Read part 4 (and find links to previous parts) here
Luke took Zhu Li Ahn through the permanent Waypoint linking the castle of Burik to the Avatar’s Grove. When they emerged in the grotto, they found Pyros and Wren already there in the middle of a discussion. The elder Avatars looked up at the youths’ entrance, and Pyros smiled. “I gather you kids are already itching to start,” Pyros said. “Looking for advice on what to do now that the Darkness has burst its borders?”
“I’m leaving the leadership of Burik’s armies to my father,” Luke said. “Our soldiers will welcome his experience more than they’ll miss me filling a mostly symbolic role at their head.”
“That’s wise,” Wren said. “Your time will be better spent learning to harness the magic of your Avatar Gifts alongside Zhu Li.”
“We shouldn’t waste any time on that,” Zhu Li said. “We saw the signs of Vanastos’ army entering the world, so-”
“It’ll be a week yet before they can get out of the desert,” Pyros said. “It’s a short time to master your Gifts, but nothing a pair of focused kids like yourselves can’t handle. Now, I know you’ve already got Waypoints figured out, Luke, but what about, you Zhu Li?”
“Avatar Tyla taught me how to travel through the established Waypoints,” Zhu Li answered, “but not how to make them.”
“The principle is the same for both,” Avatar Wren said. “Creating a temporary Waypoint only requires you form a clear mental picture of your destination before you impose your will. That’s why they’re best used for returning home after an assignment.”
“We’ll start with that, then,” Pyros said. “Make us a Waypoint to somewhere familiar, lass, and we’ll go from there.”
“Very well,” Zhu Li said. She closed her eyes in thought, and then slowly lifted her hands, fingers curled slightly. “Kyoro Shrine,” she muttered, and then thrust her hands out. The air between them began to shiver, and an encouraged smile came to Zhu Li’s face. “Waypoint, open!” she commanded, spreading her hands slightly. The shivering air expanded into a man-sized space. Zhu Li slowly stepped through, vanishing except for one hand that she kept inside the Waypoint to hold it open, so it appeared to hover disembodied in the air. After a moment, her head and shoulders reappeared through the space and said, “I did it! I’m right where I meant to be.”
“Come back then,” Pyros instructed. As Zhu Li re-emerged into the Grove and the Waypoint faded away behind her, Pyros said, “The rest may not be so easy to teach, for each Avatar controls a different element, and every element behaves a little differently. Once you get the basics down, though, you should be able to safely experiment and discover the rest of your abilities on your own.”
A shimmering in the air on the far side of the grotto heralded the arrival of Avatar Thurim. The old man was leaning heavily on his staff and did not look pleased as he looked around at his fellow Avatars. “Still no word from Mulrey?” he asked.
“I can’t find where he’s made port recently,” Pyros answered with a gesture of exasperated weariness. “Aquaros must have had him on some big assignment just before this disaster landed in our laps, is what I figure.”
Thurim rubbed his temple. “I don’t like the sea lanes remaining an unknown factor,” he said. “We’ll just have to put extra attention to guarding the port cities until Mulrey deigns to contact us.”
The people of Vulpran called the ocean surrounding their land the Boundless Sea, and conventional wisdom held that those who sailed out of sight of the continent would be at the mercy of Aquaros, whose ever-changing form was matched by an equally fickle nature that no sailing ship save one would be willing to bet on. The exception was the ancient ship Arghil, captained by the Avatar of Aquaros. The Arghil was a strong ship despite its age, its timbers nigh unbreakable and its crew masters of maritime battle, as generations of sea-raiders and sea-minded Chosen of Vanastos had learned to their dismay. Those old enough to see it pass through the hands of multiple Avatars claim the Arghil changed to incorporate new sail configurations and weaponry, yet the ship had never been reported to come into drydock for repairs or upgrades.
Avatar Mulrey was a man born for the sea, for all that his dark skin spoke of his ancestry coming from the desert nomads of the Pyrad. Mulrey had spent most of his life as a sailor and had served aboard the Arghil even before becoming the Avatar of Aquaros. His dark eyes had seen everything the sea had to offer, and faced every kind of challenge that Aquaros, demons, and ordinary men could throw at him. Or so he had thought, until he found himself looking at a true mystery in the form of a green-eyed man tied up on the deck of his ship.
“Come now, Captain,” the green-eyed man said pleasantly, “surely this is just a misunderstanding. An error in the crew manifest, perhaps?”
“Lad,” Mulrey said, “I don’t let just any man-jack who asks serve aboard the Arghil. I choose my crew personally, and only from those that someone onboard vouches for. And I keep this,” he brandished the book listing the ship’s current crew, “in my personal possession and don’t let nobody but me update it. I don’t know your face, none of the men’ll vouch fer you, and I don’t see any ‘Tamule’ listed in my book. You, sir, are a stowaway.”
Mulrey paused to still his rising temper and looked out over the ship’s railing, where the ocean stretched without break to the horizon in all directions. “Now,” he said, “I’ll grant you’re the cleverest stowaway I ever met. Over a week out of port before we found you, and with you leaving no clear signs you’re about. Nothing mysteriously moved or misplaced, no cases of more food bein’ taken than the records show…”
“A man clever enough to added to the crew, perhaps?” Tamule asked hopefully.
Mulrey gave the green-eyed man a hard look. “Yer clever, aye, but not smart enough to do things the right way. A stowaway only gets one thing: thrown overboard.” He held his arms behind his back and started to pace around Tamule. “Now, the rules of the sea say I hafta toss you over with nothing but yerself, but those rules assume stowaways get caught afore we get too far from port. Out here in the Boundless, with no land in sight, that’d be cruel. So, I’ll grant you a small mercy.” He gestured, and two of the attending sailors picked up a tiny raft made from set of spare ship’s timbers, a short length of rope, and a little bit of sailcloth and tossed it over the side. Tamule raised an eyebrow at the contraption as it vanished over the side. The sailors then came over to him, undid the rope binding him, and then half-carried him to the railing and dumped him over.
As the Arghil sailed away to parts unknown, Tamule laid back on the raft, sailcloth held in his hands, and sighed. “Well, that was a pure disaster,” he told the sky. He held up the sail and frowned at it. “And some ‘mercy’ this is, a sail without a proper mast to hang it from, and probably too small to work anyway. Ah well.” He balled up the cloth and threw it away.
When the curious demimortals of the sea came to investigate the raft, they found it empty and could discover no sign of anyone having swam away from it.
Georgan stood by the well that was the heart of Pyrad’s Sole Relent, the largest caravan stop in the Pyrad region. Compared to the metropolises of lands like Burik and Arb Cedon, Pyrad’s Sole Relent was barely a village, but the coincidence of its location near the easiest route from the desert to the rest of Vulpran and that its well was one of the rare water sources that never failed had turned it into the most prosperous and populated settlement in the region. Such had been Georgan’s impression when he had passed through on his way to the Valley of Myasmou.
Now, however, aside from the army of imps and lesser demons searching around and through the semi-permanent buildings, the place seemed utterly abandoned.
“Where have they all gone?” Georgan growled.
“Fled into the trackless sands, I wouldn’t wonder,” Capra answered in a neutral tone. “Ripping open the Gate was not subtly done, you know.”
“But,” Georgan spread his hands, “the men of the Pyrad have always formed an important core of the Dark Army, haven’t they?.”
“Sure,” Capra said, “usually after being rounded up and conscripted by threats on the futures of their tribes. Had we done this properly, on Lord Vanastos’s timetable and not yours, this town would have been taken unawares or already filled with prepared followers who would hinder any attempts to escape.”
Georgan turned to face the goat-headed demon, arms folded. “You aren’t trying to make things more difficult for me, by any chance?” he asked.
Capra blinked his three eyes, and then rolled them. “I’ll admit I won’t mourn you if this crusade does fail, mortal,” he said, “but to purposely sabotage you would be to go against Vanastos Himself, and I do fear him. It’s not my fault that you seem to expect to have the whole world offered to you on a platter despite doing the same as those who have come before you. Maybe less.”
Georgan grimaced and looked away. “I… take your point,” he said. “Well then, answer me this: would it be worth our time to try searching the desert for the nomads?”
Capra leaned his head back slightly in thought. “The armies of the land will likely take the time to encamp closer to the Pyrad, and Aquaros’s Avatar will certainly have blocked out access to any sea routes, but the demon forces we have simply won’t last long enough without conscripts to pad our numbers.”
Georgan nodded. “Let’s make it happen then,” he said. He turned away from Capra, raised his hand, and sent up a flare of dark magic to summon his army to him.