This was originally a story I wrote for a Creative Writing class. I thought I might as well publish it on here. It's over 20,000 words long, while our minimum goal was 4,000. I may make a sequel, I don't even know.
Mountain of Fire
“The chess piece who stands at the end of the game is ignored. The one who lies by the opponent’s hand is not.”
Primrose stood at the top of the volcano, staff at her side. Three meters away was a tall man in purple armor, sword at the ready. He rumbled:
“You will not best my army this time. There is no way. World domination is complete.”
Primrose replied, “Not while I live and breathe.”
She swung her staff. Shade Konig--for that was who he was - lifted his sword to meet it. They collided once, twice, each time the tiny Guardian matching the hulking king. On the third blow, a halo of purple light intersected a halo of orange light. They grew and grew until they were three meters wide. Finally, an immense explosion shook the ground.
Part 1 :: The Stirring Horror
Chapter I :: Orientation
“Everyone was new once.”
My worn boots scuffed at the ground, churning up the mud and grass into a slurry a worm couldn’t have digested. I stood before a small log cabin with no windows whatsoever. Moss oozed from the dripping logs, looking as if it had been born of some foul slime from a swamp pond. The door’s sole peephole was obscured by its gel-like flow. I took a deep breath and knocked.
Almost immediately, an old woman with bright white hair and a stained pink gown answered the door.
“Oh, you’re the new Guardian, Autumn, aren’t you? You’ll be wanting directions to the volcano, won’t you? Perhaps some food, too?”
I leaned back ever so slightly, a bit overwhelmed by this flood of questions. Alright, maybe not a flood, but I’ve never been a very conversational person. Small talk? Alright, barely. Friendly banter? Not a chance. Romantic discussion? You’ll find me cowering under the bed. The woman put her meaty paw on my shoulder and ushered me into the one-room cabin. She puttered about what I supposed was a stove, heating up various pots and pans. I winced at the smell emanating from it. While the pots were bubbling like witches’ brew, I examined my reflection in a mirror. I didn’t look like much in my ragged blue jacket and pants, which were a bit too large around the ankles. I blew my shoulder-length orange hair out of my eyes. The old woman had finished her cooking and delivered it in a cracked porcelain bowl at the table. She wheezed and started what I immediately called the orientation speech.
“As a Guardian, you’re supposed to guard some ancient relic or another from danger. You’re supposed to take an oath to defend your relic from evil at all costs. When a Guardian is killed--there’s no retiring--another one--you in this case--takes their place.” I noticed she didn’t say if a Guardian was killed.
“So yes, you’re guarding the volcano. It used to be guarded by a woman named Primrose, but she invoked some magic power and vaporized herself, along with the invading army. It was quite an explosion. The sun was obscured for days – of course, it always is.”
I winced as a particularly fat raindrop made its way through the ceiling and down the back of my rickety old chair, as if accentuating this statement.
“So yes, defend your relic at all costs. Including painful death at the hands of professional torturers.” She smiled, as if this were wonderful news. I just love a painful death at the hands of professional torturers. Makes my day. “So yes, you’ll continue to the southwest of here. You’ll run into a big castle. Perhaps literally, since the Guardian loves playing pranks. He’s a bit of a cynical young man. But polite. He liked my chowder.”
So that’s what was coating the pan in an armor that wouldn’t break or corrode until my great-great-grandchildren were in the grave.
“I do believe you’ll travel with him--since you’re new, you know, and can’t fight anything yet--to the volcano. It’s a big hulking thing, full of fire and brimstone and dwarves. Don’t worry about the dwarves--they’re nice and kind, just make sure you don’t give them any mead, they’ll go crazy. But I’ve caught wind that some invading army has taken the volcano. Apparently they’re the same folks that Primrose blew up. Quite an explosion, that was. But back on track, here’s the map.”
She handed me a cracked and yellowed piece of parchment that had several black lines scribbled all over it. She started explaining.
“Here. You’ll take Broken Ankle Road--careful, they mean the broken part--up to the junction of Deadman’s Creek Road and Loose Eye Road. Then you’ll turn left onto Loose Eye Road and you’ll start to see puffs of smoke coming up from the roadside. Those are Kobold homes. Don’t step in them unless you feel like losing a leg or three! The road is mostly clean, though. Just keep an eye out. And you’ll also want to watch for rogue eyeballs. The Kobolds have a way of grabbing travelers’ eyes out and enchanting them so they fly around. They’re mostly harmless--just a few have teeth. They don’t really bite very hard--just take off a little bit of flesh and some can drain your energy.”
I clamped a hand firmly over my mouth; whether it was the chowder or the eyeballs or both, I couldn’t tell. Probably the chowder; being a doctor’s daughter, I’m not too easily revolted by dismemberment and other various gory sights. She prattled on, oblivious to my discomfort.
“Once you get past the Kobold homes, you should start seeing the top of the castle. That’s when you’ll want to watch out for snares and other traps. The Guardian, as I might’ve said, is kind of… mischievous. The traps aren’t deadly; they usually involve dangling upside-down from a tree and being pelted with eggs. The Guardian’ll find you quickly. He’s good at darting around so quickly you don’t see him. He’s kind of jittery; I don’t blame him, poor thing,” she lamented.
I wondered if it wasn’t the chowder that’d done it.
“He’s had a rough go at life. But he’s still crazily chipper and humorous. He’ll guide you the rest of the way to the volcano,” she finished, grinning happily (it looked more like maniacally).
I took the traveling pack she had prepared, said my good-byes, and jogged out the door.
Chapter II :: Highway to Utter Doom, Despair, and Dismemberment
“Misery loves broken ankles. Or does it?”
As I started off along Broken Ankle Road, the rain stopped falling. Now all the water left pooled in the leaves of the trees above me, waiting for someone to step underneath. By the time I left the “protective” shelter of the forest, I was completely soaked and not at all in a good mood. I occasionally found the stones that gave the road its name and twisted my ankle mildly at least thrice. Several miles ahead, I could see the junction of Deadman’s Creek Road and Loose Eye Road. A small creek floated down below a bridge. I was just glad there weren’t any dead men in the water. I traveled on all day. By midmorning, I reached the first of the Kobold homes. Most of them were a good bit off the road, but I did have to perform a flying leap to evade a blue, hairy arm that reached from the middle of the muddy path, hoping to yank my eyes out. There were no eyeballs about, animated or non-animated. I was thankful.
It was late afternoon when I spotted my first animated eyeball. Well, not just one, a whole flock. They were perched in a skeletal tree and were opening and closing their jaws with an audible snap! Occasionally, a high-pitched shrieking noise would rend the air. They looked for all the world like a flock of birds. Birds that would take off my flesh. As soon as I got within 30 paces, they all took wing (or was it took ocular nerve?) and drifted toward me, looking like little clouds with fangs. No doubt deciding whether I was good to eat.
Thankfully, their attention was distracted by a deer that had just wandered out of what remained of the dying bushes. They were on their prey in seconds, and had taken a good bit of meat off of it. The deer, having got the hint, bounded off with its still-functioning legs into the woods. The eyeballs settled on what was left. There was a smaller, green eye that drifted behind the rest. Whenever it got close, the others would snap at it. I honestly felt bad for it. My pity was such that I started toward the little eyeball, holding a piece of some mystery meat I had dug out of the chowder I had been eating. It immediately swooped down and took the meat, biting my thumb in the process. I yelped. The eyeball gulped down the meat. I fed it more. When I continued on the road, it tried to follow me. I shooed it off. After a while of this, I just sprinted off and hopefully left the eyeball in the dust.
Chapter III :: Nighty Night
“Night, night, little Timmy!”
Night brought new noises that made it impossible to succumb to sleep. I swear it was past midnight when my eyelids even sagged a bit. Mostly they were animal noises – yips, howls, roars – but some were things I’d never heard before: Rattling bones, eyeballs shrieking (yes, in the process of the afternoon I’d figured out that the eyeballs were the ones producing the shrieks), nightmarish howls that no wolf could’ve produced, and horribly powerful crashes. I had no tent, just a sleeping roll. All of a sudden, I felt… cold wind? My first thought was that a storm was blowing in, but when it was felt again, this time on the other side of my face, I jumped up, disentangled myself from the sleeping roll, and snatched a short sword from the traveling pack. Whatever the creature was decided to show itself. It took the form of a floating skeleton with black robes and a scythe of bones. Honestly, I let out a very undignified but very rational scream. The creature, if it had had a face, would’ve worn an expression of exasperation. Why do you scream at me? That was uncalled for. It hurt my undead ears.
I swung the sword at it. The creature sidestepped and swung the scythe. We dodged back and forth--upon receiving the notice I would become a Guardian, I had practiced swordplay – until both of us were obviously tired. All of a sudden, a shadowy figure shot out of the night, accompanied by a tiny flying orb, and struck the thing hard on the head with a tree branch. The tiny flying orb immediately lunged at the thing and latched onto its skull. The taller figure spoke in a tenor with a good bit of power behind it, “Servant of the Shade Mage, I banish you from these lands! Feel the wrath of my glowing blade!” It raised a longsword, which radiated a faintly flickering light, and struck at the skeleton. It caught on fire and shot off into the darkness like a comet, emitting an otherworldly screech that made both of us put our hands over our ears. A bright phosphorescent light switched on, bathing the area in a sickly green light. I examined my savior.
He was a tall boy, holding his longsword. A blizzard of black hair dangled nearly over his eyes. He was dressed in a chestplate and helmet, with blue leggings and tall boots. At his shoulder floated the eyeball I had fed. Apparently they could glow too. The boy spoke.
“You’re Autumn, the new Guardian, aren’t you? I’m Gray. This eyeball flew directly to me and alerted me of your plight. You’re still lucky you survived. Now before you ask, ‘O savior! What was that horrid beast you saved me from?’ I’ll explain. That was a servant of the Shade Mage, an assassin hired by Shade Konig, the evil king Primrose blew up a while ago. But now he’s back and we can all have fun playing with sharp objects together.”
I was a little interested that the eyeball had befriended me (it now flew over and perched on my shoulder, which made me a little uneasy) but even more surprised that this was Gray. I was expecting him to be a master of trickery, but he had actually stood in front of me and set an undead servant of the Shade Mage, whatever that was, on fire. Seeming to sense my confusion, he explained.
“Normally, yes, I don’t fight with a sword. I do more of dropping explosives or pouring gravel. I’m also a fair shot with a bow. Swordplay is something I learn just because some places and times aren’t right for egging your enemies.”
To be honest, I was a bit impressed by this. I’ve always figured that people in castles dumped boiling oil on enemies, not gravel.
“Well, go to sleep. I’ll keep watch with your glowing eyeball and wake you at dawn. There isn’t anything out here I can’t defeat. I hope.” Exhausted by the struggle with the servant, I collapsed and fell asleep despite that cheery news.
Chapter IV :: The Last Stretch
“Every journey has an end, except the journey of rage.”
I was awakened by Gray shaking my shoulder.
“It’s only two days of travel left to the volcano. I had a troupe of soldiers take you to the castle. More accurately, I sent your floating eyeball. The soldiers said you could use a meal, which is why this guy--he indicated a man in a white robe and chef’s hat with immense eyebrows--took it upon himself to prepare some food. That chowder is good, though. I figured you wouldn’t mind if I ate it.” He licked his lips.
“So, are you coming?”
I nodded and followed him out the immense door of the castle. It was an uneventful day. However, the next morning, something quite impressive happened. A troupe of greenish short guys with shields and broadswords blocked the path.
“Goblins,” Gray stated.
The green-ish short guys lunged forward.
“Ve vill crush you! Surrender your food! Surrender everything! Ve are ze goblins! Surrender before our might!” yelled the leader.
Gray’s sword was unsheathed instantly, while I fumbled in my pack. He yelled, and a bolt of energy streaked down from the sky. All six goblins were vaporized on impact.
“Lightning magic is my specialty. Interestingly, I still have all the hair on my legs.” On the third day, we came into view of the volcano. It was an immense, red stone mountain, conical in shape. Various spikes of stone jutted out. A sign was placed there.
“Welcome to the volcano,” it stated. “We suggest you turn back. A number of our attractions are: Death, Destruction, Doom, Dismemberment. We sell cheap pastries!”
I decided not to risk the pastries. The sign was probably Gray’s fault – er, work. At the foot of the mountain, an army was camped. Row upon row of burlap tents were lined up. Two guards stood before us. One of them was someone I recognized.
“Maple!” I rushed forward and hugged her. I had known Maple as a child. I had no idea she had joined the army.
“Yeah, I joined the army,” she explained. “When you got turned into a Guardian, there was no one to hang out with at home, so I joined up to incinerate some goblins.”
Well, that was just peachy. I could die with my only friend. Gray gave me the tour of the camp. It was mostly just a bunch of burlap tents lined up in orderly rows. The only striking moment was when Gray ran headlong into a stone castle. It wasn’t a large castle, mind you--just a stone tower. Nursing a bloody nose, he yelled:
“Honestly, Shimmer, you idiot! Why on earth did you rig that stupid vaporizing castle to an intruder detection alarm?!” He paused, stopping to consider, and said, “And why am I one of the intruders!?”
Getting no reply, he explained to me.
“Shimmer is a conjuring magician. He think’s he’s so great just because I can’t summon a castle at will. Just try not to cross him. He’s powerful. And don’t let him sit on you; I’ve never found anyone who conjured so many pastries at a time. But since he’s a Guardian, we have to let him stay here. And note that his magic isn’t as good as it looks.” He stuck a foot into one of the stone bricks. It instantly froze into a solid mass. A booming voice rang out.
“I HEARD THAT, GRAY!” Gray made a face.
“FETCH ME SOME PASTRIES, AND I’LL LET YOU OUT!” came the voice.
Gray’s grimace turned into a mischievous grin.
“Coming right up!”
He contorted his face and a pan of bread came zooming out of a larger tent. He paused and struck it with a weak electric charge. Weak for a lightning magician, I mean.
“Here it is!” He levitated it through the highest window of the tower. The block of stone holding his foot instantly turned gaseous again as Shimmer raged on about how he wanted a real pastry, not a tin of burned bread. The tour continued.
“And here we have the tent where you’ll be staying with Maple and two other Guardians, Fern and Leaf,” Gray explained. A slight girl with a face as pale as paper and ragged brown hair looked out.
“Well, hello there. I’m Leaf. Guardian of the labyrinth of icy caves underground. Fern’s in spider mode at the moment, so I don’t think you’ll be wanting to see her..”
Gray paused for a moment, then agreed and explained to me.
“Once a Guardian has reached a certain level of power, they can changed into an animal at will. They don’t pick the animal--Shimmer keeps trying to change his panda bear into a grizzly--and they also change into it when they’re weak, especially when sleeping. Also, have you ever seen anyone’s aura before?” I shook my head.
“They’re sort of like a colored heat haze around someone,” Gray continued. “They can’t change color and are intangible. You can see them if you’ve been exposed to a certain degree of magic. Can you see mine?”
Sure enough, I could. If I strained my eyes, there was a faint dark gray haze hovering around him, appearing to be a curl of smoke.
“Do I have one?” I asked.
Gray looked me up and down, then gave the verdict.
“Yep. Yours is sort of deep blue. I think that’s supposed to symbolize belief in mortality, loyalty, and aversion to my pastries. Of course, all the colors symbolize the latter.” With that, the discussion was closed.
Chapter V :: Training
“No one is born, with the ability to do everything. That’s why we invented Superman.”
“And now,” Gray yelled as he paced up and down in front of us, “you’re in training. You’ll find which weapon is best for you and practice with it. Any questions?” I didn’t respond, but one of the younger trainees next to me spoke up.
“Yes. What will we be practicing on?” I glared at him for acting so knowledgeable. He was only eight or nine years old. Gray answered promptly, rattling off weapon names.
“Sword, bow, crossbow, flail, warhammer, battleaxe, knife. Choose one. Go and look for weapons. You’ll be beating up on those poor straw dummies over there,” he added, gesturing behind him. “I should start an organization for the protection of straw dummies.”
The students flocked forward, leaving me standing dumbly, considering which weapon I wanted to use. I’d never really used a weapon, so I pulled out a sheet of notepaper and listed everything. I do like to list things.
- Knife :: Plausible; used before.
- Sword :: Unlikely, but possible.
- Bow :: Maybe.
- Crossbow :: Unlikely.
- War-Hammer :: Too heavy.
- Battle-Axe :: Far too heavy.
- Flail :: Too precarious.
That decided it. I would start with a bow. I told Gray, who looked me up and down before handing me a light bow. He showed me how to nock an arrow (not a good omen) and directed me to a dummy, painted in red and white to show where to shoot for. I took aim, drew back the bowstring, fired..
By a good five meters.
Gray took one look at me, shook his head (I wonder how short-staffed they had to be to hire him as an instructor) and directed me back to the piles of weapons. He tossed me a crossbow. I looked doubtfully at it, but drew back the string and slid the bolt into the right position (notice Gray didn’t have to tell me how to do it). I knelt, took aim, and fired. The bolt shot straight and true, thunking into the wood just shy of the red circle that marked the target location. Gray, who had been watching, whistled.
“That was nicely done,” he remarked. “You just need to practice some. BACK TO TRAINING!”
And that was that.
Chapter VI: Battle
“Some say War and Death are best friends. In reality, War is the boss who always wants more.”
-Death, The Book Thief
It was two weeks in my stay with the army that the first goblin attack appeared. They were heralded by an immense war standard and a booming horn.
“Sounds like Shimmer when Gray’s stolen his pastries at dinner,” Maple remarked. “You’re supposed to head to the generals’ tent to eat pastries and strategize.”
I headed off without further ado. I had barely entered the generals’ tent before the minds of everyone there were made up. We would meet them head-on directly outside of the volcano. I would be put with a crossbow in one of Shimmer’s vaporizing towers above the battlefield. Each crossbow user would have a guard to protect them from other attacks. My guard happened to be Gray. He would help me perform magic. I pointed out that my aura was blue, which, according to Leaf, symbolized a strength for water or ice magic, while Gray was a master of fried eggs. Wouldn’t that be a bad combination? Gray stated that:
“No. You’ll channel any magic I use through you quite well and a minimal amount of organs will be roasted.”
I was actually not very nervous. I mean, I would have Gray up there, wouldn’t I? That would help, wouldn’t it? I was actually quite unlikely to die, be maimed, or have any bit of me vaporized. The battle began more suddenly than I expected. Gray levitated me, himself, and several other archer-guard teams up into the air, and Shimmer formed a tower around us. I shuddered as I looked down. I’ve been quite afraid of heights ever since falling off a shed when I was eleven. However, I wasn’t going to let my fear show. I was just going to… shoot some goblins. As the first wave of the advancing army marched out of the volcano, Gray drew breath.
“My God!” he exclaimed. “Shade Konig--the Shade King and our main nasty overlord guy--is leading the attack personally!”
I was pretty sure this was bad; my suspicions were confirmed when the guy in armor at the front with a purple staff raised a hand. A gravity vortex (Gray had taught me about those; earth magicians were best at them, but air magicians and some others could pull them off as well) opened in front of him, tossing the front lines of soldiers far and wide and, even from this distance, making my internal organs try to figure out where they were supposed to be.
I fired a bolt from my crossbow, but Gray put his hand on mine and stopped me from firing another. The gravity vortex picked it up and threw it at the goblin army, but in a different direction. It clattered off a shield. I racked my brains for all the spells I had ever learned. I could use the Tsunami Spell or Poseidon’s Curse to break it. But those were still powerful spells. And there were no bodies of water nearby to draw water from, which would make it much harder to do if I had to summon it from scratch. But wait! It had been raining a lot lately, and it looked like there was more on the way. I started drawing humidity out of the ground, the clouds, the puddles. Gray noticed what I was doing and said:
“Careful. If it’s too weak, it’ll count as a Wave Spell and not break it. Remember, it’s not the strength of the spell. It’s the type of spell. Magic is weird that way.”
I fervently agreed wordlessly. I agreed on that. Magic was weird. In terms of spells canceling other spells, it just had to count as a certain type, not be a certain type and stronger than the other spell. However, when two spells that were not related collided, strength did matter. I took a deep breath, preparing myself for the spell. The gravity vortex was making it hard for me to concentrate.
However, I was going to have to try. My eyes closed. I took another deep breath. Deep breaths helping is a myth, just so you know. I could feel blood pounding in my ears. Finally, I let loose. An immense wave rolled across the battlefield, sweeping up all soldiers, goblin and human alike, and depositing them in various uncomfortable positions. I felt no pulling at my innards, so either the gravity vortex had stopped or I had died. My vision grew fuzzy, sounds blurred into an indistinct monotonic buzz, and I blacked out.
Chapter VII: Infirmary
“There is no shame in being hurt. The only shame is using injury as an excuse.”
I woke on clean white sheets with two views of reality: on my left, Gray, and on my right, a floating eyeball. I decided to take the left one first, although it was the one more likely to pepper me with witticisms. Eyeballs generally aren’t very conversational. “You were out for a few days,” Gray said when I asked. He read from the clipboard at the bottom of my bed. “Autumn. Last name unknown. Magic overload. Badly sprained ankle, multiple lacerations. Rank: Guardian. Eyewitnesses say she fainted after using a medium-power tsunami spell.”
He looked up. “I was the eyewitness. That was quite a wave. The nurse is a master of understatement.”
He ducked a roll of paper aimed at his head from the nurse.
“And I didn’t say ‘fainted’. I said you passed out. Didn’t think ‘fainted’ was the right term.”
I agreed. Fainted sounded too ladylike. And I was not a lady.
“H-how’d I get the ankle?” I asked him, rather shakily.
“You fell from the tower when you passed out. Luckily, we weren’t very high up. And the eyeball sort of caught you. They’re immensely strong, you know. Speaking of floating eyeballs, I think I’ll let you two have some time together.” He walked off, leaving me with a (now phosphorescing gently) floating eyeball. Not much came of that, except a floating eyeball bumping against my cheek.
Chapter VIII: Death, Destruction, Pastries, and Rotten Dinner
“I eat all food.”
“Then why are you not eating that?”
“I said food.”
-Bjorn Pellmyr, and his comedy ego
I looked down at my plate and inhaled.
“This smells funny,” I stated.
Gray, sitting across from me, agreed.
“Why does my tingling sixth sense say Shimmer’s cooking today?” he asked devilishly.
At last, after what was probably a horrible battle between his insatiable hunger and the thought of Shimmer’s cooking, he left the table. Wondering why on earth I was believing this trickster, I followed, leaving the floating eyeball eating the drooping vegetables. Maple had avoided dinner too, it seemed. She was already fast asleep in the tent when I got there.
Outside, it had started to snow. Soft, white flakes drifted down outside the tent flap. The coarse burlap fabric was already bending under the snow’s weight. The poles holding it up were visibly straining; they were only some dry branches I had salvaged from a fallen pine tree. A faint scent of wet hair permeated the whole thing. A solitary lantern (unused, since we had the benefits of eyeball-light) sat forlornly in the corner near my head. Snowdrifts were already starting to form around the entrance; Maple edged her sleeping bag away from them nervously, dragging Fern’s unused one with her. I groaned incoherently. Snow meant snowballs and less rain, but it also meant cold, few provisions, sickness, and even worse pastries than normal. Not a pleasant prospect.
Ah, well. Winter was upon us. Suddenly, the floating eyeball drifted through the tent flaps with a small hat of snow on its head eye. It belched; apparently something had been wrong with the vegetables. Gray ducked in after it.
“Can I come in?” I considered this a strange question, given that he had already stepped inside. “Breaking news: Dinner was bad. Shimmer is being blamed. I’m not surprised and not pitying. Fern and Leaf are both in the infirmary, so you two have the tent for yourselves.”
The floating eyeball made a strange sound at him--part shriek, part belch. Rather than have his limbs chewed on, Gray agreed, “Awright, awright! You three.”
Chapter IX: Attacko el Goblino Numero Dos
“Any fool can speak Spanish. Just don’t let the Spanish hear you.”
Most of our troops were still recovering from the rotten dinner incident when the second goblin attack arrived, which made it difficult. Well, that and the giant mechanical monsters of doom, destruction and bad pastries. I have to explain from the beginning.
Our first warning that the goblins were attacking was, of course, the battle horn. We also felt a rumbling from deep underground. But no one payed much attention to that. Fatal mistake. The goblins attacked, as per usual, although Shade Konig wasn’t leading them this time. However, right as we were starting to win--and I thought this only happened in board games - the tides turned. Quickly. The rumbling we had been feeling all day increased to a powerful grinding noise underground. Suddenly, an immense mechanical serpent burst out of the ground at the back of our army, leapt up into the air, and smashed back into the ground.
Two clean holes were left at its entrance and exit points, each no less than 10 meters across. The giant serpent, which, upon closer inspection, revealed itself to be a giant metal lamprey eel, almost 50 meters long, kept lunging in and out of the ground, like a fish in a pond trying to catch insects on the surface. Red lights flashed all along the length of its body. The next rumble came under the tower I was perched in. I leaped down and landed on my feet--warrior training was helping me--and then dashed out of the way. The lamprey arced into the air, looking for all the world like a malevolent metal rainbow, and crashed down again, this time 15 meters from me. It repeated this several times.
I was thankful for its terrible aim, but I wasn’t thankful when Gray, the world-class idiot, leaped on its back and started performing the charge spell - a lightning spell that would give him more power to perform something impressive. Although he couldn’t get everything out in one pass, he eventually gave me the story.
“Trying! To! Zap! St--WHOA--upid snake! Char--YOW--ging up! Energy: Meta! lt doesn’t--li--ke electri--city!”
Gray let loose a jolt of power so powerful it made the hairs on the back of my neck--I hate it when they do this--stand straight up. The serpent arced out of the ground one more time. It thrashed its tail, hopefully in its death throes. Then it zoomed down underground, heading toward the volcano. That’s when I discovered a tiny problem - Gray was nowhere to be seen. Maple appeared at my elbow. A large gash showed on her left forearm and was oozing blood gently.
“Gray…?” she gasped. Then, apparently recovering, she said, “I bet you ten copper coins he’s dead!”
I was too busy gaping in shock. Gray, the one who had saved me? Gray, the one who had taught me? Gray, the one who had protected me? Dead? I absolutely refused to believe it. I had given up all hope when the side of the volcano exploded violently in a crackle of electricity. I could detect the user of the magic: Someone I had felt many times before. Gray stumbled out of the rubble, one arm held awkwardly, his head down, and pinkish-red dust in his tangled black mop. He limped forward, his feet catching on chunks of stone. He stumbled, and I caught him. I raised my voice and cleared my throat, the sound coming forth loudly and hoarsely.
“We need a doctor. Is there a doctor here?”
Part II: Into Fire
Chapter I: After Some Time..
“I don’t mind waiting. It’s the wait part I don’t like.”
It was one year and several more goblin battles later when Gray managed to walk without a crutch. His knee had been damaged badly in the underground struggle, and it would never heal completely. In the meantime, he had been up in a tower, raining bolts, thunder and pastries down upon the enemy. A support crutch was always near in case something happened. I swear, Gray with a crutch was more deadly than an old lady with an umbrella. He could swing it in a horrible arc, mowing down goblins by the dozen. Meanwhile, the giant mechanical serpent (it was called the Doomsday Machine informally) had made appearances in three out of the five battles with the goblins. We had lost about two hundred soldiers in each confrontation.
When we had first started, the army had been made up of more than 1,500. Now, it was down to about 650. It was the beginning of Trick-Month when I asked Gray about Dwarves. The old woman had told me about them, but I hadn’t seen any. Gray answered:
“Oh, the Dwarves. Well, now that you mention it, I haven’t seen them either. They’re probably mostly dead. Some of ‘em might be in hiding.”
I told him that I was going to go and find them. Reluctantly, he agreed.
“But you’ll need a troop of people to go with you. I’m a given, and you can pick maybe six other soldiers.”
When I gave him a skeptical look, he replied hotly. “I can sneak around just fine! There’s nothing wrong with my knee!”
He immediately winced imperceptibly. I made sure to look away before rolling my eyes. It was dark inside the volcano. The only light was the torch that Gray held and the distant fiery glow from the lava at what seemed to be the very core of the earth. It looked like the surface of the sun from so high up, always bubbling and undulating with a powerful glow. The troop of eight people snuck along a ledge high above a troop of goblins.
“Don’t worry,” Gray said. “It hardly ever erupts.”
I wasn’t reassured. One of our troops, the one behind Gray, was an expert tracker. He was moving his hands along the reddish rock when his finger brushed something odd. It was perfectly camouflaged, but it moved inwards when he touched it. Arrows--no, they weren’t arrows, they were steel crossbow bolts--were shooting from the button at an alarming rate. He let out an incoherent yell as the first one pierced his throat on the left side and ripped straight through the right side, into open air. The bolts kept flying out. Suddenly more buttons appeared on the walls and opened fire.
Gray yelped. “DUCK!”
I thought that was a little late. One more warrior went down, his steel battleaxe teetering on the edge of the ledge, then following the crossbow bolts downwards. I hoped it split some goblin skulls upon impact. Its owner followed it, moments later. A third warrior tried to keep her balance and then tumbled over the edge, screaming like a siren. I hoped she didn’t splatter on impact. The goblins probably didn’t have any mops nearby. Gray, meanwhile, was searching along the walls for something, probably an on/off switch. Apparently finding something, he pressed. A door slid open silently just above him. It was too small for to walk through, but he could probably wriggle through it just fine. Gray was one of those skinny kids who eats a ton but never gets fat. The other warriors went first, then hoisted me up. I grabbed onto Gray’s wrist and pulled him up after me. Just as expected, it was a tight fit, and occasionally one of the warriors would get stuck, but in the end we made it through. A large cave greeted us, full of short, burly people holding battle-axes and war-hammers.
Chapter II: Dwarves, not Midgets!
“There was a time when “midget” was the good word and “dwarf” was the bad word."
-Jason, Anything But Typical
The thing that first went through my mind was, a troop of midgets! I almost said this before I remembered Gray’s warning to not offend them. Calling them midgets might just do that. He knelt so he was level with the largest Dwarf, then spoke in a gravelly language.
“Grüße, Dwarflord. Ich bin Gray und das sind meine Krieger. Ich komme, um Frieden mit dir machen und bitte um Ihre Unterstützung. Was sagen Sie?”
The Dwarf lord stood straighter and put the pole of his battleaxe against the ground. He replied through a woolly beard.
“Also Sie sind gekommen, um uns zu helfen. Die Goblins inhaftiert uns hier. Oder besser gesagt, liefen wir von ihnen und versteckte sich hier. Ich vertraue darauf, entdeckt unser Abwehrmechanismus? Ja, wir werden kommen und dir helfen. Sie haben viele unserer Schmiede gefangen und zwingt sie zu tödlichen Metall Giganten erstellen. Im Namen meines Volkes, ich entschuldige mich überschwänglich.”
All I could get from that was that they weren’t going to kill us. We took the path back and managed to get out of the volcano just as a spurt of lava told us that someone wasn’t very happy.
Chapter III: Hammertime!
The goblins attacked almost at once after we had rescued the Dwarves. They came only a day after, just as the sun was setting. This time, they brought even more destructive toys. I have included a list for you to understand: Our friend the lamprey, an immense skeleton with all sorts of power tools attached two eyeballs--that I suspected were enlarged versions of the ones I had met-- that both breathed fire and, I must admit, the Dwarves handled these wonderfully. Each left with sizable dents in them from battleaxes and hammers (the skeleton lost its drill; it would make a wonderful battering ram in the future). However, we had also sustained losses.
Out of 150 Dwarves, 122 remained, and our soldiers had been reduced to just 475 or so. However, something would happen soon that would boost our might immensely.. Late at night, Gray dashed into our tent.
“Someone’s coming!” he yelled. “A big cloud of dust on the horizon!” He then dashed off.
Maple, Leaf, Fern and I all disentangled ourselves from where we had been huddled in our sleeping bags and followed him. We found what had caused the cloud of dust: the Golem Army, or so Gray called it. It was made up of three-meter-tall creatures, each made of a different stone. There had to be 1,000 golems, easily. Most were gray-black basalt, brilliant red sandstone, or sparkling granite, but there were a few others: a pinkish-red golem that looked to be made of the volcano-stone, a solidly black golem with a glassy face, a softly luminescent golem, and a spiky golem that looked to be made out of some yellow-orange jewel--citrine, probably. There were probably more; those were just the ones in the front line.
The lead golem raised an arm. It spoke in my mind: You are in grave danger. That is not why we come. The ancient forces of the elements have been unbalanced, putting the world itself in grave danger. That is why we come. We shall fight beside you!
I must admit, I was pretty impressed. It’s not every day an immense army of living stone comes to be your ally. I rather liked that. Were our ratings that high? I had decided to start a diary. My first entry was going to be detailing all the golems I could count.
- One dreary day, I climbed into a high birch tree to start counting. My final count before it got dark and I had to climb down was:
- Basalt Golems :: 243.
- Granite Golems :: 239.
- Sandstone Golems :: 214.
- Quartz Golems :: 188.
- Volcano Stone Golems :: 164.
- Feldspar Golems :: 142.
- Mud Brick Golems :: 141.
- River Clay Golems :: 131.
- Brick Golems :: 118.
- Obsidian Golems (Note :: Hard to see in darkness.) :: 83.
- Glowing Golems (Note :: Helpful for finding other golems in darkness.) :: 64.
- Steel Golems :: 27.
- Lapis Lazuli Golems :: 18.
- Glass Golems (Note :: Hard to see, only visible when outlined against something.) :: 9. (Because of low visibility.)
- Amethyst Golems :: 9.
- Aquamarine Golems :: 8.
- Citrine Golems :: 5.
- Sapphire Golems :: 5.
- Emerald Golems :: 5.
- Ruby Golems :: 5.
- Solid gold Golems (!!!): 4.
- Diamond Golem (Golem king?) :: 1.
That added up to almost 2,000 golems! And that was all I could count! We were going to win this war for sure with them on our side. I had been doing some research about golems in response to our new allies, but this was all I could find:
The Golem is a very strange Magical Species. They are created by an animator, who is a powerful Magician. Earth Magicians are best at creating Golems, but most Magicians have the capability to create them as well. Golems are extremely strong Species. They are created by forming a human-like Figure out of a certain Stone, then imbuing it with an extraordinarily powerful Animation Spell. The Golem will come to life, and the Animator must tell it what its directions are and who its Master is, or risk extermination at the hands of the Golem. The harder the stone a Golem is made from, the stronger it will be. Most are powerful enough to dispatch one or two weak Mages before dying. Golems do not exactly die; they crumble, and the Animation Spell is broken. This occurs when they have been mortally wounded (in one of their joints; these are a Golem’s weak points) or when they have been struck by so much Magic that it Overloads their System. The material they were made from becomes merely a Heap of Rubble; it cannot be made into another Golem ever again.
So that was how golems were created. Interesting. I wonder who might’ve created all those in the Golem Army. Now that was a daunting thought. Or maybe it was multiple magicians. Probably. At any rate, we had some very powerful new friends! I only hoped they stayed friends..
Chapter IV: Invasion Positions are Switched
“War is not the challenge. Peace is.”
It was the middle of the night when Gray kicked the tent flap so that a gust of cold wind rushed in right over my nose. I was sleeping near the entrance, and woke up almost at once. I’m not a very deep sleeper. Gray whispered:
“Come on. We’re planning an attack on the volcano. Come on!”
I followed him to the command tent. Gray, Fern, Leaf, Shimmer and another Guardian called Jacques were there. They were in the midst of a heated discussion over a long wooden table. Shimmer pounded his fist on the table and declared:
“We’ll attack head on! Break through the wall and tear ‘em all apart!”
Gray disagreed vehemently. “No, we’ll sneak in through different small entrances in little groups and sneak attack!”
Much chaos and bickering ensued. Finally, everything was decided. Leaf magically magnified her voice and yelled out across the camp.
“Okay, everyone, wake up! We’re attacking the volcano this time, rather than the other way around! Everyone form into groups of six soldiers! One commander will join you! You each will take a granite, sandstone or basalt golem with you! Dwarves, you can join who you want!”
There was much scuffling and running around as everyone tried to get the groups they wanted. Finally, all the troops got organized.
“Alright!” Leaf shouted. “These six groups--" She indicated the six groups standing nearest to her. “--will approach through the six holes in the volcano. They will then follow the paths Gray has set to the nearest groups of goblins. Ready?”0
A resounding cheer sounded.
I was in one of the groups sent inside. With us was a dwarf and a sandstone golem. The sandstone golem was about 4 meters tall--tall for a golem--and couldn’t get into the small entrance Gray had made. It just swung its massive red-gold left arm and smashed a huge hole in. I guess it didn’t care about being spotted. Maybe it had gotten used to it. It was almost pitch-black inside. We were in a short tunnel, maybe 10 meters long. All of us were hit with a tidal wave of heat as we entered. The tunnel opened up into a small cave. An evil-smelling lava pool glowed hotly about 20 meters away.
The walls were almost vertical and seemed to go up forever. The pinkish-red rock was rough as my gloved hand rubbed against it. I could make out the dim silhouettes of my comrades, but just barely. The only sound was the horrible screaming coming from high above. I had no idea what it was. There weren’t even any bats in sight--not a happy sign.
Probably been eaten already, I thought to myself.
Realizing that everyone was waiting on me, I stepped forward.
The floor where my right foot was immediately crumbled into reddish powder. I stumbled, realizing that if I fell any farther, I would end up in an immense underground chasm. I could see skeletons on the ground 50 meters below. A few were bleached clean, but some.. Well, let’s just say that was one moment of my life where I didn’t want fresh meat. My leg went farther in, and the hole widened, taking my left foot with it. I caught myself before falling through, realizing that I was hanging from a crumbling ledge over a deep chasm by my fingertips--a predicament I had thought happened to a character only in storybooks. Only this time, there was no Prince Charming to make me kiss him and haul me back up with his magnificent physique.
However, luckily for me, the golem, who was apparently not standing in shock (do golems have emotions?) reached down with on hand and hoisted me back up. The floor had stopped crumbling into the chasm when the hole I had made was about a meter and a half wide. The problem was, the dwarf (who probably wasn’t the greatest jumper ever, especially with a heavy chain-mail coat and an immense warhammer), two warriors, me and the golem were all left on the wrong side of the hole.
The passageway was blocked by an oval-shaped, razor-edged pithole that led to almost certain doom. I saw no easy way we could get the heavy figures over. The dwarf? A stretch. The golem? Impossible. Just then I had a thought. What had Gray said about floating eyeballs? Then I remembered: They’re immensely strong, you know. Maybe that could be used to my advantage. But how to summon my unplanned pet? I decided to try an eyeball-like shriek. Raising a finger to tell the group to wait a moment, I opened my mouth and, with a wrench that probably slaughtered any hope of me ever singing, let an eyeball shriek loose.
It sounded like a dying canary. Whose throat was made of metal razorblades. Good imitation.
I waited a moment. Suddenly, the shrieking we had heard when we first stepped in got closer. I guessed it had been my eyeball--or something else I shouldn’t have screeched at. It was of the latter category. One of the two giant eyeballs that the goblins had so kindly bestowed on us in the last battle had answered the cry. It lunged toward the rock tunnel we had entered, then realized it couldn’t get in because it was a good 15 meters high, and ours was maybe six. Its iris split open, making me swear off meat for the rest of my life, and turned into a set of powerful jaws.
I saw a bright orange glow, even more intense than that of the lava pool that was still bubbling and smelling a little ways away, come into life at the back of its throat. “It’s going to blow fire!” I yelled, loud enough for everyone to scatter. The Dwarf used his hammer to smash an exit route out of the tunnel, and we followed. I liked his style. However, the two men in front didn’t move. I had seen this happen in the battle against the eyeballs: there’s just some little thing about having a giant loose eyeball in front of you, about to char you to a crisp, that makes you scared - too scared to move.
I wonder what it is, I thought sarcastically.
While the rest of us scattered, the eyeball let loose a jet of flame so powerful that it burned the left side of my face, which was facing its way. The jet only traveled three or four meters, though. This must have been the powerful eyeball: One could cover a huge area with unpleasantly hot flames, while the other could make a short, but extremely hot, inferno of fire. The two men that had been transfixed before its gaping maw were no more; only a black smear on the ground told anyone they had just been standing there, had had friends and family, had even walked upon the earth. Meanwhile, the sandstone golem and the dwarf charged at the eyeball, each from different sides. It decided to focus on the golem first. It opened its mouth. However, heating up for a furnace blast that hot took time, and that time was enough for the golem to deal it a hefty smack in the mouth, knocking out several teeth. The Dwarf struck it on the opposite side of its head repeatedly, probably damaging something. The eyeball faltered and began to try to draw in heat again, this time at a much slower rate. Meanwhile, the Dwarf and golem backed off as I shot two bolts from my crossbow just above its mouth. They hit so hard they actually disappeared from view.
The eyeball finally let loose with its fire breath, which had apparently warmed up to a satisfactory degree. The air itself was blistered and burned, so that breathing was impossible. I had to roll and dive to avoid the blast. After what felt like years, but what was probably seconds, it stopped. The air returned to its smelly, stagnant state. I looked up through stinging eyes. Half of the sandstone golem was gone! Then I realized that the heat was so intense it had been turned to glass. That was impressive, I had to admit. But right now there was an immense eyeball heating up to kill us. I focused on the main threat. The eyeball was starting to heat up for a third inferno that would probably vaporize us all when I had an idea. The troops would have moved on; we had been here for about an hour, and ¾ of an hour was the time limit. “Out of the tunnel!” I yelled, so that everyone could hear.
They all complied. I took aim, all the while backing out of the tunnel myself. Then, just as the eyeball was opening its gaping jaws even wider, I launched a flaming bolt. My guess that the thing had some inner reserve of highly flammable material was correct. The eyeball exploded violently, burying the entrance under a thousand tons of rubble. But I was already out. Then, the volcano blew its top.
Chapter V: Flame-Broiled
“Flame-broiled is a state that should be applied only to French cooking. Not to humans.”
I woke in the infirmary with Gray standing next to my cot. His arms were crossed. I felt a cool, wet sensation on my left cheek. That was where I had been burned. I raised my hand to it and gently touched it. I felt a cool paste touch my fingers. It was blissful. Gray, who had had his eyes closed, opened them.
“Ah, good, you’re awake,” he said.
“Wha?” I asked groggily. He explained.
“That was a very impressive explosion. Yours was the second to last group out. As for the last group: three are dead, two have sustained major burns, one is missing, and the other two are fine. As for your group: Two are dead, three have minor burns, one is fine, and the golem was turned half to glass. Can you explain?”
I nodded and told him what had happened. He whistled.
“Well, I wouldn't have thought of blowing up that eyeball with a flaming bolt. And the goblins are sealed in. We estimate that a third to a half of them have been incinerated. But more are coming, mark my words. More are coming. As for those two incinerated soldiers, they won’t really be missed. They were very low-ranking officers and joined the army to get away from the power of the drink.”
I knew what he was talking about. My father had had to treat more than one patient who was wallowing in a world that was slowly eating them to death as they sank further and further into its quagmires. I was out of the infirmary within the day. My burns, apparently, weren’t that serious, since most of the explosion went out of the little cave we had been fighting in. I was thankful for that. I prefer to avoid being roasted. Being cooked tends to take the fun out of your day, don’t you think? The goblins were silent for quite a while after I blew up their home. They didn’t attack for several months. I liked it that way. While they were plotting, rebuilding their home and hiring new forces, I spent more time learning about the golems. It turned out that it had been four magicians that had created the Golem Army. I had interviewed a few of the quartz golems: being made of sturdy material, they were generally older than most other golems. Through telepathy, they told me that the four magicians were one Bartimaeus Rail, Thorvald Strongwand, Karina Thorvaldswife, and Cleopatra Lastqueen. They had created so many golems that the power they held incinerated each of them. The golems combined their magic to gain consciousnesses, which allowed them to form the Golem Army.
Apparently, the magicians had never meant them to have any sort of consciousness; those were the early days of golem-making and they weren’t yet sure exactly how golems’ minds worked - or if they had any at all. However, thousands of years later, magicians had deduced that golems could, to some extent, think for themselves, and know what to do in a given situation. I had known that much already; from the way the sandstone golem had leapt into battle against the giant eyeball, I had guessed that it knew very well what to hit, thank you very much. But they were still fascinating creatures. According to some of the quartz golems I interviewed, certain golems were best for different tasks.
For example, obsidian golems were excellent for high-temperature situations, while gold golems actually melted if they were put in a hot place. But gold golems could handle powerful acids, whereas obsidian ones could not. Certain materials could also be used to make golems, even if they weren’t stone. However, materials with natural energy made for extremely hard-to-control and very powerful golems, since they had a sense of freedom. Some of the materials for making “living golems,” as they were called, were wood and hay. Both of those, being organic material, created extremely powerful golems. However, the only two people who had tried to create hay golems had died extraordinarily painfully after their golems rebelled (one lasted a few months, while the other didn’t make it out of the animation spell) and no one in recorded history had tried a wood one.
They would just be too powerful to handle, even for a very powerful earth magician.
Chapter VI: The Reason the Goblins Haven’t Attacked
“Relief usually precedes realization. Realization usually punches relief right smack in the nose.”
As per usual, I was woken by a gust of icy air as Gray kicked the flap of the tent. After much chaos, all of the high-ranking army people were gathered in the still-freezing air, all staring expectantly at a gasping messenger, who had an arrow sticking out of his ankle. He gave his report:
“The goblins.. have gathered.. more forces.. than you could ever.. imagine. Terrorizing.. the countryside.. burning towns.. going to Wilburton.. gotta stop them..”
This caused much chatter and babble among the officials. The verdict was finally given: we would take one third of our forces and try to stop the goblins from terrorizing the countryside. I jogged back to my tent to pack; both Maple and I were going to Wilburton. Did I mention that was my former home? It was a cold march all the way to Wilburton. It was the first in a series of towns commonly called the Arc, because they were spaced in a rainbow shape. Whoopee skip. Rainbows and pastries and goblins raiding my home. Cheery. Only a few floating eyeballs were spotted. They were probably inactive because of the cold.
Three drunk soldiers were carried off by Kobolds on Loose Eye Road, but nobody missed them until someone else found they had taken the mead, too. There was an uproar after that, especially from the six Dwarves accompanying us. As we passed the old woman’s cabin (she invited us in for chowder, which everyone except Gray denied) we started to see pillars of smoke on the horizon. Beside me, Maple’s teeth were gritted so hard I wouldn’t’ve been surprised if they had all fallen out. I was worried too, especially when the scent of wood smoke reached my nose. As we crested the hill that “protected” Wilburton from attack, I immediately lost all hope. The town was a charred, smoking mess, heavy with the scent of burned boards and lit by the last dying flames. As I stared in disbelief, a light drizzle began to fall, as if someone up in the sky was mourning the loss of a town. Maple spoke beside me. “Let’s… go down. See if… if anyone’s still… alive.” The last words were a whisper, and her speech was slow and halting.
I started down the well-worn path to the town, knowing exactly where my old home had been. But in this charred mess, I still didn’t know if I could recognize anything I had once known. As we reached the approximate location of my old home, Gray, who had led the march, spoke up.
“Let’s see if anyone’s still in there. But it’s still smoldering. Send a golem.”
One of the obsidian golems stepped up and volunteered telepathically. We waited. I could hear the golem’s immense body moving about inside. Finally, it emerged. It held one thing: My younger brother’s stuffed bear toy. He had slept with it since he was first born. To me, this was the final straw. A lost toy that was once loved but has no one to care for it is the saddest thing in the world. I knelt down on a charred board and sobbed.
Chapter VII: Battle for the Arc
'“Revenge is a good fuel, but not a good motive.”
The goblins were in the midst of burning the second town of the Arc, Beetlebrow, when we caught up with them.
After much challenging, grunting and sword-flashing, they finally charged us. Strangely, I wasn’t upset over the loss of my hometown anymore. It had passed, like a cloud over the sun.
Maple, however, was still stricken by grief. Her younger brother, older brother, mother and father were all confirmed dead. However, a search party had found her twin sister (alive), but she was in shock and resting in a makeshift infirmary. It shattered Maple to have her last remaining family member so close, yet so far. I supposed seeing her family all lying dead and scorched on the burned boards of her home might’ve done it too. After the goblins charged, chaos broke loose. It was every person for themselves. However, most of us were filled with righteous anger at the destruction of one and a half innocent towns, both fallen victim to the cruelty of an evil empire. If that wasn’t worth fighting for, nothing was.
The golems were amazing in their first real battle with us. I spent some time next to the sandstone golem that had gone into the volcano with me. It was even stronger than it had first seemed. Suddenly, a pack of goblins started dashing straight toward us. I telepathically told the golem that I had an idea and how to execute it. It fell to the blackened cobblestones on which we were fighting, acting as if it had died. The goblins pounced. I had made myself scarce and was hiding down a running-water hole. You would not believe the size of the spiders down there. The goblins wheeled about in confusion, unsure what had happened to the golem. Since it was half glass, it looked as if some immense monster had taken a chunk out of it. Thankfully, no goblins tried to investigate closely. They had terrible eyesight, apparently.
Once they were looking away, I shot one with a crossbow bolt and the golem dispatched the rest by hurling them a good eight meters in the air. I made a mental note never to annoy a golem. But they were handy if you wanted to travel to the moon. Very painfully. I think that righteous anger made all of us fight hard to defeat the goblins. Whatever it was, they didn’t stand a chance. We completely routed them. The living fifty or so had to run back to the volcano to recuperate. I didn’t envy them. Shade Konig, or whoever was in charge, was liable to give them a tongue-lashing - and probably more than that. Probably death, doom, destruction, dismemberment and/or bad pastries, each of which was more deadly and frightening than the last.
Chapter VIII: Return to Battle
“Go ahead and fight. Just DON’T SQUISH MY PASTRIES!”
As we traveled slowly back to the oh-so-familiar foot of the volcano, everyone’s spirits were down. The weather was sunny and bright, but everyone’s spirits were down in the ground - buried with everyone who had died in Wilburton and Beetlebrow. The casual slaughter of hundreds, maybe thousands, made all of us stop and think: What had we got ourselves into by challenging the new, more powerful Shade Konig? Were we ever going to come out alive? And what would happen to our friends and family after we died? Would Shade Konig rule our world? Who would live, and who would die? These cheery questions were certainly weighing hard on Maple.
She still hadn’t gotten over the loss of most of her family. On the bright side, her sister had recovered and was now chatting animatedly with Gray, who was trudging beside us and occasionally stepping on Kobolds’ hands as they poked out of the burrows. Her sister’s name, by the way, was Birch. The whole “tree” theme fit alright, I must admit. When we reached the volcano, there was a line of goblin soldiers with large spears standing in the road, blocking our path. Beside me, Gray scratched his nose and yelled, “Goblins, stand aside! We will crush you!” The goblins, predictably, didn’t move. Well, they did move, but not in the way we wanted. They just lowered their spears and charged at us. I had learned a bit about goblin spears: They were very strong, but rigid and a bit brittle. Each spear ranged from two to four meters long. Their tips were extremely sharp, and they were made out of--some said--diamond.
I could see the sunlight glint on the tips, and could tell that they were each tipped with a gem. The leader of the troop’s was glinting a fiery white, pointing out a diamond tip. The lieutenant--or at least the one taking orders from the leader--had a glinting red tip. Either they had already killed (or they had dipped it in strawberry jam), or, if I wasn’t mistaken, their tip was ruby. The others had opaque white tips, probably quartz.
I decided that I did not want to get stabbed by any spear, let alone these. So, as the first rank of goblins came at us, I ducked underneath a blow from one and ran off into the trees, loading my crossbow in the meantime. I had a small dagger, like all soldiers, but I didn’t fancy its odds against those spears. My crossbow bucked with recoil and a heavy, iron-tipped bolt slammed into a goblin, then traveled through him and into the next one. They both collapsed in a heap, their long spears swinging and striking one of their comrades in the head. Despite the thickness of goblin skulls, I guessed that might leave a mark. My second bolt struck a spear and ricocheted, swinging end over end and then clattering to the dirt. I had five left. The final goblin was dispatched by Gray’s longsword as he jumped over its head. Only one soldier on our side was killed.
Chapter IX: The Invasion Begins
“They brought death to my hometown!”
I sat at the table in the commanders’ tent, crossbow at my side. We had apparently been planning a final attack on the volcano, but I had only been notified of it at the last minute. The battle plan: We would attack at the new moon, one day from now. The army would split into three groups. One would defend the camp while the second and third would travel into the volcano. The second would enter via the front entrance, while the third would sneak around back. I would be part of the third, as would Gray. Maple and Birch, who had shown to be proficient with a pike, would be in the second. Fern would go with them, while Leaf would go with us. Shimmer, predictably, would be staying behind. Each attacking group would take a total of 500 or so golems. Guardians had to be prepared for any large monsters--there was still the giant steel man, the lamprey, the immense skeleton, the remaining eyeball, and probably many others. Gray had been looking grumpy during the whole thing--and after we had left the tent, he took me aside. He told me something I never wanted to know. He stood in front of me, snow falling into his black hair.
“Autumn, I wanted to let you know. If you see someone in all black, with a staff topped with a dodecahedral sapphire, let me handle him. I know him. He’s my brother.”
This came as an immense shock to me, and I had no idea what dodecahedral meant, but I nodded briefly. He gripped my shoulder.
“Promise me. I don’t want anyone but me hurt.”
I nodded again, silently. Well, that was a shock. I slogged through the deepening snow--it had come early this drizzle-month- contemplating what I had been told. All thoughts were banished from my mind when I felt something icy cold and wet splatter against my calf, shocking me out of my contemplation session. It was Maple. She had thrown a snowball at high speed toward me, apparently hoping to get my attention for a snowball fight. She had seen me throw, and knew that I would win. I picked up a handful of wet powder, sculpted it into an orb, and launched it hard. It hit Maple in the forehead, soaking her bright red hair. For the first time in a while, I felt happy. Strange how plastering your friends with ice does that.
Chapter X: Attack
“Old age and treachery can beat youth and skill.”
The attack on the volcano began at midnight on the new moon. Gray stood beside me. I was sick with worry, almost literally. What happened if he was killed? Maple? Leaf? Seeming to sense my thoughts, Gray turned.
“If you want to see what’s happening to someone,” he started, “you’ll use a spell for searching. For example, if you want to see what’s happening to me, say oculus panorama Gray Eriksson. You use their name in the spell. You’ll see everything from their eyes, although you won’t be able to communicate or sense their thoughts.”
I shuddered, thinking that if I ever wanted to sense Gray’s thoughts, I would drop dead right there. As the moon started falling, I heard a signal from the other side of the volcano. Fern whistled, loud and clear. That was the signal to move in. Gray led us through the same door I had taken when I had blown up the eyeball. The ground was now charred and black, and the hole in the floor that led into the skeleton-filled chasm was widened to almost seven meters across. Most of the tunnel had collapsed with it. The lava pool had expanded, bubbling and stinking only 15 meters away now.
There were no giant eyeballs present, except if you count mine, which was hovering by my left ear and nervously gnashing its teeth. I could hear the second group using the skeleton’s drill to break down the immense gate in the volcano. It resounded through the empty space and off the rock walls. A dense fog rose up from the ground, smelling of brimstone and rotting meat. It was the color of drying blood. Suddenly, a tall figure materialized from the mist. No, “mist” is too poetic. Fog.
As it got closer, I could see the eyeball’s light reflecting off a tall scepter, and realized that it was the same thing that Gray had warned me to leave to him. At the same time the figure’s features became visible, Gray stepped forward. The figure looked exactly like Gray, except it was wearing a black cloak and hood as opposed to Gray’s gray cloak and hood. It also carried a scepter aloft, its sapphire sparking with energy and lighting up the dark. Gray’s longsword radiated a faint light as he drew it from its sheath. Suddenly he shouted, and the light level increased to something painful. Heat streamed in waves off it. When the light cleared, the two figures were gone.
I saw small pebbles fall down from a newly made hole in the cave ceiling and realized that the figure and Gray must have shot straight up in the air. There were flashes of white and blue light coming from a ledge high up on the side of the volcano. I supposed that was where they were battling.
Seeing that it was my job to lead the group now, I stepped forward cautiously. The memory of the Chasm of Bones, as Leaf called it, was still too fresh (no pun intended) in my mind. Thankfully, the floor held beneath my feet. We stepped out into the main body of the volcano. An immense lake of lava glowed and bubbled a little ways away, filling the entire cavern with sickly orange light and lighting it up so I could see the details. The volcano itself was larger than the cathedral that had once stood at the heart of Wilburton, easily. Its walls were almost vertical, and spikes of reddish-pink rock jutted out of them at irregular intervals. Gems glittered in the higher reaches, where the goblins hadn’t mined yet. There were no bats, but the second giant eyeball was flying about near the top.
“Be careful,” Leaf, who had apparently noticed the eyeball too, ordered. “That eyeball probably has excellent eyesight.”
“You think?” I muttered.
I gestured with my left hand to a ramp of jagged stone, leading up to the cave where we had found the Dwarves. One of the Dwarves noticed it too.
“Folgen Sie dieser Leiste! Es führt zu einer Höhle, wo wir verstecken!” he said, brandishing his battleaxe. After some discussion, our third of the army decided to split into six smaller groups.
One group--mine--was going up the ledge, while the others would take “other directions,” according to Leaf. We climbed and stumbled up the ledge. But finally, when we had reached the top, about 15 meters up, one of the soldiers fell. He rolled off, hitting the ground far below. His armor clattered on the rock. As if that wasn’t enough, his sword struck bottom a moment after, sending a tiny clatter around the walls. 21 left.
The eyeball, which had been circling the volcano far above our heads, dived. It heated up as it flew, and by the time it came in range, it had enough firepower to flambe seven soldiers and a Dwarf while filling all of our lungs with uncomfortably hot air, even though it was the weak one of the former two eyeballs. 13 left. I yelled.
“Fire! Shoot fire down its throat and then RUN!” Several of our archers nocked flaming arrows. But apparently the eyeball had learned from what happened to its twin. It closed its mouth with an immense snap that was much louder than the one my eyeball had made, just minutes before. Then it shot off to a vantage point about 50 meters away.
I knelt down on my right knee and nocked my crossbow, aiming at the flying eyeball. I knew this shot had to count. There wasn’t time to light the bolt. The eyeball was darting back and forth, heating up. Just as I fired, it let loose. I jumped to the side, managing to avoid most of the blast, but the crossbow bolt went wide, arcing a good 5 meters to the eyeball’s right. I lowered my head, all hope lost.
Suddenly, a flash of energy lit up the darkness near the eyeball. Two smoky figures were barely visible inside it, but a whirlwind of energy surrounded them, so I couldn’t figure out who they were. But I was certain they were Gray and his brother, in an incredibly intense battle. The hurricane around them--I guessed that was Gray’s work--blasted away the crossbow bolt, slamming it into the side of the eyeball. The eyeball roared in agony, making most of my company cover their ears. I launched a second bolt, which pierced the eyeball’s immense pupil. It roared again and, blinded by pain, lurched around in erratic flight. Suddenly, it took a nosedive, straight toward the volcano’s floor, 25 meters from us.
I covered my face and motioned for the rest of the patrol to do the same. The eyeball struck bottom. An immense explosion seemed to materialize. It spun all around me, expanding outwards and finally slamming into me with the force of a thousand sledgehammers. I was blasted backwards, through the wall, and into darkness. I must have unintentionally performed the searching spell as I lay there. Or maybe someone else performed it and it reversed. But no matter how I did it, I was greeted with a first-person vision of Maple’s broadsword swinging with blurring speed in front of my vision. Several goblins filled my vision. Each was dispatched, one by one, and I appreciated how good a swordsman my friend was. Still, it looked like everyone on the second attack party was fighting for their lives. I heard a rumbling sound - no, not the one the mechanical lamprey eel had made - and looked up. Or rather, Maple looked up. I saw a mass of cloud, filled with white and blue flashes.
That was all I saw before my vision grew fuzzy and I woke up.
Chapter XI: Ouch.
“All hail Captain Understatement!”
-Bjorn Pellmyr and his comedy ego
“Ouch,” I grumbled as I used my right arm to push myself up. Everything ached. Then I remembered the explosion. I looked up through squinting eyes and noticed that the wall near my head looked… different. The rock sort of undulated and flickered. I had seen this spell performed before. It was an illusion spell of medium power.
The memory of what happened after the explosion came back to me. Maybe that was the wall I’d fallen through.. I tried to push the flickering wall. As expected, my hand just went through. I followed it. The explosion created by the suicidal eyeball had left most of the volcano blackened and scorched. Thankfully, it hadn’t been incredibly powerful up on the ledge. Almost all of my patrol members were sitting or lying on the ledge, most unconscious. A few raised their heads blearily when I stepped past. However, they were all noticeably alive. A few had blacked out while leaning over the side of the ledge. The floor of the volcano had heaps of ash on it where they had fallen and died. Ten left.
I could still see the flash of weapons in the dim light by the front gate. Apparently the explosion hadn’t disrupted their trying to kill each other. I moved from patrol member to patrol member, shaking them to wake them up. Bit by bit, each soldier blinked groggily as their eyes opened to take in the charred volcano. Then they widened. Mine did too when I realized what I was standing on. The immense skeleton’s eyes lit up to an unpleasant red shade when it realized we were standing on its hand. It swung its arm, throwing several soldiers off. The rest of us jumped to the relative safety of its shoulder. The flying hand demolished part of the volcano wall before transforming into an immense saw blade, which flew toward its shoulder extremely quickly. Most of us dodged. One unlucky swordsman was cleaved in two. Nine left.
The saw slammed into the skeleton’s shoulder, cleaving it in two. It actually split the bone. Apparently Bone Boy wasn’t the brightest bulb in the basket. Its other hand hovered near its split shoulder, apparently considering what to do. I took advantage of its momentary indecision and fired a crossbow bolt into its chest. The skeleton backed off, recovering energy or whatever. One of the patrol members flung her sword. It passed between the skeleton’s upper and lower arm bones, severing them apart. Just as quickly, the bones knit back together. “That’s not fair,” I muttered. I realized that we had to cut its actual bones, not the connections. Otherwise it would just heal itself instantly. I yelled this order to the patrol, and they all tensed, their weapons ready. The skeleton’s left eye socket rotated. Then it glowed an intense red. I instinctively ducked, along with most of the troop, but one soldier didn’t. The left eye stared straight at that soldier. Then it lit up. A red beam as bright as the lava lake and as thick as my leg drilled straight through the soldier’s chest, burning them into ashes. It continued on its way and melted a hole in the side of the volcano, shooting out into the cool night air, superheating it to a thousand degrees. As far as I could tell, it was still going. Eight left.
The rest of us stared in horror. You’d’ve thought we’d’ve gotten over that by now. But it was the thought of some futuristic light that could cut through anything that stunned us. What an amazing concept. Suddenly, one of the trackers in the group yelled. She motioned to a hidden part of the wall. I looked inside hurriedly, checking inside. The skeleton was momentarily distracted by a hail of arrows that had come from the other side of the volcano. With a silent finger, I motioned for the patrol to go inside. Knowing that we were safe for the moment, I performed the searching spell. This time I searched for Gray. Gray’s tangled black hair flopped over the top part of my vision. His hand reached up and a bolt of lightning flew from it, striking his brother in the chest. His brother stumbled.
“You’ll.. never win, Shadow!” Gray yelled. I could hear the weakness in his voice. The shadowy figure responded.
“Oh yes I will!” It launched a swirling tornado at my friend. Both were engulfed, and I could see nothing but clouds and lightning.
Outside our little hiding spot, I could hear the skeleton searching for us. Its arms beat at the stone, breaking it in sheets. Red dust and rubble rained down. I decided that staying here any longer was risking death by crushing--in fact, we already were. I called this out to my patrol, and we stepped out of hiding. Apparently the skeleton had no attack charged to strike us with, so we had some time to get away.
Fortunately, most of the ledge was still intact, though one soldier fell through a great hole and immediately fell prey to the skeleton’s grasping hands. Seven left.
Fortunately, that gave us more time to jump the gaping absence of rock and dash down along the ledge to the floor of the volcano. Once on more-or-less stable ground, we dashed toward the skeleton. One soldier was taken out by the terrible eye-beams and another was stepped on. Five left.
However, we did manage to cleave the skeleton’s shins in two, bringing it to its knees. It looked oddly penitent, its hands clutching at the air in an imitation of prayer. Its bones clattered against the volcano’s surface and rolled away. I shot a crossbow bolt at its right wrist. My aim was perfect. It disrupted the tiny bones and caused the hand to fall to the rock floor. Before it started to knit together, a pair of soldiers went to work on it, slicing the finger bones in two and shattering the hand. This process was repeated on the left hand. The skeleton cocked its head suddenly, as if listening. It stared off to the front door of the volcano, where goblins and soldiers were still locked in fierce combat. I looked, too. The skeleton staggered away toward the battle. Given that there was no one trying to maim us, kill us or feed us pastries, I gave the order to charge. The five living soldiers raced after the skeleton as it clattered and clanked across the volcano floor. I thought struck me: Where were the golems?
I knew that some were attacking the main entrance and some were guarding the camp, but that certainly wasn’t all of them. They were probably getting ready to attack. Or so I hoped. Suddenly, an immense updraft pulled at me. I knew I couldn’t fight it because it was probably of magical origin, so I yelled at my patrol to fight the goblins and various other evils, including bad pastries. The updraft pulled me through a hole in the ceiling and into a large cavern. Lava dripped from the walls, bathing the whole place in a horrible orange glow and rotting stench. Rivers of pure gold ran across the floor, radiating scorching heat. I hung suspended in the middle of it all. There was a figure facing me. It lifted its hood and stared into my eyes. They were black, and the whole thing was clad in various shades of gray. It seemed to pull in all light near it, so that the intense glow of the lava swirled into a vortex and disappeared when it got near.
“I sssee you have anssswered my sssummonsss,” it sssaid (Sorry, said). I nodded briefly.
It spoke again. “I am the Verwelken Konig. I have been.. hired by Ssshade Konig to fight againssst you and your tiny golem army. Look into this viewssscreen, and behold my wrath.”
It waved its hand. A smoking image appeared beside us. It rotated ninety degrees to watch and pulled me with it. I gazed into the image. An immense army swelled before us, marching across the volcano floor. It was made up of two-meter-tall humanoid creatures. Some swam through lava pools at the same rate their comrades were marching, which was very fast. Every member of the army held black swords and shields emblazoned with the image of a drooping rose, carved in gray. The taller ones, probably generals, wore black chestplates and helmets as well. I looked up in despair. There had to be thousands of them. The figure stared at me lazily.
“You sssee, I extinguisssh all life at my touch. Including those sssoldiers. All that is natural and beautiful shall be destroyed. This is what Ssshade Konig has promisssed me in return for my ssservices. “Obssserve.”
The image zoomed in on one of the soldiers. Its hand was visible. The thing was a blackened husk, a grotesque imitation of a real hand. I gasped in horror. The figure smiled horribly and waved its hand lazily.
“That isss what you are facccing. You may go now.”
I shot through the hole in the floor and landed on the ground. Darkness closed in on me.
Part III :: Darkness Against Light
Chapter I: Battle Breaks Out
-The Strange Accent Dude
It was a bad sign that I hadn’t been killed as I lay there unconscious. It meant that my friends were busy getting slaughtered. Unlike the last time I had been knocked out, I remembered immediately what I had to do when I woke up. My feet couldn’t move fast enough as I raced off toward where the sounds of metal on metal sounded.
Actually, the Verwelken Army’s shields and swords sounded almost hollow, as if they were devoid of something. I supposed they were. Life. That was what they lacked. Without further ado, I charged into battle. But I wasn’t alone. The side of the volcano exploded violently. Out strode the golem king, with its best lieutenants behind it. Hundreds upon hundreds of golem soldiers followed. The Verwelken Army would have been shocked and terrified had they been able to feel emotion. The golems struck out, lashing their arms and launching the shriveled soldiers around like cannonballs. However, apparently even the golems weren’t immune to the blackening, shriveling effect the soldiers had on all they touched. Some of them were darkened, their rock scarred as if by ash. Others had crumpled into nothing. All in all, it was a fairly even fight. I saw no reason not to join the fray, so I positioned myself halfway hidden behind a boulder of red rock and launched crossbow bolts into the enemy. Several soldiers fell.
Suddenly, a soldier noticed me. This was because it had inadvertently caught my bolt on its shield rather than catch it with its own body. Pity, that. It turned toward me and charged. I clambered on top of the rock and drew my short dagger. That would be pretty much useless. And there wasn’t enough time to nock a crossbow bolt.
I prepared to meet my end as I tensed and my feet curled around lumps in the rock. Dying really wasn’t anything to be afraid of, I realized. It was the pain that came with it that scared me. The warrior reached me. I held my dagger out in front of me and closed my eyes, fully prepared to meet my maker. But that was not to be. As it was about to strike, the warrior about to kill me was sliced in half by a glinting purple blade. I rolled to the side as it toppled over, its blade cleaving the stone where I had been a moment before. Maple stepped out from behind the fallen soldier. She grinned.
“When you’re planning to die, at least tell me. C’mon!” I charged behind her into the fray.
I couldn’t tell how fast time past as we fought the armies of goblins and withered soldiers. All I knew was that my crossbow bolts, from where I was crouching in a hidden nook, ripped through all the enemies like fire through paper. I was glad no other soldiers caught any of them in the wrong place. Well, a couple of goblins did, but goblins placed value on strong weapons, not strong shields, so they got holes in both their shields and their bodies. I was untouchable. I had never felt as strong as this.
My bolts slammed through anything and everything. Not one enemy noticed me. I just felt incredibly powerful, as if I could fight forever and not get tired. I was brought back to reality when I realized that the armies of evil were retreating. They were marching, ever in formation, across the rubble-strewn red rock floor toward the side opposite from us. A tiny black spot appeared there, sucking in all light. Once they reached it, an immense vortex of swirling black clouds engulfed them, and they were gone.
Chapter II: The Forge
“It is the craftsmen who hold up the civilization. Feed them pastries!”
As it turned out, we had been fighting all through the night and through a good bit of the day. My rush of adrenaline gone, I was exhausted. So was the rest of the army. So we set up camp with sleeping bags at the far corner of the volcano, with golem sentries (who never slept) guarding us on all points. I have to admit, having golems guard you was reassuring, although it didn’t completely drown out the fact that I might not be alive in the morning.
Most of us slept soundly, although Gray was still missing, which worried me and kept me awake through most of the night. As powerful as he was, I doubted anyone could stand against his brother for long. As I sat trying to fall asleep, a figure materialized behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. It was Maple. She motioned for me to be quiet.
“Follow me,” she whispered. I did.
Maple took me out of the volcano and toward the camp. When I tried to ask what we were seeing, she shushed me.
“We’re not there yet.”
When we were just out of sight of the camp, Maple stepped on a tree root. An door slid open without a sound just between two roots. She beckoned just before stepping down onto a stone staircase. When we were deep underground, Maple spoke.
“I built it with three Dwarves and Jacques, the Guardian. It’s my secret forge.”
I wasn’t quite sure what she meant. We stepped out into a large room, about 6 meters by 6 meters. It was bright, bright with the same color that the lava lakes in the volcano cast. It was a while before I realized that the orange glow scorching my retinas was molten metal. Various metals were being heated to a temperature so hot I was instantly drenched in sweat. A Dwarf was tending one of the forges, which was oozing molten metal into a sword blade cast made of bronze. The metal poured out, forming into a blade-shaped lake. Maple spread her arms over her head, indicating her surroundings.
“This is my workshop,” she told me. “It’s where I work to make new weapons and shields for the army.”
I gaped in amazement. Jacques was in a corner preparing something. Maple led me over to him. He raised his head.
“Autumn, do you wish to give your sword a power few can dream of?” I hesitantly nodded. He beckoned. “Come forth.” I did.
He took a sword made of steel off the rack behind him.
“Place the sword on the altar with the point facing north, then put your hands on top of it,” he instructed, moving aside. Seeing that the thing he had been hiding was an altar with bluish corners, a blue diamond shape in the center and a black body, I placed the sword on the center facing north.
A compass hanging on the wall told me which way to point it. I then crossed my hands over the blade.
“Say this,” Jacques told me. “Life will be mine to wield, if I pierce my soul to give it.”
Sensing that something painful was about to happen (maybe it was the piercing souls part), I did so.
“Life will be mine to wield, if I pierce my soul to give it.”
The sword jerked back and forth, cutting deep into the palm of my left, then my right hand. I screamed. It kept slicing, going deeper and deeper with every cut. Somehow, Jacques made himself heard.
“Stop screaming!” he yelled. This was easier said than done. It was a reflex to scream. But, with tremendous effort, I clamped my jaw shut and tried to stem the flow of sound coming from my voicebox. Don’t get me wrong; it still hurt like fury. I just wasn’t screaming. The sword immediately stopped slicing back and forth. Taking deep breaths, I forced the pain down. I looked at my hands. The cuts were deep, and in the left, a glint of white bone showed. Each stretched from the base of my thumb to the base of my little finger. Blood oozed from them, belying the severity of the cuts. Maple hurried over and placed bandages on them.
Somehow, I guessed it wasn’t the wounds that made me so light-headed and empty. I felt as if something had been let go. Seeing my bewilderment, Jacques explained.
“By drinking your blood, the sword took a part of your soul. While it is extraordinarily powerful in the way that hay or wood golems are powerful, it also is sentient. You must teach it to obey your commands.”
For the first time, I noticed that no red stained the blue and black surface of the altar. Maybe the sword really had drunk my blood. I shivered. Now that was an eerie thought.
“Well, now that you’ve got your sword,” Maple said, “let’s go back to the volcano.” We did.
Belying the pain in my hands, I slept like a log. A very tired log. I woke up to a whispering in my left ear. I started, gasping as I put weight on my right hand, but there wasn’t anyone around. I realized the sound didn’t have a direction; it was inside my head. This felt like when the golems spoke to me, but more evil. Wanting to be free. I opened up my canvas roll, which contained my sword. As I lifted it out, the whispering grew louder, and I could tell what it was saying. Feed me. Give me blood to drink. I need satiation. Fight. Kill. Break bone. Rend flesh. Spill blood. I picked it up and looked over to where the goblins and Verwelken Army had disappeared, feeling the urge to kill them. I shuddered as I realized the sword was convincing me to do that. A voice spoke behind me.
“You’re good with it.” It was Jacques. He continued. “You wanted to spill blood, yes, but it was your enemies’ blood, not your friends’.”
I shuddered at the thought, wondering if Jacques was a mind-reader. He nodded as this thought passed through my mind.
Chapter III: The Second Battle
“Ooh, that looks like it smarts.”
The next morning, I woke up early. My hands still hurt like fury. It hurt especially because I somehow had to hold and write in my journal the next morning. I had tallied up the number of soldiers we had left:
Humans :: 353.
Dwarves :: 97.
Golems :: 1,782.
Other :: 16.
That did not bode well. From what I had seen, the Verwelken Army and goblin forces outnumbered us, even at full strength, by maybe three to one. As if my dreary thoughts had summoned them, the vortex at the other end of the volcano opened in a swirl of black wind. The soldiers looked whole and strong--at least as strong as you could look while atrophied and dead. Maple, standing by my side, muttered:
“That’s just unfair. Why don’t we get an awesome regeneration portal?” I heartily agreed, though my teeth were clenched too tightly to tell her so. Wouldn’t do much good anyway; it would’ve made me sound like a toddler. But attacking they were, and we had to fight back. I called out to the soldiers nearest to me. They all turned as one, saw the army, and started awakening other soldiers. The attacking army was 50 meters away.. 40.. 30.
They were marching at an unbelievable pace. We would never get every soldier ready in time. But we could try. I dashed amongst the sleeping army, rousing everyone I could with a light kick to the ribs. Most sprang up immediately, ready for battle. A couple of years of always being ready to fight does that to you. The opposing army was 20 meters away.. 15. Still, only about a quarter of the soldiers were ready. Maple was moving among them as well, rousing them much less gently than I had. She was up at the front, where the opposing army would strike first. That was sensible. If the soldiers closest delayed the Verwelken and goblin armies, then we would have more time to wake the others. That was exactly what happened. The Verwelken Army, with the goblins in tow, struck the first line of battle-ready soldiers.
I glimpsed a blur of clashing and flashing swords before I turned away and started rousing more soldiers. As I shook a bleary-eyed spearman awake, I heard that voice in my head again. Rend flesh. Kill them all. Spill blood. I realized that the blade could sense the battle just meters away. After a few more soldiers were shaken awake, I left them to several others and bent to the will of my sword. I had demonstrated some skill with swords in training, although they weren’t my best weapon--that was the crossbow. However, I think this time my sword was intervening. It slashed and spun in an arc, cutting down goblins and Verwelken Army soldiers in every swing. Maybe it did have a will of its own.
I had been battling the hordes for a while when I noticed the bolts of black energy taking out soldiers one by one. They were traveling so fast I had difficulty following them. Then I realized they were coming from three separate locations. Each one was a ledge high on the side of the volcano. Three black-robed skeletal figures stood crouched on each, firing black bolts down toward the soldiers. I saw one strike, and shuddered as the victim shriveled and transformed, apparently in absolute agony, into a Verwelken soldier.
I backed off from the fray a little bit, nocked a bolt, took aim and fired. The bolt struck the hand of one of the mages, who was just about to cast a spell. It faltered, then grew black wings. They spread out from its body like a horrible bat’s and flapped briefly, sending a hurricane of air rushing over the battlefield. It brought the stench of brimstone and death with it, swirling around us and sweeping soldiers off their feet. The mage floated slowly down in front of me, like an avenging angel of doom and bad pastries, and drew its sword. It was made of black metal, dark as night, with purple designs all up and down it. The mage drew its sword and raised it above its head, preparing to strike downwards. I drew my blade as well.
The mage swung its sword down and I swung to knock it away. The blades collided with a sound like souls being tormented. I felt the vibration travel up and down my arms, jarring them. Rings of purple light grew steadily from the contact point, each staying the same distance from one another. The rings expanded rapidly until they grew large enough to envelop both me and the mage. Then they stopped growing. My blade couldn’t get unstuck from the mage’s, no matter how hard I pulled, and, judging by their straining, they couldn’t unstick them either. A blue-white frost began to crawl up my arms like a fungus. It immobilized me where I stood, arms holding the sword in place, left leg in front, mouth slightly open. The mage and I began to float upwards. Judging by the look in its eyes, it was as shocked as I was - and that was very shocked, let me tell you. I could see the battlefield, with hundreds of eyes staring up at us, dwindling as we traveled higher into the air. At last, I couldn’t see it through the haze of red fog and smoke.
Suddenly, our limbs unfroze, the white frost dissipating like fog beneath the morning sun. I knew that because my blade suddenly grated against the mage’s with that horrible tortured-soul scream. The mage realized it as well, and we were locked in combat. Each time our blades clashed, another purple ring formed, expanding outwards, until finally we were trapped in a purple cocoon so thick I couldn’t see out of. We each hung suspended in the air inside. If my instincts were anything to go by, we were drifting upwards, slower than before. I could feel the ball rising. Suddenly, the movement stopped. The threads of purple energy were rent down the middle cleanly, forming a sort of doorway. The mage and I were frozen again, the blue-white frost covering our arms.
“Ah, our little friend,” the Verwelken Konig hissed. “You sssee, Ssshade Konig, I brought her here with no trouble. Ssshe alwaysss will attack thossse with an unfair advantage over her--like one of my magesss. Neverthelesssss, I wasss sssurprisssed to sssee that sssword at work. It’sss impresssssive that ssshe can do a ssspell of that magnitude. That wasss a very powerful technique that can only be triggered by two dark forcccesss colliding. I’m impresssssed that you managed it,” It purred.
It waved its hand. The mage and I were unfrozen. It collapsed to the floor and disintegrated into black feathery bits, while I remained standing. The Verwelken Konig nodded.
“As I said,” it said, gesturing to the black feathery bits, “it’s very powerful.”
Shade Konig suddenly appeared in front of me. I could tell it was him: the purple armor, the staff, everything I had seen that first battle from the tower.
“You have proven to be a deadly opponent, Guardian,” he rumbled in an oaky, resonating voice. “But now your time has come. You will be executed in the most painful way possible.”
A leg of some unfortunate bird materialized in his hand. He began gnawing on it. I was pretty sure shades didn’t eat. I sighed as if the whole thing bored me and challenged,
“Go ahead. Kill me. See what’s to be gained.” Shade Konig growled, deep and low. “We shall indeed. Shan’t we, good Verwelken Konig?”
But the horrible king was standing stock-still, fear kindled into a black flame in the heart of his charcoal-black eyes. I could see. His jaw was slightly open. “I said, shan’t we, Verwelken Konig?” Shade Konig asked again, his deep voice full of impatience and menace. The king stammered:
“Oh yesss, Shade Konig. Oh yesss.”
Two Verwelken soldiers brought me to a superheated room and chained me to a wall about fifteen meters above a bubbling lava pool. They were silent, leaving only me and the clinking of my manacles.
Chapter IV: Ashes to Ashes
“I should insert some quote here to make myself seem smart.”
I hung there for a long time, unsure what to do. The manacles bit into my wrists, but the rough surface of the volcano wall provided some purchase for my boots, allowing me to take some strain off my arms. The door to the lava room opened and Shade Konig walked in. He waved his hand and a stone arch bridge appeared over the lava, traveling over to me. Only this wasn’t a nice little cobblestone arch bridge like you might see spanning a sweet little brook in a hamlet in a fairy tale. This was made out of the same pinkish-red stone that the volcano was made of, and it had gold spheres on the posts at each end. Shade Konig walked up to me.
Without a word, he summoned two goblins from behind him, who undid my cuffs and guarded me. They poked me in the back with their spears and, with Shade Konig leading, we made our way to a more permanent residence. The cell was solid cast-iron. The bars were less than five centimeters apart. A water/food bowl and a bucket sat in a corner. Shade Konig left me with one of the goblin guards and bustled out, saying:
“I’ll be sending someone to interrogate you after lunch.” The door of the cell closed with a fatal BOOM, and was soon echoed by the massive mahogany door at the end of the corridor. My interrogator arrived at what I gauged to be one or two hours after noon. He was none other than the Verwelken Konig. He sneered at me.
“Guesssss you’d like to be free now, wouldn’t you? Because after we interrogate prisssonersss, we KILL them!”
I glanced up at him nonchalantly. Death didn’t frighten me in the least. He seemed perturbed by this.
“It’ll be a ssslow, painful death at my handsss!” he told me, sounding like a child trying to convince their parents that some sweet really was healthy. I tried to remain passive, but really, I hate pain. Thankfully, I’m an alright actor, so I remained nonchalant. Picking up something I had learned from Gray, I quipped.
“I’d rather it be at your hands than at someone else’s. You’re boring enough to put me to sleep through the entire thing.”
The Verwelken Konig started shaking with rage as he drew a black blade from his belt. He was trembling so violently that it took him three tries “I have half a mind to kill you here and now!” he hissed venomously. I wasn’t listening. I had felt the keyhole that was behind my head. Directly behind my left eye, if I was correct. Maybe..
“Well, half a mind is a great achievement for you,” I told him. That, apparently, was the last straw. The Verwelken Konig lunged toward me, plunging my sword into the space that, a moment before, had been my left eye. It went straight into the keyhole. There was an audible click! and the door swung silently open, slamming echoingly on the bars of the cage to my right. It took the sword with it.
My plan had worked! I finished my roll to the side and used the momentum to propel myself to my feet, already scrambling toward the end of the corridor where Shade Konig and his guards had disappeared the last time we had met. I dashed toward it, leaving the Verwelken Konig to grab his sword and waste several seconds extricating it from the keyhole. Upon shoving the door open with all my might, I almost went out of the frying pan and into the fire--literally. Below my was a gaping chasm full of lava.
Charred bones sat on the rocks sticking out of the sides. A drawbridge stood vertical on the other side, obviously controlled by a button on its left side. I nocked my crossbow, taking notice of the number of bolts I had left, which was three, and shot at the button. I could hear the Verwelken Konig’s cloak whistle as he dashed like the wind up the passage toward me. The crossbow bolt struck and, agonizingly slowly, the drawbridge lowered itself. I threw myself across, extricated the bolt and was on down the passage, grinning evilly when I heard the Verwelken Konig try to hurl himself onto the rising bridge end--and miss. I wondered if he was fireproof.
Chapter V: Ice Army
“Listen up, kiddies! This’ll have something to do with my second sequel!”
I eventually navigated to a platform with a button I could push to send myself down to the bottom level of the volcano, where battle had almost finished our troops. I landed next to Leaf, who didn’t look at all surprised. She didn’t even ask where I had been. What she did say was:
“I’ve sent a distress cry. I met some interesting creatures down in those ice caves, you know. They should come; I don’t think they’d disregard a plea for help coming from me.”
I decided not to argue, instead taking in the devastation that was happening to us on the battlefield. Only the Golem Army looked fit to fight. The rest of our troops--well, let it be known that I could count how many soldiers we had left if I used both hands and both feet twice, and count the number of Dwarves on my hands alone. Suddenly, I heard/smelled a new sound/scent. It was a clean, sharp cry, much higher than any battle horn I could hear, and smelling of the cold, clean scent of the north. Leaf tensed beside me.
“They’re here!” she exclaimed.
“Who’s here?” I asked in utter bewilderment.
“The Ice Legion!” she replied with fervor.
I spun around. An army of glistening blue-white materialized out of the volcano’s gloom. Where they walked, lava froze into obsidian. Fires were extinguished. Rock cracked. A thin film of white frost covered the ground. Snow trailed through the air. Most of them seemed to be icy human beings, but there were a few who weren’t. An immense behemoth, similar to the one the goblin and Verwelken armies had. A giant bat, flitting through the cavern and leaving snow in the air behind it. A dozen or so icy cats, stalking over the obsidian they created. They met the Verwelken and goblin armies head on, smashing through them with icy flails and swords and battleaxes. The goblins fled toward the far end of the volcano, where a swirling black portal opened for them yet again.
The Verwelken Army kept on fighting, taking down a few ice soldiers before they finally got some subconscious message to stop. Then they too headed toward the portal. Leaf and I jumped down from the ledge and went over to speak to the soldier clearly in charge of the Ice Legion. Maple, with her arm in a sling, joined us. The soldier bowed to Leaf, making a sound like ice creaking. Its battleaxe opened cracks in the formerly hot rock as it grew near. I spoke in a voice like ice shattering and freezing at the same time.
“Guardian, we have heeded your summons. But there is something more in the air. Look!”
All four of us turned as the soldier pointed to where the swirling black portal had reappeared. Hundreds upon hundreds of nearly-transparent beings were pouring out, blanketing the ground. They swooped toward us. I later compiled a journal entry on what I managed to count: about 1000 ghosts (souls whose owners feared death) about 800 specters (souls awakened for vengeance) about 200 wraiths (shortly after death form of soul) about 50 revenants (re-animated by magician) corpses seeking vengeance) about 10 liches (former lord/lordess who sought immortality or vengeance and returned from beyond the grave) Although I like compiling lists, that didn’t help. I realized that there was a spirit commanding the army. It spoke in a hiss I knew well, though I had only known it for a few days.
“Kill them all! We must ssslay them! Thisss isss what I returned for!”
I knew it at once: the liche that had once been the Verwelken Konig had returned for vengeance. Upon me. Well, apparently he wasn’t fireproof.
The Ice Legion, Golem Army, Dwarves and human soldiers charged forward in what I knew would be the final battle of the war. Don’t tell me how I knew. In reply, hundreds of Verwelken soldiers and goblins poured out of the shadow vortex. Clashing of sword on sword began. I knew what I had to do. Maple had the same thought. We charged up the staircase I had taken from the cells, dispatching two latecoming goblins as we climbed. I lowered the drawbridge, and we sprinted across.
I paid no attention to the black, tattered cloak that hung forlornly from a pole at the end of the bridge. Maple and I dispatched every enemy we met (actually, everyone we met was an enemy, excluding the pile of bleached bones I nearly tripped over) as we dashed upwards on a twisting path. Suddenly, the tunnel opened into a vast cavern. Inside it stood the skeleton, the behemoth and the lamprey eel/snake, which was half in, half out of the floor. We had stumbled upon Giant Metal Monsters Anonymous. Maple put her hand warningly on my arm, brought it to her belt, and drew her sword.
“I’ll handle them. Don’t worry.” I yelled. “Are you CRAZY?"
There are three of them, and they might be slightly larger than you!” The skeleton’s teeth rattled and the lamprey/snake thing rotated its mouthparts with a grinding noise, causing me to make a mental note never to eat fish again. Maple looked up at them, then over at me.
“On second thought,” she said in a small voice, “I have a better plan. RUN!” And so we dashed off through the antechamber, between the skeleton’s legs, and up yet another winding path.
I could hear the mechanical behemoths chasing us; dust soon cluttered our hair while rubble cluttered the passageway. They were smashing their way to us. Maple and I kept running. Suddenly, we struck a dead end. Maple struck it head on and pinched her nose to stem the bleeding. I felt around and found a part where the wall was indented in a circle slightly and pushed. The wall slid open. We dashed through and were rocketed up through the heart of the volcano. Suddenly, we shot out of the floor, were thrown out of the wall that had carried us up, and were deposited in front of Shade Konig’s feet. Gray was tied to the wall and gagged. His brother stood next to him, occasionally poking a feather up his nose, causing Gray to sneeze, which brought chuckles from his tormentor.
“Well, well, well,” Shade Konig rumbled. “What have we here?”
I glared at him as he kicked Maple in the nose, causing it to bleed harder. He had no helmet on, just his purple armor, so I could see that his face was a bearded man’s. He spoke.
“You know, Autumn, I believe life is a circle. Friends die, but they are found in the strangest of places. They’re often found in those who help you, even enemies. And sometimes enemies are found in friends, those who don’t help you. Think on that if you survive.”
We were at the very top of the volcano. The walls rose for three meters, then ended in jagged spikes that stuck up into the evening air. It was very warm up here, even with a thin breeze blowing. Shade Konig smiled.
“Yes, I’ll have to fight you. But only one. I’ll pick which one. Hmmm….”
He hesitated, hand on his now-exposed beard, and nodded.
“Yes, this one. I prefer not to fight enemies with nosebleeds. Gets my robes all bloody.”
He raised his finger and sent a gravity vortex through the room. I was picked up and thrown around. After some time, it ended. By the time I had located my internal organs, Gray and his brother--Shadow, I think it was--were gone. But I knew where they had gone. The cries coming from off the side of the volcano gave me a clue.
“Ouch! Get your elbow out of my eye, idiot!”
“Takes one to know one, idiot! Get your eye out of my elbow!”
Shade Konig stomped his boot. A rumbling began.
“Time to get my little pets some meat!” he called. The lamprey/snake thing shot up out of the floor--that might dent the furniture a bit--grabbed Maple and dived down into the very heart of the volcano. I was overwhelmed by despair. My two friends, gone. Probably. But I could still avenge them. I drew my sword and raised it to the heavens, imagining every ounce of rain in those clouds coming down.. and it started to rain heavily, steaming off the lava pouring from the sides of the volcano. Shade Konig, who apparently wasn’t the biggest fan of rain, snarled softly. He drew his sword and charged. My sword met him head on, in its own battle, so I could concentrate on magic. I summoned waves, waterspouts, more rain, everything to defeat Shade Konig. Finally my sentient sword made a mistake, and Shade Konig blasted through. I found him with his sword against my throat, his other arm pinning mine down.
“It’s time for you to die,” he rumbled. “But before you go, see how your friends die.”
He waved his hand. I was seeing through Maple’s eyes. My sword flashed around, stabbing at anything that got too close. I remained on the run, dodging past holes made by the lamprey/snake thing. Blood covered one of my arms. The other was held awkwardly. However, the lamprey/snake was split in two and the skeleton had paid an arm and a leg. The scene shifted, and I was looking through Gray’s eyes. Seeing the ground grow before me. Gray’s brother had his teeth clamped on Gray’s arm, which disturbed me a tiny bit. Gray was speaking to him.
“Shadow, you have to admit that you care for me. That you don’t hate me. You know. I’m your brother. Your only brother. Please! It’ll save both of us.”
Shadow grimaced, looking into Gray’s face. Suddenly, I could see something in his formerly deep and empty eyes.
“You’re right,” he agreed. The two exchanged a quick hug just as the ground tried to give them a kiss. A shield spell stopped it. Shadow led the way.
“C’mon, I know how we can stop this. Follow me.” Shade Konig cut the vision.
“You see?” he asked. “No hope left. Now prepare to die. Hope it’ll be nice.”
He started lowering the blade. I met him head on. Just as it touched my neck, giving me courage.. Shade Konig jerked away, an eyeball clamped on his left cheek. It let out a shriek that raised the hair on the back of my neck. It was my eyeball! The one that had followed me down Loose Eye Road toward my destiny because I had fed it some meat! And now it had saved my life. Well, I suppose everyone deserves a chance.
Chapter VI: The Final Showdown
“It’s the final showdown! La la la, la la lalala!”
After that, Shade Konig stood no chance. Between the sword (which had started telling me how I could become more beautiful instead of how I should rend flesh and spill blood), the eyeball and myself, he stood absolutely no chance. The sword ripped through his like it was paper. The eyeball blinded him with blasts of phosphorescent light. And I summoned waves and storms to tear at him. Soon after, I stood over him, eyes closed. A waterspout spun toward us.. and struck Shade Konig.
He was gone, all except a transparent figure with a beard that whispered:
You are worthy to Guard the volcano. Truly worthy.
The spirit dissipated, leaving behind three things. A hammer, a sickle and a sword. They floated off the ground. The hammer was enveloped in an orange light, the sickle in green and the sword in red. They drifted toward me in turn. I am the spirit of crafting. I give the power to begin anew, to make great through your own flesh and body, whispered the hammer. I am the spirit of work. I give the power to persevere, led by one’s own hands and spilled blood, whispered the sickle. I am the spirit of war. I give the power to fight for what is truly yours, to defend one’s rights and home with blood and courage, whispered the sword. Then they, too, dissipated into mist. I stood there, shocked. But then Gray’s voice rang through my mind.
Autumn! Get out of there now! NOW!
I performed a simple teleportation spell and found myself far outside the volcano with the rest of the human soldiers, two Dwarves, the Golem Army and the Ice Legion. We watched as the volcano exploded in an incredible display that sent rock and lava raining down 50 meters in front of us. I stepped forward, addressing the entire force.
“The battle has been won. I myself killed Shade Konig. The Verwelken Konig became reckless in his fear of life and died. And the metal monsters have been destroyed in the explosion.” My voice shook. “But we have lost Gray and Maple, two true friends."
Chapter VII: Final Thoughts
“Life is a circle.”
I stood before a line of bodies, each wrapped in a sheet from the camp infirmary. They each was a valuable soldier who had been lost in combat. I moved down the line with Birch, strangely unmoved. We reached Maple’s sheet and then Gray’s, right at the end of the line. They were both open, showing my friends’ faces one last time. Maple looked intense and happy, as if she had died taking on the challenge of her life. Gray looked more sneaky, like he was planning to steal Shimmer’s pastries and take it to wherever shades go.
Just beyond Gray we found Shadow. He looked so much like Gray it was scary, but instead of a sneaky expression, he wore an almost haughty look. I actually felt sad for him. Birch had been nominated as the new Guardian of the castle and was beginning to learn more about Guarding. I was ready to Guard my new volcanic home.
The sandstone Golem, turned half to glass, stood at my side. It would help me in my negotiations with the Golems. The eyeball would stay with me as well. And the sword would stay in my belt, as per usual. I remembered Shade Konig’s final words. He was right about one thing, I thought. Life is a circle.