"Feryl," Arzon said from across the chessboard, now almost totally devoid of pieces after a lengthy game between the two young knights, "it's your move."
Feryl frowned with concentration as he considered his options, studying the board closely to make sure that any moves he made against Arzon's pieces would not leave his own vulnerable on the next turn. But, before he could decide on the best course of action, strange things began to happen . . .
The first of these was the sudden appearence of around half-a-dozen balls of blue light that drifted into the room as if through solid stone and promptly converged on Arzon. Instinctively, he reached for the four-bladed dagger that served as his weapon, hoping desperately that he would be able to fend off this unknown menace until Feryl could fetch help. But what followed happened so fast that Feryl barely had time to do anything except look on in helpless disbelief.
Arzon's chest-plate glowed briefly as an Eagle shot out and soared through an open window and disappeared into the distance. There was nothing unusual in a Spectral Knight taking on animal form, but, in this instance, Arzon's human form showed no sign of disappearing as was usually the case when a Visionary shapeshifted. There could be no doubt that some sinister magic was at work here, magic powerful enough to cause a Totem to separate from its owner . . .
"Arzon," Feryl said with an edge of panic in his voice, "what's going on?!"
Arzon looked as if he was about to reply, but, before he could do so, he slumped to the floor and no amount of shaking on Feryl's part could rouse him.
Leoric looked up with a start as Feryl burst into his private quarters with a look of anxiety on his young face.
"Feryl, what's wrong?" he asked, instinct telling him that whatever it was had to be serious. Feryl could be somewhat impulsive at times, inclined to say and do things without considering them fully, but his loyalty to Leoric was beyond question and there was no way he would bother his leader unless it was a real emergency.
Feryl forced himself to speak coherently as he explained as fully as he could. "I wish I knew," he told Leoric. "These . . . balls of light attacked Arzon - then, his Totem somehow escaped from his chest-plate and he just collapsed . . ."
"Where is he?" Leoric asked as he and Feryl hurried down the corridor that led from his quarters. He had learned enough about magic since the Spectral Knights formed to know that strange balls of light could be a serious matter, particularly they seemed to have some power over a Visionary's Totem. And, when Arzon's sudden and unexplained collapse was added to the equation . . .
"In here," Feryl replied as he led Leoric into the room where the strange events had unfolded. Arzon was lying face-down on the floor, in the same position he had been in when Feryl left him to fetch Leoric, and showed no signs of responding when Leoric knelt down beside him and rolled him onto his back. As he did so, he made certain to check the signs that would reveal whether or not Arzon was alive - those signs were there, but they were so faint as to be almost undetectable . . .
"Well?" Feryl demanded as Leoric straightened up and looked at him gravely. "What's wrong with him?"
"I honestly can't say," Leoric informed his young friend. "Whatever it is, he's out of it and unless we can find out what we're up against . . ." There was no need to finish the last sentence; it was obvious to both knights that Arzon's life was in serious danger.
Instinctively, Leoric took charge of the situation as best he could. Wasting no time, he lifted Arzon off the floor and turned to go. "I'll get Arzon upstairs," he informed Feryl. "And I think you'd better go inform the others - tell them what's happened."
The Spectral Knights had faced many perils and learned of many potentially deadly spells during the Age of Magic, but they had never come across anything resembling the strange events Feryl had witnessed in the moments before Arzon passed out. To make matters worse, had it been anyone other than Arzon, the young knight could have summoned the Bearer of Knowledge and they would at least have had some idea of what they were up against. As things stood, however, all six of them were a loss for answers - the life of a friend hung in the balance and none of them knew what was wrong or how to cure him.
"It was some powerful magic that did this," Leoric said as he placed his hand over Arzon's. "Of that much I'm certain - it's figuring out what is was that's the problem . . ."
Feryl had been leaning against the door and decided now might be the moment to voice his opinions. "And, every second we stay here, we're losing him," he said, not moving from where he stood.
Leoric sighed heavily, realising this would require him to call on every leaderships skill he possessed, but even that might not be enough to bring Arzon out of his deadly faint. Feryl's assessment of the situation had a chilling accuracy to it and he wondered if he should ask the Owl of Wisdom for its advice on how to handle this. But a quick glance at Arzon, lying deathly still and showing no signs that he was aware of his friends' presence, told him otherwise. Sometimes, the Owl's riddles could be difficult to unravel and there was no time for anything like that right now.
"Feryl," Leoric said, turning to his young comrade, "go ready the Capture Chariot for the trip to Iron Mountain - we'll need Merklynn's advice on this. As for the rest of you, Ectar and Witterquick must stay behind to watch over Arzon. Cryotek and Galadria, meet us downstairs . . ."
In common with all the Visionaries, Leoric had developed the ability to sense when magic was at the root of a problem - and that seemed to be the case most of the time these days. But determining the exact nature of that magic was beyond the capabilities of a mere magic-user; that required someone with extensive knowledge of the mystical arts, enough to determine which spell was responsible and, if necessary, how to counteract it. That required a wizard . . .
Before he left the room, Leoric cast a lingering glance at Arzon's unconscious form and hoped against hope that this was not going to be the last time he saw the young knight alive.
At Iron Mountain, Merklynn stood listening as the four Spectral Knights standing before him explained the nature of the crisis that had prompted them to seek his aid. Eventually, when they were through speaking, he nodded grimly, knowing that there was only one spell on Prysmos that could have had such a drastic effect on Arzon.
"From what you've told me, I'm fairly certain we're dealing with a spell known as the Call of the Eagle here," he told them. Then, seeing that Feryl looked as though he was about to butt in and ask what the Call of the Eagle did, he hurried on. "It's an incantation that gives any wizard who utters it absolute control over all birds of prey - hawks, ospreys, kestrels, no feathered hunter can resist the Call . . ."
"I see," Leoric replied, understanding how such a spell might have some effect on Arzon's Eagle Totem but not how it could have left Arzon himself lying close to death. "But what does this have to do with Arzon?"
"The spell is potentially lethal to any human who has an affinity with birds," said Merklynn. "In Arzon's case, it tore his Totem away from him so abruptly that the shock weakened him . . ."
"So what happens now?" Feryl cut in. He didn't intend to sound impatient - that was just a manifestation of his outspoken nature - but he knew that every second he and his fellow Spectral Knights stayed at Iron Mountain was a second lost in the race to save Arzon.
With a wave of his hand, Merklynn materialised a spell-book as if out of thin air and stood flipping through its dusty pages. Finally, he looked up at the four knights and the expression on his face immediately told them that the outlook was not good. "As each day passes, the spell grows in strength," he explained. "Soon, there will be not a single bird of prey that is not under its influence. As for Arzon, I fear he will almost certainly die unless the spell is broken before then . . ."
A shocked mutter issued forth from among the Spectral Knights as they heard this grim news; it was what they had been dreading ever since Arzon collapsed. Merklynn studied each of them, noting their reactions - Galadria and Feryl, who were close to Arzon in terms of age, stood staring speechlessly at the wizard while Cryotek clenched his fists and Leoric gripped the handle of his Power Staff as though in a prayer for strength. The tableau held for a few moments before Galadria, her voice trembling slightly, broke the shocked silence.
"No!" she said out loud. "No - that's not going to happen! Merklynn, you have to do something, counter the spell!"
Merklynn shook his head; he genuinely wished he could help, but the Call of the Eagle was not a spell that could be undone just like that. "Alas, if it was that simple," he told the four knights. "But this spell was designed so that, once it was invoked, only the one who said the words could reverse it."
With that, he turned to his viewscreen and waved his hand to reveal the image of another wizard, a wizard with receding collar-length brown hair who wore a long green robe trimmed with gold braiding. In his hands he carried a wooden staff that had been artfully carved so that the handle resembled the head of a bird of prey. "This," Merklynn explained, "is Cavortra, a minor wizard but blinded by ambition. All through the First Age of Magic, he cared about little other than gaining control over all birds of prey . . ."
"So he's the one responsible for Arzon!" interjected Cryotek, his muscles tensing at the thought of what he would like to do this Cavortra once he caught up with him.
"And he's the one you must seek if you are to save your friend," Merklynn added as he sensed that Cryotek was about to say a lot more. "And, to do that, the four of you must travel deep into the Swamp of Secrets - for that is where Cavortra made his Shrine."
Darkstorm sat glaring angrily at Virulina as she reported back from her latest foray into Leoric's territory.
"If this is a hoax, Virulina, you'll have me to answer to!" he snapped impatiently after sitting through her story of how a Spectral Knight had collapsed and now lay close to death.
Virulina threw up her arms in a gesture of mock protest - she had been hiding in New Valarak all afternoon, her armour and the Shark Totem that would have given her away instantly concealed under traveller's robes, and the last thing she expected was to be disbelieved. "Why would I lie about something like this?" she asked Darkstorm. "I saw what I saw - Arzon's as good as dead."
Darkstorm started drumming his fingers on the armrest of his throne, a sure sign that he was plotting something. "Good - one down, six to go," he said menacingly as he thought of all the times he had tried to bump off the Spectral Knights - and it now looked as though someone else had done the job for him. "But, if I know the Spectral Knights, they'll stop at nothing to save him."
"So?" This question came from Mortdredd. The fawning Darkling Lord was, as usual, loitering at Darkstorm's side awaiting his master's next orders. This continually servile behaviour had long made him the object of ridicule and many people had called him a "bootlicker" right to his face, in the presence of others.
"So we'll stop at nothing to stop them!" Darkstorm shouted as he leapt up and began barking out his orders. "Mortdredd, go ready the Sky-Claw! Virulina, help Reekon with the Dagger Assault! We'll track those Spectral Knights down and make sure they don't save their friend!"
"Yes, Darkstorm," Mortdredd replied, bowing deeply as he backed out of the room.
The sight of the fawning knight humbling himself before his ruler was more than Virulina could resist - like most of the Darkling Lords, she could be extremely spiteful when the mood took her. "Yes, Darkstorm; no, Darkstorm; three bags full, Darkstorm!" she mimicked with a wicked sneer on her face. "Can't you stop boot-licking for five minutes?"
Mortdredd, who was still standing in the doorway, glared - there were few things he hated more than having his loyalty to Darkstorm ridiculed - and would have turned on her had Darkstorm not intervened.
"Get out!" he yelled, hurling a pewter goblet at the door to his throne-room. Mortdredd and Virulina hurriedly left, only too aware of how unpredictable Darkstorm's temper could be. The slightest affront to his ego could leave him in a foul mood for hours or even days.
"Which is the quickest route through the Swamp?"
This question came from Galadria as she and her three companions gathered together to plan their search for Cavortra, the wizard whose ill-thought-out spell had put Arzon in such danger. They all knew that there was little time to waste, that they had to complete this quest as quickly as possible before the Call of the Eagle destroyed their friend. And if that meant exploring a swamp about which they knew precious little, that was what they would have to do.
Feryl unfolded the map Merklynn had given them and propped it against the Capture Chariot as he studied it closely. "I don't know about the rest of you," he told his companions, "but I think we should . . ."
He was cut off abruptly as Mortdredd and Cravex swooped down in the Skyclaw, peppering the area around the four Spectral Knights with blasts from the craft's weapons system. The two Darkling Lords watched with smug satisfaction as their foes dived for cover, taking advantage of the fact that the Capture Chariot was between themselves and their enemies. But, once they had recovered from the shock of the initial assault, the Spectral Knights quickly regrouped for a counterattack . . .
"Galadria and Cryotek, get in the hover pods and take off after them!" Leoric ordered, keeping a tight hold on his whip in case Mortdredd brought the Sky-Claw within range. "Feryl and I will block them from the ground." In response to their leader's words, Cryotek and Galadria leapt into the two detachable scout craft at the Capture Chariot's rear and zoomed into the sky in pursuit of the Sky-Claw. Feryl, meanwhile, seized hold of the steering helm and swerved the vehicle round in a three-point turn as Leoric took aim with the rear guns.
Above their heads, Galadria and Cryotek steered the hover-pods within range of the Sky-Claw and performed a mid-air about turn before simultaneously sending blasts of blue fire out of the rear of the pods. This was one of the harder tricks in the Capture Chariot's arsenal of weapons to pull off, not least because it required you to turn your back on the enemy for a moment. But it was a powerful move if it hit successfully . . .
In this case, Galadria managed to land a hit on the Sky-Claw's guns, putting them temporarily out of commission and causing Cravex to yell something unrepeatable at Mortdredd. Cryotek quickly took advantage of the Darkling Lords' momentary lapse in concentration to, risking a terrible fall in the process, leap onto the Sky-Claw in a bid to eject its two riders. As he landed, he assumed his Bear form and, with one swat of his powerful paw, quickly unseated Cravex seconds before the Darkling Lord could counter-attack with his Power Staff.
Cravex was in his Phylot form and making good his escape within moments, but that didn't concern Cryotek - with a bit of luck, Leoric and Feryl would deal with him. His current priority was to keep Mortdredd busy long enough to allow Galadria time to get back to her fellow Spectral Knights, but he hoped this wouldn't take too long. This time, there was more at stake than the preservation of the Circle of Light . . .