Concentrating, Arion gently expanded his force-field until it grew larger and pushed the hand of Kr’rth away.
The abbess of Kr’rth screamed with pleasure as Kr’rth smashed through Arion’s shield and clawed at him with a savage delight. “Now you are not so high and mighty, are you, Arion?” she cried. “Now you are the plaything and not the gamesman!”
“Kindly shut up!” said a newcomer as Lady Chian crashed into the room and tackled the mocking abbess. They crashed off the stage and wrestled on the floor, as neither woman could gain the advantage.
“Shocked by my strength, Captain?” cried the abbess as she choked Chian. “You thought me some pampered paramour who lived off her looks and other women’s mates, didn’t you? Well, the Darkling Prince gives power to his bride!”
Drawing both legs up to her chest, Chian kicked the abbess off of her body, then rolled over and wrapped the other woman’s voluminous gown around her arms and face. Your strength will be of little value if you cannot see to use it! thought Chian.
Meanwhile, as Wyynde led other summoned guardsmen into the room, the cult began to be surrounded and contained. “Arion, we are with you as ever!” shouted Wyynde as he brought his sword down to shatter the nearest cultist like a broken urn.
Owyns ducked under a tossed knife and kicked the thrower in the face. “Ye’ll not catch me with that type of roguery!” she declared.
Arion struggled in Kr’rth’s grasp as pain filled his body, and he saw the room begin to fade before his senses. He fought to free himself even as the keening dirge of Dharel filled his ears. Dharel! When I saw him here, I thought the stripling nothing more than a callow youth taken with what he sees to be darkness and danger, he thought. Now I wonder if he is not much more! He does possess a magic, as demonstrated by his wings. Perhaps he has more magic than I realized! Ignoring Kr’rth, he began concentrating on Dharel.
By Calculha! Yes! He is an empath of sorts, realized Arion. The music of his song projects emotions of his choosing. He is artificially enhancing the flow of hate and anger that gives his Darkling Prince power! The boy is like a living energy crystal that fuels a sky skimmer!
Arion chanted in words known only to a few adepts, and Dharel gasped as his voice was suddenly and abruptly silenced. The music ended, and Arion forced his way out of Kr’rth’s grasp. “Now you’ll feed upon these misguided fools, but only at a rate in which you gain gradual power,” he said, “and by that time, I will have returned you to a prison of my devising!”
Kr’rth scowled, and flames gutted the entire room.
Shielding both his friends and the followers of Kr’rth, Arion then flew directly at the monster. “You care little for these deluded men and women who bartered their humanity to offer your worship. Well, in time they will recover from this night, and they will see you for what you are and ever have been. You are a petty evil made large only by deceit and hate. I will reduce you to your more proper scale, and I will do so with the light that has ever defied you!”
Arion’s star-like mystical emblem exploded over and through Kr’rth, and as the magical glyph enveloped the monster, he screamed and began to shrink until nothing could be seen of his former majesty. Smiling coldly, Arion said, “Without the immediate rush of power that foolish minstrel’s magic song gave you, you were no match for me!” He turned to see Wyynde and Owyns leading the guardsmen as they subdued the now-listless cultists.
“We have them, Arion!” vowed Wyynde.
Lady Chian waved a gauzy black garment in the air and said, “The abbess is a slippery one! She managed to escape, but we’ve routed her master and left her to her own feeble resources!”
Arion nodded and said, “She was nothing more than a petty temptress. I have no fear of her.”
“Fear me!” shrieked a voice that echoed through Arion’s mind as a huge white dragon swooped down and hovered above him. A serpentine black dragon swiftly joined the white one to surround the mage.
“Mara! That’s Mara!” whispered Lady Chian.
“And that black thing with her was the singer yon Arion silenced!” said Owyns. “He must still possess his polymorphing power even without his infernal voice!”
Arion stood his ground as the transformed Mara and Dharel closed in on him. I can sense Mara is lost to the siren spell of Kr’rth! he mused. His darkness touched her when she was first filled with anger at me because of Wyynde’s suffering, and it only spread like a disease when she was rejected by him!
Shielding himself from their twin blasts of fiery breath, Arion hesitated for a moment before turning his back on Dharel’s scaly black form. As he flew toward Mara, he dodged her snapping jaws until he drew close enough to touch her directly below her ridged brow. For a moment nothing happened, and then the two flying figures were gone.
“Arion’s magic has taken them away!” gasped Owyns.
Wyynde grimly gazed up at the remaining black dragon and vowed, “And my blade will take away this fiend’s very life as well!” Jumping forward, he swung his sword in a dazzling arc until he had made contact with one leathery wing. As he sliced through the creature’s wing, he also made himself a human target for the fiery breath that blazed out of the monster’s mouth.
“Wyynde!” cried Lady Chian as she charged forward and tried to fight her way through the fires.
Ignoring her cries, Wyynde sliced savagely onward, using the monster’s own bulk to partially shield his body from the blast.
“Get back!” cried Owyns. “He’s nae gonna hear ya! He’s like some animal!” She pulled Chian away from the inferno.
Chian nodded reluctantly as her friend vanished behind the wall of fire.
Dharel clawed at Wyynde, even as the warrior of the Khe-Wannantu took full advantage of a momentary lapse in the fiery rain to carve into the side of the struggling dragon-man.
Wyynde ignored the cuts and the burns as he used his sword to rend the monster. He finally stood over the fallen and mortally wounded creature as it shifted back to human form. Leaping over the blazing rubble, Wyynde stumbled over to fall at the feet of Lady Chian.
“By the Seven, he has been badly burned!” she said as she bent over the injured guardsman. “He acted like a beast and ignored any reasonable safeguard. He just wanted to kill Dharel!”
“Arion himself couldn’t save him now!” said Owyns.
Chian shook her head and said, “That remains to be seen. Now, where is Arion?”
Where was Arion? The lord high mage in question had transported himself and Mara into a magical realm of pure thought.
Arion knew the shape-shifting girl communicated via mental telepathy while in all of her inhuman forms, and he also knew that the surest way to free her of her Kr’rth-inspired madness was to touch her mind directly with his own. Thus he had brought them both to a realm in which the mind was all, and physical being was nearly unknown. She was still in dragon form, or at least that was how her mind presented itself to him.
“Mara, shed your beast form!” he shouted. “That is the first step on the road to recovery! I command you to do so by the power that is mine alone!”
She roared, then slowly her reptilian form began to change until it became more humanoid in appearance. This change was followed by a gradual disappearance of her scales as well. Finally, Mara stood before Arion in her normal body. Staring at him in rage for a moment, she rushed forward to strike him. All that truly occurred was that her mental projection attacked his own mental image. The combat was not physical, but the effects were all too real.
“Arion, I hate you!” she cried. “You ruined my life! Your brother took over my home of Thamuz to use it against you! He sent those men to get the Ares Zodiac crystal we kept in the house so he could use it to fight you! They killed my father! They killed him and left our home in flames!”
Feeling the pain of her rage as if it was a physical thing, Arion winced as he tried to withstand it. Nevertheless, he did nothing to resist it.
Mara struck at him again and again and shouted, “You didn’t kill Garn Daanuth when you had the chance! You brought him to Wyynde’s home and let him free right in the middle of the place! You are the cause of the death of every one of Wyynde’s tribe!” She referred to the brutal way that Garn’s magic created a tidal wave that had destroyed all of the Khe-Wannantu except Wyynde himself and his little brother. Arion looked down but did not turn away or try to resist her.
“You were gone when Garn took over all our minds and broke Wyynde’s spirit,” Mara continued, weeping openly as she screamed at Arion. “It was his devotion to you that drove him mad. He couldn’t resist Garn’s spell, but his loyalty to you was so great, the two desires just shut down his mind! Then, when you came back and found him like that, you didn’t help him. All you did was fight Garn and whine about your lost powers!
“You let Wyynde be turned into a monster, and then you failed to do anything but restore his body! His mind is so messed up still that he acts like a brute and not the great guy he was when I met him. You left him like that, and that’s why he tried to force me to… he tried to make me–!” She stopped speaking as her cries changed to an anguished weeping.
Arion stepped forward and lifted her chin. As she looked into his eyes, he opened his own mind to her telepathy. “You have showed me your pain,” he said. “Now see my own. See my own guilt. Feel my sorrow!” Their minds communed for moments, and then she lowered her head and wept in his arms.
“I’m sorry! I misjudged you,” she said. “I was like a bratty child who lashes out at the person who is around merely because they are around!”
“You are not to blame,” said Arion. “Kr’rth used you more than I knew. When I last fought the Darkling Prince, I forgot that you also engaged him in direct combat. You impaled him with a unicorn horn while you were in that form. His very essence touched you directly. That started your descent. Dharel made it worse. He will bother you no more. I wish I could say something to make you feel better. I have ever been a solitary man with little skill in human warmth or arts.”
Mara smiled slightly and snuffled as she said, “We’ll make a human out of you yet! I saw something when you linked minds with me. You intend to cure Wyynde, don’t you? I was so wrong about you!”
Arion nodded and said, “I will help my friend. That is my duty and my promise.”
At that moment, he returned them to the material world, where they gazed down at the injured Wyynde as Chian, Owyns, and others tended to him. “By the Seven!” cried Arion. “Have I restored one ally only to lose another?”
Touching Wyynde, he looked up at Chian, then shouted at the crowd, “Hear me, all gathered here this night. I will save my friend if it costs me all I am. This is my vow!”
An unseen entity watching from beyond said, “Ah, little mage, it just may exact that precise price!”