Part Three - Into the Fray
The colors of the portal spun around us, dizzying. It was a great relief when they finally settled, revealing the world of the living.
We stood atop our fortress, a mighty forest surrounding us. The pyramid from the Senate awaited us. As we watched, it split into three pieces, two of which dissipated, revealing a male and female wizard. The girl wore a simple blue dress, with black hair tied back in a ponytail. The man was dressed in a green tunic and brown leggings, with messy brown hair. The last shard spun in place, as runes lit around it. I look at Layla.
"You left the protection spell up?"
"Yeah, why wouldn't I? It wouldn't do anything to agents of the Senate."
The girl cut in, noisily chewing gum. "Well, the guy in that shard is one of us, so you'll let him in, yeah?" Layla's eyes narrowed.
"I don't appreciate being ordered around."
The man interjects. "Layla, - may I call you Layla? - Ashei here grew up past the border. Her father was too busy keeping the family alive to teach her manners. We beg forgiveness for anything she says that offends you."
"Alright, but a little info on the Dark guy would be nice."
"He's not Dark," Ashei interjects. "Skorp is just a Skewed Runic."
"Skewed?" I ask. "I thought Skewed runes were outlawed years ago."
"Hate to break it to ya, kid, but you're a bit behind the times," says the man. "Let me start by introducing myself. I'm Quinn, specializing in Earth magic, but unsealed. Ashei over there is a Sealed Water wizard, and Skorpio... It's best if he tells you himself. Which he can't do until he materializes."
Layla got the hint. With a wave of her hand and a spark of ley, she allowed Skorp to enter the boundaries of the fortress. The orange light finally dissapated, revealing this mysterious Runic wizard.
He wore dark clothes, with hair to match. All that broke the black was a streak of white through his hair. When he lifted his head, purple eyes seemed to look straight through us.
"Before you prejudice yourselves against me, I'm not Skewed by choice." His voice was deep and piercing, with a quality that demanded your attention. "I ran into the Devourer."
The very name sent a shiver down my spine. I looked at Layla, and she was staring at me. There was fear in her eyes.
"When we died," she said, "The seal was just beginning to fray."
"That," says Skorpio, "is because Salin gave up his weapon for one of the Devourer's. The ley in that sword was enough to hold him back. If the council hadn't been so hasty, he could've kept making offerings until we could find a group to help him reseal the Devourer. Now, it's been five years since you died. The Devourer broke the seal maybe a month afterwards. Oh, and he has his sword. The merest touch of it can kill a wizard when that dark fiend wields it."
"Alright," I say, "Lets go kill the twisted thing."
"It's not that simple," says Ashei. "You haven't been fighting him for five years. His avatar has nearly unlimited power, mastery over all the elements, and every Dark wizard in the Shadowlands at his disposal. We don't dare teleport, or he'll sense us. The only way in is overland, and you have to strike the finishing blow. On that note, you've got no experience against him whatsoever. If you hadn't gone and bonded yourself to him, we would've had him before you ever reincarnated." A jeweled dagger leapt to her hand. "I should kill you now and release the bond."
"Patience, Ashei," says Skorpio. "If you kill him, the Devourer jumps to full power just as if he dies by a Dark agent's hand. Our best shot is Salin."
"and Ashei?" says Quinn, "If what I see in him is true, Salin has a bit of a trump card that answers a whole lot of questions."
"Questions?" I ask. "Like what?"
"How about two years into his reign, the Devourer jumped from your level of mastery to complete mastery of all elements, yet the bond holds, just as it did before the Devourer made this wizard his avatar."
A cold feeling creeps over me. "Who's the avatar?"
"Kron. Don't worry, Kron has another death before you go with him."
"The Devourer is limited by his host, and kills him slowly. If the avatar is destroyed by anyone but The Devourer, the link between the two is broken."
"And if the Devourer finishes him before I do?"
"You die with Kron. Now, why don't you show us that nice little artifact you have there?" Quinn flashed a smile, filled with perfect white teeth. I reached into myself on instinct, finding the ball and chain. With a thought, I expelled it from my body. Light poured from my hands, joining them and forming a sphere in the middle. In a heartbeat, the light solidified and formed the artifact. Quinn, Ashei, and Skorpio audibly gasped.
"Nice toy." says Ashei. "Is that what I think it is?"
An oaken staff appears in Quinn's hand. "Let's find out," he says. He uses the staff to pull the chain out of my hand, dropping it and the ball off the roof, to the ground far below. There is a moment of stillness. A beam of light shoots up from the ground, curving towards my hands. When it hits, the light forms my artifact. There is a collective gasp from everyone but myself. "Yep." says Quinn, "That's it. Salin, you have no idea how lucky you are. That weapon will make things a million times easier for you."
"Alright." Skorpio's voice cut across our conversation, commanding our attention. "We need to get moving. The Devourer grows every minute, and Salin doesn't have much time.
"Thanks for the reminder."
We covered little ground that day, barely managing to leave the forest. It had been charmed for defensive purposes, to mislead Dark forces seeking to attack us. With the corrosive influence of the Devourer, Layla could not circumvent her enchantments. Though Skorpio managed to undo some of them with his Skewed runes, it was sunset when we finally reached the border.
"We can go no further," said Skorpio. "In these dangerous times, travel at night is suicide. We should camp here for the night." He sparked a few runes, and a circle around us began to glow. The trees disappeared and the ground cleared within it's limits. A cool silver glow spread over the ground. I looked around, and Ashei stood by a dome, pulsing with blue veins. She touched it, and dissolved to light of the same shade, which flowed into the dome.As I continued my survey, I spotted Quinn fading into meditation, on a dais between two oak trees. Skorpio looked at us, ley at his fingertips. "Before I rest, do you two have a tent? It's not necessary within the circle, but it's always nice to have one."
"Actually, Skorpio, we do, but our last quest was years ago. I'll try to summon it," said Layla. She sparked a rune I had forgotten about, and the landscape twisted. I fell to the ground, along with Layla and Skorpio.
"Okay," I say, "I don't think it's still stable."
"No matter," says Skorpio, "I can create one for you both. Do you mind sharing?" Layla and I look at each other. "I can simply provide you with a compacted space, for you to furnish as you see fit."
"No," says Layla, "I suppose we dont."
"Excellent. I love doing this." Skorpio raised his hand, sparking several runes. They shined with a pale silver glow as Skorpio worked, allowing us to see a bare matrix began to form. It resembled a wire model, etched in the air. A cube upon the outside, the inside was carefully formed, a complex tangle of runes and pure ley. The model completed with the gateway rune forming in the center, encircled by a vein of ley that reached to the edges of the cube. Finally, the glow of the ground flowed up to complete the shelter, filling in the wire model. When it completed, the vein surrounding the gateway rune began to glow, light creeping to the circle from the edges.
"Thank you, Skorpio," I say.
"No problem. Shelter's used to be my specialty." Before I could ask him what had happened, he turned his back. With a spark of ley, twisting, purple columns rose from the ground, weaving together to form a small cave. Skorpio stepped inside, and the entrance sealed behind him.
I turned to Layla.
"Leave him be," she said, "He'll tell us everything when he trusts us." She touches the gateway rune, and dissolves into the cube. With a sigh, I follow suit.
Inside the cube, I find myself on a platform of solid rock... in the middle of a river of lava.
"Salin!" Layla cries from somewhere ahead, "This is awesome! You've got to get off the platforms quickly, and create new ones as you jump. Follow the flow, Salin. It'll guide you to our chamber."
Taking her advice, I leap. A bit of ley strengthens my muscles and lightens me as I do so, allowing me to travel a ways downstream before I'm forced to land again, using Water and Earth magic to force together a platform in the lava. After a few jumps like this, I pass through a doorway.
The room beyond is much different. Dusty brick walls surround me, and the floor feels like granite. Behind me, the doorway has gone dark except for the gateway rune in the center. Layla lies in one of two hammocks hanging from the ceiling, high off the ground. A tad of Air magic, and I'm
sitting in mine.
"It's really quite interesting, the makeup of this place. I think Skorpio set the entrance so that it changes every time, to keep us on our feet and in practice."
"Layla, that's nice and all, but we've been marching through that forest all day. I'm tired, and all I really care about right now is getting some sleep." Layla laughs, high and clear, like the tinkle of a bell. Jumping from her hammock with grace, she lands on a platform that wasn't there before. It rises to the level of our hammocks, and she walks over to hug me.
"Get some sleep, then," she says. "We'll be marching through less-protected territory from here on."
I smile, then turn over to face the wall. The platform dissipates as she lies in her own hammock. In moments, I've drifted off.
We were woken in the middle of the night by a piercing shriek. An eerie red glow pressed in on us from all sides, emanating from the walls, but most strongly from the gateway rune. We jumped from our hammocks.
“Something’s wrong,” says Layla. “The Devourer himself could be pressing in. Salin, don’t rush out there. Let me check.” It was too late, I was already leaping for the rune. The moment my fingers touched it, the world dissolved.
I traveled to the outside without event, despite Layla’s warning. Nothing unusual registered until I emerged from the teleport. Outside of our camp, the ground had cracked and blackened. Vegetation had withered and died. The air itself seemed thicker, heavier. At the edge of the cool blue disc representing our warded area, bright red flames licked the earth. With every second, they closed in on us, destroying our area of safety. The shelters were also in bad shape. Ashei’s dome wavered and dimmed, the power within it pulsing in an attempt to stay alive. Quinn’s oak trees had twisted, sprouting thorns. Our cube seemed to have a red glow on the outside, creeping inward. Skorpio’s shelter was ablaze, the red flames eating through everything effortlessly. A voice emanates from the darkness behind me.
“Don’t worry,” says Skorpio, stepping from the darkness. “I got out. Now to make sure my companions are that lucky. Though, of course, we might not survive this.” The thought of failure brought on rage. I had already died once at the hands of The Devourer, and didn’t intend to do so again. The ball and chain leapt to my hands, and flew out towards one of the flames. The flame was snuffed as the ball struck it, shooting to the end of its tether.
“We shall survive. At least until The Devourer is vanquished,” I say.
“I’m glad to hear that.” Skorpio conjures a gong, then bows and steps aside. “Would you care to do the honors?”
“Gladly.” I smirk as I swing the ball and chain around my head twice, then throw it at the gong. The chain wraps itself around my wrist, anchoring it there as the ball leaps to the chain’s end, this time glowing silver with Air magic. The resulting note pierces the forest as the chain retracts, bringing the ball with it. Quinn and Ashei materialize from their respective shelters.
“Okay, guys,” says Skorpio. “You all know the drill. Standard flames, standard cause. Ashei, will you start us off?” Ashei smiled, and in an instant we were standing within a pillar of flame. It swirled around us for a split second before exploding outward, halting at the edge of our camp. The flames rise high before dying entirely. Not a lick of fire remained, whether it be Light or Dark. “Good. We’re safe for now.”
“What in the Planes just happened?” I say. “You told me she was Sealed!”
“Calm yourself, Salin, and look at her through the ley,” says Skorpio. “Her technique is, ah, unique.”
Carefully, I detached my mind from my body, allowing it to flow into the ley lines. My mental senses opened as my physical senses shut down, and my body fades into nothing, a shimmer where my ring is all that remains. The world of ley opens itself to me. I could sense everything. The shelters felt like knots in the lines, with more inside than out. In one of these knots, the glow of concentrated power shone through, a sign that Layla was within it. The others appeared hollow. About a mile to the north, I could feel another knot. This one was more pinched than others, and shone brightly enough to be sensed from long distances away. Quinn was easily seen, glowing with raw energy. I knew this to be the mark of the Elemental wizard, and that I would look the same to anyone on this plane. Skorpio seemed concentrated, but flitted in and out of my vision in a manner I had never seen. Ashei shimmered in a way that seemed raw, but limited. I looked at this and knew she was Sealed. The interesting part was her clothing. Ley glowed between every stitch, in every element. The ley here seemed shaped, as if it was to produce a certain effect. It shone through everywhere, with the exception of her gloves. I watched as ley began to flow into it, shaping itself. It was just flexible enough to bend to the users will, but shimmered in a way that suggested Fire. I returned to my body, but not before I sensed a darkness at the edges of our camp.
"That was interesting," I say, "but we've got company." At my words, three beasts leap out of the shadows as our protective enchantments shatter. The reassuring glow fades from the ground. The beasts rear up, roaring at a high pitch. Skorpio's body shimmers, and three tendrils of light leap from his hand and curl around each other, forming a sort of blade. He stabs one of the beasts, and the dagger cuts through it like butter. The beast falls to the ground. Ashei narrows her eyes, electricity crackling along her clothing. She raises a hand, and an orb of light materializes, bent into this form from the starlight above us. She ducks as one of the remaining beasts swipes at her, with tendrils made of long shadows. As she ducks the blow, the beast touches the orb. Light spreads across the beast's body, instantly enveloping it. The beast shatters with a high-pitched scream, fading into the night. All of this took about two seconds.
The final beast stands there as Ashei, Quinn, and Skorpio converge on it. At the last moment, the world pulses red, and everything freezes. I look around. The trees have stopped swaying in the wind. My companions are frozen in mid-leap, each with a weapon held high for a killing lunge. The beast steps out from the circle they form.
The thought echoes in my mind, the source unmistakably the beast.
"Impedimenta," it repeats, "Come."
"Not without Layla."
The beast is motionless for a moment, then pads over to my shelter. It brushes the construct with a tentacle. A redness creeps over it, and it dissolves into a mist. This mist forms into a vaguely human shape, and eventually into my partner. The beast walks into the forest to the north. "If you want to see what has happened, you will come. If not, I will leave."
We followed it.