Chronicles of the Light Warriors Part II
Chapter 6: The Defiler of Time
There are beings in the world that possess the ability to sever themselves from the bindings of time and space. Their physical forms are nothing more than puppet avatars, for they are cautious, as caring gods must be. They know well what disastrous consequences would be unleashed should they attempt a complete manifestation within the confines of a four-dimensional universe. Most of them are non-interfering travellers, a few are destroyers, and some are stewards, charged with the mission to preserve the balance of time and space.
The great black dragon, avatar of the steward called Bahamut, did not move. It had taken even him (for this lesser incarnation was a male one) some effort to position himself between the two opposite strains of history. Time Loops are fragile phenomenon; therefore it would not be easy to locate a one spot inside the recurring cycle where the Loop could be broken without permanently unravelling the temporal fabric of this universe. For now the Time Loop remained intact, but – as long as the power of the Defiler continued to multiply with each passing – the inevitable fate was only that it would eventually shatter the Time Loop on its own, destroying all worlds of past and future.
Now Bahamut was the only Free Spirit left in this universe. All the others had fled when the Defiler’s cancerous growth became an apparent threat to them. To Bahamut’s eyes this was the eighth time the Time Loop had ended and begun anew, and with each time the Defiler had passed on the power of all its previous incarnations to its past/future self. If he allowed the process to go on for much longer the Defiler of Time would soon become too powerful to ever be uncreated, much less defeated in battle. Of course Bahamut could easily destroy the Defiler himself, but if its all-encompassing creation was not broken at the appropriate place it would fold in on itself and cause the very disaster he was trying to prevent.
If only he had acted sooner. If only he had not dismissed the matter as an insignificant human problem, this tragedy would not have escalated to threaten an entire universe. Now it wouldn’t even matter if he knew what the creature was that had answered Garland’s prayer in the Temple of Chaos and started this deadly cycle. The Defiler had gone to great lengths to ensure that no one, not even a Free Spirit, could reach that point in time. With the one remaining location where such a journey might be possible sealed by the power of four Elemental Crystals, Bahamut had no choice but to remain with his dragon avatar, seeking for another hope.
How embarrassing to have to have to follow the flow of time, like any lesser mortal being, watching history repeat itself again and again. By now the Light Warriors would have reached the elven kingdom for the ninth time. Before long they would have defeated each of the Four Fiends, restored the four Crystals, and uncovered the truth of the Temple of Fiends. Then they would travel back in time to where the ninth Defiler had just been born, be attacked by the prime Four Fiends, suffer each a painful death, and let the Time Loop continue uninterrupted. And the next Light Warriors would fail as well, knowing absolutely nothing of their previous mistakes...
Even a depressed dragon looks more impressive than most creatures. The black dragon was gigantic, its wingspan outreaching the broadness of a ship. Its black scales glinted dark purple in the torchlight, its polished white horns sparkled. The eyes, though blood red, did not suggest an evil nature, but one of lazy indifference, for what could such a fantastic figure lay its eyes upon that were as grand as itself.
Bahamut had recently come to a decision. To have a chance of swaying the Warriors of Light from their predestined path into doom, he was going to break the Stewards’ Code. He was going to interfere directly, thus challenging every rule laid down before the Free Spirits devoted to Order.
“Lord Bahamut. Your guest has arrived.”
The black dragon nodded its large head, and beckoned the visitor to come closer.
The first step would be to introduce a new player into this game of gods. Give them the assistance of one who was not swept up by the surge the Time Loop, one who knows the truth one with the power to intervene against destiny’s hand.
Bahamut’s visitor kneeled before the dragon god.
“Arise, Yura of Ordeals. I commend you for reaching my sanctuary with such haste. I presume you have carried out the task I assigned to your temple.”
Bahamut’s voice was deep, ominously deep (James Earl Jones deep, if not deeper still).
“Yes, Lord Bahamut,” responded the young monk. “The Mark of Conquest has been returned to its resting place within the forbidden labyrinth. The Temple of Ordeals is ready to receive the legendary heroes.”
Legendary heroes, they called them. In truth those four were nothing more than a group of misfortunate do-gooders taken from a world where their combat skills were unneeded. Admittedly, the fact that they had so many times succeeded in defeating the Four Fiends was proof that they were resourceful enough to earn the title, but having personally observed the course of their adventure from afar, Bahamut could not get past how...idiotic they often presented themselves...
Speaking of which...
“I spy with my little eye something...black!”
“OK, my turn. I spy with my little eye...something brown.”
“Rapidly-decomposing corpse of troll?”
“You got it.”
“Would you two shut up,” said Rand. He didn’t phrase it as a question.
“Eek!” Alyssa suddenly shrieked, which was unlike her.
“What’s wrong, Ally?” asked Darreth, drawing his daggers.
“I-I think I stepped IN something!” She shuddered.
“Amazing how quickly those monsters start to go soft and mushy once they’re dead,” Rand commented.
“Stop it, Rand!”
Owain, who’d been taking the lead as usual, stopped and turned to face his colleagues. “Guys,” he said. “We’ve only got a bit further to go to get out from underneath that cloud. Let’s just keep going.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” said Alyssa, obviously unnerved. “You’re not the one with monster guts all over your shoe.”
“C’mon, Ally,” said Darreth, taking Alyssa’s arm in a not unfriendly manner.
One reason why Rand was more irritable than usual (though it was hard to tell the difference) was because he was occupying a large portion of his brainpower with trying to work out a certain question. How was it that they could know so much about swordsmanship, thievery, magic and the nature of the Elemental Crystals, and yet not be able to remember a single day of their lives before coming to this world? Rand knew how to decipher spells, he knew how to exploit the elemental weaknesses of monsters, and he knew how form hexagons of tobacco smoke with his mouth. Why couldn’t he even remember the name of his hometown, why couldn’t he remember how he came to possess the crystal pendant and all that knowledge regarding its purpose, and why couldn’t he remember how he got stuck with these three whom he apparently knew so well? Darreth had a crush on Alyssa, he knew that, and not just because it was blatantly obvious after spending five minutes between them. Owain wanted more than anything to earn himself a knighthood. Alyssa wanted nothing more than to get angry with Darreth, it seemed. Rand knew all that, and he guessed that they knew about him as well. The very first thing he’d done after realising he was in a foreign world was to discuss it with Alyssa. Why would he do that if he didn’t somehow know that she and the others shared the same fate? Just what kind of amnesia were they suffering from?
“Copper piece for your thoughts, Rand,” said Owain, breaking the black mage’s concentration.
“Fine.” Owain shrugged.
And how could they take his temper so lightly if they weren’t already used to dealing with it? Sure, they’d been travelling together for a few weeks now, but the experience wasn’t like getting to know each other – it was like spending time with people you already knew well.
Bahamut let his sight return to the dragon eyes...
“Yura of Ordeals,” he spoke. “I have another task for you.”
So it began. This monk was strong and obedient. He would do as he was told and maybe, just maybe, his interference would be enough to disturb the cycle so that the Light Warriors did not die but achieved their grand mission.
“Your task is simple, but it will require all your training to perfect what your temple calls the Way of the Phantom – to track a target through unfamiliar territory; never losing the trail and never letting your presence be known.”
“I will walk in silence, Lord Bahamut.”
“Good. Find the Light Warriors and follow them. Swear that you will not leave their side, even should they travel into the very depths of hell.”
“I swear, Lord!”
Dragons cannot smile; their faces just aren’t designed for it. Bahamut did it anyway. Free Spirits seldom care for the meagre rules of biology, only physics.
“Very good. Your servitude will be awarded, rest assured of that. Now, what I will tell you next is of the outmost importance: The Light Warriors MUST NOT SPLIT UP in the Inner Corridors.”
“Lord, where is this place you speak of?”
“You will know when the time comes. Do whatever it takes to prevent them from separating at that moment. Swear it!”
“Lord, I swear, Lord Bahamut.”
The dragon stretched to its full awesome height. “Then go,” he said.
The monk departed as quickly as dignity allowed.
Chapter 7: Light Injustice, Dark Massacre
The city gates around Elfheim city were even more impressive than Cornelia’s. That the walls were overgrown with moss didn’t look like a result of neglect, but of care. Exotic flowers blossomed all over the walls, and the Light Warriors wondered why the elves would plant easily-climbable plants all around their city, until Rand pointed out several variants of poisonous ivy which would reduce any would-be invader to a mass of bloated puss in seconds. Alyssa wisely decided not to try smelling the flowers after hearing that.
The Black Shroud had begun to drift northwards again. According to Bikke the elves had some sort of protective ward cast around their city that repelled the death-bringing cloud.
“Halt! Who goes there!” the guards demanded to know. Sure, it was hardly an original line, but it usually got the point across.
But in this case, the Light Warriors were somewhat distracted. They stared at the two guards – one tall and skinny, the other short and bulky.
“Excuse me.” Darreth just couldn’t help himself. “But you two look kinda familiar. What are your names?”
The bulky guard, once again the leader, answered for them both. “I am Biggaines, and this is my associate Glanwedges. Who are you four who come from the Black Shroud’s reign unharmed?”
“Why, we’re just humble travelling perfume-salesmen,” said Darreth. Adding, as he lifted his pendant into view, “Care to sample our new fragrance; Le-Shroud-Be-Gone?”
Owain had taken to wearing his pendant on the outside of his armour. It usually saved time during introductions. Since Darreth clearly wasn’t able to keep a straight face when talking to these two elves, he decided to take over. “Don’t mind him,” he said, pushing Darreth aside. “We are the Light Warriors.”
“You may remember us from such prophecies as ‘The Legendary heroes who will come when the world is swept in Darkness...’ and ‘Dark Knight – the silent killer’,” said Rand, who, like Darreth, couldn’t resist an obvious reference gag.
“Knock it off, both of you,” said Alyssa.
“Yeah, we get that a lot,” Owain commented the guards’ expressions. “But I assure you, we are the real deal.”
At least these two were easier to convince than their Cornelian counterparts. Could be it had something to do with the fact that they’d both watched the heroes walk unscathed out of the Black Shroud’s shadow (except for the smell of monster intestines clinging to Alyssa’s shoe). Biggaines and Glandwedges agreed to escort the Light Warriors directly to the Royal Summer Fortress.
“This way please,” said the elven Chancellor after the youths were formally introduced. This one wasn’t nearly as stubborn and mistrustful as the man who carried the title in Cornelia. He didn’t seem the slightest surprised to have legendary heroes suddenly show up at the royal doorstep.
Alyssa stayed close to Darreth as they followed the Chancellor through the impressive art-filled corridors of the fortress, daring him to do anything illegal or make bad jokes. Rand waggled his eyebrows at Owain, but the warrior didn’t notice. You could cut the tension between the thief and the white mage with a butter knife. Though Rand didn’t mind being placed under the category of ‘youths’ along with the other three, you sometimes had to wonder how old he really was.
“Rand?” said Owain out of the corner of his mouth.
“What?” Rand responded out of the corner of the shadow where his mouth was possibly located.
“Would you mind taking your hat off?”
“Yes! I would mind that very much.”
“It’s just...you even sleep with it on. And when was the last time you took a shower?”
“Some things you’re just not meant to know.”
“For the love of- It’s the official black mage dress-code, okay? Now shut up!”
They walked in silence for a few minutes. Their footsteps sounded loud in the cavernous rooms of the building. Elves obviously cared a lot about cleanliness; the checkerboard tiles were so clean you could store surgical equipment on them. It was so clean you could drop a bowl of ice cream on the floor and lick it up without having to worry about getting sick (of course, the action wouldn’t say much about your table-manners, but still). It was so clean the elf prince’s mother-in-law could show up any day of the year and never find one speck of dust to complain about.
If anyone could read Owain’s thoughts it would’ve been enough to put to rest the rumour that warriors only thought about fighting.
If anyone could read Darreth’s thoughts it wouldn’t really have affected the rumour that thieves only think about sex and the material value of others’ possessions.
They came at last to a large and beautifully decorated bedroom. Dominating the room was a large king-sized bed surrounded by green silk curtains. The Chancellor pulled a rope woven out of gold threads, causing the curtains to glide aside. “You wished to see the Prince,” he said sombrely. “Here he is.”
The Prince of the Elves was a pathetic sight. Though the sleeping young man was dressed in an exquisite nightgown, his pale and shrivelled body remained an unsettling sight. None of the four could think of anything to say. They didn’t even register right away if the elf in the bed was alive or not.
This is the story of the Elfheim War, as it was told to the Light Warriors that day...
Two hundred years ago, the political relationship between the Surface Elves and the Drow living in the subterranean realm on the Southeast border of Elfheim was in dire peril. Though the hostilities had begun with only trivial disagreements concerning commerce and borderlines, the deep-seeded hatred in both races was given unfortunate growth. Light and dark elves had always been naturally distrustful of each other, which was why we had avoided contact whenever possible.
One night, when even the moon had sought refuge from the atrocities that were to be committed, the underworldlings launched an unprovoked attack! Without warning they released their foul creation upon the innocent people of Elfheim. The Black Shroud spared no one. Women, children, precious young and elders alike: none were spared by the evil dark elves. It was clear that the Drow’s only goal was the complete extermination of our proud people!
We, the strong people of Elfheim, would not let such a crime go unavenged. Every village, every city in the land rallied together their soldiers to strike back against the evil ones. Within just a few weeks an army greater than any ever to have walked the world of Effeffeye, went forth to the filthy Spider Marsh where the drow made their home. The foolish cowards never expected us to retaliate so soon after their massacre.
It was a glorious victory. The Drow never stood a chance! Justice was served, or so we thought.
Until a few years ago we were not aware that a small group of Dark Elves had survived, and continued to plot against our people. It seemed these evil creatures were not content just to have our country suffer periodically when their Black Shroud returned. Using powerful sorcery this band of outcast Drow, led by the Dark King himself, broke into the royal castle and murdered our own king. Fortunately, the Prince was able to escape and our soldiers managed to hunt down all but one of the murderers.
Yes, all but one. The Dark King’s son, Astos, remained. He ambushed the Prince’s travelling party before they could reach the safety of this fortress and cut our poor Prince using a poisonous knife. The poison caused his highness to fall into a deep slumber, which he has yet to awaken from, and even worse; Astos escaped unpunished.
(Sigh) That was some years ago, and every day the Prince continues to weaken. No magic will awaken him, so Elfheim remains without a ruler to this day.
“I...see,” said Owain carefully, after hearing the whole story.
Alyssa felt a heavy pressure on her throat. The Chancellor had spoken of the total extermination of an entire race as if it were a wonderful achievement. It was even worse because she knew, as the others did, that the Dark Elves couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with the corruption of the Wind Crystal and the subsequent creation of the Black Shroud. The people of Elfheim had committed genocide for a crime that their victims were not guilty of. Of course the Drow wouldn’t have been expecting the ‘retaliation’; they had done nothing to deserve it! And now this elf wanted the Light Warriors to hunt down the only survivor of their unspeakable crime!?
She felt sick. She had to turn away from the Chancellor, so he wouldn’t see how deeply she was coming to hate him.
Darreth was speechless, for a change. The well-meaning smirk on his face looked out of place to anyone who knew him well. His most expected reaction would be to pummel the Chancellor.
Somehow, Rand was the one who managed to approach the dilemma diplomatically. First he stepped between Alyssa and Darreth, whispering, “I know. Don’t say anything and we’ll probably make it out of here with all of our limbs attached.”
Then he approached the Chancellor. “You wish us to capture this Dark Elf, don’t you?” he asked.
“No,” said the Chancellor. “Its kind doesn’t deserve mercy. I would request only that you keep it alive long enough for it to reveal how to cure the poison that our Prince suffers from. There’s no need for you to burden yourselves with bringing that horrid creature along with you back to Elfheim.”
Darreth’s knuckles were white. Alyssa saw it, and took his hand. The thief looked at her imploringly, but she shook her head.
“We’ll take care of it,” said Rand, being the only one able to keep his emotions as deeply concealed as his face.
“We...will?” Owain asked.
“Of course,” said Rand. “It’s our duty,” he added, emphasizing the last word.
Ten minutes later, the Light Warriors returned to the courtyard. Their usual happy-go-lucky attitude was suffocated in the grim bog of reality.
“What are we going to do?”
“I say we forget about this,” said Owain. “Let’s go back to the ship and try our luck with the Dwarves instead. We don’t deserve any part in this revolting matter.”
“That’s it?” Rand asked. “We leave the Prince to die?”
“You can’t seriously be thinking of going after Astos?” Darreth yelled. “I mean, can you blame him for wanting to get even? Those fucking bastards murdered his entire race!”
Alyssa didn’t tell Darreth to calm down or watch his language. Not this time.
“Because of a misunderstanding.” Rand’s voice was calm.
“Yeah? So what? This hasn’t got anything to do with us.”
“I beg to differ. It happened because of a misunderstanding that was caused by whoever tampered with the Elemental Crystals. When we eventually find out who’s behind all of this, won’t it be better to be able to present the evidence to a conscious Prince? We can’t do anything about the demise of the Drow, but we can at least ensure that history remembers them for who they truly were, and not for a misunderstanding they had nothing to do with.”
They couldn’t believe their ears. Rand had just said that. Rand, the one they knew as the short-tempered, irritable, judgemental and miserable black mage.
“God, you’re right,” said Owain in a low voice.
Chapter 8: The Jester’s Advice
There were certain parts of the Light Warriors’ adventure that could guiltlessly be skipped by whoever got stuck with job of narrating their story (sigh). Like, shopping, which seemed to consist of hours of collecting bounty money for slaying random monsters wandering around in the wilderness outside the city, and then a lot of frustration from Rand when their money still wasn’t enough to afford that particular spell scroll he was so interested in. But, on the other hand, said narrator would have to consider that there’d been an awful lot of yak-yak-yak plot with little combat action lately, and so decide to tell how at least one random combat situation played out...
The heroes spread out around the huge ogre. They figured that with its limited intelligence, it would have a harder time deciding which one of the puny humans to attack. They were right, the ogre swung its fat head from side to side; unable to even count the number of little fleshlings it wanted to eat. Rand took advantage of the monster’s confusion to start chanting a spell. Owain and Darreth prepared to attack it from opposite sides. Alyssa kept her hammer drawn, in spite of her lack of skill with the weapon. Offensive strategies were not her forte.
Letting out an animal roar, the ogre stormed straight at Alyssa with its huge heavy club held over its head. The beast’s primitive brain had apparently reached the conclusion that the one backing away from it was the easiest to maul. Alyssa had no chance of dodging the attack in time, but she was not one to be made a stereotypical damsel in distress.
“Summon Lamp of pure sunlight!” she shouted.
The white magic spell she cast was normally intended to heal blinding spells, but when she let the sphere of radiant sunlight materialise right before the ogre’s eyes it instead served the purpose of frying the monster’s pupils, so it couldn’t see through a flow of thick tears. The ogre swung its club clumsily, completely missed Alyssa, and broke a heavy branch off a nearby tree. Predictably, the branch fell on its head, further stunning the ogre.
It was Darreth’s turn to fight. He ran up behind the ogre and viciously stabbed a dagger into its back. He then used the dagger stuck into the meaty giant to hoist himself onto its back and shove the second dagger into its temple. The ogre proved its dumbness further now, as it obviously didn’t know when the appropriate time to die was. Even after Darreth had pulled his weapons out of its leathery skin, it was still standing.
Rand had finished chanting his spell. “Feel winter’s freezing breath – Ice Two!”
The ogre turned almost instantly blue. It froze completely, frost crystals forming on its body. When Owain put all his strength behind his sword, the ice sculpture of an ogre broke into large chunks, breaking as they hit the ground. Afterwards he had to take his gauntlets off to rub some heat back into his fingers.
Carrying the monster corpses back into the city was more trouble than actually defeating them. Once again, as they lugged the biggest chunk of refrigerated ogre through the forest path, the heroes wished for a magical world where monsters simply exploded into showers of money (and experience points) when they were killed.
“How much gold do you think we’ll get for this thing?” Owain asked, for the sake of conversation.
“A few hundred Gill, probably,” said Darreth.
“Yeah, that’s the currency they use around here. Looks like they only use gold pieces in the human cities, like Cornelia and Pravoca, and use Gill everywhere else. We had to trade in our money before we could buy that mythril sword you’re using, remember?”
“Oh, yeah. I guess I was a little distracted.”
“He just loves examining phallic shaped items, doesn’t he?” said Rand.
“What?” said Owain in a confused tone of voice.
“That’s a disgusting insinuation, Rand,” said Alyssa, who knew what a phallus was.
“You don’t like that, Alyssa? I wasn’t aware you were that type of woman. Maybe if you were a little more brutish?” Rand snickered.
Alyssa was appalled. “You’re a horrible man!” was all she could think of by way of a comeback.
“Then again, ‘prudish’ could also sound about right,” Rand went on.
Darreth had had enough. He resorted to the one thing he knew would make the black mage nervous, by grabbing the tip of Rand’s pointed hat and saying, “Apologise, or I swear, I’ll pull it off.”
Rand’s glowing eyes did indeed look nervous. “I apologise, Alyssa,” he said.
“That’s better.” Darreth let go.
As curious as the three were about what Rand really looked like underneath the shadow, they respected (to an extent) his want for privacy concerning his face. Perhaps they had known before getting trapped in this world, but that knowledge had not crossed over.
Eventually, after several more hours of slaying monsters, the party were content with their new set up of spells and equipment. It was time to get started on this new side-quest, but first they needed to return to Elfheim City to gather information about Astos’s whereabouts.
“Excuse me,” Owain said, approaching a bystander.
“Ah, Warriors, please restore the Crystals!”
“Yes, we’re working on that. But right now we need to find this Dark Elf-”
“You must restore the Crystals!”
“Sure. But about this Dark Elf, we think he’s-“
“Please, Warriors, restore the Crystals!”
“Dark Elf? Astos? Hello?”
“Restore the Crystals, Warriors!”
“Okay...” Owain edged away from the repeating citizen.
Darreth, who’d been trying to interview another random person, came back with a disoriented look on his face.
“No luck,” Owain assumed.
“These people are really weird,” said Darreth. “That guy over there won’t stop complaining about the sleeping Prince. And that one by the inn kept telling me over and over to go fix the Crystals, as if we were lazing on the job or something.”
“We’re obviously not going to get a lot of help from these people,” Owain concluded. “Where did Alyssa and Rand go?”
“They went back to the fortress to get some more info from that old chancellor guy. Rand’s with her, so she won’t cause a scene if that old fart starts rambling on about the joy of mass-murder again.”
“Good. You know, I can’t help getting a bad feeling about this side-quest. We’ll have to try to get to Astos without killing him. He might know something about the Black Shroud or the Crystals.”
“Yeah, I hear these elves have way longer lifespans than humans, so who knows? I just hope he’ll listen to us. It’s a shame...”
“What is, specifically, I mean?” Owain asked, reflecting that with the current state of things there were more than enough shames to choose from.
“That these bad guys can’t all be straightforward pure-evil types like Garland. He tries to sacrifice a princess to some nasty otherworldly god, so we kill him. Pure cause and effect.”
“Don’t you think that’s oversimplifying things just a little?”
“So what?” Darreth shrugged. “I like simple things. That’s why I’m hoping this quest isn’t going to get any more complicated before we finally figure out who’s behind all this.”
“I don’t think that’s anything we need to worry about. How could things possibly get any more complicated than they are already?” were Owain’s Famous-Last-Words.
“Looking for black elves are we? Then we must look where white elves are not.”
The two mages were strolling through the corridors of the fortress when the sinister jester suddenly stepped out from behind an ornate pillar.
“Do you know where we can find Astos?” Alyssa asked. The other inhabitants of the Summer Fortress had been no help.
“Of course – but certainly!” the jester sang. “Look for dark places and you’ll find dark people. Full of shadows is the elven castle. Black elf dwells in blackness, wouldn’t you expect? Humble Kafka’s here to guide the great heroes!”
The human jester calling himself Kafka didn’t look the least cheerful, contrary to what you’d expect of a clown. Lines of red lipstick were drawn over his white make-up to form claw-shaped tears of blood. His dark lips encompassed a grin too wide, showing far too many thin long teeth. His clothes looked like they were chosen to mimic the joker from a deck of cards. But his eyes were the most disturbing: Two tiny black dots staring out of two milky spheres.
Rand’s eyes looked distrustful. Alyssa did her best to hide how much the jester unsettled her.
“But you can’t go straight where the Dark Prince awaits. First you need to find a thing – a precious thing, a golden thing, a shiny thing – that lies in wait for you.”
“The One Ring?” Rand heard himself say without really knowing why. Sometimes it felt like his mind wasn’t quite in the same place as his body.
“No ring, but a circular thing! A golden crown filled with jewels. The magical sparkling royal treasure of the elves!”
“And why do we need this crown?” Rand asked.
“For protection, what else? Dark Elf doesn’t trust strangers, not one bit at all... But his powerful deadly magic won’t work if you have the royal crown with you. Otherwise, I’ll believe black elf would kill you as soon as smell you...!”
“Right. So where do we find it?”
“Ask the big head, why don’t you just?” Kafka giggled. “Mr Chancellor knows all about the Spider Marsh. I’m sure he’ll remember the path he took when he went there with blades two centuries ago. Bloody paths are easy to recognise...”
“We’ll ask him. But where’s the castle?”
“Just head north along the coast for many miles and you’ll find it. But don’t you ever any of you forget to get the crown first! Crown first, then Dark Elf! Don’t you forget!”
With that the jester bounced off. Once his deranged laughter had passed out of earshot, Rand and Alyssa looked at each other and shrugged.
Kafka had been right about the Chancellor. The old elf had no trouble giving them disturbingly detailed directions to the entrance of the Drow’s ruined realm. The two mages made their way out of the fortress shortly afterwards and met up with the other half of their party at the inn. A short strategy meeting was held, where they discussed Kafka’s recommendation and planned out their route to the Spider Marsh.
Already the next morning the Light Warriors were on their way.
Chapter 9: Swallowed By Time
Lieutenant Horace Bydale of the Cornelian army had accepted to lead this mission for one reason alone: He had to make sure. He had to see for himself that the demonic Garland was truly dead. Perhaps once he witnessed the rotting corpse left behind in the Temple of Chaos, the nightmares would finally relent.
In his dreams, nearly every night since that gruesome day, Horace saw a terrifying humanoid form with great horns and demon-spawned appendages. While he stood unable to move the abomination murdered the captain and every soldier under his command, one by one. Then, once the slaughter was over, it would turn to Horace and in the second before awakening in bed, covered with sweat, he’d see the face of his old friend smiling at him.
The Princess was still refusing to accept that Garland had turned to evil by his own will. She remained steadfast in her view that the knight must have fallen prey to some inhuman spirit, and therefore he was entitled to a hero’s grave within the city walls. Horace wouldn’t believe her, but what could he do? She was a princess and he was just a lowly officer. And perhaps she might even be right... It was because she was so confident in Garland’s loyalty that she’d ordered a troop to fetch his body from the ruins.
Horace ordered the five soldiers he’d brought along to set up camp outside the entrance to the Temple of Chaos. One of the men complained that it would be better to find shelter from the rain inside the building, but Horace told him off at once. Not one of them was to set foot inside that evil place. As long as there was even the tiniest chance that Garland could still be alive, the Lieutenant would confront him alone. There was no way Horace was going to allow the tragedy that played out in his nightmares to be repeated.
This evening the rain was going to fall on only one dead body. Whether it would be Garland’s or his own was yet to be seen. Horace gave a direct order to the soldiers before entering the Temple. If he didn’t come back out again, then they should gather up the rubble scattered around the building and use it to seal the entrance. No one was to follow him under any circumstances whatsoever. He made each and every one of his men swear to obey before going.
“Someone is coming.”
“Is it them?”
“No, there is only one.”
“An investigator from the Cornelian kingdom, I believe.”
“Searching for the interloper, perhaps.”
The earthquake that had apparently ruptured the area during the Princess’s escape had left large chunks of mortar blocking the passage into the Inner Chamber. Horace was only able to get through after spending a good fifteen minutes hacking away the blockage with his sword.
“Definitely not one of them.”
“His heart is plagued by fear.”
“He wants to find closure.”
“But he will not find it here.”
“For Garland has already gone.”
There was the altar and the black crystal sphere, just as the Princess had described. But the body was missing. There was dried-up blood all over the floor around the sphere. What could have happened?
“The Four Fiends have succeeded in their mission.”
“The light of the Four Crystals has been channelled to this point...”
“...piercing the flow of Time...”
“...and allowing the one who was Sent...”
“...to become the Sender.”
Could someone have broken into the Temple and stolen his body? No, if so, the wreckage outside would have been disturbed. This could only mean that Garland had somehow found a way to escape.
“We can do nothing now, except leave our trust with the Light Warriors.”
“This is true.”
“The curse leaves us powerless to stop the dark chain of events.”
“But there is one thing we can do, for this suffering swordsman.”
“Yes, let us give him a moment of peace. Our gift to ease his pain.”
Horace stumbled backwards. A bat had just dropped out of the ceiling and grazed his hair. He laughed nervously at how silly he, a lieutenant, must have looked to be frightened by a mere flying rodent.
“Flying rodent? I say; that was uncalled for.”
“Shush. Let’s hear what he’s thinking now.”
Horace breathed out. Of course, the zombies and giant spiders that nested in these forgotten places must have feasted on Garland’s corpse. Not even a demon man could possibly have survived such a stabbing wound. How foolish he was to think otherwise.
And now that his mind was less tense, Horace spotted something he’d missed at first. There was a piece of broken armour lying near the corner of the altar. It looked like one of the horns from Garland’s armour – likely broken off when he fell.
Horace picked it up and pocketed it. He laughed again. It all made sense now. An arrogant villain like Garland would certainly have made his presence known if he’d survived the battle. But after several weeks of silence, he must with certainty have perished. The Princess would be sad, but there was nothing he could do about that. Garland was dead, his body devoured by the monsters living in the Temple of Chaos. It made perfect sense.
Five pairs of blind eyes watched Horace leave.
“This delusion of tranquillity will only last for a short while.”
“He is used to depression. At least he will no longer be troubled by nightmares.”
“His dreams will be peaceful, but the true nightmare is still out there.”
“But the true enemy passed on his powers to the Dark Knight. It is powerless now.”
“I am not so certain. Its power should accumulate for each passing. What if it did not pass on all of its power this time?”
The five thought about the prospect of the dark god appearing outside the confines of the 2000-year Loop.
“It can’t happen. Chaos rules this planet for two millennia, then, after passing on its powers to its human self, it dwindles and dies. That is the nature of the Time Loop.”
“But would it really be content with accepting death after possessing supreme power for so long?”
“Surely it is satisfied knowing that its human self will continue to rule in its place?”
“No, I understand what she is saying. Each incarnation of the dark god should contain within itself the accumulated power of all its past incarnations. For Chaos to gain existence outside the Loop it would only need to allow its power to grow inside the Time Loop until it is strong enough to pass on enough power to let the cycle continue and still have enough to live on past the 2000-year Anniversary.”
“I understand. However, if an incarnation of the dark god Chaos were to be loosed in this tangent of history, then its power would be limited. Ah, but how limited?”
Horace felt a slight headache as he left the building, as if he’d been listening in on a brain-wrenchingly confusing conversation between quantum-physicists.
“Sir Garland is dead,” he announced to his men. “Unfortunately, his body has been taken by monsters, so our return will be lighter than expected. Pack up all our supplies and get ready to march. We’ll set up camp for the night once we’re half a mile away from this godsforsaken place.”
And as for the Light Warriors...
When they had a free moment from brutalising random monsters, the Light Warriors were also contemplating the identity of the true enemy.
“I say it’s the Chancellor who’s really behind it all,” said Darreth.
“Either. Or both. One’s shifty as hell and the other enjoys killing people just a little too much. What do you guys think?”
“Nah. Too obvious,” said Rand. “I think it’s that jester we met in the Summer Fortress. Gods, I know he looked deranged enough to wreak havoc on the planet if he could.”
“Kafka. I didn’t like his eyes,” Alyssa admitted.
“Who do you think it is, Owain?” Darreth asked.
“The king of Cornelia.”
“He’s the last person you’d expect, right?” said Owain, grinning. “I bet that tired old man routine was just a trick to throw off suspicion.”
“Worked on me,” said Rand. “Wheezy old coot.”
“And maybe, maybe... Maybe he’s tree-demon from another world that that allies himself with a giant city-sized monster and tries to summon a giant meteor to cause a Time Compression that upsets the flow of time so he can travel back to the dawn of creation and use a Light of Judgement to destroy the original Crystal!” Owain said it all in one breath.
There was a short awkward pause, and then the whole group started laughing.
Chapter 10: Extinct
Ten thousand bodies left to rot until only their bones remained intact, strewn around the subterranean streets. Skeletons are the most easily recognisable symbol of death. Even the embodiment of the passing itself is said to be a skeleton in a black cloak, wielding a scythe.
It was not the Grim Reaper who had passed through this dark realm and brought inevitability to all its inhabitants, but the white relatives of the very race that had fallen to extinction. An army that believed itself sworn to the cause of good had carried out a crime so evil that even the foulest demon of Hell could never have contemplated it. The bones of small children now lay forever with their parents, just as they had huddled together in fear before the blades of ‘righteousness’ claimed their lives. Empty skulls were left to stare in terrified awe at their now fallen realm.
Into this city of the dead walked the four heroes. Light-hearted though they usually were, not one among them could push back the sadness that coveted this place. The loud crack that sounded when Owain accidentally placed his heavy heel onto someone’s earthly remains echoed between the cavernous walls. The warrior swallowed and continued forward, very carefully watching his steps. There was no need for torches. The moss growing all over the rock walls radiated a mellow green glow that allowed them to see clearly once their night vision adjusted.
“Nice mood lighting in this place,” said Darreth, just because the silence made him nervous.
“Yes,” said Alyssa.
None of them laughed, or even took notice of the ill-timed joke. They would all rather be far away from this place, but they had a job to do. All four as one were determined to find the Crown as quickly as possible and get out of this graveyard.
The white mage was the most worried of the party. She could sense the undying resentment of ten thousand Drow, all of which had suffered unclean deaths. It was only expected that the pained emotions of the dead would find release by returning to the mortal plane, as unfeeling undead. She warned Owain to watch for animated skeletons while he scouted ahead.
Owain walked with his sword drawn, keeping his eyes pealed. One part of his brain was wondering if slaying reanimated corpses would count as desecration. When the wraith flew at him from out of the shadows he didn’t stop to think.
The wraith left the world of the living with a horrible stretched-out scream. After Owain slashed his sword through its transparent visage, it simply disintegrated into nothing.
“That thing came at me from out of the wall!” he said louder than he intended to. The sudden attack had left him feeling twice as jumpy as before. “How come my sword can hurt it?”
“It can’t,” said Rand. “But you can. Ghosts can only carry so much spirit with them after death, that’s why they cower at human determination. When you put so much faith in your weapon, they can’t stand up against it.”
“You mean I don’t really need my sword at all?”
“Technically, yes. But don’t take that chance. It’s hard enough to fool your instincts while you’re unaware of it, understand?”
Owain shrugged. He preferred his sword anyway.
“That’s why white magic is deadly to them,” Rand continued. “It has nothing to do with gods or religion. All healing magic disrupts their chains to the world of the living. Too bad you can’t focus curative spells against opponents.”
“Why not?” Darreth asked.
“Because the spells require a certain deeper link to the recipient,” Alyssa answered. “These basic scrolls won’t allow the magic to be unfocused. Maybe in a few years the writers will figure out how to let it be possible to cast Cure against ghosts.”
Owain started moving. “Enough talk. Let’s try to get through this dungeon before dark.”
“I mean, ‘underground marsh city of the dead’”
The Light Warriors had certainly come a long way since their first adventure in the Temple of Chaos. Skeletal monsters that almost defeated them back then were now barely an inconvenience. They made their way quickly through the deserted streets and corridors, ever continuing downwards into the deeper levels.
Their first challenge came in the form of a new enemy. Tiny blobs of green slime appeared out of cracks in the walls and ran together to form animate monsters made entirely out of thick goo. Owain and Darreth tried attacking the things, but the only result was that their weapons passed straight through the blobs without visibly harming them. One wrapped itself around the warrior’s leg, causing intense crushing pain. Rand took care of it by blasting it with a fire spell. Owain wasn’t as grateful as you might expect, since he’d caught a good part of the heat from the magic, and was soon jumping around on one foot, swearing loudly.
The quickest solution for dealing with the slime monsters was clearly to burn through them with magic. Problem was, as they got even deeper into the vast cave, Rand started to feel more tired as the frequent spell-casting drained his energy supplies.
Maybe an hour passed...
Alyssa could feel the disembodied malice thicken as the party came closer to the ruined royal buildings. The hatred of the dead against the injustice they’d suffered was weighing heavily on her magician’s senses. The same was probably true about Rand. He wouldn’t respond anymore when the others tried to talk to him.
Rand’s eyes were a reflection of the loathing souls the Light Warriors were challenging by their presence in this dead city. Not bright yellow as they usually were, but cold and white. He should have run out of mana a by now, but he kept his spells alive by pure will-power alone.
They were sure that there were more undead here now than before they entered. The dead were concentrating all of their lust for vengeance against the four. After two hundred years in limbo, they had lost the ability to discern their enemies from just casual visitors.
“They’re growing stronger,” Alyssa stated. “Our presence is feeding their anger.”
“I know I’m getting heebie-jeebies from staying here,” said Darreth. “It’s like every ghost, skeleton and slime blob in this cave is out to get us.”
“They are,” said Rand simply.
“What makes you say that?” Owain asked him, but Rand returned to his brooding silence.
Rand raised an arm, and instantly a spear of thunder smashed to pieces the skeleton that the others hadn’t even noticed creeping up on them. Somehow, the black mage didn’t require words to cast spells anymore. Owain, Darreth and Alyssa didn’t know what’d come over him, but whatever it was, it gave them reason to be worried. It was just like when Rand spoke to the elven Chancellor, he put all his emotion aside and became a living statue.
Maybe another half hour passed. It was hard to tell.
The monsters weren’t that frightening, not when they’d become so used to fighting their sort. What really gave them the shivers were the voices. They were always right one the edge of hearing, and they could never make out what was actually being said. Accusations, curses, screams for revenge; that was what they felt like. Memories that should have been forgotten were trying to resurface.
Darreth’s vision passed over a short skeleton lying against a crumbled wall – and in an instant he saw the little Drow girl looking up at him with teary eyes, one slender hand touching the bloody arrow sticking out of her chest. As soon as he looked back there was just the skeleton again.
The thief swallowed. For the first time he wasn’t certain if he was ever going to have the chance to see daylight again.
Ten minutes felt like a year.
The building looked like it had been a castle or a grand church of sorts, before it completely caved in on itself. It seemed the most likely place to find the Crown.
“I’m not sure,” said Owain. “That building looks like it collapse any second. Look at how those two walls are balanced against each other.”
“Worse than a house of cards,” Darreth agreed.
“One of us should go in there,” Alyssa suggested.
Rand didn’t wait for their decision, but headed for the gap between the two main pillars. He didn’t make it that far, though. Halfway up the stairs to the ruin, he stumbled and wasn’t able to get back up again.
Owain hurried after him. “Are you alright?” he asked, concerned.
Rand couldn’t respond. He’d finally passed out. Alyssa said she couldn’t heal him with magic. He’d worn himself so far beyond his breaking point that there was nothing that could help him besides normal sleep.
“We should get him out of here,” said Owain.
“Not without what we came here for,” Darreth objected. “I guess it’s up to me, then.”
While Owain and Alyssa carried Rand between them to a more open area, Darreth slipped inside the destroyed building. He had to use all his skill to avoid disturbing the unsafely stabled wreckage.
Further inside the castle (if that was what it had been) was a tall passage that was almost entirely undamaged. It lead to a stairway into a darker basement. There was no glowing moss down there, so Darreth had to make do by using a broken wooden icon as a torch. He hoped the deity that the wooden figure had been meant to represent wasn’t too upset over the way he put it to use, because right now he felt he needed all the good luck he could get. Chipping his knives together managed after a lot of effort to produce a large enough spark to ignite the makeshift torch. And Darreth went down into the darkness.
The room underneath looked like it had been some kind of altar in the past. Four large statues resembling some grotesque creature with a squid for a face stood around a gilded chest.
“Score!” Darreth gave himself a mental pat on the back.
He walked unconcernedly over to the chest and peeked inside. A circle of pure gold stared back at him. Getting that warm feeling he always got in the presence of priceless treasure, Darreth lifted the Royal Crown of the Elves out of the chest.
Then his happy feeling was interrupted by another, which came accompanied with the sensation of every hair on his neck standing up at once. Because Darreth didn’t turn around, but instead rolled sideways, the squid-faced demon wasn’t able to take a bite out of his brains. There were five of them, and they all looked very hungry for intruder-meat.
It’s amazing what near-death adrenaline-bursts can do for a man, as Darreth now discovered. First he flung his arm backwards (still holding the lit torch) and set fire to the clothes of the Piscodemon trying to grab him from behind. Then he whipped out his daggers and left each stuck between the eyes of a squid. When the remaining ones attempted to gang up on him, he jumped between the statues and hoisted himself up by putting one hand on each statue, allowing him to plant his boots into their soft squishy faces. That wasn’t nearly enough to kill any of the Piscodemons, but it gave Darreth an opening to flee out of the basement.
The relentless demons gave chase. The thief’s last trick up his sleeves was to deliberately knock over one of the load-bearing pieces of rubble once he was near the exit. By sheer luck, none of the falling rocks hit him before he could throw himself through the gap in the wall and end up in a crumpled heap on the stairway outside.
Owain and Alyssa looked up in amazement as the whole building fell apart on top of itself.
Darreth stood up, letting out a heavy sigh of relief. He hadn’t lost the Crown. When the monsters attacked him, he’d stored it in the safest place he could think of – on his head.
“A job well done, I think,” he said, rejoining his fellow Light Warriors.
“You couldn’t have done it with a little less destruction, huh?” said Owain.
“Never mind,” said Alyssa. “At least now things can’t get any worse. Let’s just get out while we still have a chance.”
She had no sooner said it than the chance itself started to fade. Like a horrifying chain-reaction, every single one of the thousands of skeletons strewn throughout the dead city started to move. Most of them were in pieces and unable to stand up, but there were still hundreds with all their limbs intact rising up in every direction.
“Damn it! Never ever say things can’t get any worse!” Darreth screamed.
Those that had died with weapons in hand raised them. Others found large chunks of rock to throw. Yellow fire burned in the eyes of the undead army. They couldn’t move very fast on fragile feet, but they walked with a horrible determination, closing in on the party from every angle.
One of the closest skeletal warriors threw a pointy rock at Alyssa’s head. She ducked in time. Instead the rock knocked Rand’s hat off, waking him from his sleep. Strange that even with impending doom approaching from all around them, the three heroes still had time to stare at Rand’s face. Of course one such as him would have glowing eyes, his was a race accustomed to darkness.
Rand shook himself out of Alyssa’s grip, streams of white hair falling free down over his night-black face. He brushed his hair out of his vision and stepped forward. Only his irises were truly yellow, but they shone bright enough to mask his ancient eyes.
“Rand, you’re a-“ Darreth began to say.
“Shut up! And take that crown off your head, you idiot! Don’t you know that’s what’s attracting them?”
Before Owain could stop him, Rand ran right up to the front of the undead ranks, unafraid.
“STOP!” he shouted. All the emotion he’d been holding back was unleashed as the driving force behind that one word.
Was his inner strength so strong that the army was compelled to obey? Or was it only because of the identity of the one who had issued the command? Whatever the reason, the skeletons stopped dead, as it were.
The young dark elf, who had accompanied the Light Warriors through countless struggles without ever letting them know who, and what, he truly was turned around to face them.
Alyssa knelt down to retrieve his hat. “Here,” she offered it to him.
“You can give it back to me when we get back to the surface,” said Rand. “Now get out of here. Run!”
“Not without you,” said Owain.
“God, you guys are so stupid,” Rand said in the same irritated voice they knew so well. Somehow it didn’t fit him now. “I have to make sure these people stay put. Just wait for me outside, I’ll be along soon.”
“God-dammit, do you want to die that badly! I said, go! GO!”
Leaving him behind was possibly the hardest thing they’d had to do since this adventure began. They kept looking back to where he stayed put, even when they were running between ranks of immobile skeletons.
Not a single undead tried to attack them during their escape. They took that as assurance that Rand was still alive in the deepest level of the Marsh cave.
By dusk, the three Light Warriors saw the sun again, as it set over the horizon.
By night they were still three.
No stars appeared in the sky that night...
Owain and Darreth sat around the campfire. Alyssa had taken her turn to stand watch at the entrance to the cave.
“To think, “ Owain reflected, “all this time we never knew. I guess it must be different where we came from. Maybe dark elves aren’t extinct in our world or maybe...”
“..or maybe he’s the only one left,” Darreth finished the sad sentence. “I always thought he was such a hot-head. But he heard every word that bastard in the Summer Fortress said, and he didn’t do anything about it.”
“Yes, he did. He knew that getting even with the Chancellor would just prove their prejudices right. The elves all think their dark cousins are evil, so he knew he had to find a better way to show them the truth.”
“We just kept joking around all the time. He must’ve just been playing along ever since that day. It’s personal for him now. Whoever’s behind this; it’s their fault that the Drow became extinct.”
They stared at the fire.
“Do you think he’ll come back out?” Darreth asked, because he knew that was the question hanging over them all.
“He has to. If not...” Owain hung his head. “If not, then we’ll have to go back inside to find him. If he’s... Well, you know. We can’t go on without his crystal pendant. It’ll take all four of them to restore the Crystals.”
“No, forget I asked. Of course he’ll make it.”
No stars would appear in the sky that night. By dawn they were four again.
Chapter 11: Evil Is Afoot
The Chancellor of Cornelia, William Savan, did not believe he was an evil man. Everything he did was naturally for the benefit of the kingdom and its people. Deposing that deluded fossil sitting on the throne would only help to increase Cornelia’s fortune. Of course, he’d also have to have the queen and the princesses done away with, and that was tragic, but also necessary.
Giving away the national treasure of Cornelia to those four frauds had been the last straw. That they defeated the notorious Garland didn’t matter. Why, he was probably in cahoots with them all along. The king was a fool to put all his trust in a band of deceitful miscreants. His premature retirement was really for his own good when you thought about it that way. Yes.
The king interrupted Savan’s thoughts. How rude of him. “Yes, your majesty?” Savan responded in his most humble voice.
“Has there, been any, word from our, contacts in Elfheim?” the king wheezed.
“No, your majesty.” Nor was there the last three times you asked, you senile old twit.
Oh, how that old bag sagged in his throne. Savan made a note to have the seat rinsed before his opportunity to occupy it arose. He could only imagine how the king’s sickly stench would linger after his departure. The cleaning staff was going to get a very strict lesson in hygiene once the Chancellor was in charge.
Savan felt shivers down his spine. The king was making that disgusting breathing sound he always made before he spoke. “I’m, I’m concerned about how, the Light, Warriors are faring, dear Savan... Do you, think they, are safe?”
Your obsession is getting out of hand. When was the last time you thought about your country instead of some ridiculous prophecy? was what Savan thought. What he actually said however was, “I’m sure they are all in perfect health, knowing that our prayers go with them, your majesty.”
The king was too deaf to notice how Savan’s tone of voice darkened towards explicit hatred every time he had to end a sentence with “your majesty”. Just as well. No king in history has ever had the thought occur to him that his most trusted servant might in reality be a scheming evil mastermind plotting to usurp his throne. The king of Cornelia wouldn’t have noticed even if the Chancellor went as far as to hit him over the head with a hammer, probably responding, “Ouch! Be careful, where you, drop that thing, dear Savan.”
The queen was the only reason why William Savan wasn’t already passing laws over Cornelia. He might be blind old fool, but she was intelligent. She had enough sense to be suspicious of the Chancellor, which forced him to watch his step until the plan was ready.
Ah, yes. The Plan was a work of pure genius. A mere few chinks to left to seal and there’d be no way to trace it back to W. Savan.
His royal majesty King Savan. It had a lovely ring to it.
It was lucky that the so-called Light Warriors didn’t try to contact Matoya. If the witch had been tricked by their deception like the king, Savan would have missed the opportunity to persuade her to brew up the malady potion in exchange for him promising to find her Crystal Eye. He’d get the potion, then one drop for the king, for the queen, and for their daughters. And when the benevolent rulers suddenly mysteriously became deadly ill, Savan would be able to present the perfect scapegoat – the evil witch with a grudge against Cornelia. But sadly, after the witch’s imprisonment, there would be no one to save the poor monarchy, because Matoya would take her own life in remorse for her crimes.
Savan’s only regret was that he’d have to kill the witch in order to tie up the last loose ends. She was such a useful puppet. The Chancellor made a note to later on find some other magician who could be manipulated to his ends.
“Yes? How may I serve you, your majesty?”
“Has there, been any, word from our, contacts in Elfheim?” the king wheezed.
“No, your majesty. There has not.”
Short-sighted as he was, the king did not see Savan’s malicious smirk.
A similar scene was playing out in the Summer Fortress of Elfheim...
The elven Chancellor, Carel Garboil, considered his oath to combat Darkness in its every form. The reports he’d received from his spies following the Light Warriors were indeed curious.
It almost seemed as if they did not intend to kill the savage creature as they’d been instructed to. Presumably they had travelled to the Spider Marsh because they believed that was where the Drow was hiding. But why would they journey beside one with an aura of Darkness? That black mage stank of the underworld, yet the humans treated him as an equal.
Could it be possible that the Crystals made a mistake, and so accidentally chose a Dark One for the title of Crystal Bearer? Rand (was that what they called him?) wore a real crystal pendant, so there was no doubt that him... it was a true Light Warrior.
Pacing around the bedroom of the sleeping Prince, Garboil struggled with his conscience. If he dealt with the dark elf appropriately, it would mean opposing the will of the Elemental Crystals – the very embodiments of Light. But if he did nothing then that would mean leaving the Light Warriors with a potential traitor in their midst.
The Chancellor sighed. All his life he’d always worked for honour and justice. There was not a single action in his personal history that he would undo if given the choice. But this...
He could only imagine how the people of Elfheim would rise against him if they learned that he had allowed a Drow to betray the fate of the world.
Garboil felt the eye of the world focus upon him. No, he suddenly realised, if he let this Rand leave the land of Elfheim alive then he would never be able to forgive himself once the Dark One’s inevitable treachery came to pass.
The Chancellor kneeled before the royal bed. “Forgive me, sire,” he whispered. “I know what I must do.”
A messenger was summoned to the fortress. He was given a letter written by the Chancellor himself, and ordered to deliver it to the elven soldiers following the Light Warriors as soon as possible.
The contents of the letter would not soon be pushed out of the front of Garbiol’s memory. He felt his guilt relent slightly after issuing the order, but the twinge of doubt still remained.
To Corporal Tunar only
This is a direct order issued by the representative of the Prince of Elfheim. You are to assassinate the black mage called Rand of the Light Warriors. However, none of the other Light Warriors must be harmed, and you are not to allow your identities to be discovered under any circumstances...
~ Chancellor Carel Garboil
He felt some assurance in knowing that it was too late to stop the order now. The call for justice would not be hindered by one elf’s doubt.
Chapter 12: The Last Drow
Alyssa opened her eyes to see the young long-haired robed figure outlined by the rising sun. As soon as she rose the figure turned its back to her and started walking off.
“Wait!” she shouted. “Rand?”
The figure didn’t respond, but continued widening the distance between them. Alyssa rushed to wake the others, adding a sharp kick in the ear when Darreth started to complain about the earliness of the hour.
Owain barely got a glimpse of her running after someone. The sun was too bright and it was too early to see clearly.
“Where are you going,” he asked in a drowsy voice.
“It’s him!” she called back. “Hurry up!”
“Who? You mean, Rand?”
He and Darreth were about to chase after the other half of their party before they realised that they’d be abandoning all their supplies and equipment. A justifiably half-assed job of packing up their stuff didn’t hold them back for long before they, too, were off.
The stranger who might be their friend moved with a determined stride that gave them only so much of a head-start before Alyssa overtook her momentary uncertainty and caught up with them. She ran in front of the Drow elf, grabbing him by the shoulders to finally get him to stop for a second.
“Rand?” she said.
She should’ve been able to tell. She felt ashamed that she couldn’t. Unless she could hear his voice, Alyssa wasn’t able to recognise her friend. How could she compare his dead-set face in the gloom of the cave to the weary face she now saw in broad daylight?
“Why are you stopping me?” asked Rand. It was his voice, though it lacked that short-tempered edge he always possessed.
“Rand!” she exclaimed.
She hugged her friend tightly, filled with relief. Rand did not return the embrace.
“Yes? Is there anything you want to ask me?” said Rand’s monotonous voice. But Alyssa couldn’t think of a response to their friend’s unusual behaviour. She couldn’t imagine what he’d gone through during the night. Was he stuck in some prolonged shock, or was he just looking to get far away from the terrible Spider Marsh?
When she couldn’t take his impatient glare anymore, Alyssa stepped aside. Rand continued walking as if he were glad to be past the obstacle. She knew he’d been holding back his feelings for a long time. But why was he still doing it now that they knew? Maybe she should say it.
“We don’t care what you are, you know,” Alyssa hazarded to admit, keeping in step with the cold black mage.
“Good,” he said in the same monotonous voice.
Alyssa realised something. “Your hat,” she said. “I was supposed to give it back, right?”
Rand took a deeper breath, thinking loudly. “Yes. The sun is quite hot today. I should wear my hat.”
Alyssa removed Rand’s hat from where she’d kept it inside her robe. She had been so careful to fold the tip so it wouldn’t get bent out of shape while she waited for him to return. She brushed the point out carefully and handed it to Rand.
And it was then she knew. At that very moment when Rand put his hat on, Alyssa knew exactly what it was that had changed so radically about his appearance. The veil of darkness that always appeared out of the shadow of his hat did not show. If the dark veil had appeared as it should, then no one who looked at Rand would have been able to know if he was looking at them, because his eyes were dead. So pale, they were now - normal for a human, but so wrong for a dark elf. What had happened to him in the dead city? He was alive, he was breathing and talking, but at the same time he seemed so lost. What had happened to him?
The warrior and the thief were catching up to them. If Alyssa didn’t ask him now, she wouldn’t get another chance soon. She couldn’t risk letting the others share her suspicion that Rand might have brought something else with him to the outside world. They might do something drastic.
“Rand? Is that really you?”
Rand didn’t look at her.
“Where are you going?”
“To see my kinsman,” he said.
“You mean, Astos?”
“I know my duty. Justice is different than he believes.” Rand looked at his feet while he said it.
“What do you mean?”
But Rand wouldn’t answer. Darreth and Owain caught up moments after, complaining about leaving them behind, and then it was too late to try. They had enough questions of their own. Rand answered them in turn; in short little-saying sentences, but refused to recount anything of what had happened in the Marsh cave after they abandoned him.
The Free Spirit observed the unveiling events with interest...
It had begun. The new player’s presence alone was causing the fates to shift. Yura had done well to let no indication of his presence reach the Light Warriors. In the previous cycle the white mage had refused to leave Rand behind and the four barely escaped from the Spider Marsh with their lives. Now a different story was being told.
Was this small change a sign that there was hope, or a foreboding against a worse outcome? The Light Warriors were no longer protected by the fact of their predecessors’ survival. They could all die before ever being able to defeat even one of the Four Fiends, but they could also be victorious and not make the mistake that doomed them the previous eight times they reached the Defiler’s Temple in the past.
To Rand’s perception the events that took place before confronting his fellow Drow were inconsequential and not worth mention... Within in him, an old presence found room to grow...
It was past sundown when the Light Warriors emerged out of the dense forest into an overgrown field. Only the sound of their feet told them that the area had been cobbled long ago. They nearly mistook the Elven Castle for an overgrown mound of rubble, which was what it acutely resembled.
“What a dump,” Darreth accurately observed.
Usually whenever the party came to a new location they stopped outside to exchange views on the surroundings and joke about whatever they were about to face. This time Rand didn’t give them time but headed straight for the entrance without stopping.
“Hey, wait up already!”
“He’s in there. We can’t wait any longer.” It was the most Rand had said in over five hours.
“Rand!” Alyssa kept up with him because she’d been expecting him to cut ahead of the others by now.
“I have to put an end to this. He has no idea what he’ll unleash unless I stop him.” Rand wasn’t talking for the sake of explaining his actions. Something alien was driving him.
Someone had cut a path through the foliage that had long since claimed its presence within the Castle. Though he had never set foot in this building before, Rand knew exactly where to find Astos’s dwelling.
The other Drow looked up as Rand forced the double door to the throne room back hard. Astos smiled to his guest and replaced the Crystal Eye on its velvet pillow atop the throne. The walls of the throne room were decorated with black and purple banners, sporting pictures and symbols just like on the rotting carpets and wall hangings in the church-like structure where Darreth uncovered the Crown.
“I’ve been expecting you,” Astos revealed, in true villain fashion.
“Yeah, I be-“
“You must stop at once. Vengeance is not the path to redemption,” said Rand.
Darreth was perplexed. Now they didn’t get to trade witticisms with the bad guy either?
“You have the Crown?” Astos asked. He clearly didn’t intend to waste time either.
Rand removed the golden symbol from his pack and held it tightly in his right arm. Owain could have sworn he’d packed the Crown into his own backpack. Alyssa understood at once that Rand must have stolen the Crown before he woke them that morning.
Astos displayed a grin with fangs. So close to victory, his body seemed even more twisted and wicked. His bright green eyes contrasted with Rand’s blank stare, until suddenly a tiny spark of yellow was born underneath the darkness of the black mage’s trademark pointed hat.
Rand turned his head toward Alyssa. To her great surprise, the light of his left eye blinked off and on for a second. She didn’t know how to interpret the wink, but began at once to sense the gentle familiarity that had been lost from her friend since his return from the underworld.
At the same time...
Bahamut did the omnipresent equivalent of grabbing a Coke and a big bag of popcorn. Now this was interesting. In the original story Astos had used an illusion spell to trick the Light Warriors into turning over the Crown willingly, thus dooming thousands of elves before the party managed to defeat the Dark Elf and undo his spell of death.
This time they might manage to defeat him without having to witness the fall of Elfheim.
The battle had already begun...
Rand’s veil of fire absorbed his opponent’s spell. His comrades stood where the Time-Stop spell had immobilised them, watching the fierce battle of magic in mute silence.
“Why do you want to stop me?” Astos growled. “You heard the voices of our mothers and fathers, calling for vengeance. I only seek to give peace to their tormented souls.”
“How?” Rand yelled back, unthinkingly deflecting another fireball. “By proving to the world that we’re just as evil and despicable as the light elves believe? You think that will give them peace?”
“Of course! Revenge is the only true justice in the world!” Astos lowered his staff. “Give me the Crown and together we can finally settle the war they started. Eye for an eye-“
“-is the logic of the sightless.”
Astos was the better magician. Rand’s only advantage was that the Dark Prince would not bring himself use deadly force against his own kind. Unfortunately, neither could he. The two were locked in a stalemate of magical power, and the black mage’s was draining faster.
Freezing the other three heroes into still figures had been only too easy for the evil mage. He would have done the same to Rand, but because they were both Drow elves, Astos would rather convince him to join him. Both pairs of eyes shone in the darkness of the ruined castle, the only source of light in this night of fate.
“I’m surprised you didn’t try to persuade the undead to march against Elfheim on their own,” said Rand. “You obviously don’t care about their wishes.”
Astos took that last observance personally. With anger in his voice he cast a thunder spell of the third level at Rand’s feet, throwing him back in an explosion of shattered floor tiles.
“What wishes could they possibly have other than being avenged upon their murderers,” he asked.
“Guidance!” Rand shouted, struggling to get back up. “They’re being held back by hatred. Your ‘revenge’ will only tighten their chains to the mortal realm.”
“I spent a whole night watching over our people!” Rand beat his fist against his staff. “They showed me things. Did you know that the Black Shroud killed over half the Drow on this continent before the light elves ever attacked? That’s why they were so helpless to defend themselves.”
“So the daylight-dwellers didn’t kill all of our people? As if that mattered. They were still responsible for reducing us to this! You think one night of listening gives you the right to judge me? I’ve listened to the cries of the dead my whole life! They want justice – they crave it!”
“Justice is exactly what we’ll give them, but not like this. The one who sent the Black Shroud in the first place, they’re the one who needs to be punished, not the elders and ancestors of our misguided cousins.”
“Rrrrgh!!” Astos actually roared. He was becoming less humanoid as the battle progressed, and all along his power kept growing.
Rand was knocked back once again. He tried to get back up, but didn’t. Instead he did something very strange for the situation. While the malformed Astos carried himself across the floor towards where the Crown had fallen, Rand started laughing. And then it wasn’t strange, but alarming, for more voices were joining in the laughter.
Rand rose with supernatural agility, like he was thrown to his feet. He faced down his kinsman. The Dark Prince felt a foreboding, though the key to his victory was now just an arm’s length away. The black mage raised his staff over his head.
A sphere of flaming energy materialised beside Rand and started to hover above him. Astos snickered mockingly. So much drama, and his opponent’s big finale was the weakest spell in a black magician’s repertoire.
Another fireball appeared and joined its twin in orbit around Rand’s staff. Astos blinked. But...that was impossible... No one could cast two spells in such quick succession.
“Fire One, Fire One, Fire One, Fire One, Fire One, Fire One...”
The chant that Rand begun was picked up by the disembodied voices and repeated continuously, and every time the spell was uttered another fireball joined in the accumulation of magical power.
“No... NOOOOO!!” Astos screamed in desperation.
The hail of fire overtook Astos’s dive for the Crown. The merged tongue of flame exploded over the last Drow; letting naught more than charred bones fall to earth.
As before, Rand collapsed with exhaustion. The spirits of his kind, which had invaded his body during the night of remembrance, could at last leave to seek solace with their forefathers.
The call of justice had been answered. Perhaps now the people of the Spider Marsh would be able to rest easier...