Pitch black fell upon Zalfron as a thundering roar shook his body. “GOODBYE, EARTHBOY!” echoed louder and louder in his mind as his distant cry of, “NO!” faded away. Joe and Machuba stood behind him, clouded in white, shining like stars. It wasn’t until he turned and saw a new white silhouette standing in front of the burner building, engulfed in ivory flames, that his confusion withered into fear.
I’m trapped in Total Darkness, Zalfron realized, with Hermes Retskcirt.
“You shouldn’t have gotten in the way.” Hermes growled, his voice shooting needles down the elf’s spine.
The ex-Doom Warrior slammed his fist into Zalfron’s stomach. Zalfron was thrown back, past his frozen friends and onto the paved streets of Rivergate where he slid all the way to the railing that guarded the edge. Gritting his teeth, Zalfron attempted to stand. His body burned from where the banshee had hit him and his muscles refused to comply.
“You don’t even have a weapon,” at first Hermes sounded far away but when Zalfron rolled onto his back, he saw Hermes now stood above him, “what was your plan?”
This time Zalfron caught a kick, flinging him against a banister. Falling to the ground, he rolled onto his side and got a knee beneath him in an attempt to stand. Hermes had other plans. Another kick into the elf’s stomach sent him over the railing, tumbling like a rag doll towards the canal below. He hit the water and didn’t sink. The river, black as the dark world around him, was hard as ice.
Before he could move, Hermes was beside him once more.
“I could suck the life right of you.”
Just as Zalfron managed to get on all fours Hermes’ boot caught him in the jaw, flipping him full circle to land on his back. Hacking glowing white drops of plasma in order not to drown in his own blood, he rolled onto his side. Grinding pain surged along his ribs and he stopped his squirming.
“But you are lucky.”
Picking Zalfron up by his throat, Hermes raised him to eye level. A fiery chill began to surge across Zalfron’s body from the banshee’s grasp. At first the pain was unbearable but just as he thought he couldn’t take anymore, the agony began to shift into numbness.
“I’m not after you, I’m after the alien,” Hermes continued, “and knowing that he has the Suikii, it’s in my best interest to keep you here, alive-”
Hermes dropped the elf and the numbness began to melt back into pain.
“-but you will pay for each minute we wait.”
– – –
Theseus peaked out the doorway then sprinted across the street to ram the door of the parallel business off its hinges. Joe and Machuba hustled over behind him. The shop was empty but in good condition. Though the shelves were barren, they hadn’t been bashed to bits like those in some of the other houses they’d been through. The three were wandering through a net of stripmalls, just outside of Rivergate, doing their best to stay off the streets, as they made their way towards the North Mystakle Church. Joe found an unlocked door leading to a staircase and Theseus led the way up.
The second story was emptied out much like the first except this room had nothing – no shelves, no counters, nothing. Theseus went over to a window, busted it open with his shield and cleared as much glass from the frame as he could. It was a comical sight seeing a nine foot beast squeeze out a window but the minotaur made it work and Joe and Machuba followed. Theseus walked to the edge of the roof and paused, “Can yall make the leap or do you need a lift?”
He was talking about the roof of the shops across the street. It wasn’t a wide street, almost an alley, but still far to wide for Joe to even consider jumping.
“Lift.” Machbua stated.
“Uh,” Joe murmured, “by lift you don’t mean-”
Theseus reached down and grabbed Joe by the waist, saying, “Hit the roof and roll.”
With no more instruction, the old man tossed Joe to the other roof. Whether or not he attempted the roll, Theseus had lobbed him like a barrel so that when he hit the roof, all he could do was roll. Thanks to the snow, Joe landed soft. But then Machuba landed on top of him.
Theseus cleared the street in one leap. The house shook when he landed and so did the minotaur. He doubled over and clutched his wounded knee, hissing through his teeth. After a moment, he sung a few lines of magic, enducing his knee to glow faintly yellow, then stood back up and faced the boys.
“We’ll run down this line of shops until we get to the narrow bit, where you’ll both be able to jump from roof to roof without my aid.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Joe asked, nodding at Theseus’ knee.
“We can’t risk running along the streets.” Theseus replied.
“What if they see us on the rooftops?” Machuba asked.
Theseus shrugged, “It’s possible, my friend, but if we are spotted, we can put greater distance between us and them if we’re on the roof tops and they’re running through the buildings. Now, let’s hurry while my spell lasts.”
Joe and Machuba didn’t argue further. As they got deeper into Zviecoff, the buildings got smaller and the streets more narrow. When they passed a scout pasing the streets below they slowed their pace, creeping ahead until out of sight. Unfortunately, the setting eventually shifted. The shops and houses began to rise once more, fattening out aswell. Streets thickened. No longer did they pass scouts, but troops marching two by two. To make matters worse, Theseus’ spell had warn off and he admitted he didn’t trust himself clearing such gaps anymore. Not that he couldn’t, but that he might not be able to control a guttural outburst from the sudden shocking pain that would shoot up from his rusted knee. Though the ground was more treacherous than before, they were forced to continue on the streets.
Ever so often, Theseus would come to a hoof scraping halt and the three would duck into a house while they waited for Knights of the Order to pass. The closer they got to the church, the more often they came across enemies. Even when they didn’t see them, their was a constant commotion now echoing about the city – and it seemed to be coming from their destination. Then, after the clamor died, when the three were maybe half a selim away, they stopped seeing troops. This spooked them, but Theseus pointed it out that it could be a good sign. It could mean that the check point was still in control of their allies. They were mere minutes away when Machuba sensed something and stopped.
He stood in an empty street. Theseus and Joe had already crossed, ignorant to the fact that he hadn’t followed. He licked his eyes and looked around but didn’t seen anyone, yet he knew someone else was there. Someone he was familiar with.
The voice was soft but urgent. He recognized it immediately but before he could turn in the direction of the speaker, something fell behind him. He spun and knelt at the bound body of Lela Laroc. The merman squirmed, her black eyes wide. His hands moved to the rope at her wrist.
A fishfolk stood in the doorway of the house he’d just left. Dressed in the armor of the men Machuba’d been transported by back before Joe freed him, Machuba felt as though he should recognize the man, especially due to the ripples of scarred flesh that encompassed the man’s head. Still puzzled, Machuba drew his sword.
“I advise you to take Aqa’s advice.”
Looking up, Machuba observed the new speaker, a bulky white fox, standing on the rooftop. Though unlike the snow foxes he’d seen in photos and paintings, this fox was almost the size of a bear. The creature’s lips curled back, revealing rows of sharp white teeth. Leaping down to the road, the beast landed between Aqa and Lela.
“She’s mine.” The fox growled.
Machuba sheathed his sword and saying only, “Bet.”
Snatching Lela by the waist, he slung her over his shoulder and bolted. He made it across the street and through a doorway before he stopped, dropped Lela on an empty table, and drew his sword as he spun to face his aggressors.
The scarred fishfolk was there, sword raised and ready. Their blades clashed. Machuba attacked again, one after the other, overwhelming Aqa and forcing him out the doorway. Machuba shut the door, bolted it, and turned back to Lela. She was on her feet, holding her bound hands out for her bondage to be severed. Machuba hastily did so, then cut the ropes around her feet.
The door flew off the hinges behind them.
Grabbing her by the hand, Machuba fled. The two bound out the back door and then froze. The fox beast waited before them, smiling a ferocious smile. A moment later, the creature had Machuba pinned to the ground. The other fishfolk, Aqa, came behind Lela and wrapped his arm around her throat.
“We are going to make a deal,” the fox snarled, “kill the Earthboy and I’ll set her free.”
Machuba stared back in silence.
“Aqa, back into the house.”
The fishfolk inched back into the house, still holding Lela.
“It is only a matter of time before I acquire him myself, in which case he and his comrades will die. This is an offer of mercy to you and your friends. I do not wish to kill the last Gill, but I will if need be.”
Machuba squirmed and the fox pressed down harder on his chest.
“I will be near, I will know when it is done, and I assure you, if you obey, no harm will come to you or her and the rest of your friends.”
Then the fox left. Machuba laid there for a while, his black eyes gazing at the skies that were once again filled with smog.
– – –
“Theseus!” Joe exclaimed, “Where’s Machuba!”
Theseus turned from the window. They were in a three story shop, one of the many that surrounded what was once a grassy courtyard. The foliage, soil, and cobble stone roads around the courtyard were destroyed. It looked as though a giant had come through, slicing through paved streets and dicing hedges and trees. As for the church the courtyard sat before, the entire front of the building had collapsed. Theseus had a bad feeling.
“How well do you trust the eel?” Theseus asked.
“Machuba?” Joe gasped, “He wouldn’t! We have to go back and look for him!”
Joe headed back towards the stairs but Theseus grabbed him by the shoulder.
“My friend,” the minotaur shook his head, “you won’t find him. This city is way too large. He knows where we were headed. We’ll give him some more time to meet us here before we head on to Mountaingate, but not long. Just long enough for me to do a little investigation and see if I can’t determine what exactly happened here…I have a feeling it may have something to do with my son and your friends.”
Joe nodded and went to move but Theseus hadn’t let go.
“Machuba is a Gill. When his uncle, Paud Gill, was executed, the world learned that it’s more trouble than it’s worth to try and kill a Gill. He’ll be fine.”
Releasing Joe’s shoulder, Theseus marched silently down the stairs. Joe paused for a minute. He took a deep breath. First Zalfron, now Machuba, a lump budded in the pyromancer’s throat, not to mention I’ve got no clue where the rest of my friends are…we should’ve never came here.
“God help us.”
Joe followed Theseus down the stairs.
– – –
Hurtling towards the paved city streets, the icy wind whipped about them. All they could do was hold on.
“IT’S DEAD, MON!” Nogard yelled.
“HE’S FINE!” Ekaf yelled back as he desperately yanked the reins.
For a moment, it appeared the Knome did have it. The dragon stopped its fall and flew flat for a second. Then, without warning, the beast changed it’s mind and once more they were shooting back towards the ground.
Ekaf sat in front of the others, straddling the beast’s neck. Nogard, Acamus, Bold, and Zach had squeezed themselves onto the saddle – which was meant for a few but not for four – and held on for dear life. Zach sat quietly. Bold had tears streaming down his cheeks and snot pouring down his chin. Nogard held tight, his eyes wide with frightened rage as he kept his glare on the Knome before them. Acamus, however, was utterly bewildered. He could not understand why the three men beside him, all of which he had originally considered sane, were staring their doom in the face and putting their trust in the hands of a Knome.
“I’ll be damned if I die on the back of a reptile,” Acamus roared, “GIVE ME THE REINS!”
As the Knome responded defiantly, Acamus crawled down the dragon, past his allies, using the spikes along its spine as a ladder. The minotaur percieved the Knome’s fidgeting as preparation for him to hand the ropes over. That was not the case. Ekaf still intended to handle the situation. Adjusting his seating, he gave the reins one last final tug and succeeded in forcing the beast to spiral up seconds before they would’ve plowed head first into the façade of a church. But Acamus lost his balance and when they tore upwards – the puzzled sky dragon positioned parallel to the building – they passed a row of gargoyles mounted on stone platforms that jutted out from the building. A snarling stone lion caught Acamus in his fat, cow-like nose. The minotaur tumbled off the dragon and through one of the stone church’s many windows.
“Lard!” Bold yelped.
As Acamus fell into the church, the dragon continued to climb. Zviecoff shrank below them. Bold and Nogard refused to open their eyes. Only Ekaf and Zach had the guts to look. Even they only caught glimpses through the smoke that billowed up from simmering sections of the city. When a gust brushed a hole in the pollution, the two were able to see the flames that polka dotted the capital. Some towers stood decapitated or completely toppled over, half buried in snow. And in the midst of it all, tiny black dots were beginning to fill the streets, crawling out of every alley, every crack and crevice like ants in search of an intruder.
“Zviecoff has fallen…” Ekaf murmured.
The dragon’s wings stopped beating. Clouds wrapped about columns of smoke surrounded them, so thick they looked solid and while that was what Ekaf was watching, Zach had been watching something else: a tiny fluttering moth.
The dragon snarled as they slowed, hovering in the air as the moth slow too. The dragon’s nostrils flared with joy as the moth fell into the his mouth. Smell, he can tell his way by scent. Zach’s thought process was cut short as the dragon’s eyes bulged. It flinched, shaking the four and forcing Bold to issue a lass-like shriek. The flinch turned into a seizure as the beast spazzed like a fish out of water and, once more, they were plowing towards the frozen world below.
“WE’RE DEAD!” Nogard screamed.
“LARD HELP US!” Bold roared.
“I THINK IT’S SOME SORT OF MATING DANCE!” Ekaf hypothesized.
“I DON’T SEE ANY MATES, MON!” Nogard replied.
“He’s choking on the moth.” Zach realized.
“WHAT?” Bold and Nogard asked in unison.
“PUNCH HIM IN THE GUT!” Ekaf said.
Zach nodded. Grabbing one of the spikes along the dragon’s spine, just behind the saddle, he climbed down towards the beast’s belly. Rolling, twisting, and spinning through the sky, it was almost as if the dragon was trying to throw the spirit off him but Zach held tight. Finally, the dragon quit seizing and fell into a limp free fall.
“HURRY!” Ekaf shouted.
Sliding down the beast’s right wing, the dragon began to lean to the right, his belly facing the sun. Zach then climbed back up the wing and onto the dragon’s belly, ignoring the terrified shrieks from his friends hanging upside down beneath him. Rearing back, Zach slugged the scaly hide. The once limp creature went rigid as every muscle came back to life and out the beast’s mouth came, not only a tiny blue hawk-moth, but an explosive monstrous burp – and not a moment too soon.
The moth hit the paved city street before the church. Then came the dragon’s fiery breath, obliterating the stone. The sheer force of the dragon’s burp flung the dragon backflipping until it landed on a rooftop. The reptile was out cold. As for the boys, Ekaf, Bold, and Nogard still sat happily in their seats.
“Whar’s Zach?” Bold cried.
“Dere!” Nogard yelled.
Ekaf ran over to the edge of the building. Zach stood from where he’d landed in the center of the charred courtyard. Adjusting his armor and quiver, he plucked out the bent and damaged arrows and snapped off the arrow heads, dropping them in his armored gloves for later use. He waved at the Knome to assure him he was okay then trotted through the courtyard towards the destroyed doorway of the church. Zach ran up the front steps to stand behind Acamus who stood rigid as he faced those who stood inside.
At least two dozen men and women dressed in armor stood in the church. Some in full sets of plated metal but most in dresses of chainmail with black jerseys thrown over. The jerseys had no insignia but were smeared with blood and mud. Those that wore them were of any race, but most were electric elven or bearn. Five of them stood around Acamus in the front of the church. Another five stood mingled amongst the pews. Six of the dark soldiers stood around the pulpit, behind a chain of shackled soldiers. The seventeenth stood by the pulpit – he was the man that had commanded Zach to freeze. His armor was black and bulky like Zach’s but with no helmet. His eyes were blue, his hair was blonde, and his ears were pointy.
This man held a sword to the throat of another man who was chained and shackled beside him. Like his aggressor, the shackled character also had bright blue eyes, lightning yellow hair, and pointed ears. In fact, there were only two differentiating features between the two. The shackled man had a finely kept curled mustache and he was missing his left fore arm. Lodged in the nub of his arm was a socket and screwed into the socket was a plug attached to his own personal shackle. The mustached, one-armed man was the only figure whose shackle wasn’t bound to the other lot of P.O.W.s.
As for the other men and women in shackles, there were nine and they all looked similar to their captain. Most elven, blonde, and blue eyed though one was a bearn, another was a human, and another a nellaf. All were staring at the front of the church, at Acamus and Zach (Ekaf was still helping Bold and Nogard down from the house the dragon had crashed into).
The man at the pulpit spoke loud enough for all to hear.
“Make another move and ah’ll kill him.”
Zach already had an arrow knocked and pulled back the string.
“You a good aim?” The man asked, “Ah wouldn’t risk it.”
Every eye fell on Zach. Zach looked away from the knight at the pulpit and glanced at Acamus. The two met each other’s gaze. Acamus then turned to the one armed mustache man. Their stares collided.
“Put the bow down!” The pulpit man crowed, tightening the grip of his free hand on the shackled man’s mane, “Don’t thank ah’m bluffin!”
Acamus returned his gaze to Zach.
Zach released his arrow.
The arrow struck the man at the pulpit in the eye, knocking him off the stand and off mustachio. Acamus thrust his spear through the gut of his closest opponent and then let it expand to catch a woman who stood in the pews. Ekaf, Bold, and Nogard sprinted towards the church but already three of the shackled knights had been cut down. The other captives rose up, wrapping their chains around their enemies throats. A black knight ran towards the now standing mustache man. He raised his hand to block but an arrow struck his opponent in the side of the head. The mustache man grabbed the sword from the dead woman’s hand and stabbed it through the gut of a guard struggling to kill another prisoner. As the six remaining hostages strangled the last three soldiers beside the pulpit, Acamus struggled to finish his enemies.
After skewering his first two victims he froze them and yanked the spear free. Their bodies shattered like glass. He was shrinking the spear when he raised it to block an opponent’s swing but another approached him from behind. He spun, slapping the soldier across the head and knocking him to the floor before completing his 360 by thrusting his spear into the chest of the man he’d parried before. Still three men surrounded him with swords drawn while another was getting to his feet.
“Back you devils!”
A dagger stuck fast in the back of one of the men facing Acamus. Ekaf arrived to retrieve his thrown blade before the body hit the floor. Simultaneously a shield hit a knight in the pit of his knees, causing him to fall on the knight who’d just gotten to his feet.
“You’re covered, save Shaprone!” Ekaf cried.
The four soldiers who’d been amongst the pews, aside from the one Acamus had kebabbed, chose to face chained knights over the minotaur and so as the seven remaining captors beat down the remaining three knight-guards, the other Knights of the Order sneaked up behind them and slit two Ipativian throats before Shaprone noticed. He quickly severed the nearest Order-knight’s jugular. The three Knights of the Order hesitated, seeing the battle before them and realizing they’d not only lost but also gotten themselves trapped, which gave the chained soldiers enough time to hack them down with stolen swords. When the captives turned back towards the doors, they saw that the blood bath was over thanks to the five mysterious saviors.
As Ekaf rushed to the shackled soldier’s aid, slicing through their chains with his void-dust infused blade, Bold, Nogard, and Zach glanced around and were shocked to note that the bodies of the recently slaughtered weren’t the only deceased on the church floor. This short skirmish appeared to have been at least the second fight to take place in the temple that day.
Their leader, the mustached man – also known as Shaprone Ipativy – approached Acamus, whom he assumed was the leader of their ragtag saviors, and knelt before him.
“Acamus Icespear, I owe you my life.”
Acamus bowed, accepting the complement.
“We came here for Theseus.” Ekaf stated, suddenly standing between the two, offering Shaprone his blade.
“Ah,” Shaprone nodded. He extended his arms, Ekaf cut the chains, then he continued, “you came to the right place. This was our last checkpoint within the city.”
“Last?” Ekaf gasped.
“When we stormed Rivergate, we had this church and at least ten other bases secured. Since then, the tides have turned against us. We should’ve left here sooner, but we held out as long as we could in case Theseus might return…we would’ve died here, nearly died here this morning had these fools not decided to try and take us back to Shalis. I cannot thank you enough for showing up when you did.”
Acamus nodded, not saying a word.
“On the bright side, we’ve got Mountaingate and the Castle fortified like you wouldn’t believe. Even if that witch can keep us out of the city, she won’t be able to get through that gate anytime soon.” He patted Acamus on the side of his arm, “That is where we should head. Your father knows if we aren’t at the church, we’d be back at Mountaingate.”
“Won’t he come here first?” Acamus asked.
Shaprone shook his head, “Not if it’s too dangerous.”
“It is safe now.” Acamus stated.
“Not for long,” Shaprone said, “they sent a mailmole for back up.”
Zach stepped into the conversation, “The city is filling with members of the Order.”
Acamus didn’t seem convinced.
“I understand if you want to stay Acamus,” Shaprone stated, “But my comrades and I must go and go now. I want to stay aswell. But I must think about these men and women. If we leave now, then we may be able to get the bodies of those who fell here back to their families aswell.”
Bold and Nogard exchanged glances, both doubting that Acamus would make the rational decision. Both wondering whether they would stay with Acamus if he did chose to wait. But then the minotaur proved them wrong.
“You are right, my friend.” Acamus nodded.
“We can help ya with the bodies.” Bold suggested.
“There are wagons out back,” Shaprone turned to his troops, “Sarah, Rachel-”
They hurried off without another word.
“Interesting little knife you have there.” Shaprone said, turning back to his heroes and addressing Ekaf.
Ekaf bowed his head, “Thank you sir, it’s Knomish made.”
“Not the Duikii, is it?”
Shaprone responded to the Knome with a blank stare, a face of silent suspicion.
– – –
Theseus kicked the bodies, checking to see if any had survived. Despite the scorched courtyard outside and the obliterated state of the church, the scene looked hopeful. None of the scattered bodies were minotaurs and none were Knights of Ipativy. Whatever had taken place, the Order hadn’t won. Bending over, Acamus picked up a shard of ice, four finger tips were still frozen inside.
“From the looks of it, your friends and my son arrived and escaped,” Theseus said, “and it seems they didn’t spare a soul.”
“They did spare one,” Joe said from where he stood beside the pulpit, “barely.”
The man sat on his butt behind the pulpit, leaning his back against the wall. His body was wrapped in black plated armor, drizzled in blood that had leaked from the wound on his face. An arrow was lodged in the elf’s left eye. The man looked forwards but seemed not to have noticed Joe. His lip, caked with dried blood, quivered as he whispered to himself.
Theseus joined Joe’s side and said, “Barely, indeed.”
The man lurched forward, his right eye wide and focused on the minotaur. Theseus stuck a hoof to the elf’s sternum and pushed him back to the ground.
“Help me!” The elf screamed, “Please, help me!”
“There’s only one way to help a dying man.” Theseus said.
Theseus put a hoof to the elf’s skull and Joe quickly turned away, clutching his knees and hurling though nothing came out. When he recovered, the sight at the mouth of the church was just as disheartening.
Shalis Skullsummon stood alongside Captain Johnny Pigeon.
“Theseus,” Joe whispered, “we’ve got company.”
The minotaur turned around.
“Looks like you’re missing someone.” Shalis said with a crooked smile.
Theseus snorted, “I advise you to leave us alone, witch.”
“Witch?” Johnny spat, “You’re a dead man!”
“I’m not afraid of you Theseus.” Shalis said, “You’re an old, old man now. Your time has long since come and passed.”
“Maybe so,” Theseus shrugged, “but how about you ask your Sea Lord what he thinks. Aye, lad, you think I’ve gotten rusty?”
“You know, he has a poi-“
“Forget Theseus, he’s mine!” Shalis snapped, “You just handle the pyromancer – unless that’s too much for you too?”
Theseus turned to whisper to Joe, “Can you handle the pirate?”
“I hope so…” Joe mumbled.
“Listen, my friend, be confident and play it smart. You are young and foolish, but so is he.”
Their conversation concluded as fire suddenly filled the church. Rising from each lifeless body, black flames cackled and danced across the corpses in silence. Yet, the bodies didn’t burn. Engulfed in obsidian fire, the only change brought to the dead knights was the release of a putrid aroma. The smell almost brought Joe to his knees.
“What is-” Joe began.
“Necroflame!” Theseus interjected, “Do not touch it and do not speak.”
Joe bit his lip as the word “why” nearly rolled off his tongue.
“No talking?” Shalis stuck out her bottom lip and clasped her heart, “Why that’s no fun. The Theseus I’d heard of would charge alone into the midst of a hundred enemies, not tip-toe through necroflame like a frightened child.”
While Shalis continued to taunt Theseus from across the church, Joe found his attention elsewhere. The black flames that had spread to cover most of the church now only lingered over the bodies. No flames burned along the pews or on the carpet, only flesh fueled the strange combustion. It was silent and produced no heat, in fact aside from sight, it only registered to the sense of smell. The bodies weren’t burning but instead they were rotting at an exponential rate. Just slow enough for one to miss it at a glance. Looking back across the church at his opponents, Joe knew it was only a matter of time before someone started the fight.
Johnny’s belt can shoot ice, water, and rocks – and probably more –, Joe thought, recalling what his mates had told him on their journey to Zviecoff, he can easily cancel out my fire, Joe began to slowly cipher black fire from the body behind him, but can he douse fire that doesn’t burn?
“-you know it isn’t too late for the GraiLords, we could use an extra ally against the Ipativians,” Shalis said.
“As long as I live, not another minotaur will bow to the Order.” Theseus snarled.
Before Shalis could retort, the minotaur hurled his shield at her. The necromancer didn’t duck, instead she stepped back as a white skeletal figure climbed out of the ground. Catching the shield, it faced Acamus. The undead stood as tall as Theseus though it was missing it’s left horn. In fact, the skeleton looked as though it could’ve belong to Theseus if not for the absence of the horn.
When Theseus threw his shield, Joe followed suit. Balling the necroflame he’d gathered out before him, without directly touching it, he launched it at Johnny. Gripping his belt, the pirate shot a blast of water back – Joe’s flame was unperturbed. Pigeon dove out of the way. With his opponent grounded and his necroflame gone, Joe ran over to the next nearest corpse where he could steal more. Reloaded, Joe turned to find Johnny back on his feet.
“Hold on, that stuff’s not fair!” Johnny cried.
Joe made no effort to respond verbally, respecting Theseus’ instructions, but replied with a glare.
“How about this?” Johnny said, his elgroon belt buckle began to glow orange, “Fire on fire.”
Fire on fire? His body again became aware of the cold ring of enchanted bone wrapped around his neck. He could feel his fire supply had already been vastly depleted. I’ll have to be quick. Joe shot the necroflame back over the corpse and nodded.
With no more warning, Johnny launched a ball of flames. Joe caught the fire in his hand and sent it back. Gripping his belt, the buckle absorbed the fiery projectile and the two combatants were left with nothing but their glares.
“This’ll go no where.” Joe said, forgetting Theseus’ warning.
Johnny dove beneath a pew, disappearing from Joe’s view. Joe frowned as he stared at the pews, pondering a solution. Then he got an idea. Stepping back towards the podium, he launched his fire on the pews. It didn’t take long before the wooden benches were alight with flame, red flame, and Johnny was forced to roll out from under them, hacking and coughing.
“I got another idea on how we can settle this.” Joe said, one that won’t waste what little fire I have left. The Suikii appeared in his right hand.
While Joe and Johnny tussled on one side of the church, Theseus attacked his undead brother on the other. Armed with Theseus’s shield and his own severed horn, Sueseht Icespear looked like quite the opponent and for a while he was. Theseus would strike and Sueseht would block with his shield then swing at Theseus’ side which Theseus would then block. The next move would’ve been a decapitation, the same move Theseus had used to kill him before, if not for Shalis. As the brothers fought, she cast spells, forcing Theseus to fight them both.
Theseus attacked, blocked, and then swung to shatter the pew Shalis had sent flying for his head.
“Seems like your brother might win this time.” Shalis snickered.
Theseus attacked, blocked, and then jumped out of the way as purplish strings shot towards him from the necromancer’s fingertips. He fought the urge to buckle under the pain in his knee and perservered.
“You’ve grown old, face it.” Shalis continued.
This time Theseus didn’t attack the undead Sueseht, instead he chunked his sword at the taunting witch and tackled his dead brother. Tearing the skull from the spinal column, he stood and faced Shalis. Four new undead now surrounded the swordless warrior. He began to mumble the words of a spell and his sword, at Shalis’ feet, began to rise.
“Well, well, well…” Shalis said, rubbing her temple from where the hilt had smacked her before laughing it off, retorting, “I might break a sweat after all.”
Meanwhile, Johnny and Joe were in a heated clash of blades. Joe was fairing quite well but his soul was in turmoil. He had begun to sincerely believe that he was about to be chopped to pieces. Why did I think a sword fight would give me the upper hand?! Johnny swung and Joe blocked. Johnny attacked again and once again Joe managed to parry. As Johnny continued to barrage Joe, he began to respond later and later. The pirate was wearing him down and he was being forced further and further back until Johnny swung and Joe knew he would not be able to block in time. He dropped the Suikii and dove to the side.
Johnny approached Joe laughing. He swung for Joe. Joe rolled out of the way. Johnny swung again but once more he cut into the church carpet.
“This is pitiful,” Johnny laughed, “is this how you want to die?”
The pirate attacked, more to scare Joe then to actually harm, and he succeeded. Joe rolled out of the way, laying on his stomach. I’m going to die here. Joe realized. I’m going to die right here right now. No, no I’m not. I’m not dying here! The Suikii was back in his hand. Rolling out of the way of another attack, Joe swung the Knomish sword and opened a window just in time to roll through it.
Joe appeared behind the bewildered pirate. He raised the Suikii then stopped. I can’t kill him like this. But, before he could stop himself, he’d already swung. All he could do was twist to miss the back of the pirate’s neck and slice through the wrist of his sword arm. Johnny collapsed to his knees. Staring at his mutilated arm, Johnny screamed.
About the same time the two had begun their sword fight, Theseus had began his fight against the four undead before him. He shattered one with his first swing. Spinning on his hooves, he stabbed the next through the eye, tearing the skull off its mount. Two more undead closed in, the weapons of the fallen Knights of the Order held in their filanges. Theseus cut down one as the other stabbed him in the thigh. He grabbed his attacker by the back bone and threw him into the wall. Now Shalis stood before him with a long curved bone, sanded and smoothed into the shape of a hilt-less Fou-style sword. She swung and he blocked, stepping backwards. Theseus fell over a pew and landed on his back, shattering the pew beneath him.
“I won’t wait for you to stand.”
“You don’t have to.”
Theseus flipped his sword to hold it by the blade and then tossed it at the wall to his left. Spinning like a pinwheel, the hilt hit the wall with such force it bounced back towards the necromancer who was just about to deliver a finishing blow to the downed minotaur. The hilt smacked Shalis in the same part of the forehead she’d gotten hit before. As she fell, Theseus stood. Retrieving his sword, he took one step towards Shalis. The necromancer was dizzily getting to her feet but she never made it. Theseus took another step towards her and stabbed the staggering witch through the stomach. She gasped as he pulled the sword free then fell back down. Sitting in the rubble of a pew, she didn’t speak, she only stared and cursed at the minotaur with the hate in her eyes.
“Are you angry because we won,” Theseus asked, glancing over his shoulder to look for Joe though all the minotaur could actually see was Joe’s fire, which had now consumed the front half of the church. He turned back to Shalis, “or because I’m letting you live?”
The Sheik didn’t answer.
“I’m letting you live for a reason,” Theseus said as he knelt beside her, “because when your empire learns that you were defeated and spared by the enemy, they will recognize how weak you truly are. They won’t have a martyr, they’ll have a loser. And with that, I bid you farewell, my friend.”
The minotaur was in the process of standing when he saw that the hate-filled look on Shalis’ face had changed. Just before she slipped out of consciousness, she smiled. The minotaur froze.
“Hey, Theseus,” Joe said, joining Theseus’s side, “you alright?”
Theseus didn’t hear the question. Eyes wide, still staring at Shalis, Theseus merely murmured, “My friend…”
Joe gazed around the burning church nervously before pressing the minotaur further, “Hey, so, I cut Johnny’s hand off and he’s going crazy over in the corner and it’s only a matter of time before he-”
Joe watched as the rotten corpse of a knight, strode out of the fire in the center of the church. The red flames still consuming the black tunic draped over his armor as the undead marched towards Joe and Theseus. Shoulders sagging and jaws hanging, the Knights of the Order rose. One by one, they grabbed the weapons at their feet and made their way slowly towards the two.
“We have to run!” Joe exclaimed.
“We can take them!” Theseus growled.
“Why bother, the church is on-”
Despite the oven-like climate of the church, Joe shivered as if ice cubes were running down his back.
“Theseus! Your leg!”
Black flames clung to the brain matter – left from the man with the arrow in his head that Theseus had put out of his misery – along his hoof. The skin around his hoof was slowly turning the color of the zombies approaching them.
Theseus turned away from Shalis to smile at Joe, “Now I know why my knee stopped hurting.”
“What do we do?” Joe asked.
Not only were the zombies closing in, but almost the entire front half of the church was now on fire.
“We have to go.” Joe continued, “I’m useless against them. They just walk through my fire.”
“You go,” Theseus said, “I’ll stay.”
“What?” Joe laughed hysterically, “We came here for you! And out there on my own, without any fire…” he shook his head, “Theseus, I’d get myself killed!”
“Open a window with your sword.” Theseus nodded his head towards the entrance, “It’s too late to run now.”
Sure enough, at least a dozen zombies stood between them and the shattered front of the church. As Theseus limped around, fending off the necroflamed knights, Joe began to swing the Suikii. A portal opened on the first try. The window before him was nothing but black, so eerily dark that Joe couldn’t make out one detail. Yet Joe trusted the Suikii. He nudged Theseus and the minotaur turned. Together, they stepped through and the portal closed behind them.
– – –
Mountaingate was just as beautiful as Rivergate but without having been ravaged by looters when the city fell. The gate led to not just the castle but also the Imperial Road and so, unlike Rivergate, Mountaingate had an actual gate. The structure itself was a tunnel, a giant arch of the road with numerous gates separating the city from the highway. Like Rivergate, the roof of Mountaingate was covered by a number of murals portraying Iceload’s history starting with Zannon, Cannon, and Bluff and including events as recent as Talloome Icelore’s rise to power.
Shaprone Ipativy led his men and the others into Mountaingate and there they waited for sunset. A dozen or so GraiLord minotaurs met them in the tunnel. The furry warriors kept their eyes on the city and when Shaprone asked if any of the Order had approached Mountaingate the tallest of the minotaurs answered, “Not yet.” They seemed momentarily delighted to see Acamus, but – like Acamus himself – they would have little emotional room available for anyone else so long as Theseus Icespear’s survival was in question.
Ekaf, Nogard, Bold, Zach, and Acamus were to wait in Mountaingate until the sunset, then they would head up to Zvie Castle. The majority of Ipativian and GraiLord troops would remain to defend Mountaingate but over a quarter of their forces were already stationed in the castle, taking care of the wounded and keeping watch on the mountains that walled the city.
When the sun finally began to set, there was still no sign of Theseus. Nor was there any sign of Joe, Zalfron, or Machuba. Brilliant colors stretched across the horizon throwing a purple shadow over the city. As only half of Solaris remained, peaking between the Zvie Castle’s many towers, two figures approached Mountaingate from the city. One held the other in his arms.
“Who is it?” Acamus murmured.
“Let’s find out.” Shaprone replied.
– – –
At first, all Joe could see was darkness. The mighty star pillars of Zviecoff were now tiny shadows that had been consumed by the shadow now covering the world. Theseus, on the other hand, was glowing a brilliant white. He was a silhuette, pure white and engulfed in an ivory flower of flame. His radiance was only marred by the flickering black creeping up his leg. Staring at the minotaur was like staring into the sun. Now things were coming into view, Joe could see the pews as dull grey blobs and the walls of the church as a step lighter than pitch black.
“This is Total Darkness, isn’t it?” Joe asked, his voice echoing throughout the abysmal landscape.
“Indeed, I thought I’d heard a banshee’s thunder this morning.” Theseus said.
“The loud clap you hear when a banshee stops time…I just can’t figure which banshee this might be? Does the Order have a banshee?”
“Its Hermes Retskcirt.” Joe said.
“Ah yes…that boy flip flops like a politician.”
As Theseus snickered, Joe continued to take in their surroundings. All the pews were intact. There were no zombies and there was no fire. Though the inaninament objects were only intelligible by a slightly different shade of black, Joe could tell the front door of the church was back on it’s hinges and the front of the building hadn’t been slashed to pieces.
“Why is the church still intact?”
“When you heard the thunder, that’s when Hermes started his duel, that’s when he froze time. Who’d he target?”
“Me,” Joe said, “but Zalfron got in the way.”
“Zalfron Sentry?” Theseus paused.
“If he’s any bit as lethal as his sister was, Hermes is in trouble.” Theseus chuckled, “I suppose we should look for them, my friend.”
Joe nodded again though he hadn’t heard Theseus. He was staring at the warrior’s now invisible right leg. The curse was spreading but Theseus didn’t seem to be daunted. They cured my diabetes, maybe they can cure a zombie leg. Then he thought of his own fire-starving condition. If we don’t find Hermes, then we may both die by ourselves. With that hypothesis as his confidence’s corner stone, Joe set off after Theseus through the strange, nightmarish world.
– – –
“I told you he’d come.”
“Yer in trouble now!”
Hermes looked down at the elf. The once daunting six foot six elf now lay crumpled on the rooftop, quivering in pain. Bruised and torn, his clothes were ripped, his bones broken, and his head swollen and bumpy. It was a miracle Zalfron was still alive.
“Did you learn nothing? You probably had more of a chance to take me down than your measly pyromancer.”
“Then what…” Zalfron had to pause due to the pain before managing to spit out the rest of his question, “are ya waitin for?”.
Looking over the edge, Hermes knew why he waited. They stood atop one of Zviecoff’s many umbrella shaped sky scrapers. From their vantage point, Hermes could watch Joe and his companion wandering the silent streets below. Hermes recognized Joe’s friend. He’d seen Theseus before but even if he hadn’t the shape and glow of the figure couldn’t have fit another soul. Hermes was well aware that Theseus was way above his league. The minotaur had once dueled Iahtro and, while he hadn’t won, he didn’t die thus he didn’t lose. Even with the largest ego Solaris had ever seen, Hermes would never raise his sword to Theseus, well, not an able bodied Theseus.
From their vantage point, Hermes could see the minotaur’s missing leg.
“Don’t go anywhere, Sentry.” Hermes growled and then he disappeared.
“You’ll never find me again!” Zalfron whispered defiantly and he did try to move but to no avail. Too many broken bones and torn muscles. His body had just about shut down. But as Zalfron closed his eyes, hoping sleep could cloke his pain, a familiar character appeared on the rooftop, Suikii in hand.
– – –
“Theseus Icespear,” Hermes proclaimed, “I’m here to give you a break from babysitting.”
“No such break needed, my friend.” Theseus said.
They stood in the courtyard – not having made it far from the church. Hermes’ glowing body was fifteen yards before them. Theseus stepped forward to put himself between the banshee and Joe.
“So how are we to do this? Am I going to take both of you down or can we come to some sort of a compromise?”
“Just you and me,” Theseus suggested, “and to make it fair, I’ll only use my left hand.”
“Ha!” Hermes laughed despite his secret relief but all was not well yet. If Joe was to simply sit and watch, Hermes knew he’d end up with the Suikii in his back. He needed to lure the pyromancer away. So he said, “The Sentry sits atop that tower. If you can reach him before I slay Theseus, I’ll set him free and take you in his stead.”
Joe looked to Theseus but the white shadow showed no expression. Hermes isn’t a real threat to Theseus, is he? Nevertheless, Theseus was the one who set up the duel and Joe did have the Suikii. if the blade cooperated, he could save Zalfron, himself, and get back in time to see Theseus crush Hermes like an insect. So without comment, Joe took off.
Also without comment, Theseus attacked. Bringing his sword over his head he brought it down hard. Hermes blocked and before he knew it his skull was clubbed off his shoulders by the minotaur’s second swing. Taking a step back, a headless Hermes continued to fight, swinging viciously to block each attack and steadily stumbling backwards until finally he disappeared.
Theseus spun, standing on one leg, and swung as Hermes reappeared behind him.
“-you’re too predictable.”
The swing caught Hermes in the chest plate, denting his armor and tossing him across the courtyard to land by his skull. Reassembled, Hermes swung and launched a sharp wind towards the minotaur. Theseus parried it, sending the blow into the cobble paved streets. Staggering forward, Theseus blocked another blast, then another and another until he saw a sharp wind flying towards him at just the right angle to whack it back into Hermes. The banshee flew across the courtyard to slam into the facade of the church, crumbling in part of the wall and adding another dent to his chest plate.
“A sharp wind may be useful when your trying to rid a field of rodents,” Theseus chuckled, “but not when you’re deuling a Guardian.”
“Are you trying to teach me or kill me?” Hermes growled, emerging from the church.
With one swing, Theseus launched a sharp wind twice the size of the banshee’s. Hermes shot one back, blocking the section of the wave that would’ve struck him while the excess cut through the church behind him.
Theseus shot another and Hermes disappeared. The minotaur spun to cover his rear only to hear the heavy clap of boots on cobble behind him. Spinning back around, he blocked Hermes’ swing.
“You’re weak.” Theseus said.
Hermes disappeared. Then reappeared twenty yards to the minotaur’s left where he launched another sharp wind then disappeared.
“You know who I am,” Theseus said as he blocked, “and you believed you had a chance?”
Hermes reappeared and launched another projectile but once again Theseus blocked.
“You are an ant, now come here so I can squash you!” Theseus roared.
The minotaur was thrown off his feet as something massive barreled over him. He rolled onto his back just in time to catch the jaws of the beast. Hermes was now a ten foot, when on all fours, wolverine rippling with muscle. It was holding those mighty jaws back that gave Theseus the realization that Hermes might actually possess the strength to kill him. Theseus was far stronger, far more skilled, far more prepared but Hermes was now agitated. Still Theseus could kill the undead bearn right then and there, but he decided to continue toying with him.
Planting his good hoof on the wolverine’s belly, Theseus grabbed the beast by the throat and flipped it onto its back. Without waiting another second, Theseus scurried to straddle the undead and began planting punch after punch into the wolverine’s noggin. Finally, Hermes disappeared from beneath him.
“Are you going to run all day?” Theseus roared as he waited for the bearn to reappear.
Once more Hermes appeared behind Theseus but the minotaur wasn’t caught off guard. He turned and blocked and then attacked, knocking the Doom Warrior’s skull of once more. He continued to attack. Off came one arm, then the other before Hermes teleported away to put himself back together. Theseus took this time to look at his leg. The darkness was spreading up his hip and sinking down the thigh of his other leg. The numb, dead feeling was slowly stretching up his back and towards his middle section. But he pushed the reality out of his mind.
“Is this it?” Theseus asked, “The legendary Hermes Retskcirt is slain by a thousand year old minotaur?”
Though Hermes had still not reappeared, Theseus could feel his growing rage. The darkness overhead began to swirl as mysterious sparks of light flashed through the shadows like heat lightning among the clouds. Theseus looked to the tower Joe was climbing and prayed to Allah that Joe had enough time.
“Let your rage tame your fear,” Theseus roared, “and finish me, my friend!”
Hermes reappeared. Theseus swung and his blade slid through Hermes as though he was made of shadows. He was made of shadows. Theseus fell to his knees. He didn’t feel the pain, just the sudden weight. Looking down he saw the blade, protruding through his stomach. His legs had both died, he couldn’t have turned in time to face his opponent. Hermes pulled the sword free and strode over to stand before Theseus.
“Do it.” Theseus said.
Hermes held the blade to the side of the minotaur’s neck and hesitated. Even Hermes, as narcissistic as the worst Solarins, felt ashamed. There wasn’t a furred folk from his generation that didn’t revere Theseus Icespear. The man was respected by more Solarins than Saint. He had bipartisan acclaim, even Pact and Order members had a special respect for the minotaur. But for those like Hermes, an Iceload native who had been dismissed time and time again by the blonde haired, furless rulers of the continent, Theseus Icespear was like a messiah.
“I don’t deserve to kill you.” Hermes confessed.
“You beat me fair and square. We both knew I only had so long before Shalis’ magic caught up with me.”
“Join me, Theseus, I could convert you! Save you from the necroflame!” Hermes suggested.
“Thank you, my friend, but I refuse to live as an undead.” Theseus said, “Now do me one favor and slay me before the necroflame reaches my balls.”
“You were a great warrior,” Hermes said, bringing back his sword for the swing, “a great man.”
“And now,” Theseus let his head rock back and stared into the darkness churning above, “I’ll be a great legend.”
– – –
Joe was a quarter of the way up the stairs, swinging the Suikii with each step, when he collapsed. His legs were tingling, his muscles were knotted and cramping. It wasn’t mere exhaustion. It was magical withdrawal. His chest was sending shockwaves of ice through his body, reminding him that he needed more flame.
“God, you’ve got me this far, but I don’t know how much further I can go…”
Raising the Suikii he gave it one more swing. Then the sword disappeared, leaving Joe fireless and weaponless on the stairs.
“No…” he murmured, his hands shaking, “come back…”
The Suikii was gone. He waited a moment longer then stood. Legs trembling, the stone in his chest felt heavier than ever. Biting his lip, he continued up the stars.
– – –
Machuba was in the cobblestone courtyards across from the church. He stood for a moment, watching the zombies stagger out of the burning building. The rotten bodies of the knights stumbled onwards and at first he thought they were heading his way, then he saw a bush. The shrubbery had been burnt in half, but it held on in the corner of the shattered courtyard and Machuba could see something in the shadow beneath the it. With the undead moving at the pace of snails and still having fifty or so yards between them and the bush, Machuba was able to walk over.
If he wasn’t a Gill, he would’ve felt chills. It wasn’t a corpse but it might has well have been. It was a kilt. Machuba immediately knew who’s it was. It wasn’t long ago that he’d been following it.
Something touched his hand and he reached for Shelmick’s sword but then stopped, he already held a weapon.
He checked the progress of the undead then swung the ancient Knomish sword. A window opened into a dark world and he stepped through. He instantly recognized the Total Darkness due to the descriptions he’d heard from Nogard. He didn’t dwell on the spell. In fact, he didn’t even stop to notice his surroundings. All he saw was the flickering silhouette before him.
“I have the Suikii, I’m getting you out.”
“Joe’s hare too.”
“…ah…ah don’t know.”
“I’ll get you out then come back for Joe.”
His proposal went unheard as Zalfron slipped out of consciousness. Machuba picked the elf up and then stepped back through the Suikii’s window. Machuba wandered through the city streets. When his arms grew tired, he sat Zalfron down and while he rested he swung the Suikii, praying for a portal to open. A few did, but he didn’t initially note the significance. In retrospect, he’d understand that the sword was keeping him heading in the right direction, towards Mountaingate, and out of the way of Order patrols, he didn’t cross one foe on his way from the North Mystakle Church to the edge of the city. When he arrived, Shaprone opened the gate and Ekaf, Nogard, Bold, and Zach ran to their comrades.
“Where’s Joe?” The Knome asked as Machuba handed Zalfron to Bold.
Machuba raised his hand and the Suikii appeared in it.
“The sword left Joe…” Ekaf murmured.
Machuba nodded, “It took me to Zalfron and took us here, but now it has quit.”
“Keep trying, my boy!” Nogard exclaimed.
“No.” Ekaf shook his head, “No the sword left Joe. It made up it’s mind. Do you know where Joe is?”
“According to Zalfron,” Machuba said, “in Total Darkness with Hermes.”
Acamus was making his way towards them from deep inside Mountaingate. Machuba saw him from far off. Licking his eyes, he took a deep breath. I’m going to have to tell Acamus that his father is dead. He licked his eyes again.
“Machuba.” Ekaf whispered.
Machuba looked down. Nogard and Zach were busy helping Bold with Zalfron. Ekaf was at Machuba’s side, keeping his voice low enough so that the others would not hear.
“Are you alright?” the Knome asked.
Kneeling down, Machuba whispered into Ekaf’s ear, “I think Theseus is dead.”
The little Knome’s eyes opened wide.
“Don’t tell this to anyone,” Ekaf said, “we have no way of knowing how Acamus will react.”
“How can I keep this from Acamus?” Machuba asked.
“Just trust me,” the Knome said, looking over his shoulder as Acamus neared, “I’ve been in situations like this literally over a hundred times before. Did you see the body?”
Machuba shook his head.
“Then there is no use in spreading rumors.” Ekaf stated, then he turned to Acamus as the minotaur arrived, “Hello! Look what the dog coughed up!”
Acamus gazed over the comatose Zalfron for a moment then strode towards Machuba.
“Where is the Earthboy?” Acamus asked.
“Hermes has him.” Machuba replied.
“Did you see my father?” Acamus asked.
Machuba nodded and opened his mouth but no words came out.
Ekaf answered for him, “He went after Joe.”
Acamus stared at the Knome for a moment. Machuba tried to read the expression on the minotaur’s face but couldn’t. He wore the same distant expression he’d had behind the wheel of the Monoceros. The fishfolk licked his eyes.
“Is this so Machuba?: Acamus asked.
Machuba nodded again.
“Then I suppose I’ll be in your company a little while longer.”
With that, the minotaur strode off back into Mountaingate. The others followed, only the Knome and fishfolk hung back.
“I’m not sure what you saw, but if something did happen to Theseus, something irreversible, it would be best not to tell Acamus, not just yet.” Ekaf whispered to Machuba.
Machuba licked his eyes once more.
“As soon as Acamus finds out his father is dead, he’ll lose his mind and without his help we’ll never get into Icelore,” Ekaf explained, “and if we can’t get into Icelore, Joe will die and Solaris will sink into ruin.”
Machuba nodded. He wasn’t listening to the Knome. He was watching Acamus march away. If he ever finds out that I chose not to tell him, Machuba thought, he’ll kill me. Machuba cursed himself for listening to Ekaf, then, without a word to the Knome, he walked off, following the others into Mountaingate.