It was too late. Monala was too powerful. She floated above us in a massive stone chamber, directing bursts of energy from a giant, glowing pillar streaked with darkness in the centre of the room. One by one she struck them down. Soern, Paerk, Mark. I charged towards her, but stopped short when I reached the edge of the platform I was on.
Monala laughed as she drew more power off of the pillar. She sent the energy spiralling outwards, killing Jocelyn, Blank, and Rellik. Gannen stood at my side, the last of my compatriots. I frantically glanced around, trying to find a way to get to her. I barely noticed the bolt of energy Monala had just thrown at me, but Gannen had. He pushed me out of the way just in time and was hit, full-force. I was thrown to the side and hit the ground hard. It barely hurt though. It was as if my senses were dulled. Gannen laid on the ground, unmoving. I pulled myself over to Gannen, looking down at him. “Wake up, Gannen. Please wake up...” I pleaded. I cradled his head in my arms and brushed his hair out of his face. It was too late. He was gone. No. No. No. It wasn't supposed to end like this. They were all dead. All dead.
I stood up and faced Monala. She was laughing hysterically. I used a dimensional door and pulled myself to her. I stood only feet away from her and lifted the Aur Xica. She lifted her hands and hit me with a blast of energy. I don't remember dropping the Aur Xica, but I vaguely remember the loud clang it made as it hit the ground. I stumbled backwards off the platform. I was dead. I just didn't realize it yet. And now I was falling. Falling through nothing. Falling towards nothing. It would be over even before I even hit the water.
I jerked, suddenly finding myself in my hammock on the Ocean's Blade. I looked around. Mark lay sleeping in his hammock. Jocelyn was close by in a bedroll. Gannen slept soundly near the trapdoor. They were alive. It was a dream.
I went above deck. It was dark and the storm raged on. Someone grabbed my shoulder. I quickly turned, drawing the Aur Xica. I nearly attacked the person before I realized it was Blank. He took a step back.
“What is this mutiny?” he asked.
“You startled me,” I said.
“Apparently. Go wake the others. We're going back to Xanadu.”
I hesitated. “Shouldn't we at least wait for daylight?”
“Do you think daylight's really going to matter in this storm, or, you know, in a CAVE?!” Blank demanded.
“I suppose not,” I sighed, “I'll go get everyone up.”
Everyone gathered on the deck.
“We should do a ceremony to the god of kicking Monala's ass,” Paerk said.
“Jubilexis?” Soern asked.
“You've been enlightened as well? The let us pray to Jubilexis,” Paerk said.
“Wait, wait, wait, who is Jubilexis?” I asked.
“The god of kicking Monala's ass. Don't you pay attention?” Paerk said.
“There isn't a god of kicking Monala's ass,” I said.
“Of course there is. We just weren't enlightened about him until now.”
Blank grinne. “That is... well... that is the most brilliant thing I've ever heard! And I always thought biter society had nothing to offer the world.”
I'm not sure if I believe in made up Faen gods, but I really couldn't say no to the possibility of divine help, so I joined the others in their ceremony. Though I did reserve most of my prayers for my patron god, Halas, whom I have long neglected. Perhaps regaining some faith wouldn't be such a bad thing for me.
And so we headed back through the storm to Xanadu. As we arrived back in the harbour, an argument broke out about which path we should take to Monala this time.
“Well, back into the water we go,” Soern said.
“Yeah, the zombie-infested underwater tunnel is definitely our best path,” I said, sarcastically.
“You just don't want to go back into the water,” Soern commented.
“Maybe,” I muttered.
“There's probably zombies everywhere. Why don't we just go down that way?” Paerk pointed to the staircase which Monala had descended.
“If we just follow her, what was the whole point of going to the underwater tunnel earlier?” Mark asked.
“To almost get eviscerated by giant undead monsters?” I suggested.
“Well, trying to be sneaky had been a good idea. But that was hours ago. I don't think we can really sneak up on her anymore,” Paerk said.
“I really don't think stealth would have even worked in the first place. What with her complete magical control of Xanadu and all,” Soern added.
“Let's just go down the stairs,” Gannen said.
I sighed, “We may as well at this point.”
“It's settled then. We're going down the stairs,” Blank said authoritatively.
I opened my mouth to call Blank's authority into question, but decided it would be a pointless argument.
And so, we descended down the staircase. My heart was racing as we walked further and further downwards into the darkness. The stairwell seemed to narrow as we spiralled downwards. Eventually the tight stairwell opened up into a large room. Taking a few steps into the room, I noticed a large pit in the centre of the room, with stairs going down into it. We would be going deeper into the spider's lair, it seemed. Along the back wall was a pit. I started going down the stairs to closer examine the door, but was stopped by Jocelyn.
“You're just going to march down into the pitch black pit?” she asked.
I looked into the pit again. It wasn't pitch black. It was shadowy, and strangely drained of all colour, but it certainly wasn't pitch black. “I can see well enough,” I announced, before continuing into the pit. I was followed by Soern's creepy glowing orb and the rest of my companions. There was something written on the door. What exactly it was, I wasn't sure, since I couldn't read it. Soern and Paerk spent a lot of time scrutinizing the inscription, scrawling notes onto parchment, and discussing. I decided not to get involved with the door. I know what I'm good at, and what I'm not good at. Diplomacy? Certainly a strength. Alternative forms of diplomacy involving weapons? Also one of my strong suits. Decoding cryptic riddles on doors? Not so much.
The inscription melted away into the door by some magical force. Soern seemed pleased with himself.
“See, that wasn't so hard,” he said.
I waited a moment, staring at the still-closed portal.“So, is the door supposed to open now or something?” I asked.
“Well, uh, actually, I think we need a key,” he said.
“A key?” Blank questioned. Soern pointed to a keyhole in the door that I had not previously seen.
“Well, where do we get this key?” Jocelyn asked.
“I think we already have it,” I said. Indeed, I suspected we might need this key at some point, ever since Gannen implied it might be important way back while he was still in prison. “It was in that box.”
“Well, where's the box?” Soern asked.
“Commodore Blank has it,” I said, “But the key's not in the box any more. The key's around my neck, where it's been since we first found it.” I pulled the leather cord the key was on off over my head and tried to hand the key to Soern.
“Oh, no, I'm not opening the door,” he said, “I don't know what's waiting for us on the other side.”
I chuckled, “Yeah, you'd probably just blast acid first and ask questions later.”
“One does not 'blast acid.' It is clear to me you lack a grasp on even the simple fundamentals of magic.”
“Haha, Sigrid can't do magic! It's like she's illiterate!” Blank interjected.
“Oh, leave her be,” Gannen said. “Magic isn't the be-all and end-all of life. There are things... more important...” his voice drifted off, as if he was lost in thought.
I looked at him, not speaking, scarcely moving. All of a sudden, Mark snatched the key from my hand. “Let's just get on with this,” he said, impatiently.
Mark opened the door into my nightmare. Well, the room was the exact same one that had been in my nightmare, complete with the black-veined energy pillar in the centre. We walked into the chamber. There was no denying it, this was the room from my dream. The setting was the same, but the outcome would not be. It could not be. I would not let them die.
Monala sat on a throne on the far end of the chamber, laughing maniacally. Seeing her there brought up a homicidal rage within me. Screw bringing her back alive. Screw what Ea-Shamar wanted. Screw the whole Diamond Throne for all I cared. I was going to kill Monala.
“How nice of you to come,” Monala said, “Gentlemen, please see to our guests.” And with that we were beset by fire elementals. They swarmed us as Monala continued to talk. “How nice when a plan finally comes together and all the loose ends are, shall we say, dealt with. I've been looking forward to this for a long time.”
“You see,” she continued, “you are my last inconveniences. Toying with you has been such fun, but I really don't have time for distractions any more. Ruling the world is going to be a full-time profession. I'll have to deal with keeping my zombie hordes in tip-top shape and controlling the weather. I simply won't have time to play with you children anymore.”
I continued fighting off the fire elementals as I responded, “We're here to unravel your plans, Monala. And even if we fail, my Lord will send troops. You will not win.”
Monala laughed. “Ah, yes, Morek. I suspect he will be sending troops soon. I'll be needing them to defend MY new empire, after all.” She stood up from her throne and magically floated up into the room.
“You intend to zombify my knight sisters and brothers?” I asked.
“Well, eventually, I suppose, but why go to the trouble of killing them when Morek will send them fresh and living for me?” she asked.
I cut through another fire elemental. “Are you suggesting Lord Morek would yield to your command?”
“Oh, no, no, no, dear Sigrid,” she said, “What I'm suggesting is that he already HAS yielded to my command.”
I froze. A fire elemental charged me, but Commodore Blank blasted it with icefire. “You're lying!” I yelled at Monala.
“Then explain to me how I discovered your truename.”
I had no answer. I ran to the edge of the platform avoiding Soern's magical walls and acid pits. I was cursing and screaming at Monala. She simply laughed, “Betrayal... Such horrific betrayal... and that is the sound of your spirit breaking. A sound almost as pleasant to my ears as this will be.”
“As what will be?” I asked suspiciously.
“The sound of your heart breaking, of course,” looking somewhere behind me, she said, “kill the mage, he's beginning to aggravate me.”
I turned around just in time to witness Gannen cutting Soern down. Gannen... I didn't understand. Why? I turned back to Monala. She shrugged. “He works for me now.” I looked back at Gannen.
“Why?” I asked, “Why?”
“She has my brother,” he said.
“But, why... why couldn't... why didn't you tell me?”
He didn't have a chance to answer. The door we entered from opened suddenly and in waltzed K'max's.
“Ah, K'max's, so nice of you to join us. I suspect Mixastomere sends her blessings?” I scowled. So the great wyrm had betrayed us as well. K'max's nodded. Monala grinned. “Anyway,” she continued, “I'm terribly sorry about leaving you all so utterly hopeless. But you didn't really expect to be able to defeat me here, in the heart of my power, did you? I mean, this is the centre of the Empire, where the Aur Xica was first forged. My power here is immense. You were doomed from the moment you came after me.” She laughed maniacally again.“Now, K'max's would you please see to our guests? It seems my fire elementals were... unsatisfactory.”
K'max's lifted a blade, but he didn't get more than a step in the room before he was completely cut down by Rellik. For a moment, I envied the Mojh. The battle raged on, but I was lost in thought. No attachments, no betrayal, after all. No caring, no pain. But no pain also means no passion. No love. Could I live like that? No. I couldn't. I'm a champion. I'm a runechild. I'm a being of passion, of emotion. It is everything I am. To turn away from that, just because it hurt... I couldn't do that. I could never do that. Not without losing my entire sense of self. That passion is the forge of my being. If I was to survive today, I would have to draw deeper from those fires, not taint them with apathy.
All these thoughts about fires and forges drew my eye to the pillar in the centre of the room. Could it really be that simple? I looked at the Aur Xica, and then back at the pillar again. This cursed blade was forged here, a symbol of the tainted empire it once defended. What if?
“Gannen!” I yelled, running to his side. “You have to help me, we have to end this. Now.”
He hesitated. “Sigrid... I...”
“For the world, for your brother, for me... this has to end. It has to. Please, Gannen.”
“She'll kill my brother,” he said.
“If you don't stop her, she'll probably kill him anyway, along with me. One last stand, Gannen. I need you,” I pleaded.
He nodded. “Okay.” I grabbed his hand and pulled us through a dimensional door to the pillar. Still holding his hand tightly, I lifted my other arm over my head, about to strike the pillar.
“Wait!” Gannen yelled, “Are you crazy? The death energy will kill you. Give me the sword.”
“Hey, uh, guys, I'm not so sure this is a good idea,” the Aur Xica interrupted.
Ignoring it, I told Gannen, “I won't be responsible for your death.”
“And you expect me to be responsible for yours? I'm a champion of death. I think I can handle it.”
I handed him the sword. He lifted it high and swung it into the pillar. There was a deafening crack and a burst of blue light. We were both thrown back to the edge of the platform. I opened my eyes and looked over at Gannen. He looked back at me. He was alive, though... shining somewhat with a mild blue light. In his hand he held the hilt of the Aur Xica, all that remained. I glanced at the pillar. It glowed with a pure blue light now; the taint had been removed.
Monala did not seem impressed. “This... could be a problem,” she said. No sooner than she said it was she struck by a blast of ice from Blank. She plummeted downwards onto the stone. Her reign was over. There was a new powerbearer. Gannen. His shining had died down some, but there was still power coming off of him. Power that Paerk realized gave him control of the weather.
Monala wasn't dead. We checked on her soon after we checked on Soern, who also wasn't dead. Jocelyn had managed to keep him alive with some magical healing roses. The only fatalities were the fire elementals and K'max's. K'max's hadn't stood a chance. Once Rellik gets your scent, you're doomed.
We bound Monala and headed back aboveground. As we emerged from the stairwell, I looked up at the sky. The stars shone brightly, finally free from the storm clouds which had hidden them only hours ago. On the eastern horizon, I could see just the faintest bit of colour, the promise of a morning sun. I watched the horizon with anticipation.
Gannen walked up close to me. “I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”
“You nearly killed my friend. You betrayed my trust, Gannen.”
“I screwed up.”
“You could say that.”
He sighed. “I'm sorry. For the longest time, my brother was all I had. We lost our parents young. He was... like my shadow when we were younger.”
“I just wish you could have told me.”
“I do too,” he said, “I was afraid. For my brother, yes, but not just that.”
“What then?” I asked.
“I'm just not used to... this.”
I looked away and looked back at the impending sunrise. “I'm not either. Maybe... maybe we can work it out together,” I suggested.
“I'd like that,” he said.
“I would too.” I watched as the sunlight flowed over the horizon. It was the first dawn I had paid attention to in months. In some ways, the past three months have been like one solid night. The longest night of my life. Perhaps now, all the chaos and turmoil will be over. Monala's dealt with. My living nightmare of her is over. No matter how dark the night may seem, there will always be a dawn. It's time to keep living. It's time to move on. To start a new day.
Gannen leaned in close to my ear and whispered, “I told you we'd survive this and see the sun again.”
I smiled, “I love you, Gannen.”
“I love you too, Sigrid.”~~~~~