It had begun like any other day on Prysmos, albeit somewhat more peaceful than most days had been since the coming of the Age of Magic. Nearly a week had passed since Darkstorm's last attempt to conquer New Valarak and the Spectral Knights had decided to take advantage of the rare respite to do a routine exploration of the lands to the east of the city.
Of course, just because you planned to do something routine didn't guarantee that nothing untoward would happen. The Spectral Knights knew that from experience, having run into trouble when they least expected it before, so they were all careful to make sure they had their weapons with them at all times. The Darkling Lords were not the only group who might cause trouble for them - on one patrol, Leoric and Feryl had tangled with a band of marauding pirates - but they had no idea that the enemy they would face that day would be not a mortal but a sorceress out for revenge. Nor did they know that one of their number would have to work with a Darkling Lord as a result of the spell that would trap most of them . . .
Ectar and Galadria were the first to spot the pyramid, a vast structure looming on the horizon as the two Spectral Knights rounded a corner in the Lancer Cycle. At a guess, it was about the height of a three-storey house, its sloping sides polished and smooth with no sign of anything that might serve as a exit or an entrance. Galadria suppressed a shudder - there was something about this pyramid that she didn't like.
"Ectar, wait," she warned her companion. "I don't know why, but I've got a bad feeling about this . . ."
But Ectar didn't seem to be listening. Rather, it was as if something was drawing him inexorably towards the pyramid and that concerned Galadria. Ectar had always been the most sensible of the Spectral Knights; it simply wasn't like him not to listen to a warning . . . Suddenly, a blinding flash of light issued from the pyramid and converged on the Lancer Cycle, levitating it into the air before Ectar could steer the craft clear. He cursed out loud as he tried to break free with a burst of speed only to find that the controls were no longer responding.
"Galadria, what's happened? Where's Ectar?" Leoric asked the confused young woman. The other Spectral Knights had arrived on the scene to find Ectar gone and Galadria lying dazed beside the Lancer Cycle. Instinct told the Spectral Knights' leader that there was something untoward going on - the question was what.
"I - I don't know," Galadria said as she staggered to her feet. "There was a pyramid - then this light came and, the next thing I knew, I was on the ground and Ectar was . . ." She racked her brain for the right word. " . . . gone."
"Light you say, Galadria? What sort of light?" asked Feryl, leaning across from the Capture Chariot. The young knight glanced cautiously at the horizon, as if expecting to see whatever had taken Ectar poised to take the rest of the Spectral Knights as well.
"It was bright," Galadria told him. "I - I couldn't look at it for very long so I didn't see where Ectar went . . ."
The Spectral Knights quickly realised the enormity of what had happened; the sudden and unexplained disappearence of a comrade was never a good sign, especially not in an Age of Magic. Assuming Ectar was still on Prysmos, they had to work out a way to find and rescue him. And, if he was not, there was no telling what they should do. With Prysmos' once great technology defunct, getting off the planet presented quite a few problems, not least of which was the fact that no-one knew if Feryl's ability to power machines by magic would still work once they left Prysmos' atmosphere . . .
"Arzon," Leoric said, dismissing any thoughts that Ectar was lost to them, "call the Bearer of Knowledge - we've got to find out what we're up against." In many ways, this ability to know how to handle a situation was what made Leoric such a good leader. He had the ability to take charge of a situation, never hesitated to act when another was in danger, but he knew the peril of rushing into a situation without knowing what was what.
Arzon nodded slightly, unclipped his Power Staff and held it in front of him as he said the magic words:
"A whim, a thought and more is . . ."
But, before he could complete the rhyme, the light flashed again and he was levitated high into the air as four of his companions stood transfixed. "Doesn't anything ordinary ever happen in an Age of Magic?" groaned Galadria, the only one who did not seem to be affected. But no-one was listening - as soon as Arzon had vanished as if into thin air, Leoric was also drawn into the light, swiftly followed by Feryl. As Cryotek and Witterquick were also taken, the brightness grew so intense that Galadria had to fling herself to the ground and close her eyes tightly.
"Galadria!" Merklynn's voice cut through Galadria's senses.
She sat up groggily, her head pounding as she tried to make sense of what was happening. "Wh- where am I?" she mumbled. The last thing she remembered was the flash of light that had taken her comrades. She had no idea how much time had passed since then, but instinct told her that it been a few hours.
"You are in my Shrine," Merklynn told her as she turned and looked into the wizard's kindly eyes. She was lying on the hard stone floor and Merklynn was kneeling beside her. "I transported you here myself," he went on as he stood up. "You and Virulina."
"Virulina?" echoed Galadria as she heard the name of her lifelong enemy. "She's here too? What's going on?"
"Something I have feared would happen ever since this new Age of Magic began," Merklynn explained as he looked the young woman full in the face. "The Pyramid of Zalfora has regained its power." With that, he turned and walked towards his inner sanctum. Galadria paused momentarily, wondering where all this was going to lead, before staggering to her feet and following the wizard.
Virulina was already there, standing with her hands on her hips, a furious scowl etched on her face. "You!" she snapped the second she saw Galadria, whipping out the vicious-looking knife that was her weapon. Instinctively, Galadria made to draw her own weapon, but, before she could do so, Merklynn stepped in.
"Ladies, please!" he interjected, raising his arm as he spoke. "This mission requires full co-operation from both of you - therefore, I want you to put your personal quarrels aside."
"And what mission would that be?" demanded Virulina as she reluctantly put down her weapon. On the whole, this was not turning out to be the best of days. The Darkling Lords had found the Spectral Knights' vehicles apparently abandoned and, determined as usual to make life difficult for their enemies, decided to trash them. But, before they could do so, a sudden flash of light converged on them and the next thing Virulina remembered was waking up to find herself in Merklynn's Shrine. Much like what had happened to Galadria . . .
"To enter the Pyramid of Zalfora," Merklynn replied, "and free your comrades before it is too late."
"Who or what is Zalfora?" was Galadria's next question. Merklynn replied by pointing to his magical viewscreen and calling forth an image of a young red-haired woman in long midnight-blue robes. But for the harsh and unforgiving expression on her face, she might have been considered beautiful - as it was . . .
"This is Zalfora as I knew her during the First Age of Magic," Merklynn explained. "She was a sorceress who, spurned by the one she loved, vowed to exact revenge on all males. Accordingly, she built a Pyramid . . ." The wizard waved his hand and the image on the screen changed to one of the Pyramid the Visionaries had encountered. " . . . and enchanted it so that, on one day a year, any male who ventured near it would become trapped in it for eternity."
"And today was that day," Galadria added grimly. "But what does this have to do with us?" Her mind strayed to thoughts of her fellow Visionaries. She could live with the idea of the Darkling Lords being trapped for eternity - and Virulina probably felt the same about the Spectral Knights - but her conscience would not allow her to leave her own comrades to such a fate. Especially not Cryotek, with whom she had always had a special bond . . .
Merklynn spoke again. "I have studied Zalfora's Pyramid long and hard, hoping to find a way to remove the spell, and the only way is for two women to venture inside and confront Zalfora. That means the two of you," he added with a penetrating stare at Galadria and Virulina, "and that's why you must forget your personal feelings for each other."
Galadria had walked all the way round the outside of the Pyramid but could see nothing that looked even remotely like an entrance. "No - nothing here either," she told Virulina. "What now?"
"You figure it out - you're the smart one." Virulina folded her arms and stepped back a pace, struggling to resist the urge she had to draw her weapon against Galadria. "Why should I do anything for anyone?" she muttered to herself. "Especially Leoric and his Spectral Do-gooders . . ."
Galadria chose to ignore her. She stepped back and studied the Pyramid closely, paying particular attention to the carvings lest there was something they had missed earlier. Looking at the Pyramid close up, she could see that walls which at first glance seemed to be smooth marble were actually carved with the images of many animals - a horse, a dog, a reindeer, a cat . . . Galadria counted off each animal as she saw its carved image. A majestic lion reclined on the sloping wall, reminding her of Leoric in his Totem form, but it was two carvings to the left of it that attracted her attention. A playful dolphin leapt into the air as if trying to avoid a fierce-looking shark.
At first, Galadria thought it was too much of a coincidence. But, as she looked closer, she noticed a subtle difference in the way the shark and dolphin were carved; someone had stained them in a colour slightly different from the rest of the Pyramid. It could just be a coincidence that the key to the Pyramid should lie in her and Virulina's Totem animals, but, from her experiences since the Age of Magic began, Galadria was beginning to believe anything was possible. She called Virulina over. "Come here and take a look at this."
"Take a look at what?" demanded Virulina, who was beginning to tire of helping her sworn enemy and just wanted this whole mess sorted out.
"These carvings - the dolphin and the shark," Galadria explained, touching the dolphin as she spoke. "If you look carefully, you'll see that they're coloured differently, as if someone . . ."
" . . . wanted to hide their importance," filled in Virulina. "What's your point?" She folded her arms and stood back with a scornful expression on her face.
"Maybe, if I do this . . ." As she spoke, Galadria pressed the palm of her hand down on the carved dolphin and was rewarded with the sound of crunching gears. "Quick!" she urged Virulina. "Touch the shark!"
Like most Darkling Lords, Virulina was not usually one to follow advice offered by a Spectral Knight. But the nature of the mission she and Galadria had been sent on was such that, only by working together, would they be able to complete it successfully. So she checked herself from swearing under her breath and did as instructed.
In an instant, the side of the Pyramid where the carvings were slid up to reveal a hidden entrance, one so cleverly concealed that no-one would guess it was there with just a casual glance.
"I suppose we're meant to go in," murmured Galadria as she peered in through the entrance. The interior of the Pyramid seemed ordinary enough, but it never paid to trust appearences so she kept a tight hold on her trident-head weapon as she crept cautiously into the gloom. The only light came from a solitary torch flickering on the wall, casting eerie shadows as the two young women made their way further inside . . . Suddenly, a spear shot out from the wall, narrowly missing Galadria's head and lodging itself in the wall behind her.
"What's going on?" Virulina asked anxiously, her normally sharp voice tinged with fear. She had heard the swish of the spear, followed by Galadria's cry of alarm, and knew she too was vulnerable to whatever it was.
"A booby trap," Galadria told her, staring grimly at the spear that had nearly pierced her. "We'd better be careful - don't make any sudden move . . ."
Virulina had had enough. She seized her enemy by the arm and pulled her forward so their faces were only inches apart. "Listen, Galadria!" she said through clenched teeth. "I didn't ask to have you along - and I don't need your advice!"
"Too proud to accept advice from a Spectral Knight?! Galadria shot back. "In case you've forgotten, Merklynn said we have to work together and . . ."
As she struggled to get away, she accidentally knocked against a hidden button, which sent both of them tumbling down a chute to land with a double splash in a vast underground lake.
"What advice do you have now?" remarked Virulina as she and Galadria trod water.
Galadria ignored her sarcasm. "We make for the shore," she said, diving under the water and, with a flash of light, assuming her Dolphin shape. Seconds later, Virulina followed suit by transforming into a Shark - the Totem of this fierce fish had been her reward for the killer instinct she displayed underwater. The two entered a world that is virtually indescribable in human terms, a world few humans even experienced.
In Totem form, they acquired the abilities of the creatures they transformed into and, in Galadria's case, that included the ability to navigate using echo location. So she sent out a series of ultrasonic whistles that she would never have been able to hear in her human form, scanning the lake for signs of anything that could cause problems. In the process, she discovered something moving behind her and turned to see a leviathan, a giant blue serpent with a flap of skin round its neck and the sharpest teeth she had ever seen, advancing on them. Speech was impossible for any Visionary in Totem form, but Galadria knew she had to alert Virulina.
With a warning squeak, she swam at the creature and head-butted it in its flank. Virulina, hearing the leviathan's startled roar, whipped round and charged at it, her dagger-like teeth bared ready to attack. Normally, she would have left Galadria to struggle alone and taken the opportunity to save her own skin, but her Totem was the Shark, the fiercest non-magical fish in the sea. And she was keen to uphold its reputation at all costs . . .
Suddenly, Galadria spotted something, a gap in the rocks at the bottom of the lake. She smiled - or made the closest approximation a dolphin could - as she realised this might provide a way out and quickly swam towards it as the monster moved to strike again. Virulina, meanwhile, gnashed her teeth and tried to take a bite out of the creature, only to find that it moved a fraction of a second too fast. She was beginning to tire, to lose her hold on her Totem form. And, if she changed back underwater, she would be in serious trouble; she and Galadria were the best swimmers out of all the Visionaries, but even they could not spend long underwater in human form. If she could just make it to the surface . . .
Meanwhile, Galadria saw light at the end of the tunnel she was swimming down. Relieved to have found a way out before she changed back into her human form, she swam towards it, wondering as she did so how there could be a light at the bottom of an underground lake. Then again, she would believe anything of this bizarre Pyramid . . .
Presently, she broke the surface and, resuming her human form, took stock of her surroundings. She was in a room that seemed to be a typical relic of the First Age of Magic with several musty volumes crammed onto a rickety shelf that looked in danger of falling under the sheer weight of books. Several old storage jars stood in the far corner, but Galadria was not foolish enough to go and inspect the contents - even down here, they would have rotted down centuries ago anyway.
But what really grabbed her attention was the figures that lay motionless on the floor, the nearest one only inches from where Galadria was. She swam the few strokes required to reach the shore and soon realised to her horror who the figures were. This was where her fellow Visionaries had ended up, but was she too late to save them? And, even if she wasn't, how was she supposed to get all twelve of them out?
Her heart pounding, she ran towards Cryotek and flung herself down beside him. As she did so, she noted to her relief that he was definitely alive, which meant the others were probably alive as well. All she had to do now was wake them up so they could get out of here . . .
"Cryotek!" she whispered urgently, ever alert for the approach of a potential enemy. "Cryotek, get up!"
"He can't hear you - none of them can," said a cold female voice from behind Galadria. The latter turned with a start and found herself facing a tall red-haired woman dressed in a midnight-blue robe. She looked somewhat older than the image Galadria had seen in Merklynn's Shrine, but there was no mistaking that harsh face that looked as if it had been chiselled out of granite.
"Zalfora?" Galadria managed to say. "What have you done to them?" she demanded of the sorceress, keeping a tight grip on her weapon.
Zalfora smiled enigmatically. "What I do to all worthless men - put them under a spell that will keep them from making trouble." She walked casually over to Galadria and rested her hand on the younger woman's shoulder. "Heed my words, young lady," she whispered with another mysterious smile. "Men are a waste of space - I learned this when I was around your age - and that's why I must wipe all males off the face of Prysmos. These will be left in my Pyramid until they rot . . ." She paused as she contemplated the latest additions to her "man-trap" as she half-jokingly called her Pyramid. Throughout the First Age of Magic, she had trapped many luckless men in her desire to expunge her heartache and, in the long centuries of the Age of Technology, that desire had grown into an obsession. She now cared about nothing else.
"No!" Galadria breathed, tears pricking her eyes as she thought of the fate Zalfora had in mind for her prisoners.
"No?!" Zalfora echoed with an incredulous look on her face. "Are you bound to them like a slave, girl? And how did you get this far anyway? The key was known only to myself . . ."
Galadria turned her attention back to Cryotek and covered his hand with both of hers. "I came because . . ." She paused. " . . . because I'm a Spectral Knight and we're duty-bound to help each other in times of trouble."
At this, Zalfora looked at Galadria gravely. "Ah, yes," she said. "I know all about the Spectral Knights - in fact, I know about all the Visionaries and their fight for control of the Circle of Light. But, tell me, isn't the world much better for their removal?" She grinned with the smug expression of one who knows the day is hers and waited for Galadria's response.
"You're wrong, Zalfora!" Galadria retorted. "You're wrong about everything!"
"Wrong, am I? Very well, you may join your so-called fellows in being imprisoned for eternity!" With that, Zalfora raised her hand which began to glow with a pink light as she directed her sorcerous wrath in Galadria's direction. But Galadria was ready for such a move and dived to the floor seconds before Zalfora fired her spell, intending to knock the young woman out. As a nearby storage jar was shattered, Galadria looked up to see Zalfora advancing on her with a vicious glint in her eyes, a glint that reminded Galadria of how Virulina often looked at her.
That was it. Galadria had to do something, but what could she do? Get back into the water and try to escape in her Dolphin form? No - she was not about to abandon her fellows the way Virulina had clearly done; she had to wake them up somehow . . . Zalfora was almost upon her, her face leering down at her, stripped of anything remotely resembling beauty. She cared about nothing except revenge and would destroy all those who tried to stop her.
"Think!" Galadria told herself as Zalfora advanced. "There has to be a way to defeat her!" But none occurred to her and, judging by the fiendish cackle she was now uttering, Zalfora knew it.
"There's no way out from down here," the sorceress taunted, her fingers crackling with magical energy. "So why didn't you follow your friend's example and quit while you had the chance?"
Galadria digested the news that Virulina had run out on her in silence. That was just typical of her enemy, to save her own neck at another's expense, but it made her afraid. Merklynn had said that, only if she and Virulina worked together, would the power of Zalfora's Pyramid be destroyed. But things had not worked out quite as he had hoped and Galadria was now facing Zalfora alone. "You mean Virulina?" she said was as much bravado as she could muster. "Well, she's no friend of mine!"
Zalfora's only response to this was another fiendish cackle, followed by a blast of magical energy. Galadria dodged it, but she knew she couldn't keep doing so indefinitely - sooner or later, her energy would be exhausted and, when that happened, her fate would be sealed. She looked over to where Cryotek lay . . . If nothing else, she would defend him and all her fellows to the death.
As she looked into Zalfora's eyes, Galadria began to realise that the sorceress had no scruples left and would continue trapping men in her Pyramid unless something was done to stop her. But what could she do? Armed with only her trident head, there was little she could do against Zalfora except try to make her exhaust her magic. But, maybe, there were some weapons more powerful than brute force - indeed, had Leoric been awake to call on the Owl of Wisdom, it would probably have said much the same - loyalty, for instance. No Spectral Knight would ever abandon any of the others in a hour of need and Galadria was not going to be the first.
Closing her eyes, she struggled to forget about the sorceress advancing on her and concentrate on her memories of the comradeship the Spectral Knights shared. She recalled battles won and lives saved because the seven of them worked together as a team, even those rare occassions when they had called a truce with the Darkling Lords to fight a common enemy. Then, like a mantra, she began to utter the five words that cemented the bond between the Spectral Knights.
"May the Light shine forever," she whispered under her breath. "Maybe the Light shine forever. May the Light shine forever . . ."
Zalfora looked at her with amusement. "I don't know what you're trying to do, but it won't work," she said flatly. She tried to blast Galadria again, this time missing by less than an inch, and smiled to herself as she watched the young woman dodge out of the way.
Galadria struggled to clear her mind of all thoughts except the bond between the Spectral Knights, not an easy task at the best of times and especially hard when she had a vengeful sorceress cornering her. Cryotek, she thought, Cryotek had been there for her ever since the Spectral Knights formed; it was his feelings for her that had once given him the strength to control Cravex's Phylot Totem, which he had acquired as a result of a freak accident with the Magical Dungeon. And, if he could find the strength to resist Cravex's magic, she could certainly stand up to Zalfora - at least the sorceress wasn't possessing her . . .
It was as if a chain reaction had begun. Zalfora staggered as a sudden blast of light struck her full on the chest and tried to counterattack, only to find that her magic seemed to have fizzled out and all she could produce was a few feeble sparks. Galadria grinned at her. "Looks like your spell is broken," she observed casually, watching as a sudden maelstrom converged on her fellows and whisked them into the air. Then, knowing this might be the only way she could get out of this Pyramid, she threw herself straight into the eye of the storm. Her last sight before blacking out was of Zalfora screaming like one possessed.
"NOOOOOOOO! My Pyramid!"
The next thing any of the Visionaries remembered was finding themselves out on the plains where it had all begun. Except, this time, there was no sign of any pyramids . . .
Ectar glanced round at his fellow Spectral Knights to make sure that all seven were present, while, only a few feet away, Reekon did likewise for the Darkling Lords. He had no idea how much time had elapsed beyond the fact that, judging by how low in the sky the Three Suns were compared to when the Spectral Knights found the Pyramid, it had been at least a few hours. What, he wondered, had been happening in the meantime?
Galadria, meanwhile, had spotted Virulina skulking in the midst of the Darkling Lords and was berating her for running out on her. "I might have guessed you'd find a way to get out of this," she was saying, her eyes fixed firmly on her enemy. "But what else could I expect? Save your own skin and never mind . . ."
"Pah!" Virulina spat contemptuously. "I don't go in for saving people. Look after yourself and let others do the same - that's my motto." She folded her arms and gave Galadria a venomous glare as, unseen by either woman, Feryl nodded knowingly. He had once overheard her say something similar.
Further argument was saved when Merklynn appeared on the scene as if out of nowhere. "It is as I hoped," he told the fourteen knights. "True friendship won through. You see," he went on before anyone could interupt him, "Zalfora's spell was woven out of hate and it was only by loyalty and determination that Galadria was able to break it. I admit I had my doubts when Virulina . . ."
"So what happens now?" demanded Darkstorm, who was as usual struggling to maintain his composure in front of the wizard. He knew from past experience that Merklynn was extremely clever and powerful, not someone to be trifled with, and did his best to keep his temper in check when he and Merklynn were in the same vicinity.
Merklynn replied with a slight smile. "I think it is time you all went home," he said as he pointed his Orb at the Visionaries. And, in a flash of light, the Spectral Knights and Darkling Lords were gone, sent back to their own kingdoms. All was at peace again - at least until the next time the two sides clashed.