The cavern walls shook in sympathy as Vanastos raged through the passageways, scattering imps and demons with the backs of his hands and the heat of his gaze. When he saw the door to his throne room had already been buckled and forced open, he howled and tore chunks out of the lintel instead as he passed through the doorway. “Capra!” he shouted, looking around, “where are-” He stopped short when he spotted his three-eyed door-demon leaning against the wall, its arms and neck ringed in red lines of still-healing flesh, and one foot planted firmly on the back of a prone human figure.
“My apologies, Lord Vanastos,” Capra said in a raspy, damaged voice, “but this mortal is exceptionally feisty, and almost my superior with the blade.” The prone figure muttered something into the floor, and Capra ground its foot into his back to silence him.
Vanastos sighed and went over to his throne. After sinking into the carved stone seat and setting his bowl of pilfered fruit out of sight, he said, “Let him up, Capra, and go back to your post.” Capra did as it was commanded, closing the ruined door behind it as best it could. Vanastos looked down the human and said, “On you feet and identify yourself, intruder.”
Georgan fought to school his features as he peeled himself off the rock floor and took a kneeling posture at the foot of the throne. “My lord Vanastos,” he began.
“I said on your feet!” Vanastos shouted, pounding an armrest. Georgan winced as dust from the ceiling showered him, and then stood up. Vanastos nodded almost imperceptibly, but his brimstone eyes also narrowed in impatience.
“My name is Georgan, my lord,” Georgan said, “Priest and Champion-aspirant of Your dark society in Burik. After years living in the heart of the Eternal Ones’ favored land without detection and strengthening the ranks of Your worshippers, I come to offer myself as Your Chosen Champion to bring war against the Light and its spoiled, unworthy favored.” He had more words prepared, but he stopped himself when Vanastos held up a hand.
“While I cannot doubt your earnestness and power, mortal,” the Dark Emperor said, “I find myself wondering why you come before me now. I sent out no call for a Champion, no signs that the Darkness is prepared to move against Luminox and his accursed allies. What inspired you to brave the Pyrad, risk your fragile life in the Myasmou, and - most impressively - endure a prolonged duel with one of my strongest demons?”
Georgan took heart at Vanastos’s faint praise, and so answered the question with boldness. “My lord, the King of Burik, Avatar of Luminox, is growing old and weak. He will not be able to unite and lead the Avatars and the armies they may raise; at least, not as he could in his prime.”
Vanastos scoffed. “Luminox watches his Avatar closely for such mortal weakness,” he said, “and appoints the Crown Prince as Avatar in his father’s stead. If the King is as feeble as you say, the mantle will be passed soon.”
“If the mantle of Avatar is passed on,” Georgan said without hesitation, “it goes to a lad unused to the responsibilities, and perhaps even less able to lead than an old man. Many of the other Avatars are also showing their age and may be replaced soon. Now, in this period of transition, they will be at their most vulnerable, but that weakness will not last long. Make me your Champion now, mighty Emperor Vanastos, so I may strike while our enemies are weak and prepare the way for your liberation from these dank, dismal caverns and your rise to dominance over all of Vulpran!”
Vanastos frowned and drummed his fingers on his armrest. “You… make a strong case, little man,” he said at last. “However, it is not easy for me to gather power quickly in this place. Leave me; I need time to consider your request and to measure my resources.”
Georgan’s shoulders slumped in disappointment, and he turned to leave. “As you command, my lord.” He slipped out through the door, ducking to the side when Capra raised a fist to him.
“Capra,” Vanastos shouted before the blow could fall, “we will tolerate his presence. For now.” The door-demon unclenched its fist and gave Georgan a rough push to hurry him along instead.
With the room clear, Vanastos fetched his bowl of fruit and contemplated it. “Curse it all, these selfish, shortsighted mortals. Why is this my lot?” He bit a plum in half and chewed it slowly. “Ah, I should be saving these,” he mumbled. “If I don’t handle this right, I probably won’t be seeing fruit for a century!”
The scraping noise of the broken door opening again pulled Vanastos from his dark thoughts. He hastily shoved the rest of the plum into his mouth and covered the fruit bowl in an illusion even as he leveled a glare at the intruder. The goat-headed demon Capra peered in around the door, looking momentarily more akin to a sheep than a goat. “Apologies, my lord,” Capra said, “but the mortal is well out of sight now, so if you need to step out again…”
Vanastos worked the pit out of the plum in his mouth and spat it at the floor, where it shattered. “No neeb,” Vanastos said, chewing. He swallowed the plum before continuing, “Myuzephyr got wind of our visitor’s approach a while ago. Ethury knows we’ll be making a move sooner or later.” He waved the demon away with a command, “Go fetch Centau and Azelroth; I need counsel and ideas from the three of you.”
Far to the north, on the other side of Vulpran’s northern ocean, lies a land of permanent ice. The land has no name, for no mortal in Vulpran’s recorded history had ever set foot upon its shores. Yet, on this day, a pair of boots marred the thin layer of snow that lay atop the permafrost as their owner stood patiently waiting, untroubled by the freezing wind that blew over the tundra despite his light clothing. He held his arms folded behind his back, and a slight frown creased his face as his green eyes idly tracked the sun’s movement across the sky from mid-morning to near noon.
Just before the sun reached its zenith, a black shadow rose up from beneath the ice. The green-eyed man’s attention went instantly to the shadow as it grew in size and then transformed into an eerily beautiful woman with skin an impossibly dark hue, hair like the star-saturated night sky, eyes a striking teal in color, and wearing a dark blue gown that fluttered in its own personal breeze. The green-eyed man unfolded his arms and rolled his shoulders. “Well?” he asked.
The shadow-woman held out her hands in a helpless gesture. “This is the right spot,” she said, “but the seal was broken eons ago. There’s almost nothing left down there.”
The man raised an eyebrow. “Yet you’re certain this is where the creature used to be?” he asked.
The shadow-woman huffed and looked down her nose at the man. “Trust me, I know an imprisoning seal when I feel it, Tamule,” she said, “no matter how old, fragmented, or… unaligned it may be to my own nature.”
“Ok, I believe you,” Tamule said, making a placating gesture. He folded his arms behind his back again and turned to face the South. “So, it’s loose,” he said, “and has been for a very long time, just as we’d already figured. Were you able to discern anything new, Noctus?”
“The prison was certainly not meant for an entity like me,” Noctus answered. “The remnants of the seal were comforting to my senses. An imprisonment built on that kind of Darkness would have been just soft clay to me, hardly an effort to subvert and escape.”
“Not a demon of Dark elements, then,” Thamule said. He smirked. “That narrows it down, I guess.”
Luke du Burik lay on the grass outside the palace of the Eternal Ones, and he was beginning to think the clouds drifting through the sky above him were repeating a pattern. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed since breakfast had ended and the Luminox had told him to go wait outside and relax while the Eternal Ones conferred about Vanastos’ warning. It felt like hours, but the sun wasn’t visible and without it Luke had no frame of reference. It’s certainly been long enough to prove that it is possible to be bored upon Mount Ethury, Luke thought. I could’ve been back home planning the ceremony for my official assumption of the Temple leadership by now. Possibly.
A shadow fell over Luke’s face, so he sat up slightly and looked to see one of the demi-mortal palace servants: a bark-covered, boyish dryad. Dryads were demimortals of Earth, and thus technically servants of Gaimadre, yet the most common place to find them on Vulpran was in the sacred forest Myuzephyr claimed for her use. “Forgive the interruption, Avatar of Light,” the dryad said, bowing slightly.
“You’re not interrupting anything, Earth-child,” Luke responded, keeping his tone respectful and free of irritation.
“I’ve been tasked with escorting you down to the mortal plane,” the dryad said.
“Finally,” Luke said, his frustration tinting his voice. He cleared his throat and re-schooled his features and said in a proper tone, “Lead on then, please.” He stood up and followed as the dryad set off toward the walls of the courtyard with a strange, trotting gait. The courtyard walls were smooth and unbroken, and Luke wondered how anyone was expected to pass through them until a gateway suddenly formed at the dryad’s approach. The dryad placed one foot on on the threshold and bowed to Luke with a sweeping gesture of its arm. Luke stepped through the gate and into an obscuring mist.
When Luke’s sight cleared, he found himself not on the slopes of mount Ethury, as he had expected, but at an entrance to a sun-lit grotto surrounded by tall, ancient trees. Turning about in confusion, Luke saw the dryad standing behind him and asked, “Where am I?”
“You’re in the Avatar’s Grove, Prince Luke,” came the answer from Luke’s left. He turned and saw a woman dressed in a fancied-up version of a forester’s uniform from Arb Cedon, the kingdom located to the west of Burik and shared Myuzephyr’s sacred forest as their mutual border. The woman had chestnut hair with faint streaks of grey running through it, and her once-fair skin was weathered and speckled by sun and age, but her graceful posture and beauty was only enhanced by those marks. Luke felt a reflexive need to bow in her presence, for she was familiar to him: Wren Zephyr-touched, the Avatar of Myuzephyr. Luke fought the reflex, reminding himself he was equal in status to her, but he did bring his hand to his heart and inclined his head in respect for her age.
“Avatar Wren,” he said, “it’s a honor to see you again. I… assume it is not coincidence that we’ve crossed paths here.”
Wren shook a scolding finger at Luke as she entered the grotto, but tempered the rebuke with a smile. “You’re an Avatar yourself now, young man,” she said, “so it’s not an honor to encounter an Avatar any more, merely a pleasure.”
“Right,” Luke said, sheepish.
“And you’re right,” Wren continued, “this is no coincidence. Fair Myuzephyr instructed me to come here, and I suspect the other Avatars are on their way. If Vanastos is about to begin a campaign, then you’ll need fast lessons in combat and tactics.”
“And you’d give him those lessons, Wren?” asked the tall, muscular, battle-scarred man who suddenly walked in from the other side of the grotto. He was wearing a thickly padded, sleeveless shirt and knee-length leather pants and carried a wooden practice sword held up against his shoulder.
“Of course not, Pyros,” Wren said lightly. “You know I’d never overstep into your area of expertise. Although, I must say --” she looked the Avatar of Fuegalio up and down critically, “--you’re coming across a little too eager to begin.”
“I was in the middle of a training bout,” Pyros replied. “When my patron Eternal One tells me to come to the Grove post-haste, I don’t waste time getting changed.” He looked around the grotto and raised an eyebrow. “Even so, I figured I would be one of the last to be here. Thurim and Tyla, at least, are always a step ahead of me.” As he spoke, one of the grotto walls wavered an sagacious-looking man, complete with long robes, a gnarled walking staff, and a short white beard, stepped out through the distortion.
“Aye, we would’ve been here already,” the old man said, “but I’m afraid Tyla is no longer in any shape to travel. She and Gaimadre were just starting to brief the new Avatar of Gaimadre when I left.” He gave Luke a warm smile and added, “So you aren’t going to be the only neophyte cutting their teeth on Vanastos's current problem child, young Prince. How’s that feel?”
“Ah, I’m not sure, Sage Thurim,” Luke answered. He looked at the people around him and nervously ventured, “So, we’re all in on the, uh, Vanastos thing?”
“You mean how the top demon is actually a drinking buddy of the gods?” Pyros laughed and clapped Luke on the back. “Of course we all know that, your highness. That’s the first thing the Eternal Ones reveal to new Avatars. Gaimadre’s new girl is probably getting past the shock of it right this moment.”
“I still don’t understand it myself,” Luke said. “Why all the pretense in the first place? If there’s no real enmity between Vanastos and the Eternal Ones, why lock the Darkness away?”
“Don’t worry yourself over it,” Pyros said. “That’s not our business.”
“Indeed,” Thurim said, “it is an arrangement the Eternal Ones settled long ago. There are worries enough for your present and future without questioning the past as well.”
Luke let out a sigh. “I suppose you’re right,” he said. “So, speaking of the present, what should we be doing, exactly?”
The Avatars considered the question in silence for a long time. At last, Wren spoke up, “Since we don’t know whether or not Vanastos will hold back his Dark Champion, I propose we wait a few days.”
“Why?” Pyros asked. “This is a rare opportunity to set up siege before they even leave the Pyrad.”
“Dreaming of personal glory again, Pyros?” Thurim asked sardonically. “You know perfectly well that nobody can maintain a siege in the desert’s heart. That’s why the Valley of Myasmou is located there: to test potential Dark Champions and give the successful ones space to spread Darkness for a few days before encountering our opposition.”
“Besides,” Wren added, “the young Prince here and Gaimadre’s new Avatar both need to be formally invested before starting any public Avatar business.”
“Fine,” Pyros said, sulking away. “I’m going to go start drafting maneuvers anyway. Gotta make sure the armies from each kingdom won’t be tripping over each other.”
“Try and get in touch with Mulrev while you’re at it,” Wren said. “I can’t guess why he hasn’t shown up yet, but-”
“Ah, he’s probably just on the wrong side of the ocean again,” Pyros said dismissively. “I’ll track the old pirate down, but the next time Aquaros changes Avatars, I’m going to put pressure on the kid to set up a Waypoint on that old ship of theirs.” He walked out of the grotto and disappeared in a shimmer of air.
“What’s a Waypoint?” Luke asked.“The secret to the Avatars’ ability to be anywhere on Vulpran at need,” Sage Thurim replied. “There are some permanent ones connecting the Avatar’s Grove to each of the kingdoms and to the Ethury Palace, and with training you can create temporary ones to return home after a long adventure or as a shortcut through thick forests. Here,” he offered his hand, “I’ll show you how to open the Waypoint to Burik.”