Call of Avoozl

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Call of Avoozl

Postby SierraDude81 » Thu Jun 09, 2011 11:39 am

Call of Avoozl
Chapter 1

Alexei Vistana sat outside his wagon, gazing up at the Mordavian stars. He always marveled at the stars. The gypsies were by nature a roving people. They were never content to rest for long in any one place. They traveled the world, trading those things they had for those things they needed, and in doing so, they were witness to all the world's wonders. Ever-changing was the life of a gypsy. But throughout all their travels, the stars remained constant to guide them.

He glanced down at the fire, and the several wolves who were gathered there to bask in its warmth on this chill autumn night. It was the older wolves, mostly, like himself. The younger ones were out on the hunt, gathering food for the clan. There had been good hunting in Mordavia since they had arrived two weeks ago. Trade in town had been good as well. But despite the clan's apparent good fortune, Alexei was concerned. Something was not right in Mordavia, and he was certain it had to do with that abominable monastery. A cult had arisen in the valley since last the clan had been here some years ago. Such things happened from time to time, Alexei knew, but there was something very dark here. Just to look upon that monastery awoke strange sensations in him.

Alexei was startled by the cry of a wolf from close by. The hunt had returned. He stood, brushing the dirt from his clothing, and awakened the wolves by the fire. They were all gathered together when the pack entered the campfire circle.

"How went the hunt?" asked Alexei.

Several of the wolves brought forth a large deer, freshly killed. Alexei couldn't keep his eyes from lighting up at the sight.

"Excellent! Tonight we feast!" he cried, and several of the wolves howled in agreement. Alexei was about to assume his wolf form in order to take the first bite, as was his right as a Gypsy King, but a movement caught his eye. One of the wolves, a young one named Janos, had assumed his human form.

"I have some news, Alexei. It is important. May we speak?" asked the young one. Alexei hated to wait for this meal, but something in Janos' eyes told him that this really was important, and should not be put off.

"Very well. The rest of you may feast. Come with me, Janos." Janos walked forward, and together they entered Alexei's grand wagon. Alexei motioned for Janos to sit, and he did so. Alexei sat as well. He looked at the young wolf.

"What is this news you have, Janos?" he asked. Janos seemed to hesitate, but finally spoke.

"I saw something in the woods tonight, Alexei. We were hunting to the south, and I had broken off from the pack for a moment to chase down a rabbit. I saw strange lights in the distance, and heard a sound like the chanting of many men. I looked closer, and saw that it was a group of cultists from the monastery. Sergei Borgov was leading them."

Alexei started at this. The Boyar? Was he involved with this cult? "Tell me more," he said.

"They came upon a tall grey stone, which was unmarked and stands near the cave at Mount Malign. The Boyar held up a flask in which he had trapped some will o' wisps. The stone glowed where the light of the wisps touched it. The light revealed a strange circle carved into the stone, which I am sure was not there before. The Boyar touched a strange metal disk to the circle and then twisted the disk. A section of the stone opened, and he placed a paper inside. He started to speak, but the hunt was moving on and I could not stay."

"This is very troubling, Janos," said Alexei, sitting back in his chair. "I knew this cult was powerful, but I did not know it extended so far as to include the Boyar. Something must be done."

"What can we do, Alexei?" asked Janos. "We are not warriors, we are traders. We cannot fight something like this."

"Then we must seek help from someone who can."

"Who? The townsfolk tolerate us, but you know they don't trust us; they think us thieves, or worse. Who would help us."

"Piotyr would," said Alexei. "We must turn to him."

"Ah, yes, the paladin," said Janos, his eyes lighting up with enthusiasm. "I have never met him, but I have heard stories. He will help us. But we must send someone to tell him of the danger. May I go, Alexei?"

Alexei frowned. He should have been expecting this. Janos was always a little too eager for adventure. It worried Alexei.

"I am not sure, Janos. As you say, the townspeople dislike us. What's more, Piotyr may need our aid in this matter, and whoever goes must be prepared to render it."

"Then who better than I, Alexei?" said Janos. "You know I'm the fastest wolf in the pack. I can take care of myself. Besides, I'm the one who saw the Boyar in the first place. I know more about this matter than any of the others."

Alexei sighed. There was no denying Janos was right. He was the fastest, and he was very skilled. Alexei worried at the danger he would be placed in, but in the end, he could see no other choice.

"Very well, Janos. You have my permission. Go to Piotyr, tell him what you know, and give him whatever help you can."

Janos practically leaped from his chair. "Thank you Alexei," he said. "I'll make you proud. Don't worry about me." He was positively beaming as he left the wagon. Alexei stayed in his chair, scowling now. This boded no good. Something evil was building in the valley, and he shuddered at the thought of the gypsies being entangled in it. He looked out the window at the other wolves feasting, but did not join them. He had lost his appetite.


Chapter 2

Janos left early the next morning. He had felt little need to sleep, so he had spent his time packing and thinking about what awaited him. A paladin! He could scarcely believe it. All his life, the gypsies had told him stories of the paladins. They told how the paladins were true heroes all, giving selflessly to others, and as such they were always to be considered gypsy friends. They told also how the paladin was a terror on the field of battle, and that one could find no better ally should he find himself facing the forces of darkness. It was exhilarating! To actually meet such a person!

Janos began to whistle a little tune as he walked. The forest was tranquil this morning. The sun had not long ago risen above the eastern mountains, and a bit of the night's chill still lingered. Janos would have preferred to travel in wolf form, but a wolf can hardly carry a pack, and the pack contained Janos' necessities: a bedroll, some carefully packaged food, and a tin flask of water. Rarely was a gypsy allowed to stay at Mordavia's inn, so Janos assumed it best to be prepared. And of course, should anything really dangerous come up, he had several daggers tucked safely in his belt.

It was not long before Janos found himself within sight of the town. It was a small, rural place, nestled at the foot of the northern mountains. There were some fairly sizable farms to the south, and not far from the gates, the main road split. The eastern track, Janos knew, led to the castle of the Boyar, Sergei Borgov. Janos wondered what sort of man he could be to be involved in this cult. He had seen him before, to be sure, since Sergei was given to traveling throughout the forest when the mood struck him. But it would not do for a Boyar to be seen associating too closely with gypsies, so Janos had never spoken to the man.

Bah, such musings were useless. Janos had a task before him, and he intended to carry it out. Shifting his pack on his shoulder, he strode through the open gates and into the town of Mordavia. It was a small town, and could almost be considered quaint. Janos looked around. Most of the houses were still shut, but he could see some of the windows opening to greet the morning. The smell of roasting sausages with just a hint of garlic spice wafted down from the inn, and Janos' stomach began rumbling. He would have to see to breakfast, and soon. Some of the townsfolk, out for an early morning stroll, stared at him as he walked, but he paid them no mind. Instead, he set his sights for the building in the distance. A wooden sign over the door read "Burgomeister." That was where he wanted to go. He walked toward the building and up to the window. It was already open. Apparently, the Burgomeister liked to be up and around before everyone else. Janos rapped on one of the open shutters, and presently a stout man in a fur vest appeared. He walked to the window, and commenced to study Janos up and down. He then met Janos' gaze with a quizzical look tinged with annoyance. A lone gypsy in town was a rare occurrence.

"What do you want, gypsy?" asked the man, whom Janos knew to be Yuri Andropov.

"I have a name, you know," said Janos.

"I'm sure. What are you selling?" asked Andropov. Janos fumed. The man obviously felt a lone gypsy to be beneath his respect, and he was not afraid to show it.

"I am not selling anything. I am here to see someone," said Janos, trying to remain as calm as possible. Andropov glanced up with a bit more interest showing on his face.

"Ah, are you know? Who might you be looking for?" Andropov seemed slightly amused, but there was a definite hint of suspicion still in his eyes.

"The paladin Piotyr," replied Janos. Andropov's face darkened immediately. He leaned forward and spoke in a low hiss.

"Look here. I don't know why you've come here, but I'm certain it's for no good. If it weren't for Piotyr's specific instructions to let anyone see him, I'd have you thrown out of town and back to your filthy camp. As it is, since Piotyr is a friend, I will respect his wish and take you to him. But be warned. If I hear that even one kopek has disappeared from Piotyr's home, I'll find you and I'll have your throat!"

Janos kept his face calm, but inside he was raging. The man was insufferable! At this moment, Janos would have liked nothing more than to embed several of his daggers in the man's chest. It would have been a simple thing. Janos was nimble and strong, and Yuri Andropov was overweight and slow. Janos could be gone before Andropov even knew he was dead. The thought was... entertaining. But Janos had a job to do, and if it meant standing here and let this man insult his honor, then so be it.

"I... understand," he said. "Please take me to Piotyr."

Andropov grunted, and went back inside. He locked up his office, including his window, and pointed Janos in the direction of Piotyr's house. Janos noticed that he was careful to stay a few steps behind, so that he could watch Janos' movements. He was apparently taking no chances.

They came upon a small, unassuming house near the edge of town. Andropov walked up and rapped loudly on the door. In a few moments, it was answered by a tall, impressive looking man. His build indicated immediately that he was a warrior, but in his eyes there shone an intelligence that Janos had found lacking in most of the fighters he had ever run across. Such a man, Janos thought, could either be a great ally, or a terrible foe. There was no question he had found the paladin Piotyr.

"Yes, Yuri, what is it?" he asked, looking at the two men.

"This gypsy wishes to speak to you, Piotyr. I myself do not trust him, but you gave me specific instructions and..."

"Yes, yes, thank you Yuri. It's always nice to have guests. If I need anything else, I'll know just who to turn to," said Piotyr. Yuri, sensing he had been dismissed stalked off muttering softly to himself. Piotyr turned to face Janos.

"It is very nice to meet you," he said. "My name is Piotyr."

"You may call me Janos," replied Janos.

"It is a pleasure, Janos. Now then, please come inside." Piotyr stepped to one side and gestured for Janos to enter. Janos nodded, and walked through the open doorway. The house inside was cozy, if a bit small. There was little decoration, but there was a shelf filled with books. Janos scanned the titles, but found little to interest him. Most of them were about historical battles, or tactics of warfare.

Piotyr stepped inside and shut the door behind him. He motioned for Janos to sit, and Janos did so. Piotyr took a seat near him. "What can I do for you?" he asked. Janos related the story of last night's hunt, and the conclusions he had reached with Alexei. He tried to omit no detail. When he had finished, Piotyr seemed lost in thought.

"This is a grave matter, indeed," said Piotyr when he had collected his thoughts. "I have had my suspicions about the cult ever since they came to this valley, but I had no idea that their influence spread so far. Each time I walk near that monastery, I sense a deep, malevolent evil. I believe this Alexei is right. Something must be done."

"That is why we came to you, Piotyr. You are a paladin, a hero! Only you can rid the valley of this cursed evil."

Piotyr sighed softly, and for a moment, a look of sadness flashed across his face. "I had hoped it would not come to that. I had hoped that the cult would keep out of the affairs of the town. And then, perhaps after Magda and I..."

"Magda?" asked Janos.

"My fiancee," said Piotyr. "We are to be married before the year is out. I would never forgive myself if anything happened to me before the wedding. Magda would be devastated."

"I am sorry, Piotyr," said Janos, "but there are more important things at stake here. You said it yourself, there is something deeply evil about this cult. We gypsies have felt it as well. If something is not done soon, I know something terrible will happen. You must help us!"

Piotyr thought some more, then finally he relented. "I suppose you are right. I can't think only of myself. All right. We will do something."

"Wonderful!" said Janos. "If you need anything, you have only to ask."

"Oh, I'm certain I'll have need of you," replied Piotyr. "Now, the first thing we need is information. We cannot move against the cult until we know exactly what we're up against."

Janos had a sinking feeling. "What are you proposing?" he asked.

"The only place we can learn more about the cult is their monastery. We're going inside."


Chapter 3

Janos had gratefully accepted Piotyr's offer of a place to stay the night. Piotyr knew that he would not be given a room at the Hotel Mordavia, and he saw no harm in letting the gypsy stay. His house was small, but it would do. Piotyr offered to make some supper, and Janos accepted that as well, despite Piotyr's warning that he was not a very good cook. The gypsy seemed, at least by Piotyr's estimation, to be a little awestruck. It was really no wonder. Some of the gypsy tales Janos had told him about paladins were fantastical. Fighting hordes of demons alone, with only a sword! It was ludicrous! Piotyr did what he could to set the stories straight without offending Janos, but he knew he was fighting a losing battle. Piotyr could still see stars in the young man's dark eyes.

Before retiring for the night, Janos asked Piotyr to elaborate a bit on his plan to enter the monastery. He did not seem terribly disturbed by the prospect of entering that building, but then the gypsies had had little contact with the cult.

"I cannot see any way of getting past that doorway unseen during the day," said Janos. "And as you said, the monastery will be swarming with people at night. I'm at a loss."

"There may be a way," replied Piotyr. "Some months ago, I met an adventurer at the guild. His name was Georg, and he was from Spielburg. He had come, as many do, to seek his fame here in the valley. When he heard of the cult, he thought that might be the way to do it. He tried for days, but he could find no way inside the monastery. Then one day, after apparently wandering off into the forest to do some exploring, he vanished. No one is entirely certain what happened to him. However, I found him the following day as I was returning to town from a visit to Erana's Garden. When I saw him, I almost didn't recognize him. His hair had gone completely white, and there was a horrible madness in his eyes. He ran at me and tried to attack me with his bare hands, but I finally subdued him. The man fought me like a wild animal!

"I brought him back into town and summoned Yuri. We tried to talk to him, to find out what had happened. He spoke little, but he spat and screamed and clawed at his eyes like a madman. He had to be tied down so that he wouldn't injure himself. After some time, he regained some measure of lucidity. Much of what he said was still gibberish, but I thought I heard him say something about the monastery, and a secret passage just outside of town. But that was all I could determine. We left him bound in one of the cells in Yuri's office, so he could keep an eye on the man. We found him there the next day. He had... killed himself."

"Gods! How did he do it, if he was bound in the cell?" asked Janos. It was a question Piotyr wished he had not asked.

"He did the only thing he could do. He brained himself upon the wall."

Janos' usually tan face went an ashen grey. Piotyr himself shuddered at the memory, which he saw as clearly as if it were yesterday. After a moment of silence, Janos composed himself.

"So you think there's a passage into the monastery somewhere in the forest?" he asked.

"I do. I've searched for it many times in the past few months, but I never found it. I thought the time might have come to search again. Perhaps the two of us will have better luck, don't you think?"

For some reason, Janos smiled at this. "Oh, yes," he said. "I imagine one of us will be able to sniff it out."

They set out the following afternoon, after a filling (if slightly undercooked) lunch at Piotyr's house. They agreed to split up once they had reached the forest just outside the town gates. Piotyr thought it best to begin his search at the place where he had found Georg, already a raving lunatic, months ago. He let his danger sense stretch out over the surrounding area. He felt nothing. The forests around Mordavia were usually safe, but one could never be too careful. He had been attacked once or twice by a wandering wyvern looking for a meal.

Confident that the forest was safe, Piotyr set out on his search. He had opted not to wear his chainmail on this expedition, but instead wore a heavy leather vest to protect him if he did run into trouble. And of course, he carried his sword with him. One of the very first lessons he had learned as a paladin was to never place oneself too far from one's sword. It was advice he always followed.

The search itself dragged on for some hours, but turned up nothing. Finally, as the sun was beginning to set over the western mountains, Piotyr heard a noise in the underbrush off to his right. It was difficult to tell, but he thought it sounded like an animal loping through the bushes. His hand went instinctively to the hilt of his sword, but when the bushes parted, he saw that it was Janos standing before him.

"Ah, Janos, you startled me," he said, releasing his sword's hilt. "How goes the search?"

"I believe I have found something, Piotyr. Please, follow me. I'll show you." Janos turned and began walking back through the underbrush. Piotyr quickly followed, excitement tinged with a vague apprehension filling him. They came eventually to a small clearing not far from the town wall. Piotyr looked around but saw nothing. Janos, however, seemed to know exactly where to look. He crossed the clearing, then knelt down and began running his hand through the piles of fallen leaves and pine needles on the ground. He grasped something, and then, to Piotyr's astonishment, seemed to pull a piece of the ground up. When Piotyr looked closer, though, he saw that it was a trapdoor, carefully disguised to blend perfectly with the surrounding forest. A set of stone stairs, of apparently recent construction led from the trapdoor down into the thickening blackness below.

"Do you think this is it?" asked Janos, peering down into the dark passageway. Piotyr leaned closer. He began to feel a vague tingling on his scalp. His danger sense was warning him of something, and he felt sure he knew what it was.

"Yes, this is it," he said. "If I'm right, this should lead us into the monastery." He turned to the young man. "You have done me a great service, Janos, and for that I thank you. If you wish to leave now, you are free to do so." Janos looked surprised.

"No, we're going to do this together! This matter affects everyone in Mordavia, and that includes the gypsies. And we gypsies are not accustomed to doing nothing when we are threatened. Besides, it will likely be dangerous down there. I will not make you face it alone."

Piotyr smiled. The gypsy was brave, he had to admit that. Though bravery had often been the death of good men. Still, he seemed able to take care of himself, and Piotyr could use an extra pair of hands if the situation got ugly.

"Very well, then. I welcome your company, Janos." Janos smiled. And with that, they descended into the darkness.


Chapter 4

Piotyr moved cautiously down the dark corridor. He tried to make as little noise as possible, but he was failing miserably. Gods, but it was dark in here! He could barely make out Janos' shape in front of him. For his part, Janos seemed little impaired by the lack of light. He moved at a sure, steady pace, as if the darkness did not bother him in the slightest. Piotyr envied him.

"There's something up ahead, Piotyr," said Janos. "I think we've come to a wall."

"How can you tell?" asked Piotyr, incredulous. "I can't see a thing!"

"Gypsies have sharp eyes," replied Janos. He stopped at this point. "We've come to a blank wall. Now what?"

Piotyr stepped forward and ran his hand across the wall. He felt a tingle run down his spine. His danger sense had been buzzing ever since they found the trapdoor in the forest, but the sensation increased dramatically when he touched the stone wall. "This is it," he said. "There's probably a door or something here. We need to search the wall." He barely saw Janos nod in the gloom, and they set about inspecting the stone.

Piotyr used the spare moment to go over their plan again in his mind. Once they gained entrance to the monastery, they would have to find disguises. This probably meant ambushing some cultists, which Piotyr didn't think would be a problem. The hard part would be remaining inconspicuous until night, when, judging by the sounds which usually came out of the monastery at that time, the cult was most active.

"There!" cried Janos. Piotyr heard a soft grating sound, stone against stone, and part of the wall swung out toward them. Piotyr squinted at the sudden glare of light from beyond the door. Once he had recovered his sight, he stepped through the doorway and into the monastery.

They found themselves in a vestibule of sorts. The walls were lined with wooden hooks, upon which hung brown and black robes with cowls. The light that had momentarily blinded them was coming from an archway opposite the secret door, through which torchlight was streaming. As Piotyr and Janos studied their new surroundings, the stone door closed with a grinding noise. Janos went to the spot and felt around on the wall.

"Don't worry," he said. "I found the latch. We can get out this way if we need to." Piotyr nodded, and then took one of the robes down from a hook.

"It looks like fortune has smiled upon us, my friend," he said, pulling the robe on over his light leather armor. "We can avoid a fight after all." Janos nodded and pulled on a robe of his own. When they were dressed, they pulled up their hoods to obscure their faces. Piotyr led Janos through the archway and into the lower levels of the monastery proper.

They wandered through various rooms in search of a good hiding place. The monastery was ornate, but it had a disquieting quality. The tapestries, for example, were of excellent quality, but the images depicted on them were invariably bloody, and contained creatures that seemed strangely alien and terrifying. Piotyr had faced many monsters in his life, but even he shuddered at the sight of some of those horrors. The building itself seemed to be moving at times when Piotyr looked out of the corner of his eye. His danger sense was growing more active, and he was filled with a strong desire to leave this instant. He fought the feeling down.

They found some empty desks in the library, and passed the time pretending to write. Several times, cultists in the same brown and black robes walked past, but they said nothing. They apparently saw nothing out of the ordinary.

After indeterminate hours, Piotyr heard a bell sounding far off in the monastery. He looked at Janos, who shrugged. Neither knew what the bell signified, but they suspected it might be important. Piotyr motioned for Janos to stay silent, and he led them into the corridor outside the library. Several cultists were walking silently down the corridor. Trying to remain inconspicuous, Piotyr fell into step behind them, and Janos followed. Piotyr should have been excited. This was exactly the sort of break he had been waiting for; it was a chance to learn firsthand what the cult was doing, and if they were really a threat. Instead, he felt uneasy. His sense of danger was growing by the second, and this entire place seemed to be sapping his will. He turned and saw that Janos looked equally apprehensive.

They finally came upon a fairly large hall. It was grotesque. Stone columns carved in the shape of suffering men and women supported the ceiling, and the walls were covered in murals of dark, feral things bathing in the blood of their victims. There was an altar at the other end of the hall, which was adorned with skulls and covered in dried blood. Letters were painted on it, but Piotyr couldn't understand the language.

By now, Piotyr's sense of danger was like a thick, cloying fog clinging to his mind. He fought against it ask he and Janos took places near the back of the hall. The cultists had filed in, and were taking places facing the altar. There were many of them, far more than Piotyr had suspected. He estimated that there were at least a hundred in attendance, and there were probably more. That would make things difficult, should it become necessary to put them down.

Two men stood near the altar. One was wrapped in a black robe and cowl, and Piotyr could not determine anything about him. But the other one was familiar. He was tall, and vaguely regal-looking. He wore a full beard, and his brown hair was just graying slightly at the temples. But his eyes were pure malevolence. Piotyr knew this one well. It was the Boyar, Sergei Borgov.

Piotyr and Janos exchanged looks of dismay, but neither dared speak. The Boyar himself was speaking now, but in no language Piotyr had ever heard. He spoke several lines that seemed to rhyme, and the cultists replied in unison.

"Yah, Avoozl!"

The Boyar motioned to the black robed man next to him, and the man stepped out a side door. He returned momentarily, now carrying a screaming infant. Piotyr heard Janos gasp as he saw this. The Boyar took the baby, and set it down on the altar. The cultists began a low chant, punctuated at intervals by the phrase "Yah, Avoozl!" The chant began to grow in intensity, as did Piotyr's premonition of danger. He was actually sweating now. The urge to run was almost overpowering.

Then Piotyr saw something that broke his will. Sergei Borgov was practically screaming in that other language, and little wisps of light were streaming from his outstretched fingertips. A shadow was growing around the altar. It was indistinct now, but it was gradually taking shape. Piotyr could just make out a mass of tentacles and eyes, and shapes within that seemed to defy reality. The shape was something that his mind simply would now allow him to see, lest he end up like poor Georg.

"We have to go," he hissed in a low voice. Janos turned, surprised, but he seemed to echo the sentiment. Quietly, they inched toward the doorway and slipped out. Behind them, they heard the child's screams rise to a crescendo, and then stop altogether.

"Gods, did you see that?" asked Janos. "That was diabolical! I've never seen anything so horrible!" Piotyr did not answer. The need to flee was pounding in his veins. Nothing else mattered now. The danger in this place was like nothing he had ever experienced. Without saying a word, he half-walked, half-ran back to the secret entrance. Janos ran after him, trying to keep pace.

Some time later, they emerged from the underground tunnels. They immediately began to walk back to Piotyr's house.

"What are we going to do?" asked Janos. "We cannot fight something like that. Not without help."

"You're right," said Piotyr, the overwhelming sense of danger finally beginning to subside. "We do need help. Powerful help. I'm certain no such aid will be found in Mordavia, especially with Sergei Borgov as Boyar. We'll need to look to another land for aid."

"Do you have anything in mind?" asked Janos.

"Yes, I think I just might."


Chapter 5

Sergei Borgov quietly shut the door to his study. He removed his ceremonial robe and hung it on one of the waiting wall hooks. Another ritual completed, and another closer to the night of the Summoning. Yet, there was still so much to be done!

The study was spartan. Its only real furniture were a desk and chair, and a small couch in one corner. The walls were bare except for some wall hooks, a few torches, and a painted representation of the Dark One's Sign. Sergei sat down at his desk, intent on finishing his research. He scanned a few of his recent notes, then pushed the papers away in disgust. That madman Tillado! He was the cause of all these problems. Where in all of Gloriana had he hidden the Necrophilicon?

Sergei let his mind wander into the past. Amon Tillado had started the Cult of the Dark One. He was, in fact, the man who had recruited Sergei into the ranks. But he was inherently unstable. Oh, he was vastly intelligent, and utterly devoted to his purpose, but he was terribly eccentric. Things only got worse when he began pouring through the cult's copy of that rare, accursed book, the Necrophilicon. He penned the seven rituals that would summon Avoozl to this valley, and give him form and substance in this dimension. It would be a glorious moment, as the Shadows of Darkness covered all the lands of Gloriana, and the worshippers of the Dark One were granted powers undreamt of by mortal man.

But all that changed when Amon Tillado died. He left behind the seven rituals, but the Necrophilicon was never found. Sergei, upon ascending to the post of High Priest, had ordered the entire valley searched as discreetly as was possible. But there was no trace of the book. The rituals were useless without it! They required special preparations, preparations that could only be found in the Necrophilicon. Of the book's location there was only one clue. Among Tillado's notes was a passage from The Ebon Tome. Translated, it read:

The path to thy treasure shall be made clear by he who shines with the flame of glory.

No one had ever solved that puzzle, and the book still eluded Sergei's grasp. Time was running short. Within a month's time, the stars would be right, and the summoning must take place. Sergei had little choice but to pray to Avoozl for a miracle.

"Master?" came a voice from behind the Boyar. Its tones were soft, but they carried a hint of venom upon them. Sergei turned to see a shape wrapped in a black robe.

"Yes, what is it Mordel? I did not summon you." Mordel was a darkling, a creature summoned out of Avoozl's realm and bound magically to the High Priest. He customarily took human form when dealing with the cultists, but he could not fully disguise his otherworldly nature. His hair was jet black, and his skin was a pale grey color. His eyes were golden, and they gleamed like cat's eyes. He was an impressive personage, but he was magically forced to bend to the will of the High Priest.

"I have some news for you, Master, that I thought you might find interesting. The paladin was at the ceremony."

That caught Sergei off guard. Piotyr? What would possibly bring him here? Unless, of course, he was planning to move against them. Sergei was confident that Piotyr would be defeated and suffer horribly at their hands, but his actions could disrupt the timing of the Summoning, and that could not be allowed.

"Are you sure of this, Mordel? This is important."

"I am quite sure, Master. The stench of the paladin is quite clear to one such as I. It was him."

"This is not good. He could disrupt all of our work, should he decide to attack us now."

"Surely he would not attack the monastery, Master. He would be destroyed utterly. He must know that."

"His honor would demand it. No being of honor would suffer this cult to exist, and in the paladin, honor burns like a flame..."

Like a flame! A flame of glory! Sergei could not speak, so stunned was he by the realization. He laughed out loud.

"What is it, Master?" asked the darkling, his usually cocky face distorted by confusion at Sergei's outburst.

"Piotyr is the one, Mordel. The flame of glory! He shall lead us to the Necrophilicon!"

"That one? But he is an enemy! A mortal enemy! He should be destroyed right now!"

"No, no, no, Mordel. You will do no such thing. If you do, I will inflict such pain upon you as you have never known. Go now, and follow Piotyr. Find out his plans for me, and follow him to the book!"

Sergei savored the look of anger on the darkling's face. The creature despised being ordered by what it viewed as an inferior being, but the magic holding it was strong, and it could not disobey. "As you wish," it hissed, and melted back into the shadows of Sergei's study, vanishing from sight. Sergei leaned back in his chair, a wide smile upon his face. For the first time in a very long time, he was filled with joy.

Mordel melted out of the shadows that surrounded the house of Piotyr Ivanov. He was quite at home in the night, where he could come and go as he pleased. Despite what he had said to Sergei, he was actually intrigued by this possible revelation of the Ebon Tome's prophecy. If it would bring about the Summoning of Mordel's true master, then it was for the good. And once the Dark One was here, Mordel would have vengeance upon that insufferable Borgov.

Mordel peeked into Piotyr's window, wrapping himself so tightly in shadows that he was all but invisible. He stayed very still and listened closely as Piotyr and the gypsy discussed what to do next. He waited with thinning patience as they made side jokes, or engaged in pleasantries. Then finally, Piotyr named their next destination.

Shapeir!

Mordel was surprised at this. What could Piotyr possibly want in that blazing ocean of sand? What aid would he find among those walking felines? Unless...

Oh no. This was worse than any of them had imagined. If what he suspected was true, the cult could waste no time. It must act now! Truly worried for the first time in his long existence, Mordel hurried back into the shadows and was gone.


Chapter 6

The young lion cub stretched contentedly on the rock, warming itself in the savanna sun. It glanced around at a few of the smaller animals gathered around, but there was no hunger or malice in its eyes. It gazed for a short time at its own reflection in the pool. But most of all, it listened to Erana's song.

Erana danced slowly around the Pool of Peace, singing in her soft, clear voice. She sang from her heart, and her song was magic. She let her song flow out from her, to envelop the pool and the plants around it. Her song flowed through the water of the pool, and the water became pure. It touched the small trees near the water, and they bore sweet fruit. It wrapped itself around the animals, and they were content. As she sang, she felt all the life of the savanna around her, and she let it know love. She let it know the pure joy of life.

Eventually, her song died down, the magic spent. She sat near the water, dipping her fingers in and watching the ripples flow from them. She gazed up at the clear blue sky and felt herself relaxing further. This place was a place of comfort and healing, and there were no worries here.

"Erana?" called a voice. Erana was startled. She looked around, and was surprised to see a face which was not hers reflected in the water. She glanced around, but aside from the animals, she was alone. She looked at the face. It was a man, perhaps thirty, with light brown hair and deep green eyes. The face was handsome, and she found it very familiar despite the year they had been apart.

"Aster? Is that you?" she asked. Aster was the Grand Wizard of WIT, the youngest to ever hold that post. He was an exceptional magician, naturally gifted in the arts of magic. He had passed the tests of WIT with ease, and had become an Archmage, the title given to those of the High Council of WIT, at the unprecedented age of twenty-five. Some of the older wizards balked at such a blatant disregard of tradition, but Aster was well respected for his abilities, and he gradually won the council over. Erana had not seen him in a year, since she had left WIT to pursue her travels.

"It's me, Erana. I have something important I need to ask you."

"Aster, please," she said, "if this is about getting me to return to WIT, we've already had that discussion. I tried WIT. I learned much there. But I can't..."

"No, no, it's not that," replied Aster. "We need you, Erana. We need your help."

Erana was surprised. "Me?" she said. "I thought WIT was the most powerful collection of wizards in all of Gloriana. What help could one renegade wizard be?"

Aster looked hurt. "Erana, please," he said. "You know we wish you would return, but you're hardly a renegade. I'm asking you, personally, if you'll come to WIT for a short time and help us with this matter. You might be the only one who can."

Erana considered this. She had always had some affection for Aster. He was kind and generous. He was also completely taken with her, she knew. She was flattered, of course, but she did not feel the same about him. That had been part of the reason she left. She thought it best they remained apart. But he seemed genuinely disturbed by something, and it was only for a short time that she'd return. She supposed there would be no harm in at least hearing him out.

"All right, Aster. I'll come," she relented. He smiled politely, but she could see how his eyes lit up as she said it.

"Wonderful!" he said. "We're ready for you any time." The image on the water slowly faded, replaced by Erana's own reflection. She frowned a bit, wondering what he had gotten herself into. But she had given her word, and in all her long life she had never broken it.

She stood and stepped back from the water's edge. She raised her arms up and reached deep down inside herself into her nexus of power. She felt the magic rise up inside her, and it flowed forth from her outstretched hands. She saw the world grow misty around her, then fade away. In another moment, the mist began to clear, and she found herself in an entirely different location. She had arrived at WIT.

WIT did not entirely exist in Shapeir, or in Gloriana itself for that matter. It could be reached from there, but only by those with magic. WIT itself occupied another dimension, a dimension that could be molded to suit the tastes of the wizards. For this reason, WIT was limited only by the imagination of those who sustained it. No matter how many times Erana came here, she was always struck by its grand beauty. The architecture would be impossible for the buildings of Gloriana, but here there was no limit. Streams of color wound themselves gracefully around towering columns of marble. Murals of incredible intricacy covered the walls, the figures within seeming to dance joyously if looked at through the corner of one's eye. The temperature was maintained at the most comfortable level possible, and there were soft pillows upon the floor where several wizards could be found sitting and pouring over old leather-bound books or indulging in a pipe.

Erana turned to see Aster coming toward her, smiling. He extended his hand, and she took it. "It's so good to see you again, Erana," he said. "I've... We've all missed you."

"It is good to see you too, Aster. I see you haven't let your exalted position go to your head." Aster grinned.

"I try to stay my old, modest self. To be honest, the job is rather tedious. It mostly involves placating the Archmages. It's all politics."

"Aster," Erana interrupted. "You said this was urgent."

"Yes, yes, you're right," Aster replied. "Please, come this way. I have some people I'd like you to meet."

Aster led her into a spacious sitting room. Seated upon one of the couches were two men. One was a strong-looking man wearing a suit of fine chainmail. He had brown hair and eyes, and his face had the weathered look of one who had been through much. There was a certain noble aspect to it, though, and a kindness that Erana found reassuring. The other man was younger, perhaps nineteen years old, and was dressed in the colorful garb of the gypsies. He had short black hair and dark eyes, and he wore several pieces of jewelry, mostly small rings. He had an easy smile, and Erana could tell he was impressed by his new surroundings.

Aster walked over to the two men, who stood. He gestured to the mail-clad man. "This," he said, "is the paladin Piotyr Ivanov." Piotyr removed one of his gauntlets and extended his hand. Erana took it.

"It is an honor to meet you, my lady," he said.

"And you as well, worthy paladin," replied Erana.

"And this," said Aster, gesturing to the other man, "is Janos Vistana."

Janos extended his hand, and when Erana took it, he leaned forward and kissed the back of her palm. "It is a pleasure, my lady," he said with a disarming smile.

"The pleasure is all mine, my friend," replied Erana, unable to resist smiling back. The man was definitely charming.

"Please, everyone, have a seat," said Aster. As they seated themselves on the soft couches, Aster incanted a quick spell, and several cups of tea appeared before them. "Drink," he said, taking a cup and saucer for himself, "and make yourselves comfortable. We have much to discuss."

"Before we begin, Aster," said Erana, sipping at her tea, "I have a question for you. No disrespect to either of you gentlemen, but why did you let them enter WIT? Tradition forbids any non-spellcasters from entering. The Archmages will be furious when they find out."

Aster's face grew serious. "Some things are more important than tradition, Erana. Two days ago, I received a message from a Katta spellcaster in the city, an old friend of mine. I was somewhat surprised, as the Katta rarely have communication with WIT. My friend said that a stranger had come to him seeking entrance to WIT. I asked who it was, and what his reasons were for seeking entrance, and I met Piotyr. He... convinced me that I should allow him and his companion entrance."

Erana turned to Piotyr in surprise. "You certainly must have had a compelling reason," she said.

"Yes, my lady," said Piotyr, his voice grave. "As I have come to understand, it is a very serious matter."

Erana turned back to Aster. "Well," she said, "out with it. What could be so important as to make you break centuries of tradition?" Aster looked down at his tea, took a halfhearted sip, and placed the cup on the table.

"Nothing less," he said, "than the end of our existence."


Chapter 7

"Avoozl?" cried Erana. "They're trying to summon Avoozl? It's madness!"

"This cult is overflowing with madmen, Erana," replied Piotyr. Erana had made it clear that she did not prefer the title 'my lady.'

"Agreed," said Aster, rising from his seat. "How much do any of you know about the Dark One?"

"The gypsies have always known of it," replied Janos, his face pensive, "but we prefer not to speak of it. Such things bring madness. All I really know is that it is a creature of vast power and darkness."

"Then you know more than most, my friend," said Aster. "Many throughout this world know nothing of the Dark One, and they are better for it. Before Erana arrived, I took the liberty of searching through the libraries, and I found some information that might be useful." Aster gestured at a far door, and a sparkle of light danced across his fingertips. The door swung open. "Tulan! Come in, please," called Aster. A man stepped into the sitting room, dark-haired and walking with a slight limp. He clutched an old book tightly under one arm, as if afraid someone might steal it from him. His dark eyes had a slightly haunted look that was disconcerting. Aster gestured for Tulan to take a seat, and he then sat down himself.

Aster turned to his guests. "This is Tulan, one of WIT's librarians. He has studied the subject of the Dark Ones to some extent. Please, Tulan, tell them what you told me."

Tulan nodded. "The Dark Ones," he began, "are an ancient race, far older than even the elven mind can imagine. They are beings of vast power, and they occupy dimensions unknown to us. They held dominion over this planet in aeons past, and it is said that they created life here as a plaything to amuse themselves. It is known, though, that eventually, the gods of Gloriana emerged and did battle with the Dark Ones, for they too claimed this world as theirs. After ages of battle, the gods threw down the Dark Ones and imprisoned them somehow. To this day they remain sealed away by the signs of the gods, which they cannot breach. Instead, they tempt the minds of mortals to breach the barriers for them and return them to this world."

"There are many Dark Ones, but the best known and perhaps most powerful is Avoozl. He is the greatest of them, and it is he that this cult wishes to release."

"Then this Avoozl is their leader?" asked Piotyr.

"Not exactly. The concept of a leader means nothing to creatures such as these. His status is more like that of a High Priest, or perhaps Grand Wizard. If he is released, he has the power to break the seals of the others, and this world is forever doomed."

"So how can we stop such a creature?" asked Erana, incredulous at what she was hearing. Such a creature was a threat like no other!

Tulan smiled wryly. "You don't. No mortal can defeat a creature like Avoozl. Your only hope is to stop the cult from performing their task. The only way to do that is to find the Necrophilicon and destroy it."

Piotyr raised an eyebrow. "Necrophilicon? What is that?"

"It is a dark book," replied Aster, "last seen in the hands of the Mad Monk Amon Tillado, who was once leader of that cult. The Necrophilicon contains preparations and spells that must be completed before the summoning can begin. Without it, the cult cannot succeed."

"If you knew about Tillado and the cult, why didn't you move to stop him? You knew what a danger he presented," said Erana.

"We were watching him for a time, but when he died we assumed his threat had ended. We were wrong. We do know, however, that Tillado hid the Necrophilicon before he died, and Sergei Borgov has been unable to find it." A smile flitted across Aster's face. "However, we have."

"You have?" cried Erana, surprised. "Where is it?"

"It lies in the Nightmare Lands, beyond the faerie mists. That is why we need you, Erana. Only you can guide Piotyr and Janos through the mists."

Erana's face fell. She felt torn. She could not let a threat such as this go unanswered, but also she knew that Tatiana and Oberon would not want to let two humans pass through the mists. It was possible they might listen to her, but with the faeries, one could never tell.

"It will be difficult," she said finally.

"I know," replied Aster, "but I have faith in you. I know you can do this."

Erana sighed. "Very well, Aster, I will do it. I just hope you know what you're getting us into."

"So do I, Erana," was the reply.

Tulan left the room at Aster's request, as the three of them got down to the actual planning of the quest. He walked down the corridors toward the library, where he could be at peace. He hated interruptions in his research. Vaguely, he remembered a time when his studies had not consumed his life, but when he had begun studying the Dark Ones, he felt has if he had fallen down a dark hole, and now he could not pull himself out again. His life was in his books now, and he had read of things that no one should know. He knew that he was drifting close to madness. He began to see plots everywhere, and strange sights out of the corners of his eyes.

And then there were the nightmares.

Tulan turned a corner and opened the door to the library. He stepped inside and went to light a candle, when the door slammed shut behind him. He spun around in the dark, trying desperately to adjust his eyes to the gloom. He saw a figure standing near the door, its pale grey face standing out in the darkness. It came toward him, and Tulan saw its eyes. They were gleaming gold, but they were cold, like death itself. He saw the figure's arm raise, its fingers elongating into razor-like claws, and then he saw the flash as they whistled toward his throat.

He didn't even have time to scream.

Mordel crouched over the body. He watched as the blood finally stopped running from its ruined throat. The eyes, still bulging in terror, were misting over. The man was dead for certain, but that did not mean he was no longer useful. Oh, certainly not.

The darkling reached out with a hand now reformed in the semblance of a human's and touched the dead man's forehead. He closed his eyes and concentrated on reaching the man's spirit. He heard it, quiet at first but gaining in volume. It was confused, as they all were just after death. The transition was disconcerting to say the least.

"Where am I?" asked Tulan, the fear ringing out in his voice. "Why is it so dark here?"

"You are dead," replied Mordel, grinning, "and this is Hell."

"Oh no!" cried Tulan's spirit. "It can't be!" Mordel heard the voice begin to whimper, and he quickly put a stop to it. He took one of the corpse's fingers and bent it back sharply, hearing the crack of the bone snapping. The spirit wailed in surprise and pain. Like most humans, he had assumed that the dead feel no pain. But then, he had never run across such an adept of necromancy as Mordel.

"Silence!" roared Mordel into the spirit's realm. "Silence or I shall do it again!" The voice quieted, but it was still whimpering slightly. "Now, worm, tell me about the paladin. I wish to know everything."

The voice was silent, hesitating, until Mordel tore a finger from the corpse's hand. The screams were exquisite, and Mordel let them run on for a moment before asking again. This time Tulan talked. He talked and he talked, and, whenever it suited the darkling, he screamed.


Chapter 8

They moved as quickly as possible to prepare the teleportation spell. Janos knew they were all worried. He could sense it. The trip from Mordavia to Shapeir had taken months, and Aster had said that there was very little time left before, as he put it, 'the stars were right for the summoning.'

Aster told them that the rituals would take at least a few hours to prepare, and quarters were arranged for them in the meantime. The quarters were luxurious, and Janos enjoyed some good food and a change of clothes before they were finished. He was lying on his bed, staring off into space and thinking on the quest to come when there was a rapping at his door. He called for the person to enter, and was greeted by the sight of a young initiate.

"They are ready, master. If you will come with me?" he said, motioning down the hallway outside Janos' room. Janos smiled. Few times in his life had he been addressed as 'master.' He supposed that was the proper way to address a guest of the Grand Wizard, but he still found it humorous.

"Of course," he said, getting up and straightening out his clothes. They walked down WIT's winding corridors, the initiate seeming to know intuitively the way, until they finally reached a large chamber. Several wizards were present, including Aster, as well as Piotyr and Erana. A large pentagram was painted on the floor, surrounded by arcane symbols and sigils.

"Good," said Aster. "Everyone's here. We can begin. Please, step into the pentagram." They all three did so. The other mages took their places around the pentagram, and Aster walked up close to Erana. They began talking softly to each other, and Janos could not hear what they were saying. Gypsies had wolf-like hearing, true, but only when at least partially transformed, and Janos was extremely reluctant to shift even a little bit in this den of wizards. Gypsies had learned over the years to keep that part of their lives very secret, only to be shown to known friends on in extreme emergency.

Aster handed something small and shiny to Erana. A necklace, with some small green gem set in it. Erana placed the chain over her head, and spoke a few more words to Aster. They smiled, and Aster took his place with the other wizards. Erana drew them close around her.

"We're heading into the Faerie Mists now. It may be strange for you at first, but I'll try to make it as easy as possible. Just remember not to be afraid, and let me do the talking." They nodded, and the mages began to chant. The chant was low and rhythmic, and extremely soporific. Janos found his eyelids growing heavy, and he fought to stay awake out of instinct. From the floor, he saw that a soft mist was rising, swirling around them within the pentagram. Soon, Janos found that he could no longer keep his eyes open. He drifted off into darkness...

When he came to, they were in a completely alien place. The mist was everywhere. They seemed to be floating in it, with no gravity or points of reference. It was like being lost in a great vast ocean, and Janos felt afraid. He looked at Piotyr, and he also seemed completely out of his element. Neither had ever experienced anything like this. Erana, however, seemed very calm. She was concentrating, and she seemed to be sending small ripples into the mists around her. As Janos watched in amazement, he saw shapes beginning to form in the mist. Ground, trees, water, all of it began to fade into view. Soon, the three of them found themselves in a forest-like setting. It was utterly real, except for the sight of the swirling grey mists in the distance.

"What... what happened?" asked Piotyr. "Where are we?"

"These are the Faerie Mists," said Erana. "The faeries live in the mists of magic, which have no corporeal form. I've imposed a limited reality in this area. That way you will be more comfortable. Also, it will alert the faeries to our presence."

"So what do we do now?" asked Janos.

"Now, we wait," she answered.

As they waited, Janos struck up a conversation with Erana. He had to admit to being a little intimidated by her. She was already something of a legend in Gloriana and he was slightly awed. On the other hand, she was very beautiful and alluring. Janos found it difficult to resist her, so he figured there was no harm in talking to her.

"I'm curious," he said. "Before we left, Aster gave you something. What was it?"

She turned and looked at him. "Hmmm? Oh, this." She held up the necklace with the small amulet attached. "I think Aster was worried about me. This has a little bit of magic in it. If we're ever in dire trouble, it can take us back to WIT."

"He seems to care a lot about you, doesn't he," asked Janos.

"Yes, I think he does. But really, that's something between us. I'm more interested in hearing about you."

"Me? Well, there is little to tell. The gypsies roam the lands of Gloriana, trading with all the people of the world. Our life is the travel."

Erana sighed. "It sounds very similar to my own life," she mused. "I've traveled so much in Gloriana. I've seen much. But it might be nice to settle down in one place for a change. I just don't think WIT is the right place."

"You were in WIT once, weren't you?" Janos asked.

"Yes. But I left shortly after the business with the Dark Master." Janos looked puzzled, and Erana shook her head. "It's not important. I simply didn't feel right at WIT. I need to be out doing some good with my powers. I couldn't live with myself otherwise."

Janos was about to reply, but he was startled by the sounds of rustling in the trees. Piotyr was up instantly, his hand on the hilt of his sword. Erana placed a hand on his shoulder. "Wait, Piotyr," she said. "I think they're here."

Several figures emerged from the foliage. They looked like young girls, but their skin had a slight greenish tint. And they didn't look happy. They looked around the clearing with faces betraying obvious disgust.

"Why have you done this, sister?" asked one of them. "And why did you bring these dirty things here? You know it is against our laws for humans to enter the mists!"

"I am sorry, sister," said Erana, though it was clear she did not think of this girl as a sister. "But we are on a mission of utmost importance. It is vital that I speak to Tatiana and Oberon."

"Oh, you can be sure that you will, Erana," said the other. "We've been instructed to take you straight there."

"And what about us?" asked Piotyr.

The first girl sneered openly. "Oh, the law is very clear concerning you two, humans," she said. "You will both be put to death."


Chapter 9
The Procestuousity begins here!
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Call of Avoozl

Postby SierraDude81 » Thu Jun 09, 2011 11:50 am

Chapter 9

Erana was silent as she and her escorts entered the Seelie Court. She had been instructed to wait for the arrival of the king and queen. The guards who had brought her here had floated off into the mists, but Erana could still feel their presence nearby, watching her. She paid them little heed. She was thinking about what to do next. Things were a mess right now. Piotyr and Janos had been taken away somewhere, and were scheduled to be executed. Erana herself would likely be held prisoner here as well. Something was very wrong in the Faerie Mists. She did not yet know what, but she intended to find out.

Erana looked around at the Seelie Court. There was a blur of motion and music around her. Tiny pixies and sprites danced around her head in a chaotic swirl. The songs of the faeries drifted out of the mists around her, but Erana thought that there was a note of sadness in them that she had not heard upon her last visit.

The sound of a flute melody announced the arrival of Tatiana and Oberon, the king and queen of the faeries. The whirling, hypnotic dance of the pixies slowed and stopped, as the faeries looked toward their monarchs. Erana collected her thoughts as they appeared, seeming to dissolve out of the mists. They were dressed in robes of shimmering blue, and upon their heads they wore simple circlets of silver. Oberon had an air of utter sadness about him, Erana noticed. His blue eyes were downcast, and he had a weathered look, far from the regal and joyful face he had worn the last time they had spoken.

Erana then turned her attention to Tatiana, and she had to hold back a gasp. Tatiana looked absolutely frightening. She scowled openly at Erana as she approached, and in here eyes shone the clear glint of madness. Erana was speechless. This was not the Tatiana she had known! Granted, she had been slightly vain and somewhat demanding, but this woman was positively dangerous.

"Hello, Erana," said Oberon, his deep voice betraying his sadness.

"What do you want?" asked Tatiana curtly.

"Your majesties," said Erana, "I have come here on a mission most urgent. I and my companions..."

"Yes, what about your companions, Erana?" interrupted Tatiana, her eyes flaring. "Why did you bring those filthy humans into our realm? It is against our laws! You had no right!"

"Please, my lady," said Erana. "As I said, this is most urgent. It was necessary that I bring them."

"You had no right, Erana!" shrieked Tatiana. "You were granted free passage though the mists as a sign of our trust in you. A trust you have now betrayed! As such, you are never to leave the mists again. You will remain with us, where we can keep an eye on your traitorous designs."

Erana could not believe what she was hearing. "But my companions! Piotyr and Janos! What of them?"

"You knew the laws, Erana. They are as good as dead. The preparations are being made as we speak."

"But you can't!"

"Never speak that way to me, stripling!" Tatiana was screaming now. She had lost all sense of reason, and Erana actually found herself trembling. Oberon said nothing. He seemed lost in sadness. "The humans will die, and if you will not obey me, then you will die with them!" Caught up in her own rage, Tatiana turned and stormed from the court. The pixies circling the fringes of the court quickly scattered, lest they find themselves the objects of her wrath. Within moments, all was quiet, and Erana found herself face to face with Oberon.

"I... apologize for Tatiana, Erana," said Oberon.

"What has happened here, Oberon?" she asked. "Tatiana was nothing like this before."

"We don't know. It started some time ago. There had been dark omens, and some of us had had strange, dark dreams. It was around that time that Tatiana began to change." Oberon paused, reflecting. "She grows more like her sister every day."

Erana lowered her eyes, feeling some of Oberon's sadness. Tatiana and her sister had once been very close. But something happened. Erana did not know the details, since the faeries refused to speak of it, but for some reason Tatiana's sister betrayed the Seelie court and fled. Now she existed as a dark, hateful creature, ruling over the Unseelie Court. No faerie would speak her name, and she was known only as the Queen of Air and Darkness. Erana shuddered at the thought of such a fate befalling Tatiana.

"Oberon, please, perhaps you can help me," said Erana. She explained about the Cult of the Dark One in Mordavia, and their plans to summon Avoozl.

"This is a dark tale you tell, Erana. But I fear there is little I can do. The faeries will not go against their queen. She has ordered your friends dead and the gate to the Nightmare Lands sealed. I will do what I can, but I fear it will be too little."

Erana sighed. "May I at least see them, Oberon? Janos and Piotyr, I mean."

Oberon smiled weakly. "Of course you may, my dear. I'll have the guards escort you to their cell."

"Thank you, Oberon," said Erana. "I hope Tatiana recovers."

Oberon smiled. "Thank you, Erana. So do I." With that, he turned and disappeared into the mists.

Piotyr felt confused. He and Janos had been floating in these mists for god knows how long now. They seemed to be trapped inside a sphere of magic. After trying for some time to escape, they had finally given up and let themselves drift.

They spoke little. There was nothing to say, really. Piotyr was tossing around plans for escape in his mind, and he suspected that Janos was doing the same. The problem was that even if they did manage to free themselves, there was nowhere they could go! They were as good as blind in these mists. But if they didn't do something soon...

"Piotyr! Janos!" The two men turned at the sound of their names. Dark, silhouetted forms were emerging from the mists. Three of them. For a moment, Piotyr thought that they might be ready to take them away to the execution, but then the forms drew closer, and Piotyr could make out their faces.

"Erana!" cried Janos. Erana, flanked by a pair of faerie guards, approached their cell. The guards were being very careful to keep an eye on the prisoners, and they made no attempt to hide the disgust in their eyes. Erana, however, did not approach the cell.

"Did you talk to the king and queen, Erana? Will they let us go?" asked Piotyr.

"I'm afraid not, Piotyr. There were some problems."

"So we're still going to be executed! We've done nothing wrong!" cried Janos.

One of the faeries flicked his wrist and mumbled an incantation under his breath. Janos doubled over, crying out in pain. "That will be enough out of you human!" said the guard. "The queen has decreed that you shall die, and..."

Suddenly the guard stopped. Both of the guards stared blankly forward for a moment, then their eyes rolled back into their heads and they collapsed. Slowly, their unconscious bodies began to drift off into the mists. Erana, her spell completed, turned her eyes toward Piotyr and Janos.

"Erana!" cried Piotyr as he steadied Janos. "You did that?"

"Yes. Now hurry, there isn't much time before they come to." She incanted another spell, and the sphere around them seemed to erupt in bluish fire, then fade away.

"What's happening?" asked Janos.

"We're getting out of here," replied Erana.


Chapter 10

Janos was confused. This was all happening too fast for him. Moments ago, he had been trapped in some magical prison awaiting his execution, and now they were off and running (if you could even call it running in these maddening mists) toward the portal to the Nightmare Lands, likely with several dozen faeries already on their tail. Janos had been known to be impetuous at times, but this was by far the worst fix he had ever gotten himself into. Why me? he wondered. Not surprisingly, there was no answer.

"How much longer until we reach the portal?" asked Piotyr. He was careful to keep up his outward calm, but Janos sensed he felt out of his element. Only Erana seemed truly confident of herself in this alien place.

"Not long. A matter of minutes, most likely," she replied.

Piotyr glanced behind him, and seemed to brighten when he found no signs of pursuit. "Then we're safe," he said.

"No, not entirely, Piotyr," said Erana. "We must still pass through the portal."

"It's guarded, then?" said Piotyr.

"In a manner of speaking, yes. The faeries guard their portals jealously. It will likely have magical barriers around it that we must break through. We will have to work fast, before they catch up with us. I will see if I can break through the barriers, or at least open a crack that we can slip through. If I do, the two of you need to pass through the portal as quickly as possible. I'll follow if I can, but at least one of us must get through to retrieve the Necrophilicon." The two of them nodded in silent understanding.

Time passed while they ran, but Janos couldn't tell how much. With no sun, moon, or stars, there was no way of gauging its passage. But considering their frantic pace, and the hurried glances behind to check for pursuit, it seemed like hours. Soon, though, Janos saw a black speck amidst the milky white mists. It grew larger as they approached, but he could not tell what it was. "Is that the portal?" he asked.

Erana squinted ahead. "Yes, it is," she said. "You have good eyes, my friend. We must hurry." The sight of their destination so close spurred them on. Soon, Janos could make out details about the portal. It was like a dark patch of mist, swirling round and round in an endless whirlpool. It was easily the size of a man, and probably much larger. It was an ominous, threatening thing, but nevertheless, Janos saw it as a sign of escape, and thus one of hope.

They closed in and stopped, looking around for signs of the faeries. Now that they were close, Janos could see that the portal was actually quite large. There was a faint noise coming from it, as of someone softly groaning in their sleep. It was an eerie sound, and he shuddered.

"Well, we're here," he said. "Now what?" They looked at Erana, but she did not answer. She wore a mask of deep concentration and held one hand out toward the portal. She mumbled something under her breath, and the portal was surrounded by a faint aura of blue.

"I thought so," she said. "They've placed barriers to keep us out. We'll have to break them down. Keep an eye out for trouble." Piotyr nodded, and turned around to scan the mists. Erana, on the other hand, turned back to the portal. She held out both hands and closed her eyes. A glimmering shaft of light appeared in her hands, twisting and curving in upon itself at the tip. It began to darken, to solidify, and in a moment, Erana was holding an oaken staff in her hands. She held it lovingly, as though they shared a bond Janos did not understand. Janos watched, mesmerized, as she held out the staff toward the portal. She cried out in some language that Janos assumed was known only to mages, and the staff glowed with barely contained power. She spoke another invocation, and the light of the staff lashed out at the barrier. The barrier glowed fiercely and seemed to buckle, but did not yield. Again and again the light of Erana's staff burst forth, but still the barrier held, glowing in ghostly blue. Eventually, Erana stepped back, and the light of her staff faded away.

"This is worse than I had thought," she said. "They've prepared some special magic specifically against my powers. It seems Tatiana was serious when she said I was to remain here."

"What can we do now?" asked Janos, worried. "If the portal is blocked to your magic, how are we ever going to get through?"

"There may be another way," said Erana thoughtfully. "The faeries protected the portal against my magic, but another type of magic might be able to penetrate. Piotyr! Come over here. I think you may be able to help." Piotyr joined them.

"But I know no spells, Erana," he said. "How can I aid us?"

"Ah, but you have a power of your own. You have the power of honor! I doubt the faeries would have protected the barrier against your sword!"

Piotyr's eyes lit up. "Of course! It's worth a try." He stepped forward and reached for his scabbard. But before his hand could close around the grip, there was a blinding light and a deafening crash, as of a thunderclap nearby, and Piotyr's eyes grew wide. He doubled over, and Janos could see black scorch marks on the back of his chainmail vest. They looked up in confusion just in time to see a ball of crackling green energy come shooting forth from the mists and strike Piotyr again. Piotyr grunted in pain, and then was silent.

"The faeries!" cried Erana, gripping her staff tightly. Janos could see the dark silhouettes of the faeries emerging from the mists. Another ball, this one a chilling blast of cold, flew past him and exploded in the distance. Almost without thinking, Janos pulled a dagger from his belt and flung it as hard as he could at the spellcaster. There was a sudden shriek of pain, and the figure doubled over and began to drift in the mists.

Erana held out her staff and cried out an invocation. The staff spit forth a sphere of flickering red, which flew past into the ranks of the approaching faeries. It erupted into a sea of flames. The faeries closest to the blast screamed in pain, as the fires ate away at their clothing and burned their skin. Those farther away were spared most of the flames, but were thrown into confusion nonetheless.

"What do we do now?" cried Janos, his hopes of ever leaving these mists alive dwindling. "We can't get through the barrier without Piotyr!"

Erana seemed lost in thought. She looked toward Piotyr and let her Staff dissolve again. Quickly, she lunged at Piotyr's floating body. She turned him to one side and reached out for his scabbard.

"Erana!" came a shout from the faeries. One of them, a leader of some sort judging by the silver trim of his robes, came forward to challenge her. "You have been declared renegade by the orders of Tatiana, Queen of the Faeries. Surrender now and you will not be harmed!" Erana ignored him, instead sliding Piotyr's sword free of its scabbard. The faerie captain apparently saw this as a gesture of hostility, as he sent an orb of force screaming toward Erana. Janos shouted a warning, and Erana swung Piotyr's sword up in a defensive stance. The orb collided with the sword with a crack-and was immediately absorbed by the flickering blue flames dancing along the blade! The faerie captain gasped, taken completely by surprise. Erana used his hesitation to her advantage and launched a similar spell at him. The orb hit him before he could react, and he was flung back into the ranks of faeries, most of whom were still trying to smother the last remaining flames and reorganize themselves.

Erana turned toward Janos, who stood dumbfounded. There were a million things going through his head, a million questions he wanted answered, but all he could manage was "Paladin!"

"No time to explain, Janos. Stay close to me." Janos did so, fighting to regain his senses. Some of the faeries let off more spells, but all of them shattered before they reached the trio, dispelled by a very faint aura of blue surrounding Erana in a great sphere. Erana herself turned to the barrier around the portal and, with a cry Janos would not have expected from her, she swung the flaming sword in a great arc. It slammed into the barrier, and sparks flew out in all directions. The barrier cracked under the strain, and another blow from Erana shattered it.

"Quickly!" she said. "Grab Piotyr and go through. I'll make sure we're not followed." Janos nodded and grabbed Piotyr's unconscious body before leaping into the maelstrom. Erana turned one last time and, gathering her will, threw out a great wall of force to block the pursuers from the portal, and then jumped in herself. She looked one last time at the angry faeries, and then her vision was swallowed up by the swirling darkness.

As Erana and the humans disappeared from sight, there was much confusion in the ranks of the faeries as to what to do next. They were reluctant to report their failure to the Queen, but none wished to cross over into the Nightmare lands. As they argued back and forth, no one noticed the dark figure creep out of the concealing mists and slip quietly into the maw of the portal.


Chapter 11

It began as a soft buzzing in his head. Steadily it grew, until it felt like there was an angry hornet trapped in his skull desperately to be free. It pulled him back toward consciousness, but the going was terribly slow. Something fought him, trying to keep him under. Something that offered dark dreams. But the buzzing drew him on until, unable to stand it any longer, Piotyr forced himself awake.

"Piotyr!" cried Erana. "You're awake!"

"So it would seem," he replied, struggling into a sitting position. He looked around at his surroundings, but was not encouraged by what he saw. It looked like they were in a forest, but the trees were sparse and all of them were black and twisted. The sky was a deep grey, oppressive with the promise of a thunderstorm. A light wind whistled past their campsite, and its moaning was a sound of terrible anguish.

Piotyr clutched his temple as the buzzing in his head redoubled. It was his danger sense, he realized. "There's danger here," he said, gritting his teeth. The buzzing was becoming painful. "It's everywhere. Gods, I've never felt it this strong! Even in Sergei's monastery..."

"I know," said Erana. "I've felt it, too. It's this place. The Nightmare Lands are so suffused with evil that they interfere with our danger sense. We won't be able to pick out any specific dangers while we're here. But I can help you with the pain, at least." She reached out and touched his forehead with her fingertips. Softly she uttered an incantation, and Piotyr felt the buzzing in his head lessen. He could still hear it, but now it seemed distant, and it no longer caused him pain. He stared at her quizzically.

"'Our' danger sense? What are you saying?"

"It seems our resident spellcaster has a secret," said Janos, grinning. He sat cross-legged, watching the two of them. His dark traveling clothes blended rather eerily with the landscape, and Piotyr had missed him before. "She also is a paladin!"

"Was," said Erana. Piotyr looked at her, incredulous. "It was a long time ago. Years of spreading peace earned me a place among your ranks. For a time, I gave up my spells and enjoyed the powers of honor. But I found that I could not give up my magic so easily after all. I rely mostly on magic, but I find the skills of the paladin useful from time to time." Erana smiled. "How do you think I was able to clean up your wounds so quickly?"

Piotyr smiled. True enough. The faeries had hurt him severely during their attempt to escape the Mists, but now he felt as good as new. Erana obviously still had the healing touch of a paladin.

Janos got to his feet. "Well, now that everything is settled, can we move along? This place is unsettling, and I'd rather not spend any more time here than I have to."

"Janos is right," said Piotyr. "Do we know where we should start looking?"

"I've been to this place before," answered Erana. "There are some ruins nearby that would be an excellent hiding place for the Necrophilicon."

"Then let's begin." Piotyr stood and pulled on his chainmail shirt. He picked up his sword and shield, and nodded to the others. With that, they set off into the Nightmare Lands.

Piotyr was uneasy with the thought of traveling without the benefit of his danger sense. Without it, he began to see danger everywhere. In a place like this, though, a bit of paranoia was probably justified. Erana was attempting to weave a protective aura around them, but she was not meeting with much success. Eventually, she simply threw up her hands and gave up.

"What's wrong?" asked Piotyr.

"It's this place," she answered. "There's too much dark magic."

"Just where exactly are we?" asked Janos. "I hate being lost in realms of dark magic."

"This is the place where nightmares come from. That in itself is bad enough, but eons ago the darkness here drew the attention of the Dark One. Now no one dares to come here, except occasionally in their dreams."

Piotyr frowned. "If Avoozl does have influence here, does that mean..."

"Look out!" cried Erana, pointing behind her. Piotyr spun around, his hand dropping to the hilt of his sword. He saw a dark form launch itself from the trees behind them, trailing mist and glaring at them with baleful red eyes. Erana's staff was in her hands in an instant, but as fast as she was, Janos was faster. He dashed forward and leapt at the creature, his form beginning to shift as he jumped. His features became fluid and were replaced by that of a large grey wolf. The wolf caught the creature in mid-air, knocking it off its intended course. It landed with a thud, its talons slashing ineffectively at the wolf, who landed on its feet some feet away. The creature pulled itself up, humanoid but hunched over like an animal, and prepared to strike at the wolf. But Erana struck first, fire lancing out from the tip of her staff. It caught the creature in the side with terrific force. The creature howled as it was thrown back, bursting into flames as it flew. This time when it reached the ground, it did not get up.

Piotyr was too startled by Janos' attack to do anything but watch in amazement. He looked nervously at the wolf, recalling the Mordavian stories of gypsy werewolves. His first, basic instinct was to draw his sword, but he quickly fought it down. Janos was a friend.

"It seems Erana is not the only one of us with secrets," he said, staring at the wolf. He would have sworn he saw it grin.

It was only a few hours later when they reached the ruins Erana had mentioned. Except it didn't look like ruins to Piotyr. It looked like a cemetery.

After the attack by the creature that Erana had identified as a Dream Horror, they were doubly cautious. Piotyr had passed the time talking to Janos, as the young gypsy explained what had happened to the incredulous paladin. Piotyr asked why Janos had kept his shape-shifting a secret.

"We have learned not to tell much of ourselves to those who would not understand," replied Janos. "I should have told you earlier, but old habits are hard to break. It is difficult to reveal such things to people, since their fear of that which they don't understand can drive them to do hateful things. Not a few of my fellows have been burned at the stake for their 'evil ways.'"

They picked their way through the fallen stones (which looked more and more to Piotyr like tombstones), finally coming upon a stone altar of sorts. Upon the altar rested the object of their quest-the Necrophilicon.

"Hmmph," said Janos, looking at the rather plain leatherbound tome. "Somehow I expected more."

"Like what?" asked Erana.

"Oh, I don't know. Your standard 'bound in human skin and inked in blood' sort of stuff. And I thought maybe you'd have to say some magic words or something before you could take it."

Erana tried somewhat unsuccessfully to suppress a smile. "Just take the book and let's get out of here," she said. Janos reached out to grab the tome when the silence was shattered by an utterly inhuman shriek. They turned around to see a monstrous horror rising up from the stones, its murderous, alien eyes locking on the group.

Erana's eyes grew wide with horror as she saw it. "A thaggu!" she screamed, and then the creature attacked.


Chapter 12

Erana could not believe what she was seeing. The creature rising from the ruins should never appear even in a place as dark as the Nightmare Lands, and yet there it was. A thaggu, a nightmare of destruction.

The creature oozed its huge, bloated body over the fallen stones, seeking its new victims. It was almost totally without shape, a vast grey ooze come to life. Its body was covered in large, purulent sacs, swimming with some whitish ichor. It had a rudimentary head, really only a large orifice surrounded by a fringe of twitching, slime-coated tentacles. Above the maw were three reddish orbs that appeared to serve as eyes. But Erana knew they saw more than any human eyes ever did. Or would want to.

A thaggu was a creature of Avoozl's dark dimension. It did not entirely exist in the Nightmare Lands, as such creatures spanned entire planes of existence, but what they could perceive was more than enough to kill an army.

Erana had time to scream once before the thaggu lashed out with a massive pseudopod grown from its vast body, knocking her aside with ease. She landed hard, smashing her arm against one of the stones, and she cried out in pain. Blinking away the swimming motes in her eyes, she checked her arm. Nothing broken, but she'd have a terrific bruise the next day. Assuming there was a next day, of course.

Piotyr had already drawn his sword, the blade shining with blue fire. The light of the fire seemed to make the creature draw back a bit, and Piotyr seized the advantage. He rushed the thaggu, his battle cry lost in the sound of its insane gibbering. The creature tried to fend him off with its pseudopod, but Piotyr lopped it off midway down its length. The creature shrieked in pained surprise, and withdrew the injured appendage. Erana saw the severed bit fall to the ground and begin immediately to disintegrate, corroding the ground beneath it.

Erana felt a pair of strong hands lift her to her feet. "Are you all right?" asked Janos, his expression one of horror.

"I'll be fine. Worry about Piotyr. He seems to have taken the thaggu by surprise, but he can't last long against it. We have to help him." Janos nodded and turned to go, but Erana stopped him. "Wait," she said. "You'll need enchanted weapons to hurt that thing. Quickly, give me your daggers." Janos did as he was bid, and Erana summoned up her staff. Incanting swiftly, she passed her staff over the daggers. They shimmered a bit, and suddenly it was as if they were new. Their edges were keener than they had ever been, and they shone with a mirror shine. Janos gratefully accepted them and turned toward the creature.

Piotyr, it seemed, was fighting a losing battle. Valiantly he swiped at his attacker, which was trying to drown him in pseudopods. For each that he severed, another two would spring forth. His honor shield flared as the tentacles struck it, but there were too many to handle at once. They were slowly forcing their way through. Erana leveled her staff at the writhing mass and focused her power. A lance of energy burst forth, cutting through the tentacles and into the creature's body. The creature drew back, but the effect was momentary. It lashed out at Piotyr with increased frenzy, threatening to crush the paladin underneath its bulk.

Janos seized the opportunity. He dashed forward, shifting to wolf form in mid-stride. He leapt mightily onto the creature's hide and shifted again, holding a pair of his enchanted daggers in his fists. The thaggu shifted under him, forming more of the seeking pseudopods, but Janos acted quickly. He struck downwards, his daggers flashing with a magical brilliance, and buried them to the hilt. Ichor sprayed in all directions, and the tentacles instinctively drew back. Janos leaped away, and Erana, seeing her chance, unleashed another blast from her staff. It struck the thaggu exactly where Janos had injured it, and the creature's hide burst open, oozing grey matter everywhere. But as soon as the wound was made, it began to knit itself together again. Despite all their attempts, they weren't inflicting any real damage on the creature.

Piotyr was finally overwhelmed by the creature's attack. His sword was torn from his hand and skittered across the ground. The blue flames flickered and slowly died away. Several pseudopods grabbed him around the waist, pinning his arms, and Erana saw that he was being drawn inexorably toward the great orifice on the creature's 'head.' She cried out, but was unwilling to risk firing a shot that could easily kill the paladin. Janos, however, reacted swiftly. He leapt again, this time grabbing the pseudopod holding Piotyr's struggling form and struck it with a dagger. The tentacle went numb, dropping the stunned Piotyr to the ground. Another shot out quickly and wrapped itself around Janos' body before he could escape. Before Erana could summon up enough power for a diversionary shot, the creature pulled Janos in front of its orifice and spewed forth some white, syrupy liquid. It struck Janos' leg, and Erana could see it begin to eat its way through his flesh. He screamed in pain, a sound frighteningly wolflike.

Erana ran forward, her staff vanishing as her concentration was broken. But it was Piotyr who acted first. He scrambled to his feet and grabbed his sword, which ignited immediately at his touch. With a yell he threw it blade-first at the thaggu. Erana summoned up what magic she could to enhance its speed and accuracy. It was apparently enough, for the blade stuck the creature in the center of its eyes.

The thaggu dropped Janos instantly and reared up, roaring in agony. It fixed its remaining eyes on Piotyr, focusing all its rage upon him. That turned out to be its mistake. Erana summoned her staff once more, focusing all the power she could muster. She released a roaring stream of fire from the tip of her staff and sent it arcing down the thaggu's gullet. The creature's semi-transparent skin glowed fiercely, and then the sacs began to explode. Piotyr and Erana grabbed Janos, who had passed out from the pain of his spreading wound. The thaggu shrieked in inhuman agony, and slowly began to collapse in upon itself. It dissolved slowly, its cried fading off, until nothing remained. It wasn't dead, Erana knew, but it had retreated from this dimension, and that was good enough.

Summoning what remained of her dwindling power, she did what she could to slow the progress of his wound. It was bad. The substance had eaten through his pant leg and was now working its way toward the bone.

"Piotyr!" she cried. Piotyr, who had retrieved his sword from where it had fallen as the thaggu vanished, turned and started back to where they sat. He placed his hands on Janos' leg and Erana did likewise, willing the wound to heal.

"It's not enough," she said. "We need to get him back to WIT. Get the Necrophilicon and let's get out of here. Piotyr agreed and moved toward the cradle where the book lay.

Erana, who had turned her attention back to injured gypsy, was surprised when she heard Piotyr grunt in pain. She turned to see him fall back away from the book, tendrils of darkness wrapping around him. She stood up, and suddenly the darkness was wrapping around her. It seemed to eat at her mind, and in her weakened state, she had no defense. She felt herself slipping away.

Forcing her eyes to remain open despite the dark magic weaving its way around her, draining the strength from her limbs. She saw a dark figure step up to the cradle and grab the Necrophilicon. It looked human, but even in her dazed, weakened state Erana knew that it was not. Something behind its golden eyes gave it away. It was another of Avoozl's minions, yet one more subtle and cunning than the monstrous thaggu. This was a darkling.

"I admit you three led me on quite a chase," said the darkling. "I had to resort to some rather creative methods to keep your trail. But now the Necrophilicon is truly ours. Very soon, the stars will align, and the Summoning can begin." The darkling's face twisted in evil glee. "I do hope you're all proud of yourselves. Your precious Glorianna will be blotted out by the Shadows of Darkness. I really do wish you could see it, but I'm afraid your time has come. Farewell, heroes."

Erana couldn't keep her eyes open any longer. With sadness, she thought about all they had gone through, only to have their victory snatched away from them. She thought of WIT and all the people who were counting on her, and her hand slipped fondly to the amulet Aster had given her. But in the end all she heard was the mocking laughter of the darkling as she slipped into the waiting darkness.


Chapter 13

When Janos awoke, he found himself in a large, comfortable bed. He felt groggy and disoriented, as if waking from some long, unrestful sleep. His leg ached terribly, and when he tried to sit up, a lance of pain shot up it and into his back, causing him to fall back onto the pillow. He lay there for a time, letting his hazy memories run through his mind. Gradually, it all came together for him. Their flight through the Faerie Mists. The trek through the Nightmare Lands. The terrible battle with the thaggu. He remembered the creature grabbing him, and then there was a flash of agony and the next thing he knew, he was here.

Since he could not get out of bed, Janos resigned himself to getting some rest. He drifted in and out of sleep, and every once in a while, men in robes with arcane symbols would come in to his room bringing food or to check his bandaged leg. That at least confirmed that he was back at WIT. But the mages spoke little, and Janos was too tired to press them for information.

Janos didn't know how much time had passed before Piotyr came into his room, but he felt like it had been days. He was restless after so long. He had tried getting up several times, and he found that he could walk with difficulty, but not very well. So Piotyr was a welcome change of pace. He smiled at Janos as he entered, and Janos invited him to sit on one of the chairs next to the bed so they could talk.

"How is the leg?" asked Piotyr.

"Better," he replied. "The mages have been weaving spells of all kinds to speed the healing, but they talk little otherwise. I have yet to learn what happened after the battle. Did we get the book?"

Piotyr frowned. "No. We were ambushed by a creature Erana calls a darkling. One of Sergei Borgov's minions. Aster did some research, and he thinks its name is Mordel. Apparently it was bound magically to Amon Tillado when he was alive, and must have passed on to Sergei when he took over the cult. It took the Necrophilicon. We barely escaped ourselves. Erana managed to teleport us back here to WIT just in time."

Janos swore. All that work for naught. And now the book was in the hands of the cult! Their plans were falling down around their ears. "What do we do now?" he asked. "If the cult has the book, they can summon the Dark One. All of Glorianna will be destroyed! We have to stop them!"

"I know," replied Piotyr. "The only option left to us is military. We are going to try to marshal a force and put the cult down once and for all."

"A Mordavian force?"

"No. Mordavia has few soldiers, and those few are under Borgov's command. No, it will have to be a foreign force. Aster is seeking an audience with the Sultan. Hopefully, they can come up with a plan."

"Let's hope so," said Janos. "Perhaps then we can put and end to this once and for all."

It was growing dark in Shapeir when Aster finished his meeting with the Sultan Ibn al Zahf. It had gone exceedingly well. The wizards of WIT did not, as a rule, involve themselves in the affairs of Shapeir. So when Aster, the Grand Wizard, had laid out his plans, the Sultan was more than willing to listen. In the end, he had agreed. So the first part was over. Now only the truly difficult part remained.

Aster's teleportation spell placed him in his private chambers. He walked quickly to the waiting room, where Erana, Piotyr, and Janos were waiting. They had all recovered nicely, although Piotyr and Erana, being paladins, had healed far more quickly than Janos had. But the gypsy looked well for the wound he had taken. He was hardy, that one.

"Did you speak to the Sultan?" asked Erana.

"Yes. He has agreed to provide us with five hundred troops. It's small, I know, but it's all he can spare. It should be sufficient to deal with the cult. I'd like you to lead them, Piotyr. You have the most experience with this sort of thing." Piotyr nodded.

"There's still a problem," said Janos. "Erana says that the stars will align in a matter of days. We'll never be able to march a force that size all the way to Mordavia in time."

"I know," replied Aster. "Let me deal with that. I want the three of you to rest for the next few days, until the troops are organized and we can get a battle plan ready. You were all badly wounded when you arrived, and you'll need all your strength to face what's coming."

They talked a bit more, but it was late and they soon left for their own rooms. Only Aster remained, lost in his own thoughts.

It was two days later when the preparations were finally complete. The assembled troops stood in formation, sweating under the hot desert sun. Piotyr, Erana, and Janos were there as well, running over the final preparations with Aster. Of all of them, it was the assembled mages who looked the most uncomfortable, as they were used to the ever-perfect climate of WIT.

Finally, Aster strode in front of everyone, and shouted to make his voice heard. "The preparations are complete, and we are ready to begin! My fellow wizards, if you will take your places." The mages fanned out and took their places along the runic circle that had been prepared that morning. It had actually been prepared around the soldiers, since so many people crossing over it held far too great a chance of someone disturbing it by mistake and ruining all the work. Aster took his place as well. "Are you ready?" he said to Piotyr.

"We are," replied the paladin.

"Then let the teleportation begin!" Aster ran over the spells quickly in his mind. A teleportation this large was theoretically possible, but had never been attempted before. It required vast amounts of magic, so Aster had brought a number of wizards along with him. They had all researched the process extensively, but Aster still worried. Frowning, he pushed his concerns to the back of his mind and began the spells.

A low chanting slowly built up around him. Slowly, it increased in volume, becoming more rhythmic. Aster alone did not chant. He began the first of the spells, speaking it time to the rhythm, and he felt the power surge within him. A faint glow spread out along the circle, beginning to pulse with the chanting. Aster kept reciting, feeling the magic flow around him in waves. It spread out to the other wizards in the circle and was reflected, bouncing back and forth between them and gaining intensity. The air itself fairly crackled with energy as the spell built to a crescendo.

Finally, Aster could contain it no longer. He finished the spell and the magic flowed forth from him. It entwined with the swirling energies in the circle, and those inside began to glow, and then to fade. Within moments, they were gone. The chant faded away into nothing.

Aster looked at the space where they had been. The circle was spent, and was even now being eroded by the desert winds. "May the gods watch over them," he whispered. He turned then and led the wizards back into the plazas of Shapeir.


Chapter 14

The night was not going well for Sergei Borgov. His temper was foul, and he had decided to cancel tonight's designated sacrifice. Unless things changed before tomorrow night, it would make no difference. Instead, he sat alone at his desk, furiously scribbling arcane notes and formulae.

"... and the way shall be opened when the stars are right. And with the presence of the faithful, and the yhnr formula..."

Sergei swept the books from his desk in disgust. The yhnr formula! It was in the Necrophilicon, the book that Sergei should by right possess. And yet he didn't, thanks to that infernal Amon Tillado. The madman hid the book before he died, and told no one where it was. And now, thanks to him, the summoning might never take place.

Where was Mordel, anyway? Sergei had sent him out months ago to follow the paladin Piotyr in hopes of finding the Necrophilicon, but Mordel had not returned. And if he didn't return tonight, thought Sergei, he had better not return at all. Darklings were powerful creatures, but Sergei was stronger.

Sergei's thoughts were like an invocation, for the light of the torches in Sergei's room began to dim, and the camber was blanketed in shadow. Sergei turned to see a dark form coalescing in one corner. It stepped forward, its golden cat's eyes gleaming in triumph.

"Mordel!" cried Sergei. "Do you have the book? Tell me?" Wordlessly, but with a wicked smile, Mordel held up an old, leatherbound book. Sergei leapt up from his chair and grabbed it from the darkling.

"Yes! After all this time, it is mine! Now the summoning can continue!" Sergei threw back his head in unrestrained laughter. "Now," he continued, "what of Piotyr? Has been taken care of?"

"He was joined by a local gypsy and the mage Erana. The last time I saw them, they were writhing in agony, slipping towards their deaths. They will not bother us again."

"Excellent," said Sergei. "You have done well, Mordel. Tomorrow night we will begin the summoning, and Avoozl shall rise triumphant. We shall rule all of Gloriana!" Sergei laughed again, his earlier miasma washed away by Mordel's success. Mordel simply stood, half-hidden in the shadows, smiling his cunning smile.

The autumn air was crisp and biting as Sergei led the assembled cultists out of the monastery's underground caverns and toward Mount Malign. A bitter wind was blowing through Mordavia, as though sensing the dark summoning that approached. All was ready now. Sergei had finished his work with the Necrophilicon the night before, and he had collected all seven rituals. And after all this time, the stars were finally in position. Avoozl would rise this night.

Mordel walked beside him, silent as a shade. Sergei watched him warily. Bound as the creature was in Sergei's service, it was still highly dangerous. He knew Mordel could not be trusted, but tonight there were more important things to consider. Once the summoning was complete and Gloriana was covered in darkness, then the darkling could be dealt with. He was, perhaps, more trouble than he was worth.

Sergei brought the cult to a halt as they reached the cave at Mount Malign. He turned to face them.

"Now, my brothers, is the time of the summoning. All our work, our long preparations, are finally at an end. This is the night of our ascendance! Avoozl will rise among us, and we shall be exalted! You each know what you must do. The chants and formulae are vital to our success. But above all, you must ensure that the rituals are not interrupted." There was a general murmur of assent from the cultists. Sergei could feel their excitement at the summoning. He shared it.

With that, the cultists began their assigned chants. Sergei and Mordel turned to enter the maw of the cave. It was dark and cold inside, and it felt as though the weight of the mountain was pressing down on him, but Sergei ignored it. He had a mission. Turning to survey the cavern, he began to intone the ritual of the mouth, which would open the portal to Avoozl's realm.

"Yah, Avoozl! Hear me great Dark One! Open thy mouth that we may enter! Open thy mouth that will swallow us all! Open thy mouth of darkness! Yah, Avoozl!"

At the completion of the ritual, the cavern began to groan. The light of Sergei's torch dimmed visibly, and the shadows of the cavern seemed hideously to move. The rocks moved, twisting slowly into dark new shapes. Sergei smiled at the transformation, for it signaled Avoozl's coming. Even Mordel could not hide his elation.

"Yes!" cried the darkling. "It is truly happening! Avoozl awakens!"

Sergei nodded, the shadows of the cave whispering dark things in his ears. "Tonight, Mordel, Gloriana shall die."


Chapter 15

Piotyr blinked as the haze of the teleportation spell faded away. He looked around, trying to get his bearings. They had arrived in a sparse forest. Piotyr breathed in slowly, taking in the mountain air. He could detect just the barest hint of garlic in the wind. Mordavia. He was home.

It was dark here, Piotyr noticed. Night had fallen over Mordavia. Aster had told them that it would be dark already in this part of the world, but the effect was still disconcerting. It was cold as well. Bitterly cold, a sharp contrast to the heat and dry air of Shapeir. Piotyr shivered, but with more than just the chill. He sensed a vast darkness here. Things were not right in Mordavia.

He glanced around quickly and saw that Janos, Erana, and the force of Shapeirian warriors had arrived as well. Janos and Erana were looking past him to the south, their eyes wide with astonishment. Piotyr followed their gaze, and his eyes grew wide as well. A huge mass of black clouds was forming over Mount Malign. Bluish lightning arced between the clouds, throwing their ghostly light across the mountaintop. The sense of pure evil radiating from the mountain was almost palpable.

"We're too late!" cried Erana. "They've already begun the Summoning!"

Piotyr turned to face the troops. "Quickly," he said in a loud, commanding voice, "we haven't much time. We have to get to that mountain and stop the ceremony before it is completed. I want this cult destroyed at all costs. Now move!" The assembled company broke into a run toward the mountain. Piotyr stayed in front, but he noticed that Erana lagged behind with Janos. Since the battle with the thaggu, Janos had not been moving as quickly as he used to. A week ago, he would have outdistanced all of them. Now he could barely keep up.

Piotyr looked ahead of him. The clouds were growing thicker over the mountain, and the smell of evil was growing stronger. They were running out of time. Piotyr prayed they would reach the mountain before disaster struck.

Sergei Borgov paused, breathless, as he completed the Ritual of the Heart. Before him, the stone altar began to twist and distort into the shape of a heart. It began to thud rhythmically, the deep bass sound causing Sergei's entire body to shudder. Gods, but these rituals were powerful! He could feel his strength draining as he performed each one. And yet, he felt no desire to stop. With each ritual, Avoozl assumed more power in this dimension. The Shadows of Darkness were gathering in the mountain, flowing over every rock, waiting to be released with Avoozl's coming.

Mordel saw Sergei pause to catch his breath. He half-sneered. "Do you need help, Master?" he asked.

"Of course not," replied Sergei. "There is only one more ritual to perform. And then, we will be all-powerful."

Well, one of us at least, he thought with a sly smile.

Erana heard the chanting of the cultists before they even reached the mountain. She could feel the dark magic coming from the place, writhing around her mind. She blocked it out, focusing instead on the task at hand. She and Piotyr would have to fight their way inside the mountain and stop Sergei Borgov from finishing the rituals. Janos would have to remain outside. His wounds made him a liability they could not afford on this delicate mission. He had protested when they told him, but eventually he had relented.

Finally, after an exhausting run, they reached Mount Malign. There was a swarm of cultists around the mouth of the cave. The cultists were chanting with their heads bowed, and the chant coupled with the wind had masked the sound of their approach. Erana leaned over to Piotyr. "We can take them by surprise," she said, "if we hurry." Piotyr nodded, and drew his sword. The blade sparked and ignited with blue flame as he held it aloft, a rallying banner for the Shapeirian troops.

"Attack!" he cried, and they dashed forward. By the time the cultists heard the footsteps and the battle cries over the shrieking wind, it was too late. The battle was joined.

For a few minutes, Erana lost track of herself in the heat of the battle. Bodies were everywhere, and it was difficult to know who to protect and who to attack. At first, it seemed that Piotyr's troops would have an easy victory, since they clearly outnumbered their opponents. But the cultists, after recovering from their initial shock, fought ferociously. What was more, they all seemed to be spellcasters. The tide of the battle began to shift in the cult's favor.

A ball of flame shattered against Erana's magical shield. She spun around, already gathering her power, and threw a similar spell at her attacker. His robes caught fire easily, and she heard him begin to scream before the tide of battle carried him away. Where was Piotyr? They had to head into the cave quickly, or all was lost. Incanting softly, she drew out some of her power and used it to levitate herself above the battle. From this height, the paladin was easy to spot. He was making his way slowly toward the mouth of the cave, his opponents melting before his flaming sword and honor shield. Erana gave herself a magical nudge in that direction, and floated to the cave mouth. Piotyr slew a pair of attackers, swiftly and mercilessly, and then ran over to join her. His usually gleaming chainmail was stained with the blood of the cultists, and bore not a few magical scorch marks. Nevertheless, Piotyr seemed undaunted. He nodded to her, and together they entered the darkness of the cave.

"Yah! Yah! Avoozl!"

Mordel threw back his head and laughed in triumph as Sergei finished the final ritual. He sensed the portal to Avoozl's realm yawn open, and felt the darkness pour from it like a river. Shadows swirled around the cave, which itself began to shudder. Mordel felt them and drew strength from them, feeling power he had only known in Avoozl's realm. It felt glorious.

Sergei joined in Mordel's laugh of triumph. "We have done it! At last, Avoozl awakens! In a matter of minutes, the portal will open completely and we will be gods!"

"Not if I can help it," came a defiant voice from behind them. They spun around to see a pair of figures challenging them. Piotyr and Erana!

"What?" cried the Boyar. "You two! You're alive!" The human capacity for understatement was a dazzling thing, thought Mordel.

"Stop the rituals now, Borgov," said Erana, "and we won't have to kill you."

Sergei laughed at this. "You fool! The rituals are complete! The Dark One approaches! And there's not a thing you can do about it!" Mordel watched Erana's sudden look of fear as she realized that he was telling the truth. Seizing the opportunity, he launched himself at her, dark magic spraying forth from his fingers. She fell back, stunned, and Mordel laughed. He heard the sounds of blades being drawn and felt the heat of a paladin's sword. Turning his head, he saw Piotyr and Sergei, weapons in hand, move to face each other. Good. Those two could deal with each other. For now, Mordel would have the pleasure of tearing apart this meddlesome half-faerie. He watched as she struggled to one knee, and, drawing strength from the cavorting shadows, he struck again.

Janos struck quickly, burying one of his enchanted daggers in the side of a cultist. The man collapsed, and Janos moved away. It appeared that the Sultan's troops were gaining the upper hand again. He looked at the cave, into which Piotyr and Erana had disappeared. He wished he could have followed along, but even he had to admit that his leg was limiting him. He was limping across the battlefield as it was.

Striking down another assailant, Janos dodged aside and found himself momentarily free from combat. He looked around to gauge the situation. The cultists were falling back toward the cave mouth, but they were still inflicting heavy losses. It was going to be close.

Suddenly Janos felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Something had changed. He could feel it. He looked at the mountain, and for a moment, he stood frozen in horror. It was moving! He could see the rock twisting, forming something titanic. Then he began to hear the screams. At first, they were coming from the cultists, who had doubled over in pain. Janos watched as their bodies distorted, their arms elongating into slithering tentacles, and their eyes growing into huge glowing orbs. Then, after agonizing moments, they stood, and it was the Shapeirian troops who screamed. They were suddenly faced by horrors they had never before imagined.

Janos felt like crying. He understood what was happening. The twisting mountain, the transformed cultists, it could only mean one thing. They had failed. Avoozl was here
The Procestuousity begins here!
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SierraDude81
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Re: Call of Avoozl

Postby SierraDude81 » Thu Jun 09, 2011 11:51 am

Chapter 16

Janos dodged quickly to the right, narrowly avoiding a searing ball of electricity. One of the creatures was advancing on him, its tentacles twitching as it prepared another spell. Janos readied the daggers he held in both hands and crouched, waiting for the creature to come closer. He feinted to the right, and struck as the creature launched another spell. One of his daggers caught the creature's tentacle, drawing ichor. It shrieked, and Janos buried the other dagger between its bulbous eyes. Its twitching body glowed briefly and then dissipated, leaving its tattered robes on the ground.

Janos wiped the sweat from his brow. That was three creatures he had brought down. Unfortunately, the Shapeirian troops were not faring so well. Many had been slain, and many more had fled rather than face these horrors. Those that remained were fighting a losing battle. And the mountain itself was still shifting, transforming into something monstrous.

Janos looked at the cave mouth, which now beginning to look like an actual mouth, and swore. He was doing no good here. The critical battle was inside! Piotyr's orders be damned! He set his jaw in determination, and began making his way to the cave.

Piotyr parried one of Sergei's blows and dodged another before returning the strike. Sergei ducked beneath it and readied himself. This fight was taking longer than Piotyr had thought it would. As a swordsman Piotyr was far superior to the Boyar, and he had the powers of a paladin behind him. It should have been an easy victory. But Sergei Borgov was a talented spellcaster, and he was magically enhancing his strength and stamina to levels that even Piotyr couldn't match. Worse, he actually seemed to be drawing power from the portal he had opened to Avoozl's realm. The portal itself was invisible to the eye, but Piotyr could sense it nevertheless. The evil radiating from it was incredible. It had threatened to overwhelm his danger sense when he first entered the cave, and Piotyr had been forced to use a trick Erana had taught him to suppress it.

"What is it with you paladins?" cried Sergei as he launched another assault. "Always running around sticking your noses where they don't belong. If ever there was a scourge upon Gloriana, it's you!"

Piotyr parried, but took a blow in the side that drew blood. "You're insane, Borgov!" he cried. "You have no idea what you're about to unleash! You'll destroy everything!"

"You know nothing!" shrieked the Boyar. "In a few moments, Avoozl will come, and I will be a god! Can you understand that? Can you understand the power I will achieve? What do I care for anyone else?"

Piotyr shook his head. There was no reasoning with a man like this. Unpleasant as it might be, Piotyr's course was clear. For the good of Gloriana, Sergei Borgov had to die. With new determination, Piotyr moved forward to attack.

Erana barely had time to blink before the darkling was upon her again, raking at her with its steel claws. It was growing less human by the minute, becoming more feral. More twisted. More powerful. Instinctively, she summoned her power and threw out a ball of force. The darkling grunted and fell away, and Erana scrambled to her feet. The thing was too quick! It got to its feet, and hurled a tendril of darkness at her. She tried to dodge, but it caught her in the side and wrapped around her, sapping her strength. She shook the effect off, but the darkling was coming after her again.

Erana threw up her hands and there was a flash of blinding light. It was a desperate gamble, since creatures like the darkling were generally immune to such spells, but Erana was out of options. Fortunately, the mass of shadows already in the cave seemed to amplify the effect of Erana's spell, and the darkling fell back, stunned. Erana stopped to get her bearings. She saw Piotyr engaged in heated battle with the Boyar, his flaming sword flaring in the unnatural darkness. The two seemed fairly evenly matched. What worried her most was the portal that Borgov had opened. Her half-faerie vision was keener than a human's, and with a bit of magical help, she could actually see it. It was getting bigger by the second. It had to be closed. She saw that the darkling was still stunned. If she moved quickly, she could dispose of the creature before it could recover, and then she could deal with the portal. She stepped forward, summoning up her power for a final strike.

A soft chuckle behind her made her stop. Even as she began to turn around, things fell into place. The relative ease with which she had dispatched the darkling. Why had her spell affected a creature that was supposed to be immune to such things? Simple. It hadn't. It had felled an illusion.

She turned to see the darkling standing behind her, its arms raised. Before she could react, she was ensnared in darkness. It bound her limbs, and she was unable to move. It clamped her mouth, so she couldn't cast any spells to free herself. She was helpless. The darkling stepped forward, reverting back to its human shape. It smiled smugly, savoring the moment.

"I've waited long for this, Erana," it said. "I had heard that you were among the greatest wizards in Gloriana. But it appears you are not as great as your reputation. See how easily you fall before my power? Pitiful! Still, I will enjoy tearing you limb from limb." The darkling raised its arm, its fingers once again elongating into claws. Grinning, it reached forward-and stopped. Its eyes grew wide in astonishment.

The darkling is a powerful creature. It draws its strength from shadow, using the darkness to fuel its evil magic. Perhaps its greatest power, however, is its ability to change its shape to anything it can imagine. It uses this power to reshape itself into terrifying creatures when it wishes, but often it assumes a human shape when dealing with mortals. When in human form, the darkling assumes the complete physical structure of a human. It has bones, muscles, veins, a heart, and a spine-a spine that Janos had just severed with his enchanted dagger.

The darkling shrieked as its legs gave way beneath it. Erana's bonds fell away as the darkling collapsed to the floor, writhing in agony. Already, Erana could see the wound healing as the creature used its shapeshifting powers to reform its severed spine, but Erana had no intention of giving it the time it required. She summoned her staff, its oaken length bristling with power, and brought it down on the darkling. The staff, knowing instinctively what to do, released its energy into the creature on contact. The darkling screamed in agony as Erana's magic burnt it from the inside out. Its body began to glow and shimmer, until finally the darkling could not find the strength to hold it together any longer. With a final, echoing scream it flew apart, its essence scattering into the gloom. Mordel was no more.

"You did it!" cried Janos.

Erana turned to him. "No, you did it, my friend. He had me beaten. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be alive right now. Thank you."

Janos grinned, blushing just slightly. "Shall we help Piotyr?" he asked.

"There isn't time," said Erana. "The portal is nearly open. If we don't... oh no!" She looked past Janos to see the portal open wide. A dark tendril wormed its way out, testing this new reality. It was joined by another, and another. Avoozl had come. Their time had run out.

"The Dark One!" she cried. "He's here! We're too late!" Janos turned as the mountain began to shake violently. Mount Malign was no longer just a portal for Avoozl. It was becoming Avoozl!

"One chance left," said Erana. She broke into a run toward the portal, shifting her weight to keep her balance despite the tremors.

Janos seemed to sense her plan. "No! Erana!" he screamed. He tried to chase her, but with his wounded leg he was nowhere near fast enough. "What are you doing?"

"I have to push him back!" she yelled back. "It's the only way!"

"You can't!" he cried, giving up the chase. "You'll never survive!"

"I don't have a choice, Janos!" she cried. The portal was just ahead, and she leapt the last few feet. She thought she heard Janos call out to her one last time, but the sound was swallowed up as she entered the portal.

Darkness. The place between worlds was pure darkness. Erana had not known that such darkness could exist. It was not merely the absence of light. The darkness around her was a sentient, living thing. It did not mask the light, it devoured it. She could feel its mind everywhere. It was monstrous and alien. Its thoughts were thunderous, echoing through her mind, sapping her will. This, she knew, was her adversary. This was Avoozl.

"What are you?" she cried into the darkness, her mind reeling from the Dark One's alien thoughts. The darkness seemed to hear her, and it answered. It did not speak, for it did not seem capable of such a thing. Instead, it flooded her mind with images. She saw great vistas of space. She saw huge clusters of stars, millions of them, and watched as they were blotted out by the darkness. She saw, in the midst of the darkness, a small ball of blue and green. She knew instinctively that it was her world, her beloved Gloriana. Before her horrified eyes, she saw the darkness spread over it like a tide, withering everything. She saw the beautiful, vibrant green turn cold and brown as the darkness devoured it. It seeped into everything, corroding the planet itself. It seeped in until the entire world had been consumed by the Dark One. All that was left was a dried husk, a chunk of rock floating in the void that was Avoozl. Lifeless. She felt Gloriana die.

Erana screamed, the feeling hurting her more than any physical pain could. The darkness seemed to laugh, feeding of her pain, feeding off her life. She felt cold, so very cold. Her blood was freezing in her veins. Her heart began to slow. She was dying.

Desperately, she fought the darkness. She summoned her staff, drawing strength from its magic. But the darkness merely laughed, or so it seemed. It wrested her staff from her hands. She watched, helpless, as it flew out of the portal and back into the cave where it skittered to a halt. She called up her magic, trying to form a spell of banishment, but the darkness drew the magic from her as she formed it, leaving her empty. Powerless.

She was a fool. She saw that now. Tulan had warned them that no mortal could possibly hope to defeat a Dark One. But she had not listened. In her heart, she believed that she could always triumph, because she fought for the side of goodness, of life itself. But she was nothing. She was a mote in the cosmic eye of Avoozl. And now she was going to die.

She turned in the void and looked back through the portal. She had failed Gloriana. Once Avoozl had finished with her, it would emerge fully into the world, and it would be just as in her vision. A dead world. A world of darkness.

But deep inside her, she felt a spark. She was giving in to despair, feeding Avoozl with her grief. She thought of the vision the Dark One had shown her, and she felt the spark fan into the heat of anger. And then the idea burst into her mind, and she knew what she must do.

"No!" she screamed into the void. "I won't let you take my world! I won't let you kill everything!" She sensed the confusion in the darkness. Then it sensed her plan and erupted into fury. She felt pain she had never imagined at the darkness sought to drain the life from her, but she cut herself off from it. It didn't matter anymore. She was already lost. There would be no escape for Erana this time, no happy ending. But before she went, she would stop Avoozl. She reached down deep inside, into the very core of her being, and drew out her life force. It was the only power she had left. Looking one last time through the portal into Gloriana, she cast a spell of sealing, fueled by her very essence. The portal shrank to a speck, and then closed. Avoozl was trapped in the limbo between dimensions. Erana smiled once as the Dark One raged around her, venting its fury into the void. Gloriana was safe, she thought, and the thought gave her comfort. Then, still smiling, she died.

Piotyr stepped back, confused, as Sergei Borgov turned his attention away from the paladin and began to scream.

"No!" cried the Boyar, incredulous. "It cannot be! It is impossible! No!" Sergei was staring at the spot where Erana had disappeared. Piotyr probed gently with his danger sense, and found that the aura of evil was diminishing. The portal was closed! He couldn't believe it. They had won!

But where was Erana? She had not come back through the portal. He looked around and saw Janos on the ground, staring in sorrow at the spot where the portal had been. He saw Erana's staff on the ground next to the gypsy, and suddenly he knew. Erana was gone. She had given her life to stop the Dark One. They had thwarted Avoozl at last, but the victory felt hollow. It seemed that a part of Piotyr had died as well.

The sound of stone grating on stone caused Piotyr to turn. He saw to his horror that the mouth of the cave was closing. Quickly he turned to Janos.

"We have to get out of here!" he cried. "The entrance is closing. We'll be trapped!"

Janos looked and saw the collapsing entrance as well. "Gods!" he cried. He shifted quickly to wolf form. Even with an injured leg, he was still far faster than a human on four legs. He dashed off toward the entrance. Piotyr reached down and grabbed Erana's staff before dashing off toward the cave mouth himself.

Piotyr heard a terrified cry from behind him, and the sound of running footsteps. It appeared that Sergei Borgov had seen the collapsing entrance as well, and was trying desperately to avoid being trapped in these twisted caves. Piotyr ignored him, concentrating on speed.

Piotyr dove at the last second, rolling out from under the closing "jaws" of the cave. He turned in time to see Sergei Borgov, his face a mask of desperation, racing for the entrance. But he wasn't fast enough. The mouth rumbled close, and Piotyr could just hear Sergei's panicked shrieks as he realized he was trapped.

Piotyr looked around. Less than half of the Sultan's warriors remained, and they all had a haunted look in their eyes. The cultists were gone, apparently having fled into the forests. They could be dealt with later. The battle was over. They had won.

News spread quickly throughout the troops. There were great cries of celebration, but Piotyr didn't share the mood. Instead, he looked down at the oaken staff he held in his hands. He sat there, staring at the staff's curved shape, as the first drops of rain began to fall.


Epilogue

Alexei drew his fur cloak tight around his shoulders to block out the winter cold. He had awakened this morning to be greeted by the first of the winter snows. The air was crisp, and the sky had cleared somewhat. Alexei breathed deeply. It was invigorating.

Food would be scarce during the winter, so the Vistana clan had camped near the town of Lovitsk, in the country of Surria. They would be able to trade with the townsfolk for food until the thaw, when they could move south to warmer, more plentiful regions.

As Alexei wandered through the camp, he was greeted several times by members of the clan. As a rule, the gypsies did not enjoy being trapped in one area for the winter, but the day was beautiful and spirits were high. That was good. After recent events, Alexei judged that their morale could use a boost.

Alexei was startled by the sound of hurried footsteps crunching in the snow. One of the children was running toward him, a look of excitement in his young eyes. Alexei crouched down.

"Alexei!" cried the boy.

"What is it?"

"Janos has returned! Come and see!" The boy was bursting with enthusiasm this morning. Alexei stood, elated.

"Where is he?" he asked.

"This way!" cried the boy. "Follow me!"

The boy led Alexei to a small crowd of gypsies. They parted at Alexei's coming, and the gypsy king found himself face to face with Janos. At first, Alexei would not have recognized him. This man was so different from the Janos who had left the pack months ago! He walked with an obvious limp, his quickness and dexterity greatly diminished. Yet he carried himself as a man, not as the rash boy of nineteen he was when last they spoke. It was the eyes, though, that were the most drastic change. There was a seriousness to them that was never there before, and perhaps a bit of sadness. They were the eyes of one who had seen much, perhaps more than he should have. He looks older, thought Alexei.

"Hello, Alexei," said Janos, smiling and holding out a hand. Alexei took it, and pulled Janos forward to embrace him.

"Welcome back, Janos. The pack has missed you. As have I."

"And I you," replied Janos.

"Come, come! You must tell me of your quest. I wish to know everything."

"Of course I'll tell my tale. But can we do it inside? It's freezing out here."

Alexei laughed. "Of course. Come with me." He brought Janos back inside his wagon, and bade him sit down. He fixed Janos a bowl of stew from breakfast, which Janos gratefully accepted. Alexei sat opposite him, and they made light conversation while Janos ate. Then, when he was finished, Janos began to tell his tale.

The story Janos told was incredible. He told of his meeting with Piotyr, and of their venture into the monastery of the Dark One. He told of the trek to Shapeir, and of their meeting with Aster and Erana. He told of the harrowing journey through the faerie mists, and of their battle and eventual defeat in the Nightmare Lands. He told of their last desperate strike at the cult at the battle of Mount Malign. And finally, he told of Erana's sacrifice, and their final victory over the Dark One. When he finished speaking, Alexei found himself speechless. So close they had all come to total destruction! So close, and none of them had known.

No. Not true. Sofia had known.

"Janos, there is something here that perhaps you should see. Please, come with me." He took Janos outside and around to the only wagon as large as his own: the wagon of the fortuneteller. Shivering slightly with the cold, he knocked on the door of the wagon. "Anya," he called. "It's Alexei."

"Anya?" said Janos, his voice betraying his confusion. "But I thought that Sofia was..."

"I will explain everything in a moment, Janos," said Alexei. The door swung wide to reveal a raven-haired gypsy girl. There was an air of great sadness about her, as if she were suffering through some great loss. She smiled brightly when she saw Janos, but Alexei noticed that her eyes did not seem to share the joy.

The girl's smile faltered at the mention of her mother, but she moved out of the doorway. "Of course," she said. "Please, come in."

Alexei nodded and took Janos inside. He led Janos in back, to Sofia's old room. Sofia had been the clan's fortuneteller for years, living in this wagon with her daughter Anya. They were a joyous pair, adored by all. But things changed. Alexei brought Janos over to a small table in one corner.

"Several weeks ago, Sofia began receiving dark visions, and reading bad omens in her cards. We were worried, but she could not pick out the specific source of the danger. Then one morning, Anya came to me in tears. She told me that something terrible had happened to her mother. We came here to see what had happened, and we found Sofia here, crying to herself in the corner. She had received one last vision, and it was too much for her. She held on for a few days after that, but she wasn't the same. The vision had broken her mind. The only clues that we found were a pair of tarot cards on the table here. These two cards, in fact." Alexei handed Janos the cards that had been puzzling him ever since Sofia's death. In light of Janos' story, they were a puzzle no longer. The hanged man, and the void. The card of sacrifice, and the card of darkness.

Janos stood there for a long time, staring at the cards. Finally, he placed them back on the table and looked up at Alexei. They didn't speak, for there was no need for words. Silently, they walked back to Alexei's wagon.

"We should celebrate," said Alexei as they settled in again. "You are, after all, a hero!"

"I don't feel like a hero," said Janos. "I failed her."

"Erana did what she had to do," said Alexei. "She did it out of love for this whole world. If she hadn't, none of us would be here now."

Janos sighed. "I know, Alexei. But somehow, it doesn't help." He stared for a while, thinking. "Do you think it's really over, Alexei?" he asked finally.

"I wish I could tell you that it was, Janos, I really wish I could. But Anya has looked into the cards, and she says that the danger still exists. Perhaps the Dark One is not gone forever. But we can take heart in knowing that there will be someone like you there should the darkness rise again."

Janos chuckled at that. "The last thing Mordavia needs is a headstrong gypsy rushing blindly into trouble. If Mordavia is to be cleansed of the darkness once and for all, it will need something more than that."

"Like what?" asked Alexei.

Janos smiled slightly. "I think it will need a hero."
The Procestuousity begins here!
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