In which opportunity knocks for Valarien
After Kai disappeared into the opened sarcophagus, the three remaining stood for some minutes simply staring into the black hole as though mesmerized. Valarien drew a deep breath which seemed to break the spell.
"Well, there is nothing more we can do for him now," he said briskly, "and there is much yet to be done here. First of all, we must have this place - um - reconsecrated in the Lady's Name. If when Kai returns, it would be well that he returns to - um - a hallowed place."
"That I will do, Valarien. Also, I will place upon the gate a spell of guard so that no more evil creatures may enter the world by this way - or at least, not without great peril."
As Omanisa made his preparations, the wizard and the barbarian made their way to the upper levels of the castle. Sending the eye spy on ahead, they evaded the occasional patrolling guards. Following Ewan's sometimes obscure markers, they rejoined Stoddard and the nightranger in a storeroom near the cell they had occupied earlier in the evening.
The pair were not alone. A dozen guards in varying states of consciousness and all neatly trussed and gagged were lined up along one wall.
"Thought you wouldn't appreciate corpses," Ewan explained.
"You thought right," Valarien responded drily.
Stoddard was gazing with studied insouciance at the men as though it had been nothing to do with him, but his grazed knuckles were not lost on the two new arrivals.
"We recovered our gear, too. It's all intact."
"What's our next move?" Leon enquired, extracting his belongings from the heap on the floor behind Stoddard.
"Well, as you've seen fit to provide us with excellent - um - disguises, I suggest we make use of them. Obdormeeskitay!"
As the other three set about selecting suitable sized uniforms, Valarien and Omanisa, who had just rejoined them, went into a huddle. Ewan, automatically keeping an ear open, was not too happy about the snippets he overheard. The odds against them were not favourable, and "The Plan" seemed remarkably hit-or-miss. He couldn't help feeling that the dispelling or destroying of a dozen daemons, high level ones at that, should not be left to chance. One slip and they would probably all be damned...
"Wouldn't it be safer to pick them off one at a time?" he interjected.
The wizard, never one to appreciate interruptions when he was in full flow, glared at him in incredulity. "If you can guarantee to find and - um - eliminate all twelve individually and - um - instantly, yes. If you propose to deal with them as - um - expeditiously as you disposed of the minor daemon at the gate, then no," he said in blighting tones.
Ewan's face retained its usual stoical composure, but for once, Valarien registered the hurt he had inflicted. Perhaps his recent experiences at the Eyrie had heightened his awareness of the feelings of others and moved him to add, "Have faith, my friend, and we shall - um - win through."
The wizard paused awkwardly. "We would not have come this far without you," he added brusquely. It was the nearest he ever came to apologizing.
Accoutred as castle guards, the five were able to pass unnoticed as they made their way up the castle's living quarters. Their fellow guards, under mental enslavement, acted as automata and did not register the presence of outsiders.
Occasionally they were stopped by officers of the guard. These were of the same appearance as those they had encountered on Belsaria's borders. They also failed to recognize the intruders for, on Valarien's instructions, the five behaved with the same mindless obedience as all the others until they were out of sight.
This meant several lengthy diversions where failure to fulfil an order would have aroused suspicion. On the plus side, guided by Stoddard, they became more familiar with the lay-out of the castle.
One commission took them to what had once been King Walden's private chapel. Long since desecrated, it now held the reek of evil and several large boxes. These they had been ordered to take up to the Council Chamber. Omanisa stared at the disfigured effigy of the Lady with a look expressive of both sorrow and anger. Valarien noted the look.
"I'm afraid it must remain thus until our - um - mission is finished," he said grimly. "Now, what's in these boxes, I wonder? It could be something important if they're bound for the Council Chamber."
"Careful," Ewan warned. "If they are important, someone will have taken precautions..."
So saying, he gave the boxes an initial cursory inspection. There were five altogether, black and smooth, with no obvious means of opening them. They looked solid and very heavy. Gingerly, he ran a finger across the nearest box. It was very cold to the touch. He laid his ear against the top but heard nothing. Puzzled, he knocked gently. His knuckles produced a dull thud that died abruptly, adding to the sensation of solidity. He turned to Leon.
"Can you tip it up on its edge so I can look underneath?"
Leon leaned across the box, braced himself and heaved. The effort proved excessive, and the barbarian ended on his back with the box on top of him. Ewan raised an eyebrow.
"I take it these boxes aren't as solid as they seem," he said.
Having completed his examination, the nightranger searched for some means of opening the box. He was about to give up when something in the centre of one side yielded to his questing fingers.
It only took a second, but the damage was done. A shower of tiny sparks of blackness shot out of the box before Ewan, despite his quick reflexes, could close the little hole. Rapidly, the dots expanded into amorphous dark shapes and carried on growing until they were as big as a man.
"Shadowspawn!" Omanisa gasped, but Valarien was ahead of him, arms and fingers spread.
The chapel was instantly lit up by a silent explosion of shimmering golden light that rendered the party sightless for several minutes. Panic set in and the air turned blue with abuse hurled at the one responsible. For once, Valarien didn't take offence.
Slowly vision returned and with it, the appreciation that the five of them were once more alone with the boxes. Reproaches changed to expressions of thanks and wonder.
"Sorry to scare you, but - um - speed was of the essence. No time to warn you or the things would have reached their - um - full size. While they are growing, they are powerless, but then..."
Valarien shuddered which made Leon feel suddenly very cold. If the wizard was afraid of this unspeakable terror, what could their motley bunch of adventurers hope to do to stem the tide once it was set loose. There must be millions of those hateful black sparks in each box.
Omanisa read the look on the barbarian's ashen face.
"Do not lose heart, my friend," he said gently. "With the Lady to guide us, no more will escape."
"I hope you're right."
Valarien noted the exchange.
"One weapon in their armoury is to drain your - um - confidence. Clearly we were only just in time. Perhaps it was as well that Ewan released a few of the 'spawn. At least we know what the opposition is up to. I think, maybe, we've - um - got them rattled. It's unusual to release the Shadows above ground, certainly in such large numbers. They're unpredictable and difficult to control. I wonder..."
The wizard was wrapped in thought for a while before continuing.
"This may be our opportunity. If they're really contemplating using the Shadowspawn, chances are that all the - um - Daemon Lords will be required in the Council Chamber to ensure that they can maintain control. When they're all gathered together, we shall - um - strike. Are you prepared, Omanisa?"
At the word, "strike", Leon's jaw dropped sharply.
"You're not suggesting we just charge in!" he expostulated, braving the wrath to come.
"Confidence returning I see," the wizard observed acidly. "Pity it didn't think to drag your - um - brain along with it. Of course we sha'n't go bursting in with swords waving. You're forgetting the boxes."
"What?! You're surely not thinking of delivering those - those Shadow-things right into their midst? When you know what they can do?"
"Of course I am. What better way is there of getting into the Council Chamber without - um - arousing suspicion? We have been instructed to deliver the boxes. They are expecting the boxes to be delivered. Judging from previous - um - observation, the Daemon Lords will not arrive until everything is ready for them. That should give us enough time to set things up and conceal ourselves behind the - um - screens."
Leon looked far from convinced. He was remembering the last time they had taken refuge behind those screens...
"Worry not," Valarien added, as if reading his mind, "This time they won't be expecting us."
The first part of the operation went smoothly enough. The plotters and the boxes arrived in the council chamber without incident. Once inside, however, the ad hoc nature of the plan began to make itself evident.
The screens had been removed. So had the table. In fact, all that remained within the chamber was the throne on its daïs and the twelve heavy chairs, now arranged in a circle.
"Alas!" cried the wizard in something akin to despair. "I lack a bowl for the spell, and there is no time to look for one now."
"Would a plate serve the need?" Ewan enquired, "Or a goblet?"
"Can you lay your hands on such? And - um - speedily?"
By way of reply, and in the manner of a conjuror, Ewan pulled an ornate silver plate from his jerkin and an even more beautiful chalice from his pouch. Valarien was momentarily dumbstruck.
"Oh, Arien Seren," he breathed, "'The Hallows'! But how?"
"In the chapel. Hidden among the trash. Didn't fancy abandoning them."
"She has sent them!"
"Make haste, Valarien," Omanisa warned. Taking the sacred vessels, he called down the blessing of the Goddess before handing them to the wizard.
Valarien next raised the problem of where to conceal them. After a hurried colloquy, the two wonder-workers retired behind the throne whence arose a string of arcane incantations. What they were up to, Leon and Stoddard could not even begin to imagine. Ewan, who had a good idea, hid his misgivings behind his usual mask of impassivity.
Several long minutes later, the two stood up, apparently satisfied with their preparations.
"I think it's time the rest of you - um - took yourselves off out of here."
"What about you?" Leon asked with more concern than tact.
"Use your wits, dolt," growled the wizard. "Someone has to - um - activate the spell."
Chastened, the barbarian turned on his heel and made for the door.
" - Um - thank you for your - um... Well, thanks anyway," Valarien called awkwardly, pride, as ever, standing in the way of an outright apology.
"It's all right," Leon flashed a lop-sided grin. "Good luck!"
The words had hardly left his mouth when the double doors flew open. Instantly, Valarien ducked back behind the throne and the others snapped into automaton mode in the fond hope of avoiding recognition. That hope was realized, for a short while at least.
"Ah, they have arrived. Splendid!" exclaimed the Lord Abralek, viewing the boxes. "Set them in the centre of the circle."
Willy-nilly, the four obeyed as the twelve Daemon Lords and Kieran took their places, then optimistically headed for the door.
"Wait!" a voice called imperiously. "We can use these maggots as subjects for a small trial run."
The potential guinea-pigs blenched at the very idea, but dared not move lest they imperil Valarien and the ultimate success of their quest. All four prayed that he would get on with whatever it was he had planned.
The wizard himself was dithering, unable to decide where lay the greatest threat to his friends.
"You four, stand without the circle," went on Lord Abralek. "Lord Shax, pronounce the wards and then release four of the Shadowspawn."
A tall gaunt figure of a man rose to his feet and lifted the nearest box.
"This arca is light!" he cried. "Someone has tampered with it."
"What?" Abralek demanded, leaping to his feet and turning a baleful glare upon the horrified "maggots".
With a courage born of absolute terror, the four maintained their glassy-eyed bearing. This momentarily threw the daemons, all, except the king, on their feet now, and debating who had perpetrated the theft and where he was concealed...
Valarien could hesitate no longer. Taking advantage of the hubbub, he rose to his feet and spoke the words:
As he chanted, the daemons, one by one registering his presence, turned towards him in astonishment and fury. For a few precious seconds, they wondered volubly at his sudden appearance and the manner of it and the laxness of security and how those responsible would pay...
Then they registered the import of his words if not their meaning. Abralek was galvanized into action.
"This is the last time you shall meddle in our concerns, wizard!" he spat, and began his own malediction.
Throughout, Valarien, brow furrowed in concentration, ploughed on with his own invocation, now inscribing mystical symbols in the air before him.
Good and evil alike looked on, scarcely daring to breath, as the Daemon Lord and the wizard faced each other in thaumaturgical combat. A dreadful silence hung over the chamber. Whose incantation had taken precedence?
Abralek had raised his left hand, the extended fingers pointing at Valarien.
A drift of fine white mist was swirling up around the wizard and flowing out across the room while from the daemon's fingers five angry jets of ruddy flame, intertwining, streaked towards him.
Incredibly Valarien failed to duck...
It seemed to Kai that he had roamed the Hells for as long as he had roamed the lands above. He had all but forgotten the reason for his being there, but still something was driving him on. In that place, "love" had no meaning, yet it endured, unnamed, in his heart. Now, he and his reluctant companions had reached the lowest depths of the Hells. Only the Abyss remained.
The cinder-clad slope down which they skittered and skidded, dipped more steeply as the bloody smear of light ahead grew stronger and the booming roar intensified unbearably. Vash'târik continually bemoaned throwing in his lot with his hated adversary which added nothing to the pleasures of the trip.
With the edge of the Abyss in sight, Kai called a halt.
"I thank you both for your aid on this loathsome journey," he shouted above the tumult, "and I release you from your bond. Mayhap you will sometime escape from this dread land. For now, farewell."
"Oh-ho no!" Vash'târik exclaimed. "We've come this far to see you suffer. I'm not turning back now!"
"Suit yourself," Kai murmured and set off towards the pit of fire.
The nearer he approached, the slower his progress became, but finally he stood on the very edge of the Abyss. The blistering heat and noise and stench of sulphur were appalling.
Looking down, he saw the fires of Eternal Damnation heaving and churning, spiralling ever downwards beyond the reach of sight. Projecting from the rim over the vast circular chasm was a tangled structure of blackened metallic struts and spars, extending some twenty or thirty feet across and downwards, silhouetted against the seething vortex below like a crown of thorns.
Below him, dangling by his fingertips from one of the jagged spikes, was Kieran. An immense wave of sorrow swept over Kai, but he had no tears to shed, neither could he shout. Nevertheless his heart cried out, "Kieran, I am here!" and Kieran looked up.
His eyes, though full of pain, also held wonder and sudden hope. There was life there too, the life that was missing from the eyes of the Doppelgänger he had seen so long ago, sitting upon the throne in Castle Malleckay... Now, at last, he was here - here to reclaim his brother's soul.
The heat seared through him as he slithered along the nearest shaft and eased himself out over the Abyss. In almost unbearable pain, he climbed slowly from bar to bar, inching nearer and nearer to his brother until, reaching down, he could touch Kieran's hand with his finger tips.
Shuffling further out still, he felt the bar shudder. To his horror, he realized that the whole construction was moving almost imperceptibly downwards, like a spiny conveyor belt.
As he watched, a spar close to Kieran slipped from its mooring and, amid a shower of clinker, went plummeting end over end into the depths of the fiery maelstrom until it fell from sight. Despite the heat, Kai shivered, then, with an effort, closed his mind to what he had just seen.
Bracing himself, he stretched as far as he could and prayed that his perch would bear the weight of them both. Kieran reached up and their hands met in a fierce clasp. The bar shuddered again as Kai took the strain.
With grim determination, Kai hauled until his brother could take hold of the bar himself. Kieran swung his leg up until his knee rested on the spike he'd just left, and almost came to grief as it came loose and followed its fellow into the fire.
Slowly, painfully, the pair climbed upwards, each helping the other, and pausing now and again to regain strength. Eventually they reached the lip and found fresh hands offering to pull them up the last few feet. Zervan hauled Kieran out of the pit first, but Kai, misliking the glint in his old adversary's eye, declined any assistance and struggled up on to the edge by himself.
A sudden flood of relief collided with the sole of Vash'târik's boot as a vicious kick in the face sent Kai bouncing and somersaulting helplessly off the jumbled chevaux de frise. Kieran looked back stunned as his saviour fell, spinning and tumbling wildly down into the throat of the Abyss.