Heskedor was busy at her cauldron when she heard the intruders. Snarling furiously at being interupted at a crucial stage in the mixing of the potion she was making, she whipped round to see who it was. Her temper did not improve when she saw that one of the two knights standing in the entrance was Darkstorm, someone she had dealt with before and had hoped never to see again.
"What is it this time?" she demanded impatiently. "I'm in the middle of brewing something."
"I believe I've found a way to finish Leoric off once and for all," Darkstorm told her, crossing the room as he spoke. "But we'll need your help . . ."
Heskedor launched into her cackling laugh. "And why should I help thee - especially after the way thee messed things up last time?" She had a long memory, Darkstorm noted. The last time he had been in Hesquidore's cave, she had given him a potion that would trap Leoric in his Totem form - permanently if the spell was not reversed by the time the Three Suns set. Unfortunately, the other Spectral Knights had found out and Leoric had been freed with only moments to spare . . .
Darkstorm, seeing that Reekon, the Darkling Lord he had "volunteered" to accompany him on this mission, was about to say something, glared at his mercenary follower and addressed the old enchantress himself. "Because Leoric is a do-gooder," he said conspiratorially. "And it would break his spirit if he had to . . . take the life of a fellow Spectral Knight."
"The Doomsday Potion?" Heskedor asked.
Darkstorm nodded. "I read about it in a tome on magical poisons," he told her. "It takes effect almost instantly, there's no known antidote and it causes such a painful death it's better to slay the victim outright. It fits in perfectly with my plans . . . All I want to know is do you have the recipe?"
"I have access to just about every potion on Prysmos . . ." Heskedor paused to scratch her pointed chin. "And who did you have in mind to use it on?"
"There's a young Spectral Knight named Feryl," Darkstorm explained, his sharp eyes fixed firmly on the old hag. "He is Leoric's closest friend out of all his followers. I have tried to get at Leoric through the whelp before, only to be thwarted. This time, however . . ."
Heskedor crossed over to her cauldron. "Very well - I shall brew the Doomsday Potion for ye," she said as she began adding a variety of unidentifiable ingredients. "But take heed, Darkstorm, there will only be one chance to pull this off."
"One chance is all I'll need." Darkstorm folded his arms as Reekon leaned casually against the wall of Heskedor's cave. Soon, he told himself, Leoric and Feryl would be finished and, with a bit of luck, the other five Spectral Knights would soon follow. The Doomsday Potion sounded almost too perfect . . .
Nearly a week later, Leoric, Galadria and Feryl were returning to New Valarak after a routine patrol when the hum of an engine overhead made all three of them look up. Directly above them, the Sky-Claw flew at low altitude, its guns pointed directly at them. Seated in the Capture Chariot's cockpit, Feryl narrowed his eyes and, keeping a one-handed grip on the steering helm, made ready to fire once the Darkling Lords were within range; any meeting between the two factions of the Visionaries almost invariably led to trouble.
"Leoric, Galadria, go look for the rest of them!" Feryl ordered. "I'll take care of things here!" With that, he moved the Capture Chariot to a position which would give him a clear shot at the Sky-Claw and watched as Leoric and Galadria took off in the hoverpods.
In the Sky-Claw, Darkstorm gripped the bottle of Doomsday Potion reverently and watched the three Spectral Knights, his mind focussed solely on the plan at hand. He saw Leoric and Galadria zoom into the sky, but that didn't concern him too much - without them to interfere, it would be all the easier to take care of Feryl. He smiled evilly. "Mortdredd, take us down!" he ordered.
"Immediately, Lord Darkstorm." Mortdredd did not hesitate to obey his master - indeed, there were those who joked that he would have jumped off a cliff if Darkstorm told him to - and began to take the Sky-Claw lower. Soon, they were within throwing range of the Capture Chariot. Moving slowly lest the sharp-eyed Feryl glance up and see what he was doing, Darkstorm uncorked the bottle he held in his hands and studied the Potion it held closely. With a consistency similar to that of water and an appearence that reminded him of fine wine, there was nothing to suggest how deadly it actually was. And, if what he had read was true, Feryl was as good as dead . . .
Moving swifter than the eye could see, he tipped the Doomsday Potion directly over the young Spectral Knight, who looked up with a start as the deadly substance splashed onto him. For a moment, nothing seemed to happen, but, just as Feryl reached up to brush whatever Darkstorm had thrown at him off, he was gripped by a sudden and searing pain. He winced and waited for it to pass, only to find that it didn't - if anything, it seemed to be growing steadily worse with every passing second.
His normally sharp senses clouded by pain, Feryl was only dimly aware that Darkstorm and Mortdredd were retreating. "No you don't!" he muttered as, his body rebelling against the very idea of movement, he tried to fire on the Sky-Claw. But, before he could do so, he suffered a spasm of pain so violent that he lost control of the Capture Chariot and the vehicle went careering into a nearby tree.
That was how Leoric and Galadria found him, slumped over the Capture Chariot's dashboard, the front of the vehicle jammed against the tree. It took only one glance for them to realise that something was seriously wrong - Feryl was breathing heavily and, when Leoric touched him to make sure he was all right, he cried out as if he had been seriously wounded. "Feryl?" Leoric asked, looking into his friend's stricken face. "Feryl, what is it?"
"I . . . don't know," Feryl replied, wincing as another pain shot through his body. "It just . . . hurts every time I move."
With some difficulty since Feryl flinched at the slightest movement, Leoric and Galadria managed to help their friend out of the Capture Chariot and sit him down on the ground. The three knights looked at each other helplessly, each of them wondering what had caused the symptoms Feryl was suffering, before Leoric took charge of the situation as best he could. Something had caused this - it was just a matter of finding out what.
"How long has this been happening?" he asked Feryl, trying despite his fears for the young knight to keep his emotions in check.
"Not long - it only started a few moments ago. Darkstorm . . ." Feryl paused as his body demanded relief from the ceaseless agony the Doomsday Potion was causing. "Darkstorm threw something at me, a potion . . ."
Leoric and Galadria exchanged uneasy glances. They knew from past experience that the sort of potions Darkstorm was likely to douse Spectral Knights with could be bad news to whoever was on the receiving end. It was only now that Leoric realised the other Darkling Lords had been conspicuous by their absence. "A ruse!" he muttered under his breath, his hands clasped tightly around his whip and Power Staff.
"What . . .?" Feryl asked. He could not recall seeing Leoric so angry before; the Spectral Knights' leader generally seemed more even-tempered than that. But now it was obvious something was seriously wrong and, even though Feryl had no way of knowing precisely what it was, instinct told him it had to do with the potion Darkstorm had thrown. "Leoric?" he ventured when a reply wasn't immediately forthcoming.
"A ruse!" Leoric said again without looking at Feryl. "They wanted to separate us so . . ." He paused and gazed at the horizon as he collected his thoughts. "So they could get to Feryl!"
"We'd better get him to Fletchen's village - it's the nearest settlement," Galadria said as she looked from Leoric to Feryl and back again. Fletchen was a young woman they had met a few months earlier when Darkstorm tried to trap Leoric in his Lion form. She and Leoric had fallen in love almost from their first meeting, their feelings deepening after he was finally freed, and she had some knowledge of herbal remedies. "If Fletchen's around, she might be able to help."
Leoric sighed heavily. "It's worth a try," he agreed as he turned to Feryl. "Can you walk for a while?" he asked the young knight. "I'll help you if you need it."
"I - I'll try," Feryl replied as, his body feeling as if it was on fire, he staggered to his feet. Seconds later, however, a spasm of pain gripped him and he sank down again, grabbing hold of Leoric for a combination of physical and emotional support. Tears of pain and humilation pricked his eyes - what was doing this to him? And how long would he be able to endure it?
Leoric helped Feryl back onto his feet. "Hang in there - it isn't far."
Fletchen was outside the small cottage she shared with her father, Gleering, when the three Spectral Knights appeared on the scene. One look was all it took to tell her that something was seriously wrong. Feryl, leaning heavily on Leoric, was moving as if every movement jarred his body and, even though Leoric and Galadria tried to hide their fear, there was no disguising the expressions on their faces. "What's wrong?" she asked as Leoric and Feryl drew level with her.
"I don't know," Leoric told her as Feryl fought the urge to cry out from the relentless pain. "We just tangled with the Darkling Lords and . . ." He paused as he collected his thoughts. "Anyway, he says Darkstorm threw a potion at him and it seems to be . . ."
Fletchen quickly sized up the situation. It was obvious that, whatever Darkstorm had thrown at Feryl was causing the young knight to suffer spasms of pain. If he did not get off his feet soon, he would surely collapse. "You'd better come inside," she said, cutting Leoric off in mid-sentence. "We'll try and figure this out there." With that, she turned and walked into the cottage, her heart pounding as she realised the enormity of what was happening. From what Leoric said, Feryl had been exposed to a potion that caused unrelenting pain, pain that would eventually . . .
She shook her head to banish the thought from her mind. At the very least, she could try to relieve the worst of the potion's effects and that might help Feryl hang on long enough for a more permanent solution to be found. She glanced at Leoric and Feryl, sighing deeply as she did so. She knew how close the two of them were, that, should the worst happen, there was no telling how long it would take for Leoric to recover. But there was no sense in dwelling on that; Feryl was still alive and she meant to keep him that way.
Hours later, however, Fletchen was whispering to Galadria and Gleering in hushed tones. Her father had returned from digging a well to the news that one of the Spectral Knights had been doused with a potentially lethal potion; he had watched Leoric and Feryl from a distance but had not dared disturb them. Right now, Feryl had fallen into a drug-induced slumber and Leoric was kneeling beside him, watching over his friend.
"This is bad," Fletchen was saying, keeping her voice low lest Leoric overhear. "Whatever that potion was, its effect seems to intensify with every passing minute . . ."
"Is there nothing you can do?" Galadria looked at her friend in desperation.
"The only thing I can do is keep him knocked out as much as possible. But . . ." Fletchen paused and sighed deeply, her brown eyes clouded with worry. "But it'll take stronger and stronger doses. And, if the sleeping draught gets too strong, he might never wake up again." A tear slowly traced its way down her cheek.
Galadria was about to say something, but, before she could do so, Feryl began to stir. Thrust into a wall of unimaginable pain, the young knight cried out and began to thrash wildly, a look of sheer terror etched on his face. Leoric instinctively reached out and tried to restrain his friend to keep him from hurting himself further, but it was as if Feryl was possessed by some evil force that . . . Leoric quickly realised he wasn't going to be able to hold Feryl down by himself. "Galadria! Fletchen! Get in here!" he shouted, not letting go of his friend for a moment.
Immediately, the two young women ran into the cottage to find themselves confronted with a scene neither of them would have wanted to witness in their worst nightmares. Feryl was thrashing about, his face covered with beads of sweat, a frantic expression etched in his eyes. It was almost as if he was trying to run away from the pain the Doomsday Potion was inflicting on him. But there was no escape except the sleeping draught Fletchen adminstered as Leoric and Galadria held the young knight still.
As Feryl stopped thrashing and relaxed, Fletchen turned to Leoric. Seeing the solemn expression on her face, he immediately knew it was bad news, but nothing could have prepared him for what she said next. "Leoric," she whispered, slipping her hand into his, "this is bad. I know you can't stand seeing a friend in pain, but I can't keep drugging him. I'm having to use stronger doses every time and, if the draught gets too strong . . ."
There was no need to complete the sentence. Leoric stared at her in disbelief; it was true he couldn't stand seeing Feryl like this, but she had just effectively said that, in trying to ease the young knight's pain, they might end up killing him. And taking an innocent life, especially that of a friend, went against everything Leoric believed in. Even so . . . Turning quickly before Galadria and Fletchen could see the tears which had welled up in his eyes, he made to leave.
"Leoric?" Galadria called after him. "Where are you going?"
"To consult my Power Staff," Leoric told her, hurriedly leaving before his emotions got the better of him.
Right now, Leoric wanted to be alone - completely alone. He headed far from the village, to the monoliths at the top of a hill. This place held certain memories to him; he had hidden here after Darkstorm trapped him in his Lion form and it was where he had managed to convey to Fletchen at least part of the truth about what had happened to him. Pausing by one of the stones, he traced the faint outlines of two names - his own and Fletchen's - scratched into the rock. Both were somewhat blocky and crude, in stark contrast to Leoric's usual handwriting. But, then again, a Lion's claws were never intended to be used as writing implements . . .
He slumped down in front of the stone and buried his head in his hands. He had scratched his own name on the rock while he was trapped in his Lion form and needed to let Fletchen know what had happened; her name had been added a few weeks later. This place had become somewhere he and Fletchen often went when they wanted some time alone together. The two of them had spent many hours sitting by this stone, reminiscing about their first meeting and, in Leoric's case, taking the time to forget the demands of leading the Spectral Knights for a while. Sometimes, on the rare occasions they could be sure no-one would disturb them, they would even make love.
But that was the last thing on his mind right now. All he could think of was the dreadful - he searched for the right word - mess Darkstorm had caused. It wasn't just the thought of Feryl's death that bothered him, although that in itself was hard enough to bear. No, it was the warning Fletchen had given that troubled him; they could not keep plying the young knight with sleeping draught every time the pain became unendurable for him. Sooner or later, either from the effects of the Potion or an overdose of sleeping draught, Feryl would . . .
Leoric shook his head as if dismissing even the mere thought of it. Maybe there was a way out of this . . . He reached for his Power Staff and recited the words which activated it:
"Whispered secrets of a shattered Age
I summon you - renew this sage."
When the Owl of Wisdom emerged, Leoric explained the situation as fully as he could. "Owl of Wisdom, what should I do? I cannot let Feryl suffer like this, but I fear trying to ease his pain may kill him . . ." He paused and sighed deeply, waiting for the Owl's answer.
"That, Leoric," the Owl said, "is the one thing I cannot help you with - you must make that decision. But ask yourself this - is there ever . . .?"
It got no further before Leoric, overwhelmed with despair and rage, flung the Staff away from him, causing the Owl to disappear in mid-sentence. Then, he sank back down, his vision blurring, and covered his face with his hands. It was not something he would normally have done, but the knowledge that, this time, the Owl of Wisdom could not help him was more than he could take.
Presently, Leoric heard Fletchen's voice calling his name and looked up to see her walking towards the monoliths, a solemn expression etched on her face. It was obvious that things had taken a turn for the worse back at the village, but what could have happened? Was Feryl already . . .? Leoric could not even bring himself to think the last word.
"Fletchen, what's wrong?" he asked, standing up and forcing himself to speak calmly. "What's going on?"
She drew level with him, her face still bearing the same expression. "Leoric, it's bad," she replied, her voice shaking. "I've done everything I can for Feryl, but it - it's just not enough!"
Leoric caught his breath, not wanting to believe it, even though he knew it was true. "Is there nothing more you can do?"
Fletchen shook her head slowly, wishing desperately that she could find a solution to all this. But nothing seemed to ease Feryl's symptoms except being kept constantly drugged and she knew how dangerous that could be. Both she and Leoric knew, although they were reluctant to admit it, that they were facing a situation that held little hope of a positive outcome. And, if anything happened to Feryl, there was no telling how it would affect Leoric; the close bond between the two knights was not something that could be severed easily.
"It would help if we knew what Darkstorm threw at him," she said at last. "But . . ." She sighed and took Leoric's hand in hers. "Leoric, he can't take this much longer and the drug is getting too strong. Another dose will kill him, but he - he'll die anyway without . . ." She got no further before she broke down in tears, her head resting against Leoric as he ran his hands through her hair.
Leoric was close to despair himself. He could not stand the thought of losing Feryl, especially not to the agonising death that now seemed to be his inevitable fate. But the alternative was to speed the young knight's end himself, something which went against everything Leoric stood for. No Spectral Knight should ever take an innocent life, but . . .
Leoric sighed and let go of the young woman. "Just . . . just give me time to talk to him," was all he said.
Feryl had not moved from where Leoric had left him. He couldn't move, not without suffering constant spasms of pain; even breathing was becoming a painful trial and he longed for something - anything - that would release him from this torture. He shuddered involuntarily as, for the first time, he realised there was a very real possibility that he might actually die because of what Darkstorm had done to him. Then, he closed his eyes and thought of his fellow Spectral Knights, hoping as he did so that his last thoughts would be of them . . . Lost in his thoughts, he was unaware that Leoric had entered the room.
"Feryl?" Leoric whispered, taking the young knight's hand in his. "Feryl, can you hear me?"
Feryl opened his eyes. "Leoric?" he whispered back. "How long have you been here?"
Leoric forced himself to look Feryl full in the face, even though it pained him to do so. The young knight was plainly in considerable pain, a expression consisting of a mixture of fear and despair etched on his face - had his condition really deteriorated so much in the short time Leoric had been at the monoliths? And did he know how serious this was? Feryl's next words told Leoric that he did.
"Leoric," he said, forcing himself to speak calmly, "there's nothing more you can do. Please, let me die - I've had enough of this . . ." At that moment, another spasm of pain shook him and he gripped hold of Leoric's hand, waiting for it to pass. "Don't grieve for me," he told Leoric. "Just think of how it used to be - before Darkstorm did this to me . . ."
"Good," Leoric said, squeezing his hand reassuringly. Although, he didn't say it out loud, he was secretly relieved that Feryl had already seen that death might be preferable to enduring the agonies the Potion inflicted. It made this a little easier, meant there was less need for soul-searching. "I'll have Fletchen prepare more of that sleeping draught. The dose will be strong enough to keep you from ever waking up again . . ." He paused and brushed at his eyes. "I'll be with you the whole time"
"May the Light shine forever," Feryl said, smiling in spite of himself.