DargonZine F10, Issue 6

Cydric and the Sage Part 5



This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Cydric and the Sage

Author’s note: The complete synopsis for parts 1 & 2 can be found in FSFnet VOL09N1, for part 3 in FSFnet VOL10N1.

 

THE STORY SO FAR: In part 4 (chapters VIII-X), Cydric and Corambis head back to the house at twilight, stopping momentarily in the temple district so that the Sage can offer a brief prayer to the goddess Cahleyna. Cydric questions the necessity of worshipping the gods; Corambis seems offended but later accepts Cydric’s apology. When they arrive back at the Sage’s home, they have a light supper and prepare themselves for the opening of the Celestial Archway. The midnight hour arrives, the Archway appears, and the two step through.

 

They materialize in the other realm on a deserted beach. The chrysoline ring that the Sage wears points them in the direction of the Elder. They do not walk far when they are stopped by an invisible barrier. Corambis uses the ring to smash through, and suddenly the Citadel of Sorrows, situated on a huge floating boulder, is revealed to them. A transportal disc teleports them up to the Citadel, and they begin exploring. They notice strange translucent stones scattered about the courtyard; Cydric keeps one. The ring leads them through an armory filled with rusty weapons, an old tapestry room, and finally up into a tower where they find Bahz the Elder. Bahz appears incredibly old and decrepit, but when Corambis tries to help him stand, the Elder snatches the chrysoline ring away from the Sage and laughs. Green flames surround the Elder, and his true identity is revealed: he is actually Nephros, mage of ancient Quentrellia and the first to physically travel the Dreamrealms. He casts a paralysis spell upon Cydric and Corambis, and they lose consciousness.

 

XI. The Servant

 

The first thing that Cydric felt when he awoke some time later was a pressure on his head. He looked around and saw that the room was now empty, save for Corambis, who was shackled to a wooden post at the other side of the room. He tried to stretch, and found that he was similarly restrained. He gave the chains a hard yank, but they remained securely fastened.

 

“Milord Corambis!” he called, trying to wake the Sage. After a few moments, Corambis lifted his head.

 

“How do you feel?” Cydric asked him.

 

“Quite fine,” replied the Sage. “But–” he stopped, and his jaw dropped in surprise.

 

“What? What is it?” Cydric said, looking around.

 

“My goddess has heard my prayers! She has not forgotten us!” the Sage said joyfully.

 

“What do you mean?” Cydric asked, not understanding the Sage’s elation. Just then the pressure lifted from his head, and a bizarre-looking little creature settled onto his shoulder.

 

“Gaaah! What the hellblaze is it!” shouted Cydric, trying to shrug it off.

 

“Relax, Cydric, it will not harm you. That is the Tozu, one of the special servants of Cahleyna.” Corambis addressed the creature: “Forgive my young friend, O Tozu, for he is not used to being in the presence of one so distinguished as yourself.”

 

Cydric looked closely at the creature. It was very much like an owl, except for its human head and tiny pair of arms.

 

“His reaction is understandable. I take no offense,” replied the Tozu in a small, low-pitched voice. “And you are correct, Sir Corambis. Mistress Cahleyna has not forgotten you; she has sent me to tell you of the important duty you must perform.”

 

“Uh, excuse me, Zotu, or Tozu, or whatever your name is; could you please sit somewhere else?” Cydric said, feeling a little uncomfortable with the owl-man on his shoulder.

 

“Cydric! Please do not embarrass me,” said the Sage.

 

“If you don’t mind, I’d rather sit here,” the Tozu replied, somewhat testily.

 

“Fine with me, then,” Cydric said, shrugging. The owl-man flapped to keep his balance and gave Cydric a disapproving frown.

 

“First of all,” said the Tozu, “let me tell you about Nephros. You may know that over a thousand years ago, he was the royal sorcerer of the Island of Quentrellia, and that he was the one who discovered the Amulet of Hanarn and thus the first mage to physically venture onto the dreamrealms. To escape the Fretheod invasion of the Island he fled into the dreamrealms and wandered about for a time, eventually finding his way to the Nether Realm.” He paused, seeing the Sage’s eyes widen.

 

“You don’t mean…he made a bargain with an Exile?”

 

“Indeed he did. He promised Xothar the chance to escape from his prison in exchange for the power to dominate your world.”

 

Cydric remembered the stories of the Exiles: once they were seraphim, living in Lordsrealm with the All Creator, until Xothar and his followers revolted and tried to seize power. The All Creator crushed the rebellion, stripped them of their astral form, and flung them into the Nether Realm where they have been ever since. “Why did Nephros wait until now to try and free him?” Cydric asked.

 

“He has tried many times before, but with no success,” replied the Tozu. “This time, however, he may finally succeed.”

 

“Of course! The harmonic convergence happens tonight,” interjected Corambis. “If he has a means of tapping the power from the alignment of the sun and stars, he may very well attain his goal.”

 

“Very true,” said the Tozu. “He does in fact have the means–the Amulet of Hanarn. Now, Mistress Cahleyna and the other gods have appealed to the All Creator, and he has agreed to let them destroy Xothar once and for all. But since Xothar is in the Nether Realm, they cannot harm him, just as he cannot harm them. The All Creator is loathe to destroy any being, but has made an exception in this case. So, when Nephros opens the Celestial Archway, the gods shall attempt to strike a blow at Xothar. This means, of course, that Nephros must be allowed to complete the summoning ritual.”

 

“Wait, do you mean to say that you are not here to rescue us?” Cydric asked, incredulously.

 

“As I said, Nephros must complete the ritual in order to gather enough power to open an Archway in the Nether Realm. He needs your…assistance, for the ritual to work.”

 

“Well, don’t the gods have enough have power to do that themselves? I mean, they are gods, right?”

 

“The All Creator devised the Nether Realm as a prison specifically for gods and other divine beings. No resident of Lordsrealm has any power over that place.”

 

“But mere mortals do? Anyway, what about us? I mean, myself and Milord Corambis. Surely Cahleyna will not let anything happen to one of her worshippers?”

 

“Naturally. But you do understand that if Xothar escapes, he will take the rest of the dwellers of the Nether Realm with him, as well as the other Exiles. He will make war upon Lordsrealm, and the universe shall suffer.”

 

“But you will help us get out of here after the ritual, right?”

 

The Tozu hesitated. “Unfortunately, the Citadel will also have to be destroyed. This was once a place of great power, that is why Nephros chose it. I can’t help you once the ritual is begun.”

 

Corambis said: “I understand, O Tozu. It will be an honor to die for my goddess.”

 

“She is not *my* goddess,” said Cydric. “Anyway, I thought the gods were more powerful than any one seraphim. The battle will not take all their energy and concentration, will it?”

 

“It may. Xothar will undoubtedly have all his evil forces waiting, and the gods have to send a combined power strike to insure their destruction.”

 

“So you are saying that it is up to us to make our own escape?”

 

“In effect, yes.”

 

“Some divine being you are!”

 

“Please, Cydric, do not speak that way to him,” said Corambis.

 

The Tozu stiffened for a moment, then said, “Nephros is returning from his preparations. The Convergence is near. Remember what I have said.”

 

“We will, O Tozu. Thank you.”

 

“Blessings of Cahleyna be with you.” With that, the Tozu flapped his wings and flew off out the window.

 

XII. The Ritual

 

A few moments later, Nephros entered the room. “So, my friends, did you have a good sleep?” he asked.

 

They said nothing. “What, lizard-man got your tongue?” he laughed.

 

“Why us?” asked Cydric.

 

“Why not you?” Nephros replied, setting the brazier he had been carrying down in the center of the room.

 

“I mean, why did you go through all that trouble with the visions? You could have easily kidnapped us or something.”

 

“I needed you both to come willingly. Would you have come otherwise? I doubt it. I perceived that the old man would be interested in the story about Bahz, so I cast my bait, and you came right as I expected.” Taking a jar of paint and a brush from the brazier, he began marking out a large triangle, with Cydric at one point and Corambis at the other, humming as he did so.

 

“Just what is this all about, anyway?” Cydric asked.

 

“You certainly are an inquisitive one, aren’t you? Well, I see no harm in telling. I am preparing to bring a being of immense power onto this plane. In return for that, he’ll grant me supreme mastery over the world. Lord Nephros, Emperor of Makdiar–sounds great, doesn’t it?”

 

“For you, maybe. Just what do you need us for?”

 

“Well, for this whole thing to work, I need a couple of sacrifices and a host body for the being–Xothar’s his name, you know him?”

 

“Legends say he was banished to the Nether Realm.”

 

“Not for long. At the Convergence point, I’ll open the StarDoor into the Nether Realm, and he’ll be freed, along with the rest of his friends. And then I’ll have powers beyond all measuring–why, I’ll be able to raze Dargon Keep in thirty seconds if the notion so took me!” He put the finishing touches on the triangle and stepped back. “Wonderful. Almost ready.”

 

“What did my vision mean?” Cydric asked.

 

“Merely bits and pieces of your dreams and desires. I can’t remember exactly.” He threw the paint jar out the window, then brought out a leather bag. He emptied the contents into the brazier.

 

“One last thing.” He turned to the empty third point of the triangle and made some motions with his hands. A wooden post appeared in place. He moved to the window and glanced up into the sky. “Excellent. The Convergence is nigh.” He chuckled.

 

Cydric looked over at Corambis. The Sage had his eyes closed, and appeared to be meditating.

 

“Now where did I put her? Oh yes, I remember.” Nephros left the room, and came back a few moments later dragging a struggling young girl behind him.

 

“No! Let me go! Help!” she screamed.

 

“A nice virgin sacrifice,” Nephros said. “Can’t have a ritual without one.”

 

Cydric lunged against his chains. “Let her go, you bastard!”

 

“Such fire and spirit. What a strong life-force. Yes, a prime sacrifice victim. I’ll kind of miss her,” Nephros said.

 

“Help me please!” the girl sobbed at Cydric.

 

“You let her go, or I’ll–”

 

“You’ll what? Kill me?” Nephros smirked. He put his hand over the girl’s eyes, and her struggles ceased. He placed her up against the wooden post and chained her hands behind her. “Xothar will like her. More than he’ll like the old man, I’m afraid.”

 

“Not him too–”

 

“This is a pretty big ritual, you know. Twice as many sacrifices as usual. It had better work this time.” He moved to stand over the brazier. “Well?” he said, looking at Cydric. “No last minute pleas for mercy?”

 

Cydric glared at him.

 

“No, I guess not. I rather expected you to offer yourself as a sacrifice in place of the girl. Your type is always doing that sort of ‘noble’ thing. Well?”

 

Cydric started to speak but bit down his reply.

 

“I didn’t think so. Anyway, I can’t sacrifice you, since you have the honor of being Xothar’s new astral form. I don’t think he’d appreciate flying around in the body of a tired old man or a delicate young lass, now would he?” He grinned. “Now, if there is no other business, I say let the festivities begin!”

 

A flame appeared in the brazier. Moments later, a cloud of purple smoke rose up into the air. Nephros reached into his tunic and brought out a small object on a chain. The Amulet of Hanarn, Cydric supposed.

 

“Spirits of the sun, hear me!” began Nephros. “Movers of the stars, attend me!” The smoke formed into a rough sphere. “Powers of the void, grant me your strength. As the heavens come together in the perfect pattern, let their brilliance shine upon me!” He raised the Amulet above his head. There was a rumbling sound in the distance.

 

“Oroc criat naestrum. Oroc criat naestrum,” chanted Nephros.

 

Cydric wanted to cry out, to distrupt the proceedings, but the words of the Tozu prevented him from doing so. He saw the Sage, unmoving on his post. The girl, a wisp of brown hair across her face, stood just as still.

 

“Oroc criat naestrum,” intoned Nephros with closed eyes. “Sun and heavens, moon and stars. Sun and heavens, moon and stars.”

 

The center stone of the Amulet began glowing. The room grew dark. The purple cloud lit up with an inner light.

 

“Oroc criat naestrum. Sun and heavens, moon and stars!”

 

The rumbling grew louder. The light from the Amulet started pulsing. The purple cloud twisted restlessly.

 

“The time is near,” said Nephros. He released the Amulet, which hung suspended in mid-air. He went to the girl, unlocked her chains, and motioned her to follow him. Glassy-eyed, she obeyed. Nephros made her hold her arm out over the brazier in the center of the cloud, and when she had done so, cut her wrist with a dagger. The blood mixed into the smoke, giving it a crimson tint. Cydric cried out when he realized that Nephros was using his sundagger.

 

“Silence!” shouted Nephros. Cydric felt himself go stiff, just like the first time.

 

Nephros waved the girl back to her post. He went over and released Corambis from his chains. The Sage opened his eyes and straightened at the mage’s command. Nephros mixed Corambis’ blood into the cloud as he did with the girl’s, then motioned him back.

 

Taking hold of the Amulet once more, Nephros resumed chanting. “Oroc criat naestrum. Oroc criat naestrum.”

 

The rumbling sound changed to a low pulsing rhythm that kept time with the light pulses from the Amulet. The sound increased in volume, along with the mage’s chanting.

 

“Oroc criant naestrum. Oroc criat naestrum! OROC CRIAT NAESTRUM!”

 

A beam of light lashed out from the Amulet and struck the center of the cloud. There was a sharp crackle, and the Archway snapped open.

 

“THE STARS CONVERGE IN PERFECT UNISON! ENTER, O XOTHAR! THE PATH IS CLEAR!” shouted Nephros. A strong wind rushed out from the Archway, ruffling everyone in the room but not affecting the purple cloud that obscured the view into the astral portal.

 

“ENTER, GREAT XOTHAR! NEPHROS BIDS THEE ENTER!” Neprhos shouted above the screaming wind. Cydric watched in horror as he took the girl by the shoulders and shoved her into Archway. She vanished, then there was a brief sparkle of red. A dim form began to take shape within the Archway.

 

As the form solidified, Cydric could make out claws, horns, and fangs. Nephros exclaimed joyfully. Suddenly, several other forms appeared in the smoke. They were human in appearance, but the brilliant radiance surrounding each of them marked them as gods.

 

“No! Please, not now! So close!” Nephros yelled.

 

The lead god, a woman, pointed at the grotesque form of Xothar. A shaft of pure golden light shot out from her fingertips and struck the Exile. The room shook with the impact. Nephros lost his balance and fell as a wrenching roar filled the air. Cydric slumped forward as the paralysis left him.

 

Xothar raised his fist and a blast of red energy flared out. The room shook again as the fire punched into the group of gods. Corambis sprang forward and snatched up Cydric’s sundagger where Nephros had dropped it.

 

The Sage leaped onto Nephros’s chest, pinning him to the floor. He took a gold key from the mage’s pocket, then struck him in the head with the pommel of the sundagger.

 

Cydric stared at the unconscious sorcerer as Corambis unlocked his chains. “Didn’t think I had it in me, eh?” the Sage grinned, noting the young man’s surprised expression.

 

The room trembled with the force of the godly struggle.

 

XIII. Escape From The Citadel

 

Cydric and Corambis raced out of the room and down the stairs. Another explosion rocked the castle, and chunks of stone began crumbling from the ceiling.

 

“Hurry!” said Corambis, handing Cydric back his sundagger. “The whole mountain may fall into the sea at any moment!”

 

They ran through the corridors, reached the tapestry room, and stopped. Several large lizards lay sprawled across the mosaic floor. Upon Cydric and Corambis’ entry, they turned and began crawling towards them.

 

“We cannot go through here!” said Cydric.

 

“We don’t have time to find another way,” replied Corambis. He took the bag of dried fruit from his belt and tossed it into the center of the room. A small lizard slithered over to it and took it into his mouth in one gulp.

 

“Shield your eyes, milord,” Cydric said, holding the sundagger in front of him. When the Sage had done so, Cydric closed his own eyes and silently gave the blade a command. A white light flared outward from the blade, flooding the room with brightness for a brief second.

 

Cydric opened his eyes. The lizards had stopped in their tracks, but resumed their course after a moment’s hesitation.

 

“They should have been blinded by that!” said Cydric.

 

“They are,” said Corambis, “but these lizards hunt by scent also.”

 

An explosion shook the room. “Then we have no other choice. We must find another escape route,” Cydric said, turning.

 

“Hold on,” said the Sage as he took out his pipe and filled it.

 

“You do not have time for that!”

 

“Call it my final smoke.” The Sage puffed, then said “Shafan fazar!” He took another puff, then blew the smoke outward. The aromatic cloud rose into the air and quickly filled the room. The lizards hesitated, then started wandering aimlessly, as if confused.

 

“Ha ha! That got ‘em!” Corambis grinned. “Come on!” He started forward into the lizard-infested room.

 

They carefully threaded their way past the lumbering reptiles. Cydric was almost to the other end of the room when a particularly large lizard caught hold of the end of his cloak. He kicked the beast in the head, but it stubbornly refused to let go. Cydric swore, then bent down and thrust the sundagger between the reptile’s eyes. It twitched, then relaxed its jaws as it died. Cydric wiped the blood off the blade as he joined the Sage.

 

“Nasty brute?” Corambis asked as they hurried down the corridor.

 

They reached the armory. Cydric opened the door that led to the courtyard and was greeted by a horde of walking human skeletons, all made of crystal. He gave a cry of surprise, then shut the door.

 

“What is it?” asked the Sage.

 

The door shook as the skeletons began pounding on it. “You would not want to know,” said Cydric. He slid a wooden bar across the door, then went over to one of the tables and turned it on its side, dumping the rusted weapons to the floor. He and Corambis slid the table over and shoved it against the door.

 

They paused for a moment to catch their breath. Suddenly, Cydric felt a warmth in his pocket. He reached in and brought out the translucent stone he had picked up in the courtyard. It glowed brightly and gave off increasing heat. Cydric tossed it away. As it hit the floor, the stone shattered and a crystal skeleton sprang up in its place.

 

“Now we know what those stones were,” Corambis said grimly. The skeleton looked around, then bent down and picked up a sword. At the skeleton’s touch, the rust on the blade vanished. It glowed briefly, then appeared like new.

 

“Cydric! Don’t let it pick up anything else!” warned Corambis. Cydric grabbed a nearby shield and threw it at the skeleton. It struck the crystal creature in the chest, causing it to stagger back. The skeleton quickly recovered and retrieved the shield which, like the sword, was restored to perfect condition.

 

“Helldamn,” muttered Cydric. He quickly scanned the ground, then took up a broadsword that appeared to have the least rust on it. Picking up a wooden shield, he strode toward the skeleton to engage it in battle.

 

They circled each other warily, then the skeleton gave an eerie cry and struck the first blow. Cydric blocked with his shield, and was nearly driven to his knees by the force of the strike. He slashed, and the skeleton jumped back. Cydric regained his stance and went on the attack.

 

They duelled back and forth in the center of the room, but slowly, Cydric found himself being driven back. He briefly reflected that the skeletons must at one time have been the flesh-and-blood guards of the palace. His shield suddenly splintered to pieces as his opponent’s sword came down upon it. Cydric barely had time to parry the next blow with his own severely notched sword. The skeleton easily deflected Cydric’s riposte, then lunged forward. Cydric avoided the strike and swung his sword at the skeleton’s head. There was a sharp crack as the skeleton bit down on the sword and split it in half. With a look of dismay, Cydric dropped the sundered blade and jumped back. He barely avoided the skeleton’s next slash, then found himself back up against the wall. The skeleton thrusted, Cydric twisted, and the blade struck the stone. Cydric brought his fists down on the skeleton’s back, and it pitched against the wall. As it slid to the floor, Cydric gave the skeleton a solid kick. It flipped over onto its back, and the sword went flying. Cydric stepped over the skeleton to retrieve the blade, but a bony hand lashed out and grabbed his ankle. Cydric slammed into the ground.

 

He tried to kick loose from the skeleton’s grasp, but it grabbed hold of his other ankle. Cydric cried out in pain as it tightened its grip. He desperately stretched his arm out, trying to seize the sword that lay just beyond his reach. Just then, Corambis raced over, picked up the sword, and plunged it into the skeleton’s back. The crystal creature let out an inhuman shriek, then exploded into a fine crystalline dust.

 

“Can you walk?” Corambis asked, helping Cydric to his feet. The young man winced, then shakily stood unassisted.

 

“I think so. They are only a little sore.”

 

A skeletal arm burst through the door. Corambis rushed over and hacked it off. “It seems our friends are becoming rather impatient.”

 

Cydric limped over to the door on the opposite wall and opened it. Several lizards from the tapestry room were making their way down the corridor. Corambis eyed the advancing reptiles, then reached for his pipe. Not finding it at his side, he searched the rest of his belt pouches but came up empty.

 

“My pipe! It must have fallen back there somewhere,” he said.

 

Cydric shut the door and leaned back against it. On the other door, the skeletons were slowly breaking through.

 

“What do we do now?” Cydric asked.

 

The Sage made no reply as he surveyed the room. Then his eyes lit up as he thought of a plan. He handed Cydric the skeleton’s sword.

 

“Delay them as long as possible. I have an idea.”

 

“What do you plan to do?”

 

“No time to explain, but if it doesn’t work it won’t matter.”

 

Cydric took a stand in front of the courtyard-entry door and proceeded to chop the limbs off any skeleton that threatened to break through. Meanwhile, Corambis shoved one of the wooden tables into the corner of the room farthest from the embattled door, turned another table onto its side and put it against the first, forming a rectangular box. He then gathered up some of the weapons and dropped them in a pile at Cydric’s feet.

 

“Now, Cydric, get under the tables over there. I’ll join you in a moment.”

 

Cydric did so. Corambis opened the door to admit the lizards, pushed the table away from the other door, then finally hurried back to the wooden shelter, dragging a piece of plate mail behind him to cover the open end.

 

“Now what?” asked Cydric.

 

“We wait.”

 

Through a knothole in the table, Cydric watched as the lizards made their way into the room just as the skeletons succeeded in smashing down the door. With their eerie battle cry, the skeletons snatched up weapons and began to hack the lizards to pieces. As the last reptile died, a massive tremor ripped through the room. Cydric cringed as the ceiling and most of the walls collapsed inwards, crushing the skeletons beneath piles of rubble. Moments later, all was still.

 

Corambis pushed aside the plate mail and crawled out. Cydric followed. “Thank Cahleyna the builders spared no expense in furnishing the Citadel,” breathed Corambis. “Were these tables not made of heartwood, we would surely be under a great deal of pressure.”

 

Another tremor nearly jolted them off their feet. “I think we best get going,” said Cydric. They started to climb out of the rubble, but after a few moments Cydric was forced to rest.

 

“It’s those ankles, eh?” said Corambis, crouching down next to the young man. Cydric nodded. The Sage brought out a vial from one of his pouches and rubbed the contents on Cydric’s affected extremities. A few minutes later, the pain vanished and Cydric was able to walk again.

 

Cracks started appearing in the ground by the time the two men made it to the front gates. Cydric looked back and saw large sections of the once-proud Citadel crumble away into ruin.

 

“Hurry, Cydric!” called the Sage.

 

They sprinted toward the mountain’s edge to where the transportal disc lay, but just before they reached it a huge gash opened up the ground in front of them. They frantically scrambled back as a huge chunk of the floating boulder dropped away into space, taking the transportal disc with it.

 

Cydric’s heart sank. “That was our only way off this helldamned rock,” he said despairingly.

 

“Courage up, Cydric, there must be another way down,” Corambis said, trying to sound reassuring.

 

Just then, a weird cry caused them to turn. Several crystal skeletons, apparently survivors of the room collapse, were rushing toward them with weapons drawn.

 

“I do not think we will get out of this alive,” said Cydric, raising the skeleton sword.

 

“You may be right this time,” Corambis said tightly.

 

The skeletons drew nearer. Cydric braced himself for the onslaught. If he was to die, then let it be in battle. His mentor would have been proud.

 

Suddenly, a small winged shape swooped out of the sky. “Look! It’s the Tozu!” Corambis pointed.

 

“Jump!” screeched the owl-man.

 

“Did he say ‘jump’ ?” asked Cydric.

 

“By the gods! Jump now!”

 

“Do it,” Corambis said, turning to the edge of the mountain.

 

“Are you serious?”

 

“Have faith, Cydric. Or face the alternative.” The skeletons were mere seconds away.

 

“But–” Cydric never finished the sentence. Corambis pushed him over the edge, then leaped after him.

 

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!” Cydric’s scream echoed through the heavens as he tumbled through empty air toward the beach below. He shut his eyes against the sky and ground that spun and whirled into a featureless blur.

 

***

 

He was still screaming when Corambis landed by him on the beach.

 

“Cydric! Stop that! We are safe,” said the Sage, shaking him by the shoulders. The screaming continued. Corambis gave him another hearty shake, then slapped him resoundingly across the face.

 

“Cydric! Listen to me!”

 

The young man’s outcries subsided to ragged gasps. A few moments later he sat up.

 

“W-we’re not dead?”

 

“We are very much alive, as you can see. Are you all right?”

 

“How?”

 

“It was my doing,” said the Tozu, coming to a hover nearby. “I am not without powers of my own. Now hurry! They are right behind.”

 

Cydric looked up. The skeletons had jumped off the mountain after them and were free-falling toward their position. “Won’t they be killed when they hit the ground?”

 

“The undead cannot be killed, only destroyed,” the Tozu replied. “I’d suggest you not be here when they arrive.”

 

“But where do we go? How do we get back to our own realm?”

 

“Leave that to me. For now, just get as far away as possible!” With that, the Tozu flapped his wings and took off.

 

Cydric and Corambis started off down the beach. Behind them, the floating mountain slowly disintegrated. Great slabs of rock slid off and splashed into the water below.

 

The first crystal skeleton off the mountain smashed heavily into the ground, breaking all of its bones. The skull, however, remained intact; it rose up from the pile of bones and flew off in pursuit of the two men.

 

Cydric looked back and saw the grisly cranium give chase. Behind it, three more skeletons struck the beach and shattered; their skulls quickly arose and joined the pursuit.

 

Corambis stumbled and fell. Cydric help him up, and they continued their desperate flight. Several moments later, Cydric felt a pain near his neck. He turned and saw the first skull sinking its crystal jaws into his shoulder. He cried out, then whipped off his cloak, throwing the skull to the ground. “Keep going!” he shouted to the Sage. He drew his sundagger and lunged for the skull, but it flew up and hovered just out of striking range. Cydric jabbed at it repeatedly, but each time it darted out of reach. Realizing that it was too quick, Cydric snatched up his cloak and flung it like a net at the skull. The cloth caught the fleshless head; Cydric fancied that it looked like a small blue ghost as it darted randomly about. Catching sight of more approaching skulls, he retrieved his dropped sundagger and took off at a run after the Sage.

 

“I can’t go much longer,” wheezed Corambis as Cydric reached him. “I’m far too old for this sort of thing.”

 

“Where is that damn Tozu-bird?” Cydric cursed. He glanced back and counted at least eight rapidly-gaining skulls. He turned his attention forward and felt his blood run cold; a short distance away, the line of barren rocks that bordered the beach angled sharply into the sea. They were out of running room.

 

Despair washed over Cydric as they came to a halt at the rocky barrier. “Blaze damn,” he muttered darkly.

 

Just then he heard a familiar flap of wings. The Tozu descended out of the sky, clutching the Amulet of Hanarn in its talons. There was a blaze of rainbow light as the Celestial Archway materialized at the foot of the rock wall. “Enter! Quickly!” the Tozu screeched.

 

Corambis leaped through the portal. Cydric paused and looked back just in time to see a massive bolt of lightning lance down from the sky and strike the Citadel. There was a fiery explosion, and the huge mountain of rock began to fall toward the water. Seconds before the skulls reached him, Cydric turned and dived through the Archway.

 

XIV. Return

 

He landed in the Sage’s study. For several minutes he lay there, panting and exhausted. After a little of his strength returned, he got up and found the Sage lying on the floor nearby.

 

“Milord Corambis! Are you all right?”

 

The Sage wearily sat up. “I’m fine, Cydric. I simply found the floor rather comfortable at the moment.”

 

“I shall get you some water,” Cydric said. He started to rise.

 

The study door flew open. A red-haired girl dressed in a black tunic and leggings came through, saw them, and whipped out a pair of throwing daggers. “Don’t move, if you wish to live,” she warned.

 

Cydric recognized her. “Holleena! What are you doing here?”

 

“Quiet!” Not taking her eyes off them, she called over here shoulder, “Thuna! In here.”

 

A nervous-looking dark-haired girl came in, holding a coil of rope. “Tie them up,” Holleena commanded.

 

“But Holleena, I don’t think they–”

 

“Do it!”

 

As Thuna started toward them, Corambis whispered, “It seems that we have slipped from the dragon’s teeth into the stomach!”

 

Cydric grimly agreed.

 

Epilogue

 

After Thuna had bound them, Holleena relaxed her stance.

 

“Who are you? Why have you invaded my house?” the Sage demanded.

 

“Watch it, old man, or I’ll do something very painful to you,” Holleena said, putting away one of the daggers.

 

“You promised you wouldn’t harm him,” said Thuna, nervously glancing at Corambis.

 

“You’re getting on my nerves, girlie. Now shut up and keep out of this!” Holleena shot back. She turned to Corambis. “Now then, old man, I understand you own a very valuable jewel. Mind letting me know where it is?”

 

“What is this, Holleena? You didn’t seem like the thieving kind,” said Cydric.

 

Holleena smiled, then delivered a slap across Cydric’s face.

 

“I seem to be getting a lot of that lately,” he murmured.

 

The red-haired young woman eyed her dagger, then looked straight at Corambis. “The Rainbow Stone, old man. Tell me where it is.”

 

“I have many stones and jewels. Take whatever you want and leave!”

 

“You know what I’m talking about, old man. If you really are as wise as they say, you’ll tell me where you’ve hidden it.”

 

“I have no idea what you mean,” the Sage replied.

 

“Very well.” Holleena walked about casually, then seized Thuna by the hair and placed the dagger to her throat. “Does this help your memory?”

 

“Please, Holleena,” Thuna gasped. “I-I thought we were partners.”

 

The Sage went white. “All right,” he said, a tremble in his voice. “But please, don’t hurt her.”

 

“I knew you were wise,” Holleena said, smiling a sweet, wicked smile. Just then Cydric heard a mechanical click, followed instantly by a soft *thunk*. Holleena gave a cry of pain and dropped her dagger. As she whirled away from Thuna, Cydric saw a crossbow bolt sticking out of the back of her shoulder.

 

“Well, m’love, appears we made it here just in time,” came a male voice from the doorway. Thuna backed away, and Cydric saw a man and a woman standing just inside the room. The woman lowered her crossbow. “Hello, Cydric, ” she said, smiling. “Looks like I’ve saved your life yet again.”

 

***

 

After the woman had freed Cydric and Corambis from their bonds, the Sage removed the bolt from Holleena’s shoulder and applied a healing salve. The crossbow woman’s companion then took the young red-haired thief upstairs to lock her in one of the rooms.

 

“This is the woman I was telling you about in the marketplace,” Cydric told Corambis as they took seats around the Sage’s table.

 

“You don’t know how glad I am to finally make your acquaintance, Miss Kittara,” said Corambis.

 

Kittara smiled. “Thank you, milord. I’m glad we could help.”

 

Just then the man who was with Kittara strode into the room. “The girl’s doing fine. We should be able to question her in a bit.” To Kittara he said, “You sure are a dead shot, love. Almost too good.”

 

She introduced the leather-clad man as her partner, Reyakeen Sylk.

 

“Good to know you, sirs,” Sylk said as he gripped forearms with the two men. “Sorry to trouble you this late.”

 

“That’s quite all right,” replied Corambis. “But tell me, Lord Sylk, how did you happen to be in this part of town? I do live rather removed from the center of Dargon’s activity.”

 

“Just call me Sylk. Actually, milord, it was no mere coincidence. Kittara and I had been following Holleena and the girl over there for the last few days.”

 

Thuna, who had been sitting apart from the rest of them, blurted out, “You must believe me, milord! I didn’t want anything to happen to you. She promised she wouldn’t hurt you, and she offered me so much money, I just–just–” she burst into tears.

 

“There, there, my girl,” Corambis said soothingly, going over and letting her cry on his shoulder. “What is she talking about?” he asked Sylk.

 

Kittara replied, “You see, milord, Holleena is a professional thief. Like she said, she was after your Rainbow Stone. Since Thuna is in your employ, Holleena bribed her into helping break into your house. They had made a copy of your house key, and were planning to carry out the theft last night, but Cydric’s arrival made them change their plans slightly.” She brought out a small pewter key and handed it to the Sage.

 

“I’m so sorry,” wept Thuna. “Please forgive me.”

 

“Don’t worry about it, my dear,” Corambis said gently. He motioned to Cydric. The young man came over, and the Sage passed the weeping girl into his arms. “Take her to one of the guest rooms.”

 

“Uh, there there, Thuna, please don’t cry,” Cydric said awkwardly as he led her from the kitchen.

 

“I’m sorry, I can’t help it,” Thuna said in a teary voice as they entered one of the ground-floor guest rooms of the house. Cydric sat her down on the bed, then turned to leave.

 

“Please don’t go.”

 

Cydric felt his stomach knot up. “Uh, yes?”

 

“I’m very sorry if I’ve embarrassed you. I want to explain about what happened in the booth.”

 

“Oh, that. Really, there is no need. I understand. Now I–”

 

“You don’t understand. Please let me explain.” She motioned him to sit next to her. Cydric hesitated, then sat down a chair.

 

“You have someone else in your life, don’t you?” Thuna asked.

 

“Is it that obvious?”

 

“It was when I first kissed you. You held back as long as you could. I’m sorry that I had to do that to you, but I thought you were just like the rest.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Well, you see, Holleena wanted me to help her steal that jewel they were talking about. At first I refused, but then she offered me more gold that I had ever seen in my life, and I…I…” She swallowed, then continued. “We were planning to steal it the night that you arrived in Dargon. I was surprised when you asked me about Master Corambis, but Holleena told me she would first find out why you wanted to see him. I suppose you didn’t tell her anything, because the next day she came to the Tavern and asked me to try and find out.

 

She took a deep breath, then rose and moved to stand by the window. Staring out at the moon, she said, “Men would just spill all their closest secrets to me when I revealed myself to them. I thought it would work on you as well, but you were different. I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel unfaithful to your girl, and I don’t blame you if you’re angry with me, but I just wanted you to know the truth.” She sighed and turned to face him. “Can you truly forgive me?”

 

“Of course, Thuna. Thank you for being honest.” He cringed inwardly, thinking of how close he had come to falling for Thuna’s persuasion, just like the rest of her men.

 

“I just hope Master Corambis can forgive me as well. How could I do such a thing to him, after all he’s done for me? I don’t deserve to live here anymore.” Thuna flung herself facedown on the bed.

 

“He will understand. I know he will.” Cydric tentatively patted her shoulder, then quietly left the room.

 

***

 

He returned to the kitchen and found the Sage alone. “Where did they go?” he asked.

 

“Kittara and her friend went up to check on Holleena. The poor girl can’t be moved just now, so all three of them will be staying here for the night.”

 

“Thuna as well?”

 

“Of course. It’s too late to take her to the Tavern in any case.”

 

“Do you still trust her?”

 

“I still have hope for her.”

 

Cydric looked out the kitchen window at the full moon that shone brightly down upon the city. His brow furrowed as he turned to look at the kitchen water-clock.

 

“How long would you say we were in the other realm?” Cydric asked.

 

The Sage poured two glasses of wine. “Well, it took us perhaps an hour to get to the barrier, and we spent another half hour exploring the Citadel. But I can’t tell how long we were unconscious.”

 

“According to the clock, we were gone at most ten minutes.”

 

“Most amazing! Apparently, time passes at different rates in the other realms. That must be why Nephros did not appear to have aged very much, though he was certainly over a thousand summers old.”

 

Cydric took the glass from Corambis. “Did Kittara and that Sylk character tell you why they were following Holleena and Thuna?”

 

“They said they were on some sort of mission for Duke Jastrik of Arvalia, as his ‘special representatives’. They even had a gold Authority Seal.”

 

“Did they say what their mission was?”

 

“It must be rather important, for they would not elaborate when I asked them. Sylk even asked that we not mention their visit here to anyone.”

 

Cydric drained the last of the wine from his glass, then yawned. “I think I will go to bed now. It certainly was an eventful day.”

 

“How right you are, Cydric. Rest well.”

 

***

 

In the morning, Cydric went down and found the table set for breakfast. He took a slice of bread and cheese and sat down, wondering why no one else was at the table. A moment later, Kittara came through the door. “Good morn, Cydric,” she said, smiling.

 

Cydric returned the greeting. The chestnut-haired woman piled some bread, fruit, and cheese onto a plate, then started to leave.

 

“Aren’t you eating here?” Cydric asked.

 

“This is for Holleena. We’re keeping her up in the room until we’re ready to leave.” She put a piece of bread in her mouth and left. Several minutes later, Corambis entered alone.

 

“Where is Sylk and Thuna?” asked Cydric.

 

“Sylk went outside for a while. Thuna will be up shortly.”

 

As the Sage helped himself to breakfast, Cydric said, “There is one thing that I haven’t been able to figure out.”

 

“What would that be?”

 

“The vision that Nephros sent me. He said it was made from my dreams and desires, but I am still not sure what it means.”

 

“Well, Cydric, I think you know enough to be able to interpret it. For instance, what do you think the golden sea represented?”

 

“I don’t know; the sun, perhaps? Gold pieces?”

 

“Gold pieces, most likely. And why do you think the water lost its color when you went to drink it?”

 

“You are not suggesting…that my breath has an odor?”

 

Corambis laughed. “No, no. Bearing in mind what you told me in the tavern, here is how I would interpret your vision: The sea represents your father’s position as Royal Treasurer, which deals with money, gold especially. It turned colorless when you tried to drink it, reflecting the fact that you did not wish to follow him in his profession. And the shining object on the horizon stood for your desire to leave home and have adventures.”

 

“Yes, it all makes sense. And all of it is indeed true.”

 

***

 

After Sylk and Kittara had left with Holleena, Corambis said, “Well, Cydric, I must be packing, as well.”

 

“Packing for what? You aren’t leaving, are you?”

 

“I am indeed, Cydric. This whole experience has made me aware of just how fragile our lives are. We could have died many times back there in the Citadel; it is only by the grace of Cahleyna that we escaped and lived to tell about it. Therefore, I am going to Shireton to visit my daughter. I haven’t seen her in five summers.”

 

“Your daughter? I didn’t even know you were married.”

 

“My wife passed away some time ago.”

 

“Oh, I see. I am sorry.”

 

“Thank you, Cydric. But perhaps you would like to come with me, eh? Trissa and her husband would be very glad to meet you.”

 

“I appreciate the offer, but I think I will stay in Dargon for a while longer. There is much I have yet to see.”

 

“Of course. Well, you may stay in my house for as long as you are in Dargon. Let me show you around first.”

 

“You are too kind, milord. How long will you be gone?”

 

“For the winter, maybe longer. It depends on how Trissa is doing.”

 

“I shall take care of you house until your return, then.”

 

“Fine. I am sure you will like living here.”

 

“There is one thing, though: could you tell me how to get into the laboratory?”

 

Corambis grinned. “I was wondering when you would bring that up!”

 

They left the room, Cydric listening intently to the Sage’s arcane words.

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