Spires stood at the Benevolence’s prow looking ahead. There lay, bleak and foreboding, Demon Isle. In places cliffs rose straight up from the shoreline. In others, rocky beaches gave way to scree slopes. No living thing was in sight. Not even a blade of grass grew on that island. Even the wind seemed to have died once they reached the island.
Farther inland he could see the heart of the Prison. Magic made physical and given shape. Great swirls in a myriad of colours converged on a single point. Several times, lightning jumped between different swirls. Here and there clouds of magic escaped out of the Prison, flying off into the world.
The journey here had been peaceful, as if the world was holding its breath for the coming storm. They found Bob and the remaining colonial army camped in one of the bays down the Bitter coast. After loading them aboard they had sailed east towards Demon Isle. The White Sea had been empty of vessels. They hadn’t even seen so much as a sail on the horizon.
Spires looked at Bob, who was standing next to him. “Here we are, my friend. It all converges on this point. It’s time to find out if it has all been worth it.”
“The Prison is still here. We’ve still got time,” Bob replied.
“But how much time? And will we be able to do enough?”
“That only the gods know.” Bob said.
Spires shook himself out of his reverie. “Let’s get going then. Before time catches up.”
With that the first Colonial legion disembarked and moved onto Demon Isle. Spires and Bob rode ahead, with Alar’Sel striding along, towards the heart of the Prison. With them they carried Nandarion’s Nullification crystal, which had been used in the creation of the Prison.
As they neared the central pinnacle on the island, they saw an army camped on the other side, flying the colours of the Ever Emperor. The great host contained troops from all over the Empire. Regiments of Sword Dancers stood shoulder to shoulder with Armian axemen. Rangers and spearmen from all corners of the Empire were present.
“It looks like Daechir and his new master have arrived,” Bob remarked.
“I wonder what brings them here at this time,” Spires said.
“Perhaps we’re getting a welcoming party,” Anlar’Sel said.
“Only one way to find out,” Spires said. “Anlar’Sel, keep your emotions in check in the camp. Don’t go killing Coradrians. All that matters is the Prison. Follow me.” With that Spires spurred his horse towards the encampment.
“Halt! Who goes there?” One of the sentries around the army camp had spotted them
“I am C’al-Vyn, member of the Conclave, Warden of the Southern Ocean, Sovereign Prince of Spires. I am on a mission from the Ever Emperor. And I must speak with Lord Daechir as soon as possible.”
“Which Ever Emperor would that be?” the sentry asked.
“Which one do you think? Now, unless you want to explain to Lord Daechir why we are late, I suggest you let us pass.” Without giving the sentry time to reply, Spires urged his horse past the sentry who was left staring after Spires with his mouth hanging open.
They rode through the camp towards the biggest pavilion they could find, reasoning that whoever was in charge would be there. A perimeter of Imperial Guard stood watch around this pavilion, eyeing everyone who so much as looked in their direction.
“I doubt you’ll get past them as you did with that sentry back at the edge of the camp,” Bob said.
“There is a time for bluff,” Spires said, “and a time for proper form.”
Spires walked up to the largest Imperial Guard. He stopped three paces away and gave a short bow. “Well met. I am C’al-Vyn, Sovereign Prince of Spires. I am here to see Lord Daechir on an urgent matter concerning the Prison.”
“Do you have an appointment?” the guard asked.
Spires straightened. “No, I do not. This matter only recently came up. I humbly request an audience. I would be much obliged if Lord Daechir could see me on short notice.”
“Wait here.” The commander nodded to the guard standing next to him. Then, he turned around and went towards the tent.
Spires turned around and walked the few paces back to his companions.
“And now?” Anlar’Sel asked.
“Now we wait,” Spires said.
“That doesn’t sound like much of a plan,” Bob said.
“If we want information, and from a reliable source, then this is the best chance we have.”
It turned out they didn’t have to wait long. Perhaps an hour had passed when a liveried servant approached them and bade them to follow him. He led them to a smaller pavilion slightly removed from the central tent.
Inside, a frail elf sat behind a writing desk bent over some papers. He waved them towards several stools placed to one side as he continued his writing.
The rest of the pavilion was sparsely furnished. A large rug covered most of the floor. To one side a narrow field bed was placed. On the other side stood a drinks cabinet, in which stood several bottles of what looked like fine Lazulian wine.
Spires sat in one of the indicated stools. He placed his hands on his legs, palms facing upwards. Next to him, Anlar’Sel fidgeted in his seat, impatient to continue.
Finally, the feeble elf looked up. His eyes showed a power which belied his withered body. “Ah, the Prince of Spires. I wondered about what had happened to you.”
“My lord Daechir,” Spires said as he stood up. He gave a small bow. “Thank you for seeing us on such a short notice. What brings you to this place at such a time?”
“Spires, always playing the great game. Never giving out information before getting something in return,” Daechir said with a shake of his head. “If you want it that way. I’m here for the same reason everyone comes to this place is. The Prison of course. Now, what brings you here?”
“As you said, The Prison. I have information which could be of vital import.”
“Well, out with it. I haven’t got all day.”
“As I am sure you know, The Prison is failing,” Spires began.
“Yes, I do know. Even the lowliest apprentice in the College would know if they bothered listening to the winds. What of it?”
“I think I have a way of repairing the damage done to it. Of restoring it to its former glory.”
“Restore it? Why would I want to do that? Is that what you think we are doing here?” Daechir said with a small chuckle.
“What do you mean?” Bob asked, disbelieving. “What else would you do with the Prison?”
“The old ways are dying,” Daechir said. “The Prison is unravelling. And with the increased magic, the demons are on the rise. We have failed. Nandarion’s plan so long ago failed.”
“It is not over yet,” Spires said. “We can still mend it.”
“We don’t need to mend it. We need to unleash it, harness its power.” Daechir said. “With that power, we can beat back the tides of demons. I can beat them back. I can lead the Empire back to greatness so we can claim our rightful place as masters of the lesser races. I can right all the wrongs and avenge the hurts that have been dealt to us over the centuries.”
“That power isn’t meant for one person,” Spires replied. “The Prison was put in place precisely for that reason. Don’t you think Nandarion hadn’t considered this?”
“Nandarion didn’t see what I have seen.” Daechir said. “With this power I can overthrow the demon gods. I will banish them forever.”
The demon gods aren’t banished so easily,” Spires said. “They thrive on such conflict as you want to unleash.”
“I was afraid you would think that. If you aren’t with us, then you are against us. I am sorry for this, I would rather have you on my side.” Daechir stood up and seemed to double in size as he threw out his arms and started an incantation.
Bob and Anlar’Sel fell backwards out of their chairs and tried to scramble away. Spires stood calmly, arms folded over each other, waiting on Daechir.
In moments Daechir fell silent, his incantation finished. Nothing had happened. With a frown on his face, Daechir started another spell, even more powerful than the last.
“Let me stop you before you make a fool of yourself, Daechir,” Spires said. “Allow me to show you a trinket made by Nandarion himself.” Spires reached inside his uniform and pulled out Nandarions’ Nullification crystal. He strode towards Daechir.
“Your magic won’t do you any good. This building block of The Prison drains all your spells and incantations. And with this I will mend The Prison.”
Spires held out the Null Stone in his left hand for Daechir to see. Fear showed on Daechir’s face. With his right hand, Spires lashed out and hit Daechir on his head, knocking the frail elf unconscious.
“Let’s quickly finish him off,” Anlar’Sel said. “Then we can get out of here.”
“We will not,” Spires said. “He was a great elf once. In a way, he still is. I will not let anyone hurt a fellow elf unless there is no other choice.”
Spires turned away and walked toward the exit of the tent. “We got the information we came for. Now, we need to get out of here. And fast. Alar’Sel, this is your speciality. Lead the way.”
The trio walked out of the tent as fast as they could without drawing attention to themselves. Anlar’Sel stopped at one of the guards. “The prince of Spires has given lord Daechir much to think about. He asked us to tell you that he doesn’t want to be disturbed for any reason for the next hour.”
They strode on, weaving between the rows of tents so that they were soon lost from view. They hurried past campfires and tents through the massive army.
They had perhaps covered two-thirds of the distance towards their horses when horns sounded. They had been found out. The hunt was on. More and more horn calls went up. All around them elves looked up and sprang to alertness, grabbing weapons and gear. Everyone started looking for enemies. Confusion was all around. The trio ran on.
“We have intruders in the camp” Daechir’s voice seemed to be everywhere, ringing out over the army. “Three spies from Aglador are moving through our camp as we speak. They must be stopped at all cost. They are armed and dangerous.”
They were almost clear. They could see their horses standing ahead, near the sentry who had initially admitted them. Then, a unit of elves barred their way. “Hold!” one of them said. It was the sentry they had passed when they came into the camp. “I knew something was wrong when you entered. Surrender or die!”
The trio hardly slowed their pace. Anlar’Sel pulled a pair of throwing daggers from his belt and hurled them through the air. One of them lodged itself in the throat of the sentry. The other stopped in the stomach of his left neighbour. Bob swept out his sword. He hit one elf in his shoulder and parried the stroke of another. Spires ran straight for where the sentry had fallen. He jumped at the right neighbour of the sentry, knocking him down and rolling on. Getting to his feet, he elbowed another elf in the back of the head.
Then they were through. With a last sprint they left the confusion behind and reached their horses. Mounting, they kicked the horses into a gallop and they fled out of the camp.
“What do we do now?” Bob asked.
They were back with the colonial army, sitting in Spires’s tent. During their flight back they had been pursued until they had reached the outermost outrider patrols of the colonial army. Those patrols had made short work of the few horsed pursuers. Afterwards, their pace had changed from a blind gallop into a more moderate canter.
“We complete the mission. We can still restore The Prison.” Spires said.
“But,” Anlar’Sel said. “You want to take on Daechir? The greatest mage since Nandarion? What hope do we have?”
“A worthy cause does not require hope to fight. You fight because it is a righteous cause,” Spires said. “To be a true elf is to stand tall in the face of despair and keep on going. For the good of the world.”
Silence followed. Each elf remembered Daechir’s madness earlier that day.
“However,” Spires continued, “you are forgetting the Nullification crystal. You saw the effect it had on Daechir. I would say we stand a decent chance. If nothing else, we can at least hope to prevent Daechir from harnessing the full power of the Prison to himself. That, and surviving to tell the tale, I would consider a victory at this point.”
A page burst into the tent. “Sir! A message, Sir! An army is approaching from the east!”
“What is the complete message? Tell me,” Spires said.
“An army is marching on the central pinnacle of the island, Sir. They are arrayed for battle.”
“What colours are they flying?” Spires asked.
“They are showing the personal banner of Lord Aglador, Sir, together with banners from all over the Empire.”
“Thank, you,” Spires said. “You may go.”
“It seems Aglador isn’t about let Daechir have it all his way either,” Bob said. “This may just give us the opening we need.”
“Indeed,” Spires said. “I think Daechir will be preoccupied the next few hours.”
“We had best get moving then,” Anlar’Sel said. “What do you need for the ritual?”
“We need to get as close to the central pinnacle as we can,” Spires said. “And we need time.”
“My scouts can help you with both.”
For the second time that day, they stood at the base of the pinnacle of The Prison. On the other side they could hear battle rage as the two elven hosts clashed together. They stood in a low hollow, hidden from view by large grey boulders. High above them, The Prison spiralled around the pinnacle, magic draining out of the world. A lone figure stood atop the pinnacle. Daechir. His arms stretched wide, drawing in the erratic magic.
Spires had drawn out the wheel of magic on the ground. In the outer ring, four sections showed the different elements; earth, wind, water and fire. One ring in the four spiritual sections marked off body and mind, life and death. In the centre a single rune was drawn in a circle. High magic, the combination of the other eight disciplines of magic. The combination of the disciplines and at the same time more than the sum of the parts.
“Spires, it’s time to start hurrying,” Bob said. “Daechir looks awfully busy up there.”
“Quiet,” Spires said. “We only get one chance here. And if we get it wrong, we will be sucked into The Prison ourselves.”
Finally, Spires stepped back, admiring the mandala. “Done. Fire up the power stones,” he said to Bob.
Bob took out four glowing, deep blue, glassy stones and placed them at the four cardinal points of the mandala. Light flowed from the stones along the lines dividing the sections until the whole circle lit up. Slowly, the different sections started glowing in different colours. Red for fire, green for life and so on. When all sections reached their full luminescence, the central part of the mandala began to emit pure white light.
Spires leaned forward, careful not to disturb the mandala. In the central circle, he placed Nandarions’ Nullification crystal. As he did so, the magic flows of The Prison above them started to shift. Strands of magic drifted down towards the mandala and were removed from the world. The ground shook. Then, inch by inch, the central pinnacle started to shift towards the mandala.
High above, Daechir noticed them. As the mage turned around and looked over the edge, a bright red strand shot out into the sky above. In the mandala, the red section went dark. The discipline of fire magic had escaped from the Prison.
Daechir cast a spell, throwing down a glimmering net which bound them to the ground. Then he started a counter spell, grinding the pinnacle to a halt. The light in the mandala started fading. Again Daechir started gather the disciplines of magic to himself. The bright yellow quadrant, matching the discipline of mind magic started flickering. The trembling of the ground increased.
Spires managed to free one of his hands from the net. He swept out his sword and cut through the strands of the web, freeing them from the web binding them. In the mandala, the yellow quadrant went dark. High above, Daechir’s staff lit up bright and yellow as the discipline of mind magic bound itself to it. Around them, the wind started raging. Small pebbles shook loose from the pinnacle.
“Bob, another set of power stones!” Spires yelled over the wind. “We need to get the ritual going again!”
Bob grabbed into his bag, placing four more stones in the mandala. The mandala became brighter once more. The pinnacle started moving towards it again. Daechir threw out his arms as if to hold of a large boulder. Another jet of colour, this one bright blue, shot out. In the mandala, the light of the discipline of water magic went out. Another wind had escaped. The tremors intensified.
The pinnacle ground to a halt. Daechir drew his arms back and cast them forward again. A burst of pure white light flew down towards them, threatening to engulf the whole hollow. Spires reacted by instinct. He grabbed his sword in both hands. Placing one foot forward, he struck out the sword, catching the light blast. The magical sword discharged the blast towards the Nullification crystal and retaliated the blast.
The world froze in place. Daechir and Spires stood entranced in a battle of wills. Daechir tried to make his blast strike home. The force of the blast ground Spires back, his feet sliding over the gravelly ground. Spires pushed back with all his might. With great effort of will, he took a step forward, placing his left foot in the quadrant of the mandala that had belonged to the discipline of death magic.
The recoil of Spires’ push unbalanced Daechir for a moment. Spires wrenched his sword downward and struck it, through Nandarions’ Nullification crystal, into the heart of the mandala.
The world exploded.
Spires, Daechir and the others were thrown of their feet. High above, the swirl of The Prison lashed outwards, the remaining disciplines separating into individual strands. They spiralled down the pinnacle and back up again.
An earthquake now shook the island. Everywhere, boulders started falling. Sink holes appeared in the ground.
“No!” A long wail from Daechir high up on the pinnacle. He got back up and started wrestling with magical winds circling the pinnacle.
“We have to get out of here!” Anlar’Sel yelled. “The whole island is collapsing!”
“Yes!” Spires said. “Nothing more we can do here!”
The world around them started sinking. The ground shook. Water spilled out of cracks in the ground.
“At least Daechir’s plan failed.” Spires said. “It’s time to start running.”
Spires stood at the prow of the Benevolence. They were sailing towards the rising sun. Around them the debris of the Elven civilisation floated. They were passing over what used to be the border between Erinis and Lazuly.
Both now lay many fathoms below them. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Prison the whole of The Ever Empire had sunk. A violent tempest had spread out, huge waves tossing ships around like they were leaves in a breeze.
Most of the first Colonial Army had made it back to the Benevolence.
Bob walked up to Spires. “I’ve asked you this before, not that long ago. Where do we go from here?”
“And after? Most messages we’ve received place Thalyon and Daechir with what remains of the elven race in the human lands.”
“You have seen what those remnants are capable of. To be a true elf is to strive for the good of the Ever Empire and ultimately the world. Not to degrade into savage civil war where you forget all that is right and good. And not to destroy everything sacred in an attempt to gain godlike powers.
No, those individuals in the elven lands are not elves.”
“There is only one place left where the memory of the Ever Empire lives on. Where its ways and traditions are kept,” Spires said. “In the Colonies we will honour that memory and prove to the world that there are still elves.”
“The elves in the human lands have no more claim to us then do the humans living there,” Spires continued. “When they destroyed The Prison and sank The Ever Empire, they reneged that claim. So, we will go it alone. The Colonies will reform to be The Ever Empire in Exile. We will keep to the old ways and continue the fight against chaos.”
“And the others?” Bob asked.
“They get a hand of friendship. No more. What they do with it is up to them.”