The Golden Gem
Feylon yawned and rubbed his eyes tiredly. He was glad that tonight's shift of guarding would be over soon and that another man would take his place. Trying to suppress another yawn, he shivered slightly and wrapped the woolen cloak tighter around himself. Of all the nights he had been standing guard on top of the great stone wall to watch the eastern border of Urdgard, the past night had been extraordinary cold.
Scratching the newly appeared black stubbles on his chin, his eyes caught the feint red light at the horizon. Soon enough it would no longer be cold.
To any other country of Yuron, Urdgard was known as the land of fire, having been created by Sastar, the Spirit of fire. For many people it was hard to understand how there could be life in a place that consisted mostly of sand and unbearable heat during the day, while temperatures dropped rapidly as soon as the night fell and rain was very seldom. That was the reason why most of Urdgard's population dwelled under the ground during the day. Their ancestors had built whole cities far below the hot sands. A smart system of tunnels connected them and the surface so that everything the people would need could be brought down below. Also water could be found down there since the Kildiv River, which was the largest and longest river in all of Yuron, snaked its way through Urdgard's underground. The only people that were able to survive in the heat were a few Bedouin tribes that had raised their tents in the hot desert sands and lived there.
Feylon yawned again. Then he let his eyes wander over the sandy dunes and smiled. No matter how often he had seen the sun come up and send out its rays over the sea of sand, it still was able to take his breath away with the beauty of it all.
From a distance his ears picked up the sound of the gong and he turned around to face the temple of Sastar.
The large pyramid had been a gift from the neighboring country Kentaara. Made out of large porphyry boulders that had been chiseled into cube-shape, the building was very impressive. It was the only one that had been erected above the ground so that the sunlight may fall on it and make the countless, embedded crystals sparkle. The people believed it would honor the creator of their country, since Sastar was also known as the 'Son of the Sun'.
Low, melodic chanting drifted to Feylon's ears. Like every morning the priests and priestesses greeted the new day with a ritual. His lips moved silently, forming the words that he knew were copied inside the temple as the sun came up.
Once the guard had said his morning prayers, he looked around for the man that was supposed to take his place.
He wasn't there.
Feylon sighed and turned his gaze back to the eastern border. "I bet Saanji overslept again," he grumbled under his breath, feeling impatient and a little bit mad that some of the guards didn't seem to have a sense of duty.
He soon forgot about it as he became aware of something. His dark eyes fixed on a small black spot that had appeared on the still red sky. Squinting, Feylon tried to make out what it was, but he couldn't.
The object grew and it came closer.
His right hand flew to his belt and grabbed the small, golden telescope. Unfolding it with one practiced move, he aimed it at the spot and looked through. "An eagle," he muttered astonished as he discovered that the object was a bird.
"What are you talking about? Been trying to figure out new star constellations?"
Feylon whirled around. "Saanji! Finally, you are here! What in the Spirits' names kept you so long?"
The other man waggled his eyebrows, grinned and revealed straight, white teeth that were in contrast to his dark skin. "Overslept."
Feylon shook his head and sighed. "I thought as much. At least one of us had a wonderful night. Was she pretty?"
Saanji shrugged his shoulders and answered matter-of-factly. "Oh, you know me. I never kiss and tell. Now what were you saying about an eagle?"
Giving the telescope to his friend, Feylon pointed at the sky. "That eagle."
Saanji looked through the device and discovered the large bird. "It's nothing out of the ordinary. It's just Saberclaw, the eagle from King Zaylan. He carries a message for our High Sorceress."
"You have seen him before?"
"Yes. Like I said, it's nothing out of the ordinary. You can go home now."
Feylon snorted. "Yeah, now, since you finally made it." He turned around and was about to leave, but then inquired, "Should we tell anybody about the bird's arrival?"
Grinning, Saanji shook his head. "One can really tell that you are the new guy," he remarked and patted the other man on the shoulder. "For future references, Saberclaw finds his way to our High Sorceress on his own."
"Are you sure?" Feylon asked, still not completely convinced.
"I am absolutely positive. Now go home and get some sleep. Give my greetings to your beautiful sister," Saanji replied and leered as the last words left his lips.
Feylon regarded him with a stern glare. "You stay away from Neila."
The other guard bowed, mocking him. "Your wish is my command, oh Master."
Now Feylon grinned. "You really are crazy."
"I know. That's why you and your sister like me."
"You are so full of yourself," Feylon replied, shaking his head.
"Good night, Feylon. Hope you'll sleep well. Or should I wish you a good day?"
The other man chuckled. "Just shut up and watch the border."
Giving a shrill cry in greeting, Saberclaw landed on the pole that was next to the main entrance of the tunnel system.
"Go and fetch our High Sorceress. Tell her that King Zaylan's messenger has arrived," one guard said to the young man that stood beside him, eyeing the majestic eagle with great interest. Then he hurried to carry out the order and disappeared into the tunnel.
The beams hit the desk's surface and left a few blackened holes behind. They also connected with the book cases around her, resulting in a shower of burnt parchment, scrolls and books that caught fire and fell to the floor. Smoke and the stench of burning paper filled the study.
"Are you sure that you want to do this, Tanith?" the masked sorcerer inquired gently.
Peeking over the rim of her hideout, she glared at him. His mockingly sweet voice aggravated her even further.
"I really don't want to fight you," he continued slowly. "Just give me the stone and we will be on our way."
"Over my dead body!" she hissed enraged and cast a spell that extinguished the small fires that had erupted here and there. She felt a small sting of regret in her heart as she thought about the knowledge that the books had held and which was now lost forever.
The masked sorcerer sighed deeply and shook his head softly. "First Rovannah and Xandir, and now you have to be stubborn too. I sure thought that you paid more attention during your years at the Wizardry Academy of Shircon. Didn't you learn to realize when there is no need to fight?"
Tanith's mind was racing. She needed to come up with a plan. Having seen the destruction that only one of his spells had caused indicated just how powerful he truly was. It was also obvious that he didn't have any intention of fighting fair. He would rely on dirty tricks if that would ensure his victory.
"To answer my own question since you seem to be unable or unwilling to do so… there is no need to fight when it's clear that the battle is lost. You don't stand a chance, Tanith. Why don't you give up and I might let you get away with your life?"
"Are you trying to talk me to death?" Tanith asked sarcastically. "You have to do much better than that."
Spiteful laughter erupted.
'This spell will have your laughter get caught in your throat, you bastard,' Tanith thought and used the moment of his inattention to her advantage. Closing her eyes in concentration, the magic flew from her fingertips in thin threads of energy that glowed golden. The threads formed a woven net that laid itself over the frame of the dark wizard and tightened around his body.
A gasp of surprise came from the tall man as he found himself immobile. He began to struggle to get at least one arm free, but the only thing he managed was to get even more entangled in the net.
Tanith smiled briefly but she knew that her triumph would only last a short time. The bright golden light of the net was growing dimmer with each passing second and soon it wouldn't hold her opponent any longer. Nonetheless, it gave her time to carry out the rest of her plan.
"An interesting choice that I didn't see coming," the masked sorcerer remarked and shook off the net easily. The golden threads fell to the floor, their light fading until they just disappeared.
Her eyes widened in surprise as she saw that. The net had never been an obstacle for him. He had just been playing with her.
"As you can see, your last desperate uprising will not diminish my victory, surely you know that?"
There came no answer from Pavan's leader. Instead the whole room was pitched into an impenetrable darkness.
"Let's put an end to it once and for all," she demanded in a firm voice.
He clicked his tongue in disappointment. "Tanith, what now? Are we going to play hide and seek?" Hearing her mumbling, he whirled the staff in a circle above his head and muttered a few words, successfully chasing the darkness away. All the candles in the room flickered to life again and he found himself surrounded.
Eight small women in sand-colored robes stood around him, bearing long, blonde, curly hair and anger was blazing fiercely from the depths of their brown eyes. They looked absolutely identical.
The masked sorcerer fixed his eyes on one of them. "I didn't know that you had so many sisters, Tanith," he said, chuckling. Then he grew serious. "Enough with the games. It ends here and now. This is your last chance. Give me the stone or die."
Eight pairs of lips moved and one word echoed through the study, "NEVER!"
"Alright, then I kill you first and take the stone afterward. Don't be a fool, Tanith, or is your life and that of your people worthless to you?"
Again, the only reply was, "NEVER!"
He tightened the grip on his staff and energy beams shot out of his left palm. One woman after the other disappeared in a cloud of white smoke as the magic hit them, leaving no trace behind.
The dark wizard frowned behind his helmet until he realized that Tanith had tricked him. During the moment of darkness, she had created images of herself to cause a diversion while somehow managing to get out of the study. Now the question was where did she go?
The masked sorcerer felt anger burn in his guts. Furiously he kicked one of the bookcases, which fell apart the moment his heavy boot connected with the wood. In his mind he counted to ten in order to calm down. It would not be good to lose one's head in the heat of battle. Sooner or later he would find her. His men were everywhere in the building, she would have no place to hide.
Turning on his heel, he marched out of the study.
Sitting in the soft green grass in front of the swan pond, Terrulli stared at the hanging branches of the weeping willows. Her thoughts and feelings were in an uproar and she felt caught between unrestrained anger and a crushing sadness that made her heart ache fiercely. What she had seen in the crystal ball not too long ago was beyond her comprehension. The Animorph didn't know why or by whom Ashkyhra had been destroyed, but her home, her family, her whole folk was gone just like that. Tears seemed to be her only companions lately and she thought she had no more left to cry, but again, they trickled down her face. Angrily, she wiped them off her cheeks, chastising herself for being weak.
Terrulli didn't turn around to look as she heard a soft rustling behind her. She even kept her gaze firmly fixed to the willows as the white wolf sat down next to her.
The Animorph waited for the sounds of human footsteps that would usually accompany the wolf on her arrival, but there were none. From the corner of her eye she could see the animal look at her in expectation.
After another moment, she sighed heavily. "I'm sorry, Cerulia. I'm really not in the mood to play."
The white wolf didn't react. She just sat there silently and as still as a statue.
"Oh, and Alannah, you can come out from behind the bushes. I know that you are there."
The princess slowly walked towards her. "Please, don't be mad at me. I wasn't sure if you wanted any company so…"
"So you decided to send Cerulia first. It's alright," Terrulli answered and patted the grass beside her. "You can sit down." Gazing briefly around, she inquired, "Where is Leigh?"
Alannah lowered herself to the grass, pulled her legs to her chest, wrapping her arms around them and answered, "Talking with Father and Commander Leander."
"That's all they seem to be doing. Talking, talking, talking, but nothing is done," the Animorph growled.
The princess was taken aback by the harsh tone. "What would you have them do?" she asked, gently.
"What do you think? Can't you understand how I'm feeling? Everything that was dear to me is gone! I want whoever did this found and brought to justice! I want vengeance!"
Alannah tried to calm the upset girl. "Terrulli, everything is going to be alright, you just…"
"I'm so sick of these words!" the Animorph shouted and jumped up. "It's easy for you to say because you still have your home! Your castle is not a burned out, destroyed ruin! You still have your friends and family! Your country didn't get attacked!" Terrulli raged.
She regretted the words as soon as she saw the hurt expression on the princess' face. She also knew that the people of Chitaan were only trying to help her and that she was treating them unfair. From the moment she had come here, all of them had only been nice to her and had gone out of their way to make her feel comfortable. They didn't deserve her anger, because it wasn't their fault.
Hanging her head in shame, she sat down again. "I'm sorry for the outburst, Alannah. That was uncalled for and I would like to apologize."
The princess nodded. "Apology accepted. If you have calmed down some, I would like to show you something."
"I am calm," the young woman promised.
"Then follow me," Alannah said and led the Animorph to the white marble temple.
Inside, Terrulli looked around in amazement. "What is this place?" she wanted to know while her eyes moved from one statue to the next.
"A shrine and resting place for our heroes," the princess explained. "You see, I do understand your anger. When I lost my mother there was a time when I felt it too. All I have left of her are memories that keep her close to my heart and this statue," she pointed out.
Now Terrulli felt even worse about her harsh words earlier.
Reaching out with a hand, Alannah pointed at two other statues. "These are Shonara and Marnoc. They were part of the Royal Guards, very loyal and great friends to my father. If it wouldn't have been for them, my father would not be alive today. They gave their lives to protect and to save him and our country when we were attacked years ago. True heroes they were and they are Leigh's parents, ripped from her life when she was just 4 years old."
Terrulli looked dismayed. "I didn't know that," she choked out.
The princess walked over to the Animorph and placed both her hands on the young woman's shoulders. "What I'm trying to say is that we do understand you, but please, don't give in to the anger you feel so strongly right now. Nothing good will come of it. When we find the one, who is responsible, then they will be brought to justice. I know that you feel alone and that you think that everything is lost, but it is not true."
"You saw the image in the crystal ball just as I did. Do you really think that somebody could have survived that?" Terrulli asked, new tears welling up in her eyes.
"The truth is that I do not know. But there is a chance. Until we don't know for certain we shouldn't give up. Your family could still be alive and other people of Ashkyhra may have escaped the horror of what Saberclaw saw and they may need their Princess. You need to be strong, Terrulli. Don't give up hope and keep the faith."
"But it is so hard."
"I know. Believe me, I know," Alannah replied and pulled the sobbing Animorph into a hug. "Fight the despair that has you in its grip, for your sake and for that of all of Ashkyhra."
They stood like that until Terrulli's tears had dried.
After she had plunged the study into darkness and had cast the delusional spell, which hopefully would keep the enemy's attention for a while, she had escaped through a hidden door behind one of the bookcases.
As she made her way through the darkness, she used her right hand to hold on to the rough wall in order to keep her balance.
The High Sorceress listened closely but didn't hear anything out of the ordinary. Nobody followed her and she gained new hope. Maybe not everything was lost just yet.
Reaching the end of the stairway, she stopped and took a few deep breaths, trying to calm her racing heart and her equally racing mind.
Then, Tanith formed a small ball of energy that sent out dim, golden light. It was enough to see where she was going, but it wouldn't attract any unwanted attention in case somebody would find their way into the catacombs.
The energy ball hovered over her like a giant glow-worm and she made her way through the cobweb-covered tunnel.
The spiders had been like busy bees, their webs filling out the tunnel like big, sticky curtains. Now and again, it took some effort to get through them. From time to time, she could hear rats and spiders flit by and the occasional whoosh of bat wings, but it was nothing that would stop her.
Soon, she reached the high metal doors that bore the emblem of Pavan: Two horses that were facing each other and rearing up.
Tanith placed both palms on the doors, closed her eyes in concentration and words in a foreign language flowed from her lips.
The doors didn't open. Instead, they disappeared completely, only to become solid again after the High Sorceress had entered the chamber that lay behind them.
A small smile flickered briefly over Tanith's face. "Nirios definitely is a genius when it comes to metal." She grew serious again. Holding up her right arm, she snapped her fingers and the ball of energy that trailed after her glowed in a brighter light, illuminating the whole chamber.
There wasn't much to see. It was a circular room, encased by stone walls that were bare of any decoration. The ground was covered with large heaps of a brownish material that seemed to be sand, but had a rougher texture. All in all, three dozen piles could be counted in the secret chamber.
Tanith walked to the one that was closest to her. It was almost as high as she was tall. Reaching under the neck of her sand-colored robes, she pulled out a necklace. The pendant was an irregular-shaped, golden gem, as big as a large pebble. "I will not allow him to get his hands on this," the High Sorceress muttered before closing her right fist tightly around the jewel. "Pavan will not back down," she swore fiercely.
Warm, golden light shone from between her fingers as the stone's powers were activated.
"Leydara, oh mighty Spirit of Pavan, give me strength and save us." Tanith walked around the room, repeating the sentence over and over again. Striding from one pile to the next, she held the gem in her right hand and touched each heap for a few seconds with her left hand. Then she walked to the middle of the room and waited.
Nothing happened. Seconds, minutes, moments went by without anything happening.
Tanith nervously licked her lips, her eyes flickering anxiously over the piles. "Did I make a mistake? I know it has been a while since they were last awakened, but…" The frown on her face disappeared as she became aware of movement. One of the heaps seemed to be growing. The grains of soil piled higher and higher and were formed to a giant human shape.
One after the other, all the heaps stirred in the same way. The air was filled with a slight rustling noise as the grains whirled around and connected.
Awestruck, Tanith stared up at the 36 golems that she had awakened.
Each of them was approximately 12 feet tall and had massive arms and legs. They gave the impression of being unfinished statues for their faces were expressionless. Their eyes looked emptily around and their mouths were straight, firm lines.
One of them stuck out from the others. A golden star was glowing on his chest. It only took him two giant steps to stand right in front of Tanith.
The High Sorceress almost lost her balance as the whole room shook. She quickly cast a spell of levitation. Hovering a few inches above the ground, she stared at the golem that lowered his massive frame to one knee right in front of her.
His lips didn't move as he spoke, but she felt her whole body vibrating as his booming voice rang out. "High Sorceress, we await your orders."
Tanith swallowed hard. Her throat had gone dry. Holding on tightly to the golden gem, she tried to keep her voice from shaking. She wasn't scared of the creatures that she had awakened, but she was scared of what would happen next.
Tanith had a strong dislike for any form of violence and destruction. She didn't like what the masked sorcerer was forcing her to do. But she knew that there was no other way or Pavan would go down.
"Our land is in grave danger. We need your help."
"Is this some new fighting technique that you are practicing," a teasing voice sounded from beside her. "My, who would have thought that carrots are so dangerous? I think you can quit stabbing at it now. I'm very sure it's not moving anymore."
Leigh looked up and right into Alannah's face. "Hey," she greeted her quietly.
"Hey. I thought you would be happier to see me," the princess replied, puzzled about Leigh's unusual reserve. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
Alannah reached over and stroked her fingers tenderly across the knight's forehead, trying to smooth the worry lines away that marred Leigh's face.
The young woman closed her eyes at the tender touch.
"You look exhausted," the princess remarked. "Have you been cooped up in the throne hall all day?"
Leigh nodded. "Yes, together with your father, Loreen, Commander Leander, Wyan and Ranib."
"Did something come of it?"
Leigh snorted. "All we did was talk."
"You seem to be upset. What's wrong?"
The knight turned back to her bowl and started to poke at her food once more until Alannah reached over and clasped the hand that was holding the fork. "Talk to me, Leigh. What's going on?"
A heavy sigh escaped the other woman before she relented what had happened. "We just don't know what to do. We don't know what would be the best course of action right now. We talk and talk and talk but eventually we do nothing."
"I had a similar conversation with Terrulli earlier. She is very angry and thinks that nothing is done."
Leigh nodded. "I can understand that. The problem is we don't have any information. We don't know who attacked Ashkyhra and we don't know why the people were attacked. It is very frustrating."
"I can imagine," Alannah responded sympathetically.
"Your father is anxiously waiting for a message from Ranya," the knight continued. "Maybe then we can come up with something. It also seems that your father might have a slight idea as to the reason for the attack on Ashkyhra."
"Did you ask him?" the princess inquired.
"I did, but he is evading me. If I didn't know it better I would say that he is scared of voicing it and therefore making it come true."
Alannah sighed. "This is one big mess."
"You can say that again," Leigh agreed and tiredly rubbed a hand across her face. "So, you said Terrulli was angry?"
"She was, but I think she's better now. The whole situation isn't easy for her and I believe that everybody can understand if her emotions get the best of her. She said some pretty harsh and hurtful words, so I took her to the temple and had a talk with her about not losing hope. I think she got the message."
Leigh smiled. Alannah really had a way with words that would calm people and give them something to hold on to. "You know, another problem is that she has too much time on her hands where she can have heavy thoughts. We should find her a task. That gives her something to do, she will feel important and it will take her mind off."
"I was thinking about that too and do you know what I came up with?"
Leigh looked at the princess expectantly. "No, tell me."
The knight raised her eyebrows in question. "What about her?"
"Terrulli really seems to like and admire her and I'm sure that our healer could need some help," Alannah explained.
"That's a wonderful idea. Did you suggest it to her?"
The princess shook her head. "Not yet. I'll do it first thing tomorrow." Then she pointed at Leigh's bowl. "Are you finished with that?"
The knight had a look at the vegetables that by now had grown cold and pulled a face. "I think I am. Why?"
"Would you like to go on a walk with me? That might help to get rid of some of the frustration that you carry around."
Leigh left the bowl where it was, dropped the fork and rose from the bench. "It would be my pleasure, Princess."
Alannah's grin spread from one ear to the other. "I was hoping you were going to say that." Grabbing the arm, which the knight offered her, they left the kitchen and walked to the garden.
"Incompetent fools! I'm surrounded by dilettantes!" he groused and turned on his heel. His blood-red cape billowed behind him as he marched back to the study where he had lost sight of Tanith.
"I have to give you credit. You did trick me well. Where did you go, sneaky witch, after you cast the spell of delusion?" the masked sorcerer growled. "I'm sure you didn't teleport because the spell would have cost too much energy after you had erected the delusion."
Muttering under his breath and cursing Tanith's name, he scanned his surroundings systematically. His silver eyes traveled over the furniture, bookcases and walls, then over the floor. "Did you use a trapdoor to escape from me, Tanith?" He held his hands over the carpet and lifted it with a magic spell. The only things that were revealed were the boards that made up the floor. The carpet floated back down to cover the ground.
Suddenly his ears picked up a noise that he couldn't explain. Everything around him started to vibrate softly and the noise came closer. The vibration intensified and turned into a quaking that had the whole room shaking. "What is going on?"
One of the bookcases came loose and flew toward him. It fell apart as it connected with his heavily armored body, but the force was still enough to knock him to the ground. Brushing aside the splintered pieces of wood, he climbed back to his feet.
The quaking had stopped.
A hole gaped in the place where the bookcase had been and Tanith came out, a serious expression on her face. "This is your last chance," she told him. "Take your soldiers and leave Pavan."
The masked sorcerer laughed. "You still don't know who I am, do you?"
"No, and it doesn't matter."
"Oh, but it should matter to you. Don't you know about the ancient prophecy?"
"It doesn't matter, who you claim to be," she answered.
His insane laughter interrupted her. "Who I claim to be? I do not 'claim' to be anything. I AM THE CHOSEN OF THE SPIRITS! They chose me! I am the one, who will unite Yuron! I am the 'Deliverer of Peace'!"
Tanith's brown eyes were blazing with anger in the face of such brazen words. She could barely restrain herself from shouting but she managed to keep her voice calm, even as her body was trembling from the fury she felt. "You are nothing but a threat to my people and my country. You destroyed Ashkyhra and murdered innocents. That is all I know. Like I said, this is your last chance. Take your men and leave."
"Or what, huh? What will you do? You were never a match for my powers and you will never be," he responded, hitting the floor with the end of his staff.
He staggered a bit and almost lost his balance as the room started to quake again and the booming noise, he had heard earlier, grew louder.
"I deeply regret that it had to come to this," Tanith said calmly and walked to him. "But, you leave me no other choice."
The dark wizard felt his eyes widen in surprise when a massive shape appeared in the hole.
Taking huge steps, the golem with the golden star on his chest entered the study. The other 35 were close behind him. He turned his expressionless face to Tanith. "High Sorceress, what do you command?"
"Chase them from our land."
The masked sorcerer shook his head softly. "This is your last mistake, Tanith. You have been warned. Now, live with the consequences of your actions." Then he banged his staff against the ground once more and disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
"The coward used a teleportation spell. He will reunite with his men."
Turning to the golem, Tanith said, "Spread out. His soldiers are in small troops all over the palace. We need to keep them separated. Then it will be easier to defeat them."
"As you wish, High Sorceress," the golem replied in his deep, booming voice. Passing the order on to his fellow golems, the massive creatures went to carry it out.
Left alone in the study, Tanith released a deep breath. "I hope it will work." She didn't dare think which fate would befall Pavan and its people if they were unable to defeat the dark wizard and his army. Sending a final prayer to the Spirits, the High Sorceress ran from the destroyed room that once had been her study.
"This is unbelievable," Ranya said, shaking her head and her hood fell off. Her red robes, made out of a soft, flowing, silky material hugged her slender body. With almost 6 feet, she was taller than the average woman. Her long, black hair cascaded in gentle waves over her shoulders and reached to the middle of her back.
The High Sorceress of Urdgard stood in her chambers, holding the unrolled scroll that Saberclaw had brought.
Ranya had read King Zaylan's message a couple of times already. Still, her dark brown eyes were fixed to the letters that stood out in blue ink from the yellowish paper.
A knock at the door brought her back to the present.
"Come in," she called out, looking expectantly at the door.
An older man, wearing a wide, red-brown shirt over pants of the same color and black boots, entered. His skin was darkly tanned, indicating that he did most of his work outside and in the sun.
He took off his hat, revealing a bald spot in the middle of his curly gray hair and bowed deeply in front of her. "You wished to see me, High Sorceress?"
"Yes, Rohan," she answered and smiled. "Prepare Firetail."
The man nodded. "Yes, High Sorceress. Are you going on a longer journey?"
"I need to travel to Chitaan to meet with my friend, King Zaylan. The weather will be well and I will leave at sundown, after the prayers."
An expression of concern appeared on his face as he inquired, "Is everything alright?"
Ranya nodded, absentminded stroking the rough paper, which she still held in her hand.
It was hard for her to lie to him but she couldn't reveal yet that Ashkyhra had been attacked and destroyed. She also couldn't tell him that it seemed Terrulli, the Princess of Ashkyhra, was the sole survivor of a massacre or that it looked like an ancient prophecy had come true, throwing the land into chaos and all of Yuron to the brink of war. It had taken a long time to establish peace in the country and finally people felt safe. She didn't wish to frighten him or anybody else without truly knowing what was going on.
Therefore, she had decided to keep the contents of Zaylan's message to herself for the time being. "Yes, everything is fine. It has been awhile since I last saw them and there is a lot to talk about, which is much better in person."
Rohan bowed again. "High Sorceress, I will see to Firetail. She will be ready when you wish to leave."
"Thank you, Rohan."
"May I have the cook prepare a meal for you that you can take with you on your trip?"
"That is a wonderful idea, thank you," Ranya responded and her smile grew wider. There always had been something special about the elderly man. He took care of her, not only because she was the ruler of the country but he had been a loyal servant to her parents and always had treated her as if she was his own daughter.
He returned the smile with a bright one of his own and turned around to leave.
A thought came to the woman and she called him back. "Oh, Rohan?"
"Yes, High Sorceress?"
"How is Saberclaw?"
"King Zaylan's eagle is fine," Rohan answered. "He was fed and given water." He chuckled before he continued, "To tell you the truth he seems to be quite a lively bird. He can't be still for a moment."
"Do you think that he can fly back to Chitaan with us tonight?"
The man nodded. "He will be fine to make the journey. I suggest you take him as your guide. He might know shortcuts that will bring you to your destination even quicker."
"Thank you, Rohan. I will take that into consideration."
With a final bow, he said goodbye and left her.
Ranya released a deep sigh and turned her attention once more to Zaylan's message. "Will this be the end of Yuron?"
Tears welled up in the High Sorceress' eyes at the senselessness and blind fury of destruction that these men had caused and were still causing.
Dark columns of black smoke hung in the air and it seemed to come from every direction. Villages close to the castle were burning.
Taking a deep breath and forcing her raw emotions down, Tanith threw caution to the wind. Her parents had once told her that if she would lose hope then everything would be lost. She lived by this saying every day.
So, with hope in her heart, she entered the battle. The golden energy beams that shot from her hands and fingers were meant to stun, not to kill. Like that, she made her way through the crowd, joining her people and the golems in the desperate fight, while at the same time she kept her eyes open for the masked sorcerer. Tanith knew that their paths would sooner or later cross again. She wished it would be soon so that it would be over.
Orders were yelled, frightened shouts and screams rang out from the enemy soldiers as they found themselves confronted with the golems. Many a man in service to the dark wizard lost his life under a crushing fist or a smashing foot that came down on him.
Arrows, spears, large stones and burning torches were thrown at the golems but it didn't stop them. Small ceramic bottles with burning oil were dropped on them, but the golems didn't even notice.
The black-armored soldiers slashed and stabbed them with their swords or hit them with crossbow bolts, but each 'wound' they inflicted upon the creatures closed as the sand grains rearranged themselves into position. The magically raised giants were invincible.
Confusion spread among the masked sorcerer's forces, because they didn't know how to defend themselves while the golems wreaked havoc among them.
Cheers from Pavan's people grew louder. "We will win! With the help of the golems we will win!" one shouted.
Unbeknownst to them, the masked sorcerer gave a new order, one that was only heard in the heads of his soldiers. 'Get ropes and make them fall!'
Tanith had just put another man out of action as she heard an inhuman roar that almost shattered her ear drums. She looked up with a wildly pounding heart and her eyes widened in shock and disbelief.
Like giant ants, about 20 soldiers in black armor were crawling all over the massive body of a golem. They had wrapped ropes all around him and were now trying to wrestle him to the ground.
Another troop pulled with all their might at the ends of the ropes and the colossus started to titter. His arms flailing, he tried to brush the enemies off, but there were too many. The ground shook as the golem lost the fight and fell. All that was left of him after his body connected with the ground was a heap of sand.
The sight of the invincible giant falling took Tanith off guard as much as the stunning spell did, which hit her out of the blue. She toppled over and sank to the ground like a sack of potatoes, unable to move.
Crunching footsteps of heavy boots drifted to her ears.
'So, is this the end?' shot through her head.
"Yes, this is the end," a deep voice answered. "I told you that you had no chance. Didn't your mother ever tell you that who doesn't want to listen will have to feel?"
Tanith couldn't answer even though she had a snappy remark on the tip of her tongue, but the stunning spell had paralyzed her almost completely. It was a wonder that her heart was still beating and that she could breath.
Two leather-gloved hands reach forward, grabbed her by the shoulders and turned her over.
She tried to close her eyes but her eyelids couldn't move. Helplessly, she stared at the demonic mask that was so close to her face.
The dark wizard slid one arm under her neck and held her tenderly like a lover would.
'I know that you read my thoughts. Why don't you go ahead and kill me already?!" she yelled in her mind.
He chuckled. "Oh, Tanith. If I had wanted to kill you then I would have done it. I have other plans for you."
She felt herself grow cold at these words and she wanted to desperately get away from him but the spell kept her in his unwanted embrace.
His silver eyes slid to her throat and were caught by the necklace that had slid from beneath her robes. The dark wizard ripped it free, let go of the fallen sorceress and stood up. Stretching out his arms to the sky in triumph, he closed his right hand around the glowing, golden gem. A surge of new power raced through his body and he moaned in delight.
Regaining his senses, he looked at the woman that lay at his feet. "Hope came, hope moved on," he told her matter-of-factly. "Now, hope is lost." Then he loosened the chain from the jewel and attached it to the top of his staff.
The runes and lines that had been carved into the wood flashed briefly in a golden light.
One by one, the golems, who were still standing, fell apart and turned to piles of sand grains. The spell that had given them life was broken.