“You choose the wrong path,” the Zinji guide, named Dagior, said as he glanced at me.
I stopped, lifted my torch in the air, and looked around the hallway. To me, everything looked the same. The handful of soldiers lined up with me were also looking a little confused, but the Zinji simply pointed down one of the nearly identical long hallways.
“We seek the tower. Your path goes deeper.”
“Right,” I replied. “My mistake. Lead on.”
Dagior started marching on and I began to follow. Behind me, Surfal was allowing me to lead the way with one hand on his reigns. I rarely brought Surfal into such dark places, but this massive Zinji compound was so large that some parts would be impossible to get reach without a mount.
A short ways behind, Christine was riding atop her charger. The stallion obediently walked as it should. Unlike Surfal, her prized mount would walk off a cliff if its master demanded it.
We had come to this place for one very important reason. After our successful attack on Arugan, the news spread like wildfire. The evil Arugan had been one of the highest ranking among the enemy forces, and the Basalt Dalles suddenly became a new stronghold for the soldiers and adventurers that had come to this forgotten land. In an effort to fully secure this area, Stonehaven forces had partnered with Angus’ Udirian command at Birchwood Lodge. Almost all of the known dangers of this place had been put to rest.
All the dangers except one… Zin’jing Keep.
The Udirians were worried. The keep was one of the strongholds used by Arugan and Princess Ayla. It had gone silent there in recent weeks, which only served to make that concern grow. What were the Yunai planning for this area? Had they really abandoned the keep?
We had to know.
I could have walked away by then. I had accomplished my goals, and I knew the Udirian forces would be able to take the Keep, but I had started to grow comfortable here, and when I found out that Christine had volunteered to help lead one of the attack forces, I suddenly felt myself deeply concerned for her safety. I knew she was a powerful paladin, of course, but the horrors of losing Marjan ran back into my mind and I couldn’t stand the thought of losing another friend if I could have been there to help.
So I volunteered too.
The first step was getting a small team inside the stronghold. The Stonehaven forces had captured a Zinji mystic. His name was Dagior, and he claimed that the waters had shown him the keep. He claimed that our hardest fight would be at the gates of the keep. Few would be there to oppose us once we breached the gates. We could claim it with ease. In exchange for helping us, however, Dagior wanted the soldiers of Stonehaven and Udiria to give his people the keep, as it was their ancestral claim.
He was right. After a massive confrontation at the gates, our forces led a successful assault through the keep and we crushed our foes. In the aftermath, the Zinji informed us there was one more threat that had to be dealt with, but that Yunai magic was involved, so no ordinary soldier could come. We reduced our numbers so that only magic users were pressing forward. Those that had experience with the Yunai were given command.
While the majority of the forces secured the ramparts, we pressed on farther into the keep.
“We have reached your destination,” the Zinji said with a low grumble, stopping at another hallway. “Up these stairs. Light the torch. Defeat the evil one.”
We did as the troll instructed, making our way to the highest points on the stairs.
There was a large platform at the top, and in the middle of that platform was a metal brazier. I saw the wood in there was dry and ready to burn, so I sparked it with a small blast of fire that quickly spread out across the entire pile.
Then, we heard the cry.
“It’s coming,” one soldier, a young Shadowspeaker, shouted. “I feel it’s darkness!”
“Finally the payment,” the Zinji said loudly. “Free my people, monstrosity!”
We heard a terrifying screech and I twisted to see a small mechanical dragon just as it landed on the side of the temple, digging its metallic claws in so that it’s massive head loomed just a few dozen feet from where we were perched. It was a Yunai, a relic of the old days, it seemed. I hadn’t seen one of these metal creations in ages, and this one looked particularly due for maintenance. Still, it loomed over us and shook most of the men to their very core with its appearance alone.
The Shadowspeaker that had tried to warn us went to work, weaving spells and forcing its own controlled Yunai spirit to fight alongside of us. The dragon responded as we expected, attempting to blast the warlock with icy fire. Christine threw a shield of luminary magic to protect the Shadowspeaker, and I fired off several spells of my own, slamming the dragon’s decaying and brittle armor. Unlike other Yunai we’d faced, this creature did not appear to have the special black metal that protected the others. It was made of traditional materials… materials that I could destroy.
As we engaged in our fight, the Zinji seemed shocked that we hadn’t been utterly destroyed by the monster. He stayed with us, shouting for us to push forward. I realized he didn’t have any loyalty to this Yunai, but he had assumed serving us up to the monster might get him the keep and some level of protection. Now, it was clear he wanted us to provide that same protection. I just rolled my eyes and kept fighting.
I reached out to the flames in the brazier and channeled them into a fire vortex that ripped through the cold air. The Shadowspeaker, still busy draining the energy from the creature, barely missed being incinerated as I struggled to steer the fire tornado through the air and into the dragon’s exoskeleton.
The flame, the magic, and the intensity of the two ripped the creature apart, breaking the unnatural bonds that held its mechanical body together. As it began to crumble, it took one more futile swipe at us, but its ancient claws turned failed to meet their mark.
What was left of the monster fell from the walls, broken and lifeless once again.
We cheered together, offering praise and recalling the danger we had just experienced. With our pride busting at the seams, we made our way back down the stairs, happy to have finally pushed back the biggest threat to the Basalt Dalles.
At the base, Surfal and the other soldiers waited for us. We mounted our horses and started prepping for the ride back out of the keep. That was when I noticed the Zinji was no longer following us. He lingered at the stairwell, clearly uninterested in leaving.
“Hey, are you coming?” I called.
“No,” the Zinji replied. “This is the safest place I can be right now.”
“You sure about that?” I asked. “The dragon is gone, but we still need to fortify.”
“No need,” he replied. “She’s already here.”
I wasn’t sure what the Zinji meant until it was too late. I was suddenly entangled in a spiral of dark magic. It pulled me right off of Surfal, and I tumbled to the ground, slowly being pulled toward the troll.
“Ayla seeks the ones who killed Arugan,” the Zinji explained as he reeled me in. “I have heard her voice in the water. I know of her desires. You are one that she wants to kill with a personal touch.”
“What are you doing?” I called. “Stop!”
Christine and the others had turned to see what was unfolding, most of them equally confused by the situation, but before they could act, the world went wild. Dark portals sprang up everywhere around us, and vile creatures started pouring into the halls of the keep. The soldiers pulled their blades, but they were quickly being overrun.
I struggled against the Yunai magic that the Zinji had used on me, but then I saw Surfal, my beloved horse, as it charged to protect me, bucking up and slamming the enemy with his legs in a defiant kick.
It worked. The spell on me loosened and I jumped up, fireball at the ready.
My horse gave out a terrified whinny, and I saw an icy chain had been thrown. It wrapped around Surfal’s neck, and it began pulling him away from the Zinji. I followed it back to the one that now had my horse in their grips, and my blood ran cold.
Standing before me was Princess Ayla.
I swallowed my fear, and used my strongest magic to melt the chain that held Surfal. As the horse broke free, I turned to face the fallen princess and fired my best shots. The spells hit harmlessly against her body. She absorbed them, like it was nothing more than a brush of the wind.
She lifted her arm, and despite being over a dozen feet away, I was suddenly thrown back against the cold stone wall of the keep. I hit hard enough to knock the wind out of my lungs, and I gasped violently for air.
She stepped closer, but then Surfal intervened once more, attempting to kick her as he had done to the Zinji before. Before Surfal had a chance to strike, I saw Ayla pull a blue blade from her side. She dodged his attack, then stabbed deep into his side and slashed down the length of his torso. The horse made a whinny that broke my heart. As Surfal collapsed before me, I knew it was over.
Ayla stepped over my dying ally, and she was moving in for the kill.
Then, I felt the power of luminary magic reaching into my body and I knew Christine had enchanted me. She was smart, not revealing herself, but she was putting all of her power into a spell that granted me more energy than I had ever felt before.
I stood, hurling blast after blast against the fallen princess. At first she knocked the spells away, but then she seemed to grow overwhelmed. The more I fought, the more the she seemed annoyed… confused… perhaps even… concerned?
I was about to laugh aloud. Was I going to defeat Princess Ayla?!
My empowered spell suddenly vanished, and I heard Christine scream and struggle. I turned to see the Zinji that had helped us before. He was slowly pulling her out of her hiding place and holding her by her hair and arm. “I have captured the Lightspeaker,” the Zinji said with great joy. “I have saved you!”
Ayla ignored the Zinji and stepped toward Christine. As she pulled her blue blade up for the attack, I knew I couldn’t let this happen. I felt the magical power inside of me well up like a volcano. I didn’t resist the urge to use it against Ayla. My body became like fire incarnate. I let loose volley after volley of attacks; fire and brimstone rained from the sky, and magical energy electrified the air around me.
At the same time I threw spell that could slow your fall and shouted to Christine. “Jump!”
She resisted for a moment, but then rushed up the stairwell, onto the platform where we’d killed the monster, and she flung herself over the Keep’s wall.
I pulled all of my power and sent another wave of attacks at Ayla. Still, she managed to stand up against all the attacks I had. Soon, she started moving forward once more. The tip of her blade grew closer to me as she stepped ever closer. I thought this might be it, but instead of stabbing me through the heart, she turned the blade, slamming the hilt into my chest so hard I fell against the stairwell. I was fairly certain my collarbone had just shattered on impact, but this direction had been good. I started to scramble up the stairs, hoping to escape over the edge as Christine had done. I made it to the top, but before I could jump, I was slammed to the ground by the Zinji. I kicked him off, but by then Ayla had approached. She stood over me and I saw no joy in her expression. I saw nothing in her expression.
“See the truth before you die,” she spoke, her voice powerful and booming. “See now.”
The world vanished. I was in a room of black with only Ayla there beside me. The darkness shifted and suddenly I was in a comfortable room. In the corner, a young woman worked on equipment I had never seen. Next to her, a Besherman female was nodding, pointing things out to the young one.
“You did well Ayla. You made contact,” the Besherman said. “This is the beginning.”
The room shifted again. It was the same place, but the comfort was gone. The young Princess was weeping in the corner. She looked like she had seen a ghost. Beside her the Besherman female prodded her for information.
“What does she want, Ayla? How can we stop them?”
“I don’t know,” Ayla said between sobs. “Please, Keiaira fights back. She’s attacking my mind. I can’t fight her forever. I can’t do this!”
“You must,” the woman said. “All the world depends on it!”
The scene shifted again. I was standing in a snowy field. Ayla was older, and she stood before a power crystal that glowed with purple and black hues. Her eyes were black. I had seen that look before, when Kaellax and her Yunai had briefly contacted one another.
“Keaira,” Ayla said. “I will fight you until the end.”
“Your end is now,” a sinister voice replied. I looked around, trying to find it. “I have you. You and I are one. Let me in, Ayla. I can give you everything you desire. Your mind is mine!”
The world shifted once more, and I was back at the keep, resting on the platform with Ayla looking at me. Her expression had changed. She was sad. Deeply troubled. A tear of ice dripped down her cheek. Then, she lifted her blue blade, and I knew I was done.
Before she could strike, however, luminary magic enveloped me once more. I felt the sudden surge in magical energy and fire, ice, and light magic suddenly swirled around Ayla. I looked at her, still trying to process what I had seen. Above us both, the Udirians had mustered their forces and were attacking with everything they had from the backs of flying creatures that they had tamed here in the frozen realm.
There were no more words. Ayla stepped back, opened a portal, and disappeared through it, leaving the keep abandoned.
The attack from above silenced, and the Udirian forces swooped down around me.
“Hang in there,” an all too familiar voice said. “We’ve got you now.”
I recognized it immediately. “Lady Evanor?” I asked. “How did you find me?”
“Every magic user in the frozen realm knew where to find you, Sionis. Your life force, and Ayla’s, pulsed through the twisting aether. I don’t know what you and her did while you were fighting, but it was unique.”
“My horse,” I said, grimacing. “Surfal needs help.”
“You’re hurt. Just calm down…”
“No, you don’t understand…”
Christine appeared now, quickly pulling off her plate gloves and placing her bare hand against my chest. I felt the healing magic pulse through my body, warming and healing me. As the energy revived me, I started to stand, much to Evanor’s dislike.
“Come on,” I said, still sore and in pain. “He’s down here.”
I led Christine to the base of the stairs, to the mess of bodies and survivors that were still hiding from the assault. While Evanor assured everyone it was over, Christine and I reached Surfal. He was lying on the ground, blood pooled beneath him, and I began to weep.
Christine leaned down beside him and placed her hand on him, attempting as best as she could to heal the wounds. She grimaced as she worked, and then pulled her hand back as though the wound had bitten her.
“Yunai magic,” she grumbled. “Ayla’s blade did more than cut. The horse’s wounds won’t heal. I’m so sorry, Sionis, there’s nothing I can do.”
“All I have left of Marjan is in this horse,” I said, desperate. “Please. We have to save it.”
“There may be something we can do,” Evanor said. “Quick, take my hand, Sionis.”
I did as she asked without question.
“Now, hold on,” Evanor said.
I did. I held on. The world around us spun out of existence, and then it snapped back, with us in another place. I knew a long range teleportation spell when I saw one, and Evanor had just taken us a fairly large distance. The cold stone of the Keep had been replaced with ornate cobblestone, and I realized where we were.
In an instant, several soldiers showed up, and with them were several people dressed in ornate white robes. They were the first generation of luminary magic masters, focusing on the skills of the magic rather than using the magic to enhance their physical skills. Most people just called them priests of the light.
“Come here,” Evanor commanded them. “The horse, now.”
The priests said nothing. They leaned over the animal and went to work, weaving all kinds of spells in an attempt to remove whatever curses the Yunai blade had done.
Another priest arrived, this one looking younger, and they approached me.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“No,” the priest said. “I assure you that is not the case.”
“Time to sleep,” the priest said, cutting me off. “I’m not fighting you.”
I felt his spell sweeping over me, but I couldn’t have resisted it if I tried.
My dreams were filled with darkness and death.