Merexia checked his equipment yet another time. Sighing to himself, he recalled what had happened during his last visit to Shadowclaw Fortress. As soon as he had arrived, he'd been recalled to the clantown due to an attack. Shadowclaw had tried to stop them, and Merexia had been severely injured while escaping. However, he had no choice. This visit to Shadowclaw would be important. Negotiations were always touchy, and the circumstances of the last meeting made them unlikely this time. A white tiger burst into the room, interrupting his reverie. Merexia started, then quickly dove behind his desk when Altaica pounced. Altaica regained balance and grinned. Merexia cautiously crawled out from behind his desk and gave a tentative smile. "Ok Alt, what's the reason for bursting in here and scaring me half to death?" he said. Altaica growled and said, "Well, Kyrenos is outside the hall waiting for you, and he's scaring all the citizens. Also, the rest of the Order is ready to go as well." Merexia nodded and replied, "How are they? We suffered a lot of casualties in the last week. We're going to have to start recruiting more." Altaica shrugged and walked off. Merexia packed up his equipment and walked out into the majestic hall.
The interior in the clanhall of the White Rose gleamed brightly in the morning light. Various people milled around performing their duties. A small cluster of people stood by the double doors leading out. Merexia walked over to them and looked over each of them. They were all members of the Order of the Blue Star. There were three veterans: Alrena, T'sitar, and Olfesar. Also there were five newer members. Only two of them had seen previous combat while in the Order, Justal and Conalis. The other three were fresh recruits: Tariela, Donalis, and Salla. Merexia nodded his head to them, and said, "Ok, everyone in order? Good, let's go."
Merexia walked out through the double doors into the town. Kyrenos stood majestically by the fountain, flapping his wings and snorting. Citizens gave the gold dragon a WIDE berth as they moved through central square. Merexia cautiously approached, staying away from the fountain set in the middle of the square. "Kyrenos!" he shouted. "Are you ready to go?" Kyrenos turned his head, and blinked. "What took so long?" he boomed. Merexia replied, "Had to water my plants, think we can get going?" Kyrenos laughed, causing the entire square to rumble. "Indeed we can. I have enlisted many of my friends to help ferry your allies." Then he quoted the price for their services. Merexia stumbled back, and shouted, "WHAT!? That's highway robbery!" Kyrenos nodded and said, "Have you any other choice?" Merexia groaned and pointed at T'sitar. "Get the money," he said. T'sitar entered the clanhall and emerged several minutes later rolling four barrels filled with gold. Merexia nodded to Kyrenos and muttered, "Here, there's your accursed money." Several firelizards appeared and grabbed the barrels, then disappeared. Several enormous shadows passed over the ground, and nine dragons alighted in the square. All the citizens screamed and ran away. Merexia snickered, and looked at each dragon. There were four more gold dragons besides Kyrenos, three silvers, a copper and a bronze. Merexia turned to Altaica and said, "Are you sure the backup plan is in effect?" Altaica nodded and replied, "Yes, but are you sure we need it? It's costing an awful lot of money as it is." Merexia said, "Yes, trust me. I know Shadowclaw is probably up to something. Best be prepared." He then turned and shouted out, "Alright, saddle up! Everyone head for Shadowclaw Fortress and stick together!" All the Order members and Altaica rushed to a dragon, and lifted off. Merexia turned towards Kyrenos and warily climbed up his extended wing. "Alright, no funny stuff now," he admonished the dragon. Kyrenos eyed him and said, "Why of course not. Make sure your straps are tight." Merexia blinked and said, "What straps?" Kyrenos apparently didn't hear him, and shot into the sky. He pulled a half-loop, and flew upside down. Merexia screamed and fell towards the distant ground at terminal velocity! With amazing speed, the top of the clanhall grew closer and closer. Suddenly, Kyrenos swooped underneath him and caught Merexia neatly in the saddle. Merexia was pale with his near-death experience and said nothing. Kyrenos silently grinned to himself and sped off towards Shadowclaw Fortress.
Kyrenos slowly floated to a soft landing in front of the gates to Shadowclaw. Merexia climbed off and looked around. No one was to be seen. "What happened here?" he asked. Kyrenos peered around and said, "There appears to have been a struggle by the gate." Merexia walked over and dropped to his knees. "You're right," he said. "There was quite a fight here. Notice the scorch marks in the sand. I'll bet Calime had something to do with this." Suddenly, the gates swung open, and a dozen soldiers marched out. Merexia frowned and quickly backed off. Those dozen soldiers were joined by another two dozen. Merexia narrowed his eyes and gripped his staff tightly. Four heavily-armed soldiers marched towards him with weapons drawn. Cursing in the elvish language, Merexia stumbled backwards and cast a defensive spell. Several images of himself appeared around him and rotated around, shifting places. The soldiers stopped, momentarily confused. That was all Merexia needed. He completed the complex incantation, and all soldiers were immolated in the wash of fire. Drained from the effort, Merexia slumped slightly. A distinctly female voice stated, "I hope you aren't too weakened. The fun's just begun." Merexia looked up to see Calime grinning at him viciously. He dove to the side and created a magical sanctuary around him. He quickly straightened up and called down a column of flame. Calime deftly dodged to the side and threw a lightning bolt at Merexia. He spun to the side, but not quite quickly enough. The bolt burst against his arm. Gritting his teeth, Merexia thanked the gods that he'd put up the sanctuary spell, otherwise, he might have lost his arm. Calime smirked and disappeared in a puff of smoke. Merexia healed his arm and frowned when he realized the point of this encounter. Shadowclaw was indeed a clever man. He was attempting to force Merexia to waste as much of his magical energy as possible before entering the fortress. Merexia turned around and said to Kyrenos, "How good are you at climbing?" Kyrenos let out a puff of flame and replied, "My claws can cut through steel. I think I could scale this fortress easily." "Excellent!" Merexia said. "Let's climb up the side to one of the officer's quarters and sneak in." Kyrenos nodded and extended a wing to Merexia. Merexia climbed on, and Kyrenos quickly dug his claws into the fortress, scaling it up a few stories. Merexia looked in the window and said, "Looks deserted. I'll get in here. Thanks." He smashed the window and jumped in. Kyrenos took off and flew away.
Merexia looked around the dusty room and frowned. It wasn't like Shadowclaw to keep an abandoned room. Shrugging to himself, he pushed open the door and immediately jumped back. This was the room of a ghost! Merexia put his back to the wall and hoped that the ghost hadn't seen him. He wasn't positive, but he thought it was the ghost of Otarin. He quickly decided on his plan of action. He leapt through the doorway and cast a spell. The floor shook, and Merexia's vision blurred. He rushed by the confused ghost and smashed through the door to the hallway. He stumbled into the hallway, and hit his head on something metal and very solid. Looking up, he saw a veteran soldier grinning down at him. Merexia pressed his hands to the man, who screamed has his flesh began to wither. Merexia turned around and sprinted to the stairway. He had to find his friends.
Merexia carefully poked his head around the corner. Up ahead, the jailer was sleeping peacefully in his chair. Merexia snuck up to him and smashed him over the head with his staff, ensuring the jailer would continue his little nap. Grabbing the keys, Merexia quickly unlocked the first gate. There were three cells, all dark. Unlocking the first one, he found only a skeleton. He unlocked the second one and opened it. There was a flash of white and something large and heavy barreled into him. Merexia felt claws raking at him and cursed. He leapt to the side before the thing could attack again, and held his staff in a ready position. His assailant did not attack again. Instead, it stood there looking rather amused. Merexia looked closer, and saw that it was a dirty white tiger. "Altaica?" he asked. "In the flesh," Altaica replied. "Once we got here, we were ambushed by a whole platoon of soldiers and Calime." He grimaced. "She put us to sleep and the soldiers dragged us off." Merexia nodded to himself as he processed this information. Altaica continued, "Most of us are crammed in that cell, but Tariela, Donalis and Salla were taken somewhere else." Merexia cursed. He said, "Damn, our three newest members. They're probably going to try to turn them to serve their purposes. How's the condition of the rest of us?" Altaica frowned and noted, "Well, Alrena, Olfasar and Justal are in good enough shape to continue with the mission. T'sitar and Conalis are pretty beat up." Merexia nodded and said, "Ok, let's see what we can make from this. You take T'sitar and Conalis out and implement the back-up plan. I'll take the other three with me and we'll scout ahead and see what we can do." Altaica nodded and went back into the cell. The five relatively unhurt medics dragged the other two outside. Altaica gave the signal and waited. Merexia returned into the fortress with Alrena, Olfasar and Justal. After quickly peeking through the hallway, they rushed into the darkened fortress.
The four medics conferred with each other in the stairwell. They agreed that Merexia and Alrena would continue to the top floor while Olfasar and Justal searched the third highest level for Calime. Merexia and Alrena walked up the stairway and came to a small guard room. Alrena poked her head up and counted the soldiers inside. She reported the number back to Merexia. He blinked his eyes in surprise and said, "Six? That's VERY strange. There's normally only one, two at max." Alrena nodded and said, "So what do we do now?" Merexia shrugged and said, "Kill them?" He stood up in plain sight and waved at the soldiers. They blinked at him in surprise. Merexia grabbed a rock and beaned one in the head with it. They charged. Alrena chanted a spell, and the floor shook and jumped. The soldiers tripped, stumbled, and fell ALL the way down the stairs. She dusted off her hands and said, "Now what?" Merexia smiled and shook his head. He pointed upwards, and they continued their trek to the top of the fortress.
Olfasar and Justal snuck around the corner behind the soldier and dove into a room. They quietly closed the door and took a quick look around. They were in a well-furnished room. Obviously, they had found the room of an important person, hopefully Calime. Justal quietly opened the door to the right and shut it quickly. "Calime's in there!" he whispered to Olfasar. Olfasar nodded his head and bashed the door in. He quickly glanced around, but Calime was nowhere to be seen! He heard a curse behind him and whipped around. He was just in time to see Calime hit Justal with a colour spray. Justal screamed and stumbled backwards onto a couch. Olfasar leapt forward and was hit by a stream of flame which burst from Calime's fingers. Ignoring his burns, he smashed his mace into her arm. Calime staggered sideways, and created a magical shield in front of her. Erwin, Calime's apprentice, quietly snuck behind Olfasar and began his spell. Once he finished, his hands started glowing blue, and he touched Olfasar. Olfasar opened his eyes wide, and dropped to his knees. His mace clattered to the floor. There were shouts outside the door, and the clash of swords. The door smashed inwards, and several soldiers rushed in. Each wore plate armor with a White Rose displayed on the breastplate, and were armed with gleaming long swords. Calime shook her head and blasted them with a lightning bolt. However, the energy was absorbed into their armor! The soldiers advanced forwards, driving Calime into her inner sanctuary.
Merexia peeked out of the arch above the stairway. He rushed down the hallway with Alrena right behind him. They turned down a passage and slammed into a deadend. Merexia cursed and quickly searched around. He found nothing. There was the sound of a sword being drawn, and both the medics spun around. Shadowclaw stood there with his sword ready. "Looking for me?" he boomed. Merexia frowned and said, "Where is P'nalis, Shadowclaw? He told me he would visit here, but he never came back!" Shadowclaw thought for a moment and replied, "You mean that nosy guy who was here about three weeks ago? Ahh, we've been using him as, saaay....target practice?" Merexia blinked and readied his staff. He drove forward, but Shadowclaw easily parried his blows. Shadowclaw thrust his sword and stabbed Merexia deep in his arm. Merexia staggered backwards and winced. A shimmering portal appeared, and a tall man in rusty armor stepped out. He waved at the two and said, "Hey Merexia, your backup is here." At that, he opened a bag of holding and dumped out about five dozen kiwi fruits. "Behold the Kiwi Marines!" he stated. Alrena shook her head and said, "THIS is your backup!? An insane guy in rusty armor and a bag full of kiwis!?" Merexia said, "Uhh, Ranma? Where are the REAL marines?" Shadowclaw snarled and shouted, "Are you guys quite done yet?" He rushed at Ranma, but Ranma sidestepped and tripped him. There was a crackling sound, and Calime loosed a full lightning bolt into the narrow passageway. Merexia braced himself and gritted his teeth. Pain enveloped him as the lightning bolt slapped him into the wall, then it was gone. He opened his eyes and surveyed the scene before him. Alrena lay on the floor, burned, but alive. Shadowclaw was carefully picking himself off the floor. Ranma was smiling and brushing ash off his kiwis. "Ranma!" Merexia shouted. "Where are the marines?" Ranma sighed and said, "They were SUPPOSED to be downstairs taking care of Calime." He turned and glared at the mage, who was standing in the hallway, gathering her energy to cast another spell. There were shouts from the stairwell, and a group of soldiers wearing plate armor with the White Rose emblem on it ran up, chasing some of Shadowclaw's soldiers. Behind them was Altaica, snarling. Shadowclaw stood up and shouted at his men. "Shape up! Box formation, quadrant 1C!" Immediately, the soldiers rushed around Calime and formed a tight square. Shadowclaw turned to Ranma and said, "Alright, let's finish this, pal. Just you and me." A troop of Shadowclaw soldiers stormed up the stairwell, trapping the Kiwi Marines. Merexia saw Calime preparing another spell, and he quietly concentrated on his own. Looking up, he pointed at Calime, and a column of flame sprouted and enveloped the mage. Calime looked up and smiled, as her magical shield slowly faded away, having deflected the magical flame. Ranma and Shadowclaw dueled in the passage, neither gaining an advantage over the other. There were several screams, and Merexia turned just in time to see several marines fall from magic missiles sent by Calime. Shadowclaw's soldiers turned and advanced at Merexia with swords drawn. Calime raised her arms, and suddenly black bolts of lightning surged from Merexia and were drawn into Calime. Merexia felt himself weaken considerably as his magical stamina was drained. Cursing, he realized he had only one option, and a dangerous one. He closed his eyes and murmured the magical words. Gouts of flame erupted from the floor and engulfed all the soldiers. Merexia dropped to his knees in agony. He looked up, hoping to see no one. Unfortunately, Calime still stood.
Calime curled her lips into a sneer, and cast spell after spell at the severely-wounded Merexia. With each impact, he would slam against the wall and drop down, only to be hit by another spell. At last, he dropped to his knees and coughed up blood, gasping for breath. Calime raised her arms for one final spell. Unfortunately for her, she failed to notice a shimmering portal appear behind her. Sabugen raised his dagger high and plunged it into Calime's back. She staggered forwards and spun around to deal with the new threat. Another portal appeared off to her side, and Zodicana stepped out. She raised her staff and smashed it across Calime's knees, dropping her. She inhaled, and breathed out a stream of flames, engulfing Calime. Sabugen looked at Zodicana and said, "Morning breath?" Zodicana just smiled and looked at the burned corpse of Calime.
The duel was not going well for Ranma. Shadowclaw had him backed against the wall and was raining crushing blows down. Ranma's arms were feeling tired from the ringing impacts of Shadowclaw's massive sword. Shadowclaw feinted, and flipped his sword. Ranma's weapon went flying out of his hands, clattering across the stone floor. Shadowclaw raised his weapon for the final blow, but suddenly someone grasped his wrist, chilling it and he dropped the weapon, feeling sapped of strength. Demosthenes smiled and sent out a massive shockwave, causing Shadowclaw to stumble backwards. Palatine appeared out a shimmering portal just in time to catch Shadowclaw. He shoved him against the wall, and Demosthenes held a dagger to his throat. "Wait!" Merexia rasped. "Don't kill him. He knows what happened to P'nalis and where he is." Shadowclaw growled, "Didn't think you'd believe my story. You're right, and only I know exactly what happened. However, YOU don't know!" He grasped Demosthenes's hand, and wrenched the dagger from his hand. Then he shouted, "And you'll never know!" And Shadowclaw slit his own throat.
The people still able to move off-loaded the wounded from the backs of the dragons. Merexia stumbled off Kyrenos, and stood for a moment. He silently watched the solemn proceedings. Cirque Silverspirit walked up and placed a hand on Merexia's shoulder. "You can't win everything," he said. "Not everything happens the way you wish it to. Don't blame yourself for this." Merexia slowly turned and replied, "You're right." He sighed. "I still need to find P'nalis though." Cirque nodded and said, "True. There is always tomorrow. Come in when you are ready." He turned and walked into the clanhall, leaving Merexia outside to his thoughts. "I'll find you P'nalis, my friend," he whispered. "Even if I have to travel to the ends of the earth to, I'll find you." He gazed at the twinkling stars in the sky, and turned and entered the dark clanhall.
This adventure comes to a end, and Merexia has grown stronger and wiser. Turn the page, and continue the adventures of Merexia Renalis...
*** TO BE CONTINUED ***