The dwindling daylight of the outside world crept into the quaint pub as the old door creaked open. A pair of shadows intruded on the last rays of dusk as the two made their entrance. The door once more came to a screeching close, returning the room to darkness. It always seemed like this was the kind of place their adventures and troubles began; it certainly was where they all ended.

The man pulled back his hood, revealing a mess of dark hair that fell over his face. Unbeknownst to the patrons, his hidden eyes searched over the filthy establishment.

"Remind me again why we are here?" muttered his short companion, certain to ensure that none could hear him. "It's like you're just askin' for someone to collect on that bounty on our heads."

"Because," the man in the drab, blue tunic told, "if you want something done right..." At a distant corner table, the conjurer saw the one they came to meet. Geirrek motioned for his draconic familiar to follow. "You gotta do it yourself."

The informant sat uneasily, his eyes darting nervously about the bar. He only became more startled when Geirrek made his sudden and silent appearance.

"You the guy?" the unkempt man asked, but the hooded one made no reply. He only pulled out a chair and rested his weapon on it before doing the same himself. "'Cause I see the spear and gauntlet and all, but how do I know you ain't no imposter?" The summoner slowly brought up his unarmored arm and brushed his greasy locks aside, fixing a cold stare on the man sitting opposite him. The informant no longer shook but froze; solid cerulean eyes gave off a dull glow, and in them, he saw something. "The cursed runes," he whispered.

"Well, it's good to know you saw 'em," Entropy spoke up from his keeper's side.

"What else would I see?" posed the informant, who desperately tried to regain his composure.

"Prophecy," Geirrek said in a flat tone, shaking his head slightly to conceal the eyes once more, "of how we're going to kill you."

"What'd make me see that?" the confused rogue spat out. The Nidhogg returned an uncomfortable stare from the floor. "Oh, right... if you were going to kill me," he realized, quite relieved now.

Wishing to end the transaction as soon as possible, the informant produced a scroll and slid it to the waiting conjurer. It was unrolled for a brief moment before the rogue reached over and snatched it away.

"That's enough," he snapped at the summoner. "Pay up, and you can read it all you want," bargained the informant, waving the map toyingly. Geirrek did nothing, emotionless as usual, until he reached into a pouch and removed a small vial, which he set before the scoundrel. "Is... is this the payment we agreed on?"

"This," the summoner explained with a smug air, "is the potion that will make the writing on the map to the Key of Ages visible." The ruffian immediately broke into a nervous sweat; his fake had been found out. "Now, you could still be of use to me. Just tell us who sent you, and you can walk away," Geirrek offered. "Otherwise..." It was not just fear on the rogue's face now; it was horror. He had heard tales of what the Terrible Summoner could do, ghastly things, many of which he found difficult to believe.

Fear makes people do foolish things, though. The rogue kicked over the table and unfastened a flintlock he had hidden there before firing a few rounds. Geirrek spun out of and around his seat, grabbing his war spear with one hand, and with his other, called up a magical barrier from his brazen, banded gauntlet. The enchanted bullets shattered through the heavy, wooden table but fizzled away in the invisible wall. Entropy coiled around behind his master's defense, growing into its full, awesome size. By now, most of the patrons and even the barkeep had fled.

"So what do you think?" the drake growled in a guttural, almost unintelligible voice. "Was he sent after us, or is he just some local scum?"

"Even if he is," the summoner pointed out while focusing all of his might into the magical shield which continued to come under fire, "he's scum that's shooting at us."

[A standard Battling Dragons story, medieval fantasy (yes, guns did exist back then!), and no, the Key of Ages is not from any myth; it is made up for this story.

The rounds continued to fly as the wyrm and master stayed safe behind the enchanted barrier. There was no point in either risking harm, so they opted to just wait for the fraud's ammunition to run low. The false informant was less patient to meet his end, however, and switched to a more powerful shot. Never stopping pace, he recovered a small, gilded gem and tapped his firearm with it. Dissolving into the weapon, the barrel erupted with a crimson blast that ricocheted from the clear wall, betraying its invisibility as it rippled from the force. Pulling a hand full of the jewels out from a pouch, Geirrek was bombarded by a violent assault from the liar.

"How much more of this can you take?" hissed the dragon.

"I'll be fine, hopefully," grunted the spearman. The two endured, waiting for the gunslinger to slip up as bullets continued to bounce off and wreck the deserted bar, smashing chairs, rafters, and even a mug. Curious if any of this destruction could be advantageous, the summoner made a quick dart of his cursed eyes about the surroundings but happened upon something else. Aside from a few passed out drunks, one of the tavern's patrons remained behind. Hunched over, the very brave, or very stupid, drunkard was draped in a long, dark purple coat and topped in a coned hat of the same color. He leaned over a puddle of ale as he held the handle of a mug, the rest shattered, within a bandaged hand. With a very rigid turning of his neck, he faced the two engaged in combat, staring them down through goggled eyes with a low grumble building deep in his throat.

"That was a good draft, bud," croaked the sickly figure. Pivoting the rest of his body, his short legs stuck out from the top of his stool. With a mad shriek, the odd, little freak leaped at the dueling pair. Alarmed, the rogue immediately opened fire on the new arrival, careless to his identity. Blocking the shot with a gnarled buckler with an eerie glow strapped to his arm, the twisted oddity was thrown hard against a back wall. Springing quickly back to his feet, his shield emerged unscathed, although the same could not be said about him. Still angry, the short one charged again, once more being knocked back by the heavy shots. The gunman's attention was not divided, alternating fire between the one he deceived and the one he offended, unable to determine which one wanted to hurt him more. While Geirrek and his partner remained still and well protected by the veil of force, the madman was catching the shots and bouncing off the walls, in many cases literally. It seemed as though he had forgotten what he was trying to do on several occasions. Amidst his frantic craze, the gaunt lunatic slipped on an abandoned dinner plate, sending him tumbling and crashing against the bar. Shaking his head to get his thoughts back in order, the freak found himself on the wrong end of the flintlock. With a clear shot aimed at him, his demeanor soured.

"Tur-Tur Trebuchet!" called out the queer individual. Confounded to the point of inaction, the gunner could not even bring himself to simply pull a trigger. Even the spearman was frozen by the statement as he stood poised to bash in the rogue's head with the broad side of his weapon. The words were truthfully a command for his revealed accomplices. Bounding out from behind the counter, a yellow, horned hare touched down on the buckler on the maniac's outstretched arm just as a head emerged from it. The shield was actually a Strong Toad, an invincible creature, clutching to his wrist. Quickly springing off the shelled back, the Mi'raj's leap was further boosted as the Toad used the power within its eyes to drive him faster. With astounding force propelling the bunny through the air, one thing was learned: rabbits do not make good projectiles. Spiraling wildly, the cuddly coney became impaled upon the ceiling.

"Ah, Flop-Hop, c'mon!" whined the lunatic. With a smug grin, the rogue rose his gun before collapsing after a clank. Falling away, behind him stood the summoner with a smugger grin. "Well, ain't ya lucky I was here to save ya?" boasted the twisted figure. Geirrek maintained a cold, harsh stare.

"Do you know who I am?" he questioned.

"Do ya know who I am?" retaliated the sickly one.

"The realm's greatest fool," the spearman sarcastically answered.

"So, ya have heard o' me!" gleefully cheered the coated one. "What about Raph? I've been tryin' to get him in the tales, too," he added, pointing to the Strong Toad.

"How's it goin'?" croaked the glowing reptile. With an annoyed grunt, the summoner scooped up the unconscious rogue and began to bind him to a chair for an in depth interrogation. Meanwhile, the other had leapt upon the bar top to lap up what he could of the lost mead and glass shards

The rogue soon awoke, attempting to look around the bar, but finding that his blurred vision could only stare directly ahead. As his vision cleared, he felt his throat tighten and his heart begin to pump hard.

He was staring at Geirrek.

The Terrible Summoner's eyes, bearing their accursed burden, bore deep into the rogue's mind...

..."Awww, y'mean you're not gonna kill 'im?" The freak complained, "I was lookin' forward t' seein' that..."

"His death would be useless." The summoner stated coldly.

"But wasn't he out afta ya?"

"Yes. If he had known more, maybe he would have died. But, as he only knew little, I had nothing more of consequence to take from him. Anyway, he'll probably suffer more like this."

The coated one grinned freakishly

"True, true, I'll give ya that one"


With that, the summoner turned his back on the freak and began to walk towards the door...

But someone was standing in it, cloaked and leaning on a bamboo staff. As his eyes, seemingly glowing with an inner current, darted around the room, he apparently came into an understanding of what had taken place. He simply looked at Geirrek, waved his long black hair away from his scarred face, and stated: "So, he was a fake as well...

Confusion crept beneath the coned cap of the freak, but Geirrek remained unstartled by the stranger's appearance.

"I did not expect you to get here so quickly, Zedd," the spearman plainly stated, "but then, you do have your ways." He buried his head within his hood and continued his procession to the door. "Do you know who set us up?"

"Nay," responded the cloaked man, "the local innkeeper identified my contact as a local low life, no connections or allegiances. How do you know this one is of no use? Your own ways?" he assumed, noticing the devastated bar and the unfortunate, mutilated victim. "What on earth did you do to him?"

"Up yours, bub," the grey fiend burped. "He didn't do nuthin' to me."

"Yet," Entropy was quick to mutter.

"That poor bloke, on the other hand," the greyskin cackled, thrusting back his head toward the bound scoundrel, "he messed 'im up good." The traveler's scarred eyebrow piqued in a cooled intrigue, observing the obviously broken man, babbling quietly to himself. "With his eyes," finished the freak, pointing to his own with his gnarled fingers.

"He's still alive, so what did he see?"

"The runes!" shouted the captive wildly. "Those evil runes..." he wept, "in my head..."

"You have no such power," Zedd noted to the summoner drawing nearer to the door.

"True, but he didn't know that," Geirrek grinned a slight but sadistic smirk. Only his victims could see his affliction for more than the scars they were. The conjurer's grotesque gaze nonetheless chilled all who met it, whether it is their own end they see or by less supernatural means. "He gave up everything he knew, which was not much."

Zedd stood firm as the spearman approached, preventing his comrade's departure with his staff. "Two meetings in two cities at the same time," the scarred one began. "You do realize what this means," Zedd added.

Geirrek let out a frustrated growl and narrowed his blue, burning eyes. "Someone is trying to separate us," he concluded, "to make us easier targets."

"And to prevent us from tracing them, they are using grunts who have nothing else to gain than money."

"And some heavy arms," the magician informed. "You should see the flint..." he trailed off, looking to produce the flintlock he could not find.

"Lookin' for somethin'?" toyed the demented drunk, dangling the stolen firearm freely with his back still facing the two from the bar. The displeased conjurer contorted his face in rage, immediately took up his spear, and began a charge, but the scarred one held back the weapon's tapered shaft. "Seems that ya like this li'l thin'," laughed the coat-clad crazy. "Tell ya what, ya can get it back if ya let me in on some o' that treasure yer after."

"Treasure?" repeated Zedd.

"Aw, sure, I heard about it. I overhear everythin'. If this doesn't pan out, there's a fun and scary party I heard about on the inn's second floor, but yer after a map, and all maps lead to treasure, and I want in. I'll even put in my fair share to get it." Before Geirrek could order his wyrm to attack in his stead, Zedd accepted the odd little man's offer.

The summoner sneared "I guess we could use another moving target."

"Ah, ya plannin' on some fightin'?"

"No, practicing my aim."

At long last, Geirrek slipped out from the tavern. His familiar had resumed its more tender form to fit through the door. The man continued until he was in a clearing. He thrust his spear into the center ground and, with his newly freed hand, removed another vial from his pouch. This one of the apothecary's goods was a coarsely ground dirt of some kind. The spearman bit off the stopper, as his armored arm was not nearly nimble enough, and readied the firearm pressed between his arm and side.

"What exactly was so important about that flintlock?" posed the cloak-clad one, following after his human companion. "Some sort of memento?"

"Perhaps," the summoner spat out the vial's lid, "but mostly because whoever made it put a lot of effort and magic into it. And magic means..."

"Spirit," the other finished. "Magic is an extension and manipulation of the soul's energy," he regurgitated. "How does that help?"

"This ore," the conjurer explained while loading the gun, "will act as like a sort of magic lodestone." He stood close to his spear, took aim straight up, waited for the winds to subside, and fired. "Direction it lands in is the direction the forger of this flintlock, which is the best clue we have right now."

Eventually, the shot struck soil. The summoner took up his warspear and pointed it toward where his special ammo was drawn. The Nidhogg spread out its wide, swift wings and accepted its passengers to their next destination..

Soaring over the village, nothing caught their searching eyes until the outskirts of the settlement were reached. There, surrounded by a small ring of forest, was a regal looking citadel, but there was something foreboding about its appearance.

"You thinking what I'm thinking?" the spearman asked the mystic.

"Nobility never enlist such a great number of armed guards," Zedd answered, "particularly those of such caliber." His words were in reference to the many great, and generally hellish, guard beasts accompanying the centurions.

"Something tells me that the lord of the manor doesn't conduct regular business. Sounds like he could be our guy." Circling around the vicinity in a wide arc, the Nidhogg touched down in a far off location to not arouse any suspicion.

"So then, how will we go about this deed?" the wanderer questioned as they progressed to the fort.

"Break down the doors, smash up the sentries," replied Geirrek. "What? Is there another way?"

"That would not benefit our cause. We must be careful in our movements lest what we seek will take wings."

"Oh, okay, smart guy, what would you suggest then?" begged the drake.

"I got a plan," chirped in the ignored lunatic.

"Stealth," Zedd answered. "We could enter through the back and follow Dai-Sho's lead."

"Who?" wondered the hooded one. A swift breeze haulted before him, briefly taking the appearance of a weasel. "Ah. Him."

"Yes, him indeed." The cloaked man continued, "He would be able to guide us down the course to avoid all suspicion until we reached the center and, hopefully, what we are searching for."

"Did you see how many guards that place is warming with? We'd never make it by unnoticed, no matter how crafty you think you are," blurted the summoner in a lowering volume as they approached the castle's walls.

"Well, it certainly would not be wise to barge into the place," protested the traveller, adding, "That would be a fool's errand." His word's struck the dragon's keeper.

"Yes, it would be fit for a fool." His gaze slowly turned towards the maniac.

The soldiers stood frozen in their watch, their eyes watching for the slightest of disturbances. Suddenly, from over the wall, an oddly shaped mass came crashing to the ground, tumbling forward.

"Bleedin' 'ell! I dun see how that was a good plan," rambled on the thing as he rose to his very short legs. Recovered from their initial bewilderment, the sentries advanced on the intruder.

"Aw... dang," understated Raph as the freak scooped him up and bounded off in haste, leaving the path clear of eyes for the others to enter undetected

"...So if we're inside a castle... What's this?" Entropy questioned.

"Well... It looks like the entry chamber. Never seen this sort of decor before, though." Stated the summoner.

"There's still a load of guards around here. Freaky hasn't quite got his game up. But, what's worse than that is the rooms seem to form some kinda maze." Dai-sho reported, slowing down for an instant.

"Not to mention the decorations?" Geirrek asked.

"I figgered you'd already noticed that."

"Well, they ain't exactly hard to see..." the drake muttered to himself.

The decor of the castle was, in fact, quite startling. The room they were standing in was large, round, and had a pair of stairways leading to other parts of the castle. Far from the standard noble heraldry which usually adorns the walls of such places, the only hangings were painted with strange-looking runes, with what looked like blood. The wanderer had been examining the room for some time, in his usual silent stance, cane staff tapping the floor.

"So, which way do we go?" the summoner asked the weasel.

The weasel became visible once more, pointing one sickle-clawed hand towards the stairway leading up. At this, the wanderer nodded, saying:

"Aye, for the lord of this castle shall abode amongst the clouds..."

Geirrek and his dragon, hearing this from Zedd's tongue, shot him a strange look. Seeing that no explanation was forthcoming, however, the four began their ascent into the labyrinth...

Meanwhile, the freak was running hard away from the group of guards he was distracting, the toad clinging to his arm for dear life. He looked behind him, and seeing the large number of beasts following him, ran harder. Strangely, the beasts all seemed not to be running at their full pace. The explanation for this soon became clear however...

"Crossbows... Fire!"


A barrage of bolts barreled down upon the unfortunate fiend, trapped in open air. They flew fast to his face, freezing in front of the freak. The intensity in the shelled shield's eyes grew brighter and brighter yet, repulsing the volley back more forcefully than it was fired. Few of the bowmen fell. Most of the massive monsters moved out of the way, the missiles just missing their mangy, matted fur.

"Raph!" cried out the oddity. "Ya saved my life!"

"Forget you," monotonously croaked his amphibious ally. "I just don't want you getting me killed."

"I thought ya Strong Toads were pretty much invincible?"

"Later, chump!" Raph hastily bid before vanishing its head once more into its shining shell.

"Aw, why did I hafta know stuff?" lamented the grey-skin. "What next?"

"Reload!" ordered the freshly-appointed captain of the guards.

"You are from the Northlands," asked the wanderer, "are you not?" Geirrek disturbed their journey little more than silently to nod his head in confirmation. "Are any of these glyphs thus far familiar to you?"

"Nay," the summoner answered. "I can recognize some similarities with older languages, but this blood," he told, "is fresh." He cast his cursed gaze down the winding corridor, all the way to a far off bend, decorated in similar fashion. "That's a lot of blood. It could be some sort of spell."

Just then, the conjurer stopped. "I remember this," he mumbled just loud enough for Zedd to hear. He stared down a nearby tapestry, and then the ones neighboring it. "All of them, I remember this sequence. We've been here before."

Zedd's arm shot out, catching a suddenly visible weasel. "Dai-Sho, are you sure this is the right way?"

"Sure sure sure," it sputtered, still swinging in its keeper's grasp from the abruptness of its stop. "I checked it we're fine."

"Check again," the cloaked one coolly stated. "Just keep going." It gave a few confused, jittery glances to its master, but ultimately went with his plan. As quickly as the Kamaiatchi came, it was gone as soon as Zedd loosed his grasp. The remnants of the group did not need to wait long to hear Dai-Sho's report.

"We have a problem guys." They turned to see the familiar weasel, opposite the direction it had left toward. "Two turns two turns is all I made so I shouldn't be back here already right? Can't make a loop unless you turn not twice or thrice but four times and I only turned twice so I'm not broken this place is."

"Perfect, this bloody place is set on some sort of magic loop," groaned Geirrek. "What next?" Something faintly echoing off the labyrinth walls could be heard. It had barely become distinguishable when Geirrek realized just what it was. "Oh no, not-"

The clamoring shouts grew more vivid in the background, accompanied by the baying of the hunt. Yet, over them all, the distinct whooping call was most recognizable. The little wretch came flying out from a corner and bounded over his old traveling party.

"Stupid... uh, you!" yelled the summoner. "How did you get here?"

"I don't know!

"Gee, that whole 'let's sneak into the place and avoid the guards' idea was genius," snapped the Nidhogg, whose growing size quickly blocked off the corridor. "Now we don't have to go through some mindless killing."

"Are you complaining, wyrm?" questioned Zedd with a level tone, bracing his staff for battle.

"I was at first," Entropy snickered with a devilish smile. Driving his arm forward, his long nails tore through a wave of soldiers, warning the others to keep their distance. That would not have been a difficult problem for the dark dragon to rectify, but he could not move, stuck in the small space. A hellish beast kept at a guard's sides pounced at the trapped drake only to be pierced through the belly by a massive spear. Rejecting its own death, the Garm clawed furiously at Geirrek as its body slid down the polearm. With a grin, the spearman tilted his weapon back and into the reach of his familiar's jaws, the demise of the dead. The mystic wanderer appeared suddenly before his ally, cutting off the enemies' path to him while his pet fed. A pair of hounds each with a pair of heads crept forward, moving to flank the man. He did not react to their advancement, never flinching or even seeming to breath. The Orphi recoiled as their paws were cut with thin lacerations. The wounds were not severe but their numbers grew quickly and for what seemed as no reason. Each of the four heads between them wildly darted about, each pulling the single body in the direction it last saw the near invisible source of the assault. The blitz came to an abrupt stop, only raising the paranoia of the monsters. Stepping back to back, they circled about with no where in the perimeter escaping the grim gazes between their eight eyes. Just as they thought the nuisance had fled, a draft began to pick up indoors. Suspended above the pair, the Kamaitachi had been spinning about in a ring, gathering a tremendous gale. A shredding whirlwind soon followed that lifted the dogs from the floor and beat them about the walls. Thrown out of the cyclone as it ended suddenly, a massive, shaggy, green hound stood over a blurred shape, pinning the weasel to the tiles beneath its hefty paw. The Cu Sith grimaced with its jagged jaws as the drooling lips were lowered to the caught prey. A shadow appeared over the faerie guard, and it beheld the traveller standing over it, unpleased. Whirling about his staff, he braced it horizontally in perfect timing to catch a recovered and charging Orphus on each end. Raising his stick up above himself, he drove an unsuspected knee into the fey hound's throat before chopping its neck with a swift blow. With a startled expression, the creature fell over unconscious, and Dai-Sho wiggled himself free to once more disappear into thin air. The guards realized that these were no ordinary intruders they were dealing with, a thought that came while waters rose above their feet. Unable to reach the sentries, Entropy still had them within his range. Summoning hellish rapids, a black tide ebbed the sentinels, scaring off those who did not already leave to collect reinforcements.

"What'd I miss?" questioned the Terrible Summoner, shaking off the few entrails that remained clinging to his spear left undevoured by the corpse eater. "Anything much?" Zedd answered with silence at first.

"I would suggest to your pet to reduce his girth," he cryptically spoke.

"My butt!" blurted Entropy in his feral tone.

"No need to be all sassy about it. Jeez," huffed Geirrek.

"No, really. My butt!" Returning to his hatchling size, another wave of guards had gathered at his backside, explaining its cause of pain. The forebearer to the battalion was great man, broad and decorated with badges of honor. A stiff, long beard hung from out his horned half-helm over the front of his ornament breastplate while a regal cloak of cerulean majestically covered its back. Wielding a threatening lance, tipped on both sides, in one of his mighty hands, the other arm was entwined by a serpent with eyes that glowed like lamps. It, too, was twin headed. The Amphisbaena slithered about in its coil on the troops' leader as he prepared to address the intruders. For all the eyes between them, none could spot the fiend that clung to the ceiling. Dropping onto the captain's shoulders, the lunatic cackled madly as the giant of a man flailed wildly in his attempt to remove the unwanted passenger. The slippery freak ducked and weaved about, seeming to find amusement in the struggle as though it were a game. Finally planting both hands on the annoyance, the general hurtled the laughing oddity forward. Still in his merriment, he crashed onto the floor in a rough tumble and kept the momentum going, fleeing as fast as his short legs would carry him away. The other centurions, as well, parted the scene by the other route, abandoning their leader. A touch concerned with the fleeing footfalls he heard behind himself, he turned to see if their lack of devotion was true, revealing to the two remaining, unwelcomed guests the shortening wick vanishing under the magnificent cape. They shortly made haste just as the others. Confused by everyone's fright, the captain slowly moved his hand to the lump he had just noticed in his back.

The hallways shook as a thundering blast tore through the citadel.

"Oo, man! That sap went pop good!" chortled the maniac, rolling about the floor in a fit of joy. "Let's go see how dead he is!" The excited fiend bound over his supposed companions, flattened by the force of the blast, on his way back to the point of detonation.

"Look at it this way," the hooded one tried to ration, "at least he's on our side."

"I would muse deeply upon which of our causes would be benefited by his assistance," confessed the cloaked man, pulling his face out of the tiled floor while still trying to maintain his composure.

"C'mon, fellows, ya got to see this," called out the freak. "Pick up the pace an' get yerselves down here." With annoyed grunts, the two marched back down to the place they had ran from for their lives moments ago, finding it filled with smoke and busted open wholly.

"Well, that's one to get around a magical loop trap," admitted Geirrek, looking at the massive hole blown in the side of the wall. "Good work."

"Who did what now?"

"And you wanted to ditch him on our flight here to lighten my load," mentioned the Nidhogg.

"Hey, I never said that!" defended his owner. "... aloud..."

"Say," spoke up the lunatic, not realizing that the comment was directed at himself, "where's Flop-Hop?"

Outside, hopping through the now unmanned stations at the front door, the horned rabbit made its way into the compound. With a wiggle of its heart-shaped nose, it skipped down the trail left by its owner's distintive odor. Meanwhile, the trio pressed onward to seek the lord of the manor. In their passing from the shattered hall, charred and skinless fragments of the dead stirred slightly as two halves of the double snake fused back into one. Calling out for its master, it wrapped itself back around the corpse's arm with eyes beaming as the fingers began to twitch

"...I still wanna know where Flop-Hop is" the fool complained, "and this place just gets weirder and weirder every room we walk through"

"Are you referring to the decorations or the fact that some of the guards we are coming across now have an increasing number of appendages?" the wanderer asked.

"And as for your familiar, I assume he's still around somewhere, because you would've felt his death throes if he wasn't" the summoner added.

As Geirrek said this, Zedd's eyes narrowed. In one moment, a pair of single-edged swords appeared in his hands, the staff he had been carrying flew into the air and he twisted and swung one of his blades with utter precision at something that had been following them. The blade stopped mere centimetres from the Miraj's head.

"Hey!' the bunny exlaimed, "I'm on your side!"

"I am aware of that." The scarred one replied, "However, sneaking up behind a party infiltrating a hostile fortress is usually not the best of ideas."

At that, the coney glared at Zedd, before running to it's master. The cloaked man returned his swords to unseen sheaths and grabbed his staff from where it was floating mid-air.

"That was kinda freaky" the freak's familiar stated.

"Yeah, almost gettin' sliced in two..." the coated one began.

"No, not that, the two-headed snake thing healing that big guy and him walking off."

"WHAT?" the conjurer and the wanderer said in unison.

"Well, I walked into the castle, and started followin' ya, but when I got to this one room with all these corpses in it. In it, the only thing alive was this double-headed snake with yellow gleaming eyes. It was twisted 'round the arm of some really big guy. Anyway, some of the guy's wounds just sorta healed, and he got up and walked off in a different direction."

"Well, mayhap the lord of this place willhave warning of our approach after all." The cloaked man stated, "At least they do not know where we are..."

As the scarred one stopped his speech mid-sentance, he stared at one of the glyphs on the wall.

"I... Know that symbol." he said simply.

The others all looked at him in expectance.

"It means... Spirit in my native language." he stated, and pointed to his face..

"Wait, you can read these things?" intruded the Nidhogg after climbing upon its keeper to meet the wanderer face to face. "Why did you ask if Geirrek knew anything about 'em? You could've saved us a lot of time."

"I recognize some, but," Zedd trailed off, "others are obscure to me. And if I had told what few I recognize mean, you may be deterred from progressing further."

"Oh, I'm sure they can't be that bad," dismissed the happy coney, gleefully being scratched by its master's sickly claws.

"This rune, which follows the symbol for 'Spirit,'" the cloaked one explained coldly, aiming his staff to the blood-soaked wall, "means 'Annihilation.' There are variations to the writings from what I am accustomed, but I am able to decipher several of the glyphs, my glyphs."

"But you aren't from the North," the summoner caught on, "and I know I've seen runes from the Norse alphabet here."

"Aye, and they are the portions I am unable to read, undoubtedly," admitted Zedd. He began to look over the many tapestries with a newfound intrigue. "Both our tongues are scrawled on these walls. Combining the two would not result in any sort of magic; it is not the words that have power, but their meaning. Yet what we see before us have an order. They are another language altogether, neither yours nor mine." The staff-bearer lifted cold eyes to the hooded one. "It must be ancestral, an ancient tongue from before our father's fathers, perhaps before all of humankind."

The spearman grasped his arm more tightly. "I knew they were old, but," wondered Geirrek, "such runes could be the first writing ever, handed down from the gods themselves. Now, we can't just worry about who is capable of using such powerful magic, but from whom did they learn it? You said for yourself..." He paused a moment, deep in contemplation. "'Before all of humankind.'"

"You an' yer human-talk," interrupted the mutant in a boisterous tone. "Whoever said someone had ta learn it? There're a lotta people in the world who ain't quite people, if ya get my drift. 'Ancient' means a whole lot less ta things that live fer millenniums. Maybe one of them wrote it all."

"Unfortunately," sighed the summoner, "the freak's making sense. These guys are pretty tough: enchanted hallways, sorcerer sentries, an immortal guard -- an inhuman in their ranks wouldn't be all that surprising. Still, none of this gives us any more information about what such a creature could be -- if it even exists -- or who is trying to stop us."

"Well, um," the baffled buffoon began to mumble, "maybe the same guy who made yer shiny gun?" The thing was met with a less than enthusiastic stare. "Hey, ya used that thing to get us here. Can't ya do that li'l whatzit of yers again so we don't run into any more surprises?"

"And how exactly am I supposed to do that? Even if there were enough space in this dungeon to fire another round, I have already used all of the components for the locator spell."

"I dunno. Maybe some of the sparklies are left in the gun?" guessed the coated one. "Ya could, like, spin it or somethin'... and it'd point to where we need ta go..."

The impish man was met only with a harsh, cursed stare. "Why do you assume such stupid, stupid things? Even if there were any of the magic left in the gun -- which there is not -- trying to get it to point out the direction we need to travel does not even make any sense with the spell I cast on it! Do you know anything about magic in the slightest, you dim-witted little man?" Geirrek ranted.

"Now, if you would excuse me, I am off to divine the direction we should travel, using an intelligent method," he stressed. With that, the apothecary took his leave, arriving around a bend in the labyrinth. With his hindparts still in full view, the entire party could witness him stoop down to the dungeon floor. What happened next was blocked from their vision, the sounds of iron scraping against stone, with a rhythmic skipping, could easily be heard. When the sounds stopped, Geirrek looked back down the corridor, following an invisible line with his eyes. He picked himself and an unseen object up from off the ground and walked past the group with a stern expression on his face. "We should go this way," he blurted out quickly.

The grey fiend stared wide-eyed as the passed them by. "Okay, ya know more 'bout yer own spell than me," it huffed. "No need to rub it in..."

The summoner backtracked the group an uneventful distance. No guards remained in the area, but there was no telling when more could return. However, the trek was as fruitful as the first time they traveled down this way; Geirrek's path led straight into a wall.

"I can't believe that gun lied to me," the apothecary complained. "I mean, that gun... son-of... a," he corrected hastily. With a quick inconspicuous cough, he carried on. "Whatever we're after could be opposite this wall, but we would surely lose our path if we had to turn.

"I dunno," sneered the weird one. "This wall kinda smells funny. Maybe there's a way through."

"You can't smell rock, you-"

"He could be right," Zedd quickly spoke up. Before the fiend could squeeze in a mocking, victorious laugh, the wanderer finished, "About their being a way through. Do you notice anything peculiar about the wall?" Reluctant to prove the little odd man right yet again, Geirrek eventually put his cursed eyes on the granite corridor. He visually traced the whorls and grains on the rockface, noticing a distinct pattern: a head, shoulders, arms, and legs. The imprint of a man was hidden on the wall, albeit a very tiny man. "Something has disturbed the very structure of the bricks; there is a path that leads within, and we must work to find it."

"Maybe it is just an illusion, and we can just walk in," suggested the grey one, lining himself up with the silhouette and rushing forward, nearly breaking his already crooked nose in the process. With an annoyed growl, he grumbled, "Fine, then. Onto Plan B." Before he could be talked out of it, another one of his bombs was lit and set before the wall. It soon no longer stood.

When the dust and floating debris settled, what once was a workshop could be seen on the opposite end. The walls were adorned with enough arms for a small army, and they were crafted finely enough to give it the strength of a large one. Embers burned beneath a forge, white-hot despite no one manning the bellows. In the far corner, a small, dusty individual huddled in fear appropriate for the recent explosion, clasping desperately to a long-handled sledge. It poked its pale skin and wavering, black eyes out from its enormous, grizzled beard.

"Allow me to handle this. There has already been enough violence," Zedd demanded in a passive way. "Greetings, dwarf," he began in a loud yet soothing tone, not wishing to frighten the thing more than they already had. "We mean you no harm. We are here to save you from your servitude; no longer do you need to work for this cruel master!" The scarred man slowly approached with hands exposed. "Tell me, what is your name?" The wandered attempted to smile, which may have been a more frightening face than his normal, dead expression.

"Something's wrong," Geirrek whispered to himself, suddenly realizing much he did not trust about the dark elf. At a few paces' distance from the creature, its beard suddenly exploded. A circular, toothy orifice erupted on its hideous head, accompanied by a scream just as grotesque.

With surprising agility, the dwarf took to the air with hammer raised high. The blue mage was not fast enough to spare his ally from the assault. The dwarf swung the sledge down; the heavy, wrought-iron head clattered against the floor. The evil little monster saw only a clean cut on the handle. Its bulging, dark eyes scanned the wrecked room for the perpetrator; it found three. The blurring images of a weasel repeatedly struck the tiny weaponsmith, loosing a grieve on its short shin and then shredding the unprotected leg.

"What is that thing?" a rarely startled and unknowledgeable Zedd asked.

"Not a dwarf," Geirrek told, "or at least, not just a dwarf. Dwarves are wrought from stone, carved and imbued with life by their ancestors.

"But this is no common dwarf; no one carved the first generation. They grew like maggots in the flesh of the world. The strength of earth without the rigidity of stone; they are much faster and stronger than their descendents. And by far more evil.

With a surprising bound onto the top of its work bench, the ancient dwarf rummaged through its forged wares with occasional swings at the orange streaks that passed by its way, deterring them best it could. It found the quarry of its search, a single, metal boot, as well as a stash of other assorted armaments. Leaping back to the floor, the spawn of Ymir crashed down with its knuckle first, clad in the iron footwear. As the shoe struck, the ground rippled and warped as a sonic pulse tremored through the very stones that built it. The stone flowed like ocean waves before returning to its original state, but, during its transformation, the hardening blocks trapped the dwarf's swift attacker. The beast flailed wildly, to such a speed that it still was nearly unseen, as its feet were anchored to a single point. The blacksmith had an easy target but was intercepted by the vengeful blades of the Kamaitachi's master. Both edges were caught on the long handled hammer in a quick and key positioning. Greedily, the squat being studied the weapons, noting their craft and make. Zedd was wise to withdraw without delay before too much secrets about the pair of swords were learned. Sliding into another battle stance, the scarred man circled to flank so that the spearman could attack the rear secretly. The dwarf was no fool and activated the power within a winged helm before the trap could be sprung. Holding the ordinate cap high, a wall of strong wind encompassed the master forger. Within the calm, the strong gusts did nothing to hinder his movements. Outside this ring, everyone was dragged down by the shear force of the storm. The dark elf bound forward, thrusting the head of the hammer into the wanderer's gut before swinging it back around to the apothecary, sweeping him off his feet. The Nidhogg, cloaking itself within the shadows behind dark wings, abruptly fired a stream of noxious flame from its mouth. The dragon's breath seared and fumed as it pounded away at its target. When the wyrm's flame resided, all that remained was a large scorch mark and a damaged helmet.

"Is he... gone?" questioned the lunatic, the first notable action he took since the start of the fight.

"I doubt its end could come about by means that simple-" lengthily explained the cloaked one, holding his stomach, before thick mitts wrapped around his ankles. Below him, arms broke out through the tiles accompanied by part of a face. The massive size of the tip that pierced the surface made the guess certain. Like a bird through the air or a fish through the water, dwarves could travel through their element just as easily. Earth, soil, and stone were all the same to them. The hands pulled back as a glowing disk was hurtled at them. As the spinning plate skipped off the empty location, a head emerged from it.

"Not cool," protested the shelled toad, quickly retracting back into its armor as it continued bouncing around the area. Freed, Zedd issued the same relief to his familiar, who had nearly gone insane from being forced to stay in the same place for so long, with some well placed strikes. The men paced about the forge, wearily watching the floor. Inattentive, Geirrik drew too near to the wall. He could feel the warm, rancid breath upon his back for only a moment before he dash forward. With a deep battlecry from its peculiar mouth, the smith smashed its hammer into the tiles. During its path, the head glew brilliantly, burning white hot. Sparks sprayed upon its impact. The stout being chased after the man with more wild blows but lost the chase due to its short legs. As this fact was realized, the dwarf dropped back through the floor. Panting and wheezing, the summoner looked over to see the freak sitting calmly on a table.

"Hey, that's not a bad idea," noticed the one with scarred eyes.

"What ain't?" The maniac was clueless to what it could be.

"Uh... nothing. On an unrelated topic," Geirrek failed to smoothly transition, "I thought of an idea. If we keep off the floor," he added more quietly, "and walls, this dwarf will have to come out to face us." Spryly, Zedd lept upon the sturdy workbench along with Dai-sho. He and the recently perched Entropy looked to find the spearman mounting a slab of granite.

"Do you desire to inform him of his folly," implored the mystic, "or should I be the ill messenger?"

"The real question is," corrected the drake, "should either of us say anything."

"This is foolery," accused Zedd. "If our foe is using coward's tactics to hide from us, let us dismantle his veil!"

"... huh?" The gray one's head twisted on his neck until it nearly turned completely sideways in his blank minded state.

"You. Bomb. There." The wanderer from afar made this repetition unmistakably clear with the use of rigid hand signals pointing to the floor.

"Oh, a li'l bit o' boom-boom is what ya got in mind?" proudly caught on the fiend. "I'd love to, but I'm 'fraid I ran out. Used m' last one to break into this place. I'll have to restock at the depot." Whistling sharply, for as sharp as someone who could not whistle was able to manage, the yellow hair sprung out from hiding. "Hey, Floppy, I needs another bomb. Get yer fluffy ass over here and cough one up." As the orders were delayed with an angry scowl, the dark elf's arm emerged from the wall unseen as it pried open the forge's door. With a blast of smoldering air, a swarm of fiery fliers exited the unit as well. The glowing insects filled the workshop as did a dense, black haze. The horde had particular interest in Flop-Hop, making constant passes at his mouth. "C'mon, Hop, what's yer problem?" With a shrill cry through tightly pressed lips, the rabbit shook his head.

"He can't," bellowed a deep voice. It came from Raph, pulling himself up over the bench's ledge.

"Can't? There's only one thin' he can't do," grumbled the lunatic with an unfit smile, "so why won't he do this?"

"He'll die," croaked the Strong Toad. Their master seemed indifferent.

"A piece of my soul to save the day seems like a fair price to pay-"

"Us to," added the ever mellow Raph. Bending his thick neck upwards, his stare jolted one of the bugs into another, smashing them both on the ceiling which erupted into a small pyrotechnic display that showered the area in twinkling sparks. "Neat," the amphibian simply described as his lips curled in a wide smile.

"Are ya really sure he would?" questioned the maniac on someone else's knowledge, something he had no right to do. "I mean, even if he did it really fast?" The cloud of Pyrallis grew thicker as more of the four-footed moths poured out from the furnace. "Okay, okay, no boomers, but, hey, 'tis not like we'd need 'em to clear out these li'l pests. Am I right?" As his confident words were boasted, a new doorway was created to the forge, in addition to the one previously there and that he had created not long ago. Within the hole stood a thick, sturdy figure that tore the opening wider with its bulky limbs. Rough and unrefined, the being was barely shaped like a man as it was not despite that being precisely what the clay was sculpted to resemble. The mammoth golem rushed into the chamber with its massive fists raised as the ancient dwarf, its creator, wicked cackled through its circular mouth. Before being met by the clay giant, Geirrek shot a cold glance at the fiend.

"You can't talk anymore.

The walking statue charged straight toward its creator's adversaries. They scattered in any direction out of the golem's destructive path. The Pyrallis were swatted away or often times simply ran through; the bugs and their fiery finishes where little more than annoyances now. The group had much larger concerns.

The rampaging clay giant tore through a cloud of the burning moths, giving light to its finely chiseled armor as the insects expired on its chilled exterior. It clumsily swung a clubby limb at the spry greyskin. Bits of the devastated floor the fiend had just leapt up from exploded past the lunatic, chipping its goggles and shredding its coat even moreso. Still suspended from the jump, the mad one had no way to dodge the golem's next fist. The blow carried the nuisance straight into a standing wall, crushing them both. The fiend was pulled from the rubble with the giant's fist, its wretched claws dug in tightly to the constructs unyielding skin.

"Flop-Hop!" it barked orders and blood, "I order ya to eat this thin' now!"

"I can'th!" whined the rabbit, perched on the automatons's leg with a full mouth. "It'th thust too muth!"

"Yer worthless, ya know that?!" the lunatic managed to rattle off before being smashed against one of the few remaining walls.

On wide, swift wings, Entropy flew onto the mammoth's back. Its claws and bites could do nothing against the clay giant's defenses. With its free arm, it grasped the wyrm and slammed it through one of the many work benches. The Nidhogg writhed about on the shrapnel-laden floor, its back bloody from the many instruments that protruded out of it. The construct loomed over the fallen drake, clasped its fists up high -- still holding the battered lunatic -- and prepared a finishing blow. Twin glints of steel fell upon the wicked creation; its hollow gaze found only the wanderer, standing without arms or guard. Although he had successfully drawn the automatons's ire, Zedd had no way to fight it off. Not yet. The dragon had already failed with brute force; Zedd tried patience. For every crushing fist the golem threw, the scarred one appeared out of harm's way, as though he was never there to begin with. This continued farther and farther into the room, luring the clay monster away from the injured familiar. For every blow, the cloaked man evaded and watched, learning the earthen machine's workings.

The dwarf, free from distraction, rummaged through the wrecked workshop for the most powerful weapon not currently walking. Its search was soon disrupted by a steady tapping. It looked up from the junked pile to see the apothecary, knocking the end of his spear against the granite below.

"Looks like you don't have a partner, either," Geirrek sounded, sliding his hood off from over his eyes. His cold, blue stare met the inhuman's, both kept in a complete still. "Well then, let's dance."

The ancient elf sprung out from the mangled metal brandishing a jagged blade larger than itself. The several spikes blurred together in a frenzied whirl as the dwarf descended. In the brief moment he had to react, the summoner thrust his polearm into the cyclonic circle, halting the deep demon's attack and advance and forcing it back into the air. The dark one flipped around in an acrobatic display and returned to its target with weapon aimed. Geirrek's gauntlet was already held forward in expectation, shining an arcane symbol before him for an instant, followed soon by a booming wind. The diving dwarf hung mid-air before the spearman, paralyzed from attack by the driving gale, and was thrown up to the ceiling.

The pit fiend sprawled softly across the hard, stone top, suspending itself with a spider-like climb. It rebounded back at the terrible one, too quickly for him to connect with his spear. Ymir's progeny wove its sickly frame beneath the sweeping steel, through Geirrek's legs, and into the floor. The apothecary fell onto his bloody knees over the still rippling ground. He turned his cursed gaze and scanned for where the vermin might resurface. With a flick of his wrist, the heavy warspear was swung up behind him and into his brazen grasp. The dwarf's attempted surprise attack fell too slowly on the waiting shaft. The apothecary dragged his weapon from the deadlock, catching the spiked blade on the angled tip and clattering it across the floor, away from the dark elf's hold. The spearman followed through on the momentum he had gained with a solid swing, which the dwarf blocked with its hands and teeth. It gnawed tirelessly at the shaft, but released as a curved blade of ice shot up, before any real damage could be done. The earthspawn melted into the ground yet again to avoid the strike, but soon after bounded out from its safe haven, not towards its opponent, but towards its clay creation.

Stepping over the several craters it had created in its hunt, the golem gave no heed to its master until it jumped straight into it. The dwarf phased through the armor, still of its own element, halting the giant for a moment. Its carved helm rose up toward its long sought after target and made another assault. As before, Zedd inexplicably avoided its pounding fists, but not what followed. The stalking statue ripped up the castle floor, hurling stones wildly in a wide swath. The wanderer had dodged right back into harm's way.

Geirrek came to his ally's aid atop the still injured Entropy. It let out a vile curse, against which the armor gave little defense. The apothecary launched a vial onto the clay behemoth followed by repeated strikes to the softening areas. The golem rolled over with impressive dexterity, forcing the summoner to leap off for his life.

"The giant could neither move nor think so swiftly before," Zedd stated laboriously, heavy with wounds. "The dark elf has lent the machine his speed and mind."

"Ya think?" sarcastically retorted the spearman, nursing his injured arm. The wanderer was not listening; his eyes were closed, and hidden whispers passed his lips. "What was that?" Geirrek started up, thinking that something had been said against him.

"Nothing for you," was all the cloaked one answered. In seconds, the golem's arm collapsed from its body, accompanied only by a swift breeze.

"Yeah, have the arm fall on me!" complained the severed lunatic from beneath the gargantuan fist. Its toad made such a predicament of little matter, and the others did not exactly care what happened to the fiend anyway.

Before Dai-Sho could dismantle the other shoulder, a quick grasp surrounded the weasel midway into its work. The giant's grip now slowly squeezed the life from the Kamaitachi, giving little heed to the repeated strikes of Zedd's mysterious swords. The Miraj spiraled towards the construct's heart, where the dwarf was hiding, but was swatted away by the golem's remaining arm. With its attentions away, the wanderer bounded off the automatons's leg and straight for the hand. With a precision slice, his edge passed through all of the fingers and little of his familiar's fur. His blade was vanished before snatching away his unconscious pet and rolling to safety.

The greyskin ran before the advancing giant, casting back its mutilated hand with the living buckler. Blow for blow, the fiend stood up to the forged warrior, reflecting each attack with an unseen barrier. The massive creation pulled back its arm for a devastating swing, but the lunatic seized the moment. The odd little head poked out from the shielding shell and focused on the shoulder joint. Dai-Sho was unable to complete its keeper's instructions, but Raph was more than able to finish the job. The construct's arm exploded, ripped right from the torso. The dwarf, too, saw an opportunity and sent an armored foot right through the mad one, hurling it into far-off rubble.

Zedd wisped in from behind, attempting to ply his studies of the golem's movement to its further destruction. He was unable to disable its legs, but the wanderer was able to escape certain doom as the golem crashed down. The Terrible Summoner, charged with a mystic energy, hurried towards the disarmed giant, but the disemboweled enemy shot open its throat and spewed a sickly, chlorinated gas.

"Oh, c'mon! I didn't think real golems actually did this!" Geirrek coughed. A spinning kick sent him away as the dark elf did not wish to discover the purpose of his spell.

The dark dragon, undetected by the clay creation, lowered itself from the ceiling silently. Its claws and pinions enveloped the construct, and, before it could react, the Nidhogg had swung their combined weight upside down, driving the armored helm into the floor with deathly force. It finally gave, and the entwined two and the weapons and all of the others fell down through several floors. Level after level, the golem was subjected to yet another layer of waiting granite, which shattered time after time. At last, one story survived, and the giant kicked free. Both were met by a pouring rain of rubble and weapons, and the drake's allies descended on whirlwind or toad or magic.

As Geirrek landed, he re-readied his magics. He cast out his unclad arm, which left the rubble shaking in its wake as he charged the prone sculpture. Its legs sprang up in defense, but did nothing to stop the spell. The thing's legs went limp and were tossed aside; the summoner's palm lay flat on the golem's chest, his other clasped firmly on his planted spear. The whole construct shook violently, the victim of the full force of an earthquake. Wretched claws dug out of the clay heart and hoisted the inhuman within out and onto the spearman. He staved the menacing monstrosity's melee with his brass-clad arm. A gust from Dai-Sho blew the little man away, allowing Geirrek to prepare another spell. Before he could finish, the dark elf swam up through the enormous, clay leg and clamped onto the summoner's foot with its serrated orifice. The dwarf's prey jabbed down multiple times, missing the creature's head beneath the armored skin. Determined to be rid of the pest, he vaulted up on his polearm, painfully pulling the earthkin from out of its hiding place. Geirrek removed the warspear and thrust it into the hideous being's chest, giving more than enough separation between him and the thing's stubby limbs.

A small trickle of blood dotted out of the steely head. That is when the cursed conjurer realized it.

"Everybody, run!" Geirrek demanded more than he ordered, steadying the spear against the violent svartalf. "Close your eyes, cover your ears, and whatever you do, don't look back." His cold gaze turned to his wyrm. "Do it," the keeper commanded.

Entropy stared back, wide-eyed. "But-"

"It's an ancient dwarf," he hastily explained over the rabid screams of the elder one. "It is living flesh and blood, not rock. Don't worry about me, just do it. Now!" The others did not have a clear idea what was happening, but the severity of his tone meant it was something awful. They did as he asked, and when at a safe distance, they didn't look back.

Entropy remained with is keeper. The Nidhogg plunged its long, bony claws right into the cold, stone floor. Its eyes disappeared into a soulless black. Geirrek made a final effort to push his weapon securely into the little monster. He raised up the dwarf, suspended by the spear, and stowed away behind the golem, fighting to keep the dark elf within the dragon's sight. The vermin's vigor died down as the room appeared to get brighter. It, in fact, did not; the darkness was gathering. All the shadows in the room formed a column before the dark drake, tracing from it to the disabled dwarf. Entropy's jaw swung open, and hellish fury was unearthed.

Nidhoggs make their diet on the dead, especially the wicked. It is the most wicked they wish to torture, for it is on the soul that the dragon feeds. All of the pain, all of the anguish, all of the evil collects within the wyrms. It is a poison most vile that this drake regurgitates; it is the essence of evil.

The arcane blast flew fast past the shadowy path. Geirrek forced his eyes shut tight, trying to ignore the torturous screams he could hear on the breath. Behind the golem, there was only fear, but no danger; only living flesh could be destroyed by the Shadow Blast. Flesh like that which once was stuck atop the warspear. Now, only chilled, engraved steel remained.

The keeper appeared to the exhausted dragon to show that he had survived. The others limped in eventually, never quite given a sign that the fight was over other than the returning silence. The apothecary cast his cursed stare upwards through the gaping levels above.

"Well, I think we have the right place," understated the spearman. "It seems they really want us dead. Who's ready to find out why?

"I am afraid I must request some time to recuperate." Zedd stated, testing each of his limbs for breaks.

"Yeah, me too" the greyskin added.

The summoner merely looked at them, then at his own wounds, and decided that it would be a good time to do just that. He was aware, however, that whatever ruled this place would be watching them, so he bade his fellows to be quick. Zedd walked to one side of the room, where his staff had fallen, srangely intact. The freak obtained some more bombs from his rabbit. The summoner had been staring for some time at some of the 'runes' on the wall. He soon looked at the wanderer, studying the intricate lines running across his face with interest.

"I've been looking at the script of your land... It intrigues me. It looks like no other rune I've ever seen." he stated, using the rest time to also farther his formidable knowledge.

"Mayhap it is not a rune? I was under the impression that 'rune' was your land's word for script that bore magical capabilities. However, my grasp of your language is far from perfect." the wanderer returned.

"'Rune' refers to a particular kind of letter. This script," he pointed to the writing on the wall, "Is far more complex than most runes..."

Before the wanderer could continue the conversation, a loud rumble came from below the earth. Masonite dust began to fall from the ceiling, and the sound of falling stone could be heard below the room's surface.

"The castle is collapsing!" Dai-sho burst in through the room's door.

Everyone looked at the exhausted drake, but saw there was nowhere for him to fly from, all the holes and entrances being too small.

The coated one picked up one of his exploding implements, and looked expectantly at the summoner.

"If I do it and we fly out real fast..."

Geirrek looked around him, and saw cracks travelling slowly across the floor. Seeing no other alternative, he said:

"Alright then. Entropy, get ready."

The drake began to grow to it's full size, causing the already-unstable floor to buckle and heave. The greyskin attached his blasting object to the wall and ran back towards the others as fast as he could. He jumped at the dark drake just as the floor gave out. Fortunately, Entropy was already airbore, and just made it out of the blasted hole before the whole room was buried in a pile of rubble, and the castle collapsed upon itself.

As the drake ascended further, he began to weaken. His wide, swift wings beat laggardly at the thinning air, until he realised he had flown too high.

"Damn..." he muttered, between laborious gasps of oxygen-starved air.

Trying to correct himself, he began to fly acrossways and down. Unfortunately, even the dragon's epic strength could not last forever, and his wings stopped beating. Accompanied by a fearful howl from the freak, he dropped like a stone...

Strangely, he hit something very solid quite soon. As everyone leapt from the drake's back, what they had landed on became more visible.

It was the top of a castle wall.

The wall of a castle that looked remarkably like the one that had just collapsed, except strangely translucent.

The wanderer looked over the edge of the wall, at the wall, and could see nothing, not even his own legs.

"It appears to be made of some form of enchanted glass. All but invisible except to those standing atop it. I would hazard a guess that there was a form of portal from the top of the grounded castle that would lead to this one." He stated.

As the summoner stared out over glass courtyards to the castle itself, which was also made of glass, he shook his head in disbelief.

"How much magic is being used to hold this thing up, and to make it? And if there was a portal, that would be fairly draining too..." he started.

"Many, many souls will be being harnessed. That, however, is not our chief concern. That lies with the ruler of this glittering palace." the wanderer interrupted.

the freak glared at them

"C'mon, lets move!" he said, pawing the strangely cool glass, which seemed unaffected by the sun's heat..

As the group departed to find an entrance, it was soon realized that their flock was short one member.

"Hey, ... um, you!" called out Geirrek to their strange traveling companion whose name still remained unspoken. "Quit holding us up, will you? We gotta get in."

"Precisely what I had in mind," cackled the fiend as he held out a hand to Flop-Hop. "Cough a lot up, boy! We're gonna make this big!"

"No!" cried out the rest of the group at once, although Zedd did not match the desperation with his tone. The Terrible Summoner leapt at the freak and tried to restrain him, keeping the explosives from being delivered to his grasp, but the wiry build of the lunatic proved hard in containing as he slid from his hold on numerous occasions. The drake assisted in his efforts, making use of arms, wings, and tail to keep him steadfast.

"You can't detonate one of those up here, let alone several," roared the dragon as the little one slipped from his claws again and again. "Are you mad, man?" Entropy briefly introspected his own query on two fronts: foolishly asking if the maniac had any sense about himself as the first and claiming him to be a human second.

"Aw, c'mon, ya guys," the tatter coated one, held secured at last, begged as his bandaged fingers stretched out to the face of his Al-Mi'raj. "This would just be so much easier! Now, c'mon, ya yeller puff. Come to papa." The advancement of the golden coney was impeded as Zedd, finally arriving at the confrontation after a slow paced stroll, braced the end of his staff on the bunny's forehead.

"Your devices could very well grant us entry into this castle of the sky, gray fool," enlightened the wanderer, "however, we would not know what other affects could befall us with such brash actions. The stability of this floating abode could be comprised. A force such as that released by your detonations could sway this mass's balance or, worse, return it to the ground, preventing us from obtaining what we desire in either case. You would also be wise to note this structure's build. This enchanted glass just may be resilient enough to withstand your blasts. Then, the only thing setting off one could accomplish is alerting them to our presence. Just the same, the opposite could occur. This glass may mimic mundane glass, and the entire compound could shatter to pieces."

"Alright then, mister smart guy," snarled the maniac through clenched teeth, "then what would ya suggest?"

A calm breeze tossed the hair of the scarred man, but the gale soon erupted violently, surrounding the throng as a whole. The whirling winds lowered onto the surface they stood upon, creating a ring of sparks as the translucent material was cut into by wicked sickles. The Kamaitachi appeared, still for once, by its keeper's side after having sawed through the glass. Moving his staff from the rabbit's head, Zedd drove the end into the ground, crashing them down below on a circular platform. It fell with a heavy thud onto the empty floor of a spacious room.

"Well, then, it would appear that I was incorrect," admitted the mystic. "It was not indestructible." Turning his view in disgust, he added, "We have already entered, fool. There is no further need for you to acquire more charges." The lunatic still flailed wildly within the spear man's arms.

"Make go boom! Big boom!" Shaking his head, the cloaked man merely picked up the horned hare to keep it out of the crazed one's reach for the time being while their new environment was studied.

"Good. This decoration looks familiar," noted the hooded man as he ran a finger over the marked wall. "It's the same type of script that was in that other fortress."

"True, but it doesn't look as refined here," stated the Nidhogg, critically analyzing it with his keen sight. "It seems rougher, more worn. I think it's... older?"

"Trivial matters such as that should not be our concern," Zedd insisted as he readied his staff. "Let us find the one we seek." Giving a nod to his weasel, the orange vermin vanished in a flash to lead their way

Slow, heavy steps sounded down the darkened corridor. At the end of the shadowy way, a gruesome gate was erected. Hallow, lifeless eyes stared down from the skeletal portal. The filthied bones shone through the otherwise pitch surroundings, warning the wanderer to stop. There, before the ominous arch, he waited.

"They're here," rasped a decrepit voice from the black.

"If they managed to survive," hoarsely resounded the loyal lieutenant, "my men shall take care of them."

"Oh?" piqued the unseen one. "If you had taken care of them the firssst time, your faccce would not be hiding behind that masssk." The general lifted a gauntlet to the simple, flat steel that now concealed his face -- the only part of him not scarred or burnt.

"The little one will suffer for what he did," bluntly spoke the remade man.

"Ssset assside your petty vegeanccce for now," echoed the vile voice, crawling closer and closer to the threshold. The gaunt, wretched visage of walking corpse allowed little torchlight to betray its presence. It parted its parched, dusty lips to hiss once more. "We mussst prevent them from obtaining the Key. I know far too well what they could ussse it for..."

"So what's in this treasu'e for ya?" coughed up the freak. "Ya dun 'xactly look like the fame 'n' fortune type to me."

Zedd was intrigued by this sudden interest in purpose. He thought more carefully about his words to disguise the fact that there was really no treasure, only the Key. "A magical artifact is all I seek," he simply put.

"Really? An' whazzit do?" the grayskin eagerly posed. Zedd walked on, choosing to follow his familiar and ignore the little idiot. "Well, whaddabout that guy? What's he after?"

"The same as I," the wanderer was willing to answer. "At first, we had believed each other to be this very foe we fight together against now. 'Twas only after a long battle and draw that we soon realized the mistake we had both made."

"Ah, so ya both after the same thing? Same goal?" the imp implied. "Wanna use this magic doodad for the bette'ment o' all mankind?" Again, the scarred one stayed silent. "Ya at least know what Speary McStab ovah the'e is gonna do wit' it, right? I mean, how d'ya know he ain't gonna stab ya in the back an' take it all fer himself?"

Rare was it for the fiend's words to provoke thought, but that is just what these did. The wanderer took exceptional consideration in crafting his answer. "I have as much reason to place my faith in him as he, me. We both require this artifact; I guess we have no other choice than to accept whatever risks are involved." Zedd marched onward, leaving the crazy and the coney behind in bewilderment.

"Ya hear dat, Floppy?" it cackled with a wicked grin. "Risks just happen t'be my specialty."

A turbulent wind rocked the airborne fortress and the inhabitants within.

"Y'know, Zedd," Geirrek angrily started up, "when you said that whole 'dwelling in the clouds' thing, I didn't think you meant it literally."

"I'm... sorry?" the staff-bearer somewhat apologized. "In the future, I shall try to alert you when I am speaking figuratively or not."

"That's all we're askin'," butted in the dragon, sniffing its way down the prismatic hall. "Wait," Entropy halted, "something is coming this way." Arms were taken up as the distant sound grew and grew...

"Dai-Sho?" a confused Zedd blurted out as a roaring gale blasted past the group. His head shook between the two lengths of the corridor. "Did he say anything? Did any of you get his message?"

"I think he said... 'Later, chumps,'" told the summoner.

"Hey, that's my line," the recently protruded head of Raph called out in its usual baritone. Eyes fixed down the hall, it quickly disappeared once more, giving its trademark expression as it did. "Later, chumps!" The party turned back to the narrow way. A thunder of armored steps clashed toward them. Leading the mixed, monstrous army was a familiar face, though now hidden behind a metal mask. The once shining and polished medals were tarnished; the regal cape, tattered and blackened. Patches of skin exposed through missing areas of armor were charred and pulsing. The general raised his arm and serpent and lance together, promisingly pointing at the twisted oddity, who wildly cackled at the sight of the large man.

"Oh, I'm gonna make ya sorry that ya came back t'life...

"You blasted fool," roared the burnt man, rage overpowering his words, "it may be my orders to stop you all, but my loyalties can wait." He braced the double headed weapon with both hands as a pale, blue glow washed over the spikes. "I have a grudge to settle with you, personally. The Key be damned!" The maniac chuckled to himself riotously, still managing to bound over the charging general.

"The Key?" grimaced the freak, rolling out of the way of another blow. "So, that's what ya guys were seekin', eh? Well, why dinnae ya say?" Pulling out an explosive charge from his garment, he hurtled it, horribly missing the rampant soldier. The bomb ricocheted from the wall, landing among the cloaked and hooded men. The detonation began in their midst ye ended far off down the hallway with a gush of wind connecting the two points.

"Hey, watch your aim," shouted the spear man. "You almost killed us."

"I know where I was aimin'," snapped the lunatic as he volleyed another grenade. It skipped between the legs of the captain, sliding to a stop again among the madman's companions. A mighty thwack with the head of the oversized spear knocked it far enough down the corridor to spare their lives. The edge of the explosion was still enough to knock them from their feet.

"What ailment has befallen you?" questioned Zedd, nearly putting emotion into his words. "You act as though you are intent on our demise."

"Congratulations, scholar," mocked the gray skin, ducking under another strike of the serpent wrapped spike. "I just wonder what's takin' this oaf so long to figure it out." Blinded by fury, another thrust sank the radiant lance through the arm of fiend, severing it from the body. Unphased by the loss, the oddity grabbed with his other hand the arm of the man, twisting it behind his stern. Driving talons into the back of his legs, the imp restrained the general. "Would ya be so kind as to listen to me now. Mr. Hack 'n' Slash? I'm wit' ya." Struggling against his captor, he did not know if he wanted to end the audacious nuisance or hear him out.

"What buffoonery are you attempting now?" snarled the still berserk officer.

"M' shenanigans are ended, I fret," elaborately constructed the once-thought idiot. "I no longer hafta keep up m' ruse o' incompetence."

"Say what?" the Nidhogg spoke on behalf of everyone present.

"'Tis yer mission to keep that Key outta their hands, unless I am mistaken," told the freak. "That happens to be m' responsibility as well. Had someone been more direct with what was bein' sought through all o' this sooner, and yer pretty face coulda been spared."

"You," started Geirrik, "you are... evil?"

"Oh, by no means, m' lad," quipped the maniac, releasing his hold over his new companion. "I'm the only good guy here." He looked down to his hanging stub and the disembodied limb lying at his feet. There was no blood pooling around it or dripping from the wound but only clouds of dust. Aged bandages shot out from beneath his coat, grabbing the arm and pulling it back into place. The fingers flexed as their function returned, no longer hidden by the oversized sleeve.

"What... what are you?" requested Zedd, for once at a loss for words. The maniac flashed a demonic smile.

"Why, m' boy, I am an agent o' time."

"What?" protested the mystic boldly. "You are an immortal spirit?"

"No, no, knave. Stop placing false words 'pon m' tongue," politely corrected the madman. "I am far from immortal." He shrugged and added, "But nothin's been able to end me yet. M' age escapes the grasp o' yer lowly knowledge. I have seen kingdoms fall and eras end throughout m' travels and errand. Time itself has entrusted me with keepin' the Key outta the hands o' scoundrel's such as yerselves. I'm no one special, though. I'm just the one who happened to be in the area. This task is not taken lightly, though. The Key's potential is greater than anyone in this room's." With a snort, he tagged on, "That we can see, at least."

"All of this time," uttered the Summoner in disbelief, "you were leading us on to meet your own goals? You were using us?"

"'Twas nothin' personal, ya see," apologized the fiend. "I didn't know if ya were the ones lookin' to acquire or prevent the acquisition. I didn't even know if ya were lookin' fer the thin'."

"Who," finally questioned Zedd, "are you? What charge do we give to our betrayer?"

"Boy, if I ever had a name, the ebb o' time has drowned more than one in its passin'

"Why not affix you with the title, 'Grackle'?" the wanderer suggested with cool resolve.

"A gray fool, eh?" laughed the newly dubbed foe. "That's bold speech from someone who only has a few moments left in one piece." Procuring a deadly unit from his stash, it ruptured midflight into several smaller piece, scattering charges about

There was seemingly no escape for the wanderer now. There was no chance to outrun the bombs; countless alternatives raced through his head as the weapons descended. Mere seconds before impact, an explosive array detonated, filling the visible span of the corridor behind an invisible wall that saved the cloaked man.

"What sorcery is this?!" an astonished Zedd called out. His scarred eye shifted slightly to the side and onto his summoner companion, gauntlet held forth. "Ah yes. That spell did escape my mind."

"How about you start mindin' a way for us to escape?" returned Geirrek, his eyes burning with hatred. "That little flippin' freak just put us at too great a disadvantage." With a heavy huff, he used his free hand to rummage through his pouch. "I didn't plan on having to kill him so soon."

"You knew of this fool's evil?"

"Uh, sure," the apothecary dismissed Zedd, quickly using a newly produced vial to take away the attentions. "I knew we couldn't trust that barfly, so I made a contingency plan. The fumes from this," he explained, waving the glass tube around before cracking it against the floor, "will react with an explosive material I planted on-"

A sudden boom floored the staff-bearer, knocking him into the protective barrier, and almost broke Geirrek's concentration, the only thing allowing the group to survive the onslaught.

"Fiend!" coughed Zedd, fanning away smoke from the explosion and burnt clothing. "It appears as though that Grackle undermined your plan and made your trap his own."

"Yeah, that or I used the wrong vial," the spearman muttered increasingly softer and faster, turning his attentions to producing what he believed to be the correct potion intended for the traitor. Again, he smashed the container and waited for the vapors to find the fiend, but instead, he saw similar effects as to before. After staring blankly at his only remaining ally for a bit, he blandly stated, "Well whaddaya know, he did put that stuff on you after all."

The barrier was failing. The bombing had ceased, but now a monstrous melee took place on the opposite side of the wall. Many-headed serpents unleashed countless attacks against the enchanted defense. Noxious poisons from their gaping and biting mouths crept inside their undeservingly called safe haven.

"Our time is short; our departure must be imminent!" Zedd stated without any real purpose. "On my signal, lower your shield."

"What?" an outraged Geirrek protested. "But we'll die!"

"As we shall if we do nothing," retorted the wanderer. "Now, dismiss your barrier... now!"

The cloaked one leapt forward, holding faith that the wall would no longer be there when he was. Seizing upon the confusion caused by the dropped defense, Zedd dodged between the striking serpents, tangling them among each other and their own bodily brethren. He unsheathed his blades from their unseen scabbards and made two strokes against the ground, cutting cleanly through the shimmering substance. As quickly as he had come, the cloaked swordsman tumbled back, avoiding the snapping snouts by his memory alone.

Zedd rejoined his comrades at last, who were kept more than busy with a resilient Idrus. No longer confined to just using its claws for its ally's safety, the Nidhogg spewed a boiling breath among the bestial ranks. The mysterious one motioned for his weasel to strike, taking out the legs of the largest foe. It came crashing to the floor and through the floor, weakened throroughly by the prior bombing. Geirrek attempted to free his warspear from the grip of a plummeting Hydra, which latched on tightly with both living and slowly dying, severed heads, nearly causing the Norseman the same fate as the monstrous band. Dai-Sho loosed the remaining heads on its return, allowing the group to make a hasty retreat without being followed.

The lanky fiend sank its vile talons into the wall, ready to climb its way after them, but a firm grip took ahold of its shoulder, aggressively tearing the thing back.

"Let them go," grudgingly grunted the general. "There is someone who wants to meet you now..."

"What the Hel was that?" an infuriated Geirrek bewailed, punching the empty corridor walls with his brazen fist. "We got turned on and routed by that little punk?"

"The Grackle had hidden its true nature and power from us well," narrated the wanderer while tearing off the singed bits of his cloak. "It seems that there are more who wish to keep the Key from us than once thought."

"At least that's one good thing we got from all of this," Geirrek growled, enticing a curious glance from Zedd. "We now know these guys aren't competition for the Key of Ages; they just don't want us to get it." A faint smile crept up on the blood splattered face of the terrible one. "And they can't keep us from something they don't know the location to."

"But their efforts seem so great for an effect unnoticed."

"Oh, I know exactly why they are doing this," understood the apothecary, refitting his recently shifted gauntlet. "The general made it obvious enough."

"An immortal, eh?" blurted Grackle as the burnt man led him down the dark, familiar way. "Or close 'nough to it. 'Tis no wonder ya strive s' hard to keep the Key 'way from 'em." The general simply nodded his head in agreement, keeping silent and his anger against the lunatic repressed. "Wit' it, they could unlock the eternal Blade of Ages, which'd make ya a lot more mortal," the crazed one added with a wicked, fanged grin.

The serpent-bearer stopped at the arcane archway. The sickly fiend lurched about, daring so much as to stick his wretched, pointed head within the dark threshold. His beady eyes scanned the shadows for any sign of this leader he was to meet. The imp scuttled back upon the sudden appearance of those hollow eyes and stretched skin. From his prone position, his beak clamped fast between his talons to avoid the rank odor of death, the greyskin hissed, "Whate'er are ya s'posed to be?"

"A lich," informed the Nidhogg, a specialist in corpses, while curling up its lip. "I could smell 'em on that mask-wearing crony. All the burnt flesh in Midgard couldn't cover that stench."

"'Tis two perpetual fires the Key threatens to extinguish," related the calm Zedd, resting against one of the walls while keeping watch on his side of the hallway. "More of their breed may also assist them."

"Wouldn't be so much of a problem if there were an easier way to stop them than already having the Blade of Ages," the cursed one droned. "The easiest way to get the Key is to already have it."

"Perhaps I could help?"

"Shut up," Geirrek hastily snapped, rubbing his sore temples with his extended digits. Zedd turned from his vigil, brow raised, unsure as to whom the spearman's statement was directed.

"Er, sorry," Entropy stammered as soon as it realized what had happened. Before the wyrm could bring up something else to take the focus away from that bit of awkwardness, the wanderer wondered.

"It is not the Blade you seek, is it?" asked the mystic swordsman. Geirrek shifted his blue gaze from behind his hand. "The Grackle is right in that the Blade of Ages is far too powerful a weapon for any living thing to wield. It exists throughout all times, as do its blows."

"The wounds its causes never heal, it can level mountains, and end eras of man," Geirrek peevishly finished, scowling at his partner slightly. "Yes, I have done my research on the Key, too. I know all this."

"Our quest for the Key alone had combined our efforts, but which of the artifacts you wish to unlock remains something of a mystery to me." Zedd dragged his steely eyes toward the Nidhogg and continued. "If I find your intentions with the Key to be malicious, I shall not hesitate to strike both you down."

"Wouldn't have it any other way," the summoner smirked. "So what exactly do you need the Key of Ages for?"

Pausing briefly on these words, the scarred one instead changed the subject abruptly. "With Grackle on their side, our advantage has become theirs. Sheer force will no longer suffice; we must be more clever, more calculated in our maneuvers. 'Tis two of us versus three of them, not to mention their army."

"It isss two of them versssusss the four of usss," hissed the lich, "including my loyal army."

"F'rgive any ill, ya bag o' bones, but haven't'cha heard?" Grackle started, hiding all but a glimpse of visible pleasure for breaking the news. "Yer li'l henchdwarf met a fate most unfortunate."

"Aye, 'tisss sssad that he died ssso young," the undead lisped. "But in death, there isss new life! Behold!" he commanded, motioning a gnarled, bony claw to an area now receiving a dim, magical light. "My ancient zombie!"

Jet black eyes now swirled with a milky dew of disease and death, rolling about the dark room in utter confusion. The toothy orifice, now incomplete and lolling uncontrollably open, spilling a putrid, green liquid from deep within the former dwarf. Most of the beard was still stuck to the even paler, peeling skin of this abomination.

"With thisss army of mine, they shall never live to sssee the Key!" triumphantly declared the skeletal sorcerer. "There isss nothing they can do in my abode..."

"Master!" a distant voice proclaimed, accompanied by hurried footsteps. "Master!" the soldier repeated. "The intruders, they are up to something!"

A gruesome grimace poured down the lich's face. "You two," he ordered, pointing decrepit digits at Grackle and his general, "get a troop and ssstop them at onccce! And put your petty feud assside." The masked man tightened the grip on his lance, deforming the metal around his fingers.

"C'mon, pretty boy," reassured the cruel fiend, "y'know I only made thin's better fer ya." He bounded off into the light, soon to be followed by the burning lieutenant

Back in the corridor, the spearman and the wanderer had agreed on one course of action, and were currently moving with all possible speed in the direction indicated by Geirrek’s careful divination and Dai-sho’s slightly bolder scouting.

“So how d’you two know the Key ain’t in this castle?” Entropy questioned.

“Well, firstly, the lich is not so stupid as to keep this greatest of treasures in the same place he and his garrison are in. One would be able to steal it and destroy his essence in one fell swoop. That assumes that actually has it, which is doubtful. If he did have it, there would be no need for the lieutenants, or even the army…” The scarred one began.

“Secondly, an artefact of the Key’s power would disrupt the spells holdin’ this castle up. They’re pretty delicate.” The apothecary finished.

“And they’re what we’re gonna try t’disrupt. What I don’t get is how we’re gonna get offa this castle ‘fore it hits th’ ground,” The weasel stated. “The poor dudges bein’ used as power‘re a fair way inta th’ middle’ve th’ castle”.

“Yes, but the glass below is not overly thick. If we hit it with enough power, it will break and Entropy can fly us away. However, I do believe the lich has more in here than just what we have seen.” Zedd stated.

“So we’re all off ta get th’ map first. Whoop de do.” His familiar stated.

As the party of Key-searchers ran down various corridors and passageways, the general and his double-headed snake hurried to keep up with Grackle’s fast pace.

“Those two aren’t fools”, the grey one stated, “They’ll ha’ some sort o’ plan, prolly t’do wit’ the map or the ones keepin’ this castle up.”

“So if you take half our forces to the room with the power supplies in it, and I take the other to bolster the map room, we should be safe.” The big man outlined, surprisingly trusting the crazed one’s speculation of the cloaked one and the spear-wielder, merely allowing himself what was probably a hateful glare, invisible beneath the metal of his mask.

“Soundin’ good, m’pretty boy” the fiend taunted as he danced away down a different corridor, motioning half the force to join him.

“Can someone explain to me why there’s a hundred-odd maps in here all apparently the one we’re after?” The Nidhogg asked.

“Y’ expected it t’ be easy?” The sickle weasel snickered.

As the wanderer and the apothecary stared at the room-full of maps, the spearman had a sudden thought.

“These maps are all the ones they’ve been sending out as fakes. They all looked the same, see?”

“Indeed I do. Since we have proved that place to be false, that means that if we can find a different map in here, it is probably the correct one…”At that moment, the scarred one’s acute senses picked up movement some way away. “...And if you two hold off the large patrol of guards heading this way, Dai-sho and I will find out which one it is.”

“Why should you two be the ones to do the searching… Oh.” Geirrek reluctantly finished as he saw the swordsman and his weasel begin to go through the papers at a speed that he and Entropy could only dream of.

“I s’pose they think almost as fast as they move, eh?” Entropy asked as he began to grow.

“Nothing like it, but they can move…” The spearman was cut short as a huge group of soldiers led by the huge lieutenant walked into the room, and the battle commenced. Splicing the first human through the middle with his spear, he went on to decapitate an unfortunate beast before being faced with a gargantuan ten-legged bear. The Kukuweaq tried to snuff the summoner out with a swipe from one of its many legs, barely missing before being destroyed by the dark breath of the drake. The battle raged on, the cursed man and his drake somehow managing to keep half an army from passing. Exhausted, ragged breathes escaped the Terrible One’s mouth as he fought to keep a gryphon from attacking the dragon from behind, when a sudden breeze cropped up and the lion-eagle fell, cut in multitudinous places. Reinvigorated by the kamaitachi’s sudden strike, the Nidhogg and his master redoubled their assault.

“Did you find it?” The summoner yelled over the roar of battle

“We think so. Zedd’s just double-checkin’.”

As the weasel said this, the summoner began to have doubts about the cloaked man’s allegiances. As he wondered about this, despatching yet another soldier, the lieutenant made his presence felt.

“You scum will never come anywhere near the Key! Your end lies here!” he roared, swinging his lance at the Geirrek’s head, easily blocked by the apothecary’s spear. The duel went on for sometime, the amphisbaena aiding its master to overpower the apothecary until the summoner saw his chance, swinging his spear at a weak point in the general’s guard. The polearm inflicted a large gash in the side of the big man, but, seemingly unfazed, he swung a lance strike back at the unsuspecting spearman’s head.

A loud clang sounded out as steel met steel, and the cloaked one came to his ally’s side, forcing the general back with a strike from his short sword.

“If you can create a flash of some sort, we can get out of here,” Zedd came close to the spear-bearer, his voice nought but the whisper of silk on steel, “I have put a hole in the adjoining wall.”

As the wanderer moved to aid the familiars in the defence of the cursed one, who wasted no time hurling a vial beyond the three defenders. The vial burst in an incandescent flash, allowing the quartet time to beat a hasty retreat.

As the stars cleared from his eyes, the big lieutenant looked around for his adversaries. Searching through the shelves of the room, he saw the hole in the shimmering, enchanted glass. His roar of anger could be heard all throughout the castle as he saw his enemies were long gone.

“Well, boys, I was waitin’ for ye ta’ come here.” The one known a Grackle said gleefully.

“Indeed?” the cloaked one stated, going into a battle stance, looking around the roomful of bodies in oddly glowing vats.

“This one’s ours, wanderer,” calmly stated Geirrek, “Between us, we've got far more brute power than you two.”

“Very true. No doubt you also know how to disable this soul-draining nightmare. We shall cover you. Come, Dai-sho.”

The cloaked man and his familiar began to cut into the platoon, immediately killing a soldier and aiding each other to completely decapitate a hydra. Unprepared for such a sudden assault, the army paid no attention to the efforts of the summoner and his drake, until the grey fiend yelled:

”Ignore ‘em, y’fools! Can’t ye see that they’re merely a diversion!?”

The battalion of troops, as one, saw the threat of the arcane one and his familiar, and began to move towards them.

“Well, our primary ruse has failed. I see no other alternative. Come, Dai-sho, for this be the dance of death!” the mystic cried.

With this, the kamaitachi joined with his master in a whirlwind of destruction, both ignoring fatigue as best they could, as they formed a deadly parody of a ballroom dance. As the freak saw that they were, somehow, holding back his whole army, he began hurling bombs towards them. Zedd, seeing this, had an idea on the spur of the moment, and hastily deflected the explosive into the midst of the horde. As each bomb flew towards him, he somehow deflected them into the same place, causing a larger and larger hole to develop. As the hole grew larger, the maniac saw what was happening, and threw a bomb that would have destroyed both master and familiar had a gale-force wind not suddenly erupted inside to blow it away. The Terrible Summoner stood from his task, a look of grim satisfaction on his face. The vats had begun to glow less brightly, and the castle was losing altitude.

“C’mon. We’ve gotta get outta here!” Entropy yelled as the last bomb exploded where the others had, blowing a complete hole in the floor. As the great dragon flew towards the hole, wings outstretched, the platoon parted, and Zedd jumped on board, soon followed by his familiar. Barely escaping Grackle’s parting missiles, the drake flew through the massive hole, just clearing the castle as it began to drop like a stone.

As the castle fell, and the drake’s wide, swift wings carried the key-seekers away, the lich screamed a spell, his last resort. All the runes on the castle walls began to glow, and the castle’s descent slowed until it struck the ruins of its earthbound likeness with less force than a falling feather.

“We will have them yet!” The lich’s threat resounded through the surrounding land

"Back where we started," moped the spearman, passing through the tavern's entrance.

"I would not interpret our situation in that manner, summoner," enlightened the mystic who followed in behind. "We now have acquisition of the map we have sought for so long."

"He meant spatial, fop," snapped the dragon as it wedged into the doorway giving the barkeeper a wink as he cleaned up bullet busted furniture. The owner was about to protest their entry but silenced himself upon recognizing them.

"So, let's have a look at his map you found," blew Geirrek as he slumped into a wobbly chair missing its back. "Then I'll be able to tell how fake it is." The parchment was unraveled upon the table with its two ends pinned down by daggers. The terrible one laughed. "You're joking, right? You thought this was the map we're looking for? This isn't even a map of anything! I do not know what world is shaped like that, but those shore lines do not exist."

"The map's greatest protection is its own deceit," foretold Zedd. "The outward eye would easily dismiss such as a forgery where the truth is held within." The hooded man's mouth was opened but refrained from moving. "The potion of revelation, please." Skeptical of his companion's intuition, the small vial was pulled out carefully, all the while delivering a harsh stare.

"Just... one drop," the drake's keeper requested. "I want there to be enough left to decrypt the true map."

"You believe things are far simpler than they ever will be," enigmatically stated the traveller as he let a single drop of the elixir fall onto the charting. As the liquid struck, it splattered into a small circle, fading away what image lied beneath it.

"Terrific, it ate the map. Now we know what else this liquid can be used for if we never find the real one." The scarred one ignored the comment, staying focused on the wet spot. Curious, Geirrek returned his gaze and was startled. Where the drawings had faded, there now were parts of letters, but nothing could be seen fully giving the selective location.

"The text on the map," the foreign explained, "is what we have been seeking. The map itself matters not." Spilling out the remainder of the bottle, the rivers and mountains were replaced with letters and words, a copious amount that covered the whole sheet.

"What is this? Instructions on where to find the Key?" questioned he with eyes of prophecy.

"Why do you never take heed of the lessons I pass on to you?" Shifting his eyes back downward, the cloaked one spoke regarding the text. "These are a series of riddles. Each one is written in a different tongue. Each one will bring us a step closer to the Key. These glyphs come from around the world. The Ancients did well to secure the Key from unworthy hands. To our fortune, I have trekked far beneath this sky and recognize many of these arcane symbols." A hand passed over the lines with his words.

"Well, this one uses the runes from my North," boasted the man from beneath his hood. "That only leaves one verse..."

A wind blew outside the tavern. In it, Zedd felt a disruptive presence. His heightened senses cringed at the arrival, yet he hid it from his outward appearance.

"The winds carries a stranger," stated the swordsman, "one we have not met before." The spearman's curiosity was piqued, but, more so, was his caution as his hand gripped his polearm. Even the less acute summoner could hear it now, wings soaring through the air. A harsh plummet sounded from the pub's front. From the corners of their eyes, the pair warily watched the door. Clanks of metal approached the door, which slowly opened before an outstretched hand, wrapped with a band of white silk. The individual entered in a fashion to not draw attention, but, seeing as the bar was abandoned, the tactic failed. Barely passing through the doors behind the lightly armored knight strode in a gryphon sporting a saddle and stirrups. The majestic beast pieced the tavern's keeper with its regal stare, stopping him from kindly asking them to leave while repairs were underway. From the thin slit on the visor, the soldier studied the grouping at the table. Upon the Nidhogg raising himself onto the top, there was an exclamation.

"So it is you, the ones from the castle." With a heavy hammer in hand, they were approached by the rider and hybrid but tried not to notice, keeping on guard. Without even the summoner noticing, the map had been removed from the table by Zedd. "I saw your drake carry you from that falling castle in the sky."

"... And?" apathetically answered its master. The silver helmet was removed.

"I know why you were there. You were after what I, too, am seeking," she told. "I have been tracking this thing for months, and, upon finding the location, I set out immediately. You can imagine my surprise to find it had already been destroyed." Her audience was taciturn. The valiant diva continued, despite their lack of interest. "Were you able to get what was needed from the lich?" They reacted slightly to these words. Until now, she could have been an eagle-eyed bystander or swindler, but this was a display of actual knowledge. "From the sources I have, it was determined that the fiend housed the 'map' in his fortress."

"Excuse me," spoke up the scarred one, "but who may you be?"

"I am Galatea, of the White Order, charged with discovering the..." her bold declaration faltered as she hushed her tone. "... the... Key of Ages. I am most certain you seek this as well?"

"Little girl," addressed the solemn man, "I do not think-"

"-we could proceed without you," cut in the spearman. "What would be the odds that we would encounter another questing for the Key. It is like when you and eye met, except we only expected foul play from each other." He glanced over to his companion with a certain intent in his eyes. "Come, let us welcome our new ally in the fight for good." Facing back to the heroine, Zedd lined his eyes to hers. As his mouth opened to speak, words did not leave it but a green mist. The viscous substance stained and stuck to her face. Without a moments notice, the apothecary sprung forward, driving his spear handle into her gut. Her loyal pet attempted to aid her, but as it leaped into the air, the very matter lifted it up in a spinning column. As the invisible vermin pinned the lord of the sky to the ceiling, a burning blast from the jaws of death sent it through the roof. Delivering one final blow to the back of the woman's head, the two pairs fled the bar.

"Were we honestly suspected to fall for such a ploy?" asked Geirrek. "We already had the wool over our eyes once by someone 'helping' us. I'm surprised they tried to fill in the role of saboteur so quickly."

"The meeting was highly suspect," agreed the cloak wearer. "We must make certain to avoid all others from now on. Each of them is a possible threat to our task."

"Are you alright?" a deep voice questioned between applications of wet cloths. "You got pretty bruised up, but there's little bleeding." The warrior woman pushed aside the barkeep and staggered to her feet. "Hey, now, take it easy," he insisted. "You may be from the White Order, but you're still human. You need rest. I have some rooms upstairs. Feel free to make use of one."

"I appreciate the offer," she thanked. "At least someone acknowledges the efforts of my guild." She stared harshly out the door, fury burning inside. "I'll admit I had them read wrong. Here, I thought they were like me, but, it seems they were with the enemy. I won't make this mistake again. Upon our next meeting, they will be vanquished...

Geirrek and Zedd had sought refuge in a forest just outside of town. They could travel no further until nightfall. If the supposed spy sent after them had a gryphon, then the group could be seen from any distance flying in the clear sky, but in the thick of the woods or of the night, they would be safe. Walking would be a waste of their more than spent energy, so the band readily accept the rest this situation offered. The time could wisely be spent deciphering the map or discerning much-needed answers to the riddles, but instead, the summoner sat removed from the scarred one, plotting more pressing concerns to him.

"We have to ditch him," coldly stated the Terrible One. "We have the map; we can do the rest on our own."

"He has the map right now," growled the drake, rolling a bulbous eye toward the wanderer, sufficiently far enough that even he could not overhear their conversation. "'Sides, we are gettin' low on numbers, and the bad guys just keep gettin' stronger and stronger."

"He could be one of the bad guys," Geirrek attacked his pet. "We don't know his motives. We could be doing the world a favor by getting rid of him." His cursed gaze shifted inconspicuously to the two a distance away. "There is no reason to trust him."

"There is no reason to trust you, either," rationalized the wyrm.

"I trust me," retorted the spearman. The dark dragon gave a solid stare to the summoner. "Well, most the time."

"Yer just afraid he's gonna find out, aren'tcha?" argued the Nidhogg as it took back its evil eye.

"We don't know anything about him," quickly countered the cursed one. "The more we fight, the more of those strange powers he shows off. It ain't natural. He's into some pretty arcane stuff."

"Said the Terrible Summoner with a pet Nidhogg," mockingly responded Ragnarök's drake, raising a scaly brow to further demonstrate the absurdity of his keeper's statement.

"He wants the Key!" Geirrek returned, unintentionally raising his voice above the hush they had been keeping. After realizing this, he stooped back down to his pet's level, whispering again, "And he is being all too hush-hush as to why. Do you have any idea what he could do with the weakest of the artifacts the Key can unlock? Let alone of the Blade of Ages? It is one of the strongest spells known to exist. What reason could anyone have to want it other than destruction?"

"And what reasons do you have?"

"And," his apocalyptic ally started, "what reasons do you have?" The apothecary stopped dead when the heard the words repeated, rubbing his temple with his unarmored hand.

"What did I tell ya?"

"How bad isss the damage?" hissed the skeletal figure, safe within shadowy crypt.

"Our fuel room is entirely fragged," announced the lieutenant as he crept closer to the dismal threshold. "What equipment that lunatic didn't ruin, the crash did. We won't be airborne for quite some time."

"Never mind that!" the lich dustily wisped. "What about the cccellsss?"

"Minimal damage," reported the lancer, his grotesque visage contorted into confusion beneath his metal mask, "but they won't come back here now."

"Open them and sssuit them up," commanded the undead overlord, "and bring me any bodiesss ssstill in one pieccce. We shall need an army."

"But sir," interjected the burned one, "we are immobile, and there is no way to know just where they are." The darkness was filled with a deathly silence. The monster turned away, fuming in an enraged plot for both revenge and to save his own unlife.

The shrill crack of the sorcerer's voice broke in. "I do believe there isss a portal no longer in ussse. I would like to find one." A wicked smile grew over his grey, parched lips. "The Grackle can bring it to me."

"It is no where to be found," revealed the charred warrior. "I wish that freak to be dead, but I doubt it could be stopped so easily."

"Then where isss it?" yelled the lich, filling the glass halls with is demonic scream.

"It was so fortunate to meet you at that tavern," Galatea thanked her new traveling companion, striding aside her mount to rest its wings. "The White Order's forces are stretched at the moment. Otherwise, I could never risk the life of a commoner. Well, you are not exactly 'common,'" she corrected, giving a sideways glance through her long white locks. "No one with a familiar is, especially one so... different," the white knight finally found the right words. Her eyes went off the unusual creature of which species she refused to admit she did not know and onto the youth besides it, unarmored and unarmed save for a simple ax, more of a tool than a weapon. "Is your father okay with you coming along?"

"Huh? Oh, sure," lied the young man, scratching his plain brown hair. It was not what his father said which he lied about but rather who he maintained his father was. "Those goons left the inn in such bad shape, y'know? He'd be glad if I, y'know... got some money from 'em or somethin'."

"'Tis more than taverns you must worry about," gallantly warned the guild member. "These two threaten the safety of every man, woman, and child in the world!"

"Oh, wow," stuttered the surprised ax man with wide, dull eyes, wringing his hands along his flaxen tunic. "That's, like... bad an' stuff."

"'Stuff' indeed," the peeved paladin let out, pestered slightly by her choice in this comrade. However, his simple origins made it extremely unlikely that he could have any ulterior motive, a prized attribute in this particular quest.

"Well, fr'm what I heard in town," started the clueless man, attempted to show otherwise, "yer all after the Blade of Ages, right? Even us folk've heard of it. Some sorta magic sword, right?"

"A spell, actually," Galatea clarified, feeling that some explanation was due to the one risking his life for her cause. "It is one of the Four, the most destructive spells known to mortal and immortal alike. One exists for Light and Dark, Time and Fate, and each is powerful in its own way. The Blade exists throughout all of time, thus allowing it to slay those who live outside of it: immortals and the like. The White Order has charged me with retrieving it."

"Well, this one seems like a lotta trouble? Couldn'tcha just go after one of the other spells?"

She let out a deep sigh. "Unfortunately, no. The Whisper is an immensely powerful cleansing spell, but difficult to control. To even know the spell could mean death. If it could be found, there is little chance we would survive the experience. Wyrd Venom, aside from erasing the past and future of its target, also rewrites all hints as to how it was found.

"The Blade of Ages, however, must be earned. Only those worthy to wield it may find it, and the Order is certain that it is needed now more than ever before. So you see, I must find it."

"Wait, that was only three," realized the dullard, scratching his mess of hair and looking at three raised fingers with his free hand. "Shouldn't there be a fourth one?"

"The spell of darkness," she muttered in a low voice. "The Order would never stoop to using any of the black arts, let alone the blackest. Even the vilest of magicians would never use that one."

"Why? What's it do?"

"It has never been used," Galatea was quick to inform, "but it is assumed that it undoes creation."

"Oh," the shocked youth exclaimed in a fashion that still oozed of apathy. "I guess you wouldn't wanna do that, huh?"

"No, undoing creation is a bad thing," the valorous vixen enlightened. She then tossed her head side to side, looking for something or someone. "Did you get all of that?"

"I heahd ya!" snapped a gritty voice from the rear, followed by several curses beneath its breath.

"Are we boring you?" defiantly posed the silver maiden, pausing her procession for a moment.

"Nay, nay. I jus'... I jus' wanna git those two," explained Grackle. "We cannae let 'em git to da Key first.

"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.

"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..

"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!"

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."

That’s... 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

"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?

Zedd, from his position, sprawled and broken as the ground he lay on, suddenly broke into a rare and grotesque grin.

"What devilry is this?” the white lady cried, seeing the enemy she had so easily defeated suddenly disappear from the ground.

"Merely a diversion. Simple, but adequate." The scarred man stated as he brought his blades to bear on the woman, who had to quite ignobly drop her sacred horn in order to raise her hammer with enough speed to check his first blow. "Ah, but how do you know this is not also one such?"

As the wanderer and the lady faced each other again, the spearman and Time’s agent began yet another bout, each fighting the other as best they could. The familiars fought each other, the drake and the weasel striking out against the rabbit and the gryphon.

“Come… Back… Here!” the dragon roared, trying to catch his much faster adversaries, reasoning that if they obeyed him, he could crush them where they stood. The weasel had more luck in attacking the pair, but was also under constant assault.

"Damn… horn…" the greyskin complained, blocking with the Strong Toad before striking back with one of his lanky arms. The spearman fought in silence to all around him, save for the occasional smart remark which he could not resist. He saw an opening and thrust into it with his spear, but Grackle moved with more speed than the hooded one could predict, jumping around the spear’s head and sticking a bomb to the apothecary’s chest.

"Gaah!" the potion-maker ripped the explosive off with his gauntleted hand, hurling it at the lady with some force. The scarred man slipped out of her view just as she deflected it towards where he once stood. It flew past and exploded on a pile of jagged stones, sending shards of granite flying. Just as the mad one was about to attack Geirrek’s low guard, Zedd tapped him on the shoulder. Wordlessly, the two began to fight once again.

Examining his chest, the spearman decided he didn’t want to know quite what the bomb had been stuck with, and charged the hammer-wielder instead. With a clash of steel and magical energies, battle was joined once again.

"Excellent!" the lich hissed from his still-fallen fortress. "They fight amongst themselves!"

He turned, his face, though still frozen in the grin of death, seemingly jubilant, to the four who stood against the wall. One was the masked man. The other three were the mercenaries spoken of by the bony sorcerer. They were all ancient dwarves

"Repairsss on the portal," inquired the living dead, "where do they ssstand?"

"It's not yet at optimal capacity," informed an underling who cringed at the disapproving glare given by his master. "However," nervously added the servant, "it could still function. A few might be able to make it through if the gateway is not strained. Sending them one at a time-"

"Do I appear concccerned with your babble?" hissed the lich. "Do not wassste what little time I have left. Make it happen." Turning to his svartalf legion, he waved them to follow. Devilishly, the grim lord reminded them as they exited, "And do not forget to bring your toy..."

Amidst the turmoil of the battle where the four combatants and their pets struggled against one another, as the youth was not partaking, swapping between adversaries as the confusion grew, a great wind built itself up. Zedd was the only one to be alarmed at its appearance as only he could tell that it was not generated by his weasel.

"This does not augur well," the mystic spoke to himself as he blindly braced his staff against the swung horn of the yellow hare, which the bandaged freak had begun wielding as a sword. All of their shadows shifted and stretched, crossing in the center of the battlefield, as a surge of black lightning fired from the earth. The still damaged portal crackled and pulsed as the best effort was made to keep it stable. When the flash vanished, in its place stood a sight the scarred and the cursed did not want to see again nor think they would ever. The gnarled dwarf that they had killed before stood among the warring masses, wielding new displays of his handiwork all over.

"Ya see, Galy? Dem gettin' mo' zombies on yer ass," loudly lied Grackle as he positioned his rabbit atop his toad. "'Tis just one, but 'tis a super zombie, or somethin' like dat," he strung onto the deceit while he further arranged his monster cannon. "Ya can tell from 't bein' all... extra... ugly?" Not feeling any further explanation was needed to why the ancient dwarf was with their united foes, the gray fiend smacked Flop Hop on the hindquarters and sent his blasting contraption on the loose. Raph, hovering uneasily as it tried to balance the rabbit on its back, swerved and spun about as his passenger spat out explosives to be psychokinetically hurtled by the Strong Toad's powerful stare. While elaborate, the contraption had less damaging affects on the ones seeking the Key than the surroundings, which were riddled with poorly aimed craters. Grackle had lost what little of a mind it ever had.

The white maiden had focused little on the antics of the crazed being she was forced to work with. Her attention was captured by the resurrected dark elf. Its pre-existing vile nature would have deeply disturbed her, but the compounded horror of its brief stay in the world beyond cleared all other tasks from her mind. She had to smite the hellish fiend. Charging with her great hammer, a crushing blow was swung. The smith's arm rose in response as a golden arm ring glinted. In a flash, the one ring had become nine, all identical, spanning down the length of the rotting arm. The heavy head was deflected from the enchanted bands, and the wearer slid away, staring down his assailant. With a wretched shriek from its circular mouth, the spawn of Ymir flicked its banded arm to and fro, sending out a volley of golden streaks. The hurtled rings, while small, carried great force and sliced through Galatea's silver mail. Angered by the resistance of the unclean thing to accept its own demise, the lady of the Order charged as the gateway, once more, cracked open.

Cursed eyes fell upon the distant commotion as Geirrek fended off Weiss' assault, its talons braced against his spear. The apothecary watched as the newest arrival was much like the last, another svartalf, only it carried a mattock. Before the hooded man could catch a good look at the lich's latest soldier, it disappeared. It was not sent back through the portal it had just crossed, however. Before it vanished, it looked straight at the spear man with a malicious gaze. Then, the eye emblazoned upon its helmet closed, and it was gone. The summoner sadly knew that it had not left them.

"Zedd, look out," he warned his comrade while bending his neck left and right to dodge the Gryphon's beak. "That second one has an invisibility helm-" The foreigner spun around, catching seemingly nothing against his drawn swords before kicking away an unseen mass. "Well, I guess he knew." His relief was short lived as the portal energized a third time. "Oh, come on! How many of these are there gonna be?" A massive shape grew from the dimensional door, towering and jagged. Cragged rock made the skin of another familiar foe. The golem, once clay, had been rebuilt with stone. Less spectacular was only half of it being there.

"What isss the meaning of thisss?" roared the bone mage.

"The transfer was interrupted," explained the operator. "The portal was not ready yet. It collapsed. The golem was too large. It's stuck in the gateway. This was too much for-" The man began to choke as a spectral force lifted him into the air by his throat. "We... we can get it through," gasped the minion. "It will just take time." The man was dropped back onto the floor and took no time to catch his breath. He hastily began work on freeing the construct from the blocked, magical passage as the remaining two, the general and the last svartalf, waited patiently for their turn

The chaotic battle had grown even more so, with the additional unwelcome partakers. Zedd tried his best to strike at his invisible opponent, while his familiar fended off the yellow hare. Geirrek looked frantically for an opening while continually avoiding the Gryphon’s attacks and the greyskin’s occasional insane charge towards his position. The white warrior was locked in concentrated combat against her wicked svartalf adversary. Perhaps the one having the easiest time was the drake, who chose to attack the stuck golem, wanting to destroy it before its full girth made it through the crackling portal. The stone creation swung at its attacker, more of its body emerging a little at a time, but the Nidhogg had the advantage of distance with its breaths.

Galatea swung again and again with her hammer at the swift dwarf, her anger and frustration increasing with each miss. Without a warning, the vile thing swung at the maiden with its other arm, sporting a deceptively normal gauntlet. She raised her hammer to block the unexpected strike, but the gauntlet hit with such surprising force that the diva was knocked to the ground. The dark elf would have taken advantage of this opportunity, but it suddenly came under assault from the air. Weiss, brought away from its previous enemy by the danger its master was in, clawed furiously at the svartalf with its talons, buying time for Galatea to get back up into battle.

The summoner, slightly relieved that his number of immediate enemies was reduced from two to one, turned his focus to Grackle. The insane being continued unpredictably leaping towards Geirrek, who only needed to move about half of the time as the greyskin missed the other half due to its dwindling accuracy. Waiting for a chance to strike at the crazy thing with his spear, the cursed one’s concentration was suddenly diverted by a call from his ally. Turning to see Zedd strangely unoccupied with battle, the apothecary instantaneously realized the impending situation and called up his magical barrier just in time to deflect a blow coming from seemingly nowhere. With the surprise attack foiled, the spearman thrust out at his adversary while the wanderer quickly struck from the back. Both attempts met thin air, as apparently the invisible elf had slipped away. In place of where they thought the dwarf was, the duo instead found a previously unnoticed bomb that Grackle had thrown into the mix some time ago. Not having enough time to aim the explosive at other targets, Geirrek quickly slapped it away with his spearhead and it exploded into the distance. Free from immediate harm, the pair switched opponents. The mystic moved to slash away at the mutant freak while the sorcerer searched for a potion that could dispel the svartalf’s invisibility with one hand and blocked invisible attacks with the other. Meanwhile, the Kamaitachi and Miraj were still fighting, although now their figures were more of an orange-yellowish blur. The weasel was growing especially annoyed that the rabbit was hitting more often than missing, and its recent successful attempt in the form of a bite on its back only added to the frustration. Flop-Hop wouldn’t let go, and thus had to keep biting down on Dai-Sho for dear life as the sickle weasel sped around and around trying to shake the nuisance off.

All of a sudden, a loud rumble temporarily grabbed the attention of all the combatants. The portal glowed and crackled brightly, finally managing to complete the transfer and getting the whole golem through on to the battlefield. Although surprising to many, the two ancient dwarves were unfazed, and the battles quickly resumed. Meanwhile, the stone construct immediately made use of its new freedom of movement and lashed out at its attacker with a right hook, catching the drake completely by surprise in the head. Entropy tried to recover from the shock, but the golem was already bearing down on him with repeated swings, effectively turning the tables on the match-up.

In the wake of the massive foe’s appearance, Geirrek noticed that the portal continued to surge with energy, signaling yet another approaching enemy. Already dismayed by the entry of so many new and familiar opponents, the Terrible Summoner abandoned his plan to thwart his adversary’s invisibility advantage and instead threw a different potion at the portal’s opening in the hopes of disrupting it and stopping the odds from turning even more against their favor. The hooded man gave a look of sheer disgust as he saw the outcome of his maneuver. An outstretched hand from the portal held the apothecary’s projectile, as the form of the third ancient dwarf gradually manifested itself on the scene. It was similar in build and equipment to its two counterparts, except that on one hand it wielded a spiked mace that was glowing an eerie red. On its contorted face was a look of pure glee as it broke out into an evil laughter and held up the potion with its other hand. The spearman had underestimated the newcomer’s reflexes.

In a sudden movement, the vile being threw the potion back with the intent of unleashing its effects on its original owner. The svartalf’s laughter ceased immediately, however, as Geirrek, in a show of his own reflexes, caught the potion with his own free hand.

“Hey, thanks!” the terrible one taunted. The smirk on his face lasted mere moments before he moved to avoid the dwarf’s swing with its mace. The third being of its kind had more tricks than a simple attack, however. As it swung, the mace’s spikes glowed brighter, broke off from the head, and shot forward in the direction of the swing. Luckily for the spearman, he had sidestepped the entire attack, but to his dismay, the evil one’s weapon seemed to grow back the spikes it had shot out. Unfortunately, as much as Geirrek would have liked to focus on one enemy at a time, he soon found himself fighting unfavorable odds again as the second and third of the lich’s mercenaries joined forces against him.

Since he was the only one remaining to get to the battle, the general readied himself and stepped towards the portal when the undead mage stopped him.

“Thossse three will sssufficcce,” it hissed. “I have a ssspecial tasssk for you.”

“But…” the masked lieutenant began, his thoughts on the battle and especially on the lunatic.

“You will have your chanccce,” continued the lich. “Later. There isss sssomething elssse that requiresss attention now.”

The general stepped back, and the lich gave the signal for the portal operator to change its destination.

A good distance away from the battle, the youth watched behind what cover there was. Free from the chaotic battle and able to observe the whole picture, even he with his simple mind could see that something wasn’t right about the fight. His allies were fighting the evil beings and the duo believed to be united to them, but the pair was also battling against those same fiends. Seeing Galatea coming close to his position, the commoner made a feeble attempt to get her attention, with no success. Sighing, the young man glanced sideways to his nearby familiar, and then up to the crescent moon in the sky, wondering how much longer it would take for the fiasco to end

Deadly claws were intent on rending living flesh. The dark dragon swung its tearing talons at the pallid paladin and swatted away the small svartalfar. Galatea opposed this new villain, just as vile as the walking corpse in her eyes. Her heavy hammer thudded against the wyrm's back, still distracted by the visible dwarves. Entropy bared its fangs at the target of its newfound ire, entirely wishing it still had the strength to end this battle with its shadow magic, no matter how crude and dangerous a solution that would be. The hateful monster instead spewed a vaporous venom which the white one was quick to block, but to no avail. The poisonous, searing substance melted through her mail and began to burn and befoul her fair flesh. Her agony became apparent when her screams escaped her removed helm. She attempted to loose the rest of her armor to treat the wounds until the Terrible Summoner came to capitalize on her condition.

The common boy sat at the sidelines, uninterested in the battle, but a sudden and inexplicable blow to his familiar friend left him little choice. The youth struck in the direction of his pet, catching the unseen assailant with the axe everybody had forgotten about. Through dumb luck -- the only thing keeping this simple serf alive as long as he has been -- the embossed eye atop the now visible mercenary was cleft; a more lethal attack was readied, but the earthspawn sank into its element to escape the hefty chop. With the foe gone, at least for now, the peasant attended his downed pet. It was hardy, like the rest of its kind. It could take the punishment, but its keeper could not. The bland boy raised his dull eyes across the harsh, rocky battlefield to the sorcerer and knight, locked in combat, and then to the wanderer, engaged against a shared foe.

Grackle grasped his Strong Toad and aimed it wildly about the air, ordering psychokinetic blasts against the whirlwind weasel. The lunatic's barrage ceased once he witnessed the dullard making his way to the engaged mystic and mace wielder. The mad one, realizing what would happen, muttered some archaic curse as it bounded toward the swordsman, only to be caught in an updraft by Dai-Sho.

A fresh set of infinite spikes grew from the head of the magic mace. The drooling, oval orifice of the elder dwarf shrieked, signalling a barrage of bashes that Zedd always seemed to narrowly avoid. With a sidestep and swords drawn, the scarred man gave a finesse flick of his wrist and sheared the bludgeon's points. The cruel little monster looked down to its arm dejectedly, much to the sly amusement of the wanderer, only for their moods to exchange upon the discarding and regrowing the spiny rows atop its weapon.

"Why did you think that'd work huh huh huh?" the Kamaitachi was able to annoy its keeper, even amid its own fight. Despite these dual disappointments, Zedd remained focused on his foe. A devilish glow emanated from the malicious mallet's head, and an equally evil expression grew on the mercenary's hideous face. The traveler prepared one of his many tricks, but instead of the expected pointed volley, the twisted elf simply keeled over, sinking its entire body into the rocky ground save for the axe that now stuck from its back. The normally attentive mystic shifted his guard to its thrower, his blades trained on the neck rubbishy youth. His head would have already been loosed, but the boy stood without arms and made no motion against the swordsman. The serf's plain brown everything showed no fear or concern, even with the steel edges pressed upon his throat.

"We've got a problem," he informed calmly, causing the cloaked one to lower his weapons. Zedd analyzed the wars being waged on the field and returned his cold gaze to the youth.

"The walking dead and stone are the works of the lich; this I know," Zedd stated, fixing his threatening stare as he was not yet certain on the commoner's intent. "A general does not turn his army against itself, however. Treachery was already expected; there would be no reason for the departed legions to feign a false adversity against Galatea and yourself. Have we been two neighbors, quarreling amongst ourselves while an ill spirit is the true font of misfortune?"

"Um," stammered the simpleton, darting his eyes in such a way that eliminated any chance that Zedd would believe the boy understood a word of what he said, "we aren't with these short guys, and you don't seem to be, either, so maybe we could fight them, like, together and stuff?" The mystic only dignified the boy with a nod in response. "Really good then. Oh, and by the way, my name is," the dullard began and then realized the new ally had already vanished from his side.

"They are not agents of the lich," Zedd related to his companion when he was thrown back by the white knight. "I am afraid we have misjudged them."

"You might 'ave," Geirrek snapped, "but I didn't." The summoner lifted his unclad, bloodied arm and sent out a mighty gust, enough to give Galatea and himself some separation for the inevitable debate he would have with the wanderer. "It was pretty obvious when all the lich's forces went after 'em, too."

"You knew of their origins?" the mystic asked, raising a scarred brow. "Tell then why you found it a necessity to continue to fight them."

"Lich or no lich, they're still after the Key," the spearman told, giving a frustrated stare to the traveler. "And they still have Grackle on their side. That's just as bad." The diva was recovering and charging once again, prompting the wounded wizard to take up his polearm and brace for her arrival. She gave a full, overhead swing of her great maul, quickened by its unnoticed drop in weight; the cleanly hewn handle fell futilely on the rocky ground before her as the dangerous head plummeted behind. After making short work of her weapon, Zedd swung his steel to each of them, Geirrek and Galatea, training a point at each of their hearts.

"Maiden," the mystic address, giving no heed to his own ally he currently threatened, "I believe there has been a misunderstanding."

In a black, twisted corridor under some hellish layer beneath an island in the middle of no where, rigid, adorned spikes protruded from between wrought iron plates. They wove a maddening art about the entire warrior's body, interrupted only by the cold, black metal it surrounded. A heavy visor allowed little sight, but then there was little to see in so dark a place as this. Only the short-lived sparks of the whetstone against edge gave any glimmer into this lowest world.

"Demkore," address a metallic voice from the distance, prompting many of the readied arms strewn about the room to be taken up. The flat mask of the lich's lieutenant approached -- unseen and only sensed in the shadows. "I have been sent to recruit you."

"You must have a Death Wish, old man," rasped the black stranger with a sick glee, grinding his armaments together in anticipation. "I don't work for nobody. And I don't take kindly for askin'."

"I don't remember asking you," the general corrected, plunging his lance through a scouted chink in the warrior's full plate. Without hesitation, the masked man threw a crackling streak of lightning into his own weapon. As mighty as this Demkore's reputation was, he seemed wholly of no use to the lieutenant.

But then, he didn't need to be. A serrated blade was unsheathed, and the general approached the fresh, somewhat burnt corpse.

The man in the mask returned through the portal, bloody bounty in hand. He gave the operator orders to change the gateway's target once again. The mercenaries would be finished with their task soon...

"It's trick!" the Grackle heard the knight of the White Order exclaim. "Those two are our enemies!" she accused, aiming an armored finger at Geirrek and Zedd. A wicked grin crept over the lunatic's wretched face. The fiend cast off his toad to distract the dervish and ran to the maiden's side. The youth and the perceived enemies united against the golem, although the youth gave little to the effort.

"What's goin' on?" the greyskin pretended. "Dose guys tryin' to tell ya that they're not pure evil? They lyin'!" it protested. "I mean, lookit dat golem. It ain't really crushin' ol' blue. They're in cahoots, I tells ya! They're tryin' to trick ya! Just like I sed they would!"

"You never said that those two would pretend not to be evil in order to garner our trust," the valorous vixen corrected.

"Well, I most certainly implied it!"

"You also never told me that you wished for none to obtain the Key of Ages," Galatea went on, "including the White Order." Grackle began to spout from his endless source of deceit, but there was nothing the freak could rebut now. Weiss swooped in, clutching the gaunt thing by the wrists and carrying it high into the sky.

"Think it'll survive the fall?" Entropy wondered aloud between bursts of molten venom.

"If the Grackle manages to," gallant Galatea proclaimed, "it shall never return here by the time the Key reveals itself."

"So then," started up the sorcerer as he approached the pale warrior, "we do this together?" In a rare display, the cursed conjurer extended his hand to Galatea. The knight began to bring her hand to his but quickly recoiled, even taking a step away from the apothecary. She folded her iron mitts and cast away her shining gaze, only nodding to confirm their truce.

It was enough for the terrible one. He took up his warspear and leapt upon one of the smaller, more manageable opponents. With her hands clasped together, the silver soldier whispered an incantation, drawing a seal around the giant automaton. In defense of its brother's work, the miner scurried up on the golem's leg and sought to fuse itself inside of its chest. Geirrek warned the newfound allies that the ancient dwarf must not be allowed entrance within the stony construction.

"You have done battle with this rock man once before?" questioned the holy avenger, taking little other actions while concentrating to maintain the enchanted hold.

"Sorta," simply responded Entropy after stomping one of the svartalfar into the ground, quite literally. "It was only clay before. This 'uns a little tougher."

"However did you defeat it?" the curious crusader continued before busying herself with the re-emerging earthkin from below.

"Dropped it through a castle," the drake all too casually explained. It then attempted to nip at the constantly hiding ancients before continuing, "and then caused an earthquake." Entropy stopped to take another bite but came up only with dirt. "Inside of it," it spit out along with some wasted rubble.

"And this one is stronger?" Galatea screamed, unable to continue her spell against the statue's strength.

The zombie dug its way up from the bowels of the earth, ducking its head back in whenever the unseen sickle of the Kamaitachi attempted to remove it. The abomination dove from out the ground and into the golem's chest with reflexes quicker than all the combatants, even despite its decomposed state. Less her hammer, the white knight was left with little means of offense. She unlatched a gilded crux from her suit, however, and firmly held it forward. The Terrible Summoner, who was busy battling the other dark elves with Zedd, saw the paladin prepare the spell from the corner of his cursed eyes. A final, haphazard stab was made at the mace wielder before retreating to stop her, but all in vain. A brilliant light erupted from the symbol, directed at the construct's center. The corpse was blasted from the stony security of the golem, preventing any possible control, but it also had an adverse effect on her new ally, too. Geirrek felt the powers of the holy magic. He had collapsed, giving out an anguished yell despite being no where near the beam. Faint plumes of smoke trailed from behind the apothecary's hands, held fast against his face. The white knight could see the sorcerer prone but not what had caused him to be such.

A clawed grasp broke up through the ground and onto the apothecary. His gauntlet took hold back and ripped the dwarf from the wasted earth, bringing its beady black eyes before his blue burning stare. It swung its pick from beneath the rocky cover, catching the conjurer in the arm. A trickle of blood traced down the blade and stained his tunic, but the spearman only tightened his brazen grip and contorted his hateful gaze. The creature snapped its toothy maw at the summoner's jugular, missing only as the dragon keeper rolled away. The mystic waited above with twin blades drawn and descending, biting only the freed mattock. With a twirling parry of its tool, the stealthy svartalf drew away the wanderer's edges and returned to its feet. Letting out a chaotic shriek, the dwarven ancestor raised high its arm, illuminating previously hidden runes inscribed along its haft and head. All foes gave way, but the mercenary did not even attempt to reach them as it plunged the pickaxe straight into the ground. The land exploded, giving rise to a fissure that unbalanced even the blacksmith's sturdy toy. The faltered base had no adverse effect on the wind weasel, however, and Dai-Sho picked multiple strikes against the black elf's spindly arms. One final precision blow loosed the adze from its wretched grip and before the summoner. Ere it could slither to the sorcerer, the magic mattock was already in hand, still red and wet. Geirrek's expression, still a mask of burning hatred, pierced through the miner. The apothecary lifted the artifact, threatening not a blow but to turn its power against its owner.

The dark elf gave a crude, mocking grin as best it could with its deformed maw. "Fool," the behelmed dwarf half-gurgled, half-hissed in a nearly unintelligible manner, "you shall never know my powers." But the terrible one had seen enough. The dead tongue rolled from out his lips. The archaic glyphs burned a horrible hue in harmony with the caster's eyes. As quick and agile as the creep was, it was simply too far away to reach Geirrek before the pick reached the ground. The already devastated world tore open, crumbling beneath the dwarf and the spearman's allies as well. Rocks and boulders were thrown up from below, through which the swarthy sprite passed no more difficultly than rough waves on the sea. The svartalf swam slowly through the barrage, twisting its inhuman face as it approached. The apothecary abandoned his attack on the earthspawn and flung the pickaxe at his true target. The heavy head spiraled through the air, still glowing with all its enchantment, finally finding rest in the golem's side. Bouncing up to the sorcerer's back, the rotten progeny set its claws within the human's hood and raked his throat. It knew full well that the earthwork machine would be lost, but then again, it was not their mission to stop the group from attaining the Key. It was only the Blade of Ages they were charged with preventing, and they still had orders to carry out.

The implanted mattock began to shake more and more as more skin was scraped from the Terrible Summoner. Galatea shed a banishing light on the wicked spirit, flooring both ancient and apothecary alike. The three dwarves retreated to their earthen abode when they detected that the golem's end was nigh. Enormous segments of the walking statue were broken off; it even lost a limb before violently exploding, impacting a dent in the very ground on which it stood. A protective boon cast by the pallid paladin had spared Galatea and her allies from rocky shards. When all were safe, she ran to the side of the sorcerer and flipped his unconscious body. The white knight gently placed an unclad hand to his crimson neck and concentrated, focusing her curative magics. The spearman stirred, not just from a return to health, but in throes of pain. His beaming blue eyes opened, scaring away the silver solder. Geirrek, rubbing his sore neck, dragged himself back to his feet while taking in the empty battlefield with his glowing gaze.

"They are all gone," the virtuous vixen update. "It looks like we won." She beamed a cautious smile; the emotion was there, but she was afraid to show it. "And all we had to do was unite our strengths in the fight for good."

Geirrek continued to look about, expecting some sort of opponent to appear before the Key of Ages at long last appeared. "Yeah, I guess we did do it," he admitted. "Ya see," the apothecary turned to his old partner and stated, "I toldja the only thing we needed was some more team members. That fixed all of the problems." He looked back to the valorous one and extended his friendship once more, met again only with the lady of the Order's slight cringe. Geirrek dropped his hand, giving an unusual half-hearted smile -- not the haughty, sardonic smirk to which Zedd and Entropy had grown accustomed, but one devoid of any joy, put on for show as a sign of acceptance.

"I understand," the cursed summoner assured the slightly frightened knight. Geirrek lifted his arm and summoned a sphere of frost. From it, a lance of cold flew forth and through the unsuspecting paladin. The icy spear drove the diva backwards and pinned her to the ground. The iron maiden had been pierced cleanly through her armored chest, which did little to halt the icicle missile. The others stood in utter awe, including Entropy. So swiftly had events transpired that the Terrible Summoner was still frozen in his attack pose, the frost not even melted from his fingertips.

Grubby hands from the ground greedily grabbed her corpse and carried away. A deadly grasp secured the golem's heart, still in one piece. The commoner chased after them, completely ignoring the conjurer, but a gateway made for their all too hasty retreat. The peasant had no choice but to join the others in their bewilderment.

Zedd put his scarred sight against the murderer. "That," he began to rationalize, "is not Geirrek."

"No," the drake denied, as his familiar knew a truth far more disturbing. "That is Geirrek." The wyrm lumbered its way to its master and reluctantly turned to the others, flashing an emotionless grimace. The apothecary raised his armored mitt to the Nidhogg's head and rested it there

Off some ways, majestic wings soared through the sky, carrying a cargo less spectacular.

"Ya damn mongrel," shouted the bandaged freak. "Get yer filthy, cross-bred claws off me before I rip yer species apart by hand!" His idle threat was responded with a puff. The sound was similar to opening an old, empty box with a gust of fresh air entering its dusty interior, lifting out a cloud of particles. "Dat couldn't be good," noted the maniac as he felt himself released from Weiss' hold. The beast had not loosened its grip but merely ceased to be. "Crap, dey killed her dead," realized the gray one as he sank through the air like a less graceful rock. Crashing into a cliff side, his face tumbled against boulders and jagged rocks, flying off of them in mighty bounces, until he was catapulted onto an outward facing branch. The limb skewered his torso, dangling it upside-down as he could only scream in agony. Once the yelling stopped, his body sank, ripping further into his flesh. The process slowly continued until it ran its course through. Free-falling once more, his descent was halted as he was snagged midair. A dangling bandage had been caught on the most loathed branch and hung him like a piece of meat.

"Well, ain't dis just wonderful?" muttered the lunatic as he dangled in twine. "How could dis get any w-" He stopped himself from uttering the phrase, not wishing to invoke that evil upon himself, but it was too late. The cry of vultures could be heard in the distance, approaching. "Craaap."

"You... you killed her," the youth went over in a hushed voice, over again to no one at all. The words simply passed his lips, and after none of the times could he accept the truth. Ripped back into the cruel reality, his ax was drawn and held towards his once ally. "You guys said you were the good guys," he retold. "You said I could trust you. Good guys don't kill people." His threatening stance shifted between the summoner and the wanderer, who was in just as alerted as a state as the serf.

"I can explain his actions with no more certainty than you are able to," Zedd stated in a level headed manner, even under the circumstances, with his twin blades drawn. A point was aimed at each of the others. "I assume there was a logic behind his course of actions."

"Of course," calmly insisted Geirrek, rubbing his dragon's head. He was the only one not on guard. "I had no choice."

"I had predicted a more stable line of reasoning from you," admitted the foreigner, quickly losing all confidence he once held in the terrible one.

"She failed the test," explained the apothecary with a lowered head, his eyes hidden beneath a sunken hood. "If it was her fate to be slaughtered by my hands, then I couldn't change it. There was some reason I was going to kill her, and I'd rather not have her around long enough to find out just what that was gonna be."

"You speak of your deed with no regret," scolded the mystic. "Your feat was cold-blooded murder, supported by no claims but a guess. How can you live with this decision?"

"It's 'cuz of my decisions," the spearman reminded as he pulled out his weapon, "that I'm even alive now." His cursed stare shifted from the familiar traveling companion to the newer. "Tell me, lad, what do you see when ya look into my eyes?" The boy was not attentive to his rekindled enemy's speech and threats as his neck was craned back, taking in his environment with a dropped jaw.

"Guys," he called out, ignoring their rivalry for if just a moment, "where are we?" The two searchers for the Key were startled to learn that the battle scarred, rocky terrain where they had previously been was gone. The sky had been replaced with a black, starless void. Clear, glass tiles engraved with intricate designs made the floor of a hallway with no walls or ceiling. The blackness from above extended in all directions around and beneath them. There was nothing else outside the suspended, translucent walkway.

"The Key," whispered Zedd, before returning to a regular volume. "We were at the required destination when the time approached. It was not to reveal itself to us," told the mystic. "It delivered us to its abode, a realm outside of time."

"You got all that from a floatin' floor?" blurted the mundane peasant, shaking his head. "Jeez, you're full of it."

In the dank halls, the portal operator channeled through the dark crystals set before him. The masked general appeared within the station, returned from his bounty.

"Did you secure the Death Wish?" the minion was obliged to ask. A bloodied bag was lifted over the faceless man's head as proceeded down the corridor. "That looks like more than was ordered," puzzlingly pointed out the operator.

"I got some extra," the ravaged warrior called back, not deterred from his destination, "in case we had any leftovers."

Continuing, he arrived at the lich's workshop, a macabre chamber that reeked of death and blood, a stench foul enough to be associated with pure evil. His long stride carried him past the svartalfar triad, already fast to work on rebuilding their toy with an even stronger body, placing its recovered core within an iron framework. A team of godless surgeons were stationed at a far table, stitching together remains. The lieutenant pushed his way betwixt them and spilled the sullied sack onto the slab.

"Hm," grunted masked one, "my scraps look to be in better condition than the base." An eyeless stare was aimed at one of the arcane doctors. "Will you be able to finish?" The twisted being gave a silent nod. This was all he needed to know. With a sweep of his cape, he left them to attend more vital matters. The butchers, with their new parts, busied themselves with cutting and stitching, refining their latest abomination. Another carver rejoined the group, carrying with itself a murky jar. Reaching into the mire, its clawed hand retrieved a slime covered eye and positioned it on the corpse of Galatea.

The trio circled about each other again with edges trained against their adversaries. The initial shock of being within grasp of the Key of Ages had worn off, and now the worry of letting such a powerful artifact fall into the hands of another consumed them.

"I cannot allow this relic to pass into possession of one so cruel and heartless."

"And I can't let some shady guy who hasn't even hinted at his intent get it, either."

"I think both of you are outta your minds," whimpered the often forgotten youth. Although his voice faltered, his grip was firm and solid. "Neither of you should be allowed near it."

"Little more faith could be entrusted to you. From what meager information I have collected on you thus far, I cannot deem you a safe holder for the key."

"Yeah, get on someone else fer not talkin'. Real classy."

"Cease your petty attacks, slayer. They gain you no ground in my favor."

"Oh, shut it. You don't deserve the Key, and I doubt this joke even knows what it is."

"I know," protested the commoner quickly before being talked over once more.

"You place yourself higher than one who would produce a noble cause? Only wicked deeds you have performed, and only more cruelty and devastation is to follow. You are not only untrusted with such power but unworthy."

"None of you are deserving."

"Cram it, kid," shot the summoner to his bewildered opponent.

"I... didn't speak," confessed the peon. The hooded one clutched his head out of habit.

"Sorry," an answer came. "Not me, either." The swordsman, split between two sources, honed his blades in one direction. Between them all stood a new presence.

"None of you are deserving," repeated the being. Clear and colorless, just like the floor they stood upon, a spirit of featureless design hovered before them. Flowing robes covered its body and no hair covered its faceless head. Markings, like those on the tile, covered its skin and clothing alike. It turned about as it floated, addressing each of the three. "The Key cannot be given to beings so trifling and flawed. This lad is of common people. His destiny is not threaded with gold or crimson. Great things are not destined for him. The distant traveller, shrouded in secrecy. His reasons are beyond even my grasp. And you, the Terrible Summoner," the spirit reached and paused. "Nothing needs said on your behalf. The Key of Ages is beyond any of your comprehension. It is not a mere object but a force. It becomes part of your very mind, body, and soul. As individuals, none of you are even strong enough to hold it, but as one..." The phantom fractured, creating two copies of itself. Each faced one of the questers.

"As one, you could accomplish this task."

"As one, you become worthy of the honor."

"As one, you shall receive the Key."

A great flash came from the end of the hall without walls, and a brilliant light rapidly approached. An object defying comprehension split into thirds, passing to each one of the cleft entities.

"The roaming enigma, Zedd," addressed the first, "full of knowledge, cryptic and common. You shall be conferred upon mind."

"Child of the people, young-" A loud coughing covered up the second spirit's words and pulled the attention of scarred man and the blue garbed one. The noise was produced from a thought lost Al'mi-raj hacking up an indigestible wad.

"Flop-Hop? Raph? Your presence still accompanies us?" questioned the bewildered traveller.

"Yyyep," monotonously replied the Strong Toad. "How 'bout that?"

"Ain't you two evil?" the corpse gnawer snarled.

"That's our master," retorted the yellow hare. "'Sides, ain't you? And your master?" Although concerned with being flanked by beasts that once sought his demise, the mystic ruled it no more dangerous than turning a blind eye to the spearman for the time being.

"-shaper of earth. You shall be conferred upon body," finished the second eidolon.

"Keeper of the Cauldron, Geirrek," started the third, "whose spirit is strong enough to be," it paused in its words, tilting its head, "two. You shall be conferred upon soul."

"The Key of Ages, crux to the Treasures," cried out the three in unison as their hands were held out, "has been entrusted to you." As one, the orbs of light they carried were driven forward. A blinding flare filled the boundless black that surrounded them, washing out all of their surroundings.

"We're back," uttered the Nidhogg. Its keeper opened his eyes, finding all of them back at the rocky, crater filled field. "Someone care to tell me what the Hel just happened?"

"Our hands were forced into a compromise," rationed the outsider, holding his aching head. "Three had presented themselves to accept the Key of Ages, and none were more worthy than another..." His words went on, but they became drowned out by a rising clamor of whispers and accompanying wind. A thousand, ancient tongues raced against each other, growing to a near deafening volume. The other voices ceased speaking when Zedd did as did the breeze. "The three of us desired possession of the Key, and our wishes were granted..." Again, the noise rose above his words.

"What the hell was that?" demanded the boy, clutching a bleeding arm although his hand could not cover the entire glowing mark emblazoned upon his flesh.

"My portion of the Key, I would presume," voiced the traveller before the uproar could cover it.

"Huh huh huh," commented his weasel, "that's gonna take some getting used t-" Despite the quick speech, even the speedy tongue of the Kamaitachi could not outrace the tumult. "Aw-no-not-me-too," quickly expressed the pet, purposely placing effort into the feat for once.

"Our familiars are bound to u-" The foreigner was growing annoyed with the upheaval. A finger rubbed his throbbing temples. "I must quickly learn how to deal with this." Upon hearing about familiars, the peasant looked to his own. Alarmed, he rushed to its side, which was now stamped with a symbol much like his own only not illuminated.

"Oh, you poor thing," soothed the boy. "Are you alright?" His dull eyes drifted down to his imprinted arm and spotted the dark veins that surged from the region. "Am... I... alright?"

"You're fine," croaked the deep call of Raph. "Really." The youngster jumped back with his ax drawn, although it was pulled out in haste and had its head facing backwards.

"Relax," squeaked the horned coney. "Our keeper was a temporal agent, after all. We do know about these things. He already failed at you guys gettin' the Key, so you were meant to have it. We might as well make sure you use it right." It was difficult to feel threatened by a amber bunny, so the brown clad child lowered his guard and let the adorable beast inspect his marking. "Yep, this is to be expected. Such a powerful force needs a strong host. Since you were not it, one will have to be made." Its tiny, beady stare met his. "It's happening to them all," chirped the flowery call, unsuiting for such a grave discussion. "Can you imagine if one of you had all of it? You wouldn't survive."

"Yeah," added the baritone Stong Toad.

"Well, this is just dandy," fumed the dark drake. "First, we just had to stick with that guy until we got the Key. Now, he's is it! An' to top it off, the part you got ain't sittin' with me well." Geirrek remained silent for a while but then shook his head clear.

"Yeah, it really did a number," he feigned. "Who knew soul was so vulnerable, eh?"

"Liar," he was called. His glance shifted to the Nidhogg to ensure it was not the speaker. The truth could not be told, that he felt nothing at all

“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…

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.

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.

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

"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?

The Pegasus' great, feathered wings finally stopped beating as it came to land in front of a gleaming, white marble building, concealed behind the great walls. The two Key-bearers stared at the building, Karl in awe, Zedd in strange disgust. The Pegasus motioned for them to enter the building. Only the wanderer got a chance to look around the rest of the enclosure, noting that the only other buildings in any way as impressive as the one standing before them were the walls, the others all seeming to be makeshift, hut-like constructions from the rubble of some long-gone fortress. As soon as they had walked through the massive, white temple’s great doors, the pair were ushered through a system of passages so complex even the mystic’s formidable mind could not recall the way they had taken. He had a single pang of regret for not having Geirrek’s magic to guide them through these passages, in case a swift escape was necessary. But the thought soon passed; this was the only use he had found for the summoner.

Eventually, they reached one end of a huge chamber, with grandiose tapestries and ornate, silvered weapons lining the walls. On the other end of the room, from a distance the scarred one estimated to be at least half the massive temple’s length, stood six silver thrones, three on each side of a singular great, golden seat, similar in design to the other six, but much larger and with far more intricate designs. The two armed soldiers who had guided the commoner and the foreigner to this room bade them walk down a great, red carpet in its centre. As the two did this, even the brown-clad one could feel countless eyes watching them from somewhere, as if their every move was being monitored by some great army, camped somewhere behind the white walls which shone so much in the oddly colourless light shed by the many torches in the room. When they had finally come within about ten paces of the thrones, the pair finally saw those who sat in them.

"So," the silver-haired, white-mantled man sitting in the massive, golden throne said, considering the pair as if for the first time, "You have finally come."

As their interview with the White Council progressed, the wanderer found, much to his chagrin, that if a question was directly asked of him, all his rigorous mental discipline came to naught, as the voices which whispered around him answered all inquiries. Even if he cut them off, as he was sometimes able to, they gave an idea of his motives and origins that all present could understand, excepting the dull boy, who was simply confused. Eventually, after each of the councillors had questioned them, the man sitting in the central, golden throne stood.

"So, Karl, you are the son of a simple soldier, out to secure yourself fame, fortune and a place in the world by somehow saving that world with the Blade of Ages, in a way in which you do not even understand yourself." The man rattled off.

"And you, Zedd, are a travelling warrior, once from a mystic sect, the name of which I cannot pronounce, expelled for your fear of death and are seeking a way to survive what you see as the coming apocalypse, and perhaps to prevent it if all goes well." He stated.

"While I see no reason for either of you to be worthy of this greatest of treasures, one of you being entirely unprepared and the other deluded, Time has seen fit to grant you possession of its Key. Therefore, I, Brandubh, High Lord of the White Order, will tell you all we have found about that key."

As the leader of the Order began to outline such things as the Triads of Time and how the fragments of the Key would guide them towards them, the wanderer began to order all this knowledge into his clearing head, thinking that while he did not need the Triad of Mind to complete his own quest, that he would seek it simply to prevent the Summoner from getting it, as the thought of Geirrek weilding the Blade of ages made him shudder inside. And while he felt naked without his many layers of lies and half-truths protecting him, he at least thanked Time that he'd managed to stop the voices before they'd told the second reason he was expelled from his sect; something far more simple, but also far more sinister. He knew the one piece of knowledge that, of all his sect, only the leader was supposed to know. He knew that this apocalypse he'd quested away to stop wasn't a figment of his imagination, like this white-mantled man seemed to think, or a mere legend, as the rest of his old sect had thought. He knew it was a real future event. He knew that it was nigh-unavoidable, and now he also knew that, somehow, Geirrek, himself and Karl were all irreversibly caught up in it..

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."

"You would."

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

"Brandubh!" lamented the now leaderless army. With no present enemy, they were free to mourn the Order's loss. Many were upset by the event, more only feigned sadness. A brave few remained stoic, masking joy. Some saw this as a needed change, such as the man who never agreed with the deceased, Lavomir. He had warned of the oncoming peril and saw this end as fitting if not deserved.While the rest of the battalion were distracted, the rebellious councilor slunk his way over to the bearers of the Key.

"Flee, now," whispered Lavomir to the mystic. "Tears will not be shed for this man long." As he spoke, parchment passed between them. "Leave us behind before we delay you any more." With a glance at the gift, the scarred man slipped back through the crowd, dragging the youth and familiars with him.

"Hey," the peasant tried to protest, "what's going on-" A hand swiftly covered his mouth as the foreigner sped faster to the mountain's edge. Karl's changed eyes bulged as he struggled to free himself from the hold, but the two were soon off of firm footing. A ring of wind surrounded them all as Dai-Sho tried to keep them from falling too fast. Still, the hand was over the carrier of Body's mouth, keeping him from screaming. They fell into the swirling mists below that were cast aside by the ridden whirlwind. As it parted, it revealed a surface hidden in the clouds that softly accepted the jumpers onto its white down.

"Is... is this snow?" wondered Karl as he patted the landing with his gnarled hand.

"Hold on," commanded a deafening voice, booming despite attempting a whisper. It then came to the lad, far later than Zedd had realized, who already secured himself and laid out flat. They were sitting on feathers. The great white bird released its talons from the cliff face as its enormous wings stretched out wider than the peak itself. The Roc had taken to the air. Its wings stayed still, opened wide. It merely glided down the mountain's height, a short jump compared to its size. The massive claws touched down to the ground at the summit's base, tearing deep ravines into the earth. Its beak plowed through as well, creating a path somewhat closer for its passengers to disembark from.

Karl and Boris stumbled along the ground, still startled from their flight. Each wore a pallid face; however, it was difficult to discern if this was due to their fright or their Key. The swordsman and his pet were less fazed by the event.

"How... how can you... you..." stammered the boy.

"I had escaped two collapsing citadels in a single day," a chorus of voices answered without needing the finished question. "One of which resided within the heavens."

"I was... actually gonna ask about why you jumped off a cliff," the teetering youth belched, "but that... sorta explains it." The Mind Bearer was careless for the commentary and focused more on the pages he was given. "Whaddaya got there?"

"The wisest one in the White Order bestowed it upon me," explained Zedd's voices. "It is the recorded location of the remaining Triads." The sheets were shuffled through as their text was examined. "Additionally, he included various pages pertaining to other artifacts of time, presumably as a measure of good fate."

"Well, I guess we should hurry. Gimme the one tellin' about the Triad of Body." The keen eyes of the wanderer lifted to the peasant. "What? I can read! ... maps."

"Recover all of the Triads your heart desires," retorted the barrage of speakers as some torn texts were tossed at the lad. "They are of no importance to me. I have goals of my own to accomplish. These few temporal relics should serve well to initiate my collection." With his face still buried in a page, he marched off.

"Zedd? Zedd?!" shouted the ailing commoner as he stooped to recover the dropped sheets. "Where are you going? You... you can't just leave. We have a mission!" The caped one marched off, his pace consistent throughout the boy's cries until, abruptly, he began to approach. More perplexing than the reason was that his back remained turned. In reversed steps, Zedd returned to where he was when he last spoke to Karl. "See? I knew you were a good guy. You couldn't just leave-"

"What is the day?" interrupted the traveller.

"It... wha-what?"

"What is this day?" His face was stern, more weathered and worn than it was just moments ago. His gaze fell upon Karl's arm. "Far enough, it would appear. It is a shame that I may not take it all back."

"W-what are you talking about?" demanded the puzzled youth. "Are you alright? You just walked away for a moment."

"It was a moment to you, yes, as it was to all others," gravely spoke the chorus. "But I, I have gone beyond now and walked through a world that cannot be allowed." The lad scratched his head, unknowingly knocking out several of his loosely clasped hairs.

"I dunno," he said. "Down there looks about the same as here." Zedd was too tired to explain anything. It would all be lost on the simple boy.

What had been a matter of seconds was days to Zedd. He had left the worries of this chase to find what he desired. It was never found. Rather, only destruction and terror. Even when he chose to ignore the problem, it hunted him down. He was part of this ordeal whether he wanted to be or not. It was not his choice to get the Triad. It was destiny, and he had to fulfill that.

To his fortune, the first artifact he uncovered was the Retraced Steps, an enchanted pair of boots that allowed one to walk back through their own timeline. Had he been able, he would have gone back before any of this occurred, but such was the flaw to the relic. The exact path needed to be retaken.

"Return to me the page detailing the Triad of Mind's location," requested the mystic. "The Blade of Ages... We must procure the Triads if any of us is to have a chance." The lad looked between the two sheets, uncertain which was requested. The proper document was snatched from his hands as the swordsman rubbed his temples.

"So we're gonna get mind first?" enthusiastically stated the youth.

"Nay, time is not so kind to us," told the wanderer. "Both Triads must be secured with haste for our sake and that of the this world."

"We're... we're splitting up?" worried the peasant. "Is that wise?" Zedd sighed deeply as his eyes again drew to the youth's arm.

"It is a risk we will have to take."

Time was taken to explain the Triad of Body's page and location. Once Karl was certain of what needed done, the two took to their separate paths. The boy rode atop Boris to the nearby swamplands while Zedd and Dai-Sho sped in the opposite direction. Each was roughly a day's journey away. There were regrets about his decision. He knew it was necessary but did not like lying to the child about it. They were not split to procure both Triads faster. They were split to secure at least one of the Triads. They could not all be allowed to be in the hands of the enemy. The mystic had walked many paths with the Steps, and the outcome was always the same. There was no hope for the boy. This way, at least he had a chance to succeed. It was the only answer, after all, as it was the only one he gave. The enemy could not be allowed to obtain the Blade.

It was a long trip, a fact not helped with Boris' pace. Its hooves plodded through the deepening mud. It had been up to its knees for a while and now neared reaching its belly. The lad stayed vigilant on his mount, scanning the horizon for any sign of wrong doers. He knew he was getting close and his danger would only grow.

"So," deeply began his ride, "how you holding up?"

"I'm fine, Boris, really," assured its keeper. "Why do you keep asking?" He lifted up as it shrugged.

In truth, he was not alright or anywhere where near it. His familiar saw this, plainly. The swaying locks that gave Karl his boyish charm were all nearly gone. The innocent, round face had hardened from both experiences and in shape. His chin and cheeks were now thick and broad, expanding the lower bounds of his face. His joints had turned large and knobby, some jutting out enough to stretch the skin. Eventually, they would break through.

The dark veins that coursed through his body had taken shape, revealing a bizarre pattern near completion across his skin. That which was not touched had turned from its original pale to a ruddy tan with a tint of blue. The initial mark burned into his flesh blended in with its current surroundings, recognizable only as the focal point of the odd transformation.

These changes were not unknown to the commoner. He knew that his beast was a reflection of himself. Even if at a lesser extent, the changes it was going through worried the keeper. The changes it underwent were unrecognized for so long due to its coat of fur. Only recently had it begun to shed, uncovering the twisted works beneath. Wading through the mire only served to clean off more of its hide, leaving the familiar nearly unidentifiable.

"What was that?" asked the serf. In panic, he produced his weapon, long since kept away. His beast remained silent and still, scanning the surroundings with its master. It was fetid pools as far as they could see. Occasional trees rose up from the marsh, most branchless and rotting. What few had limbs sported more fungus than leaves. Despite the lack of foliage, a dark haze hung in the area. The only noise to pierce the eerie serenity was the croak of frogs.

"Hey." The youth gave out a shout and wildly swung his tool in the direction of the greeting as one arm cowardicely covered his face. The rate at which he brandished his ax gradually slowed as he realized no harm was befalling him. "You do that," it croaked in response.

"Raph? Flop Hop?" returned the ridden, "Wwwhat're you doin' here?"

"Those old stuffy jerks left us at their place," the coney adorably lied from atop its levitating comrade. The pair had fled and hidden from anyone in the White Order who never even knew they were there. "We figured someone would have to seek the Triad eventually and thought we'd wait for you here." That part was true.

"You knew where it was? But how?" wondered the youth, holding up his given page. "This was the only recording of where-" The bunny interrupted with a deep, gagging cough. Out of its mouth came a thick, old book. "You... have a book, too? But there's was the only one!"

"Only one?" squeaked the Al-Mi'raj. "That was the same line we got. That means we killed that guy for nothing."

"What?!" The horned rabbit answered with a cute wink and smile. "Oh-ho. You!"

"Dodged that one," mentally communicated the Strong Toad. "Lucky."

"Lucky they're dumb," added the rabbit maliciously, still posing as sweet outwardly. "Speaking of luck, it should be easier to work these suckers without Mr. Wordy second guessing us."

"We got his," reminded the shelled amphibian. "Didn't need him. Not anymore."

"But this has been my task, my mission," roared the infuriated lieutenant. "I should be the one to complete it."

"There isss no need to wassste your effortsss," grumbled the lich, annoyed with the tone he received. His empty eyes gazed into the scrying pool. "The ssscout showsss that only one hasss come, the blundering child. It isss not of any concccern to me. It will fall easily. The Sssvartalf shall be more than formidable. It isss the one bearing the ssscar that worriesss me. What troopsss were ssspared for the Triad of Body are being sssplit. Your... 'recommended' improvementsss... shall join you. I want you to head immediately to sssecure the Mind Triad."

"Let the dwarves handle it," shouted the masked general. "The three and that contraption should be-"

"Not what I want," finished the wizard. "Do asss you are told. They mussst not get the Triadsss and they power they offer." Enraged, Edric stormed down the halls to his destination, the portal room. The hallways cleared at his approach.

"Quit being ssso worried, massster," soothed one snake.

"He hasss given you the greater tasssk," suggested the second head.

"He wants me out of the way," corrected the masked man. "I am alive; therefore, I am a liability. He wants everything to be like that puppet, that replacement that I helped create. He wants to be able to control everything. That is why he wants me to face that... foreigner."

"You think the outsssider posssesss a risssk?" queried half of the Amphisbaena.

"I think I've become expendable," admitted the lancer. "I use to have to fight to get the tough jobs, but they were too risky. He needed me then. Now, what does he care if I'm dead? He'd be better off."

"Then," posed the second serpent, "what are you to do?"

"Whatever it takes," solemnly swore the general, "to ensure he doesn't need me ever again. I'm tired of this all, and I'll do anything to ensure that I never have to fret over it again." He arrived at the portal chamber and was saluted by the operator. "I need you to do me a favor, soldier. I need you to fake an error with the portal. I want you to switch me and the dwarf..."

"So, how much of the Triad have you guys completed," anxiously wondered the hare as they ventured closer to their goal, "or is this gonna be your first?"

"Er, our first," uneasily stated the youth, "but the second gotten."

"... What?"

"Well, Geirrek's evil side took the Soul one-"

"... What?" Before any sound answers could be offered, the dim setting grew darker as a grim miasma took over the scene.

"Hey... I know this," frowned the youth. "It's one of those zombie portals!"

"Yyyep," agreed his familiar.

"That means there's a whole horde of the dead just waiting for us down there." He squinted off into the distance, trying to see through the black fog at their enemy.

"Yyyep," repeated the pet. Karl dismounted. "Wwwhat are you doin'?"

"Taking cover," told the peasant as he dropped down to his shoulders in the mire. "I'd suggest you two do the same." They quickly followed the advice. Taking his familiar by the neck, he turned it around so that the known enemy was faced by its rear.

There are several sources of power. Dragons pull up fire from their throat. Several guardians of the underworld tap the raw, dark energies of their home. Others summon the might of divinity. Boris' might came from within, deep within, for it was a Bonnacon. The foe never needed to be met, their forces never known. So long as they occupied a two acre field behind the beast, they were subject to an acrid, burning, and humiliating assault from the rear. What little of the scene was living no longer did. Trees fell over, the waters fumed, and the hanging mists were blown away. Flesh, living or dead, could not stand the putrid nature of the attack.

"I sure hope you won't need me doin' that again any time soon," whimpered the beast as its tail lowered back down. "I'm aaall out."

"Is it safe?" questioned the toad, emerging its head. Its mellow temperament faded upon re-entering the air. "Whoa! Guess not."

"Oh my- Ah! Ah!" cried out the hare. "That's just horrible. Ah!"

"Oh, it's not that bad," dismissed the accustomed serf. "C'mon, now. We have a task to complete."

"No, that's... that's okay. We'll stay here and... keep a look out. You go ahead." The last time Flop Hop volunteered to be left behind, it was for its own safety. This situation was little different.

The boy and Bonnacon waded through the swamp, their steps dodging bones and weapons floating in the mess. Each one had been stripped clean of any flesh and ligament. There was nothing left to hold them together. In the middle of the created clearing, courtesy of Boris, there stood a massive trunk built of intertwining branches. It sharply contrasted with the wood formerly found in the area. Thick and sturdy, it survived the onslaught that laid waste to the land. That changed when Karl drew nearer.

The twisted parts began to unfold, slowly opening layer after layer. Within the center, stored in a sparse pocket, beat a mysterious piece of flesh. Blue blood coursed throughout its external veins as its sustained itself. Upon being exposed, the tendrils on it reached out, beckoning the Key Bearer. Reluctantly, the commoner knew exactly what it reached for and genuinely desired having received another part of the Key.

Cringing, his marked arm was extended forward, and the outstretched tentacles took hold of it. The pulsing flesh pulled itself onto the arm and crawled to the origin of the scarring, the base of the Key. It burrowed into the prepared flesh, making itself one with the Bearer. Karl clenched his teeth and looked away from the image. He was unable to take the pain let alone the excruciating sight. The pressure grew as he felt it merge with him and tighten his arm, but something seemed not right about the ordeal. Something seemed foreign

The lad turned to find a heavy metal mitt holding his limb to the opened stump. The masked man who held him down brandished a large cleaver in the other arm, raised to strike. His armor was complete, covering his full body with no skin exposed. It showed two layers of filth, one from hiding in wait and another from the beast. There was no accommodations made for a nose on the face plate, as there was no nose, preventing the foul odor from affecting him, if he could even smell.

The boy struggled to free himself but, even if at full strength, he would be no match. His bull tried to assist, but the expended familiar was sent away with a heavy boot. Terror consumed the child as he knew what was about to happen, and terror grew to confusion as he beheld his attacker. He had never seen the stranger before, yet a sixth sense said otherwise.

"P-papa?" The faceless metal turned to face the serf. Bald, marked, and growing spikes, there was nothing to be familiar about the victim, but the same rang true. Edric knew; however, he also knew what must be done. For him, for his family.


The faceless man entered the lich's chambers, wiping his hands clean. A slow applause greeted him as he approached the undead master.

"Well done, well done," lauded the corpse. "Even defying my will, you ssserve me well. Not only wasss the final pieccce sssecured, but you alssso managed to take one of the Triad. Sssuch wasss never intended. The warrior shall be mossst powerful now."

"I failed you once before," informed the lieutenant, ignoring the praise, "and I always repay my debts in full. Always."

"I am glad for it," hissed the sorcerer, "asss I am that your life wasss not taken at your firssst fault."

"As am I," somberly agreed the general. "Sir, if I may, I would like to request leave of service." The warlock piqued at the inquiry. "I have served you well these last few days. You now possess your ultimate soldier, and the Svartalf have the Iron Golem fully operational. If you would allow, I would desire some time off to rest and ... recover from being exploded."

"Isss that it?" doubtfully questioned the mage. "Do not lie to sssomeone who knowsss all manners of deccception."

"It is a debt, sir," he confessed. "I always repay them, and I am in grave debt to this individual."

"Very well, I shall allow it," granted the immortal wizard. "I believe our plansss shall fare fine without you." Bowwing, Edric took his leave

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