The Dark Wizards

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The Great Battle

At the end of the first moon Turpane had presented Groad with a gift.

A good deal of time had been spent cutting and sewing together a garment that she had especially designed for him. Both she and Groad had long since grown weary of the necessity to constantly wrap his skeletal frame in fresh bandages.

The garment, made from a coarse brown material, consisted of three parts: A pair of long-legged trousers, a long-sleeved vest and a tight-fitting hood. Using thin strips of leather, these were all laced together, and then, in turn, laced to Groad’s gloves and boots. The hood had two holes for the eyes, a flap for the nose and across the mouth area she had placed a row of large cross-stitches.

“You remind me of something I once saw standing in a field of near-ripe vegetables,” said Daleth wryly. “I believe the farmer had placed it there in order to scare off the scavenger birds.

“I like it!” exclaimed Groad ignoring the zin-za’s sardonic remark. He raised his arms and slowly turned on his heels. “It allows me the necessary mobility I require to move about freely in battle. This hood allows me to see much better as well. Selestia’s cloak had the unfortunate habit of limiting my vision. I was at a disadvantage from an attack from the side.”

“Put this on,” said Turpane handing Groad his sheathed sword. He strapped it onto his back. “How does it feel now?”

Groad walked about in a circle flapping his arms. “Wonderful!”

“Now you remind me of one of those scavenger birds fleeing in terror!” guffawed Daleth.

Groad swiftly drew his sword and started to perform a series of fluid movements. “I was taught this exercise by Kith’s greatest weapons master. It combines a series of attacking and defending strokes. Yet it is almost impossible to distinguish the two apart. And…that is exactly as it should be. For, as the master repeatedly counseled me, ‘The best form of defense is always… offence.’ ”

A group of Artanian soldiers that had been sitting around one of the many campfires that surrounded the keep, immediately stopped their conversation and watched in awe as Groad danced his beautiful ballet of death. Even Daleth, by his silent gaping jaw, admitted that Groad was beyond doubt a proficient swordsman, a true warrior of unmatched skill.

“Wait!” exclaimed Turpane interrupting Groad’s exercise. “You yet lack one final item to make you ready for battle with the Great Dragon.

“And that would be?” asked Groad sheathing his sword.

“This!” said the young Valacian holding out Groad’s necklace of savden.

“My necklace! How?”

“I felt that you may have just been a bit too hasty in discarding it,” she smiled. “I happen to be a rather excellent swimmer. I hope you do not mind, but I took the liberty of resealing the metal tube?”

“Turpane, I…words fail me, girl!” said Groad taking the necklace. He felt a lump forming in his nonexistent throat.

“Those are words enough for me, Groad of Bryntha. That may be the very first time you called me by my name. Now wear it well. Wear it with pride.”

Mallaki approached the hooded Groad with a small amount of apprehension. “You wished to see me my lord?”

Groad was staring into the flames of the gigantic hearth in Maggoth’s upper chamber when his deliberations were interrupted.

“Please,” said Groad beckoning the brawny figure with the ruddy complexion to come closer, “I am not worthy of any elaborate titles. I am only a lowly Kithian forced by circumstances beyond his control to help prepare this keep for battle. It is I who should be honouring you, the chief of the shammar.” The two stared at each other for a short while in silence. Groad waved a hand across the air. “I was a true warrior…once. This place…this very chamber was witness to my last great battle as a Kithian warrior of flesh and blood. They would have written songs about it. What a fine ballad it would have been.”

Mallaki smiled awkwardly and frowned. “I do not…?”

“Understand?” completed Groad. The chief of the shammar nodded. “Of course not. I speak in riddles. Riddles that may not be explained.” Groad moved hastily towards the large banquet table. A pile of anakhenium-coated armour lay in its centre. “I have a gift for you. This armour once belonged to one of Kith’s finest warriors. He was also my best friend.”

Gu Shora!”

“You knew Gu Shora?

“I knew of him. Many are the tales of his brave exploits.”

“Circumstance…these rags that I am now forced to wear prevent me from further donning the armour. I thought that it would be only fitting that you wear it in the coming Great Battle.”

“It will be an honour for me to wear it.”

“Excellent!”

“But I will accept your gift on one condition only.”

“Which is?”

“You speak of riddles and of flesh and blood. Unless you add flesh and blood to your riddles I can not…will not accept your gift.” Groad was about to object but Mallaki continued. “I may be a shammar warrior but that does not mean that I am ignorant to your pain. I believe you wish to share…need to share your story with a fellow Kithian warrior. “Reveal your identity to me. Tell me who you are and why you hide your true features beneath a hood.”

“I fear that you would find the answers to your questions too disturbing.”

“I am shammar! Only recently I have seen a zin-za that speaks. I have also witnessed a dragon wreak havoc upon the Kithian capital. What could you reveal to me that could be even more perturbing?”

Groad was silent for a moment before speaking. “Very well! But I ask a condition of you as well. You seem to be a most honourable Kithian. What I reveal to you here must remain secret.”

“You have my word that I shall keep your secret until such time that I deem it no longer necessary to withhold such information.”

Groad immediately understood the connotation of Mallaki’s words. Time and circumstances may one day make it possible to reveal things once hidden in the dark. Perhaps the future would supply an opportunity to blot out his shame and disgrace. Perhaps?

Groad had chosen well in designating that the armour be given to the chief of the shammar.

Mallaki was as wise as he was brave and noble. But did he have the stomach to face the truth.

Groad undid the cords that secured the hood to his upper garment, and then slowly he removed the piece of rough cloth from over his head.

The slight spasm that passed through Mallaki’s frame did not go unnoticed.

“I know,” said Groad lowering his head ashamedly. “It is not a pleasant sight.”

Mallaki moved closer towards Groad. The reanimated Kithian turned towards the firelight allowing the chief of the shammar an even better view of his anakhenium-coated skeletal features.

“You…,” said Mallaki softly. “You were the demonspawn that reportedly attacked my shammar in the temple?”

Groad shook his head slowly. “I am no demonspawn. Just an ordinary Kithian forced into a situation beyond his control.”

“But it was you in the temple?”

Groad lowered his head again. “I am afraid so. I…”

“You are no ordinary Kithian. Not only did you single handedly incapacitate an entire detachment of my shammar, but you did so without causing a single fatality.”

Groad felt his nonexistent cheeks flush. “Considering the circumstances it was really no great accomplishment.”

“Nonsense!”

“One thing my situation has made me come to realize. In truth I am a terrible coward.”

“I seriously doubt tha…”

“No, really! It is easy to be a warrior. But it takes true courage to stand and face the responsibilities of being a good husband and father. My wife has accomplished far more than I could ever hope to attain. She has single-handedly raised our gruntlings and done a damn fine job of it too. At the same time she managed to start a lucrative bresk farm.

“What is more. It is ironic that I left Bryntha in search of fame and fortune. I believed that these things would bring not only joy to myself, but also to my family. True happiness was there in Bryntha all the time. I was just too blind…too stubborn…too selfish to see it.

“What did my fortune hunting bring? In the end I lost everything. My gold, my life and my family.

“Remember my words to you today, Mallaki. What your family truly needs is just for you to be there for them. Always! Your fame will come from their praises. Your fortune from their radiant smiles of gold. The love of your family is far more important than the praise of an entire nation.”

Mallaki allowed the weight of Groad’s words to sink in before he asked, “You hail from Bryntha? You were best friend to Gu Shora? Who are you?”

Groad sat down on one of the large wooden chairs that surrounded the banquet table. He indicated to Mallaki to do the same. “You asked for the truth. Now I will give it to you.”

At the end of the second moon, Maggoth’s keep was ready to welcome its special guest. Groad, Maggoth, Selestia and two Artanian observers walked about the top tier inspecting some final minor preparations taking place below.

On all sides and on all levels of the keep, great war devices had been put in place. Some were simple crude catapults for hurling fiery pitch-covered boulders; others were more sophisticated and capable of launching a barrage of twenty large spears in a single action; and others were able to fling large weighted nets over a considerable distance.

Placed beside each device was enough ammunition to keep the Great Dragon occupied for a lengthy period of time.

Groad stared upwards at the noonday sun. Although there were no clouds in the sky, the intensity of both the sun’s heat and brightness were slightly diminished by the constantly rippling portal.

“This barrier that surrounds your keep,” said Groad walking over to Maggoth, “It is a means to travel from one universe to another is it not?”

“Yes,” answered the Dark Wizard turning to face Groad. “At this very moment we are, in fact, inside another universe. Your universe, the one that contains Kith, Artania, Valacia and well…the world of Baltrath, is just beyond that barrier.

“Actually referring to it as a barrier is somewhat incorrect. It is more a gateway, a…portal if you will. It is not always necessary for me to create portals of such vast dimensions, but this one was constructed to serve a special purpose.”

“To protect the Eldritch Blade?”

“Precisely! Ages ago I came to realize that there was a unique connection between myself and these portals. Besides connecting me to another universe they also connect me mentally to any creature that happens to pass through them.”

“You mentioned that this barrier… portal would require a phenomenal amount of power to be closed?”

“Not closed. Reduced to minuscule proportions.”

“And if you did that, then these two universes would no longer be connected?”

“Correct.”

“And everything on this side of the portal would be trapped within this universe?”

“That is also correct.”

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“Surely with all the extra gold that is being collected you should now be able to generate enough power to reduce this portal?”

“I believe so. But trapping the Great Dragon in a parallel universe would not solve our dilemma. It would, at most, simply postpone Rava Zool’s evil plans. Just as he was able to free himself from Baltrath’s moon, he would eventually find a way to free himself. You must remember that no matter where we trap him, his influence is always able to reach beyond his physical confines. Look at what he was able to accomplish through Kronos, and he was able to do that sans the power of his great tongue.”

“Just how powerful is this Great Dragon?”

Selestia stepped forward. “We know for a fact that Rava Zool’s power is near depletion. But for him to simply exist, that alone requires the equivalent dark energy of an entire universe. So, even if we are fortunate enough to destroy him, his demise in turn would destroy us all as well. At the point of his death, the great forces that hold Rava Zool together would cease to exist and the great amount of energy from which he is created would be released. No living creature would be able to survive such a cataclysm.”

“Selestia is correct, Groad,” added Maggoth, “The vast amount of energy from which the Great Dragon is formed would disseminate across the entire universe. It would move out like the ripples caused by a pebble thrown into a pond. Every single living organism in its path would be instantly destroyed.

“Above and beyond that, we still have absolutely no idea of how to destroy him. We do not even know if that is at all possible. We, as well as the Great Dragon may truly be immortal.”

“Nonsense! Everything can die! If it lives, it can be killed! That which gives the Great Dragon his power is also the means capable of destroying him!”

“The Dark Prophecy?” exclaimed Selestia.

Exactly! Your very own words!”

“Look,” said Maggoth pointing towards the polished black stone of the large altar-like object in the centre of the roof. Ages ago I carved these images into the stone. They are a record and a reminder of the events of that first Great Battle. Tell me what you see?”

Groad ran his gloved hand over the deeply engraved stone. “These did not make any sense when I first laid eyes upon them, but now it is most obviously the account of how you and Selestia and Kronos defeated and trapped the Great Dragon inside Baltrath’s moon.”

“Correct! And as you can see, Groad, it took the combined power of three Dark Wizards to accomplish the incredible feat of ripping the Great Dragon’s tongue from his mouth. How do you expect us to repeat that with only two? Kronos was once our ally, but now he lies trapped inside the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers. He waits patiently with the hope that Rava Zool will free him.

“Yes, once the Great Dragon has defeated us, Kronos believes that Rava Zool will surely release him from his prison. If this will happen, I truly do not know. In fact, I seriously doubt that Rava Zool has concerns for anyone else except himself. But this I am most certain of, even with all the gold on Baltrath at our disposal, we will not be able to repeat that task.”

“And do not forget,” added Selestia, “We may have been able to return Kronos to his original place of confinement, but with my powers being impaired, I am incapable of once again trapping Rava Zool inside the moon.”

Groad walked to the edge of the keep. He shook his head despondently. “There has to be a way. There always is. Every problem has a solution.”

“Perhaps,” said Maggoth, “But also, every problem has its price. And sometimes that price can be extremely high.”

“How will we know when the dragon arrives?” asked Groad looking down from the top of the keep. “He could take on the form of anyone or anything?”

“He will arrive in his natural form,” Maggoth spoke with absolute confidence. “Trust me.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“A number of reasons. Firstly, large amounts of dark energy are required, not only to undergo the transformations, but also to sustain them. Secondly, once Rava Zool gets word that the gold is here at my keep he will travel with all haste to retrieve it before we can lay our hands upon it. This he will only be able to do by using his large powerful wings. Thirdly, if he believes that we are still further north in the Artanian capital trying to convince the authorities to part with their gold, and if Karta Kithlid plays his part well, then Rava Zool will be more than convinced that he has only the shammar and a small army with which to contend. He will come prepared for a minor battle. In fact, in his eyes he will already see it as a massacre; an easy victory. Lastly but most importantly, Rava Zool knows that any form of deception on his part will be instantly exposed the moment he passes through my portal. He therefore has absolutely no more reasons for manufacturing any form of deception. Our plan is flawless.”

“Flawless? Be careful Maggoth. If there is one thing that life…and death have taught me,” said Groad with a serious tone in his voice, “It is this - Never be overconfident or underestimate your foe’s capabilities. And especially since our adversary has such a vastly superior mind do we need to be exceptionally cautious. If Kronos could outwit us, then it will be an effortless feat for Rava Zool to do the same. Even though we believe that the Great Dragon is ignorant to our schemes, it is no reason for us to become less vigilant. We need to…”

“The Great Dragon approaches!” exclaimed Maggoth interrupting Groad.

“How…?”

“Turpane,” said the Dark Wizard moving with haste towards the east-facing battlement.

The small party at the top of the keep quickly followed Maggoth.

“Look!” exclaimed the Dark Wizard pointing to a small figure that had just passed through the shimmering mystical portal.

The young Valacian female raised a large horn to her lips and blew hard and long. The sound, not too unlike the mating or distress calls of the great sea beasts known as wagudas*, reverberated clear across the vast open space.

In answer to the signal, warriors upon all the tiers of the keep raised similar horns and were blowing hard and long. There was a great clamour from all the Artanians and Kithians as they rushed to their appointed posts.

“My lord Maggoth, what is all the commotion?” asked one of the observers.

Maggoth frowned at the observer. “The Great Dragon approaches of course.” His answer was calm but the concern on his face was enough to make a lump appear in the Artanian’s throat. “Damnation! It is too soon!”

“No,” said Selestia almost inaudibly, “Even an eternity would be too soon,”

“You are right!” said Maggoth loudly climbing up onto the battlement. “We face him now and put an end to all this madness! It is today or never!” He raised his arms and shouted to the army below. “Remember what we fight for today! The fate of all creation lies in our hands! Today history will be made or it will cease to exist! You must hold your positions at all costs!”

It was unknown as to whether or not all the warriors below were able to hear or even understand the Dark Wizard’s rousing words of encouragement, but their unified deafening cheer showed that they had certainly understood the gist of them.

Maggoth leaped down from the battlement and grabbed Groad’s arm. “As you well know, it is imperative that I immediately leave this place.” Groad nodded. “You must do all in your power to make sure that the battle develops exactly as planned.”

“Fear not Groad,” said Selestia clutching tightly onto her cypherlette. “If all goes well, we shall shortly return.”

An instant later Maggoth and Selestia vanished.

“Fear you not wizards!” shouted Groad to the empty space where Selestia had stood. “Kithians are born for moments such as these!” Bounding onto the battlement he raised his sword high. “Glorious death or victory!” He bellowed.

All the Kithians below began to sing their war chant.

“Death to the enemies of Kith!

May their blood further temper the metal of our swords!

Death to the enemies of the Empire!

May Dakur grant us victory or suffer us to die with honour!

From high above, the shimmering dome that formed the portal over Maggoth’s keep looked like a perfectly circular pool of crystal clear water that constantly undulated and rippled outwards from its centre. Leading up to this glimmering pool, and crossing the Artanian marsh-lands from the south, was a makeshift yet effective roadway.

The dragon dove, moving in closer to get a better view.

“These Kithians have gone to much trouble to have my gold delivered,” he said to himself. “I am very impressed. Yet, the wear and tear upon this road would indicate that more than just twelve carts of gold have traversed upon it.” He landed awkwardly upon the road at the point where it entered the rippling portal.

A large temporary shelter had been constructed on the right side of the roadway. He moved his enormous head closer to the entrance and peered inside.

The place was filled with rows of crudely fashioned beds. In the far corner was a row of shelves containing bottles of various shapes and sizes.

“Beds and bottles? What are these Kithians up to?” The Great Dragon now moved towards the shimmering portal. “Before I inspect the activities of these Kithians, I shall first need to examine the progress of my ancient enemy.” Rava Zool moved his large reptilian head into but not through the mystical portal. “Greetings Maggoth,” said the Great Dragon as two minds were instantly joined.

The Dark Wizard clasped the sides of his head as the booming voice flashed a stabbing pain through his brain.

“Rava Zool! Impossible! How have you managed to free yourself so soon?”

“With Rava Zool, all things are possible.”

“Your arrogance is authentic, but your statement false. Our linking of minds allows me more than simple communication. It also permits me to sense your weakened state. It would seem that you have squandered precious energy in order to return to Baltrath so swiftly.”

“Do not fail to realize, that I in turn am able to sense your weakness. Your power is all but exhausted. I would expect that your female companion fares no better than you? Kronos has done well in stealing the last of your gold reserves and forcing you to squander the remainder of your energies in a feeble attempt to thwart our plans.”

“Boast all you will,” sneered Maggoth as he stared intently at the covered wagon and then turned to gaze at the reflection in the dark chilly water of Lake H’coatrivi that mirrored exquisitely the distant features of the Artanian capital of H’thawnes. “We shall soon acquire sufficient energy in order to once again face and defeat you.”

“Brave words!” exclaimed Rava Zool as he looked through Maggoth’s eyes. “I see that you have finally managed to reach the Artanian capital. A wasted effort I guarantee you. It would have been much more profitable if you had simply returned home.”

“Home? What do you hope to gain at my keep?”

“There is a possibility that Kronos may have overlooked some of your reserves,” said the Great Dragon chuckling. “If I look hard enough who knows what treasures I might uncover.”

“It pleases me to know that you are squandering your remaining energies on some futile quest. I expect you should have as much fortune finding any treasure there as the Kithians that I recently sensed entering my domain.”

“That is most excellent and enlightening information, my ancient and most hated of all enemies. For it is with those very same Kithians that I am here to have a most important and rewarding encounter.”

“You speak in riddles and waste my time. I have more pressing matters to attend to. Leave me in peace, dragon.”

“As you wish, wizard. I bid you farewell.” Then Rava Zool passed all the way through the mystical portal into the universe of Meggido.

The sound of the Kithian war chant reverberated from all levels of the keep.

“Hmm!” griped the Great Dragon as he surveyed the extent to which the keep had been fortified. “My arrival is not as unexpected as anticipated. It would seem these Kithians have made provisions for just such an occurrence. A brave but utterly futile attempt to protect the gold. Karta Kithlid is a fool. Does he hope to spare his great city in the clouds by relocating the battle to this place? When I am done here, I shall remove Tar Ta Rus from the face of Baltrath.”

The Great Dragon would have preferred to make a more dramatic arrival by flying over the wall surrounding the keep, but his large leathery wings ached from the long uninterrupted flight from Tar Ta Rus. He was almost too proud to admit, even to himself, that he had never before been in such an exceedingly weakened state.

He duly decided to walk the short distance to the keep. He moved with forced elegance whilst cursing the increasing limitations that accompanied his ever waning power.

Once he had felt omnipotent and all-knowing. Even during his imprisonment in the moon he had been able to communicate with others, influencing them to do his will. Now he was unable to sense their dissatisfaction. The flood of negative emotions had always been a constant source of comfort and reassurance.

Once he had been able to disclose to Kronos the whereabouts of Maggoth’s hidden wealth. Now, if necessary, he would have to take the keep apart stone by stone to find the twelve carts of gold. Fortunately, a treasure of such magnitude would be difficult to conceal.

He moved beneath the raised portcullis, only just managing to squeeze his enormous lizard-like frame through the entryway and then proceeded to approach a group of Kithians who were beating their shields and chanting loudly near the base of the keep.

The small group of shammar became silent as the Great Dragon’s shadow moved across them.

“Is that a war chant or a dirge?” asked Rava Zool wryly. “The latter I believe. How fitting to intone your very own funeral song.”

A warrior clad in spiky armour stepped proudly forward from the small company.

“Begone from this place, demonspawn!” shouted Mallaki bravely. “You have no business here!”

No? You are gravely mistaken! I have come for my gold. Tell me, insignificant mortals, where have you placed it?”

“The gold placed in the sanctum at the top of the keep is for the Dark Wizard known as Maggoth. Not for the likes of slark slime like you!” He pointed his sword boldly at the dragon. “We are not insignificant! We are Kithian and we are shammar!”

“You are fools and you are dead!” He filled his lungs with air. “Prepare to feel the wrath of my dark energies! Prepare to meet your great god Dakur!”

An instant before the Great Dragon released a stream of blue fire from his large nostrils, Mallaki gave a signal and the shammar rushed forward, creating a wall with their shields. The flame was safely deflected.

“Do you think your insignificant shields will be able to withstand the full fury of my Eldritch Flame!” roared Rava Zool in a most aggravated tone. “I shall turn you and your shields into a single pile of useless slag!”

The Great Dragon filled his lungs to bursting before releasing a second, more intense, continuous flood of fiery blue flame.

Although the small group of shammar was forced backwards, they and their shields survived the vicious onslaught.

“Impossible!” roared the dragon furiously. “How…?”

Before the Great Dragon was able to notice or grasp the fact that the shields of the shammar had been coated with anakhenium, a barrage of weighted nets plummeted down over his head.

The dragon clawed and ripped his way through the confining restraints. But just as he was able to shred one net, another would drop in its place.

He retreated slightly and blew a blast of flame that disintegrated the nets. With his head free he proceeded to flap his huge wings. Lifting into the air he began to belch enormous spheres of blue energy at the keep. He concentrated his attack on those responsible for flinging the nets. The deadly orbs exploded against the sides of the keep sending tons of rubble collapsing onto the unfortunate warriors who were not swift enough to avoid the falling debris.

“Good!” Exclaimed Groad as he watched the events of the Great Battle unfold. “The battle goes well!”

“The battle goes well?” queried one of the Artanian observers. “I see only brave warriors being annihilated by that flying fiend.”

“No! It is going well. Do you not understand? The more energy we force Rava Zool to expend, the weaker he becomes. The weaker he becomes, the easier it will be for us to destroy him.”

In reply to the dragon’s onslaught, he was again bombarded. This time with the keep’s full assortment of large spears, nets, arrows and fiery pitch-covered boulders.

Rava Zool tried in vain to dodge the oncoming barrage, but the air was filled with far too many missiles to avoid being struck. The flying weapons rained hard and painful against his body with infuriating frequency.

Although suffering no serious harm, the assault was agonizing and annoying. He roared, shaking his head to overcome the effects of a large burning boulder that had smashed into the side of his face. His head all ablaze, he screamed, “You fools! Do you think to defeat me with fire? I eat fire!” As if in answer to his question, a second large chunk of blazing rock crashed into the other side of his face. “Damn these irritating insects! Once I have moved beyond the reach of their infernal war devices, I shall destroy each and every last one of them.”

“Ha!” exclaimed Mallaki as he watched the dragon circle the keep from a cautious distance. “We have forced the great Rava Zool to retreat!” He bounded up the steps of the keep. “Come!” he shouted to the group of shammar. “Your shields have served you well today, but their usefulness has not yet expired. Place any wounded that you find upon them and carry them to safety beyond the shimmering portal. Also place all large fragments that have fallen from the keep upon your shields and carry them to the catapults. We shall return the Great Dragon’s unwanted gifts. Then be swift in returning to your posts, for our duty upon this keep has not yet ended.”

The chief of the shammar had barely finished issuing his orders when the Great Dragon began a renewed assault.

Although Rava Zool concentrated his attack on the upper portions of the keep hoping to create more deadly showers of falling debris, he was soon to realize that he now suffered three serious setbacks caused by the greater distance from which he was now forced to discharge his lethal spheres.

Firstly, he was not able to spew his deadly orbs with the same precision as he had previously done.

Secondly, the soldiers were now able to manoeuvre themselves almost effortlessly out of the paths of the fiery blue balls.

And thirdly, by the time they collided with the walls of the keep, many of the orbs’ volatile potency had diminished to such a point that they were failing to produce any serious damage.

“Keep it up!” shouted Groad excitedly. “More! More! More! Use it all up!”

“Just exactly how much more must this beast expend before he becomes…vulnerable?” asked the Artanian observer anxiously. “It would seem as though his power is inexhaustible?”

Groad turned to answer, but the look of sheer terror on the Artanian’s face, forced him to hastily return his attention to the battle. Rava Zool had climbed high into the sky and was now diving with great determination towards the top of the keep.

“Prepare yourselves!” shouted Groad. “It is just as we expected! The Great Dragon intends to concentrate his attack upon the keep’s summit!”

Groad’s warning was unnecessary. He turned to see the Artanian observer disappearing down the stairs that led to Maggoth’s sanctum just as the Great Dragon crashed hard and fast into the large catapult on the south-facing battlement. The war machine splintered into pieces.

Groad’s lightning-fast reflexes came into action. He rolled to one side avoiding a large piece of shattered timber that came sliding across the floor with great velocity. Dashing for cover behind the large black altar-like stone, he watched in consternation as Rava Zool moved calculatingly about the roof of the keep heaving the remaining war machines over the topmost battlement. The warriors that had been in charge of operating the huge devices fled down the stairs on the sides of the keep.

The dragon quickly surveyed the carnage he had created on the tier below. Content with his handiwork, he turned to face the centre of the roof.

Twelve large wooden carts had been placed in a neat circle next to the open stairway beside the black altar-like stone. They had all been covered with a single large piece of fine strong netting.

“Well,” said the dragon moving towards the carts. “It would seem the shammar were telling the truth.”

“You are too late dragon!” shouted Groad stepping out from behind the altar-like stone. “The gold is already safe within the sanctum below! Your large frame could never fit these stairs! So now, begone from this place!”

For an instant the Great Dragon seemed almost startled by the strange small brown clad creature. Then he put his head back and started to laugh. “You mortals never cease to amaze me. Do you hope to frighten me away by wearing a rag upon your head? And do you think simple stone and mortar could ever avert me, the great Rava Zool, from my prize? Before I am finished this day I will not leave a single stone of this keep upon another.”

“Before I am finished this day, you will be finished! You seem to me to be no more dangerous than a ratchamonga with wings. I will strike your evil from the top of this keep.”

“And just how do you intend to accomplish that?” sneered Rava Zool.

“With my great magic!” shouted Groad sheathing his sword and raising his arms wide into the air.”

The Great Dragon started to laugh. An instant later a powerful crushing blow sent him toppling over the edge of the keep.

Groad’s plan had worked well. In the short space of time that he had managed to keep Rava Zool occupied with seemingly insignificant banter, Daleth had cautiously stood up from his place of concealment beneath the netting between the twelve wooden carts. His large hairy paws clasped tightly around an enormous tree trunk. He had carefully chosen this particular one, not only for its size, but also for its great durability and weight.

He took a moment to assess the best place to aim his blow. The skull would be the ideal area to strike, but the dragon’s long neck placed the dragon’s big head just beyond the reach of the large clubbing device.

An instant before Daleth swung his large weapon, providence had chosen that Rava Zool should throw his head back in a boisterous fit of laughter.

The tree trunk had connected hard and solid with the side of the Great Dragon’s head.

Groad and Daleth rushed to the side of the keep and gazed down over the battlement.

Although dazed, Rava Zool’s fall had unfortunately destroyed another of the large catapults. He seemed almost comical, lying on his back, entangled in the fractured remains of the warring device.

He looked up at the two faces gloating down at him; a one-eyed behemoth and a masked enigma.

“Maggoth’s little pet!” exclaimed Rava Zool rolling over onto his feet. “I should have known!”

“He must be referring to you,” said Daleth to Groad. “You are the only little one up here.”

“Daleth, I believe!” said the Great Dragon dryly. “How foolish of me to forget you! I would have expected you to be accompanying your master! Would he not be more likely to persuade the Artanian royalty to part with their gold if he had a zin-za at his side?”

“Maggoth is not as cold-blooded as you!” blurted Daleth. “And it is quite apparent that my choice to return to the keep was a most fortunate decision!”

“On one account you are correct! Who would know better than you of Maggoth’s devious means of extorting paltry amounts of gold from gullible villagers? But your decision to return here only means that your demise will be all the sooner!”

“I am prepared to defend the gold in this keep to my last breath. Are you prepared to die trying to take it from us?”

“Foolish zin-za! Do you not know that Rava Zool is eternal? I will continue to exist long after the very memory of you has been blotted from my mind!”

“Nonsense!” shouted Groad. “This very day will see your evil destroyed! But I pray that the memory of you will forever remain in the minds of all Kithians. We must never forget how easily we were duped into doing the perverted will of the Great Dragon! We must never again allow ourselves to be so easily deceived!”

“Annoying little insect!” growled Rava Zool. “Who are you?”

“Me? Why only the greatest magician upon the face of Baltrath!”

“You are no magician. Your magic is nothing more than simple trickery.”

“Then prepare yourself for my next trick, dragon!”

“And what would that be?”

“The curse of the black rain!”

“Black rain?”

Using two large pieces of shattered timber as levers, Groad deftly lifted an enormous cauldron from a bed of glowing embers onto the battlement. The huge metal pot contained the bubbling hot pitch used for coating the blazing boulders that were fired from the catapults.

“Black rain!” repeated Groad making sure that the Great Dragon was still standing directly below. Then he gave the cauldron a hefty kick.

The huge pot caught the dragon squarely on the top of his large head. The searing contents splattered over his entire face, blinding him completely.

Rava Zool used his large paws to wipe the tacky stinging liquid from his eyes. But no sooner had he cleared some of the pitch away when more would ooze down over the scaly lids.

Unable to see, the Great Dragon stumbled about smashing into the battlement. The wall shattered under the Great Dragon’s weight. An instant later he tumbled over, crashing down onto the next tier.

The warriors on the tier directly below Groad and Daleth seized the opportunity to repeat the method of attack. They too hoisted a large cauldron of boiling pitch over the area where the battlement had been damaged.

The enormous container missed the Great Dragon but its contents did not. The cauldron hit the stone floor hard, causing it to swivel violently. A large scalding wave of black viscous material was disgorged from the spinning pot and deposited itself neatly along Rava Zool’s left flank.

The soldiers directly above the dragon wasted no time in continuing the attack. Using the advantage of their position, they immediately began to pummel him with an assortment of boulders and large sections of broken timbers.

The collection of stone and wood rained down incessantly onto the Great Dragon’s head and body.

Still blinded, he roared more from frustration than pain. He turned in a circle lashing out with his great tail. Some ill-fated warriors, too slow to manoeuvre out of the long appendage’s deadly path, were sent sprawling over the sides of the keep.

Throwing his head back, Rava Zool began to suck in air through his large nostrils. His great lungs expanded to bursting.

“Get back!” shouted Groad from the top of the keep. “Take cover!”

The warriors on the tier above the dragon moved hastily away from the shattered edge. An instant later a searing torrent of blue flame surged past the damaged battlement.

Another instant later, the Great Dragon burst into a great blazing mass, the flammable pitch on his head and body ignited by his own Eldritch Flame.

In unison, the warriors on all levels of the keep burst into elated cheering.

“Foolish mortals!” snarled Rava Zool from behind the roaring wall of flame. “Your jubilation will soon turn to anguish! I have endured ten thousand cyclans of pain within the sweltering centre of Baltrath’s moon. Pain far more intense than you could ever hope to mete out. I am impervious to any harm that you may hope to inflict upon me.”

Rava Zool was lying. The weaker he became, the more susceptible he became to the pain caused by the fire and missiles that constantly assaulted his body.

He flapped his large wings furiously and lifted into the air. Higher and higher he ascended, a ball of blazing orange flame emitting vast billowing clouds of black smoke.

Unable to see, and intent on removing himself far from his tormentors, the Great Dragon kept rising until he passed through the mystical portal.

“Dakur’s eyes!” cursed Groad. “We have managed to fare too well in repelling Rava Zool! It was our purpose to weaken him, not to drive him away. If he flees from this place now we may lose the opportunity to destroy him!”

Above the barrier, the Great dragon glided across the sky, impatiently waiting for the flames to consume the irritating black substance from his face and body. The lid of one eye slowly came unstuck. Far below, the vast Artanian marshland came into focus. Unwilling to continue tolerating the pain and irritation caused by the flames, he dove towards the inviting coolness of the quagmire.

Turpane had been sorting out bottles of medicine on the crudely constructed shelves within the structure of the makeshift infirmary when the sound of the horn was heard coming from the south.

It was thought necessary to construct the temporary medical site at the point where the new roadway across the Artanian marshland entered the great shimmering mystical portal. This would allow any seriously wounded soldiers swift delivery to a reasonable place of safety and healing.

It had been no easy task for Selestia to convince the young Valacian that her services could best be utilized in seeing to the welfare of the wounded. Being a hot spirited creature she, of course, wanted not only to see the Great Dragon’s destruction but also to be a worthy participant in bringing about his demise.

Lakos, one of Kith’s best qualified healers, was brought in to assist and instruct Turpane in the various methods used to repair broken, cut and bruised bodies. She surprisingly accepted her new position with a sense of pride and responsibility. She was a bright and willing student, learning much in the limited time available. Lakos was most impressed with her proficiency at applying a bandage, a skill she had learned to master during her time of constantly having to help Groad conceal his skeletal frame and features.

Today, she had spent the entire morning tearing bolts of cloth into strips of various widths to be used as bandages or for securing splints against broken limbs. In the early afternoon she had taken to inspecting the various bottles of medicinal liquids and ointments. She grouped them accordingly.

These were for disinfecting. Those were for relief of pain. Others were for arresting the flow of blood.

It was during this ritual that the sound of the horn carried across the marshland and up the base of her spine where it proceeded to raise the hairs on her long thin neck.

She rushed to the entrance of the infirmary and grabbed the horn that hung upon the wooden post. She then sprinted down the road and into the shimmering wall of the portal.

For an instant her mind was bombarded with an image of Maggoth standing at the top of the keep, and she knew that he too was now aware of the approaching danger. This gave her a small sense of comfort as she was not sure if she would be able to fulfill her duty in announcing the beginning of the Great Battle.

With a small amount of difficulty she managed to moisten her dry lips. Then she quickly placed the horn to her mouth and blew as long and as loud as her small Valacian lungs would allow.

She had done her job well. No sooner had she finished when her heralding was answered from all levels of the keep. There would be no need for a second blast.

She watched the soldiers scrambling about as they rushed frantically towards their respective stations on the keep. Then she turned and ran back through the mystical portal.

She ran a short distance down the road and stopped. Raising a hand to shield her eyes from the sun’s bright glare, she stared intently towards the clear eastern sky.

Nothing, not even a bird or a cloud.

She could see the lookout in the distance. It was the sound of his horn that had spurred her into action.

He was waving his arms and pointing into the distance.

He, in turn, had obviously been roused by the other lookout who was stationed even further east.

Was this just another drill to test everyone’s readiness?

No! There it was. A minute seemingly insignificant black speck near the horizon.

A short while later it had grown into a large black bird.

Later still an enormous dark flapping screecha.

Finally she was able to distinguish the creature’s true form.

Yes! It was Rava Zool. No doubts anymore. The Great Dragon was fast approaching Maggoth’s keep.

The lookout had vanished from sight. He had obviously hidden himself.

She would have to do the same. She turned and bolted.

Lakos was waking from his usual afternoon nap on one of the crude beds that filled the infirmary when Turpane came rushing towards him.

“What?” he mumbled “What is wrong?”

“The Great Dragon approaches!”

“Probably just another drill.” He stretched and yawned.

“No! Not this time! I have seen him! He is drawing near with incredible swiftness!”

“Really?” The sarcasm in his voice permeated the air.

Karta Kithlid had sent word to Lakos in his home village of Matmar. The healer had been personally commissioned by the emperor himself to act as the chief physician for a small army of Kithians and Artanians a short distance across the Artanian border. He would be handsomely paid for his services.

Since his arrival, he had spent most of his time happy in the thought that he was getting paid for doing almost next to nothing whilst waiting for some fantastical fictitious beast to arrive.

He had tended to a few superficial injuries that the warriors had gained in their eagerness to prepare the keep for the Great Battle. The cuts, scrapes and splinters had proved useful in the training of his eager assistant. But never for an instant had he ever thought that a Great Dragon would truly grace the vicinity of the keep. Even the presence of a vast shimmering mystical portal had not been enough to convince him that there could be other, more stranger manifestations existing upon the face of Baltrath. He was a healer, and as such he had a sober reasoning mind. Dragons just do not exist.

The dragon landed with a loud thud on the roadway that passed in front of the infirmary. The noise was more felt than heard. Dust and bits of dry grass lifted from the road by the large wings filled the air, billowing into the makeshift medical facility.

“Dakur’s eyes!” exclaimed Lakos.

“Quiet.” Shushed Turpane. “Get down.”

Both fell flat to the ground.

They lay still and staring at the Great Dragon from beneath one of the cots. Rava Zool turned his head slowly towards the entrance of the infirmary.

“By the elder gods,” muttered Lakos. “I think it has seen us.”

“He must have heard you,” hissed Turpane. “Keep low.”

“That is easy for you to accomplish. Not so simple for a large Kith….”

Quiet,” interrupted the small Valacian placing a hand over her own mouth.

There was a loud thumping sound as the Great Dragon moved towards the concealed couple. Turpane was unsure as to whether the sound came from the beast or from her own beating heart.

The dragon’s large frame stopped outside the infirmary. He was so close now that she could only see the lower part of his body. She also realized, with a sense of great dread, that the dragon’s head must be even closer, hovering somewhere above them at the end of that long scaly neck. She held her breath.

“Beds and bottles?”

The sound of the Great Dragon’s voice caused every muscle in her body to spasm. She stared at Lakos in the hope of gaining some form of comfort, but the panic in his eyes made her all the more uneasy. She was almost at the point of jumping to her feet and fleeing when the dragon turned and lumbered away.

They waited what seemed an eternity before mustering enough courage to peer over the top of the bed.

They could see the rear end of the dragon’s enormous frame. He stood almost motionless, his head inside the shimmering portal. Then suddenly he moved the rest of his body through the rippling refractive dome.

Turpane and Lakos moved cautiously onto the road outside the infirmary. They stared at the large blurry shape of the dragon. It slowly diminished as he moved towards the keep.

Lakos placed a hand on Turpane’s shoulder. “It would seem that today I shall truly be earning my wages.” Turpane nodded slowly. “Come, let us prepare to receive the wounded.”

A short while later the wounded did arrive. Some limping, some carried on shields and others supporting themselves on the shoulders of fellow warriors. Kithians and Artanians helping one another. Ancient enemies now united against a common foe.

Turpane and Lakos had their hands full. The more seriously wounded were attended to first. Those who were able, were given bandages and the appropriate medicines and asked to care for themselves.

It was not long before every bed had an occupant.

“We are poorly understaffed!” hollered Lakos. “Why did the emperor not employ the assistance of more healers?”

“After seeing what the Great Dragon can do, I expect he thought that there would be more fatalities than wounded!” shouted Turpane applying a tourniquet to a badly gashed limb.

“Well there just might be if we are not able to properly assist these unfortunate warriors.”

“Would that not please your great Dakur?”

A sudden hush fell across the infirmary. Then all the Kithians began to chant. “Dakur! Dakur! Dakur!”

“Their bodies may be crushed,” bellowed Lakos. “But not their spirit!”

Turpane smiled.

She was still smiling when the fiery meteor fell from the cloudless blue sky. A trail of thick black smoke marking the path it had followed. It struck the marshland hard, sending a surge of dark mud into the air. The slimy muck rained down onto the temporary medical facility in a series of slaps and plops.

The infirmary once more fell silent. All stared towards the site of the impact.

An enormous steaming mud-caked shape raised itself up out of the crater it had created and roared.

A seriously injured Kithian on a bed close to the entrance moaned. An instant later six large hands clamped down over his mouth.

“The dragon,” said someone in a hushed tone.

A wave of anxiety passed over the infirmary. More hands covered more mouths. All became motionless staring statues.

Not too unlike the habit that a bog hound has in rolling over in its own excrement, the Great Dragon began to turn over in the marsh-land. He rubbed the sides of his face against the moist earth.

“What is he doing?” asked someone.

Everyone shook their heads.

Rava Zool next took to imitating another bog hound mannerism. This time he shook himself violently. Starting with his head and working his way down the large body to the end of the sharply pointed tail.

Mud and muck went flying in all directions. Then he opened his eyes.

“That is much better!” he roared. “Now we shall finish this nonsense once and for all!” He gave his body one final shake and lifted into the air. Wings flapping furiously he plunged back through the shimmering portal.

The infirmary breathed a sigh of relief.

Rhoban was a portly jovial red-faced Kithian who loved life. He loved his job and his job was his life. Not only was he a maker and merchant of aluram, but he was also an avid partaker in consuming his own handiwork. Along with a vast field of maggberry bushes, he had also inherited from his father the secret of turning maggberries into one of the most popular alcoholic drinks, not only in Kith, but across the entire so-called civilized world.

Twelve days ago he had arrived at Gu Kazor Dee with three large wagons filled with barrels containing the precious liquid.

Within a matter of hours he had sold everything. He kept only a single wagon, a single beast of burden to pull the wagon and a single large barrel to keep him company on the long journey back to his berry fields which lay a short distance south east of Matmar; an area where the soil was perfect for enhancing the flavour of the aluram to excellence.

He had only just begun his journey back home when a clear intelligent thought entered his near-inebriated mind.

During his short stay at Gu Kazor Dee he had heard many stories of the fine merchandise that was available for barter or purchase in the Artanian capital, H’thawnes. If he could take some of those desirable items back to Matmar, he would be able to make his enterprise almost twice as profitable.

The ten-cyclan war had long become a thing of the past. Any animosity that remained between Kith and Artania had surely faded.

It was an excellent idea.

He had made friends with another group of Kithian merchants who had also decided to try their luck in the markets of H’thawnes. This he had simply done as a necessary precaution to provide himself with a sense of security. After all, he would feel far safer from the threat of any marauding bands if he was part of a larger company of travelers.

In truth, Rhoban was a selfish man who enjoyed his privacy. He enjoyed his solitude to such an extent that marriage or even simple female companionship seemed no more than a serious waste of his precious drinking time. A wife would certainly try to change his questionable habits, and at the same time she would squander his vast fortune on unnecessary female accessories. In fact, did not the very thing which he most feared occur with Milos, his once best friend and drinking partner? Now Milos’ wife even forbade him to greet Rhoban when passing on the street.

Rhoban was at his happiest when alone. Alone with his aluram of course; the source of his joviality.

He knew that the elusive demons that dwelled inside the aluram had an unbreakable hold on his soul. He knew that the demons were influencing his health. He knew too that the demons were stripping him of precious cyclans, putting lines onto his rosy-cheeked face well in advance of their proper time.

But, as was the case with many who had fallen under the demons’ enchanting spell, Rhoban just did not give a damn. All he cared for was the next feeling of well-being that would wash across his mind as soon as the next surge of aluram in his blood pumped through his brain.

Some nights he had awakened in a cold sweat, dry mouthed and shaking. And he could swear by the elder gods that he could hear the actual voices of the demons calling to him from the full jug of aluram that he always left beside his bed in case of just such an emergency.

After imbibing the entire contents of the jug, the cold sweat, the dry mouth, the shakes and the voices would slowly recede behind the wall of well-being; hopefully to be locked away tightly for a lengthened period of time.

Rhoban also had a strange unfounded fear. A fantasy that he had once concocted in a state of serious intoxication. His deliriums had caused him to believe with all certainty, that if he should ingest a reasonably large amount of aluram, it would somehow invoke the demons to actually materialize in the very flesh. In a solid form they would be able to do terrible things to him. Torments far worse than death could ever bring. The thought would often terrify him into an uneasy soberness.

Now he sat with the predicament of always having to drink just enough to keep the demon voices stilled, but never too much so that the hideous entities would be able to manifest themselves. This was a predicament that had long since been his nemesis as well as his redeemer.

The journey to H’thawnes had been terribly frustrating. Unwilling to share or even sell part of the last of his precious merchandise with his fellow travelers, he had found it necessary to clandestinely and constantly refill his water sack with his favourite beverage.

When the outline of the vast city had appeared silhouetted against the red morning sky, Rhoban had hastily thanked the group for their companionship and hospitality and veered off and away from the main road that traveled to the Artanian capital.

He had moved with all haste towards the shore of Lake H’coatrivi; an extremely large body of water that enclosed one side of H’thawnes.

He found a secluded grove of trees with an opening that faced north across the open water to the city.

Content that nobody would bother him, he spread a large grohara skin on the ground next to the wheel of the wagon. He then proceeded to position the barrel on one side of the wheel and a box containing smoked bresk meat and other delicacies on the other side.

Placing his back against the wheel he flopped down between barrel and box.

Gazing across the open water he exclaimed, “What a wondrous view!” A bird in a nearby tree chirped a melodious tune. “What marvelous company,” he said smiling up at the feathered musician. “What better to accompany such superb sights and sounds than a meal fit for a king.” He thought for a short while then raised a finger in the air and added, “No, for an emperor!”

He enjoyed eating salted bresk meat together with sweet dry biscuits. It was not only for the taste but also for the fact that they created in him an incredibly powerful thirst.

Rhoban liked to be thirsty. He hated to pour aluram down his throat simply in an effort to calm the demons. He truly enjoyed the unique savour of his own creation. Gulping it down was a waste. He relished in swirling the liquid around in his mouth in order to obtain the full body of flavour. He had been blessed to become the maker of such a fantastic product. He had often joked with himself that he would have made his fortune a lot sooner had it not been for his unbridled passion to consume large quantities of his own precious and most costly commodity.

He took his time eating and drinking. He could literally feel the tension caused by the journey starting to unwind throughout his whole body.

By early afternoon he was well unwound and nearly completely intoxicated. The sun was bright and high overhead. The silhouette of the city had long since altered into a brilliant clear image. It was now possible to distinguish individual buildings and dwellings. Although his vision was slightly blurred, he could also make out the many boats moored along the jetties. These were, no doubt, owned by those who made a livelihood from the lake. The fish markets would obviously be situated close to those jetties.

He felt lethargic and made a swift decision that it would be best to spend the rest of the day and coming night in the shelter of the grove. The markets of H’thawnes could wait until tomorrow.

Even if this turned out to be a most lucrative venture it was not worth all the pain and effort of the long journey. It was obvious that his plan to come to the Artanian capital had not been such a bright idea after all.

A chilly breeze started to blow gently off the lake. He prayed that it would not grow into a strong wind. The sides of the wagon and the grohara skin would have to keep him warm tonight. He did not want to attract any attention to himself by building a fire.

He was watching a small sail-boat crossing the lake when the view of the craft began to blur. The haziness shimmered and intensified. He had often seen the strange bending of images caused by intense heat as it reflected or emanated from a plain smooth surface, but this was different. The haze intensified, becoming something more substantial. It darkened and then solidified.

Rhoban rubbed his eyes and stared once more towards the boat.

It was only now that he realized that the strange manifestation was much closer than he had previously imagined it to be. In fact, only a few feet in front of his grohara skin.

“The demons!” he shouted loudly at the two figures. “Dakur protect me!”

Maggoth and Selestia wheeled sharply to face the screaming Kithian. They recoiled at the sheer terror on the portly red face.

Selestia had often found herself amused at the various ways that Baltrath’s inhabitants had been startled by her sudden appearance out of thin air, but this Kithian’s reaction disturbed her profusely. She raised a hand and took a step forward.

The act was meant to be one of reassurance and calming. The act had the complete opposite effect.

The large Kithian rose to his feet shrieking. The red face turned a ghastly pallor, the eyes rolled over white and Rhoban collapsed face down onto the grohara skin.

“I think we killed him!” exclaimed Selestia.

We?” queried Maggoth scowling at the sorceress. “He was looking straight at you!”

They turned the large Kithian over. His chest rose and fell.

“Just unconscious,” muttered Maggoth standing up. “I always suspected that your beauty could be lethal.”

“Save your flattery for another day,” reprimanded Selestia with a half smile that delicately caressed her full rose-coloured lips. “You must be prepared for Rava Zool’s arrival at the keep.”

“No!” said Maggoth staring intently at Selestia. “Not yet! This may very well be my last opportunity to do this.” He pulled her close and kissed her long and hard. Selestia made no attempt to escape from the passionate embrace. In fact, when Maggoth finally relaxed his crushing hold, it was her that reluctantly relinquished her clasp upon him.

They stood for a moment staring at each other. In that brief silence, things not spoken could have filled volumes.

A tear rolled down the sorceress’ cheek.

“This Kithian has done us a favour,” said Maggoth pretending not to notice the glistening streak. “We shall utilize the services of his wagon. In fact, we shall utilize the services of him and his wagon.”

The Dark Wizard held out his hand towards Rhoban. A crackling line of blue energy emanated from his palm. It proceeded to engulf the rotund Kithian.

Maggoth moved his hand upwards and at the same time Rhoban’s great frame lifted into the air. The Kithian floated like some weightless soap bubble.

Maggoth lowered his hand and Rhoban was gently placed squarely in the centre of the wagon.

The wizard quickly moved forward, grabbed the edges of the large grohara skin and with a deft lift and twist neatly covered the wagon.

“Excellent!” exclaimed Selestia. “He will certainly give the impression of a large megornex.”

“Precisely! And if...,” Maggoth winced. He clutched the sides of his head.

“Already?” asked Selestia.

Maggoth nodded. “Rava Zool! Impossible! How have you managed to free yourself so soon?” There was a short silence. “Your arrogance is authentic, but your statement false. Our linking of minds allows me more than simple communication. It also permits me to sense your weakened state. It would seem that you have squandered precious energy in order to return to Baltrath so swiftly.” Another short silence. “Boast all you will,” sneered Maggoth as he stared intently at the covered wagon and then turned to gaze at the reflection of H’thawnes in the dark chilly water of Lake H’coatrivi. “We shall soon acquire sufficient energy in order to once again face and defeat you.” More silence. “Home? What do you hope to gain at my keep?” Selestia moved behind Maggoth and placed her hands on his neck and shoulders. “It pleases me to know that you are squandering your remaining energies on some futile quest. I expect you should have as much fortune finding any treasure as the Kithians that I recently sensed entering my domain.” Selestia now moved in front of Maggoth and stared into his seemingly blank eyes. Maggoth saw only a blurred vision of his keep. Selestia could almost sense the Great Dragon glaring at her through the eyes of her beloved companion. “You speak in riddles and waste my time. I have more pressing matters to attend to. Leave me in peace, dragon.” There was a long silence.

“Well?” asked Selestia still staring into Maggoth’s eyes.

The Dark Wizard smiled. “We have him,” he said softly. Then he grabbed Selestia’s arm and repeated loudly, “We have him! Rava Zool is proceeding towards my keep!”

“The Great Battle,” whispered Selestia. “The Great Battle begins.” She narrowed her eyes as she looked out across the bright serene lake. “Strange, it always seemed like something that would never truly manifest itself. Like some fantastic fictitious tale that was told many cyclans ago, but then slowly grew and warped into some form of counterfeit religion.”

“Yes, we have seen many of those take root and sprout. Many have managed to perform some sort of good, but most have brought nothing but pain and misery. Not only to their mindless followers, but also to those who have refused to reform to their ways.”

“The Great Dragon’s emancipation seemed almost impossible, and yet…”

“Yes, here we are on the eve of what could be the destruction of all creation.”

“I feel something that I have not felt in ages.”

“Fear?”

“No! Alive! Only now with the possibility of immortality being a misconception am I truly able to feel the joy of being. No matter how long a life is, it is precious. Every moment should be savoured.”

“I know of someone who shares that very same philosophy.”

“Oh?”

“Groad.”

“Groad?”

“Yes. In fact he feels so strongly about it that perhaps you should both try turning it into a religion.”

Selestia smiled. “The eve of the destruction of all creation and yet you still manage to impart your usual witticisms?” Maggoth shrugged nonchalantly. “Kronos was always such a bore.”

“Really? Somehow I always thought that I was the serious one.”

“We shall discuss this at a later time,” said Selestia clutching her cypherlette. “We need to hasten ourselves to Tar Ta Rus.”

“A later time,” repeated Maggoth softly. He stared towards the cold dark water. The lake shimmered and disappeared.

The grohara skin on the wagon moved slowly. Rhoban’s head appeared. He gazed about frantically in all directions. In his waking mind he had heard odd voices mentioning strange names and talking of extraordinary events. Quite sure that he was now very much alone he moved his large body with uncanny swiftness to the side of the wagon.

The barrel had remained untouched.

“The elder gods be praised!”

The terrible tension had returned with a vengeance to plague his entire frame. There would have to be some serious unwinding before he could sleep tonight.

The lake shimmered and disappeared. In its place appeared the balustrade of the balcony outside the emperor’s throne room in Tar Ta Rus.

Maggoth and Selestia turned and walked swiftly through the archway leading into the throne room.

“Ah! At last!” shouted Karta Kithlid jumping to his feet. “I have not slept nor eaten since Rava Zool departed Tar Ta Rus. I have been most anxious for your arrival.” The emperor clapped his hands at one of his attendants. “Call the others and be quick about it!” The attendant nodded and left. Karta Kithlid turned his attention once more to the Dark Wizards. “Please tell me that all goes well?

“You have done your part well, Karta Kithlid,” said Maggoth placing a reassuring hand on the emperor’s shoulder. “Everything proceeds according to plan. Only moments ago the Great Dragon arrived at my keep. We need to return there as soon as possible. Is the gold ready as promised?”

“Of course,” said the emperor pointing a finger behind the throne. “It lies in wait in the chamber behind the curtain.”

“You were able to collect a sufficient amount?” asked Selestia.

“Nowhere near the twelve carts that I promised Rava Zool, but…well why not take a look?” The emperor proudly drew back the curtain to the antechamber. The large pile of precious metal lay gleaming in the centre of the small room. Maggoth and Selestia’s eyes widened. They stared at the gold like two ravenous salivating bog hounds. “About two…two and a half cart loads?” Karta Kithlid said this more as a query than a statement. “I hope it is to your satisfaction?”

Maggoth’s eyes became dull. He stared blankly. “No!” His tone was filled with dismay.

“Maggoth!” exclaimed Selestia her head turning sharply. “Do not be rude! I am quite certain that Karta Kithlid has done everything in his power to acquire the maximum amount of gold in the short time he had available?”

The emperor nodded nervously and viciously. “Just as I told Rava Zool, we followed two main courses of action. One was to sell off great areas of valuable state-owned land. The other was to exchange any and all precious metals and gemstones in our possession for your precious bullion. We lost miserably during the transactions, but it was the only way to entice the nation to bring us their golden items. What else should we have done? What else could we have done? The remainder of our main treasury, the non-gold items, as you well know, was inadvertently sealed off by the Great Dragon himself. It is most unlikely that we will ever attempt to reach it. You yourself said, ‘It would be unwise to reopen the tomb. Kronos must remain trapped for all eternity’. Even if it was possible, it would take many many cyclans to regain access to the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers, let alone the Royal Burial Chamber.”

“What?” asked Maggoth the blank stare fading from his eyes. “I have not heard a word you said. I do apologize but I have been preoccupied with the plight of the soldiers at my keep. A large body of warriors has just passed through my portal. Most of them have been seriously injured.” Maggoth fell silent, a look of anguish upon his face.”

“What is wrong?” asked Selestia.

“I am afraid that some of the wounded are beyond any form of help. They will not see the dawning of tomorrow’s sun.”

“We all knew this was to be expected,” said Selestia sternly. “In order to weaken Rava Zool sacrifices had to be made. Must still be made. If we are not victorious today, none of us will see tomorrow’s dawning.”

“We must return to the keep at once!” said Maggoth austerely. “We must prevent any more fatalities!” He looked earnestly at Karta Kithlid. “You have done well!” The emperor smiled. “In fact, you have exceeded yourself beyond expectations!” The emperor smiled even wider. “Now command your servants to divide the gold into two equal amounts.”

“You heard the wiz…him!” shouted the emperor. “Two equal heaps!” The attendants rushed forward and began to split the large pile of gold. Karta Kithlid moved about shouting orders. “No! Not like that you imbeciles! Yes! More here! More! Move that as well! Hurry up! Good! Good! Yes, like that! That is it! Faster! Faster! Stop wasting time! Fools, do you not know that your very lives depend on this? That is more like it! Yes!” Finally there were two equally-sized heaps of gold. “Fine! I said fine! Now get out of here!” The attendants vacated the small room. The emperor turned towards Maggoth. “Well?”

“Shall we?” said Maggoth taking Selestia’s hand and leading her to the side of one of the gleaming piles.

“This reminds me of the time we found that long lost hidden treasure on the Tsaltian Islands,” smiled Selestia. “The power was immense. It lasted for ages.”

“Yes,” confirmed Maggoth. “It felt marvelous. The euphoria was so stable…so lasting…so…enduring.”

“We must have made love every single day for many moons.”

“Yes,” said Maggoth, his eyes turning upwards as he fondly reminisced. “That was one of the most wonderful and memorable times in my life.”

Our lives,” corrected the sorceress.

The Dark Wizards smiled fondly at each other.

A look of concern washed over Karta Kithlid’s face. “You are planning on returning to the Great Battle?”

“What?” asked Maggoth unable to avert his gaze from Selestia.

“You are planning on…?”

“Of course!” blurted the Dark Wizard glaring at the emperor. Then he repeated in a quieter more convincing tone, “Of course. Now if you could please stand back!”

The emperor exited the antechamber. He walked slowly backwards, away from the large curtain and towards the solid stone throne. He paused when his back touched the cold stone and stood staring towards the small room. “Strange,” he thought to himself. “The seat of power seems colder than usual.”

“You summoned us?” asked Leeja Fay entering the throne room. The aged warrior followed close behind the high priestess.

Karta Kithlid held a finger to his lips. Then he pointed towards the antechamber. “They have arrived.”

“Already? Are you quite certain it is them?” asked Bel Shedor. “How do you know it is not another of Rava Zool’s deceptions?”

“No, it is most certainly them.” The emperor nodded slowly. “Trust me.”

“What are they doing?” asked Leeja Fay.

“Whatever Dark Wizards do to convert gold into dark energy.”

There was an electrical buzz and a flash of bright blue light that lit up the entire curtain. Then another. A sizzling sound. More flashes. A hissing sound. Finally more light followed by a long silence.

Maggoth, or what seemed to be Maggoth stepped out of the small room. His eyes a glowing mass of shimmering crimson energy.

“Dakur’s eyes!” exclaimed Karta Kithlid moving backwards.

“Fear not!” shouted Selestia moving into the throne room from behind Maggoth, her eyes bright blazing emeralds. “The energy coursing through us renders our appearance somewhat...foreboding. Be at ease. It is Rava Zool who must exercise caution.”

“The Royal Kithian Council has served us well,” said Maggoth strengthening Selestia’s attempt to place the anxious trio at ease. “I would like to return the favour with a small token of our appreciation. A gift.”

“A gift?” exclaimed Karta Kithlid remembering all too clearly the consequences of the last gift that Maggoth had brought to Tar Ta Rus. “That is unnecessary. The destruction of the Great Dragon will be payment enough.”

“I believe the antechamber shall be the perfect area in which to place it,” said Maggoth ignoring the emperor’s remark. He beckoned for all to follow him inside the small room.

Once everyone was present, Maggoth using both his hands, raised his cypherlette in front of his face. His eyes narrowed in concentration as a thin line of flickering blue energy shot from the mystical medallion.

Too frightened to move, the council watched as the energy hissed and crackled in the air in front of them. Then, before their bright staring eyes a small shimmering orb began to form. It increased in size until it was no larger than a person’s head.

The flow of energy ceased and Maggoth lowered the cypherlette. The rippling sphere remained suspended in the air.

“Amazing!” exclaimed Bel Shedor.

“It is so beautiful,” added Leeja Fay. “May I…?” she asked holding out her fingertips towards the orb.”

“Of course,” smiled Maggoth. “It is quite harmless.

“It tingles,” she laughed as she slowly passed her hand through the shimmering ball.

“What is it?” asked Karta Kithlid.

“A portal to another world,” smiled Selestia.

“Yes,” said Maggoth. “It is far too small to serve as a gateway, but on the other side lies a lush tropical forest. I have fashioned it in such a way so that it will allow the air from that forest to warm your cold throne room and fill it with the heady aroma of the tropical flora. I could not help but notice your rather impressive balcony garden. I thought that you especially would appreciate the idea.

“Magnificent!” exclaimed the emperor. “And yes,” he said sniffing the air, “I can already detect the exotic fragrances.”

Bel Shedor shook his head grumbling.

“You disapprove?” asked Selestia of the old warrior.

“He would!” spat the emperor. “It is not he who must reside in this dull place of cold stone!”

“I apologize my liege,” said Bel Shedor bowing his head. “It is just that I am uncomfortable wherever the dark arts are involved.”

“We understand your concern,” said Selestia, “But the portal is able to serve an even more important purpose.” She turned to Maggoth. “Tell them.”

Maggoth held an open hand beneath the shimmering orb. “The portal is a means of contacting us. Should the need ever arise that you may require our assistance; you have only but to place your head inside this shimmering sphere. Your mind and mine shall be instantly joined.”

“It is a wonderful gift,” said the emperor. “But without trying to sound ungrateful, I truly hope that need shall never arise.”

Maggoth smiled, nodding in agreement. Then he clutched his head and snarled, “No!”

“Maggoth?” frowned Selestia.

“We are too late!” retorted the sorcerer. “Rava Zool has fled the keep! The Kithians have actually forced him to retreat.”

“Incredible!” exclaimed Selestia. “He must be weaker than we imagined.”

“Very weak and in much pain!”

“We must not allow him to go into hiding again!” Selestia clasped her cypherlette tightly. “We must return before he flees too far to be found.”

The wide-eyed trio stared in awe as the Dark Wizards vanished from sight.

Karta Kithlid gazed down at the floor of the antechamber. Where once had lain two large piles of gold remained only a blackened scarring upon the stone floor. After a long silence he smiled uneasily and said, “I believe that it is time for that feast? What say you lot?”

“I have not much of a desire for food at this moment,” said Bel Shedor.

Leeja Fay nodded in agreement.

“Very well, then! I know just the thing to improve our appetites!” Karta Kithlid clapped his hands. “I believe the Royal Cellar recently procured a few barrels of Matmar’s finest aluram and we still have a few kegs of that wonderful Fryburian ale. This may very well be our last chance to enjoy the good things in this life.”

“Not too unlike the final meal of a dying man?” said the old warrior.

“By the elder gods, Bel Shedor!” reprimanded the emperor. “Must you always be so…dark?”

A clamour arose from the troops on the keep’s east-facing battlement.

“What is it?” cried Groad rushing towards the edge.

“Rava Zool has returned!” shouted Daleth pointing towards the flapping monstrosity. “He has once again entered the portal near the main road! He has managed to douse the flame and approaches with haste!”

“Excellent! I was afraid that we may have routed the beast for good! I expect he will renew his offensive upon the top of the keep.”

“I believe you are correct! He climbs high before attacking!”

“Good! He still imagines the gold to be here!”

They watched the Great Dragon circle until he was a good height directly above the top of the keep.

“If he retains his distance above us,” said Daleth worriedly, “We shall be vulnerable to his attacks.”

“I know that!” exclaimed Groad. “Unfortunately so does Rava Zool! Look out!”

Groad and Daleth dove to one side as a bolt of energy blasted into the roof. A second bolt caused part of the roof to collapse, revealing Maggoth’s chamber below.

“Where are your bold words now, oh mighty magician?” mocked Rava Zool. “Will you stop me from turning this keep into a pile of rubble?”

“Why does the Great Dragon keep his distance?” shouted Groad returning Rava Zool’s taunts. “Could it be that you are afraid of me? Why, even a rooniturb has more mettle in one of its scrawny feathers than you have in your entire frame!”

“Rava Zool is no coward! He is also no fool! Your annoying presence has merely been a temporary hindrance to me! There is only one inevitable outcome to this battle. Rava Zool shall triumph!”

“No!” shouted Daleth flinging the large club into the air.

“Pathetic!” hissed the dragon as he easily avoided the flying missile. “Is that the best you can do? Why does the great magician not use his power to hurl that altar at me? Perhaps he could knock me from the air with his powerful magic?”

Daleth rushed over to the large black altar stone. He placed his arms around the sides and began to strain and lift. Even for a zin-za, the weight of the great block of stone proved to be overwhelming.

“Wretched creatures!” screamed Rava Zool. “All of you! Every last one of you deserves to be destroyed!”

The enormous altar abruptly vanished from between Daleth’s arms. It materialized a few feet above the raving dragon.

Before Rava Zool knew what was happening, the enormous block of stone crashed down onto him and continued to plummet towards the keep. It smashed the dragon hard into the stone roof before splintering into a number of large fragments.

Daleth stared in amazement at the downed beast. He turned to Groad. “How…?”

Groad himself was staring in disbelief. “I have no idea!”

“I thought it would be obvious,” said Selestia placing a hand upon Groad’s shoulder.

“You have all done well!” said Maggoth moving forward. “Now it is up to us to finish this!”

Rava Zool rose to his feet. He stared disbelievingly as the two Dark Wizards approached him. “Maggoth? Selestia? How…? I thought…?” Then, as realization sprang into his mind, he began to laugh. “Of course! Devious bog hounds!”

“You find this amusing?” asked Maggoth.

“How long has it been?” asked the Great Dragon ignoring the question. “How long since…?”

“Ten thousand cyclans!” interrupted Selestia. “Not long enough!”

“Ten thousand cyclans,” repeated Rava Zool softly. “Ten thousand cyclans. Yes.”

The calm in the Great Dragon’s voice turned Groad’s nonexistent blood to ice. It was that awful stillness that heralds a great calamity.

“Ten thousand cyclans!” continued Rava Zool, his tone becoming harsh. “For some, many lifetimes, but for the Great Dragon a mere drop in the ocean! Immortality and patience are a wonderful combination. A most necessary blending of course, would you not agree? Forever is a word that most do not fully understand. In fact, it is even beyond true comprehension. To all, that is, except Rava Zool. You asked why I find this amusing? If you fail to see the irony, then you are bigger fools than I imagined.” Maggoth was about to say something but found himself silent. “You find immortality banal! I find it somewhat…advantageous!

“What? Will you remove my tongue again? Confine me once again to some fantastic prison? How long this time? Twenty thousand cyclans? Thirty? Forty? Maybe even a hundred thousand? What does it matter? In the end Rava Zool shall triumph! Join me now and I promise you an existence free from monotony. The new creation shall be glorious!”

“No!” shouted Groad. “Do not listen to his lies!”

“Fear not!” retorted Selestia. “We are all too familiar with Rava Zool’s smooth words.”

“So be it!” sneered the Great Dragon. “It took the power of three Dark Wizards to trap me!” He gestured towards Groad. “This fraudulent magician is no Dark Wizard.” Giant wings began beating the air. “My time here is done. It is evident that there never was any gold here! Even with the vast amounts of energy that I sense you have acquired, you will not be able to prevent me from leaving! I shall find my sustenance elsewhere. Baltrath, as we all know, is a world full of possibilities! So, until we meet again, I bid you all farewell!” He lifted into the air and moved with uncanny swiftness towards the portal. “Next time I shall certainly be better prepared!”

Maggoth and Selestia sent a volley of energy bolts after the fleeing figure. Those that struck the dragon merely assisted to increase his already hasty retreat.

“This battle is not yet over!” shouted Selestia. She turned towards the one-eyed behemoth. “I can drop more than just simple masonry upon his scaly hide. Daleth, you may be our only hope! Prepare yourself!”

“For what?” queried the zin-za worriedly. “What are you planning to…?”

Daleth vanished. An instant later he materialized high in the air above and beyond the keep. He screamed loudly and unashamedly as his enormous frame very suddenly and with extreme acceleration began to plummet.

Rava Zool was still contemplating the cause of the unexpected and irritating cacophony when he was rudely and harshly struck by a terror-stricken zin-za.

Daleth instinctively clutched about for secure handholds.

“No!” screamed the Great Dragon. “My wings! Release my wings, fool, or you shall force us to plunge uncontrollably!”

“I believe that is exactly what the sorceress had in mind!” shouted Daleth regaining his composure and increasing his grip upon the Great Dragon’s flailing appendages.

The dragon had lied.

Daleth was swift to realize, as well as utilize, the fact that he had a certain amount of control over the dragon’s flight path.

He gradually forced Rava Zool to turn back towards the keep. The dragon plummeted downwards smashing hard into and through the side of the ancient building.

The zin-za had taken prudence to leap from the Great Dragon’s back a moment before the violent impact. He fell safely but awkwardly, rolling in a ball of dust at the base of the keep. Scrambling to his feet, he gazed up at the enormous hole.

Maggoth and Selestia were swift to press their advantage. They floated down the side of the keep and into the dark cavity. Inside was Maggoth’s great hall of entombed creatures.

Rava Zool was still shaking off the effects of the collision when the Dark Wizards renewed their attack.

The Great Dragon roared in painful rage as the energy bolts pummeled his large frame. He flew backwards crashing through the supporting pillars and sending a number of the ruby megornexes flying into the air. He instinctively turned and spewed a bolt in their direction.

Selestia easily deflected the ball of energy. It struck a pillar causing it to shatter into a spray of tiny stone shards and powder.

The wizards were too busy preparing their next attack to discern that the ceiling directly above them groaned as its great weight shifted precariously.

This fact, unfortunately, did not go unnoticed by Rava Zool. He promptly spewed another bolt, this time aiming for the pillar between the Dark Wizards.

The aim was true. The ceiling above fell away, and so did the one above that and the one above that until finally a very portion of the keep’s roof fell away.

Groad was still gazing over the side of the keep when he heard the noise behind him. He was about to peer into the fracture when Rava Zool soared out of the gaping fissure.

“That, I believe, should detain them long enough for me to depart this accursed place!” snarled Rava Zool alighting next to the deep cavity.

“No!” shouted Groad moving forward. “If needs be, then I alone shall pluck that detestable appendage from your vile mouth!”

“What is this?” smiled Rava Zool. “The great magician wishes to remove my tongue?”

“If only to still your irritating words! Yes!”

“Then be my guest,” said the Great Dragon lowering his head. “It shall be your final and most foolish act.” He opened wide his enormous jaw.

Groad could not believe his good fortune. He wasted no time. Leaping into the cavernous mouth he clutched at the serpentine organ with both gloved hands. He placed a boot against the back of the dragon’s mouth and pulled with all his strength.

The tongue remained fixed.

Rava Zool roared with laughter and then began filling his lungs to bursting.

“Dakur’s eyes!” shouted Groad as the blue flame surged out of the throat from behind the twisting tongue.

His garments were instantly turned into a myriad of flaming particles that flew from the dragon’s mouth.

Groad closed his nonexistent eyes and held on even tighter.

Unrelenting, the blue energy continued to rush at the reanimated warrior’s now exposed skeletal frame.

The anakhenium coating started to glow red, then yellow. The pain coursing through his nonexistent nerve endings was excruciating. Only when the indestructible metal became a radiant white-hot and Groad could sense the bones beneath turning to blackened charcoal did he finally release his hold upon the writhing appendage. He flew backwards through the air and landed squarely inside one of the empty wooden carts.

The cart smoldered from the intensely heated metal before igniting.

He lay on his back looking up through the flickering flames.

Never before had he experienced such a degree of pain. Pain beyond explanation. Pain beyond comprehension. Not even the pain that the screechas had caused him could be compared to this excruciating agony.

He wished to scream until his nonexistent lungs could no longer expel air, but he was not going to give the Great Dragon the pleasure of being aware of his terrible agony.

The bright glimmering blue sky above began to darken as he felt his consciousness starting to slip away.

“No!” he shouted forcing himself into a sitting position. “Not now! I will not allow myself to succumb! I will not give up!” He clambered over the side and fell to his knees beside the cart. “Dakur, grant me the time needed to regain my strength.”

Time seemed to slow down. Then suddenly, crystal clear clarity. Like the lifting of a dark veil, the pain was gone and pure reasoning rushed in filling Groad’s whole being.

The dragon moved forwards. “Ah, the reanimated Kithian,” sneered Rava Zool. “Maggoth’s little puppet. I should have guessed that it was you beneath those rags. I see you have at last chosen the correct posture to assume before the great Rava Zool; humbled upon bended knees! Did you truly think that you, a mere mortal, could pluck out the very tongue of the Great Dragon! Insignificant fool!”

Groad neither saw nor heard the Great Dragon. Memories flashed through his brain. Not the visions of a dying person but the revelations of a logical coherent calculating mind forcing itself to be heard.

He found himself back at Tar Ta Rus in the temple of Dakur. He was looking up from the altar at Maggoth and Selestia. A high pitched sound, not too unlike the song of a sunbug* filled his ears making it impossible to hear the words they were saying to him, but the consternation engraved upon their visages spoke volumes.

The buzzing intensified, somehow forcing him to focus his attention on the wound on Selestia’s forehead.

The wound was bleeding, not blood but liquid gold.

There was a blinding flash of light and he now found himself on an abandoned battlefield. Around him lay the carnage of a recent combat. The fallen warriors were mostly Artanians, but there were some Kithians amongst the dead as well. He turned to see a lone warrior of tremendous proportions silhouetted against an enormous red setting sun.

It was the discernible figure of his father, Zemth. The enormous warrior clutched his sword, which was driven deep into the breastplate of an Artanian soldier that lay at his feet.

The high pitched buzzing sound was still in his ears. The closer he moved to his father, the more the sound intensified. Zemth stared indifferently at Groad from those dead glazed eyes. From the corner of each eye ran a thin line of blood.

All of a sudden his father lifted his hands to his face and wiped away the sanguine tears. Then as he held out his open palms towards Groad the buzzing sound ceased.

“Look,” said Zemth. His hands were covered in liquid gold. “Fulfill your destiny!”

Another blinding flash of light and Groad found himself back atop Maggoth’s keep.

Groad tried to stand up but found that he yet lacked the necessary strength.

“Stay down, Kithian!” scoffed the Great Dragon. “Stay down while I end your miserable existence forever!” He began to inhale.

Groad knew that a direct strike from one of Rava Zool’s energy bolts could do no harm to his anakhenium coating, but the force of the blast would shatter his charcoal blackened bones beneath to a fine powder. If that were to happen he would most certainly cease to exist.

Again Groad tried to rise. Again he collapsed.

Accepting his fate, he raised his head proudly towards the Great Dragon. “Do your worst! The Son of Zemth shall not beg for mercy from one as foul as you!” An instant before the Great Dragon released his fiery bolt, a large dark shape stepped between the Great Dragon and Groad. “Daleth! No!”

The zin-za caught the full brunt of the blast. He smashed backwards into Groad and then into the wooden carts. Broken timbers splintered in all directions.

Groad opened his eyes. He had managed to survive the impact.

Daleth unfortunately would not. He lay a few feet from Groad, blood oozing from his nose and mouth.

“Daleth!” shouted Groad. The zin-za opened his large eye. “Why?”

Daleth forced a smile onto his large lips. “Is it not obvious, Kithian? I once took your life, so now I give it back. Not many are given second chances. You have now received even a third. Use it wisely. Fulfill your destiny.” The eye closed and Daleth was gone.

“No!” shouted Groad in anguish. “No!” shouted Groad his anguish turning to rage. “No!” shouted Groad as the rage surged through his body bringing new strength to his battered frame.

Twice in a very short space of time he had heard the words.

Fulfill your destiny? What is my destiny?”

What did the visions mean?

Then it came to him. “Of course!” he exclaimed. “It is not the Eldritch Blade from where the Great Dragon receives his strength. His tongue is not the source of his great power. Just as the Dark Wizards’ cypherlettes do not give them the dark energy that they utilize, but are used as instruments to concentrate or focus that power.

“Yes! They all get their power from gold. Therefore gold is also the means by which they may be destroyed.

“When weak and drained, then the very substance from which they get their power is also the material that is able to cause them harm. This was something that even they themselves have never come to realize because no one has ever had the opportunity to attack them with a weapon made of purest gold. And who in their right minds would even be able to afford the resources for constructing such a rare and precious weapon?”

A wide glowing smile stretched across Groad’s nonexistent lips.

Many cyclans ago the Royal Kithian Council had commissioned just such a weapon.

In fact, there was only one such weapon upon all the face of Baltrath, and that very weapon now rested in the scabbard slung across Groad’s back.

Whether or not it was now possible to slay Rava Zool in his weakened state or merely cause him great harm was knowledge that would only be gained in the testing.

An inner strength, like some bright liquid flame, coursed through his charred bones. Fanned on by the wind of a bright new hope he rose dramatically to his feet and drew his father’s blade from the scabbard.

“What is this?” asked the Great Dragon sarcastically. “One last heroic stand before I finally crush you?”

Groad rushed forward as the dragon began to inhale. He dove beneath the oncoming energy bolt and rolled under the Great Dragons wing. In a single fluid motion he jumped to his feet and swung the blade hard in an arc.

The golden sword sliced through the thin membranous flesh of the wing, splitting it all the way from the tip to where it met the dragon’s body.

Rava Zool screeched in pain. “No!” he shouted staring at the lengthy wound in disbelief. “Impossible!”

“Just as I said,” retorted Groad. “You are no more dangerous than a winged ratchamonga!” The Great Dragon flapped his wings, but to no avail. The damage was too great to allow flight. “Now let us see if that long scrawny neck of yours is just as susceptible to my magic sword!”

Groad swung at Rava Zool’s neck. The Great Dragon recoiled placing a large claw in the path of the blade.

The sword sank deep into the flesh between two of the gnarled talons.

Rava Zool squealed as incredible pain shot up his arm. “This can not be!”

The dragon retreated as Groad moved towards him. He prepared to spew another bolt but had failed to notice that he was on the edge of the roof. He lost his balance and toppled over.

Groad rushed to the edge and looked down. “I was wrong to compare you to a winged ratchamonga! You are no more threatening than a cowardly screecha!” He raised the sword above his head. “Prepare for your end dragon!”

The bolt that struck Groad sending him sprawling backwards onto the roof had not come from the Great Dragon. It had come from above.

“Maggoth?” shouted Groad stunned. “Dakur’s eyes! What are you doing? Are you insane?”

“No, Groad!” screamed Selestia. “Do you not recall what I told you? If you kill him, you kill us all?”

“What?” The disbelief in Groad’s voice was fraught with frustration. “What are you saying? Rava Zool is at our mercy! Let us finish this now!”

“No! If Rava Zool is killed. The consequences would be catastrophic. The forces released by his demise would obliterate everything in its path!”

Groad became silent, his mind a turmoil of deliberation and planning. “Maggoth, you told me that you would now possess enough power to close the portal surrounding your keep?”

“Yes, but it would be foolish to do that! I can not afford to waste a single iota of power while the Great Dragon roams free!”

“I have a plan!” He looked towards Selestia. “You must start transporting the soldiers on the keep to the other side of the portal.”

“What?” queried the sorceress. “Why?”

“No time to explain!” shouted Groad anxiously. “Just start doing it!” Groad turned towards Maggoth. “Once Selestia has completed that task you must use your power to collapse the portal.” For a short moment Groad and the Dark Wizards stared at each other in silence. He could see that both Maggoth and Selestia had come to fully comprehend the purpose of his plan. “Make certain that everyone, including yourselves, is on the other side, upon Baltrath soil, before you proceed to close the portal. I alone must remain here with Rava Zool!”

“No!” said Maggoth loudly. “There has to be another way?”

Groad shook his head. “We all know it is the only way.”

The sorceress nodded slowly. “He speaks the truth. It is the only way.”

A veil of sadness dropped over Maggoth’s countenance. “You truly are the most brave and honourable warrior that has ever walked upon the face of Baltrath. It has been my greatest privilege not only to have met you and fought by your side, but also to be able to call you friend.”

“No! It is I who must thank you! It is you who has given me the opportunity to redeem myself. If not for the great Dark Wizard, Maggoth, I would have ended my useless existence in a filthy gloomy cave on the outskirts of Frybur. Now the Son of Zemth shall die in a blaze of glory!”

“Yes, today the Son of Zemth shall die in a blaze glory to forever be forgotten, but in his place the mighty victorious Groad of Bryntha, saviour of all creation shall rise in his place. His memory shall be eternal, not only in Kith, but across the entire civilized surface of Baltrath and beyond. I personally shall make certain of this!” For an instant Maggoth could almost swear that he had seen, instead of Groad’s skeletal features, a fleshy smile and cheeks streaked with blood-red tears.

“Go now!” shouted Groad. “The time has come to end the Great Battle. The Dark Prophecy is about to be fulfilled!”

“Farewell Groad!” shouted Selestia raising her cypherlette. “May Dakur welcome you with open arms!”

The Dark Wizard’s vanished.

Groad stared for a moment at the empty spaces that had once contained powerful living entities. He suddenly felt terribly lonely. He turned and walked swiftly and determinedly to the edge of the keep and gazed down.

Not even the pathetic sight of the wounded dragon could abate the terrible sense of isolation.

Far below, unable for Selestia to transport the entire army with her mysterious power, the Dark Wizards had taken to levitating themselves above the forces, enabling them to issue important instructions to one and all.

The order to abandon their posts and move with all haste beyond the portal was swiftly and unquestionably obeyed.

“What foolish scheme are those wizards attempting now?” asked Rava Zool loudly of the empty air.

The answer came rudely from above. “Your final destruction, of course!”

The Great Dragon turned towards the source of the damning remark. “The Son of Zemth? Still here?”

“Still here, dragon!” affirmed Groad.

“Look at them fleeing, Kithian!” shouted Rava Zool smiling. “They are abandoning you. Like insignificant cowardly scavenger insects scattering in the path of some common danger.”

“Yes! Soon it shall be just you and I! Two players remaining! But the only players necessary to complete this contest!”

“Contest?”

“Contest! Great Battle! Call it what you will! It is about to be concluded!”

“Perhaps? But I believe your expectation of the final outcome could be somewhat unrealistic and overly optimistic!”

“We shall see dragon! We shall see!”

Groad and the Great Dragon watched in silence as the soldiers, having abandoned their posts, fled across the open ground towards the shimmering portal.

A loud voice screamed inside Groad’s head.

Why?

Why had he chosen to do this?

Was it truly the only way?

Had he decided to do this seemingly brave act simply because he could no longer face life as some abhorrent resurrected monstrosity?

If the answer to that question was yes, then in truth he would be nothing more than a cringing lowly coward!

“No,” he whispered solemnly to himself. “I respect life too much to give it away again. I truly enjoy the gift of being. I want to live. I want to live.”

In fact, his desire to live was now so strong that he was experiencing an emotion that was most uncommon to a Kithian warrior of his stature.

A swell of genuine fear welled up inside of him. He remembered all too clearly that his death had been followed by oblivion. If there had been any form of awareness following his demise, then he was unable to recall it to mind. What if that was the true extent of death? Ceasing to exist on any plane of consciousness; a state of absolute nothingness.

“No, there has to be more to life than this life. I must not allow such negative thoughts to corrode my mettle. I have to succeed. I will succeed.”

A long time ago in Grimwald forest he had learned an important lesson, a lesson he had sworn never to forget.

Never be overconfident or underestimate your foe’s capabilities,” he reminded himself with a serious tone. “The Great Dragon is severely weakened and wounded, but this does not mean that his destruction is a foregone conclusion. Rava Zool, well-known for his artistry in deception, could very well be feigning. He may yet possess sufficient power to incapacitate or even destroy me.”

Another, most important, thought struck Groad. “How will Maggoth and Selestia discern whether I have succeeded or failed? Lack of such information would place them at a serious disadvantage. Maggoth himself once said, ‘He who possesses the knowledge also possesses the power.’”

As more and more warriors disappeared through the shimmering wall of the mystical portal, Groad’s sense of isolation increased exponentially.

The sensation was almost at the point of crushing him when he noticed one final group near the portal’s edge. Instead of fleeing towards the safety of Baltrath, they stood unmoving, seemingly gazing in his direction. Three Kithian warriors and a small Valacian female.

The distance was too great to clearly discern their features, but Groad had no doubt as to the identity of the small girl.

“Turpane,” said Groad softly to himself. “That little scoundrel has come to bid me farewell.”

He raised his sword into the air.

His salute was immediately acknowledged by the entire group, who then swiftly turned and vanished through the portal.

The group had scarcely disappeared when the shimmering dome began to hastily diminish.

“Maggoth,” whispered Groad.

Like some enormous wave of water, the rippling wall began to approach him from above.

He closed his nonexistent eyes and held his nonexistent breath.

An instant later he felt a tingling sensation of the nonexistent hairs on his arms and neck as the portal passed through, over and under him. For a moment he believed that he had seen Maggoth clutching tightly onto his cypherlette and, in that same short space of time, he could almost have sworn that he had heard the ancient wizard’s youthful voice exclaim, “Farewell, Groad of Bryntha, saviour of all creation!”

He opened his eyes.

The harsh contrast between the brightness of Baltrath and the dim twilight world of Meggido was unsettling.

A cruel biting wind swept in from the distant black mountains. Without Baltrath’s sun to supply heat, the warm air that had once been trapped inside the giant shimmering dome hastily chilled.

“It is done!” shouted Groad.

“What?” The Great Dragon looked up. “What is done?” Rava Zool’s hot breath shimmered white in the freezing semi-darkness.

“Maggoth has succeeded in sealing not only the portal but your fate as well!”

“Then he is a fool! Does he hope to trap me here for all eternity? Does he assume that Baltrath is the only world with gold? He has not managed to once more imprison me. He has, instead, given me access to all the gold on Meggido and beyond. I shall find more than sufficient quantities, here within this universe, to complete my purpose. And then, not even the Dark Wizards will be immune from my great and marvelous act of the new creation.”

“Maggoth and Selestia have grown weary of being your jailers! Once Keepers of the Light, forced to be keepers of the blackest evil!” Groad waved a hand across the air. “This was never meant to be your prison! This will be your tomb; your burial chamber!”

“So, you still persist that Rava Zool can be destroyed? Your rhetoric is beginning to bore me! Why did you not leave this place with the rest of your pathetic race whilst you yet had the opportunity?”

Pathetic race? Your lies and deception have caused immeasurable harm to the pride and glory of the Kithian nation. But it is your very own deceit that is about to bring about your downfall.”

The dragon half-closed his eyes and pouted his large lips conceitedly. “What are you rambling on about?”

Groad held his sword, arm stretched forward over the parapet. “Behold my father’s sword, dragon. The object of your imminent destruction.”

Rava Zool’s eyes bulged as he stared intently at the shiny weapon. “Impossible! Lies!”

Lies? What audacity you have to call me a liar! Maggoth will surely attain glory as the forefather of the Kithian nation; your memory shall wallow in infamy as the father of all lies! Your tongue is truly your most dangerous weapon, but it is not your tongue that gives you your great power. That was a most unfortunate and fatal misconception on my part. Its price was the life of my zin-za friend. The price of gaining the truth was costly, but I shall make certain that Daleth’s death was not in vain.

“Your tongue is merely a means to channel or focus that power. The power that comes from gold!” Groad raised the sword above his head. “Rava Zool, you came to this keep seeking gold. Gold is what you shall receive. Behold my father’s blade, a sword fashioned entirely from the purest gold.”

“Lies! Lies! Lies! The Golden Sleep required that the fallen warrior’s sword only be encrusted with gold.”

“True! True! Very true! But that is why Dakur in all his wisdom saw fit to spirit my father’s original sword away. It was duly replaced with this solid gold replica.”

Dakur? Do you continue to persist in the belief of the existence of this…god of death?”

“You do not? Then allow me to introduce you to him! He has been thoughtful enough to send you a gift! Prepare yourself to receive it!” He pointed the blade towards Rava Zool. “Come dragon, let us both meet Dakur together!”

With a loud battle cry, Groad leaped from the parapet. He plummeted head first, arms outstretched in front him, hands clutching tightly to the hilt of the golden blade.

Astounded by the bold and sudden attack of the reanimated anakhenium encrusted warrior, Rava Zool froze, staring in disbelief.

His immobility was to be his downfall.

There was no need for Groad to adjust his aim. The intended target remained stationary and unblinking.

The sharp point of the lengthy sword entered into the thin dark reptilian pupil of Rava Zool’s left eye. The path of the blade was only checked when the hilt struck hard against the large glistening orb.

Groad managed to twist his body in such a manner so that he landed astride of the Great Dragon’s neck.

He stared triumphantly at the swords handle resting on the perfectly divided eyeball, knowing that the point of the blade had penetrated far beyond the eye cavity, deep into the Great Dragon’s very skull and brain.

Groad swiftly retained his grasp upon the hilt in anticipation of the death-throes.

No violent thrashing ensued. Instead, the Great Dragon turned his head calmly and spoke.

“Kithian, you have miraculously managed to do what I always believed to be the impossible. You have slain Rava Zool.”

Groad leaned forward and whispered into the Great Dragon’s ear. “And for the first time in your entire existence you have also managed to do what was once thought impossible. How profound that your final words should be the only expression of truth that you have ever uttered.”

A scale fell from the side of the dragon’s body. From the spot where the protective plate had once been, a brilliant shaft of bluish-white light violently shot out.

Another scale fell and another deadly beam was emitted through the air.

More and more scales fell until it seemed as though the dragon had transformed from a dreadful scaly reptilian creature into a beautiful giant celestial shora. Instead of spiny barbs, he was surrounded by a host of shearing bright rays. The outer surface of the walls of the keep instantly disintegrated into fragments and dust wherever the lethal beams touched.

Only now did the Great Dragon begin to rear and buck. He opened his large maw wide and, more from anger and frustration than pain, roared loud long and furiously.

Groad clasped even tighter to the sword’s handle, riding upon the dragon’s neck as if he were taming some persistently strong-willed stallion.

An instant before the powerful forces that held Rava Zool together finally succumbed to the violent process of unraveling and dispersing in an unfathomable burst of pure energy, Groad had whispered one final word; not into the dragon’s ear, but to the sky above.

In that final moment just before the seemingly indestructible anakhenium layer that encased his black charcoaled bones was violently torn apart into a billion billion superheated particles, he had managed to utter the name of his beloved wife.

“Lorra.”

Beyond the mystical shimmering barrier, Turpane had wondered as to the cause of all the sudden excitement and clamour.

Hastily tying off a bandage that she had neatly wrapped around the head of a large Kithian, she rushed onto the road outside the infirmary.

Kithian and Valacian soldiers were streaming through the mystical portal, not only here by the roadway but all along the entire circumference of the expansive shimmering sphere.

“Wahmi’s blood!” she exclaimed. “What is happening? I hope Maggoth’s mind is capable of withstanding such an enormous collection of minds.” The words were no sooner out of her mouth when Selestia, Maggoth and a group of wide-eyed warriors materialized on the road in front of her.

“Maggoth will explain it all to you!” exclaimed the sorceress noticing the concern on the young Valacian’s countenance.

Turpane opened her mouth to speak but Selestia vanished. She turned to Maggoth.

The Dark Wizard took her hand and knelt down on one knee beside her. I have something important to tell you. I think you will find what I have say…disturbing. It is about Groad.”

“What about Groad?”

“He has found a means to destroy the Great Dragon. A way that will save us all.”

“But that is wonderful news?”

“All, I am afraid, except himself.”

“What?”

“Yes,” said Maggoth nodding slowly. “In exchange for all other life, Groad has willingly accepted to sacrifice his own.”

“No!” shouted Turpane backing away. “It is not true!”

“It was his plan; his own choice.”

Turpane stared unbelievingly at the Dark Wizard. Then she turned and bolted towards the portal.

“Wait! Come back!” shouted Maggoth. “I have to close the portal now!” Turpane disappeared into the shimmering wall. “Wretched girl!” he exclaimed lifting his cypherlette.

Turpane felt Maggoth’s frustration as she passed through the barrier. She had known full-well that the Dark Wizard was telling the truth, and sensing his great dismay helped to emphasize that cold hard fact.

She ran a short distance and halted. She stared at the warriors rushing to and through the fantastic portal.

Where was Groad?

She gazed towards the keep. Higher and higher.

There!

At the very top of the black stone fortress a gleaming skeletal warrior stood tall, proud and determined upon the edge of the battlement. He was looking down, not at her, but at the Great Dragon that lay directly beneath him.

The dragon, on the other hand, seemed to be watching her with a malevolent fascination.

She felt uneasy and averted her gaze once more to the retreating horde.

Her eyes fell on two Kithian warriors bringing up the rear. It was their sense of duty and not a lack of speed that was causing them to lag behind. They gallantly edged their fellow warriors on, making sure that none remained behind.

At the edge of the portal stood the chief commander of the shammar. He too was encouraging the stragglers to hasten along.

“Groad! Zemth!” he shouted as the warriors approached.

“Commander Mallaki!” answered one. “We are the last!”

“Excellent! Excellent! Now get through quickly yourselves!”

Groad? Zemth?” mused Turpane loudly. “Yes, of course!”

The three soldiers turned to survey the battlefield.

“Dakur’s eyes!” exclaimed Mallaki “What does that Valacian fool think she is doing? Get her out of here now!”

“Come girl!” beckoned the young Zemth rushing towards her. “We must leave now before it is too late.”

“Not yet!” answered Turpane sternly.

“We must leave immediately!” said the young Groad glaring over his brother’s shoulder. “The sorceress warned us that we did not have much time!”

“Not yet!”

“Now!” said the young Zemth reaching for Turpane.

“I said, ‘Not yet!’” The seriousness in her tone caused them both to stand to attention. “You are so very much alike!”

“That is because we happen to be twins, girl! Brothers!” blurted young Groad.

“That is not what I meant. You are both so alike your father! Gallant, yet stubborn!”

“Our father?” queried young Zemth.

“You know of our father?” added young Groad.

“Yes, I know your father!” she gazed at the figure at the top of the keep. “What I am about to tell you now you will not fully comprehend. Not today! But the day will come when it will all make complete sense. Perhaps tomorrow? Perhaps a cyclan from now? But you will come to know that what I tell you now is the absolute truth. I could never forgive myself if I let this final opportunity for you to gaze upon your father slip away. And you will never be able to forgive yourselves on that day when you finally come to accept that fact!”

“What are you talking about girl?” asked young Zemth, his frustration clearly evident in his tone. “You are beginning to try our patience!”

“I know that what I am about to tell you now, what I must show you now, will no doubt upset and infuriate you beyond words, but…” she turned and pointed towards the top of the keep. “Behold your father! Behold Groad of Bryntha!”

The two warriors stared dumbfounded towards the skeletal warrior.

“What is keeping you all?” shouted Mallaki as he arrived at the small group. He followed their gaze and then studied the shocked expressions on the faces. “You told them?” he asked softly of Turpane. Then loudly declared “You told them!”

“You knew?” frowned Turpane shocked.

“Yes, but his wish was that it should remain a secret.”

“I know! But I had to! You must try to understand?”

“I believe I do,” said the chief of the shammar nodding slowly, and then repeated, “I believe I do.”

The sons of Groad turned swiftly towards Mallaki.

“Chief Commander?” queried the young Zemth staring intently at the shammar leader.

Mallaki continued his slow nodding.

“Dakur’s eyes!” exclaimed young Groad. “How…?”

“All will be explained,” said Mallaki gazing at the top of the keep. “Look!” he said raising his sword into the air. “He greets us one final time before going to certain destruction! Let us acknowledge the salute of a true Kithian champion!”

Overwhelmed and mystified they slowly raised their swords towards the lone warrior.

Turpane tasted salt as she waved, and realized that there were tears streaming down her cheeks.

By the bristling of the hair on her arms and legs she also knew that her tears were not only of sorrow but also of content.

The feeling of extreme joy that permeated her body was for her brave friend who would soon be no more. For even across the great distance she knew that Groad, although unable to express any form of emotion on his set skeletal features, was smiling ecstatically in anticipation of his moment of glory. He would at last receive his wish, his lifelong ideal. He would surpass all, including his own father’s glorious demise. No one would ever be able to transcend or even equal his final bow to life. At last he had found a cause that was worth dying for!

“Farewell brave warrior,” she said blowing a kiss upon the air. “May you now find that peace and pleasure in the gift of being that eluded you so cunningly in this life.” Then they all quickly turned and rushed towards the portal.

Maggoth had already begun the process of generating the dark energy necessary to diminish the shimmering dimensional gateway. His hands glowed from the pulsating energy.

“Now!” shouted Selestia on seeing the small group exit the shimmering portal. “Everyone is out!”

Holding his cypherlette tightly in both hands, the Dark Wizard created a thin line of bright light that grew in intensity until it became a strong brilliant stream of resonating energy. It hissed like hot metal tempered in cool oil where it touched the mystical portal, but instead of passing through, it started to spread out over the entire outer surface of the enormous rippling dome.

“It is beginning to work!” shouted the sorceress as the barrier started to move away from Maggoth.

“I know!” yelled the wizard over the din of the surging flow of energy. “Pray that I have sufficient energy to sustain the process to completion!” He began to move forwards, following the path of the retreating wall.

Like some large living viscous wave the barrier recoiled and diminished with increasing rapidity.

It quickly became apparent that the mystical dome was, in fact, a sphere. Its base which had once penetrated deep into the soils of both Baltrath and Meggido began to rise as the shimmering sphere continued to reduce in size.

Hard brittle clay and grass appeared in the wake of the retreating wave. What had once been moist Artanian marshland had long since dried and died during the many cyclans of being trapped inside the mystical portal.

The warriors all gasped and stared in amazement as the sphere reached the outer walls of the keep. Like cold bresk fat placed in a searing hot pan, the ancient fortress melted and dissolved in the path of the contracting sphere.

Maggoth continued to follow the shrinking sphere. He stopped only once the orb had shrunk to the size of a large glistening bubble. It hovered in a fixed position above his head and then, instead of bursting, diminished away into seemingly nothingness.

Maggoth gently released the cypherlette and turned around. Exhausted from the great drain on his energy resources, he sank slowly to his knees.

Selestia ran forward. “You did it, Maggoth!” she shouted assisting the wizard back onto his feet. “We have defeated the Great Dragon! Rava Zool has been destroyed! Never shall his evil plague us again!”

“Are you certain?” asked Maggoth despondently. What proof do we have? Will Groad truly manage to accomplish that near impossible task?”

“We must have faith!” said Selestia as she watched the multitude of curious warriors approaching.

Curiosity had overcome fear. From all around the perimeter they slowly began to move towards the centre of the circular patch of dry land. They stared around in disbelief. How could a vast black-stoned fortress simply vanish into thin air?

A sudden wave of comprehension swept over Maggoth’s face.

“Stand back!” shouted the Dark Wizard. “I have collapsed the portal to minuscule proportions, but it will still allow passage to a small fraction of the Great Dragon’s energy. That small fraction could be enough to cause serious damage!”

The warriors did not understand a single word that Maggoth had spoken, but they understood full-well his actions. In mimicry of the Dark Wizard everyone turned and fled towards the Artanian marsh-lands.

Not a moment too soon either!

The ground to the rear of Maggoth, below where the mystical portal was last seen shrinking into apparent nothingness, suddenly imploded forming a massive dish-shaped hollow. This was followed by an enormous undulating shockwave that caused the ground to ripple outwards from the centre of the void. The entire company, including Maggoth and Selestia were rudely flung into air.

Only the Dark Wizards managed to float lightly, feet first, back down onto the recently disturbed soil. The rest fell rudely and painfully, bruising various parts of their anatomy.

“Is that proof enough for you?” asked Selestia with equal amounts of ecstasy and sarcasm.

The wave continued to move out, its strength diminishing but its speed increasing. It flattened the infirmary, knocking the large tent’s supporting posts over as it swept past. In the distance a loud booming sound was heard that startled every single fowl, whether capable of winged flight or not, into the air.

Like the ripple on a pond the tremor grew, spreading out across Artania and Kith. Nothing that remained behind in its wake was left unaffected.

Whenever the wave passed over a body of water, the top of the water would bubble and splash as if a school of fish were partaking in a massive feeding frenzy just below the water’s surface.

In some places, deep below the surface of the troubled water, startled slarks huddled together in tight packs in order to gain some sense of security and comfort.

In the dark dense jungle of the Kriti Dakur, the nocturnal ana desh-glas were rudely shaken from their well-concealed lairs.

On the treacherous cliffs of the Chaxer Ran mountain range anxious ana-rod nocs took to the air in startled flight.

Alarmed Bog hounds urinated in unison.

Only the zin-zas of Grimwald forest remained unconcerned by the wave’s passing, they simply rubbed a heavily drowsy eye, grunted and continued in their serious slumbering.

Lorra was pouring water into one of the hollowed-out tree trunks that served as a trough when she heard the clamour coming from the nearby forest.

Shielding her eyes from the sun’s glare she watched as countless forest fowl took to the air. The forest seemed to be shivering.

A shiver went up her own spine and she clutched onto one of the bresk pen’s larger poles.

She had felt shockwaves before. Tremors caused by the large tectonic plates shifting far beneath the surface of Baltrath. No one knew the true scientific explanation behind the infrequent shaking of the ground. Even the greatest minds on Baltrath were quick to dismiss them as the violent actions of some incensed deity. The Kithian priestesses were always quick to press the benefit of a quake to their advantage. Dakur was angry. Very angry. Repent or prepare to face his terrible wrath. Any and all apostate citizens were quickly frightened back into submission.

But this tremor was different to any other that had traveled across Baltrath. It left more than superficial damage in its wake. There was something else; something mysterious and inexplicable. In the precise moment that it had passed over and under her, it had also passed through her, permeating her very being; filling every cell in her body with a message of despair. She could not explain it, but in that instant she knew that her husband had ceased to be.

“Groad!” she lamented as she clasped her hands over her face and collapsed to the ground.

“Mother!” cried Lorralel rushing to her side. “What was that? What is wrong?”

Lorra looked up into the concerned face. “It is your father, little one.” She clutched her daughter tightly to her bosom. “Your father is no more.”

Lorralel did not understand the words that her mother spoke, but she understood the red lines that streaked down across the trembling cheeks.

Bel Shedor sipped at the tankard of ale. He watched as Karta Kithlid, like some wild ravenous beast, sat at the head of the large table devouring a leg of roasted bresk.

The emperor ceased attacking his meal to get a breath of air. “Still no appetite?” he asked the elderly warrior. “Nor you?” he said turning to Leeja Fay who was staring at her reflection inside the goblet of aluram. “Pity, the bresk has been seasoned to perfection. The herbs and spices were grown in my own garden. Tended by my very own hand. Are you quite sure you do not want any?”

The high priestess was about to answer when the shockwave rattled the royal chalice from the table. It fell to the floor splattering the contents in a wide crimson arc.

The three stared at each other in silence.

Leeja Fay rose. “Dakur is angry,” she whispered supporting herself against the table with wide-stretched fingers.

“No,” said the emperor wide-eyed, “Not Dakur. It is Rava Zool. The Great Dragon has been destroyed!”

“Yes,” whispered Bel Shedor also rising to his feet, “They have done it.” Then he shouted, “Dakur be praised!”

“You are right,” smiled Leeja Fay. “I too feel it now. A sense of absolute certainty in the Great Dragon’s demise.”

They all gave praise to Dakur.

“We shall continue to repair the damage that Rava Zool has wrought upon Tar Ta Rus!” said the emperor loudly. “We shall make this great city in the clouds even more magnificent than it was before! And we shall start with a new temple to our great god Dakur! It shall be bigger and better than the last one!”

“How do you intend to do that?” queried Bel Shedor. “Our treasury is all but depleted.”

“Leave that to me,” said Leeja Fay walking behind the old warrior and running her long finger nails through the grey locks. “You of all people should know that I can be most persuasive when the situation demands for it.”

“Come now!” bellowed Karta Kithlid gesturing for the other two to sit. “These are problems that can wait until tomorrow. Tonight we shall feast and make merry!”

“An excellent proposition!” beamed Bel Shedor. “I believe I am feeling quite famished.”

The tremor continued its journey of revelation. For some it heralded liberation and new hope; for others only despair.

Within the mind of Kronos, within the azure megornex, within the permanently sealed chamber, was also felt the tremendous surge of the vast wave caused by the Great Dragon’s demise and transition into pure dark energy.

In that very same instant, unable to physically voice his anguish, the Dark Wizard’s remaining sanity was rent asunder and his body became similar to his heart and the prison that held him - cold and hard.

Inside the indestructible gemstone no longer existed a mind that was capable of clear calculated thought.

Although his body would remain preserved, almost similar to the golden sleepers’ whom he had so easily desecrated, he would never again be able to awaken and rise from his eternal sleep. For even if he were released from the megornex, he would in no way be able to free himself from the deep torturous pit of his own eternally shrieking mind.

“The Dark Prophecy was true,” said Selestia gazing at the hollow where once an enormous keep had stood. “It had foretold of a great destruction which would immediately be followed by a new creation.

“The Great Dragon’s dark energies will continue to expand, spreading out over the infinite emptiness. The energies will convert to mass. The mass will eventually take shape, becoming the stars and planets of a myriad of galaxies. These galaxies will be the foundation of a new universe.

“And who knows? If the Great Creator should so wish, perhaps sometime in a very distant future, intelligent life forms may arise on one of those planets.”

Turpane smiled. “So, in a twisted ironic sort of way, Rava Zool did finally manage to succeed in his plan to bring about a new creation.”

“Yes,” said Maggoth. “But I seriously doubt that this was the true nature of his plans.”

The three stared in silence at the dish-shaped indentation. Seepage was slowly beginning to fill it with dark water. Soon all evidence of the Great Battle would be gone.

“So….what happens now?” asked Turpane.

“Life goes on,” said Selestia placing a hand on the Valacian’s shoulder. “You get to grow up into a beautiful young woman. You meet a handsome young man. You have plenty of gruntlings. Now life goes on.”

Turpane pointed towards the soldiers. “What about them?”

Maggoth placed his hand upon her other shoulder. “After every great battle there must follow a time of healing, rebuilding and introspection. Baltrath’s inhabitants will rebuild their world. They need to repair, not only the physical destruction, but the emotional and spiritual damage that has been caused as well.”

“Today we all helped in destroying the Great Dragon,” said Selestia waving a hand across the air. “Rava Zool was the greatest evil that ever existed. But that does not mean that we have managed to eradicate all evil. We need now, more than ever, to look to the evil that lies here.” The sorceress pointed towards Turpane’s chest. “We need to consider the darkness that lies in our own hearts. Only once we are all able to put away our foolish pride and selfishness, eliminate our petty prejudices and foolish hatreds will we truly accomplish greatness. A universal greatness to be shared and enjoyed by all.

“Maggoth and I have received a new outlook upon life. Rava Zool’s annihilation has taught us that we too are capable of being destroyed. I always imagined that I would find the thought terrifying, unbearable. But no, I welcome it with open arms. The knowledge that I may die makes me feel more alive now than ever before. There is still so much to experience, so much to learn.” She slipped her long slender arm through Maggoth’s elbow and squeezed hard. “And I have the most wonderful companion with whom I can share it all.”

“We have gained much here today,” said Maggoth smiling, but his eyes could not conceal his anguish. “We have also lost mu….”

“No Maggoth,” interrupted Selestia placing a finger on the Dark Wizard’s lips. “Today we shall rejoice. Tomorrow will be a time for mourning, but today we celebrate.” She reached deep down into one of her pockets. “I have a gift for Turpane.”

“Oh,” beamed the young Valacian. “What is it?”

“A memory,” said Selestia placing the anakhenium object in Turpane’s hand. “A memory of all that has transpired.”

“This is the handle of the Eldritch Blade is it not?”

“Yes. I hope you find it a fitting gift to remember us by?”

“Remember you? How will I ever forget you?” Her eyes widened as she suddenly remembered something. “I have something for both of you as well. Actually it already belongs to Maggoth. I borrowed it from the great hall in your keep. I was planning on putting it back, but I guess that that is quite impossible now.”

Turpane gently dropped the tiny object into Selestia’s waiting hand. The sorceress lifted it to the light and studied the small insect-like creature trapped inside the ruby-coloured megornex. “A moonbug*!” she exclaimed in delight. “Wonderful! Do you have any idea why it is called a moonbug?”

Turpane shrugged. “Because it only comes out at night when the moon is shining?”

“No, because it has a lifecycle of approximately one moon. From the time they are hatched they have only one moon in which they must find a mate in order to continue the propagation of their species.

“You will most likely find them in areas such as this.” Selestia pointed towards the marshlands. “But you will be fortunate to ever find one at all. Moonbugs are very rare, and so it is not uncommon that most moonbugs never encounter other moonbugs during their entire short lifespan.”

“That is terrible! Never ever getting to meet someone like yourself. Never having the chance to love or even be loved. That is the saddest thing that I have ever heard.”

“You are most correct,” said Maggoth taking the megornex from Selestia’s hand. He held it out flat in the palm of his hand. “That is the saddest thing ever.”

The gemstone proceeded to slowly melt. The little insect-like creature struggled, but eventually pulled itself free of the viscous blob. Its tiny gossamer wings began to beat furiously up and down. It lifted into the air, circled a few times between the trio and then darted off towards the inviting moistness of the Artanian marshland.

“Go with haste!” shouted Turpane waving. “Not a moment to waste.”

“Maggoth?” exclaimed Selestia inquiringly. “I thought it was your purpose to preserve life?”

“No, I have never once managed to preserve a life. I have only succeeded in postponing death. All too often we fool ourselves when we try to do good or think we are performing some sort of advantageous service.

“Now there is one more moonbug on Baltrath. That, I believe will greatly increase the possibility of a moonbug union.” Maggoth folded his hand into a tight fist and then slowly opened it. The megornex had once more solidified into a beautiful trap-cut gemstone. “This is a wonderful gift, Turpane. In fact, it is the perfect gift. I am eternally grateful to you. From henceforth whenever I should gaze into this vacant megornex, its reminders shall no doubt fill the empty spaces inside of me.”

“Do you still wonder why I chose you over Kronos,” sighed Selestia. “Only you could take the mating habits of a small organism and turn it into something so profoundly philosophical yet romantic.” Maggoth frowned scoldingly. “No, I am not being sarcastic,” she retorted with a most serious tone in her voice.

“Where will you go now?” asked Turpane. “What will you do?”

“Everywhere!” exclaimed Selestia stretching her arms wide.

“Everything!” added Maggoth. There was a short silence. “But first we must return to Bryntha. I too have the handle of a sword.” He reached inside his leather pouch and removed the hilt of Groad’s sword that had been severed by the Eldritch Blade during the fray with Zarkas. “I wish to take this to Lorra and Ublar Tar. I think it is time that they heard the truth.”

“I agree!” exclaimed the young Valacian.

“And then,” added the sorceress, “We shall have to return you to Frybur.”

“Oh,” said Turpane disappointedly, “I was hoping that you would be willing to take me with you?” She batted her long dark eyelashes. “Just for awhile at least? After all, life is far too short and precious to squander away by staying at home.”

Before Maggoth or Selestia were able to answer, Turpane turned sharply and began to scan between the scattered soldiers that were slowly starting to form small bewildered groups across the open section of dry land. She narrowed her eyes and frowned. “Where is Daleth?”


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