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CALDORA: Chapter 16: Masquerade


            When Keramis awoke in the morning, all his joints ached from sleeping in an awkward position. He stretched and rolled over on the ground, but, much to his dismay, saw that the thief was not with him. He immediately jumped to his feet and began to frantically rummage around the room.

            The ruckus awakened Lianna and she got out of bed to see what Keramis was doing.

            “Lowak’s gone,” he told her, “And so is Sylvia.”

            Lakai pulled his blanket over his head.

            Raven sat up, looking more surprised than usual.

            Kadro blinked and rubbed his eyes.

            Keramis searched the inn inside out as only a thief was qualified to do, all the while knowing he would find nothing. The rest stood somewhat disoriented by this unforeseen turn of events.

            “How could he have?” the bounty hunter babbled to himself, “Where could he have? Why?”

            Raven and Lianna stared at him.

            “I know!” Kadro concluded, “That demonic girl must have taken him somewhere.”

            Keramis threw down the last of the floorboards, growled and turned on the mercenary. He stomped straight up to the man and punched him squarely in the face, making it painfully clear whose fault he thought this all was. The elf then kicked open the door and stormed outside. In truth, he also blamed himself, but knew there were more pressing problems to deal with at the time.

             Kadro shut up, rubbing his cut cheek and averting his gaze to the ground.

            “Where would he have gone?” Lianna asked him.

            “Wherever it would benefit him most,” replied the bounty hunter.

            Lianna sighed and sat on a bed. Raven folded his arms and scanned the room for any clues. Kadro scratched his head. There was a thoughtful silence.

            “He went to tell Onedia of our plans,” the faery boy finally mumbled from under the covers, “Because he thought we would give him to Kadro in the end.”

            “Why didn’t you stop him?” Lianna demanded, “Or wake us up?”

            Lakai lowered the blanket. “I was too scared,” he sniffled, “Lowak hates me, and thinks I hate him. It would’ve only made things worse.”

            “Things can’t get any worse,” Raven said dryly, and went to join his cousin outside. With an apologetic shrug at Lakai, Lianna hurried after Trellion, and Kadro followed.

            Keramis had been leaning against the outer wall and heard the entire conversation. When his friends came out the door, he was already gazing intently at a brightly colored flyer across the street.

            “What do we do now?” Kadro looked around.

            Keramis nodded towards the opposite wall, “It seems there’s a party at the palace.”

            “ ‘Masquerade, three nights hence, all are welcome!’ ” Lianna read aloud, “How convenient. Think it’s a trap?”

            “Of course it’s a trap!” the elf chuckled, “But you have to admit, it’s more subtle than handing us personal invitations.”

            “So is that it?” Kadro asked, “Is the mission over?”

            “Hardly,” Keramis smirked, “I say we take the bait.”

            “Are you insane?!” the mercenary exclaimed, “You can’t walk into a trap just like that!”

            “How else do you propose we walk into it?”

            “I propose we not walk into it at all!” Kadro retorted, “In fact, I propose we leave while we can!”

            “We can’t leave,” Raven eyed him harshly, “We can’t tell the thousands of soldiers who are depending on us to turn around and leave.”

            “If Lowak did tell Onedia about us,” Lianna explained, “I’m sure that by now she has set up heightened security monitoring every nook and cranny. You’re a wonderful thief, Keramis, but with our meager knowledge of that castle, it would not be wise to risk sneaking inside.

            “We’re on Lossi now,” she continued, “So the only one of us who the royal guards might recognize is Kadro.

            “And if that traitor is there to identify us?” the mercenary spat spitefully.

            The woman shook her head, “If we all dress up for the masquerade, we should be able to get in without any trouble.”

            “Then why invite us?” Kadro was still reluctant.

            “I don’t know,” Lianna said solemnly, “But it’s our safest bet.”

            “My thoughts exactly,” Keramis agreed.

            “I’ll inform Queen Dinictis that there will be a small delay,” Raven said with an acquiescent nod.

            Outnumbered, the bounty hunter gave in. “Then we should start looking for costumes – I know just the place!” he smiled, “I need to teach you foreigners some good Lossian fashion sense!” he added to lighten the mood.

*          *            *

            With two days to go before the ball, the group resolved to live them to the fullest – after all, the future was uncertain at best. Kadro was pleasantly surprised to see that his party could remain so lighthearted under the circumstances. They dined at the most expensive restaurants in town, attended shows, and marveled at the complex architecture of Iyutel’s city center. Keramis and Lianna were amazed at how so many people could fit in one place. Raven was not altogether impressed, claiming that Nastra was far more advanced, albeit at the price of forced human labor.

            Most of their time, of course, was spent browsing the marketplace. The clerk watched helplessly as Keramis and Lianna chased each other throughout his store. The isles were filled with bright, flamboyant clothing tailored out of the most exotic materials in the land, and the pair carelessly ripped them off the racks, giggling at how silly and noticeable they looked in the flashy outfits.

            Raven, more trained in the ways of civilized etiquette, quietly searched through the clothing until one piece in particular caught his eye. It was a set of light armor made of green forest dragon scales that glistened with a violet luster. This reminded him of the armor the Warrior Spirit had given him on their first meeting, only that had been of black dragon scales. It also made him think of the forest dragon who had briefly cost him his rank. Trellion took the outfit off the rack, making a mental note to track down that dragon and skin it alive when he returned to the North Forest.

            Keramis finally picked out a comfortable outfit made of fiery red griffin plumage, whose contours were rimmed with golden dawn feathers. After much lecturing by Kadro about how she needed a dress to fit in with the Lossian females, and quite a bit of cajoling from Keramis regarding how pretty she looked in it, Lianna reluctantly settled on an alabaster white gown inlaid with precious gemstones.

            Lakai chose a simple tunic painted in pastel swirls and decked himself with wreaths of silk flowers. Kadro was looking for something that fit inconspicuously on top of his armor, and selected a flowing robe with a net of crystals thrown over the fabric whose jingle masked his noisy chain mail. The mercenary also grabbed some masks, and a good supply of face paint, glitter, dye, and beads. They paid the fretful shopkeeper with more than enough cash to compensate for any damage they’ve caused.

            On the date of the festivity, the party spent their day getting into costume. Raven put on a silvery, clamp-like headband that bound his hair into a ponytail, and attached a few glass beads to his bangs. Lianna wove colorful lace into her braided hair and adorned it with jeweled garlands that cascaded down her back. Keramis dyed strands of his hair violet and blue, and sprinkled it with shiny flecks. To match his garment, Lakai tinted his locks with all the hues of the rainbow. Kadro plaited the bottom half of his hair into fine braids and tied the ends with beads, although he insisted that makeup alone would render him completely unrecognizable.

            The group painted their faces in extravagant splashes of color and glitter. Keramis and Lianna helped each other draw heavy eyeliner that stemmed off the tips of their eyes in spiraling lines. The woman later added purple eye-shadow, a touch of pinkish blush, and rich violet lip gloss.

            They wore their costumes right over their fighting gear, except for Lakai, who had none, and Keramis, who felt he could comfortably fight in the griffin outfit. The elves were even brave enough to uncover their ears for the occasion. With everything ready to go, Raven gave due notice to Dinictis and the party set out for the Forestside Castle.

*          *            *

            The Caldorian militia already had Kayintas surrounded since that morning and were monitoring the enemy’s activity. Upon receiving the message from Trellion, Dinictis informed Acleito that the war has now officially begun. The Chief Commander nodded in solemn acknowledgement and took the Horn of Telepathy off his belt, riding out on his dragon mount to rally the armies for battle.

            Everybody was already rather quiet so it wasn’t hard for Lynn to attract the attention of the troops. They came from all over Caldora: elves and humans, faeries and dwarves, dragons and tamunid, none of them ready for war except the dark elves of Lynn’s cave and the karaci archer-scouts. It was especially touching to see hope in the eyes of the slaves as they proudly stood side by side with their hereditary superiors.

            The great multitude of faces gazed expectantly at Acleito from the crowd, as if it was in his power to magically make all their worries go away. But the burden of Acleito and Lynn was the knowledge that the outcome of the battle did not depend on them. Yet at the same time it was their job to raise enough morale so that the troops would perform to their fullest potential, making the difference between victory and defeat. Acleito tried to keep from shaking – the Chief Commander could not afford to look afraid.

            “Today noble, soldier, and slave fight as one!” he addressed the army, “The West, East, South, and even North Forests have put their differences aside to fight as one for a common cause!

            “I know many of you are scared, and you have good reason to be!” his voice faltered slightly, speaking much of his own dread, “We are walking straight into Aloquin’s trap and no one knows what waits on the other side. But remember, it’s only bravery when you are afraid.”

            The Chief Commander paused, getting a few enthusiastic nods from the soldiers.

            “For the time being we must look past those fears,” he continued, “Because we are fighting for something greater than ourselves. We are fighting for our future and our Goddess! Our unity is our strength! Never forget that.

            “Many will die this day, and you will probably not see some of your friends again,” he said gravely, his tone escalating into a shout, “But the memory of our victory will live on forever!”

            The legion erupted in a deafening uproar of patriotic cheers. Acleito almost envied them – to think that these people could derive such comfort from a speech orated by one more scared than they were!

            “You’ll be fine,” the Acora smiled and gave him a pat on the back.

            The Chief Commander smiled back weakly.

            It was difficult to give the order to move into Kayintas, but Acleito forced himself to do so anyway and Lynn helped direct the militia towards the mouth of the cave. The throng moved down from the hills and the trees, its multiple branches flowing into one central stream that poured into the entrance. It was no secret that they were coming, so an ambush would be pointless. Dinictis led the way, marching through the main chamber of Kayintas with bold determination. Troops crowded in behind her, but the cave didn’t even come close to fitting any reasonable fraction of the army.

            Aloquin waited for them seated atop his throne, surrounded by a handful of henchmen. He was dressed in a black silken pants and tunic, embroidered with the design of a serpentine, violet dragon swimming in a sea of stars. “We meet again, my twin!” he rose to greet her with a big, welcoming smile.

            “Lets make this the last time, shall we?” she quipped.

            “You read my mind,” the god said through his teeth.

            “Pretty flimsy army you got there,” Dinictis scoffed, now joined by her two officers, “I have half of Caldora waiting outside, and here I thought you’d put up more of a challenge.”

            “You know me better than that!” Aloquin laughed, a glint of menace visible in his eyes, “This is no place to wage war!” With a wave of the wizard’s hand, the stony walls of the cave rippled as if liquid, climbing to mind-boggling heights of mounting tsunamis. They became coated with a thick black substance, reminiscent of crystalline clusters, which grew in intricate patterns suggestive of mocking faces with supple bodies that writhed and coiled like living beings. The walls swelled as if meaning to crush all within their reach, but then sprung far away, leaving an open battlefield stretching from horizon to horizon. It was big enough to contain both armies and then some.

            This is a place to wage war!” Aloquin declared smugly, a massive legion of his own spread out behind him to back up his words.

            Acleito gave his Queen a concerned glance, but she did not notice, for she was surveying the foremost rows of the Kayintas soldiers. When confronted by the stern gaze of their beloved Goddess, many of them turned away in shame. But she knew that they would not relent, for their fear of the God of Chaos had consumed their hearts.

            “Come!” Aloquin beckoned to her with his index finger. He turned around and stormed out through a side corridor. The multitude parted to make way for the feuding deities.

            Dinictis sneered and went after her twin.

            Lynn and Acleito tried to follow but were stopped by Aloquin’s own officers, Yugashii and Kranti, who stepped out from the shadows and took their place at the head of the troops. Ni’Atami stood on his tiptoes, trying to figure out what was happening from all the way in the middle of the crowd; Kowhani gripped her sword tighter. There was a tense moment of silence as the rival officers locked unwavering stares. The Warrior Spirit beamed a condescending grin at the Nastran Commander’s puzzled expression.

            If at first Acleito was confused why Trellion was fighting for the other team, when he saw the god’s eyes flash crimson as he gave the order to attack, the Chief Commander understood who this truly was. Hastened by his magical boots, he skipped back a few paces from the oncoming charge, hopped onto his dragon, and ordered his own forces to attack. The two armies collided like opposing ocean waves, breaking through the ranks and blending deeper into each other’s midst.

            Acleito drew his elven sight scimitar and latched on his regenerative shield in time to see several fighters coming after him. He needn’t have worried, for his dragon dispatched of them quickly, clawing one aside with its mighty forelegs, biting into the next from head to waist, throwing the mangled body at the third, and batting the fourth away with its spiked tail. Acleito winced but swiftly regained his composure. Waving his sword to attract attention, he ordered the slave infantry to move ahead and meet the oncoming warriors, whereas the better-trained soldiers were to stay back in linear formation and open fire at the enemy.

            Nobody dared touch Lynn – the memory of their previous encounter was still fresh in the soldiers’ minds – and he used the opportunity to shout orders left and right. He told the faeries to stand by and heal while his cave and the karaci take the front lines to help out their less experienced allies. That done, he looked around for Jason.

            Jason stood surrounded by several orcs, gnolls, weres, and goblins, with four royal guards lying dead at his feet.

            “This can’t be good,” he muttered, holding out Caldor’s Fang.

            The gnolls licked their chops eagerly and the goblins flexed their poisonous claws, as if trying to decide who would get the first shot. An orc, the biggest of the group, finally stepped forward, twirling a short sword. He passed his tongue over his razor-sharp teeth and bit down into a snarling grin for effect, receiving some grunts of approval from his buddies. The orc then raised his blade and rushed at the King.

            Jason yelped in panic and instinctively ducked under the swing, countering it with a slash to his opponent back. No sooner had the crystalline dagger touched the orc that his eyes glazed over and he toppled limply to the ground. The King breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the corpse shriveled up, all vestiges of life drained from its body.

            The orc’s cohorts gawked first at the carcass, and then back at Jason.

            “That’s right,” he grinned, gaining confidence, “This thing touches any of you, and you’ll drop dead just like your friend here!”

            The thugs exchanged a few alarmed glances.

            “So who’s next?” Jason asked, brandishing Caldor’s Fang threateningly.

            The creatures slowly backed away in fright, breaking into a mad dash when they saw the Acora coming their way as well.

            “Lynn!” Jason waved, “Am I ever glad to see you!”

            “You have to go after Dinictis,” the Acora panted, grabbing the King by the wrist and tugging him along across the battlefield. Lynn speculated that his very presence would ward off all potential opposition, and he was proven right. They ran straight through the commotion without incident, dodging flying arrows and jumping over lifeless bodies, until at last reaching the corridor that Aloquin had disappeared into.

            “Find Dinictis,” Lynn repeated.

            Jason opened his mouth to say something but the Acora pushed him inside.

            “Go, go, go!” he yelled, “Now!!”

            Jason did as he was told, peeking over his shoulder as he rounded the bend. Only after watching the King flee into the tunnel did Lynn allow himself to turn around. Gazing out into the skirmish, he saw that the losses on either side were approximately equal. It was about time he joined in the fighting and shifted the odds in Dinictis’ favor.

*          *            *

            Even with Sylvia gone, the ominous atmosphere Lakai sensed about Iyutel did not go away. Up till now it had made him extremely uncomfortable, as they neared the palace it was becoming unbearable, and when the Forestside Castle came into full view, he understood why. He saw the Dark Fortress superimposed over the physical castle, the gigantic blob of tricksters drawn to his faery aura like a shark is drawn to blood. A thousand tiny voices whispered his name along with a million ghastly curses. Countless bony hands reached out for him, sprouting hideous claws and grasping tentacles. Their bodies merged into a single monstrous face, it’s teeth-ridden mouth opening wide to welcome the travelers into its gullet.

            Lakai turned utterly pale and froze in place, hypnotized by the awesome sight.

            Lianna, too, noticed the humbling display of trickster power, and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder to snap him out of the trance.

            If ever all his instincts screamed to run far away, it was now. Avenging his parents’ death was a noble quest, but throwing away his life in the process would accomplish nothing. Surely they wouldn’t want him charging into a trickster hive! He would find other ways.

            “I can’t go in there,” Lakai barely managed to whimper, knowing that if the overwhelming energy didn’t kill him, the tricksters surely would.

            “I know, sweetie,” Lianna knelt down by him, “You go wait for us back at the inn, ok?”

            Lakai mouthed the words ‘I’m sorry’ as he looked on her with aghast eyes.

            “We’ll be alright,” she put a finger to his lips and smiled, “You run along now.”

            The faery boy retraced his steps and scurried away through the streets.

            “What was that about?” asked Keramis.

            “It seems we’ve just discovered the secret of the astral castle,” Lianna rose, frowning at the apparition of the Dark Fortress, “It is made entirely of tricksters, and there’s not much we can do about it.”

            Keramis, Raven, and Kadro stared at the physical palace, completely blind to its etheric mirror.

            “Does that mean we get to leave?” the bounty hunter asked hopefully.

            “Quite the contrary,” Lianna explained, “Now we have no choice but to go in. We just sent the Caldorian army on a suicide mission, and I’ll be damned if I don’t die fighting at their side.”

            The two elves agreed wholeheartedly.

            Kadro grimaced and shook his head.

            “This is your war, too, mercenary,” Lianna said coolly, “Are you in or out?”

            Kadro ran his fingers through his hair. “Tricksters, you say?” he glanced at Raven and patted his sword hilt, “Count me in.”

            “Then lets go,” she smirked, lifting her masquerade mask up to her eyes.

            “You don’t need that mask, Lia,” Keramis teased, “Nobody would recognize you in a dress!” He got a whack on the head for that remark.

            “The only reason I’m wearing this thing,” Lianna said through a lethal grin, “Is because it’s fluffy enough to hide my weapons.”

            They followed the parade of other similarly dressed people through the central gates and onto the castle grounds. The courtyard pathways were lined with torches and jovial music poured out from the palace windows. The great double doors of the Forestside Castle were open to all this night, and the group crossed the guarded threshold without any trouble.

            Inside, the ball was the epitome of glamour. Vivid draperies hung from the balconies, wreaths of fresh flowers were laced together with strings of beads along the walls, and fancy masks dangled from the ceiling. Men and women clothed in the most outlandish costumes danced in time with the melody, faint bells tinkling as they stepped. Glitter and rainbow confetti rained down from above, and the tables were laden with delicious food. It was a kaleidoscope of dazzling color and light enhanced with subtle illusory magic, rivaling in splendor the grandest of Sidhe celebrations!

            Raven, Lianna, Keramis, and Kadro blended in well with the overdressed guests. They waded through the crowd, heading for the refreshments.

            “Are we still going to try and sneak in?” Keramis asked, scanning the guard posts.

            “Can’t sneak in,” Lianna replied, popping a candy into her mouth, “Even if we could find a portal into the astral castle, the tricksters form a living surveillance system – they see all and no doubt report it to their Mistress.”

            “Fair enough,” Keramis said dejectedly, “Do we have another plan?”

            Raven and Kadro shrugged blankly.

            “Well I think we were lured here to be invited inside,” Lianna told them, “So unless anybody has a better idea, I say we just wait.”

            Nobody had a better idea.

            “I’m going to go mingle,” Keramis informed his friends and left.

            Kadro stared at his feet for a long while, and then walked off to look for Onedia. Lianna and Trellion stayed by the tables, nibbling on some food while they waited. Eventually even the half-elf got bored and wandered away. Lianna leaned on the table, yawned, and began fanning herself with her mask.

            Raven strolled absently through the dancing crowd, feathered headdresses and trailing veils brushing against him at every turn. Somewhere off to the side he saw Keramis flirting with the local maidens, but he kept going, straight to the heart of the party.

            Suddenly, a strikingly beautiful woman danced onto the scene with the grace of a faery princess. Rosy cherry blossoms were woven into her midnight-black hair, and her joyous laughter was as soothing as the song of a finely tuned harp. She stood out from the rest like a lily among thorns, and was so enchanting that Trellion couldn’t help but lower his mask for a better look. The woman twirled, glimpsed him up and down, winked, and danced away.

            He did not take his eyes off her as she left. She acted as though she knew him, yet he had never seen her before in his life. Raven spotted Kadro in a group of people nearby and walked up to him.

            “Who was that?” the half-elf asked.

            “That was the Queen,” the mercenary answered, staring vacantly in the direction Onedia had gone.

            Keramis felt a tingling sensation as the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He intuitively spun about to gaze up at one of the balconies, where he saw a maiden lovelier than all the rest standing with her eyes closed and her arms lifted in deep concentration. His first thought was to wonder how he could have possibly missed her in the crowd, but as he sensed the air around him becoming more and more surreal, the elf instantly realized what was going on: the Queen was raising the castle into a higher dimension. Whispering “you must run away now” to the girl next to him, he kissed her hand, bowed, and rushed through the guests in a desperate attempt to find his friends.

            But it was too late. The fabric of reality blurred and the setting bled away like wet paint, leaving a dark emptiness filled with formless fog. Raven, Kadro, Lianna, and Keramis shouted for each other through the haze but to no avail. The mist came together and solidified into unyielding walls of cold stone. After a few minutes of inspecting their surroundings, the party members came to terms with the fact that they were separated and alone. They each were in a corridor, no doubt leading to a maze of more corridors. Their only guide was the distant sounds of an ongoing battle coming from somewhere deep within the labyrinth.

            Onedia merrily pranced through the Dark Fortress, forgetting all about her ball and her guests – most of whom were now stuck wandering aimlessly somewhere in the astral citadel. At her bidding, the obsidian walls reassembled into a hallway, leading their Queen to her meditating chamber. Onedia took her place at the center of the room and closed her eyes, beginning to focus. Her feet left the ground and her body became encircled in a shining violet aura. The Mistress of Illusions was stirring the castle, awakening the tricksters to do her will.

*          *            *

            Back at the battlefield, Lynn was busy pummeling the enemy into the ground. Not that they put up much of a fight; they ran from him like scared rabbits – even Kranti stayed clear of him! Those that did try to fight back wished they hadn’t. The Acora’s hand-to-hand skills have been honed to absolute perfection over the centuries. His moves were swift, precise, and deadly. His hits had enough force behind them to feel hard as steel, and a single one of his knife hand cuts could slice like a sharpened blade.

            Lynn tapped an orc’s sword arm aside with a swipe of his hand and brought the foe down with a powerful roundhouse kick. Coming around from the kick, he punched an oncoming elven female in the stomach, and ducked under the jumping attack of a goblin going at him from behind, sending the creature flying into the staggering elf. In the same fluid motion, the Acora shifted his weight backwards, his elbow leading to slam into the face of the goblin’s charging friend.

            The morale of the Kayintas army was falling. Where were their trickster allies? Where were their reinforcements? Where was the Warrior Spirit to ensure their victory?

            Ni’Atami was fighting for his life, wedged between a pair of well-trained Nastran foot soldiers. True, Kowhani had taken the third off him, but two armored warriors were more than a handful. Luckily for him, they each had one sword, while he had two that could cut through non-magical armor.

            Due to his inexperience in fighting armored opponents, Ni’Atami tried to trip one of the soldiers and hurt his bare foot against the metal in the process. The half-goblin hopped away on one leg, trying to rub the aching limb while holding his scimitar, but only managed to trip over his own sword and fall flat on the ground in time to avoid a slash aimed for his head.

            Kowhani sneered at her partner’s clumsy footwork, but in truth she was faring no better.

            Ni’Atami was back up in seconds, ready to meet the soldiers’ combined slashes with his curved blades. He twisted the enemy weapons into the floor, and promptly jumped onto the swords with each foot, ripping them from their hands. His own blades now free, he brought them down in a crisscross slash on one of the soldiers – a move he had learned from Keramis. The man fell apart before his eyes.

            The half-goblin’s triumph was short-lived, however, for the hard, mailed fist of the second soldier smashed into him, knocking him roughly to the ground. Ni’Atami rolled over to see the descending arc of a sword plunging towards his chest.

            Just then a violent tremor shook the entire astral castle. The Nastran soldier was jerked aside, scoring only a glancing blow on the half-goblin’s torso. Kowhani, finished with her own adversary, rushed in to cleave her two-handed sword into the stumbling warrior’s throat. Ni’Atami sat up and laughed playfully at his partner, who beamed him one of her arrogant smiles in return.

            Multiple tunnels opened up and the Forestside Kingdom’s reinforcements flooded onto the field. The walls came alive and the ground rippled like restless waves. For a moment all the fighting stopped and everyone grew quiet, but the castle was deathly still; nothing happened.

            The battle picked up again, and only the faeries could sense that something was very, very wrong. They began to panic, frantically informing the Acora that they were surrounded by legions upon legions of tricksters, and that their illusion dispersing spells would be futile against such a large force.

            The West Forest and karaci archers resumed firing at the enemy, but this time walls of rock raised up to intercept their arrows. Stalagmites and stalactites of solid stone shot out from the ground and ceiling, impaling individual members of the Caldorian army.

            Those that stood staring in awe at the spectacle unfolding before them didn’t even notice that the floor beneath their feet had turned to quicksand, and they were being sucked into the ground. So strong was the pull that once even the soles of their shoes were caught, the rest of the body would inevitably follow. To avoid this fate, everyone had to keep moving at all times.

            All non-magical armor began to heat up, melting into its wearer and dissolving skin and bone. Acleito and Lynn began shouting for all people with any non-magical items on their person to drop them immediately.

            That single move had significantly weakened much of the better fighters the Caldorian militia had at its disposal. The Kayintas army cheered, preparing to fulfill their part of the battle plan by utilizing tactics that would best aid their trickster allies annihilate the invaders. They didn’t even need the dragon Kranti here – he would only get in the way.

*          *            *

            Though he could hear hushed murmurs all around, Raven walked wholly unmolested by tricksters. The building blocks of the castle knew who he was, and knew what would happen to them if he came to any harm. One brick whispered to the next, resulting in a long chain of communication that informed their neighbors of this half-elf’s identity. Trellion could see the corridor branch out ahead, but the offshoots kept rearranging into a single pathway as he approached. It was obvious to him that he was being led, the only question was where.

            Raven was quite surprised when the corridor came to an abrupt dead end and the murmuring stopped. He stared and he waited, getting rather impatient – Aurora was somewhere in this castle and he needed to find her! The half-elf felt the wall for levers and switches, but found none. Instead, the stone began to tingle under his fingertips and evaporated in a shower of shimmering light.

*          *            *

            The God of War charged into the fray with unbridled fury, his crimson battle aura flaming bright, instilling terror in all who gazed upon it. His serrated blades sheared through the Caldorian armies more efficiently than Lynn, leaving a trail of death and carnage in their wake. The ground ran red with blood.

            The battlefield quaked with cataclysmic wrath. Earthquakes rocked the floor, tearing zigzagging gashes beneath the troops’ feet and jolting up hills of broken stone. Jagged boulders rained down sporadically from above, crushing their intended targets and exploding into fireballs if they hadn’t. Blinding lights flashed before some soldiers’ eyes, deafening noises rang in the ears of others, and even more fell screaming to the floor overwhelmed by horrific illusions that bombarded their mind. The battle was going so well that Kranti and Kentabri figured they were not needed on the field anymore and ran into the tunnels to look for the Forestside team.

            Acleito stared helplessly into the bloodbath. He watched as the Warrior Spirit literally shredded through his Nastran defenses, leaving a pile of broken bodies where his best fighters had been moments ago. Yugashii’s burning red eyes glinted with zeal when he saw the Chief Commander nearby. Acleito was utterly speechless from dread, and even his dragon took a step back from the god when he rushed at them like lightning.

            The dragon reared onto its hind legs, preparing to meet the charge with a lashing snake strike, but was too slow. Yugashii’s weapons cut the beast cleanly down the middle, flinging Acleito tumbling to the ground. He recovered quickly, and got up to confront the advancing god. But though his boots could carry him halfway across the field in seconds, he stood paralyzed with fear.

            “Look out, Commander!” came a cry from the side as a slave rammed into him and shoved him out of the way.

            Yugashii’s blades sliced through the commoner’s back instead, spraying fresh blood all over the Chief Commander’s face and armor. Acleito’s breathing stopped as he gazed into the Warrior Spirit’s hypnotic eyes.

            “Pitiful weakling,” Yugashii hissed at him, the war god’s voice and visage fading out as he disappeared, pulled back to his quarters by Raven triggering the doorway.

            Acleito let out a puff of air, and with a trembling hand reached up to wipe the splatter of blood off his face. Never had he seen so much blood and so many mangled bodies so close before. He shuddered at the sight of the misshapen form of the slave who had saved his life.

            The corpse began to sink into the ground and the Chief Commander jumped up, reminded that it was still unsafe to keep still. He had stared into the face of death and lived, with a man lying dead in his place. All things considered, Acleito decided his own life was now forfeit. Strapping his shield onto his back, he drew his faery sight scimitar in readiness for melee combat, but nothing could prepare him for what he saw next.

            He knew there were tricksters about, he even speculated that they were the ones throwing boulders and making his soldiers see illusions. But until this point, he had not yet grasped the sheer magnitude of just how many of them there were. They were not throwing boulders, they were the boulders! They were the ones who latched their prickly little claws into the soldiers’ shoes and pulled them below to be devoured in their terrible depths, they were the rising walls of stone, and the earthquakes, and the spires – they were the very ground he stood on; they were everywhere!

            The implications sent chills down his spine. The castle could obliterate the entire army with but a thought, and yet it was picking people off one by one. What was it waiting for? He knew tricksters to be mischievous creatures, preferring to play with their prey before killing it, but did that mentality apply to war? More likely they were stalling.

            Acleito looked down and saw their grotesque, grinning faces, and their grasping hands pawing at his feet. He slashed at them with his magical blades and actually managed to wound a few as the rest shrank back in panic. The Chief Commander now understood why Dinictis insisted everybody use faery metal weapons. He gritted his teeth, sheathed his elven sight scimitar and took out the Horn of Telepathy. Acleito then broke out in a mad dash across the battlefield, aided by his haste boots.

            “It’s all tricksters!!” he yelled at the top of his lungs, “Disbelieve!! We’re stronger than them! Our weapons can harm them! Fight! Slash at the walls!!”

            A goblin aimed his slingshot at the Commander and fired. He would have missed horribly, but that did not matter, for a column of tricksters rose up from the floor and bumped Acleito straight into the missile’s path. It impacted with his head and he crumpled limply to the ground, knocked out cold by the blow.

            Lynn bounded over to the Commander and dragged him off the spot before the tricksters had a chance to suck him into the floor. The Acora laid him down and noticed that the strike had cracked his skull.

            “Is he dead?” Elvina fluttered over curiously.

            “He’s not that easy to kill,” the dark elf smirked, trying to stem the blood flow with the sleeves of his tunic.

            The faery cast a feeble healing spell on Acleito. “Fighting the tricksters is taking its toll on us,” she explained to the Acora, “Our magic is nearly spent, the castle is draining it away.”

            Lynn nodded grimly and moved the body again. “I transfer my command of the East Forest forces to you,” he told her, “Go.”

            Elvina saluted him and zipped away.

            The dark elf slid off Acleito’s boots, pried the faery sight scimitar from his hands, and picked up the horn. He’d need those if he were to be of any use to the army now.

            A group of soldiers stared anxiously at their fallen leader.

            “You heard him!” Lynn shouted at them, hoisting Acleito’s arm over his shoulder, “Attack the tricksters!”



Copyright © 2003 by Yumeni www.twilightvisions.com. All rights reserved.
Revised: 27 Jan 2013 22:59:36 -0700 .




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