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Posted by
Jan 3, 2007

Edited on
Jan 4, 2007

“I think I begin to understand…” The wanderer began before being cut off by the whispering on the wind “… How this works.” He said with some force, the other voices dying down somewhat. With one hand the foreigner grasped his staff for support as he massaged his aching skull with the other.

“Then would’ja mind tellin’ me?” His weasel barely got in before the voices, which now seemed more determined than ever to override anything the pair said.

As the swordsman and his pet attempted to master the power that had been placed upon them, the spearman stared out into the distance, his drake barely managing to keep control of the forces that now howled within his soul. The apothecary knew that another attack from those that did not want the Blade of Ages found was probably imminent, since his apparent allies were all trying to contain powers beyond the dreams of any but the truly insane.

“Who would’a thought that power could make ya weaker?” Entropy complained.

”That is something…” The mystic walked over to join the Terrible one and his beast as the whispers overcame his voice “…We all must learn.” He finished, overcoming them once again.

The keepers of the Key decided to descend to a rocky crevasse, not too far away from the place they had been deposited back to, in order to work out what came next in this episode of their adventure.

“So now we got the Key, what’s next?” The summoner inquired.

“We must find…. The place in which the treasures are… Kept” The staff-bearer spoke with some effort to overcome the many voices which tried to devour his words.

“Not t’mention getting these powers…” The weasel was drowned out by the sea of voices – he had less of an ability to dominate them than his master.

“Under control. Yeah.” The drake finished for his fellow familiar.

“So you’re saying we got the Key, now we just need to find the Door?” His master asked.

“Well, that sounds logical… To my mind… Though I do not think… it is called… That” the scarred man answered, still massaging his temples, for all his ache was less powerful than it had been.

The rabbit and the toad sat some distance away, discussing their own plans for finding their master and wondering which side he would take, now that the Key was in the hands of those he had been fighting against.

Meanwhile, apart from his familiars, the temporal agent known as Grackle was still hanging above the ravine, cursing the vultures that had come to tear at his flesh.

“Go ‘way, ya craven scum!” he yelled at them, flailing out with what limbs he could spare. Suddenly, the branch decided it didn’t want to bear his weight any more and broke. The greyskin cursed as he tumbled to the bottom of the cliff. The raptors that had come to eat his apparent corpse flew off in search of easier prey as the lunatic disentangled himself from branch and bandage, then realised something that he hadn’t had time to think about:

”Whaaat!? They’ve got the Key!?

“They have the Key!?” The lich screamed

“Yes, master, but there is no indication that they will go after the Blade…” the unfortunate lackey who had to bear this bad news began.

“Of courssse they will, what other power could they want?!” the lich yelled, cutting off his underling. “Thisss just means we mussst guard the treasuressss with all we have…

Posted by
Jan 13, 2007

The skeletal sorcerer hobbled to an obsidian wall, gazing at the wretched reflection it cast.

"For cccenturiesss I have prepared for thisss day, mere momentsss compared to what life I have lived and what eonsss shall come," the lich ranted. "I have ssseen kingdomsss rise and fall and repeat the errorsss of their ancccessstorsss millennia ere. Men tell daysss with sssand and sssun; I, with russst. I can feel it, the Key. It ripplesss acrosss the Time to which I have become ssso accussstomed.

"Yet I feared the Key of Agesss would be found. All creation is an inssstant in the faccce of Time; Time would not allow itsss preciousss Key to reveal itssself if it would not be claimed. Though my people'sss entire hissstory have I known, the future only Time knowsss. I have fought Time for thisss long and won. Ssso I shall continue.

"The bearer of the Key will reccceive no further aid from Time; his dessstiny is now his own. The Key and artifactsss exissst beyond Time -- it cannot control them." The dead wizard turned his withered face to the masked man at his side. "They cannot unlock the Blade of Agesss in thisss world without the Triad," it explained in its usual hateful hiss. "Sssend no more than one guard for each location; ssspare the ressst for when an attempt is made."

"But sir," the general protested, "more must certainly be necessary. Combined, all of your merca-"

"The three shall be ssscoutsss," the lich interrupted, elaborating his previous command. The death-defying mage retreated to his gruesome hoard. "If they are truly after the Blade," it dustily spat out, plucking a putrid, slime-covered eye from his diminishing supply, "our sssoldiersss can then be used. And if they are not... we have enough enemiesss. We cannot afford to be ssstopped -- not now." Its hollow sight fell to the disgusting jar it now clutched, provoking a moment of thought from the vile thing. "Ready our guardiansss to defend the Triad immediately, but firssst, there is another dessstination for the portal. And the repairsss -- how do they fair?"

"We shall be airborne again within the week, sir, more slowly than expected. Too many of our workers have been used as soldiers, and none of them have returned."

"Aye, our sssuppliesss run low," the lich slowly strained to say, rapping the sinister container with its rotten fingers. "Repair only enough to be mobile. We have no need for the sssky; the earth holdsss the harvest we ssseek."

"A raiding party shall be constructed," agreed his loyal lieutenant. "What of the Blade itself? Who shall guard it?"

"None," the arcane ancient answered, "for not even I know itsss true location. Too many treasuresss and powersss does the Key unlock; no tome tellsss them all. That sssecret is protected even from myssself." The corpse motioned a decaying hand to a heavy, glowing container among his mysterious keep. There was no visible lid, and the contents appeared to be miniscule for its fortification. "I clawed thisss sssecret from my very own mind long ago. Here, no mage can reach it; no psssion can read it."

"Does anyone else know the Blade's location?"

The wicked wizard only smiled its parched, deathly smirk. "No living thing knowsss." Its grim grin only grew. "Not any more."

"So, any clues on how we can find this Door of Ages?" mocked the drake. "You really think they're fallin' for it?" His keeper looked back a long ways to the other Key-bearers, who no longer trusted for Geirrek to hold the rear. They spoke more softly than usual; the rocky walls echoed their voices.

"Shut up, Entropy," the summoner was finally confident enough to speak. "I think they're buying this act."

"So how exactly are we s'posed to get the Triad?" grumbled the Nidhogg, who desperately wished for this entire ordeal to be over.

"I'll have some studying to do. There has to be a way to open the gates without the entire Key," the summoner told his pet, hoping it to be true. "Perhaps I could duplicate it. Hey, maybe a third'll be enough. What's important is that we distract 'em for a while."

"Why don't you just waste them, too?"

"Why don't you burn in the pit that spawned you," Geirrek growled to himself.

"Careful now. You cannot kill yourself, too," the voice rang, "or could you? Would that set me free?"

"Oh, if I only knew otherwise," the conjurer threatened while rubbing his temples, "I would fall on my spear just to shut you up."

"Aw, it isn't back, is it? Just ignore it," the dark dragon recommended, but his master never heard these words.

"So angry, so hateful. Is that not how this all started? How could you hate yourself so?"

"You are not me," the apothecary angrily voiced through clenched teeth.

"Are you so sure about that? You're in control now, but that doesn't mean you should be," it continued to pester. "I am our true nature; you're trying to hide me, to kill me away."

"I am nothing like you," the cursed one roared, forgetting his quiet tone.

"Really?" it posed. "I believe that Galatea would disagree..."

"I think it's gettin' bigger," the more uncommon commoner fretted. He again attempted to gain the wanderer's attention, which was intent on Geirrek's inaudible ravings. "Oh no, I think I feel a bone. Does that feel like a bone is stickin' out to you? I think somethin's wrong with this here mark. I don't like the looks of it," he constantly droned on. "Do you feel a bone in there? Like a li'l spike or somethin'?" The swordsman finally cast down his disinterested attentions to see that the Key's affliction had indeed become worse. The cryptic glyph was still burned into his skin, and the blood surrounding it had begun to dry, but now an intricate web of dark veins was covering most of the youth's arm. Much of the flesh around the mark had already turned a darker shade.

Still, Zedd denied the peasant's fears. He knew otherwise, but did not wish to touch it.

An upstart from ahead in the ravine took both men and both familiars by surprise. The cloaked one could not discern what exactly the summoner was screaming or at whom. Zedd began to approach the black sheep, but the boy latched onto his arm.

"Isn't there some way we can get rid of 'im?" questioned the dullard, with a rare, malicious glint to what little of his eyes showed beneath his dreary locks. "I mean, like, suck out his soul or somethin'? Then we wouldn't need 'im anymore and we could, y'know, get even..."

Zedd fixed an expressionless stare on the lad and his intensity. "If it is possible..." the mystic started. "We shall."

"Whatever is the matter?" Zedd asked his bewildered companions, appearing next to them without their notice. "Is this the effect of..." He stopped speaking as the thousand whispers began.

"The Key of Ages?" Entropy finished, with an absurd expression.

"Yes," the Terrible Summoner was quick to answer. "It was the Key doing... all that," he tried to conceal, "but it is all over for now."

"Boy-that-stuff's-strong," the weasel blew in.

"Yeah," again agreed the apothecary with a slow, far away sound, "it is certainly... powerful." The sorcerer shook his head and resumed his regular candor. "Look, we can't just hide in a hole and hope we luck into the Door. I know my Key fragment didn't give me any clues as to where the treasure is, and I don't think you guys know any better, either."

"Well, wait. What makes you think they're all in the same place?" the youth spoke up with a wince of pain tinged throughout his voice. "The Key isn't some real thing -- it's all glowy an' stuff. And Galatea... Galatea said that the Blade of Ages was just a spell. We ain't gonna find these treasures in some heap someplace." These words, as unlikely as their source was, made sense to the bearer of the mind fragment. Geirrek already knew this to be true but expressed no opinion one way or the other as not to draw attention to himself. "So, if the treasures aren't layin' in one hoard, which ones are we goin' after?"

A silence exchanged between the party. Sights shifted from one member to the next.

"I want the Blade of Ages." The others turned in complete surprise. The marked man made a heavy gulp and continued explaining nervously, "It was what Galatea wanted. She said it was important -- that some big bad was comin' -- and I believe her."

"The White Order may know something," offered up the summoner all too eagerly. Zedd only laid an outraged stare upon him, speaking with expression rather than short words. "What? Her order was after it, so they must have some secrets about the Blade." And hopefully, they would be secrets Geirrek did not yet possess and none that he already did. "What's the matter? Don't trust me?"

"I trust you about as much as," the mystic started, only to be overwhelmed by the Key's force. "No," he simply finished once the roar subsided. "You cannot have the Blade."

"The Blade of Ages?" Geirrek protested, almost playfully, as though he fully expected Zedd to sense his lies. "Why, what reason could I have to want that? If our little friend here wishes to save the world, then by all means, I should help." Zedd's maintained wrath told his disbelief.

"So then, which artifact are you after?" then asked the serf.

"The Tankard of Ages."

"Tankard of Ages?" cried the wanderer with even more ire.

"Why, yes. This magical tankard remembers every liquid it has ever contained," the cursed one furthered, "and can refill itself with any of its prior contents."

"You would never have risked your life for..."

"That's-just-stupid!" Dai-Sho summarized his keeper's truncated words.

"Not for an apothecary, such as myself," Geirrek elaborated. "I would never need worry about material components again. Besides, my life was in no danger when first I set out. Once someone started trying to kill me, things became a little more personal."

"Well, that makes sense," the naive youngster accepted, despite his opinions of the summoner. "What about you, Zedd? Which of the treasures you after?"

The swordsman stood in silence. "The Temple of the White... Order is only a few... days travel from here," the mystic changed the subject. "We may learn... something of value... about the treasures..."

"Hey, 'we' doesn't include me," the sorcerer excluded. "I dunno if I'd be welcome on the Order's grounds given the circumstances." His statement was met with furious stares. "I saw a town a while back when Entropy and I were flyin' in. It had a monastery or a library, and it is the closest one I've seen to the Key. Maybe it'll be able to tell us something."

The others wanted to object. It could not be safe to travel in smaller numbers, especially since they were targets now more than ever, but it could be no more safe than bringing the murderer of one of their own to the Order's temple. Alive, Geirrek was despised and ruthless, but dead, the Artifacts of Ages may be lost forever. They reluctantly accepted the apothecary's suggestion; at least they would be safe with him away. The plain youth then raised another point: how would they find one another after separating?

"The Key of Ages," the wanderer began in his gaited speech, "was once whole... It will desire... to be once more..."

"Got it," the conjurer cut in, annoyed at how long it took Zedd to say so little. "The Key's magical; we'll find one another." His blue gaze shifted to his pet, who now sniffed the stale air. "That just leaves one more thing to take care of." Geirrek erected his unclad arm before himself and held a flat palm toward a now frightened youth. "Don't move." It was difficult for the peon to do so when he knew full well a spell was about to be cast. The sorcerer repeated his order, screaming at the lad. Entropy trained a sneer on the swordsman, preventing him from interfering. Finally, a loud pop ripped through the air, soaring past the peasant. The summoned gale obliterated what looked to be some small animal. With a single flap of its ominous wings, the Nidhogg cleared the rest of the group and planted a hefty claw on top of a human skull that fell from the thing. A sickly slime crawled out from beneath, signaling his keeper's approach. "A spy," the terrible one simply informed, analyzing the scattered, mummified remains. The body seemed feline, which would keep it unnoticed; there was no telling how long it had been there.

The lich lurched over his scrying pool, once again as dark as the rest of his chamber. The skeletal sorcerer was pleased with what he had learned, however. He grasped some ceremonial dagger and slithered away to find his newest soldier.

"Sire," greeted a busy minion, "the Death Wish has successfully been integrated. She is almost complete."

"Yesss," hissed the mockery to life, "almossst." With a single, clean hack into the table, he had hewn off the former knight's arm. "There is another pieccce we mussst procure.

Posted by
Jan 13, 2007

Twisted talons touched down on the torn terrain. Time passed since the fierce battle had been waged, and its conclusion was not witnessed by the fiend. The gnarled being approached the tree, placing a bandaged hand upon it with a sense of loss.

"Accursed pests, they have acquired the treasure intended fer those far greater then they," mused Grackle in a tongue shed of his foolish ruse. The guise of incompetence was no longer needed as the freak had no one left to deceive with his simpleminded alter ego. "Deeply had I prayed m' intuitions were false, but fate seems to have fersaken me once more. 'Twould seem like I shall never ascend to-" A waft of air coursed into his dried nose. "What is this? M' li'l vermin, their scent is mingled wit' those others." Crawling along the earth, his face hovering over the dirt, he added, "Less one, 'twould seem. The woman? ... Interestin'. An' I dinna even hafta do it. Excellent!" The gray one scuttled across the ground, following the trail further. A small stone was found, ordinary to the casual eye. He was more learned. It was one of the signals ingested by Flop-Hop to be spat up whenever a silent message needed to be posted.

"Yes, it seems trust was earned by m' pets. The plan continues even in m' absence. Oh, what a splendid devil I have raised. I doubt betrayal was even considered by one so precious." While at the area, he took notice to another item left upon the ground. He recognized it as the horn of Galatea, disabled by the actions of the apothecary. The foaming potion that had filled the instrument had passed its usefulness. The material now crumbled like wet sand, allowing the call to the White Order to be made again. "Perhaps it is a smile fate shines down at me this day," reconsidered the maniac as the relic was stashed within him, swapped with a pipe of his own. Aged and battered, much like himself, it paled in comparison to the mighty one just claimed. In a staggering bound, the Grackle had carried himself half way up the tree and scurried up to the top. A haunting tune was played at the apex of the his climb and carried through the wind.

"The matters at hand are wit'in good care. They know what is expected o' them," muttered the lunatic after his song. "There is no need fer me to taint m' chances o' havin' this work. Heed m' warnin', though, ya chosen o' Time: I shall win in the end. Time ain't gonna best me twice." Saying his parting words, his long arms stretched to the sky as tangles of wrappings were thrown into the air. The ends were caught by a winged beast soaring far overhead to ferry its master back to his lair to allow the situation to develop and adequate preparations to be made.

"I don't agree with this at all," pouted the boy to his only other human companion.

"I recall you in favor of separating from Geirr..." Zedd attempted to retort, ceasing his effort half way through.

"No, not that. I don't see why we have them with us," corrected the youth, motioning to the two added members with his unmarked arm, the other too sore to be moved. "We don't need watched over like infants."

"The summoner's handling his affliction well," chimed in the cuddly coney. "His spirit was strong. His affliction fared better than yours. It is for your well being." The boy grumbled, slightly agreeing with the bunny but not desiring to admit the weakness of his age.

"I'm surprised the idiot lasted this long," thought the rabbit.

"Yeah," thundered the thought of Raph.

"So, you've been keepin' track of the junk scar boy has been spillin'? Any of it good?" questioned the Al-Mi'raj. The monotonic reply echoed. "Our master will be most pleased with this information," deviously schemed the hair while wearing a mask of innocence.

"How much longer is it to the White Order? My legs are tired," whined the yellow beast in babyish tone. "Can somebody carry me?" With a sigh, the brown clad lad beckoned the horned familiar. Gleefully, it bound into his arm and curled up snugly against his chest. Secretly, a cracked eye studied the blemishes scored by the Key, interpreting the ancient symbols covertly spelled out by darkened veins.

"Oh, it's definitely a spike," started up the commoner again. Zedd's mind briefly drifted off to thoughts of the murderer they had parted ways with.

"I should have accompanied Geirrek," uttered the mystic in reflection.

Some distance away, the spearman raced over the earth, mere feet above it. Entropy had recovered enough stamina to take to flight but was unsure for how long he could maintain aloft. To speed their trip to the town, a short burst at a safe height was attempted.

"How ya feelin'?" questioned its owner.

"Like you could lose some weight," griped the tired dragon. "The city's in view," revealed the drake, changing from wing to foot. "We can walk the rest." The cursed one groaned at the decision he had no part of. The town had just appeared in the Nidhogg's enhanced vision, meaning it was still far.

Upon arriving in the town, the two were still locked in an argument that started from Entropy's actions. The petty banter followed them through the deserted streets, reaching no resolve and distracting them from what was right before them.

"Spare some change?" a raspy voice wheezed from the gutter. An ailed leper stretched out a sore covered hand to the the sorcerer.

"Cram it, you bum," snapped the blue eyed man. "I'm busy. Ask someone else for pity."

"There is no one else." The opinion on these words were quick to switch from dismissal to truth. It had not occurred to the bickering pair that not a soul had been seen in the city. The hour had grown to noon, and empty streets were not normal at that time.

"What is this? Where is everyone?" futilely questioned the hooded one. A pale eye was cast down at the man in rags. "Why are you the only one here?"

"They didn't want me," the diseased man told. "I wasn't any good."

"Didn't want you?" repeated the Terrible Summoner. "Didn't want you for what?"

"The harvest.

Posted by
Jun 2, 2007

A dusty cloud spilled from the growing pile of tomes. The summoner threw scrolls, words too ancient to be bound, hastily onto and often over a plain wooden island amid towers of texts. His diminutive pet fluttered to the higher shelves to retrieve forgotten books with thicker films of filth than covers. Its distant gaze looked far down to the apothecary, who tore into the vast number of volumes to judge which fit their cause.

"You're really just gonna take this entire place over, aren'tcha?" the Nidhogg asked as it glided down to its keeper with another ancient history. "This city was massacred, but you aren't showing any remorse."

"Strange words comin' from a wyrm that eats corpses," Geirrek rebutted, never lifting his eyes from a page of runes even he struggled to read.

"Evil corpses," Entropy clarified. "That makes it okay. Still, you don't even seem to be fazed at all. You don't even look worried that we could be next."

"We won't be next because they got what they needed," the sorcerer explained, "and they did it quite some time ago -- long before we showed up. There is nothing we coulda done about it. And with an entire city's worth of new recruits, they won't be doin' it again for a while." His burning sight raised to his familiar, narrowing in deep thought. "What is this really about?"

"What do think?" the dragon posed.

"Could it be that wonderful little demon that's been livin' in my head?" he bluntly stated without regard to being overheard. "You think its turning me, don't you?"

"You must admit that you've been acting diff-"

"It isn't winning," the angry apothecary interrupted. "It won't win."

"If you truly believed that," snarled the wyrm, "you wouldn't be tryin' to get the Blade. You wouldn't be afraid of it."

"I'm not afraid of it," he quickly snapped. "I am afraid of myself. I am the only soul ever to have unlocked the Dark Cauldron. With this bogey piggybacking on my essence, it won't need to; it has access to the darkest spell."

"Then how do you explain Galatea? The Geirrek I know would never 'ave done that."

"Desperate times," the spearman drolled out. "Her white magic... I couldn't risk her exorcising the spirit."

"Well obviously, blowin' a hole in one of our allies was the most logical course of action."

"We have no allies, Entropy. We cannot afford to. You saw Zedd's reaction to the Cauldron alone. Why don't we just tell him that a spirit of pure malevolence may also have access to a spell that once destroyed creation?

"No one else knows the consequences. They would try to take it out of me, or worse -- take me from it. I couldn't risk her setting it free."

"Killing her was still cold-blooded, even for you."

"By far more could die if she helped that thing escape. There was no other choice."

"There were plenty of choices," the apocalyptic dragon argued. "There were choices back in the fight in the forest; since when do you cast the Cauldron against grunts?"

Geirrek had no answer. His pet was right. Unleashing the Terrible Summoning destroyed what little trust Zedd placed in him. The sorcerer had been in far more dire situations and did not risk that spell, yet that is exactly what he did, even with so much more at stake.

He calmed himself with a deep, stale breath. "If I died in that battle, it would be free. If Galatea cast too powerful an orison, it would be free," he rationalized. Truthfully, the cursed one had just thought of these reasons. There was no guiding force behind his actions, at least none his own. "It must be destroyed, but this thing is a spirit, and there are not many ways to destroy quintessence. Your Shadow Blast would kill me before my possession; you'd disappear, and it would be free. The Dark Cauldron would do the same. The only way left I know is the Blade of Ages; we must carve it out of my soul and kill it.

"And that is why I do what I do. I shall not let it win."

The summoner returned to his studies. He had to work fast. The White Order would not distract the others for long, and if what Zedd said about the Key Bearers being connected was true, the spearman would be unable to hide. Thinking of the mystic, Geirrek began to lament not having his reluctant ally present to hasten his search.

And this was the only use Geirrek had found for the wanderer.

"I found something." The terrible one's cursed eyes lifted from the pages before him and over the stacks around him. The old, decrepit, hunched-over form lurched to and fro over one of the several texts from the library and one newly written. The leper trained what eyesight remained on the symbols he had found and the symbols for which Geirrek had instructed him to search. "The third one on your list. The one that's all pointy."

"Are you sure we can really trust that old beggar?" openly commented Entropy. "You didn't trust anyone else for this mission, and they at least could read."

"Of course we can trust him," the apothecary answered, slanting a smirk his pet's way. "I'm paying him." Without any further delay, Geirrek called up a gale to fly himself over the cluttered and unnavigable floor. His landing was far from being as graceful; flesh rather than wind cushioned his descent as to keep the arranged pages in place. Despite the hard fall, Geirrek was quick to hobble to his hireling.

"It's an old Futhark reference to the Triad," he told his familiar, who was slow to arrive but unbruised. "Good work, Lazuro."

"Why do you keep calling him that?"

"Dunno," he shrugged. "Just like it." Geirrek went on, never moving his burning gaze. "This manuscript makes no mention of the Key by its name -- only the Triad. Must be the reason we've never found anything about this before. According to this, the Triad is contained in three pieces."

"We didn't need some ancient tome to tell us that," the wyrm interrupted in frustration.

"It also states that its power is divided into three parts: body, mind, and soul."

"Same as the Key of Ages when it split apart," recalled the Nidhogg.

"And with good reason. The Triad isn't part of the Artifacts of Ages; although the three parts have a material form, the Triad is the second half to the Key of Ages." The summoner's expression went dead, but never did he quit reading. "We have only received the smallest fraction of the Key's power. Once we obtain part of the Triad, the Key's true potential will be unlocked -- all the power, and all the pain."

"You mean it gets even worse?" roared the dragon. "We can barely withstand the fragments we have now."

The spearman pulled away from the olden volume, deep in contemplation. "This is promising," he began. "Currently, the Key of Ages is incomplete, yet we know only the half we possess is capable of unlocking the Artifacts and the Triad. The incomplete Key may be able to obtain the Blade as well."

"Even if you can unlock the Blade, without the Triad," cynically growled the drake, "you won't be able to use the Blade."

"Perhaps," admitted the apothecary with little affect, "but perhaps we can unlock all three parts of the Triad with our one fragment. Without the whole Key, however, we shall not be able to use the Blade's full strength." He turned to face his familiar. "We need neither it nor the pain it brings. It is not the destructive power of the Blade we require -- just the Blade itself. Just as long as we can control it."

"And the Triads of Mind and Body?" his scaley friend brought up. "If what you're saying is true, we'll need the right fragments for the right Triads. Fragments we don't got."

The sorcerer shrugged. "Once we secure the Triad of Soul, perhaps some sort of magic mirror could duplicate its effects."

"Nay," weezed the bandaged man. After several more hacking coughs, the leper explained. "Time flows -- it does not repeat."

"I think he's actually right," the serpent was surprised. "This isn't any normal sort of magic. You can't recreate time."

A clever smirk raised on Geirrek's face. "Then we shan't. We cannot copy or take their fragments, but perhaps we could channel them. What was that Zedd stated about the Key-bearers being connected? If we can use that bond, we won't even need them to take their Triads."

"This seems to comin' together a bit too well," warned the wyrm, turning a snarl behind itself as though expecting an ambush from their fortunate predicament. "Things normally don't work out this easily." The dragon finally accepted their fate, as good as it may have been. "I guess all that's left is findin' the Triad. That sorta thing usually takes a few pages." Its keeper paused a moment and gave a curious look to his pet. "Y'know, pages in these book 'splainin' all the crazy riddles and mazes and stuff we'll undoubtedly have to do."

With a nod of recognition, Geirrek returned to the leper's find. He turned one delicate, brittle page over and ripped out the next.

"What are you doing?" Entropy called out as unexpectedly as the apothecary had acted.

"It's a map," the sorcerer simply responded, rolling the torn parchment carefully with his dexterous hand. "Don't worry; I don't think anyone in this town'll miss it if we take it." He stopped at his own words and raised a brow to the bandaged beggar.

"I... may miss it," the leper almost asked.

"Here's another pence."

"Then burn the place for all I care!" the old man joyously exclaimed, raising his voice to a coarse cough, as he caught the coin the conjurer had flipped his way.

Geirrek walked away, and with a wave of his free hand, beckoned his pet to follow; they had what they needed.

"The Triad is nearby," Geirrek explained the contents of the map. "All of it. It was only necessary to hide the Key of Ages; the treasures were safe so long as the Key was, too, so only it was hidden."

The Nidhogg was amazed, and visibly so. "How close are they?" it had to ask.

"Less than a day's journey," the summoner went on. "Faster if we fly. They surround the Key's hiding place at even distances, so getting to the others won't take long, either. After we get the Triad of Soul, we should be able to get the rest before Zedd can find us."

Geirrek planted his palm on the heavy portal and pushed the doors open. He turned back before leaving and called to the afflicted man. The leper turned to the sorcerer's shadow against the dwindling daylight. A darkened arm was raised, fingers extended, holding between them a glistening that even the poor beggar's poorer eyesight could easily recognize.

"I got another job for you," the summoner said with another smirk. The blue, pupilless orbs rolled down to the diminutive dragon at his side. "It's good to have people to trust."

A gray cloak of brilliance long forgotten dragged against the dungeon floor. The lich took slow, careful steps on his bones that knew far too much life. The vile creature circled a few selected corpses, picked by his highest ranking butchers. Pleased with what lay before him, the morbid magician gave an approving gesture. Each of the deathly doctors limped to a stone slab and motionless body. They carried their own wrists over the deads' faces, the only part not yet dressed for their new servitude. With sickly ease, each loosed their own limb with their familiar tools, spilling a sluggish, black stream of slime into the open, waiting mouths, just as the lich had done to them generations before.

The new, damned existence crept into the corpses slowly, and adjusting to this new afterlife took even longer. The old butchers carried their children to assist in the next task at hand -- the hellish harvest. The lich had already done its part and brought life to the wretched, writhing horde of parts -- a sight the necromancer and his crew had grown accustomed to long ago. After the massacre, most reanimated remains of the town were hacked and hewn parts, and they could do little more than squirm without a complete body. And thus it was the duty of the butchers, new and old, to build a new army for their dark master

Posted by
Jul 9, 2007

"Oo! A pretty birdie!" squeaked the yellow bunny. "Everybody look at the pretty birdie! Lookie, lookie!" His tired companions on the road only grunted. None bothered to lift their eyes even slightly. The trip was long and arduous, and making it by foot did not help their demeanor. "Bye bye, mister bird!" sang the horned coney as the winged animal passed over them and off out of sight. While the cuddly familiar lulled itself into a sweet looking sleep in the peasant child's arms, it sported a menacing grin inside. The avian was no ordinary bird and was much, much higher than it looked to be.

"Told 'im," resounded the mental message from the Strong Toad as it hopped up in the rear. "Boss is good."

"Like that matters," snapped the rabbit as it stretched out and yawned. "He's been on fire, dropped down a cliff, and eaten more times that I can count. We, however, won't last much longer around these fools."

"Shut it," croaked the shelled amphibian. "His words."

"How much longer is it gonna be 'til we get there, Karl?" adorably whined the Al-Mi'raj. "I'm sooo sleepy."

"Cease making false... names for the child," ordered Zedd bluntly. The scarred warrior was in no mood for games.

"But... that is my name," the youth corrected with genuine surprise. "I-I didn't think anyone paid attention. Oh, thank you, Floppy!" He squeezed the furball tight in appreciation. As it was shaken back and forth, it cast a confused stare out to its fellow familiar. Both shrugged.

"So then, ... Karl?" started up the mystic to keep the monotonous silence from returning, "Why are you here? ... Doing this?" Another truly stunned expression came to the commoner. It was not from the introverted mystery man openly engaging in conversation alone. A large part came from the brevity of his statement.

"I guess it doesn't matter now," admitted he in brown. "I had no business to even be here. Ga... Galatea, she wanted help. I lied about being a barkeeper's son and offered my services. It was stupid, really. I'm just chasing a dream, and it seemed like any easy way in with her. You hear the bards sing about folk like me, a lowly farmer's son or baker rising to greatness. I thought if I went with her, I'd be taken down the path of epic quests to save the kingdom, get princess brides, and become a legend.

"My father was a soldier. I was never much with a blade. I figured this would be an easy way to be a hero. Hm. Now look at me. What would he think of me? I'm with the ones I thought were the enemy, and my friends are now either evil or... dead. We're marching off to certain doom, and if that doesn't kill us, what we're trying to stop will. And, to top it off, my arm is-" His eyes bulged as they fell upon the limb. "That is a spike! Aw, this is nasty. It's breakin' out. Ew!"

Zedd was growing annoyed with the novice's paranoia and tired of dismissing every notion of concern that popped into his mind. That it was worsening was clearly seen; however, the foreigner did not need the local any more unstable than he already was. He turned his head to give a false analysis of the situation to silence the lad for the next five minutes until the fear crept back in, yet he was unable to say such. As he looked upon the arm, even for the moment his eyes rested upon the horrid sight, he saw it was true. There was, in fact, a bone-like spike emerging from the youth's skin. The swordsman's eyes were drawn up from the site to meet with Karl's in hopes of issuing the same lie there. No more luck was had. The dull, brown eyes had faded. The veins in his eyes had coursed further, grown thicker, and darkened black. They sprawled out around the youth's pupils, bleached white. Whatever was happening to him, it was spreading deep.

"What is it?" the peasant child asked. Still, the scarred one did not respond. His mouth only hung gaping. "What's wrong with me?"

"... you are becoming..."

"What?" blurted the boy. "What did you say?"

"I said nothing," confessed the wanderer. It was not his will that uttered those words. It was the whispers within answering for him. His eyes narrowed as he squinted ahead. "I see walls... The Temple is ahead." As quickly as he could, his pace sped to distance himself from the lad.

"What did he just say?" demanded Flop-Hop from its companion.

"Answers," told the mentalist.

"He's already at that stage?" roared the coney. "None of this is going to plan. This is all much too fast."

"They shared," the toad pointed out. "It's faster."

"I never dreamed it would progress this swiftly, though," the bunny revealed. "This splitting should have never happened. We never accounted for that."

"Ass," the indestructible grumbled.

"You projected that throught," snarled the hare.


A corpse was split in twine as the general scolded the butchers, "No, no, no! These will not do." The twisted doctors looked upon him without words. He was in their domain. The slaughterhouse was where they did business. Outsiders were not welcomed, and their opinions were loathed more. Their heads tilted from side to side as they gazed upon him with sewn eyes. "These soldiers you have made, they are jokes. They break without effort." His lance toppled another grouping. "If I lay them to waste with such ease, what will our enemies do to them? You cannot win a war on sheer numbers. Your soldiers need worth." The arcane surgeons were displeased with the treatment of their creations. The team drew around the outsider, thrusting their flattened faces into his gleaming mask. "I do not care what the lich has told you. I am in charge of his army. It is my responsibility to lead, and my troops will be worthy. Send what numbers you have completed to the forge. I believe the dwarves have some scraps left over." Turning about to leave, more of the angered doctors eyelessly stared him down. Letting out a single grunt, the Lieutenant walked through those that stood in his way, stepping over them if necessary.

"That wasss harsh," hissed the serpent rising over the masked man's shoulder.

"Wasss that necccessssary, Edric?" added in the second head of the Amphisbaena over the other shoulder.

"Do not call me by that name," growled the warrior as he stormed down the long, dark hallway. "That man died long ago."

"Why do you worry ssso?" soothed the first head.

"Yesss, your army isss ssstrong. It should not fail," the second complemented.

"It is not a matter of 'should'," fumed the ruined man. He threw a punch into the ancient wall, loosening the brick. "It cannot. I already bear one failure against me. Most do not get the chance to say that. Not if he learns of it."

"It isss clossse to over," assured the head on the right.

"They have no hope," stated the left. "The blade cannot be gotten."

"Sssoon, you will be together," they told together. The metal man crashed down to his knees. His face buried into his hands.

"Could I even go back? After all I have done?" he questioned. "Would they even know who I am?" A reflection on the back of his gauntlet was caught. Truly, not even he did.

"You told them you enlisssted," reminded one of the heads as it slithered back down his arm.

"War changesss people," whispered the trailing head as it passed.

"I don't think this is what they imagined," grumbled the broken man. "What would my son think of me if he knew?"

"Whatever it takes, Edric," the snake reminded.

"Whatever it takes," echoed the second. The words stirred his passion. He lifted from his despair and to his feet.

"I will not fail." It was claimed as fact, not merely proposed. "I'll show that old bag. I'll prove my worth." His fists clenched tight. "No matter what."

The boy finally caught up to Zedd. His body folded over as he panted loudly. The vagabond had not broken a sweat. While Karl recovered from the final and long sprint to the Temple of the White Order, the scarred swordsman examined its walls. It appeared to be less a shrine and more a fortress. The surrounding barriers stretched into the sky, seeming to blend with the clouds. The walls were filled with rows of slits. The mystic could feel the aim of countless archers upon him. If they were wanted dead, it would have been ordered long before they got this near.

"Well," began the lad, still short on breath, "should we knock?"

"On what?" Lifting his head up, he saw that the walls had no visible gates or entry points.

"Is this the wrong side?" the peasant asked.

"Nope," quickly answered a speeding gust of wind. "Same all 'round... I Triple checked."

"So, how are we suppose to get in?" burst out the lad.

"That is the point." The body bearer frowned. He may have liked the old Zedd better. A distant flapping could be faintly heard, and their heads craned skyward. A winged shadow fell fast upon them. It crashed down before them, lifting up a cloud of dust as it landed. Its wings stilled as it faced them.

"You," the Pegasus directed, "you carry the Key of Ages with you." The commoner nodded, but it was not a question. The white horse turned a flank to them and motioned for them to board. "We've been waiting for you. The Council seeks your audience." They were uncertain at first, not expecting to be waited on, but accepted the invitation. The horse huffed as they approached. "Leave the weapons."

"It is not blades I need to be ..." The message was delivered despite being interrupted. Reluctantly, the Bearers shed their weapons.

"Hey," shouted the brown clad youth to the familiars of the freak, "aren't you gonna come, too?" The Al-Mi'raj squeaked.

"No, they wanted audience with Key Bearers," it calmly rationed while panicking within. It knew they could not risk being recognized by an elder in the Temple. "They don't want to meet borin' ol' us. You go. We'll stay and protect your stuff with Randall here."

"Boris," corrected Karl's familiar in a pitiful mumble as it finally hobbled up to the rest of the party. Still, no one heard it. Careless for their antics, the heavenly steed stretched out its immaculate wings once both guests were seated on its back. With a few powerful flaps, it lifted off into the air and out of sight. The horned bunny passed a glance at Raph who wore a smile ear to ear.

"Smooth," it croaked. The rabbit jeered at the Strong Toad as it passed a glance over their new, temporary companion. It hopped back in a startled state upon sight of an oddity.

"Samuel," falsely addressed the coney, "is that a spike?

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

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