A tear slipped silently down Raelin’s cheek. It fell to the floor, where it landed, soundless, as she watched her lord and general, Jandar, bent over a desk littered with papers. The ancient kyrie’s head was bent against the top of his desk, his eyes closed. Silence reigned with Jandar.
Raelin took a shaky breath and approached the veteran general. She had known Jandar since before the war, always a kind, loving kyrie, always ready to go out of the way for the comfort of even a stranger. The war had torn him apart, turned his hair gray, and caused lines to furrow his caring face.
Raelin gently laid a hand on his shoulder. Jandar let his breath out in a long, defeated sigh, but gave no other acknowledgement of her presence. After a moment, though, he raised his head from the mess of papers.
“There must be a way,” he said, his voice strained and hoarse, “there has to be a way, to end this war.” He looked up at Raelin, his blue eyes searching hers. He turned away. “If only,” he muttered, half to himself, “if only we could reach Utgar, and lay his ruin before the open skies. If only I could muster the men, soldiers with courage, and march them to the heart of his land…” Jandar sunk his head back down to his desk. “If only I had an army,” breathed Jandar into the wood before him, his breath ruffling the papers, “willing to follow my command. But I don’t,” he added, once again raising his head and staring before him, not seeing. “I don’t. My men have deserted me because they are too afraid to do their lord’s will.” Jandar was silent for a moment, his hand slowly forming a fist upon the wood of his desk. “If I had but twenty men with the courage to crush Utgar!” thundered Jandar, sweeping a pile of papers to the floor in an angry swipe. His head fell back down upon his desk, his form shaking.
“You are ill, my lord,” said Raelin gently. “You have not slept for four nights. If only you would…”
“Sleep, Raelin?” shouted Jandar, rising from his chair and facing her. Raelin took a step back, startled. “How can you speak of sleep at a time like this? My army has deserted me, refused to follow my commands! How can I win a war with a force like this?”
Raelin bit her lip. No soldier would follow the orders Jandar had issued, no matter where they came from. She could not try to reason with Jandar, though. She knew what would follow.
“No, Raelin,” said Jandar, his voice dropping, “We are beaten. With no army, I cannot defend Valhalla. Utgar has won. I will send word to Utgar, telling him of my surrender.”
“Jandar!” cried Raelin.
“Yes, Raelin, surrender!” shouted Jandar. “We are beaten, and there is nothing you nor I can do about it but to accept our fate and ride to our doom with dignity. If even that is not robbed from us,” he muttered to himself, turning back to his desk.
“Jandar…” began Raelin, but she stopped. He would not listen to her. She had tried already to tell him why his soldiers refused to carry out his commands, but he threw her logic to the five winds and continued to rant about disloyalty. And if she persisted, he turned on her, and banished her from his sight for the rest of the day.
“You are ill, my lord,” said Raelin to herself, so quietly that Jandar could not hear. “And though you may not see it, there are still those that care.”
Jandar bent back over his desk, his once glorious wings now faded and drooping. The once proud general, defender of Valhalla, was gone, leaving behind this husk of despair and grief. A tear slipped silently down Raelin’s cheek, and fell to join the first on the floor.
Kelda slipped silently from the barracks and closed the door behind her, leaning against it, her eyes closed. So many wounds, so many hurts, and none that she could heal, for they were all within. Defying Jandar’s orders had left the army broken. They had served willingly under him for many years now, and many had come to know him personally. Each and every one of his soldiers had been fiercely loyal to him, ready to fight for him until the last drop of blood was gone from their veins. To stand before him, therefore, and refuse to carry out his wishes, had been a hard thing. Even more difficult than that, however, was Jandar’s reaction. In the past, if his orders were ever questioned, he would search until he found the reason why, and then do his best to fix it. But when Drake Alexander had said that deadly word, ‘no,’ Jandar had stood still for a moment, stunned. And then he had released such a stream of screams and yells as no one had ever heard from him before, least of all Kelda. He had left for his quarters, calling his faithful men deserters and spineless fools. He had allowed only Raelin to see him for four days, anyone else he shouted out before they could get the door open. After such a display, the morale of the men was not at its highest.
Kelda let out an inaudible sigh and opened her eyes. The first thing she saw was Raelin, slowly descending the steps to Jandar’s quarters, trying to stifle her tears. Kelda half ran half flew to her, and was soon by her side.
“There’s something wrong with him,” Raelin said in a partially choked voice. “He hasn’t eaten since he… he… spoke with Drake. All he talks about is how the war is lost, and now he says he will send to Utgar, telling him that he… surrenders.”
Kelda put her arm around her and comforted her as best she could, but this news troubled her heart even further.
“Kelda,” said Raelin, stopping upon the steps and turning to her, “you know as well as I what has befallen Jandar.”
Kelda knew, but said nothing.
“Every scout we sent out,” continued Raelin, in a quieter voice, “returned broken, filled with despair, all of their hope gone. Some even never came back.” Raelin paused to take a shaky breath. “Jandar is the same as they. His words are twisted, his strength sapped, his heart filled with the blackest despair.”
Kelda stared before her, knowing that what Raelin said was true. “How?” she finally asked, not moving her head, her voice bleak. Raelin did not reply.
“There’s nothing we can do, Raelin,” said Drake Alexander, commander of Valhalla’s armies. “Jandar’s orders have turned to madness, and now many of my men are beginning to act the same. Whatever foul curse this is that now holds Jandar in its power, its spreading. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a month it had taken us all.”
Raelin shuddered. “No…” she pleaded quietly, “this can’t be happening; this can’t be how it ends.”
“Ends?” said Drake. “It hasn’t ended yet, Raelin. As long as there’s life in my men, it’s never ended.”
“But what can we do?” cried Raelin. “Our general and his army are being torn down by a force which we cannot see, much less fight.”
Drake was silent for a moment, as he stood, staring down at the grass, which was now black and withered. “I don’t know what we can do,” he finally said, looking up and facing Raelin. “Maybe there’s nothing we can do. Maybe it’s our doom to all die here, victims of an unseen curse.”
“No,” said Kelda, very quietly.
Both Drake and Raelin turned to her. They had not seen her enter the tent, as she had kept to the shadows. “What do you mean, Kelda?” asked Drake.
“There is one thing that we can do,” said Kelda, though very quietly. Her skin was ashen, and Raelin noticed that her hands trembled slightly by her sides.
“What’s wrong, Kelda?” Raelin asked, coming towards her.
Kelda rapidly backed away. “Come no closer, Raelin,” she said, her eyes telling plainly how much it pained her to say so.
Raelin stopped, slowly backing towards Drake as she realized what Kelda meant. Drake’s eyes widened as he, too, grasped the meaning of Kelda’s words.
“Kelda,” he said, “not you too.”
There were tears in Kelda’s eyes, but she brushed them away. “There is one thing we can do,” she repeated. “We can summon Vagmor.”
Both Raelin and Drake stared at her. After a moment, Drake spoke. “No,” he said, “that is one thing we cannot do. We cannot go against Jandar’s will a second time. The men are wretched enough as it is having confronted him once.”
“Then do it in secret,” said Kelda, her voice barely more than a whisper, “but we must summon him. He is the only one that can put a stop to this.”
Drake did not reply, but watched her, his mind churning. Finally, he crossed his arms. “Maybe he can, maybe he can’t, but I won’t defy Jandar again, no matter if he is half mad.”
At this, Raelin could contain herself no longer and a sob filled the tent, which she tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress.
Drake glanced over at Raelin, and then back at Kelda. “You’ll have to find someone else to do it, Kelda,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
Kelda nodded. “I won’t need to find someone else,” she said, her voice flat, but calm. “I know where the wellspring is.”
“Kelda!” said Drake. “Your ill, you can’t possibly summon anyone, let alone Vagmor.”
“I can, and I will,” said Kelda as sharply as her soft voice would permit. “I must,” she added, to herself.
The stones were wet and slippery. It was pitch black, and the air smelled of mold and standing water. Kelda felt her way carefully down the stone steps into the summoning chamber. Her spells would not work here, this much she knew, and she conserved her energy, rather than try to light her way. She slipped and almost fell twice, but soon felt the damp floor beneath her feet. At the same moment, the wall left her touch, leaving her disoriented in the dark. Taking small steps, so as to avoid running into unseen obstacles, she slowly made her way forwards, feeling the floor with her hands, until she felt water. She probed it, to be sure it was more than a puddle, and then, satisfied, she crouched by its edge, and, cupping her hands, drank of its waters.
At first, nothing happened, other than the strangely sweet taste of the water lingering in Kelda’s mouth. Then, a faint prickling sensation, starting in her fingers and moving slowly up her arms, began to drive away the flaky dryness which had so recently taken hold of her skin. The tingling entered her shoulders and spread throughout her body, until it finally lodged firmly in her head, a small multicolored spark, whirling with vivid images. Ignoring these, Kelda tapped into the power temporarily granted her by the water, and stretched out her hand over the wellspring.
“Show me your light,” she whispered into the blackness. An ominous blue glow, emanating deep from within the wellspring met her words. She gazed at it, the light eerily illuminating her features. She knew what she must say next, but the words caught in her throat, and she stood still, gazing fearfully at the wellspring. Jandar had always been kind to her, at least before this dreadful sickness had taken hold of him, but if he ever found out what she was doing… she dreaded to think of the consequences, especially in his current state.
Shoving the thoughts from her mind, she summoned the words anew, and spoke over the wellspring, her words clear, if somewhat quavering. “Vagmor, I summon you. Leave your rest in the eternal shadow and see the light once again. Vagmor, kammeth framir.”
The surface of the blue waters began to bubble, lightly at first, but then more vigorously. The light swelled in brightness until Kelda could no longer look into its depths, but was forced to stumble backwards in the half light, shielding her eyes with her arms. The water began to swirl, sucking itself downwards until it formed a cone which just touched the illuminated bottom of the wellspring. It was at this point that a figure would normally have emerged, slowly forming from mist into matter above the water. However, the water continued to swirl, the cone remained in place, and the light neither dimmed nor grew. Kelda lowered her arms somewhat, fearful something was wrong.
And then, a voice, deep and amplified by some strange means, a vast power hidden within it, spoke from the depths of the wellspring. “Why do you summon me, Kelda, daughter of Cirithmir?”
Kelda, who had leapt back at the sudden sound, timidly took a step forward. “Vagmor?” she asked, her voice minute against the roaring of the waters.
“Speak,” commanded Vagmor’s voice.
Kelda straightened, though some undying fear kept her partially hunched. “Vagmor,” she whispered to the waters, “we need you. Utgar has unleashed a terrible… something, and it has taken Jandar. He is half mad, and would direct his soldiers to… to…” her voice broke off, searching for the words.
“Calm yourself, Kelda,” said Vagmor from the wellspring. “What is this devilry of which you speak?”
“We don’t know,” said Kelda, her voice gaining a little volume as she grew used to her surroundings. “It’s spreading like a plague, and we can’t stop it. Utgar sent it, that much we know. Please, Vagmor,” she pleaded, “Jandar will destroy the alliance if you don’t do something.”
“Jandar created the alliance,” said Vagmor, his voice smooth, calm, but commanding. “How could he destroy it?”
Kelda hesitated. Making up her mind, she said, “He gave Drake a command.”
“What was it?”
Again, Kelda hesitated. The command had been so unlike Jandar that it still sounded ludicrous, even to her. “He told Drake to summon the armies of the other allied generals, and lead them, without their knowing, to Utgar. Then, he and Utgar would turn on them and form an alliance and rule Valhalla together, and crush any that opposed them.”
Only for a moment was there silence from the wellspring. Then, with a great rushing of water, the light intensified, and Kelda again had to cover her eyes. In another moment, whirling above the mist as his shape took form, appeared Vagmor.
Kelda just had time to catch Vagmor’s silhouette before the light faded and she was plunged into darkness. No sound met her ears, save for the very faint dripping of water. “You have been contaminated by this darkness, Kelda?” Vagmor’s voice was softer, not as loud and commanding as it had been coming from the wellspring.
Kelda nodded, and was about to reply, realizing that Vagmor could not see her, but a sound interrupted her. It was the sound of a footstep, but it was so heavy that the words she had been about to utter died in her throat. Vagmor took another step towards her, and she felt his hot breath close to her face.
He stood there for at least five seconds, before muttering in an ominous tone, “Morker.”
“What?” breathed Kelda, her faint voice quavering.
Vagmor did not reply, but Kelda suddenly felt a faint tugging at her skin. It was not as if something was pulling at her, rather as if some force was pulling away from within. Whatever it was seemed to resist though, and Kelda’s skin began to prickle in agitation.
“Be gone, plague,” said Vagmor in a voice so low Kelda could barely understand it. The tugging ceased instantly. Vagmor took a step back.
“Now, Kelda,” he said, his voice still low and ominous, “explain to me the dealings. Why has Jandar not summoned me before this?”
Kelda felt herself blanch. She had feared this would come up. Vagmor had been sent long ago to deal with the monster Valkrill. He had engaged the demon, but had never returned. A scouting party sent after him determined that Valkrill, as he was dying, had used his power to lock Vagmor into eternal shadow, a strange prison, apart from space or time.
“Speak,” said Vagmor, his voice neither loud nor quiet.
Kelda swallowed. From what she knew of Vagmor, he would likely be able to tell if she lied, so she decided to speak the truth. “Jandar was afraid of you,” she said, “afraid of your power. He knew he could easily win the war with you on his side, but he knew also that he could never control you. When you were cast into eternal shadow, he decided to leave you there, lest you overthrew him once the war was won.”
There was silence. Kelda waited for Vagmor to speak, trembling. When he did, however, it was in the same calm voice.
“Very well. Jandar had his reason. Tell me of this darkness, Kelda. What do you know of it?”
Kelda almost sank to her knees out of relief, but managed to remain standing, staring into the blackness she assumed was Vagmor. “All we know is that it came from Utgar,” she said. “We sent scouts to determine what he was doing, but half of them never came back, and those that did arrived half insane, talking with twisted words.”
“And what of Utgar’s forces?” asked Vagmor. “Have they attacked you in your weakness?”
Kelda paused. Now that she thought of it, no reports of Utgar’s forces had reached her since Jandar was taken. Were they all blind? Utgar had withdrawn and they had been completely unaware. “No,” she said in reply, “I haven’t heard of any of their movements.”
There was silence, except for Vagmor’s heavy breathing.
“Can you help us, Vagmor?”
“A nameless fear, impenetrable, consuming all in its path. Morker. Yes, I can help you, Kelda, but you must do as I say.”
Kelda nodded, forgetting again that she was in the dark.
Vagmor seemed to have seen her motion, however, for he said, “use the wellspring to transport me to the northern edge of the Volcarren, three miles inland from the tip of Fire Peak. I will return once I am done. Until I do, do not stir from this castle. Do not go outside its walls, not even for a moment of peace, for if you do, you will be lost.”
Kelda nodded again.
“You must understand, Kelda,” said Vagmor, his voice quicker, “Morker will try to drive you from this castle, at first by subtle means, but you must not leave its walls. You must stay within the castle.”
“What is Morker?” asked Kelda, confused by Vagmor’s words.
“That knowledge is not for this time, Kelda. Now transport me, quickly.”
Confused, but trusting that Vagmor knew of what he spoke, Kelda stretched her hand out towards that wellspring and recited the incantation that Vagmor spoke for her. Once again, the waters glowed blue and swirled downwards, and then, the chamber was empty, save for Vagmor’s lingering words, “You must stay within the castle.”
“What have you done, Kelda?” Jandar’s words stopped Kelda where she stood, one hand still on the half closed door to the summoning chamber. Jandar’s voice was quiet, and as yet held no malice, but Kelda knew he was angry with her. Fearfully, she slowly lifted her head to his eyes, his piercing blue eyes, which now burned with wrath. She had never seen him so angry, and the sight frightened her.
“You think to use my wellspring without my knowledge?” asked Jandar, his voice still quiet and smooth, but deadly nonetheless. “I knew what you were about the moment you touched your lips to its waters. Now tell me, Kelda, who have you summoned?”
Kelda could not bear to look at Jandar any longer, his suppressed wrath was overwhelming. She bowed her head. She dared not lie to Jandar, not after what she had just done. Summoning all her courage, she said in a quavering voice which was barely more than a whisper, “Vagmor.”
There was silence in the hall in which they stood for nearly a minute. Jandar stood completely motionless, staring at Kelda as if she were Utgar herself, and Kelda remained looking at the floor, trembling for what she knew was about to come. And then Jandar’s wrath broke.
His voice was quiet at first, but gained volume with each passing sentence. “You summoned Vagmor, Kelda?” he said, his voice quavering with anger. “Do you not know that I forbade him to enter Valhalla again? Do you not know his power? Answer me!”
“Yes,” said Kelda, the words barely escaping her.
“Is it not enough that my men have deserted me? Must you defy me as well? Is my judgment not good enough that you must take matters into your own hands?”
Kelda shook her head, unable to speak.
“All of Valhalla is turned against me!” thundered Jandar, more to anyone who could hear him than to Kelda. “My army refuses to follow my orders, and now even my own kin attempt to usurp my rule from under me. What is this madness that has seized the land?” He turned back to Kelda, his eyes burning. She caught his gaze, and he held her there, unable to move, against the door. “You have all joined with Utgar,” he said. “You have all conspired with him against me.” He took one or two rapid breaths before continuing. “Well no longer will your treacherous kind walk about my lands free. I have heard the last of your sly whisperings in my ear. Deep in the lowest dungeon will you lie, Kelda, where neither Utgar nor anyone else will ever find you.”
With this, Jandar took a step towards Kelda, his arm outstretched. Kelda shrank against the door, closing it as she fell against it, her eyes wide with terror. At the last moment, however, Drake stepped before her, barring her from Jandar.
“Have you forgotten the laws that you yourself laid down, Jandar?” he asked, his voice even. “You said that if one be sick, or in need of aid, that person shall never be set in prison as long as the condition persists. Kelda is ill, and you will throw her into no cell.”
Jandar took a step back, resuming his position. A maniacal smile spread across his face. Spreading his arms wide, he laughed, and said to the arched ceiling high overhead, “Even my most trusted general is turned against me. Even in my own house I have no power.” He then turned to Drake, the smile still in place. “Very well, Drake. You insist on refusing to carry out my orders? You defend those that would topple me? Then go and join your true general and leader. Go to Utgar, and offer him your service, for I have no need of men that have no courage to carry out their lord’s will. I banish you from my lands, Drake. See that when you return, you fly your true colors, under the red banner of Utgar. Go.”
Drake remained motionless, his arms folded, his eyes fixed on Jandar. In that moment, he realized that this kyrie before him was not his beloved general, the one that he would follow to the end. That Jandar was hidden, his face veiled by this insanity.
“Go!” thundered Jandar, his voice murderous.
Drake turned, and, without a word, lifted Kelda to her feet. He then turned back to Jandar, and walked resolutely past him, his eyes fixed ahead, Kelda following him. The Jandar they both loved and trusted was no more.
Vagmor opened his eyes. A harsh wind smote him in the face, laden with dust and ash, but it might have been the breath of a kitten for all the notice he took of it. The cracked earth of the Volcarren, usually red and brown, was now black, laden with layers of gray ash. The sky was a dark gray, laced with red, and ash fell from it as snow. Vagmor looked out over the desolate place. The fissures in the earth, usually filled with running lava, now were silent. The air, commonly broken by the regular eruption of volcanoes, was now as quiet as death itself. The falling ash made the only noise, a soft sound, as of distant water. A sound that, in this place, could quickly drive one mad.
“Morker,” Vagmor muttered. The hostile word rolled from his tongue, anxious to leave as he spat it out. He took a step forwards, and his foot sank in three feet of ash. Undeterred, he took another step, and fell in similar depth. As he stood there, in ash above his knees, he realized that he would never reach his destination in time. Therefore, he cast a spell, and soon felt himself rise above the ash. He took a step forward, but his foot did not sink. A smile would have crossed his face had he had one. He would confront this evil soon enough.
“Drake,” pleaded Kelda, “you cannot leave. Vagmor said we would be lost if we left the city.”
Drake turned to her, a harness in his hands. “Where do my loyalties lie, Kelda? With Jandar or with Vagmor?”
“It is not Jandar that banished you, Drake. It is to that Jandar that you are loyal, as is Vagmor.”
Drake turned back and began saddling his horse, a chestnut with two white feet. “Jandar may be blinded to all about him, Kelda,” he said, “but I feel he knows what he says.”
“Then he at least knows not why,” said Kelda, searching desperately for anything to keep Drake within the city.
Drake turned to her once more. “I have defied my general twice already, Kelda, I cannot do so a third time. We can only pray that Vagmor will succeed in his mission and Jandar will call me back once his senses return.”
“Drake…” pleaded Kelda, but Drake turned away.
“I cannot do what you ask, Kelda. I’m sorry.” Drake swiftly mounted his horse, and with a last look at Kelda, rode from the stables, many of his belongings strapped behind him. Kelda watched him go, her eyes dry, but a terrible sadness in her heart.
“Kelda,” the word was spoken softly, and Kelda turned to see Raelin come in a side door. “Kelda,” she said again, “Jandar has commanded that… that you be taken to the dungeons for… for disobeying his word.”
Kelda nodded; she had expected this. She stood and walked towards the door which Raelin held open for her. “Raelin, she said, turning towards her. “Vagmor told me that we must not leave the castle for anything, but Drake won’t defy Jandar, not again. He might listen to you, though.”
Raelin met her eyes and nodded. “I’ll ask him,” she said.
Kelda thanked her and added, “Do not try to release me. I feel this curse in me once again, and it is likely that I will be better in a dungeon, where I can do no harm.”
Raelin nodded a second time, this time with tears in her eyes. “Vagmor will end the plague,” she said. “I know it.”
Vagmor stumbled and fell to one knee. He could have easily gotten back up, but he remained there. Something was wrong. He had never stumbled before, not even in the Underdark, where no light penetrated. Glancing down at his armor, he saw that the biting wind had begun to wear it away, scratching into the delicately carved lines and curves. That was something else that was wrong, his armor was enchanted, no mere wind could erase it. “Be gone, Morker,” he said in his mind, infusing the thought with power. An echoing laugh was all that met him.
“You leave me, and I will leave you.” The voice was slippery and smooth, coated in oil and dripping with venom.
Vagmor recoiled at the sound, though it was only in his mind. “You know not what you are meddling in, snake,” he said, his voice flat, but still powerful. “Leave this land and its people alone. Go hide in the caverns where you belong.”
More silken laughter met his mind. “No, Vagmor, I do not belong in the caves, the muck, the dampness. I belong here, with people, with you. You will realize it before you die, I’m sure.”
“Fool,” stated Vagmor. “I cannot die.” With these thoughts, he rose to his feet and continued to press on, driving straight into the tearing wind which fought so desperately to drive him back.
Morker kept up a constant whispering in his head, enough to drive him insane, but Vagmor brushed his voice aside and did not stop. He had beaten this foul thing before, and he would do it again.
Drake halted his horse instantly and turned in the saddle, waiting for Raelin to catch up. She flew to him and landed by his side, looking up at him. “Drake,” she said again, “you cannot leave. Kelda told me what Vagmor said, and if he speaks the truth, you cannot leave this place.”
“Vagmor always speaks the truth,” said Drake, “but I must leave this place. Jandar wishes me to go to Utgar, so I will, and drive my sword right through his black heart. With any luck, I may end this terrible plague and free Jandar’s mind.”
“But Drake,” said Raelin, “Vagmor said…”
“Blast Vagmor!” said Drake. “We have no way of knowing what he is doing, and no way of knowing if he will succeed. It’s better to have two going at Utgar than one.”
Raelin took a step back, looking at Drake. Slowly, her eyes traveled over his face, and then down to his hands, which were slowly turning gray. Behind his eyes burned a feverish fire, the same fire that now tormented Jandar. “Drake, please… don’t go,” whispered Raelin, just loud enough for him to hear.
“I must,” said Drake, his eyes softening.
“Indeed,” said Jandar’s imperious voice, as he landed beside them. “And you, Raelin, shall not attempt to sway him from for once following my orders, lest I send you to join Kelda.”
Drake stiffened in his saddle.
“Now go,” said Jandar. “Be gone Raelin. If you try to undermine me as has Kelda, your punishment may be more severe than hers.” When Raelin did not move, Jandar shot out an arm and grasped her by the shoulder, seeking to fling her away. His motion was halted, however, by the rasping of Drake’s sword against its sheath.
“You will not touch her,” said Drake, tensely dropping to the ground, his sword held firmly in his right hand. His eyes blazed both with anger and fever, and they bore into Jandar with a gaze that he returned with venomous hatred.
“So it has come to this,” said Jandar in a musing voice. “Blows at last…” With these words, he drew his own long two-handed sword from where it was strapped cleverly to his back, and released Raelin, facing Drake. Raelin quickly backed away, looking fearfully from Jandar to Drake, both of which were now crouched, circling each other like mad dogs ready for the kill.
With the sound that accompanies a small building collapsing, Vagmor crashed to the ground. His enchantment gone, he rapidly sank into the ash, and it poured in over him, blocking him from the already dark world. “Give up?” asked Morker.
Vagmor did not respond, but summoning the power within him, blasted the ash away. He rose to one knee, and then to the other, and raised his head to look before him. There, rising ever upwards and fading into the dark clouds above, was the gigantic mountain that was Utgar’s fortress. He was close, he couldn’t give up now.
Give up. The thought had never before entered his mind. Vagmor looked down at his metal gloves, now worn thin from the wind. What was happening to him? His armor was impenetrable, his mind unwavering, his strength unmatched. What force would rob him of all three? Morker’s laughter echoed in his head. Summoning his strength, Vagmor rose to his feet, and began to climb the face of the mountain.
“You, Vagmor, climbing? You disappoint me. I would have expected something more… spectacular from you.”
Vagmor stopped. What was he doing? He was no man to climb a mountain, nor was he kyrie to fly over it. He was Vagmor, unhesitating, undying, unyielding. He stepped back and pressed his hand against the mountain. With a thunderous boom, the entire side of the volcano came crashing down, burying Vagmor in a cloud of thick dust.
With an insane yell, Jandar leapt at Drake, whirling his blade wildly. Drake prudently took a step back, allowing Jandar to waste much of his momentum, and dealt him a blow with his hilt which forced him downwards, where he landed, sprawled in the dirt. Drake turned and waited for Jandar to get up.
The Valkyrie rose in an instant, and swung his sword at Drake. Drake flung his own up, and met the massive blade, but the impact traveled through the steel and into his arms, jarring him. He momentarily lost his grip and sank to one knee, struggling to keep Jandar at bay.
“Fool!” yelled Jandar. “I’m a Valkyrie, not some pitiless orc. You should have thought of that before you refused to follow my orders.”
“No one in their right mind would do as you had asked,” Drake shouted back, still struggling against Jandar’s strength.
“No one in their right mind would dare to refuse them either,” Jandar hissed back. He then lifted his sword and kicked Drake before he could reply, rolling him over in the dust. Then, as Drake still lay on the ground, he raised his sword high above his head and prepared to strike him down.
“No!” Raelin rushed before Jandar, trying to stay his sword. Jandar turned, and flung her to the ground with a fist. He then turned back to Drake, but Drake was by now on his feet, his sword back in his hand. Seeing Raelin upon the ground, not moving, he rushed at Jandar, his sword held ready. Jandar prepared to meet his blow with one of his own, and their blades clashed, ringing throughout the castle.
With a heave, Vagmor flung aside the last of the heavy doors to Utgar’s chambers and went inside, tearing down the black hangings that he found in his way. An overpowering stench met him, which he sensed, rather than smelled, accompanied by a sinister hissing.
The stench he had found all throughout Utgar’s ruined fortress. Orcs and kyrie lay together, their blood mingling, their hands still at each others throats even in death. Buildings had been toppled as dragons fell, battling with their own, and everywhere lay a thick layer of dust from the fallen stones. Blood ran like rivers in the streets, pooling where it met and lending a red hue to everything. Vagmor had come across Utgar’s axe, imbedded deeply in the heart of Mimring, who lay sprawled across several doorways, crushing the bodies of orcs beneath him. He had passed on, going deeper into the destruction, searching, until he found what he sought, and what now lay before him: Utgar.
Utgar sat, rigid, lifeless, in his throne of black, his arms open, his head tilted back, his eyes wide. A mindless grin was fixed upon his face, and all about him, destruction reigned. Hangings were torn to shreds, orcs and kyrie lay in piles at his feet, various limbs missing, and Runa lay, dead, against a far wall, a trail of blood suggesting that she had been thrown there. Taelord’s sword rested, still standing, sunk into the chest of Moltenclaw, and Taelord himself, minus his head, lay in a grotesque position slumped against Utgar’s throne.
Utgar himself had already begun to rot, and bits of skin had flaked away, showing bones beneath. But what had caught Vagmor’s attention and held it was the gaping hole where Utgar’s chest had once been. As if he had been blown apart from the inside, Utgar’s skin was ripped to shreds about the hole, and his ribs were scattered every which way. And residing within the hole, frothing silently in its own vapor, was Morker, the source of the black plague.
Morker had no shape, but was rather concentrated smoke, tinted black, sending tendrils of darkness out of Utgar to all parts of his fortress, and now, Valhalla. Disgusted at what he saw, Vagmor raised his hand, his palm facing Morker, and thundered in a voice as old as the peaks overhead, “Vatra gatt!”
Hissing was the only sound that met his ears. That, and Morker’s laughter in his head.
Drake’s sword came down, and a spatter of blood met it, dying his face red. He blinked his eyes to keep them clear, and readied his sword for another strike. Behind him, the sound of the guns of his men filled the air, their bullets mercilessly ripping through kyrie flesh. Jandar and Drake clashed again, locked, and then fell apart. Jandar could not wound Drake, such was his skill, and Drake wouldn’t if he could have. About them, chaos reigned.
A battalion of knights, led by Sir Gilbert, clashed with the full force of Finn’s Vikings. Thorgrim stood in place, hacking at any foe that came within reach. The Templar Knights, most of them without horses, stayed together, slicing as they were assaulted by elementals. Kumiko, silent assassin that she was, slipped through the giant fray, killing who she pleased, and sparing those she trusted, which were, unfortunately, very few. The whole of Jandar’s once grand army was occupied in destroying itself.
The battle between Drake and Jandar had been the breaking point for the men. Some had tried to pull them apart, fearing for Jandar’s life, but others had stopped them, feeling that Jandar could not be saved, and must be destroyed before he destroyed them. The situation had rapidly disintegrated, with those loyal to Jandar pitched against those loyal to him as he once was. And now, fed subtly by the plague that was in all of their veins, the men fought each other, barely knowing why.
Raelin, stunned by the blow Jandar had given her, was now flying far above the battle, desperately trying to convince Nilfeim not to strike down Drake. Concan had joined her, though his pleas were slightly less heart-felt than hers. Nilfeim, however, saw only his master in danger, and strove to get a clear shot at Drake. Raelin, determined to not let this happen, followed Nilfeim’s head so that she was always before him. He would not strike her, this much she knew, though his temper was rising quickly.
A volley of musket fire broke into the mass of Vikings, leveling many of them. Finn turned, and, signaling to his remaining men, charged the ranks of the 4th Massachusetts Line. Another volley, and Finn went down.
Sir Gilbert had engaged Kumiko, and was dealing her blow after blow, each of which she barely managed to block. With each swing of his sword, he denounced her as a skulking coward, traitorously slipping a knife into her enemy’s back when their face was turned. Kumiko remained silent, but dueled him all the fiercer.
Jandar and Drake clashed for what seemed to be the thousandth time. They tangled briefly, and then broke apart, each unable to strike the other. “You cannot win this fight,” said Jandar, eyeing Drake with a crazed look.
“Neither can you,” replied Drake shortly, his skin burning with plague. He doubted the veracity of his words, however, for he felt sweat coating the hilt of his sword, and his hand was beginning to shake.
“Oh, but I think I can,” said Jandar, the same idiotic smile creeping back onto his face. “You forget, Drake, that I am a Valkyrie.”
Drake froze. He had, remarkably, forgotten. He rolled just as the earth opened up below him, and improvising quickly, shot his grapple gun at Jandar. The metal arm knocked Jandar flat, and Drake thought he heard a wing snap as the kyrie struck the ground. Jandar bounded back up in an instant though, and kicked Drake to the ground, holding him there with his sword.
“This duel is over,” he said, all trace of a smile gone.
Vagmor slowly lowered his hand, his eyes fixed on the black steam that was Morker. “You say I cannot kill you, Vagmor,” laughed Morker’s voice in his head, “but you cannot destroy me either. I hold too much of Valhalla in my grasp.”
Vagmor did not reply, but remained looking at the ruined corpse of Utgar. Something here was not right. None of Utgar’s soldiers had begun to decay, only Utgar himself. And judging by the state he was in, Vagmor surmised that he must have been dead nearly a month. So then, Utgar had died first, and then his soldiers had followed. “What have you done, Morker?” asked Vagmor in his head.
Morker laughed. “What have I done? What have I always done, Vagmor? You’ve found me enough times to know what I am, and what I do. Yes, I have always been the same, Valkrill, Utgar, call me what you will. Answer your question yourself.”
Vagmor would have closed his eyes if he had any. So this was the answer to all the riddles. Vagmor had suspected something similar, but never this.
“You know, don’t you,” whispered Morker in his head, “what I am? Jandar has fought me for the better part of his life. Ullar has always sensed me in his forests. Einar sensed me, and tried to drive me from his halls, though he never fully succeeded. Vydar entertained parts of me, while ignoring the rest. Only Utgar recognized me for what I was, for I had always been with him. He saw my potential, though I must admit I kept the full consequences from him. He made Valkrill for me, and for a time, all was well. But then you came along, and had to spoil everything. You ruined Valkrill for me, and I had to go back to Utgar. However, things had changed in my absence. Utgar had begun to grow; Taelord and the others had sensed it. I tried to return to my old haunts, but they were unfamiliar to me. Finally, Utgar could contain me no longer. One of us would have to triumph over the other. Naturally, he was no match for my might, and the result you see before you.”
Vagmor’s mind was churning with the information he had received. It all made sense now. And he was powerless to stop it.
Morker’s voice laughed again in his head, reciting an ancient line, one that Vagmor had only heard once before in its entirety. “A nameless fear, impenetrable, consuming all in its path. A dark terror that drains the hope and comfort from all about it; an unnamed death, lurking in the heart of every living thing. It is I, this black plague, which has been set lose from its natural bonds. It is this dark disease that now ventures out from where it first gained its freedom, seeking to consume all, every living thing, until only it is left, and the void of my emptiness is completed.” Morker laughed again. “Very soon, Vagmor, very soon Valhalla will be mine. And then I will take you too.”
“No,” said Vagmor. “There are those that will oppose you always.”
“Jandar?” mocked Morker. “Here is your Jandar…”
An image flooded Vagmor’s mind: Jandar’s quarters, as he had once known them. Jandar, his skin withered and black, lay upon his death bed, Raelin weeping by his side. From out of the open window, Vagmor could clearly see the courtyard littered with the bodies of Jandar’s men, either slain or fallen to the unseen plague. The scene looked very similar to Utgar’s fortress. “You think Jandar can oppose me?” asked Morker. “He is but a wisp, as easily blown away as a trail of smoke. You have seen how easily I overcame Utgar, powerful though he was.”
Vagmor could stand no more. “By the power granted me,” he thundered, “I banish your very existence from the universe!”
Morker only laughed.
Vagmor stumbled back, his power drained. Morker was right, he could not destroy him. “Why, Morker, why? You know I could easily destroy Utgar or Valkrill.”
“Why must you fail now, Vagmor? I think you know the answer to that. I was born in Utgar, a little spark, a small flame. I was merely a thought. He nurtured me, poured his very being into me. When the war came, he fed me all the misery and suffering heaped upon him, and I grew. He gave me a mind, Vagmor, until I could think for myself. I fed off of the magics coursing in his veins, and I began to speak to him, subtly at first, but then more and more boldly. He gave me a form, in his mind, an insatiable hunger for quiet, the kind of quiet that only comes with the grave, the end of all things. As his strength waned, mine grew, and our places shifted. I drove him on, instead of him driving me. I drove him to crush Jandar and his puppets, to wipe them from the face of the earth. And then, as I have already told you, Utgar created Valkrill. In my absence though, Utgar began to see what destruction I had wrought, and he began to become afraid. He began to call back his minions, release his prisoners. When I tried to return to him, where I had been created, his mind was hostile to me. I could not live there, and I burst out, consuming Utgar, my maker, as I did so.
“But now you see, Vagmor, I don’t need Utgar any longer. His desire for destruction, his wish to kill, that is me, I am his will, and I can exist on my own, such is my strength. I am too strong for you to kill. I now sit here, slowly draining the life from Valhalla. When I am full, this land will be no more, and I will move on to more fertile grounds.”
Vagmor slumped against the dead body of Taelord. Morker was right. Even he, Vagmor, could feel the darkness of Morker slowly clouding his vision. Valhalla was lost. All would perish to this plague, unless…
“My lord, the duel is not over.” Sir Denrick’s blade clashed against Jandar’s.
“More traitors!” Jandar yelled, turning to Denrick. The two of them exchanged blows for a few minutes, but Denrick was no match for the skill of Jandar, and he quickly fell, his head cloven in two. Drake, however, had had enough time to recover himself and get a firmer grip on his sword, and now stood ready to face Jandar once again. Jandar rushed at him, his left wing trailing pitifully on the ground, but before he could reach him, something large and white thudded to the ground between them.
Both Drake and Jandar lay on their backs, staring up at the massive form of Nilfeim. Raelin fluttered down, anxiously watching Drake. Concan hung just out of reach of Jandar’s blade, should he consider turning on him as well.
“You are both half mad,” said Nilfeim, “and if you would but pause in your senseless dealings for a moment, you would see this. Look about you, Jandar. Your armies clash against each other, tearing each other to shreds. Drake, these men look up to you. Command them to stop. This plague, this sickness, this is what it wants. Do you intend to humor it, or fight it?”
Both Drake and Jandar got up shakily. Raelin flew instantly to Drake’s side and helped him up, and Concan warily approached Jandar. Nilfeim remained between them, swinging his head from side to side, scrutinizing each one in turn with his hard blue eyes.
Drake slid his sword into his sheath, and waited for Jandar to do the same. Jandar, however, remained where he was, staring up at Nilfeim with an odd expression on his face. Drake saw in an instant what was coming. Jandar was too far gone to heed Nilfeim’s words, and in one motion, he swung his sword at the white dragon’s neck.
Pain seared across Vagmor’s body, but he did not withdraw his hands. Cautiously, he probed the center of the blackness within Utgar. He felt nothing but thick mist, but he cupped this in his hands, drawing it out. The mist was hot in his hands and throbbed as if it had a heart. Vagmor closed his glove on the smoke and left the room.
“You cannot kill me, Vagmor,” said Morker, though all trace of laughter was now gone from his voice.
“No?” said Vagmor. “Shall we find out?”
“No spell you know of can end me,” persisted Morker, but Vagmor did not stop. “You can hurtle me from the highest cliff, but I shall survive.”
Vagmor paid no heed to Morker’s whispered words, but rather hid his mind from him. Morker tried to break through, to see his darkest thought, but he could not. Therefore, he turned to other, more natural, means. It was this that Vagmor had been hoping for.
Vagmor’s glove was entirely melted by the time he exited Utgar’s fortress. Morker began to seep into Vagmor’s strange matter. He found it difficult to enter Vagmor, due to the fact that he was not human or kyrie or any other species that he had encountered before, but he managed it. He flowed into Vagmor like a thick syrup, diluting him, and spreading his curse throughout his strange body.
“No… no… You can’t do this Vagmor!” said Morker, sensing at last his enemy’s thoughts. “Think, think of what you could do with me.”
“I’ve done plenty with you already, Morker,” said Vagmor, even as he felt the plague begin to cloud his mind. “All of which,” he added, “apparently wasn’t enough.”
Vagmor stopped, and Morker saw through his eyes the crater of the volcano upon which Utgar’s fortress sat. Only here, in all of the Volcarren, lava still flowed. And still, it appeared to be but a faint trickle from this height. Vagmor raised his hand, and a shimmering portal appeared before him. “Kelda,” he said, speaking to the portal. The flat disk shone and contracted, and then remained steady. Kelda appeared within its depths, seated on a hard floor. She looked up, surprised, and Vagmor saw that her face was spotted gray.
“Kelda,” he said, his breathing becoming difficult as he fought Morker, “I will not be able to return. You will know when the plague has left you. When that happens, you may leave the castle, but no one is to approach the Volcarren for at least a year. When you do, do not do so alone. Evil still brews here.”
“Vagmor,” said Kelda, rising. “What… What do you mean you won’t return?”
“You will understand, Kelda,” said Vagmor. “Someday you will understand why.”
Kelda’s eyes widened. “Vagmor, no…no!”
Vagmor nodded his head once at her, and then fell, falling towards the shimmering ribbon of lava far below.
“You mindless fool!” spat Morker as he fell. “Think of the things you could have done.”
“I did,” replied Vagmor. “You were made by Utgar, and you must inhabit a living thing to spread your evil. You need a tool, like anyone else. However, once in that living thing, separating yourself from him is not such an easy task. And if that vessel is destroyed with you in it, you, too, are killed. Utgar himself placed you in Valkrill. I didn’t kill Valkrill, but his body was weak enough for you to flee it on your own when you banished me. You overwhelmed Utgar, and thus freed yourself, but you cannot escape me. I am the prison meant for but one purpose, to contain you.”
“NO!” shrieked Morker, but his cry was interrupted as Vagmor struck the lava.
With a clash of steel, Drake met Jandar’s blade. Nilfeim reared backwards, snorting, as he realized what Jandar had nearly done. No words came from Jandar now. Instead, he dueled Drake with a strength that was not his own. Drake was only just able to block blow after blow, but he was forced to back up constantly, losing ground with each step. And the more ground he lost, the closer he came to the gate to the city.
Concan, infected with the disease as he was, flew to Drake’s aid in beating back Jandar’s furious assault, but he was little help. In a stunning move, Jandar flipped his sword around, wrenching Drake’s sword from his grasp and knocking Concan to the ground at the same time. Jandar easily whirled his blade upwards and held it with both hands above his head, its tip pointed at Drake’s chest. Concan struggled to get up, but he was not fast enough. Jandar planted a foot on Drake’s chest and drove his blade downwards.
In that moment, Morker, far, far away, seething in Vagmor’s body, felt the heat of the lava consume his enemy, the one upon which he depended for his life.
With the force of a dragon’s wing shoving air from beneath him, Jandar was grasped from behind and pulled to the ground. He hit it heavily, and his other wing broke, his sword clattering out of his hand. Kelda stepped before him, and lowered her spear to his throat. Jandar, however, made no move to get up. As she watched him, Kelda saw the insane light in Jandar’s eye go out, and the grayness slowly leave his skin. She looked down at her own hand, and saw the same effect. She slowly raised her spear.
Drake sheathed his sword a second time and approached Jandar, still wary. Jandar blinked his eyes as he looked at him, as if he were waking up from a particularly sound sleep.
“Drake?” he said, his voice cautious, and not the loud rumble it had been. Drake did not reply, but merely nodded at him.
“Are you all right?” asked Kelda, helping Jandar to sit up.
“Aside from an ache in my head, and a weariness in my arms,” said Jandar, glancing at Drake, “I believe I will be fine.” He then leapt into the air, his wings newly mended by Kelda, and, thundering out over his capital, said, “My friends! Cease your battles, for we fight our allies! The plague is gone; that which Utgar sent has been defeated!”
Silence slowly fell over the milling army as Jandar floated back to earth, and they realized that the curse had left them. Jandar retrieved his sword from where it had fallen on the ground, and sheathed it. “Come,” he said. “There are wounds to heal, hurts to forgive. Let us mend them now before they become scars, both on men and this land.”
Drake knelt before Jandar, his head bowed. “Forgive me for my words earlier,” he said, “I believed them to be necessary. You have my loyalty.”
“My friend,” said Jandar, raising him to his feet. He looked steadily into Drake’s eyes. “…I never lost it.”
A tear slipped silently down Raelin’s cheek. It fell to the ground, silent, but it was a tear of happiness. Utgar’s terrible plague, his awful wrath which had assumed a form of its own, was gone. Her general was back.