- Chapter Eleven -
Shadows in the Night
The companions returned to their rooms in the castle that evening to go over what they learned. Judging by their faces, Brom and Inari seemed to have faired as poorly as Lark and Elijah. Brom recalled how the temple was full of snobbish priests. Most either thought he was playing a joke, trying to pull some sort of scam. Insistent that they had far more important work to be done than to listen to some shady-looking dwarf.
"Hmph. If you ask me, they simply didn't know how to remove curses, but were too full of themselves to admit it."
"So no one was willing to help or listen to you at all?" Lark asked.
"Well, that's not necessarily true. Some of the lower ranked acolytes were kind enough to hear me out. But when I told them the details of our situation, they said it would be difficult to discover a cure without being able to study the cursed object—the malachite dragon statue in this case.
"They also said that when it comes to curses, usually the mage that created the enchantment, is the one that has to remove it."
"I see. I don't suppose either of you know where this statue came from."
Inari shook his head sadly. Brom scratched at his beard.
"If we knew who was behind all this, lass, we wouldn't be here trying to find a mage. We'd just track down the villain and make him turn our friend back to normal. But without any leads ... this is proving to be quite the tricky riddle to be sure."
"I take it you couldn't find any books on a cursed malachite statue either?" Lark asked Inari.
"Nothing. I'm sorry, Elijah."
"Don't worry about it. Even if I end up stuck this way for the rest of my life, I will still be grateful to you all for helping me. You're all good friends."
"Aw, Eli ..." Lark petted the little dragon on his soft, feathery head. "But we mustn't give up! There must be another way to change Eli back. Perhaps there's something we haven't thought of yet. Something we're overlooking ..."
"Actually," Inari added. "while I was in the library, I did a lot of thinking. And I think I might know someone who can help us."
"Really who?" Elijah asked, his hopes rising.
"The Keyseekers. According to Captain Dynamic, the survivors are still at Carmine, trying to recover from their traumatic losses. While Caliber, who's taken charge of things in Kharlos' absence, is working alongside the Queen to search for the key that was lost, as well as any other survivors from Dark Ether's attack. I was planning on joining them eventually—assuming we'd been able to find a cure for Eli. After all, I am still a Keyseeker—no matter what happens, I won't turn my back on them. Tessa would've wanted me to continue in her stead."
Lark patted Inari on the arm.
"In that case, we would be honored to travel with you to Carmine, if you'll have us."
"Of course!" Inari beamed brightly. "And maybe Caliber will be able to help Elijah, too! At the very least, he could give us some suggestions. There are many worlds out there ... surely one has the information we're looking for. As Lark said, there's got to be another way. We can't give up—not after coming this far."
"We're all in this together." Lark declared, and everyone nodded their heads in agreement. "Good. Alright then, in the morning we'll go talk to The Captain. I'm sure she'll be willing to give us a Templar escort to Carmine."
That night, Lark awakened to the sound of a ringing bell. Her first thought was being home in her bed back on Earth, with her alarm clock waking her up to get ready for school. She blindly reached for the snooze button, and ended up smacking Elijah in the face.
"Ow, hey!" The miniature dragon growled softly. "Open your eyes already!"
Lark opened her eyes, and remembered that there were no alarm clocks in The Gale.
"What's that loud ringing?"
"I'm not sure, but whatever it is, it can't be good."
Elijah climbed on Lark's shoulders and the two peered out their bedroom window. The sun hadn't even risen yet, but there were hundreds of people flocking into the streets. Most bore armor, weapons, or torches. Mounted officers from the backs of raptors shouted orders to their troops and civilians alike. Saddled stunt dragons and their riders filled the skies above, their lances and bows drawn. Lark's heart pounded fearfully in her chest. It looked as though the troops were getting ready for a battle.
An urgent knock sounded on Lark's door. She opened it and Brom burst into her room. Lark had come to know Brom's worried face all too well.
"What's happening?" she asked.
"The city's under attack. An entire army is headed this way."
"An army? Of what, orcs?"
Brom shook his head. "I'm not sure, but we'd better find someone who does. The fox and I are already packed, in case our trip to Carmine comes sooner than planned."
Moments later, the companions gathered in the main hall as a platoon of Templars passed. The men had their helmets removed, and Lark saw a familiar face.
"Cornelius!" She waved to the soldier.
"What are you lot doing here? Didn't you hear the warning bell?"
"We know, the city's under attack."
"Then go back to your rooms, and let the Dragon Templars do our jobs."
"We can fight, too, you know."
The Sergeant smiled, recalling how she'd used her wind-powers to defeat the feral wyvern.
"Cornelius ... it's not Dark Ether, is it?"
Cornelius nodded grimly. "Worse than that, they have a hoard of demons at their command."
Brom cursed under his breath. "They must be getting desperate, to attack an entire Templar city."
"How can we help?" Lark asked.
Cornelius opened his mouth to respond, but was cut off by a voice of higher authority.
"You must finish what the Keyseekers started."
Everyone's gaze fixated on Captain Dynamic. Cornelius saluted his commanding officer as she approached, but she nodded dismissively, telling him to stand at ease. The Captain was fully dressed in a suit of armor, from head to toe. Like the rest of her men, she was armed for battle—a sword at her hip and a large shield at her back.
The Captain's fierce green eyes fell upon Inari, and she bent down on one knee, as a knight might kneel before his King.
"Key or no key, I swore an oath that I would get you to Carmine safely. And that is exactly what I intend to do. The mission, must not fail."
Once they made it out to the courtyard, Lark got her first glimpse of The Shadowed One's army of demons. Though the ground-based ones hadn't yet breached the city, there were a great number of winged demons that were able to fly past the fortress' walls. They came in all shapes and sizes. Some had mutilated bodies, bat-like wings, sharp teeth, and horned heads. Others were little more than dark puffs of cloud. Others still wore dark robes, like mini versions of The Shadowed One himself. But the one thing all the demons had in common, were their beady, piercing red eyes.
The demons screeched and howled as the Templars on their flying mounts fell upon them with lances or arrows. Some of the dragons could breathe fire or beams of ice, and could easily fell the demons with a well-aimed blast of their deadly breath. But the demons showed no fear or mercy. They pummeled into the mounted knights like missiles. They clawed and bit at the dragons and their riders, or blinded them with spells of impenetrable darkness—like the master that commanded them. Some of the more aggressive demons even self-detonated with a fiery boom like that of a firework—often taking both rider and dragon down with them.
However, as soon as one demon fell, two more always seemed to take their place, until they eventually filled the sky like a flock of giant blackbirds. The Templars continued to fight, not backing down, but they didn't have the numbers to ward off so many demons, and several were able to swoop down into the city to prey upon unsuspecting land-walkers below.
Captain Dynamic drew her sword and shield. Lark opened up Sensu. Inari readied his staff, while Brom had a collection of knives and daggers on hand. Cornelius and a number of other Templars also had their weapons drawn and were ready to fight.
"We need to clear the courtyard!" The Captain called to them. "As soon as the perimeter's clear, we can make our escape! Get ready, here they come!"
As the demons catapulted from the sky, The Captain sliced one of the leads in two with a fierce swipe of her sword. Then turned to slash at another. Like a dancer, she slashed left and right, felling one demon after another.
Inari used his staff to send branches of blue lightning and balls of light at the demons, taking down several before they could even land. Not only that, but his magical attacks lit up the night sky, illuminating the battlefield, improving the vision of his comrades, while blinding the demons—who hated the vibrant streaks of color.
Brom, who appeared to have better night-vision than the rest of them, preferred to stick to the shadows. He'd find the demons that tried to hide in darkness in order to sneak up on an unsuspecting victim. But Brom was able to out-stealth the stalking fiends, and stab them in the back, or slice their throat before they knew they had been out-witted.
Lark, surrounded by Templars, felt unsure of whether to use her powers or not. Afterall, West could get a little carried away. If she did summon him, there was no telling whether or not he'd do more harm than good.
Suddenly, a demon lunged down in front of her, Lark ducked with a scream. Inari appeared by her side in an instant, hitting the demon with his ligtning-staff. Like all the others, the demon disappeared in a puff of smoke—back to the abyss from which it came.
"Are you alright, Lark?" Inari asked, looking up at her with concern.
"Yeah, I'm fine."
"Good. Stay close to me, I'll protect you!" He thumped his furry chest with a proud fist.
Lark petted him on the head affectionately, earning her a smile. Before the kitsune returned his attention to the fight, using his lightning-magic and staff to ward away the demons.
Watching all her friends risking their lives for her ... Lark felt touched by their bravery and determination. Lark raised Sensu and began to wave it back and forth in small, furious strokes.
"I can fight, too," she said quietly. "I'll protect you, Inari. I'll protect everyone!"
As soon as the wind began to pick up, Lark called out to the Western Wind. Perhaps there was a way to get West to focus his attacks more, so he'd only attack the demons—without harming the dragons and Templars.
West appeared almost instantly, as though he'd been anticipating the call. He was smiling at her mischievously in his boy-like form, hovering in the air. He appeared to be completely oblivious to the chaos that surrounded them.
"Hey, it's been a while! Are you ready to play with me now?" Lark heard the wind's voice say to her. That gave her an idea.
"Yes. Let's play a game, West. It's called ... Demon Blaster!"
"Oh, that sounds like a fun game!" Filled with excitment, West did a backflip in the air.
"But there are rules!" Lark cautioned. "You earn points by hitting demons, but if you hit anyone other than a demon—it's game over and you lose."
West snapped his ghostly fingers arrogantly. "Pah, I could win this game with my eyes closed!"
"Please don't," Lark said trying not to think of such a disaster. "Now, just aim your winds wherever I point Sensu—the fan, that is."
"You got it, Lark! These weakling-demons don't stand a chance against me!"
"Good. Now go ... there!" Lark pointed at an incoming swarm of demons. West disappeared and his laughter rang out as a powerful gust of wind blew them off-course. The demons tumbled helplessly to the ground below, where a cluster of Templars were waiting for them.
Lark gazed around the battlefield. Inari was closest to her, but he was surrounded by a large number of demons, desperate to put an end to the kitsune's bright attacks that hurt their eyes.
Lark pointed the fan at the demons surrounding her friend. West skillfully spiraled around them, creating a small tornado-like current of air, that sucked up the demons and tossed them far away from the fox. While the demons were stunned, Inari then used his magic to finish them off. Afterwards, he gazed at Lark with an impressed grin. He gave her a friendly salute of gratitude.
By this point, most of the courtyard had been cleared of demons, but more kept raining down from the skies above. Their numbers seemed endless. The Templars were holding up well, but eventually they'd run out of stamina. If the demons never ceased their attack, the Templars would lose the battle from exhaustion alone. Lark decided to trust in West's skill.
"Alright West, show me what you can do," she muttered a quiet prayer to the wind. Using Sensu, she made a sweeping motion over the entire sky surrounding the courtyard. Hoping West would understand her message.
Right on cue, the gusts of air began to twirl in place until it formed a small sphere of wind-power. The wind-sphere coursed high overhead, snaking left and right, it blasted swiftly through the air, hitting one demon after another. It bounced off their misshapen bodies, the same way a ball would in a pinball machine. Each target the sphere hit was launched out of the sky, causing them to crash into the hard ground below. What demons weren't instantly killed upon impact, were easily picked off by the Templars waiting below.
Lark felt someone clap her on the back. She turned to see The Captain smiling down at her from underneath her helmet.
"Well done! Cornelius told me you had saved him and his men using some sort of wind-magic. Yet seeing it with my own two eyes makes it all the more impressive. You are full of surprises, young lady."
Now that the courtyard was temporarily free of demons—both above and below—the companions huddled close together for The Captain's orders.
"Is everyone here?" Brom asked, looking around.
"I think so ... Wait, where's Eli?" Lark realized the little dragon wasn't in his usual place wrapped around her shoulders. "He's probably hiding under a rock somewhere ..."
"Actually, it was under a bush, for your information." The the little dragon said, scuttling out of a nearby flowerbed. "It's far more comfortable than rocks."
Lark stooped down, allowing Elijah to climb back on top of her shoulders.
"Okay, now we're all here," Lark said to The Captain. Yet, when she turned around The Captain was no where in sight. Where'd she been standing a moment ago, there was now a stunt-dragon, heroically posed before her. She was the size of a large horse, with a beautiful, silky mane similar to Elijah's feathery one. In the dim light, Lark got a glimpse of gleaming red scales.
"Don't be alarmed," Dynamic said. "climb on my back. Hurry now. The demons have broken rank for the time being, but I doubt we've seen the last of them."
Inari climbed on first, no questions asked. He used the dragon's muscular hind-leg for a boost, then waited for the others to follow.
Lark hesitated, gazing around at Cornelius and the other Templars who were busy making preparations for the next wave of demons.
"If the demons are coming back," Lark said her thought aloud. "Shouldn't we stay and defend the city?"
The Captain shook her head. "That's what The Shadowed One wants. Don't worry about Bane's Town. She's well equipped to handle a siege. Fighting the forces of evil is what the Templars are trained for, after all. Besides, it is you that Dark Ether is after. Once the Shadowed One discovers you've escaped, his minions will most likely cease their attack in order to pursue us. Until then, my men will do their best to keep them preoccupied, hopefully it'll be enough to buy us time to reach Carmine."
Admitting The Captain made several good points, Lark climbed on behind Inari with Elijah still clinging to her shoulders.
"Are you sure you'll be able to carry all of us, Captain?" Lark asked anxiously. "We're not too heavy for you, I hope?"
The dragon shook her head. "Not at all. On the contrary, you're all much lighter than any of the Templars—what with their battle armor and all. Rest assured, you're all in safe hands—or claws, I should say."
The dragon turned her head curiously, realizing that Brom was also hesitating.
"Hop aboard, Master Dwarf." The Captain said invitingly. "Quickly now, before the demons return."
"No, thank you," Brom said stubbornly to all of their surprise.
"Brom, aren't you coming with us?" Lark asked, worried the dwarf might get left behind.
"I'd rather take my chances with the demons. At least that way I'll have a chance of defending myself."
"What are you talking about?"
"Dwarves aren't meant to walk above ground, let alone fly above it."
"Please come with us," Lark begged. "We all promised we would stick together. You can't turn your back on us now, we still need you."
The old dwarf made the mistake of glancing at the pleading young woman who's eyes were on the brink of tears. Finally his adamant expression softened with surrender. He grunted unhappily.
"Well ... don't blame me when we end up crashing into a tree."