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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Guardian - Chapter One: First Light

  The light was so very bright.
  It was cold, so very cold.
  A hand went up to shield my eyes.
  It was my own hand.
  A voice spoke in my ear, it's words harsh and metallic.
"Hello," it said quickly. "I'm your Ghost. I've been searching a long time for you, Guardian."

Guardian? What's a guardian? What is that thing?   

A strange device, like a fist-sized star floated before me, it's blue eye bright and searching. A voice replied to the Ghost. It took me a moment to realize it came from my (very dry) throat.
 "W-who am I?"
 "You have been dead a long time," it said. It sounded hurried, flustered. "Somethings will not make sense yet. We need to move away from here."
I stood slowly, like a child learning to walk for the first time. The Ghost flitted around me, like a worried mother bird around her chick.
"That's it," it said, the calm veneer cracking beneath the strain of some danger unknown to me. "Come on now, we need to hurry."

  The basics of movement came back to me quickly, and I took a deep breath of the icy Russian wind. It stretched my tight lungs, lungs that were that floating thing to be believed, have not been used for a very long time. All around me lay a wasteland of rusted vehicles and snow-blasted tundra. Occasionally, a sun-bleached skeleton peered out from beneath the shadows of vehicle wreckage. I looked down at my hands and flexed my fingers. Not but a moment before, I had been one of those empty skulls.

  An eerie howl echoed across the tundra, accompanied by a cacophony of shrieks.

  A new emotion seized me, squeezing my lungs until I gasped for breath. My newly formed heart hammered as though it would leap from my chest. The blood sang in my ears, pounding out a word that was echoed by my Ghost.


  A crackling bolt of blue energy zipped past me, burning a hole through the door of the vehicle beside me. In the distance, I could see a group of ungainly figures hurtling toward me, leaping across the roofs of the sea of vehicles toward me. One of them paused long enough to bring a long rifle to his shoulder and fire another bolt of arc energy at me.

  "Run!" my Ghost yelled, slamming into me, knocking me aside and saving my life from the energy bolt. "It's too open out here! Run for the wall!"

  Ahead of me loomed a massive structure of rust and old metal. It groaned with the constant press of the wind, but it still stood, as it had for ages. I ran, my booted feet kicking up dirt and snow behind me. Another bolt of energy zipped past me, scorching a line in the dirt. The shrieks were closer now, almost at my heels. I saw an open door in the wall, an access ramp of some kind. Frantic, I scrambled up the concrete steps and into the dark hallway.

  The silence was deafening. Without the rush of the wind, the air felt close and stale. Crimson light streamed in through cracks and struggled past old, clouded window panes, giving the interior a hellish glow. My lungs burned with need for more air, but I pressed forward. Above me, I could hear the scuttle of clawed feet, the hiss of breathing.
  "They're all around us," Ghost said. "We need to find you a weapon."
  The passageway ended in a black doorway. Whatever lay beyond was a void to me, total darkness. I froze.

  "Hold on a second," my Ghost said, materializing before me and floating into the darkness. White light, pure and strong, shone from its eye, making clear the path before me. Even as I stepped out onto the lit portion of the catwalk, it groaned under my weight. Through the grate beneath me was blackness.

  "These old military systems," my Ghost was saying. "Stubborn as the rest."

  Some old generator whirred to life with a dull roar and a dozen lights flared to life, revealing the enormous scope of the wall's interior.

  It also revealed an army.

  They crawled along the rafters, stood on perches on the far walls. This was their kingdom, and I was their enemy.

  "The Fallen!" Ghost cried. He darted to an old crate and shone his light on something half-buried in the rubble. "Take this, quickly!"

  One of the Fallen climbed up onto the catwalk where I stood, it's four glowing eyes shining brightly in the dim light. It hiss and gurgled something like a curse and brandished a knife that sparked with energy. I rushed to my Ghost, diving and sliding through the rubble and snatching up the battered old rifle. The Fallen leapt at me, howling and swinging the blade.

  Instinctively, I squeezed the trigger.

  The old weapon came back from the dead with a bellow, spew bullets and old grease into the thin Fallen. That old Khostov bucked like a raging bull, and the initial chatter almost jerked it from my hands. Before I realized it I had spent the whole clip in the unfortunate Dreg. I fumbled with the reload, grabbing one of the clips that had lain next to the gun, but two other Dregs were rushing toward me.

  "Your knife!" my Ghost shouted.

  I snatched the blade off my belt and slammed it into one Dreg's face, the creature's mask venting ether with an explosive hiss. The second Dreg stabbed its blades into my ribs, but they glanced harmlessly off my shields. A flick of my wrist sent the second Dreg the way of the first.

  "Hurry! We need to get out of here!"

  I scrambled to my feet, clawing my way up past the rubble and sprinting after my Ghost. The ungodly shrieks and howls of the Fallen surrounded me, echoing in the darkness, adding wings to my feet.

  "Heads up!"

  I stumbled into a room littered with Fallen. With the aid of the flickering pale lights, I could see they were just as surprised as I was. My first volley took off a Vandal's head. Bolts of arc energy stung my shields, sending me sliding for cover. A dull hum and a buzz caught my ear, and I saw a faint shimmer flank me on the left.

  A Fallen Vandal suddenly materialized, decloaking mid strike, howling and swinging two vicious humming swords. The first blade drained my shields, and the second went through my shoulder. The shock of the arc charged blade shooting electricity into my nervous system sent me to my knees.

  The Vandal drew back for the killing blow.

  "Hey, ugly! Over here!"

  My Ghost strobed a dazzling light in the Vandal's face, startling it and giving me enough time to stab my knife into its neck. The creature staggered backward and I finished it with a burst from the Khostov.

  More bolts of blue energy arced around my cover, and I managed to prop myself up, my left arm still twitching from the arc blade through my shoulder.

  "Let me get that," my Ghost said, hover close beside me.

  The sword vanished, only to reappear a few feet away, clattering harmlessly to the ground. My shields replenished quickly once the weapon was clear. My lungs ached and my shoulder felt as though a hot poker had been shoved through it. Luckily the energy blade had cauterized the wound. My throat was rough and dry. The Fallen all around me screamed for my blood.

  "You have to fight," my Ghost said earnestly. "The City needs you."

  I had no idea what the City was, and at that point, I didn't care. I just wanted to live. I cocked the rifle.

  That meant the Fallen had to die.

  I burst out of my cover like a cornered animal, fire blazing from the barrel like a torch. One down. A Dreg reeled backwards, ether venting from the four holes in its chest. A Vandal's head exploded in a puff of smoke and ether. My shields were red-lining, the arc bolts searing my armor and skin.

  I wanted to live!

  Suddenly I was alone among a pile of scattered corpses.

  The air was dank and hazy with expired ether, and in the silence I could hear water dripping. I dropped the empty clip from the old gun, letting it splash into a murky puddle at my feet. The last of the ammo I had managed to scrounge went in with the last clip.

  "Uh-oh," Ghost whispered. "Something's coming."

  I turned, facing the dark hole in the opposite wall, an ancient drain pipe of some kind. From within the darkness, six red eyes glared back at me.

  Out crawled the biggest Fallen I had seen yet. He towered over me, his helmet and tattered armor far more ornate than any of the others. Two of his four arms carried a spiky rifle with flames spurting from the barrels.

  "It's a Fallen Archon!" Ghost cried. "Take cover!"

  The Archon creature bellowed in the Fallen tongue, probably a curse on my mother's mother. I managed to get off a quick burst before ducking behind a doorway. The flaming bolts from the Archon's weapon peppered the far wall, melting the metal and filling the air with the acrid stench. As much as I dared, I leaned out and stole a few potshots, but I was getting nowhere.

  "What is this guy?" I asked.

  "An Archon of the House of Devils, one of the most powerful Fallen in the Cosmodrome."

  "Great," I muttered, firing off a few more rounds and ducking back as the fire fell. "Got any ideas?"

  "I've been able to manufacture a grenade," Ghost said simply.

  It was heavier than it looked, but it fit nicely in the palm of my hand. The Archon's fire had slowed and he was cussing out my grandmother again. I leaned out and hurled the grenade at the Fallen's feet.

  The Archon howled as the incendiary grenade showered him with flames, wreathing his four arms in bright fire. I ducked back behind cover and managed a grin at my ghost.

  "Well, that works."

  Suddenly the Archon was there, grabbing my arm and jerking me out of hiding, hoisting me into the air like a child's toy. My Ghost tried to distract him, but he swatted the little robot aside with ease. The Archon roared in my face, his body still smoldering and covered in burns. I reacted instantly, and plunged my knife into one of his red eyes. He howled and slung me across the room. I slammed into the far wall with enough force to strip my shields and shatter what was left of my injured arm. I couldn't catch a breath even though my lungs screamed for air. I watched him pull the knife out of his eye through a haze of red. He leveled the shotgun at me and I felt my life ending.

  And then a violet wall of light went up between me and death.

  A huge man loomed over me, his arms stretched out as though he were the only thing keeping the wall from fading. He glanced down at me, his face hidden behind a battered, plumed helmet. I felt a cool, refreshing surge of energy that could have only come from being within this lighted sanctuary.

  "Looks like we found ourselves a kinderguardian."

  A second figure stepped into the bubble, his helmet in the form of a ram's skull. His voice was light and carefree, as though they were just about to have a picnic in the park, not as though there was a raging Fallen Archon outside hurling fire and curses on our safe zone.

  "Don't sweat it, kid," the Ram said cheerfully. He hefted a rifle mounted with a bird's skull. My eyes seemed drawn to those empty sockets and the black smoke pouring out them. Something about it turned my stomach. "We'll take it from here."

  Without a further word, the two rushed into the battle. Seeing he was outnumbered, the Archon howled for reinforcements, drawing six Vandals from the holes in the wall. The Vandals hissed and rushed to encircle the two strangers, trying to drive them toward the giant Archon.

  But that was where their plan failed.

  Two Vandals rushed the burly armored man. He stepped in and grabbed a Vandal by the collar and slammed his head into the other, shattering the Fallen's skull. The Vandal vanished in a purple afterimage of Void light, light that now encased the man's body like armor. The other Vandals rained arc bolts on him, but he shrugged them off as nothing. A burst from his rifle dropped one Vandal where he stood. A third lunged at him, swinging a pair of swords, but the mad holstered his rifle and whipped out a shotgun, slamming the Vandal back as though hit by a truck.

  The other, with the Ram helm, fared just as well. All three of his Vandals went down without him ever reloading. He jumped into the air, far higher than I thought possible, and a ball of Void light gathered in his palm, swirling and pulsing. With a cackle, he unleashed the vortex of light on the Archon. The orb exploded on impact, launching the huge Fallen back like a rag doll. He slammed into a concrete wall, and it shattered behind him.

  Still the Archon got up.

  The beast shook the bits of dust and concrete from his head and growled a warning. He leaned on his gun like a crutch, ether hissing from his wounds, but his eyes blazed with pure hatred.

  The shield covering me vanished, but I no longer needed it.

  Watching these two fight triggered something inside me. I felt a warmth rush over me, filling my fractured body with light. A weapon formed in my hand, a gun of golden-hued fire. It weighed nothing, but I felt like I would burst with the sheer power. Pulling myself up onto one elbow, I fired.



  Three times.

  The Archon lurched backwards beneath each hit, the final round from my golden gun hit him right between the eyes. The Archon vaporized in a howling cloud of ether.

  The big guy gave me a respectful nod.

  The Ram neared, boots crunching over the rubble. "That's high praise coming from him."

  "You just killed an Archon," my Ghost said, returning to my side.

  "Come on, kid," the Ram said, taking one arm and helping me up. I forced down a hiss, pushing down the pain in my other arm. "I'm Prax. The stoic one is Heracles-44. What's your name?"

  It was only then that I noticed that both of them had a Ghost, like mine, hovering over their shoulder.

My name? My mind rushed back to everything I remembered, but the bright light of Ghost was the earlist thing I could recall. He said I had been dead. What was my name before? Did I ever have a name?

   "I-I don't know," I replied shakily.

  "Well, since you pretty much took down Goliath over there on your own, we'll call you David. So, we'll start again. I'm Prax, and he's Heracles-44. What's your name?"

  "I-I guess I'm David."

Prax laughed. "Well met, David. How about we get you cleaned up?"

Monday, June 15, 2015

Old Ones

Jamil opened his eyes and tried to make sense of the bleary landscape. He lay on his side in the sand, a battered old cloak his only protection from the chill that came with the desert night. Blue had just begun to lighten the sky above the surrounding dunes. A roar jolted him, and a stabbing pain lanced through his back. Jamil rolled quickly, rising into a crouch to face the ancient Sand Wurm. The Wurm reared out of the sand, its maw splitting open wide to reveal the soft pink tissue within. Ages of sand wearing down on its plate-like scales had worn them smooth, save for the gouges and pockmarks leftover from some ancient titanic battle
"Good morning, Old One," Jamil said, using the name he had given the old Wurm. The creature had been hunting him for nearly three days now and would have succeeded had Jamil not found safety in this valley between the dunes. "Did you sleep well?"
The Old One roared and shot out its tongue, the barbed tip stopping short of Jamil by less than a foot. The Wurm shrieked in frustration and dove back into the sand, circling a wide area hoping to get a better shot at the old Elf. Jamil slid over a few feet to a place where he knew he would be just outside the creature's range. He looked toward the sunrise, hidden behind the mountainous dunes.
Three of the longest days of my long life.
Jamil's leathery skin sagged over a once impressive physic. Blood trickled down his back from where the Old One's tongue had pricked the skin, but unable to penetrate enough to carry him off. Jamil watched the Wurm circle, following the moving mound of sand with his dark brown eyes. The Old One reared from the sand and shot out its tongue again, and, once again, the barbed tip stopped short by less than a foot. Bellowing in rage the creature heaved its body out of the sand as though sliding out of a pool of water and slithered toward Jamil. The old Elf just shook his head.
"We're gonna try this again, eh?" he said.
Light flashed around his body and hardened, encasing the Elf in a suit of golden-hue crystal armor, the magical talent of the Vani, the fourth tribe of the Hashinn Elves. Ornate scrollwork formed intricate designs across the breastplate and helm, the same scrolls racing down his arms and springing off the back of his hands in short hooked claws. The eyeless Wurm hesitated, stretching its head toward the Elf, sensing a change in the air. Jamil waited, keeping his knees bent and ready. The Old One struck faster than Jamil could move, but the barbed tongue glanced off the magically formed armor with a loud ring. Jamil rushed forward, slashing with his claws, the light-forged crystal tearing through the Old One's scales. The Wurm threw its massive coils, trying to crush him, but he rolled aside and the creature received a series of slashes across its belly for the effort. Enraged and wounded, the Old One retreated, slithering a short way before diving back into the sand.
Jamil remained alert, despite the weariness that threatened to drag him down. The Wurm eventually plunged deeper into the sand, leaving no trace that it had ever been. Only then did Jamil allow the armor around him to dissipate. As it did he felt as though someone had yanked a crutch out from under him, and he collapsed into the sand. His hand brushed aside the sand as he tried to rise, revealing the stony remains of a foundation. Sometime, long before the Elves came to Hashinn, there must have been a city here. However great the city had been, all that remained now was this bare stony foundation, half buried beneath the sand it had once covered. Once thousands must have taken refuge behind its walls, now he was the last; the foundation was the only thing keeping the Old One from burrowing under him and dragging him down.
Don't have the strength to do that again.
Jamil's limbs trembled as they had not in decades. These past three days had been much of the same; dodging constant jabs from the Old One's tongue, fighting one or two skirmishes a day across the top of the old foundation, followed by a near sleepless night. They had taken their toll on him, even more than the past three centuries. Once he had been the greatest warrior of the Vani, but the Hashinn Desert took its toll on its inhabitants, whether they be Wurm or Elf. Now he was no longer permitted to go into battle. He was good only to sit at home and guard the children and listen to the other old ones relive their pasts. But even those old ones passed on, just as his wife and his children. He looked down at his wrinkled old hands, still strong in spite of his age. He had fought everything that moved in Hashinn, but Time was one foe that no Elf could defeat. Four days ago he set out into the desert to die.
He heard the roar of the Old One and smiled, though the movement split his dried lips, spilling fresh blood over that already dried. The ancient Wurm launched itself out of the sand, arcing through the air before plunging back into the sand. The creature had seen more years than even Jamil.
"Yet, you're still fighting," he said aloud.
Jamil clenched his fists and set his jaw. He strode to the edge of the foundation and paused.
Time to finish this.
He slammed his foot onto the sand.
Jamil darted back from the edge, light flashing around him and the magical armor solidifying. Seconds later, the Old One burst to the surface, sliding atop the stone foundation without hesitation. The Wurm lunged for Jamil almost eagerly, and the old Elf returned the enthusiasm. Bellowing the war cry of his clan, Jamil tore into the Wurm, slashing left and right with his claws. The Old One shrieked, throwing its coils in an attempt to crush the Elf, but Jamil rolled out of the way at the last second. He came up, deflecting the barbed tongue with a right hook, and threw his left fist deep into the Wurm's side, the wound showering him with dark blood. The Old One jerked away, but Jamil, his arm trapped inside the creature, felt his left shoulder ripped from its socket. He roared, both from pain and anger, slamming his right fist into the Wurm again and again. The Old One's shrieks deafened him, but kept hammering until his left arm came free. Both old fighters drew back for a moment to lick their wounds. The Wurm rolled in the sand, filling its wounds in an attempt to staunch the blood flow. Jamil gritted his teeth and shoved his shoulder back into place, hissing through his bloodied lips. Jamil faced the Wurm as it slithered slowly toward him.
"One last fight!" he cried. "Winner takes all!"
The Old One reared, pulling a full two-thirds of its body into the air.
Jamil screamed his war cry and charged.
The Wurm shot out its tongue at Jamil's feet.
The old elf stumbled, sliding across the sand on his hands and knees.
He looked up as the creature's shadow blotted out the sun.
The Wurm's body slammed across his legs, the force behind the blow shattering his armor. Jamil brought his claws up to defend his torso, but the Old One never moved. The Elf waited, tensed and prepared for a trick, but as the moments passed, the Wurm lay still. With incredible effort he managed to roll the Wurm's body long enough to slide free. The armor on his legs had saved them from being crushed, but they still felt badly bruised. He limped around to the Wurm's head and almost slipped in the pool of dark viscous fluid seeping from between the Wurm' jaws.
"You were dying all this time," he whispered, placing a respectful hand on the Wurm's head. "Yet you still fought out your last moments."
A voice caught his attention and he raised his eyes, shielding them against the sun's glare. A caravan, drawn by the sounds of combat, stood across the top of the dunes. One of the Elves lowered a long rope down the steep slope. Jamil tied one end of the rope around his waist and the caravan pulled, helping him up the slope. Waiting hands hauled him up the last few steps, and eager voices beckoned him for his tale. Someone thrust a full waterskin into his hands.
"Not now!" An Elf, who appeared to be the leader of the caravan, brushed the others aside. "Can you not see he is dying?"
Jamil eyes traveled back to the valley, to the body of a Wurm. He grinned, lifting the waterskin to his lips.

"Not today," he rasped. "This Old One's still got some life left in him." 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Last Unicorn

"I hate these feasts," Albrikt grumbled, pulling the white robe over his broad shoulders. "They're just an excuse for the new king to show off to his subjects." He fought with the heavy garment, trying to settle it comfortably on his shoulders. He looked into the full length mirror and frowned. "I look ridiculous in these things." 
"You look handsome, my love." His wife, Gwendolyn came up behind him, straightening and smoothing the rumpled fabric.  "It's not every Battlemage that can say they are invited to the coronation dinner of a powerful king." 
Albrikt looked at his wife in the mirror, watching as she adjusted the robes, her lips pursed in thought. A small smile formed on his lips and his gaze, made grave from visions of battlefields, softened. She hummed a soft tune, her lilting, musical voice smoothing the furrows on his brow. She looked up, her large dark eyes meeting his in the mirror. She blushed, but smiled sweetly. 
"What?" she asked. 
Albrikt turned, taking her in his strong arms. His hands, so used to the feel of an ax and clashing of steel, held her tenderly, as though she were made of glass and might break at his touch. He ran a hand through her long silky hair, black as a raven's wing. Even now, after ten years of marriage, the sight of her made his heart race. He touched the short pearlescent horn spiraling from her forehead in adoration. Unicorns were a rare race, even in the ancient tales, and likely she was the last of her kind. 
"Out of so many, you chose me," he whispered. 
"I love you," she replied. She touched the tip of her horn to his forehead gently. "I will always love you, no matter what." 
He looked into her fathomless eyes and saw there the love she spoke of, love so strong it made him tremble. He rested his hands on her curving hips, drinking in her beauty. The white gown she wore hinted at the full form beneath its modest folds but revealed nothing. She blushed again under his scrutiny, grinning and wrapping her arms around behind his neck. 
"What, my love?" she asked. 
"You look beautiful." 
"And you look handsome," she replied, kissing his lips. 
"Why me?" he asked. 
She just smiled and answered him as she always did when he asked her that question. 
"When I was running from those hunters, and I saw you through the trees, I knew I would be safe with you. You have a pure heart; else I could not have even approached you, much less cling to you for protection." 
Albrikt felt her tremble at the mention of the hunters, and he held her a little closer. Men thought of unicorns as nothing more than valuable prey. Their horns made the most powerful wands for wizards, their hair had magical properties, and most of all, their blood granted immortality on those who drank it. Supposedly it would be a cursed immortality, but it was immortality nonetheless. He stroked her back gently, soothing her anxiety. 
"And that was the day I had left my tribe in the north, abandoning their ways of pillaging and killing to seek atonement for my sins." He shook his head, still unable to understand the wonderful chance of it all. "If I had not been there--" 
She covered his lips with hers. 
"But you were," she said, stepping back. "And we are happily married. Come, my love, we don't want to be late." 
"I hate these feasts," Albrikt muttered. 
The king's feasting hall rang with music and loud voices. Nobles, wealthy merchants, and foreign dignitaries milled about, talking, feasting, and dancing. They vied with one another to see who had the brightest robes, the gaudiest jewelry, and, among the women, the biggest hair. A small band of thin musicians stood in a far corner, playing their merry tunes in hopes of receiving a piece of the huge, roasted boar dominating the center table. 
Albrikt watched everything with eyes like chips of ice. His simple white robes caused him to stand apart almost as much as his height and powerful build. Gwendolyn stood beside him, her arm safely in his. Albrikt bristled at every curious stare, as though they were looking at some wild animal from behind iron bars. Gwendolyn easily outshone every woman there, in form and attire. Her modest dress gave her an innocence that the other women lacked in their risqué silk and satin gowns. Albrikt stiffened as the musicians played a short fanfare, calling everyone to the feasting table. Gwendolyn gave his arm a squeeze. 
"It'll be okay," she whispered in his ear. 
But Albrikt could see that she was anxious and uncomfortable. They sat down on the end, with Gwendolyn at the very end of the table, arranged so some noble would not be grossly offended at being made to sit next to an animal. Albrikt looked to the head of the table as he pulled out Gwendolyn’s chair, trying to catch sight of the new king. He vaguely remembered him as a thin youth with a scraggly beard and too much interest in the Dark Arts, unlike his father who shared many of Albrikt's beliefs. Before he could find him, everyone began to sit.  In the brief silence that followed, a voice began to speak from the head of the table. 
"Welcome, my friends," the voice began. It sounded young, but not childish. "You are all gathered here to celebrate my coronation, and I thank you. Many of you have come from great distances, such as our friend, the ambassador of Dumerla, and some of you have come from here at home, to show your support for me as you did my father." The crowd applauded his flattery, but Albrikt did not. "Many of you have brought expensive gifts, and I thank you all. But of them all, none is perhaps as costly as that of my closest advisor, my mentor in many ways, my friend, the Archmage Arcturus." 
The crowd applauded once more, and once again, Albrikt did not. He watched as a tall Elf rose above the heads of the seated crowd. He smiled and bowed, his long reddish hair falling gracefully around his long, pointed ears. He looked down the table and for a moment, his eyes met Albrikt's squarely before moving on. Arcturus sat and was lost in the crowd again. The Battlemage felt his stomach twist uneasily; something about the Elf's fiery green eyes had troubled him. He felt Gwendolyn draw closer to him, and the knot in his stomach drew tighter. If she sensed something was wrong, then they would leave. He was about to rise when he heard his name called, and his attention turned to the head of the table. 
"Would you not agree, Battlemage Albrikt?" 
"Pardon, your majesty?" Albrikt stood to better see the young king. 
He sat at the head of the table in a chair of gold, looking at the long object in his hands. A unicorn's horn. Albrikt froze, as chilled by the sight as though the young king were holding a severed limb. The king smiled wickedly, his brown eyes watching Albrikt like a snake's. 
"Would you not agree that Archmage Arcturus' gift is possibly the most valuable?" He fingered the point of the horn delicately. "They say that these make the best wands. And they say"--his eyes flickered to where Arcturus sat and then focused on Albrikt--"That their blood makes a man immortal." 
Albrikt felt Gwendolyn stand beside him, and he tried to push her down, but she resisted. Her eyes grew wide and her skin ashen at the sight of the horn. 
"No..." She could not tear her eyes away. 
Albrikt saw soldiers closing the doors to the banqueting hall. He heard the ring of swords being drawn. His heart pounded, and a coldness settled in his stomach. His fingers tightened around edge of the table. He wanted to put out the king's eyes for the way he looked at Gwendolyn. The king smiled and pointed at Gwendolyn with the horn. 
"Seize her," he said. 
Dishes and food scattered in every direction as Albrikt flipped the table. Women screamed and people scattered as light blazed from Albrikt's raised fist and an ax appeared there, shining like the star it had been forged from. He rounded on the guards, snapping a spear in two with a single blow. The guards tried to encircle the Battlemage, but he did not wait for them. They had threatened his wife, his greatest treasure. None of them would survive. He leapt into them, smashing on every side, cleaving mail and bone with strokes that could fell small trees. Guards screamed and scrambled to get away from him, and another group charged toward him, hoping to overwhelm him with their numbers. Albrikt slammed his ax through a guard's helmet and turned, pulling three blue marbles from a pouch on his belt and hurling them at the group. He shouted as they left his fingertips. 
"Ufel rhew!" 
The marbles blazed with blue fire, growing until the three orbs consumed the five men. They hardly had time for a scream when the flames passed, leaving five men encased in thick blue ice. But Gwendolyn’s scream chilled his blood like no spell could. 
Albrikt grunted as a sword thrust glanced off the enchanted mail beneath his white robes. He rounded on the unfortunate guard and smashed the butt of his ax into the man's teeth. His eyes found Gwendolyn trying to fight against a soldier that had grabbed a handful of her long hair, yanking on it viciously. Before he could reach her, she managed to twist around and grab the soldier by the shoulders. His scorning laughter died in this throat as she plunged her horn through his heart. She snatched up the dead soldier's sword and turned, wielding it just as Albrikt had taught her for just such a time.  A flash of steel drew Albrikt's attention back to the fight, and he caught a guard's spear by the shaft. He jerked the guard forward and chopped down with his ax, ending the guard's moment of panic abruptly. 
Something tickled his shoulders, a faint touch that almost passed his notice. He recognized it as a spell forming and instantly murmured a counter spell, blasting it back with his full power, shattering the original caster's consciousness. Someone shrieked and Albrikt saw the young king stumble to the floor, a gibbering, drooling idiot. The unicorn horn slipped to the floor from his nerveless fingers. 
Suddenly he felt a tingling at the base of his brain, one he had not noticed with the brief exchange between him and the young king. Before the counter spell could leave his lips, he felt as though someone had replaced his blood with flames. He could not even hear his own screams over the crackle of the flames inside his head. He crumpled as images flashed through his fevered brain, images that ravaged his mind more than the fiery spell. 
He saw Gwendolyn, hanging upside down from a hook, her blood spilling from a gash across her throat into a silver basin. He saw men hacking apart her pale body, separating the bones and limbs into piles. He saw Arcturus rip the horn from her head with his own hands. Arcturus looked at him from the vision and smiled, clutching the bloody horn in one hand. Albrikt's mind began to fracture, slowly cracking under the strain. 
Suddenly, Arcturus began to dissipate, like thick smoke, and the gruesome scenes began to fade. Arcturus scowled and glared at Albrikt, even as his body disappeared, trying to gain control of his spell. A wonderful coolness spread through his mind, quenching the flames and piecing the fragments of his mind back together. He could hear a voice faintly calling to him. 
"Please come back! Albrikt, my love! Please!" 
His mind followed the voice, searching for the speaker. He opened his eyes slowly, everything out of focus and hazy with the pain. Gwendolyn knelt over him, tears streaming down her cheeks and onto his, her horn resting on his forehead, the source of the blessed coolness. Her lips moved in a faint whisper. 
"Please come back, Albrikt," she sobbed. "Please!" 
Slowly he tried to lift his hand and winced as the cramped muscles resisted. Gwendolyn gasped, her eyes looking down into his. A slow smile spread across her lips. She had dispelled the evil enchantment with the touch of her horn. Albrikt, her husband, was alive. 
Suddenly she was lifted, as though by the hand of a giant, and hurled across the room into the wall with a sickening thud. 
"Gwen!" Albrikt yelled, struggling to rise. A rich, deep voice filled the chamber. 
Bands of air, stronger than iron, fastened Albrikt's arms to his sides and his knees together. He fell hard to the stone floor, but managed to stay on his knees. Arcturus stepped past him, laughing darkly. 
"And they call you the greatest of the Battlemages." 
The Elfin Archmage stopped beside Gwendolyn. She moaned and moved feebly. Arcturus knelt and grabbed her wrist, jerking it toward him. Albrikt heard her gasp of pain and saw the horror in her eyes. She looked at him, silently begging him. He tried to speak the words to a spell, but his lips would not move. Arcturus pushed up her sleeve, exposing her pale slender wrist. 
"Llanfu," Arcturus muttered. 
Gwendolyn’s scream of agony cut Albrikt to the heart. The skin of her wrist split open as though sliced by a sharp knife, and her blood spilled out into the goblet summoned by the Archmage. The color drained out of Gwendolyn’s face as the goblet filled. She was dying and he was helpless. 
But the tribes of the north never knew defeat. Albrikt felt a different fire surging through his veins. Albrikt let the rage course through him as he had when he pillaged villages in the north. He chanted in his head the ancient battle cries that he had shouted in those bloody days. He reached for the strength that had made his people feared throughout the world. Arcturus let Gwendolyn’s limp wrist fall, and stood, raising the goblet in a toast to the bound Battlemage, hardly caring that he strained against his bonds. 
"Forever live the new king," he proclaimed. 
The Elf smiled and lifted the goblet to his lips. 
The bands holding Albrikt snapped and his inhuman roar filled the chamber. He thrust out with his hand, a wave of invisible energy slamming Arcturus into the far wall. Blood splattered across the floor as the goblet crashed onto the floor. Arcturus snarled and thrust out with his hands, his voice low and commanding. 
Flames raced from the Elf's fingertips, flying at Albrikt, but he thrust out his hand again. The wave of energy extinguished the flames and slammed Arcturus into the wall again, his head jarring off the unforgiving stone. He growled, trying to form the words of a spell, but Albrikt roared again, raising his ax over his head and slamming it into the ground between him and the Elf. 
"Egill!" His voice rebounded around the hall like thunder. 
The stone floor cracked and split as a wave of blue energy surged toward the Archmage, tearing through the floor like a blade through flesh. The Elf screamed the words to some counter spell, but they were lost in the sheer power of the Battlemage's spell. The spell blasted Arcturus' body through the stone wall and out into the courtyard, only his bloodied hand visible above the pile of stony debris. 
Through the cloud of dust and residual magic, Albrikt knelt beside Gwendolyn. He gathered her broken body in his arms, as though she were a child. The rage had left him with Arcturus' death, and now he felt hollow and empty, with nothing but fear to replace his rage. It choked him, freezing his blood and lungs. He murmured the words to a simple healing spell, but he was a Battlemage; his strength lay in killing, not healing. He clutched her body close to him, calling to her in low tender tones. 
"Gwen," he whispered hoarsely. "Gwen, my love. Everything will be all right. It's okay now." 
The simple words of his spell gave her the strength to open her eyes, and she looked up into his face. Her skin was too pale, deathly pale. A faint smile flickered across her lips. 
"My love . . ." Her voice was so faint Albrikt had to strain to hear it. 
Desperately he scavenged his mind for any stronger healing spells, but his thoughts were scattered, almost panicked. Her eyes fluttered and closed, her head began to droop. He could almost feel her life slipping away from him. 
Suddenly the doors to the hall burst open and more than a dozen guards rushed in. They hesitated, seeing their king gibbering on the floor and Albrikt standing to his feet, Gwendolyn cradled in his arms. The nobles fled from the room, rushing past the guards in a panicked frenzy to escape. The guards charged toward Albrikt, trying to encircle him with their spears. Quickly he leapt back to the hole in the wall, and raised his fist to the rafters. 
"Dirwasgu!" he cried, clenching his fist. 
The rafters snapped like matchsticks, and Albrikt leapt out of the hall as the ceiling fell in with a roar, crushing those inside. He ducked behind an outcropping of the wall, pulling a small scroll from his belt pouch. He glanced at Gwendolyn’s still form in his arms. She felt so cold. Hurriedly he spread the rough parchment open, revealing the intricate green runes painted across it. He let a trickle of magic fly from his fingertip to the center of the pattern and spring open the gateway. Green light surrounded him, washing away everything around him in its brilliance. 
When the light faded, he knelt amid the forest, far from the place of the battle. The sunlight streamed down through the treetops and a few stray leaves fell around his shoulders. But Albrikt felt as though he were falling into a black pit, from which he would never escape. He bent low over his wife, her limp form still resting in his arms. He could not seem to get enough air in his lungs, and it felt as though the constricting bands of air had fastened around his heart. He bent his face close to hers, her cheek deathly cool against his. He closed his eyes, whispering only spell his terrified mind could think. 
"Mendio," he said, willing every drop of his power into the word. 
He felt his strength leave him in a rush, like a deep sigh. His mind flickered in and out of consciousness for a moment, but his willed his focus on her still form.  Cold seeped into his limbs, trembling with the sudden weariness. But still he held her, refusing to surrender her just yet. 
He waited, looking into her face. He took her hand, but found no warmth, no comfort. In the silence, he felt as though his heart had been rent in two. Tears stung eyes that had never known them, and he choked back a sob. Shoulders that had never known true defeat slumped helplessly. He looked down at her hand, trying to focus on it through the watery haze. 
But when he looked at her bloodied wrist, the gash had sealed shut, the skin as smooth and clear as it had always been. Color began to blossom in her cheeks, and he felt the strength return to her arms as she clung to him. Her hand closed around his, warm and soft. She stirred in his arms, the way she did when waking from a deep sleep, and he felt his heart began to beat again. Her lips parted and a slow breath filled her breast. She sighed softly and her eyes fluttered open. She stared at him strangely, like a child stares at an unknown person. Albrikt's heart faltered. She had almost entered Death's skeletal gates, and not all of her may have returned. However, his fears vanished in the brightness of her smile. 
"You came," she whispered. 
"I -- I thought I lost you," Albrikt said hoarsely. He felt suddenly lighter, as though he had stepped out of a full suit of armor. He could breathe again, his aching heart beat as though it would burst. A shuddering sigh escaped his lips, taking with it the last of the fear. He kissed her brow with trembling lips. "I thought you were gone forever." 
"I'm here now," she replied, gazing up into his eyes. 
And he held her as though he would never let her go. 
"I didn't think I could save you," he whispered, his lips still pressed against her forehead. 
"But you did." She chuckled softly. "It seems I owe you my life again, kind sir." 
"And I owe you mine," he replied. "Many years ago I might not have been so different from those monsters in the palace, but you saved me from myself." 
The remembrance of the palace brought his mind back into focus. She was too weak for much traveling, and he had drained his manna reserves dangerously low. With the king and Archmage dead, there would be no organized hunt for them for several hours at least, which bought them some precious time. He laid her gently on the grass, forcing himself to stand. 
"I need to set up some wards," he said hoarsely. "You rest while you can, but we will need to move soon." 
"Albrikt, wait!" she said, sitting up on her elbows. "I know where to go." 
"What do you mean?" he asked, kneeling back down beside her. 
"When everything went dark, I saw a place, a wooded hollow. And there were others other unicorns there. They told me to find them. Albrikt, I'm not the last unicorn."