~ Chapter 16 ~
Feng took the lead. Aiden knew the Buwah were born warriors, but he could not understand how Feng could stride into battle when his strength was useless against a magwan.
Feng suddenly toppled backwards. ‘Gwarf’ he huffed, as he hit the ground. They stopped, energy balls at the ready. Feng stood and inched forward with his hand outstretched. “An energy shield!” he announced.
Eulo motioned Feng away and extended his staff, holding it high. A brilliant white light burst forth, opening a shimmering hole in the shield. Eulo motioned them through.
For half an hour they travelled, Aiden leading them along the path he had taken so many times in his dreams. They moved past a black stream that blended in with the ground, across a desolate plain, and on to the cave entrance in the rocky mountain.
This was it. There was no turning back. He turned to Eulo.
“Lead on,” Eulo said, gesturing towards the tunnel.
Aiden had hoped for a masterful strategy to be unveiled, or at least for some words of encouragement. He took a deep breath and slowly entered the cave. He did not feel like hurrying to meet the Master. He felt unprepared. He wanted a plan.
Eulo and Shadow were two paces behind him, followed by Matong, Cosmo, Sarah-Jane, Amber, the Oken, Kayeed and Feng. Aiden navigated through the myriad of dank, dark tunnels. Matong created the smallest of energy balls, that shed no more light than a candle, casting shadows that danced. At every turn, Aiden expected something to leap out.
At one junction, Eulo stopped.
“I think this way, Aiden.”
“But that’s not the way.”
“It is the way we need to go,” said Eulo, as the squirrel scurried down the tunnel.
They moved silently no one speaking, yet every breath and step seemed amplified tenfold. The tunnel twisted and turned, narrowing and widening unexpectedly. At times they could stand four abreast, and at others Feng struggled to squeeze through.
Matong stepped alongside Eulo, rudely bumping Aiden to the side. His red eyes shone like beacons in the eerie blackness of his hood.
“Eulo, she is close.”
“Thank you, Matong.”
They reached an open area with rooms and tunnels branching off. The squirrel sat by one of the rooms. Aiden heard a familiar humming.
Goolma walked out. She had lost considerable weight, and with a shriek came running, arms outstretched. Feng leapt between Eulo and the advancing seer, raising his barbed club.
Matong hissed. “Explain yourself or die, seer!”
Goolma stopped short and looked affronted.
Eulo dodged Feng and embraced her. “Do tell us what is happening.”
“He keeps me starved!” she wailed.
“Yes, I see,” said Eulo, looking her up and down with concern. “We have ample provisions on our ship. We will have a feast as soon as we return.”
“Thank you, Eulo. I knew you would understand... Ah, yes there are things you must know, the Master has one of the staffs from Alma, he wants Aiden, Mathorg is here also... and an abomination he has created called Obun.” Goolma glanced past Eulo. “The Sleepers are here, good.”
Matong glided forward, so close he could have licked her nose. “You maintain the prophecy is true?”
“Why, yes,” she said indignantly. “Mostly, anyway.”
“Tell me about Toora,” Eulo murmured.
Goolma started shaking. “Toora was doomed, I foresaw it, it could not be prevented... He promised – if I gave the false prophecy... but he lied, I knew he would... I too will perish...” Goolma paused. “But the prophecy will hold true; he may have destroyed himself.” She broke down wailing, and the sound echoed through the tunnels.
Aiden looked around uneasily. If the Master had not known they were here, Goolma had announced it. Kayeed and Feng, like coiled springs, stood ready to strike at any danger. Prince Orka, Otha, Sarah-Jane and Cosmo had energy balls already forming in their hands as they glanced from tunnel to tunnel expectantly. Amber cleaned her glasses on her top then peered into some of the nearby rooms. Eulo held Goolma’s arm reassuringly.
“He is waiting,” she said, and sniffled. “Unless we can stop him, he will destroy all the Alliance planets.” She collapsed into uncontrollable wailing again.
Eulo and Matong stiffened and turned towards a distant room.
“Mathorg,” hissed Matong, as two bolts of white energy shot out of a distant room. Sarah-Jane moved with lightning speed, throwing up a shield, blocking one blast from hitting Goolma. The other blast exploded on the ceiling. The rock cracked and groaned. They ran into the nearest tunnels, raising energy shields above them. Sarah-Jane threw a white ball that thundered into the distant room. Prince Orka and Cosmo fired silver balls as they ran. Aiden dived into a tunnel as slabs of rock crashed behind him. A deafening roar tore through the air and propelled him into the ground.
An eerie silence followed. Dust settled, stinging Aiden’s eyes. Prince Orka pushed past him, light in hand, and examined the sealed tunnel entrance. With a grunt, he pushed against the fallen rock. It did not budge.
“Anyone hurt?” asked Aiden, not sure who had made it into this tunnel. He heard a muffled, ‘I’m fine,’ from Cosmo and grunts from two figures in front of him, who revealed themselves as Neba and Otha.
“Help! They have me...” came a frantic message from Amber.
Aiden tried to send a message back. “I can’t get through. They’ve got Amber,” he gasped, his heart pounding as he pushed deep into the tunnel. “This way,” he shouted. Prince Orka paused before signalling Otha and Neba to follow.
A message from Eulo brought Aiden to an abrupt halt. They were safe. Aiden replied they were going after Amber.
Aiden’s instincts took over. His only thought was to get to Amber. They can’t hurt her, not Amber! He muttered curses and lifelong vengeance against anyone who harmed her. They swept along, Aiden navigating by sense rather than knowledge. The tunnel opened into a spacious room with side tunnels branching off. Noiselessly, they spread out against the wall. Eyes darted from one tunnel to the next. Energy balls glowed ready. Neba stood close to the prince. Danger was near.
Mathorg leisurely stepped out of a tunnel. He looked identical to Matong, except for his shimmering orange cloak.
Mathorg stood regarding them, his red eyes glistening. “You may pass Aiden; the others go no further.”
“We go together,” Aiden said, taking a step forward. “Where’s Amber?”
“She is with him. They wait for you.” He hurled a bolt of yellow energy at the group. Neba leapt in front of the prince and the blast cannonballed them backward. Otha and Cosmo fell like bowling pins. Cosmo’s head thudded on the stone floor. Smoke rose from Neba’s still form. Prince Orka and Otha sprang back to their feet. With frills and nostrils flaring, they threw energy balls at Mathorg that deflected harmlessly off his shield.
“Is that it?” he hissed disdainfully.
Hatred rose within Aiden. The lizard had destroyed Toora and taken Amber. His cloudy eyes crystallised and focused on Mathorg. The creature fell back, the smirk dropping from his face, as Aiden became a blur of brilliant white light. His face contorted in disbelief and horror as he burst into flames.
Aiden turned and saw Prince Orka and Otha breathing heavily from the exertion of the attack they had unleashed to kill Mathorg.
Otha knelt by Neba. He looked mournfully up. “He is dead, my prince.”
Cosmo was breathing. Aiden looked anxiously from his unconscious friend to the tunnel leading to Amber. At Orka’s command, Otha stayed behind with Neba and Cosmo.
“This way,” directed Aiden, running past the smouldering remains of Mathorg. As they ran Aiden sent a message to Eulo. “Neba and Mathorg are dead. Cosmo is unconscious. We are getting close to Amber.” Even as he sent it, he received one. “This way,” it commanded, pulling him down the tunnel.
The sense of danger that filled Aiden was immense. Yet he ran to embrace it. Amber was close, and his journey and nightmares would soon end.
Surge ran by his side. “Prepare,” he advised, and they burst into the cavern of Aiden’s dreams, walls blue-lit by torches.
Aiden and the prince halted. Moments passed, then Aiden’s legs moved him stiffly towards the Master and the shining staff. He could see Amber crouching frightened at the Master’s feet. She was safe for now. He looked at the Master for the first time.
He was flaky, fragile and beyond mending, like a wooden statue that had warped from centuries of sun and rain. Yet power radiated from him. His form was hard to discern. Perhaps it was something akin to the Yendi, only the Master looked like something raised from the dead. He wore all black, sparkling black as if made from the night sky. Aiden’s eyes got tangled in the depth and beauty of the glittering stars. Only when he pulled his gaze back to the dried-up skin that hung loosely on the Master’s face, did he remember where he was.
To the Master’s right stood a creature. It had the height and breadth of a Buwah and the skin, eyes and fangs of a Mulgoa. Its yellow tongue flickered and curled, as if tasting the air.
A force pulled Aiden forward. He ignored the loss of control over his body. He still had control of his mind.
He was no longer scared; he knew what the Master wanted.
“You called,” he said.
“Yes,” rasped the Master, his withered ears rising.
“Let Amber and Orka go. You don’t want them.”
“Not yet. They may still be of use. I have waited a long time for this moment. Together, Aiden we will achieve great things.”
“As you can see, my body has seen better days. I need a new one, but not just any one. I had Goolma make a prophecy for me that would send the Alliance searching for a being that would destroy me, when in fact it was to bring me a suitable being with which to join.
Ogmore picked you. A good choice, though the fool nearly had you killed on Dreng when he sabotaged the wrong burden. When we join, a new being with unrivalled powers will be created. It will not be me, and it will not be you - it will be us – a being that is the best of us both. We will fashion this galaxy to our liking.”
“I will not join with you. You repulse me!” spat Aiden.
The Master leaned forward. “I understand your reluctance, but by joining with me you will achieve immortality – powers beyond your imagining.”
“I don’t expect there would be much of me left!”
“Not even I can control the nature of the new being. We will cease to exist, and a new entity will be born. But our memories and desires will live on.”
“What did you do to me during the imprinting?”
“It was the first stage of our joining. I have worked on the procedure for centuries, for alas, the Source cannot prolong the life of our bodies indefinitely. I have managed to get more years from this body than any other magwan could have, but my time is near. Joining requires vast amounts of energy, and two willing minds that share similar structures. I used the imprinting to add new structures to your brain, to accommodate my own and implant in you some of my memories. I laid the foundation for the joining.”
“Have you put any commands into me?”
“There was no need.” He smiled. “I knew you would come to me. And I can control your body and mind as easily as I control my own.”
A wave of relief flowed through Aiden. This was what he had hoped. He could trust his own feelings and thoughts. He could rely on his intuition. He was still himself, at least for now.
“What makes you think I will join with you?”
“Welcome, Eulo,” announced the Master, and Eulo strode into the cavern gripping his staff, which shone a brilliant white. Matong, behind him, circled to the left and Kayeed to the right. Aiden’s spirits rose. Help had arrived. Goolma sat shaking against the tunnel entrance, talking quietly and earnestly with Sarah-Jane. Shadow and the squirrel sat watchfully at their feet.
Matong and Kayeed, straining against an invisible force, slowly knelt. Eulo’s progress forwards faltered, but his frail, half-starved figure remained defiantly upright.
“Your time is short, Eulo. I thank you for bringing me Aiden and the third staff of Alma. Obun, this staff will be yours.”
The half Buwah, half Mulgoa formed a twisted smile and hissed his satisfaction.
“Do not thank me yet, Raglan!” boomed Eulo.
Aiden’s mind flooded with recognition. Raglan! The greatest magwan ever to have lived!
The Master gave a throaty chuckle. “I have not used that name since I was in the Alliance Council. It has been a long time. But it does not matter now.”
Eulo’s staff began to tremble. His grip tightened, but he could not stop it from flying to Obun, who caught it and ran his huge claws along it admiringly. Eulo returned his focus to Raglan.
“I was not even born when you disappeared, thought to be dead along with the other magwans on Alma. You were indeed a great magwan... once. You were the galaxy’s crusader for peace and understanding. You journeyed for a hundred years gathering knowledge in the outer planets of the galaxy when no other magwan dared venture so far from the Source. But you changed. You sought personal power, not just knowledge. I am guessing you led the expedition to create the staffs on Alma, to lengthen your own life and take control of the galaxy. We know nothing about what happened on Alma, but I think I can guess.”
“History does not record everything, Eulo. I stood alone in the galaxy. I saw the potential in the outer planets. Knowledge is power. This is what the other magwans failed to grasp. They clustered around the Source like young afraid to leave the nest. On Alma, I unveiled a new order in the galaxy. I proposed that we form a new Council. Too long had magwans served the Alliance, when we had the power to rule alone. Against our seven staffs, the Alliance Council would have had no choice but to hand over control of the galaxy.
But the fools rejected it. Most died, destroying their staffs before I could take them. I tried to turn others, but they went mad. I did not have the abilities I have now. Only these two staffs survived.”
“What manner of creature is this?” said Eulo, looking with revulsion at Obun.
“A very special one. I have combined the strength and loyalty of the Buwah with the powers and intelligence of the Mulgoa.”
“You cannot manipulate species to suit your needs.”
“Oh, but I can!”
Cosmo staggered into the cavern, blood in his hair and smeared down his face. Sarah-Jane tried desperately to wave him away. With a yelp, he soared through the air, and across the cavern, crashing to the ground near Amber. He let out a gurgling groan. Sarah-Jane reached helplessly towards him but couldn’t move her legs.
Aiden’s body trembled and he could hardly breathe. Cosmo needed him urgently.
Eulo had one knee on the floor, his face straining as he fought Raglan’s will. Raglan turned his attention back to Aiden. “You asked a question before we were interrupted. This is why you will join with me,” he said, sweeping his withered hand around the cavern. “Your friends are powerless against me. Some are dying as we speak.”
“Let me heal Cosmo,” Aiden pleaded.
“Once we are joined we will heal those that remain.”
“We can’t join,” spat Aiden, his anger rising. “You would lose your army of bugs. I’ve been marked by the Horde!”
Raglan rubbed his chin. “Unfortunate, but they have served their purpose.”
Aiden searched for inspiration. “Surge,” he called in his mind. “I need help!”
Surge stood by Aiden’s side. “Focus Aiden. What have your dreams been telling you? What is your life mission?”
“Life mission? Not now Surge. Tell me what to do.”
“This is your journey, Aiden. You must do what you must.”
“I can’t fight him, Surge. Everyone’s caught. He controls everything.”
Aiden looked around. Cosmo lay still. Eulo was weakening to Raglan’s will. Matong, with a look of loathing, glared from his humbled position on his knees. They were two of the most powerful magwans in the galaxy. Goolma began to wail again, huddled against the wall with Sarah-Jane, both unable to move. Shadow and the squirrel were nowhere in sight.
Then it dawned on him. His dreams had told him to join with Raglan. A tear ran down his cheek. How had it come to this?
He lowered his head. “I’ll join,” he said quietly.
There was a hush within the cavern. Not even the air stirred. Raglan leaned back in satisfaction.
“Do it now!” gritted Aiden.
“There is nothing I would rather do,” said Raglan.
Aiden took a last look at his friends. His eyes met Amber’s and he felt an overwhelming sorrow. He said a silent goodbye to them all. His eyes closed as Raglan entered his mind. Warmth rippled through him, comforting and reassuring. In a far corner of his mind, Aiden diverted the last of his will to protect some essence of himself. He saw distant memories rush past, some his, some Raglan’s. A rush of excitement swept through him. This was what he wanted. But it was as if there were two parts of him, one longing to join and one resisting at all costs.
Part of him cried out ‘No’ and with great effort he left the safe corner of his mind and forced his eyes open a crack. He could see Raglan’s staff pulsate as it delivered the power for the joining. Raglan had closed his eyes. Cosmo lay motionless in a pool of blood. His eyes had lost their depth and cloudy swirls. Using the little part of himself that he still controlled, Aiden sent as much life force he could muster to Cosmo. Raglan’s power surged through him, and as if able to see a new dimension, Aiden could see the threads of Raglan’s will, fluorescent dancing lines weaving around the cavern, overwhelming everyone. Aiden dragged the power flooding through him into his safe corner and severed the threads of Raglan’s will touching Amber and Prince Orka, who were closest.
He heard Raglan’s command to Obun.
“Kill them all!”
Obun pointed Eulo’s staff at Matong. But Matong’s squirrel had other ideas. It flew out of the shadows and bit Obun’s leg. Shadow leapt through the air, her claws slashing at Obun’s face. Obun kicked the squirrel aside, and swatted Shadow away.
While Obun was distracted, Prince Orka fired an energy ball at him. He deflected it easily and fired back, slamming the prince backwards into the wall. Then Cosmo was somehow standing, with his own energy ball. Aiden’s head swam as the joining gathered momentum. Blood streamed down Obun’s cheek as he deflected Cosmo’s ball and sent him hurtling into the rock wall. He returned his focus to Matong.
Feng stormed in, bellowing a blood-curdling battle cry as he hurled his barbed club at Raglan. It stopped mid-air and fell dully to the ground. He let out another chilling battle cry and charged towards Obun.
Aiden knew he had only a few seconds of self-awareness remaining. Focussing fiercely, he withdrew Raglan’s hold on Matong, Kayeed and Eulo. “Your resistance is futile,” spoke Raglan within his mind. He felt himself falling, falling, into nothingness. It was cold, darker than any darkness. There was nothing to hold on to. He could hear his parents calling him, but he couldn’t speak. He had no power to help himself, and he fell deeper and deeper.
Surge appeared within the darkness. “Focus! What is your life mission?”
“To defeat Raglan,” came back a thought from somewhere.
The darkness started to fade.
“What is this? What have you done?” screeched Raglan deep within Aiden.
Aiden’s legs buckled beneath him as a cleansing wave of warmth flowed through his mind. The presence and surging power within him had vanished. Relishing having full control of himself again he opened his eyes.
Eulo stood, his staff back in his hand. A battered Obun crawled limply towards his master. Cosmo was helping Amber up; there was not a scratch on him. Prince Orka clutched his side. Raglan sat like a statue. His staff had lost its brilliance and was fading by the second.
A glint of pure evil danced across Matong’s eyes as he advanced. He flexed his long dark fingers. “Now it is my turn!”
Raglan smiled as if nothing had happened, and the mountain shook. “You betrayed me,” he rasped, with a casual flick of his hand towards Goolma and Sarah-Jane. A thunderous cracking sound erupted from the cavern roof above Goolma and Sarah-Jane .
Goolma grabbed Sarah-Jane with both arms. An odd spark passed from her to Sarah-Jane, and she hurled her to one side.
A huge slab of rock crashed down.
A blinding beam flashed from Eulo’s staff, engulfing Raglan. A flurry of energy balls from Matong, Prince Orka, Cosmo and Amber followed.
Time stopped. Raglan and Obun were lost within the light, so bright and fierce that no one could gaze upon it. The energy mass engulfing them swirled faster and faster then imploded. A shock wave rippled through the cavern, knocking everyone to the floor.
Aiden staggered back to his feet, ears ringing. Where Raglan and Obun had been were only the crumpled charred remains of the throne. The blue light was gone, and the cavern shone in the clean white of Eulo’s staff. Sarah-Jane, covered in dust, dug frantically at the rocks that buried Goolma.
* * *