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CALDORA: Chapter 17: The Dark Mirror


            Raven walked through the newly formed opening and onto the ledge of a large, round chasm. The abyss extended infinitely above and infinitely below, it’s extremities shrouded by an ominous darkness. Stone discs hovered silently around a sizeable earthen island at its center. Seated on a bed atop the land mass was a golden-haired maiden in a white gown whom he recognized to be none other than Trellia herself. She looked on him with a cold, distant gaze.

            “Aurora?” he asked hopefully, his voice echoing throughout the chamber.

            Trellia scanned him down to his belt, and saw that he only had one sword. “Raven?” she gasped, realizing that he was not the war god.

            Trellion’s heart leapt for joy and he beamed her a true elven smile. But as he took a step towards Aurora, the Warrior Spirit appeared beside her in a flash of bright light.

            Yugashii sheathed his weapons, looked between the two and groaned, “Spare me the sentimentality.”

            He was dressed in the black dragon scale armor he had gifted Raven years ago and his blades were dripping blood. What Trellion found most surprising, was that the god looked exactly like him. He now understood how Aurora has been captured again and cursed himself for it.

            “Well don’t you look pretty,” Yugashii made a derisive remark about Raven’s costume.

            Trellion stared at him wide-eyed, still not recovered from the initial shock.

            “Never mind that, why don’t I get to the point,” Yugashii smirked, “I’m here to make you an offer that will benefit us both.”

            “What kind of offer?” Raven inquired doubtfully.

            “You have something I want, I have something you need,” the Warrior Spirit explained, “Join with me again! Invite me into your soul out of your own free will and you will be able to free your girlfriend and lead the Caldorian armies to victory! And then, my avatar, you will achieve power and greatness beyond your wildest dreams as the living incarnation of the God of War!

            “If you refuse, however,” his manner took on a more sinister tone, “I will destroy you and everyone in this world that you ever cared for. I will take over your identity and nobody would be the wiser.

            “Is my offer not fair? Is it not pleasing to you?” Yugashii smiled, “This is the closest to a compromise any mortal has ever heard from my lips. You should feel honored.”

            Raven glared at the god cynically – it was no compromise! He knew what he was capable of when possessed by this bloodthirsty deity; he would not stay the same person. The road to power and greatness would be paved with thousands of mutilated corpses.

            “What say you?” Yugashii cocked his head expectantly.

            The deciding factor came when he saw Aurora’s pleading eyes begging him not to let such darkness into his soul again. “No,” Trellion growled.

            “I thought as much,” the Warrior Spirit sighed and twirled out his weapons. “Well then, my former avatar,” his eyes blazed crimson, “Feel the power you have forsaken! Feel what you have wrought on your enemies!!”

            Yugashii’s battle aura flared up with ethereal fire, emitting a fear-inducing wave that sent Raven reeling back on the ledge. The discs began to move, humming as they slowly revolved around the central isle – some clockwise, some counterclockwise. The war god clanged his blades together and hopped onto one of the discs, eyeing Trellion with anticipation.

            Raven swallowed hard, drew his sword, and hopped onto a disc as it came by his ledge. He took a minute to get a feel for the motion of the platforms, but the Warrior Spirit was growing impatient. Yugashii skipped effortlessly from disc to disc, leaping at Trellion with his blades prepared to hack down. Raven met the attack with a horizontal twist of his sword, pushing on it with both hands to shove the god away.

            Yugashii hopped onto another disk, and then hopped onto a second and a third, steadily making his way around the half-elf. Raven turned in place, watching his enemy closely.

            The Warrior Spirit lunged at him once again, this time slashing with only one sword. Trellion deflected the swing with his weapon just as he saw the succeeding slash coming in diagonally from the side. It was going too fast and too low for him to stop it with his sword, so instead he pulled his weapon in reverse and thrust its handle into Yugashii’s wrist, batting it away. Raven then tried to slice down into the Warrior Spirit’s shoulder but was blocked by his opponent’s crossed blades and promptly driven backwards.

            Losing solid ground fast, Trellion was forced to jump onto a nearby disc, but this one was moving in the opposite direction and caught Raven off balance. He flailed his arms wildly, doing his best to regain coordination, not even noticing the dull humming of another disc incoming from behind. It knocked him clear off the platform and into the bottomless pit.

            Yugashii shook his head wryly and made a slight hand gesture.

            A disc swerved out of its path to catch Raven as he fell. The half-elf landed with a thud and looked up. All around he could hear the ghostly chanting of the tricksters adrift on the astral winds.

            “Careful now,” the Warrior Spirit warned him as he passed overhead, “I won’t do that again.”

            Trellion narrowed his eyes at the god. He hopped to his feet and used the discs as stepping-stones to get back to the same level as Yugashii.

*          *            *

            Sylvia was already within the astral castle. She was an interdimensional being, and the tricksters – her loyal subjects – gladly granted her entrance into the otherwise impregnable fortress. The Trickster Queen was now dancing through the rooms of the palace on floating feet, gathering her minions to her side. They unraveled from the walls, the furniture, and the tapestries at her beckoning call.

            “Spread the word, my darlings,” she sang to the willow wisp trickster lights that surrounded her, “That your true Queen has come for you!”

            The fabric of the castle rippled in approval.

            “Now,” she purred, “Show me where my pet is.”

            The bricks began to whisper to each other and the walls parted, revealing a murky corridor leading deep into the citadel.

*          *            *

            Trellion and the Warrior Spirit were advancing at each other on discs going in opposite directions. They crossed swords as they passed, and exchanged fierce slashes as they hopped from platform to platform, trying to keep within reach of one another. But no matter what Raven did, the God of War always managed to repel, parry, or even riposte his assaults with relative ease.

            Trellion quickly assessed that close combat would get him nowhere. The odds in this duel were stacked decidedly against him. Yugashii had two weapons while he only had one, and though it never occurred to him when facing weaker opponents, the glaring disadvantage versus the Warrior Spirit was quite obvious. Furthermore, he was mortal while Yugashii was a god.

            Regardless, Raven could not afford to lose! His best chance was to widen the breadth between himself and the god’s deadly blades and work on a strategy from a safer distance. The only advantage he had was the longer reach of his two-handed sword and he would have to make the most of it.

            Trellion jumped back from Yugashii and onto a neighboring platform. The answer to his predicament came when he heard the faint hum of another disc coming in from the rear. Raven ducked under it and gave it a violent shove towards the Warrior Spirit. In that same instant he leaped over the missile and hacked down through the rock, hoping the disc would conceal the direction of his blow. But by that time Yugashii was long gone, perched on a nearby platform.

            “Clever,” Trellion heard the god hiss from behind.

            Raven found himself in a very precarious position. He felt a rush of air at his back and with no regard for balance, made a desperate roundhouse slash, brushing both enemy weapons aside with one powerful swipe. But the reckless parry left a clear opening that the God of War immediately exploited by kicking Trellion onto a lower disc.

            Yugashii lunged at the half-elf, his serrated blades weaving in at mind-blowing speeds. Raven frantically worked to block the onslaught with his sword as best he could. His movements were purely instinctual, for the slashes were coming in faster than his eyes could register even if he weren’t half-blinded by the sparks that flew off the clanging metal. Yugashii was relentless, not letting a single one of his opponent’s attacks slip through his defenses. In mere seconds Trellion was already sporting a number of cuts and bruises and knew he would not be able to hold off the bombardment for much longer.

            He twisted away from a vertical hack and hopped onto the closest platform, getting a painful slash across the back with the second blade in the process. Raven twirled around, somewhat confused as to why the Warrior Spirit’s other sword was traveling in a wide, sideways arc nowhere near him. Confused, that is, until he saw it slice through a nearby disc, crumbling it and pelting him with the debris of fine dust and pebbles.

            Raven reflexively shut his eyes and barely managed to duck under a subsequent swipe aimed for his throat. He felt his head being jerked askew as one hook of the serrated blade got caught in his silver headband and ripped it from his hair. The half-elf stumbled and jumped several disks away, vigorously rubbing his eyes.

            “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” Yugashii said with a mocking smirk. He spun the headpiece on the edge of his blade and let it drop into the fathomless depths below.

            Trellion watched the headband fall and disappear into the blackness without a sound; if this chasm had a bottom, it was a long way down. He felt a trickle of blood issuing from the stinging wound on his back, but tried to ignore the pain. Raven assumed a battle stance and gripped his sword tighter, his hair now flying freely in the astral breezes.

            Yugashii chuckled and shook his head, “You’re persistent, I’ll give you that much.”

*          *            *

            Keramis strolled aimlessly through the gloomy halls of the Dark Fortress. He noticed a patch of grass in the floor here, a leafy bush by a wall there, then came copses of trees, and before he knew it, he was walking through a full-fledged forest. The change in scenery did not strike him as odd, however; it felt like a routine transition in a lucid dream. He tread blithely through the verdant foliage, surrounded by sun-dappled trees on all sides. It made him feel safe and reminded him of home. But all was not well, for a camouflaged presence lurked in the greenery.

            The elf froze in mid-stride as he sensed it. He knew where it was, he knew who it was, and he knew what it had come for. Keramis’ specialty was aerial fighting, and he realized he stood no chance versus this opponent on level ground. Without hesitating, he jumped up into the branches and bared his fangs. “Lets see how well you do against me in the treetops!” he barked, bringing out his daggers.

            Kentabri stepped out of the underbrush, scimitar in hand. He silently scaled one of the trees, perched himself on a large branch, and smiled at him impishly.

            “Do you think I’m joking?!” Keramis snarled at the tamunid, his voice quaking with ill-hidden fear, “That was a challenge, traitor!!”

            Kentabri’s grin widened.

            This got the elf even more aggravated. He lunged at his foe, and the lizard followed suit. They flew through the canopy at one another, and just as Keramis was about to swipe at Kentabri with his knife, something rock-solid crashed into his ribs, blasting the air from his lungs. He landed coughing in the opposite tree, glancing around wildly for the cause of the impact.

            There was no branch, only Kentabri staring at him from a nearby tree.

            The elf growled irritably and pounced at him a second time. The tamunid did the same. But as they were approaching each other Keramis encountered the phantom impediment once again, this time getting a glancing hit to the head. He grabbed onto some branches on the way down, and quickly scrambled to the top, glaring back at his adversary with a mixture of hatred and confusion.

            The creepy smile was back, inciting him into further combat.

            Keramis shook off the daze and spat out some blood before pushing off his branch and springing at Kentabri a third time. He collided with the obstacle again, and the next time, and the time after that, and then several more times, until he ultimately received a direct blow to the head that made him black out and fall straight to the forest floor.

            His eyes opened to the sight of the tamunid swooping down on him with his scimitar poised to strike. A scimitar! His mind finally registered that fact. A scimitar? Kentabri didn’t use a scimitar.

            “You’re not real,” Keramis whispered with conviction.

            The illusion flickered out at those words. No longer was he in a lush, green forest, but on the cold floor of the Dark Fortress. His whole body ached and his head throbbed with dull pain. The last sensation he had before passing out was of the flow of blood snaking across his forehead.

*          *            *

            Aurora fretfully watched Raven and Yugashii fight from her island prison, powerless to help or to heal. They had been hopping all over the platforms, flinging discs at each other and trading blows the details of which were blurred even to her keen eyes. Most of the time, she noted, it was the Warrior Spirit chasing Trellion across the platforms.

            In truth, the God of War had no real intention of killing his potential vessel, only to scare him into submission. Plus, Kowhani’s words have put doubt in his mind regarding Raven’s prowess and he had to test the half-elf’s limits to see whether he was still a suitable avatar. Of course, this did not mean that Yugashii was holding back. If Trellion somehow got killed in this game, he would merely be proven unworthy.

            “Give up!” Raven heard the god shout from several feet away. The half-elf leapt aside as a disc crashed into the platform he was standing on.

            “You know you can’t win!”

            Trellion was starting to believe him. Any delusions he had of victory were stripped away one by one throughout the fight as the true weight of the match set in. Raven’s heart was racing fast; he was getting weary, but he knew that the god would never tire, never weaken, and never take ‘no’ for an answer.

            The Warrior Spirit playfully tossed another disc at him.

            Raven cut it in half before it reached him.

            Taking advantage of the half-elf’s obscured vision, Yugashii bounded over to him and slashed at his head with his left blade. Trellion’s own sword met the attack at a perpendicular angle. The Warrior Spirit, having anticipated the move, kept his weapon there to hold his opponent’s sword in place as he stepped around the elf and slashed in with his right blade from behind. Acting on his first impulse, Raven let go of his sword with one hand and turned slightly to catch Yugashii’s wrist, twisting the blade’s path away from his body and locking the god’s arm behind his back.

            Being trapped so near the Warrior Spirit was unnerving to say the least. The full intensity of Yugashii’s aura assailed his senses and was becoming ever harder to defy.

            “I can smell fear, you know,” the God of War spoke softly, “I feed on it. Fear…” he drew closer, pressing his shoulder into Trellion’s open wound, “And blood.”

            The fresh surge of pain made Raven momentarily lose strength in his arm, causing the force of Yugashii’s blade to drive the flat of his own sword against his cheek.

            “You are afraid,” Trellion felt the god’s breath on his neck, “And your fear makes me stronger!”

            Raven wrapped a leg around Yugashii’s feet. “If I go down I’m taking you with me!” he said through clenched teeth.

            “It doesn’t have to be like this,” the Warrior Spirit sighed sarcastically, “Join me and all this petty squabbling will be forgotten.”

            “If I let you inside me,” Trellion replied, “The battle will only change form.” He head-butted the god and broke free of the hold by sweeping one blade aside with his sword and veering the other away with a turn of his hand. The half-elf hopped backwards onto a passing disc that carried him far from the recovering war god.

            “What do you think you can do?!” Yugashii called after him, “I know all your moves!”

            That last line wiped out any hope he still had left. It was true, the god did know all his moves, making all the tactics Raven had used up to this point futile. But that same line of thought sparked the answer to his dilemma: he would simply have to use moves other than his own. Yugashii was talking about the knowledge Trellion had when possessed, but the half-elf had learned a new trick since then: feigning, something the god would never expect him to do. Although using the new ploy went against his every notion of honor and dignity, this fight stopped being about him the instant he entered the room – he had something to protect!

            He continued hopping from platform to platform and the Warrior Spirit gave chase, hurling discs at the fleeing adversary. Raven surveyed the scene for ideas on how to pull this off and the solution presented itself in the form of a platform a few heights below, which was just slipping behind the huge bulk of the central island. He realized he couldn’t make the jump even if he wanted to, but sensed a disc shooting in from behind that he knew would be able to propel him close enough to get a good grip.

            Trellion spun about in time to intercept the disc head on and got thrust straight off the platform, falling behind the isle and out of the god’s line of sight. To his relief, the estimations proved correct, and his hand grasped the rim of the lower disc with a sound inaudible over the ambient hum in the chamber.

            Yugashii watched chunks of earth drop into the pit, but not Trellion. Yet he saw him go down, and heard no sound of a landing. The Warrior Spirit looked around, scanning the shifting sea of discs for clues. He looked to Aurora for any hint of the half-elf’s condition but found none.

            The god’s platform was going clockwise while the one Raven was hanging onto moved counterclockwise, steadily approaching each other. Trellion knew that trying to climb on top of the disc would make too much noise and put him out in the open, yet he could only hold on for so long and his element of surprise was diminishing fast. Instead, Raven stepped lightly onto a disc passing underfoot right as he was closing in on his target, and leapt the last few bounds with swift resolve.

            He was up in the air behind Yugashii, his sword moving in an inerrant slash that cleaved neatly into the god’s side just as he turned around. The half-elf landed on the platform with an elated look of triumph.

            Yugashii stared blankly at the weapon embedded under his ribs, dropped his blades to the ground and slowly closed his hands around the protruding sword; there was no blood. He chuckled slightly, then burst out laughing in Trellion’s face, “You can’t kill a god!!”

            Trellion’s eyes widened in disbelief as the Warrior Spirit kicked him off the disc and sent him hurtling into the abyss.

            Aurora cried out and scrambled over to the edge of her island.

            Yugashii caught Raven’s arm as he dropped. The discs stopped moving and cleared out from under him, allowing for one long, unobstructed descent. “This is your last chance, mortal. Join me!”

            Trellion hung suspended over the chasm, tricksters howling hungrily in the winds that whipped at his hair. There was a time when his life felt so empty that the prospect of an eternity of falling through nothingness wouldn’t even phase him, but all that changed when he met Aurora. With somebody to love and care for, he found a reason to live. The half-elf felt his arm slipping out of Yugashii’s grasp.

            “Wait!” he begged, “You must listen to me!”

            The God of War cocked his head with curiosity.

            “I might not be able to kill you,” Raven explained, “But Aloquin almost did!”

            The Warrior Spirit reeled back in outrage at the suggestion, “You have that backwards. It’s your bitch of a girlfriend that’s responsible for me being here…” adding in reference to his physical manifestation, “Like this! Aloquin is the one who helped me get my revenge!”

            “No!” Trellion insisted, dangling haphazardly from the god’s hand, “No! It wasn’t like that! You have to remember!”

            Yugashii raised his eyebrows. While inside the half-elf, stashed deep within the unconscious, he had been dormant, awakening only for war and the rare occasion when somebody stumbled onto his private realm. His memory of outside events was hazy at best.

            “Do you remember when that faery kid probed inside me?” Raven asked, “Ever since then Aloquin wanted my life essence. He tried to take it by force but you fought back, giving Aurora a chance to interrupt him. Except the ritual left me with astral wounds, and you were clinging to the only resources that could heal me. If she didn’t exorcize you I would’ve died – and you would’ve died with me!”

            Yugashii stared at him, lost in thought. Though the god had a one-track mind, it was quite spontaneous and tended to focus on whatever he was most angry about at the time.

            “She saved you!” Trellion insisted, “Once from being absorbed by Aloquin, once from dying along with your host! She is not your enemy! You think Aloquin wanted to help you? He only used you for your–”

            “Foolish mortal,” the Warrior Spirit teased, “I was born when the first drop of innocent blood hit the ground, and I can be reborn just as easily.” He reached down with his free hand, dipped his fingertips in Raven’s wound, and drew his trademark war paint on his face with the blood. The god was instantly transformed into his true form, his skin charred black and his hair bright crimson. It was his obsession with Raven that had kept him in the material form, and that fixation was fading. Anointed with the blood of his former avatar, his divine body now vibrated with renewed power. “Of all the gods you know, I alone am not bound by time or place. Hymns to me are chanted across the universe in a myriad different tongues, yet to all I am the god of war, blood, and fire. As long as there is bloodshed anywhere in the cosmos, I will exist!” he exclaimed.

            “You don’t need me,” Trellion pleaded, “You have more worshippers than there are stars in the sky, and there are many who would willingly give themselves to you. But why would you want to be confined in a physical shell when you can bask in the prayers of millions praising your name? Your followers need to feel that you are an accessible deity, not one who would forsake them over a single disciple.”

            “My followers know that I favor the strong,” the Warrior Spirit corrected, “Still, what you told me about Aloquin does ring true, and such treachery will not be tolerated. What say you we go teach him that it is not wise to cross the God of War?”

            Trellion flashed him a quizzical look.

            “You did win,” Yugashii smiled, pulling the half-elf back onto the platform, “May it never be said that I’m dishonorable.”

            Raven cringed as the god gave him a playful pat on the back. He was still rather disoriented by the whole ordeal, and needed a few moments to let the fact that the fight was truly over sink in.

            The Warrior Spirit made his way to the island and undid the forest spirit’s collar.

            Trellion limped after him, collapsing into Aurora’s arms from exhaustion. “I love you so much,” he whispered as the familiar scent of wildflowers filled his nostrils. Her healing embrace mended all his wounds, and restored his strength.

            “Shall we be going?” Yugashii asked impatiently.

*          *            *

            Meanwhile, Kranti and Kentabri ambled through the corridors searching for intruders. They were being guided by tricksters, who were constantly reshaping the labyrinth into a single tunnel in order to lead them. Eventually the castle escorted them into a circular room. Patches of blood were splattered on the walls and Keramis lay battered and unconscious on the floor.

            “Well what have we here?” Kranti remarked with an amused grin.

            “He must have knocked himself out against the bricks,” Kentabri pointed out as he examined the crimson stains.

            “What a moron!” the half-were sniggered and walked over to the body.

            “Illusion within an illusion,” the tamunid muttered. It would be ineffectual to pit a straightforward illusion against somebody with faery metal weapons – one could just slash through it. The tricksters must have superimposed a visual illusion over the tangible illusion of the Dark Fortress – one can’t hit what one doesn’t see.

            “Crafty little bastards, aren’t they?” Kranti smirked, kneeling down by the elf. He yanked Keramis’ head up by the hair and put his sword in line with his throat.

            “We can use him as bait,” Kentabri quickly butted in.

            The half-were rolled his eyes and put away the weapon, “Why you have a soft spot for this weakling I will never understand. I suppose we can use him as bait, but later I get to kill him, hmm?”

            Kentabri avoided eye contact.

            “Tie him up,” Kranti snorted, “And I don’t mean hands and feet, I mean tie him up!”

            The tamunid knew what that meant. Keramis was notorious for his ability to escape the tightest chains, wriggle free of the securest ropes, and overall be a nuisance to contain. He tied him up like a mummy, restraining the movement of his every joint. Kentabri then threw the elf over his shoulder and went after Kranti to look for more trespassers.

*          *            *

            Lianna stomped through the tunnels, tearing off the fancy ball dress she wore over her leather fighting gear. Her gift of faery sight allowed her to see the Dark Fortress for what it truly was: a place crawling with tricksters. They squirmed under the weight of her feet, but she paid no attention, consumed by a single-minded thirst for retribution. The woman was looking for Kranti, and when she found him, she swore to kill him. To aid her in this task she called on the Iktu, the ancient spirits of vengeance, so that the heartless half-were would feel their fury through her blade.

            With the tricksters directing Kranti and Kentabri straight to her, it didn’t take them long to run into each other. They stared at one another in brief surprise and Lianna saw Keramis, bound and gagged, being carried by Kentabri. Judging by the fact that he was tied up she dared to hope he was still alive.

            “I summon the wrath of the Iktu upon you!” she yelled, gathering the spirits’ power into herself. She drew her weapons and assumed a battle stance.

            Kranti feigned fright.

            Lianna ignored the sarcasm and charged him.

            “This is about that boyfriend of yours I killed, isn’t it?” he asked, sidestepping the rush and slapping her across the back when she ran past.

            The woman skidded forward, scowled at him, and launched another attack.

            His weapon still not out, Kranti seized her sword hand, swept her feet from under her and pinned her to the ground. “He attacked me, remember?” the half-were leaned in to say.

            Lianna growled in frustration, kneed him in the groin, and kicked out at his chest. He staggered backwards as she hopped to her feet.

            “Well if you insist on being this way, I might as well fight back,” Kranti brought out his heavy two-hander in the blink of an eye.

            Kentabri’s expression darkened. Whether or she was helped by the Iktu or not, this fight wouldn’t last very long. His only window of opportunity to save at least one life came now, with Kranti distracted. He set the elf down on the floor and tried quietly to wake him.

            Being unconscious in the Dark Fortress did not grant respite. Quite the contrary, it stranded the sleeper in a land of dreams, completely vulnerable to the castle’s deceptions. Keramis was falling through layer upon layer of illusions, each stranger than the next. It was a kaleidoscope of his most poignant memories – distorted, reshuffled, altered, and blown out of proportion. They were images of guilt and hate and doubt, and denying them would only bring ones more potent.

            His current illusion collapsed on him once again, and a new one took shape from the living miasma. Keramis found himself entangled in tight chains, hanging precariously over a pool of murky liquid. The place was dimly lit, but his night eyes saw Kranti and Kentabri standing on a ledge beneath, both of them grinning profusely. The half-were had his hand on a lever, and when he lowered the switch, the elf felt himself drop several feet before coming to a jolting halt. Glancing to his apparent captors, he saw that the lever was back up.

            “This is the end,” Kranti leered at him wickedly in return, his jaws lined with abnormally elongated teeth. He slammed his hand down on the lever.

            Keramis plummeted through the air and plunged into the churning waters below. He flayed about violently, struggling against the unyielding chains, but it was of no use. They weighed him down farther into the pool’s depths, drowning him in darkness.

            Keramis awoke with a pounding headache, jerked into consciousness by Kentabri. His gasp for breath came out as a muffled noise, and a hand was put over his mouth to silence him. The cloth was quickly peeled from his eyes, and the elf stared at Kentabri in disoriented panic. The tamunid withdrew his hand, put a finger to his lips, then slowly undid the gag. Satisfied with Keramis’ reaction, he proceeded to untie the rest of the bindings.

            The elf was still somewhat confused as to why the tamunid was helping him, but looked past him to a more urgent distraction: the ongoing fight beyond.

            It had not lasted all that long, yet it was obvious who had the upper hand. Kranti slashed in with his sword, and Lianna lurched backwards a split second too late to avoid getting sliced across the arm. She clutched at the wound and tried to spin away, but the half-were’s kick came faster, smashing into her hip and sending her tumbling to the floor.

            “Run away,” Kentabri whispered, giving the elf back his daggers.

            Keramis didn’t seem to notice.

            “Enough of this,” Kranti grumbled at the woman.

            Lianna lashed her whip at him, but he merely stepped on it between the barbs and cut it half with his two-hander. She brought down her short sword in rapid succession, but the half-were had anticipated the move and was more than ready to meet it with his own weapon, twirling the sword out of her grasp. He then made a powerful roundhouse kick which nailed her in the face and knocked her into the wall. Before she could recuperate, Lianna found herself held against the wall at sword point.

            “I win,” Kranti smiled.

            Unarmed and defeated, she sank to the ground.

            Keramis moved to assist her but Kentabri forced him back down.

            “You can’t help her,” the tamunid said firmly, “And after Kranti’s done with her, it’ll be your turn. Run away while you can.”

            Keramis gazed at him with embittered indignation. The overwhelming influx of warped memories had drastically shifted his mindset. Kranti was right, the elf decided: he had been running away his entire life. He had been running away from Kranti, he had been running away from Kentabri, and he had been running away from his past. He had watched Kranti kill his best friend and did nothing except run away afterwards, and he would never forgive himself if he let that happen again.

            “It’s a real shame we didn’t get to know each other better,” Kranti sighed with a tinge of pity.

            Lianna glared back with misted eyes, saddened by her failed attempt at vengeance, but devoid of all fear, content knowing she would soon be reunited with her mate in the afterlife.

            Kranti raised his sword for the killing blow, and howled out in agony as two sharp daggers gouged into his shoulder blades, forcing him to drop the weapon.

            Keramis flipped over the half-were and landed between him and the woman, his blades stained with Kranti’s blood. “Never again!!” he cried, “Never again will I let you take a friend away from me!”

            Kranti barely heard him over his own incoherent growls. The half-were had an exceptionally low pain tolerance due to the fact that he could count the number of times he was hit in his entire life on his fingers. “Oh what now?!” he snarled irritably at his tamunid partner, “Lianna hit you over the head again??”

            Kentabri shrugged sheepishly.

            “And you,” Kranti turned back to the elf, “Backstabbing, dogboy? I thought you had more honor than that.”

            “I don’t honor cowards who kill unarmed lower ranks!” Keramis shouted at the half-were. In the North Forest, it was considered bad form to kill an adversary at first try – showed that the victor was afraid of facing the opponent again.

            “Ugh, not you too,” Kranti groaned, “This is a war, you imbecile, and he attacked me!”

            “Shut up!” Keramis hollered, “You know the Law – life for life!”

            Lianna looked at him inquisitively; the elf was in no condition to fight.

            “Your life for hers?” Kranti laughed, “I accept!!”

            “Your life for Karaci’s!” Keramis hissed, and lunged at the half-were in the same instant.

            Kranti’s hands moved with the speed of lightning, grabbing the elf’s wrists and spreading them out wide. “You never learn, do you?” the half-were sneered. Lianna prudently scampered out of the way as Keramis got rammed and pummeled into the wall she was leaning against. Kranti scored over a dozen hits before the pain of the enchantment kicked in. The half-were recoiled from his prey, dropped to the floor, and rolled around bawling like a baby.

            Keramis’ knees buckled as he slowly slid down along the wall and fell forward, landing with a thud on the ground. He lay dazed until the cold stone of the castle brought him back to his senses. The elf twitched, groaned, and shakily got to his feet. His double vision coalesced into a singular form of Kranti scowling at him enraged.

            “Sneaky, very sneaky,” the half were smirked, referring to the magical effects of the bloodied daggers, “Very… noble?”

            Keramis swayed a little, and assumed an offensive stance.

            “Do you think you can kill me by letting me kill you?? Well there is something you forgot!” Kranti growled, tossing his sword to the other side of the room and flexing his claws, “I can take more damage than you!!”

            Keramis could not deny that logic. His old plan was deteriorating at the same rate as he was formulating a new one. Karaci’s words of warning came back to him now. He would not make the same mistake avenging his friend’s death as he did causing it.

            Kranti roared a mighty leonine roar and charged.

            Keramis’ foot slipped into the rear and he leaned back, changing to a defensive stance.

*          *            *

            Some believe darkness to be merely the absence of light, but Lowak had learned differently. This darkness was tangible, it was thick, it was potent, and it enfolded him like suffocating smog. The tricksters kept him in a state between sleeping and waking, slowly feeding on his sanity. They flooded him distorted images ripped from his mind, of his memories, of his hopes, and of the realizations of his fears. The thief had spent enough time with Sylvia to be nearly immune to such deceptions, however. Many visions passed before his eyes but he ignored them, rocking back and forth and muttering unintelligibly about his sister.

            From somewhere beyond the blackness came a bloodcurdling scream that startled Lowak out of his reverie. Peering through the fog he saw the silhouette of a monstrosity with hundreds of flaying tentacles for hair and a twisted body sprouting disfigured hands that flexed oversized claws. The shape swiftly contracted into a shadowy human form that approached him at a brisk pace.

            “Sister?” he asked, squinting.

            The mists receded as the figure stepped forward, her face paler than his and her eyes as dark as the sockets of a bleached skull.

            “Sylvia,” the boy affirmed with a smile.

            “Come,” the Trickster Queen croaked, stretching out a hand, “We have to go help your friends.”

            Lowak eagerly took her hand and followed her out of the Pit of Darkness. They walked past the corpse of a guard, his hair stark white and his face frozen in an expression of pure terror. They kept going, out of the corridors and into a small chamber.

            “This whole castle is made of tricksters,” Sylvia told him, “And I am their Queen.”

            Lowak nodded, looking around curiously.

            “I have been going through the palace, swaying their allegiance from Onedia to me, one by one, and I will continue doing so,” she explained, “But meanwhile, I will grant you the title of Trickster King. Do you think you can handle that?”

            Lowak felt currents of power surge through him, and his right hand became enveloped in black flame. “I think I can,” he replied with a mischievous grin.

            “They will now obey you as well as me,” Sylvia smiled cryptically, “Do with them as you see fit.”

*          *            *

            The fight between Kranti the second rank and Keramis the fifth rank had now officially begun. Normally there’d be no question regarding who the victor would be, but this particular battle would prove quite interesting since the rivals’ fighting styles were polar opposites of one another. The half-were’s forte was offense; he moved faster than the speed of his own thoughts, and relied on brute strength to demolish his enemies. The elf’s asset, on the other hand, was defense; he relied on dexterity and agility to keep himself alive.

            Keramis knew that Kranti liked to overwhelm and overpower his opponents from the get go with a series of dizzying whirlwind attacks. A single hit from one of those would render him utterly helpless. The half-were was twice his size and several times as strong, and the elf realized that trying to block would do more to hurt himself than deflect the blow. But if he could somehow manage to outlast the initial rush, his chances for survival would raise dramatically.

            Keramis’ dodging ability was second to none, and he planned on exploiting it to its limits. Furthermore, even though the elf was not in the best shape, neither was Kranti – the half-were’s shoulders were severely wounded, which would undoubtedly restrict the speed and force of his maneuvers.

            The tricksters also took interest in the match. They had developed a healthy respect for this elf that twice saw through their illusions, and decided to express their admiration by changing the room’s layout. It had acquired a relatively low, domed ceiling, complemented by curving archways from whose columns sprouted ledges. The bricks protruded in uneven lengths, forming steps, outcroppings, and cracks, resembling a cliff face more than a wall. The chamber was now perfectly suited for the Keramis’ aerial fighting style.

            The first whirlwind attack came at Keramis like a cyclone of razor-sharp claws. They shredded anything in their way and the elf made sure that he wasn’t, dropping to the ground and rolling sideways. The half-were lunged at him just as he hopped to his feet and ran for the opposite wall. Thinking him cornered, Kranti slashed down with his claws, but the elf ran straight up the wall and flipped far overhead, landing a few paces behind him.

            Keramis watched his adversary closely; the smallest breach in concentration could cost him dearly. He saw that Kranti was going all-out on him, which meant he was not playing anymore. This time he was really, truly angry. Angry that somebody was able to hurt him, to embarrass him – and a lower rank, no less! But perhaps the elf could use this to his advantage. He could intensify that anger to make him reckless, and to wear him out – maybe then he could get a hit in.

            Kranti was hardly rational when mad. He would blindly pursue the object of his fury until he ripped into little tiny pieces with his bare hands. Keramis was to Kranti a mere fly that needed to be swatted out of existence, but the fact that it was taking so much effort annoyed him to no end. The half-were spun around and charged his prey once again, bursting in with a torrent of kicks and claw swipes.

            The elf dodged, and ducked, and jumped, and sidestepped, always staying within an inch of Kranti’s deadly claws. He purposefully did so to taunt his ego, to rile him up, and to fuel his anger, so that the half-were would attack him with ever-greater zeal. It was a risky plan – for Kranti’s prowess was not to be toyed with – but he had already made it through the first two assaults, and was not one to shrink away from a gamble.

            To help him in the endeavor, Keramis brought the battle to another level. He avoided Kranti’s slashes by hopping from step to step along the walls. The half-were, more frustrated than ever, attempted to follow, but his movements on the bricks were clumsy compared to the nimbleness of Keramis’ airborne training. It was then that the elf noticed Kranti’s attacks decreasing in both precision and speed, if only a teeny bit.

            This filled Keramis with renewed vitality, giving him the much-needed strength and optimism to continue. He sheathed his blades and took to the ceiling, climbing across its domed surface by gripping the gaps between the stones. Kranti chased him along the ground, hissing and yowling, and taking haphazard swipes at the air. Keramis evaded the onslaught by leaping from ledge to ledge and swinging from archway to archway, feeling as comfortable in the aerial setting as a spider in its web.

            It was getting easier and easier to elude the half-were’s assaults, which could only mean one thing: Kranti was getting tired. His reflexes were becoming heavy and sluggish – for Kranti, that is. Though the fight had taken its toll on his stamina, he was still very much capable of causing massive damage. Ideally the elf would’ve carried on longer, until his enemy was completely exhausted, but his own adrenaline rush had passed, and Keramis was becoming fatigued as well. He couldn’t afford to wait – it was now or never!

            Keramis landed on a ledge and turned on the half-were, eyes flashing bright amber fiercely enough to take even Kranti aback. His slender elven form swelled with muscles and his skin overgrew with dark fur. His ears elongated and curled backwards, and his snout extended into a canine maw. The transformation had made him the size of Kranti, except not a lion but a demonic wolf made from the stuff of nightmares.

            Lianna and Kentabri’s mouths dropped open in astonishment; they hadn’t known that Keramis gained a new were-form.

            The hellhound bared his gleaming fangs at the enemy, savoring the fear in Kranti’s eyes. He then pushed off the ledge and swooped down on the half-were, mauling him to the ground. They wrestled each other across the floor in a vicious flurry of teeth and claws, snarling and yelping as they exchanged blows.

            To an outsider the scuffle looked like a jumbled ball of fur, and Lianna couldn’t tell who was winning.

            Keramis felt sharp claws digging into his flesh but paid no heed. He fought past the half-were’s enfeebled defenses, sunk his teeth deep into the exposed throat, and ripped it straight out. Kranti’s eyes bulged, and he gurgled something unintelligible before the demon wolf bit back onto his esophagus.

            Keramis held on tight as his victim thrashed about brutally beneath him. He held on for long after the last of the twitching stopped, growling all the while. Slowly the elf changed back to his true form and limply rolled away from the half-were. He sprawled on the ground, panting sporadically from exhaustion.

            Lianna and Kentabri couldn’t believe what they just saw; surely a fifth rank couldn’t defeat a second rank!

            The tamunid would not stand for it. Not only had Keramis killed a higher rank, but he had also killed his friend, and the law of life for life was still in effect. What’s more, he himself was responsible for Kranti’s death since he was the one who freed Keramis.

            Kentabri paced back and forth anxiously, mulling it over in his head, then charged at the prostrate elf and jabbed the end of his staff into his throat, cutting off the air supply. Keramis pawed weakly at the stick, but had no strength left to fight.

            Lianna ran in and put a hand on the tamunid’s arm. “Do you want to lose two friends in one day?” she whispered.

            One characteristic of the lesser dragons was their ability to think logically under the most heated of circumstances, and Kentabri heard the wisdom in those words. The tamunid withdrew his staff and stepped away, leaving the elf wheezing and coughing up blood.

            “He was not always like this,” Kentabri muttered under his breath regarding Kranti, “Seinga’s death drove him insane. Perhaps this is for the best.”

            Lianna stared at him for a moment, and slowly nodded in an attempt to calm him down. She then proceeded to tend to Keramis, kneeling down by him and reaching to help him up. No sooner had she touched the elf that he winced in pain.

            “What’s–” she began to ask, but stopped when she saw the blood on her hand. It was dark in the chamber, and only now did she notice the crimson liquid seeping from the pores of his red-feathered tunic. She realized that it was not just Kranti’s blood on the ground, but Keramis’ mingling with it.

            Kentabri was already gawking wide-eyed at the half-were. Her worries mounting, Lianna tentatively glanced over to the corpse and gasped in horror. It was riddled with deep gashes that she knew could only have been caused by Kranti’s own clawed hands – or by a spell which mirrors the damage.

            “Kera?” she asked with a slight whimper, “Kera, are you okay?”

            “Go,” he rasped, “You have to go now.”

            “What are you talking about?!” Lianna clasped his hands and infused him with a minor healing spell.

            Keramis recognized that his injuries were far too severe to be mended by someone of her aptitude. He didn’t mind. He had aimed for suicide from the moment Kranti’s blood touched his blades. Always he had strived to prove himself useful to his friends, so he could not imagine a more rewarding death than laying down his life for someone he loved. In a world where many died bitter and alone, the elf could only wish Lianna too would someday know how peaceful it felt to die with no regrets, in warm, caring arms. “I did this for you,” Keramis whispered, “You can’t help me and I’ll only slow you down… You have to leave me here… have to…” he trailed off into unconsciousness.

            “No!” Lianna broke out sobbing and threw herself onto him, imbuing him another feeble heal, “No! I can’t lose you both!!” She healed him again and again and again, and though it did nothing to improve his condition, at least it kept him alive.

            “We can’t do anything for him,” Kentabri told her softly.

            “I’m not leaving him here!!” she screamed back at him.

            The tamunid let out a cumbersome sigh, unsure of how to assist the woman in dealing with the inevitable; Kentabri was not a pessimist, he was a realist. Had they been in the North Forest they could have carried him to a lake, or dug a hole in the ground until they punctured a blood vessel. All water on Caldora was the blood of the great Earth Dragon, compatible with that of its descendents. If the elf were to be placed in a pool of it, it could act as a natural blood replenisher until more substantial healing could be arranged for. But they were not in the North Forest, they were in a sealed astral fortress.

            “Maybe we can’t help him,” Lianna wiped away a tear, “But Trellia can! She is somewhere in this castle, we just have to find her!”

            “She might be able to help him now,” the tamunid acknowledged, “But it’s doubtful we can get him to her alive. That heal spell of yours restores less life force than he loses.”

            “Then we’ll just have to run faster, won’t we?” she said through her teeth.

            “Yes, but–”

            “Pick him up!” the woman growled threateningly, “Now!!”

            “Yes, ma’am!” Kentabri concurred. He scooped the elf up from the floor and flung him over his shoulder.

            “The castle listens to you, you lead,” Lianna ordered, casting another heal.

            The tamunid nodded, and signaled to the tricksters. They opened a pathway in the wall leading towards Aurora, and the two set off on the trail. Lianna held onto Keramis’ hand, her constant healing acting as a lifeline that kept him in this world.



Copyright © 2003 by Yumeni www.twilightvisions.com. All rights reserved.
Revised: 27 Jan 2013 22:59:50 -0700 .



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