<center> ~ Chapter Four ~ </center> The room was black, darker than a moonless night. Her disheveled hair hung before her eyes as her head hung down. The sound of her hoarse breathing filled the chamber. Her knuckles were white around the staff in her hands. The staff itself seemed not black, but more like a void: it was solid yet untouched by light. Periodically various runes and spell forms inscribed into the staff would flash a brief burst of indigo light. She stared blankly at the darkness in front of her. In the emptiness, she saw the shattered remnant of the Gem. She saw Mondain, and his final breaths, his final words. The darkness in the room began growing. She saw the ruby droplets of blood dripping one by one from the sword blade. The flashes of light grew to a painful intensity. She saw the emblem on his tunic, the Serpent Crest: the crest of Lord British. Her body began convulsing, wracked with pain. In the depthless void, she saw her vengeance, saw retribution. Yet she could not grasp it. The flashing abruptly ceased as Minax fell to her knees, spent. Weeping tears of frustration, she seethed with anger. The staff clattered against the ground, echoing in the emptiness. In this lightless expanse she felt again her pain, felt again her sorrow, and felt again her broken heart. Though it was rending her very soul, she was nonetheless grateful to feel at all. Light and sound flooded into the room, wrenching away such thoughts. “Lady Minax! Are you hurt?” Minax looked over her shoulder to give the man a smoldering glower. In a voice that was exhausted, yet undeniably laced with venom, she asked him, “Did I not specifically say that no one was to enter this chamber?” Gaspard nodded uncertainly, taking a step back. She turned away. “Yes, Mistress, but…” Before he could give an excuse, Gaspard was blasted by a bolt of mental energy, blown through the open doorway to stain the floor without. Minax reached out, dragging the staff to her, its end scraping against the floor. With its aid, she got to her feet and turned toward the doorway. “That,” she whispered hoarsely, “will be the last time you ever disobey me.” Her throat was raw -- she had spent countless hours calling out the words of power, stringing them in the archaic incantations. “Hoularn,” she tried to call out, but it came out a croaking whisper. Swallowing, she tried again, this time loud enough to be heard. The robed figure ran in the doorway, answering, “Yes, Mistress?” Growling in frustrated anger, Minax waved an arm, engulfing Hoularn in gouts of flame. His screams soon died out. Minax took a few hesitant steps toward the door, leaning heavily on the staff. She had not the strength to call out again. Minax held her eyes shut against the torchlight in the room outside. After so long in depthless night, it was as though she were staring straight into the sun. At last, she felt the cold stone on the floor of the next room as she passed through the doorway. She opened her eyes, blinking away the stinging tears. “My Lady,” called a deep and respectful voice. Turning toward the speaker, she was nearly ready to lash out at him as well. She stopped herself, though -- the man’s eyes were closed. He was taller even than her, and broad shouldered. His dark gray hair hung straight, a few inches below his shoulders. All of him, from his toes to the top of his neck, was layered in black armor. The man was holding his arms out. In one, he held a long black cloak. Smiling through her exhaustion, she took the offered cloak, and threw it over her bare shoulders. She looked then, at his other hand, which offered a goblet. Gratefully, she took the goblet. Fearing it would be wine, she was relieved to taste that it was simple water. Minax drank it down slowly, easing some of the pain in her throat. Minax turned away, toward the center of the room. “Juo’nar,” she said, still sounding worn but not so hoarse, “what indeed would I do without you?” There was a raised floor stone in the center of the room. Minax laid the empty goblet on the corner. She could hear the muffled rattling of Juo’nar’s armor as he followed her to the pedestal. “It seems you’re the only one who can do something without being ordered to.” Juo’nar stood nearby, behind her, but he didn’t respond. Minax lifted the staff of her mentor up in both hands, inserting the end of it into the hole in the center of the raised stone pedestal. There was a click as the staff slid into place. Feeling wobbly, Minax pulled the front of the cloak closed and stared blankly ahead. At last, Juo’nar spoke, asking, “You have succeeded, then, milady?” She looked over her shoulder at him, then turned away again. “I have broken the field, if that’s what you’re asking. That,” she said, starting to feel her frustration building again, “that I accomplished ages ago…. I was unable to invert the forces, though. British, and Britannia, still live on. He wove his threads well.” Juo’nar let out one small, sardonic laugh. “I see not the difference, Lady Minax. Break the field or invert it’s force -- either way, Britannia will be destroyed.” His tone softened a bit as he added, “At least, this way, you may grasp retribution personally.” “Indeed,” she replied noncommittally. Master, she said silently, please give me the strength to realize your dream. “Juo’nar, they have become a warrior people. It will not be so easy as you seem to think.” She shook her head, then said, “Come. I must begin this campaign!” She turned toward the exit, preparing to go and issue orders. Minax felt her most loyal general’s gauntlets on her shoulders, catching her before she fell. “Not yet,” he said quietly. He reached around and pulled the cloak closed again, then hooked one arm under her legs and lifted her gently. “First, my Lady, you must rest.” He turned and began carrying her to the door. “Be at ease. You have broken Lord British’s shield. Now we can begin while you recover your strength.” Minax lifted her head, but was too tired to protest. She let her head drop back against his arm. As she began drifting away, she heard Juo’nar continue on. “Worry not about the Britannians. Though combat is in their blood, I know a way to turn that into their greatest weakness.” Minax’s last thoughts, before she drifted to sleep, were of Mondain. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Juo’nar walked away from the closed bedroom after laying Lady Minax to rest. As he strode down the dark corridors, Juo’nar thought about Britannia. He thought, too, about Sosaria as a whole. He wondered how life would be, after. He had hopes, but knew only that the coming times would be harsh. There was much to consider upon. In the poorly lit stone corridors, his boot strikes echoed loudly. Juo’nar lifted his head; for the moment, there was only one path before him. That was the path he would tread, and that’s all he need worry about. The halls were all empty -- there were few allowed on these floors. When Juo’nar came to the stairwell, he paused. After a brief consideration, he started up toward the top floor. No one was allowed on that floor without being beckoned by Lady Minax. Juo’nar knew that she might very well kill him for it. It would, however, give him the illusion of authority he needed. Hesitantly, Juo’nar stepped into the chamber. The vast dome overhead stretched across the entire tower. As expansive as the room was, it was nigh barren. The stone floor tiles were arranged in geometric patterns, with veins of different ores forming separate bizarre figures. Juo’nar watched the designs curiously as he walked toward the pedestal in the center of the chamber. Resting atop the ornately wrought pedestal was a small, jagged crystal. A fragment of the mythical Gem of Immortality -- Juo’nar found it difficult to believe that it could have possessed the power legends claimed. At least, he always found it so until he peered into the gem. Rotating inside the clear stone was a perfect likeness of Sosaria. The four continents slowly moved past: Kedalith, Sigoan, Qaedia, and Britannia. Juo’nar smiled to himself; even though stripped of its powers, the Gem still made an excellent globe. Placing his hand against the blackrock pedestal, Juo’nar closed his eyes, and thought of the officers he needed to see. “Serim, Karil, Luinean, come here,” he called, then waited. They would come, he knew. Serim was the first to appear. A sad-looking excuse for a man, Serim was nonetheless quite capable. His stiff leather armor was a deep red color, stark against his pale face and dark hair. Almost a head shorter than Juo’nar, and much leaner, Serim perpetually wore a sour frown. Next to appear was Sayis Karil. Karil carried himself with a quiet grace that bespoke great confidence. This belied the youth’s obedient and laid back attitude. An accomplished warrior and tactician, Sayis was ill-suited to stealth, since his iridescent green eyes and prematurely gray hair drew a good deal of attention. The young general wore no armor over his simple black tunic. Luinean teleported into the room a fair time behind the other two. He rested a large battleaxe over his shoulder, the solid black weapon matching the chainmail tunic draped around the burly man’s torso. Though mostly bald, Luinean had a thick and unkempt beard. In contrast to Serim, Luinean had a persistent grin and a merry look in his eyes. Before Juo’nar could begin speaking, Serim spoke up in irritation. “Where is Mistress Minax, Juo’nar?” he asked tersely. Frowning at his attitude, Juo’nar began by telling them, “Lady Minax has succeeded in destroying the field surrounding the land of Britannia. It is now open for us to begin our campaign against Lord British.” Juo’nar turned toward the Gem fragment, staring into it as he spoke. “We will begin by --“ “Wait! Are you implying that we’re to take orders from you?” Serim cried out incredulously. Juo’nar fixed him with a withering glare. “I’m implying nothing, Serim. I am giving you orders -- you will follow them.” “I take orders only from my Mistress.” “Who,” Juo’nar replied, “is currently preparing for the next step. Until she says otherwise, I am in command, Serim. Understand?” With a scowl of contempt, Serim nodded. “And you two? Anything you want to say?” Both shook their heads. “Very well then. Now, pay attention. These instructions are simple, but important. Luinean,” Juo’nar began, “your task is to go to Serpent’s Hold. Retrieve all documentation on fighting guilds. Cause destruction on your way in, and out, but do not prolong your stay. “Karil, you are to go to Empath Abbey and retrieve all documentation on artisan guilds. Do not cause mayhem unnecessarily, but use whatever force necessary. Yours is to be a quiet task. “And you, Serim, are to attack the Lycaeum. Be sure to obtain mage guild registers, but you must destroy everything else there. Level the building if you choose, but be sure all the tomes are destroyed.” With a confused frown, Luinean asked, “Why are we doing this?” Juo’nar turned to look him in the eye. “Don’t question; just do.” The balding man shrugged and turned to leave. “Also,” Juo’nar added, “you are each to go alone -- take no soldiers with you.” Luinean shrugged again, then left. Sayis nodded once then left as well. Serim, muttering under his breath, teleported out. Detestable cur, Juo’nar thought. Sighing heavily, Juo’nar walked over to one of the balconies, to look out at the sun on the ocean. If he could just stay the course, play the villain a while longer, then he could achieve the new order which he sought. Although Juo’nar served Lady Minax, he could also use her toward that end. It was already so close that he could feel it. Juo’nar shuddered though, when he thought to wonder who was really using whom.