In which Omanisa tidies up
In the Council Chamber, everything seemed to happen at once. For a short while, confusion reigned. All eyes were focussed on Valarien in terrible anticipation. Bolts of flame snaked towards him. The impact exploded in a dazzling array. For the second time, the wizard's companions were struck blind. Other senses remained. Acrid fumes assailed the nostrils. Fear crawled across the skin. Ears resounded to the triumphant exultations of the Daemon Lords.
Jubilation suddenly turned to cries of pain and terror. Blurred vision, slowly clearing, revealed the Daemon Lords clutching their throats and clawing at the air. One by one they fell choking to the ground. A faint mist swirled around them. For long minutes, moans issued from the writhing forms until all sound and movement ceased. Of the wizard, there was no sign.
For a long time, no one moved and no one spoke. They were too stunned as yet to register the full significance of what had they had witnessed.
Then Omanisa set up an ululating howl and began a funereal chant.
"Oh, Valarien," sighed the nightranger, "you have triumphed but at what a cost!"
"He is... dead, then?" Leon whispered, reluctant to speak the word for it brought home the finality of Valarien's sacrifice. He owed his own life, and even his soul, to the wizard, and the acknowledgement that his saviour was no more ripped through to the very core of his being.
"Nothing could have survived that fireball," Stoddard confirmed sombrely.
"If aught of him remains, it must and shall be interred with all honours," Ewan announced resolutely, heading for the back of the throne upon which the king still sat motionless, like an effigy.
He had not taken two steps when Leon let out a ghastly scream. Omanisa stopped in mid chant. Curling over the back of the throne was a hand.
None dared move as the face of the wizard, dead white, arose beside it.
"It's a ghost!" gasped Leon.
The ghost groaned most horribly and the sound echoed around the almost empty chamber.
"D-don't talk rot!" it wheezed testily. "Come and - um - give me a hand up."
"V-Valarien?" Ewan stammered uncertainly.
"Well, who else would I be?" The voice was stronger now.
"Are you alive?" Leon asked tentatively, as if trying out the word for the first time.
"Of course I'm alive, dolt!"
The wizard had dragged himself to his feet and was leaning heavily against the throne. Still wondering, his friends hurried to his aid. Amazingly, Valarien was completely unmarked. He was a little dazed, as much by the realization that he was still alive and not in some infernal place.
Ewan was afraid that he would shortly suffer from delayed shock and suggested moving him to more comfortable quarters, if Stoddard would guide them. He had to repeat the request for the old soldier's mind seemed to be wandering.
"Listen," Stoddard whispered. "Can't you hear it?"
It sounded as though the castle was awakening as from a deep sleep. Leon rushed to the door and looked out. Guardsmen and lackeys were wandering along the gallery beyond. Their faces were showing varying degrees of bafflement but at last their eyes no longer held that dreadful vacant deadness.
"The daemons' control is broken!" he cried to the others. "We've won!"
"No." the wizard contradicted. "Not yet. Not until - um - Kai returns..."
Until that moment, all thoughts of Kai had been banished from their minds as they concentrated on their own perils. Now, the initial feelings of elation were tempered with concern for their erstwhile companion and how he was faring. Well, there was nothing they could do for him at this instant, and there were other things still to be dealt with.
"What do we do with these people?" Leon asked, at a loss.
Stoddard, firmly on home territory, took over. He strode into the gallery and collared the nearest guardsmen who looked half-way alert.
"Pass this information to all guardsmen. The rest of today has been declared a public holiday, and beyond doing what is needed to maintain public order, the men are excused all duties. There will be a full muster of all troops on the parade ground at dawn tomorrow. Got that?"
When the two guards had repeated the message to his satisfaction, Stoddard dismissed them and summoned a lackey.
"See to it that the best guest chamber is prepared," he ordered. "Make sure there is a fire and a warm bath. And hurry!"
While Valarien, assisted by Stoddard and Ewan, made his slow progress to the Royal Peacock Suite, Omanisa and Leon set about clearing up in the Council Chamber. There, King Kieran still sat upon his throne gazing glassily ahead. Around him lay twelve mounds, the earth-bound remains of the Daemon Lords who had so recently terrorized the fair land of Belsaria.
Leon prodded one gingerly with the toe of his boot. It crumbled to sulphurous dust, an empty shell within the sumptuous raiment that remained. The barbarian coughed and waved away the stink.
"Do not do that, my friend," cautioned the shaman. "They have breathed the holy vapour, it is true, but I would prefer to be sure."
"Yes. Valarien transformed the holy water that I always carry. A small amount of water makes a lot of vapour. As it spreads, it becomes invisible, so the Daemon Lords had inhaled it before they knew. Now, stand away."
Leon needed no second telling. Omanisa stood in the centre of the untidy ring in which the daemons had fallen, and called down the blessing of the Lady. Next, he produced a small quantity of dried leaves and herbs and ignited them to the accompaniment of the low, humming chant peculiar to his calling. As the leaves smouldered, the shaman sprinkled a small amount of sparkly dust over them.
Just like the little fire in their prison cell, the leaves produced an amazing quantity of smoke, but this time it was a pale sky blue. It rose in a column to the high ceiling and spread outwards until it formed a canopy above the circle of daemons below.
When all the leaves had been consumed, and the smoke column had fanned out, it gathered in a billowy torus. The azure ring began to rotate, rapidly gathering speed. As Leon watched mesmerized, it began to glow and fragment until a string of shining blue spheres chased each other around the ceiling. Gradually, the spheres slowed their mad dash and Leon saw a myriad brilliant blue sparks scintillating within.
As they came to a halt, the coruscations coalesced until the spheres shimmered with a clear blue fire. Gently, like thistledown, they floated down and each settled upon a fallen daemon. When contact was made, the fire spread over the remains and blazed a furious orange.
When the fire had done its work, the flames reverted to an ethereal blue and faded away, leaving behind a delicate aroma of summer flowers. Of the daemons, there was no trace.
Leon wanted to applaud the Lady's work, almost overcome by its exquisite artistry. He did not do so, however, as he did not wish to break into such a beautiful moment, but stood, at peace with the world, reliving the experience in his mind.
He was brought back to the present by a gentle word from Omanisa and together they turned their attention to the throne. The figure of Kieran remained mute and motionless. The shaman lifted one hand and felt for a pulse. It beat slowly and sluggishly beneath his fingers. He stared into the blank, unfocussed eyes and saw nothing.
"It he is alive, but only just. The animating spirit - the demonic one - seems to have left him. Now we must keep him alive until his own spirit returns, which it will, the Goddess willing."
At Omanisa's summons, two servants fetched a make-shift stretcher, and Kieran's body was carried to the second guest chamber, where he was laid upon the four-poster bed. Leon left Omanisa to his ministrations and, guided by one of the servants, went to find the others.
When he arrived in the Royal Peacock Suite he found Valarien, having bathed, protesting at being put to bed. Ewan was not impressed nor intimidated, and the wizard, resisting to the last, was fast asleep seconds after his head touched the pillow.
There being nothing further to do there, the three decided to reclaim their belongings from the cave outside the town, marvelling at how much had happened in little more than twelve hours. It suddenly occurred to them that they were all ravenously hungry and it was agreed that they should visit the Inn With No Name.
They felt that, despite her earlier betrayal, Mistress Caitlin would wish for reassurance that her brother was well and bore no grudge. Also, Ewan hoped she would have another of her spicy apple pies in her oven.
He then recalled Brinsley and his brother - Darwin was it? - no, Derwin, and all the others locked away and forgotten. Reluctantly, they put their own needs on hold and sought out the chief warder.
Out in the town once more, they encountered a festive atmosphere. Gone were the faces of misery and fear, for word of the vanquishing of the tyrants had spread rapidly. Though there was a great deal of uncertainty, the majority was keen on enjoying the taste of freedom while it lasted.
Mistress Caitlin was delighted to see her brother and equally delighted that their mission had prospered. She had no recollection of being in the castle and took it very badly when she learned of her part in their capture.
She grieved volubly over the young men who must have met their end through her information, unknowing though it was. Uppermost in her heart was anger anger at being used, anger at being made to do something so much against her nature and anger at herself for not having been more wary, for she could remember nothing of the means of her recruitment to the daemons' cause.
"Well, sister," Stoddard said gruffly, "mayhap you may soon have a new sign for your inn, for the true king has returned."
Mistress Caitlin marvelled at this.
"Ah! I do remember your saying something to the purpose, and then you clammed up," she said, "and a good thing too, by all accounts! But who is the true king if not King Kieran? Or is it still confidential?"
Stoddard looked at Ewan who returned a bland gaze.
"Well, I suppose not. You remember young Prince Edric as disappeared one night in autumn nigh on a dozen years ago...?"
"No! I mean yes. I mean Never! Oh, I don't know what I mean! And he's come back?"
"Yes. Well - that is to say he has and he hasn't."
Before the conversation became terminally muddled, Ewan, in his usual laconic manner, gave Mistress Caitlin an unvarnished account of the principal events of the King's return.
"Oh, dear Goddess," she breathed, "so all we can do is wait and pray... "