Mortdredd was circling around in search of the Spectral Knights, determined not to leave until he found them and delayed them long enough to keep them from completing their mission in time to save Arzon. As Darkstorm's self-styled Minister of Loyalty, he would anything to please his dangerous and unpredictable commander and nothing would please Darkstorm more than the destruction of a Spectral Knight. Even though he had not been directly responsible for this . . .
Suddenly, Mortdredd felt himself being grabbed from behind and his arms being pinned to his sides as Cryotek reverted to his human form and launched himself at the Darkling Lord. He tried to make a grab for his scythe, but Cryotek only tightened his grip on him, offering a stark reminder of why Merklynn had awarded him the Bear Totem. There were few among the Visionaries - except maybe Cindarr - who would prove any real threat to him in a trial of strength.
On this occasion, Cryotek lifted Mortdredd out of the Sky-Claw's cockpit and was just about to hurl him to the ground when Leoric, Galadria and Feryl appeared down below in the Capture Chariot. Parking the vehicle directly below the Sky-Claw, Feryl called to his fellow Spectral Knight to forget Mortdredd and jump down to join the others. "We have more important matters to deal with!" he informed Cryotek as the latter reluctantly let the Darkling Lord go and dived off the Sky-Claw to land directly on the Capture Chariot.
"Good work, Cryotek," Leoric said as he stood watching the retreating Sky-Claw disappear into the distance. "Let's just hope we don't run into the rest of them - we can't afford any more delays right now."
His three companions immediately seconded his words, knowing that any further delays to their search for Cavortra could prove fatal for Arzon, and resumed the discussion they had been having before Mortdredd and Cravex interupted. Feryl retrieved the map from under the Capture's Chariot driving seat and unfolded it again. "So . . . where were we?"
"Discussing which route to take through the Swamp," said Cryotek as he walked over to examine the map for himself.
It was too risky to take the Capture Chariot into the Swamp - even though the vehicle hovered a few inches above the ground when it was in use, it still needed to be on solid ground when the engine was switched off - largely because the few safe paths were barely wide enough for a walking human. As a result, the four Spectral Knights elected to leave it behind, hidden in the undergrowth in case the Darkling Lords saw it and got ideas, and continue the journey on foot. Even so, certain precautions were still required as there was always the risk that one of them might accidentally stray off solid ground and into the oozing quagmire and it was Leoric who took charge of the operation.
Wasting no time, he fished two stout ropes out of the Capture Chariot and handed one to Cryotek. As he tied one end around his waist and secured the other around Feryl's, he outlined his plan. "Cryotek, you and I can use our Power Staffs to check the ground," he explained. "But, since Galadria and Feryl don't have Staffs, it'll be safer for them to be roped to someone who does. And, it will make it easier if one of us gets into trouble or starts sinking - if that happens, whoever is still on solid ground will be able to pull the other to safety easier."
Walking while roped together proved to be something of a challenge, not least of which was the fact that each team had to co-ordinate their steps to avoid tripping over each other's feet. But it was the only chance they had of all making it through the Swamp safely and Leoric and Cryotek were careful to allow enough slack to let their younger companions move easily. In addition to this, the knowledge that, somewhere nearby, there could be a pool of thick mud ready to suck in anyone careless enough to step in the wrong place, made them all uneasy. Only the knowledge that they were doing this for Arzon kept them from turning back . . .
"How far are we from Cavotra's Shrine?" Feryl asked at length as he and Leoric staggered through the Swamp with Galadria and Cryotek a little further ahead. So far, they had been lucky and no-one had accidentally stepped into the oozing quagmire, but something, a feeling that trouble lurked around the next corner, was making the young knight uneasy.
"Merklynn said it was in the middle of the Swamp," Leoric replied. "And . . ."
He was cut off abruptly as a sparrowhawk suddenly swooped down with its talons outstretched and, with a harsh screech, made to claw him in the face. Leoric's first move was instinctive - he uncoiled his whip and cracked it at his feathered assailent. This had the effect of checking the hawk for a moment, allowing enough time for Feryl to make a grab for his own weapon, a two-pronged dagger unique among the Visionaries' weapons in having its own magical power.
Wasting no time, Feryl raised the dagger and braced himself to send a bolt of magical energy in the direction of the sparrowhawk. He didn't like what he was about to do, knew only the Call of the Eagle could have driven a sparrowhawk to abandon its usual hunting grounds and venture into a swamp, but he had no choice. With Arzon's life hanging in the balance, there was no way the four Spectral Knights could afford too many delays . . . Feryl quickly let fly with a blast of blue energy, which struck the sparrowhawk full on the head and put it temporarily out of action.
"Nice going, Feryl," Cryotek said as he and Galadria jogged over to join their two friends. "Let's hope you have as much luck dealing with the rest of them . . ." He nodded toward the flock of birds that was bearing down on the four knights.
It was a frenzied assault for the air with the entranced birds attacking the four humans with beaks and talons aimed at their unprotected faces. Leoric and Cryotek struggled to keep the feather foes back with their weapons while Galadria and Feryl worked on undoing the ropes that bound them to their companions - only when all four Spectral Knights were free of the the ropes would they be able to shapeshift into their Totem forms. But fending off birds of prey and protecting a companion at the same time was far from easy and it was almost inevitable that one of the four would end up getting hurt.
That one proved to be Feryl, who was just undoing the lasts of the knots in the rope that bound him to Leoric when he heard the mewing cry of a falcon and turned round just in time to see one of the birds flying directly towards him with its talons outstretched . . . Feryl had no time to react - in any case it was too risky to try an energy bolt from such close range and the fact he was still tethered to Leoric meant assuming his Wolf form was also out of the question - and could only close his eyes as the sharp talons brutally clawed his face.
"Get off him, you feathered fiend!" Leoric yelled, beating the falcon back as he tried to shield Feryl from further attack. "Galadria and Cryotek, we have to get undercover!" he told his other two companions. "There are too many of them to fight without the vehicles!"
Cryotek gazed ruefully at the circling birds. He was no wildlife expert, but he did know that these birds did not usually turn on humans for no reason. It had to be the Call of the Eagle that was making them act this way and that probably meant Cavortra was somewhere nearby. "Where's Arzon when you need him?" he demanded in frustration at the whole situation.
Leoric, Galadria and Feryl paused at the sound of his voice, aware that his rhetorical question held a chilling sense of foreboding. All the Visionaries had a special bond with the creatures that represented their Totems, an ability to communicate with the animals concerned, but few were as adept at it as Arzon. Had he been in the Swamp of Secrets with them, instead of lying unconscious back in New Valarak, he would more than likely have been able to make the birds back off. But, as things stood right now . . .
"Never mind that," Galadria said as she elbowed Cryotek in the side. "Right now, Arzon's the one who needs us."
The four Spectral Knights had been in difficult situations before but never had things looked as desperate as they did right now. They were trapped in the middle of a swamp with no way of contacting the outside world and a flock of enchanted birds of prey circling round, waiting for any signs of movement. And, as if that wasn't bad enough, they had still to locate Cavortra, the wizard who had invoked the Call of the Eagle and, therefore, was the only one who could cancel it. Had Arzon not fallen to the spell's effects on those who had an affinity with birds of prey, he would doubtless have called on the Bearer of Knowledge in a bid to find out exactly where Cavortra's Shrine was. At the very least, he would have tried to raise the flagging spirits of his companions . . .
But, without such a catalyst, the four knights could see little chance of finding Cavortra in time and, even when they did find him, they would still have to convince him to call off the Call of the Eagle. Leoric, seated on a rock with his Power Staff propped up beside him, knew from past experience that wizards did not give up their magic to mortals lightly - even Merklynn had only done so on condition that the Visionaries helped him out in return. So, assuming they did manage to locate Cavortra, what would he demand of them in exchange for Arzon's life?
The sound of Feryl's voice jolted Leoric out of his thoughts and the latter turned round to face his young companion. Feryl had come off relatively lightly in the bird attack; the deepest scratch he had received was the one on his forehead and that looked as though it should heal within a few days. But something was clearly troubling him and Leoric had a feeling he knew what it was . . .
"What's wrong, Feryl?" he asked the young knight.
Feryl sighed and rested his hand on Leoric's shoulder as he wondered where to begin, how to explain the unease he was feeling. "I was just wondering what will happen if we find Cavortra," he explained at last, not entirely satisfied with the answer but unable to come up with a better one. "If he's anything like the other wizards we've met, he won't give in to us without a fight . . ."
Leoric smiled and stood to face his friend. "Then a fight is what he'll get," he said in a firm voice, placing his hand on his whip as he spoke. "And, no matter what the consequences, we must make sure he can never cause harm to anyone again."
Feryl nodded his understanding, sure that Leoric would do everything in his power to save Arzon's life even if - Feryl shuddered at the thought - he wound up sacrificing his own life in the process. He moved away from his leader and made to join Galadria and Cryotek, who were standing side-by-side just a few feet away, but had only walked a few paces before the ground suddenly gave way beneath his feet. As he slid down on a landslide of dirt and leaf mould, he could clearly hear Galadria's panic-stricken voice calling after him.
The three Spectral Knights gazed speechlessly at the spot where, moments before, their friend had been standing. Not a single trace of Feryl remained - it was as if something had wiped the young knight from the face of Prysmos. With slow deliberation lest he suffer the same fate, Leoric made his way towards the spot. His main concern had been the possibility that one of the group could accidentally step into boggy marshland and be sucked under the Swamp and it hadn't occurred to him that the supposedly safe solid areas of the Swamp of Secrets might themselves contain hidden dangers . . .
"First Arzon, now Feryl!" Cryotek muttered as he probed the ground with the tip of his power Staff. On the whole, this was not turning out to be a good day for the Spectral Knights - one of their number had fallen to a spell that could only be reversed by the one who cast it, they had been ambushed by both the Darkling Lords and by a flock of birds and now . . . Now it appeared they were in danger of losing another member of their order.
"Now what do we do?" Galadria asked as, unsure what to do next, she turned to Leoric. But he was at a lost too; assuming Feryl was still alive, they would have to figure out where he was, a task which would waste time Arzon could ill afford to lose. But, if they continued the search for Cavortra and managed to persuade him to cancel the Call of the Eagle, they could end up sacrificing Feryl in order to save Arzon. This was the type of situation that required wisdom to solve.
"I can't save one at the expense of the other," Leoric decided firmly as he picked up his Power Staff and prepared to summon the Owl of Wisdom. But, before he had chance to utter the words that activated his Staff, the ground suddenly collapsed once more and he, Galadria and Cryotek were sent plunging downwards.
"Where are we?" Galadria mumbled groggily as she sat up gingerly and turned to check on her two companions. Fortunately, neither Leoric nor Cryotek seemed to have suffered any permanent damage from the fall and both of them had managed to keep hold of their Staffs and weapons. But the sight of the two knights did little to cheer the young woman - for she knew that, unless they figured out how to get out of here, the Call of the Eagle would . . .
"Where-ever it is, at least we now know where Feryl got to," Leoric said, his words cutting through Galadria's thoughts as the three knights took stock of their surroundings. They were in an underground chamber lit by a flaming torch that seemed to hover in mid-air as if suspended on a very fine wire, but, in this Age of Magic, there was every possibility that there was some enchantment that was responsible. That theory was confirmed when, as they watched, the flame slowly changed from a normal orange colour to a dazzling electric blue.
There was a loud grinding sound of gears being moved as the wall behind the enchanted torch slowly slid aside to reveal a room packed from floor to ceiling with stuffed birds of prey. In fact, the only thing not covered by these preserved raptors was a low wooden desk at which a figure sat poring over charts. His back was turned towards the Spectral Knights, but they knew who it was from the staff propped up nearby; they had seen the bird-of-prey carving on its top in Merklynn's viewscreen.
"Cavortra!" Cryotek whispered, gripping his bola and Power Staff tightly. This was the one they had ventured into the Swamp of Secrets to seek out; this was the one who had invoked the Call of the Eagle and was, therefore, the one who could call off the spell.
"This must be his Shrine," Galadria added as she and the others crept forward, trying to attract as little attention as possible until they had the wizard cornered. Since her Totem animal was the Dolphin, she would not be able to shapeshift here, but she kept a tight grip on her weapon - which resembled the head of a trident - ready for action. "But where's Feryl?" she added as it occurred to her that the young knight was nowhere in sight and there was no way in or out save for the way she and the others had come . . .
Slowly, Cavortra turned to face them. Then, he spoke in an angry whisper, his eyes narrowed and his hand reaching for his staff at the sight of three more intruders. "Who," he demanded of the three knights, "dares to enter my Shrine?"
Leoric elected to speak for all three and, keeping his whip ready for any signs of trouble, stepped forward to address Cavortra. "Never mind who we are," he said shortly. "What I want to know is where is our friend, Feryl, and did you invoke the Call of the Eagle?"
"What if I did?" Cavortra shot back as, without wasting any more time, he raised his hand and prepared to fire a bolt of blue energy in Leoric's direction. Leoric's next move was instinctive - he quickly shapeshifted into a Lion just as Cavortra let fly with his magical attack. Fortunately, Leoric dodged him easily and, glancing over his shoulder, had the satisfaction of seeing a nearby shelf containing what seemed to be spellbooks get blasted instead.
Changing back into his human form, he seized Cavortra by the front of his robe and pulled the wizard off his feet. Cavortra, knowing he would not be able to blast this intruder from such close range, attempted to wriggle free, but Leoric's only response was to tighten his grip on the wizard who had caused the Spectral Knights so much trouble. "The Call of the Eagle," Leoric swore through clenched teeth, "will destroy a friend of mine unless you call it off - now!" And, to prove he wasn't bluffing, he made as if to punch Cavortra in the face . . .
"As long as I have control over all birds of prey on Prysmos, nothing else matters!" Cavortra retorted, proving beyond all doubt that he had no concern for the consequences of his actions. "Now," he added as he finally broke free from Leoric's grasp, "begone from my domain - unless you want to end up like the last mortal who fell through my roof . . ."
Cavortra conjured up a lantern and held it above his head so that its beam shone into the furthest corner of his Shrine. Leoric followed the beam with his eyes and recoiled in horror at what he saw - Feryl, his eyes wild with fear, had been backed against the wall by some unknown force that resembled a giant bird of prey. The bird, for want of a more accurate description, seemed to be composed entirely of shadow and its vicious hooked beak was poised to attack the young knight. Feryl was attempting to fend the fiend off but did not appear to be having much luck; every time his dagger made contact with his foe, the creature repaired itself instantly.
"That," Cavortra explained with a satisfied smirk, "is an Avian Wraith that acts as a guardian of my Shrine. It was what alerted me to the presence of four intruders in my Swamp."
"Can't you call it off?" Galadria asked anxiously as she Leoric and Cryotek circled around Cavortra, keeping their weapons drawn ready for the wizard's next move. They knew wasting time on another battle was probably the last thing they should do right now, but Leoric had said himself that it would not be right to save either Arzon or Feryl and leave the other to his fate. If at all possible, they had to save both of them . . .
"I'm afraid I can't do that," Cavortra replied, folding his arms across his chest. "You see, the Avian Wraith can only be stopped if . . . someone cancels the Call of the Eagle and . . ."
He got no further before Cryotek assumed his Bear form and knocked him to the floor. As he fell, the wizard dropped his staff and Leoric, taking advantaged of the situation, quickly snatched it up and pretended to be examining it. "Is this what you used?" he demanded of Cavortra, holding the wooden staff inches from the wizard's face. "Is this the device you used to gain control over those birds that attacked us?"
Cavortra's eyes began to roll wildly as he realised Leoric would not quit until he had succeeded in getting the Call of the Eagle cancelled; although he was ambitious, he was also in many ways more cowardly than Lexor. Perhaps that was what had prompted him to cast a spell that gave him control over such powerful creatures, but now he was beginning to wish he hadn't bothered . . . "No!" he yelled. "Give me that - it's mine! Besides, you can't handle . . ."
Cryotek reverted to his human form and hauled Cavortra upright. "You won't be needing that thing where you're going!" he informed him. "The Wizards' Jail!"
"But we're willing to strike a deal," Leoric added. "If you call off your spell and promise never to cast it again, we'll leave you unharmed - and that's my final offer."
Cavortra could tell from the expression on both knights' faces that they meant business and, albeit with much hesitation and mumbled procrastination, he agreed to their terms . . .
Back in New Valarak, tension pervaded between Ectar and Witterquick as they continued to watch over their fallen friend. Over the last few hours, Arzon's face had taken on an unhealthy pallor and he gave no sign that he was aware of their company. Watching him, Ectar knew - although he was reluctant to admit it - that time was running out unless Leoric and the others completed their mission in time.
"I doubt he'll see the night out," he told Witterquick as he touched Arzon's face and recoiled as he realised how cold the young knight had become. "I only wish all of us could have been here . . ."
"Aye," Witterquick said stiffly as he got up and paced the room where Arzon lay only moments from death. Time seemed to have slowed down as if in a desperate bid to keep him alive as long as possible, but there was no way it could do so indefinitely unless whatever had put him into this state was stopped. Already, Ectar and Witterquick could feel the first faint stirrings of grief . . .
But, even as they watched Arzon's tenuous grip on life start to slip away, a ball of light similar to those that had attack Arzon in the first place appeared and converged on the dying Spectral Knight. Witterquick made to attack the unknown force, but Ectar held him back as he saw what it was doing. "No - watch!" he whispered as the light entered Arzon's chestplate and permeated throughout his body, making it appear as though he was glowing from within . . .
At length, the light faded and Arzon blinked and sat up, his life and health restored the instant Cavortra called off the spell that caused so much trouble. "Ectar?" he asked, glancing round at his comrades. "Witterquick? What's going on? Where are the others?"
"They had . . . something to see to," Ectar replied. "But I daresay they'll be back shortly. Right now, I'd better ask how you feel."
Arzon smiled at his friends. "Good to be alive," he told them.