At an oddly simple but well-made table, Queen T’Gallah, Wyynde, Lady Chian, and Arion gathered along with Owyns and Lyla. The food was equally plain, but it had been prepared by the master chef who had served old King D’Tilluh for generations, so the meal was a treat in spite of the rather ordinary conditions in which it was served.
However, as the ever-discerning Lady Chian observed all too well, Arion did not bother to do more than make the most perfunctory efforts to eat the food before him. The mage brooded in his chair, seemingly unable to hear his friends or see the food before him. Lady Chian, now clad in a green and gold dress with a seashell pattern, leaned forward and said, “What troubles you so, my love?”
Arion looked up and frowned because his revelry had been noticed. “I’m sorry, Chian,” he said as he took her hand in his own. “I know I have been a churlish guest this evening. However, I feel something is not right. Some vague mystical sensation tugs at me as a will-o’-the-wisp at the edges of my mind’s eye. I would find the source of the feeling, and this desire distracts me from even a meal prepared by good Chef Tola.”
The warrior woman nodded and said, “I know enough to trust your instincts on such matters, but I also know your nature. Brooding is the norm and not the exception!”
Arion smiled slightly and said, “True enough, milady. Still, even the grim high mage of Atlantis may assume a cheerful countenance when in the company of his lady love! Thus I will make the most of a bad situation by asking you to join me in my quest!”
Chian rose and said, “A stroll by moonlight is too tempting an offer to refuse. I will join you in a moment!”
Arion stood up and gazed at her with an inquiring look in his dark eyes. “I must get my sword. Moonlight and romance do not rule out sudden danger!” she said with a smile of her own.
At the other end of the table, Queen T’Gallah was looking rather splendid in a feathered dress of brilliant red and heavy golden bracelets that adorned her bare arms to the shoulders. Kissing Wyynde abruptly, she then said, “That was nothing more than royal privilege!”
Wyynde smiled and pulled her into his lap as he kissed her roughly and said, “And that? That was nothing more than the desire I feel for you!”
T’Gallah tossed back her head and laughed as she noticed the startled expressions on the faces of a few guardsmen and courtiers who lined the hallway or sat at other tables.
Lyla ate excitedly and babbled endlessly as she tried to tell her sister everything that had happened to her since their previous parting. “Da’ tried to make Lady Chian bring me back to the tribe when I ran away,” said the little girl, “but she would’nae do it! She challenged him and won in a fair combat!”
Owyns nodded as she gazed at the girl with her icy and striking eyes. “Lass, ye did the right thing!” said the flame-haired beauty in black leather. “I don’t want ye to think I forgot about ye. I came back to the tribe to protect ye when I realized ye had reached the age of trade. Da’ was none too pleased to see the likes o’ me. He knew I had run away long before, and that’s why he was so bent on not letting ye go without a fight. Old Corum said ye’d gone with the Lady Chian, so I made me way here. I nearly lost hope when I found the ruins of the City of the Golden Gate! Now, tell me truly, be ye happy here?”
“I am happy!” said Lyla. “Chian is teaching me to ride and to use a sword!”
“Well, may she be a better teacher than she is a fighter!” said Owyns.
Lyla laughed and said, “Owyns, be nice!”
Owyns smiled a brilliant smile and said, “For ye, I will try!”
Dharel carried Mara over the area of Mu in which the Cult of Kr’rth had established their base. The blond youth’s bat-like black wings easily supported his weight along with Mara’s. Enjoying the sensation of holding the platinum blonde girl close, he inhaled her perfume with pleasure.
“You know I could change to dragon form and fly on my own,” said Mara, “but I like having you hold me like this!”
Dharel smiled and said, “I enjoy being near you. I remember the first night you came into that tavern in the City of the Golden Gate where I was performing. You made that smoky room glow like the morning sun!”
Blushing, she replied, “I could have been on fire myself! I was so enchanted by your voice that I would have walked right into the fire without even caring!”
“You do like to hear me sing, don’t you?” he said.
“I love it!” she replied. “I feel like you are singing just to me, even when I am only one person in a crowd!”
“That is how it should be!” said Dharel. “I want my audience, and especially you, to feel as if every note is meant for their ears alone!”
Landing near the old building that housed their cult, they entered to find the abbess being adorned with gold and onyx jewels over a black and gold gown. She gestured to the couple, and they approached even as she abruptly dismissed her servants. “Welcome, Mara!” she cooed. “It pleases me to see how swiftly you have become as one with the Family of Kr’rth!”
“Well, Dharel helped me see the truth,” said Mara. “He made everything so clear to me. His love taught me to hate! He made me feel the liberation that comes with anger! Wyynde, Chian, and all the rest treated me like a performing pet. They saw me in terms of my power and not as a person with feelings and ideas to contribute as well. Most of all, I now realize how Arion is to blame for everything that happened to me!” She trembled as her rage grew stronger.
Extending one heavily ringed hand, the abbess touched her cheek tenderly. “Never fear,” she said as her dark eyes gleamed with passion. “Arion will be among the very first to suffer the displeasure of our Darkling Prince!” She added in a hiss, “He and I have debts to settle from our last encounter!”
Arion and Lady Chian made their way through the streets of Mu until they heard angry voices and hurried footsteps. The lithe and agile Chian slipped forward and peered into the night before returning to where Arion waited. “It sounds like more angry brigands, only, from the sheer volume, I would wager this group is more mob than gang!” she said, fingering her sword.
“Well, ’tis just as well that I came to join ye!” said Owyns as she stepped out of the shadows behind the couple. She had drawn her own sword, and light gleamed off of it as her own icy gaze met Chian’s own.
“Owyns, I would welcome your sword! I have reason to know of its skill!” she said wryly.
Smiling, Owyns said, “Aye? My temper be as quick as the blade I carry. I am sorry I misjudged ye before. I thank ye for aiding my sister!”
At that moment, Skullus and his gang rounded the corner and loomed into view. They were angry and ready for violence.
“This is no ordinary mob!” said Arion. “They seem to be under a spell. It is like the mob was a swarm of bees being guided by blind instinct!” Stepping in front of the group, he shouted, “Stop! I command you to halt!”
Skullus grinned and said, “I will stop when I have placed the bodies of every one of your filthy Golden Gaters on the pyre!”
Lady Chian scowled and said, “Perhaps this might be time for some more physical persuasion!”
“For once we be in agreement, Lady Chian!” said Owyns.
Arion gestured for the women to fall back as he spread wide his arms, and a blinding flash of light filled the night sky.
Skullus cried out in pain as the powerful illumination left him temporarily blinded. His followers suffered the same fate as they cried out and groped for some type of support. “Curse you, mage!” cried Skullus. “If I could just get my hands on you!”
Lady Chian darted forward and knocked the burly, bald man flat with one swing of her fist. Leading Arion and Owyns aside, she conferred with them in whispered tones. “You’ve calmed the mob,” she said. “They won’t do any damage while they are too blind to see their own hands. Let me signal the guardsman we passed a few streets back to bring troops and round up this gang!”
Arion nodded and said, “Excellent idea! While you do as much, I shall trace the source of their rage!” Lady Chian nodded and raced off into the night.
“Pardon me for askin’, but surely they were just ne’er-do-wells out for blood!” said Owyns. “The cause of their destructive ways needs little examination!”
“I fear you are wrong,” said Arion. “I sense a magic dark and dire about their actions tonight. I felt the stirrings of their master back at the palace. I have felt that taint before like the canker of an open sore. I fear an ancient evil is loose this night, and it feeds upon such madness like a vampire!” Rising up into the sky, he flew over the city.
Owyns stared up after him and shook her head. “These Atlanteans be a strange lot!” she said. “Still, where that nobleman goes, trouble follows, so I’ll be doin’ the same!”
Landing before the old building that housed the abbess of Kr’rth, Arion nodded slowly. “This is the source of the darkness. Like the odor of carrion, this place bespeaks of death and decay. I will find the source and end it swiftly and surely as dawn ends the dark!”
Entering, he found himself facing the black-robed cult of Kr’rth. Many people would have retreated from such a palpably evil assembly, but Arion merely walked forward boldly and announced his presence in stentorian tones. “Kr’rth! I recognize your stench! Know that I will not tolerate your kind. This city suffered too long under one darker than you, and I will not permit any more harm to come to these people!”
The abbess of Kr’rth laughed her silvery laugh and stepped on to the stage to confront the high mage. “Arion, I welcome you here,” she said. “My Darkling Prince has unfinished business with you, as do I!”
Arion glared at her with contempt as he said, “When last we met, you were foolishly trying to seduce a phantasm I left behind in your private chamber. Your chances of defeating me are equally as insubstantial!”
The abbess shouted in anger as her dignity was wounded in front of her cult. “Silence his mocking tongue!” she shouted. “Silence him for the glory of Kr’rth!” A pounding wave of music filled the darkened hall as Dharel stood on the stage and began to sing in a dirge-like manner.
The cult members rushed forward to attack Arion, even as he vanished from sight and left them to crash into one another. Each cultist saw another cult member as Arion and fought to subdue his own ally. In truth, he had concealed himself from their view completely.
“Very clever, high lord Arion! Still, your illusions can’t fool me! I see you and know you, spawn of Calculha!” said a thunderous voice as a massive creature with a humanoid build, lurid red skin, and curved horns appeared before him.
“Kr’rth himself!” said Arion, staring up at the giant being. “You’ve absorbed enough malice and hate from these dupes to escape the limbo prison in which Tynan first placed you and I last left you!”
As Kr’rth laughed in reply, the sound echoed through the chamber like the sound of breaking glass. “How can hate be contained when you petty mortals breed so readily and carry the seeds of destruction within your paltry bodies?” he said.
Arion made no reply, merely sending a blazing bolt of mystical force surging through the gloating monster with a gesture.
Shrugging off the attack, Kr’rth brought his hand down to crush the much-smaller mage.
Arion’s magical shield stopped the clawed hand from crushing him, but it did nothing to deflect or repel the attack itself. By Deedra’s Chain! he thought. He resists me! I bested him before with power loaned to me from my father, but now even my own fresh might cannot halt his rampage! I know he feeds upon the hatred and anger of his followers, but that is nothing new! What makes this time so different?