Midworld, within sight of the violet-tinged ice wall-
King Lot, with his fellow paladins and gathered henchmen, prepared to attack the lone figure that waited for them atop a greyish and slanting boulder. Though time had been spell-slowed, they did not sense it, feeling only the wind's keen bite and the chill of that damp, drifting mist. The uttermost north was a cold, barren land; no place at all for horses or men. Yet, here they were, and ready for battle.
Ignoring the bard's nervous humming, Lot signaled to his followers and resumed riding forward. Slowly, though. Reluctantly. One gauntleted hand was clenched at his sword hilt, though he hadn't yet drawn against Gawain, once his son and brother-knight. Perhaps he would have eventually, but the old king never got a chance to find out.
It was at this point… to a hotchpotch accompaniment of hummed music, shrill wind, hoof beats and army clatter… that another host materialised; one composed of phantoms, nature sprites and monstrous elementals.
The king drew rein rather savagely, causing his tired white horse to rumble and snort. Behind him, the others halted as well, milling about in dismay and confusion. For there, arrayed in a broad arc beyond Gawain, appeared rank upon rank of dead soldiers, much like those who'd stood guard over Falkirk. The phantoms, only Lot and his brother paladins could see, but everyone noticed the rest. Dozens of towering figures were scattered amid the ghosts; elementals of flame, water and shifting grey rock. Nor were these all. Appearing high in the air above the mortal army, fanged snow sprites twisted and dove, spreading hail and confusion in equal amounts.
The person whom Lot believed to be his son glanced round behind himself and then gave a startled second look. But this did not absolve him, in the old paladin's eyes, of consorting with earth spirits and the unquiet dead.
"Well," Lot said to him, bitterly. "It seems you've a greater force than mine at your beck and disposal, Gawain."
The apostate appeared lost for words, but that was no matter, for the bard supplied them quickly enough. Interrupting a hummed warding spell, Kenneth of Longstreet took hold of Lot's right stirrup, saying,
"My lord, this is not your son, but a spell-caster using magick and deception to slow your advance. Behold!"
The long-haired bard spoke a short phrase in the language of thieves and travelers, channeling all of his magick into one mighty spell. Not sufficient to entirely strip away the dark elf's disguise, but enough to briefly reveal his true nature.
"Gods above!" Lot snapped, "What fresh mischief is this? Where is my son, creature? What have you done with him?"
For, of course, he recognized the wandering drow who'd taken up Gawain's dropped sword; the one they'd captured and brought to their confrontation with the fallen young paladin. The one Gawain somehow considered a friend.
The disguised mage shrugged and then dropped his spells of illusion, standing revealed to all as an odd, light-altered drow.
"You just don't learn, do you?" Drehn mocked, leaping down from his perch like a cat. "All of your sort. You're too blinkered with cant and code to see past the end of your rigid noses."
He sheathed his sword, and then jerked a thumb at the silent horde of gathered spirits and hulking elementals.
"I didn't whistle this lot up. Too messy and obvious. My guess is, they're here because they owe a debt of blood or honour to Gawain, who was alive and whole, last I saw him... But I'm sure if you hurry along, you'll be able to stab your son from behind while he's busy fighting another."
The king's helmeted head jerked back as though he'd been slapped. His grim fellow paladins reached at once for their various weapons. Kent, Argonne and Ravencall were ready with sword and bow to avenge Lot's slighted honour, but the king prevented them.
"Stay your hands," he said loudly, demanding, "Explain yourself, creature. What debt is owed, and why has Gawain fled away north, if not to escape your foul influence?"
He ought to have left the judgmental old fool and his spell-singer wondering. Very much wanted to, in fact. But every so often, Drehn grudgingly did the right thing. This was one of those times.
"Long story," he said, "But I'll summarize for you, in very short words."
And with that, the elf began to relate all that he knew of the fallen knight's quest. Drehn could be pithy when he wanted to, and sarcastic nearly always. When the attack came, however… when the earth shook and tendrils of rank, oily darkness bulged like entrails from the split, streaming ground… he was forced to stop talking and fight demons alongside four weakened paladins, fifty men-at-arms and an army of massed spirits.
In the cold, dank shadow of the ice wall-
There was increasingly less room to maneuver, for the ground was a torn-up wasteland of shattered boulders and worm-blasted pits. Glud and his brother pressed their advantage of speed and cooperation, though. Hacking at the monster's flanks with blows that would have felled an oak tree, they roared merry, blood-thirsty songs. What else was a monster for, after all, but to fight?
Glud's arm had gone numb from the reverberating shock of driving a blade through the worm's blue-white scales to the icy flesh beneath. His weapon was rimed and brittle with cold, and Glud's hand could not have released it now for love, gold or glory. He stumbled occasionally, avoiding the frost worm's pain-maddened snaps and lunges, attacking whenever he could. The noise was fierce. Voreig's shield arm hung broken and dangling, but the more human-like brother fought on, bellowing a wild song at the top of his considerable lungs.
Frodle, meanwhile, had adapted Gawain's notion. He pulled away most of the warming magicks from his embattled comrades, and then turned the spells of warmth on the frost worm. The monster reacted as though scalded with blazing pitch, whipping and writhing as it sought out the spell caster. Frodle dove behind a large rock to escape the worm's lashing, pierced coils. Crouched low and weaponless, hands above his head to block a clattering shower of stones, he was among the first seized when the ground split wide and darkness rushed forth.
In a cavern of ice and living, bitter shadow-
Night-Woman, Queen of the Lost, Lady Entropy slid, swirled and poured herself; dark as ink, frigid and sapping as terror.
'I am eternal,' she hissed at Gawain. 'Unlike these…'
A flick of her thought brushed Anelle's cadre of ghosts, dissolving them utterly.
'…I cannot be dissipated.'
Her attention shifted fluidly, next puddling like nightfall on poor, wounded Allat.
'Unlike this,' she whispered from everywhere at once, 'I am immune to place, and the passage of time.'
Then, though the shape-changer clung for protection to Gawain, he crumbled at her will to a handful of blown, wailing dust. Gawain cried out a warning and lurched forward, for Anelle was darting across pebbles and melt-water with the centaur colt at her side, franticly trying to reach him.
'And unlike the hidden one…' the devourer now bent its implacable gaze upon the hurrying lass and her horse-child. '…I cannot be destroyed.'
Gawain was desperate; at the absolute last, fraying strand of hope. Impulsively, he turned to the very deity who'd abandoned him earlier, and who surely would never again hear or respond. While darting, fanged sprites emerged from the walls and streamlet, while giant elementals took substance from the rock and ice around him, Gawain sought another kind of help. The former paladin whispered, to that which had vanished away,
"Forgive me, please. I did wrong. I'm willing t' pay f'r it with my life, if that's what's wanted, but grant me strength enough, first, t' save those who've followed an' trusted me."
Something within him had been slammed tight by his single, defiant "no". Now, the link burst wide open again, searing Gawain clean and emotionless.
…And very, very powerful. A pure white radiance shone from the paladin, kindling rainbows from the surrounding walls and sharp daggers of ice. Burnt… fairly cindered… the darkness shrank backward, curling away from the intolerable brightness.
Meanwhile, not at all far away, a bit of ice-bound metal began to hum like a struck tuning fork, or a hive full of bees. Sensing its presence, Gawain reached forth and took Anelle's hand, driving darkness farther away from the wide-eyed lass and her frightened young centaur. Then, keeping hold of them both, he drew them through the opening that Allat had pointed out, leading Anelle to the ice-prisoned fragment of sky metal.
About as long as Gawain's forearm, it was, and very blue. It crackled with power as the knight and his charges approached, sending lines of force in all directions. Anelle gasped aloud, for the emerald once given her by Gawain had leapt from her knapsack to hover in midair. Other stones rose up, as well: from his sword, the opal of Midworld. From the ocean, by way of a sea elf, a pale-violet jewel of depth and longing. Then a cursed stone, dark with pent evil, and the cracked white gem from a dead king's helmet.
Drawn by the sky metal's power, all five flew through the air and snapped against it with resounding loud clicks, forming a perfect circle. The sky metal hummed louder now; a note picked up and returned by the entire, shuddering ice wall. It was a wondrous thing to behold, but Gawain could not look away from Anelle. The dark-haired young girl was confused and frightened. She clung tight to her champion with one hand, and with the other drew close her gangly horse-child.
Lines of blue force touched all three of them; strengthening Gawain and causing the centaur to grow suddenly taller, but only alarming the lass. Gawain was mostly a vessel and instrument, at that point, but still human enough to pity her fear and try to relieve it. The force lines had begun to carve an opening from the rattling ice wall. Interleaving his fingers with hers, Gawain helped Anelle to reach forth and place her hand upon the jewel-crowned stone in the very centre of that portal.
And then, with a soft, bright burst, power came to her. Anelle changed, seeming to grow beyond the confines of her mortal body. If she'd been lovely before, she was devastating, now; mighty enough to banish dark entropy to the ends of time with a single word. That humming noise rose louder around them, and the narrow passage rumbled wider.
With a second word, she undid all of the demon's evil; sending a legion of spirits to peace and reward, calling Allat back from the dead, and bringing in all those who'd fought entropy's horde, outside. In a startled mass they appeared; Frodle, Drehn, Voreig and Glud… even the horses, the Cross-knights, their army and bard, clutching weapons and newly healed wounds, most of them.
Their confusion was cut short by the sight of Anelle, who glowed before them, soft and pale as a star. The massed folk knelt at once with much thumping clatter, for it was clear to all that they'd been brought into the presence of the heir. As the crowd looked on, a portal flared open behind her, forming the sort of energy gate which had once crowned the sky road. Obviously, she was meant to pass through, yet the altered, beautiful being lingered, afraid.
Anelle prevented Gawain from making a subject's obeisance, staying him with both of her hands. In a voice grown clearer and richer, she whispered,
"Don't, please. I can bear with anyone's worship but yours, Gawain. Could… can we not leave this place? Return home to Falkirk? Surely my father… Lord Morcar, that is… would grant his assent to our wedding."
She wanted the portal to shut and this business to end, but Gawain knew better. Very gently and sadly, he said,
"Milady, I could no more wed you than marry a star of heaven. You don't belong here, with me. Y'r home is out there."
Anelle bit her lip, which flushed a brighter than natural red.
"Come with me, then, please, for I do not know the way, or what lies beyond. There are bits, but... Most of my memory is darkness, until a storm brought me to Falkirk. Gawain, I do not know how to be other than human. For the last sixteen years, I've animated this body, which was born without breath. Out there," She indicated the energy gate with a timid nod, "I shall certainly have need of my champion and friend."
No, she did not belong here, with him… but perhaps he was meant to be there, with her. Something inside him seemed to agree, through the reforged link to his deity. Gawain would have kissed her slim hand, but she tugged him closer and kissed his rough, stubbled cheek, instead.
"Come with me?" she asked again, squeezing his hand, and the centaur's. Both agreed, though the passage was not immediate. While Chester remained with Anelle, Gawain crossed the ice cavern to take leave of his father, his order and friends.
Lot met him halfway, embracing the cleansed young man with tears and blessings. Kent, Argonne and Ravencall did so, as well; the two greying mortals less stiffly than the tall elven prince.
"My son is returned to us," said the king. "We are healed." …And once more a circle of five. Not since he'd first been called to the order had their joy been as great. Nor did a physical separation threaten to shatter them. Not when his power and spirit were once again linked to theirs.
"With y'r leave, Sire, I propose to accompany…" (What was he to call her, now, Gawain wondered?) "…Lady Anelle." (After all, that's who she'd always been, and that's who he loved.)
"Y've leave and blessing together, lad. We'll look f'r your return, and welcome the tale of your doings."
His father embraced him, then; too pleased and proud for further speech. The knight next bade farewell to big, hulking Glud (and paid him, finally). To Voreig (no longer so eager to face Gawain in battle) and Frodle (truly delighted, and twitching with greed to write all this down). Then St. George ambled over to Gawain's side, hooves clattering on stone and ice. The horse snuffed with wide nostrils at the paladin's red hair and shining accouterments, rumbling contentedly. Then he wandered off once more to greet Anelle.
The knight's final leave-taking was with Drehn.
"That which bound you has ended," Gawain said to the elf, who was uneasy, yet, in the presence of so much brightness and order. "You're quite free now."
"I know," Drehn responded. "And my immediate plans involve civilization, wine and females, in whatever order they're encountered. Glud, too, if he wants to come along."
Gawain smiled, impulsively hugging the startled drow.
"Try not t' stir up more trouble f'r yourself than Glud, Frodle and Allat c'n well get you out of, then. I may be gone a bit longer than expected."
Drehn freed himself, but Allat cut in before he could respond.
"He'll have to get rescued without me, either, Sir G," the shape-changer announced, from his coiled perch atop St. George's back. "Because I'm going with you. With your talent for irritating the powers above, below and probably out there, you could use a reliable thief and shape-changer. Trust me."
"I should have thought you'd had enough of fighting and running about," the paladin objected. But…
"He's supposed to go with you, Gawain," Frodle interjected. "Two of us are meant to pass on, returning later, if at all."
The young knight nodded thoughtfully, rubbing his chin and coppery moustache.
"'Tis likely t' end in a fight, then?" he asked.
"Possibly. It's terribly hard to see past the gate, Gawain. But if you summon us magickally, or send word through Allat, we'll hasten to join you, for whatever reason, or none at all."
Gawain was a wise enough young man to accept Frodle's offer, for who could say what awaited them in the lands beyond this one? Once he'd made his farewells, the knight returned to Anelle. Gently, he lifted her onto St. George's broad white back, placing her squarely before Allat. Chester scampered and reared a bit, trying to make himself as tall as the warhorse, until his adopted mum fondly shushed him. Then Gawain took hold of St. George's silver bridle, and led their way through the flickering portal.
"And that, folks… Is that! Game over!" Alan crowed immodestly. His audience was mostly present electronically (other than Fermat and dad, at Wharton for a holiday visit) but the exuberant boy rose and bowed, anyhow; gathering more eye-rolls and snickers than applause. (Not that he wasn't used to it.)
In the end, John found it simpler to alter one small, early happening; re-normalizing the past while taking himself pretty much out of the family. As a deeply withdrawn, institutionalized autistic, he could still be visited by Scott and the rest, yet was safe enough from harm to please even Five. And there was always hope of release. Wasn't there?