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Posted by
Aug 29, 2006

"Are you quite rested?" questioned Zedd without removing his gaze from the unfurled parchment. "There is still good time of which we can make use before the night is fully ours. It would be best spent deciphering what puzzles are written so that we may know where we must seek." Reluctantly, the apothecary dragged himself nearer, poorly hiding his true inclinations. "What message does this Nordic text hold?" beseeched the mystic, turning the map so that his companion could read it more easily.

"What does the rest of it say?" he avoided the request. It was the sole piece of the puzzle the traveller needed from Geirrek. Divulging that information frivolously could lead to a swift dismissal from his untrusted ally. "It... would help me understand what I was reading more." Softly, he could hear a heated sigh.

"This first line contains characters from the Far East. 'Upon the time the beast arrives and serpents flee will be your chance.' This is in reference to a creature that lurks beneath the waves. With each passing year, they, the Nian, appear on land to feed on people and venomous snakes. It is only for this short time they are active, which would be the time frame we must do our seeking, the blossoming spring."

"Can the flowery fluff," snapped the dark dragon. "I thought this map was to tell us where we had to go?"

"Being an object of time, when it is found is just as important as where," muttered the man from beneath his hood. The other two recoiled in shock at the statement. "What? I can be insightful, too!" After fuming over his anger at his companions, he again focused on the dire matter. "What does it say next?"


"Tree?" was echoed.

"Tree. I have gone over the text time and time again. It merely states 'tree'."

"That's an awful riddle," bitterly retorted Entropy.

"The last of the verses that I have knowledge of is comprised of the Greek alphabet. 'The gate shall open only when the golden plumage turns to cinder and the worm is freed.'"

"For almighty powers of time an' the sort," piped in the mind racked Nidhogg, "they sure can't write for squat."

"Despite their wretched literary skills," countered the cloaked man, "the intention is simply enough read. A bird of gold which burns itself to rise anew is told in legends of that land. This rebirth is carried out every 1,461 years. It could only be deduced that access to the Key happens at this point solely."

"One-thousand, four-hundred, sixty-one?" lengthily repeated the Terrible Summoner. "What type of number is that?"

"The kind actually found," weakly retorted the drake. "Real things don't cut themselves off at big, shiny numbers." The conversation among them ended with a hanging pause. With a reluctant sigh, the spearman read his line.

"'Beneath the gallop of the swiftest horse, past the frost and before the flame, fangs sunk deep into its hind, the passage will be shown'," recited he of cursed eyes, deeply studying the revealed markings. "Alsvid, the All Swift, ushers in the dawn after Hrimfaxi but before Skinfaxi. He is also charged with carrying the moon through the sky, keeping it out of the jaws of the wolf Hati."

"Therefore, this wound delivered to his hindquarters," rationed Zedd, "would be a bite taken from the moon, sensibly." Pausing, he stitched the criteria found together. "On the spring of a 1,461st year, under the light of a crescent moon at dawn, at the foot of a... tree. There we shall find the Key of Ages."

"Well, I'd be a fool if I didn't know it was spring," admitted the blue clad man, "but how do we know it is the... whateverth year?"

"Assuming the calendar used by the Key mirrors that of the Phoenix," suggested the mystic with more hope than certainty, "then we are are within that period as well. My path has crossed close to Heliopolis, the bird's home. The momentous event was well spoken of by the locals."

"Hey, that's all nice an' stuff, it really is," commented the corpse eater, "but all that doesn't get us any closer to where we have to be. In case you didn't know, trees are everywhere." He emphasized his revelation with a sweeping gesture to their current woodland setting. "Until we get that last line answered, we ain't much further ahead than we were to start."

"If only one of use could read this final text," cursed the vagabond. "That problem will have to wait, though. The sky is black now, so we best move before our privy location is found out by unwelcome company."

"Agreed, let's hit the trail," concurred the metal mitted man who carried through with his declaration. The short legs of the dragon waddled in haste to stride alongside their keeper's. A bemused smirk hid in his shadowed face.

"I don't see what you could be happy 'bout," mumbled the wyrm. "I thought you didn't trust the guy. What's with givin' him what the Nordic line said?"

"I didn't have to keep its secret from him," chuckled the summoner, "since I found a better one." A scaly brow was raised. "I know what the last line said, Ent. It wasn't any fancy or lost language, no. That part of the map was actually a map. Those were rivers, mountains, and other features, not letters. It's there that only we will find the Key, 'cuz no one else even knows.

Posted by
Sep 4, 2006

Edited on
Sep 4, 2006

"So he thinks it's a map..." Dai-sho reported to his master.

"A map. That is... Simple. Perhaps too simple for this quest of ours." the wanderer returned.

"Maybe. But y'd best keep it in mind."


"So, are you sure you know exactly the way you are travelling?" Galatea asked of Grackle.

"Of cairse," The greyskin lied, "Thay should be..."

It was at that point they ran into Geirrek and Entropy. Quite literally.

Zedd heard his companion's yell of surprise and began to weave his way, swiftly but cautiously, through the trees towards the battle-noise, merely in order to see if the Terrible one would fall or not.

The summoner and his drake, finding themselves outnumbered by their opposition, began to fight for their lives. The great dragon, now at his full size, tore at the Gryphon and its mistress with his claws, finding the agent of Time and the yellow rabbit far to agile for his ponderous nails to touch.

"Ye cannae win, y'know. N't without y'r friend. 'N he ain't comin' anytime soon." The crazed one said with false assurance.

It was at that point, reasoning that, even if his companion was treacherous, he was still useful a while yet, Zedd decided to make an entry. He also couldn't resist proving the mad one wrong.

"Am I not?" The wanderer asked, neatly cutting one of Grackle's arms off, only to have the greyskin dodge his head-height cut with unnatural speed.

"Ah damn. I had me a feelin' ye'd show up 'soon as I said tha'." Said the imp, as his arm reattached itself.

Zedd glanced at Geirrek. The knightly one looked with shock at Grackle. The boy looked around himself frantically, searching for at least one foe he could, perhaps, stand equal to. The familiars looked at their masters.

Both sides resumed fighting stances..

Posted by
Sep 16, 2006

"I coulda handled this," snapped the summoner at the ally now by his side.

"It certainly appeared so," Zedd responded in a patronizing tone, referencing the few wounds Geirrek had earned in the scuffle thus far.

With something to prove, the riled spearman launched forward at the enemy line, still in the battle-ready stance each side had assumed and waited in, yet unprepared for the suicidal attack. The one just as mad as this lack of tactic sprung onto the airborne apothecary, sliding the spearhead through the scarce flesh between his bones for a closer strike. The fiend's fangs were met with metal, however, as Geirrek's brazen gauntlet tore into the freak's mouth. His armored arm freed his warspear of the fool, finally ripping the traitor harshly from the staff before both smashed into the ground.

Zedd swept in for a quick kill, unwilling to discover what the youth was capable of, but the gallant Galatea grounded the swordsman with a heavy sweep. The knight raised her bludgeon to the prone wanderer, anticipating his next move, but she soon fell victim to a sneak attack and to the ground. Zedd had already risen during his familiar's distraction and poised his blades at the woman in white's throat. He swung his steel around, stopping the talons of his victim's gryphon, whom Entropy could not stop from saving the one believed evil, even with the Kamaitachi's sporadic help.

A chilled, hellish fog poured forth from the corpse-tearing maw -- not enough to obscure the draconic senses or the mongrel's eagle eyes. The gryphon pounced upon the attacking drake, who fended a hungry beak from seizing its throat. The surrounding mists rolled away, followed quickly by the hybrid as a conjured wind caught its wings. The white one planted her bludgeon into the belly of the beast now that her pet was free from any unintentional harm, but the wyrm was aided by its keeper yet again when an icy shot flew into Galatea's sterling mail. Hammer in hand, the paladin charged Geirrek. The swing was true, but stopped after it struck the solid, shimmering air surrounding the summoner. Despite the shock, she swung a second time, smashing the shield with an enchanted force. No sooner than his barrier fell did the spearman lash out, slicing through her silver side on the thrust and catching her sledge as he pulled back. The fresh wound loosed the knight's grip, dropping the heavy head of the hammer several inches into the ground. Relentlessly, the cursed one lunged forward, deathly trained on her throat while her guard was dropped, but alas, the gryphon would never drop its.

The half-eagle soared, rending the Terrible Summoner with the paws of its other part. Before Geirrek could command the ground below to swallow up the winged nuisance, the Grackle returned, once again whole, and leapt upon his back. A whirling frenzy fast enough to be Dai-Sho but in fact Zedd in a deathly dance hacked away at the freak. The mystic was precise enough to leave the apothecary unscathed but left two slits in his tunic regardless. The fiend rolled to the ground, cursing as its bandages pulled the freak together.

"What're ya doin'?" barked Grackle once his neck was resealed. The reluctant ally peaked from behind a tree a safe distance from the battle. "Git yer preshous li'l pet o'er 'ere, now, Sam."

"Um, oh... okay, but," stuttered the plain youth, "my name is not 'Samuel,' but rather-"

"Shut up!" the lunatic snapped, busy dodging infinite cuts from an unseen weasel.

"He is right," screamed Galatea in the heat of battle, bracing her sledge against the wanderer's twin blades. "We could really use that secret weapon of yours now." Her companion shrugged and beckoned to a bush close-by to his own hiding place.

The spearman caught a glimpse as the thing emerged, taking his mind entirely out of the battle as he watched its approach. Flop-Hop took ahold of the distraction and Geirrek's leg with a powerful bite. The conjurer kicked the coney away, remaining quite intent on the creature that drew near.

"That isn't... it couldn't be... it's a-"

Suddenly, horrible shriek filled the air, but it did not come from the mystery before him. An eerie, energetic maelstrom tore open in the woods, crackling with a chaotic energy. A wretched army marched from the portal, their armory as mismatched and motley as the soldiers themselves. Monsters crawled and slithered out along side the remnants with a deathly languor and hideous gait.

"Looks like the calvary's here," growled Entropy, spreading its dark wings wide open. "Maybe we could call on some reinforcements of our own?"

"You know that's impractical," its keeper re-explained, "and dangerous given out current predicament. Besides, these shouldn't be a problem for you, should they?"

The dragon let out a low rumble. "They aren't all dead," it said with a sniff of the increasingly putrid air. "Some are zombies, some are legit resurrections." Geirrek knew that this left his familiar in a predicament, and his dour expression showed it. None of the shadow magics the wyrm possessed could harm something that was already dead, and its bite could not drain a still-living being. The summoner saw only one possible compromise.

"Kill 'em," he spat out, his focused, glowing gaze never leaving the alarmingly sized army before them. "Kill 'em all. If they're already dead, kill 'em again."

Entropy flew at full force into the heart of the wights. Geirrek gripped his gauntlet fast around one of the the protrusions from his drake's back, riding into the fray with his familiar. His spear braced underarm skewered the rustily clad minions until it filled its entire length. The apothecary continued to hold on, ramming others with his most recent victim rather than running them through. The wyrm tore away from its master and into the core of the corps, seeping a venom corrosive enough to taint even dead flesh. The Terrible Summoner planted a fist onto the shaft of his warspear, forcing the polearm crudely out the other side of the rancid row. Fetid footman surrounded the sorcerer as he stood defenseless, joined soon by those pierced but still moving if not alive. The cursed one fumbled a potion as the skeletal soldiers took ahold, sinking their bony grasp into his flesh. Through pain and anger, Geirrek ripped his bloodied limbs free and did the same for his weapon, which was still lodged in an unfortunate undead. The spearman split the soldier's side and swung its heavy head into that of a manticore. With an anguished yell, he vaulted over the vile beast, forcing his point through the thing's skull. The man-eater flung its tail up amid the throes of death and struck down its attacker. A row of barbs protruded from the dragonkeeper's bloodied garb, and his leg quickly numbed. He hastily searched his belongings for an antidote when he noticed more of his life pouring down his arm. Too weakened to cast anything, he pounded the alphyn that had clamped onto his poisoned limb with his brass-banded hand.

Well aware of ally's plight, Zedd saw it more important to mind his own safety among the zombie horde. Whether Geirrek lived or died, he saw an advantage either way. The wanderer's weasel had little success cutting down the dead; its blades easily sliced through the fetid flesh, but it did little to stop their advance. The wights proceeded on their stumps, slightly slower and shorter but just as hellbent on stopping the searchers of the Key. The mystic's twin steel made short work of the lich's legion, deciding his blows more carefully through heart and head. He kept at a speed comparable to his Kamaitachi's, too fast for a normal mind and doubly so for the decayed remnants. A glancing blow veered the scarred one into a tree since he was moving far too quickly to stop himself. After an abrupt halt, the swordsman threw himself from the trunk, which quickly splintered from a sharp strike. Nails tore through a decrepit hand, bound tightly in black leather -- the only thing keeping the dust from pouring out. The stitched straps wound up the creature's gaunt arm to a wrought-iron breast plate that seemed to thick for a creature so frail to carry. The weight was apparent in its low, hunched-over stance in which the spikes from its fingers scraped over the forest floor. Its face bore no feature, hidden entirely behind black, with a reddened rune emanating from it. The chiseled design in the thing's armor centralized as a mount to a moving, unblinking eye that studied the battle from its gruesome vantage point. The fighter's head twitched with unconscious movements as it cautiously circled its prey. Zedd, too, was wary as he already knew what speed this creature possessed. He allowed himself to be lost in his dark mantle, keeping a still stance. The undead assailant leapt at the mystic, sending its spikes through the flowing cloak -- just as Zedd had expected. From behind the cyclops busied with an empty cloak, Zedd lashed out. His blade met iron as the minion twisted its torso, catching the edge just below its ominous eye.

Geirrek's muffled screams could just now be heard as he escaped from beneath a putrid pile. The horde attacked him and one another as they clawed their way to reach the summoner. His unhooded face was red with his own blood and black with the wights', and wholly shining blue as his bright eyes beamed his intensity. Entropy fended off the seemingly endless amount of soldiers, clawing and sweeping them away when its mouth had become too filled. Zedd turned back to his own fight; it was the only thing he could be concerned with. Two separate swings were caught on a different spike. His free leg kicked the fighter in the unarmored abdomen before following through on his strike and cutting both shoulders. The breastplate stayed in place, but a fine powder now leaked from within the minion. Another defiant scream erupted from the sorcerer as the numbers against him grew, man and beast alike biting into his flesh. The forest around him glowed the eerie aura of his cursed eyes, like a heated flame. He cast the zombies away and sank to the ground, and all was dark. All light was vacant from his gaze, set blankly to the ground. The soldiers stopped. The Nidhogg, still swarming with stilled zombies, was frozen, its eyes devoid of any sheen. Zedd could not help but to look on, feeling strangely compelled to, as did the orb set into his enemy's armor.

The daylight dwindled through the leaves, but it was not yet dusk. The hellish wyrm collapsed, digging its claws deep into the ground as its torturous maw creaked open, as though under no control of its own. The apothecary stood, expression as blank as before, as hurried, undecipherable words passed his lips. The shadows grew, lifting off the trees and undersides hidden from the sun and sped along. They spiraled and swirled across the perimeter, rising up at the command of the Terrible Summoner. The wandered realized his time was short; he suspected what was happening but could not admit it to himself, not even if Geirrek was the perpetrator. The mystic and Dai-Sho scaled a tree, running across twigs and branches as the whirling wall enclosed the wood. They did not stop once outside, but rather Zedd urged them on, further and further, with all of their speed.

They did not see what happened, but could very well feel it. A sudden sickening feeling swept over his very being, chilling his soul. There was no tangible presence to it, nothing palpable in the air, only an understanding of what had transpired. He stopped and looked back to where once the sky was dark, now as peaceful as any of the surrounding wood. From the outside, all seemed as it was, but the wanderer knew this deceit. He did not know why quite he went back. He felt compelled to. He had made a promise to Geirrek...

The scarred one slowly trekked through the forest, staying on the ground now that there was more danger in being seen than slain. The terrain was unfamiliar to him; he did not look as he escaped, but then Zedd saw a clearing in the distance. The trees grew thin, but there was nothing else to indicate their battle had taken place there. And that is how Zedd knew. The swordsman drew out his blades and made a steady approach. He ordered his pet to stay; Kamaitachis take haste over caution, and now that could mean certain doom.

There was no clearing in the land, but rather a clearing of the land. It was like a crater, but no ridges rose from a heavy impact. There was no trace of the trees inside nor of the lich's legion. Everything had simply disappeared. Except for Geirrek and Entropy, who both sat at the bottom of the pit. Zedd stalked around to the summoner's back and slowly slid down. The cursed one made no acknowledgement of the mystic, not even when he was in striking range. His steel was drawn back, but the scarred man hesitated.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" posed the apothecary in a drained, lethargic voice.

"Once, I told you," his ally reminisced, "that if I found your true intentions for the Key were evil, I would strike you down."

"And," the sorcerer started up, turning a half stare to the cloaked one, "what makes ya think I'm evil?" The azure aura slowly returned to his eyes, although it was now so dim the runes scribed within could easily be read.

Zedd faltered to find the words. "Dark Cauldron," he plainly stated. "You just summoned Hvergelmir," he continued unloquaciously.

"Not all of it."

"That hellfont is the last remnant of Ginnungagap," Zedd proceeded, outraged by his ally's lack of concern, "the force which ended the previous age of existence!"

"And now it lies past the shores of Nastrond where it undoes the most wicked souls into the basic elements of creation," he finished, although with a far less somber tone. "Of course I know this. That's why I use it."

"It does not just undo one's essence," the outraged wanderer now screamed, lowering his blade in his anger. "That is the fourth spell -- that of Darkness! It undid all creation in an older age; it can undo all creation again!" The summoner took ahold of his warspear and hoisted himself up with it. Limping even as he turned, he hobbled over to the scarred one.

"And that's just what I'm trying to prevent," Geirrek told in a quiet tone. The wyrm appeared by his side, which he draped his brazen arm over. Far too wounded to fly, the two slowly scaled the sheer sides carved out by the summoner's destruction. Zedd remained below, alone, with a mind full of thought.

"What happened?" the masked man asked as the scrying pool went dark. The lich rapped his fingers against a jar, still containing a few eyes suspended in a sickly green substance.

"Ssso," hissed the dark wizard, "it would ssseem there isss more to thessse two than we thought."

"The portal collapsed, master," the general informed, "but I doubt there were any usable parts to recover from the battlefield. It will take time to build a new army."

"Ssso be it," admitted the lich. "Let that trecherousss Grackle tend to them for now. Perhapsss we can learn sssome weaknessssss by watching that fool..."

"Well, zat proof fer ya?" the bandaged fiend related after the group was a safe distance away. "Zombies! An' lot's of 'em! Gotta be in league with ol' lichy, huh?"

"There is... no other explanation," Galatea admitted.

Of course, the explanation was simply that Grackle fled. He wished neither to fight the wights nor to allow Galatea to see the others fighting them. A wicked smile crept across his gnarled, gray features; he just loved it when his unplans worked. "Hey, mebbe ya could get s'more help from that guild o' yers? Lot's of it, too," the impish one tried to convince, wanting either more manpower to solve half of his problems or just to have more of the other half around to be solved. "I mean, they got zombie armies! We three cannae take that on, even with ol' Jack's whatzit."

"My name isn't Jack!" protested the youth, who was considerable winded from their retreat. "I keep telling you, it's-"

"By the Order! What is that?" Galatea interrupted Grackle from delivering his normal "Shut up!" From far out in the forest, a tower of shadows was sinking down, and then vanished as quickly as it came. "That was they, was it not?" the paladin asked. "The evil ones? What have they done?" Without any thought, she took to her mount and raced to where she last saw the shadows.

The young boy and ancient freak stood alone with their pets. From beneath ordinary hair, the bland eyes of the lad shifted from side to side.

"My name's-"

"Shut up!"

Posted by
Oct 11, 2006

The drake and its hooded keeper hobbled up the sheer slope, tiredly pulling themselves up the hole they crafted. Passing thoughts surfaced wishing that the immense power was a little less overwhelming. As their footing nearly slipped, a speedy hand grasped onto their arms. The marked eyes rose to behold Zedd, already at the top.

"Don't ya have issues with us evil folk?" bemused the apothecary, trying to keep up a pleasant demeanor despite the unbearable pain he was feeling throughout his entire bruised and drained body.

"Evil has never been a tolerated presence by my will, Terrible Summoner, and I still seek to vanquish it no matter the medium it chooses to represent itself in this world," the mystic informed. "However, I can only ensure that this particular and gravest of misdeeds is disposed of properly by keeping it under my vigilance. Your actions have not warranted a shred of my trust, and little has been done to change that situation." With his help, the pair was finally freed from the pit of their own crafting. "However, I trust less what I have witnessed within your capacity."

"Keeping a scarred eye on your enemies? Well, isn't that sweet," Entropy mockingly tuned between heavy breathes. Geirrek attempted to thank his familiar for saying what was on his mind but was too tired to even do that himself. "Thanks, buddy," filled in the corpse eater. "You're welcome."

"There is little time left for such foolery," solemnly spoke the traveler with a stern look to the sky. "The time prophesized has nearly drawn. We must be fleet." Leaning forward, his body shot through the foliage, which was cut down immediately before his passage by the shaped winds.

"... Hey... wait," cried out the destroyer, staggering to his feet. "How do you know?" Bewildered, he turned to his pet. "We never told him where, right? How does he know?"

"I don't know how this guy gets any of his info," choked out the Nidhogg along with some blood. "Frankly, I think he should be suspect of evil deeds, not us." There was no time for paranoid speculations, however, as their "ally" raced ahead of them to what, they assumed, was the Key's location.

No sooner than they vanished into what remained of the forest, the obliteration's border was pierced by the white knight. In her haste, she found herself hanging over the steep drop before even realizing that the earth had vanished beneath her. The wings of her snatcher spread fast and wide to keep her from crashing down below, giving her time to take in the magnitude of what had befallen the land.

"By all that is holy by Her grace," uttered the paladin as the scope of ruin was still being taken in. "How could one, a lowly mortal, cause such?"

"'Cuz mebbe they ain't neither part o' that equation," suggested a guttural call from behind the trees. Catching up to the divine soldier, Grackle drifted out of the shadow aboard Raph, making horrible use of its telekinetic abilities.

"Rides over," stated the Strong Toad in its baritone voice before dumping its master off from its glowing shell. Jettisoned past the ledge, some trailing wrappings ensnared the limbs that remained of a tree half-swallowed by the Dark Cauldron. As the bandages wound back up, a nasty stare was given to the guarded amphibian who had already housed itself back into its indestructible casing.

"What exactly are you trying to suggest?" queried the Amazon while trying her best to ignore the awkward deeds of her trusted companion. "You think them to wield some higher power?"

"Ya got the correct notion, m' dear, but that ain't the right direction 't all," grumbled the fool as an upward pointed finger flipped down.

"You believe them hell spawn?" gasped the silver maiden. "Infernal influence would explain their dead army," she noted, "although... why would they bring forth such fetid forces only to do this to them?" The endless cavity was again brought into attention.

"Aw, well, ya know these vile kinds an' how they go 'bout wit' careless abandon," lied the gray one while swinging around the trees standing at the edge. "Why, this was prolly just the result o' them jumpin' on through a shadow gate o' some kind, takin' them an' their troops to some other where to... do evil things. Them portals likely claw at the very ground they stood upon since they are all... shadowy." His body was flung off from the branch he twisted about and landed on the back of the gryphon. "Shadows are all evil, after all. This just supports their terror more than ever! Ya really gots to get the rest o' yer gang down he'e before 'tis too late."

"Our oracles did say the crucial moment was approaching," audibly thought holy servant. "That is why I and Weiss were selected to identify and locate the matter."

"An' now the grains be stackin' high as sinister hands basically got the Blade o' Ages held at the throat o' the world," exaggerated Grackle. "I think this situation was exactly why yer li'l club was made in the first place." Leaning into his pawn, he whispered his twisted words into her ear. "Thin's are dire. Call the others, get 'em here, an' be the hero. The planet will thank ya..." As his deceitful words clouded her mind, a gilded horn was pulled from her waist, previously covered by her mail.

"This," she explained, holding the curled and curved work of art up high, "is the Heaven's Herald. A single note will warn all blackened hearts throughout the land that their time has ended."

Thatís... all it does?" questioned the fiend, a little disappointed in the relic.

"It does so by opening a door connected directly to the main hall of the Order's citadel where countless legions of armed and ready troops have been awaiting my summons."

"Oh... yeah, that sounds pretty good." As the trumpet graced her lips, she pulled it away.

"No, not yet." The freak scowled but hid it well. "First, they have to be found. Only then shall they be crushed beneath our heels."

"Well, I gots m'self a rather good hunch to where they mebbe headin' right now," admitted the maniac as his tone changed from sour to sweet. "Just follow m' lead!"

"And where did you come by this information?"

"'Cuz I'm an ageless force assigned by the powers-that-be to ensure that no unworthy hands are laid upon the Key o' Ages, an', therefore, would naturally have innate knowledge to where 'tis bein' held." As his longer than necessary explanation came to an end, he burst out in a mad cackle, a laugh that Galatea grudgingly eased herself into as well before they took to the sky.

"Hey, guys, wait up," squeaked a voice from below as the youth finally arrived on the back of his familiar.

"George? 'Tis 'bout time ya got here. Look, we ain't got time to give ya the details, so just try to keep up," yelled down the mutant. "Fer the love of Hell, I thought those things were suppose to be much faster."

"I'm sorry, but my name isn't George,-"

"Fly! Go now!"

"-it's... aw... why do they keep doing that to me?"

"Iii dunnooo," slowly semi-answered his monster

Posted by
Oct 20, 2006

"Sir," a distant voice approached through the shadows, echoing off the dark chamber in which the vile sorcerer was throned. The thing sat with its rotting fingers arched together, deep in a scheming concentration. "Sir, our calendars!" announced the masked one, racing to tell his malignant master what he had long known.

"Yesss, the moon," gargled the withered mockery of mankind. "Ere tomorrow, the Key will reveal itssself."

"Then," questioned his general, stopping before passing the putrid threshold as usual, "what shall be done about this?"

"Nothing," conceded the lich after a moment more of thought. "The Key is not our concccern. It isss the Blade we mussst keep from them," the horrid thing hissed. "We shall rebuild our forcccesss and defend the Blade of Agesss alone." The lieutenant silently saluted and made his way to fulfill his new orders, but this was not the end of the wizard's work. "It ssseemsss my fighter alone proved more valuable than all my other sssoldiersss," the raspy voice announced to no one other than itself. "Perhapsss it isss not another army I should conssstruct, but a few ssselect mercccenariesss..." His hollow sockets fell onto the babbling dwarf, cowering in the side of the room, covered in the sickly secretions from its gaping wounds and orifices.

"Are you sure it's safe to be flying now?" growled the drake loudly over the rushing winds. "Not just 'cause I might keel over at any moment, but couldn't someone still spot us?"

"Of course it isn't safe," snapped the summoner, hanging on for his cursed life, "but it also isn't safe to let Zedd get to the Key first."

"Oh, and it is so safe for you to get the Key instead?"

"We don't have a choice anymore," stated the apothecary. "You saw what happened back there; I completely lost it."

"Yes, and imagine destruction for which you would be responsible with the Blade of Ages in your hands."

It was then Geirrek realized his familiar hadn't been speaking.

"You'll see firsthand what I'm capable of when I finally get the Blade," quietly muttered the dragon keeper.

"What's that?" wondered the wyrm, incapable of hearing even with its draconic senses. "Aw, that wasn't it again, was it?"

"That last Cauldron has made things worse," he admitted, returning to his regular tone. "It's becoming more frequent now."

"Didja really hafta use Dark Cauldron that last time?" Entropy attacked. "Even if we were in trouble, there were other things ya coulda done."

"You know as well as I do that I didn't have a choice in the matter," the terrible one spat out. With his mind calming, he returned his blue gaze downward to the terrain. He scanned the features carefully, looking for a match to the markings he saw at the bottom of the map.

The two had little rest since their ordeal, and little ever since retrieving the map. Geirrek knew just where they had to go. They had flown over it before on their one night of exploration, before the battle, but he had said nothing about it. The summoner knew the crescent moon wouldn't be right until tonight. He wanted to put as much distance between Zedd and the Key's location as possible before heading back himself. For whatever reason, Zedd, too, knew the Terrible Summoner's secret. And as much as Geirrek wanted to be the first there, dusk had not yet come let alone the dawn. It would still be hours until the Key of Ages revealed itself, hours that would have to be spent keeping opponents at bay...

"Slow down!" the lady in white ordered her hybrid mount, casting her their trailing ally. "We're losing -"

"Who?" Grackle interrupted before she could even say his name, entirely turning about his head in confusion. Far off, the fiend could see the drab youth trudging forth. "Oh, that guy... shut up!" the grey-skin shot out of compulsion before completing his neck's rotation, facing him forward yet again.

"Are you sure this is the right way?" Galatea questioned before the freak was too far away to hear her. "They were traveling in the opposite direction when we last confronted them." Grackle's eyes went blank as the devious mind raced. His grotesque and gnarled features contorted more in his concentration, until inspiration came from above.

"Thar they be! See 'em?" declared the lunatic with a sharp finger pointing skyward. The wide, swift wings of a Nidhogg could be seen against the orange sky, sinking with the sun into yet another immeasurable wilderness. "That's 'em, an' that's where we're goin'. See? There's no reason t'be suspicious o' me."

"They're... flying?" she stated more than asked, removing her great helm for a better look. "I thought they traveled through shadow gates? Like we saw in the forest?"

"Er, yeah, th' thin' 'bout that," the traitor mumbled, shifting its ancient eyes about their location as though looking for an answer, "only th' zombies do that. They gotta fly." Having untangled himself from one lie, the mutant decided to weave another. "Th' zombies are prolly already thar, too. Teleported 'head o' them fr'm b'fore. Ya best git yer friends ovah here, lady."

Iron fingers rapped against the bell of her horn as the cleric contemplated using it. "No," she decided, stowing away the herald once more. "The Order is busy now. I can only summon the army when it is absolutely necessary; they may be needed elsewhere."

"Bu-but," stuttered the disbelieving and increasingly irate fiend, "zombies are smelly an' ugly an' disgraces t' whate'er it is ya believe."

"There are two of them and three of us," the paladin sternly stated, leaning over Grackle with a stance as imposing as her tone. "We should not require the White Order's aid, but if they do summon their legion, I shall summon mine." The Grackle knew full well that would never happen.

"What if," the freak began to concoct, "what if they stop ya, by throwin' somethin' at yer horn, like, explodin' acid."

"Exploding acid?" Galatea blurted out as she was about to seriously address the question. "Acid... that explodes?" The warrior shook her head and continued as she had intended. "The Heaven Herald is quite enchanted; it would take something significant to destroy." The bandaged madman sank down into a crude pile of bones. The only idea left in its twisted mind was asking how the horn tasted. "Come now, if we hurry, we can reach them by nightfall."

"No fire," the summoner told his shivering pet. "We can't attract any more attention; we can't risk being found."

"Who is to say that you have not been already?" Geirrek's piercing blue gaze, still only a fraction of its regular intensity, shot about the seemingly desolate landscape. Most of what he saw was rocks; they were everywhere, and assumedly more lie underground. The rugged terrain made the land ungrowable, unbuildable, and therefore uninhabitable. One of the sparse, hardy trees that scratched out an existence hid the wanderer behind it.

"So, you beat us here, did you?" the apothecary bemoaned, tightening the grip on his warspear.

"Nothing of the sort," Zedd conceded. "Whatever you saw in those scrawlings on the map remained scrawlings to me; although I could not decipher them, you, on the other hand..."

"Wait, you followed us?"

"I thought a much different reaction would be in order," the traveler related. "After all, this means that you were smarter than I -- for once -- until I outsmarted you."

"So then," Geirrek said, circling around the approaching mystic with his arm still ready, "how are we gonna do this?"

"We shall wait for the sun to rise on the moon," Zedd explained quite unexpectedly, "we shall secure the Key, and we shall retrieve our respective treasures."

"... that's it?" the shocked sorcerer stated. "Something doesn't seem quite right 'bout this. I've led ya right to the Key; what do you still need me for?" He inched away from Zedd as he drew nearer. "How can I trust that you trust me?"

"No such thing," the cloaked man denied, his scarred face a stony mask. "Not only have you done nothing to earn the slightest bit of my trust, I have every reason to suspect you of evil and worse."

"So then... why?" wondered the confused dragon keeper.

"As all of my motives," Zedd revealed, finally face to face with the Terrible Summoner, "I have my reasons." A chilly stare locked between them, the swirling curse in the conjurer's now dim eyes clearly visible. And that was the wanderer's reason. Despite everything he had seen and everything he should suspect, whenever Zedd looked into the prophetic stare of the spearman, he saw nothing. Geirrek could not be responsible for some sort of cataclysm, end of the world, or even the end of the staff bearer. Zedd was all to familiar with the power of magic, and could not deny what the apothecary's curse told him -- should Geirrek be responsible for the traveler's death, he would be shown it. "The Key of Ages is not yet in my hands, and there are still many in this world that wish to keep it that way. However vital you believe it is that you obtain the Key, it is far more important for me to."

A crooked arch rose up on half of the spearman's sunken face in a mocking smirk. "Oh, do ya really think so?"

"Die, ya inf'dels!" rasped an unfortunately familiar voice from the distance.

"Grackle!" Galatea scolded. "What are you doing? We had surprise on our side."

"Ah, no," blandly rolled out the freak, "I hope that doesn't mean there'll be mo' injuries." Next, the fiendish tongue gave out several shrieks as its tattered coverings and meager flesh came under a frenzy of invisible assaults. Zedd suddenly appeared besides his weasel, already wielding his twin blades. He struck with only one, however, blocking Weiss's sharp talons with his free arm's bracer. The paladin's maul easily met the slender steel, and a second strike sent the wanderer to the jagged ground.

Geirrek balanced his spear when the Grackle took notice of him. It immediately announced "Watch out! He's summonin' more o' dem zombies!" A tide of confusion washed over the apothecary to the point he could not even carry out his attack.

"Where? I don't see the portal," the maiden in mail informed, desperately looking for the shadowy gateway amid the dark air and battle.

"'Tis right ovah there! No, thataway!" the freak continued to misdirect. "Bah! Thar's no time! Summon yer army! Now!" Fearful that they might soon be overpowered, she removed her Heaven Herald and hoisted it skyward. A crash of glass struck over its ornate opening. The slight distraction did not detract Galatea from going on with her call until she noticed.

"By the Order," she whispered, witnessing a thick foam growing out of both the horn's ends. As the mysterious substance pushed from the mouthpiece, it rolled downward, freezing in midair. She gave the disgustingly colored goo a slight poke, finding that it had turned entirely solid. While the instrument itself may have been nearly indestructible, it had no such protection on its airway.

"Dunno what that thing woulda done," Entropy roared as it grew to its full, deadly form, "but that was still a good idea."

"Not really a 'good idea,'" Geirrek admitted. "I thought that vial contained exploding acid."

"Exploding acid?" Entropy repeated in such disbelief that it kept him from the fray. "Acid... that explodes?

** There is still more to this story. Continue to the next page. **

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