King of the Land of the Sun: Part Ten
Altador couldn't see what was happening around him – waves of flame and dark magic swamped his vision. It almost seemed that they formed the shape of a Faerie tall and slender, graceful and dark. She reached for him, and he couldn't dodge or back away. Melanthe...
And then he landed hard on the ground, on his back. He tried to breathe, but it seemed that his lungs weren't working – he'd had the wind knocked out of him, and brutally so. He kept himself from panicking until he was finally able to take a deep breath of air – as sooty and foul as it was, it still tasted sweet after the moments of breathlessness. Melanthe had been no more than an illusion brought on by disorientation. He reminded himself of that very firmly.
But he wasn't out of trouble yet. He blinked – their surroundings were full of smoke and small fires, and it seemed like the ground was shaking.
The ground was shaking. Constantine still lay next to him, groaning – Altador pushed himself to his feet, and then grabbed the squire under the shoulders and hauled him up as well. He heard the crashing of stone from somewhere close as he said, "Squire, we need to get out of here! Move!"
Constantine looked around, dazed. "Which way's out, sire?"
Altador looked around, and realized that he couldn't remember which direction he came in, and the choking smoke made it too hard to tell by sight. "Anywhere besides here!"
Constantine stumbled, and Altador had to help him back to his feet once more. The ground shuddered again, which nearly threw both of them back onto the ground. The younger Lupe said, "You know, we might have let something nasty loose when we blew those up."
Altador was starting to think he was right as they stumbled through an archway, tripping over the uneven flagstones in the choking smoke. "But now Jerdana's free to deal with whatever we let loose, as is Jazan since he's not trying to help her."
Bright gold-white light illuminated the dark smoke from outside for several moments – Altador recognized it as Jerdana's magic, just as the redder-tinged flash like lightning that followed was Jazan. Several other flashes followed – Altador thought they belonged to other mages he knew. The ground only shook more in response. Altador could feel the threat of the dark magic swirling and stabbing above them like a storm – by Fyora, what had he loosed?
But he'd had no choice. They'd had to dismantle Masila's store of power. From the sounds of the magical battle – and the earthquake under his boots – he had a feeling that Masila and her hedgewitches had been dealing with powers that were beyond their abilities to handle.
And then the dark shape loomed up in front of him.
It was like a Faerie in form, but wingless, and made all of smoke – it was a wraith! Altador drew his sword and, when it charged, swept it through the wraith's smoky form. It wasn't exactly like the ones he'd seen in the Haunted Woods, but it was more than close enough. It fell to wisps of smoke, and he started moving faster – he had to half-drag Constantine along. He hoped that Tristan had been able to fly high enough to get clear as he moved toward where the mage-lights seemed to be coming from.
More smoke-wraiths attacked as they did – Altador could feel a surge of dark magic with each one, and he knew that they were somehow tied to the breaking of those cursed artifacts. Constantine swung his sword around wildly – he was still too disoriented to be able to accomplish much. Altador was feeling none too steady himself – he was going to have bruises layered on top of bruises, and the lack of clean air made him feel light-headed. Another tremor almost caused him to fall forward, and three of the magic wraiths swooped down on him...
And then light fell on his weary, stinging eyes.
Jerdana and Jazan were standing in the midst of a clear area – Jerdana was the one who had blasted through the smoke to reach them as Jazan shot lightning at the specters. Now that Altador could see more clearly, he could tell that there were dozens of the creatures flowing around, and from the sounds of battle there were likely even more that he couldn't see. Jerdana said, "I could tell you decided to blow up the artifacts – another bomb?"
Jazan commented, "Don't do that again. Ever. Please."
Jerdana frowned up at him as he drew his sword and speared a wraith that had dodged a lightning bolt. "It lead to a rather... drastic... change in our fortunes, it's true. But if you'd gotten that mage trap off me, you might have triggered it. Can't you feel it? All those artifacts were overloaded. A disaster waiting to happen. But now the disaster happened when there were mages here to handle it."
Altador looked up. He'd still made a mistake - he hadn't taken the backlash of the destruction of the artifacts into account in the heat of the moment. He'd allow Jerdana to attempt to convince him that he'd done the right thing after all later. He said, "We've got to get farther away from here – the tremors are getting worse every minute."
Constantine looked around. "Why won't the floor stop moving? I must have hit my head harder than I thought..."
Jazan said, "I wish it was just you, but it's not. Oh, and that Draik is outside – we've got him, Kelland, Hestra, and Julius watching the thieves who've surrendered."
Altador asked, "Is that a good idea?"
Jerdana smiled as she shot another ray of sunlight through the smog that surrounded them. "The surrendered thieves are the ones who've noticed both that Masila is long gone and left them to take the fall and that Altadorian mages are the only ones who are keeping out-of-control dark magic from destroying them all. Julius alone could keep them all in line."
Altador nodded. "Quite true – oh!" The ground rocked especially violently, and the crash of falling stonework was alarmingly near. He and Jerdana both coughed at the same time, and Constantine was about ready to collapse.
And then all the smoke around them consolidated into wraiths – dozens more. Altador could see and breathe more clearly, but as that same strange keening that had begun when the artifacts were destroyed started up again, he knew they were still very much in trouble. He had his sword ready, but he also had Constantine leaning on him, and he couldn't ask Jazan to take him – he needed both his hands free. And Jerdana was far too small. Altador said, as gently as he could manage with his hoarse voice, "It's okay, Constantine. We'll get out of here." The other Lupe only nodded slowly.
And then the wraiths swept down, and the fight began. Altador ordered, "Jazan, you're on point! Clear the way! Jerdana, bring up the rear! I'll get Constantine through this – I've got my sword as well! We've got to get out of this place before it collapses on top of us!"
Jazan charged forward with a shout of "Qasala!" with lightning shooting from one hand and his sword swinging in the other. Altador could feel the heat of Jerdana's magic from behind him – as well as the vitality that she was lending him. He wanted to tell her that there was no time to waste on healing him until later, but she knew her own abilities and limits better than he, and he couldn't deny that it helped him.
They fought their way through the swarm of wraiths – it seemed for every one they cut down, two more surfaced, but none of them was trying to be the lone hero. All they needed to do was get through the ones blocking them from the safer entrance to the ravine where the rest of the Altadorian forces had gathered.
They passed under what remained of the gates – when the mage trap had been destroyed along with the artifacts that had anchored it, it had brought down most of the remaining outer wall with it. Altador could see the barricade that had been constructed out of shields at the mouth of the ravine – it appeared that his soldiers were holding their own quite well. There were still a good number of smoke-wraiths flying around, but they were being held off – just as Jerdana, Jazan, and Altador continued to hold off the smoke-wraiths that dived at them. And it seemed that now, when they fell, more didn't arise. While the ground tremors continued to get worse, at least it seemed that the magic was dying down.
And that was then the quakes redoubled in intensity, and in addition to the falling masonry Altador could hear the cracking of earth and stone. Torakor shouted, "Milord, faster! That place is headed straight for Moltara!"
Jazan muttered sourly – the people on the wall wouldn't have heard him, but Altador did – "That's too far to the north and west."
Jerdana panted, "Quicker! Quicker!"
Altador turned to look at her – she was clearly tiring. He shouted, "Jazan! Take Constantine!" Jazan did, and Altador scooped up Jerdana, putting her over his shoulder as though she were a child. His muscles protested the effort, but it would help her to keep fighting, and it still left one of Altador's arms free to wield his sword. He shouted at the barricade ahead of them, "We've got some injuries – get ready to let us through!"
Torakor roared, "Move those Fyora-forsaken shields – that's your king speaking! Let him through! Cover him – get those wraiths up there now, archers, before they get any closer!"
He nearly overbalanced and fell as the ground lurched violently once more, and Jerdana made a little squeaking noise. She cried, "Altador, we need to run! Just bull through them!" Jazan had outpaced them, even supporting Constantine – they were almost to the barricade. Altador put on speed as they were helped through. The keening of the smoke-wraiths reached a pitch so high it hurt his ears – with a last burst of strength, he powered through the gap his comrades had made in the shields, only letting Jerdana down gently before he collapsed to the trembling ground. Someone handed him a glass of water – it was Hestra, smiling at him. He took it and drank it gratefully, and accepted the wet cloth Laila offered him to wipe his face. It came away black. After those exertions, he was too tired to do anything else but sit and listen to the strangely distant sounds of the chaos and the closer noise of Julius explaining to the thieves just what King Jazan would do to anyone who tried to fight, or run, or even look at him the wrong way.
Then Jazan himself said, voice uncharacteristically unnerved, "Altador, you may want to look at this." He was clearly weary – other soldiers were holding both him and Constantine up, which gave the lie to Julius's boasting – so Altador took his advice and pushed himself back to his feet.
He was just in time to see the dark fortress's final ruin.
The ground was sundered underneath it – the towers and walls all fell into the gaping chasms, which drew the smoke-wraiths to it. Those strange magical beings dissolved into the air as they went. Finally, with one last great tremor that threw down the shield-wall and half of the soldiers, Neopia's stone slammed shut again, and there were only a few scattered stones to say that anything had once been in this valley.
In the silence that followed, Julius said in awe, "That was awesome."
And then Altador, sore and weary, allowed himself to sit back against the rocky wall of the ravine and shut his eyes.
They weren't able to find Masila – she was no fool, even if she had a penchant for the dramatic, and Altador was certain she would have made good her escape. She'd likely cause more trouble on some other day, in some other land – just like Melanthe. But, like Melanthe, Altador would handle that when that day came.
Masila's work had all been undone, and had caused no lasting harm. As for Melanthe, he'd ordered her statue replaced, for the sake of the symmetry of the Hall of Heroes, or of honoring the good that she had done for this city, or simply because it looked like an ill-omen to have a ruined statue. He wasn't sure which of all those reasons was at the fore, and he didn't care to think too deeply about it.
He sat in the gardens, as he liked to do, listening to the children playing just out of sight. Hestra and Julius were among them, and Laila was watching them – offering them homes was the least that he could do after all the help that they had provided.
He'd shut his eyes in the late afternoon light, and so his first warning that Jerdana had come to sit beside him was when he heard the rustle of her skirts and felt her aura of power. "Glad to have sent the desert delegation home for good, Altador?"
He nodded. "Yes. It was simple enough, but I think that everyone was too worried about what would interrupt this attempt at a treaty to really feel at ease."
Jerdana chuckled. "I'm not sure what would have been worse."
Save Melanthe returning, bent on revenge. Neither of them was foolish enough to say such a thing out loud and invite that ill fate. But the thought was almost audible anyway.
But then Jerdana said, "But we were able to stop the plots of Masila and her Thieves' Guild defectors, and keep the people safe. We'll keep this city safe from anything that attacks it. Yes, even Melanthe."
And in the warm afternoon, with the laughter of the children in his ears and the rich green smells of the garden so thick he could almost taste them, Altador was every bit as confident as she.