For Tomorrow We Die
These are the words of Magianna, prophetess of Joretham: “Twelve staves are there, with twelve stones upon them, for the twelve arch-sorcerers to bear, but there shall come a time when a staffless sorcerer shall arise and carry with him the power to degrade them.”
The morning dawned, and a fairer day had not shown itself in Zaren for many a month. Yet the beauty was swallowed up by the sight of the huge camp spread out in all directions upon the large plain surrounding the city.
The sun had barely begun to show itself above the horizon when the dark figure of a rider detached itself from the army and slowly approached the city. An ominous figure made he in his black armor upon his sable charger before his dark army. The only thing not of black was his head, for, though the rest of his body was fully armed, he wore no helmet. Although his face could be seen, it took not away from his imposing countenance. Indeed, with his proud, ruthless visage and his long, brown hair falling wildly over his broad shoulders, he was even more fearsome than if he had worn a helmet.
"Ibrahim!" he cried in a harsh and guttural voice that echoed all along the city wall. "Sirrah! Come out if you dare; I would speak with you!" The men of Zaren who stood upon their city's high walls looked down with anger and contempt upon the man who so insulted their king.
Slowly the gates opened so that one, solitary rider might pass through. With a slow, steady gait he rode toward the dark man of Delovachia. When he reached him, he stopped and spoke solemnly, "Who are you who so churlishly demands the king of all Nor come and speak with you?"
"And who are you that the cowardly dog Ibrahim sends to speak in his stead?" demanded the black rider, his voice thick with an accent that was neither Norian nor Delovachian but something altogether strange and foreign.
"I am Stavros, servant of the great and good King Ibrahim." Stavros answered with a stern voice. "Speak what you will, then scurry back to your master Kozan, or return to whatever distant land you sprang from, but trouble us no more."
The black rider laughed. "Does the cat run from the mouse, or the serpent from the rat? So neither will I run from you. Listen to my words if you have ears to hear and courage to uphold you. I am the Dark Sorcerer; I stand at the right hand of Kozan, Power and King of Delovachia. I lead this vast army that now stands ready to destroy you.
"Listen well, cur. You have refused to pay tribute, blasphemed the Powers, and insulted Kozan by refusing him your princess, and now you will be destroyed. My army will sweep through your pitiful city and slaughter all that breathes. When I’ve finished there will be not even a sad piece of ash which can be laid to rest beneath the earth unless you surrender yourself, pay double tribute, offer yourselves as perpetual servants to the Powers, and give Kozan what his heart most desires: the princess of Nor."
"You speak the words of a knave not those of a sorcerer of power," replied Stavros. "Run back to your master, dog, and tell him this: were he to assail us with ten times the number he now sends, still we’d stand against him. We will die before we submit to the fate Kozan would give us. And as for giving your pig-master that which his heart desires most, tell him to take pleasure in his two wives and countless concubines; he will never have Mystia. She is not his, nor will she ever be his, and if he dares lay one finger upon her the vengeance of Nor will be swifter and more torturous than that of a wrath-filled griffin. Now away, insolent cur, and return to Delovachia and your dark lord."
"Proud words for a fool," The Dark Sorcerer sneered. "I shall enjoy forcing them down your throat." With a loud yell he spurred his charger and galloped back to his camp.
* * *
Orion and Nightfall watched the exchange from their vantage point on the wall. As the Dark Sorcerer returned to his army, Nightfall whispered, "We shall feast upon blood today. May Joretham be with us; it has begun!"
* * *
In one of the towers of the palace was a small, dark room–not dark with evil, but unlit and still so that the world might be kept out and the spirit of Joretham allowed to enter. There was no window, for sight was not needed in a battle of magic such as was about to take place.
The room was filled with the tools of magic, and, in the midst of these, King Ibrahim knelt with his staff laid on the floor before him. He did not wear the rich garments befitting a king, and his golden crown he had laid aside on a nearby table. His head was bent and his hands clasped in supplication as he prayed, "...And let not this, your kingdom, be destroyed. Let not these, your people, be killed and sold into slavery and left to wander Lairannare as outcasts. Grant me strength that I might overcome my enemy."
He rose to his feet. Taking up his staff, he whispered, "Be with me, Lord." The crystal stone on his staff began to glow as the battle of magic commenced.
* * *
The ground shook as tens of thousands of Delovachians lifted up their voices in cries of battle. Like water released from a floodgate they rushed forward, weapons glinting in the sun, eyes blazing, and hearts bent upon bloodshed.
With a shout, the soldiers on the wall began to rain flaming arrows down upon their enemies. Hundreds upon hundreds of arrows sped through the air into the midst of the Delovachians, and small fires began to spring up as men were struck. The cries of war were mixed with the screams of agony as soldiers fell wounded to the ground.
The Delovachians continued to swarm forward. In their midst they bore a huge battering ram, which they set against the gate of the city. The hollow "Boom!" of the ram striking the oaken doors of the gate rang above the cries of battle.
* * *
Far away the Dark Sorcerer sat upon his black horse and seemed to do nothing beyond observing the battle. But had one been close enough to watch his face, one would have seen he did far more than merely gaze upon the scene before him, for he fought an invisible war of magic. Great was his power, but King Ibrahim was a worthy opponent.
* * *
The men of Zaren were strong and proud. Outnumbered they may have been, but that served only to spur them on to greater fury. Already the cries of the dying and the smell of death filled the air. Boiling water was poured down upon those who held the battering ram. When others ran forward to take the place of those who had fallen, they were struck down by scores of flaming arrows. But there were always others to take the place of those who fell.
The men of Zaren stood upon their high walls and laughed and sang and taunted their enemy, for they did not fear battle or death.
"Ho! Sirrahs!" cried Gideone, leaning over the city wall. "Is all of Delovachia filled with women that Kozan would send milksops such as you to fight us?"
Stavros, who stood beside the prince, cast a rather amused look at him. Turning back to the battle, he took careful aim and shot a flaming arrow into the midst of the enemy.
"Run back to your embroidery and leave the game of war to men; we know how to play it!" continued Gideone, ignoring Stavros.
Stavros cast another glance at the prince and calmly fired another flaming arrow into the army below.
The hollow clang of the battering ram against the gate echoed throughout the city.
"Hah!" laughed Gideone when he saw that the gate still held, "Is that the best you can do?"
As if in answer, there suddenly arose from out of the Delovachian ranks hundreds upon hundreds of dark, winged creatures. Their bodies and faces were those of beautiful women, delicate and alluring, but their clawed hands were deadly. With shrieking cries, they sped through the air toward the soldiers of Zaren.
"Is Delovachia filled with women? Run back to your embroidery," repeated Stavros rather sardonically.
"I think I prefer the men," muttered Gideone as he drew his sword.
* * *
Orion and Nightfall looked in awe at the dark mass of flying creatures.
"Harpies," Orion said in a hushed voice.
"Demon spawn!" spat Nightfall.
"Fail me not this day, Ronahrrah," spoke Orion as he looked upon his crystal-bladed sword.
Within seconds the harpies descended upon the city. Nightfall gave a hissing war cry and leapt up to meet them in the air. Orion turned his sword on all that descended around him, and the dark red scales of his armor were soon turned black with harpy blood.
A cry of pain escaped his lips as a harpy leapt onto his back and dug her claws into his shoulders; it quickly turned to a snarl of anger as he spun around, flinging her from him. She tumbled to the ground, and with a shriek, caught herself and sped back toward him. His teeth were bared in a growl as he sent his sword slicing through the air toward her. She saw the blade but could not stop her flight. She raised her arm to defend herself and screamed in pain as the sword sliced through her arm and deep into her side. She tumbled to the ground and lay there, still alive yet unable to move. Blood splattered everywhere as, with another growl, Orion sent his sword slicing through her neck.
To his right, from out of the sky, he saw another harpy speeding towards him. Even as he turned to face her, he heard Nightfall cry out, "Orion, behind you!"
Before he could turn, he was struck from behind with overwhelming force. He tumbled to the ground and rolled onto his back where he tried to regain his breath. Before he could recover, a harpy sprang down upon him and grabbed him by the throat, digging her claws deep into his skin. With a snarl of rage, he threw her from him as if she were nothing more than a child. With a fierce, almost animal-like cry, he fell upon her and grasped her neck with an iron grip. She slashed at his arms and face.
Orion was like one possessed and, with a snarling cry grasped her even tighter. His lips turned up in a dark look of satisfaction as he slowly tightened his grip. Her eyes bulged, and terror filled her face, but he showed no mercy. He continued to squeeze until her spine popped and cracked. She gave a small gurgle and gave up her life.
Orion grabbed his sword from where it had fallen and, giving a cry more terrifying than that of the harpies, he turned upon those gathered there. They scattered before him.
* * *
Far away, in the caverns of Nortath's Fury, Mystia suddenly screamed and fell to the floor where she lay gasping for breath. Her maid was at her side in a moment, asking what was wrong. Mystia, her face blanched and contorted in pain, could only murmur incoherently with a strangled voice.
"Bring her here and let her lie down," ordered Queen Malcah coldly, as she motioned to a place beside her upon the ground. "This child has always lived in a realm filled with the invisible. Sleep should cure her of her ills."
Mystia, still groaning, was led to the place her mother had indicated and covered with a thick, warm blanket.
* * *
All through the day Gideone traveled along the walls of the city, fighting and lifting up the spirits of the men. He was covered with blood, and pain filled his body. Exhaustion threatened to overcome him, but he forced himself to go on, and there was not one group of soldiers he visited that did not fight all the harder when he left.
The cries of war filled his ears, and the stench of death was strong. Blood flowed everywhere, and dead soldiers covered the top of the wall. Some had been pushed down to the ground below, but the walkway along the parapet was still strewn with them.
Gideone coughed and ran to the edge of the wall. The Delovachian army seemed as large as it had been before. Its soldiers swarmed around the base of the city. He could still hear the hollow boom as the battering ram struck the gate. All day it had done so.
Suddenly Gideone saw unexpected motion out of the corner of his eye. Turning, he found a Delovachian charging toward him. A cry of surprise and anger escaped his lips as he raised his sword to defend himself. The Delovachian rammed into him, sending the prince reeling back beneath the blow. Gideone gained his balance and, with a snarl, lunged forward striking at the man. His blow was blocked, but he followed it swiftly with another one, and another. Suddenly, the Delovachian cried out and stumbled forward. Gideone leapt back out of the way. The Delovachian dropped his sword and fell to the ground, an arrow sticking out of his back.
Already more Delovachians were battling atop the walls. The prince looked wildly around for where they were coming from and spied the top of a ladder, which Delovachians were swarming up and over. The prince ran forward, but before he could reach it two Norians grabbed hold of it and managed to push it away from the wall.
He stopped and took quick gasping breaths. His lungs cried out for air. He looked up; the sky was nearly dark. The battle had to end soon. When? His body screamed for rest.
As if on cue, the sound of a horn pierced through the cries and screams of battle. It rang through the air, and at its sound all of the Delovachians stopped their battling. Slowly, in straggling lines, they returned to their camp.
Gideone breathed a sigh of relief. The battle had ended.
He had little time to rest, however. Scarcely had the fighting ceased before he was running back through the streets of the city, into the palace, and up into the tower in which his father was.
All was still as he peered into the dark and silent room. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the almost complete blackness, but when they did he drew back in horror. The king lay upon the floor as if dead.
"Father!" he cried in alarm as he rushed to Ibrahim. He knelt beside him and rolled his father onto his back. Slowly the king opened his eyes. Looking up into his son's dark eyes, he said with labored breath, "Fear not, I still live."
"Are you wounded? What can I do?" Gideone demanded anxiously.
"Nay, I’m not wounded," Ibrahim assured him as, with a grimace, he sat up. He cast Gideone a wan smile and said, "'Twas a furious battle indeed, and several times I thought certes all was lost. But Joretham smiled upon me. Help me rise."
"Are you certain you're well?" the prince pressed as he helped Ibrahim clamber to his feet.
"Yes," the king answered with a halfhearted smile.
There was a moment’s pause before Ibrahim spoke again. "This man who leads the Delovachians is not Kozan. One would sooner see Mystia at the front of an army, but, though Power he may not be, a potent Magic he is nonetheless. Tell me," and here a look of fear and anxiety flashed across his face, "does he bear the staff of a sorcerer?"
"I saw no staff," answered Gideone truthfully.
Ibrahim's sharp intake of breath caused the prince to look at him in alarm.
"You saw no staff?" repeated Ibrahim. "Yet he calls himself a sorcerer, does he not?"
“Aye, he calls himself a sorcerer. And as to his staff, if he has one, he kept it hidden."
Ibrahim clenched his mouth tightly and looked away, trying to hide the look of worry growing on his face.
"What does it matter if he has a staff or no?" demanded Gideone, his tone growing sharp as he grasped his father‘s arm. "Are you not still an arch-sorcerer? Can you not still defeat him?"
"Have you not heard the prophecies, boy?" Ibrahim cried, pulling his arm free. "He’s the staffless sorcerer, and he comes to destroy me."
"And what are prophecies but the words of fools and madmen or those who seek to profit from the superstitions of others?” the prince challenged, angrily. “How many hundreds of prophecies have been spoken, and, of them, how many have been fulfilled? One, two, perhaps three. Why then should you heed the idle words of a long dead daughter of sacrilege?"
"Magianna was a prophetess of Joretham."
"And what means Joretham to me? Is one foolish prophecy reason enough to give up hope? You’re the king of Nor. What will the men of Zaren say and do when they learn their king has no faith that they will triumph?"
"Gideone,” the king snapped, then forced himself to continue more calmly, “even now this sorcerer gathers his strength, and he shall soon have power enough to break the magic which seals the gates of Zaren. I had hoped I would have enough strength to hold him back, but now I know that with him my death shall come.” Gideone opened his mouth to speak, but his father would not allow him.
“If you are not willing to understand or believe the prophecies, then leave me," concluded the king softly, his voice tinged with anger. "I must have peace."
Gideone stood still for a moment, then turned and walked away. When he came to the door, he turned back and said, sarcastically, "I leave you to find peace, which is a thing easily found in the midst of war." Then he walked away.
* * *
The house of the healers was dark and filled with the stench of blood and death, but what house in Zaren did not smell so? Many men had been healed of their wounds, but some were so far gone that not even magic could save them. The groans of the dying filled the place.
Orion sat in a dark corner, hunched over on the ground. He was half-asleep with exhaustion, and yet he was unable to fully sink into unconsciousness because of the pain that filled his body. So, he simply sat there, silently waiting for a healer to come and minister to him.
It was almost midnight before his wounds were tended to. Painful though they were, they did not look gruesome and went unnoticed by the healers until Orion, growing impatient, finally drew attention to them. He was often overlooked by healers, for his blood was not red and easily noticed like the blood of other men but was instead clear as water. He was sorely injured, especially on his arms and face, and it took nearly an hour for the healers to bind up his wounds. He remained silent, almost deathly so and, throughout the whole of that time, never once raised his eyes or looked around him.
The healers finally completed their task, and the blue-eyed warrior walked out into the still and silent streets of Zaren. All was dark, for the sky above was covered with clouds, through which only the smallest glimpse of the moon and the stars could be caught. An air of fear and grim expectation lay heavy upon the city, and, if men dared speak at all, it was only with low murmurs, for it seemed almost sacrilegious to do otherwise.
Nightfall was waiting outside when Orion emerged. He opened his mouth to speak but fell silent when he saw the look of horror in his friend’s eyes.
"I could have died," Orion murmured. He tried to say more, but words failed him.
"Orion," answered Nightfall, his head tilted to one side in confusion, "you have not died; you have conquered and won honor for yourself."
"And what does the glory of one day matter, when, upon the morrow, you lie dead?"
"Orion," the griffin said with as soothing a tone as his voice would allow, "death is not a thing to be feared. Is it not through death that one enters into greater glory?"
"What would you know of death?" Orion asked bitterly as he turned away from him.
Nightfall drew himself up in surprise at his friend's harsh tone. "My father guards the gates of Lothiel."
"Think you I care what your father guards? Leave me alone." With that Orion turned and stalked off, leaving Nightfall to look in confusion after him.
The warrior walked through the still and silent city until he reached the high walls surrounding it. These he climbed and began to pace, the cool wind blowing softly upon his face, the moon occasionally shining upon him through the clouds. He stopped and looked down at the vast army below, lit by hundreds of red campfires and the moon's infrequent light. As he gazed upon it, one thought kept running through his mind: "There lies my death."
Beneath his tunic he could feel Mystia's ring against his chest. He pressed his hand against it and found himself wondering what the strange gem inlaid within it was. He seemed almost to know, but it was a memory far off and hidden. He tried to remember, but as the mist over his eyes began to clear it settled again, and he was left in darkness. He stood contemplating the ring and the grim sight before him for he knew not how many minutes when his reverie was interrupted by Prince Gideone who had walked quietly up beside him.
"'Tis a terrible sight, is it not?" asked the prince.
"Indeed, Your Highness," answered Orion.
For a long moment Gideone was silent. As Orion had done before him, he simply looked out over the vast Delovachian army.
"Think you that we shall be defeated?" the prince asked. He was a far different man from the one who had been celebrating but a few nights before.
"I see no way we can triumph," Orion answered, then added as almost an afterthought, "unless Joretham does not desire our deaths."
"I care nothing for Joretham," asserted Gideone, his tone suddenly dark. "Give me what can be seen and touched, not intangible spirits."
Orion remained silent. What did he know of Joretham?
"We face destruction," continued Gideone, "but I know that you, at least, shall stay and fight and not run in fear."
Orion bowed his head in reply but said nothing.
Gideone glared at the army before him, his jaw clenched tightly, as he contemplated the hopeless situation.
He turned to Orion, and a glimmer of hope was in his eyes as he spoke. "Orion, I know that the power of lesser Magics has no effect on you, but what of the magic of a sorcerer, or a mage, or a Power?"
Orion hesitated then answered, "There are none of the Realm of Earth who can touch me with magic, whether Power or otherwise.”
"Then the Dark Sorcerer has no hold over you." The prince’s dark eyes were beginning to sparkle with rising hope.
"Perhaps, Your Highness, but we speak only of magic power; perchance he’s a better swordsman."
Gideone laughed and dismissed Orion's words with a wave of his hand. "No man can wield a weapon as you do. You’re a master swordsman who cannot be touched by magic. You’re our savior."
"Your Highness!" cried Orion, stepping back. The thought of having the entire fate of Zaren–indeed, of all Nor–resting upon his shoulders was a terrifying one.
"Orion," said Gideone, seeing the other man's fear, "if you won’t fight the Dark Sorcerer then Zaren will fall. My father, though he prepares to battle him, fears the Sorcerer." There was shame in his voice as he said those last words. "He believes that his death at the hand of the Sorcerer has been fated and is inevitable. 'Tis a false belief, but it shall certes keep him from emerging victorious." He looked hard at Orion. "Promise me you will take my father's place and fight this dark and terrible man."
Orion looked silently down at the ground. Slowly he raised his head and, turning his eyes to Gideone, answered. "You’re my prince, and I’m your servant. I will do as you ask."
"Thank you, Orion. You know not what great a service you do for me and for Nor."
Orion said nothing.
"Well, I’ll leave you now," Gideone murmured when he saw that Orion would not speak. "Find sleep if you can, for tomorrow will be a terrible day."
"Yes, Your Highness."
Gideone turned and walked away, and Orion was left once more to himself.
* * *
The morning dawned, and a dark and ominous morning it was, for the clouds overhead were black and threatening. The men of Zaren came and stood atop the high walls of their city. Grim-faced they were, with eyes flashing, weapons held ready, and none of the joy of battle which they had displayed upon the previous day.
Above the city's main gate King Ibrahim stood, sorcerer's staff in hand. He looked out over the huge army on the plain below, but what he thought none knew, for his face was as unmoving as stone.
The Delovachian army, with the Dark Sorcerer at its head, advanced toward the city. With his lips curled in a sneer, he slowly looked over the men of Zaren until his gaze finally came to rest upon King Ibrahim.
"So, the dog dares show his face!" the Sorcerer cried in contempt.
A low rumble of thunder sounded in the distance.
"I do more than show my face, sorcerer of Delovachia," replied Ibrahim solemnly. "I challenge you to a duel. Let us meet before the gates of this city, and let our two armies bear witness unto that which we do. If you should win, then the city of Zaren shall surrender, but, if I should win, then you and your army shall return to Delovachia and trouble us no more. Is this not better than wasting the blood of thousands of men?"
"What care I of wasted blood, seeing it’s the blood of Norians that’s wasted?" answered the Sorcerer, his harsh accent only lending malice to his words. "And why should I meet you in single combat, seeing that my army is far greater than yours? I spit upon your challenge, cur, for it’s the challenge of a fool!" Almost before he finished speaking, he threw his arms above his head and cried out fierce words in a foreign tongue.
Ibrahim held his staff up high and lifted his voice up in a chant. A huge flash of light, as bright as the noonday sun, filled the sky and swept over the armies of Nor and Delovachia. The soldiers of both armies were thrown backward to the ground by the overwhelming power of the magic blast. The sound of something slowly cracking and splintering sounded across the whole of that vast plain, but only the Dark Sorcerer and Orion, who had not been thrown backward, witnessed the gate of Zaren slowly split down the center and fall to the ground.
For a moment all was silent. There was a brilliant flash of lightning in the clouds above. Orion's eyes locked with those of the Dark Sorcerer, and they could only stare–Orion in amazement at the strength of the Sorcerer's magic and the Sorcerer in wonder that any man could withstand his onslaught.
The flash of lightning ended, leaving the city and the plain in darkness. The loud rumbling of thunder which followed faded away into the shrieking of the wind. Beneath the wind could be heard the sound of men clambering to their feet, as if the dead themselves were rising from their graves.
Another flash of lightning lit the sky, and the army of Delovachia saw that the great gate of Zaren lay broken upon the ground. With a great shout they rushed forward upon the city.
Orion's howl of anger was drowned out by a crack of thunder.
* * *
Far away, in the place of Nortath's Fury, Mystia lay flat upon her back in an almost trance-like state. Her black eyes were wide open and she stared up at the cavernous ceiling overhead, but she seemed to see nothing. Her maid sat at her side and looked down in concern upon her. Queen Malcah also sat nearby, but when she cast a glance at Mystia it was more in exasperation than anything else.
Mystia gave a long sigh and said softly, "It begins again."
* * *
Never, since the days of Balor, had the streets of Zaren seen battle. But they saw it now. The cries of men and the shrieks of harpies mixed with the rolling of the thunder. The lightning flashed, and the rain poured down so heavily that, between the darkness and the light, one could scarcely tell friend from foe.
Orion stood upon a battlement with crystal-bladed Ronahrrah in his hands. He gave a battle cry that, while human, was at the same time like the roaring of a lion and the hissing of a serpent. The soldiers of Delovachia swarmed everywhere. Orion, swinging his sword madly above his head, waded in to where they were thickest, crying as he did so, "Come, Nightfall! If we’re to die, let’s win glory as we do so!"
* * *
While Orion fought upon the walls, Gideone battled in the streets. His mouth was turned up in a smile, but it was not a smile that came from the joy of battle. He sent his sword smashing into the shoulder of a soldier. The soldier screamed in pain and looked down in horror at his arm dangling from a few strands of muscle and skin. No, his smile was one of anger and contempt. With a snarl the prince finished him off then turned to face more men.
* * *
As the battle waxed hot, the Dark Sorcerer rode up and down the length of the city, searching for King Ibrahim. He caused bright, red, magic fire to spring up before him and light his way. In the midst of the pouring rain, the proud, high-walled city of Zaren burned.
* * *
"I can see it," whispered Mystia so softly one could barely hear her. "Zaren burns, and yet I have no tears to shed." Then, even softer, she moaned, "Joretham, it burns."
Through the many caverns of Nortath's Fury and through the huddled groups of women and children gathered there, one figure slowly walked. Tall he was, and handsome, clothed entirely in black, with eyes and hair as red as fire. With an air of suppressed passion, he made his way ever toward where Mystia lay.
Mystia, who had lain upon the ground ever since the day before suddenly sat up. Her eyes were wide open in terror, and she spoke in a choked voice, "He's coming...Joretham, he's coming."
* * *
Orion, covered with blood and grime, still battled atop the walls of the city. It seemed that he, like the raging storm, only grew in strength and fury with the passing of the hours. No one could stand against him, and any wound he was given seemed only to spur him on to greater madness. Some fled at the mere sight of him, when, as the lightning lit the sky, they looked up to see his flashing spectral blue eyes fixed upon them.
As Orion fought he caught a glimpse of the Dark Sorcerer beneath him. He howled a fierce battle cry and scrambled as quickly as he could down off the wall and onto the street below. The rain had mixed with the dirt and the blood, and Orion found himself ankle-deep in mud. He ran as quickly as he could toward where he had seen the Sorcerer ride, but the ground seemed to do all it could to keep him from his end.
Suddenly, he felt as if his whole chest had caught on fire. Clutching at it, he fell to the ground and howled in pain. In a stroke of insight, he pulled Mystia's chain and ring from around his neck. He held it up before him and looked with confusion and surprise at it, for the ring glowed bright red and hot. As he stared at it, the mist cleared from his eyes, and he knew what it was–a soul stone.
Fear began to fill him, and he jumped to his feet and looked wildly about for Nightfall. As lightning illuminated the sky, the warrior looked up and saw the black griffin far above him, battling harpies in the air.
"Nightfall!" he bellowed, but had the roar of the battle not drowned out his voice the rolling thunder certainly would have. He gave the most profane curse he could think of and ran back up onto the wall. Slicing all who stood in his path, he reached the highest battlement.
"Nightfall!" he roared as he jumped up and down and waved his hands furiously above his head. Perhaps Joretham was with him, for Nightfall looked down and descended quickly to him.
"The princess is in danger!" Orion shouted over the noise of the storm and the battle. "Come." Almost before the words were out of his mouth, he was running down toward the stable where Nightfall's saddle was kept.
"Are you mad?" croaked Nightfall as he landed and galloped after the warrior.
"Look!" Orion cried as he held up Mystia's soul stone. "Her soul stone glows."
Nightfall drew back in amazement as he beheld the precious thing Orion possessed. Terror welled up in his heart, as it had already in the heart of Orion. For he knew, as Orion did, that a soul stone never glowed unless the one whose soul it belonged to was in mortal danger.
* * *
King Ibrahim sat upon his horse in the middle of a wide, muddy street. The battle raged all about him, but he did not fight. His head hung down upon his chest, and he seemed entirely devoid of strength.
There was a flash of lightning. As Ibrahim looked up, he saw the Dark Sorcerer upon his sable charger with his sword drawn and held ready. He said not a word, but the flashing of his eyes told Ibrahim all that was needed.
"Is it then time?" murmured Ibrahim as he raised his staff. He seemed so weary, and yet, for all his weakness, there was a look of determination in his dark eyes.
The two men howled fiercely and dug their heels deep into the sides of their horses. They pounded toward each other and crashed together. The muddy ground and the force of their impact joined to send them plunging to the ground. The Dark Sorcerer rose with a snarl and, whipping his wet, mud-caked hair out of his face, turned toward Ibrahim who was still scrambling to his feet. Not allowing him the chance to fully rise, the Sorcerer fell upon him and almost sent him sprawling into the mud once again, but Ibrahim fought back with a strength that surprised the Sorcerer.
The air about them fairly glowed with the power of their magic. Back and forth, they battled–first one slipping and falling into the mud, only to rise and send the other reeling back–until Ibrahim's anger waxed great. Holding his staff as though it were a club, he dealt the Dark Sorcerer a blow strong enough to send him sinking to his knees where he could but look up in pain at the king. Another blow sent the Sorcerer's sword flying from his hand, and another broke his arm. Ibrahim drew back his staff for the final blow, but, even as he did so, the Dark Sorcerer gathered all of his power into one last spell. As Ibrahim sent his staff crashing down upon the Sorcerer, the Sorcerer held his good hand up and caught the staff with an iron grasp. With one swift motion, he yanked it from Ibrahim's hands and rose to his feet. His strength returned to him, and with his magic he forced Ibrahim to kneel before him.
The Dark Sorcerer’s blood-streaked face was twisted in contempt as he raised the staff above his head. Magic crackled all around him, and Ibrahim knew his end had come.
"Kill me, Sorcerer,” he growled, “and let it be done with.”
* * *
Gideone stood upon the walls of Zaren and fought with all his strength, yet things were not going well. He looked down, and his heart began to pound as he saw his father kneeling helplessly before the Dark Sorcerer. He gave an unintelligible cry and ran madly along the wall in a desperate attempt to reach his father before the Sorcerer killed him. But, as he ran, a long, dark arrow struck him, piercing his armor and embedding itself in his chest just below his heart. With a gasp, he staggered and fell, and, as he fell, he saw his father struck down by the Dark Sorcerer. Unable to cry, he stared in silent horror at where his father lay.
He caught sight of Orion upon Nightfall flying up out of the city. They rose into the air and sped away from Zaren. New strength returned to him, and he leapt to his feet, shrieking, "Coward!"
He turned upon his enemies and again cried, "Coward!" No other word would come. For a few moments, he fought like a furious demon, but his wound soon overcame him. He sank to the ground and did not rise.
* * *
Nightfall flew as he had never flown before, but no speed was fast enough to satisfy Orion. The storm raging all around only leant a greater urgency to his mission. He looked down upon Mystia's glowing soul stone and, with each passing moment, felt increasingly certain it would grow dim with her death.
* * *
"Joretham!" Mystia screamed. Her maid, not knowing what else to do, put a comforting hand upon her shoulder and tried to make her lie down once again.
"Take your hands off me!" the princess shrieked as she jumped to her feet. For a moment she stood looking wildly about her, then turned and fled into the dark recesses of the caverns.
Even as she disappeared into the darkness, there entered and stood before Queen Malcah the dark man who had been making his way through the caverns. With a look of scorn, he turned to face the guards who sought to bar his way. Without even a word, he struck them down with a powerful magic spell.
"Who are you?" demanded the queen, rising.
"Where is she?" he snarled, ignoring the question.
"How should I know?" answered the queen.
He gave her a look of anger and struck her across the face with a large, clawed hand. She did not scream but gave only a small gasp as she fell to the floor, where she struck her head upon a rock and moved no more. The dark man stalked past her dead body and into the darkness where Mystia had run.
* * *
It took no more than half an hour for Nightfall to fly the many miles from Zaren to the fortress in the Caverns of Nortath's Fury. Nightfall landed on a rocky ledge before the main entrance of the caverns, and Orion ran to a large group of women and children who were gathered about the body of Queen Malcah. It was doubtful Orion even saw the dead queen, so overcome was he with terror for Mystia. It took him but a second to see that the princess was not there, and he cried out, "Where is she? Joretham, where’s the princess?" But with his clothes and dragon-scale armor covered with the blood of his enemies, his long hair flying all about him like a savage, and his blue eyes looking wildly all about, the already terrified women scattered before him.
A small girl with huge, green eyes opened wide, overcame her fear enough to point to the darkness of an adjoining cavern. "There–and he followed her."
Orion did not stop to ask who "he" was but whirled and leapt back into Nightfall's saddle. The griffin instantly jumped into the air and hurtled into the adjoining cavern, but Mystia was not there. Through cavern after cavern he flew. Though the flight took but thirty seconds it was the longest flight Orion had ever taken.
He burst into yet another chamber, and his eyes were met by the sight of a tall, red-haired man forcing Mystia back against a wall. The princess stood cowering before him, her whole body shaking with sobs of terror.
"Phyre!" Orion cried–for he knew that man–as he, with sword drawn, sped toward him. Phyre turned toward Orion, and as his eyes met the warrior's, his face twisted into a look of unimaginable hatred. He let loose a shriek unlike any a human could make, and as he did so, his features distorted and he began to grow. He rose and rose, his body covered with billowing black smoke, until he completed his transformation and stood–a huge dragon, whose scales were as clear as crystal and whose innards swirled with raging smoke and fire. He gave a terrible, hissing roar and leapt toward Orion.
Mystia shrieked as Phyre's massive tail lashed toward her. She bolted sideways but did not entirely escape the blow and was sent skidding across the hard stone floor.
Phyre did not even know he had struck her, for all his rage was focused on Orion. He lashed out at the blue-eyed warrior, but was not quick enough, and Nightfall was able to evade him. The griffin flew along the length of the dragon's immense form; as he did so, Orion plunged his sword into Phyre's body and was able to give him a gash that stretched from his shoulder to the base of his tail. The fiery dragon lifted up his voice in a roar that threatened to split the very floor of the chamber as fire began to pour from his wound.
"You dare seek her life!" Orion howled in fury as he struck Phyre again. "Dog!" He struck again and again, ever yelling as he did so, but his words were drowned out by Phyre's roars of pain and anger. The dragon’s clawed forefoot met with Orion and Nightfall and sent them both tumbling through the air. The griffin managed to right himself and gain flight, but Orion struck the ground hard and lay as one dead.
"Fool!" spat the fiery dragon at Orion's limp form. He then turned upon Mystia who lay dazed and terrified upon the floor. Slowly, with fire still pouring from his wounds, he took a painful step toward her. A screeching battle-cry and the dark form of Nightfall speeding towards him brought the dragon up short. He roared and struck the griffin who fell to the ground and did not rise.
Phyre turned once again upon Mystia, but before he could make another step toward her, Orion cried out from behind him, "Die dragon!"
Even as the words left his lips, he drew back his sword and hurled it with all his might toward Phyre. It flew through the air, spinning end over end. Phyre roared and tried to turn, but he was too late. Fire erupted as the blade smashed into the dragon’s head, piercing through his crystal skin and continuing out the other side.
Giving a hissing roar of pain, he leapt up in the air. For a moment he seemed to hover at the apex of his ascent, then he began to speed toward the earth. The cavern shook as, with a thundering howl, he crashed into the ground. Stones flew through the air as Phyre dug deep into the earth and disappeared.
For a moment Orion stood, gasping for breath as he looked at the fiery tunnel left by the dragon. Though wounded, Phyre was not dead, and it would not take him long to tunnel back to his lair.
Orion took one last deep breath and ran quickly to where Princess Mystia lay sobbing upon the ground. His face was hardened from the battle he had just fought, but the moment he came into her presence his features softened.
"Your Highness," he said, as he helped her sit up, "are you uninjured?"
Her whole body shook with tears, but she said, with what little pride she had left, "A giant dragon almost killed me. Of course, I’m uninjured." She threw her arms around his neck and began to sob even harder. She was far too upset to notice how tense Orion became. No matter how embarrassed he was, however, he waited patiently for her to cease her tears.
When she had done so he spoke. "Phyre is not dead, Your Highness, for he is a mighty dragon and likely to heal himself very quickly. It would be best if I were to take you from here."
"And where will you take me?" the princess, voice still trembling, asked. She waited for his reply, but Orion was no longer listening. He had caught sight of the limp form of Nightfall, lying upon the ground.
"Nightfall!" he gasped as he ran over to his friend. Mystia followed him and also knelt beside the fallen griffin. Nightfall lay unmoving upon the ground; there was not even the slightest motion of breath. Timorously, Orion touched his hand to the griffin's body, and, when Nightfall did not respond, he took up the great eagle head of his friend and cradled it in his arms. Words could not describe the look of anguish upon his face as he looked silently upon his dead friend.
Nightfall's head began to move of its own accord, and Orion dropped it in his surprise. A sharp croak escaped Nightfall’s beak as it hit the floor, but after a moment he murmured, "Please, hold my head again, for I found it most comfortable."
"Nightfall!" cried both Orion and Mystia together.
"I thought you were dead," Orion exclaimed, relief filling him. “Never frighten me like that again.”
"Orion!" exclaimed Nightfall in indignation as he struggled to his feet, "Surely you know how hard the skulls of griffins are. I feel strong enough to fly across the whole of Deithanara."
Orion laughed as he rose and placed his arm around Nightfall’s neck.
"Let’s hope what you say is true,” he said, "for we have a long journey ahead of us."
"Where are we going?" asked Mystia in a small voice.
"To the house of the sage Zenas in the Mountains of Lathinor. You’ll be safe there, for Phyre can’t enter that place," Orion answered.
* * *
The storm which had raged over Zaren ended even as the battle which had raged in Zaren ended. Stavros cast a sad look back at the smoldering city that had once been his home; Vayan, who stood at his side, did the same. Together they had escaped the fury of the Dark Sorcerer, and they had managed to rescue Prince Gideone as well.
Stavros turned his eyes from the far-off city and down to the unconscious form of Gideone. He tore open the prince's tunic and looked upon his wound. The place where the arrow had pierced him had already turned black, and thin, dark lines had begun to creep out from it. Stavros studied it for a long moment then gave a groan of anguish.
"No," he moaned. "Joretham, let it not be."