The Dark Wizards

By Gary_Kuyper All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

The Dark Prophecy

Groad cursed as his new wrappings constantly snared upon the dense foliage of the small concentrated rain forest that would prove to be the final obstacle separating the group from Chanakh Nizo.

It was a necessary precautionary measure for Daleth to travel alone, and so the group was once more diminished to a trio.

The humidity and abundance of insect and fowl were a sharp contrast to the semi-desert plains they had recently crossed.

Half a day’s ride from the outskirts of Bryntha, a unanimous decision had been made to travel along the vast wadi that stretched out from the mouth of the dried up Ak* River Canyon. This eventually widened to form the parched and dusty wind-swept plains that covered the southeasterly portion of Kith.

Although a rather extensive detour, skirting the rough rocky outcrops of the many rolling hills of the more direct route, had afforded them a much swifter and safer journey.

Fine rain fell from the cloudless sky, forming a myriad of small glistening droplets upon the clothing and hair of the weary travelers. The sun had become refracted into an enormous hazy corona that cast a surrealistic ambience through the moist verdant surroundings. The air was filled with the fine sound and vibration of a ceaseless peal of thunder.

Groad was almost convinced that this was all another of Maggoth’s unnecessary extravagant displays, but when they eventually reached the edge of the great chasm that overlooked the wondrous marvel of Chanakh Nizo, it became clear that the rain was of natural origin.

The gorge, that had been aptly named Reholgahrut Mu Dakur* by the Kithians, zigzagged away into the far distance. It gave the impression of being the maw of some phenomenally large jagged-toothed beast.

On the far side of the abyss lay Valacia with its wide and mighty Massubi* River.

The Massubi originates in upper Kith, formed from the many tributaries that snake across the northeasterly portion. By the time it reaches the northern Valacian border it is an immense surging mass of water. At the point where it vacates Valacian territory, dropping almost one hundred and twenty metres into the gorge below, it is more than a kilometer in width. It is at this place that Chanakh Nizo is created which, in turn, by sending vast amounts of spray into the air, creates the perpetual localized shower.

For a long time the trio stood motionless and speechless, allowing their senses to absorb the magnificence of the awe-inspiring sight.

A majestic rainbow, like some multicoloured crystalline bridge, framed the spectacle within its brilliant arch.

“There!” exclaimed Maggoth pointing downwards at the mass of white water that churned viciously at the bottom of the main section of the falls. “That is where Selestia resides!”

There was a sound of splintering and snapping from the rear. Looking back over the green canopy they watched as a pair of treetops first swayed and then toppled from view. A moment later two more trees disappeared.

A straight path was systematically being formed through the forest by some unseen force, and they all knew that Daleth was approaching.

For an instant Groad wondered why they had not waited for the zin-za on the outskirts of the forest. It would have been a far less frustrating excursion if they had simply allowed the beast to first clear them a way to the falls.

Once the giant had rejoined them, Groad turned to the Dark Wizard.

“What now, Maggoth?” he asked looking down at the churning white mass. “Are you close enough now to initiate some sort of mental contact with Selestia.”

“That, I am afraid, is not possible,” said the sorcerer shaking his head. “We are capable of establishing such a link when in close proximity of each other, but I am still much too far away. My connection to Kronos over such a vast distance resulted only because he happened to enter one of my dimensional portals.”

“Well then, you could always levitate yourself down to the base of the main falls?”

“That would mean using up precious power. I cannot allow even one iota more of my valuable energy to be used for anything else except the battle with Kronos.”

“Then what…?

“I am afraid that you are the only one here capable of accomplishing the task of reaching Selestia,” said Maggoth removing the cypherlette from around his neck. As you may have guessed by now, you too are capable of continued existence without the necessity of life-giving air.”

“Yes, but even with my skills for scaling such a shear drop, it will take a very long time to reach the bottom of such a slippery and treacherous precipice.”

“I realize that, my friend.” The sorcerer placed the cypherlette around Groad’s neck. “This will help bring you into Selestia’s company.

My friend?” Groad scrunched his brow into a frown. He held up the cypherlette between thumb and finger. “Why do I get the impression that you harbour some sort of guilt because of the trial that I must undertake?” Groad peered at Maggoth through the cypherlette’s hollow centre. “How do I get this to function?”

“Simply by wearing it around your neck,” said Maggoth nodding at Daleth. “I fear that your assumptions are correct. I can only hope that you will understand and forgive us for what we are about to do.”

“Why?” asked Groad apprehensively. “What are you planning to do?”

“Hold onto this very tightly,” said Daleth pushing an enormous rock against Groad’s chest.

“What for?” The Son of Zemth struggled to grip the large mass tightly with both arms.

“Momentum.”

“Momentum?”

“Correct,” said the one-eyed giant smiling as he placed a single paw around both Groad and the rock. He effortlessly lifted them both. “We do not have any time to waste, and this will be the fastest and surest means of getting you to the water below without the danger of you smashing your bones to pieces against the sides of the cliff. Remember to let go of the rock when you reach the pinnacle of your flight. Try to enter the water at as straight an angle as possible to reduce the impact.”

“What are you talking about?”

“When you enter the water you may experience a short period of anxiety due to the fact that you will not be able to breathe,” included the Dark Wizard. “Just keep reminding yourself that the absence of air is not detrimental to your survival.”

“Daleth! Put me down before I…”

Groad had no time to finish the sentence. With a swift twisting motion, similar to that of a discus-thrower, the zin-za spun around and released his grip. Groad found himself airborne, flying upwards and towards the enormous cascading mass of white thunder.

Maggoth was grateful that the ceaseless roar of the falls made it impossible to discern what the Son of Zemth was shouting on his reluctant journey towards the frothing waters. It was only too obvious that the utterances were of such a nature that they should not be heard by the young and sensitive ears of a small Valacian whelp.

At the apex of his upward flight, as Groad released the rock, the thought crossed his mind that his proposal of a winged horse had seemed a much more viable option.

He flapped his arms wildly, not in some futile attempt to fly, but as a means of orientating his body into a spear-like shape. He managed to point his toes just before striking the water. He struck feet first, a near perfect entry.

He had hoped to delay the anxiety that would accompany the task of convincing himself that he had no use for air. He had instinctively held a deep breath inside his nonexistent lungs just before striking the waters surface, but the impact had still jarred him enough to force it all out.

An instant later he found himself being furiously pummeled and thrashed about. He felt his loose-fitting boots being rudely and viciously ripped from his feet. He instinctively grabbed onto the cypherlette and curled himself into a tight ball.

He started to sink, slowly at first, but then as his wrappings and garments absorbed and filled with water he felt himself drifting downwards at an accelerated rate.

He ran his hand across his sheath and was relieved when he felt the handle of his blade. The sword had luckily not come loose in the violent turmoil above.

The churning roar of the falls above began to grow dimmer and dimmer until the noise was no more than a dull washing sound, similar to that of crashing waves that are heard from a far off distance.

Deeper and deeper he sank until the light from above could no longer penetrate. He was surrounded by total blackness.

He unfurled himself and continued to descend headfirst into the darkness. He was amazed at the fact that although he should be feeling anxious, he was instead experiencing an incredible calm. He felt lethargic and was filled with a sense of well-being.

Deeper and deeper he sank. The washing sound getting dimmer and dimmer.

When the shimmering stars appeared below, he became disoriented. He was almost convinced that instead of sinking he was floating upwards towards some wondrous night sky.

He did not find the fact that the stars were actually a great shoal of luminescent kremp* to be disappointing. The experience of moving through them was amazingly wonderful. He smiled as the curious little creatures swam around him. He held out a gloved hand and watched as they darted between his spread fingertips. He was astonished at the amount of light they were able to emit. Even at some distance he was able to see the rock face that seemed to be drifting slowly upwards, but he knew that it was only an optical illusion caused by his own descent.

A happy thought filled his mind, a wonderful memory from his past, but was soon washed over by an enormous wave of melancholy.

The thought had been of his wedding night so many cyclans ago.

When the necessary ceremonies and festivities had all but ended, he and Lorra had finally retired to the wedding loft.

The wedding loft was an enormous room that had been constructed from boughs at the top of one of the oldest and tallest trees in Bryntha. The tree was also broad enough in its round to allow the construction of a spiraling stairway on its outer trunk that wound all the way up to its summit.

The loft had a landing from where the spectacular view over the forest and river could be appreciated.

When he and his new bride had entered the room, they were delighted to find that the interior had not been illuminated by the customary scented candles. Instead, the maids of honour had managed to catch a large amount of kremp that had fortunately chosen to begin their mating ritual in a part of the winding river that flowed through Bryntha. These had been placed within translucent bresk intestines that had been filled with water and hung on hooks from the ceiling.

The effect had been wondrous. The soft illumination of the green glow upon his new bride had made her all the more radiant and alluring.

The next morning Groad had noticed that only the female kremp, with their pouches of fertilized eggs, had survived the mating ritual. The males all lay in little useless heaps at the bottom of the knotted entrails. He had hoped that this was not to be some sort of portent for things to come.

These thoughts of his wedding night were still floating through his head when the large powerful tentacle appeared out of the blackness from below. In an instant it had encircled the form of the unsuspecting reanimated Kithian, its large suckers clamping fast wherever they touched. The pressure exerted by the constricting appendage was incredible. Groad could not hear the sound, but he felt the extreme jarring pain, as three of his ribs cracked.

He was once more grateful that he did not need any life-giving air, which would surely have been squeezed from punctured lungs.

He remembered a similar sensation from not too long ago. This was almost the same predicament he had been in back in Frybur when Daleth had trapped him, making it impossible for him to use his sword arm.

He stopped struggling in an attempt to convince the creature that its prey was dead.

At once the tentacle started to retract into an enormous dark opening within the rock face.

Groad had no idea as to the nature or size of the creature that held him. He just hoped that the beast would not find his reanimated frame in the least bit appetizing and promptly release him.

As he entered the opening he twisted his head to look back. The illumination from the kremp outside showed the entrance to be roughly circular in shape.

He was unable to perceive whether the beast that gripped him was either moving its entire frame down a very long tunnel or whether it was still simply retracting its slimy appendage. As he looked backwards, the circular entrance slowly diminished in size until it finally disappeared from view.

A long time passed. Every now and then he would feel himself bump up against the rock face where the passage narrowed.

He was starting to lose hope of ever being able to find his way back to the entrance when he saw the green glow. It was too bright and concentrated to be coming from another shoal of kremp.

“Release this one, Obed! He possesses something of interest to me!”

Groad could not understand how, but he had heard the voice inside his head rather than through his nonexistent ears.

An instant later the tentacle released him and retracted once more into inky blackness.

As Groad’s feet touched against hard rock, he turned towards the source of the green glow.

He smiled to himself knowing that he had managed to accomplish the task that Maggoth had set him. The shimmering emerald megornex stood upright in the far corner of what Groad could now see was a vast subterranean cavern.

The immense floor and sections of the cavern wall were absolutely flat and smooth as if an enormous Eldritch Blade had been dragged across them. The ceiling remained rough and untouched. A number of recesses had been carved into the walls. In some of these large hollow openings stood more of the megornexes, but these did not produce any green radiance.

“Who are you? What do you want? Why have you concealed your appearance? Where did you obtain the object that hangs from your neck?”

The voice was in his head, but Groad knew that it originated from the figure that was encased in the glowing sarcophagus.

He tried moving towards the glow but a sudden surge in the water moved him backwards. A moment later he realized that the water was somehow, miraculously, retreating out of the cavern and back down the tunnel opening through which he had entered the underground chamber.

The water receded only as far as the entrance and then remained there, held in place by some fantastic unseen force. The green glow reflected back in a myriad of ripples that undulated from the centre of the huge vertical expanse of water.

Groad found himself off balance, the sudden lack of water to support his injured frame causing him to be slightly disorientated. He collapsed to his knees pressing his gloved hand against the stabbing pains in his ribcage.

“I asked who you are? What you want? Why do you conceal your appearance? And where did you get the cypherlette?”

This time he heard the voice in his ears and he knew that the sorceress had freed herself from the megornex.

Groad tested his nonexistent lungs and found that they still worked perfectly, but the increased pressure that they caused beneath his ribcage caused him to cry out.

“Aah! Selestia I presume?” he exclaimed still looking down at the cavern floor. “I am Groad, a Kithian from Bryntha. I was sent to seek your assistance in a most important matter.” Then staring upwards he gasped, “Dakur’s eyes! You…you are young and…very beautiful too!”

“Your presumption is correct, I am the sorceress Selestia, but you take me for a fool by trying to lower my guard with your flattery. If you truly are a Kithian I doubt that you would have survived the long journey through the watery depths beneath Chanakh Nizo, but even more importantly, no Kithian would find me to be beautiful? If you think your insincere compliments will prevent me from blasting you into a heap of ash, you are gravely mistaken.”

These words were said in a quiet and calm manner that made the threat’s connotation all the more menacing.

Still clutching his injured side, Groad shakily managed to stand upright.

“Do you normally treat all your admirers in such a crude fashion?”

“Just another insignificant lackey sent to do Kronos’ bidding,” sneered Selestia. “That is all you are!”

“What?” exclaimed Groad. Although insulted, he was truly awe-struck by the elegance and attractiveness of the sorceress.

Selestia moved towards Groad with a calculated feline grace. It was as if she were still surrounded by water as her long red hair and flowing jade-coloured robes swirled slowly about her tall lithe slender frame.

“How is it that you have come to possess Maggoth’s cypherlette?”

“How is it possible that you and Maggoth were ever lovers?”

The question seemed to touch a raw nerve. She hesitated for a moment before saying, “That is exactly the sort of despicable attack that Kronos would have prompted one of his loud-mouthed minions to repeat. If you intend to rile me into some foolish careless action in order to gain possession of the other two cypherlettes, then you are sadly mistaken!”

“I apologize if I have offended you in any way. It was not my intention to…”

“Obed, show this upstart how we normally treat unwelcome intruders,” interrupted Selestia.

These words had been even more calmly spoken.

“Wait!” cried Groad, his cry echoing loud and hollow across the vast chamber.

It was too late. The giant tentacle pierced through from behind the vertical wall of water at the tunnel’s entrance.

Groad dove to the side, but the tentacle swiped him against one of the rough sections of the cavern wall, rolling and dragging him until the bandages were shredded and hanging from his skeletal frame in tatters.

The tentacle withdrew and waved menacingly above Groad’s head. In the blink of an eye Groad had drawn his sword. He stood ready for the next attack. This time the tentacle would find that its prey had a sting.

“Obed, no!” shouted Selestia. “Cease your attack! Look! It is the one of whom the prophecy foretells! It is the resurrected warrior!”

The tentacle immediately retracted into the shimmering mass of water.

Groad was confused at Selestia’s words. This was surely a ruse on her part to get him to lower his guard. He remained alert and at the ready for an attack. He glanced quickly about the cavern, noticing that the only possible means of escape would be through the wall of water. He would surely stand a better chance against that faceless appendage than he would against an immortal being.

“I apologize for my brashness, great warrior,” said Selestia holding out her hand.

Groad had witnessed the raw energy that was capable of being emitted from a Dark Wizard’s palms. He dove to the side, rolling once before landing nimbly on his feet again. He faked a move to his left but then rushed towards the rippling wall of water. Holding the sword in both hands above his head, he leaped feet first towards the exit.

He had expected, like the tentacle, to pass through the wall of water. Instead, he found himself rebounding off the liquid barrier as though it were made of some springy sponge-like substance.

He landed clumsily on the cavern floor, and was instantly reminded of his freshly incurred injuries. Releasing one hand from the sword he grabbed at his side groaning in anguish.

“I was sent by Maggoth to find you,” he grunted. “He waits for you, at this very moment, on the opposite edge of Chanakh Nizo. We desperately need your assistance in our quest to thwart Kronos.”

“You are the one!” exclaimed Selestia. “Remain still that I may tend your injuries.”

The sincerity in Selestia’s voice and the fact that there had been no destructive flash of blue energy somehow convinced Groad to trust the sorceress. He watched as she knelt down next to him and gently placed her hand over the fractured bones. He noticed that the fingertips were smooth and void of any fingernails. He flinched as the blue glow appeared, but instead of a scalding blast, the energy felt warm and soothing. A moment later, apart from a slight sensitivity, the piercing pain had dissipated. When the sorceress removed her hand, the ribs were whole again, a thin layer of anakhenium bonding them together.

Selestia stood up and once more held out her hand. This time Groad could see that it was merely a gesture to assist him to his feet. He ignored the pale slender hand and stood up. He was not going to allow a female, no matter how powerful, to help him with such a menial task.

Selestia stared, eyeing Groad from top to bottom.

“What?” he asked staring back.

“The visions that I have witnessed of the great destruction are true,” she turned away, lifting her hands high above her head. “The time of the Dark Prophecy is near!”

“Visions? Prophecy? What are you talking about?”

“Do you have any idea of the pain and suffering that I have had to endure?” she asked turning to face Groad again. There was an insane gleam in her staring eyes. “Has Maggoth told you everything?”

“He told me that it took you a very long time to recover from the effort to imprison Rava Zool. He also mentioned that you no longer possess the capability to transport through or into solid matter.”

“He told you that we were once lovers?”

“Yes,” said Groad nervously. He had already witnessed Selestia’s displeasure on this obviously sensitive subject.

“Did he tell you of the gruntling?”

“The gruntling?”

“Yes! The result of our forbidden love? Did he tell you of that?”

“No.” Groad shook his head slowly. “I never even considered it a possibility that Dark Wizard’s were capable of procreating.”

“Of course not,” sneered Selestia. “So powerful and immortal, yet such a coward.”

“Maggoth, a coward?”

“Maggoth and Rava Zool, both. For it was only when the Great Dragon sensed the life within my womb that he decided to force Kronos to make his move. He had hoped my condition would drain the vital energies necessary to prevent me from restraining Kronos. He was wrong, but still the price of victory had been high. More than my sanity could ever afford. To trap Kronos, it had been necessary to use the energy that sustained and nourished the unborn gruntling.”

“The gruntling died?”

“Eventually, yes. For it was born unto death. What should have been immortal was not. What should have been perfect and beautiful was instead a deformed monster; a hideous giant.

“It was the effort of giving birth to the grotesque brute in my weakened state that caused my powers to be permanently impaired, not the strain of imprisoning Rava Zool, as Maggoth would wish you to believe. Else I would not have been able to imprison Kronos deep within the cavity of the Chaxer Ran mountain.

“We both agreed that it would be best if the unfortunate newborn beast were destroyed. But Maggoth, coward that he is, did not have the stomach to complete such a terrible task. It was therefore left to me. And so I took the gruntling away, convincing Maggoth that I would make certain that it would happen as quickly and as painlessly as was possible.” A tear ran down Selestia’s smooth cheek. “But I was an even greater coward than Maggoth. When it came time to release the poor creature from its misery, I found that I too was unable to perform the deed. I decided that it would be best for the pathetic creature to at least live out its natural lifespan.

That was to be my second greatest mistake. The first was falling in love! It was the beginning of our own destruction!”

“Why?”

“The gruntling was capable of such devastation and hatred as had never before been achieved by any mortal creature.”

“When you saw its proficiency for destruction why did you not then choose to destroy it?”

“Because Kithian…!” Selestia paused. Her face softened. “Because it was also capable of so much good. It lived life with a passion; a passion that has never been equaled or surpassed since its death. But while it lived, it relished life to the full. I came to realize that the creature only wished to indulge its short existence between the cradle and the grave with as much gratification as was possible. And so it was that this creature’s lust for life and the enjoyment it expressed in simply being able to be, made me ashamed of my own immortality. In the heat of my humility I found my heart softening; and in time I grew to love the unfortunate inferior brute.

“When the time came for it to part this world I was devastated just as any mortal mother would be at the loss of a gruntling. Shortly thereafter I decided to retire once more to my sanctuary in the hope that I would be able to find rest and solace within the quiet of the megornex.

“Oh, how wrong I have been. How was I to know that in my weakened state, my dreaming mind would be highly susceptible to the residual energies of the additional cypherlette that now hung about my neck? And so, against my will, the object that was used by Kronos to control the swift passage through time bombarded me with terrifying and disturbing images from a myriad of possible futures. It was in one of these visions that I first saw you.”

“Me?”

“The visions have shown the coming of a great Kithian warrior; destroyed in the bowels of Valacia, but rising once more to battle the Great Dragon.”

Groad was stunned. He felt a terrible spasm lurching through every nonexistent muscle in his frame. “You witnessed my death in the Valacian cave?”

“Yes, the cypherlette revealed to me your destruction by the one-eyed giant.”

Groad felt more than just a tinge of discomfort. Although there was only a small group that knew of his demise at the hands of a zin-za, none had actually witnessed the event. And due to Maggoth’s sorcery, not even Daleth had remembered the incident. The Son of Zemth had thought himself spared that embarrassment, but now this incredible disclosure by the sorceress had made him to realize otherwise.

“I will face the Great Dragon alone?” he said trying to regain his composure.

“Yes!”

“Dakur’s eyes! What will be the outcome of this battle?”

“There will be a great destruction which will be followed by a new creation.”

“No!” Groad pointed his sword at the sorceress. “You lie! I refuse to accept that!”

“It is inevitable. Even your great Dakur will cease to exist. I have seen it all.”

Groad’s taste buds were experiencing the acrid flavour of bile.

“You said the cypherlette showed you a myriad of possible futures. Then…”

“All the visions have one common thread,” interrupted the sorceress. “All the images contain one unavoidable conclusion. They all show a terrible destruction as has never before been witnessed.”

“How can you be sure the visions are true? You of all beings should know that Rava Zool is capable of reaching into the minds of the weak and weary.”

“I know Rava Zool’s influence. He has failed many times to convince me that his intentions are righteous. These visions were not from him.”

“If you firmly believe the visions to be the eventual truth and the only destiny then why not simply destroy me here and now?”

“What?”

“If the result of my battling the Great Dragon is to end with him achieving his goal then why not simply turn me into a heap of ash right now?”

That…is an interesting concept,” said the sorceress rubbing her chin with a smooth fingertip. “I…I somehow do not believe that it would change the ultimate outcome.”

“Perhaps there is just the slightest doubt that the visions are untrue?”

“Perhaps, but…”

“Aha! If there is doubt then there is still a chance to prevent Rava Zool from accomplishing his evil plan. Then there is still hope; and if there is still hope, then we must continue the struggle. I will not allow your twisted dreams to discourage me. While I yet have life in me; and now that I have come to realize how precious that life is, not only my own, but also that of all creatures great and small, I will fight to defend and preserve it.”

“Spoken like a true hero! Almost the exact same words that the great resurrected Kithian warrior in my twisted dreams would have said!” Selestia’s expression remained void of any emotion.

Groad glared at her. He was not sure if she was being serious or sarcastic. The one thing he hated more than to be made fun of, was to be sneered at in contempt.

“Will you tell me whether or not you intend to assist us in our quest to stop the Great Dragon? We need to get to Tar Ta Rus as soon as possible. We do not have much time before that slark-slime Kronos gets the gold he needs to reunite Rava Zool with the Eldritch Blade.”

“Kronos has the Eldritch Blade?”

“It is a very long story,” said Groad irritated as he felt another wave of embarrassment pass over him. He walked towards the wall of water. “If you will not help us then I must return as soon as possible.”

“Wait! You should learn to be more patient,” said Selestia beckoning. She lifted one of the cypherlettes that hung about her neck and clutched it tightly in her hand. There was a low humming sound. “Prepare yourself my Kithian friend. You are about to rejoin Maggoth on the edge of Chanakh Nizo.”

Kithian friend?” queried Groad distrustfully. “The last time someone called me friend, was only moments before he had me thrown into a very deep gorge.”

“I would not blame him,” said Selestia holding the humming device out towards the Son of Zemth. “Especially now that I have come to experience your rather temperamental personality.”

This time Groad knew that the sorceress was being sarcastic. She had the most perfect white teeth that he had ever seen grinning at him.

The next instant she started to fade, as though being enveloped by a fine white mist. It was only when her brilliant grin was the only vestige remaining to prove that she had ever existed that Groad realized it was not her but himself that was in the process of dematerializing.

“Wait!” shouted Groad as the smile disappeared and was slowly replaced by an image of something extremely large and bulbous.

As the image became more defined so too did an accompanying sound of whining insects and rolling thunder. The hollow, echoing resonance of the cavern vanished. The image materialized into the trunk of, what Groad could now clearly see was, an enormous smooth-barked tree. Its branches were bulky and almost barren of any leafy vegetation. It was a strange sight; it seemed more like a root tuber than a tree. A tuber that had been mistakenly planted top down into the rocky embankment onto which its many tendrils groped and clung.

Groad remembered seeing this very same unusual tree not too far along the escarpment from where Daleth had cast him into the abyss.

It was as Selestia had promised; he had been returned to the ridge overlooking the spectacle of the great Chanakh Nizo. He looked about, but the sorceress was nowhere to be seen.

He had returned alone.

Turpane was the first to see Groad as he came clambering along the uneven ridge. Maggoth and Daleth turned in the direction she was pointing. They watched as the animated skeleton carefully made its way across the smooth moist black rocks.

“He has lost his bandages again,” said the Valacian whelp.

“It would appear that he has lost his boots as well this time,” added Daleth. “Do you think he managed to contact Selestia?”

“After all you have done to him, I would not be surprised if he just decided to climb straight back up the gorge in order to extract some sort of retribution from your hairy chookla hide.”

“Hmm, you may just be right,” said Daleth concernedly. “He does seem to be rather irate. It would be best if I prepared myself.”

“Nonsense!” exclaimed Maggoth. “All fleshless skulls have a somewhat foreboding and aggressive appearance.”

“I agree,” said Turpane. “But that one somehow seems to be more foreboding and more aggressive than any other that I have seen.”

“Dakur’s eyes!” cursed Groad as he approached. “It is most difficult crossing these slippery rocks without any boots. Hard naked bone against even harder wet rock is a treacherous situation.”

The words were no sooner out of the flapping jaw when he crashed rudely to the ground.

Turpane and Daleth both had trouble containing their laughter. Only Maggoth seemed concerned.

“Remain where you are,” said the Dark Wizard moving forwards. “Allow me to help you.”

“No!” said Groad angrily. His pride was stinging far more than his rear. “You remain where you are! I have had more than enough assistance from you than I can afford.” He got to his feet, but a moment later found himself flat on his back again.

This time the Son of Zemth reluctantly allowed the wizard to support him to an area where the soil allowed his feet better traction.

“Did you manage to make contact with Selestia?” asked Maggoth.

“Yes!” exclaimed Groad still irritated. “And this almost got me killed!” He removed the cypherlette and shoved it into the Dark Wizard’s palm.

“Well?” queried Maggoth as he placed the article once more about his own neck. He stared intently at the Kithian’s dark hollow eye-sockets.

“Well what?”

Groad!”

“I am not sure!” Groad held his arms out and shrugged his shoulders. “I am really not sure. First she tried to kill me and then she started raving about dark prophesies and how...” Groad paused. He was about to tell of Selestia’s account of the unfortunate mortal offspring, but he thought it best that Maggoth not know that he now possessed this particular information. The sorcerer had, after all, chosen not to disclose this information for a very good reason. It was obvious that Maggoth considered the subject to be a very sensitive and private matter.

Back in Bryntha, the wizard had helped to keep the truth of Groad’s demise and resurrection a secret. It would be only fitting and respectful to repay that kindness.

“Did she agree to help us or not?” asked Maggoth unable to conceal his own frustration.

“That is what I am trying to tell you! She did not say that she would help us, but she also did not say that she would not. She simply told me that I should learn to be more patient.”

“Wonderful, Groad!” exclaimed Turpane sarcastically. “In the extremely short time that you were gone, you managed to peeve the only being capable of helping us to defeat Kronos. Your amiable personality may just have forfeited all creation to oblivion.”

Groad tasted the bile in his mouth again, but instead of scalding the young Valacian with some form of reprimand, he found himself reminded of the disturbing words of Selestia’s prophecy about a great battle.

“Come!” said Groad turning towards the forest. “Enough time has been wasted in this place. We shall now have to make extra haste to Tar Ta Rus.”

The journey back through the rain forest was physically far easier-going, but the mental despondency was a much greater struggle through which they were all trying to maneuver. They walked in silence, which made the irritating whine of the insects all the more annoying.

They had wasted precious time in coming to this place, and now they were hardly any closer to their destination than before. It would take at least three more days to reach Tar Ta Rus. By then, Kronos would surely have achieved his goal.

Groad could not help thinking that this was all the result of an evil and ingenious plot.

Kronos surely knew that Maggoth would seek out Selestia’s help. He would also have known, through Rava Zool’s influence, that the sorceress had been devastated by events in her past. So devastated, in fact, that she would be completely discouraged to lend her assistance to counteract his vile schemes.

It was these thoughts that made Groad even more certain that Selestia’s prophetic visions had been the product of the twisted influence of Rava Zool. If it were not so, then surely she would also have been aware that Kronos had obtained the Eldritch Blade; a fact of which she was clearly ignorant.

So, yet once again, with unerring ease, Kronos had managed to manipulate the situation to his advantage.

As they neared the tethered horses, Groad recalled something else that Selestia had said. Something disturbing and preposterous, yet at the same time consoling and encouraging.

The sorceress had spoken of Dakur. Testifying to his existence yet at the same time referring to him as some puny mortal entity.

Although the fact that Selestia had acknowledged the existence of the great god of death was heartening in itself, it was absurd to even consider it a possibility that a being vastly superior in power to any immortal Dark Wizard could ever be destroyed?

Maggoth had done his best to convince Groad that Dakur was only a creation of all Kithians’ fear of death and the unknown. The Son of Zemth would be looking for the ideal opportunity to once again confront the sorcerer on this topic. How was it possible for one Dark Wizard to recognize the Kithian god’s existence whilst another did not?

Groad, once more with Turpane’s assistance, managed to get bandaged in far less time than it had previously taken. They were beginning to master the art of securely covering his skeletal frame.

“You will have to be doubly careful with these wrappings,” said Maggoth. “I see that you have exhausted the roll of linen that I purchased in Frybur.”

Groad nodded. “We shall have to get some more. I also need boots and some other articles of clothing.”

“I am sure that we will be able to procure all your requirements at Gu Kazor Dee in the valley below Tar Ta Rus,” said the Dark Wizard placing a pointed boot into a stirrup. “There will, most assuredly, be a number of Valacian merchants bartering some of their fine linen goods.” He lifted himself into the saddle.

“I have much concern for our steeds,” said Groad inspecting his mount. “We have already pushed them beyond their limit. I am uncertain as to whether they will be able to endure even one more day’s hard riding.”

“That will not be necessary,” said a strange voice from behind Groad.

In a single fluid action the Kithian drew his sword and spun around.

The voice would have sounded familiar if it had resounded from the walls of a giant subterranean cavern.

“Selestia!” exclaimed Groad as he watched the sorceress complete her materialization a short distance in front of him.

“Do put that away. For someone who claims that he has come to realize how precious life is, you certainly still have the reflexes of a trained killer.”

“The reflexes of a trained warrior. A warrior who must fight to defend what is precious and good.” Groad sheathed the sword. “So, you do plan to help us after all?”

“Did I ever give any indication to the contrary?” asked the sorceress smiling wryly. “I merely informed you to exercise a little more patience. I could not leave my chamber without first doing some necessary preparations.”

“Wahmi’s blood!” exclaimed Turpane staring at the sorceress. “You are exquisitely beautiful!”

“Why, thank you,” smiled Selestia. “And who would you be little one?”

“I am…”

Her compliments you acknowledge!” complained Groad interrupting Turpane’s introduction. “But me…me you almost destroy!”

“Forgive me, Groad. It is just that I have never met a Kithian who is capable of appreciating the physical beauty of any but his own kind.”

Selestia had spoken these words to Groad, yet she was glaring at Maggoth in a way that was disturbingly condemning.

Maggoth smiled uncomfortably and lowered his gaze away from Selestia. He seemed to be hurt by that accusing stare. “Welcome,” he said sheepishly. “It has been a very long time. Allow me to introduce our allies in…”

“Do you think that your aged appearance will serve to evoke my sympathy?” interrupted Selestia. “Do you think my displeasure in seeing you will be any less? Stop your games and show me the true Maggoth.”

“Surely you must realize that we cannot afford to use even a single iota of power to…”

“Do not attempt to reprove me! If we are to battle Kronos and Rava Zool again, we shall do it with the semblance of vitality!”

“But…?”

“If you require my help you will do it!”

There was a short silence before the sorcerer spoke again. “Very well,” he said calmly yet reluctantly reaching into his pouch. He removed a gold piece. “Have you forgotten the previous consequences of our mutual youthfulness?”

“Do it!” exclaimed Selestia through clenched teeth.

Everyone was staring at Maggoth. The wizard’s gaze leapt from face to face. Selestia’s eyes were the widest.

Maggoth closed his fingers tightly over the gold. He extended his clenched fist towards Selestia.

The sorceress nodded. Her eyes disclosed all too clearly her wild impatient expectancy.

A hissing sound revealed that gold was being replaced by dark energy.

A slight trickle of white smoke rose from the Dark Wizard’s palm as he opened his hand. He blew it away and rubbed his hands together slowly.

Without taking his eyes off the sorceress Maggoth dismounted. Legs slightly apart he folded his arms.

An instant later the group watched in amazement as the white beard began to slowly shrink. It was as if it were retracting into the jaw from which it had taken ages to sprout.

The deep lines that had been etched into the ancient face smoothed out. Wrinkles around the mouth and eyes faded away. The nose receded slightly and sharpened. Hollowed cheeks began to fill until the cheekbones were only a delicate hint that they still remained beneath the now fresh and even flesh. The loose wattle around the neck area tightened and flattened. The hair on the scalp turned from white to greyish-white. Greyish-white changed to dark grey. When the transformation was complete, apart from two white streaks that flowed backward from the temples, the sorcerer’s hair had become black as pitch. Although the complexion was pale, it seemed vibrant and aglow with health. The eyes, still fixed on the sorceress, sparkled with vitality.

The wizard raised a hand to his face. Fingers that were no longer knobby and leathery, but elongated and elegant, caressed the strong smooth jaw.

All present, including the Kithian, could not help but observe that the transformed being that stood before them was incredibly refined as well as extremely handsome.

“Will this suffice?” asked Maggoth with a voice that was subtly new yet familiar. The dark energies had also managed to remove the lines, scratches and wrinkles from his tonality. Unlike Groad’s recent nasal tone, this voice had a resonance of dignity; an air that commanded respect. Maggoth smiled revealing a set of perfect white teeth. “Is this young enough for you?”

“Oh, yes,” whispered Selestia. “That is…just perfect.” She seemed to be transfixed as she stared deep into Maggoth’s eyes. Her face softened into a beautiful smile.

The midday air was hot and still. Not even the slightest of breezes could be perceived, yet Selestia’s rich red locks flowed outwards towards Maggoth as though beckoning and longing to caress his newly acquired countenance.

Maggoth’s dark flowing cape, in turn, seemed to drift and grope upon unfelt air currents towards Selestia as he stared back into those delightful beaming orbs.

They both moved slowly towards each other.

Selestia raised her left hand, fingers spread. Maggoth lifted his right hand in similar fashion.

As their fingers met the air became filled with a humming sound similar to that emitted by the Eldritch Blade.

They closed their eyes, their heads bending slightly backwards as if experiencing some sort of extreme pleasure or pain.

They moved in closer, crimson hair and black cape entwining and enclosing the pair into a single cocoon.

As their lips touched there was the crackling sound of dark energy, and the familiar blue incandescence radiated brightly, surrounding the embraced figures.

An instant later their feet lifted from the ground and they spiraled slowly upwards.

Groad was about to make a comment about expending too much energy but decided to hold his tongue. He looked down at Turpane who was holding her hands crossed upon her chest.

The young Valacian smiled from ear to ear as she gazed intently at the passionate pyrotechnical display.

“That is the most beautiful and wonderful thing that I have ever seen,” she sighed.

Groad felt a tinge of jealousy. Even these Dark Wizards were capable of enjoying the physical embrace of a loved one. He was the only one in this group who could never again experience that wonderful and necessary pleasure.

The lovers unraveled as they swirled back down again.

As their feet touched the ground Maggoth moved away from Selestia. “This is exactly what I feared,” he said still holding onto her slender fingertips.

“Hush!” said Selestia placing her hand gently on Maggoth’s lips. “Let us enjoy these pleasantries while we may. As I have already told the Kithian, my visions of the future, although unclear and confusing, predict a great cataclysm. It would seem that we have been incorrect in our assumptions that the Dark Wizards or the Great Dragon are indestructible.”

“You speak in riddles,” said Groad. “Are you saying that it will be possible to kill Rava Zool? Are you saying that he is not immortal?”

“Is anything truly immortal? Is anyone unaffected by the passing of time? For everything there is a time of birth and a time of death; a time for awareness and a time for oblivion; a time for beginnings and a time for conclusions; a time for creation and a time for destruction. Yes, I truly believe that even Rava Zool can be destroyed. That which gives the Great Dragon his power is also the means capable of destroying him.”

“The Eldritch Blade?” exclaimed Groad. “But how? I have already seen that your dark arts have no influence on anything else created from the same…”

“When the time comes you will know what to do,” interrupted the sorceress.

“More riddles! I was hoping that enlisting your aid would be enlightening, but your advice only serves to perplex me all the more!”

“Maggoth, allow me to be the first to congratulate you on your new and wonderful manifestation,” said Daleth sincerely. “Although it will take some getting used to, it is certainly most flattering.”

The Dark Wizard acknowledged the zin-za’s compliment with a nod.

“You were about to introduce me to your allies,” said Selestia to Maggoth. “The Kithian I already know, but who is the incredibly eloquent giant.”

“Daleth!” exclaimed the zin-za introducing himself. “It is a pleasure to be of service to one as astute and rather becoming as yourself.”

Selestia turned to Groad. “Due to the nature of your death, I would have thought it difficult for you to accept an alliance with a zin-za.”

“Not just any zin-za, mistress,” corrected Daleth. “But the very same zin-za!”

“Amazing,” said Selestia almost calmly.

Groad had expected the sorceress to react with a much healthier expletive, but then he wondered what gods would a Dark Wizard be prone to call upon?

“It is a most difficult situation,” said the Kithian glaring past Selestia at Daleth. “Especially since he has only recently also taken the liberty of flinging me into a treacherous gorge. It is difficult, but I am learning to accept it.”

“The Valacian is Turpane,” said Maggoth. “A Fryburian citizen.”

“You intend to drag a whelp into battle against Kronos and Rava Zool?”

“She is absolutely impossible to dissuade, and I guarantee that any extra persuasion from you will accomplish naught.”

Turpane smiled proudly.

Selestia stared at the young Valacian before turning back to Maggoth. “I trust that you have contrived a sound and viable plan of action?”

“We have very good reason to believe that Kronos is heading for Tar Ta Rus. He plans to pillage the gold in the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers as well as the vast treasury reserves within the Royal Burial Chamber.”

“So you wish for me to use my powers to transport us all to Tar Ta Rus?”

“No,” said Groad.

“No?” queried Selestia.

“What?” queried Maggoth. “Why not?”

“Because I have just thought of another plan. A much better one.”

“Just how certain are you that this plan will work?”

“What is more important? To get to the gold, or finding Kronos?”

“Both are most necessary,” said Maggoth. “We need the power of the gold to battle Kronos. The one without the other is meaningless.”

“Exactly! My plan will deliver both into your hands.” Groad turned towards Selestia and scoffed at her through his fresh wrappings. “And with the Eldritch Blade safely back in Maggoth’s possession, there can and never will be any prophesied battle with the Great Dragon.”

“Are you so certain that your plan will succeed?” asked the sorceress sneering back at Groad.

“I managed to steal the Eldritch Blade from Maggoth’s keep, did I not?”

Groad had truly learned in the past that being overconfident and underestimating the foes capabilities could result in dire consequences, but he needed to say these words in order to boost his dented morale that had only recently been shaken by the sorceress’ predictions.

Selestia raised her hands into the air. She turned to Daleth. “Let me understand this correctly. It was you that killed Groad?” The zin-za nodded. She turned to Groad. “And it was you who stole the Eldritch Blade from Maggoth’s keep?” Groad also nodded. “And now you are all allies in a quest to prevent the Great Dragon’s release?”

“And as I told you once before,” said Groad nodding again, “‘It is a long story’.”

“If you do not wish to be transported to Tar Ta Rus then what is our destination to be?”

“Maggoth’s keep.”

“My keep?” frowned Maggoth.

“We need to procure a few items. Some important articles that will assist us in accomplishing our task.”

Groad cursed as his new wrappings constantly snared upon the dense foliage of the small concentrated rain forest that would prove to be the final obstacle separating the group from Chanakh Nizo.

It was a necessary precautionary measure for Daleth to travel alone, and so the group was once more diminished to a trio.

The humidity and abundance of insect and fowl were a sharp contrast to the semi-desert plains they had recently crossed.

Half a day’s ride from the outskirts of Bryntha, a unanimous decision had been made to travel along the vast wadi that stretched out from the mouth of the dried up Ak* River Canyon. This eventually widened to form the parched and dusty wind-swept plains that covered the southeasterly portion of Kith.

Although a rather extensive detour, skirting the rough rocky outcrops of the many rolling hills of the more direct route, had afforded them a much swifter and safer journey.

Fine rain fell from the cloudless sky, forming a myriad of small glistening droplets upon the clothing and hair of the weary travelers. The sun had become refracted into an enormous hazy corona that cast a surrealistic ambience through the moist verdant surroundings. The air was filled with the fine sound and vibration of a ceaseless peal of thunder.

Groad was almost convinced that this was all another of Maggoth’s unnecessary extravagant displays, but when they eventually reached the edge of the great chasm that overlooked the wondrous marvel of Chanakh Nizo, it became clear that the rain was of natural origin.

The gorge, that had been aptly named Reholgahrut Mu Dakur* by the Kithians, zigzagged away into the far distance. It gave the impression of being the maw of some phenomenally large jagged-toothed beast.

On the far side of the abyss lay Valacia with its wide and mighty Massubi* River.

The Massubi originates in upper Kith, formed from the many tributaries that snake across the northeasterly portion. By the time it reaches the northern Valacian border it is an immense surging mass of water. At the point where it vacates Valacian territory, dropping almost one hundred and twenty metres into the gorge below, it is more than a kilometer in width. It is at this place that Chanakh Nizo is created which, in turn, by sending vast amounts of spray into the air, creates the perpetual localized shower.

For a long time the trio stood motionless and speechless, allowing their senses to absorb the magnificence of the awe-inspiring sight.

A majestic rainbow, like some multicoloured crystalline bridge, framed the spectacle within its brilliant arch.

“There!” exclaimed Maggoth pointing downwards at the mass of white water that churned viciously at the bottom of the main section of the falls. “That is where Selestia resides!”

There was a sound of splintering and snapping from the rear. Looking back over the green canopy they watched as a pair of treetops first swayed and then toppled from view. A moment later two more trees disappeared.

A straight path was systematically being formed through the forest by some unseen force, and they all knew that Daleth was approaching.

For an instant Groad wondered why they had not waited for the zin-za on the outskirts of the forest. It would have been a far less frustrating excursion if they had simply allowed the beast to first clear them a way to the falls.

Once the giant had rejoined them, Groad turned to the Dark Wizard.

“What now, Maggoth?” he asked looking down at the churning white mass. “Are you close enough now to initiate some sort of mental contact with Selestia.”

“That, I am afraid, is not possible,” said the sorcerer shaking his head. “We are capable of establishing such a link when in close proximity of each other, but I am still much too far away. My connection to Kronos over such a vast distance resulted only because he happened to enter one of my dimensional portals.”

“Well then, you could always levitate yourself down to the base of the main falls?”

“That would mean using up precious power. I cannot allow even one iota more of my valuable energy to be used for anything else except the battle with Kronos.”

“Then what…?

“I am afraid that you are the only one here capable of accomplishing the task of reaching Selestia,” said Maggoth removing the cypherlette from around his neck. As you may have guessed by now, you too are capable of continued existence without the necessity of life-giving air.”

“Yes, but even with my skills for scaling such a shear drop, it will take a very long time to reach the bottom of such a slippery and treacherous precipice.”

“I realize that, my friend.” The sorcerer placed the cypherlette around Groad’s neck. “This will help bring you into Selestia’s company.

My friend?” Groad scrunched his brow into a frown. He held up the cypherlette between thumb and finger. “Why do I get the impression that you harbour some sort of guilt because of the trial that I must undertake?” Groad peered at Maggoth through the cypherlette’s hollow centre. “How do I get this to function?”

“Simply by wearing it around your neck,” said Maggoth nodding at Daleth. “I fear that your assumptions are correct. I can only hope that you will understand and forgive us for what we are about to do.”

“Why?” asked Groad apprehensively. “What are you planning to do?”

“Hold onto this very tightly,” said Daleth pushing an enormous rock against Groad’s chest.

“What for?” The Son of Zemth struggled to grip the large mass tightly with both arms.

“Momentum.”

“Momentum?”

“Correct,” said the one-eyed giant smiling as he placed a single paw around both Groad and the rock. He effortlessly lifted them both. “We do not have any time to waste, and this will be the fastest and surest means of getting you to the water below without the danger of you smashing your bones to pieces against the sides of the cliff. Remember to let go of the rock when you reach the pinnacle of your flight. Try to enter the water at as straight an angle as possible to reduce the impact.”

“What are you talking about?”

“When you enter the water you may experience a short period of anxiety due to the fact that you will not be able to breathe,” included the Dark Wizard. “Just keep reminding yourself that the absence of air is not detrimental to your survival.”

“Daleth! Put me down before I…”

Groad had no time to finish the sentence. With a swift twisting motion, similar to that of a discus-thrower, the zin-za spun around and released his grip. Groad found himself airborne, flying upwards and towards the enormous cascading mass of white thunder.

Maggoth was grateful that the ceaseless roar of the falls made it impossible to discern what the Son of Zemth was shouting on his reluctant journey towards the frothing waters. It was only too obvious that the utterances were of such a nature that they should not be heard by the young and sensitive ears of a small Valacian whelp.

At the apex of his upward flight, as Groad released the rock, the thought crossed his mind that his proposal of a winged horse had seemed a much more viable option.

He flapped his arms wildly, not in some futile attempt to fly, but as a means of orientating his body into a spear-like shape. He managed to point his toes just before striking the water. He struck feet first, a near perfect entry.

He had hoped to delay the anxiety that would accompany the task of convincing himself that he had no use for air. He had instinctively held a deep breath inside his nonexistent lungs just before striking the waters surface, but the impact had still jarred him enough to force it all out.

An instant later he found himself being furiously pummeled and thrashed about. He felt his loose-fitting boots being rudely and viciously ripped from his feet. He instinctively grabbed onto the cypherlette and curled himself into a tight ball.

He started to sink, slowly at first, but then as his wrappings and garments absorbed and filled with water he felt himself drifting downwards at an accelerated rate.

He ran his hand across his sheath and was relieved when he felt the handle of his blade. The sword had luckily not come loose in the violent turmoil above.

The churning roar of the falls above began to grow dimmer and dimmer until the noise was no more than a dull washing sound, similar to that of crashing waves that are heard from a far off distance.

Deeper and deeper he sank until the light from above could no longer penetrate. He was surrounded by total blackness.

He unfurled himself and continued to descend headfirst into the darkness. He was amazed at the fact that although he should be feeling anxious, he was instead experiencing an incredible calm. He felt lethargic and was filled with a sense of well-being.

Deeper and deeper he sank. The washing sound getting dimmer and dimmer.

When the shimmering stars appeared below, he became disoriented. He was almost convinced that instead of sinking he was floating upwards towards some wondrous night sky.

He did not find the fact that the stars were actually a great shoal of luminescent kremp* to be disappointing. The experience of moving through them was amazingly wonderful. He smiled as the curious little creatures swam around him. He held out a gloved hand and watched as they darted between his spread fingertips. He was astonished at the amount of light they were able to emit. Even at some distance he was able to see the rock face that seemed to be drifting slowly upwards, but he knew that it was only an optical illusion caused by his own descent.

A happy thought filled his mind, a wonderful memory from his past, but was soon washed over by an enormous wave of melancholy.

The thought had been of his wedding night so many cyclans ago.

When the necessary ceremonies and festivities had all but ended, he and Lorra had finally retired to the wedding loft.

The wedding loft was an enormous room that had been constructed from boughs at the top of one of the oldest and tallest trees in Bryntha. The tree was also broad enough in its round to allow the construction of a spiraling stairway on its outer trunk that wound all the way up to its summit.

The loft had a landing from where the spectacular view over the forest and river could be appreciated.

When he and his new bride had entered the room, they were delighted to find that the interior had not been illuminated by the customary scented candles. Instead, the maids of honour had managed to catch a large amount of kremp that had fortunately chosen to begin their mating ritual in a part of the winding river that flowed through Bryntha. These had been placed within translucent bresk intestines that had been filled with water and hung on hooks from the ceiling.

The effect had been wondrous. The soft illumination of the green glow upon his new bride had made her all the more radiant and alluring.

The next morning Groad had noticed that only the female kremp, with their pouches of fertilized eggs, had survived the mating ritual. The males all lay in little useless heaps at the bottom of the knotted entrails. He had hoped that this was not to be some sort of portent for things to come.

These thoughts of his wedding night were still floating through his head when the large powerful tentacle appeared out of the blackness from below. In an instant it had encircled the form of the unsuspecting reanimated Kithian, its large suckers clamping fast wherever they touched. The pressure exerted by the constricting appendage was incredible. Groad could not hear the sound, but he felt the extreme jarring pain, as three of his ribs cracked.

He was once more grateful that he did not need any life-giving air, which would surely have been squeezed from punctured lungs.

He remembered a similar sensation from not too long ago. This was almost the same predicament he had been in back in Frybur when Daleth had trapped him, making it impossible for him to use his sword arm.

He stopped struggling in an attempt to convince the creature that its prey was dead.

At once the tentacle started to retract into an enormous dark opening within the rock face.

Groad had no idea as to the nature or size of the creature that held him. He just hoped that the beast would not find his reanimated frame in the least bit appetizing and promptly release him.

As he entered the opening he twisted his head to look back. The illumination from the kremp outside showed the entrance to be roughly circular in shape.

He was unable to perceive whether the beast that gripped him was either moving its entire frame down a very long tunnel or whether it was still simply retracting its slimy appendage. As he looked backwards, the circular entrance slowly diminished in size until it finally disappeared from view.

A long time passed. Every now and then he would feel himself bump up against the rock face where the passage narrowed.

He was starting to lose hope of ever being able to find his way back to the entrance when he saw the green glow. It was too bright and concentrated to be coming from another shoal of kremp.

“Release this one, Obed! He possesses something of interest to me!”

Groad could not understand how, but he had heard the voice inside his head rather than through his nonexistent ears.

An instant later the tentacle released him and retracted once more into inky blackness.

As Groad’s feet touched against hard rock, he turned towards the source of the green glow.

He smiled to himself knowing that he had managed to accomplish the task that Maggoth had set him. The shimmering emerald megornex stood upright in the far corner of what Groad could now see was a vast subterranean cavern.

The immense floor and sections of the cavern wall were absolutely flat and smooth as if an enormous Eldritch Blade had been dragged across them. The ceiling remained rough and untouched. A number of recesses had been carved into the walls. In some of these large hollow openings stood more of the megornexes, but these did not produce any green radiance.

“Who are you? What do you want? Why have you concealed your appearance? Where did you obtain the object that hangs from your neck?”

The voice was in his head, but Groad knew that it originated from the figure that was encased in the glowing sarcophagus.

He tried moving towards the glow but a sudden surge in the water moved him backwards. A moment later he realized that the water was somehow, miraculously, retreating out of the cavern and back down the tunnel opening through which he had entered the underground chamber.

The water receded only as far as the entrance and then remained there, held in place by some fantastic unseen force. The green glow reflected back in a myriad of ripples that undulated from the centre of the huge vertical expanse of water.

Groad found himself off balance, the sudden lack of water to support his injured frame causing him to be slightly disorientated. He collapsed to his knees pressing his gloved hand against the stabbing pains in his ribcage.

“I asked who you are? What you want? Why do you conceal your appearance? And where did you get the cypherlette?”

This time he heard the voice in his ears and he knew that the sorceress had freed herself from the megornex.

Groad tested his nonexistent lungs and found that they still worked perfectly, but the increased pressure that they caused beneath his ribcage caused him to cry out.

“Aah! Selestia I presume?” he exclaimed still looking down at the cavern floor. “I am Groad, a Kithian from Bryntha. I was sent to seek your assistance in a most important matter.” Then staring upwards he gasped, “Dakur’s eyes! You…you are young and…very beautiful too!”

“Your presumption is correct, I am the sorceress Selestia, but you take me for a fool by trying to lower my guard with your flattery. If you truly are a Kithian I doubt that you would have survived the long journey through the watery depths beneath Chanakh Nizo, but even more importantly, no Kithian would find me to be beautiful? If you think your insincere compliments will prevent me from blasting you into a heap of ash, you are gravely mistaken.”

These words were said in a quiet and calm manner that made the threat’s connotation all the more menacing.

Still clutching his injured side, Groad shakily managed to stand upright.

“Do you normally treat all your admirers in such a crude fashion?”

“Just another insignificant lackey sent to do Kronos’ bidding,” sneered Selestia. “That is all you are!”

“What?” exclaimed Groad. Although insulted, he was truly awe-struck by the elegance and attractiveness of the sorceress.

Selestia moved towards Groad with a calculated feline grace. It was as if she were still surrounded by water as her long red hair and flowing jade-coloured robes swirled slowly about her tall lithe slender frame.

“How is it that you have come to possess Maggoth’s cypherlette?”

“How is it possible that you and Maggoth were ever lovers?”

The question seemed to touch a raw nerve. She hesitated for a moment before saying, “That is exactly the sort of despicable attack that Kronos would have prompted one of his loud-mouthed minions to repeat. If you intend to rile me into some foolish careless action in order to gain possession of the other two cypherlettes, then you are sadly mistaken!”

“I apologize if I have offended you in any way. It was not my intention to…”

“Obed, show this upstart how we normally treat unwelcome intruders,” interrupted Selestia.

These words had been even more calmly spoken.

“Wait!” cried Groad, his cry echoing loud and hollow across the vast chamber.

It was too late. The giant tentacle pierced through from behind the vertical wall of water at the tunnel’s entrance.

Groad dove to the side, but the tentacle swiped him against one of the rough sections of the cavern wall, rolling and dragging him until the bandages were shredded and hanging from his skeletal frame in tatters.

The tentacle withdrew and waved menacingly above Groad’s head. In the blink of an eye Groad had drawn his sword. He stood ready for the next attack. This time the tentacle would find that its prey had a sting.

“Obed, no!” shouted Selestia. “Cease your attack! Look! It is the one of whom the prophecy foretells! It is the resurrected warrior!”

The tentacle immediately retracted into the shimmering mass of water.

Groad was confused at Selestia’s words. This was surely a ruse on her part to get him to lower his guard. He remained alert and at the ready for an attack. He glanced quickly about the cavern, noticing that the only possible means of escape would be through the wall of water. He would surely stand a better chance against that faceless appendage than he would against an immortal being.

“I apologize for my brashness, great warrior,” said Selestia holding out her hand.

Groad had witnessed the raw energy that was capable of being emitted from a Dark Wizard’s palms. He dove to the side, rolling once before landing nimbly on his feet again. He faked a move to his left but then rushed towards the rippling wall of water. Holding the sword in both hands above his head, he leaped feet first towards the exit.

He had expected, like the tentacle, to pass through the wall of water. Instead, he found himself rebounding off the liquid barrier as though it were made of some springy sponge-like substance.

He landed clumsily on the cavern floor, and was instantly reminded of his freshly incurred injuries. Releasing one hand from the sword he grabbed at his side groaning in anguish.

“I was sent by Maggoth to find you,” he grunted. “He waits for you, at this very moment, on the opposite edge of Chanakh Nizo. We desperately need your assistance in our quest to thwart Kronos.”

“You are the one!” exclaimed Selestia. “Remain still that I may tend your injuries.”

The sincerity in Selestia’s voice and the fact that there had been no destructive flash of blue energy somehow convinced Groad to trust the sorceress. He watched as she knelt down next to him and gently placed her hand over the fractured bones. He noticed that the fingertips were smooth and void of any fingernails. He flinched as the blue glow appeared, but instead of a scalding blast, the energy felt warm and soothing. A moment later, apart from a slight sensitivity, the piercing pain had dissipated. When the sorceress removed her hand, the ribs were whole again, a thin layer of anakhenium bonding them together.

Selestia stood up and once more held out her hand. This time Groad could see that it was merely a gesture to assist him to his feet. He ignored the pale slender hand and stood up. He was not going to allow a female, no matter how powerful, to help him with such a menial task.

Selestia stared, eyeing Groad from top to bottom.

“What?” he asked staring back.

“The visions that I have witnessed of the great destruction are true,” she turned away, lifting her hands high above her head. “The time of the Dark Prophecy is near!”

“Visions? Prophecy? What are you talking about?”

“Do you have any idea of the pain and suffering that I have had to endure?” she asked turning to face Groad again. There was an insane gleam in her staring eyes. “Has Maggoth told you everything?”

“He told me that it took you a very long time to recover from the effort to imprison Rava Zool. He also mentioned that you no longer possess the capability to transport through or into solid matter.”

“He told you that we were once lovers?”

“Yes,” said Groad nervously. He had already witnessed Selestia’s displeasure on this obviously sensitive subject.

“Did he tell you of the gruntling?”

“The gruntling?”

“Yes! The result of our forbidden love? Did he tell you of that?”

“No.” Groad shook his head slowly. “I never even considered it a possibility that Dark Wizard’s were capable of procreating.”

“Of course not,” sneered Selestia. “So powerful and immortal, yet such a coward.”

“Maggoth, a coward?”

“Maggoth and Rava Zool, both. For it was only when the Great Dragon sensed the life within my womb that he decided to force Kronos to make his move. He had hoped my condition would drain the vital energies necessary to prevent me from restraining Kronos. He was wrong, but still the price of victory had been high. More than my sanity could ever afford. To trap Kronos, it had been necessary to use the energy that sustained and nourished the unborn gruntling.”

“The gruntling died?”

“Eventually, yes. For it was born unto death. What should have been immortal was not. What should have been perfect and beautiful was instead a deformed monster; a hideous giant.

“It was the effort of giving birth to the grotesque brute in my weakened state that caused my powers to be permanently impaired, not the strain of imprisoning Rava Zool, as Maggoth would wish you to believe. Else I would not have been able to imprison Kronos deep within the cavity of the Chaxer Ran mountain.

“We both agreed that it would be best if the unfortunate newborn beast were destroyed. But Maggoth, coward that he is, did not have the stomach to complete such a terrible task. It was therefore left to me. And so I took the gruntling away, convincing Maggoth that I would make certain that it would happen as quickly and as painlessly as was possible.” A tear ran down Selestia’s smooth cheek. “But I was an even greater coward than Maggoth. When it came time to release the poor creature from its misery, I found that I too was unable to perform the deed. I decided that it would be best for the pathetic creature to at least live out its natural lifespan.

That was to be my second greatest mistake. The first was falling in love! It was the beginning of our own destruction!”

“Why?”

“The gruntling was capable of such devastation and hatred as had never before been achieved by any mortal creature.”

“When you saw its proficiency for destruction why did you not then choose to destroy it?”

“Because Kithian…!” Selestia paused. Her face softened. “Because it was also capable of so much good. It lived life with a passion; a passion that has never been equaled or surpassed since its death. But while it lived, it relished life to the full. I came to realize that the creature only wished to indulge its short existence between the cradle and the grave with as much gratification as was possible. And so it was that this creature’s lust for life and the enjoyment it expressed in simply being able to be, made me ashamed of my own immortality. In the heat of my humility I found my heart softening; and in time I grew to love the unfortunate inferior brute.

“When the time came for it to part this world I was devastated just as any mortal mother would be at the loss of a gruntling. Shortly thereafter I decided to retire once more to my sanctuary in the hope that I would be able to find rest and solace within the quiet of the megornex.

“Oh, how wrong I have been. How was I to know that in my weakened state, my dreaming mind would be highly susceptible to the residual energies of the additional cypherlette that now hung about my neck? And so, against my will, the object that was used by Kronos to control the swift passage through time bombarded me with terrifying and disturbing images from a myriad of possible futures. It was in one of these visions that I first saw you.”

“Me?”

“The visions have shown the coming of a great Kithian warrior; destroyed in the bowels of Valacia, but rising once more to battle the Great Dragon.”

Groad was stunned. He felt a terrible spasm lurching through every nonexistent muscle in his frame. “You witnessed my death in the Valacian cave?”

“Yes, the cypherlette revealed to me your destruction by the one-eyed giant.”

Groad felt more than just a tinge of discomfort. Although there was only a small group that knew of his demise at the hands of a zin-za, none had actually witnessed the event. And due to Maggoth’s sorcery, not even Daleth had remembered the incident. The Son of Zemth had thought himself spared that embarrassment, but now this incredible disclosure by the sorceress had made him to realize otherwise.

“I will face the Great Dragon alone?” he said trying to regain his composure.

“Yes!”

“Dakur’s eyes! What will be the outcome of this battle?”

“There will be a great destruction which will be followed by a new creation.”

“No!” Groad pointed his sword at the sorceress. “You lie! I refuse to accept that!”

“It is inevitable. Even your great Dakur will cease to exist. I have seen it all.”

Groad’s taste buds were experiencing the acrid flavour of bile.

“You said the cypherlette showed you a myriad of possible futures. Then…”

“All the visions have one common thread,” interrupted the sorceress. “All the images contain one unavoidable conclusion. They all show a terrible destruction as has never before been witnessed.”

“How can you be sure the visions are true? You of all beings should know that Rava Zool is capable of reaching into the minds of the weak and weary.”

“I know Rava Zool’s influence. He has failed many times to convince me that his intentions are righteous. These visions were not from him.”

“If you firmly believe the visions to be the eventual truth and the only destiny then why not simply destroy me here and now?”

“What?”

“If the result of my battling the Great Dragon is to end with him achieving his goal then why not simply turn me into a heap of ash right now?”

That…is an interesting concept,” said the sorceress rubbing her chin with a smooth fingertip. “I…I somehow do not believe that it would change the ultimate outcome.”

“Perhaps there is just the slightest doubt that the visions are untrue?”

“Perhaps, but…”

“Aha! If there is doubt then there is still a chance to prevent Rava Zool from accomplishing his evil plan. Then there is still hope; and if there is still hope, then we must continue the struggle. I will not allow your twisted dreams to discourage me. While I yet have life in me; and now that I have come to realize how precious that life is, not only my own, but also that of all creatures great and small, I will fight to defend and preserve it.”

“Spoken like a true hero! Almost the exact same words that the great resurrected Kithian warrior in my twisted dreams would have said!” Selestia’s expression remained void of any emotion.

Groad glared at her. He was not sure if she was being serious or sarcastic. The one thing he hated more than to be made fun of, was to be sneered at in contempt.

“Will you tell me whether or not you intend to assist us in our quest to stop the Great Dragon? We need to get to Tar Ta Rus as soon as possible. We do not have much time before that slark-slime Kronos gets the gold he needs to reunite Rava Zool with the Eldritch Blade.”

“Kronos has the Eldritch Blade?”

“It is a very long story,” said Groad irritated as he felt another wave of embarrassment pass over him. He walked towards the wall of water. “If you will not help us then I must return as soon as possible.”

“Wait! You should learn to be more patient,” said Selestia beckoning. She lifted one of the cypherlettes that hung about her neck and clutched it tightly in her hand. There was a low humming sound. “Prepare yourself my Kithian friend. You are about to rejoin Maggoth on the edge of Chanakh Nizo.”

Kithian friend?” queried Groad distrustfully. “The last time someone called me friend, was only moments before he had me thrown into a very deep gorge.”

“I would not blame him,” said Selestia holding the humming device out towards the Son of Zemth. “Especially now that I have come to experience your rather temperamental personality.”

This time Groad knew that the sorceress was being sarcastic. She had the most perfect white teeth that he had ever seen grinning at him.

The next instant she started to fade, as though being enveloped by a fine white mist. It was only when her brilliant grin was the only vestige remaining to prove that she had ever existed that Groad realized it was not her but himself that was in the process of dematerializing.

“Wait!” shouted Groad as the smile disappeared and was slowly replaced by an image of something extremely large and bulbous.

As the image became more defined so too did an accompanying sound of whining insects and rolling thunder. The hollow, echoing resonance of the cavern vanished. The image materialized into the trunk of, what Groad could now clearly see was, an enormous smooth-barked tree. Its branches were bulky and almost barren of any leafy vegetation. It was a strange sight; it seemed more like a root tuber than a tree. A tuber that had been mistakenly planted top down into the rocky embankment onto which its many tendrils groped and clung.

Groad remembered seeing this very same unusual tree not too far along the escarpment from where Daleth had cast him into the abyss.

It was as Selestia had promised; he had been returned to the ridge overlooking the spectacle of the great Chanakh Nizo. He looked about, but the sorceress was nowhere to be seen.

He had returned alone.

Turpane was the first to see Groad as he came clambering along the uneven ridge. Maggoth and Daleth turned in the direction she was pointing. They watched as the animated skeleton carefully made its way across the smooth moist black rocks.

“He has lost his bandages again,” said the Valacian whelp.

“It would appear that he has lost his boots as well this time,” added Daleth. “Do you think he managed to contact Selestia?”

“After all you have done to him, I would not be surprised if he just decided to climb straight back up the gorge in order to extract some sort of retribution from your hairy chookla hide.”

“Hmm, you may just be right,” said Daleth concernedly. “He does seem to be rather irate. It would be best if I prepared myself.”

“Nonsense!” exclaimed Maggoth. “All fleshless skulls have a somewhat foreboding and aggressive appearance.”

“I agree,” said Turpane. “But that one somehow seems to be more foreboding and more aggressive than any other that I have seen.”

“Dakur’s eyes!” cursed Groad as he approached. “It is most difficult crossing these slippery rocks without any boots. Hard naked bone against even harder wet rock is a treacherous situation.”

The words were no sooner out of the flapping jaw when he crashed rudely to the ground.

Turpane and Daleth both had trouble containing their laughter. Only Maggoth seemed concerned.

“Remain where you are,” said the Dark Wizard moving forwards. “Allow me to help you.”

“No!” said Groad angrily. His pride was stinging far more than his rear. “You remain where you are! I have had more than enough assistance from you than I can afford.” He got to his feet, but a moment later found himself flat on his back again.

This time the Son of Zemth reluctantly allowed the wizard to support him to an area where the soil allowed his feet better traction.

“Did you manage to make contact with Selestia?” asked Maggoth.

“Yes!” exclaimed Groad still irritated. “And this almost got me killed!” He removed the cypherlette and shoved it into the Dark Wizard’s palm.

“Well?” queried Maggoth as he placed the article once more about his own neck. He stared intently at the Kithian’s dark hollow eye-sockets.

“Well what?”

Groad!”

“I am not sure!” Groad held his arms out and shrugged his shoulders. “I am really not sure. First she tried to kill me and then she started raving about dark prophesies and how...” Groad paused. He was about to tell of Selestia’s account of the unfortunate mortal offspring, but he thought it best that Maggoth not know that he now possessed this particular information. The sorcerer had, after all, chosen not to disclose this information for a very good reason. It was obvious that Maggoth considered the subject to be a very sensitive and private matter.

Back in Bryntha, the wizard had helped to keep the truth of Groad’s demise and resurrection a secret. It would be only fitting and respectful to repay that kindness.

“Did she agree to help us or not?” asked Maggoth unable to conceal his own frustration.

“That is what I am trying to tell you! She did not say that she would help us, but she also did not say that she would not. She simply told me that I should learn to be more patient.”

“Wonderful, Groad!” exclaimed Turpane sarcastically. “In the extremely short time that you were gone, you managed to peeve the only being capable of helping us to defeat Kronos. Your amiable personality may just have forfeited all creation to oblivion.”

Groad tasted the bile in his mouth again, but instead of scalding the young Valacian with some form of reprimand, he found himself reminded of the disturbing words of Selestia’s prophecy about a great battle.

“Come!” said Groad turning towards the forest. “Enough time has been wasted in this place. We shall now have to make extra haste to Tar Ta Rus.”

The journey back through the rain forest was physically far easier-going, but the mental despondency was a much greater struggle through which they were all trying to maneuver. They walked in silence, which made the irritating whine of the insects all the more annoying.

They had wasted precious time in coming to this place, and now they were hardly any closer to their destination than before. It would take at least three more days to reach Tar Ta Rus. By then, Kronos would surely have achieved his goal.

Groad could not help thinking that this was all the result of an evil and ingenious plot.

Kronos surely knew that Maggoth would seek out Selestia’s help. He would also have known, through Rava Zool’s influence, that the sorceress had been devastated by events in her past. So devastated, in fact, that she would be completely discouraged to lend her assistance to counteract his vile schemes.

It was these thoughts that made Groad even more certain that Selestia’s prophetic visions had been the product of the twisted influence of Rava Zool. If it were not so, then surely she would also have been aware that Kronos had obtained the Eldritch Blade; a fact of which she was clearly ignorant.

So, yet once again, with unerring ease, Kronos had managed to manipulate the situation to his advantage.

As they neared the tethered horses, Groad recalled something else that Selestia had said. Something disturbing and preposterous, yet at the same time consoling and encouraging.

The sorceress had spoken of Dakur. Testifying to his existence yet at the same time referring to him as some puny mortal entity.

Although the fact that Selestia had acknowledged the existence of the great god of death was heartening in itself, it was absurd to even consider it a possibility that a being vastly superior in power to any immortal Dark Wizard could ever be destroyed?

Maggoth had done his best to convince Groad that Dakur was only a creation of all Kithians’ fear of death and the unknown. The Son of Zemth would be looking for the ideal opportunity to once again confront the sorcerer on this topic. How was it possible for one Dark Wizard to recognize the Kithian god’s existence whilst another did not?

Groad, once more with Turpane’s assistance, managed to get bandaged in far less time than it had previously taken. They were beginning to master the art of securely covering his skeletal frame.

“You will have to be doubly careful with these wrappings,” said Maggoth. “I see that you have exhausted the roll of linen that I purchased in Frybur.”

Groad nodded. “We shall have to get some more. I also need boots and some other articles of clothing.”

“I am sure that we will be able to procure all your requirements at Gu Kazor Dee in the valley below Tar Ta Rus,” said the Dark Wizard placing a pointed boot into a stirrup. “There will, most assuredly, be a number of Valacian merchants bartering some of their fine linen goods.” He lifted himself into the saddle.

“I have much concern for our steeds,” said Groad inspecting his mount. “We have already pushed them beyond their limit. I am uncertain as to whether they will be able to endure even one more day’s hard riding.”

“That will not be necessary,” said a strange voice from behind Groad.

In a single fluid action the Kithian drew his sword and spun around.

The voice would have sounded familiar if it had resounded from the walls of a giant subterranean cavern.

“Selestia!” exclaimed Groad as he watched the sorceress complete her materialization a short distance in front of him.

“Do put that away. For someone who claims that he has come to realize how precious life is, you certainly still have the reflexes of a trained killer.”

“The reflexes of a trained warrior. A warrior who must fight to defend what is precious and good.” Groad sheathed the sword. “So, you do plan to help us after all?”

“Did I ever give any indication to the contrary?” asked the sorceress smiling wryly. “I merely informed you to exercise a little more patience. I could not leave my chamber without first doing some necessary preparations.”

“Wahmi’s blood!” exclaimed Turpane staring at the sorceress. “You are exquisitely beautiful!”

“Why, thank you,” smiled Selestia. “And who would you be little one?”

“I am…”

Her compliments you acknowledge!” complained Groad interrupting Turpane’s introduction. “But me…me you almost destroy!”

“Forgive me, Groad. It is just that I have never met a Kithian who is capable of appreciating the physical beauty of any but his own kind.”

Selestia had spoken these words to Groad, yet she was glaring at Maggoth in a way that was disturbingly condemning.

Maggoth smiled uncomfortably and lowered his gaze away from Selestia. He seemed to be hurt by that accusing stare. “Welcome,” he said sheepishly. “It has been a very long time. Allow me to introduce our allies in…”

“Do you think that your aged appearance will serve to evoke my sympathy?” interrupted Selestia. “Do you think my displeasure in seeing you will be any less? Stop your games and show me the true Maggoth.”

“Surely you must realize that we cannot afford to use even a single iota of power to…”

“Do not attempt to reprove me! If we are to battle Kronos and Rava Zool again, we shall do it with the semblance of vitality!”

“But…?”

“If you require my help you will do it!”

There was a short silence before the sorcerer spoke again. “Very well,” he said calmly yet reluctantly reaching into his pouch. He removed a gold piece. “Have you forgotten the previous consequences of our mutual youthfulness?”

“Do it!” exclaimed Selestia through clenched teeth.

Everyone was staring at Maggoth. The wizard’s gaze leapt from face to face. Selestia’s eyes were the widest.

Maggoth closed his fingers tightly over the gold. He extended his clenched fist towards Selestia.

The sorceress nodded. Her eyes disclosed all too clearly her wild impatient expectancy.

A hissing sound revealed that gold was being replaced by dark energy.

A slight trickle of white smoke rose from the Dark Wizard’s palm as he opened his hand. He blew it away and rubbed his hands together slowly.

Without taking his eyes off the sorceress Maggoth dismounted. Legs slightly apart he folded his arms.

An instant later the group watched in amazement as the white beard began to slowly shrink. It was as if it were retracting into the jaw from which it had taken ages to sprout.

The deep lines that had been etched into the ancient face smoothed out. Wrinkles around the mouth and eyes faded away. The nose receded slightly and sharpened. Hollowed cheeks began to fill until the cheekbones were only a delicate hint that they still remained beneath the now fresh and even flesh. The loose wattle around the neck area tightened and flattened. The hair on the scalp turned from white to greyish-white. Greyish-white changed to dark grey. When the transformation was complete, apart from two white streaks that flowed backward from the temples, the sorcerer’s hair had become black as pitch. Although the complexion was pale, it seemed vibrant and aglow with health. The eyes, still fixed on the sorceress, sparkled with vitality.

The wizard raised a hand to his face. Fingers that were no longer knobby and leathery, but elongated and elegant, caressed the strong smooth jaw.

All present, including the Kithian, could not help but observe that the transformed being that stood before them was incredibly refined as well as extremely handsome.

“Will this suffice?” asked Maggoth with a voice that was subtly new yet familiar. The dark energies had also managed to remove the lines, scratches and wrinkles from his tonality. Unlike Groad’s recent nasal tone, this voice had a resonance of dignity; an air that commanded respect. Maggoth smiled revealing a set of perfect white teeth. “Is this young enough for you?”

“Oh, yes,” whispered Selestia. “That is…just perfect.” She seemed to be transfixed as she stared deep into Maggoth’s eyes. Her face softened into a beautiful smile.

The midday air was hot and still. Not even the slightest of breezes could be perceived, yet Selestia’s rich red locks flowed outwards towards Maggoth as though beckoning and longing to caress his newly acquired countenance.

Maggoth’s dark flowing cape, in turn, seemed to drift and grope upon unfelt air currents towards Selestia as he stared back into those delightful beaming orbs.

They both moved slowly towards each other.

Selestia raised her left hand, fingers spread. Maggoth lifted his right hand in similar fashion.

As their fingers met the air became filled with a humming sound similar to that emitted by the Eldritch Blade.

They closed their eyes, their heads bending slightly backwards as if experiencing some sort of extreme pleasure or pain.

They moved in closer, crimson hair and black cape entwining and enclosing the pair into a single cocoon.

As their lips touched there was the crackling sound of dark energy, and the familiar blue incandescence radiated brightly, surrounding the embraced figures.

An instant later their feet lifted from the ground and they spiraled slowly upwards.

Groad was about to make a comment about expending too much energy but decided to hold his tongue. He looked down at Turpane who was holding her hands crossed upon her chest.

The young Valacian smiled from ear to ear as she gazed intently at the passionate pyrotechnical display.

“That is the most beautiful and wonderful thing that I have ever seen,” she sighed.

Groad felt a tinge of jealousy. Even these Dark Wizards were capable of enjoying the physical embrace of a loved one. He was the only one in this group who could never again experience that wonderful and necessary pleasure.

The lovers unraveled as they swirled back down again.

As their feet touched the ground Maggoth moved away from Selestia. “This is exactly what I feared,” he said still holding onto her slender fingertips.

“Hush!” said Selestia placing her hand gently on Maggoth’s lips. “Let us enjoy these pleasantries while we may. As I have already told the Kithian, my visions of the future, although unclear and confusing, predict a great cataclysm. It would seem that we have been incorrect in our assumptions that the Dark Wizards or the Great Dragon are indestructible.”

“You speak in riddles,” said Groad. “Are you saying that it will be possible to kill Rava Zool? Are you saying that he is not immortal?”

“Is anything truly immortal? Is anyone unaffected by the passing of time? For everything there is a time of birth and a time of death; a time for awareness and a time for oblivion; a time for beginnings and a time for conclusions; a time for creation and a time for destruction. Yes, I truly believe that even Rava Zool can be destroyed. That which gives the Great Dragon his power is also the means capable of destroying him.”

“The Eldritch Blade?” exclaimed Groad. “But how? I have already seen that your dark arts have no influence on anything else created from the same…”

“When the time comes you will know what to do,” interrupted the sorceress.

“More riddles! I was hoping that enlisting your aid would be enlightening, but your advice only serves to perplex me all the more!”

“Maggoth, allow me to be the first to congratulate you on your new and wonderful manifestation,” said Daleth sincerely. “Although it will take some getting used to, it is certainly most flattering.”

The Dark Wizard acknowledged the zin-za’s compliment with a nod.

“You were about to introduce me to your allies,” said Selestia to Maggoth. “The Kithian I already know, but who is the incredibly eloquent giant.”

“Daleth!” exclaimed the zin-za introducing himself. “It is a pleasure to be of service to one as astute and rather becoming as yourself.”

Selestia turned to Groad. “Due to the nature of your death, I would have thought it difficult for you to accept an alliance with a zin-za.”

“Not just any zin-za, mistress,” corrected Daleth. “But the very same zin-za!”

“Amazing,” said Selestia almost calmly.

Groad had expected the sorceress to react with a much healthier expletive, but then he wondered what gods would a Dark Wizard be prone to call upon?

“It is a most difficult situation,” said the Kithian glaring past Selestia at Daleth. “Especially since he has only recently also taken the liberty of flinging me into a treacherous gorge. It is difficult, but I am learning to accept it.”

“The Valacian is Turpane,” said Maggoth. “A Fryburian citizen.”

“You intend to drag a whelp into battle against Kronos and Rava Zool?”

“She is absolutely impossible to dissuade, and I guarantee that any extra persuasion from you will accomplish naught.”

Turpane smiled proudly.

Selestia stared at the young Valacian before turning back to Maggoth. “I trust that you have contrived a sound and viable plan of action?”

“We have very good reason to believe that Kronos is heading for Tar Ta Rus. He plans to pillage the gold in the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers as well as the vast treasury reserves within the Royal Burial Chamber.”

“So you wish for me to use my powers to transport us all to Tar Ta Rus?”

“No,” said Groad.

“No?” queried Selestia.

“What?” queried Maggoth. “Why not?”

“Because I have just thought of another plan. A much better one.”

“Just how certain are you that this plan will work?”

“What is more important? To get to the gold, or finding Kronos?”

“Both are most necessary,” said Maggoth. “We need the power of the gold to battle Kronos. The one without the other is meaningless.”

“Exactly! My plan will deliver both into your hands.” Groad turned towards Selestia and scoffed at her through his fresh wrappings. “And with the Eldritch Blade safely back in Maggoth’s possession, there can and never will be any prophesied battle with the Great Dragon.”

“Are you so certain that your plan will succeed?” asked the sorceress sneering back at Groad.

“I managed to steal the Eldritch Blade from Maggoth’s keep, did I not?”

Groad had truly learned in the past that being overconfident and underestimating the foes capabilities could result in dire consequences, but he needed to say these words in order to boost his dented morale that had only recently been shaken by the sorceress’ predictions.

Selestia raised her hands into the air. She turned to Daleth. “Let me understand this correctly. It was you that killed Groad?” The zin-za nodded. She turned to Groad. “And it was you who stole the Eldritch Blade from Maggoth’s keep?” Groad also nodded. “And now you are all allies in a quest to prevent the Great Dragon’s release?”

“And as I told you once before,” said Groad nodding again, “‘It is a long story’.”

“If you do not wish to be transported to Tar Ta Rus then what is our destination to be?”

“Maggoth’s keep.”

“My keep?” frowned Maggoth.

“We need to procure a few items. Some important articles that will assist us in accomplishing our task.”

“Very well, then,” said Maggoth. “I place full trust in your judgment, but we shall have to make haste. Kronos may already be at the gates of Tar Ta Rus.” He handed his pouch to Selestia. “Here, you will probably require some of this.”

Selestia gazed down into the opened pouch. “Oh, Maggoth! You certainly have been busy."

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