King of the Land of the Sun: Part Seven
The Darkest Faerie, once called Melanthe by those who knew her, stepped out of the middle of the flames in the dark space. "Why, hello, Altador."
King Altador tried to draw his sword, but he was frozen. Only his eyes could move – he looked down at himself, and saw that he was stone.
She walked closer. "I saved your life – and you had me turned to stone and sunk beneath the sea. And when I finally broke loose, you and that light mage turned me to stone again and gave me as a gift to Fyora. I think it's time to even the score a bit."
Altador couldn't move – couldn't do anything but watch her get closer...
He was shaken awake by small hands on his shoulders, into the near-darkness of his own bedchamber. As be blinked, however, the lamps kindled, and he saw Jerdana standing over him. She asked, "Were you having a nightmare?"
He nodded. "Melanthe."
Jerdana winced in sympathy. "I have those dreams as well."
Altador pushed himself out of bed, taking a drink of water from the cup by his nightstand. Jerdana was already dressed in her customary skirt and blouse, with the addition of a dark blue cloak. She said, "Everyone is gathering outside the Hall – the soldiers await us outside the gate. Those with longer routes need to depart soon."
He nodded. "Three minutes. I'll be there."
Today was the day for his armor – he added a dark cloak over it to help hide himself in the woods. But he was able to put on all the pieces quickly and easily. It was an old routine, from all the way back to the time when he was a knight errant with a dream of a city of light and peace.
Many things had threatened that dream. Melanthe's treachery, wars across Neopia, natural disasters, and now the scheming of Masila. But none had defeated them. Altador and his Council and the people themselves hadn't allowed it. And it would not be allowed this time – he felt that certainty in his bones as he belted on his sword.
He walked quickly down to the Hall – several of the elite squadrons of the Altadorian Guard were all gathered, alert and ready despite the fact that dawn was barely lightening the eastern sky. Marak would have already departed to go to the sea-folk under his command, but Kelland, Torakor, Jerdana, and Jazan were all there as well, in dark clothes and dark cloaks much like Altador's own.
Torakor threw a salute. "We're ready, sir!"
Altador looked around. "Is everyone aware of their assignments?"
They nodded. Each patrol had a mage assigned to it – they would be looking for the traces of any magic items or wards. Once they were found, it would be the Guard's job to reclaim the artifacts and arrest any thieves with them. And if anyone found the headquarters, they'd all be able to contact each other, and all of the patrols would immediately change course to reinforce the ones facing the guild hall. Each captain saluted him, and the groups marched off. Armor was covered with dark cloaks, swords were muffled, and people were silent. Though Altador was certain that the silence was as much weariness as professionalism – no one was inclined to talk who would rather that they weren't awake in the first place.
He was with Torakor, Kelland, Jazan, and Jerdana. Jazan and Jerdana together exceeded the magical muscle of the rest of the mages they had combined, and all of them except Jerdana could hold their own quite well in a fight – Altador had no desire to bring extra bodyguards. Too many people would draw too much attention, and the reinforcements would arrive quickly enough when they found the guild hall. And he thought that they would be the ones to find it – Kelland had told Altador that the small valley they were heading for was the most likely spot.
Jazan and Kelland were both holding canteens of strong coffee – neither of them was much inclined toward mornings. Kelland blinked sleepily, and Jazan glared at his general surroundings. Torakor and Jerdana were both more alert – they preferred early mornings to late nights.
The early morning, without the sun's warmth, was chill. Altador drew his cloak around himself to ward off the damp and the wind.
Melanthe had loved this time of day, the darkness before the dawn, best of all. The reason she was often abed so late, and was dubbed the Sleeper by the people of the city, was because she would spend most of her nights awake as she worked spells and sang to the stars. Whenever Altador had been wakeful of a night, he would go to find her and speak with her and listen to the ideas she had, or simply sit as she sang.
That was the first warning they had had that something had gone desperately wrong – when those songs had ceased. But he would never forget them. And whenever the dawn slowly began to push back the night, he would remember how, often, Siyana and Melanthe would sing together, one last duet right after Siyana arose and before Melanthe sought her bed.
But there was no time for thoughts of melancholy today. As they left the city behind them and continued walking north into the hills, he listened instead to Jerdana and Jazan, who'd begun to talk quietly about their plans.
Jazan was saying, "You're the one with the power connected to this land. I do believe that, with that advantage, your strength is greater than mine."
Jerdana nodded, businesslike. "But you need to keep somewhat out of the fray. You have more experience with dangerous artifacts than I, and if they need to be disarmed or bound I will likely need your help."
Jazan nodded as well. "Of course. If they've got offensive magic, I think it will work best if I create the shield – could you put power into it if I formed it?"
"Yes. I've done similar thins with other mages."
"Okay. I'll make the shield, you'll power it, and then I'll be free to attack whoever's attacked us."
Altador added, "That sounds like a solid plan. Will you both be able to fight to your strengths?"
Jerdana nodded. "Jazan's particular specialties are more likely to be useful. Much of what I'll be doing is providing power for him. I have no need for false valor – I know that my magical talents do not run toward fighting, and my physical size even less."
Altador thanked Fyora for Jerdana's sense. He'd seen far too many green soldiers and young mages get hurt because they hadn't recognized their own limits. And even Florin and Fauna had both tried to say that, as members of the Council, they ought to be present as well. Marak had been less kind than Altador would have preferred, but the Peophin warrior had impressed upon the farmer and the Petpet herder that their main contribution to any fight would be to get others hurt defending them. Altador had admired their courage, since he knew that the Kacheek and Acara were both aware of the fact that they weren't fighters, but he'd had to admit that Marak was right, and he'd asked them all to gather in the Council chamber, where Jerdana could most easily get word to them if it became necessary for them to act.
They were still in the farmland that surrounded the city of Altador, but that wouldn't last for long – many more of the farmers preferred to live in the much flatter south, or in the mountain foothills to the east, which had the advantage of not being pocketed with old, potentially dangerous ruins. When they reached the top of a hill, Altador could already see the forest spread out before them them as the foothills began to pile higher into the mountains. Out there, he knew, was the valley that held an old fortress from an ancient Neopian civilization which had been worn down to legend even in Altador's youth, before he and his city had slept for a thousand years.
As he thought that, Torakor asked, "So why's this fortress likely again?"
Kelland said, "It's the most complete old ruin that's close to Altador. And there are old stories about it. Nasty ones. The lords who ruled there were tyrants of the worst sort. It's an unwholesome place, and even the hunters and trappers avoid that valley. It would be ideal for privacy – it's likely out here that anyone who walked in and failed to walk out would be assumed to have fallen afoul of some ghost. And it's close to the River Vrinda, which flows straight out to the North Shore. Quite convenient for smuggling."
Torakor put a hand to the heavy broadsword that he carried – even Altador had trouble wielding that monstrous blade. "I'd like to see the ghost or haunt that would walk away from this."
Kelland nodded. "True. That's why we bring you, big guy."
Jazan asked, "How much longer?"
Kelland said, "About an hour to get to the fortress. Less if the Guild enforcers have left any nasty surprises between here and there."
Jerdana frowned. "I can feel it. Can't you, Jazan? A stain."
The mage-king shut his eyes. "You're right. It's out there. I don't know anything more specific."
Altador reached for Jerdana's hand as she reached for his – she'd known that he'd want to find out what she'd felt. As they touched, he could sense what she sensed, dimly – a dark power, thick like smoke, lying heavily like fog somewhere to the north. He asked, "Could it just be the spirit of that place?"
Jerdana shook her head. "It's more recent – more active. There's dark magic gathered there. And a strong will. Almost as strong as hers was."
Kelland nodded. "That's Masila. Stubborn as any."
Jazan crossed his arms. "We're about to show her who can be more so."
Torakor nodded. "We won't get to bash heads together by standing here on this hill until we all go grey. Let's go!"
Silence fell again, and continued as they began to pass through the trees. They drew their cloaks about themselves, and looked around constantly for traps. Jazan had his hands out, and his eyes had gone red again – he was holding a shield-spell at the ready. Altador's blood sang with the thrill of this, of the chase, of the hunt – he longed to let loose, to run, with instincts as old as time, but he held them back.
Finally, they descended into a ravine that grew steeper and narrower as they passed along it. Kelland nodded encouragingly. They were almost there. Altador could see the time-worn grey stone of half-demolished towers above the trees – this place was larger than he had expected it to be.
And then they all stopped still as they heard voices above them – people standing on the edge of the ravine. Jerdana's hands twisted, and they all faded slightly – true invisibility was virtually impossible, but evading notice was easier.
A woman's voice said, "I could have told you that the bomb was a bad idea, Ringal."
A man's voice replied, "I could have said the same, Mim, but Arston and Durrow thought Masila would be thrilled."
Mim! That was the name that Constantine had remembered!
"And she might have been, if it had worked. Which it wasn't going to. Did they forget about the Fyora-forsaken mages? And now the city's up in arms!"
"And, of course, Masila's furious. Maybe it's for the best Arston, Durrow, and Thena didn't come back last night."
"If they've got any brains – which I doubt, mind you – they'll stay away until they've got some very good news for Masila."
"Or longer. Shiko's about ready with the next batch and those magic tests, too. That's why Masila sent me out here, you know. She wants you back there for the tests."
"Oh, lovely. Let's go."
Footsteps crunched over the undergrowth back toward the castle. Jerdana whispered, "I'll signal the other squadrons."
Altador nodded. "Do. But we can't wait for them. I don't like what they said about magical tests or other batches, and I don't think we want to let Masila go through with them." It didn't matter what they were for. They were going to hurt his people, and he wasn't going to stand for it.
Kelland winced. "I don't like the idea of walking in there without knowing how many they have."
Torakor grunted, "We can take them."
Altador said, "We don't need to take them. We just need to hold out long enough for the other patrols to arrive. Let's go."
Jerdana contacted the other mages quickly, and then they continued creeping down the ravine toward the accursed old forest. And though the thrill of the hunt was tempered by the fear of whatever darkness Masila was tampering with, Altador was able to control it. He was the Hunter, hunting his quarry – and with these comrades at his side and Neopia relying on them for defense, he would bring Masila down.
But Melanthe's sad songs for the dying of the night kept winding through his mind.
To be continued...