Strongbow recovered consciousness as he flew through the air. He was disoriented briefly, unable to remember who or where he was. Until he hit the side of the hellspawn mesa.
His few remaining magical defenses disappeared in a green and orange double flash, and he fell, rolled, and tumbled into the bottom of the arroyo. He lay gasping there for a few moments, taking stock of his injuries and getting his breath back. No bones broken, some bruises, some scrapes, blood running off the chin; he had lost his helmet somewhere, if he had ever brought it in into this hellish place the first place. That established, he sat up.
Strongbow looked around, astonished. The arroyo was a wide half-pipe of a gully, formed of some black and glassy stone. The most interesting features were the stalagmites thrusting up through the bottom of the arroyo; facetted black glass and extending more than twenty feet up to needle points. The whole area was so highly polished that you could see infinite distorted reflections of yourself, glinting from the ruddy light coming from the oily clouds above. There was even one of himself standing, he noticed with an odd smile. "My sword is unsheathed," he thought of the reflection, even though it was there in his belt beside him, when the reflection lunged and pinned him to the floor.
K'ellz had been running through the arroyo after being driven off by the now-crazed Nalynn, circling around to come at Ebonstarr from behind. He was worried he had to leave Rimellyn alone, but had faith he could hold out another few seconds.
He saw a flash of colored light out of the corner of his eye and he instinctively ducked behind a stalagmite, flicking his sword out as a body crashed and tumbled to the ground across the arroyo from him.
Carefully peering around the side, he suddenly recognized him! Strongbow Firehand, Elflord of someplace he'd never heard of, one of the best warriors of the Grey Company. K'ellz had impersonated him as part of the operation to infiltrate Ebonstarr's cult and fought him to a standstill at the Longsaddle Inn. And he was injured.
K'ellz smiled. If Strongbow was here, the Grey Company must be somewhere nearby. If he could get close enough, he could assassinate them one at a time; and all he had to do was replace an already-injured Strongbow.
As the Elf sat up carefully, K'ellz turned the illusion of himself as Strongbow on and shifted carefully towards him; mimicking the reflections around him, he came within ten feet before Strongbow looked towards him suddenly, eyes narrowing. K'ellz lunged and pinned Strongbow to the side of the arroyo.
Strongbow cried out in agony as he was impaled in the side by his own reflection!
Fortunately for him he had twisted around to look and the point caught in his Elven mail shirt instead of running him through. He tried desperately to draw his own blade, but K'ellz' body was pressing in, and there was no room. Suddenly Strongbow hammered K'ellz backward with his boot, and he reached to draw... nothing. K'ellz, his perfect mirror image, had snagged his sword as he was kicked backwards and now held both swords.
No warrior survives his first decade without learning what to do when disarmed by an enemy, and an Elflord like Strongbow had had centuries to think about it.
Strongbow stood confronting K'ellz' disarmed and facing two blades. As K'ellz savored the moment of Strongbow's despair, Strongbow simply opened his hand and spoke, "Entulach." K'ellz was suddenly enveloped by a red-white light that exploded from Strongbow's sword. Screaming, K'ellz hit the floor trying to beat the flames out as the enchanted sword flew back to its owner's hand. Smiling grimly, Strongbow strode forward.
The fire had destroyed K'ellz' illusion, and he was revealed as one of the Drow, mortal enemies of Elvenkind! At the very last instant, as he raised his sword to strike, Strongbow realized what that meant and twisted aside as K'ellz lunged, clothes still smoking, off the floor. The Drow have always been tremendously resistant to magic.
Strongbow slashed at K'ellz as he passed, but K'ellz hit the wall behind him, ran up over the sweep, leapt off, cut at Strongbows head and landed behind him with a falling leaf cut. Strongbow had to turn an awkward spin into a corkscrew parry, his sword leaving a red blur in the air to counter it. They both ended up facing each other again in a pause.
Then the deadly game began in earnest. There was no more time for clear thinking, only the deadly mental chess game of guessing three or four moves ahead of the enemy. They were both easily the best swordsmen of their style they had faced in decades, and K'ellz somehow could, like Bladesingers, cast spells while in combat. They both pulled out every trick and deception they had ever used, or even heard of. But it came down to two swordsmen living in the eternal now of combat, a razor's edge away from death.
It was their magical Mirror Images that decided it. By some trick of the nether realm in which they fought, the images didn't number three or five--the usual result for the spell. There were literally an infinite number receding into the distance as the Stalagmites reflected and re-reflected the images over and over again. Suddenly there were hundreds of Strongbows confronting hundreds of K'ellzes, and one's moving head just the tiniest fraction caused them all to move and shift. They both quickly lost track of each other.
Strongbow froze, eyes flicking back and forth among endless images of himself and the Drow, searching for something, anything to give himself a target.
It was maddening; even perfectly still, the images tended to shift and move around like real people. Some images turned their heads imitating actions done seconds ago, some seemed to move before he did.
Watching carefully, he saw his enemy slowly reach out and thrust through one Strongbow's back.
Oddly the images didn't collapse like they should have.
Another aggravating fact about this cursed plane; no magic worked as it should: too much or not at all.
He listened carefully, but could not hear the Drow either.
Suddenly realizing the Drow was methodically eliminating images looking for him, Strongbow shifted suddenly left a full body length while moving his feet deceptively; the sudden riot of movement shifted all his images around so to confuse the Drow again, and K'ellz snarled silently as he had to start over.
Strongbow slowly swept his sword around through all the images around him, including his own, and shifted away again.
His enemy did the same.
This silent game of death continued for an endless time; nerves screaming for action when the slightest noise could mean death.
Then Strongbow noticed the smell of burnt clothing; the Drow was close!
There, off to the left.
Strongbow swept again... And hit a stalagmite with a loud clang.
Strongbow immediately whipped right, but caught a sword tip right across the nose as K'ellz quickly slashed. Blinded briefly by the pain as blood jetted from his nose, Strongbow fan parried by the sound of K'ellz' sword cutting through the air and cast a Dazzle spell. He V-feinted at the sound of K'ellz cursing as the dazzle ricocheted around among the stalagmites and nearly lost his sword on the counterthrust.
He shift-parried; and then the Drow was sliding down his sword, eyes wide and spilling his blood all over Strongbow's body. K'ellz had slipped on Strongbow's blood and impaled himself.
It was over.
Strongbow panted with sudden fatigue as he sagged to his knees and looked on the creature that had caused him so much grief.
But he still didn't know who the Drow was, why he had impersonated Strongbow, or why he attacked them in Rayella's room at Longsaddle...
Rayella! He had left her fighting the Shadow!
Quickly he ripped his sword free and hobbled off towards the black fortress.
Slowly, Strongbow arrived at the end of the arroyo, his body screaming at him. Every part of his body was bruised, blood ran down his face from his half-severed nose, the thrust that almost skewered him had instead broken something inside him, and somehow his left boot was filled with blood. Now that he had time to recover from the shock, he was feeling a little dizzy; but his will drove him on. Rayella needed him! Their attack plan assumed that they would support each other.
Strongbow rounded the low shoulder that ended the arroyo and stopped. His breath left him. There, before the black obsidian temple, stood the Shadow. And his love, the Silver Dragon Rayella was held before him in horrible rigidity; twined about with spidery webs of darkness that were somehow crawling around like living things, getting under her scales, and his Elven eyes spotted them even slithering into her ears. Three hundred yards away.
He slid to his knees as rage warred with fear. There was no way he could cross that hellish plain in time in his present state of exhaustion. Entire armies could lose themselves in the fissures and hollows of the lava field between them. He had no spells of any power left, and wouldn't have been able to cast them if he had. But he had to act.
His sword! No, he had by some miracle kept ahold of it, but it had no reach. Despair threatened. He reached for a backup wand, and pulled out a splintered stick. He had to Act! Almost instinctively, not thinking at all, he blindly reached out with every fiber of his being, offering all that he had, even his life to help Rayella. And on some level, the offer was accepted.
It started with a silvery white pinpoint behind the ruddy overcast directly overhead. Unnoticed at first, from very far away it seemed to move a little closer and grow brighter, until it shone through the greasy overcast illuminating the plain. All eyes turned upward at that point as hope leapt into the Elves' hearts, and the Shadow flinched.
Then the small star streaked through the clouds and burst in a blue white flash directly on top of the Shadow! The violent shock rolled over Strongbow, knocking him down.
When he was able to struggle up again, all that was left of the Shadow was a crater where he had stood.
Strongbow was almost delirious with relief as he started walking over the plains to where Rayella was sprawled, knocked away by the impact. One of the Shadow's enemies had decided to take advantage of his distraction, he thought.
Then a black-taloned hand gripped the edge of the crater. All hope left him.
Step by step the Shadow rose out of the crater, smoke curling off his undamaged body, until he stood tall before his temple again. He let out a vast howl to the sky in horrible exultation. The bargain held! Even the celestial powers could not harm him now with his pact with the Guardian! A deep bass snarl snapped his head around. Rayella was free.
The Shadow had almost captured Rayella's mind--her very soul and Elven mind had fled far away to avoid being broken--leaving only the unstoppable killing frenzy that is rightly feared by all who know Dragons. And it was the Dragon now that charged him. The shadow smiled, thinking it would be amusing to use the Book of Names, which contained all his pacts and words of control, on her again. He slid his hand along the chain connecting the book to his waist until he held... a broken off link. And in the final instant he realized: the meteor had not been aimed at him at all.
Amidst the shattering screaming and roaring, Strongbow flinched and turned his face away as drops of the Shadows ichor spattered on the volcanic stone around him. He dizzily thought that he had no idea that Rayella was such a messy eater.
Tael ran on over the rough terrain, the horde following after. He cursed his ill luck. The plan was to lure the Horde away from the Shadow with the lens, ditch it and make his way back to support Strongbow and Rayella. Unfortunately, he hadn't counted on it being cursed. He couldn't throw it away, somehow it always ended up on his body again. He couldn't hide it, it was glowing bright enough to blaze right through his clothes. He couldn't outrun the Horde, he had no magical way to increase his speed or fly or anything like that. He couldn't fight, that was suicide. He was breathing deeply as he crested a rise and he glanced back. It was strange how the Horde stayed together, no one running or flying ahead--like running zombies. Fortunately, the Eldar were a people who did not tire easily, but tire he would eventually.
From the rocks ahead of him stepped Brisid, grinning.
"Having a bit of a problem, Tael?" Brisid asked, innocently.
Tael stopped and nodded, panting, his hands on his knees.
"Well, ditch that thing, and I'll teleport us away." Brisid said, eyeing the approaching Horde.
Tael just shook his head and panted, in a moment of unusual brevity, "Cursed."
"Well, smash it then." Tael gaped for a moment. Of course. He dropped the glowing lens on a rock, drew his sword and struck it. The lens exploded in a bright electric flash that flung Tael back a couple of steps. When their eyes cleared, there floating before them was a Will-o'-Wisp glowing like a star. After a moment, Brisid grabbed Tael by the arm, muttered a quick word and gestured. Space twisted around them, but the Wisp pulsed brighter, and they remained where they were.
"Uh, oh..." Brisid said, unnecessarily. The Horde showed no sign of stopping. They backed away from the Wisp; the Wisp followed at the same pace. They took off running. The Wisp followed them. And the Horde followed the Wisp.
"Now, look what you've gotten me into." Brisid said running. Tael, outraged, sputtered a few words, then gave up and simply kept running.
Tael and Brisid raced over the volcanic ridgeline, followed by the mysteriously floating Wisp. Chasing after, somehow neither gaining or falling back, came the tightly-packed demonic horde; their eyes fixed strangely on the Wisp. Some time after the sound of the last ones passed by, a section of the rock peeled away to reveal Tael and Brisid, close to invisible in their Elven cloaks.
"Thought they'd never leave", huffed Brisid, still a little out of breath.
"Hey, neato illusion Bri!" Enthused Taelsin. The younger Elf wasn't even breathing hard. "How long does the spell last?"
"A few minutes," huff, puff "but at least we ditched that cursed Wisp..." he said as he turned. And came face to face with the softly luminescent Wisp again.
"No! Not again!" Brisid yelled, looking around wildly for the horde.
"How'd it do that?" mused Tael looking at it with fascination.
"Xjddl! yrtt i ppnx wi st.. ?? G cmpn !!ydttt.?." said the Wisp.
"Shoo! Go away before they come back!" said Brisid, then realized. "Did it just try to talk to us?"
"Zcc c ow&Sd j hhp yhga yj$**j xjx oiutt !?..!" replied the Wisp. And suiting action to words, a red moongate opened up behind it. When the gate had stabilized, the Wisp floated through with stately grace into a vaguely greenish scene beyond. The Elves stood suddenly paralyzed, feeling on their faces a cool breeze sweet with the intoxicating scent of deep forests nearly forgotten in the hellish land in which they travelled.
Finally, Tael broke free of his trance and yelled, "Come on!" and dove through the collapsing moongate; Brisid finally moved, but too late to go through. The moongate collapsed to a point and winked out, leaving the trailing edge of Tael's cloak fluttering to the ground. Slowly, Brisid reached down and picked up the cloth, filled for the first time in this hellish landscape the stirring of hope. And as if in answer to his heart, a pure star suddenly gleamed beyond the smoke high overhead. It seemed to be getting closer.
Continue to Chapter 24