Behind her, she heard Sisyphus and Prometheus engaging the other golem.
Normally, the fight should have been over swiftly. Skilled as the four undead mercenaries were, the two golems were large and powerful, apparently untouched by any attack. However, as Beorn had said, his spell kept reanimating them every time they fell.
Suddenly, the ground heaved around them, throwing all combatants to the ground. The wind rose to a piercing howl as a sudden tempest erupted. The world flared green as a second star burst to life in the mountains above them.
Persephone hardly noticed any of these events, however, for she felt something else. A massive explosion of wild, chaotic power swept over them. The distant thread of Beorn's control--not active but a menacing threat--snapped, and they were free.
Stumbling to her feet, she saw the others rise. Hesitating, they all stood for a moment, uncertain what to do now. Then, driven by the curse and by the desire for revenge, they rushed toward the glow without a word.
Behind them, the golems rose as well. Like the undead, the spells that controlled them were broken, and they paused in confusion, bereft of goal or purpose. Then, they spotted the mercenaries heading up the mountain. With a roar, they followed.
Above them, Katerei worked quickly, trying to draw as many of the symbols as she could. Beorn leaned over the fissure, the Crolna still glowing in his hands. The kaleidoscope of purple and green continuing to grow by the minute. The wind screamed about her, and she could hardly stand as the ground rocked beneath her.
She had no idea how much time had passed--minutes, hours, days?--when Beorn's head snapped up, startling her. With glowing eyes, he looked toward the north. Then, he began step away from the fissure, slowly pulling the Crolna out of the heart of the storm. This change had no effect on the fissure however. If anything, the chaos rose, and the din about them increased.
Looking toward the sky, Katerei saw nothing...until another flash of the eerily colored lightning illuminated a small black dot, tearing through the clouds in its speed. With a sinking feeling, she realized then what Beorn had sensed.
Struggling to complete the spellwork laid out on the scroll, Katerei somehow frantically managed to draw her weapon. Rapidly, Beorn turned from the fissure, hastily slipping the Crolna back into the pouch at his belt and drawing his swords.
They were only just in time as Selax broke threw the tortured sky and dove on them out of the gale.