Lord of the Rings Meets Game of Thrones Plus Dungeons & Dragons
A chance encounter puts a young thief named Zandrew in possession of a mysterious magic wand. Zandrew's life is torn apart when kings, demons, monsters, and armies come after the wand, which holds the secret to winning an ancient war between the Lord of Light and the Lord of Darkness.
In the golden wand, Zandrew sees the opportunity to seek revenge for the murder of his parents, who were killed by followers of the Lord of Darkness, the Dark God Vladius. Zandrew embarks upon a brave quest to use the golden wand to defeat Vladius, joined by valiant companions such as Rellora the noblewoman, Gennis the knight, Sheila the ninja, and Tyrona the sorceress. Standing in his way lies the many servants of the Lord of Darkness, including the insane, evil Magician-King named Deathly, the devious, manipulative dark Queen called the Eliminator, and the powerful, arrogant Emperor Kindahl Laum. In the end, after countless battles against soldiers, wizards, and all sorts of monsters, Zandrew and his friends will face the Lord of Darkness Vladius himself, with the fate of the Living World hanging in the balance of their final duel.
This swords and sorcery dark fantasy epic trilogy will delight fans of fantasy novels and please readers looking for a fun, action-packed experience. Included in this box set are all three novels in the trilogy: The Golden Wand, The Shadow of Heaven, and The Castle in the Sky. Get ready for an exciting adventure!
"Lord of the Rings meets Game of Thrones plus Dungeons & Dragons. If you like Terry Goodkind, Forgotten Realms, R.A. Salvatore, J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan, Mercedes Lackey, or Glen Cook, you will love these novels! Sort of like a Final Fantasy RPG video game in the form of a trilogy of novels, where a group of heroes fights through dungeons to slay foes and accomplish a heroic quest. And they have a subtle sense of humor too, like Tolkien and Terry Pratchett and Piers Anthony and Douglas Adams did. Everything you love about fantasy novels, but done a lot better than your typical fantasy novel."
Chapter One: A Game of Chess Against Death
Zandrew awoke in a dark room. He was sitting in a chair, and his hands were tied up behind the back of the chair. There was a small table in front of him, and a chess set had been set up on the table. Zandrew remembered having been taught chess, that brilliant game, by his old friend and mentor Turrin during his days as a thief. At the end of his time as a thief, while robbing a house, Turrin had been captured by guards, and that sad and tragic event had caused Zandrew to give up being a thief. Zandrew stopped thinking about that, and looked around.
To his right and left, sitting in a row, were people tied up in their chairs, with chess boards set up in front of each person. The chess boards were made of ivory. The white pieces were made from radiant pearls, and the black pieces were night-dark ebony. There were ruby eyes in the pieces, and the eyes glowed, almost as if the chess pieces were alive.
Far at the end of the row, to his left, a group of people were walking down the row. There was one woman and three knights. The woman was clothed in a black dress with a large-brimmed black hat, slanted at an angle, which held a veil descending over her face. The three soldiers wore the black plate armor and black capes of the Eliminator’s Shadow Knights. The warriors carried long swords tied to their belts, and their enchanted black armor was cloudy, as if it were made of black smoke. The soldiers’ faces were hidden by their helmets, and the woman’s face was hidden behind her veil.
The woman held a wand, which she pointed at the person in front of her. The man jerked awake, and the ropes binding him vanished.
“Play me or die,” the woman said.
“What? What game is this? How can I play you?” the man asked, with fear in his voice. The woman reached out and touched the man with her wand, and he vanished with a loud pop. So, this woman was a sorceress. She woke each person in turn and challenged them to a game of chess, and then destroyed them when they were unable to play. She worked her way down the row of prisoners in this manner. Soon the woman stood in front of Zandrew. The chess set lay between them.
“Play me or die.”
“Who are you?” Zandrew responded.
“That doesn’t matter. You are a prisoner of war. Play me, for your life.”
“I’m not playing until you tell me who you are.”
The woman smiled with amusement.
“People call me the Eliminator. I hold the title of Darkest Shadow, the leader of the Shadow Sect of Vladius. As head of the Shadow Sect, it is my responsibility to uphold the ancient traditions, including the chess game with Death. Play me and win, and I will spare your life. If you refuse to play, you shall witness firsthand the destructive spell for which I am named, the Elimination Touch.”
“All right. I’ll play.” Zandrew did not allow himself time to be afraid, even as he faced one of the most powerful magicians in the world, even as his death was potentially a moment away. Instead he concentrated his full attention on the chess board, and tried to recall everything that Turrin had taught him about the game. Zandrew was good, good enough to win, if he could concentrate on the game and not permit his thoughts to wander towards whom he faced or what the consequences would be if he lost.
The Eliminator moved a white pawn up, and the game was started. Zandrew moved a black pawn, and he felt a strange sensation, as if he could see out of the pawn’s eyes. A few moves later, the first capture was made when the Eliminator’s knight took one of Zandrew’s pawns. As soon as the piece was captured, a burning, painful sensation shot up Zandrew’s arm and into his head.
“What witchcraft is this?” Zandrew asked, shocked.
“This is a magic game,” the Eliminator answered. She smiled behind her veil. “For each piece that you lose, a little of your life energy is lost. If your king dies, then you die.”
Zandrew was trapped. Either he would win the game, or the Queen’s enchanted chess set would kill him. There would be no escape. The choices that faced him were simple: victory or death.
“I’ll bet the same thing isn’t true for you. This chess board’s spell won’t kill you if I beat you,” Zandrew said angrily.
“That is the privilege of power,” the dark Queen replied.
The Eliminator was good, but Zandrew was better. He matched her capture for capture. The Eliminator sighed impatiently.
“You are quite talented, boy. How can a mere youth know the tactics and strategy of chess?”
The Eliminator studied Zandrew, as if noticing him for the first time. He was a dark-haired, brown-eyed young man, handsome, tall and thin. Zandrew was nineteen years old, on the cusp of adulthood, but still with the charm and reckless boldness of a teenager. He had been stripped of his Pegasus knight’s armor, and now had on what he had worn beneath it: a simple white shirt, brown pants, black leather boots, and a long brown leather jacket. Her eyes glanced away from him and back to the chessboard. The game went into an elaborate, intricate mid-game. It continued until the Eliminator paused and spoke to her guards.
“This will take too long. Remove him to my quarters. Keep the chess board as it is.” Zandrew could only watch as she moved down the line to the person on Zandrew’s right. She woke him up with a tap of her wand and challenged him to a game. One of her guards reached out and punched Zandrew on the head, knocking him out. The room faded into darkness.
Zandrew woke up some time later. He lay on a soft bed. He was in an exquisitely decorated room, full of expensive wooden furniture, with a gold mirror at one end of the room and at the other end two huge windows looking out onto a vast city that Zandrew had never seen before. The game of chess he had been playing was set up on a table in the middle of the room, between two chairs. He felt relaxed and glad to be alive, and then caught sight of a banner hanging from the wall, and remembered what had happened. The banner bore the mark of the Eliminator, a black skull on a field of blue, with an “E” on the skull’s forehead and its shadow below it.
Zandrew turned and noticed a woman in the room, who smiled as he saw her. The woman was slender and tall, with black skin and long black hair, and intelligent, large eyes. She wore a simple black robe. She was young, perhaps in her early twenties, yet there was wisdom and authority in her eyes.
“Who are you? Where am I?” Zandrew asked.
“I am Tyrona, the Eliminator’s servant. Wait here. I’ll go tell her that you are awake.” The woman left the room.
In a few moments the Eliminator walked in, her black dress vivid against the intense sunlight pouring in through the windows. She sat at the table with the chess game. Zandrew got up and sat down across from her. They silently returned to playing the game.
Zandrew studied the Eliminator as they played. She was a woman, of medium height and build, who wore an elegant black dress, with a low neckline and a long skirt. She had a black wide hat with a gray feather sticking out of it, tilted at an angle, and clipped to her hat was a gray veil hiding her face. She also wore a short gray cape. Her brown-skinned fingers were adorned with glittering silver rings, and she also wore silver bracelets and a diamond necklace. She held a long, thin black crystal wand in her right hand. She moved with the graceful fluidity of a snake slithering through grass. Zandrew could feel the dangerous magical power emanating from the woman, like a heavy pressure inside his head.
Faced with a particularly difficult decision about whether to sacrifice a knight or a bishop, Zandrew decided to prolong the game by attempting to engage the dark sorceress in conversation.
“If you don’t mind my asking, my Lady Eliminator, where is this place? What city are we in?”
Zandrew tried to look into her eyes, but all he could see was the gray veil that covered her face.
“We are in the city of Azule, to the South of Pegasus city, which, as you must surely have guessed by now, is fully under my control. Don’t bother trying to escape from this place. If you do, and I catch you, you will be eliminated. This city is the headquarters for my invasion of the Center Lands. My kingdom lies far to the South. I have been away from my home for many years, campaigning, but I am glad of that. I prefer the bloodthirsty excitement of war to the boredom of reigning in a well-protected realm.”
Zandrew moved a piece, and the Eliminator extended a long, graceful arm, and with ring-covered fingers moved her piece to capture his. Zandrew fought to ignore the pain that the chess set inflicted.
“You know,” she said, “you Midlanders are special, unlike my own people, to have been able to maintain pockets of resistance to Vladius for so long.”
Zandrew sneered in anger and clenched his fists, enraged by her comment.
The Eliminator noticed his rage, and cheerfully asked, “But perhaps I have been too presumptuous! Do you worship Vladius, the Dark Lord of the Slain, or Arlius, the Guardian of Light?”
“Since I will die when this game ends, since my death looms as the one certainty I have,” he answered, “I need hide the truth about myself no longer. I worship Arlius.”
The Eliminator laughed derisively. “Oh, haven’t you heard?” she asked sweetly. “Arlius is dead, banished from the Living World by my master, Vladius. He has no power now.”
Zandrew leaned over and punched at the Eliminator, but at a gesture of her hand his arm stopped, frozen in mid-air.
“Now, now, don’t be unpleasant,” she said mockingly.
“Are you glad to have sold your soul for power?” Zandrew asked angrily.
“There’s that unpleasantness again. Yes, I am glad. I have taken that great, glorious destiny which is rightfully mine, and as soon as Vladius’s Silver Throne can be located, I shall sit in it and ascend as the Avatar of Vladius.”
“How can you be so evil?” Zandrew asked.
“That is quite simple,” the Eliminator replied. “When I was a young girl I was a princess. My parents ruled the Archipelago Kingdom. They taught me to be just, and honest, and compassionate. Yet I saw that my parents had wealth and power, while the peasants of our islands were poor and mistreated. That was when I realized that my parents were hypocrites, and that goodness is a lie fit only for fools. Power is the only thing that really matters. Vladius understands this.”
“That is truly twisted thinking,” Zandrew said. The Eliminator laughed in reply.
“Oh, don’t worry. My parents got what they deserved. I took the Archipelago throne by force and sent them both to the Lower World.”
Zandrew reluctantly returned to their chess game. The game went on for hours, each side matched piece for piece. As time passed Zandrew’s head began to sting from the lost pieces that he had surrendered. Darkness crept through the windows, and the Eliminator retired, the game unfinished, leaving Zandrew to lie restlessly on the bed.
Sunlight burst through the windows the next morning. Tyrona stood at the foot of the bed and stared at Zandrew. Zandrew blinked his eyes and sat up.
“Is there anything you need? You have only to ask,” Tyrona said.
“No, I’m fine,” Zandrew replied. Tyrona bowed and left the room.
Zandrew walked over to the chess set and examined it. He noticed that one of his rooks was in the wrong place. The change in position gave the Eliminator a definite advantage in controlling the center of the chessboard. Zandrew laughed, amused that the Eliminator would pull such a childish trick as cheating with the pieces. With a smile on his lips, he moved his rook back, and then moved the Eliminator’s queen to a different square, to give him a better situation.
A short while later, the Eliminator entered the room and sat down at the table with the chess game. Zandrew sat down across from her, and they resumed the game. The Eliminator gazed at the chessboard, and then drew her black wand. She pointed the wand at Zandrew, and he froze stiff.
“You moved my queen, you insolent brat,” the Eliminator said. “You cheated. You will now die.” She leaned forward, intent on touching Zandrew with her wand.
“Wait, oh most noble dark Lady!” Tyrona said, running into the room.
“Yes? What is it?” the Queen asked.
“I like this one, and he may be useful to you, for, well, you know,” Tyrona said. Zandrew did not know what she was talking about. “Please spare his life.”
“As you wish, Tyrona,” the Eliminator said. “Boy, you are lucky that Tyrona is here, or your time would have come.”
Zandrew gave Tyrona a thankful look, and the black-skinned sorceress smiled at him. Tyrona waved goodbye and left the room, and Zandrew and the Eliminator continued to play, with all of the pieces returned to their proper place. Each lost piece made Zandrew feel more pain, and he knew that if he did not win soon, the excruciating agony of losing this game would destroy him.
Once, as a particularly complicated trap set by the Eliminator played itself out on the chess board, the Eliminator asked him, “Do you hate me for being a worshiper of Vladius?”
Zandrew paused before he answered.
“Yes,” he replied curtly. The Eliminator leaned forward.
“But how can you still worship Arlius when he allowed your parents to die, painfully and for nothing?”
Zandrew was speechless. The Eliminator continued to talk. “Yes, I had a very busy night. Night is my favorite time, you know, my magic always thrives in darkness. Perhaps that is why I was drawn to the Shadow Sect of Vladius those many years ago. In any case, with Vladius’s help, I looked into your past last night. I even watched your parents die, in my magical mirror. Burned at the stake as heretics for worshiping Arlius, weren’t they? Discovered by a nosy witch and reported to the authorities. That was in Mennok City, I believe. And you watched from within the crowd as your parents’ bodies slowly burned, didn’t you? That has to have been a hard experience. To think that such a thing was allowed to happen! Didn’t you find your faith in Arlius shaken from that disaster?”
“No, it wasn’t Arlius’s fault. My parents died for their faith, and I continue their tradition of Arlius worship. Besides, it is Vladius who is the Nightmare King. Things such as that come from him. The death of my parents only makes me hate Vladius that much more.”
“That is such a shame,” the Eliminator responded. “If you could overcome your childish worship of Arlius, you could be very useful to me. This game has already proven to me that you are intelligent and have an excellent grasp of strategy. You could be a useful servant to me. You see, my mirror showed me not only your parents’ death, but also the identity of the person, the witch called Mireva, who turned them over the city guard, and I have a map that shows her current location.”
She pulled out a piece of parchment and put it down next to the chessboard. “When you lose this game, Zandrew, I shall use magic to make you my slave, and then I shall give you this map and unleash you upon the witch who was responsible for your parents’ murders. Vladius smiles upon revenge. It will be an easy way to win his favor.”
“I won’t lose,” he said sharply.
But as they played, the Eliminator’s trap did its work, and Zandrew found his king and queen forked, with nothing that he could do about it. He cursed, and watched as the Eliminator captured his queen. The game then took on a progressively worse appearance to him.
He was glad when it became dark outside, and the Eliminator once again left for the night. Zandrew lay down on the bed and gradually fell asleep.
Zandrew awoke within his dream, knowing that he was dreaming yet dreaming still. He was surrounded by a hazy, blurry light, orange, red, and yellow. The colors swirled together and resolved into a huge burning bonfire. Two figures were tied to stakes in the middle of the fire. Zandrew was twelve again, watching his parents, Charles and Dawn Kemper, die for the crime of worshiping Arlius. He was in the back of a huge crowd that filled the town square. Hundreds of people clapped and cheered as Zandrew’s parents burned. Their screams echoed out into the night, and their bodies were slowly engulfed in flame and charred to black ashes.
Zandrew screamed, knowing that in reality he had kept silent, but in the dream his screams went unheard by the crowd anyway. Then the fire spread, burning up the crowd and Zandrew too, and then they all vanished in a cloud of thick black smoke. Nothing was left but a dark, empty void, where Zandrew could sense, as palpable entities, his suffering, his hatred, his loneliness, his clinging faith in Arlius, and his desire for revenge against Vladius.
He saw, from a great distance, the tiny figure of the witch who, once a member of their Arlius-worshiping secret cell, had betrayed his parents and the other cell members to save her own life. He swooped down, closer and closer to her, until he came up right behind her. Then he put his hands around her neck and started to strangle her. She melted away into swirling blue and black shadows, and suddenly he was surrounded by laughter and fire on all sides.
Zandrew suddenly awoke from the dream. He slowly realized that he was awake, trembling and sweating, and in pain. He listened and heard no one. The windows showed a dark sky, touched with the first pink and orange hints of the rising sun. He stood up and walked to the door of the room. He opened the door, crept out into the hallway and carefully looked left and right, but there was no one there. He turned back to the room and saw the chessboard, and, next to it, the map that the Eliminator had left. He walked over to the map, picked it up and slipped it into one of his pockets. He turned and left the room.
Zandrew walked into the hallway silently. He used the stealth that he had long since mastered as a skilled thief, and nobody heard him. He made his way down the castle, past uninhabited rooms, past halls, and down stairs. He passed a group of soldiers patrolling, but he just walked along, with the uprightness of someone who belonged, and none of the soldiers took notice of him. Soon he came to the ground floor. He found the stables, empty except for horses. He picked a horse, saddled it, and simply took it. No one stopped him. He rode out of the city of Azule, into the morning. The three moons in the sky were fading, and the first rays of the sun cast shades of pink, purple and orange across the sky. The stallion, like most horses, had a mind control rune branded onto its forehead, and it behaved obediently. He pushed the horse to its limits, and he soon left Azule far behind.
In her chambers in Azule Castle, the Eliminator stood before a large, enchanted mirror. Her servant, the masked wizard-knight known as Phantom, waited behind her. She pointed at the mirror with a wand, and a streak appeared in the mirror. It shimmered and swirled, then resolved itself into a picture of Zandrew, riding on horseback to the north.
“Everything is following my plan perfectly,” the Eliminator said. “I told you it was a streak of good luck to find an Arlius worshiper, one so easily used. He will go directly to her, and do what is necessary for us to take possession of the golden wand.” Phantom nodded in silent obedience.
On one side of the map there was a picture of the Center Lands, which showed the location of the cities, Azule far to the south, Pegasus farther north, and above them the city of Zandrew’s youth, Mennok. On the other side of the map was a detailed drawing of Mennok City. The magic store where Mireva, the witch who had betrayed Zandrew’s parents, lived was marked on the map by a blue X. Zandrew wondered what he would do when he faced the woman who had destroyed his childhood.
Zandrew stopped for supplies in a small village, where he learned that, while he was imprisoned, the Eliminator’s army had moved north and taken every city in its path, up to just south of Mennok. The Midlanders were in a panic as their freedom turned to tyranny, but they were fast becoming accustomed to the rule of the Eliminator and her feudal Lords, and fear was giving way to slow, docile obedience. Zandrew rode swiftly through the Center Lands for many days. He was cautious, and took care not to be noticed by any Royal soldiers who might be hunting for him.
Zandrew entered Mennok City at midday. Mennok was the city of his youth and the scene of some of his greatest robberies, but he did not recognized most of the buildings, having been away in Pegasus for a few years. The things that he did recognize triggered bad memories or sorrowful nostalgia. He rode sullenly, and tried not to look around and to concentrate on following the map. When he reached the magic shop marked on the map, he noticed that there was an inn adjoining it on the right side, and an idea took shape in his mind. He stabled his horse at the inn, and then started out. He spotted a short, fat merchant who was obviously rich, judging by his expensive, bright clothes. Zandrew walked past the man, and, while behind him, let his hand slip out to the merchant, as subtle and as silent as a cat. He scooped a bag full of coins out of the man’s pocket. The merchant felt nothing and noticed nothing. Zandrew went to a general store and bought a big knife, a grappling hook, and a long length of rope. Then Zandrew went into the inn and purchased a room, specifically asking for a room at the top floor, where there was a window looking out onto the roof of the magic shop. Zandrew sat by the window, watching the sky turn dark.
Once night had fallen, Zandrew opened the window and looked out, to stare down at the roof of the magic shop and the window closest to his. He picked up the grappling hook, which he had tied to the rope, balanced it in his hand, and threw it with all of his strength. The hook sailed through the air and hit its target, the window of the magic shop, and smashed through the glass. Zandrew pulled on the rope, feeling it taut from the hook pulling against the frame of the window. Then he tied the other end of the rope to his bedpost. He grabbed hold of the rope and, with one hand over the other, proceeded to climb along the rope, hanging over the street, to the window of the magic shop. He reached the window and climbed inside.
He was in a room filled with various magical items, wands, orbs, crystals, staffs, spell books, and other equipment. He drew his knife and stalked silently through the dark room. He did not know if the sound of the window breaking had woken the witch, so he tread cautiously, careful as only a thief can be. He walked up to a door that looked like it led to the living quarters, and opened it.
Suddenly a light appeared behind him. He quickly turned around, surprised. At his back was the witch he had come here to find, as he had recalled her, but older and with the weight of decades pressing down on her. She had gray hair, a pale white face, and wore a long pink nightgown. She also had a loaded crossbow pointed at him.
“Fool thief,” she said, “don’t they teach ye not to be robbin’ magic users? I don’t know how ye passed through my ward against Vladius, but ne’ermind. Ye’ll pay for yer mindlessness with yer life.”
Zandrew snarled, his eyes ablaze with violent hatred. “I am no thief, old she-devil. I’m here to avenge my parents, not to rob you. And if you kill me, by Arlius, I will come back from the grave for your hide!”
“ ‘By Arlius?’ What burglar says that? Oh by the Lord of Light!” She gasped. “Could it be.... Could it really be? But would the child have grown so... can it be?”
“Either kill me, or die. It makes no difference to me, you traitorous hag.” He ran at her, holding his knife out, but she raised a hand and pointed at him, and the air in front of him solidified into an invisible, hard wall. The magical wall pushed out and struck him in the stomach. He staggered and fell down.
“Hold your temper, ye fool boy! D’ye not be recognizing me, as I have you? Ye are Zandrew, the Kemper young’n, aren’t ye? I can see yer parents in yer eyes.”
Zandrew struggled to stand, but invisible strands of magic held him down.
“I am. And I have come to avenge my parents.”
“Avenge? What do ye—oh, by Arlius! Ye were so young then, and I could never find ye after it all happened to explain it to ye.”
“Well, you seem to have me stuck, so explain away, crone, if that’s what you feel like doing. Your excuses and lies should be amusing to hear.”
The witch ignored Zandrew’s bitter anger, and started to talk.
“Listen to me words, boy, for I swear on the light of Arlius that what I tell ye is the truth. I did not betray yer parents. Yer parents and I were members of the Mennok cell of Arlius worshipers, and every member of that cell was willing and ready to die to achieve our purpose. This cell was created to protect a powerful treasure of Arlius that had been passed down among us and hidden from Vladius for ages. The cell was exposed by agents of the Empire, and to preserve the treasure, so that not all of us were lost and unable to protect it, some named others to the guards so that some would survive and the others would die, in a pre-arranged plan. The survivors continued to hide the treasure, until it could be moved. That’s why yer parents died, ye fool boy! They died fer Arlius, not fer nothing! I am the last living member of that cell, and I have the treasure. I am about to send it to a new, hidden cell of Arlius worshipers that I’ve found. It will be sent through a portal to them by the end of this week.”
“May I be shown the treasure?” Zandrew asked. “If what you say is true, and not just a bunch of lies, then I must be shown this thing. My parents gave their lives to save it, so I think I have the right to see it.”
“Surely ye may, no harm could come from it. Here, let me get it.” Mireva walked to the end of the room, and touched a painting hanging on the wall, moving it aside to reveal a vault built into the wall. She took a key from her pocket and opened the safe. She extracted a long, thin metal box, and put the painting back.
“The treasure is inside this box. The box is blessed by Arlius with a seal that can only be opened by two Arlians together. Put your hands on it and pray.” Zandrew reached out and touched the box, and turned his attention to meditate upon the light of Arlius. The witch closed her eyes and whispered something, ending with a muttered “Praise Arlius.” The box began to glow with a dark blue light, and then the light suddenly flashed a blinding bright purple. The lid of the box fell off. The witch reached into the box and pulled out a long, thin wand made of shining solid gold.
“This is the legendary golden wand called Prinkepstella,” the witch said. “The tales say that this wand has the power to kill Vladius, to find and destroy his silver Throne of Darkness and end the connection between the Living World and Vladius’s Lower World. Once, long ago, there was a scroll hidden with the wand, explaining how to use it, but the scroll, along with the Great Secret that it contained, were stolen long ago.”
“What is the Great Secret?” Zandrew asked.
“Nobody knows,” Mireva replied. “It’s some arcane mystery, some secret knowledge beyond my ken, needed to use the wand. Usin’ a magic item is no simple matter o’ bangin’ it around, ye fool boy, it has to be done right. It is said that there are Arlians elsewhere in the Living World who know how to use the wand, and so I await their comin’ and claimin’ it. Until that day, it is my duty to protect it.
This golden wand is our one chance to defeat Vladius and save Arlius. Do ye understand now, ye young fool, why yer parents sacrificed themselves for the sake o’ protecting Prinkepstella from the agents o’ Vladius?”
Zandrew walked up to her, and grasped her hands in one of his. “Finally, at long last, I understand,” he said. He reached behind her and pushed his dagger into her spine. She gurgled a bloody cry and then dropped to the floor. One last look of wonder was all she had time for before she expired.
“Rest peacefully, mother and father. You are avenged,” Zandrew said. Then he looked at the witch’s body. “You fool woman! You are the one who should have died so that my parents could have lived on and protected the wand. You almost delivered Prinkepstella into the Eliminator’s hands and cost the world its last hope.” He picked up the golden wand and put it into his jacket pocket. He walked over to the window he had entered from. The people who waited on the street below were well hidden, but Zandrew’s thief-trained eyes could spot them.
He climbed the length of rope back to the window of his room at the inn, unseen. The figures on the street did not look up. Zandrew walked down the stairs and slipped out the back door to the inn. He vanished into darkness.
The Eliminator waited with her Shadow Knights in the street outside the magic shop, watching the door. They had the store surrounded, waiting for the witch or Zandrew to come out. After a while it became apparent that no one was coming. The sorceress took a small mirror out of her pocket and whispered the words “Show me,” and the masked face of her servant, Phantom, appeared in the mirror.
“I am where the witch’s portal exits,” Phantom said, “but no one has come out. The fake Arlius cell members are sure that she will be here soon.”
The Eliminator shook her veiled head. “She will never be there. She is dead. I can sense that now.”
“What do you mean? Has Prinkepstella’s seal been opened?”
“Unfortunately I have, for once, been too smart even for myself. That boy was smarter than I thought. When I found him, I knew that he could be used as the second Arlian needed to open the box that held the wand, and I thought that once the box was opened, Prinkepstella would be mine. But that little rat had some cunning. He was necessary to open the box, but now he has the wand, and I do not know where he went. But worry not. This shall be turned to my advantage. Prinkepstella shall yet be mine.”
Chapter Two: The Ambush
Zandrew now lived on the run. He traveled from city to city and tried not to attract attention to himself. He fled north, headed towards the Empire and away from the Eliminator’s domain. He had chosen to go in the direction opposite the Eliminator’s northward drive from the south to the Center Lands. In every city he traveled through he had shown the hand signal that secret Arlius worshipers used to identify each other, pointing out with the first and second finger of his left hand and placing the first finger of his right hand across them to form the letter “A.” He had received no responses. All the Arlius cells in these cities, had there ever been any, were gone. Zandrew had almost no money left, his strength was giving up, and he could only run for so much longer. He wanted a sign from Arlius, something to give him hope that his struggle was not all for nothing.
He came to the town of Tyla, and found himself strolling through the city’s marketplace. Just then someone stumbled into Zandrew. The man hung onto Zandrew to prevent himself from falling down. The man picked himself up and walked away. Instinctively, Zandrew moved his hand to feel his bag of coins in his jacket, and found nothing. The man had picked his pocket. Zandrew quickly looked around the market. The man was at the other end of a large crowd, and Zandrew hurried after him. He bumped into people and stumbled several times, and ran through the crowd as fast as he could. He caught up with the man, who was ambling slowly, believing his thievery to have gone undetected. Zandrew laid a hand on his shoulder and turned him around to face Zandrew.
The person had pale skin and short black hair, was slender and a bit short, and was fairly young. Zandrew immediately recognized the man. The pickpocket was his old friend, Turrin the thief.
“Zandrew!” Turrin said happily. “Fancy meeting you here! Long time no see! How have you been?”
“I’ve been okay. I’ll be better once you give me back my coins.”
“Oh, was that you I robbed? Sorry. I didn’t recognize you. Here you go.”
Turrin reached into his jacket and pulled out Zandrew’s bag of coins. He dropped them into Zandrew’s outstretched hand.
“So, Zandrew, how have you been?”
Zandrew finally let the flood of his emotions out. He grabbed Turrin and hugged him.
“Turrin! My friend! You’re alive! How did you escape from jail and the executioner’s axe? I thought you were dead!”
“That’s quite a story. But let’s not dwell on old misfortune. How are you, Zandrew?’
“I’ve been okay. You wouldn’t believe what happened to me. I was a mercenary working in Pegasus.”
“Pegasus? I heard that Pegasus had fallen to the Eliminator’s Kingdom.”
“It has. I was knocked out in the battle and was captured by the Eliminator’s soldiers, but I escaped.”
“You escaped from the Eliminator? No kidding? Wow, I didn’t even think that was possible. You must be good at sneaking. I assume that you’ve been doing well as a thief.”
“I quit being a thief some time ago. And I stopped because you were captured by the city guard and I didn’t want to end up the same way! What happened to you, Turrin? How come you’re free?”
“I was in jail in Mennok City, but the thieves’ guild bribed the jail guards and broke me out of prison. I tried to send word to you, but you had gone by then. It’s all over for the guild, though. When the Eliminator conquered Mennok she sent out Royal wizards and Shadow Knights to ferret out and kill all the thieves. Most of my friends died in those raids. When the Eliminator took over I ran away, fleeing to the north like everyone else with any sense left in their head. Life in the Eliminator’s Kingdom is no way to live. Times are bad everywhere now. All the money is flowing north. But Tyla is a nice city, and there’s pickings to be had. Many merchants stop here on their way south, with many lovely things to steal.”
“Well, it’s nice to see that you’re doing so well in Tyla. I haven’t been doing well myself. I’m tired and almost out of money. I could use a rest. Do you think there’s room in your home in Tyla for me?”
“Sure, Zandrew! Why, just recently I started thinking about how nice it would be to set up on the merchant’s route through the hills north of here and get some money from highway robbery, but I would need a partner to help me. What do you say? You and me, thieves once again, eh? We’d make a killing, what do you think?”
Zandrew thought for a moment. “Well, I do need the money. Okay, I agree. Yes. I’ll help you as a highway robber. But we won’t kill anyone unless it’s absolutely necessary. My God does not look kindly upon wanton murder.”
“Your God? You mean you still believe in that wacky religion of yours? What do you call it?”
“Oh right, the belief in Arlius. You’re entitled to believe in whatever you want, but I can’t say I stand by that religion of yours. I don’t need Gods myself, I’m a practical man. But think whatever you want. Fine. We’ll only kill when necessary.”
That night Zandrew slept in Turrin’s house, a small wooden cabin at the edge of town. The next day they set out for the hills north of Tyla. The two thieves walked along the trail that led from Tyla to the northern cities. They reached a part of the road with a huge pile of rocks to hide behind, and set up their ambush. Zandrew stood there, his knife in his hand. He waited for a merchant to come down the trail and thought about how stupid this was and how low he had sunk. Turrin waited in eager anticipation, licking his lips. Zandrew heard something in the distance. A nobleman’s carriage was coming up the trail, led by two horses, driven by a soldier sitting on the carriage. Zandrew readied for his role in the ambush.
Zandrew ran out from behind the rocks and stood in the middle of the road, watching the oncoming carriage. He made eye contact with the driver, a very tall, wide-shouldered, muscular brown-skinned man. The man had brown hair and brown eyes, and he bore a neatly-trimmed beard and mustache. He wore chain-mail armor beneath a white tunic and a gray cloak. The man seemed to have the big, strong solidity of a stone wall. Zandrew got the driver’s attention, clutched his stomach and dropped to the ground, feigning sickness. The driver stopped the carriage and dismounted, ready to offer help. At precisely that moment Turrin jumped out from behind the rocks and held a blade to the driver’s neck. He motioned for Zandrew to rob the carriage.
Zandrew got up and strode over to the door of the carriage. He pulled the door open, and came face to face with a woman. The woman was obviously an aristocrat. She was dressed in a revealing blue dress and wore a gold necklace and golden earrings. She was breathtakingly beautiful. The noblewoman had long blonde hair and vivid blue eyes, she sat with poised grace, and she had an arrogant, self-confident look in her eyes. Her vivid, sculptured beauty and calm demeanor made it seem as though the woman was an elegant statue made of white marble.
“Give me all your money,” Zandrew ordered.
The woman smiled slightly. Then she gestured, and an invisible force pushed Zandrew back and knocked him to the ground. Turrin saw Zandrew fall and moved to kill the soldier, but the woman looked at him and whispered “halt,” and Turrin’s body froze in place, his knife inches from the man’s throat. Just our luck, Zandrew thought, as he sat up. This was no merchant. The woman was a witch!
“I’m sorry for failing to protect you, mistress,” the soldier said to the noblewoman, his tone of voice deeply regretful. “To protect you is my sworn duty, but I failed and it is you who protected me. Rellora, I offer you my life as payment.”
“I forgive you,” the woman said, in a cold voice, chilling yet pretty. “Don’t be a fool, Gennis. I still require you to be in my service. Now, put these two bandits out of their misery.”
Zandrew drew his knife, ready to defend himself, but at a word from the woman he found his entire body to be frozen stiff, unable to move. As the soldier advanced, sword out, Zandrew felt both terrified and angry that he had come all this way only for his life to end like this, in so pointless a waste. As the woman walked back to the carriage, Zandrew stared at her in shock. The pendent on her necklace was the “A” of Arlius, a secret sign known only to worshipers of the Guardian of Light.
As the soldier raised his sword in preparation for the long stroke that would behead him, Zandrew shouted “Wait! I’m faithful to Arlius! Praise Arlius!”
The woman turned back, stunned, and motioned for the soldier to wait. “You, some petty highway bandit, an Arlian? Is this possible?” she asked. “Surely you lie. Kill them.”
“No, wait! I know the secret sign on your necklace! Free my body and I will show you the sign of Arlius!”
At a glance from the woman, Zandrew felt his body free itself from the magical constriction, and he made Arlius’s “A” symbol with the fingers of his hands. The woman seemed impressed, but the soldier was skeptical, and Turrin, still frozen, seemed terrified.
“You seem sincere, but it is possible for a Vladian spy to know those signs. Prove that you worship Arlius,” the woman commanded.
“I know the prayer of Arlius, known only to initiates of our order: Arlius, sun in the sky, water on the earth, fire in the dark, light of the torch—” “—hold me, protect me, save my soul, oh Lord of Light,” the woman finished the prayer Zandrew had begun.
“Praise Arlius,” the woman said. “At long last, I have finally found fellow Arlius worshipers!” The woman smiled and ran a hand through her long blond hair. “My name is Rellora, and this is my companion, Gennis. We come from far to the north. You must tell me, where is your cell of Arlius worshipers based?”
“My cell was based in the city of Mennok, to the South, but the cell was discovered and all of the members were rooted out and burned at the stake, when I was just a boy. I am the last surviving cell member.”
“Where are the other cells to the south?”
“There are none. I have ridden from Mennok in the southern end of the Center Lands, towards the north, for the past two months, and I have never yet run into a cell of Arlians. I searched, but found nothing. They have all been found and destroyed by Vladius’s clerics.”
“That is bad news. I was sent from my cell in the north on a mission to find a southern cell. Apparently my quest has been for naught. Since there are no cells to the south, I will return to the cell in the last city I came from. You are welcome to join me.”
“I would love to. You have no idea how long I have waited to finally rejoin the company of fellow Arlius worshipers.”
“Then it is settled. Is your friend an Arlius worshiper too?”
“No, I’m not!” Turrin answered, horrified. “I have nothing to do with your God!”
“Gennis, kill him,” Rellora said.
“Wait a minute!” Zandrew said, as Gennis advanced towards Turrin. “Turrin is a good friend of mine! Please, spare his life!”
“We cannot have a Vladian witness our true identity as Arlians and live,” Rellora said. “If he alerted a cleric of Vladius of our whereabouts, we would have a great deal of trouble. But we can keep him as your captive, if he converts to the light of Arlius.”
“Well, you don’t seem to have much choice,” Zandrew said to Turrin. “Will you convert to Arlius?”
“Yes, I’ll convert,” Turrin said, thankful to still be alive. “How bad could this strange God of yours be?”
“Arlius, please accept this person as a convert worthy of worshiping the light of You, the Lord of Light,” Rellora said, and pointed at Turrin. A thin ray of bright white light briefly flashed at Turrin.
“Poof! Now you’re an Arlian,” Rellora said. “If you betray us, Turrin, I will give you a slow, torturous, magical death. You had best learn to love Arlius with your innermost heart. The Guardian of Light will see your lies and strike you down if you deceive us.”
“Don’t worry,” Zandrew whispered to Turrin. “I’ll tell you all about the Arlian religion.”
“Thanks for saving my life,” Turrin whispered back.
Zandrew and Turrin climbed up onto the carriage and sat behind Gennis as he turned the horses around and started on the way back north.
The wizard known as Deathly entered the throne room of the Imperial Palace in Habsburk City, the Capitol City of the Empire. His long, flowing black cloak trailed behind him like a cloud of smoke. His face was hidden deep within the shadows of the hood of the cloak. Deathly smiled an arrogant smile, supremely confident of his magical power. He had pale white skin and short-cut dark hair, was of fair build and medium height, and had just passed the threshold from middle age to old age, although he used his magic to make himself appear younger. Deathly had a harsh, blunt, plain face, wrinkled and ugly around the eyes and mouth, and bland, yellow-brown eyes hidden in the shadows cast by his jutting forehead. He wore a black hooded cloak, the hood of which he kept pulled up around his head, over a red Imperial wizard’s robe with white frill around the collar. There was something vaguely rat-like and verminous about his face, as if he belonged not in a castle, but in a damp sewer underground.
On the throne, a chair made of silver encrusted with glittering rubies, emeralds, sapphires and diamonds, sat the ruler of the Habsburk Empire, the Kindahl of the Fire Sect of Vladius, Emperor Thomas Augusta Laum. He was tall, chubby, old, and had a bald, white, skull-like head and face, with a big nose and wide chin, and intelligent, dark eyes. The Kindahl had a regal, commanding posture, and there were colorful jeweled enchanted rings on his chubby fingers. His throne was surrounded by glowing crystals full of magical power that floated in the air. The Kindahl wore a simple white robe tied at the waist with a white belt, as befitted his priestly office. He lounged in the throne, one hand under his chin, supporting his head, his elbow on the arm of the throne. He looked bored.
An array of colorful courtesans filled the room. The nobles talked to one another softly. The aristocrats had cold, cruel faces and they moved with the authority of those in power. They were arrogant and egotistical, but there was a hint of fear in their eyes when they glanced at the Kindahl.
The room was lined with members of the Explode Guard, the Emperor’s crack troops. The Explode Guard were tall and big, very muscular and fit. They wore red plate armor and red gloves and boots. Their heads were topped by red spike-covered helmets with yellow feather plumes across the top, and they had red swords strapped to their belts. Their faces were clean and professional, with eyes always glancing around and ready to fight. On each Explode Guard’s forehead was a tattoo of a red fireball with a glowing red rune within it. The rune was an explode spell, for which the legion was named, which caused Explode Guards to explode with a violent burst of fire when they were killed. The magical tattoos also added to the Explode Guards’ speed and strength. The magic gave the soldiers’ eyes a frightening red glow, so that looking into their eyes was like looking into fire. The large room was bordered by banners that displayed the Imperial insignia, a red thorny rose over a line of red flames on a field of black.
Deathly walked past the crowd of people and headed straight for the throne. He looked around as he went, and thought to himself that he was more powerful than all the other magic users among the Imperial nobles. He kneeled at the Kindahl’s feet, his black cloak billowing around him.
“Emperor Thomas Augusta Laum, Kindahl of the Fire Sect of Vladius, Emperor of the Habsburk Empire, ruler of the lands from the eastern ocean to the western ocean, your great Majesty, I am at your command,” Deathly said.
“Sire Reese Spett Tacor,” the Kindahl said, using Deathly’s rarely used true name. “Magical energy is all around us. It is in the ground, in the sky, in the water. It is in the plants and the animals, and most especially in humans. The one who is adept at manipulating the energy of the Living World is called a magician, either a wizard or a sorceress.” The Kindahl paused. Deathly wondered where this speech was going. What the Kindahl had said was elementary to the training of all wizards.
“The Living World is an interconnected web of strands of energy, and within this web, there is a special role to be played by my Magician-Kings, my spiders. My Magician-Kings’ task is to gather energy from the Living World, harvest the life-energy of the Imperial subjects and serfs, and, while keeping a small fraction of the energy for themselves, their job is to transfer the rest to me, the Lord of the Empire, as their tithe. You, Sire Deathly, were expected to carry out this task.”
“I know, your Majesty. And I have done my job. I have raped my Kingdom of energy, made the people of the Deadlands scream with pain and horror, and I have sent the stolen energy to you. It was contained in the crystals you received last week. Is that what has prompted you to summon me, my Emperor?”
“Yes, Sire Deathly. I have hooks in many wizards, and many spies in all the different districts of my Empire. The energy you sent to me was sizable, I can say that. But based upon reports that I have received, it was nothing compared to the vast amount of energy that you have collected. You are hoarding energy for yourself. I like my servants to have ambition, Deathly, but not too much ambition. I am entitled to a larger share of your energy, my servant, and I called you here to discuss the transference of that energy from you to me.”
Deathly winced. He had been sure that the Kindahl would not notice the precise amount of energy sent to him. The Kindahl was a very busy wizard, staging a war against the northern cities of the Center Lands. He considered saying that the Kindahl was wrong and that the proper tithe had been sent, but more lies, known to be lies, might further endanger his life. The Kindahl ruled all the wizards of the Empire and had almost unimaginable fountains of energy to draw upon. Deathly was an incredibly powerful wizard, but the Kindahl could annihilate him with a simple destructive spell any time he wished. The Kindahl was neither kind nor just, and he craved magical energy with the patience and machinations of a hungry spider.
“If that is the way that you feel, my Lord, may I be allowed to make you a gift of more energy? I could send you more crystals as soon as I return to the Deadlands.”
“No. I prefer to take what is rightfully mine, from you, right here and now.” The Kindahl leaned forward, reached out and pointed a long finger covered with magical rings at Deathly.
“Wait, my Emperor! Oh—aaaaaaaaah!” Deathly screamed as the Kindahl’s magic wrapped around him.
The Magician-King felt himself caught in a vice, immobile, as a poisonous, defiling magical hand reached into his spirit, fiddled through the various magical paths connected to his body, and pulled at the path leading to his stored magical energy. Deathly felt a huge part of his life energy violently wrenched from him, drained into the Kindahl’s fingertip, and he fell to the floor with a groan, too weak to stand.
“Pick yourself up before you annoy me further, Sire Deathly,” the Kindahl said menacingly. Deathly, exhausted and bruised, struggled to stand up. “If you approached your kingdom with the same vigor that goes into your rather disgusting paintings, you might have gained favor in my eyes. But you are not that smart. You are an ignoramus, ignorant even of the true nature of our master Vladius, the Dark Lord of the Slain. You are like all stupid wizards, too dumb to figure out the Great Secret, useful only for tasks fit for idiots. Do not try to hide anything from me ever again.”
This statement peaked Deathly’s curiosity.
“You mean to say that you know what the Great Secret is?” Deathly asked. The Kindahl nodded. “I don’t know what that is. Nobody knows what it is. If you know it, then tell it to me.”
The Kindahl smiled. “I can tell it to you, because you are too stupid to understand it. The Great Secret is the truth about the Gods. The truth is that Vladius and Arlius are twin brothers, the sons of the same father. Now do you understand?”
“They’re twins? What difference does that make?”
“None at all,” the Kindahl answered. He leaned back in his throne, with a relaxed look on his skull-like face. “Now, back to business, Sire Deathly. As punishment for the crime of keeping energy from me, I have a special task for you to complete,” continued the Kindahl. “There are rumors in the air, rumors that the legendary gold wand Prinkepstella has resurfaced after being lost for hundreds of years. I want that wand. As you may or may not know, that wand is said to contain the power to find and destroy the Silver Throne of Vladius, the source of Vladius’s power in the Living World. Destroying the throne is inconsequential to me, but finding Vladius’s Silver Throne, which was hidden by the damnable elves and has been missing since the end of the Thousand Years’ War, would a priceless attainment. The one who sits upon that throne becomes the next Avatar of Darkness, and I must beat the Eliminator to that goal before she reaches it.
Your punishment, Sire Deathly, is to find and bring to me that wand. It may be somewhere in the Center Lands. The full breadth of my Imperial forces are at your service for this quest. Do not fail me. I want that wand.”
“I will bring you the golden wand, your Majesty. You will get what you want. Do not worry. Prinkepstella, like the rest of this world, will soon belong to you.”
And you will soon be my servant, Deathly thought to himself silently, for I shall find the golden wand and use it for myself to become the next Avatar of Vladius, foolish Emperor!
Deathly bowed and walked out of the throne room, smiling. He was thinking about painting a picture of himself as the new Emperor, sitting on Vladius’s Throne of Darkness and holding the golden wand. Normally he only painted pictures of the corpses of the people he had killed, but this potential new painting intrigued him. He chuckled, thrilled by the wonderful mental image.
Chapter Three: A City Under Siege
The carriage approached the top of a hill, and the city-state of Port Jiang lay spread out before them. Zandrew let out a long whistle at the glorious sight. He was overawed. Jiang was more than twice as big as the largest city Zandrew had ever seen. “I’ve never been this far north,” Zandrew said to Gennis, as the carriage descended down the hill towards the city. “Are you sure that this place is safe?”
“Jiang is one of the last of the great ports, and a wonder to behold,” Gennis answered. “It lies close to the Empire to the north, but it is one of the Center Lands cities that, with the aid of the city’s defensive army, maintains an autonomous freedom. Among those in Jiang who have recognized the return of the old Gods, the vast majority swear allegiance to Vladius, as in all cities, but there is a large and active cell of Arlius worshipers. We will be safe once we reach the cell’s headquarters.”
They rode down and reached the main gate, then passed through the massive city walls. They rode through crowded streets filled with a vast array of different kinds and colors of people. In the streets there were peasants, nobles, artisans selling their wares at booths, stalls where food was sold, street performers and petty magicians, and scantily dressed prostitutes singing and dancing at street corners.
Turrin leaned over and whispered to Zandrew, “If I could get lose here and get at this crowd, there would be easy pickings, believe me.”
“This is the richest city I’ve seen in years,” Zandrew replied. “Look! All of the people appear to be well fed. This place is amazing.”
The carriage entered a rich section of the city, and made its way towards a huge mansion at the end of a dead-end street. They stopped in front of the mansion. Gennis dismounted, followed by Zandrew and Turrin, and Rellora got out of the carriage. The servant who led them into the mansion was surprised. He had believed Rellora to be away on a long journey and had not expected her back so soon.
“Urgent matters have forced me back,” Rellora responded. “Now I must speak with Lord Wong.” They were led into a beautifully decorated, marble-tiled room, and told to wait there for the Lord of the house, who would be home soon.
Rellora turned to Zandrew. “The nobleman whose house this is, Lord Wong, serves as a member of the Port Jiang Lords’ Council. He is also the leader of the city’s cell of Arlians,” Rellora said. “Come, there is a secret passage that leads to the cell’s meeting room.”
She walked across the room to a door, and led them down a hall, to a large statue of an eagle in the hall. She reached out and pulled on one of the statue’s wings, and a panel in the hall slid out, revealing a staircase leading down. They followed Rellora down the stairs, to a well-furnished room in the basement.
Once they were in the room, Rellora turned to Turrin and said “halt.” Turrin’s body froze, an expression of shock on his face.
“What are you doing?” Zandrew asked.
“I don’t trust this one,” Rellora responded. “He converted just to save his own skin. He could make a pretty profit by finding a priest of Vladius and selling the location of this room, and I must prevent that from happening. Gennis, tie him up.” Gennis bound Turrin’s hands and feet, picked him up and brought him into a room adjoining the main room. Turrin tried to cry out, but his lips were frozen shut by the spell, and Zandrew watched him go, feeling sympathy for his friend.
Zandrew sat down in a chair. A large painting of Arlius hung on the wall across from him. Arlius was depicted as an old man with wise eyes and a kind smile. He had a long white beard and white hair, and he wore a white robe. He had a halo made of golden light, and angel’s wings coming out his back. His eyes were vivid and piercing, as if truth and love were flowing out of his eyes into the world. He was shown in his Arlius the Healer pose, reaching out his hands and healing a poor, dirty human with a long cut across his body. Zandrew was uplifted by the sight. He felt a somber, sacred emotion, like the laughter of a small child, that made him feel whole and right, because he believed in his God. A faint smile found its way onto Zandrew’s lips.
Zandrew, Rellora and Gennis waited in the room. Periodically a cell member would come down the stairs and enter the room, and then sit in one of the chairs and wait for the other cell members to arrive. One girl sat next to Zandrew and started to talk to him.
“You’re new,” she said. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Mennok, to the south,” Zandrew replied.
“And you’re an Arlian?”
“Yes. I worship Arlius.”
“Isn’t it wonderful that the light of Arlius has returned to the world? Priests of Arlius have magic again! Praise to the Lord of Light! I have to admit, I get scared sometimes, because the shadow of Vladius has also come back to the world, and I don’t want my soul to be trapped in Vladius’s Lower World when I die. But I’m happy, worshiping Arlius and working in his service. I feel that now my lifelong worship of Arlius is justified, now that the Guardian of Light has returned. I can feel the warmth from the Higher World shine down upon me. Do you feel that way too?”
Zandrew thought for a moment. “Yes... yes, I do feel justified. I’ve always believed in my heart that Arlius is real, but I’m glad that Arlius has returned to us and given proof of his power. I’m worried about Vladius also.”
“Do you think that there is going to be another war between Arlius and Vladius? The last war between Vladians and Arlians was the Thousand Years War, but the likes of that age remain only in legend. Will another war happen?”
“Perhaps. But not like the Thousand Years War. Knowledge of the powerful magic used back then is lost to us now.” Zandrew and the girl continued to talk about how happy they were that Arlius was back.
Zandrew felt emotions now that he had not felt for many years. It had been many years since he had last been at a meeting of Arlius worshipers, and it felt good to be at a meeting, to have other cell members to talk to, to be able to really be himself. There was a desperation eating away at him, as he searched for and failed to find Arlians throughout the Center Lands. Being here filled that hole within him.
Finally Lord Wong arrived, and silence filled the room, as the Arlius cell members waited for the meeting to begin. Wong was a short, dark-skinned bald man who moved with the confidence of someone with authority. There were sixteen other people in the room, from all different walks of life. Some were rich nobles, some were poor peasants, some were craftsmen, and some were merchants. Some were light-skinned and some were black-skinned, but they had put aside their differences to worship their God. In Zandrew’s opinion, the members seemed to be Arlius worshipers just living out their lives, rather than anti-Vladius activists, as Zandrew’s own cell had been. He wondered how long he would be able to hide here with them. A humble, simple happiness filled Zandrew as the meeting began.
Lord Wong called the meeting to order, and then asked Rellora to speak. Rellora stood up. “I was planning to go as far south as possible before I began my mission, but Zandrew has told me that there are no more living cells to the south, so I must start my mission here. I come from a cell far to the north, where there are rumors that the golden wand Prinkepstella has resurfaced. Long ago my cell was entrusted with ancient knowledge of Prinkepstella’s power, and the mission to use it to destroy Vladius. The wand itself was hidden elsewhere for safekeeping, in anticipation of the time when Vladius and Arlius would return to the Living World. I must find Prinkepstella, and I am relying upon the help of all of you, of each person in this room, to trace what leads you can find and see what information about the location of the golden wand you can ascertain. Even a rumor of its whereabouts would help, for I must track down that wand and use it against Vladius.”
The cell members talked, but no one knew anything about the location of Prinkepstella. Zandrew considered telling Rellora that he had the wand in his possession, but he was wary that the entire meeting might be a manipulative trap set up by the Eliminator, so he decided to be cautious and wait.
“It is necessary for everyone here to use whatever contacts you have to find out where Prinkepstella is,” Rellora continued. “If Vladius’s agents find the golden wand first, he could become invincible. Will you help me?” The people in the room all said yes, except for Zandrew, who remained silent. Rellora asked them to come back the next day and report on their findings.
After the meeting ended, the gathered Arlians got up and went their separate ways. Soon only Zandrew, Rellora and Gennis were left.
“Will you free Turrin now?” Zandrew asked.
“Let me think about that problem a little more,” Rellora said. “I will let your friend free soon, but we must keep the knowledge of this cell a secret.”
Zandrew decided that he wanted to take a walk and see the city. He asked Rellora if it was all right for him to go.
“Yes, but we don’t want you getting lost,” Rellora answered. “Take Gennis with you. He knows the city well.” Zandrew couldn’t help feeling that Gennis had been attached to him because of Rellora’s persistent lack of trust, but he accepted the offer. He and Gennis walked up the stairs and came out the secret entrance, then left through the main doors of the mansion into the outside city.
“If you really want to see the city at its best, you should see the marketplace,” Gennis said.
“Okay, let’s head in that direction,” Zandrew replied.
The marketplace was filled with people wearing bright clothes, shopping and haggling. The people had a certain vitality that could be heard in their words and seen in their quick, confident gestures, and in the rosy color of their skin. Zandrew smiled, glad to be among such healthy people.
Zandrew passed by a stall that sold weapons and armor. He stopped and looked at the wares. Gennis kept a stern watch over Zandrew while he browsed. Zandrew took a sword off a rack, felt its hilt, balanced it in his hand, and made a few practice slashes in the air. The sword felt satisfyingly light and sharp. He took out his bag of coins, counted the remainder of his money, and asked the stall clerk how much the sword cost. Zandrew bargained the price down to two silver coins, and counted the money out into the clerk’s outstretched hand. Zandrew took the sheath that came with the sword, hooked it into his belt, and sheathed his new sword.
They passed through a crowded area and came out on the other side. Before them a priest of Vladius stood on a crate in front of a crowd, delivering a sermon. Zandrew clenched his fists in anger as he listened to the priest speak.
“Vladius is strength! Vladius is power! Vladius is greatness! Vladius is glory! Ours is not to question, our lot in life is to obey the will of Vladius, the Lord of Darkness, and to obey those priests who are the voice of Vladius in the Living World. Do not defy Vladius, obey Vladius! Do not turn away from Vladius, befriend Vladius! Do not question Vladius, serve Vladius! Those who question, those who disobey, those who are too weak in their faith to serve with loyalty, they walk down the path towards Arlius, Vladius’s sworn enemy! They are the damned! Serve Vladius and, in the life after death, you will be rewarded! Defy Vladius and in death you shall be punished! Vladius is the Dark Lord of the Slain, he controls the afterlife! He is also the Nightmare King, he controls your fortune and your problems in this world! Be the enemy of Vladius and he shall strike you down with lightning from the sky, leaving behind nothing of you but ashes! Serve Vladius, obey his priests, offer the ritual sacrifices, and allow his mark to be branded into your skin, and you shall live forever by the side of the righteous Dark Lord of the Slain! Love the Nightmare King and he will protect you from the horrors of this world!” Zandrew looked into the mad, gleaming eyes of the Vladian priest, and walked away, Gennis following behind him.
As they were walking through the crowd, they passed a man wearing a red robe who bumped into Gennis, apologized, and then walked off.
“Check your bag of coins,” Zandrew said.
“Your coins. Check to make sure you still have them.”
Gennis reached into his jacket pocket. “They’re gone!”
“That man in the red robe picked your pocket. Follow me.” Zandrew and Gennis raced through the crowd after the thief. They caught up with him at the edge of the market, and grabbed him from behind, holding onto his robe.
“My coins, please,” Gennis said. The man meekly handed Gennis his bag of coins. Gennis let him go, and he walked away.
“You know, you’re not such a bad person to have around,” Gennis said to Zandrew. They started to walk back into the marketplace.
“We’ve been on the road together for a while, but I still don’t know very much about you,” Zandrew said. “Where are you from? How did you meet Rellora?”
Gennis was silent. Zandrew glanced over at him, and he seemed to be silently brooding. Zandrew accepted the silence as his only answer.
“Rellora is a better person than you or I, or any other mortal we’ll ever know,” Gennis said suddenly. Zandrew gave Gennis a surprised look. The man had seemed silent and withdrawn, but an intense emotion was pouring out of his voice. “She did a great good once, and now I live only to repay her.”
“What did she do?”
This question earned Zandrew a grim stare, but no answer. Zandrew felt that Gennis had shared as much as he was going to. They finished sight-seeing, and returned to Lord Wong’s mansion as night fell.
Zandrew had a nightmare. It was the same one that had plagued him many times since his youth. He stood at the back of a huge crowd. In front of the crowd there were two people tied to stakes, a large pile of dry kindling at their feet. The two people were Zandrew’s mother and father. A man addressed the crowd while holding a burning torch. He shouted that the two people had committed the crime of worshiping Arlius, and that their punishment was the fire. He angrily tossed the torch at Zandrew’s parents’ feet, and the dry brush caught fire. Zandrew watched as his parents burned to death. They screamed as the flame slowly gnawed its way through their bodies. The red and yellow fire climbed up and left a smear of burnt flesh in its trail.
Zandrew had a happy childhood. His father Charles was a prosperous merchant; his mother Dawn was a distant relative of a baron. His father was disciplined, but not stern, and Zandrew knew that his father was incredibly proud of his son. His mother was a soft, caring woman, who bathed Zandrew in love. He had enjoyed those days, playing with the other children of the neighborhood, and working sometimes in his father’s shop. He had been happy then.
His family had always been different, because his parents taught him to worship Arlius, a deity whose religion had long since faded away. Zandrew felt special because Arlius heard his prayers, and the other people of Mennok did not have a God; they must be so lonely, he thought. But then a wave of anti-religious zeal had swept through the city, and there had been rumors that there were Arlians hiding somewhere. A rumor, a whisper, and soldiers had stormed into his house, tied his mother and father up, and taken them away. Zandrew had not known it then, but he now suspected that priests of Vladius were behind those rumors.
In the nightmare world Zandrew’s father and mother were engulfed in bright, high flames. That was the end of Zandrew’s joyful youth, and the death of his innocence. From that point on Zandrew would always have doubts and feel pain and anguish. Zandrew stared at the glowing flames. Here was the point at which the nightmare diverged from how the reality had happened. At his parents’ actual death, Zandrew had slipped away and escaped unnoticed. In the dream, the crowd turned on him and advanced, surrounding him, holding torches outstretched, pointing the torches at him. He backed up against a wall, and watched as the fire came towards him. The torches touched him, and he caught fire and screamed as the hot flames engulfed him. He continued to cry out as the mob closed in around him.
Suddenly Zandrew woke up. Someone was shaking him. Rellora was standing over him, her hand on his shoulder. Zandrew was tired, but he sat up quickly and noted the concerned look in Rellora’s face. He saw that Gennis and Wong were also in the room. It was dark outside of his window, but there were strange lights in the distance.
“We have to leave, now,” Rellora said. “The city is under attack. There is an Imperial armada blocking the port, and an Imperial army advancing towards the city from the east. I believe that the army is under the command of the Imperial general Sire Clint du Vrokk. Sire Vrokk commands the Explode Guard,” she said, shivering at the last two words. “The Explode Guard are the Imperial special forces, almost impossible to defeat. If we’re trapped in the city it will be easy for them to hunt us down and find us. We must escape before it becomes impossible to leave.”
Zandrew jumped out of bed.
“I’m ready to go. Lead the way,” he said.
They hurried downstairs, where Wong told the servants waiting there to flee. There was a group of Arlius cell members on the ground floor. Wong addressed them quickly.
“Separate and leave the city! Take the love of Arlius with you wherever you end up, lest his light go out completely.”
Zandrew turned to Rellora. “What about Turrin? Is he still tied up downstairs?”
“We don’t have the time to worry about him,” Rellora answered. In spite of her, Zandrew ran to the secret door, hurried down the stairs, and found Turrin, lying bound on the floor. Zandrew unsheathed his sword and used it to cut through the rope binding Turrin.
“Zandrew, what’s going on?” Turrin asked.
“The Empire is attacking Port Jiang. We have to escape.”
“Are you going with that lady? I’ve had just about enough of her.”
“Yes, I plan on leaving with Rellora. She’s on a quest to use the golden wand, so I feel that my destiny is tied to hers.”
“Then this is where we part ways, Zandrew. I wish you good luck on your quest.” Zandrew followed Turrin up the stairs, but Turrin disappeared out the front door and vanished into the night.
Zandrew found Rellora and Gennis, who were with Lord Wong. They went to the front door and opened it, peering out onto the street outside. In front of the mansion there was an angry mob. A priest of Vladius held a torch and shouted to the crowd. “On this night, Vladius has come to me and told me that this is a house of infidels! They have brought the Kindahl’s wrath down upon our city as punishment for their heresy! Burn them!”
Zandrew was reminded of the horror of his parents’ death as the crowd, like a liquid mass of people stuck together, moved forward. Wong quickly closed the front door and barred it with an iron staff that was nearby.
“There is a secret exit that leads out the back of the house. Follow me,” Wong said. Zandrew, Gennis and Rellora rushed through the house, following Wong. He brought them to a door at the back of the mansion which led out into the city. The night sky was dark above them and there were large houses all around them on the street. The distant sound of fighting, far away, could be heard. They walked down the road and encountered the more populous section of the city. There was a crowd of people out in the street, stricken with panic.
“Our one chance is to make it to the Eastern Gate and get out before the Imperial army reaches the eastern part of the city,” Wong said. “If we get out we can head north, into the Deadlands, where I have friends.”
“Our quest must not end here. Vladius cannot be allowed to swallow the world,” Rellora said. “We will follow you out.” They hurried through the streets of the city, heading east.
After pushing their way through several masses of people, the companions finally made their way to the Eastern Gate. It was barred, and three lines of Port Jiang’s soldiers stood in front of it, swords and shields ready. As the gate came into Zandrew’s view, it suddenly glowed bright red, and then exploded, as a spraying wave of fire cut through the air. Imperial wizards had blasted the gate, and Imperial soldiers poured through the hole in the wall, engaging the Jiang soldiers in battle. The Empire’s troops, man after man, flowed into Jiang like water from a burst dam, each one wearing chain-mail armor beneath a red cloak, and holding a sword.
“Well, it’s too late to get out this way,” Zandrew said, watching the battle take place at the other end of the street. “What do we do now?”
“Now we survive,” Rellora answered. “It’s not too late to try to fight our way out of the gate. Those soldiers are Imperial regulars, not Explode Guard.”
Thinking that this was crazy, Zandrew followed Rellora as she walked towards the fighting. Zandrew drew his new sword, and Gennis unsheathed his longsword, while Wong pulled a long knife from his belt. Rellora stood behind Gennis, in silent magical meditation, as they advanced. They came right behind the line of Jiang soldiers, who were engaged in a grisly fight with the Imperial soldiers pouring through the shattered gate.
Gennis engaged the Imperial soldiers, swinging his sword wildly. Zandrew swung his sword at a solder. The soldier parried, and the sharp sound of iron hitting iron filled the air. Zandrew feinted left, and as the soldier moved to guard his left side Zandrew thrust right, running the soldier through. He cut his way through a series of soldiers who came up in front of him. Behind him, Rellora pointed her finger at the fighting, and a thin line of bright red hit a cluster of Imperial soldiers, burning them. As they fought they got no closer to the gate, and as more Imperial soldiers came out through the shattered wall they were pushed farther away from the gate. Wong took an arrow to the chest. The lord fell as Zandrew dueled three soldiers who were trying to surround him.
“This isn’t working!” Rellora shouted. “The line of Jiang defenders won’t hold. We have to get out of here!” As Gennis guarded her retreat, Rellora backed up. Zandrew cut into the side of the soldier he was fighting, then turned and ran. As Rellora, Gennis and Zandrew ran away from the fight, the Imperial soldiers overwhelmed the Jiang defense line and poured out into the city.
Zandrew and Gennis followed Rellora as she made her way down abandoned, dark roads. Zandrew was amazed to think that a few hours ago the empty streets had been full of light and laughter. They came across one Imperial soldier in the middle of the street. Rellora pointed and the soldier’s head jerked back, as if hit, and he dropped to the ground.
“Now our only chance is to reach the harbor and try to escape on a ship,” Rellora said. “I think the harbor is this way.” As they walked the harbor came into view on their right. There were small ships docked in the harbor unloading Imperial troops, and four large ships, farther back, shooting down ships with cannons and fireball spells as they tried to flee. A group of Port Jiang soldiers tried to fight the Imperials, but they were driven back.
“Stop,” Rellora said, and Zandrew and Gennis halted. “Stay still. There’s something that I want to try.” Rellora concentrated and touched Zandrew and Gennis. Zandrew felt a warm, tingling energy surround him, and he sensed a faint blue aura around himself and his companions. “I cast invisibility. They won’t see us, but I can’t hold it for long. Run!”
They ran down into the docks, along the piers, and dodged clumps of fighting soldiers while looking for a boat. The ranks of Imperial soldiers were cutting a path through the defending Jiang soldiers, leaving a trail of corpses in their wake. The only boats left in the harbor were the rowboats the Imperial soldiers were using to disembark in the city. There was a rowboat at the end of the piers that was empty and far from anyone, and they raced towards it. As they neared the rowboat, Rellora gasped and collapsed, having fainted, and Zandrew felt the aura around him evaporate. Rellora had run out of life energy. Gennis picked her up and hoisted the unconscious Rellora onto his shoulder. He carried her with one arm and held his sword with the other. Gennis shouted at Zandrew, “Help me fight our way to that boat!”
“Yeah, I would have anyway,” Zandrew responded.
As they entered the pier with the empty boat, another rowboat rowed up alongside the next pier. Imperial soldiers got out of the boat and stepped onto the dock. Some of the other soldiers farther up the dock had seen them and were coming for them. They were in the middle of two waves of soldiers, with no choice but to fight through. Zandrew and Gennis ran towards the oncoming soldiers and fought, sword to sword, dueling. Gennis chopped through shields and armor left and right, cleaving the people in front of him. Zandrew dueled two sword fighters in front of him, keeping them back. Gennis swung his sword in a wide arc in front of him, cutting through the stomach of the enemy before him. The man fell over backwards as entrails fell out of the wound.
Zandrew’s two opponents were both slow, and he sensed a weakness in one of them, a deficiency in his left parry. Zandrew feinted and stabbed left, skewering his opponent, but the other man nicked Zandrew on the shoulder with his blade, cutting a small wound. Zandrew grabbed the dead soldier’s body and threw it at the other soldier, and they both fell off the pier into the water with a loud splash. Another soldier charged Zandrew and was swiftly run through. Gennis, whom Zandrew recognized as an extremely talented swordsman, had cut through all the other Imperial soldiers who had gotten off the rowboat. Zandrew and Gennis, carrying Rellora, jumped into the boat. Gennis put Rellora down, and Zandrew and Gennis each grabbed a paddle and started rowing frantically. A few arrows were shot at them, wide of their mark.
They rowed out into the bay. The four large Imperial ships loomed in front of them, and they watched as ship after ship tried to escape out the bay. Each fleeing ship was blasted by cannon fire and magic spells. The ship in front of them was hit by a fireball spell sent from an Imperial ship, and the mast and deck exploded in flames as the people aboard the ship jumped overboard and swam for their lives.
“Those boats’ mistake is trying to go between the Imperial ships,” Zandrew said. “There’s a wide area between the ship on the right and the right edge of the bay. If we hug the edge we can stay out of range of those cannons.”
“That’s crazy!” Gennis responded. “The edge is shallow crags. Our boat will be ripped up from underneath. We can make it through the middle, if we row fast enough and aren’t cowards.”
“Now I know why Rellora keeps such a tight leash on you. You’re insane! There’s no way we’re going to make it between those ships.”
They watched as another ship in front of them was hit by a cannon blast. Gennis gave Zandrew an enraged look, but he started rowing towards the right edge of the harbor. As they moved out to sea they passed within steps of a series of sharp rocks, and numerous cannon balls and fireball spells splashed into the water close to them, but they were just out of range. The gunmen and fireball-throwing wizards aboard the four large ships ignored Zandrew’s rowboat as it went past them and concentrated on the larger ships trying to escape. Zandrew and Gennis rowed on, out into the ocean, angling up the coast, sweating and bleeding.
Zandrew and Gennis rowed until they were both tired to the point of exhaustion. The rowboat ran aground up the coast. They found a path near the shore and followed it to a rural farming village, with Gennis carrying Rellora in his arms. Gennis bought a room at the local inn. The room was small and dirty, but it had three beds. Gennis put Rellora down on one bed, and he and Zandrew fell asleep immediately on the other two beds. After a long while they awoke, to find Rellora standing in the middle of the room, meditating. She was smiling and seemed to be in good health.
“Thank you for protecting me while I was passed out.”
“It was my pleasure,” Zandrew said. “But I have news that you won’t like.” Rellora stared at him. “I didn’t tell you the whole story about myself before, because I thought that you might be a servant of the Eliminator. By now I know that you’re not, and I trust you. And if you’re hiding something, if you’re really a spy of the enemy, well, I’ll have to risk it anyway.”
“What is it that you didn’t tell me?” Rellora asked.
Zandrew paused, and looked away. “I was born in the city of Mennok, where I grew up. My parents were members of a cell of Arlius worshipers who lived in that city. Some people in Mennok discovered the existence of the cell. A woman, Mireva the witch, sold out the rest of the cell, telling the town guard who the cell members were and where they lived. My parents, along with the other captured Arlians, were burned at the stake.”
“I’m sorry,” Rellora said sadly.
“It’s been a long time. I’ve overcome the pain, or at least I’ve tried to. After that, I was recruited by a thieves’ guild, and I worked in Mennok as a thief for some time. After the city took a turn for the worse I moved south, gave up on being a thief, and worked as a mercenary in different cities in the southern Center Lands. I was working as a soldier for hire, a member of a gang of mercenaries employed by the city of Pegasus, when that city was attacked by the Eliminator. I was knocked out during the battle, and when I woke up I was a prisoner of the Eliminator.” Rellora’s eyes had widened with wonder. Gennis was also listening intently to the story. “The Eliminator took a personal interest in me, seeking, I now realize, to use me. She allowed me to escape, with a map that led me to Mireva the witch. There I learned that Mireva had the golden wand Prinkepstella. Together we opened the seal that protected the wand, which could only be opened by two Arlius worshipers. I believe that the Eliminator was ready to try to steal the wand once it was unsealed, so I killed the traitorous witch, took the wand and ran. Then I found you.”
“Do you mean to say that you, Zandrew, now have the golden wand? That it is here, with us, at this very moment?”
“Yes, I have it right now.”
“Oh, praise Arlius!” Rellora said cheerfully. “It is a miracle! Surely the Lord of Light is watching over us, guiding our steps in this noble quest, for such a miracle to have happened! It was my charge to find Prinkepstella, but frankly, I feared that I would never find it—and now it is here! May I see it?”
“Here it is.” Zandrew took the wand out of his jacket pocket and handed it to Rellora. It was a thin, long rod made of solid gold. Rellora held it gently, lovingly.
Rellora turned to Zandrew, and the joy in her face was replaced by a serious look. “I do not believe in coincidences. If you are here, then it is Arlius’s will that ties you to this wand. I am on a quest to find this wand and, now that it has been found, my quest is to use it to find and destroy Vladius’s magical Silver Throne, the source of the power of darkness. Will you join me? Will you join my quest?”
Zandrew’s answer was immediate. “Yes, I will.”
“Good. I am sure that is how our Lord Arlius intends for things to be. Now, since you have told me your story, it is only fair that I tell you mine.” Rellora handed Prinkepstella back to Zandrew.
“I come from the kingdom of Reiner in the southwestern corner of the Empire. I was one of the king’s four daughters, a princess of Reiner. I was trained to be a sorceress, as was proper for young noblewomen. When I was young, the Empire conquered Reiner, and I was forced to flee. I found safety in the city of Nezor, very far to the north. I was disgusted with the evil of the Empire and the dark God in whose name the Emperor rules, and I found a cell of Arlius worshipers in the city and joined, becoming a worshiper of Arlius. That cell, when it was created in ancient times, was entrusted with a task, that if the golden wand Prinkepstella ever resurfaced, the wand was to be found and used to destroy Vladius’s Throne of Darkness.
It was also given to that cell to know that the wand could only be powered by the magic of an Avatar of Light. A new Avatar could be created using the Golden Throne, but at this time no heroes worthy and capable of that feat are known to me. My next mission is to find the last Avatar of Light, Ankezebaur, who vanished after defeating the final Avatar of Darkness at the end of the Thousand Years War, and to get him to empower the wand so that it can be used to kill Vladius. He will tell us how to use the wand and guide us down the path towards the destruction of Vladius. I also know a little about the nature of the war between Vladius and Arlius, which might be useful for you to know.”
Zandrew had listened intently to Rellora. He wondered why she hadn’t mentioned how she had met Gennis. Still, he felt relaxed, glad to be with a fellow Arlius worshiper. He listened closely as Rellora continued to speak.
“Many years ago, the Kindahl and the Eliminator, two powerful evil wizards, were searching for ways to increase their magical power. They accidentally woke up Vladius, the ancient Dark Lord of the Slain. Arlius, the Guardian of Light, was also roused from slumber to fight his ancient enemy, but Vladius’s power is blocking the golden light of Arlius from shining onto the Living World, and Vladius’s shadow of darkness is increasing to cover everything. If all Arlius worshipers are killed and all his altars destroyed, he will have no conduit to the Living World from the Higher World, and Vladius and the Lower World will rule unchallenged forever. The one hope of humanity is to use Prinkepstella to destroy the source of Vladius’s power, the legendary Silver Throne.
According to myth, in the beginning, during the First Age, all humans lived happily and peacefully in a kingdom of bounty, the kingdom Zega, rumored to have been far to the south. Zega existed many thousands of years ago. Then there was a war between the humans and demons. At the end of the war, the greatest wizard to ever live, Zar, saved the human race from extinction by using his magic to defeat the demons and imprison them. After that, peace and harmony lasted for thousands of years. Until the start of the Throne War, that is.
A thousand years after the Demon War, Alexandramas and his wife Leeah were the King and Queen of Zega. They ruled from their castle, the location of which is unknown. In their throne room, they sat upon a pair of magic thrones that they had found in ancient ruins somewhere in their kingdom. His throne was silver, and hers was gold. Leeah was a good, noble and just woman, who ruled well, and her people loved her. However, Alexandramas was a proud and spiteful man, jealous of his wife, and he believed that the people loved her more than they loved him. He wanted more power for himself. The Silver Throne whispered to him while he sat in it, and he learned that their thrones were actually ancient, powerful magical artifacts. The Silver Throne was the Throne of Darkness, a door into the Lower World, and the Golden Throne was the Throne of Light, a doorway into the Higher World. The two thrones were actually the legendary relics, the Thrones of Faith. Vladius the Nightmare King whispered into his ear, and he stabbed his wife Leeah in the back and used her blood to power the spell that opened the door in the Silver Throne.
Vladius’s shadow entered the world and spread to all the darkness in the hearts of the petty, evil, and violent humans, and his evil took root in the human race. As Leeah sat on her throne, dying, Arlius, the King of Love, spoke to her and told her that the good in her heart could be the salvation of humanity, if she would sacrifice her immortal soul to stop the flow of Vladius’s evil. She, whose soul was possessed of perfect purity and inner beauty, was willing to give up eternity to save humanity from its weakness and sin, and Arlius gave her a spell to open the Golden Throne.
She used the spell, powering it with her own spirit, and Arlius reached through to touch the goodness in humans so that they would fight Vladius. Thus began the Second Age, and the war between the light and the darkness of the cosmic order, which manifests itself through the fight between the goodness and evil of humans. This is called the Throne War, the war between those who follow the Golden Throne of Arlius and those who serve the Silver Throne of Vladius. Arlius is the protector of the human race, who guides humans into the place named Heaven, which is also called the Higher World, after death. Vladius is the enemy of humanity, who uses tricks and lies to try and divert human souls into Hell, the Lower World, when they die. The followers of the two Gods fight in the Living World, as agents of the two divine arch-enemies, the glorious Guardian of Light and the wicked Dark Lord of the Slain.
The Throne War went on for thousands of years, in tales now lost to human memory. Most recently, during the age between two and one thousand years ago, a series of battles between good and evil now known as the Thousand Years War were fought. The stories of that war are too numerous to tell, but the war ended when the last Avatar of the Light, Ankezebaur, and the last Avatar of the Darkness, Mephist, fought in a duel where the Avatar of Light defeated the Avatar of Darkness. After that the power of the Thrones of Faith was ended, and their gates sealed shut. That ended the Second Age, and the Third Age, our present era, began.
Early in the Thousand Years War, the elves, who are pacifists, stole the Throne of Light and hid it, believing that this would end the Throne War. Fortunately Zakarius, the Great King of Light, recovered the throne, and then he built the Palace of Light, the fortress in the sky near the Island of Light, to house the Golden Throne. After the final battle of the Avatars, the elves snatched the Throne of Darkness, and they hid it somewhere, again seeking to stop the war. No one knows where the Silver Throne is now. The servants of Vladius want the golden wand, because it can not only destroy Vladius’s throne, it can also track it down and reveal its location.
Unfortunately, the victory of the Avatar of Light banished Vladius for a time, but he was not permanently defeated. Only destroying the Silver Throne can truly defeat Vladius, and the Throne of Darkness was not destroyed. Now that Vladius walks the Living World again, Arlius, the only hope of humanity’s salvation, is trapped, and our only chance for victory is to use the golden wand to destroy the Silver Throne and kill Vladius.
Vladius is so concentrated on the worldwide war for the souls of humans and his military campaigns that he may ignore a few humans, our small band of Arlians, and we may be able to find the Silver Throne and use the golden wand without him noticing, catching him off guard, as it were. But since he is a God I do not know if it can be done, and we still need to learn how to activate the wand. The legend says that only Ankezebaur, the man who made the golden wand, knew how to power the wand’s spell, which will find and destroy the Silver Throne before Vladius’s clerics can find it and protect it.
There is a legend that a follower of a God who finds his throne and sits in it can have God-like powers bestowed upon him and become his Avatar. If we can’t complete our mission and destroy Vladius, against impossible odds, our abject ignorance and weakness, and the legions of Vladius’s soldiers, wizards, and priests, all of whom are searching for Prinkepstella and hunting and killing Arlius worshipers, then the Living World will come under the eternal night of Vladius and be ruled by the Lower World forever. And if a Vladian reaches the Throne of Darkness, he will become a new Avatar, and our doom will be sealed. On the other hand, the Throne of Light is in the hands of the Kindahl’s Empire, because the Palace of Light is within his territory, so no Arlian can get to it. Things have never looked bleaker for the future of mankind.”
“Cheer up!” Zandrew said. “It could be worse. At least we’re still alive! I’m sure that we’ll be able to use the wand. I can feel Arlius watching us and guiding us right now. How else do you think we escaped from Port Jiang if not with his help? We’re on the right path and Arlius will guide us to victory.”
Rellora shrugged. “I wish that I could share your simple faith. Our savior is a powerful God, but he is not the only God whose will is alive in this world. I assure you, your overconfidence will crumble once you experience the full power of the Dark Lord of the Slain’s wrath during the course of your battle with him. And trust me, you will feel Vladius’s wrath.”
A carriage rode through the main street of Jiang, leaving red tracks as it rolled through the blood on the streets. The carriage passed over Lord Wong’s body, its giant iron wheels crushing his corpse’s rib cage as it rolled over him. It passed mounds of rotting corpses, burned out buildings, and soldiers subduing the last remaining pockets of resistance. The carriage passed large groups of people being herded into slave camps, as the populace of Jiang was to be enslaved. Clerics of Vladius were giving sermons, telling the newly enslaved people that salvation had come, and that they should submit to Vladius’s glory and be saved, or resent him in their hearts and be condemned. The slaves were lined up, and Imperial wizards walked down the lines, branding energy-draining runes into the people’s skin. The carriage passed huge groups of slaves chained together, being sold at markets on the street where Imperial nobles who were moving their households into Jiang were bidding for slaves.
The carriage arrived at the makeshift tent army headquarters in the center of the city. It stopped in front of the tent’s entrance. A woman in a green dress, with long blond hair and icy blue eyes, stepped out of the carriage. She was followed by a man wearing black armor and a black cape, with beady brown eyes and a thin black mustache. Deathly stepped out of the carriage after them. The man and woman fell into step behind him as he entered the tent. There was a table set up, surrounded by high-ranking Imperial army officers talking and conferring. Deathly walked to the head of the table, to a man giving orders to the people around him. The man looked up, saw Deathly and saluted.
“General Brevis reporting, Sire Deathly. I humbly await your orders.”
“Sire Vrokk has gone?”
“Yes, Sire. He returned to Habsburk after it became clear that the city had fallen.”
“And the condition of the city?”
“I can report a complete success. The city is entirely under our control. The people have been gathered and await your taking magical control of them. Everything is going according to plan.”
“Good. Now, this is very important. Has anything regarding the golden wand been discovered? Is it in this city?”
“Unfortunately, Sire, the golden wand was not found. But there is good news. A spy we had planted in the Jiang cell of Arlians met with a woman who claimed to have vital information concerning the golden wand.”
“Bring the spy to me.”
Deathly waited impatiently while soldiers escorted the spy into the tent. It was the girl with whom Zandrew had talked about faith at the meeting.
“You’re very beautiful,” Deathly said to her. “You would make a fine subject for a work of art.”
The Imperial spy hesitated, unsure of how to respond, and then remembered that she was addressing a Magician-King.
“Thank you, Sire. You compliment is kind, and I live to serve you. I’m pleased to be able to report to you the happenings of the Arlius cell of Jiang. Recently there was an event that concerned the golden wand, a woman with some men on a quest to find it.”
“Really? What did they look like?”
“Well, Sire, the woman wore a blue dress, and—”
“Be silent. This spell will reveal what they look like.”
Deathly reached out and placed his hand on the girl spy’s face. There was a flash of red light, and, as the girl screamed, the flesh of her face melted away under Deathly’s hand. He reached into her head and pulled out her glistening, bloody brain. Her body collapsed onto the floor.
“This should do the trick,” he said happily. He pointed at the brain with his other hand and a ray of white light from his fingers encircled the brain. White light came out of the brain and projected three images in the air. The images were of Rellora, Zandrew and Gennis. The woman in the green dress gasped.
“You know them, Sorfeara?”
“I know the woman, my Lord. She will be a wily one to catch. You know her also, my Lord.”
“Yes, I know. I remember her.”
Sorfeara whispered to herself, “I will enjoy breaking every bone in your body and burning every patch of skin off your flesh as you writhe, helpless, squealing, Rellora. Oh, the pain you’ll know, the pain!”
Deathly turned to the man in black armor and cape.
“Volch, go and find that woman and her companions. Kill everyone with her. Slaughter them in the name of Vladius, and give their corpses as burnt offerings at the temple of Vladius. Bring the woman to me.” The man saluted and bowed. “Sorfeara, go with him. Make sure that he succeeds.”
“Your will is my command, my Lord. It may be hard to capture her. She’s the one who escaped you, you know.”
“I know. The one that got away.” The images had faded, but Deathly continued to absentmindedly caress the brain in his hands. He was already thinking about what his painting of the dead brain would look like. “Don’t worry, Sorfeara. She will yet be mine.”
In a forest, two devil-bears and two forest draks had surrounded a woman. The devil-bears were huge bears with reddish-orange fur, horns on their heads, and long claws. The forest draks were giant green lizards with spines along their backs and long, thin tails each ending in stingers. The woman, a ninja named Sheila, was athletic and lithe, with short brown hair and piercing, intense brown eyes. She was in her early twenties, plain in the face, but with an ample figure. She wore black leather armor, a suit of leather that had been treated to be tough and hard, but which provided a maximum of dexterity for a ninja. She also wore a pair of enchanted silver boots.
The monsters growled and drooled hungrily. The woman grinned. The monsters advanced, and the woman back-flipped out of the closing circle, turned, dodged under a drak’s claw, and kicked up into the drak’s head. The drak went flying. There was a sound of bones crunching as it landed.
A devil-bear tried to charge her from behind. Sheila jumped, cartwheeled back, and spin-kicked it in the head as it charged her. Its neck snapped. The devil-bear collapsed as the woman smiled.
The two remaining monsters backed up. Behind them lay a mountain range lit in reds and purples by the sunset behind it. She reflected that travelers in these hills, coming from the Eliminator’s kingdom, saw only empty mountains, but she could see the city hidden within them, her beloved home, the last refuge of the Arlians. Every once in a while the monsters of the forest, who could smell the city in a way that humans could not, grew bold and attacked. Then she and her ninjas would teach them a lesson.
She ran at the creatures, somersaulted under a forest drak’s tail-slash, and threw a dagger at it. The dagger plunked into its eye, and the drak cried and ran away. The devil-bear got up on its hind legs and spit globs of acid, but the woman dodged under them. The devil-bear cowered. She ran at it and jump-kicked—and a blinding pain ripped through her. She flew through the air, hit the ground and sprawled. She could feel a strip of agony across her back. She recovered her senses and jumped up, and screamed as the pain flashed across her back. The devil-bear and the now one-eyed forest drak, which had tail-struck her from behind, advanced hungrily. She jumped over a volley of acid globs, and dodged to the side to miss a tail-slash, but she was starting to feel sluggish. She rubbed her back and her hand came away bloody. She remembered that drak tails are poisoned. The monsters advanced and she tried to fight the slowness overtaking her, but everything started to go dim. She fell to the ground.
Sheila could not move. There was a glowing blue light above her. She prayed that it was the light of the tunnel leading to the savior, Arlius. The blue light shot out two blue rays at the monsters, who writhed and tried to flee, but they were stuck. The monsters melted, dissolving into ashes. She looked up at the light and saw the vague outline of a kindly old man with a long white beard. The man shot a beam of white light at her, and she felt the pain drain away from her body. The man leaned over her.
“Go to the Northern Continent, Sheila,” he whispered. “Go and find the golden wand, and protect it from evil. Protect it from the Kindahl! I am Ankezebaur. I made the wand, and you must help them use it. You will know how to find them.”
Sheila’s head hurt, and she thought that she might be dreaming, but the vision of the man was very clear and solid.
“I am Ankezebaur, the last Avatar of Light. You must go to the Northern Continent. Find Prinkepstella, and protect it from the Kindahl. Arlius has chosen you. This is your destiny!” Sheila nodded her understanding just before passing out. The old man smiled and then vanished.
The Eliminator shimmered into appearance high above the unconscious body of Sheila, hovering in the air. She looked down at Sheila. Between the Eliminator and Sheila, the illusion of the blue light and the old man, which the Eliminator had conjured, began to fade away. The Eliminator smiled. She snapped her fingers, and the monsters, her pets, were teleported back to their cage, hundreds of miles away. The Eliminator gestured with her hand again, and the dark Queen, too, vanished. Sheila remained on the ground, now alone, passed out. Eventually Sheila awoke. She had a dim, fuzzy memory, blurry yet compelling like a vivid dream, that the Avatar of Light had given her a quest in the service of Arlius, and that she was to head north and seek the golden wand.
Zandrew, Rellora and Gennis were still in the room at the inn, talking. “So, Rellora,” Zandrew said, “it seems clear to me that we need to find the last Avatar of Light in order to power the golden wand. How are we going to find him?”
“At the end of the Thousand Year War, after vanquishing the Avatar of Darkness, the last Avatar of Light, Ankezebaur, retired forever from the world. The only clue to where he went is something he said, that he would go to ‘the land where the elves live, which lies in the Shadow of Heaven.’ That’s where he is.”
“Of what use is that riddle to us?”
“That is all that we have to go on. However, people have been trying to find the last Avatar of Light for centuries, so we will be able to build upon the work of many scholars and adventurers.”
“Well, if that is the case, then we should go to University City and search their library records for information of the Avatar of Light. I’ve heard that it’s the best library in the world,” Zandrew said.
“Six months ago, University City rebelled against the Empire,” Gennis replied. “The young students there wanted freedom and opposed tyranny. The Kindahl used his magic to seal everyone inside the city and burned it down with an explode spell. Most of the books burned, along with most of the scholars. The ruins still remain, though, and we can search there for a start. It’s on the way to Habsburk City, where the Imperial Library is.”
“All right, then,” Zandrew said. “Let’s head for University City. Anything that might lead us to Ankezebaur is better than nothing. Let’s just hope that we don’t run into any more Imperial forces.”
“If we do, we’ll be ready,” Rellora said grimly.
There was a small town called Littlefield on the southern part of the Great Road that went south to north through the Center Lands and the Habsburk Empire. A rider rode into that town from the south. He went into the town sheriff’s office, delivered a satchel, left and rode away, riding north out of the city.
Later that afternoon the sheriff went to the town square and posted three pieces of paper on a wooden wall. They were wanted posters for Zandrew, Rellora and Gennis.
Zandrew and his companions had bought horses and were riding north along the Great Road. They rode down a hill and up another one, and at the bottom of the next hill they came across a barrier of wooden debris in the center of the road. There were six people there, three on the right side of the road and three on the left. The people looked dirty and mean, and each held a sword.
“Give us all your money or die,” one of the men on the left shouted. Zandrew glanced at Rellora. After buying the horses and supplies they had little money left.
“We’ll make short work of these fools,” Rellora said to Gennis. Gennis dismounted and drew his sword, and Zandrew followed his lead. Rellora clapped her hands and there was a blinding flash of white light. The brigands rubbed their hurting eyes, then opened their eyes and advanced. One of the men attacked Zandrew, while two others went for Gennis.
Rellora pointed and muttered a word and a giant earthen spike shot up out of the ground, impaling one of the men through the torso. She pointed again at the thieves and a beam of red light shot out from her fingertip in a wide arc, burning the flesh and clothes of the men it hit.
Zandrew swung his sword at his opponent, who dodged to the left and then swung his sword over his head down at Zandrew. Zandrew parried the blow as the clang of metal against metal screeched. He pushed his opponent back with a hard shove and stabbed out with his sword, piercing his enemy through the stomach. He pulled his sword, glistening with red blood, out of the other man and watched him fall to the ground. Gennis had killed the two men he had been fighting, while the rest had run away. There was a deep slash in Gennis’s left side, bleeding down his torso onto his leg. Gennis was holding his left side, an expression of grim stoicism hiding the pain.
“We have to get you to a healer,” Rellora said to Gennis matter-of-factly. “If I recall correctly, there is a small town north of here. I believe it’s called Littlefield. We have to try to make it there as quickly as possible.” Gennis nodded. Zandrew mounted his horse and watched Gennis do the same. They rode onwards.
“Why don’t you heal Gennis with your magic?” Zandrew asked Rellora as they rode.
“This wound is beyond my abilities. I have talent at using battle spells, but my healing skills are not very good. I do not have the power to heal a serious wound such as the one that he has. I wish I could, but Arlius in his wisdom has given me whatever powers he sees fit for me to have.”
They came to a town a few hours later, as farms and clusters of little wooden cabins came into view on their left. They asked around and located the house of the town healer.
“Yes, that’s a nasty cut you’ve got there,” the healer said. She was an old woman with frizzled gray hair in a simple brown dress. “Yes, it’s bad, but I can heal it. Come inside. I have a potion for you to drink that should help heal most of the damage.”
Gennis entered the house. Zandrew and Rellora followed behind. The healer had Gennis sit down and drink a potion. Then she put her hands on the wound and chanted some unrecognizable words, and a soft blue light emanated from her hands and Gennis’s body. While the healer was busy, Zandrew surreptitiously stole a few bottles of healing potion from her cabinet. After a while the healer finished, and Gennis stood up.
“That’s all that I can do for you. The rest is up to your own body to do the healing. That will be eight gold pieces, please.” Rellora reluctantly counted out eight gold pieces into the woman’s waiting hands. Zandrew knew that it was almost the last of their money.
Rellora, Gennis and Zandrew stepped out of the healer’s house into the village. There was a crowd of people in the field outside of the house, some of them holding pitchforks, a few holdings swords clumsily in their hands. They were obviously people from the village. A short, stout man stepped out from the crowd and addressed Zandrew, Rellora and Gennis.
“I’m the sheriff of Littlefield, and that means that I’m the law around here. You’re wanted by the Habsburk Empire, and it’s worth all our lives to deliver you to the Empire. Surrender, or we’ll be forced to fight you.”
“It’s a fight you won’t win,” Rellora answered. Before the crowd could react, Rellora made a broad gesture toward them with her arm, and a huge gust of wind rushed out, knocking the crowd back. “Run for the horses,” Rellora yelled to Zandrew and Gennis, and they made a line for their horses, which were tethered some distance away.
A few of the villagers reached them just as they reached their horses, and Gennis swiftly drew his sword and swung it in a wide arc, forcing the villagers to back up. One held a pitchfork out and ran at Gennis. Gennis deftly swung his sword and knocked the head of the pitchfork to the side as the man charged, then swung his sword back the other way, cutting the man across the chest. Zandrew and Rellora had already mounted their horses and Gennis jumped up onto his.
As they rode away, Rellora turned in her saddle to look back at the crowd chasing after them. Some of them had run to get horses while the rest were following them on foot. She pointed at the ground, and the earth shook, a section of the ground falling to create a huge pit between them and the advancing villagers. They rode away from the village and onto the Great Road. Three riders were pursuing them on horseback. Rellora gestured once more, and a huge sheet of flame sprayed out from her arm to the ground below, setting the grass on fire. They saw the riders stop, their horses panicked by the flames. Zandrew, Gennis and Rellora rode on, down the Great Road.
After riding north for a full day, the companions found a forest off the side of the road and entered it. They made camp for the night there. Gennis set up a small tent and then went to gather firewood. Zandrew volunteered to go with him. Rellora, exhausted from the use of powerful magic against the villagers, stayed behind and rested.
“So, that was a little exciting, wasn’t it?” Zandrew said cheerfully to Gennis, whose face was grim and blank.
“I wouldn’t call that excitement. It was more like a minor annoyance.”
“Well, I guess that’s one way of looking at it.” Zandrew walked past Gennis and picked up a branch off the ground. Then he turned to Gennis. “Say, where are you from?”
Gennis did not answer.
“When Rellora told me her story, she didn’t mention you. How did you meet her? What’s your story?” Silence was his only response.
“You know,” Zandrew said, “we’re traveling on the road together now. We’re both working together. You and I are both Arlians. We share the same quest. You might as well trust me.”
Gennis stared at him.
“I suppose you’re right,” he said. “If you really want to know, I’ll tell you.” He paused, then continued talking. “I come from a small village in the northern part of the Empire, called Birdcross. I was a young man training to be a blacksmith. My family, the Brauns, are all humans, but we have some distant dwarven ancestry, and the Braun family had been the smiths of Birdcross for generations. I was next in line for that honor. This was some time ago. After Rellora escaped from Reiner, she traveled extensively across the northern section of the Empire. She happened to come upon our village, and she stayed there for a while.
I have a brother, Tem. My brother is a little older than me, and he was a wild one. We got along great together, and he was the only person in the village I really liked. I still miss him. Anyway, my village was on the border of the Black Tree Forest. That’s a very dangerous place, filled with monsters. In the forest there is a kind of plant, called goldroot, that is a delicacy in the Empire. My family was very poor, and my brother decided to go into the forest to find some goldroot, to sell to the trader who came to our village from time to time. I begged him not to go, but his mind was made up. He and a friend of his went hunting for goldroot. While in the forest, they were attacked by a malus majora. Do you know what that is?”
“No, I’ve never heard of that before,” Zandrew answered.
“The malus majora is one of the most powerful monsters in the Black Tree Forest. It lures men with the voice of a lovely woman, and then reveals its ugly, slimy body and attacks. Its appearance is too hideous to describe. A malus majora tricked Tem and his friend and attacked them. It cornered Tem and slashed him all over. His friend shot an arrow into it, and Tem escaped while it was distracted, but the monster grabbed his friend and bit off his head. Tem barely made it back the village, and then he collapsed from all the bleeding cuts he had. My village had no healer, and it looked like Tem was going to die, all cut up and poisoned.
The magical talent at which she is worst and weakest is healing, but Rellora volunteered to try to heal my brother. She drained every last drop of her energy into it, and she managed to heal my brother’s wound and leech the poison out of him, saving his life. After she was done she collapsed, exhausted. She nearly died. My family took her in, and she rested and recuperated for a number of months. While she was living with us she talked about Arlius and Vladius, and convinced us to become Arlius worshipers. I knew that our family owed her a great debt, so after she was better and had decided to move on, I told her that I would go with her and protect her. I am a proficient swordsman, and she knew how useful I could be. She agreed to have me. So I’ve been with her ever since. I have more respect for her than words can describe, for her desire to find the golden wand and to single-handedly save the world.”
“Well, thank you for telling me,” Zandrew said. “That’s very interesting. You must have strong feelings of affection for Rellora.”
“I have a deep professional respect for her, and the love of one Arlian for a fellow of the faith. Since you’re traveling with us, you’re entitled to know my story. I haven’t been up north and seen my family in a long time. I wonder how they’re doing. I miss them sometimes, but we have work to do.”
Zandrew said nothing, feeling a solemn moment. Then he continued looking for firewood. He glanced over at Gennis, and thought that although on his first impression he had found Gennis to be simply a grouchy moron, there was clearly more to him than that.
Zandrew and Gennis finished collecting firewood and went back to the site where they had set up camp. Rellora was sitting up and she looked a lot better, color having returned to her face. They made a small fire and sat there, enjoying the night. Zandrew was chosen to take first watch and he sat, alert to any sound approaching them, taking in the sight of the black sky filled with shining stars above, and trying not to think of the ominous journey ahead of them.
The companions rode along the Great Road, heading north. Zandrew knew that the Great Road began in the far north, cut across to go through Habsburk in the Northeast, came down through the central cities of the Empire, then ran through University City’s ruins in the Southwest corner of the Empire, and continued on down into the Center Lands. The road was well traveled. They passed many merchants, heading both north and south, carrying lumber, spices, and slaves from the south, and jewelry, wine, and luxury items from the North. They passed a legion of Imperial soldiers marching south, and had to wait by the side of the road as row after row of soldiers, each bearing a shield and a sword, marched past. The Imperials chanted war songs and raised their swords every so often, and they were a dire sight to behold.
Zandrew, Gennis and Rellora each wore a cloak with a hood pulled around their heads to hide their faces in shadows, but Rellora was still worried that someone would spot them on the road and recognize them, so they went out of their way to avoid the sight of the other people on the road. The road was well-paved and they made good time riding. Soon they reached University City. They came to the place late in the evening, and the sun was setting behind the city, casting it in deep hues of red and purple.
University City lay in a long, flat plain, below the hills leading up to it, so Zandrew could see a lot of the city stretched out before him at a distance. Zandrew had heard of University City, where the best scholars in the world studied together, where the brightest minds of the continent aspired to go to learn. Knowledge had made the scholars bold, and they had raised an army and declared their independence from the Empire, denouncing the Kindahl as a barbarous dictator and declaring the city a bastion of freedom. The Kindahl’s response had been swift and simple. He cast the most powerful destructive spell known to wizardry, the spell called Explode, to incinerate the city. The inner city, which had once contained huge marble palaces surrounded by pillars, was now a smoldering, wasted ruin. Only charred stone was left. Where there had once been wood, there was now only piles of ashes. Most of the library had burned, but a few books and loose pages were scattered around.
The inner city was deathly quiet. Outside the central city, beyond the fire’s radius, sprawled the shanty town built by the survivors. It was a poverty-stricken wasteland, as the once proud city had lost all of its wealth to the flames. The merchants had taken advantage of the remnants, making the shanty town a true destitute ghetto. The Empire did not even have a civil government there. It was too poor to merit one.
They rode down into the shanty town, passing street urchins, prostitutes, and many, many beggars. There were a few merchants on the street, each surrounded by bodyguards. Gennis turned in his saddle to face Rellora.
“The streets here are ruled by thieves and brigands,” he said. “We can’t possibly sleep in the street and survive.” Rellora nodded. They asked some of the beggars around them, and learned that the merchants had set up a ritzy inn for themselves at the edge of the inner city. They rode there, left their horses in the inn’s stable, and entered the inn.
The air in the inn was cold and dry, and a few colorfully dressed merchants were sitting at two tables against the wall of the common room. The innkeeper, an old man with a badly scarred face, sat behind a counter. A large brown dog lounged in a corner of the room, gnawing on a bone. The dog saw the companions and barked. Zandrew walked over to the dog and petted it, and the dog barked appreciatively. Zandrew smiled at the dog, and then he went back to Gennis and Rellora.
Zandrew gave Rellora a worried look as he paid the innkeeper five gold pieces as payment for one week’s stay. They had given the healer in Littlefield almost the last of their money, and now, after paying for the inn, they had only a few gold coins and a handful of silver and copper coins left.
“We will have to search the ruins quickly,” Rellora said to Zandrew and Gennis, as they settled into their room. “Not only has our money run out, but the Kindahl’s men are obviously after us. Anyone here would gladly turn us in for a reward.”
“We’ll search quickly,” Gennis said reassuringly. When night fell, Zandrew lay down in his bed, and suddenly realized, from the amazing feeling of calm that came over him, how tired and used up he was from the long trek north. He curled up in the bed and relaxed, smiling, as Rellora and Gennis also lay down in their beds.
The next morning, Zandrew was the first one to rise out of bed. He put on his jacket and felt something hard against his side. He pulled it out and realized that it was the golden wand. He studied it intently, wondering about the object that had occasioned his quest. It was about half as long as his arm and as thick as a finger. Prinkepstella was a perfect cylinder, round down its length and pointed at both ends, and it was made of solid, heavy gold. It felt cold and stiff in his hand, but the gold glittered and sparkled. If indeed it was the golden wand, then it was one of the most powerful magical items ever created, and in the last thousand years many wars had been waged and millions of lives spent trying to find it. It was the legacy of the last great wizard of the Thousand Years War, when the heroes of the bards’ tales and stories, the men of legend, had fought against the ultimate evil, Vladius.
Before the return of Vladius, most people had believed that the Thousand Years War was just a myth, its stories mere fanciful story-telling, but Zandrew suspected that now people had started to believe the truth of those stories. The shadows of Vladius were swallowing the whole world, as Vladius’s rival servants, the Kindahl and the Eliminator, became more and more powerful, and this wand was the last hope for mankind to escape from domination at the hands of a powerful, venomous evil. Zandrew reflected that if the wand could be made to work, it would get revenge for the deaths of his parents. Curious to see what would happen, he held the wand out and silently willed it to destroy Vladius. The wand stayed still in his hand, doing nothing. Evidently something special was needed to use the wand. Shrugging, Zandrew put the wand back into his jacket pocket.
Soon afterwards Gennis and Rellora woke up. They all got dressed and donned their cloaks. Gennis unsheathed his sword and gave a few practice swings in the air, then sheathed it.
“I’m going out to scout the city,” Gennis said. “Expect me back shortly.”
After Gennis had left, Rellora went to Zandrew and sat down on his bed, facing him.
“I’m glad to have some time alone with you. I did some thinking last night,” she told him. “I would like to use a spell to make Prinkepstella invisible, so that it will be less likely to fall into the hands of Vladius’s servants. Since you carry the wand, I would like your permission to set up the spell so that it runs off the energy of your life force. Invisibility is a very powerful spell, and it would be a significant drain on you to bear this, so think carefully before you answer.”
“Do it,” Zandrew said without hesitation. “I agree to it. Only protecting Prinkepstella matters.”
Rellora smiled. “All right. Just relax, and open your mind to me.”
Zandrew sat down next to Rellora as she prepared to cast the spell. First she took the golden wand from Zandrew, and held it in her hands. Her hands glowed with an aura of faint white light, and then the wand started to glow. Suddenly the wand disappeared, and it looked as though Rellora was holding empty air. She handed the invisible wand back to Zandrew.
“Get ready. You might feel a bit uncomfortable for a while.” Rellora reached over and placed one hand on the wand, and put her other hand on Zandrew’s head. She muttered a few words, and there was another glow, of white light, between Zandrew’s body and the wand. Zandrew suddenly felt very tired, and felt a sharp pain shoot across his body. The pain faded to a dull ache, but the tiredness remained. Rellora stood up. “That’s it,” she said. After a while the tiredness faded and Zandrew felt normal. He put the invisible wand back into his jacket pocket. “You know,” Rellora said, as a seemingly idle comment, “when I touched your life energy, I sensed that you have a very powerful life force. It would be worth your while to learn the art of magic. You would make a good wizard. You have discipline and self-control.”
“Really?” Zandrew said. “My mother told me once that we have wizards and sorceresses in our family ancestry, very far back. I just never bothered to learn magic.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the blood of a wizard flows through your veins. Maybe I’ll teach you magic myself, if we have time. There is one other thing, also,” Rellora said. “Since you now carry the golden wand, the fate of the world rests upon your shoulders. I need to know what your future will be. I have some talent as a seer of destiny, and I also have some magical tools with clairvoyance spells carved into them. I would like to scry your future to see if I can sense victory or trouble down the road.”
“Do what you will,” Zandrew replied. “I’ve never had my fortune told before. I’ve been too afraid of what I might learn.”
Rellora took from her dress pocket a small, clear crystal ball, not much bigger than a marble, and held it in her hands. She peered into the ball deeply, her brow furrowed with concentration.
“I see colors, and mist, swirling around, and fire, but no solid images. I see colors, white and gold, the colors of your spirit. You smile often, easily and with happiness, and you strive to be carefree. But there is a darkness in your soul, which speaks of an old, deep wound, long since healed over but still sensitive from sore scar tissue. You seem like a callous youth, but there is really deep emotion beneath your façade. You cry sometimes, but you never give up on the belief that there is something better down the road. You have a good soul. As to your future, it is very cloudy, and too hazy to see anything clearly.”
Zandrew shrugged. That wasn’t much of a reading, he thought.
“But wait, I have other tools,” Rellora said. She put the ball back into her pocket and pulled out a small leather pouch. She opened it and removed a deck of old tattered paper cards.
“Draw eight cards,” Rellora commanded. Zandrew reached out and pulled eight cards from the deck. He held them face down.
“These are Fortune cards,” Rellora informed him. “The first card is your past. Look at it.”
Zandrew turned the card over. It was a card called “The Hanged Man.” On it was a picture of a gray corpse with a noose around its neck hanging from a gallows pole.
“Great tragedy lies in your past,” Rellora said. “Something sinister and cruel has wounded your soul. Something formal, perhaps an arrest, or an execution of some kind. It also suggests that someone died to protect you.”
“What about the next card?” Zandrew asked, eager not to think about his parents’ deaths.
“That one is your present. What is it?”
Zandrew looked at the card. It was “The Chariot,” with a picture of a horse-drawn chariot being ridden by a spear-wielding knight.
“That simply means that you seek something. It shows a quest, you might say. Presumably it is the quest to use the golden wand. Or it could be something else you seek. This card speaks of a great battle. More than a mere pawn, you will be a knight fighting for your cause. The next card.”
Zandrew turned the third card. It was the “Five of Swords.” The card had a picture of five swords side by side, forming a pentagon.
“That card represents your friend and allies. Strong fighters will be by your side, loyal and brave like good soldiers. Now the fourth card.”
It was “The Emperor.” The card had a picture of a mean-looking crowned man sitting on a throne and holding a blood-stained sword.
“That card is your enemies. They are rich and powerful. They will hunt you down and stop at nothing to destroy you. This card speaks of might, ruthlessness and cruelty. Not surprising, given that the Vladians are our foes. It indicates a force that is large and centralized. A great and powerful evil waits for you to confront it. Something big and strong, but you will face it and fight it. The next card, now.”
Zandrew flipped a card. It was The Tower, a card with a picture of a tower rocked by a bolt of lightning. Zandrew had a cold feeling when he saw this card.
“This one represents love in your life. The future is always changing, and nothing is certain. But this card warns of great tragedy. If you continue down the path that you have chosen, you will fall in love with a woman. Then that woman will die. There is nothing you can do to stop it.”
“It’s just a card. It doesn’t prove anything.”
“Yes, you are right. These readings can be difficult to cope with. I know that well.” Zandrew wondered if Rellora had herself seen The Tower in a reading done for her.
“The next three cards are the most important,” Rellora said. “These are your future. They are the cards of destiny. They will speak about the most important thing in your life. I believe that they will represent the end of our quest.”
Zandrew turned the cards over. The first card was the Queen of Wands, which featured a picture of a witch holding a wand. The second card was Death, which portrayed a skull-faced figure in a black robe holding a scythe. The third card was Judgement, in which a winged angel held a golden set of scales and a measuring stick.
Rellora moaned in panic, and Zandrew sat upright sharply.
“There are many ways to read this, but only one interpretation presents itself to me. You will face a woman in battle. The result will be your death. Then, when you ascend to the Higher World, Arlius will pass judgement upon your soul.”
“No! You’re lying!” Zandrew screamed. “I’m not going to die while I’m on this quest. I can feel it! You must have made some mistake.”
“The final card, Judgement, is considered to be a holy card,” Rellora said in a soft, soothing tone. “It is a good omen. Thus, if we fight our hardest, the quest of Prinkepstella may end in success. Yet there is only one way to read the Death Card. I prophesied your death, Zandrew. Your demise will take place. Your death is in the cards. That is all that I can see at this time.”
Zandrew was gripped by fear, thinking about all the horrible things that he might be forced to fight before his quest was done. Then, at the end of it all, he might meet his doom. It was a terrifying thought, and he did his best to push it from his mind. These were mere cards, mere pieces of paper. They did not control his destiny. He did.
Zandrew startled at the sound of the door opening. Gennis walked in and went over to them.
“Come now, we must get ready to search the ruins for information on the last Avatar of Light,” Gennis said. “I think that there might just be enough left of the ruins for us to find what we need.”
Rellora, Zandrew and Gennis left their room and stepped out of the inn, onto the street. There were a few beggars here and there, but no one else. The inn was on the edge of the ruins of the inner city. As they turned and started walking toward the center of the city, a beggar in dirty, torn clothes ran up to them.
“I’ll give you some advice that might save your life,” he said, “in return for just one copper piece.” Only the gleam of intelligence in his eyes suggested the fact that the beggar had once been a renowned scholar.
Rellora turned to Gennis. “What do you think?”
“We can spare one copper piece,” Gennis replied, and handed the beggar a coin.
“Thank you, kind sir,” the beggar said. “You’re not from around here, or you would know this already, but you should be warned. After he razed the city, Kindahl Emperor Laum sent monsters to occupy the city, so that no one would be able to return. It means certain death to enter the ruins.”
“We’ll survive,” Rellora responded. “We are strong enough the conquer any monsters. But thank you for your advice.”
Rellora, using her memory from when she had last visited University City, guided them into the ruins. They walked down a wide street, surrounded on both sides by marble buildings with collapsed roofs and pillars knocked over. There were huge piles of ash and debris in the streets. The remnants of the buildings were charred black, and there were a number of burnt, unrecognizable corpses on the streets, some burned down to skeletons. Rellora walked past them all, her head held high, not stopping, and Zandrew followed behind her, trying not to notice the horrible desolation surrounding them.
After they had walked into the city for a couple of hours, they came upon a huge building, at which the road ended, with a huge front gate surrounded by standing columns. “This is the main library of the biggest university,” Rellora said. “If there’s anything to be found, it will be here.” They entered the building. It was dark inside, giving the walls a blue-gray tint, and there were row after row of charred bookshelves inside.
Unfortunately, it looked as though the fire had ripped through the building, and there were only ashes on the shelves. Rellora led them into the heart of the building, and down a spiraling staircase to a lower level. In that level, there were a few surviving books and fragments of paper on the shelves.
“It’s a shame that the university was destroyed,” Rellora commented. “It didn’t surprise me that this happened, though. The Kindahl is a tyrant, and, like all tyrants, he must be against learning and knowledge in order to make it easier to subjugate his victims.” Zandrew did not say out loud what he was thinking, which was that the people of University City had been Vladians, and so they mattered little to him.
“We’re getting closer,” Rellora said. “The section of the library on ancient legends is close by. I did some research here years ago, and I knew my way around, but it is hard to recognize the rooms now, with nothing to guide me.” Rellora then seemed to get her bearings, and she confidently walked down a hall, coming to a stairway leading down. Zandrew and Gennis followed her down, into a dark corridor full of shadows. They walked down the corridor, and came to a large room, in which there were a number of intact books lying on a large table. Rellora picked one up and read through it. “This is a book on the Thousand Years War. We’re getting closer to the right section.” She put the book down and started walking across the room.
Suddenly the door at the far end of the room opened, and six men walked out. They were scruffy, dirty and stocky, and each held a long knife. “These are the ones we were told to find,” one of the men commented to his companions. “You look like you have money and jewelry,” the man said to Rellora. “Hand it over.”
“I think not,” Rellora said, and she pointed at the man. He jerked back, clutching his stomach. The men around him ran at them, as Zandrew and Gennis drew their swords. Two men came at Zandrew and two at Gennis. Zandrew swung his sword in a wide arc, trying to fend off both of the men attacking him at once. One of the men stabbed at him with a knife, and Zandrew jerked his sword back, narrowly parrying the stab. The other man advanced, and Zandrew kicked out, pushing the man back. A man had run at Rellora, knife out, and she waved her arms at him. A spray of fire issued from her arm, and the man screamed as his clothes and body burned. He dropped to the floor and rolled around. Zandrew swung widely again, keeping his foes away from him. Gennis had killed one of the men fighting him, and was working on the second. The man who had spoken took hold of a dagger by its blade, carefully aimed, and threw the dagger at Rellora. The dagger hit Rellora on the arm, sinking into her flesh. Gennis, seeing this, screamed and swung his sword, cutting his foe in half across the waist. The man’s body fell to the ground in two pieces, and the four remaining men backed away and ran from the room, going out the way Zandrew had come in.
“Are you okay?” Gennis asked Rellora, as soon as the fight was over. “I’ll be all right,” she said. “Well, I have a few healing potions, if you need one,” Zandrew told her.
“Give her one,” Gennis commanded. Zandrew handed Rellora a small glass vial, and she drank the contents.
“That man’s comment bodes ill,” Rellora said. “Those men were sent to attack us. No one should know that we are here. Who sent them?” Zandrew had no answer. He shrugged. Zandrew and Gennis followed Rellora across the room, into a long, dark corridor.
They walked down the corridor for some time. The corridor became darker as they advanced. More light died away, and soon they were left walking forward in a grim, gray darkness. Rellora gestured and a ball of light appeared in her hand. She threw the ball into the air and it levitated before them, lighting the way.
They heard something skittering ahead of them. Gennis stopped walking, and Zandrew and Rellora halted behind him. In the distance, four tiny dots of red light became visible. They grew, and resolved themselves into two sets of beady, red-glowing eyes. Gennis and Zandrew each drew their swords. Two lumbering shapes, low to the ground, with horned heads and long tails behind them, crept into the circle of projected light.
“Devil-rats,” Gennis said. “Get ready. They’re nasty creatures.” One of the devil-rats ran at Zandrew, who braced himself and held his sword blade in front of him. The rat leapt up onto his body, past his sword, and bit at his face, narrowly missing. Zandrew smelled the stinky breath of the rat’s mouth, inches from his face, filled with sharp fangs and biting at him. Zandrew struggled and pushed the rat off of him. It fell to the floor, and Zandrew struck out, slashing the rat with his sword. The rat turned and whipped its tail out at Zandrew’s legs, knocking his feet out from under him. Zandrew fell to the floor, landing on his back. The rat jumped on top of him and bit at his head. Zandrew shielded his head with an arm, which the rat bit, drawing blood. Zandrew shuddered as he felt the rat’s teeth enter his arm. Struggling with the creature on top of him, Zandrew angled his sword to point at the rat and then thrust, skewering the rat on the point of his sword. The rat screeched and then fell limp, dead. Zandrew pried its mouth off his arm and then stood up. The other devil-rat was dead at Gennis’s feet, but there were three slimy yellow tentacles wrapped around Gennis’s body, which he was fighting against. The creature whose tentacles they were was in the shadows, outside the ring of light, and it looked like a blurry gray mound.
Rellora was occupied with a monster circling around her, a giant floating eyeball with an ice-blue iris and a large black pupil. It was circling around her and shooting bolts of white light at her, which she blocked with a shield of blue energy that she had conjured around herself. “I can handle the floating eye,” Rellora said, noticing Zandrew. “Help Gennis fight that defiler!”
Zandrew ran to Gennis, and swung his sword at the tentacles. The tentacles were too tough to be chopped, so Zandrew tried to saw through one of them. While he hacked, two more tentacles came into the light, one going for his face, the other wrapping around his waist. Zandrew tried to fend off the tentacles with his sword, and the one headed for his face backed away, but the other one wrapped itself around his torso. Zandrew choked back a cry of pain as the tentacle squeezed sharply, trying to crush him. Zandrew hacked at the tentacle squeezing him frantically. Sawing with all his strength, unable to draw breath as his body was crushed, he cut through the tentacle, and the severed tentacle fell to the floor. Zandrew turned toward the source of the tentacles, which had advanced into the light. It was a large yellow lizard, with an open, drooling mouth and tentacles coming out of its back. Two more tentacles angled in towards Zandrew. Gennis had fought his way out of the tentacles surrounding him and was at Zandrew’s side, ready to fight the defiler. Suddenly there was a sharp, stinging pain in the back of Zandrew’s head and he stood, temporarily frozen, clenching his teeth with the pain.
When he could move again he turned around. The floating eye was flying through the air, shooting bolts of light at him. He jumped to the side and dodged the bolts.
“Sorry!” Rellora said. “It got away from me.” Zandrew watched as Rellora pointed at the eyeball and sent a line of red light out from her fingertip, following the eyeball’s movements. The eyeball zigzagged through the air, avoiding the red light, which chased after it, never quite catching it. “Damn, that thing is fast,” Rellora muttered. Zandrew rapidly turned around as he felt another tentacle wrapping itself around him. He grabbed it and pulled it off, then swung at it with his sword.
Gennis was hacking his way through tentacles left and right, and the defiler sent more tentacles at him. Zandrew skirted around the defiler, coming up to its side, and struck out, stabbing at its head while it was looking at Gennis. Zandrew pierced through its skull, sinking the length of his blade into the monster, then pulling his sword out. The defiler rolled over lifelessly and its many tentacles fell limply to the floor.
Zandrew and Gennis now turned to the floating eye, which Rellora kept pointing at but narrowly missing. Gennis ran at it and slashed at it, but the thing floated down and flew between his legs, then turned and shot a bolt of light at his back. Gennis screamed as he was hit, as much with anger as pain, and turned, slashing at the eyeball again. Zandrew saw his chance and, as the eyeball floated away from Gennis, its pupil watching its escape, Zandrew sliced at it from behind, cutting it in half. The eyeball fell to the ground, dissolving into a puddle of white slime.
Gennis sheathed his sword and looked at Rellora and Zandrew. Rellora seemed tired, but she remained standing, and Zandrew was panting, out of breath and still flying high on the blood rush of battle.
“If the Kindahl thinks that his monsters are going to keep us from completing our quest, he will find himself to be quite mistaken,” Rellora said, as if the battle had been a minor annoyance and nothing more. Gennis gave her a nod of agreement. Zandrew watched her blankly. He took a vial of healing potion out of his jacket pocket and drank it, and felt the sting of the devil-rat bite in his arm start to fade.
“Come,” Rellora said. “We must find the books on the last Avatar of Light.” Zandrew and Gennis followed Rellora down the corridor.
They found the end of the corridor and entered a large room that looked as if an earthquake had hit. Torn, half-singed books were lying everywhere, a broken table lay in the middle of the room and there were chairs knocked over. At the end of the room they found one bookshelf that was upright, and Rellora examined the largely intact books that it contained. Holding a huge leather-bound book in her hands, turning page after page, she smiled.
“This is it,” she said. “This is a book of poems and articles about the last Avatar of Light, written by a poet in the last century. Whatever there is to be known about Ankezebaur that the scholars knew will be in this book. Now all we have to do is read it, and see what clues we can find to follow.” She closed the book and handed it to Gennis to carry. “Come, we should hurry. I don’t like this place. We should get back to the inn as soon as possible.”
As they walked across the room, the door at the far side of the room opened. Rellora paused, surprised. Two soldiers wearing red armor and wielding red swords and shields entered the room, followed by a woman in a green dress with long blond hair, and a man wearing black armor and a black cape, with a thin mustache and small beady eyes. The soldiers had glowing red eyes, and the man and woman had savage, cruel smiles on their faces.
“We meet again, Rellora,” the woman said, with a malicious twinkle in her eyes. She pointed a long red wand at Zandrew and his companions. A huge ball of fire materialized in the air in front of her, and it flew at them. Rellora gestured frantically, erecting a wall of blue light in front of her, but the fireball crashed into the magic shield and exploded, sending them flying. Zandrew slammed against a wall and dropped to the floor, his face and body badly burned. He struggled against the pain and stood up.
Gennis ran towards the two red-armored soldiers and engaged them in combat. The man in black armor was advancing upon Zandrew. Zandrew drew his sword and shifted his weight from foot to foot, regaining his balance and readying himself for the fight. The man was wielding a sword in one hand and a long dagger in the other. Zandrew raised his sword to parry as the man fell upon him.
As they dueled, Zandrew quickly realized that the man was a more talented swordsman than any he had fought before. He taxed all of Zandrew’s wits, skill, and dexterity, and Zandrew was still only able to parry. He did not have enough time to mount any sort of attack. The man sent sword swings at him from his right side, and dagger stabs from his left side, so that Zandrew had to swing his sword from side to side, with precise control, to parry both attacks. By the time he had parried the dagger, the sword was swinging at him again, and vice versa. Zandrew sent a silent prayer to Arlius and fought on. As a testament to his skill with a sword, Zandrew maintained his defense and did not let an attack get through, at least for the time being.
Across the room, Rellora and the woman in the green dress were having a battle of cataclysmic destructive spells. Lightning, fireballs, rays of pure energy, and rainbows of light exploded through the air. The room became light, dark, hot and cold every other second from new spells. The woman sent a long twisted line of yellow lightning from her fingertips to Rellora. Rellora gestured, and a wall of blue light appeared in front of her. The lightning was absorbed by the blue light and fizzled into sparks. Rellora pointed at the woman, and a ball of swirling fire shot out from her hand and flew at the woman. The woman whispered a few words, and the entire room became ice cold. Zandrew could suddenly see his breath, and he found his teeth chattering as the cold cut to his bones. The ball of fire dissolved into ashes in front of the woman before reaching her. The woman laughed maniacally, as Zandrew and the man in black fought parry for strike, and Gennis and the red-armored soldiers continued to fight.
“So these are the scum you keep company with now, Rellora?” the woman said. “Now watch them die.”
“That isn’t going to happen, Sorfeara.”
“Oh yes it will. Although maybe you should be the first one to die!” The woman gestured at the ceiling above Rellora’s head, and as Rellora screamed and frantically gestured upwards, the ceiling above her collapsed. She vanished in a cloud of dust and crumbling debris.
Gennis screamed, thinking that Rellora had died, and rammed into one of the soldiers he was fighting. The soldier was taken by surprise, and before he could recover Gennis had run him through. The Explode Guard’s body fell to the floor and exploded in waves of flame. Gennis narrowly managed to dodge the fire, and soon the corpse was burned to ashes. The other soldier continued to fight, and Zandrew could see Gennis and the soldier fighting from out of the corner of his eye, as Zandrew fought the mustachioed man. The man was growing more bold in his attacks, as Zandrew was tiring. The man had managed to give Zandrew a cut on his arm, and to hit him in the hand, and Zandrew wondered how much longer he could stand against this foe.
“Gennis, help me!” Zandrew shouted, as the man’s sword and dagger cut towards Zandrew’s face.
“Why don’t you help me? I’m fighting an Explode Guard!” Gennis shouted back. Zandrew narrowly managed to parry both sword and dagger with a single careful swing.
Sensing Zandrew’s weakness, the man hissed “Surrender, boy, and I will spare your life.”
Zandrew nodded agreement, and lowered his sword. The man did not notice as Zandrew’s hand went into his jacket pocket.
“Fool!” the man screamed as he raised his sword, ready to chop down on Zandrew. Zandrew’s hand whipped up, and the man stumbled back, clutching his face. Zandrew had poked him in the eye with the invisible golden wand. While the man was blinded, Zandrew kneeled down, picked up a rock off the floor, and threw it at the woman in the green dress. She was watching Gennis fight, and did not see it. It hit her in the head, and she whirled, dazed and angry. As she raised her hands and whispered, readying a destructive spell to throw at Zandrew, a blast of lightning shot through the air and shocked the woman, who glowed with white light and collapsed, burning. Zandrew turned and, seeing Rellora, who had climbed out of the wreckage from the ceiling collapse, he smiled. Gennis also saw Rellora. In a spurt of joyful energy, he overwhelmed the Explode Guard and cut him open from neck to stomach. The Explode Guard fell over, dead, and was engulfed in fire as his explode rune tattoo activated. The man in black armor, having recovered, ran to the woman in green and picked up her body.
“When Deathly gets his hands on you, you’ll wish that you had died today!” he shouted. “And he will get you!” Carrying the woman, he ran out of the room. Rellora gave Zandrew and Gennis a look of congratulatory victory.