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CALDORA: Chapter 15: The Plot Thickens

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The Plot Thickens  

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            The mercenary woke up with a pounding headache. Finding himself in his bed he assumed that he was brought here after blacking out in the tavern. All he remembered past that was a very lucid, very disturbing, very bad dream. It was almost as if he experienced it like an observer instead of having full rational control of his own being; this worried him. Now that he was awake it all seemed rather hazy, and he thought it best to let the dream fade away with the light of dawn. But upon sitting up, he saw crimson stains on the bed sheets. Brushing a hand across his face, Kadro gaped in horror at the flakes of dried blood that clung to it and a chilling nausea washed over him as he understood that it had been no dream.

            The bounty hunter was still in denial as he hurried to gather his things, but every glance at the bloodstained bed reminded him that he had sunk to an all-new low. Prostitutes and blood money was one thing, but what happened last night out-stepped all his enduring rules of conduct. He could not bear to show his face in this town again, not even to offer an apology. Cautiously he tiptoed out of his room and snuck by the scene of Keramis groveling at the feet of the Tsuna Council, giving them all the gems he had left and apologizing for him. The mercenary crept farther, out of the house and through the earthen streets until he was well out of the village.

            Raven, Lianna, Keramis, and Lakai met up with Sylvia and Lowak on the outskirts of the hamlet. Lianna and Keramis each told their side of the story, and Lowak nearly fainted at the thought of what his adversary was capable of. Lakai appealed to his friends on Kadro’s behalf, explaining that it was his fault that the man got possessed, and how they shouldn’t judge him too severely based on actions he never meant to commit. But the boy knew that Trellion alone saw things his way, and though he could not read the undead, Sylvia’s satisfied grin gave him the impression that this was in part her fault, too.

            When Kadro finally mustered the courage to rejoin the group he was greeted by a round of dubious looks. Raven eyed him curiously as he walked past the company and mounted his horse. The rest followed suit and they all jointly rode off without a word. So it was the entire day.

            Kadro knew he needed something to redeem himself. And though the most logical thing to do would be to apologize, he had another idea: he would shift the resentment from himself to Lowak.

*          *            *

            Jason and Lynn had returned from their quest to gather shards of the Crystals of Power and the King had a brand new dagger to show for it, melded together right out of the crystal pieces. He called it Caldor’s Fang, for it resembled a crudely-cut dragon tooth which one gripped at the widest end and struck with the sharp tip. Jason was now practicing with it up and down the halls of the Crystal Castle.

            “Remember, that blade is of the same essence as your talisman,” Lynn shouted to him from across the room.

            “I know, I know,” Jason repeated what the Acora had warned him about years before, “And any mortal it touches instantly drops dead, got it.”

            “Including the Earth Dragon Caldor!” the dark elf added.

            “Hah!” the King called back, “I wouldn’t worry so much, Lynn. I am the Keeper of the Crystals for how long now? And I didn’t bring the world to an end yet!” He twirled around to find himself face to face with Dinictis.

            “Whoa there, sweetie,” the Queen moved his weapon hand away, wrapped her arm about his neck, and leaned in to kiss him, “Careful where you point that thing.”

            “Relax, Dini,” he smiled, too used to her popping in and out of the castle all day to offer any formal salutations, “It’s just a dagger.”

            “A dagger made from the Crystals of Power,” Dinictis corrected.

            “Yes, and that makes it special somehow, huh,” Jason said, admiring the way the veins of color that coursed through its crystalline depths caught the light which shone down through the ceiling, “But nobody has bothered to tell me why, so I think you owe me an explanation, hmm?”

            “All you had to do was ask, darling,” she cooed.

            “So what’s the big deal?” the King inquired.

            “That dagger has the power to harm gods,” the goddess answered.

            Jason gasped and hid the dagger behind his back.

            “Not kill, but harm,” Dinictis quickly clarified, “You will need to use it on Aloquin.”

            “I’m fighting Aloquin?” he blinked in surprise.

            “No,” she replied, “As helpful as that would be, it’s too risky. However, you will need to find a way to get close to him and stab him.”

            “Oh is that all?” Jason asked with obvious sarcasm.

            “Sorry, honey,” Dinictis told him, “But that’s the only way to reclaim your immortality. If you make direct contact with him using the Crystals of Power, you could will it back inside you through the Channel Crystal.”

            “Meaning, you’ll need to stab him,” Lynn grinned.

            “Well, alright,” Jason played along, still hoping this was some kind of joke, “You could distract him, while I find a way to get close to him. But, wouldn’t his army get in the way?”

            “I don’t think that will be an issue,” Lynn said with a sly smile.

*          *            *

            Raven, Keramis, Lianna, Lakai, and Kadro stayed overnight at the next available village, while Sylvia and Lowak got to camp outside again. Regardless how far he was from the bounty hunter, Lowak refused to sleep. The Trickster Queen tried to lull him with whimsical reveries, but though he knew she was more than capable of protecting him from all harm he was still scared out of his wits.

            Kadro, too, could not sleep – he was afraid of what dreams may bring. At best he would be plagued by nightmares, at worst he was a danger to himself and others. Restless and alone, he left his quarters and wandered out into the fields where he sat on a dewy hillock and stared emptily at the horizon.

            Confusion mixed with anxiety; as a result of the utter emotional turmoil of the last few days, he did not know who he was anymore. It was in times like these that one was capable of turning their lives completely around. He knew because he had been through this before. Seven years ago he had become the person he was prior to meeting these foreigners, and now it seemed he had changed again, only for the worse. The warrior clenched his teeth in frustration; was he powerless to stop the downward spiral?

            “It is a beautiful morning,” Raven remarked politely, his elven voice as gentle as a whisper on the wind.

            Kadro did not dare to look behind him. He did not speak a word for over a day and couldn’t get anything past the lump in his throat.

            Trellion did not pressure him to, and quietly sat a short distance away to wait for sunrise. To him, watching darkness fade as the first rays of light pierced the horizon was a truly comforting experience. Aurora’s name meant ‘dawn,’ and by basking in its warmth, he felt as if she was right beside him. It reminded Raven how she had rescued him from the pits of despair and opened a fresh chapter in his life. He drew strength from that memory.

            To Kadro, however, the new day brought nothing but the promise of loathing from his peers. He knew he deserved every bit of it, but this was simply unbearable. The mercenary would much rather set out alone to see where his new life would lead him than face the stinging ridicule of those who had the misfortune of seeing him in such a state. But he was too stubborn to quit. He longed to stay and prove himself better than that, for he knew that if he left, what little remained of his true character would surely die.

            “I never imagined I could get so drunk,” Kadro heard himself say.

            Raven turned to look at the bounty hunter.

            “I swear,” he met the half-elf’s icy gaze, “I swear by my heart, by my soul, and all the honor that I hold sacred, that I never meant for that to happen!” Kadro looked away and closed his eyes tightly, “Or maybe I did, I don’t know. You must excuse me, I don’t know much of anything anymore, the past few days have been… Well I don’t suppose it’s my place to ask for sympathy. The girl – she’s alright though, yes?” he looked up with misty eyes.

            Trellion nodded.

            Kadro nodded back and nervously ran his fingers through his hair. There was a long moment of tense silence. Raven did not speak for he would rather listen, but the mercenary misconstrued the half-elf’s quietness for reproach. Growing discouraged, he saw no other option open to him but to leave. “I don’t belong here,” Kadro shook his head, beginning to stand up, “I would only hinder your mission.”

            “With an attitude like that you’ll only get possessed again,” Raven smirked.

            Kadro’s train of melodramatic musings came to a screeching halt. “What?” he asked.

            “Depression,” Trellion clarified, “It dulls your willpower and leaves you open to possession.”

            “What do you mean ‘again’?” Kadro rephrased the question, “I was possessed before? When?!”

            “The night you attacked that girl,” Raven explained, “You were possessed.”

            The human stared at him, speechless, with a renewed glimmer of hope in his eyes. Could it be true? Was it not him in the tavern that night? Could he still get through this ordeal with his dignity intact? He felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

            “You were possessed by a trickster,” Trellion told him, “But that does not erase your responsibility for what happened.”

            “No, no, of course not!” Kadro agreed emphatically, “I cannot change the past. But I can atone for it by making them pay for what they did!”

            “We are going up against the Mistress of Illusions herself,” Raven said, rising from the ground, “I’m sure you’ll get your chance.”

            “Oh believe you me!” Kadro insisted, “I have dealt with their kind before, and I will make it my personal duty to send every trickster I find back to the abysmal realms from which they came!”

            “But for now, we must train,” Trellion smiled and stretched out his hand to the warrior in the North Forest gesture of tentative alliance.

            Kadro smiled back and shook the hand gladly, feeling somewhat accepted once more. They walked further out into the cornfield and drew their weapons in preparation for a friendly spar.

            “Tell me, elf,” the mercenary inquired, “Why did you come out here today? Why do you care?”

            “I was possessed once,” Raven replied, his eyes trailing along the length of his sword, which gleamed crimson with the rosy light of dawn, “By the god of war.”

            “The God of War?!” Kadro exclaimed, “Who lives in a castle made of human bones, which is decorated with human entrails, surrounded by a moat filled with human blood–?”

            The half-elf’s steely gaze warned him not to question the matter further.

            They each got into their fighting stances and waited to see who would strike first. The bounty hunter got impatient and resolved to take the initiative by charging Trellion. Raven had anticipated this and casually sidestepped the attack. Kadro spun around, his sword veering in a sideways slash only to be deflected by the half-elf’s blade.

            Trellion met the onslaught with a relaxed, defensive style. The rhythmic clanging of metal was like music to his soul. When he was sufficiently warmed up, he decided to make a gradual transition to offense, so that there was a balanced amount of attacks between them. Kadro had his own shield now, and was able to block his opponent’s thrusts with relative ease. This went on for some time until Raven picked up the pace, his sword swings becoming progressively faster, forcing the mercenary to adapt a more defensive approach. He was testing how ready the warrior was for the true intensity of North Forest battle, and so far he was fairly impressed – this human could pose a challenge to the high ranks.

            Kadro didn’t share the half-elf’s sentiments. The shift in speed put him on the receiving end of some very rapid slashes, and he was not faring all that well. He was being driven backwards by unyielding sword thrusts – a spot he was finding himself in much too often for his liking nowadays. But he would not be beaten so easily this time, even if it meant resorting to less respectable methods. Kadro didn’t have much room to maneuver, however, which restricted him to using the most basic of tactics – so basic they had no chance of success against a knowledgeable opponent, but under the given circumstances were worth a try anyway.

            He parried one of Raven’s thrusts with his long sword and bounced off the riposte that followed with exaggerated force, his weapon out wide and his shield drooping. Trellion was unable to resist his opponent’s seemingly helpless posture, and launched a reckless hack at the staggering human. Kadro regained his balance instantly and used his shield to sweep his adversary’s sword aside as he came in with his own, scoring a hit on the half-elf with the flat of his blade.

            “What was that?” Raven demanded, jumping away.

            “What was what?” Kadro asked.

            “There’s no way you could have possibly done that from your position!”

            “It’s called feigning,” said the bounty hunter.

            “It’s called cheating!” Trellion shot back indignantly.

            The mercenary stared at him, puzzled. “Good Lord, elf!” he exclaimed in amazement, “Your culture lives and breathes battle and you never heard of feigning?!”

            “A fighter confident in his skills does not rely on deception for victory,” Raven recited the code of the high ranks, which condemned armor and trickery.

            “Well how perfectly selfish of you,” Kadro teased, “I don’t know about your society, but in ours it’s not always that simple. Sometimes you have something to protect!”

            Aurora’s radiant face flashed through Trellion’s mind. “What do you have to protect?” the half-elf smirked.

            Kadro paused to scour through his reasons. He’d say women but they betrayed him, he’d say values but they backfired on him, he’d say civilization but it abandoned him. “Myself!” the mercenary finally replied.

            “And that’s not selfish?” Raven scoffed.

            Kadro laughed at the jibe, and they crossed swords again.

*          *            *

            At the core of the Dark Fortress lay a chamber so vast it could swallow the entire physical castle whole. In the center was a spinning portal that pulsed like a steady heartbeat, it’s soft light illuminating the crevices of the domed ceiling. It was a rift in time and space, a window to another world. More precisely, it was a gateway to the land of the dying Earth Dragon, and Aloquin could stare into it for hours on end, the prismic light of the vortex reflecting in his crazed eyes.

            Caldor’s demise tugged at his soul. He sensed his bond to the elder dragon and felt its life force slowly ebbing away as its offspring gained in strength. He sensed the young dragon inside the old. The hatchling was nearly mature enough to be born, and he felt how it screeched and thrashed wildly in its reckless attempts to break free. Through his twisted perceptions, Aloquin believed the ferocity to be aimed at him. But he knew he was safe, he knew he had overcome that grim fate, and knew that it would be here where he could reverse his destiny by hurling his twin into the portal in his stead. He knew and he was gloating.

            Onedia sat in the background, watching. She had hoped that building the astral citadel would make him take notice of her, bring them closer together, give them an opportunity to spend more time with each other. But the wizard remained as distant as always. Aloquin had a cold, callous beauty about him: as magnificent as an icicle sparkling in the sun, and just as harsh.

*          *            *

            Days passed, and Lowak still could not sleep. They walked and walked but he remained awake. The mercenary’s actions have shaken the reality of his situation into him. Never before had he seriously considered the notion of actually being returned to Germane until now. And yet here he was, unable to escape, traveling in the same party as the bounty hunter hired to retrieve him.

            They were nearly at Iyutel; the city’s spires were already visible on the horizon. And when their business there was over, what then? What would happen to him? Lowak kept nodding off on his horse but the knowledge that his nemesis was riding close by did not allow him to rest. He saw Raven take out a crystal and whisper into it something about their arrival at the capital, and noted how the elves donned their hoods. In no time at all they were passing through the city gates.

            The group led their horses through brightly colored streets lined with crafts stores and vendors, and teeming with noisy people. Keramis was quick to pull the hood over the dazed thief’s head, but Lowak didn’t notice. He didn’t notice that he was stumbling, and didn’t even notice that he was being supported by Sylvia. But it was only a matter of time before his body gave out and he swooned, falling into the arms of the Trickster Queen.

            “Poor thing,” Lianna sighed pitifully, “We better find an inn soon.”

            Keramis glowered at Kadro.

            Kadro tossed back his cape and tugged on his horse.

            Raven scanned the marketplace for an inn of some sort.

            Lakai felt a very large, very ominous presence around, but attributed it to Sylvia.

*          *            *

            The door creaked open on rusty hinges, revealing a room lit by flickering torches. Lowak was hauled inside by armed thugs, crying and pleading for mercy with his guild master – the man he had come to see as a father. But Germane paid no attention and marched on ahead. He could not afford to simply throw him out into the streets, the boy was much too valuable and too sought-after to do that.

            Lowak had been here before; the place reeked of blood and death. He was led past torture devices of every shape and form, many of them currently in use. Bloodshot eyes stared at him from the vault of an iron maiden, he heard the moans of some poor soul being stretched on the rack, the gurgled gasps of a woman being drowned in boiling water, and could smell the burning flesh of a traitor being subjected to fire.

            Lowak was being steered towards an iron coffin, and he knew its uses well. One would be left there to die of starvation, with live wasps, tarantulas, centipedes and other such things being let through the air holes from time to time. Eating those would keep one alive a bit longer. A more lenient alternative was to be fried inside it and have it over with swiftly. Germane’s thugs dumped the boy violently into the casket and slammed the lid shut.

            Lowak screamed some of the most heart-wrenching cries the guild leader had ever heard. He shrieked until he lost his voice, banged on the walls until his hands bled, and scraped at the coffin until rust was embedded deep under his fingernails, but nobody came or cared.

            He awoke with a shudder, finding himself in a darkened room. Sylvia watched from the shadows as the thief took a few unsteady steps towards her, obviously still not recovered from the flashback.

            “S-sister,” he said in a quivering voice, putting his hands on her shoulders, “We-we have to go, we can’t stay here any longer.”

            The Trickster Queen cocked her head quizzically to the side.

            “Germane wants to kill me,” Lowak whispered, his darting eyes wide with fear. He bent Sylvia down to a crouch and sat down beside her. “But don’t worry,” he hugged himself and started to rock back and forth, “I’ll figure something out. We can live on the street and steal anything we need, right? We won’t have to rely on anybody, won’t have anybody telling us what to do. I know some abandoned houses. Sure they’ve got rats, but they’ve got to live somewhere, too, right?”

            Sylvia nodded, grinning.

            “Everything will be alright, sister, I promise!” he clutched her hand, “We just have to leave, and go far, far away. If Germane finds us again, he’ll do something much worse, and then who’ll look after you? Now come on, I know a way out.”

            He pulled her along towards the door, opening it to see Lianna, Raven, and Keramis huddled around on the other side, staring down at him curiously. This city housed grander inns and the group was able to afford a place with several rooms.

            “What’s going on here?” Lianna asked, holding up a lighted candle.

            “No,” Lowak breathed, gawking at them in disbelief, “No, it can’t be.”

            “Who were you talking to?” the woman peered behind him.

            “I was…” he looked back at Sylvia, confused, “To my… My…”

            “His sister,” Kadro stepped forward, “Who froze to death years ago.” His chance to humiliate the boy came right on schedule.

            Lowak recoiled from the sight of the bounty hunter.

            “It must’ve screwed with his head more than I thought,” the mercenary said with a disdainful laugh, “Living for this long with no human contact whatsoever, hiding from the sun, paranoid beyond all reason. I tried to warn you – that kid has problems!”

            Lianna frowned with concern.

            Kadro grabbed the thief and pulled him up to his face, “Your sister’s dead, you deluded twit!”

            Lowak shook his head in denial.

            “Yes!” the warrior jerked him roughly, “Dead!! Because of you! If you hadn’t angered your psychotic guild master, you wouldn’t be out on the streets in the middle of winter! If you hadn’t neglected her and only thought about your own wretched self, maybe stolen her a damn blanket, she might still be alive today!”

            “No, that’s not how it–” the boy insisted, only to get shoved to the ground. Lowak glared back at the man with such hatred, but it did not last, for his eyes welled up with tears. He fell to his knees, his body convulsing in uncontrollable sobs. Pounding his fists into the ground, he screamed a word barely decipherable as ‘NO’ over and over again.

            Kadro backed away, completely unprepared for this reaction.            

            Keramis carefully knelt by the boy, but he was inconsolable, batting aside all his attempts at comforting him. The elf did not give up, however, and stayed by him while the others left. His heart reached out to the wretched, forsaken, trodden-upon creature before him. An emotional hedgehog that lashed out at anyone who tried to touch him. Lowak reminded him of how he could have turned out had nobody shown him kindness and believed in him when he lacked the will to believe in himself. He grabbed past Lowak’s pathetic efforts to push him away and drew him into a warm, tight embrace. Lowak fought back and resisted all he could but Keramis wouldn’t let go.

            The thief kicked and clawed and punched until all his energy was spent and all his defenses melted away. He clenched his fists around the elf’s tunic and broke down crying until his eyes ran dry. Keramis gently stroked his hair and whispered, “whenever you feel lost, remember this moment and know that you are not alone.” For once in his life Lowak felt safe in the arms of another and allowed himself to trust that the elf’s kind words were sincere. He sensed his eyelids growing heavy, and ever so slowly he drifted off to sleep in Keramis’ lap.

            “Shall I take him to his room?” Sylvia croaked.

            “No,” Keramis told her, “I barely got him to sleep as it is. I think we’ll manage without your watch for tonight.”

            The Trickster Queen gave a nonchalant shrug and floated out the door.

            Afraid of waking the boy, Keramis didn’t risk moving from his spot and ended up falling asleep on the floor.

*          *            *

            Lowak walked through clouds of green tinted mist. It was cold, and he noted vapor escape his mouth as he breathed. All around he could see nothing but fog, made luminous by frozen droplets of water that twinkled like minute stars. He did not know where he was going, but he was following a haunting whisper that beckoned to him by name. It led the thief to a large chunk of solid ice suspended in mid air. Within it was a little girl, her image distorted by uneven folds of ice. She had hair black as raven feathers, and her face was frozen in an expression of extreme sadness. He instantly recognized her as his younger sister.

            “Lowak,” she spoke, her voice like tinkling icicles, “Why did you let me die? You were supposed to look after me.”

            Lowak was at a loss for words. He felt tears rimming his eyes but they froze on his eyelashes. The boy stretched out a trembling hand towards her, but as soon as his fingertips touched the ice, it shattered into a million tiny pieces.

            Lowak awoke with a start, his heartbeat racing. Still shivering from the cold, the thief sat up to examine his surroundings. He saw Keramis curled up on the floor – how could he let himself fall asleep in that elf’s lap? Did he fool him into thinking that he cared for him, that he could trust him!? Trust! Lowak’s whole being held sheer contempt for that word! The more somebody showed him they cared, the more suspicious of them he became. If his sister and he were to die tomorrow, who would care?

            Why was he here at all? Did these people truly expect him to believe that they would protect him from the bounty hunter? How gullible did they think he was?! It was no secret that the faery boy bore no love for him and favored Kadro instead. They only needed him to infiltrate the castle, and past that he would have outlived his usefulness. Lakai must have convinced the mercenary to tag along by promising to hand him over when that happened. And then he would be taken back to his guild master. Germane’s claim of kicking him out of the guild was a lie told to cover up the embarrassing truth of a child escaping his most closely guarded premises. He had no wish to find out what the guild would do to him to avenge that disgrace. He could not go back, he would not go back! Who would take care of his sister once he’s gone?

            No, the thief decided, he would betray them before they could betray him. With a broadening sneer, he realized that the ever-vigilant undead Queen was not here to watch him. Lowak slipped out of the inn making no sound and headed for the Forestside Castle.

*          *            *

            Sylvia hovered over a deserted cobblestone street lit only by moonlight. She had a good view of the palace, and could clearly see the eerie astral citadel looming over the mundane castle. The enormous mass bulged and collapsed as innumerable trickster bodies rearranged into fantastic shapes and offshoots in response to the Trickster Queen’s presence. It was an exhilarating sight to behold, for her essence was drawn to them as well, and her body surged with power.

            From off to the side, her unblinking eyes noticed a human shadow slink over the wall that surrounded the physical castle. She smiled, fully knowing who it was, but there would be time enough to worry about that.

*          *            *

            Lowak scurried across the courtyard under cover of darkness, and was now creeping silently through the bowels of the Forestside Castle. His family had been imprisoned in this place as part of an accumulating group of traitors to be sent to the Haunted Forest en masse by order of Queen Onedia. He had managed to run away with his sister, but was forced to leave his parents behind. The strange thing about it was that he didn’t blame the Queen for the way his life turned out. Instead, he blamed his parents for being inconsiderate enough to join a conspiracy crusade when they had children to raise. While he knew Onedia was not a forgiving woman, perhaps she would be willing to make a deal.

            The thief jogged his memory for recollections of the palace’s layout, but it was all rather hazy after six years. Still, he remembered enough to guide him to his destination – the throne room was just around the next bend. He hoped to have an element of surprise by sneaking in at night, but something about the castle seemed different: he kept having this creepy feeling that he was being watched. Lowak took a slight peek into the room and reflexively drew back against the wall. The chamber was packed with soldiers.

            “It was fun while it lasted, but you can come out now!” Onedia shouted.

            Lowak sensed his feet tingle at the sound of her voice and move of their own accord. They marched him across the red carpet and straight into the center of the room. Upon closer inspection, he saw that among the soldiers were bizarre, non-human creatures: elves and goblins, orcs and half-weres. But they were all eclipsed by the glorious visage of the enthroned Queen.

            “You knew I was coming,” the boy stared at her incredulously.

            “Yes I did,” she replied, “Although I must admit you know your way around my palace exceptionally well. How ever did you manage?”

            “I’ve escaped your prisons once before,” Lowak found it impossible to lie.

            “Hmm, really?” Onedia frowned, but dismissed the thought with a shrug. “Either way,” she yawned tiresomely, “For waking me up in the middle of the night, you better have something amusing to say.”

            Feeling so exposed in front of so many people was one of Lowak’s greatest fears, but he did his best to suppress it. “I-I do,” the thief stuttered.

            “Good,” the goddess shifted to rest her chin in her palm, “Do tell.”

            “Well,” he twiddled his fingers nervously, “I came to inform you of some spies, or possibly assassins, who want to break into your castle.”

            “Those being not you?” Onedia scanned him with her penetrating gaze.

            “No!” Lowak exclaimed, “Not me. I was supposed to lead them inside but...”

            “Go on,” she prompted him with a hand gesture.

            “Before I tell you,” the thief solicited, “Could I humbly ask for one thing in return?”

            “Name it.”

            “The safety of my sister and I,” he requested.

            “Certainly, child,” the Queen smiled pleasantly.

            “They are a group of foreigners,” the boy relayed, “But easy enough to pick out since Kadro the Wanderer is traveling with them. They’re already in the city, and will probably try to raid this castle sometime very soon.”

            A dark figure bent in from the side and whispered something into the Queen’s ear. Lowak watched as it then leaned back against the throne and flashed him a dark grin. He couldn’t take his eyes off that face. Was it a doppelganger or was he hallucinating again?

            “You,” Lowak gaped at the half-elf.

            The war god pointed at himself questioningly.

            “Why are you here?” the thief asked.

            Yugashii waltzed past the guards and up to the boy. “Where should I be?” he inquired.

            “B-back at the inn,” Lowak wavered, “With the others.”

            “And who am I?” Yugashii questioned, circling him with mounting interest. This half-elf was the exact physical replica of Trellion. But some things were off: his manner was too obnoxious, and his voice too harsh.

            “You are Raven,” the thief replied uncertainly.

            The God of War threw back his head with laughter. “He’s not lying!” Yugashii called back to the Queen, his grin widening.

            “Marvelous! Marvelous!” Onedia clapped her hands excitedly, “Something finally happening on our side of the front! Don’t worry, child, you’ll get all that was promised you and more!”

            The boy barely heard her. He was still staring at Trellion’s face; he never thought he’d have to confront it again. A strange, sickening feeling gripped at his heart. What had he done? Surely these people wouldn’t simply give his group a chiding slap on the wrist and send them away. Had he just sentenced the entire party to this ignoble death? Keramis, who defended him from Kadro on several occasions without even knowing who he was; Raven, who had shielded him from the bounty hunter the first time they met; Lianna, who stood by him when others had given up. Maybe he was wrong, maybe they really did care, and maybe he had just betrayed the only friends he had in the world.

            “One more thing,” Lowak spoke up, interrupting Onedia and the Warrior Spirit’s merriment.

            “Could you possibly, ahh…” the thief hesitated, realizing how completely ridiculous his request sounded, “Could you… not kill all of them?”

            They glanced back at him blankly.

            “I-I mean,” Lowak quickly added, “You can kill Kadro, and I hope you kill him slowly. You can even kill Lakai for all I care! But please spare Keramis.”

            Onedia raised an eyebrow, eyeing him unfavorably.

            “I don’t know what kind of game you think you’re playing, kid,” Yugashii said evenly, “But this is war.”

            The boy frantically searched the room for any hint of support, but found none. “I’m a thief, not a murderer!” he pleaded.

            “Well consider yourself promoted,” the war god smirked.

            Lowak gazed at him with pure terror. “I understand,” he replied after a long pause, his face drained of all emotion, “I guess I should go now.” He bowed to the Queen and turned to leave.

            Onedia scowled, nodding to the Warrior Spirit.

            Yugashii moved in to obstruct the thief’s path.

            Lowak gulped, sensing what this meant.

            “The Queen finds you disloyal,” the war god told him, his eyes blazing crimson, “Can’t let you go that easy.”

            “You feel pity for your friends? How touching,” Onedia said through an annoyed, tight-lipped smile, looking downright demonic. “Once a traitor, always a traitor. Throw him in the Pit of Darkness!” she ordered, “No locks to pick there.”

            The brainwashed soldiers all jointly began chanting “To The Pit!” as Yugashii grabbed hold of the boy and dragged him, kicking and screaming, out of the throne room.

            The Warrior Spirit towed him through winding hallways, and with every step Lowak felt the atmosphere become less tangible. The castle was also growing progressively darker – not in the sense of an absence of light, this was something much more frightening. Eventually he gave up resisting, and merely hung onto his captor, too scared to scream. Onedia had a habit of naming various things ‘dark.’ But the Pit of Darkness was not named so just to sound ominous, it was quite literally a trickster-infested hellhole consisting of absolute darkness.

*          *            *

            Onedia rushed off to her chambers to tell Aloquin of what happened. She fixed her hair, put on a bright, shining smile, and sat in front of the Dark Mirror. It did not take long for the god’s image to appear after she tapped her crystal.

            “Hail, Queen of the Forestside Kingdom,” Aloquin bowed.

            “Guess what!” she greeted him giddily.

            The wizard feigned interest.

            “That one guy that you said looks like the God of War,” Onedia told him, “He’s here! And so are his friends! Kadro, Lakai, Lianna, and Kiramis… I think.”

            “Really?!” Aloquin perked up, “What are they doing all the way over there?”

            “Trying to break into my castle, that’s what!” she snickered.

            “What fools!” the wizard couldn’t help but laugh at the prospect of somebody attempting to sneak into a living mass of trickster eyes.

            “I don’t know if they’re still going to, though,” Onedia sighed glumly, “I caught the thief that was going to lead them inside.”

            “Was it a human thief?” he asked.

            “Yes, a human child.”

            “Then they’ll try anyway,” Aloquin shook his head, “They started off without that thief and they planned on finishing. But we can help them along with some lure perhaps. What would you suggest?”

            “A ball!” the enchantress exclaimed, twirling around as if dancing.

            “Then a ball it shall be,” he smiled.

            The goddess giggled with glee.

            “The wait is nearly complete,” the wizard informed her, “My portal will be ready in three days. Put out some flyers and prepare your troops, for that will be the eve of the final battle.”

            She nodded eagerly.

            Aloquin dipped into another bow, and faded away.

            Onedia fell back onto her luxurious bed to daydream of the upcoming masquerade while humming a sweet melody and combing her hair.

*          *            *

            The unified forces of Caldora stalked through the twisted labyrinth of the North Forest. West Forest armies rode fearsome South Forest dragons, while East Forest faeries rimmed the outer reaches of the troops, casting a ring of invisibility on all within their borders. Jason wound up at the center of the crowd, buffered by royal guards. He prudently cradled his crystalline dagger and periodically looked to Dinictis, who seemed lost in thought. Acleito and Lynn, the chief officers of the Caldorian Army subordinate only to their Queen, kept to the head of the legion together with their North Forest allies: the Acora’s ancestral cave, the karaci people, and other formerly neutral factions. Slowly but surely, they made their way towards Kayintas.



Copyright © 2003 by Yumeni www.twilightvisions.com. All rights reserved.
Revised: 27 Jan 2013 22:59:26 -0700 .




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