Lars closed his eyes and bowed his head. The sense in his mind was drawing closer and the presence was almost audible. He tried to fight back with everything within him, but it began to speak. The shade was very close.
In the opening of the far wall, a figure appeared. He wore a blue robe with a purple sash wrapped about his waist like a belt. His red hair peeked out from beneath his hood. His eyes seemed to sparkle with all the colors of the rainbow. His face bore the most menacing sneer Lars had ever seen.
In that instant, Lars felt like he was being transported to the past. Through his mind’s eyes, he saw that he was on the banks of a river with a bird’s eye view of the swordfight below him. The figure Lars recognized as the man before his eyes in Gnar-Angrith was beating a man barely older than himself. This was Paladin introducing himself.
His opponent was Lars’ father. Lars could tell by the tall imposing frame that drooped with fatigue and lacked confidence. Lars could sense his father’s despair as if it were a part of him. This was right before the elves had arrived to rescue Ashúr. The shade’s blow was about to fall.
Through his mind, Lars retorted that the shade had been unable to finish the fight, scared off by Dorfindal and his elves. The laugh from the shade was feral. “That matters not. I am Paladin.” The voice was as hard as stone. “I drew them into a trap at Ûrkkarth.”
“But they escaped.” Lars projected the images of that fierce battle to the best of his understanding. “Jhadiz and I rescued them after a long fight. Many of your orcs were killed and Dorfindal’s host killed what pursued us.”
Paladin laughed again. Images flashed through Lars’ mind showing the battle on the slopes of Gnar-Angrith. They depicted Ashúr’s swordplay with one of the Eleven Terrors and the arrows flying in that killed him. Anger and sorrow filled Lars’ heart as he watched the images of his father breathing his last.
Lars drew Ferrang from the sheath, its blue blade glowing with his emotions. “Enough!” He shouted and Ferrang erupted in flames.
Paladin raised his hand over his head and a red sword of fire formed in it. It was like an extension of his arm. The two combatants closed with each other and crossed blades. The initial blow sent shivers up Lars’ sword arm, but he recovered to take his position.
Lars held Ferrang gingerly but for the emotion that coursed through him. He didn’t know what forms and strikes he employed; only that he used them. Still, it wasn’t enough. An evil beyond reckoning bound his movements and Lars always felt a second slow.
Ferrang, still glowing blue in Lars’ hand, wheeled and arched with Lars’ hand weakly attached to it. It was as if the weapon had a will of its own. Jhadiz only stared at the swordfight with a surprised look on his face. Lars thought for a moment about what he was doing and suddenly felt inadequate.
‘Dez should be the one doing this part; he’s way better at this than me.’
At that moment, the adrenaline and emotion of what Lars had seen in his mind’s eye ran dry and Lars’ arm dragged Ferrang slower. Almost on cue, Paladin went on the offensive. If Lars had previously thought Paladin’s sneer was menacing, the confident grin that formed out of it was equally disheartening.
With the first blow from Paladin’s fiery sword, Lars felt pain in his head. Lars remembered reading about this in his father’s journal, but he never imagined it would be like this. His head throbbed and quivered like a gate being struck by a battering ram.
“I need Dez’s help badly. Why isn’t he doing something? He knows I’m not as good a swordsman as him, yet he just stands there with that dumb look on his face,” Lars thought as he parried desperately.
Paladin was executing a series of slashing attacks, each one feeding on the momentum of the last. Lars could only weakly block them with Ferrang and jump away from the blow that followed. He wished now he’d paid more attention when Dorfindal was showing Jhadiz sword moves. He’d thought they’d be unimportant because of what he’d learned from Rillian.
As the battle continued on, Lars grew more tired and Paladin’s attacks were harder to avoid. With each strike, Lars’ headache intensified and his nerves numbed. Twice, Lars wasn’t quick enough to block a stab at his thigh or arm and blood leeched out of fresh wounds.
With the fight worsening for Lars, the grin on Paladin’s face widened and Jhadiz’s surprised stupor changed to a horrified stare. He seemed frozen in position, understanding the situation but unable to help.
“He’s probably seeing Paladin’s intentions.” Lars winced. “No matter! I’m about to die at the hand of my adversary and there’s nothing he can do about it.”
“You will be taken to the place where spirits cannot rest.” Lars was certain that thought wasn’t his own and it angered him. Ferrang’s glow diminished.
“Get out of my mind, Paladin!” Lars shouted as he closed his eyes for a brief second.
Taking a deep breath and releasing it like Rillian taught him, Lars tried to clear his mind. It was like dusting spider webs, except that the spiders were spinning webs faster than he could dust them away. With much effort, Lars focused on what he wanted to do. Ferrang burst forth with light again, brighter than before, and outshone the lamps in the corners.
“I wish magic wasn’t limited by my knowledge,” Lars thought as the duel took on new life.
Bright Ferrang jumped in Lars’ hand as if it had a mind of its own. For a time, Paladin only watched as Ferrang leapt out of Lars’ grasp in a series of complex combinations. Lars had seen Jhadiz use them on the journey through Dôrthang Ar Dae. He was sure he wasn’t using them properly, but they seemed to do the job.
Paladin stepped back at this show of skill, however artificial it was. Nothing seemed to faze him or steal the expression from his face. He was only withdrawing to ready his next strike.
Lars stood before Paladin with Ferrang at the ready. At that moment, he didn’t know whether to press the attack or to wait. An invisible hand grabbed him and kept him from moving. Lars remembered his staff still clutched in his left hand and prepared a fireball to send Paladin’s way.
Red flame burst forth from Lars’ staff, soaring toward its target as if in slow motion. The fire gave the room an orange light. Paladin seemed to have expected it, for, at the last second, a purple glow surrounded him and absorbed Lars’ magic.
Lars felt the invisible hand release him. Dropping his staff, Lars ran to Paladin, Ferrang raised over his head in both hands. Feeding all of his strength and momentum into his arms, Lars struck the orb. The sound rang in the small room and Lars’ whole body quivered with the reverberations.
Once Lars recovered, he realized that all his effort had done nothing to the orb, much less Paladin. In frustration, he swung Ferrang across the purple shield of magic. None of his many attempts had any effect on the orb and only left Lars exhausted.
“Paladin has retreated to his safe bubble. I can’t do anything to break it or get to him.” Lars thoughts were in agony. “I must simply wait for the evil he might be brewing.” Then the next thought came as hopelessly as the last. “He can just stay in that thing indefinitely, blocking our escape and dooming us to the slow death of starving.”
Just as that thought vanished from his mind, a voice he deemed not his own spoke in his mind. “There is a greater doom prepared for you. Your flesh will burn and rot before your eyes and the stench will suffocate you.”
Suddenly, the rock of the passage shook and convulsed, as if it were about to vomit something up. In its wake, Lars was thrown back toward the door through which they’d entered. Only his pack, discarded before the duel, broke his landing. Bones that should have snapped were only severely bruised.
Pain rocked Lars’ body as the ground in front of him split open and a purple ball on fire appeared out of the chasm. The ball grew in size and unfolded like a pop up tent. The chasm closed up and a gigantic purple dragon landed in its place, formed out of the ball. Out of the corner of his eye, Lars saw that Jhadiz was still frozen in place, his horrified stare mixed with gloom.
The dragon stared at Lars with unwavering yellow eyes. The serpent’s long tail curled up behind it, stuffed into a space too small. The wings twitched and the hot breath from them extinguished the lamps, leaving a red and purple glow. The dragon’s eyes, though fierce, looked sad somehow. Lars had the strange feeling he recognized this beast.
Again, Lars’ mind’s eye was transported to sometime in the past. Paladin stood on a field with a purple dragon and its female rider across from him. Images transformed into words. Thunder was the name of this dragon, Sherreth, and his rider, Zanetta, was once a friend of Rufeo’s.
Suddenly, the images of the dragon and Zanetta swirled and morphed into a purple orb in Lars mind. He knew the connotation almost immediately. Zanetta was trapped inside her dragon, this dragon, now controlled by Paladin. The images passed and Lars was allowed his own thoughts.
“Just because they were once friends doesn’t mean they aren’t completely bad now. They are controlled by Paladin.” Despair overtook him. “I couldn’t defeat Paladin before, how am I supposed to defeat him now?”
Tears fell from his eyes as he dropped to his knees, hopeless, helpless, and alone. Tears came in floods, burning his eyes. He had failed in his quest and the weight of the past would crush him. He was going to die.
“Who among you represents strength?” The voice in his head was Silvarin’s, his speech before the ship departed Alquaelin. “There is always One greater than you!” The voice trailed off and a woman’s voice, Nefertiri’s, replaced it.
“You do not always see clearly what lies before you, but some paths are chosen for you…he has a chance to do something great, but knows only his sovereign can really achieve it…Remember your Sovereign! Elavar will go before you and prepare your way!”
Magic was Elavar’s power, a gift to mankind, but limited by one’s knowledge, an incomplete weapon. He needed Elavar’s unhindered, infinite might if he was to prevail, and there was only one way to get it.
Hope resurfaced as Lars surrendered the battle to his sovereign. “Elavar, save me,” he whispered as he set Ferrang down next to his staff.
The dragon drew himself up on his hunches and prepared to release a blast of fire. From his place kneeling in front of the beast, Lars glanced at Jhadiz. There was a certain calm about his features now and a brightness that flickered in his eyes. Jhadiz never looked away from the dragon as a smile stole across his face.
The dragon roared and the sound boomed and echoed in the small room. Instead of drawing away in fear, Lars prayed. “Elavar, this battle is Yours! You know best!” Then the fire came.
Spewing forth from the dragon’s mouth, the red and purple flames burst through the air, steamy with vapor. Raised by invisible hands, Ferrang wheeled in front of the rush of liquid fire.
Miraculously, Ferrang blocked and absorbed the fire so not even its heat touched Lars and Jhadiz. The mithril of the blade glowed red with the heat before dissipating into the sword. Lars shivered as a sense of overwhelming peace came upon him.
Time and again, the dragon reared up and unleashed its fury. Each time, Ferrang in the invisible hand absorbed the flames until it retained the red orange glow of hot metal. In his orb of protection, Paladin’s grin was erased from his face and a look of disbelief replaced it.
With each blast, Lars could see more parts of a figure robed in light gripping his father’s sword. First, a hand then the whole arm, next the head and a leg appeared until the whole figure could be seen. It was as if a shroud was slowly being peeled away from Lars’ eyes and he could finally see clearly.
The figure in light turned his attention from the tiring dragon to Paladin in his purple orb. He still held Ferrang in his hand, red hot with the heat of fire. Walking on air as if floating, the figure came to stop before Lars’ adversary. With a sure strike, he struck the orb with the fiery sword.
The force of the blow shattered the shield into bits, like the pieces of a broken window. Purple stained shards scattered across the hard stone in a symphony of sounds. The figure stopped for a moment, Ferrang raised over Paladin’s head.
Paladin offered an earsplitting screech that matched the look of undiluted horror that covered his pale face. Lars had no desire, even now, to take over the fight; it just wouldn’t have been right. Out of the corner of his eyes, Lars could see Jhadiz looking on, convulsing uncontrollably.
“It is over!” the figure said as he made ready a final lunge.
Light engulfed the two combatants and shrouded the scene. A flicker revealed Ferrang plunged into the heart of Paladin, before light hid it again. The light appeared to grow in intensity for a moment before fading and disappearing. A breeze like the breath of a deep sigh blew over the room and the dragon disintegrated in its wake.
“The spirits of Zanetta and Sherreth can be at peace at last.” Lars thought from his place on the floor.
Tears of joy, tears of thanks streamed down Lars’ checks as a sense of unexplainable restfulness came upon him. Jhadiz stirred as if waking from a deep sleep. He put a hand on his shoulder where the muscle twitched. Looking around for a moment, he turned to his friend.
“Come, Lars. We must go.”
“No, He is here! I want to stay.” Lars replied weakly, as if only barely attached to the world around him. He was drawn to the feeling of abiding he felt when Nehru was in his midst.
“I know He’s here, but we must go. There is much still to be done.” Jhadiz helped Lars to his gear and led the way through the door in the far side of the room.
Lars followed slowly behind Jhadiz, basking for a final second before resuming the long, arduous journey. ‘You don’t have to leave My presence; you can take Me with you!’ The thought in his head was in Nehru’s voice and left more questions than answers.