|The Ancient Prophecy
Pt. XIIa: The Final Prophecy – The Contested Realm
by Vipers ©
Maya smiled and nodded. She then lay down next to him and rested her head on his chest. Roberto put his arm around her and pulled her closer against him, feeling her warmth. She purred softly as his hand in turn stroked her long hair. He was happy. The only girl he loved was here, lying next to him. Silently he swore, whatever it took, that he would protect her at all cost. No one, not even the Gods, could take her away from him without a fight.
"I love you, Maya…"
There was no answer. When he looked at her, he found the girl already asleep in his embrace. He just smiled. He already knew her answer if she had been awake.
And he surrendered himself to exhaustion and took flight to the world of dreams, knowing that his love was there as well, waiting for him.
A bad dream welcomed him, though. In his dream, he saw his friend Roberto fighting for his life…
"There are too many of them!!"
Hawk heard it. He also heard the pitiful cry of his wounded troops, blended well with the barbaric cry of the invading Orcs and Ogres. The battle rages around him, and he could still hear victory roar from everywhere. On the corner of his eyes he could see one of many towers of the Temple of the Magi slowly eaten by fire, releasing puffs of black cloud into the sky.
Fifteen minutes ago, he was still at the courtyard, drilling the Alliance troops, when a lone wizard stumbled out of a magic portal, with wounds all over his body. With his dying breath he informed him on the siege of the temple. Captain Hawk quickly rallied whatever troops he could spare and led them into the portal and right in the middle of the battlefield. Their initial mission was to push back the invading demons and defended the temple. Now their objective seemed to have shifted into survival.
Three Orcs decided to attack him. One never got there as Hawk’s spear met his neck first. The other one swung his huge falchion at him, but he easily dodged it. Hawk quickly pivoted his body and swung his own spear, cutting the foul beast into two. The last one was a bit smarter as he decided to run away. Hawk was quick on pursuit and split the creature’s skull open, instantly killing him. Some of his troops saw his action and roared victoriously, slightly increasing morale. At least for now.
Garmeon, the current leader of the wizards, was bashing one Goblin with his staff. Even in his late sixties, the mage fought like a tiger, not willing to surrender to the demons. The old man was just as eager as a young knight, and Hawk knew that if he didn’t do anything, the wizard might perish.
"Lord Garmeon, we must abandon the temple! Order your men to pull back!"
"Never!" the wizard replied angrily. "I will fight to death to defend this temple!"
For a moment the wizard was too distracted to notice a brave Orc storming from his behind, wielding a giant axe. At the last moment a Fairy tripped the Orc with her staff. As the Orc slumped against the hard ground, the Fairy swung her staff with all her might against the back of the monster’s skull, killing it instantly. Garmeon quickly found his savior and nodded his thanks.
"Lord Garmeon, we really must leave!" Lyra the Fairy pleaded. "If we stay any longer, we will have no chance of escaping later!"
"B…but… the temple…"
"Give it up already!" Hawk snarled. "When this war is over, we’ll build you a temple out of crystals! Now let’s go already!"
The wizard finally nodded. "Very well. We’ll go ahead and open the portal for you."
After Garmeon left, Hawk quickly issued the order, "All Alliance troops, commence slow retreat to the hill immediately! Spearmen guard the back, archers provide cover, and the rest protect the flanks!"
The troops didn’t disappoint him this time. They quickly assumed close formation and guard their comrades from all sides, deflecting the less-organized attacks from the foul folks. Behind him, the wizards had begun chanting their spell, working together to open a massive portal leading back to Stromgarde. Far beyond, the second tower surrendered to the fire and crumbled to the ground.
For the first time after the war against the undead, Hawk wondered if they could still win the war.
Atrus was awaken, probably for the sixth time that night. His shirt was drenched with cold sweat and he began to shiver. For a moment his mind was racing with the fleeing image in his memory. He couldn’t see anything. He couldn’t perceive anything. But he was sure he had heard something, during his sleep. Yet it was gone, blown by the night wind.
Tomorrow he was to depart to the Northern Continent, a journey to decide the fate of the realm. Yet just now he had heard things eerie enough to shake his guts. He could still hear the echoes of those screams in his head. Who were they, or whose voices were those…? The screams were of pain and suffering, eerie enough for him to feel the shiver in his bones. Why were they here? Why now?
His hand quickly darted to his side, trying to find Anna’s body, but he couldn’t find it. When he turned, Anna was nowhere in sight. She was supposed to be sleeping with him, for he remembered that she had always been awakened that night, too. Is she mad, so she left me? When he got up, he could feel cold breeze blowing from the open window. With the blanket still wrapped around his body, he darted through the door. Holgreb, Aurelia and Calem were sleeping in the living room, while Lynn was back to Heaven, probably sleeping on her own bed. For a moment Atrus wondered why the wizard and the Elf had volunteered to sleep in one room with Holgreb, since the Dwarf’s snoring was quite renowned. I wouldn’t mind my father’s snoring either, Atrus thought. These people are my family… we are all a family.
Quietly Atrus opened the front door and walked outside, resisting the biting cold breeze that welcomed him. The mosquitoes were terrible, even near the end of fall. The moon, however, was full and wonderful tonight. And with the moonlight’s help, he quickly found his love sitting near the ledge, facing the vast landscape beneath.
"You’re awakened again," Anna said without turning at him.
"Sorry, I keep on disturbing your sleep," Atrus said.
"No, it’s not your fault!" Anna quickly turned, smiling warmly at him. He could still notice the shadow around her eyes. She seemed to understand, too, and her smile faded. "It’s just… I… I could feel it, too…"
"You heard those voices?"
She nodded. "I’ve never heard such voices before. So full of pain… excruciating pain…"
"Who are they?" Atrus asked.
"Spirits of the dead," Anna replied. "Spirits from the world ages ago, probably not long after the time of creation."
"After the Gods created the realm?"
Again, Anna nodded. "All races of the realm prospered and expanded rapidly after the creation. Cities grew and evolved quickly in the face of the world. Then the war started. The foul folks, backed by the demons, invaded the land. The Gods rallied the races of the realm to defense. The great battle between good and evil was inevitable, and the place was at the Northern Continent. The Gods’ races were unprepared and were decimated quickly, forcing the Gods to intervene and banish the foul folks to the depth of the Underworld. But the damage was done. The once-beautiful continent is now nothing but a large patch of wasteland surrounded by stormy oceans."
"And the voices…"
"… were those of the dead, those who were slayed during that first war," Anna said. "They were forced to endure centuries of imprisonment in this realm as lost souls, waiting for those who could bail them out."
"We are the ones they seek?" Atrus asked again.
"No, there’s nothing we can do…" Anna replied weakly. "Only the Gods can reverse the curse placed upon them by the demons. And the Gods, as you know, won’t betray their words."
That caught Anna’s attention. "What are you planning?"
Atrus grinned, "If you borrow tons of money from me, how do you finish the deal?"
"I… I’ll pay you in full," Anna offered.
"Or you can always kill me," Atrus smirked, "And the deal is cancelled, right?"
"So you are saying…" Anna’s eyes suddenly opened. "You’re going to kill Agamesh, the Lord of Darkness himself?!"
"If the Gods can’t do it, we can do it, right?" Atrus concluded. "This will allow the Gods to save these poor souls, and probably seal the fate of the realm forever."
"But you just can’t do that!" Anna hissed. "You have to either invite him to this realm or go to the Underworld yourself to defeat him! And you can’t do either!"
"I can do the latter." Atrus smiled.
"But that’s crazy! I can’t let you do that!"
"Anna, if it has to be done, it has to be done."
"I know, but…" she hesitated, then hung her head, sobbing silently. "I… I don’t want to lose you… I’m just a selfish brat, aren’t I?"
Atrus knelt before her, lifted her chin and kissed her fully on her lips. She was quite taken by surprise, but gratefully received the kiss. Her hands quickly clasped against the back of his neck and pulled them even closer together. They broke the kiss later, completely breathless, but the message was sent.
"I don’t want to lose you, either," Atrus repeated. "But if I have to do so, I will. And you will be there with me, right?"
"Yes!" Anna smiled, brushing the tears from her eyes. "I will be there for you."
"My loyal slaves, the time is near," Lord Daemon announced. "The demise of the Gods is close at hand!"
Gaea, the former protector goddess of the realm, didn’t respond. Still bound on her mocking throne and spread wide open for all eyes to see, the defeated goddess could only stare into empty space. Ursula, the former priestess of Lycra, was in no better condition, being sandwiched between two bulky Ocrist warriors. Her plea of mercy had long gone, knowing that mercy would never come for her. She could only grunt in pleasure and disgust as the Orcs continued their vile act.
"No congratulations, my dear?" Daemon lifted Gaea’s chin with his finger, only to receive a well-placed spit in his eye. The goddess’ plot to anger him failed as the demon lord just chuckled. "I don’t have to deal with you now, Gaea. After I install my master as the supreme God, I will teach you how to behave. Perhaps in a few centuries, but in time, you will recognize my power over you."
"Unfortunately, you’ll spend the next few centuries refurnishing your apartment in the Underworld," Gaea countered. "I will enjoy the last few seconds of my life watching you die."
"The Champion of the Guardian is not a match for my superior skill," Daemon smirked. "And what can you do, my dear? You are my prisoner. I can do anything to you and there’s nothing you could do to stop me. Like this." With that Daemon inserted his erect member into her exposed vagina. Gaea couldn’t help but gasp at the sudden intrusion. Despite the disgust she was feeling, years of slavery had weakened her stubbornness and crushed her defense.
"Oh, please." Daemon grinned. "Just tell me how much you love it. I know you’re enjoying every second of it."
Gaea tried to struggle, but every struggle only enhanced the sensation in her loins. The Orcs, long grown tired of Ursula, tossed her weakened body onto the floor and turned to watch the show.
"You can’t resist it, slave!" Daemon hissed. "You are enjoying the whole thing. You love being violated, right?"
"Go on, slave… Tell the world how much you love it…"
Despite her resistance, she slowly succumbed to the pleasure building inside of her. With a loud groan the demon lord reached climax inside of her, quickly sending her to the top as well. Her sweating body bucked wildly as the waves of pleasure overcame her. For a moment she was lost in the middle of Daemon’s roar and the Orcs’ sneering laugh. As the sensation left her, she collapsed to the throne, exhausted and overcome with grief and shame.
"The little slave goddess is enjoying herself a bit too much," one Orc jeered.
Gaea just hung her head in shame.
"Don’t worry, my slave," Daemon finally said. "I’ll deal with the Champion of the Guardian and his petty band soon, then nothing can separate us anymore."
Not willing to experience the nightmare anymore, Atrus had decided not to go back to sleep. Therefore, he was glad that Anna had agreed to accompany him. Together they just sat outside, enjoying the night and taking pleasure in each other’s presence.
"It’s almost dawn," Atrus said lazily. He was feeling very comfortable, having rested his head on Anna’s lap. "Time walks fast when I’m with you."
Anna chuckled lightly while stroking Atrus’ hair with her fingers. "I disagree. When we’re together, there’s no such thing as time."
Atrus turned to her. "You mean you just don’t care?"
"That’s right, honey," she replied. "You always occupy the largest space in my mind."
Atrus grinned. He carefully slipped his finger into her golden High Priestess badge collar and slowly pulled her closer, making her bow forward. As their lips touched, he felt her hands lifting his head, crushing their lips together. He’d never felt so happy before. He was here, with the woman he loved.
Yet he’d never felt so… uneasy before. Perhaps it was fear? Fear of losing the very woman he loved? Fear of losing his friends he respected? Fear that he would be fighting his last battle?
Fear is the first step toward defeat, he said to himself. Yet faith grants strength to overcome the worst storm. Anna’s presence in the upcoming battle was like a curse, yet a blessing for him. For countless times she had been by his side, cheering him up when he’s down, backing him up when he’s weak. He wouldn’t know how to fight without her by his side.
"Hmm…" Anna hummed softly, closing her eyes. "Lord Falagor just woke up. He knows we’re here, too. He just probed into my mind."
"I wonder why Master Falagor won’t assist us in the upcoming battle." Atrus asked.
"Perhaps it isn’t his battle," Anna offered. "It’s ours."
"That sounds scary," Atrus agreed. "It seems that we’re the only one fighting for the realm."
"Prince Roberto is rallying his troops to hold the demons, true?"
"Yes, but it’s different…" Atrus hesitated.
"You’re afraid, honey?" Anna looked at him intently.
"Yeah," he nodded. "It’s my turn to chicken out. I’m sorry if I bring you down."
"You’re here with me," Anna smiled. "Nothing can bring me down."
"That’s swee…" Atrus didn’t continue. He fell silent just abruptly. He was sure he just heard something, like broken branches. They were in the middle of a forest; the sounds of broken branches were normal, but repeated sounds of broken branches weren’t. And the sounds were heard in slow intervals, as if the subjects were trying to conceal them.
Anna sensed his worry. She quickly chanted her Eagle Eye spell. Her mind wandered far high, as high as an eagle could fly. Then she observed the surrounding area, as careful as an eagle searching for its victims.
"There’s a crowd of people, probably about fifteen or sixteen of them, heading this way."
"Villagers?" Atrus asked. The hamlet was located near the village of Whitewater.
Anna hummed softly, then frowned. "No… The villagers were still back in the village."
"Then this means trouble," Atrus concluded. "Warn Master Falagor about this."
"Already did," Anna whispered. "He’s going to wake everyone up."
"Good," Atrus nodded. "Stay here. I’ll be right back."
"Honey, you’re unarmed!" Anna hissed.
"I’m just going to spy on them. I’ll be fine."
Before Anna could protest, Atrus dashed toward the woods. He was glad he still wore his rubber-soiled shoes, as it gave away minimal sound. His old days in Ranger camp had also taught him a lot about stealth. With his sharp hearing, he pinpointed the direction of the uninvited guests and headed that way. When he felt that he was close enough to them, he climbed the nearest tree, knelt on a branch and stayed completely silent. And he listened.
He couldn’t hear a thing! Could it be that they have somehow heard me coming? If so, then he was in trouble. He reached out for his left ankle and sighed in relief after finding his trusty dagger still tucked in its sheath. A Ranger never wanders around without a secondary weapon.
And the game began. The enemies he was facing were also masters of stealth and disguise. He could still hear weird noises, but not enough to allow him to pinpoint the source. This was just like his Ranger training years ago, when he had to play hide-and-seek with his Ranger fellow. This time, however, he was not familiar with the forest, especially at near dawn. And his life might be at stake.
His fear returned and urged him to come out from his hiding place and challenge his foes. With only a dagger? He cursed himself and waited again, trying to be as motionless as possible. He was one with nature and the nature was gratefully concealing him. But if he withdrew, the nature would reveal his position. He couldn’t afford that.
His heart almost jumped in excitement when he saw the silhouette of his foe passing through the forest path. The figure wore long dark cloak, perfect for near-dawn infiltration. The cloak covered its head, so Atrus couldn’t perceive his race, but the figure was as tall as a normal Human. Could it be that he’s just a normal traveler? No, he thought quickly as the figure stopped and drew its blade. The creature was hunting, probably for him.
With the alien figure standing close to his hiding place, Atrus couldn’t withdraw just like he had planned, at least without being discovered. If these uninvited guests were as skillful as he was in hide-and-seek game, he would be found sooner or later. However, he had a dagger in his hand, and the advantage of surprise was his. He could single-handedly thin out their number until his friends backed him up. He carefully shifted his feet, getting ready for his attack.
And Atrus leaped from his hiding place, landing near the cloaked figure. The figure didn’t even have a chance to flinch as the dagger reached its target and slit the figure’s throat. Fresh green blood spurted from the victim’s neck, staining Atrus’ shirt and cloak. The victim’s body collapsed noisily and Atrus turned to face the second victim.
There was no second victim. He was the only one standing on the forest path. His mind screamed in alarm. He had been a fool. This was a classic trap, using a bait to draw him out. Now the entire forest knew where he was, including his enemies. He went back to defensive, and his foes didn’t disappoint him this time.
The barrage of throwing knives came from all direction. Atrus quickly ducked and rolled away from his spot. One of the blades scratched his arm, causing a nasty burning sensation. He quickly checked the wound and found some green patches around the opening. The blades were poisoned! Following his survival instinct, he put his mouth around the wound, sucked the foul substance and spit it out. The burning sensation remained, but most of the poison was gone. Atrus decided that this was a good time to withdraw from battle. He pinpointed the direction home and dashed through the forest.
The second barrage came, and this time his eyes did their work. Atrus evaded the knives easily and found one of the sources, another cloaked figure hiding behind the bushes. Atrus leaped over the bushes past the victim’s surprised form, turned around and swung his dagger with all his might. The cloaked figure was on the verge of drawing its own scimitar when the dagger connected, leaving a clean cut across its chest. The second strike was fatal, a straight jab through the heart. Atrus didn’t even attempt to pull his dagger, but decided to take the scimitar instead with his blood-drenched hand. Another cloaked figure foolishly charged him, swinging its scimitar wildly in the air. Atrus parried the attack with his own blade, but his foe successfully made a small cut on his side. Atrus normally wielded a broadsword and therefore had little experience in using curved sword.
Atrus, retreat! Help is on the way!
Atrus’ thought snapped back. Master Falagor just called me telepathically! His opponent was still there, blocking the way back to Falagor’s shed. Atrus suddenly lunged forward, swinging his scimitar like crazy. The cloaked figure easily parried the blow, but was stunned by the ferocity for a moment. When it recovered and countered the attack, Atrus already went pass him and dashed through the forest. Not long after that he heard weird strange voice whistling in the wind, and quickly leaped out of danger’s way as three daggers landed near the tree trunk where his head would have been had he been late for another second. The cloaked figures quickly converged to his position, effectively trapping him in the middle.
And for the first time Atrus felt grateful at hearing the Dwarf’s usual war cry. Holgreb’s axe soared and landed a few feet from Atrus’ position. While the axe didn’t hurt anyone, it gave Atrus a split-second to knock down his nearest attacker with his fist and get out of the way. All hell broke loose as all the Warriors of the Guardian emerged from their hiding place and converged on the assailants.
Atrus quickly located Anna, who was having trouble carrying his stone sword. She launched her magic blasts at the pursuing figure, then tossed the heavy sword at Atrus. The moment he touched the sword grip, the stone surface exploded in bright light, and instantly turned pure crystalline. With the Sword of Faith in his hand, Atrus rushed back to the battle, joining Holgreb who was creating havoc in enemy’s ranks. Lynn appeared and hummed her magical song of valor, and Holgreb roared his famous war cry. By the time Atrus arrived by his side, he had dispatched three cloaked figures single-handedly. There was only one odd thing.
Atrus wasn’t empowered by Lynn’s song.
One assassin approached and tested his might, and he responded. He swung his Sword of Faith first, and the creature took defensive move. This time his crystal sword obeyed him and flared brightly as it cut through the thin scimitar blade, the linen cloak, and finally the creature’s belly. Bright green blood spurted from the doomed creature, staining the blade and Atrus’ clothes. He immediately took defensive stance and scanned his surroundings for immediate threat. There was none, but he felt a surge of energy coming from his sword. The Sword of Faith was glowing wildly! For a moment he was so dazed he didn’t see an assassin coming toward him until Aurelia planted an arrow right into its skull.
"Atrus, stop dreaming!" she scolded. "We’re in danger here!"
Calem the Wizard stepped out and cast a paralyze spell, freezing the assassins in place. Atrus and Holgreb simultaneously charged ahead slaying the immobilized demons around them while the rest of the party sniped from afar. The battle ended quickly, leaving no one but the party itself standing.
And Atrus was still troubled. The Sword of Faith hadn’t stopped glowing. Atrus tried calming himself and easing his breath, yet the sword refused to turn back to stone. The party, sensing that something was wrong, gathered around him.
"That is odd," Calem observed. "According to the legend, the Sword of Faith always obeys the Chosen One without question."
"Even though it has the power of the Gods flowing inside?" Aurelia asked.
"Yes, it’s the sign of the Gods’ commitment of resisting Agamesh and his minions, even after the treaty," Lynn nodded. "The Chosen One will wield the power of the Gods stored inside the sword."
"Then why doesn’t the sword obey him?" Calem asked.
"Look!" Anna pointed at the green stains on the sword surface. The sword blazed fiercely around the stains, slowly disintegrating the green substance. "The sword seems to be eating out the blood."
For a moment Atrus was quite fascinated. It quickly changed, though, as he started feeling lightheaded. He quickly brushed the feeling away, yet it refused to leave. He slowly felt his feet betraying him.
Anna’s panicked cry was the last voice he heard before he slammed his back against something bulky that smelled like a Dwarf. Then darkness enveloped him.
Roberto woke up, fully refreshed, just in time to see his troops returning home after the battle at the Temple of the Magi.
He quickly went nuts when he saw his troops wounded and disheartened. He quickly found his friend Captain Hawk and sighed in relief to find him alive, wounded, but not badly. Maya who was with him quickly volunteered to help the Priestesses of Lycra in tending the wounded, leaving Roberto alone. He then proceeded with the normal formality to Lord Garmeon, expressing regret for the loss of his temple to the demons, and making promises for the future. The wizard, weary and sulky, held nothing against the prince, but his utter disappointment was apparent. He promised not to withdraw his support for the Alliance army, then left for his quarter.
The vice-commander of the army then approached the prince for the battle report, but Roberto quickly dismissed him. Reports could wait, and knowing that his friend Hawk survived the battle was enough. Hawk would definitely tell him the story later, and he wouldn’t exaggerate.
"Just check on the soldiers," Roberto ordered the vice-commander. "Send the wounded ones to the healer. Gather the rest on the courtyard. I would like to address the troops."
The vice-commander acknowledged the order and left.
Then he spotted Maya running back to him.
"I dropped Hawk off at the healer’s tent. They don’t have a room for me, though," Maya pouted. "There are already plenty of helpers, and they need professionals."
"Aw, come on, hon… They’ll see you as a professional once you show them your massage trick," Roberto offered.
She smiled cutely. "Nah… I usually reserve it for someone special."
Roberto just grinned. "Maya… What are you going to do for the upcoming battle?"
"Well… I suppose I’ll be helping the wounded…"
"Maya… I’d like to ask for a favor."
Maya blinked. "Why sure! Ask me anything!"
"Don’t be a helper," Roberto said slowly.
"What?!" She frowned. "You’re starting to sound like Master Atrus! You can’t just keep me away from action while you are doing your stunts! I want to go to the battle, too!"
"No, no, no, just listen to me for once!" Roberto quickly added. "Don’t be a helper… I want you to be with me… by my side…"
She was stunned by the offer. "B…by your side?"
"Yes… by my side… as my advisor… as my second-in-command…"
"B… but I c…cant…" Maya gulped. "I have no military background at all…"
"What do you mean?" Roberto asked. "You’ve been around Atrus, Hawk, and myself for years! Besides, I do have another purpose for this."
"To keep me out of danger?" Maya asked.
"That’s one. I also feel safer with you watching my back. Plus, it’s good for the troops’ morale, seeing my future bride being in the middle of the group with them. That will give them one more person to protect.
"Hey, I can take care of myself!"
Roberto grinned. "Then you’ll accept?"
Maya smiled. "Of course, my prince. I’ll be your eyes and ears."
The party gathered around Atrus, who was lying on the bed. Lord Falagor was silent, holding his hand and inspecting him with magic. No one made a noise, not willing to break the wizard’s concentration. Anna was sitting at the other side of the bed, gripping Atrus’ other hand with such force that one might think she was trying to crush his bones to pieces. Aurelia the Elf was nervously pacing back and forth around the room, unintentionally adding others’ stress and annoyance. Holgreb the Dwarf was just sitting at the corner, grumbling softly. Lynn was standing near the bed, flapping her tiny wings nervously, while Calem was sitting, staring expressionlessly on the wall.
"You said the creatures’ blood might be the cause?" Falagor asked, breaking the silence.
"Y…yes, that’s right," Anna replied. "What do you find? Can you cure him?"
"I can sense the foreign substance in his veins, and whatever it is, it’s resisting my magic." Falagor sighed. "The poison isn’t exactly killing him slowly, but it’s weakening him from inside. If he’s putting too much strain in his ability, the poison might devour him. That’s why he collapsed just now."
"Putting too much strain?" Aurelia frowned. "Then… he won’t…"
"He won’t be able to use his hidden power," Calem finished. "He’s a commoner, a simple Human." He quickly noticed Anna’s cold stare. "You know I really hate to say that."
"The poison seemed to resist the effect of my song, too," Lynn said. "It affected Holgreb."
"Aye, it did!" The Dwarf agreed. "That didn’t seem to bother him, though. He just rushed those beasts like Gurkhar the Dwarf when he’s just 17 years old! Man, you should have seen his action…"
"So anyway, can you cure him?" Anna quickly asked, annoyed.
"The substance resisted my divine spell," Falagor replied slowly. "There is only one cause..."
"The substance is devilish," Calem continued. "I’d bet Daemon or Agamesh must be behind that attack."
"They could have killed him," Aurelia offered, but quickly continued before Anna scolded her, "but they just weakened him… It’s kind of like bait, too, since they can infect Atrus by letting him kill them… But why?"
"To prevent us from assaulting the Emerald Tower," Calem said. "They know that if Atrus is disabled, we would postpone the assault…"
"Then… we’ll… have… to… depart…" Atrus suddenly groaned softly.
"Atrus!" Anna returned her attention to her loved one. "You’re all right, honey? Are you hurt? Tell me which part?"
"I’d suggest one question at a time, girl…" Lynn scowled.
Atrus suddenly cringed and jerked his chest upward from pain. Anna instinctively cast her healing spell on the spot, yet was surprised to find him jerking wildly from pain more intense than the previous one.
"W…what…? What h…happened? Atrus? Are you all right?"
"Stop it!" Falagor silenced her. "Haven’t I told you enough?! He has devilish venom flowing all over his veins! All divine spells will backfire against him now! You may think you’re curing him, but you’re just hurting him further!"
"A…Atrus… I’m really sorry, hon…"
"That’s all right…" Atrus struggled to reply. "I’m okay now… Thanks… for helping me out…"
"Don’t mention it," Calem replied. "How do you feel?"
Atrus closed his eyes. "Weak. Very weak. I don’t know why… Well… now I know."
"Miss Adriana has told me of your intention in invading the Underworld," Falagor muttered.
"Yeah… do I have any chance of winning…?"
"No," the wizard said. "Not with this condition. You’ve lost your power. Miss Adriana won’t be able to heal you, and Miss Lynn’s song doesn’t affect you. And with that pain in your chest, you won’t be able to go far."
"So we have to postpone the battle?" Holgreb asked.
"No, we can’t!" Atrus quickly yelled, but cringed at the pain. "The war in Elom would be tomorrow… If we don’t stop the demons by then… the realm is… lost…"
"But attacking the demons in your condition is suicidal! You can’t save the realm like this!" Lynn protested.
"I… don’t… care… even if I have to die…"
"Your death is the demons’ victory, Atrus," Falagor interrupted. "They have so much to gain and so little to lose. You, in this case, hold the fate of the entire realm in your hand. You must survive."
The party was silent for a moment. The situation seemed grim. The demons had, unfairly, gained upper hand, pinning the party in the game of gamble. Indeed, they had so much to lose.
"There’s got to be a way out of this…" Aurelia sighed.
"Oh, there is," Falagor agreed. "I didn’t say there isn’t."
"Wha… How?" Anna blurted.
"Atrus might be paralyzed, but his purpose in this battle is clear, to seal the portal to the Underworld. I suppose you should forget the part of invading the Underworld by now."
Atrus nodded unwillingly.
"So if all of you can protect him all the way to the Emerald Tower, you can still save the realm and stop the battle from waging in Elom."
"But Atrus is hurt! He can’t stand a chance!" Lynn protested.
"I can find a way around it, but I might need your help." Falagor instantly saw resistance in Calem’s eyes, but quickly replied with sharper gaze. "Lord Calem, get warm clothes for all of you in my dresser, now!"
Calem hesitated for a moment, but sighed and obeyed the command.
"Now listen to me. I will cast a spell called Lifeleech. I will draw a small portion of life force from every single one of you and inject it to Atrus. You would feel weaker, but that won’t affect your combat ability too much. The combined life force would resist the effect of the venom. Atrus wouldn’t be able to fight with full potential, but he should be able to keep up with you."
Falagor paused, glad that he still had the party’s attention. "Remember, your task is to protect Atrus at all cost! If the Champion of the Guardian falls, the seal will be broken and the portal will remain open for the next millennium. By then, our beautiful realm would be reduced to lands of charred earth and scorched ground. Protect Atrus at all cost, with your life if necessary. Say your vow."
"I will do so," Aurelia replied instantly. "I will protect you with my life."
"And so will I," Lynn followed. "I will protect you to the death."
Holgreb blinked as Falagor’s deep stare fell upon him. "Oh… Uh… Sure, kid. I’ll protect you with this small, bulky form of mine!"
"And you know I will do so, honey," Anna said while holding his hand, tears falling from her eyes. "I’m willing to die to see you live."
"Anna, I don’t want you to die…" Atrus turned to everyone. "I want none of you to die."
"You have a task to fulfill, Champion of the Guardian," Lynn said. "We are to see that it would be fulfilled to the fullest. And for that, we are willing to sacrifice anything."
"Well said, sister," Aurelia agreed, then turned to Falagor. "Take what you need."
"The vows are sealed, then." Falagor turned to Atrus. "You have the hopes of your friends, and all people of the realm in your hand. Will you accept the responsibility?"
Atrus gazed around the room; to his friends he’d spent the last few years with. He could see a hint of determination in each of them, eyes burning with desire to fulfill their vows. They had been asked, and they had voiced their readiness. The question was now his. Indeed he had a task to do. Yet the fact that he was the sole hope of the realm’s continuing existence was burdening him heavily. And the fact that he might see his friends die was even worse. Yet, his friends were willing to lay down their lives for him. He would do it, whatever it took.
"I will do it."
The party suddenly jerked and twisted uncontrollably as Falagor’s magic took effect. Atrus quickly went panic as he lost grip of Anna’s hand, and watched in horror as the magic robbed his friends’ life force in a twisted manner. As the magic subside, the party one by one collapsed to the ground, heaving heavily from exhaustion. Falagor quickly touched Atrus’ forehead and he felt a sudden surge of electricity flowing into his body. He felt… refreshed… in a very odd way. The pain in his chest vanished suddenly. Power returned to his limbs. His mind became clear and the headache was gone. He felt brand new!
Yet he felt guilty. He quickly scrambled to his feet and reached out for Anna. She looked all right, although a bit dizzy. She recovered from whatever she’d previously gone through, and got back to her feet in no time. Lynn, Aurelia, and Holgreb were up soon, and they seemed unhurt.
"How do you feel?" Falagor queried.
"Strange…" Anna replied. "A bit weak, but okay."
"And my pain is gone," Atrus declared. "Thank you, all of you."
Calem returned, carrying warm clothes in both his hands. He was stunned for a moment at Atrus’ recovered form, and then proceeded to divide the warm clothes among them in silence. Atrus noticed this, and was about to ask when Falagor continued.
"I will open a dimension portal to the southern tip of the Northern Continent. You are then to proceed north through the mountains to reach the Emerald Tower. The land is now a wasteland, the result of the war against the demons millennia ago. The weather is cold and cruel, and demons most likely lurk that area. Work together. Support each other. And protect Atrus at all cost."
With that, Falagor opened a small dimension door, so small that even the Dwarf had to duck to get inside. The party one by one entered the door, leaving Atrus and Anna last.
"Thank you for everything, Master Falagor," Atrus said politely. "Wish us luck."
"I will pray for you, Champion of the Guardian." Falagor smiled weakly.
And they entered the portal. The black hole blinked for a moment before closing, sealing the entrance to the Northern Continent.
"Indeed you’ve spoken, Lord Guardian… Agony beyond imagination will threaten him… He will be tortured from inside out…" he sighed. "Be with him… be with him…"
He smiled, and closed his eyes. This time, it’s for good.
To Be Continued...
* * * * *
I’m sorry for the long delay. I got back from my vacation a month ago, yet this chapter took longer than I expected. As the next part might require a bit of thinking, I decided to split the chapter into 2…
Again, thank you for those who have sent encouragements (read: threats). No, really… I appreciate them. Here’s for you, folks...
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