Can Someone Do This?
Can someone please find a way to bring the last few chapters of MAS2 up and post them here? I think the last chapter posted by each MAS2, Group One writer would be grand!
In order to get it moving again, and get the flavor of the story established in the minds of our writers, we need to see it again right up close and personal...in our faces...up our noses!
Um, even tho I'm not part of that group, I guess it's not asked too much to post the last 4 chapters of the story... here goes:
Chapter 11-3 In the Cavern of Echoing Thoughts
Once again the head council member spoke, his voice no more than a whisper, "I wish you well. May your questions all be answered and may you find that which you are seeking." With that the five elders and the five younger elves left the travelers standing in front of the cavern entrance.
Surprisingly, the air in the cavern didn't smell musty; rather it smelled faintly of autumn leaves, dried flowers from some forgotten springtime, and the not unpleasant odor of scented candles long since burned, flames long since extinguished by puffs of breath from the past. With hands on weapons, they stepped from the shady green-filtered sunlight into the dimness, slowly walking two by two through the opening. Darkling and Darla led the way. In spite of it's obvious antiquity, the entrance was high enough to allow even the proudly tall Darla to pass through without ducking her head as she so often did when passing through normal sized doors.
Aurora was very quiet, perching solemnly on Old Monk's shoulder, her iridescent fairy wings tucked tightly to her small dragon body, her hand tightly wound into a strand of his immaculately flowing white beard. Seemingly unconcerned, Old Monk strode along, occasionally muttering something under his breath. Perhaps it was a comment on what he was seeing, or perhaps something else. It was said too quietly for anyone else to understand, even Aurora who was at the moment in concentrated telepathic contact with Loopy. Sorceress Queen Antoinetta was again in residence.
Beside him, Reldon nervously clutched the handle of one of his throwing daggers, while the other toyed with the locket given him by Earthmother the evening before. Since receiving it, he had had no time alone to open it and look at the contents inside; it was preying on his mind, seeming to grow heavier by the moment like some dreadful millstone dragging him down into what depths he knew not what. Dweeble and Ilone paced side by side, weapons at the ready, heads swiveling right and left for any signs of danger, and in his usual position of rear guard, Harold strode along purposefully, hand on the handle of Stone Cleaver, prepared for anything.
As they moved further into the interior, their eyes adjusted; they could see that the interior gloom, partially lightened from the outside, did not fade into the expected blackness of a long-sealed underground crypt. A soft, glowing light radiated through the gloom. It pulsated with a pale blue color, somehow beckoning and inviting them to the place from which it came. Just inside the blue-lit opening they glimpsed what looked like a small round room with two openings, one beside the other on the opposite wall. On the metallic looking golden colored walls sconces were placed at intervals, their new appearing torches yet unlit. From outside, not much more could be seen, but from deep inside the cavern they could now hear faint echoes of something - or someone - making soft sighing noises.
Darkling was the first to break the silence. "Well, shall we enter and continue our search?" he asked, knowing full and well the question was purely rhetorical. The rest of the group was a little startled that he should ask, but agreed aloud that the sooner they entered, the sooner they could locate the directions to find the recluse Orvellus, and the sooner they could be on their way.
Even Aurora now chimed in. "Yes, I do not like this place under the ground. I have never been in a place where there is no sky. It is worse than human houses, much worse." She shuddered and grasped Old Monk's beard tighter. He muttered something only she could hear and clumsily patted her snout. She sneezed and was silent.
"What did the head council member call this cavern?" asked Harold, "Was it the Cavern of Echoing Thoughts? Can't help but wonder exactly what that means. Are those sounds we're hearing echoes?"
No one answered, and Reldon, nervously fingering the locket, said they would never know if they didn't get a move on; with that the group moved forward into the entry room. Before Ilone or Darla could produce a light spell, Dweeble struck a match and lit the torches. The flames danced in a small draft made visible by their movement, reflecting and gleaming warmly against the walls, bathing them in a golden glow that quite obscured the blue light that led them here.
Now they were able to see what the room held. The light from the torches showed that what had looked like two openings on the far side of the room was actually just one opening, with two massive doors standing open. Once past the portals, the blue light coming from deep inside cavern lit up a passage way that forked at a shallow angle to the left and right. Each of those passageways was also lit.
Right or left? There were no clues, no indications of which might be the right way and which might be the wrong way, or if there was a right or wrong way here. Perhaps the way was circular and they both led to the same place?
Almost as one the group moved forward. Although they could have continued to walk two abreast because the passageway was wide enough, Darkling took the lead. He was followed by Darla walking a pace back and a pace to the side, and the others followed in this staggered zigzag pattern, ending with Harold who strode along behind Dweeble. He walked almost sideways as he kept turning first one way, then the other to guard the rear. Somehow this seemed the best defensive pattern and they fell into it without thought.
Without discussion, Darkling chose to take the right passageway. They were tensed and at the ready should the need arise for battle...all except Old Monk. He didn't seem to be concerned about enemies or much of anything else at the moment. With Aurora still firmly attached to his beard like a seed pod from a thistle, he muttered unintelligible words to himself, occasionally nodding his head. From time to time he chuckled for no apparent reason, the sound raising small echoes that rode strangely on the low pulsating waves of sound coming at them from the unseen depths of the tunnel before them.
Ilone, who was walking in front of him just behind Reldon had the strange thought that Old Monk's chuckles rode on the stream of sound like small boats made of bark floating on an unknown river, driving upstream against the current, then losing momentum and floating back to them again. The thought made her uncomfortably aware that they themselves were pushing into those faint sounds like divers into an underwater current. The sounds when they came were not uncomfortably loud, they were just everywhere with an almost physical presence. She pushed the thoughts away, and concentrated on picking up any indications of danger, her magical sensory net wide and alert for any slightest incoming signal.
It was only then that Ilone caught the first clear inkling of what the sound really was. A susurrus of sounds that was slowly resolving into the sounds of voices, the strange disjointed and weird sounds of partial sentences, nonsense syllables, noises from a madhouse disjointed and fragmented bits and pieces. She glanced around at Old Monk and past him at Reldon, whose head she could see bobbing along behind him. She could see the anxious look on his face. Thoughts, she said to herself, now sensing a faint echo of her own thought mixed in with the others. Those are the echoes of our thoughts being reflected by.... She had no answer for that, none at all.
Reldon was becoming more nervous by the moment, fingering the locket with more intensity than before. Had he looked down, he might have seen the faint glow emanating from it. What secrets did it harbor, he wondered?
At that moment, Aurora turned her head to see what Ilone was looking at and clearly saw the glow surrounding the locket Reldon clutched so tightly. "Oh!" she exclaimed, pointing. "Your locket is glowing, Reldon!"
He dropped his hand immediately and looked down. It had been glowing, that he could see, but as he watched, the glow faded and it hung there as innocent as any locket had ever been, a harmless bit of jewelry. Well, he thought, no time now for it. He looked up past Old Monk and Aurora and shook his head at Ilone. The meaning was ambiguous, and she chose to interpret the headshake as a negation of what Aurora had said. She turned, and they walked on into the stream of whispery, echoing voice sounds of their thoughts.
The passageway appeared to be ever so slightly curving to the left as they walked along, but with the glow of the light in front of them the curvature was hard to discern. Not wanting to waste anymore time than necessary, the group moved along at a brisk pace, one that seemed to suit them all. The pale blue light was pulsating more strongly as they moved deeper into the cavern depths, and the echoing sounds were becoming a little louder.
Aurora suddenly squeaked. "I can't hear him any more!"
They stopped without command. "Can't hear who, Aurora?" Darkling asked quietly.
"Loopy, I can't hear him any more...well, her." Aurora sounded confused. "I can't hear Queen Antoinetta who is inside Loopy's head."
Darkling sighed. "It will be all right, Aurora. It is just being in the cave, that's all. It will be fine when we get back outside." He turned and walked on, and the rest once more fell in step behind him. Some time passed when Darkling, walking slightly ahead of the rest of the group, stopped suddenly.
"What?" whispered Darla. She quickly stepped up next to him, and as her gaze took in the scene before them, her jaw dropped slightly in amazement. The pulsating blue light to which they had been drawn was coming from the center of a shallow indentation on the far wall of another cavern room. They had reached another room, this one slightly larger than the one near the opening of the cavern. Across the room on the wall next to the light was a stone tablet.
When Darkling stepped into the room, she followed; the rest of the group entered behind them and Harold, Dweeble, Ilone, and Reldon took up defensive positions in a semi-circle around the room in case they had to defend themselves. Old Monk moved past them and stepped into the center of the room. He seemed to be having quite a nice time of it, muttering and smiling as if he wastalking with some old friend.
Aurora, thoroughly frightened now, released her hold on his beard and quickly flew to Ilone and perched on her shoulder, securing herself with a firm grip on a strand of hair. "It's all right Aurora, no harm will come to you," Ilone said, gently stroking Aurora's side with one finger.
"Old Monk," Darla broke the silence, "Do you know what this place is?" Old Monk smiled and nodded. "Yes, I do," he replied. "As a matter of fact, I certainly do know what this place is," he said nodding his head vigorously. "This is the Cavern of Echoing Thoughts where we will obtain the final answer we need to find the Castle of Orvellus."
"I think we already know that, Old Monk," Darla answered patiently. At the moment he was the Old Monk as they knew him with no hint of that other entity that occasionally took over.
Everyone relaxed a little and began looking around the room. As Old Monk moved closer to the light, it grew brighter and the echoing sounds became quieter. Darkling moved closer to Monk hoping to hear what he was saying, but he spoke too quietly.
"Let's look for something, anything, that might help point the way to finding Orvellus," Harold said to no one in particular and moved forward from his position against one wall; the others, too, shifted positions, their eyes searching for any possible clue or hiding place. He and Darkling were looking at the stone tablet with its strange markings when Old Monk spoke.
Straightening himself up to his full height, he said in a clear, firm voice quite unlike his own normal speaking tones, "Orvellus says that within the Arborean Forest, deep beneath the ground, you will find the key to the Castle of Orvellus hidden in the stone tablet." With that he once again bent into his usual round-shouldered stance and smiled happily to himself.
"He will never cease to amaze me," Darla said. Darkling looked at her, smiling as he said, "No one here will ever cease to amaze me." His eyes were soft, and Darla turned away with a slight smile, knowing the remark was aimed mostly at her. These quite meaningful moments of communication between them were becoming more frequent, and she found the thought comforting, warming her inside.
They all then turned their attention to the stone tablet, focussing on deciphering the meaning of the strange symbols and writing. Certainly they could see that it was entirely different from the Runes that had been appearing on the back of the Pool of Reflections, as strange as that was to everyone except Reldon. They were arranged in a kind of circular pattern, three concentric rings of them sweeping and scrolling around, then each converging on a star-shaped spot in the center of the pattern. Fancy writing of some kind adorned with many curliques and decorative enhancements embellished both the top and the bottom, completing the inscription. All in all, it was a most impressive piece of works as tablets go.
Aurora, her voice nervous, high-pitched and trembly, finally spoke. "I think whoever Old Monk has been talking to since we have been in this terrible hole in the ground told him the tablet tells about a Rune that is the key. We need a Rune."
"Nothing ever is easy. Always have to figure out this and that. Tiresome that's what it is," huffed Dweeble, "purely tiresome. Besides, my bunions are killing me. Rain coming, all right. Got no desire to get caught in a hole in the ground in a flood." His voice drifted off in a mutter of complaint as he shifted from foot to foot seeking a bit of comfort for his aching bunions.
"Let's try and get this done so we can be on our way," Ilone said. "We must hurry and get back to the wagon. Loopy and Millicent must be getting worried by now. Aurora hasn't given a report and it has been hours now," Ilone said. Then a guilty look crossed her face. "Oh, and the orc, Yikalor, too. I imagine he is getting tired of waiting."
"This tablet has to be the key," Harold announced as though the fact wasn't obvious to them all. "We have to get it figured out in a hurry. Suggestions anyone?' While he was asking his question, Harold was trying to get the tablet off the wall so as to get a better look at it.
The tablet wouldn't budge and seemed to be a permanent fixture on the wall. Darkling who had been quiet moved up beside Harold and said, "We need to copy this somehow. It may be what we are supposed to bring back to Mother Goody."
At the sound of Mother Goody's name, Old Monk, who had been contentedly talking to whomever he had been talking to, came to full attention. "Here", he said reaching a gnarled hand inside his robes. "We can copy it to my tablet. That will keep it safe until we are able to show it to Mother Goody."
Aurora, still perched on Ilone's shoulder, was becoming more agitated and nervous. "Oh please hurry! I must get out of here and go check on Loopy. Reldon, you can unlock the secret with your locket. Please do try."
Reldon, standing off to one side still had the locket clasped in his hand, his thumb nervously tracing and retracing the opening catch. Looking slightly startled by Aurora's words, he said, "I'm not sure I can do that, Aurora, but I can try." He walked to the wall where the tablet was and studied it very carefully.
Old Monk stepped up beside him and quietly said in a positive voice, "You can do it. Put one hand on the tablet and with the other hold the locket. Then the key will be revealed. We will copy it to my tablet and be on our way."
With some apprehension, Reldon moved closer to the wall and placed his right hand on the star shaped symbol in the center of the tablet. Holding the locket in his left hand, he closed his eyes and let his mind relax. The locket began to glow and so did the tablet. Reldon was not aware of this because his eyes were closed, but the rest of the group could see the glows emanating from the locket and tablet. They watched quietly, scarcely breathing.
After a few moments Reldon began speaking.
"Look in the mirror and what do you see?
Is it real, true reflection, or only your dream?
Is the real but reflections, and how can it be
The reflections are true? Or not what they seem?
Triple wheels slowly circle, rotate and turn.
Unlock each one, if the truth you would learn."
They all stood in silence for a moment trying to absorb this obscure verse before Old Monk broke the silence. "Here, let me copy it on to the tablet," he said. As he softly spoke the words of a spell, the writings and characters from the tablet on the wall began taking shape on the tablet. In a few moments the transfer was complete, and he said with a smile and chuckle, "That should complete our quest here. Shall we go?"
Ilone and Harold, speaking almost in unison, said, "Yes, lets get back to our friends," "...so we can study the rune further."
Aurora, still tightly clasping a strand of Ilone's hair, also affirmed the decision. "I don't like it that I haven't been able to hear Loopy since we've been in this terrible hole in the earth. Let's hurry." Her voice was quivering on the edge of panic. If the truth were known, everyone was sharing her feelings to one degree or another, and with the feeling of claustrophobia adding a sense of urgency, the group started back the way they had entered, leaving much faster than they had come in. Strangely enough the constant echoing of their thoughts that had bombarded their senses on the way in was gone, and only the normal sounds and echoes of their footsteps and the jingling of their equipment broke the silence.
As they neared the room at the opening of the cave, Aurora disengaged herself from Ilone's hair and flew out past Darkling who was in front. Looking back over her shoulder, she called, "I will check on Loopy, Millicent and Yikalor and report back as soon as possible." With that she was gone so quickly that the flurry of iridescent wings seemed to leave a faint rainbow trail of color in the air behind her.
Keeping the pace brisk, the group re-entered the first room. Dweeble stopped for a moment to douse the torches. To be honest, in addition to being dutiful, he also wanted a chance to pause for a moment to ease the discomfort of his aching bunions. With Darkling still in the lead, followed by Darla, Ilone, Old Monk, Reldon, Harold, and finally a grumbling Dweeble, the group left the cave. For a moment they paused, watching the huge stone slab roll back across the cave entrance sealing it once again. The Object of Balance was gone from the niche where they had placed it. It didn't matter because their goal here had been accomplished. Feeling more secure now, they moved out of the single file order and resumed their normal grouping as they strode back through the thick woods and underbrush toward the Elven Council.
From seemingly out of nowhere Ralfos appeared. "Come," he said. "I know a short cut back to the Council."
Darkling and Darla had half-readied their weapons when they heard the breaking of twigs ahead of them, and they now put them away a sigh of relief. Darkling told Ralfos to lead the way. The underbrush made travel a trifle uncomfortable as it seemed to almost deliberately try to tangle about their feet and legs, but it actually took a very short time to reach the Elven village. Just as they reached the village center, Aurora arrived frantic and out of breath; even the thrumming of her wings sounded urgent.
"Quickly! Quickly! Come! Come!" she said, repeating herself in a voice so high pitched it was almost a screech. "They are in danger...attacked...wounded...hurrieee!" With that, she flew back the way she had come without waiting to see if anyone was following her. They looked at each other, knowing full well that Aurora was not one for playing games if her friends were in any trouble or danger. They knew something terrible was happening at the edge of the Arborean Forest and they must get there quickly.
Raflos seemed to understand immediately, too, and not waiting to say good-bye to the people in the village, he led them -- with their weapons drawn and at the ready -- at a fast trot back to the path that would take them to the edge of the Arborean Forest. When they reached it, he led them off at a run. Old Monk had a time keeping up as did Dweeble, but keep up they did even from the rear.
As they neared the path that would take them straight out to the edge, Ralfos slowed and turned to speak to them. "I'm sorry, but I cannot take you any farther. Just stay on the path and it will lead you out of here. May Earth Mother be with you and guide you. Good bye." With that he stepped into the underbrush and disappeared.
Harold, gripping Stone Cleaver tightly, stepped up near where the others had gathered. "What do you think is going on?" he asked.
Darkling answered, "I don't know, but we better hurry."
Just as they were getting ready to move out after this momentary catching of their breaths, Aurora reappeared. "Oh! Oh! Oh! It is the evil one, the evil one! Hurting...hurry!" she said, as she zipped around Ilone's head, hardly taking time for a breath between each of her words.
"We're coming Aurora, we're coming," Ilone told her, trying to calm the little fairy dragon down. At that moment, Old Monk underwent another of his changes, gaining height and stature. Saying nothing, he was heading down the path at an extremely brisk pace for a man of his age. The group quickly followed at a trot.
It was a horrible sound they heard coming from the edge of the forest as they burst through the thick underbrush in a group. Their view of the wagon and their friends had been obscured, but what they saw as they cleared the underbrush took their breath away for a brief second. There was Black Coda, the last person -- or thing -- that any of them expected to see, standing with sword held high over his head, ready to plunge it downward into Yikalor who lay prone and defenseless beneath the blade. The high-pitched burbling sound was coming from Yikalor, partly a sound of agony and partly some kind of chanted words they could not understand, perhaps a prayer of some kind.
"The death thrust," whispered Darla. "We must stop him."
The area where they had left the wagon showed that a terrible battle had taken place. The wagon was turned on its side, the contents scattered all around. Strangely, Reldon's bright jester's cap with the bells on the tip dangled forlornly from a nearby branch like a forgotten tree ornament.
Millicent's milk bucket gleamed in a prickly bush, and a bag of flour had been ripped open, frosting the ground and trampled now like traces of dirty snow. Curiously, one of the gnarled, sweet dark root vegetables that Dweeble used to make his luscious tartlets lay at their feet with no clue as to how it had gotten there.
Worse yet, Loopy, Millicent, the horses, and now even Aurora were missing. They didn't have time to look for them, they had to stop the attack that Black Coda was about to finish with Yikalor. From the looks of the orc, he had tried valiantly to ward off the attack, but he had suffered some major damage...green orc ichor oozed from several deep wounds. Without thinking, Dweeble yelled a challenge, moving forward with his axe ready to strike. Coda's attention wavered, and Yikalor took advantage of that moment to painfully roll behind a nearby boulder out of harms way for the moment.
The enemies faced each other. This time it would be to the death...of someone. They all sensed that, and mentally prepared themselves. Inside the mind of Black Coda, Elleda stirred, and from his place in the shadows just inside the edge of the forest, Darque and Rage tensed themselves and waited.
Chapter 11-4 Banishing the Demon
"I have told you that I will be back," Coda laughed slowly as he regarded the party. "And Black Coda always fulfills his promise."
"Please," Harold growled as he eyed the demon warily. "You have barely survived your last two encounters. What makes you think you'll survive this time?" His eyes involuntarily shifted at Darla for a moment, half-expecting her to charge her spear again like she did before to defeat the demon. She was tense like before, but she showed no sign of preparing to cast anything... and neither did Ilone.
Black Coda laughed. "I am now in possession of a body much stronger than before. And with this possession of this body I am now able to accomplish feats I have never achieved before!"
Reldon eyed him with contempt. "Since when are you becoming a cross-dresser?" he commented dryly. "That armor looks feminine to me."
"Silence!" the demon roared. "You foolish jester! Indeed I have usurped the body of a woman... but she was a lot more powerful than that contemptuous bandit had ever been! Indeed, my power had increased thanks to this body! But that is not all... behold!" Triumphantly, Coda held up his hands, and something glittered on that hand.
Reldon gasped. "That's... my gem!"
"Indeed, jester," Coda sneered. "You fools can never comprehend the true meaning of the gem to me! I am now free of restraint... and well-nigh invincible!"
"We shall soon see about that," Harold growled as he did two quick swings with his heavy sword, motioning Coda to face him. Darkling also tensed up, looking not as irritable as Harold but just as wary.
The Old Monk, in the meantime, whispered something to Darla. The Amazon nodded, and took one of her gloved hands off her spear. She held that hand out toward Coda.
Ilone realized what she was trying to do; she had reviewed Darla's spellbook several times and has added some spells inside herself. "Concentrate fully on the gem!" she whispered urgently, and Darla nodded. Harold was still taunting the demon, who growled dangerously as he held out his sword. But still the demon kept part of his attention of his precious gem...
Quickly, Ilone drew her bow and let loose an arrow at Coda. Coda instinctively raised his sword with lightning speed, and he struck the arrow. The sword struck true; the arrow was chopped in two.
And for that moment, his attention was distracted from the gem.
Reldon also used the chance to leap at the demon, intending the snatch the gem back right from the demon's hand. But Darla was faster.
Come to me
And do not flee,
Now I call you
Here to me!
Coda started in surprise when suddenly the gem flew from his hand, seemingly of its own intent, to Darla's waiting hand. Reldon, upon seeing what Darla did, grinned and drew his weapons as he continued his charge. He already almost reached the demon, and he wouldn't want to waste his chance.
As soon as the others saw Reldon's charge, they also started their own charge. Harold roared as he swung the Stone Cleaver one more time through the air before he followed Darkling and Dweeble, who were already running aside Reldon to assist him. Dweeble observed Harold with a slight smile, despite their predicament; he was so preoccupied with his sword that he didn't care that he no longer carried his shield with him.
Coda, however, already recovered. He pointed coldly at the gem, which was still speeding toward Darla's hand. Darla stiffened, a small gasp escaping her lips as suddenly the gem slowed down to a stop. She gritted her teeth and concentrated harder at the gem, and she physically clenched her hand as the gem wavered in the air between her and the demon. But at the end, Coda roared as he raised his sword, and suddenly the gem was torn away from her invisible grip. Darla gasped and stooped down in exhaustion, while Coda triumphantly pulled the gem to his gauntleted hand, while he started to deal with the four attackers. Like Harold, he did not carry a shield, but his alarmingly increased speed more than made up for the lack of one.
"He can use... magic?" Darla panted as she stared disbelievingly at the demon.
Ilone's eyes flared as she let an arrow loose at the demon, who shrugged it off casually. "I don't know what happened to him, but impossible as it may seem, he is a lot faster now, not to mention able to use magic... despite his funny-looking armor."
"It seems to me that the demon emulates and multiplies the power of whomever body he inhabited right now," the Old Monk observed. "This is the body of a powerful female mage."
"Mother Goody?" Ilone asked worriedly, her heart suddenly sinking.
"Not quite," he assured her. "Her powers were nowhere near the Adept's. For one thing, Coda would never had usurped her body; she was far too powerful for him. For another, if he did manage to do it, he would have so much power that he wouldn't have bothered with us now."
"It's powerful enough in any case," Darla eyed the demon with anger. "We'll see how he fares against my spear." With that she raised her spear and yelled as she rushed forward to join the others in the fray.
Coda was right. Even with five fighters now fighting him with determination, and with no shield to provide him with protection, he showed no signs of being penetrable. His sword whizzed dangerously through the air, blocking any attacks that came to him. Feints that normally worked against him now were as ineffectual as other attacks. Darkling, for one, shouted in disappointment every time his particularly ingenious feints were blocked.
"Watch this, sir," Ilone said to him as she raised her bow and loaded it. Her features were briefly one of intense concentration, and she was whispering something softly. The tip of her arrow was glowing with a cold, blue light, and she waited for her chance. As soon as Coda's back was turned on her as he blocked Dweeble's powerful swing at his feet, Ilone released the arrow. The arrow streaked unchallenged into the back of the demon's neck, right between a gap on his armor. As the arrow struck, suddenly frost formed on that spot and spread quickly throughout the back of the armor as well as to the shoulders.
Coda whirled around in annoyance, not even bellowing in pain, frustrated because even though he was unhurt, he could not reach back and took the arrow off without being swarmed by the other fighters. Invincible as he may have felt, he preferred not taking any chances. So he endured the arrow as he blocked Darla's thrust, even though the forming frost was beginning to impede his movements.
"Nice work," the old man actually said admiringly.
Ilone smiled at him in gratitude as she prepared another arrow and concentrated. "Thanks. I am quite surprised that it worked myself." The old man looked startled, then laughed loudly. Still smiling, Ilone waited for another chance, but wary of her, Coda took special precaution not to turn his back on her again.
The fighters fully knew their efforts were useless, considering how much Coda's techniques have improved, and judging from Coda's reaction to Ilone's enchanted arrow, they also fully realized that Coda was indeed impervious to their attacks. Nonetheless they pressed on, knowing well that Coda was more dangerous on the offensive. Their grim faces as they hacked at Coda carefully indicated that they didn't expect to achieve victory over Coda, even though they wouldn't want to give that to the demon easily.
Harold by now was half-screaming with frustration as his attacks were continually blocked by the demon, and the acrobatic Reldon was running out of places to stab the demon at. Dweeble was sweating profusely as he fought alongside Darkling, who was already on the verge of exhaustion. Darla was able to take advantage of her range from time to time, but Coda was especially wary of her after what she did to him on their last encounter, so she was subjected to increasing portion of the demon's attacks. Try as she might, she was not able to charge her spear again, even though she somehow perceived that not even a charged spear would be able to penetrate Coda's body now.
Coda was laughing as he warded off the attacks. He was becoming increasingly more confident, especially after the limitations that he was previously subjected under was removed by the gem. He swung his heavy sword faster and faster, seemingly never to tire, but due to the other party's advantage in numbers he was never able to focus his attention on one fighter long enough to finish him off.
Darla saw Ilone watching the fight with her bow drawn, with the old man doing nothing by her side. Ilone's arrow was glowing with blue light, but Ilone was still waiting patiently for her chance to unleash the deadly arrow against Coda. Darla knew that it was up to her to distract Coda's attention such that Ilone would be able to fire the arrow again.
She stepped back momentarily, carefully placing Coda between her and Ilone, and shifted her grip on the spear such that her left gloved hand was holding the spear near its tip. She whispered briefly, and that hand glowed with light. It was a simple light spell, and it was designed only to illuminate. Yet to Coda, who immediately saw what she was doing, it seemed that she was again charging her weapon to execute another death thrust at him. Her piercing, challenging shout also helped to convince him as well.
That got his full attention immediately. Coda turned to her, and even though his sword was still warding off the attacks of the others, his eyes were fully on Darla's spear.
And momentarily, his back was turned at Ilone.
With another cry, Ilone released the arrow. Too late, Coda realized the danger only after the arrow slipped neatly into a slot near his shoulder plates. Frost quickly spread from the point of impact and made its way rapidly down his sword-wielding arm.
Coda roared in fury as he raised his sword with some difficulty. His roar was like shockwave, however. The magically enhanced sound hit the swarming fighters physically, and with loud cries and curses they were knocked off their feet and thrown several yards back. The effect even affected Ilone, who were standing further away... only Old Monk remained unruffled.
And Coda looked around at the fighters, who were still struggling to get up. Darla's hand had stopped glowing as her concentration was broken. He laughed as he beheld his foes.
"Woe be to those who stand in the way of the Black Coda!" the demon shouted as he tried to move his chilled arm. "His punishment is swift and merciless, and his name is dreaded and feared!" And his eyes burned as he suddenly beheld Darque, who rode calmly to his sight, atop his not-so-confident steed.
Darque had been watching the fight with growing apprehension. From the moment Coda had unveiled the gem with a flourish, he already had a bad feeling about it. Upon seeing how Coda had indeed broken his restraints and limitations and doing things that he should never had done, Darque began to wonder about the wisdom of summoning the demon in the first place.
‘The demon is becoming very powerful, Master,' Rage noted with a mild tone of satisfaction. 'He'll be able to defeat them with no problems.'
"Too powerful, Rage," Darque answered worriedly. "He can now unleash his full powers, and Coda after all is a very powerful demon."
'Isn't that the idea?' Rage chuckled sardonically.
"No, it's definitely not my idea," Darque's eyes burned. "Our demon had somehow broken his restraints. When he unleashes his full power, not only they will be destroyed... but we will be too." He eyed the demon, who had already felled his enemies around him. "Perhaps it is time for me to have a little talk with him."
Rage snorted with apprehension. 'If Coda is as dangerous as you had led me to believe, why talking with him?'
"Trust me, Rage," Darque said, his tone deep and deathly calm. "I want you to just walk right into the clearing now."
'But Master...' Rage protested.
"Now." There was an awful finality in Darque's hiss, and Rage sighed as he reluctantly walked to the demon, who turned his head at them as they entered.
"Very good, Coda," Darque said with a calm voice at the demon.
The demon laughed. He looked at his chilled arm, and slowly the frost started to fade as the demon raised his body temperature. "Black Coda is now invincible! No one can beat Black Coda now! For I am Black Coda..."
"However," Darque cut the demon's self-congratulatory monologue with his icy voice, "I'm afraid that your actions have gone too far."
"Too far?" the demon chuckled mirthlessly. He barely noticed the fighters around him quietly encircling him, while some of them were warily stalking Darque as well. "But it is you who had given me this body so that I would be powerful!"
"You know that you are violating the boundary between your world and the mortal world," Darque replied coldly. "You dared to use powers that you had been forbidden to use in this world."
"I use whatever I want, you decrepit fool," Coda laughed now. "So what are you going to do about it?"
Darque eyed the fighters before he turned to Coda again. "I'm afraid I'm going to relieve you of that body," he said calmly.
Coda started, and he gripped his sword tighter. "You what?!" he exclaimed in disbelief.
"You heard me," Darque replied. "I'm going to send you back to the underworld."
"I am no longer obliged to you," the demon sneered. "You have no more power over me. You are now like... an insect... beneath my terrible feet."
Darque was only slightly taken aback; he had guessed as much. "I know," he said subsequently. "But I do have other means."
Coda laughed as he retrieved his gem again and showed it to Darque. "This gem has broken your hold on me, and unleashed my full powers! And as long as this gem remains with me, nothing you do can ever bring me back to where I came from! For this is my destiny... to become the scourge of the mortal world... the bringer of darkness! For I am Black Coda..."
Darque regarded Coda coolly as he unsheathed his sword. The huge sword was glinting with a bluish hue, and the blade emitted a faint magical aura that every magic user in the vicinity could detect. Black Coda eyed the sword warily, and the Old Monk lowered his eyebrows. Ilone, who was aiming her arrow at Darque, gasped softly... while Darla felt some inexplicable tingling on her spine. Darkling and Reldon looked strangely shaken as well. If anyone could've seen his face, they would see a small smile appearing on Darque's scarred face. "Then let's find out about that, shall we?" he challenged as he held out his sword in readiness.
The tip of his sword dropped slightly, however, as he suddenly felt a source of magic not coming from his sword. Coda was whirling at the Amazon on the group, who had held out her hand and whispered something softly. The gem in Coda's hand flew from his hand toward her. She had taken advantage of Coda's momentary distraction to retrieve the gem.
"No you're not!" Coda roared as he pointed his finger at the gem, while still keeping part of his attention at Darque. The gem again wavered in the air, and as before Darla shivered as she struggled to fight the opposing force. Again, however, Coda was simply too strong for her, and the gem again flew at Coda's waiting hand.
But a stranger, stronger aura was brewing on the air this time even as Darla looked at Coda in anger for thwarting her attempt the second time. It was intangible at first, and all eyes turned suspiciously at Darque. But the Old Monk was looking at Darla instead, his face betraying his surprise... the first time, it seemed, that he ever exhibited anything remotely resembling surprise.
Darla stood up very straight and stared at the demon fearlessly, but her gaze seemed blank for some reason. Again she held up her hand, palm up, while her other arm no longer bothered to hold her spear up. She no longer exhibited the anger and frustration that she had displayed scarcely seconds earlier... her posture was one of intense, dreadful concentration... and detached interest.
"Darla?" Ilone turned at her in surprise as she finally determined that the source of the sudden aura was not Darque.
As the gem started to settle back on Coda's palm, she chanted slowly in a hair-raising tone,
Talarath ela drasfal
monerat eni huraluth
Loshael nefeld ral
leakhat ara azanuth!
And the gem on Coda's palm abruptly disappeared.
Everyone jumped in surprise as there was suddenly a loud popping sound of air being displaced. Darla was still standing there, staring almost blankly at Coda, her hand still held up high. Something glinted in the sunlight on her palm, however. A slow smile spread on her face as she lowered her hand and closed her fist over the gem that had one moment ago existed on Coda's palm. And even as the strange aura slowly faded, it seemed that color again returned to her eyes. Her body swayed, and Darkling rushed just in time to her side to catch her falling body. Her weight knocked him to the ground, and as he sat stunned on the ground, he looked at the unconscious Amazon with wonder. Unconsciously he took the hand that was holding Reldon's gem and closed it with both his hands protectively.
Coda, however, had no time to ponder over what happened, as Rage bounded forward. Darque had instantly recovered and held his sword high as he led Rage to charge Coda.
The demon took one look at Darkling, who was looking at the demon defiantly even as he protectively guarded Darla, and roared in absolute frustration. He was still free from his restraint, of course, but he could no longer use the gem to draw strength from. With absolute fury he raised his broadsword and swung it at Darque, who blocked it with inhuman calm. Sparks flew from the impact of the two heavy swords, and Rage flinched.
Darque's fighting style was like no other that everyone had seen. He seemed to be using some archaic style that nevertheless still effective, and had a certain grace to it. His frail body belies his speed and grace, and he was easily Coda's match, even though his strength was already fading. Coda was becoming increasingly frustrated that he could not penetrate Darque's defenses after several exchanges of blows. The necromancer was not able to mount a counter-offensive, but he could hold up on his own. And his technique also made it clear to the others that he did not appreciate any help in defeating the demon. Not that the others wanted to anyway; they were eyeing him with suspicion.
Darque and Rage fought like one. They have fought together for so long that their minds were almost automatically linked. There were no more traces of the self-pitying steed; Rage had now fully earned his name. Rage carried his master around Coda, masterfully getting his master out of the demon's range when Coda was about to strike a blow that his master wouldn't be able to avoid, and bringing his master back into dangerously close range the moment Coda was relatively inattentive. The swords clanged at each other several times, and the sound of it caused everyone's ears to ring.
Finally enraged beyond words, Coda raised his sword high and bellowed in challenge. His posture cold, Darque bent his arm back and swung mightily at the demon, who promptly blocked the attack.
And the magical blade clanged against Coda's sword, but this time the demon's sword promptly broke into two. The demon roared as he looked at the hilt of his sword in disbelief and at the half-blade that went right into a trunk of a tree behind him.
Darque again raised his sword, but Coda discarded his broken blade in disgust and as he reached up to the sky, his hand started to glow. A blade of light formed in his hand, and he lowered the blade quickly just as Darque struck. Despite its appearance, the light blade was solid enough to block Darque's sword, and Darque grunted in surprise.
Coda laughed. "You may break my sword, but still you will not defeat me!" He held up his other hand and summoned another blade, and with his two magical blades of light he attacked Darque with renewed frenzy.
Darque's red eyes burned with fury as he quickly realized that Coda was too fast for him now. Rage danced around Coda more carefully now, and he was quick to retreat when Coda launched his deadly attack. The necromancer raised his blade and murmured something with his deep voice. The sword was slowly being suffused with pale, red light as he did so... and then he shouted hoarsely as he spurred Rage forward with his newly-imbued sword raised. Coda raised his twin blades to block him... and as the blades meet, the necromancer's sword passed through the shafts of light directly to clang noisily at Coda's armor, which remained impenetrable. Darque smiled beneath his hood as he withdrew his blade, satisfied that even though Coda was uninjured by his effort, he had given the demon one surprise that he would not soon forget.
The next thing he knew, he was thrown roughly off Rage's back. He landed not too gently on his back, and he suddenly felt very weak.
Rage wouldn't have anticipated that, actually. The demon, finally angered by the futility of his blades, decided to use his magic instead. With his power he had simply threw a long-ranged punch at Darque, which knocked the necromancer off his steed.
Triumphant, Coda covered the distance between them in three bounds and swung his swords down at the hapless necromancer.
It was only Darque's quick reflexes that saved him. Knowing well that his imbued blade would never save him from Coda's deathblow, he quickly released the enchantment. As the glow of the blade returned to pale blue, he grasped the blade near its point and held it up. Coda's blades clanged against the sword, but the two-handed grip that Darque managed to do prevented the blades from going any further.
"Yield!" Coda commanded as he pushed his blades down harder. Behind him, Rage was neighing wildly as he started to stomp at Coda's back, but Coda ignored the steed as if it didn't exist.
"Never!" Darque hissed. His hood was thrown back during his fall, and everyone could see his horribly scarred face clearly now. He was clearly struggling to fight, but the glance he shot at the others almost literally screamed, "Stay out of my business!"
"Foolish necromancer!" Coda laughed. "You still have not admitted your defeat? Perhaps you have regretted having given Black Coda a body in this world... but it is too late! And now... you are... finished." With renewed effort he forced Darque's blade even further down. Darque made a choking sound, and suddenly his eyes glowed strangely. With a wild cry he raised his hands and swung his sword, deflecting Coda's blades away from him.
However, Coda was too quick for him. Swift as lightning one of Coda's hand, glowing with the light of his blade, came bearing down at him even as he struggled to get his sword back to protect his chest. It was a slash, and it was aimed at Darque's neck... and Darque knows that it will be a fatal blow. He heard Rage screaming in frustration, and renewed his kicking on the demon's back, but Coda was beyond that. Darque closed his eyes to await his doom.
At the last minute, the blade flickered and died. The blow hit empty air.
Coda screamed in anguish, and he backed away from Darque, who opened his eyes upon hearing the demon's screams. Coda was clutching his head in agony, and he thrashed his body around like he had suddenly caught epilepsy.
"You... bastard!" Coda screamed.
Another voice, the voice of a woman, rang out from the same lips. "I am Elleda Rasher, and I will never let a foul demon use my body to destroy a living being! Begone, you foul creature! Return to hell where you belong!"
The others were staring at Coda in shock, but Darque slowly and painfully sat up, and a small smile appeared on his lips.
"You puny human!" Coda voice was heard again. "You know you don't stand a chance!"
"I am not above foiling your elaborate plans at the last minute, demon!" Elleda's voice rang again.
Darque carefully stood up, the smile visible now. "Elleda Rasher," he said with a quiet voice. "I thank you for your timely interference. You have saved my life."
"I have no choice, necromancer," the voice rang out contemptuously. "It is a pity; I would like to see you dead more than anything else for what you have done to me. It is only because of me I did what I have done for you. Know this, that the very moment the demon uses my body to kill a living, sentient mortal, he will have complete control over my body!"
Darque was taken aback in shock. "So I see," he said thoughtfully.
"The others then, are still alive?" Darkling asked from the clearing.
The demon was still struggling, but he turned to Darkling nonetheless. "They prudently ran away as Coda ransacked your wagon," Elleda said. Reldon nodded at Darkling and went off into the forest, and Harold and Dweeble reluctantly followed Reldon in the search for the rest of their party. The old man and Ilone remained on their spot, eyeing the demon warily. Somewhere behind them, Yikalor groaned in pain.
The voice changed again. "I shall wait for the day when I can finally conquer you!" Coda screamed.
"Go ahead and do that, demon," the other voice sneered. "You'll be waiting so intently for that day that you will never see your doom."
'Master! Are you alright?' Rage's voice rang inside Darque's mind.
"Quite alright, Rage," Darque said aloud to the amazement of the onlookers. "I am unharmed."
'Then now is your chance, Master,' the steed urged. 'The demon is distracted. He is impervious to all manners of attacks now but mental attacks. Bring him down, Master! Or he shall return to kill you!' The voice was now heavy with worry.
"I shall, Rage," Darque said as he started mumbling some words. For several heartbeats he remained motionless as he chanted, and then he coldly pointed two fingers at Coda. Black mist seeped from his fingers and quickly but subtly started to encircle Coda's head.
"Necromancer! What are you doing!?" Elleda was almost screaming in agony.
"The demon is dangerous. I shall put him to sleep," Darque replied coldly.
"And so shall I be!" Elleda protested.
Darque chuckled. "We all have to make sacrifices," he replied.
"You have no power over me!" It was Coda again, and he was still struggling with his host. "You will fail! For I am Black Coda..."
"Go to sleep now, demon," Darque said coldly as Coda started to weaken under the assault. "Send my regards to Mizac... since I'm not going to meet him soon anyway." His red eyes burned fiercely as Coda's knees buckled and he fell on his knees. The assault of the black mist continued even then, and slowly Coda swayed forth. It was not after he had crashed to the ground thunderously on his face that Darque withdrew his fingers.
'Well done, Master,' Rage said approvingly.
Darque smiled briefly before turning at Ilone and the old man. Ilone gasped, and Darkling held Darla closer to him unconsciously. The old man, however, was all business once again. "Well, Darius, I see that you have finally realized the errors of your ways."
The necromancer's eyes flared briefly, but strangely he did not take offense of being called Darius. "The demon had tricked me," he said angrily. "He had used me to find him a powerful body, and the gem, so that he may be free to wreak havoc upon the world!" His eyes briefly met Darkling, who was still holding Darla and gripping the hand that held the gem tightly.
"I'm glad to hear that you realize how powerful Coda is," the Old Monk chuckled dryly. "I'm surprised that it took you so long to come to a conclusion that we have reached for some time now."
"Are you making fun of me?" Darque said angrily.
"Not really," the old man's eyes twinkled. "We're all human after all." Suddenly the old man's eyes widened, and Darque turned around in surprise.
A man stood above Coda's body, a heavyset man with features so ordinary except for a single red lock on his hair that ran down to his neck. He was staring at the body for a moment, and as he looked up to Darque, his eyes became murderous.
"Dugan Rasher," Darque regarded the figure apprehensively. "How nice of you to drop by."
"You have defeated the demon, necromancer, but he is still in my sister's body. I shall not allow you to bring harm upon her," Dugan said briefly. Then his eyes widened as he saw Darque's sword, which the necromancer had picked up after the fight. "That is... the Jarronnesh Lorhekiim!" the man accused.
"This?" Darque waved his sword.
"It is mine... you have stolen it from my ancestors!" Dugan said angrily. "And now you intend to kill my sister with it?"
"Now wait a minute..." Darque started.
"You are an abomination, necromancer," Dugan said with disgust clearly audible on his voice. "Your transgressions are unforgivable. Release my sister from your spell, necromancer, and do it now. Then perhaps we shall be able to settle these like civilized men."
"The demon is no longer under my power," Darque replied. "The Black Coda had broken away from my spell. I cannot banish him from your sister's body."
The red lock on the man's hair seemed to burn at the statement. "Then I shall do it myself. Watch out for me, necromancer. When I free my sister from the clutches of this foul demon, I shall come back for you." Dugan kneeled and lifted the demon's heavy body easily as he stared coldly at Darque for several seconds longer. Then he bent his knees slightly, seemingly to jump straight up... and within the space of a blink, he was gone... with Coda's body.
Darque felt strangely guilty as he turned back to face the old man. The Old Monk's face was unusually stern as he regarded the necromancer. "Perhaps it is time for you now to explain everything," he suggested.
"What's the matter, boss?" Thane asked worriedly.
They have been riding hard toward the forest on the southwest that people had called the Arborean Forest. Hage had sensed Mother Goody's presence coming from that place, and now there are just several leagues away from the forest. But instead of hasting to the place, it seemed that Hage decided to stop instead.
"Can't you feel that, fool?" Hage snapped. Then he looked at Thane again, "No, of course you wouldn't. I'm sorry."
"Feel what, boss? I feel the wind ruffling through my air, the sun shining on my skin, the birds singing praises to my ear... I feel all that, boss. It's good to be alive!" Thane exulted.
Hage looked at the alchemist coldly. "You magically-challenged people will never understand," he grumbled. "In case you don't know, the feel of magic in the air had been shaking this land like an earthquake since several minutes ago! You really have to know magic to feel it."
"It's good for me, then," Thane smiled. "Earthquakes make me feel queasy, and that will definitely ruin this perfect day."
"Whatever," Hage sighed in frustration. "If you must know, though, there's a battle going on by the forest now. It's really quite noisy, and I think I want to investigate."
"Do you think that's a good idea, boss?" Thane asked.
"Yes, Thane, I do think it's a good idea," Hage grumbled. "Now just stop being smart and follow me. Don't ask me any questions; you might not want the answers." Without another word he shouted at his horse, who immediately galloped toward the forest again. Thane shook his head and rather reluctantly followed him... and as he gazed at the forest, he felt uneasy, but he tried to cast it away.
After all, it was such a perfect day, and he wasn't going to let his feelings ruin it.
Chapter 12-1 Changes
Hage and Thane had been riding through the forest for several minutes, towards a place that Hage seemed to be able to detect in some way. Thane silently hoped Hage wouldn't get them lost in this forest.
After a while, they heard voices in the distance. Hage motioned Thane to be silent and to dismount. On foot, they snuck on, until they were only a few feet away from the clearing.
In the clearing, they saw several people. There were a gnome, a short man in plain clothes, a young woman wielding a bow and wearing green clothes, a handsome man wearing a feathered hat, an old man with a strange expression on his face and strange enough, an orc. On the ground lay another woman, this one looked much like an amazon. She seemed to be either sleeping or unconscious. They were talking to a person dressed all in black, his fire-filled eyes were all Thane could see of the man's face. Thane felt a cold shudder as he looked at the man.
"It seems we got here a bit too late, boss." Thane whispered.
"I can see that. If you hadn't been looking at birds and animals every step of the way, we might have gotten here earlier," Hage said archly, not sparing Thane a look. "Now be quiet and listen."
They listened for several minutes, but an eerie silence filled the clearing. Even though he tried to concentrate, Thane's attention kept going to the woman on the ground.
"Boy, I sure hope that woman is all right. She's pretty, don't you think, boss?" he whispered.
"Keep your attention to the IMPORTANT things and be silent." Thane snapped.
Another minute passed, but the only thing the people in the clearing did was look at each other.
"Who d'you think the fellow in black is, boss?" Thane asked.
Before answering, Hage made a strange growling noise. "What do I have to do to keep you silent!" he barked.
"Simple, boss. Just answer my question and I'll shut up." Thane said cheerfully, not noticing or, more likely, not wanting to notice Hage's rage.
"Very well. The black fellow is a necromancer, no doubt about it. I don't know who he is, though. Now, will you shut up?!"
"Sure, boss." Thane said, and once again concentrated himself on the scene in the clearing.
The old monk's question hung in the air for a few minutes. Nobody spoke. Too much had happened these last few hours. First, Black Coda, whom they had thought was defeated, was back, and stronger than ever, and then, out of the blue, Darque appeared and fought with the demon, even though he had summoned him in the first place.
"Yes, do tell them your story, Darius." Said the by now familiar voice of Mother Goody. Everyone looked in surprise towards the edge of the clearing. Sure enough, there she was. She slowly walked over towards them.
Darque winced as he saw his former tutor.. "I don't see why, old woman." He said sternly.
"Oh, don't be so dense. You know what your destiny is. I've told you often enough. Why do you keep trying to prevent it?"
"Because I forgot what it is to be good a long time ago." Darque growled, but strangely sounded much less sure of himself.
"You deceive yourself, Darius. Your face may be twisted, but your mind, your heart, isn't. You"re telling yourself that you don't care about anything, but why did you fight Coda just now if that's true? If you really don't care, why did you not let him run rampant...just for fun."
"Hold your tongue, old fool!" Darque shouted. "I do not have to listen to any of this."
"There you go again, Darius, hiding from what you know is right. You know, I pity you." Mother Goody said, continuing as if Darque hadn't said a thing.
"Why do you insist on pestering me everywhere I go?" he asked.
"Because it's time you stop this silliness and start doing what you know needs be done." Mother Goody answered.
Darque flared up. "Silly?? Nobody, not even YOU, has the right of calling me silly!
"Oh, hush, Darius." She said with a negligent wave of her hand. "You know you were destined to go on this quest. Now, stop acting like a child and do what you know is right."
Darque nearly choked on that. His red eyes turned an even deeper, much more dangerous red. "That's it. I've had it. I'm leaving." He snarled. "Rage!"
But his horse didn't respond. Shortly after the fight, Rage's eyes had fallen on something that now had his full attention. He had walked over to Darkling's mare, Vanity. Without much success, he had been trying to hit on her. The white horse looked away airily every time he tried.
Darque was besides himself. "RAGE!!! GET OVER HERE NOW!!!" he bellowed.
Before the horse could respond, Mother Goody spoke. "So, Darius, when will you learn that running away won't make your problems go away?" She asked sharply.
"Leave me alone! I have no need of your concern. I can fully well handle things on my own." He said angrily, but more like an angry child than a rational man.
"I know that's not true, I know that deep inside, you have a longing, nay, a yearning to be loved. Please, drop the walls you have surrounded yourself with, and let me in. There is still redemption for you, but you'll have to want it yourself. I know with absolute certainty that deep in your heart, you want to leave all this misery behind and become again the Darius I knew...and loved."
Darque suddenly stiffened, then let his head droop in defeat as he felt all the anger rush away from him. "All right, you've made your point, Mother Goody." He said, calling her by her name for the first in a long time.
Mother Goody smiled. "Finally, the lost child returns home. Let me have a look at you, Darius." She said.
Surprisingly, he pulled back his hood with both hands. He felt a great load slip off his shoulders as he did so. All the anger, all the hatred, all the darkness, it all sidled away, leaving him feeling much better than he had ever before.
They all gasped as they saw the horribly scarred and burned skin beneath the black hood. With a yelp, Yikalor the orc ran off towards the wagon and shut himself inside, slamming the door shut.
"Oh, my. Darius." Mother Goody whispered as she lovingly stroked his cheek, scarred though it was.
Darius shuddered slightly at her touch, but said nothing.
After several minutes of looking into each other's eyes, Mother Goody broke the silence.
"Now, I believe you can help these brave people in finding their destination?"
"That depends on where they are going." He said, looking carefully at all of them.
Darkling cleared his throat before speaking. "We seek the castle of the wizard, Orvellus. For it is he who can tell us what evils are plaguing the land."
Darius seemed surprised. "Orvellus?" he asked as he raised an eyebrow. "That old lecher? Is that what this is all about? If I had known that..."
"Yes, it is Orvellus who can help us find the destination of our quest. He is rumoured to have built some kind of scrying device." Ilone said.
"I know where the old fool lives. I'll lead you there." Darius said, and then his lips twirled at the edges in a faint smile. "Answer me this, Mother Goody. I made a complete fool of myself, didn't I?"
"No, Darius. You didn't. You were misguided by the corrupting powers of the necromancy you unleashed. You didn't know better. I'm glad you finally came to your senses." She smiled as well.
"Thanks. You don't know how much that means to me." He said.
"Believe me, I do." She said with a twinkle in her eyes.
Darius laughed, and they all thought it sounded strange. "Always the teacher, huh?"
"Old habits die hard." Mother Goody laughed as well, then turned around and walked off. "Darius, when you've finished doing what you know you must do, come back to me and we'll talk."
"I will." He shouted after her, but he didn't know if she had heard, for she had already disappeared into the forest.
It was evening, and in the light of recent events, they had decided to make camp at the edge of the Arborean Forest. Unlike his usual self, Reldon had been silent all through dinner, and afterwards had excused himself, got up, and entered the wagon. Now he sat with his back against the wall and his knees pulled up in front of him. A lone beam of pale moonlight briefly illuminated the interior of the otherwise dark wagon. A small object in the jester's hands glinted in the light.
With fingers trembling in anticipation, he fiddled with the locket. After several failed attempts to open it, he finally succeeded; the minuscule locking mechanism opened with a faintly audible click. Whatever secrets the locket contained, would soon be revealed.
Then, with dreadful slowness, he reached with one hand for the locket that lay in the outstretched palm of te other. Suddenly, the locket became very warm in his hand, and he nearly dropped it in surprise.
His mind was dominated by two thoughts. The first was curiosity, the desire to learn what secrets the locket might contain. The second was fear, an irrational fear that whatever lay hidden in his mother's locket might not be what he wanted to find there. He almost decided to forget the whole thing, to just put the locket away again and go back outside, to his companions.
No. I'm not running away now. I've ran away in my past one time too many, and I won't do it this time. I'll just have to accept whatever's in that locket, whether good or bad. He chided himself. Then, with renewed determination, he reached out and opened the locket.
Inside, put there by some magical means, were two pictures; two faces. It were the faces of a man and a woman. The man had a friendly, but weary look, his hair was black, with touches of grey at the ends. Reldon remembered the face from the dream he had back in the inn in Haven. With minuscule letters, something was written underneath. "Duke Elrand Brimstone, beloved father" it read.
The other picture showed a woman. She had an almost angelic face, pale of skin, and offset by the most beautiful, sad-looking silvery-blue eyes. Her hair was as black as the night. Reldon nearly choked as the reading underneath the picture confirmed that which he already suspected. "Yéandra Aerius, beloved mother" it said.
Reldon felt a strange wrenching feeling in his stomach. He swallowed deeply. After all these years of living in solitude, he finally knew his family. The impact of this fact was too much for him and he started crying, crying tears of happiness at finally having found his family, but also tears of sadness and great loss.
After a while, the weeping subdued, and he just sat there, staring intently with tear-filled eyes at the two faces. He had lost all track of time, and he didn't care, either. His family was all he could think about. He didn't know if he had been sitting there for just a few minutes, or for several hours, but suddenly there was a knock on the door of the wagon.
"Are you alright, Reldon? Is something wrong? You were gone so suddenly after dinner." It was Ilone.
Ilone's words shook him from his thoughts. He blinked his eyes a couple of times, then quickly glanced around, as if to remember where he was, so engrossed had he been in staring at the faces of his parents.
"Reldon? Are you in there?" Ilone asked again, more intently this time.
Finally, he found the strength to speak. In a voice made thick and hoarse by emotion, he said "Yes, I'm here, I'm all right. I just needed some time alone to do some thinking."
"Have you been crying?" Ilone asked, genuinely surprised. Reldon had always seemed a happy-go-lucky sort of fellow to her, usually laughing, bright and cheerful. This sudden display of emotion seemed out of place to her somehow.
"Yes, but I'm alright now. Just give me a few moments to clean up a bit, and I'll join you and the others outside." Then he chuckled ruefully despite himself, and added, "Right now, I probably look worse than Darque, without the hood."
"Good. And Reldon, if there's anything you want to talk about, don't hesitate. Sharing your problems can be a great relief." Ilone said.
"I know....and thanks for the offer. I might take you up on it soon. Oh, and please don't tell the others I've been crying. I do sort of have a reputation to uphold, you understand."
Ilone smiled briefly. "Don't worry. Your secret's safe with me." She said as she turned around and walked away.
Back inside the wagon, Reldon took one last look at the pictures of his parents, sighed deeply, then closed the locket, sealing the contents deep within his heart as well as hiding them underneath his tunic.
Note: this part was written by Vakusuma
Darkness... for as long as she could remember. All senses suspended... all thoughts dampened. The past was present and the present was past, and in the future there was darkness...
No, there was darkness everywhere. There was a blank wall... solid, immutable, lying on the path of her past. The dark gloom cast on her colorful present was not only from her future...
Tentatively she reached out to the darkness of her past. It was a touch of her mind, a slight touch, but she reeled from it. The wall of darkness did not yield; and her efforts were useless to command it to yield.
And yet, perhaps it was not so. The darkness was the blackest of black, yet occasional glimpses of what laid behind it made its presence known. She saw a different life; a different past... and tentatively she tried to grab those glimpses, trying to catch a hint or two...
One particular scene, colorless it may be, stood out for her. Almost eagerly she embraced it, clinging to it, infusing it into her mind as if it would go away tomorrow. And then she realized...
A battleground, unlike anything she had ever experienced before in real life, lay before her. And as usual, she was not herself... as she knew, at least. But she had the most peculiar feeling... that she had experienced it before. She had been here before. She felt two awarenesses of herself... one that had experienced everything before... one that was yet to be.
Here be a man, she thought almost automatically. And almost on cue, a man appeared in front of her. He didn't arrive in an ordinary sense... he just appeared, like a mirage in the middle of the desert.
He spoke naught, but she could see great sadness in his eyes... just like she had seen countless times before. She noticed that he wore a violet robe... but more noticeable than that was the single slash of red on his collar...
And just as he appeared, he tilted his head slightly to the right, watching calmly as the battle approached. Just like it had been, she noticed that it was not an ordinary battle. There were staffs instead of swords or shields; books instead of bows and arrows... but the combatants were doing well nonetheless. Every so often, bolts of lightning, balls of fire, gusts of wind, rays of light... all these unnatural phenomena appeared before her unbelieving eyes, hardly accustomed to the sight even after several years of experiencing the dream. She witnessed in horror as the combatants were being torn apart by ways physical weapons would never be able to achieve. And within her other, older self, a new struggle was brewing; did she really want to be able to do this eventually? To butcher fellow humans in this horrifying way?
She could almost follow the man's words that came next. "This is the end," the man spoke, as her selves mouthed the exact same words soundlessly. "I was hoping this day would never come. But I guess the Great God Mizac has other plans." As she always did, she followed his gesture as he tilted his head again to the right. After several seconds he spoke again. "You are our last hope. It is important that you would not remember anything, for your own protection." The man sighed as she matched his gesture. "I hope that you could understand... if not now, then perhaps in a distant future... when she no longer exists."
She braced herself as the man raised his hands and mumbled something in a low voice.
Even after the years, she could not comprehend his words. But she was aware how it would turn out... noting how sparks of light started to dance gracefully around his raised hand. The sparks became stronger, brighter, more intense... and he finally placed that hand over her.
No matter how many times she had experienced it in her dreams, one of her selves tried to hold her silent scream as the scenery slowly twisted around her, at first barely but slowly building in intensity, until even her whole reality became distorted, twisted... and drained.
The other self, however, watched in silent pity and empathy. Distantly she let her other self slip into darkness from which she had came, wondering from what fragment of her past the scene had emerged.
A new voice, sounding just like the man, echoed in her head. "I see that you are beginning to rediscover your self."
"Self, is a concept I'll never accept as I have before," she responded.
"Have faith. The time for the true reawakening of your self has not yet come. I shall see to it that it shall not happen... until you are ready."
"Ready for what?"
"You will know when the time comes..." and the voice started to fade as the darkness again engulfed her from all sides. She screamed as she realized that her little piece of the past was about to be taken away from her grasp. Her grasp...
"NO!" she screamed in denial.
The voice seemed sad and distant now. "In time, you will understand why it is necessary..." and with that, she felt that something very precious to her was wrenched from her. She sobbed bitterly as darkness once again shut her forbidden past from her...
Dugan sat cross-legged under an old abandoned lean-to he had found. A small fire, which he had made from several logs that had been stacked neatly on top of each other by one of the previous inhabitants of the lean-to, crackled nearby. The ruddy, orange-red flames cast long and strangely twisted shadows all around the clearing. Beside him lay the inert body of his sister, still garbed in Coda's cruel black battle-armor.
He turned his head to look at his sister. As much as he had tried, he hadn't succeeded in removing the armor, in fact, he hadn't even be able to loosen as much as a single leather strap that held the black mesh plates together. He gritted his teeth. "Don't worry, sister. You just need to be strong. I WILL save you from that demon, I promise! Just you wait!"
He turned his head again towards the fire, towards the two rabbits he had caught earlier, and were now roasting over the fire. Deciding that they were ready, he lifted the stick from the fire and placed it besides him.
As he looked back at the fire, something in it reminded him of Darque's fire-filled eyes, and anger filled him once more. "I will hunt you down to the far corners of the world if I need to, but I WILL make you pay for your actions, necromancer! It's good I finally know the name behind the hood...Darius Orithaka! You will not have a minute of rest before I'm done with you, I guarantee you that!" He then turned his head upwards towards the uncaring, star-filled night sky, "Do you hear that, Darius! Not a moment!! You won't be able to do so much as twitch a muscle, and I'll be there. I'm going to hunt you down like the dog you are, and when I'm done with you, you"d wish you were never born!!" He shouted.
Suddenly, a powerful gust of wind made his fire go out. For some reason, it chilled him to the bone, and he felt goosebumps appear all over his skin. He instinctively knew that the gust was not normal in nature. Proving his suspicions correct, the air in front of him seemed to waver and blur, then a portal appeared, it's energy shifting and swirling. Dugan gasped as he was nearly blown backwards by the immense emanations of evil and hatred that came from the portal.
A woman stepped through it, then looked around the clearing. Her gaze fixed on the body of Elléda. "So there you are. It took me some effort to find you again." She said.
"Who-who are you?" The normally cool and calculating Dugan said in a quavering voice.
"Don't you know?" She looked surprised, then a rather nasty smile played on her lips. "I"d have thought you of all people should recognize me. It was I who sent the demon that resides in that woman's body to this world."
"Lies!!!" Dugan shouted, feeling the adrenalin building up inside him. "That demon was summoned by a necromancer by the name of Darius Orithaka. I saw it with my own eyes."
"Darque? That fool?" She laughed, "He wouldn't even be able to summon a fly if he tried. Don't you understand? It was I who sent the demon into this plane just as the necromancer finished the spell which he believed would summon it. It was a bit of misfortune, I must concede, that that fragile fool included the compelling spell. I had thought he was too full of himself to take such precautions. He ruined a very beautiful plan." The woman said with an evil sneer
"If what you say is true, you must have some purpose for Darque. What is it?"
"My interest in that wimp Darque? I suppose I could tell you. I need something from him, as stupid as that may sound." The woman said as her face twisted into one of disgust, of contempt.
"Who are you?" Dugan demanded.
"I am Abysmael, I'm sure YOU have heard of the name before."
Dugan gasped. Part of his training had been the study of old, almost forgotten scrolls, fragile book-rolls, with the ink almost completely gone. Many of them spoke about this Abysmael, the Devouress of Souls.
"So, the necromancer WAS right, in a way." Dugan said ruefully. "Well, I guess he isn't my enemy after all." He tossed his long hair back with a stroke of his hand, then got up and took a combat stance. "You are my enemy, for it was you who truly harmed my sister!" he snarled as he drew his dagger. "Prepare to die, creature!"
Abysmael yawned. "Oh, how boring." With a negligent flick of her hand, she unleashed a spell, sending Dugan flying backwards several feet. He landed with his head against the structure of the lean-to. With a dull sound, he slumped down. Darkness was gathering at the corners of his consciousness, and it became more and more difficult for him to see what was happening.
Abysmael seemed pleased. "I admire your courage, fool, but you have no hopes of ever defeating me. Now, enough talk. I think I will take that for which I came here in the first place." She said as she walked towards the still sleeping body of Dugan's sister.
"Stay away from her!!" Dugan jumped up, but immediately fell down again as the whole world seemed to turn around. He slumped down and lost consciousness.
"Coda, you fool, wake up!" Abysmael snarled at the demon, who strangely began to stir almost immediately. After about a minute, the demon had got up. He looked at Abysmael, then knelt in front of her, drawing his massive blade and holding it point down in front of him.
"What is your command, mistress." He said as he kept his eyes firmly on the ground.
"You FOOL! You were THIS close to securing the Spellbane gem, but still you failed. What do you have to say for yourself." Abysmael demanded.
"The amazon, mistress. She begins to remember. She cast a ancient spell and somehow translocated the gem right from my hand into hers."
"WHAT? She TOUCHED it??" Abysmael asked incredulously.
"No, she was wearing gloves, so the spellbane did not affect her. The jester however, does carry the mark. He has done so for quite some time now."
"Good, as long as it remains only on the jester. Make sure that it stays that way. Or preferrably, eliminate the jester now, before he can do any more harm."
"Understood. Do you have any more orders?" The demon still didn't look up.
"Yes, and I'll make it real simple for you, or otherwise you might botch up again. Get me that necromancer, but keep him alive!"
"Very well, my mistress. I shall do as you have told me."
"Good." She said as she turned away towards her portal. At the last moment before stepping through, she looked over her shoulder at Black Coda. "Do not fail me again, Coda. You know what'll happen if you do." With that, she stepped through the portal. Seconds later, it wavered again and was gone.
Coda grabbed his shield from the ground, then walked off, stopping only to grab one of the rabbits Dugan had been cooking.
Chapter 12-2 The town outside time
The next morning dawned with a brilliant sunshine. Darkling climbed out of his tent and yawned once, then stretched. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and was surprised to see that Darius was already awake and astride Rage.
'I thought you'd never wake up.' Darius said.
'Didn't you sleep at all?' Darkling asked, surprised. He still found the idea of travelling with the Necromancer strange, and couldn't seem to get used to it.
'Sleep? Why should I?'
'Well, maybe because everyone does?'
'Everyone except me.' was the simple answer.
Seeing that this conversation wasn't going anywhere, Darkling decided to wake up the others. He walked over to the other tents and began rousing them. One by one, the others appeared from their tents.
After they all had a quick breakfast, consisting of bread made by Dweeble and a healthy cup of Millicent's milk, they started breaking up the camp in order to continue their trek.
Ilone and Darla were loading their supplies in the wagon, while Darkling and Harold were checking the horses.
Reldon approached the two men and took Darkling aside for a moment. 'Where do we go now?' he asked.
'I don't know. Why don't you ask Darius? He said he knew where Orvellus' Castle is located.'
'All right, I'll do that.' Reldon said.
As he approached the necromancer from behind, Darius suddenly spoke, without even turning. 'What is it, Jester?'
'Umm, you said you know how to find Orvellus'Castle?' Reldon said, somewhat surprised that Darius knew he was approaching.
'Yes, I do.'
'So, where do we go?' Reldon said, pulling out the map he had 'borrowed' from Harold.
'You can put the map away again. The place where we are going isn't on it.' Darius said.
'What do you mean?'
'Just like I said. The place isn't on the map.'
'But why?' Reldon asked, his curiosity piqued.
'Why don't we join the others, that way I only have to explain it once.' Darius said.
It was about an hour later, and all the preparations had been made; they could leave at any time. As they all mounted, Darius spoke to them. 'Listen up. The place we are going to travel to is a town called Trubad.'
Seeing Harold reach for his now 'returned' map, both he and Reldon said. 'Don't bother with the map. You won't find the town on it.'
The others looked at Darius in surprise. 'Let me explain. The town of Trubad is located in the Windol Valley, which is right beside the Stormcrag Peak, on which Orvellus built his castle. He then cast a spell to hide the town and the castle from mortal eyes. Only the Dragon Gods, the Mage Adepts and those born in the town can find it. Once found, anyone who travels with someone who CAN find the town can see it.'
'So you mean to say that...' Reldon let the question hang.
'Yes. I was born in Trubad. Just minutes before Orvellus cast the most horrible spell one can imagine.'
'What kind of spell was that?' Darla asked from the rear of the group.
'I might as well tell you, because if I don't, you'll all keep pestering me about it. He cast a Dweomer that made time 'stop' in such a way that the people in Trubad will live the same day over and over again. Every morning they wake up, go through their lives like any normal day, then go to bed again, only to wake up in the morning to relive the same day as before. The villagers don't know what's happening, because they forget everything they did the day before.'
Gasps were heard from all around as the true horror of the spell dawned on them. Aurora, once again perching on Loopy's head, actually fell off in shocked surprise. Loopy stuck his paw out and catched the little fairy dragon before she could hit the ground.
Ilone was the first to speak. 'But why would he do that?'
'Because he's mad. Genius, but mad. Orvellus wasn't always mad, of course, otherwise he wouldn't have become a Mage Adept. However, the solitude of his existence and the fact that he watched all his friends and loved ones die all around him drove him mad. He wanted to 'stop death' in a way, and that's why he cast the spell, condemning the villagers to a fate worse than death.'
'But why don't they just leave?' Dweeble asked.
'They can't. Even if they travel the entire day, they would still be under the effect of the spell when they retire for the night. The next morning, they wake up in their beds, not knowing they tried to leave the valley the day before.'
'But if you were born there, how come you managed to leave?' Reldon asked.
'That is Mother Goody's handiwork. She tried to stop Orvellus before he cast the spell, but without success. Instead, she snuck into the village and took me, only a little baby boy at the time, from my house. She had just left town when Orvellus began his spell.'
The silence that followed Darius' explanation hung heavily in the air. After several minutes, Darius said 'Don't you think we ought to be going now? It will be at least three days of steady travel before we reach Trubad.'
Their journey was uneventful, and on the morning of the fourth day, they crested a hill and saw the town of Trubad, lying in the valley before them.
The town looked just like any other town, peaceful and serene. The red-tiled roofs, with their stone chimneys breathing out small puffs of smoke gave the town a homey atmosphere. As they rode down the hill into the town, the villagers looked up from their dayly tasks in surprise.
'Let's see if we can find an inn or tavern. We have almost depleted our supply of rations and I think a good healthy meal won't hurt anyone.' Darkling said. The others agreed and they rode on.
After perhaps two minutes, they heard a strange sound from a house on the left. As they neared, it became clear that someone was crying. At that sound, Darius stiffened in his saddle and looked about uneasily.
'Shouldn't we help whoever is crying so loudly?' Darla asked.
'What is the point?' Darius said, a bit more sternly than he'd intended. 'She'll have forgotten your help come tomorrow, and she'll just start crying again.'
'I knew you were cold, but I hadn't expected you to be this heartless.' Darla accused.
'Look, I just don't want to go in there, all right?' Darius said, a mixed expression of fear and pain on his face.
'What can be so bad in there that has a man as powerful as you so afraid?' Reldon said, noticing the look on Darius' face.
Darius stiffened his shoulders and sat up straight in his saddle. 'My mother.' He whispered.
'WHAT??' Darla exclaimed. 'But that should be all the more reason to go in there. Don't you want to see her after all this time?'
'No, I don't. Don't you understand? She's been crying day after day for over 400 years now. Every morning she wakes up to find my crib empty and despair comes over her. And what for? Only because Mother Goody felt she had to take me away. My mother doesn't know that I've grown up, let alone what I've become. I don't want her to see me like this. She would never understand. I do not act out of coldheartedness, but rather the opposite. Now can we please move along?'
'I'm sorry, I misunderstood you.' Darla said, feeling somewhat ashamed. Perhaps there is more to that Necromancer I initially thought.
'Excuse me, sir,' Ilone asked the driver of an approaching ox-cart, 'but could you please direct us to the nearest inn or tavern?'
The driver gruffly answered and told them where to go. Several minutes later, they all dismounted in front of the inn. 'Why don't you wait out here while we arrange our stay?' Darkling said. Then he, Harold and Reldon entered the front door of the Inn, a sturdy building made of bricks and three stories high.
The innkeeper looked up from his desk in surprise. 'Travelers...You are a rare sight. We don't see many of your kind here. Tell me how I can be of assistance.'
'Thank you, my good man. My name is Count Darkling Cole of Faraway, We would like rooms for our party, and a good meal for tonight. We'd also like to purchase lodgings for our horses, a cow, a mule and a dragon.
'Uh, sir, Count Darkling, did you say a dragon?' The Innkeeper's voice was skeptical. 'You didn't say horses, a mule, a cow and a small dragon? I must have misheard. Could you have possibly said horses, a mule, a cow and a small wagon?'
'Well, we have a wagon, too, actually, but no, I did say a dragon. It's quite small, actually, slightly larger than a horse, and very gentle. A thick bed of straw in a regular horse stall will do him just fine for one night.' Darkling said matter-of-factly, as if wanting to purchase lodgings for a dragon was something seen every day.
The innkeeper swallowed visibly, then said 'Very well, sir. I will make the necessary preparations.'
'Thank you, my good man, I believe these coins should easily cover your expenses.' Darkling said as he slipped a small pouch over the table.
After the animals had been taken care of, and their belongings transported to their rooms, they all went into the common room for a nice meal and a good drink. They had all agreed on the plan to spend the night here, then begin their trek to the top of the Stormcrag Peak early the next morning. Weary from the long journey, they were glad they could relax for a bit. Their minds at ease, they didn't expect any trouble. However, trouble would soon find them...
/kicks self and mutters "Must find time. Must find inspiration. Must find will to continue."
Bear with me...
Dell studies the situation. Sees Vakusuma kicking self. Not good. Strolls by, sizes up the .... 'sit' uation...and delivers a sharp kick. thus causing the 'sit' uation to quickly attempt to rectify itself.
Think, Vakusuma, think! Perhaps the "joker" is your character and his assistant...I favor the assistant...?????
Good to see those chapters again. I had almost forgotten I had made a small contribution to the story.
Are you writers going to revive the story? It would sure be great.
I don't know if doing a "sit-uation" check on vak would help. Tried to help him out that way back around the first part of the year, and he still hasn't finished that particular story.
Vakusuma, is it getting a little painful to sit? What with all that kicking, your butt should be awake if the rest of you is still asleep.
Hmmm. *Considers situation and delivers a smart slap up along Vakasuma's head. Stands watching closely for signs of life.*
Alright. I'm giving the story my full attention once more.
One of the difficulties presented by 4eyes had been the fact that Darla was conscious by the time they got to Trubad. I had intended her to be unconscious still. Oh well. Guess I'll modify the story a bit and explain how Darla has regained consciousness magically.
The Missing Ingredient of the Milky Gemstone
When Reldon made his way down to the common room the next day, he was only slightly surprised to find out that the rest of the party was already eating breakfast downstairs. What struck him as the oddest, however, was the way the innkeeper was staring at him. As he walked past the bewildered man, his sharp ears briefly caught the man muttering under his breath, “A count, a creepy man, pretty ladies, gnomes… and now a jester, coming out of nowhere. What next? Dragons?”
“Good morning Reldon,” Darkling managed a small amused smile as the jester approached, his bright clothes jingling as he did so. He paused to devour a piece of bacon from his fork before continuing. “Oh, and don’t mind the poor man. He has indeed never seen a man as colorful as you are before.”
Reldon looked at him quizzically before the meaning of the words dawned on him. “The Dweomer,” he said.
A small chuckle was heard as Darius straightened himself on his chair, his robes rustling. The man formerly known as Darque didn’t seem to eat much. “Imagine,” he said softly. “One day, you decided to sleep in despair because no one’s coming to the inn. The next morning, you have a crowd coming from your rooms and attacking the breakfast table, leaving nothing, not even a drop of milk.” His head moved slightly at Darla, who raised her eyebrows dangerously at him as she took another sip off her glass of warm milk. “The people today are going to see strangers coming out of the inn, walking out as if nothing has happened. This is going to be the most talked event of the day… until tonight, of course.” While the necromancer chuckled again, this time the chuckle seemed subdued.
“I can see how it’s going to be a problem,” Ilone said as she carefully sliced the omelet with her knife. Beside her, Harold grunted in agreement as he chewed on his piece of bacon. The old man giggled as he picked on his breakfast, not even bothering to use the silverware, but said nothing.
“Whatever. This place gives me the creeps though,” Dweeble grumbled as he wiped the ale froth from his lips. Despite the hour, the gnome has indulged himself with a mug of ale. He belched contentedly as he continued, “Eat your share, my friend, so that we can get out of this cursed town.”
Rather slowly, Reldon sat down and began to eat in silence. After a while, he looked up at Darkling. “I’ve been rather concerned with Aurora.”
Darkling’s eyebrows shot up. “My, but that’s a new one,” he exclaimed as he reached for another piece of bacon on the middle plate. He growled softly as his hand snatched at empty air; Harold has beaten him to the last piece. “This is the first time anyone has expressed concern over her.”
Reldon bit down the obvious remark as he said slowly, “Aurora has always been a spirited fairy dragon. And now, she’s taken to perching quietly on Loopy’s head. I have to admit that I kinda missed her antics already. This silence does not become her.”
“Maybe she’s still afraid of Coda,” Harold suggested.
“It’s more than that,” Reldon sighed. “Coda has tried to kill us three times now.” As he spoke, his eyes involuntarily glanced at Darius, but the necromancer’s expression didn’t change. His fists did clench involuntarily, however. “Every time we defeated Coda, she wasn’t too much affected even though his very presence struck fear on all of us. But only as we traveled after we defeated him for the third time, she became increasingly sullen…”
“I noticed,” Darla said quietly. “I must admit that I didn’t feel it before, but I’ve been missing her company. Her constant chattering has been conspicuously absent.” The Amazon had been mostly quiet ever since she regained consciousness after the fight. It was during their journey to Trubad that she had finally opened her eyes, but she had insisted that she couldn’t even remember casting the supposedly ancient telekinesis spell. She seemed like she had experienced something regardless, something that she didn’t like.
Darkling looked around as the others nodded their head. “I guess so,” he said finally. “I’ve noticed that the incomprehensible buzzing sound around my head had ceased around several days ago.” Uncomfortable with the sudden hard look that everyone was giving him, he continued hastily. “Reldon, you seemed to be able to communicate better with her. Why don’t you talk to her as we continued up to the castle today?”
The jester nodded, the bells on his cap making a jingling sound as he did so. “I hope it wasn’t anything serious,” he said.
Darla stood up and picked up her gears from the floor. “I’m going to the inn stable to check on Millicent, Loopy, Vanity, Sigmund and Rage,” she announced as she started walking to the door, past the gawking innkeeper. “I sure hope they know how to take care of dragons around here,” she added just before she closed the door behind her.
Reldon could faintly hear the innkeeper muttering again as he stared after the departing Amazon. “Dragons! Under the roof of my stable! Light strike me for expecting one!”
“Wake up, you fool,” Hage growled as he tried to shake the alchemist awake.
Thane pushed the mage’s hand away absently as he mumbled, “I’ll say, Sarina, I like your touch, but… are you sure that it’s alright for us to do this?”
Hage shot the sleeping alchemist a dirty look. He looked around and found a bucket, then filled it with water from a trough nearby. Without hesitation, he dumped the content of the bucket over the sleeping alchemist. Icy cold water splashed brutally at the alchemist’s unprotected face.
With a yell and a splutter, the alchemist sprang up and glared indignantly. His indignant look quickly faded, however, replaced by chagrin and fear as his eyes met the mage’s. Hage’s expression has made it clear that the mage was not at all pleased. Nonetheless, Thane protested mildly as he wiped the water off his face, “I was so close, boss. Do you know how hard it is to know a woman like Sarina? And do you realize that she has come this close to showing me her birthmark? She has never shown any man that one before, because well, it’s on her…”
The glare that the mage was giving him spoke volumes. “I don’t care about your fantasies, Thane. Sarina isn’t real. I am. And you won’t like my touch, believe me,” the mage spoke with quiet menace. Thane gulped.
Perhaps it was the stable and its occupants that had irritated the mage. They have followed Darius’ party to this small village last night. Trubad has looked like any ordinary village, but not to Hage. He had instantly recognized the effect of the Dweomer. Unless you were born in the village, you would never have seen the village. Unless you were a Mage Adept, of course. But while Hage had only been a Mage Competent, his ability had been close to that of an Adept’s. Thane, however, had needed a lot of explanations on the peculiar nature of this village, most of which went over his head. Such a small village Trubad has been, however, that there was only one inn in the entire town. Rather than taking their chances with Darius’ party, Hage had decided to sneak into the inn’s stable, stable their mounts, and slept there instead. The party’s animals were stabled there, of course, but Hage had paid careful attention especially to the small dragon, and the fairy dragon sleeping by him. None of the party recognize him by sight, but dragons have this uncanny ability to detect magical powers… sometimes. Hage had tried his best to mask his aura from Loopy and Aurora, and tried not to do any magic around the animals. He even had concealed the two stripes of red that he usually displayed. He had spent a sleepless night trying to maintain the mask around himself, catching very light sleep in the process. Unlike that fool Thane, of course, who slept like a big baby. His snores didn’t help matter either.
After glaring at the subdued alchemist for a while longer, Hage said quietly, “It’s early in the morning. We have to leave the stable before they return to pick up their animals. It’s best not to attract any more attention than we have to.” As he said that, however, the black stallion on one of the stalls opened his eyes and stared at him. Hage inadvertently weaved the mask tighter around him. He immediately realized that the stallion was a magical beast… capable of detecting magic even better than dragons. Hage silently berated himself for not noticing the nature of the necromancer’s steed earlier.
“But it’s so early,” Thane protested. His nose was wrinkled as if he smelled something, and his eyes momentarily widened.
“We have to get out of here, Thane, and now,” Hage growled. “They can come any time.”
“One moment, boss,” Thane’s voice sounded strangely distant. “I smelled something.”
“What are you smelling, you idiot?” Hage yelled. “Manure? Damn it, man, this is a stable! Of course you’d smell manure and animals!”
“Do you remember what I said about the magical gemstones, boss? The ones that you hired me for, the formula of which has been missing a critical ingredient?”
“Yes,” Hage crossly folded his arms together. “But I don’t see…”
“It’s here, boss,” Thane said excitedly. “It’s in this stable somewhere.”
Hage looked around impatiently. “All I see around here is some dumb animals!” he exclaimed, flinging his hands up. The dragon wasn’t awake yet, but he snorted in his sleep. The fairy dragon slept on. The black stallion continued to stare at him unblinking with disturbingly intelligent eyes, however.
But this time, Thane seemed to enter a trance. “It’s as pure as the morning air. It’s as delicious as honey. It’s… it’s…” he made a face as his nose wrinkled again, and suddenly he turned and pointed at the cow. “Milk! Milk from a certain bovine variety!” Thane smiled triumphantly. “I just knew that it smelled familiar! It smelled just right!”
Hage had noticed the cow nestling quietly in one of the stalls. How had one ended in here instead of out there on the pasture, he did not know, but the cow had appeared ordinary in every respect. Hage couldn’t sense anything magical in the cow. “You’re joking,” Hage said slowly. “This is just an ordinary cow. I’m pretty sure that you’ve drank milk several time in the tower. What makes you think that this particular cow can produce the particular milk that you’re looking for?”
“I don’t know, boss, but I must not pass this chance to study the milk! Light… if only I remembered my alchemist’s tools…” Thane looked around frantically and picked up a stool from the floor. “Gotta have a sample… Boss! Boss! Let me have the bucket!” And he grabbed the bucket from Hage’s hand without waiting for an answer.
“We have to get out of here, you fool,” Hage repeated irritably. “We’ve already dallied in this stable for too damn long.”
Thane, however, strolled at Millicent, who looked at him unblinkingly. He put the stool and bucket down and tried to undo the latch on the stall, muttering, “Must study specimen… now how can this milk be different anyway?”
“Thane, for the last time, let’s get out of here. NOW.” That fool of a man! Hage knew that he couldn’t drag him out with magic… the animals would know his abilities then. And the party. But while he’s old, he’s still surprisingly strong. If necessary, he could still haul the alchemist out of the stable with his bare hands… even though it might involve surgically separating the alchemist from the cow.
The cow mooed just as a cold female voice rang out from the stable door, “And just what the hell do you think you’re doing with our cow?”
Hage froze, and slowly turned around. The Amazon was standing there, her pack on the ground, her hands on her spear. She had entered the stable without making a slightest sound. Worse, while she had magic, she had entered the stable without registering her presence in the mage’s sense of awareness. She was effectively invisible on his heightened senses… and he found it particularly disturbing. He was pretty sure that she would not consciously attempt to shield her aura from him…
Thane smiled. Smiled! “Good morning miss,” the alchemist bowed awkwardly, one of his hands still on the latch. Darla continued to stare coldly, but the alchemist looked unperturbed. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Thane, and I’m an alchemist extraordinaire. I travel the lands in search of the rarest, most treasured alchemist reagents in the land. I am happy to announce to you that your… bovine here… is one capable of producing a reagent that worth kingdoms!” Almost negligently he waved at Hage. “Oh, and this is Hage. He’s with me.”
While Hage was ready to burn with rage, the Amazon looked even colder than usual. “Really,” she said skeptically as she slowly approached the alchemist, ignoring the mage. Her spear was pointing at the floor, but Hage recognized that she could easily skewer either of them in a blink if she needed to. Despite his rage, he shifted nervously. “And pray tell, what kind of reagent are you talking about?”
Thane exaggerated surprise. “Why, milk, of course. What else can a cow produce?” He cleared his throat. “Now I have this nose, you see, and I can smell that your cow can produce milk fit to become one of the prime reagents in my formula.”
“Interesting,” Darla said with a tone that suggested otherwise. She had walked next to Thane, and she was peering suspiciously down at the alchemist’s face. The alchemist wasn’t a small man, and he was just less than a head shorter than Darla, but at that moment he looked like a mouse wriggling under a cat’s paw. “If you think that my cow produces wonderful milk, then what are you trying to do with the latch? You’re not thinking of milking my cow without my permission, are you?”
“Ah…” Thane was momentarily at loss of words, maybe a little cowed by the Amazon’s cool glance, but he recovered fast. “I grew up in the farm, miss, and I guess instinct just took over.” Darla arched an eyebrow, and Thane quickly added, “It’s my childhood’s pastime. I like to milk my father’s cows, and feel their udders on my hands.”
Hage cleared his throat warningly while Darla frowned. “Udder fetish, huh?” she said finally. A small smile, almost a sneer, twitched at the corner of her mouth. “Wouldn’t that an indication of a frustration of not being able to do the same with one’s own kind?”
Thane’s face turned crimson. “Ah… no, miss, you got it all wrong. Really. No problems with women, miss. It’s just a childhood habit, yes. Really, what gave you this idea? I have no problem with women at all! Why, just last night I slept with this wonderful lady named Sarina. She’s really fine looking, you know. Just like you do.” He involuntarily dropped his gaze from her eyes.
Hage winced as a sharp clap, like thunder, broke the silence in the stable. Thane sprawled to the ground hard, grunting. He looked up at Darla now, absolutely mortified. Absently he rubbed the cheek on which Darla had laid her hands upon. Darla’s palm mark was reddening even faster than his face. Blood ran out freely from his nostrils.
Darla’s cheek has colored a little, but if she felt embarrassed by Thane’s gawking, she didn’t show it. Almost casually, she slipped her bare hand back into her glove, held by her spear-wielding hand. Her gaze was hard as she glowered at the man sprawling by her feet. “Go, and never show your face again,” she commanded quietly. “I’ve killed people for much less than that. You are an embarrassment. If I ever have to see your face again, I’ll kill you.” She idly twirled her spear on her other hand, but the menace was definite.
Her words succeeded where Hage’s has failed. Thane winced as he scuttled across the floor at Hage, who was unconsciously rubbing his own cheek in sympathy, even though he felt that the alchemist had richly deserved the slap. The mage seized the alchemist by the scruff of his robe, and bodily dragged him across the floor as he beat a hasty retreat to the stable door, with Darla staring after him.
When the pair was out of sight, Darla sighed as she ran a hand through her hair. Then she approached Millicent, who was staring at the door. Calmly, she laid her hand gently on the cow and said, “I hope he hasn’t bothered you too much, Millicent. How goes your night?”
“A traveling alchemist?” Darius frowned. “I don’t think there had been one during that day.”
“He introduced himself as one,” Darla insisted as she walked beside the necromancer’s steed. The old man had taken control of the wagon while she had related what had happened in the stable.
The party had set off again that morning. They have taken the gently sloping road up the side of the Peak, which would lead to the castle near the top of the peak. They have long left the time-lost village behind. The castle at the moment was invisible, but Darius assured them that the castle would be visible when they get closer to it.
The others have listened intently while Darla told her story, and had exploded with laughter upon hearing the cow thieves’ hasty retreat after she had slapped one of them, hard. But Darius frowned instead.
“A traveling stranger on that day would be extremely rare. Besides, I’ve been back to the village several times now.” His voice tightened slightly. “The traveling alchemist wasn’t around back then.”
“Which means that he has to be an outsider,” the old man surprisingly added in from where he was comfortably guiding the wagon. Within the wagon, Yikalor the orc shifted uneasily. The orc has refused to enter the inn earlier that morning, preferring to sleep in the wagon instead. In fact, they have often forgotten that Yikalor was travelling with them. “An outsider which happened to be in town with us.”
“No way there could be another outsider by us,” grumbled Harold. “Unless the alchemist happened to be born at about the same time as Darius here.”
“Or he could be a mage,” Ilone added. Then she giggled. “But from what I’ve heard, I don’t think that he could be one.”
Darius seemed to be concentrating for a while, but when he spoke, his tone was cautious. “No, it wasn’t. The alchemist was just a regular fool. Rage said that it was the other man instead. The old man is a powerful mage, one who took care to hide his aura from the animals for fear of the dragon, but Rage wasn’t a fool to be taken by the old man. He knew a mage when he saw one, and only the most powerful could’ve found his way into the village.” His eyes narrowed. “And there’s only one thing that a mage of that caliber could’ve done in that village at the same time we were there. Spying on us. Waiting for us to find Orvellus’ castle.”
They looked uneasily at each other. A powerful mage. And the Mage Adept Orvellus waiting on the end of the road. It seemed that they were about to be caught in the middle of a mage war.
“There’s no point trying to hide or deceive them of our intent,” Darkling said slowly from atop Vanity. “We’re almost to our destination now, and the mage - Hage, isn’t it? - must’ve recognized the immediate locale of Orvellus’ castle from the Dweomer spell cast on the village. It’s far too late to turn back… the mage wouldn’t need us to find Orvellus anymore. The only way we can go now is forward… to beat Hage into Orvellus.” His voice became doubtful. “Although, I wouldn’t know what we should do once we get there.”
“Before Orvellus would even grant us an audience, though, we would have to pass a test,” the old man suddenly spoke again, his tone serious. “This will not be a test that we have to face as a group, however. Each of us shall be tested in our own way before Orvellus would let us pass. Yes, even the animals. Whoever failed the test would have to remain behind… while others may proceed. If you are afraid to face the test, speak up now or forever hold your peace.”
The uncomfortable silence descended again. Then Reldon cleared his throat. “I’m personally not afraid. But I’ve talked with Aurora,” he said. “Let’s hear what she has to say.”
Aurora has been perching atop Loopy again. The jester had been talking to her, and apparently she was near tears as she talked. “I’m afraid,” she said simply. Murmurs broke through the party… the lively fairy dragon, afraid? “I’ve heard about Orvellus… and the test that he had set upon the earlier people intent on meeting him. He eschewed companions, and he became increasingly irritated with company, and thus he set the test, but even then a few people made it through his tests. So he decided to hide his castle altogether.” Aurora looked up to the peak as if she could see the castle already. “No one had come out unscathed from the tests. The tests involved something extremely personal with the person… maybe reliving one’s worst fears, or maybe forced to confront an ugly truth from the past. I… my past had been something that I’d rather not recall. It’s more than just an experience. It’s… a question of existence…”
Ilone silently wiped a tear from the dragon’s cheek. “You’ll make it alright, Aurora. I know you will.”
Aurora wasn’t mollified, however. “Unlike yours, however, my fears might just threaten my existence. Fairy dragons have different nature from other dragons. Our continued belief of existence has kept us alive…” and she squeezed her eyes shut, refusing even to think that she didn’t really exist. “Please,” she continued, her voice pleading, “don’t go to Orvellus’ castle.”
In response, Ilone calmly reached out and pinched Aurora on her bottom. Aurora yelped, sending a small stream of fire to the air. “Feels real to me,” Ilone murmured . “We refuse to believe that you don’t exist. Keep that in mind.” Loopy rumbled beneath her in agreement, a deep sympathetic rumble. “If you can’t bear to go on, however, as the old man said, don’t force yourself. You can wait right here.”
Aurora’s eyes widened, her tears stopping. “No,” she whispered. Briefly she glanced at the entire party, who was looking at her with curiosity. “I am bonded to you. I’d rather follow you and risk a certain death than waiting for you to return.” Her voice was small, but there was certain firmness in it.
The old man smiled. “Last chance, Aurora,” he said gently. “Leave while you still can, if you can’t bear to face the test.”
Aurora shook her head defiantly. “No,” she repeated with a firmer voice.
The smile remained as the old man looked up to the castle. “Then, let it begin.”
And immediately a bright white light washed over the party…
Hage yelped as white light appeared ahead of him. Immediately, the tell-tale magical signature that he had detected from the party vanished.
“The light,” he whispered to Thane, who was still riding beside him, nursing his cheek from time to time. The mustached alchemist was still muttering curses about how the cheek mark from the Amazon had marred his features, although he knew that it wouldn’t last. Worst, Hage had refused to heal him, saying that he deserved the slap. “So, the stories are true.”
“About what, boss?” Thane asked curiously.
“About the test,” Hage whispered. “I’ve read in a book that without exception, all visitors to Orvellus’ castle would be whisked away into the astral plane to relive some of the worst fears from one’s past. This has been to discourage visitors, of course. Not even Mage Adepts were exempt from this. Certainly not us.”
“Are you sure we’ll make it through, boss?” There was a note of anxiety on Thane’s voice. “Please, boss, say that we will. I still need to get my hands on that cow of theirs. My work! My lifetime work is at stake, boss!”
Hage growled. “I’m not sure about you. I will make it, but with your brain filled with feathers as it is, I don’t know whether you can bear to face the test.” His tone, however, wasn’t so sure. “Perhaps, you’ll make it just because you don’t have enough sense to be afraid.”
Thane harrumphed indignantly, but rode on with his head held high. Hage sighed and said, “Any minute now, the test will begin. Ready yourself.”
He felt and watched, almost calmly, as the white light appeared out of nowhere to whisk them away to the astral plane. Inside, a small part of his spirit screamed as he plunged into what must’ve been his doom…
We eat ham and jam and spam a lot...
Multi-Authored Story, the Original and the Latest
Last edited by vakusuma; 11-22-2002 at 06:38 PM.
But even better! It is specially wonderful...what will the tests be...and will Aurora survive? Oh, she must....
Last edited by Dell; 11-22-2002 at 08:04 PM.