The Hero of Legend

Chapter 42: Charlock Castle

The time had finally come to strike. The forces of Alefgard had been gathered at Tantegel Castle. All the preparations and appearances made by the king and the heroes had paid off as the host that had gathered was mighty indeed. Many members of the army were green recruits, people who had come from farms and workshops to fight for a chance to free the land from its seemingly eternal oppressor. However, a good portion of the army was also made up of master swordsman and skilled wizards. Normally, when one rose to such prominence the Master Archfiend was sure to have them cut down. Fortunately, there were many that were able to anticipate such danger and hide themselves. Now, knowing that Alefgard needed them, they came out of hiding in droves to support the cause.

Nevertheless, it was clear that there was fear and anxiety among the gathered people. Only the newest arrivals to Alefgard carried themselves with the reckless confidence that victory was assured. Those who had not seen the sun in years, if ever, knew better. They were not foolhardy enough to think that a battle to overthrow a monster that had dominated the region for centuries would be easy. They had hope enough to show up but it was clear they still expected the worst.

Suzanne, Ron, Thomas, and Alice stood on a balcony of Tantegel Castle as all assembled waited for the king to appear. Suzanne wore a cloak around her, hiding her armor. King Raosu walked out in front of the people adorned in a beautiful set of armor. The armor had a golden tinge and had on it the bird-symbol of Alefgard as well as the crest of his family, a picture of the sun rising up from behind a cloud. Most of the people had never before seen the crest of the royal family just as they had never seen the sun. Given their history of hardship, the king's family normally made sure to hide their family crest.

The king addressed the people, "Today I address all of you, my fellow countrymen and soon-to-be comrades in battle. Some of you are new arrivals to this land. Others have lived here your whole lives. It matters very little now; we are all now denizens of Alefgard and will go into battle together as true Gardians."

"I see much anxiety and fear among this group. It is difficult not to be afraid. We all know what we are up against. For centuries now all we have done is live in fear. Those that tried to show courage were cast down by the Master. That is because they were too few in number to pose a threat to that monster. But look around you now! Now the courageous number in the many! The Master cannot simply cast you down now. And now it will be you courageous ones who will cast down the Master!"

A cheer began amongst those gathered. It was indicative of the group itself; the cheer began with only a few people. As the people heard the cheer more of them joined in. Soon, the whole group was cheering and chanting. The king motioned for Suzanne to step forward. Suzanne stepped forward and removed her cloak. The sight of the Armor of Radiance with the symbol of the golden bird on the front gave the people more courage. The people gave a loud cheer as she held out the Shield of Heroes. Finally, she reached into the scabbard at her waist and drew out the weapon that was there. The sight of the newly-repaired Sword of Kings cast aside any lingering doubts in the people assembled. Their shouts could be heard throughout the entire town and castle.

The king waited some time as the cheering continued before motioning for quiet again. "The Shield of Heroes, the Armor of Radiance, and the Sword of Kings. These items were once grand symbols of a great nation. A nation as great as any in the upper world that many of you hail from. A nation that some of you have only read of or heard stories about. A nation that saw the sun rise every day."

"To those born here such a land is but a legend. But I tell you now that that dream is no mere legend! That dream is what we are here to fight for! We will throw off the chains of our oppressor and make Alefgard the land it was meant to be!"

Another cheer rose up from the assembly. Suzanne began to speak. "People of Alefgard, though I stand before you wearing the legendary armor of your people know that it is not I who will win the battles to come! Some of you, the most recent arrivals here, know of how Zoma's minion, the Archfiend Baramos, was defeated in the upper world. It was not my work or the work of any other individual that accomplished that feat. It was the work of a large group of people united, all fighting for a cause! Now you are that group of people. Trust in yourselves and trust in the people fighting next to you! Through cooperation we can defeat a Master Archfiend!"

Yet another chorus of cheers rose up. Then another voice came to the people, into their minds. It was soft at first and many did not notice it. But after some time the people quieted to hear it.

My dear people of Alefgard, came Rubiss's voice in everyone's heads. I have been away from you for so long. Most of you do not even know who I am. I am Rubiss. I have seen your suffering over these long centuries and I have shared in it. Now I too shall do my part in the battle to come. Please join me, my people. Have courage to pierce through the darkness! Together, we shall restore the light to this land!

This time the people were too shocked to act immediately on what they heard. Some began to realize who spoke and they began the cheer once again. All speakers had now finished so the assembly was free to make as much noise as they wished. The king and the heroes watched over all of them.

"For centuries now it has always been dreadful for a king to call an assembly of the people," said King Raosu. "Assemblies have always been to announce the direst of news. I have never witnessed a sight such as this, with the people so joyous and hopeful."

"We'll need every bit of hope for the battle ahead," said Suzanne. "Even if our plan works it will look bad for the people for a time."

"Are all the preparations ready?" asked Thomas. "Now that Rubiss has spoken to the assembly there won't be much time. Zoma will make every effort to capture or destroy her."

"Everything is prepared," answered the king. "The only left to do is to fight and hope that it is enough."

The next day saw the beginning of the battle against Zoma. The Grand Army of Alefgard formed up for the first time in centuries with the aim of storming towards Charlock Castle. Rubiss appeared before the army and used some of her power. A great bridge of light formed stretching across the rough sea that separated Tantegel and Charlock. The Grand Army began their march across the bridge.

As was expected, their march towards Charlock failed to catch the enemy off-guard. A host of monsters rushed forward on the bridge of light to meet Alefgard's forces. The fighting was fierce after that. Rubiss used as much of her power as she could to aid the fight against Zoma's army. On the bridge of light she formed up walls to serve as cover for the Gardian army while she left Zoma's monsters out in the open. She cast spells and called down lightning on Zoma's minions. However, with much of her power having been stolen by the Archfiend Rubiss was unable to swing the battle in Alefgard's favor, as she had feared.

Suzanne, Ron, Thomas, and Alice were a key factor in the early days of the fighting. By this point it was clear that they were the most powerful warriors in the land. They led the charge against many of Zoma's monsters and cut deeply into the monster's lines. However, even they had to fall back before going too far ahead. If they charged ahead they would get surrounded by Zoma's minions and cut off from their allies.

The two opposing armies met just a bit closer to Tantegel's side of the bridge than Charlock's. However, after the first couple days the Grand Army of Alefgard had managed to gain ground and push past the halfway point. Morale remained high among the army as they observed the early success they were having.

After the first two days of fighting the four heroes met in secret to discuss the final stages of their plan. They huddled together in one of the tents and talked in low voices.

"The battle is going well," said Ron cheerfully. "We might not even need to separate from the main group!"

"Don't be fooled," said Thomas. "You heard what Rubiss told us when we first met her. The only reason this army exists in the first place is because Zoma has allowed it to. It's going to wait for just the right moment and then it'll crush the army."

"Tom is right," declared Suzanne. "Notice how the fighting stops when to give us time to rest? Remember the battle against Baramos? Baramos' forces never allowed the fighting to stop. Fatigue and exhaustion were its allies. Zoma is allowing this time of rest before it truly puts its power out there."

"We can't deviate from our plan," continued Suzanne. "We have to leave tonight for Rimuldar. From there we march to Charlock on our own."

"Do you think Zoma knows about our plan?" asked Alice. "It already seems to know about everything we do."

"Either it doesn't know or it doesn't care," answered Suzanne confidently. "Zoma is like Baramos, like every Archfiend. They don't consider humans to be a threat. To show fear against a group of four humans like us would be insulting to it. But it does respect Rubiss, to an extent. As long as Rubiss remains with the army and aids it Zoma will not care what we do."

"With that said, it's time to go," declared Suzanne. "Alice, do you still have the sphere?"

Alice carefully reached into her pack and showed a gleam of light, light from the Sphere of Light that the four had received from the Dragon Queen. She quickly covered it back up so that nobody would see it.

"Good," said Suzanne. "Okay everyone, I hope you're ready. It's time for the final battle."

The four discreetly teleported away from the camp to the city of Rimuldar from which they left immediately. It would take them three days on foot to reach the point where they could use the Rainbow Drop. They had to travel around the lake surrounding Rimuldar, through some forests, over some hills, and finally to a desert. Fortunately, they met very little resistance on the way to the Archfiend's island.

"Unfortunately, that may mean that monsters from this area were summoned to fight against the Gardian army," Thomas pointed out.

Finally the heroes came to a cliff looking over the rough seas below. A similar looking cliff could be seen on the other side. Alice drew out the Rainbow Drop and stepped up to the edge of the cliff.

"I really hope this works," said Ron nervously.

"Of course it will work!" snapped Alice.

Thomas saw Suzanne staring at the waters below. It was as they had heard; the waters were so rough that it seemed impossible for a person to swim them. Even a large ship would have trouble.

"He may have found another way," said Thomas, guessing at Suzanne's thoughts. "Or perhaps he's still searching for a way to cross somewhere. Maybe he'll end up crossing the bridge we make after us." Suzanne gave no answer but just nodded.

Alice said a few words of magic and turned the vial holding the Rainbow Drop on its side. The colorful liquid spilled out towards the waters below, disappearing from sight after a few moments. Then a great light filled the area. The light turned different colors and was so bright that the group found it difficult to keep their eyes open. After some time the light passed and they could open their eyes again. In front of them now was a gorgeous bridge with all the colors of the rainbow.

"Wow!" gasped Alice. "How beautiful!"

"I'm afraid we have little time to gawk," said Suzanne. "Zoma will have taken notice of this. Let's not take the chance that it decides we're worth some of its attention. We'd best be moving quickly."

The traveling did not get easier once the four reached the island. The island was covered in mountains, hills, and poisonous swamps. Charlock Castle waited at the top. It took two days of climbing to reach their final destination. The gloomy castle appeared before them. It was not much to look at. No decorations covered its walls, not even some dedicated to the Archfiend. If the four did not know better they might have thought the castle abandoned.

Past the castle the heroes could observe the battle between Charlock and Tantegel. The bridge of light that Rubiss had conjured up still stood. However, the forces of Tantegel had nearly been pushed off the bridge.

"They must have been pushed back in the last few days," observed Ron.

"Which means morale will be low," said Thomas. "And that means the fear and despair of the army will strengthen the Archfiend."

"Come on," urged Suzanne. "Let's get inside."

There was very little decoration inside Charlock Castle. A grand staircase led into the castle proper. There were two stone statues of giant, hulking men standing there. Other than that, there were no banners or paintings adorning the walls and no rugs or furniture to be seen. The place looked bare.

"If this is Zoma's stronghold I wonder why it left these here," commented Ron. "Wouldn't it make more sense for it to commission statues of itself or something?"

"It seems as though Archfiends do enjoy some degree of secrecy," answered Alice. "After all, we didn't even know Baramos's name until we fought it. Since so much of their plans are executed in the shadows perhaps it works best for them not to reveal themselves even to their own minions."

"That makes sense," said Suzanne. "Remember we found out about that secret passage from a human man that was working for Zoma. If Zoma had statues of itself out here then he or any other human minions of his might defect and reveal Zoma's appearance to the people."

"Wait, didn't we hear that Zoma revealed itself to King Rius when it shattered the Sword of Kings?" asked Ron.

"The battle did take place in the isolated town of Kol," suggested Alice. "And the king was on a secret mission. The Archfiend might have realized the king would not want to spread the word about his failed secret mission and the shattered Sword of Kings."

The entrance room split into two hallways. The four took the hallway on the left. It was a very long and wide passage. There were no signs of opposition.

"Looks like the army has distracted most of Zoma's guards," said Ron hopefully.

At the end of the long hallway the heroes turned a corner and made their first encounter with other life within Charlock Castle. In front of them was a five-headed dragon without wings; the same sort of enemy they had encountered in the cave where they found the Shield of Heroes. Behind the dragon was a man carrying a staff. The man wore a mask over his face and wore strange furs. He was dressed similarly to the tribes of the Necrogond in the upper world.

When the two saw the heroes the man motioned forward and shouted something. The dragon stepped forward to engage the group. Since the four had fought the beast before they knew they could not give it space to begin breathing fire everywhere. The four surged at it. Alice ran up first. The dragon brought three of its heads around to snap at her. Alice knew she was making herself a target so she stopped quickly and focused on defending herself. She blocked a bite attempt by one head with her shield though the force knocked her to the ground. She rolled away from the second head but the third slammed into her back, sending her rolling away.

The dragon's offensive left an opening for Suzanne and Thomas. Thomas lunged forward and drove his blade through the neck of one of the heads that attacked Alice. Suzanne took the Sword of Kings and cut one of the other heads clear off. The creature was already howling in pain and Ron rushed forward to attack its torso and finish it off.

However, the man behind the dragon cast a spell. A collection of soft sparkles of light covered the dragon. Almost all its wounds were healed. It remained short of one head though the stump was sealed and no longer bleeding. The recovery allowed the dragon to forget its wounds and block Ron's jumping strike. He was sent flying to the side as one of the heads swung around and smashed him in the side.

The dragon maneuvered itself so it had a head facing each of its foes. Alice tried to stab at the head biting at her but the dragon attacked too ferociously. It was all she could do to keep from having its teeth sink into her armor. Thomas fared a little better as he managed to cut off one of the eyes on the head that attacked him but it managed to get its teeth into his arm. Suzanne bashed a head with her shield and sent a deep cut into its long neck, nearly incapacitating that head. Ron pulled off a daring maneuver in which he got up slowly, daring the dragon to go for a killing blow. The dragon's head opened with to bite into him and Ron thrust his sword inside. The dragon was rewarded for its attack with a blade going through its mouth out the top of its head.

Unfortunately, the man cast his magic again. The dragon's wounds were healed again. Even the wound Ron dealt was erased.

"We have to take that guy out!" yelled Suzanne. The man yelled out orders of his own and the dragon moved back to block the four's progress towards the man. One of the heads took advantage of the space to breathe fire on the group. Suzanne decided to also take advantage of the space: she held the Sword of Kings into the air. Bolts of lightning came down from the ceiling and stroke both their foes.

Alice used her enhanced agility to find an opening. She rolled underneath one of the hydra's heads and came up to the man. The man was surprised and struggled to get his staff up to defend himself. Alice cut the staff into two pieces with one strike and nearly did the same to the man with her next.

Now the dragon had no further support. Ron and Thomas moved together to take it down. Thomas slid to the ground and swung upwards, cutting into the bottom of one of the dragon's heads. This left Thomas in a dangerous spot and the dragon took the bait once again. This freed the way for Ron to once again go for its torso. Ron leapt onto its back and rained his sword down upon it. Thomas was sure to crawl out of the way before the dragon's corpse fell on him.

"Did anything else hear that?" asked Ron immediately, looking around to see if they were about to be greeted by more foes.

"Tom, heal us up quick and let's get moving," urged Suzanne.

"Don't waste any magic on me," said Ron. "That Ring of Life that Ortega left will do enough for me." Thomas wasted no time and the four were soon off again. The hallway kept going around the corner and a branch came off it soon after. The heroes continued straight.

"This would take us towards the middle of the castle, in terms of west and east," said Alice. "Borles said the passageway was in the throne room which I would think is towards the middle."

"A solid course as long as Borles isn't actually still working for Zoma and spreading false information," pointed out Thomas.

Nevertheless, the group continued on towards the middle. The hallway turned towards the middle and when the four were at about the exact west-east center the hallway branched to run up the middle. They took the branch this time.

The room they ended up in was very spacious. It was very wide and even longer than it was wide. There was no decoration in the room save for six green stone statues, each depicting a mammoth of a man wearing only a toga. The four wasted no time examining the statues and continued to the north end of the room.

Right before they could exit a huge stone block sprung up, cutting them off.

"A trap!" warned Thomas.

"Look! The entrance is cut off too!" said Alice.

"Stay calm everyone," said Suzanne. "Let's see if we can better examine the room. We'll escape by force if need be."

The heroes cautiously moved back towards the south end of the room. As a common sense check Ron put his hand on the stone block that had appeared to make sure it was real and not an illusion.

The four began going back to the north end of the room when they heard a booming voice yelling at them, "We are the guards of the Archfiend's chamber! To enter you'll have to defeat us first!"

"Oh yeah? Show yourselves then!" challenged Ron.

"That voice sounded like it was coming from the statues!" said Alice.

As if to confirm her observation, two of the statues began to move towards the heroes.

Alice used her staff to burn the statues as they approached. The fire charred them a bit but they continued on through it as though it were nothing. The other three stepped in front of Alice to block the statues' approach. They focused their strikes on one statue, chipping away at it with their weapons.

The statue seemed unfazed by the assault. It swiped at Suzanne, sending her flying. It nearly crushed Thomas with its foot; he was barely able to leap away in time. The other statue picked up Ron and tossed him aside. As the statues drew near Alice cast a spell. Yellow light engulfed the four heroes, making them less susceptible to physical harm. She knew they would need it against the statues' relentless assault.

Before the statues could beat on Alice the other three got back to their feet. What the statues had in strength they did not have in awareness. With its back turned to them Suzanne, Ron, and Thomas were able to rain blows upon the statue they had started working on. Their magic swords cut through the stone. They cut off one of its legs, causing it to tumble, and one of its arms as well. The statue continued to move but was not adept at trying to crawl with two of its limbs missing. It was neutralized for the time being.

However, the other statue had reached Alice. It tried to pick her up and she was able to get out of the way. Unfortunately, her dodging took her right to the statue's foot and it kicked her in the midsection, sending her to the ground. The spell she cast earlier kept all the wind from being knocked out of her and so she was able to use her staff again to do some more damage. The statue's lack of awareness cost it as the other three were soon upon it. It managed to throw Suzanne off its body before it succumbed to the flurry of blows. Afterwards, the four made sure to further dismantle the statues until they stopped moving.

"Well that was a tough fight," said Ron.

"It might not be over," said Thomas. "There are four more statues just like those in this room."

"Why didn't they attack with the other two?" asked Ron.

"Perhaps to lull us into a false sense of security," suggested Suzanne. "Let's proceed cautiously."

Thomas healed the group and they continued forward. They walked around the statues so that they would not be flanked by any of them. When they were walking by the next pair of statues they heard another voice, identical to the last, "We are the guards of the Archfiend's chamber! To enter you'll have to defeat us first!"

"Here we go again!" cautioned Ron as two more of the statues came to life.

The four still were under the effects of the last spell she had cast. She decided to add some offense to defense and cast a spell on Suzanne, greatly enhancing her strength. The group had a better idea of how to fight the statues now. The other three ran up to engage the closer statue in melee. If fixated on Ron and moved towards him. Seeing this, Suzanne and Thomas easily circled around to its back. With her enhanced strength Suzanne's blade cut through stone as though it was butter and she lopped off one of its legs. Thomas contributed by chipping at one of its arms. As the statue fell it was able to clip Ron in the side with its non-injured arm. Ron shrugged off the blow and ran to the arm Thomas had chipped at and severed it completely.

Suzanne spun to deal with the other statue. This statue began by kicking her first. She backpedaled to avoid the worst of it but still had her legs taken out from underneath her and fell to the ground. She managed to roll over and block the statue's fist with the Shield of Heroes which proved its extraordinary power yet again. After that, the four once again took advantage of the statue's slow movements to get behind it and deal massive damage.

"That went a lot better!" said Alice cheerfully.

"I hope it gets even better," noted Thomas. "There are two more left."

Sure enough, once the heroes drew near the remaining statues they came to life also, giving the same line that the other pairs had. This combat went the easiest so far. The four were now well aware of how the statues moved and acted. They used their circling technique to strike the statues in the back as before. Suzanne and Ron suffered blows to the shoulders but it was nothing they could not deal with.

Finally, all the statues had been dismantled. The two stone blocks that were blocking the entrance and exit sank into the ground and the group's path was open again. They proceeded forward and found a throne room. It was like Borles had told them. The throne room was stripped of decoration and the floor sparked dangerously.

"Now let's see if that secret passage is there," said Suzanne.

Alice cast her levitation spell upon the group so they could walk over the floor without injury. They circled around the throne and looked for the spot on the floor that was not active. Ron was able to find the inactive portion after a few minutes of searching. He reached down and found a switch. A rectangular piece of the floor lifted up and moved aside, revealing a staircase underneath. The group descended.

"Looks like Borles was telling the truth," said Alice.

"It won't get any easier from here on," said Suzanne. "Stay on your guard, everyone."

They then found themselves in a large room with a sizable gap in the floor keeping them from the west, south, and east walls. They went north through an entryway and found themselves in a much larger and complicated looking room. In this larger room there were also gaps surrounding the floor. The floor also had large, rectangular holes in it. There were three exits from the room on the northern side. Complicating things was that several sections of the floor rotated, just like in the tower Rubiss had been sealed in.

"It's a good thing we've had plenty of practice with these by now," said Ron.

Alice got onto her stomach and carefully peered down one of the gaps. "Looks like a large dead end room below," she reported. "I can see a bunch of monsters down there too."

"Another trap," said Suzanne. "Let's be careful here. Sounds like we can bypass a fair amount of trouble if we don't let ourselves get hung up on these rotating floors."

Their previous time dealing with rotating floors helped them immensely. There were some close calls but they were able to get around the large room without falling. Two of the northern exits led to dead ends. One led to a staircase leading further downward.

On the next floor they began in a small room with one exit going to a hallway. The hallway soon branched to the right. The four took the branch and soon found themselves flanked by monsters. The monsters were humanoid skeletons. The bones on the skeletons had a purple hue to them and they wore green armor. Each skeleton had six arms and a sword in each one.

Since Suzanne and Ron were at the head of the group they found themselves trying to dodge a storm of swords. They dodged and blocked some of the strikes but there were simply too many coming too suddenly. Both took several cuts throughout their body. Ron in particular was cut up badly.

"Retreat to the hallway!" ordered Suzanne. "Make them funnel to us!"

As they did so Alice cast a spell to heal some of Ron's wounds. Suzanne and Ron stepped backward until Suzanne took a small surge forward, attacking one of the skeletons. The Sword of Kings cut through bones and removed three of the skeleton's arms. However, her offensive cost her as the two skeletons that could reach her sent another blast of blades her way. Thankfully, Thomas saw the danger and had already been casting a spell. Most of Suzanne's wounds were healed as soon as they were made.

The skeletons had access to magic too. One of the skeletons was cut off by the group's funneling maneuver. Instead, it cast a spell upon the injured skeleton. Two of the arms Suzanne had cut off jumped back onto the skeleton's body just before Ron could strike it. Ron removed the two newly-attached arms and one more with a strike of his own but the skeleton could still fight.

Alice and Thomas combined to incapacitate the healed skeleton before it could strike again. Alice took its other two arms off with some carefully placed strikes while Thomas took one of its legs off. The skeleton was still able to move but was essentially harmless as it was reduced to just flailing on the ground. However, this left both of them open to attack from the other two skeletons. Suzanne and Ron saw the danger and leapt in front of their friends. They were in a better defensive position this time. Suzanne blocked most of the blades coming her way with the Shield of Heroes. Ron took a few cuts but returned them with a strike that took off two arms and very nearly the neck of one skeleton. Suzanne finished the job by cutting the skeleton in half at the midsection. The top half tried to use two of its remaining arms to crawl into a position where it could strike but Suzanne took the rest of the arms off with a couple of slashes before the skeleton could become dangerous again.

The four carefully circled the last skeleton. Alice made a motion as if to attack but it was only a feint. The skeleton bit on the bait and left itself wide open to the other three. Its limbs were removed in short order. The four then further dismantled the skeletons to ensure they would not be able to come back and fight.

"We have to be more careful as we turn corners," declared Suzanne. "That could have been disastrous."

"Do you think we're almost there?" asked Alice.

"Who knows?" asked Thomas. "We could only be a fraction of the way there."

"We have to conserve our resources as much as possible," said Suzanne.

"The corridors have been mostly empty so far," noted Ron. "Imagine how much worse it would be if the brave people of Alefgard weren't fighting most of Zoma's forces!"

"Or there could be a hoard of them waiting for us," said Thomas darkly.

"We have to keep our spirits up," realized Suzanne. "Despair empowers the Archfiend. Just think, after all this time we're finally nearing the end of our quest!"

"I hear that!" said Ron. "Even I'm tired of all this fighting. When we're done with Zoma I'm going to take a nice, long vacation."

"I wonder what Alefgard will be like when light returns to it," mused Alice. "Maybe it'll just be beautiful! Who knows how wonderful the sights will be after this?"

"That's the spirit!" said Suzanne. "Now let's keep going. I'm anxious to see it myself!"

The heroes continued onwards. The floor they were in had many hallways and branches. It was a labyrinth to be overcome. The four were very cautious turning every corner. Their caution was rewarded as there were monsters hiding around several of the corners. This floor had many more foes than the rest of Charlock Castle had thus far. Among the enemies there were even some more human enemies. They were powerful spellcasters wearing robes that obscured most of their bodies. The group made sure to close in as swiftly as possible against them so that they would not have to deal with their magic.

Finally the group found another staircase leading downwards. At the bottom of a staircase they came to another staircase leading back up. However, this staircase was much wider and went up on a more gradual angle. At the top was a large, locked door. The Final Key made it irrelevant. Through the door was a very wide hallway. The floor was decorated with different tiles. The four proceeded through the hallway.

The group turned and found a very long bridge stretching over a huge gap. At the bottom of the gap the four could just make out water far below. It was clear that if anything fell off the bridge it would find it nearly impossible to get back up. Fortunately, the bridge seemed quite sturdy and even had railings.

The bridge looked like it went for almost a mile. With nothing on the bridge to obstruct their vision the heroes could just barely see two figures on the other side. One figure appeared to be a monster. It was difficult to study the monster from afar but it appeared to be a five-headed dragon, similar to the Orochi and several of the other five-headed dragons the group had fought. However, this dragon was bigger than even the Orochi and from a distance appeared to be colored purple, pink, and turquoise.

The other figure was much smaller and thus far more difficult to see. However, it appeared to be a humanoid of some kind. The humanoid looked like it was wearing blue armor and wielded a sword. It soon became clear that the dragon and the humanoid were fighting.

"Is that a…person up there?" asked Alice.

"It looks like he's fighting that monster all alone!" said Ron. "We have to help whoever that is!" Before Ron had even finished talking Suzanne had begun to bolt forward. The other three soon took off in order to catch up. However, Suzanne sprinted forward with incredible speed. The other three found it difficult to keep up.

"Susie, wait!" called Alice. "We need to stick together!"

"She knows who that is," said Thomas in between breaths. "We won't be able to slow her down."

"Ortega," panted Ron.

The four were still too far out to be able to use their magic to aid Ortega. However, Ortega seemed to be quite capable on his own. His swordplay and athleticism were amazing. He rolled and flipped around the dragon, dodging most of its strikes. Unfortunately, he was still fighting a creature that was much bigger than he was and that had five heads to strike with. He would still get hit and pierced by the dragon's teeth. The wounds did not slow him down much. After taking a few blows Ortega would leap backward and a glint of light could be seen on him; likely indicating that Ortega was healing himself with a spell.

For the wounds he took Ortega was able to wound the dragon as well. It was difficult to tell the extent of the damage but it was clear that Ortega's blade was digging into the dragon as he flipped and jumped around it. At one point he nearly severed one of the dragon's heads. The dragon turned so that the other four heads would be blocking its wounded head. Unfortunately, the group could see the grievous wound beginning to close; clearly this dragon's wounds naturally healed themselves much like the other five-headed dragons the four had fought.

The heroes continued to run towards Ortega, still too far out for their magic to reach the fighters. It seemed as though Ortega and the dragon were locked in a stalemate with neither side giving the other any lasting wounds. Then they noticed Ortega take several hits in a row without healing himself. He continued to fight the dragon in melee, refusing to jump back and cast a spell.

"Heal yourself, Ortega!" yelled Alice. "We're almost there!"

"He can't hear you," said Thomas.

"Why isn't he healing himself?" Ron asked.

"He could be out of magic power," answered Thomas.

Thomas was right. Ortega continued to fight up close instead of healing himself. His body took several more beatings because of it. It was clear that the two combatants had not noticed the four running towards them. They were too locked into combat. Finally the dragon was able to gain the advantage. Two of its heads slammed into Ortega and this time Ortega was unable to get back up. Defenseless, Ortega could do nothing as one of the heads engulfed Ortega and razor sharp teeth pierced his body, going all the way through. The dragon's five heads showed wicked smiles and the beast prepared to devour its prey.

Huge bolts of lightning rained down in the area. A horrific thunderstorm had been conjured up with the dragon right in the middle. Bolt after bolt coursed through the dragon's body. However, the storm left Ortega untouched.

Alice realized what it was. Suzanne, now quite some distance ahead of the rest of the group, had finally gotten in range to use her magic. She had cast a spell that she had yet to use. It had been a spell she had been working on, one that tapped into the mysterious power within her. Alice was so awestruck by the spell she had almost stopped running. She could not believe their leader had such power.

The dragon finally noticed the four figures running its way. Wounded by Suzanne's spell and still carrying some remnants of wounds it took from Ortega it decided to flee. Suzanne briefly chased after it but when she realized it intended to leave the area she quickly went back to Ortega's body.

Ortega was not looking good. His torso had been pierced by the dragon's teeth in numerous places. Large, gaping holes littered his body. His head had been sliced up; both his eyes and his ears had been destroyed. Suzanne desperately began casting healing spells on him. A beam of light came down from the ceiling and reached Ortega. However, even though the spell seemed successful it had no effect on Ortega. His wounds became no better.

"I feel magic," said Ortega. "Someone is trying to heal me. Don't waste your magic. It's all over for me…"

"No, father!" cried Suzanne. "Don't say that!" However, Ortega could not hear a word Suzanne said. He could not hear or see anything anymore. Suzanne knelt down and held her father in her arms.

"Oh, traveler," said Ortega, unaware of who was holding him. "Please hear my dying words. I am Ortega of Aliahan. If you happen to go to Aliahan in your travels, please visit Suzanne and tell of what transpired here."

Suzanne began to cry. Unable to see the sorrow of who he was addressing, Ortega continued, "Ask her to forgive her father who could not bring peace to this world. Tell h…Aaah!"

With that, Ortega succumbed to death. It was at that moment that the other three arrived.

"Tom, you're up!" urged Ron.

"There's nothing I can do," said Thomas sadly. "Even if he was somehow still alive there is no spell that can remedy damage to that extent."

The three could only watch helplessly as their leader wept over her father's corpse. Finally, Thomas stepped forward and embraced Suzanne. Ron and Alice followed suit.

"It's not fair!" cried Suzanne. "All this time, I thought he was already dead! Then I heard the rumors and there was hope he was alive! Now I finally find him only to see him truly die right before my very eyes!"

The other three continued to comfort Suzanne. Ron raised his head up, watching for monsters that might try to ambush them. The motion seemed to alert Suzanne. She wiped the tears off her face and stood up.

"When we began this journey I wanted to finish what my father started," said Suzanne, her sorrow replaced with determination. "Little did I know he was still at work. But now he's gone and the time for grief will have to wait. There are others that continue to fight for their lives. We have the chance to spare others of this sorrow. Let's go. We have a quest to finish."

"Are you really okay, Susie?" asked Alice.

"No," said Suzanne, not hiding anything from the others. "But I will have to put this from my mind for now. We have no choice. Zoma must be defeated today!"

"That's what I'm talking about!" exclaimed Ron, trying to get the group's spirits back up.

"Your father would be so proud of you right now," said Thomas. "You're right, Susie. Lead on."

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