Zedd knew, too, that the Order held its own secrets, or at least they tried. The bearer of the mind fragment, however, was too clever. His present condition forbid him from explaining the details at length, but so did the mystic's quiet nature. He sought to use this to his advantage, and to serve his means further.
"You would not tell us all this information..." spoke up and died down the wanderer, "unless you wanted us to get the Blade for you." The White Order could not refute this. No part of the quest he revealed required that he obtain the Blade, yet they mentioned nothing of the other Artifacts.
"Yeah, he's right," blurted out the changing youth. "Ga-" he gulped, "Galatea said somethin' bad was comin'. And the Blade was the only thing that could stop it."
"That is what some of us believe," Brandubh replied with eyes cast low. Contrariwise, a smug expression came over one of the neighboring councillors seated furthest to the left.
"Some of us," the thin, whispy, silver-throned one said with some sarcasm to his voice, "insisted that the time was right, that the Blade was necessary. The revelation of the Key at this moment is no coincidence. At last, the rest of the White Order is seeing it that way. Few were spared for this cause in the beginning. Had the Order committed more completely to this plan, it would be us with the Key -- not you." The slim man sneered at both comrades and company.
"There were other matters to attend to," the annoyed High Lord brushed off, "ones on which this Order was established."
"And those would be?" unexpectedly intelligently posed the peasant.
The white mantled man was taken aback by the boy's sudden speech. "A plot -- a sinister one being worked for longer than any of us or our ancestors have lived."
"What was it?" Karl needed to know. "Who is behind it?"
"It is evil," he again responded. "Does it truly matter? It is the same evil throughout all time. Only its face changes. Presently, we believe the plan is being carried out by a certain lich with which you both are familiar."
"The same lich who was reportedly hiding the map to the Key of Ages, no less," sniped the silver councillor again. He was only acknowledged with a low growl from their golden leader. "Although we cannot be certain, all our augurs indicate that they are summoning some sort infernal entity -- a demon, perhaps."
Zedd dared not speak and reveal anything else; a raised brow was enough for the man now of few words.
"There is no reason for the lich to bring about your apocalypse, Zedd i Randir," dismissed the central figure, who grew angry with the constant disregard displayed for him in this council. "There is nothing to gain from such destruction, especially for a plot of such age. Only an especially evil and especially ignorant force would desire to destroy the world of which it is a part."
"Whatever end they seek, we all agree it can be no good," spoke up the rival councillor. "It may not end the world, but it shall certainly cause it suffering. There are certainly things worse than an apocalypse."
"Why should I?" spoke the cloaked man at short length. "I need not the Blade," he again blurted. "Other Artifacts." The council pieced together his words for themselves. Again, he was right. Only Karl wanted the Blade of Ages, and technically, the youth did not even want it -- Galatea of the White Order did. None of the Order believed Zedd, and despite the information they had told, not once did the council give Zedd a reason why he should help them.
After some contemplation, the white-mantled one spoke. "You have no need for us, Zedd i Randir, but we have no choice but to rely on the ones Time has chosen. Therefore, we propose a trade: all we need from you is to unlock the Triads. The boy can wield the Blade should the need come." The wanderer stood silent and emotionless, waiting for his portion of the deal. "In return, we shall bestow this tome. It not only outlines the locations of each Triad, but all the other treasures as well. It is the last copy which exists in all this world," bragged Brandubh.
"Sir!" a growing voice echoed from the distance. "Sir Brandubh!" the messenger panted when he finally arrived into the vast hall. "The Triad of Soul," he wheezed, "they've found it!"
The white lord looked back to Zedd, who stood still silent and emotionless, locked in a cold stare on the throned one. He raised a scarred brow to the leader he held a growing disdain for.
"You shut up!" responded the leader. "Get these two and their familiars to the grand hall! The Heaven's Herald will sound shortly."
"Isss it ready?" besought the dark master.
"Not yet," informed Edric from behind his simple, metallic facade. "Our workers are more accustomed to working with flesh. It would be easier if the dwarves-"
"The dwarvesss are the bessst fightersss we have," the lich retaliated. "Guarding the Triadsss isss our highessst priority. Make due with what you have; we cannot be ssstopped. It isss almossst time for our ultimate goal." His hollow eyes rolled to a rippling pool of fetid water. The dark dragon and his rider appeared on the wavering surface. "Ssso, he hasss found the Triad," angrily hissed the skeletal sorcerer, "the Triad of Sssoul." It lifted its decrepit finger from off the pages of the open book before it. "Quite a feat, consssidering that thisss tome isss the only map to it. However he found it, he shall not leave with it." The deathly mage turned to his lieutenant, who remained at the edge of the grim gateway. "Prepare an army and ssset the portal. And if at all possssible, bring back his eyesss. I may have ussse for them."
Entropy glided up the steep, unclimbable rock face of an unforgiving peak. It was at the top the two would find their prize, but first, they found a dwarf -- one of the lich's mercenaries. Geirrek leapt off to the frozen ground, spear in hand and gauntlet forward. The wyrm took the rear, ready to fight but more importantly rest off the journey. The earthkin brandished a new toy, a heavy sledge. The Terrible Summoner did not wish to discover what it was capable of. He weighed making the first move, but could find little choices in the deeply creviced terrain. The darkalf just stood, motionless, with hammer in one hand and adorned shield in the other.
"What is that in its shield?" the familiar let out in a low rumble, easily peering through the red evening sky with its draconic senses. Geirrek focused his burning gaze, but by the time he could recognize the ever-staring eye of the lich's, there was no time to act. The chaotic maelstrom which heralded the undead legion tore through the chilled air. A vile stench crept across the mountaintop as the dilapidated and hastily constructed troop poured forth; the first Triad was by no means the most important, and neither were the troops selected to defend it. Before closing, the dwarf grinned an awkward, rounded smile and disappeared into the gateway, leaving the two surrounded by shambling masses of decaying flesh.
"This shouldn't be hard," the apothecary affirmed. "That Triad is as good as ours." He turned half his cursed stare back to the drake with a slight smirk. "Can you believe it? This is all almost over."
"Vile fiends!" a gallant voice boomed across the snow-laden peak. The sorcerer shifted slightly to see around his pet and spy an immaculately armored envoy with the White Order's standard. "Fear not, wayward soul! The White Order is protecting this land from all evil and misdeeds that may befall it. I, Jhardohl the Brave, have been charged with the heavenly duty of procuring this location from all offenders who may seek the Triad!" It went on like this, but Geirrek and Entropy gave him little heed.
"Does this joker think he's protecting us?" the spearman asked his pet loud enough to be heard over the white one's ramblings.
"The lich's army can't even get the Triad without the Key. Does this guy even know what's goin' on?" the hellish denizen returned.
"Come forth and smite this evi-ow!" the herald finally stopped when his leg were taken out from beneath him.
"Why didn't I think of that?" The pair looked to their original foes, one now less its deadly dagger. "Been a while since we've had a real good fight. I think I might actually enjoy this."
Both sides were poised to strike. Simultaneously, all were ready to lunge into the fray, but something else came forward instead -- the echo of a horn. Geirrek's eyes went wide when he considered what this could mean, and turning back to the fallen knight, his worst fears were confirmed. The Heaven's Herald was at the half-unconscious, half-envoy's lips. A blinding white appeared in the music before him; when it vanished, the strongest and bravest of the White Order remained, joined by Zedd, Karl, and Brandubh himself, who only saw it fit to join in on such an important task.
"Ent', we need outta here, now," demanded the dragon's keeper. It concurred, but the pair were already under siege by the enemy apparitions who were not so distracted by the oncoming forces. The drake beat its wings only to find foes, not the air. The sorcerer frantically expended his entire magical arsenal in a vain attempt to free them both as quickly as possible.
"Fear not, Geirrek of the Northernlands," announced the shining leader, donned in his fighting best. "Where you have struggled, the White Order shall triumph. Behold our unmatched power!" With a commanding fist forward, the priests and magi took the forward rank. A pristine glow came from their eyes and surrounded their hands. Despite the apothecary's shouts of protest, they let loose their banishing force. A wave of white light bathed the mountaintop, vanishing almost anything it touched that moved. Zedd raised his carved eye from behind his sleeve once the brightness died down, only to see nothing remain on the icy peak. Brandubh was obviously pleased, despite doing nothing himself.
"Where's Geirrek?" is all Zedd needed to say, for once, and it more than took the joy from the wide mantled man's mostly hidden face. He doffed his great helm and searched across the rocks, but could not find the one with the Key he so desperately needed. The head of the White Order did not understand. The spell was not meant to target the living; it was specifically meant to harm the undead and spirits. Quick whispers informed the wanderer as to his former ally's location. In an instant, Zedd was gone; he bothered not to tell the Order where the spearman lay let alone that he was even leaving them.
A far ways across the mountain, behind boulders and crags, Geirrek had been thrown by the force of the White Order's assault. His tunic was in tatters, and his treasured Artificer's Gauntlet strangely was not present. Zedd approached the unconscious body closer, secure only because the summoner was in this state.
"Zedd," Dai-Sho called for his attention once again. "Over here." Zedd rose once more to find his pet, and when he did, the weasel was poised over a body, just like his keeper. This was not Entropy's, however; it, too, was Geirrek. He lacked the hood or tunic, but the gauntlet more than identified him. The mystic drew his blades in the confusion. He did not know which one he should suspect, if not both.
One began to stir, and it rose to find a sharp scythe poking his chest. His eyes opened to meet the beady black dots of the Kamaitachi staring down at him.
"I think you should see this!" it quickly called its master. With a single sword still pointing to the fallen one, Zedd advanced closer to the conscious Geirrek, seeing nothing spectacular as Dai-Sho had noted.
"What is going on?" mumbled the hoodless man. "What happened to me?" He turned to Zedd as he heard the approaching footfall; he locked the swordman's cautious stare with his own -- his plain, dull, brown stare.
"The runes," whispered Zedd. Without a moment's hesitation, he frenzied about like his pet and drove both edges down. The image of Geirrek caught both blades on his unprotected hands. Blood steadily streamed out as he pushed against the keen swords and won, bridging up from the icy rock and back to a stance. The thing refused to relinquish hold of weapons; it drove the points back to the wanderer's throat. Before his blood was loosed, Zedd blinked behind the ghastly visage, abandoning his blades for his staff. Despite all his uncanny speed, the unknown enemy was still able to catch the attack and twist the mystic's arms into a firm hold. An uncharacteristic, menacing cackle came from out it before it opened its eyes -- its bright, blue, beaming eyes. The cursed stare rolled about the terrain as though searching for something.
One arm shot behind itself to catch Geirrek's precise spear. With the grasp loosened, Zedd freed himself, but dared not to take on whatever stood before him.
"What is it?" the mystic uncharacteristically screamed his demand.
"Did I forget to tell you I was possessed?" muttered the apothecary, still delirious from the White Order's attack. "Seems like an obvious conversation starter." Before Zedd could attempt to refute this claim in his truncated way, the demon launched itself in its host's direction, but flew over him. It tore apart the seemingly arbitrary space it struck, thrusting its arm into seemingly no place and retrieving an impossible object from the void. "Oh, right, it also has the Key fragment. Did I forget to mention that, too? Ya'd think with all the stunnin' conversations we've had, these things woulda come up before."
The White Order had been drawn by all the commotion and marched over in formation. The sight of them sent the spirit into a rage. The Triad unfolded over its arm, forming prismatic armor. From its new gauntlet, it bombarded the holy forces with its increased spellpower. The gales it sent rubbled the crevices the silver soldiers used for protection. Again, the magicians were ordered up front, despite not having time to recharge from their first attack. Their divine force lashed out again, but this time only fizzled against the maniacally laughing force before them.
"Anything else?" the cloaked and angry ally asked. He received his answer when the dwindling daylight was blocked by two wide, dark wings rising up from behind them. The dragon's eyes were seething with an ominous, black energy. Zedd cast a despondent look to the apothecary, who could only give a half-hearted shrug in response. The demon took to his scaly steed and sped away; a heavy, brazen hand held the mystic from following.
"And where do ya think you're goin', Blinky?" posed Geirrek. "That thing has both a Key fragment and a Triad thanks to these clowns," he explaining, motioning his unclad head to the scrambled ranks of the Order, "and since it doesn't seem to mind the downsides, it is gettin' nothin' but power from them."
"The runes," Zedd restated, untensing at last from his state of readiness. "The Cauldron?"
"Yeah, it's got 'em both," Geirrek groaned in a low voice, shaking his unclad head. "Can't use either, tho'." The mystic raised a curious brow, ever doubtful of the Northman. "It tried as soon as it had the chance. Can't, for whatever reason. I never saw that comin'. Should buy me some time before it finds another way, or just a way to use the Cauldron."
"The Cauldron?" started up a perceptive member of the Order. "You mean the Dark Cauldron?" Soldiers began to file around the apothecary. Geirrek soon found himself surrounded by arms, all trained on him but hesitant to strike.
"The Dark Summoning," Brandubh declared, approaching yet keeping safe behind a line of soldiers, "could very well be our worst fears of what the prophecy foretold would come." His regal gaze went across to the swordman, whose head peeked over a waiting guard, whose brow still had not lowered and still served a purpose. With an annoyed grunt, the leader continued, "What reason could this vile thing have to bring about the apocalypse?"
"It," stammered the arriving youth, who easily pushed his way in front of the gold-clad captain as no one wanted near his growing deformity, "it's true, isn't it? This guy's pure evil." The burning, unblinking stare the captive sent back, although no longer cursed, chilled the onlookers just as much and seemed to confirm Karl's story. "He's the one I told you about, Brandubh -- he's the one that murdered Galatea." All weapons raised.
"Not him," Zedd whispered a roar. "What was in him." The captors and peasant were bewildered.
"Must we repeat ourselves like this? I was freakin' possessed!"
"No. Your face, your familiar," retorted the mystic. "Something else." The wanderer knew the terrible one had a secret, one the traveler had been unable to discover. For once, the swordman was willing to give Geirrek the benefit of the doubt and consider that something else was responsible for his less amicable actions.
"Screw this!" exclaimed the trapped man. "Cool and collected and talkin' things out may work for you, Zedd, but unfortunately, these idiots had to play hero and fulfill their own li'l doomsday prophecy." He pounded his brazen glove against his chest, staring down the only one who seemed to be even remotely on his side. "Actions scream volumes over words, such as actions which prevent any interference like this from happening again." Without so much as even looking back, Geirrek's free hand produced the flintlock and fired. The round soared over the wall of guards and through their leader's neck without any time for retaliation. All arms fell against the magical barrier which he had already raised around himself. Some continued the futile fight against the magician; others came to Brandubh's aid with just as much success.
"You," began Zedd, pausing even before the rapt of knowledge overcame him, "are evil?" There was no reason these words should have surprised the wanderer.
"Evil? Why? Many more shall die far slower, in all likelihood. Oh, quite the opposite. If anything, I did him a favor, especially considering what I wanted to do to him," he explained while retrieving something from a compartment in his armored mitt, which continued to shield him. "I'm doin' what I've always done -- what needs to be done. I'm just tryin' to stop it before it ends the world."
"What is... 'it'?" Zedd shortly questioned, unable to reach the murderer any other way than with words. Before the apothecary could speak his lies, the swordman quickly added, "Not a demon." Geirrek was surprised by this, but maintained his answer. This did not sate the wanderer. Zedd then decided to abuse his own personal curse to get the answers himself; his mouth fell open, his eyes disappeared into his head, and he spewed forth a whirlwind of knowledge. The words at first jumbled together, revealing facts of little meaning or those he had already known. Never had he used this power for so long. His violently shaking body betrayed his ill-prepared state. Finally, he became deaf to all but a few voices.
"Dark is the dragon, darker is the curse, but darkest is the soul which knows both."
Zedd caught himself on the ice-covered ground, heavily heaving as he regained control of himself. "It's you," he managed to utter beyond the rushing winds that still roared on his words. "Nothing but part of you."
"Everybody's got a dark side," Geirrek explained, tumbling his retrieved treasure in his hands. "That ugly corner of the soul where all the anger and hate resides. And I had a lot of hate. Oh, I've known so much evil. I fed the hatred, I used it, but I controlled it."
"The Cauldron," the mystic whispered. It all made sense. The others in the Four had their own unique way to be discovered; Dark Cauldron, however, was ubiquitous. It had destroyed the world once, and its dark design was imprinted upon creation, where it waited to be discovered again.
"Revenge was all I wanted," the terrible one almost laughed off, showing similarities to his splinter self. "I had no idea what I unlocked. I just knew it would make them all suffer. I wanted it so badly that a li'l thing like a cataclysm meant nothing. I could control it, tho'. I would never use the summon the Cauldron like that. But the urge, oh, you can't control that.
"You guys can say that the Dark Cauldron once destroyed creation, but look around you. There seems to be a whole lot of it around. The world, perhaps, but creation? Looks like the job didn't quite get finished the first time. And it so desperately wanted to finish it." The summoner lowered his head but kept his plain gaze forward. "The only thing that kept me from destroying the world was me. The hatred was there, but so was the restraint.
"Now, there is nothing. Now, your friends who still haven't learned that they can't break my barrier with pikes have freed the fragment of my soul which contained my hatred, my curse, my Key, my Nidhogg, all my magic, and none of my control," Geirrek nearly rambled, then lifted his recently procured jewel to the dusk sky. "It can't summon the Cauldron for whatever reason, and I won't wonder why. I'll just try to stop it before it does." Darkness crept through the air as a shape began to take form within his magic wall. "Try not to get in the way with whatever it is you're after, Zedd. You've made things bad enough as it is."
The spinning, shadowy mass slowly grew eyes and what could only be assumed to be legs. A billowing, watery mane wavered atop the small creature. Before, the apothecary knew not which piece of his soul the curse had attached. He could not risk his own familiars' corruption, and he never suspected Entropy, his oldest familiar. Now, Geirrek was simply without his summoning magics; he had no way to retrieve his other monsters. Fortunately, the terrible one retained most of his items and the powers they possessed. When the little Hrimfaxi was finally fully formed, it looked up to its master, brandishing a firearm instead of a polearm, and looked out to the mob of soldiers who still tirelessly struck at his barrier.
"So," Night Child squeaked with some bewilderment, "can I go back in the crystal?" A dead glare was sent back to his reluctantly growing pet. The enchanted shield fell, and the pair charged up into the night sky, carried on an icy chariot of silver. A volley of arrows fell short of the swift steed and former summoner.
Karl wandered over from the fallen leader to where Zedd stood, staring into the vast blank sky.
"Well, how we gonna stop him?" posed the peasant meekly, obviously afraid to disturb the mystic.
"I understand," Zedd echoed, but not in reply. He turned his scarred face to his young ally. "We do nothing to stop Geirrek," all his voices joined in unison. "He is not our primary concern nor should he be the White Order's; another hunter lie in wait, poised to take its quarry."
The youth was dumbfounded by the wanderer's sudden return to wordiness and only stood there, darting his eyes about and scratching the growing spike. "Um, so then... what?"
Zedd closed his eyes and tried to channel the voices once more, but could not recapture that arcane knowledge which had flooded his mind earlier. The gift of the mind fragment had prophesied; the apocalypse he feared was coming, whether or not it could be stopped.
However, while the Terrible Summoner would be involved, he would not be the cause -- knowledge which only troubled the cloaked one more. There was something else, a force which superseded the darkest magic