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Part Six: Fall of the Holy Celestine Empire

33

Memoirs of Lolly Pringle: Homeward Bound

I don’t think the Undead Emperor even knew his own strength when he threw me into the Taint, for I flew quite a long way before coming down hard onto ground and rolled down an embankment. I stood up on wobbling legs, which thankfully weren’t broken. After shaking my head, I realised that the Emperor no longer controlled my movements. He was standing some yards away, staring at me, waiting to see if I would suddenly mutate. I knew this was my only chance - I ran as hard as my little feet could carry me, in the only direction that was away from the Emperor - deeper into the Taint.

The thick air clung to my fur in oily globules, and just travelling through the Tainted land made me cough, my stomach churning. I found myself delving deeper into the Gloriana Forest, which I was somewhat familiar with from my travels, though now it was barely recognisable. Even the simple forest creatures were twisted, and the plants and trees themselves were scabbed and diseased, turning into something fleshy and alive.

But however horrific the Taint was, I was still myself, neither mutated into abomination nor made undead. I kept expecting any moment simply to drop dead from the foulness, but without the presence of Kethuru in the Taint, it was survivable. At the time, I had no idea what had happened, what that terrifying time when the world turned inside out truly meant. Now, like everyone else, I know that it was the downfall of Gaudiguch and Hallifax which caused the upheaval that reverberated throughout the known universe, from the prime material plane up through the elemental and cosmic planes, and even into the astral, where it must have shaken loose Kethuru’s hold.

They were two of the greatest cities within the Holy Empire, and what was unleashed when their respective powers collided may never be known. I hear many mages now say that the planes of fire and air, the cosmic planes of the Vortex and the Continuum, as well as the great cities of Gaudiguch and Hallifax, were cleaved from space and time, and are now lost to us forever. I hope they are wrong, though. The world is much diminished without them.

None of that was known to me then, of course, as I plunged deeper and deeper into the forest. Only one thought gripped me - and that was to get as far away from the Undead Emperor as I could. When I heard voices ahead of me, I almost cried out in relief. But, thank the Light, something held me back. I crept up and peeked through the bushes and what I saw disgusted me more than anything I had thus far encountered, if that can be believed. In a clearing was High Priestess Rowena Nightshade, High Druid Brennan Stormcrow, and a circle of druids and wiccans of the Gloriana.

As you can imagine, they were all Tainted. It was obvious with High Druid Brennan, who was cadaverously undead like the Emperor, as were most of the others. But some were like Shellma and Lars and Chum, grotesquely transformed into caricatures of what they once were. Rowena Nightshade, however, was still stunningly beautiful and I wondered if she had a glamour around her like the Emperor. But her eyes were black orbs and cruelty emanated from her.

This grotesquerie surrounded what at first I thought was a giant snake, but as I focused on it I almost vomited. It was the High Druid of Ackleberry, Gib Gladheart, a furrikin I knew since I was a cub. The only thing recognisable was his face, still the face of lovable Gib, but his body had expanded and bloated into a giant, black, segmented tube. Rowena was laughing as the others force-fed High Druid Gib some sort of black Tainted substance. With each mouthful they shoved down his throat, his body shuddered and he would lose a little more of himself, turning into that hideous wyrm.

Then, something overhead thundering out, a loud raucous cawing, so loud that it made the branches of twisted trees tremble. I looked up and beheld the Great Spirit of Gloriana, what was once known to us as Brother Raven, now an enormous bird of corruption with eyes that glowed crimson and feathers as oily and dark as the Taint itself. An atavistic fear gripped me, and I ran for my life.

I headed north towards the Ackleberry Forest. Though a city furrikin most of my life, the Ackleberry still called to me as I suppose it calls to all furrikin whenever we feel threatened. I don’t know how long it took me, and, yes, I even passed close enough to Magnagora to see that the once beautiful city now looked as if it was made of wax and left out to melt in the hot sun. Eventually I made it through the Taint, breathing in the clean air like a dehydrated merian gasping in water. As I stumbled north, I didn’t quite understand what the army in front of me was. My first thought was that somehow I got turned around and was back in the Undead Emperor’s hands, but then my eyes cleared of soot and I fell to my knees, sobbing like a newborn cub.

Ackleberry! Sweet, Ackleberry! Before me were the best of them. Furrikins armed with slings and staves. The great hulking tae’dae, in armour that could barely contain their huge, lovable bear bodies, wielding enormous swords and battleaxes. A few aslaran were sprinkled here and there, looking like the royal felines they are. I even spotted one lone loboshigaru! But most amazing of all were the igasho. Those rarely seen, solitary wanderers from the high mountains had come down in Ackleberry’s defense. Unusual enough even to see one - now there were hundreds! Larger then the largest krokani, as strong as a tae’dae, and as furry as a furrikin, seeing these gentle giants here set me into another bout of sobbing.

Having seen me run out from the Taint, I guess they didn’t know what to expect. I must have looked a wreck, but my sobbing eventually convinced them I wasn’t Tainted. Finally, a tae’dae lumbered towards me, placing a heavy paw on my forehead.

“Come now, little brother,” he said softly. “Come now.”

Then he picked me up and rocked me like a babe. Though normally a tae’dae who did this to an adult furrikin would be slapped in no uncertain terms, right then I could do nothing but snuggle into his pelt. Singing some cub-like lullaby, he carried me to his brothers and sisters. Surrounded by the warmth of the tae’dae, I calmed down enough to speak.

“The Undead Emperor!” I blurted. “He must be stopped! Going to Celest with an army. Horn of Urlach! Don’t let him have it! You must save Gib! Can go into Taint now - Kethuru gone!”

I knew I was babbling but couldn’t stop myself. The tae’dae holding me looked towards his female companion who shrugged and suggested, “Perhaps send him to Estelbar with the other tae’dae cubs?”

“I’m not a cub,” I said wearily, quickly tiring of how the tae’dae are wont to treat furrikin like their cubs. Then, a thought occurred to me. “Estelbar? Why wouldn’t you send your cubs to Ackleberry?”

“We arrived too late,” sighed the female tae’dae.

“Too late?” I cried.

What were they saying? Did the Taint corrupt Ackleberry as it had Gloriana? I looked over the tae’dae’s shoulder to the north where Ackleberry Forest lay, but the air was clear and clean and without Taint. I sighed in relief. But the two tae’dae were exchanging nervous glances with each other as though afraid to upset me more. Of course, that only made me more upset.

“Perhaps we should take him to the High Priestess of the Moon?” the tae’dae holding me asked his companion.

“Yes, yes, take me to the High Priestess!” I said.

At last, I thought, the High Priestess of the Moon, leader of the Moondance Coven in the Serenwilde, would know what to do. I knew I had vital information about the Undead Emperor and the Taint, and she must be told what was happening to Gib Gladheart. I sighed with relief, thinking that this nightmare would finally be put behind us.

How wrong I was.

34

Memoirs of Lolly Pringle: The High Priestess of the Moon

High Priestess of the Moon, Farella Lunseer, was a tall elfen lady with snow white hair pulled severely back in a bun. Dressed in a white robe that shimmered like moonlight and a silver torc around her neck, she was a familiar figure of power to an aether correspondent, well placed with the Queen of the Fae and an eloquent speaker. Now, however, her face was hard and lined with worry. She healed my arm, which I had broken when the Emperor threw me, and listened to my story of what had happened in the astral plane and subsequently. Afterwards, she sighed and shook her head.

“What foolish, arrogant people the Empire has wrought,” she said. “They hold the Great Spirits of Nature in contempt and hear not their wisdom. Never again will we trust so-called civilisation.”

“But you can do something, yes?” I asked. “The Emperor must not get the Horn of Urlach!”

High Priestess Farella pressed her lips tightly together as she thought it over. Then, she nodded at me and beckoned to the fae companions that waited politely to the side while she healed me. A small pixie fluttered to her shoulder and bobbed nervously.

“Go to the ethereal realm and find Queen Maeve in Faethorn Court,” instructed the High Priestess of the Moon. “Tell her what Lolly has said about the Horn of Urlach, and ask her to send the kelpies to the Inner Sea and intercept the imperial ships.”

“It shall be as you say, milady,” said the pixie.

“One more thing,” she added. “Tell Queen Maeve that I suggest the kelpies sink the imperial ships. Tell her it may be best if there are no survivors.”

The pixie hovered in mid air, blinking at her in surprise, waiting to see if she might correct her words. But High Priestess Farella merely raised an eyebrow and stared the pixie down. Finally, the pixie bowed and created a small ethereal gate into which he disappeared. I stared at the High Priestess in shock.

“No survivors?” I asked. “Surely you don’t mean that! Only one ship will be carrying the horn, and the others are innocent.”

“Innocent!” said the High Priestess of Moon, her voice trembling in rage. “None of them are innocent! You of all people, Lolly Pringle, know what evil the Empire has done!”

“What about Gib Gladheart?” I asked. “You know we can enter the Taint now while Kethuru’s mind has left it. With the army here, we can save him.”

“I fear he is beyond our help,” she said, the anger drained from her voice. “And if the Seals of the Nine have weakened, it will only be a matter of time before he reclaims what he’s touched.”

“But we have time now! A window of opportunity! If you will not help, let us tell the High Priestess of the Lake! Surely her and the rest of the wiccan coven in Ackleberry will act. And the druid circle of Ackleberry! Will they not want to try to save their High Druid?”

“Poor Lolly,” the High Priestess of the Moon murmured. “Has no one told you? Ackleberry Forest is no more.”

“What?” I screamed. “The Taint has not spread that far! How can Ackleberry be no more?”

“You tell me the Grey Moors raised a defence against the Taint?” the High Priestess of the Moon asked me. I nodded and she continued, “Well, good for them. But that also explains why the Taint suddenly surged north. Shallach fell quickly. The orclach there...the orclach do not respond to the Taint like the other races. Those that do not turn into the undead become diminished - hateful and foul like others mutated by the Taint - but also smaller and weaker. Thankfully so, I guess. But there were many of them and they poured northwards and invaded the Ackleberry. This army you see now chased them south but not before they kidnapped High Druid Gib Gladheart and many others. We could not follow them into the Taint, of course. Not then. And the Taint continued to press on.”

Tears welled up in her eyes, as she paused and stared off to the north in the direction of where Ackleberry Forest once stood. A lump was lodged in my throat and I could not speak, so I had to pull on her robe to get her to continue.

“What could Ackleberry’s coven and circle do?” she asked to no one. “They had to protect the Great Spirits of Nature that were tied to their forest. Having more Great Spirits become corrupted like Night and Raven - that could not be allowed to happen. The Gloriana Forest of the ethereal realm was Tainted along with the Gloriana here, and even now threatens Faethorn Court. Many fae have already lost their lives in the most terrible manners. The Great Spirits told us of a way to hide our forests deep into the fabric of creation, to cast a veil between what is and what is not. It is a dangerous thing to do, to risk non-existence itself. But there was no choice, not with the Taint moving forward. So Ackleberry Forest sundered itself from reality. We cannot know if they survived or not, but the forest, both here and in the ethereal realm, is no more.”

“There’s no one left?” I whispered, slumping to the ground.

“Just what you see here,” she said, gesturing around us. “Not all went with Ackleberry to...wherever they went. The furrikin village of Estelbar remained behind, perhaps you may wish to make your way there. Or you can come with me to Serenwilde where we shall wait.”

“Wait for what?”

“Wait to see whether we should follow Ackleberry. The Nine Seals may break at any time and release Kethuru. Or perhaps he may take control of the Taint again. We must prepare ourselves to leave as Ackleberry has.”

“Celest still stands,” I said. “Princess Marilynth is there, and she does not know that the Undead Emperor is leading his army there. Perhaps if you ally with Celest, together you can...”

“No!” snapped the High Priestess of the Moon. “Serenwilde will not ally with Celest. We will never trust Celest again. I have told you what we will do. You are welcome to come to the safety of the Serenwilde but do not expect us to help any city ever again.”

“Have you lost all reason!” I yelled, my own anger meeting hers. “If you won’t warn Celest and Marilynth, then I will!”

High Priestess Farella and I stared at each other for what seemed like a long time. Finally, she sighed and removed the silver torc from around her neck and handed it to me.

“You are a brave furrikin, Lolly Pringle,” she said. “Take this torc and call on me if you are in need. If you truly wish to go to Celest, there are still boats on the northern shore of the Crystal Sea that may take you there. Good luck.”

I just nodded and left, turning my back to her and walking quickly...so she would not see my tears.

35

Memoirs of Lolly Pringle: Princess Marilynth

When I arrived at the dockyards on the northern coast of the Crystal Sea, there was only one ship in port and it appeared abandoned. But after yelling to see if anyone was there, a merian’s head suddenly poked up out of the water. Shrugging into a robe as he left the seawater, he slipped a monocle over his left eye and squinted at me. Fairly robust for a portly, middle-aged merian, he introduced himself as Captain Vlath Symfale, a Celest merchant. I always thought it odd that a race who could breathe underwater and swim with ease would find it necessary for ships, but I guess even merians needed ships to carry supplies to and from the capital. Anyway, Captain Symfale was a good-natured merian who recognised my voice from aether broadcasts, and agreed to take me to the Isle of Celest.

The voyage across the northern end of the Crystal Sea was free of the Taint, though Captain Symfale said there were “butt-ugly Taint squid” that entered the clean waters from the southerly Tainted part of the Crystal Sea. I asked him how the northern end of the Crystal Sea remained uncontaminated as one would think the currents would easily spread the Taint through water.

“Aye, well, there be a story for your next broadcast, master furrikin,” he said with wink, and took a sip from a little flask (he did like to drink). “Thems that think the Great Spirits you folks take stock in only lives in the forests, but, aye, there’s some spirits that live in the sea too, protecting her waters. May not be as grand as them forest spirits, maybe they be just wee little spirits compared to your big ’uns, but us that live in the sea knows she’s there, yes we do!”

It felt good to laugh with the old mariner, taking my mind off of the terrible events I had just gone through, and the two-hour voyage passed rapidly. We docked in a little used port on the northeastern end of the isle. I asked Captain Symfale if he wanted to come to the Star Palace with me, but he just laughed and waved me on.

“Nay, master furrikin, thems palace folk ain’t for me,” he said. “I’ll just finish off me wee bit o’ brandy then I be heading home to me wife. She’ll snap at me like a barracuda if’n I linger too long.”

He saluted me with his flask, and I hid a smile thinking that his wife would probably more likely snap at him for sitting at dock and drinking brandy than coming home late. Hurrying through the city streets, it struck me that the merians were, if nothing else, remarkably resilient. Children still played in the streets, elder merians were hanging their laundry on lines, shops were open, and life continued despite the imminent threat of the Taint. Dusk was approaching as I finally wound my way to the Star Palace.

The paladins at the gate led me to the palace steward. After explaining who I was, a member of the Cosmic Hope expedition, he immediately had me escorted to the Princess Marilynth's council room. There, I was introduced to the newly anointed Holy Mother Glaruda Farain who was surrounded by several priests and priestesses of the Light, Archmage Gillian Shervalian of the Aquamancy College, and Lord General Dolph Inalai of the Paladins. I bowed low before Princess Marilynth who smiled weakly at me. Then, I told my tale as I had told it to the High Priestess of the Moon, which left the assembled leaders of the Holy Empire gasping and muttering among themselves.

"This Horn of Urlach concerns me greatly," said Holy Mother Glaruda. "If it truly makes the undead invincible...how could we stop...?"

"My father," finished Princess Marilynth.

"He is no longer your father, child," murmured the Holy Mother.

"The High Priestess of the Moon said she would stop the horn from getting to Celest," I interrupted, then remembered exactly how she arranged it. "But perhaps if you could recall any imperial vessel in the Inner Sea?"

"Yes. Yes, let us do that," said the Princess, writing the order.

"If it's safe to pass into the Taint," said Lord General Inalai, "we could meet up with the forces of the forest communes and make our first offensive foray into Gloriana."

"The High Priestess of the Moon may not think that wise, Lord General," I said, not able to bring myself to tell him what she thought of the Holy Empire. Instead, I said, "She believes Almighty Kethuru's presence will return to the Taint at any time."

A youthful squire ran into the room and whispered to Lord General Inalai, who paled and issued orders to some higher ranking paladins. He turned to Princess Marilynth, his gills fluttering rapidly.

"Celest has been invaded, Your Highness," he said. "The ur'Guard and the Tainted are at the southern gates, moving forward. There are thousands of them. We cannot hope to hold them back for long."

"How could they get here so quickly without us knowing?" asked the Princess, her voice trembling.

"The Shallach Portals," I said, "that must be it. The Emperor didn't think he could use them before because it was in the Taint. But if he can now freely pass into the Taint, he could have made his way to Shallach, avoiding the forest forces to the north completely."

"Which means he encountered the Tainted," said Archmage Shervalian. "And if the ur'Guard and Tainted are together, we must assume he has allied with Rowena Nightshade."

"Sweet Light," said the Princess. "What are we going to do?"

"We cannot let the Pool of Stars fall into the hands of the Taint," said Holy Mother Glaruda. "If the Taint spreads to the elemental planes of water and then into Celestia, that would be the end of the Light as we know it. We cannot allow the Holy Supernals to become corrupted as they have said happened to their counterparts on Shallamar."

"But what can we do?" repeated the Princess, looking around herself helplessly.

"Your Highness," I said, going to my knee before her. "Do what you father suggested."

"What?" she asked in incomprehension.

"Use the Pool of Stars to raise yourself up as a Vernal God! Call Avechna the Avenger to strengthen the Nine Seals."

"Yes!" said Lord General Inalai. "With a Vernal God on our side, with Avechna returned, there may be a chance!"

"It is risky," said Archmage Shervalian. "The Pool of Stars would be left severely depleted and the histories say that the Vernal Gods were very weak when they were first raised. Certainly, they were not omnipotent, as they died in such numbers during the Vernal Wars. And how much strength would you have to use to call Avechna?"

"The Light must be protected at all costs," said Holy Mother Glaruda.

The Holy Mother then leaned over to Princess Marilynth and whispered in her ear. The Princess jerked back with a horrified expression on her face which the Holy Mother simply returned with a look of determination. The Princess covered her face with her hands and began to weep.

"Don't ask me to do this!" she sobbed.

The same squire returned, looking as if he had recently been in battle, and whispered hurriedly to Lord General Inalai. Everyone watched quietly as the Lord General stood and placed a hand on the Princess' shoulder pulling her up to his side.

"We no longer have a choice," he said gently. "They've broken through the gates. Many of our people have dove into the Crystal Sea to evacuate, and those who aren't merian or decided to see this through are gathering in the palace. There is no other plan, Your Highness. Let us do this thing before it is too late."

Thus, I witnessed the Holy Celestine Empire raising their first, last and only Vernal God.

36

Memoirs of Lolly Pringle: The End of the Empire

A crowd of people were gathered in the open cathedral around the Pool of Stars, the nexus of power of the Holy Empire. As Princess Marilynth and her retinue headed towards the pool, I made my way to an observation platform high above, that was used by aether correspondents during large events. It overlooked the Crystal Sea and gave a bird's eye view of the Pool of Stars.

Holy Mother Glaruda led a group of priests and priestesses of the Light to circle the Pool of Stars, while Archmage Shervalian did the same with a group of Aquamancers in their turquoise robes. The waters of the Pool of Stars suddenly erupted, bubbling with light, and the crowd fell silent, some prostrating themselves on the floor. Out of the fountain stepped angelic beings who raised their voice in song. Princess Marilynth waded into the sparkling waters, which lapped up and frothed around her blue skin. Tears glistened in her eyes.

“The Taint was released by the Holy Empire,” she said, “and it is up to us to make right that wrong. It has been suggested that the Taint is Almighty Kethuru breaking free of the Nine Seals that bind him, and the only way to strengthen the seals is to raise up a new Vernal God who can awaken Avechna the Avenger. The Star Council has chosen me to be that vessel. People of the Empire, is this your wish?”

The crowd erupted in cheers, screaming her name and praising the Light. I found myself screaming Marilynth’s name along with the others.

An angelic choir filled the air as Marilynth was lifted up above the Pool of Stars until she was almost even with me. Golden light enveloped her, and caught in the amber glow, she began to spin slowly around. Her skin glowed so brightly that it melted from her body, replaced by a liquid effervescence. She opened her eyes and they shown with white light and she raised her arms and the entire chamber was filled with the beauty of her being. She was indeed a goddess now.

Floating even higher and turning towards Avechna Peak, she called out to Avechna to awaken from his slumber, her voice pure and sweet, like a clear bell piercing the sky. Three times did she call out before he answered.

Even from miles away, we saw the top of Avechna's Peak erupt in bright light. A figure appeared above it, massive, titanic. One moment he was hovering above the enormous mountain, then the next he was standing over Marilynth, dwarfing her and filling the sky with his form.

A great booming, thunderous voice filled the air. “WHY HAVE I BEEN AWOKEN?”

“We have need of you, Avechna,” the clear voice of the Goddess Marilynth rang out. “The Nine Seals are coming undone, and as was the pact of the Sacrifice of the Nine, you must make them whole again.”

“THE PACT WILL HOLD TRUE,” he thundered.

Just then, chaos broke out around the pool of stars. The ur’Guard and Tainted broke through the palace gates and began to charge towards the Pool of Stars. Half the crowd were screaming in terror while the other half were still held in thrall by the appearance of Avechna. From the south came great crows, as large as the rocs of Oleanvir Valley, and riding upon each one was a figure. As they came closer, I saw that upon the lead giant crow was Rowena Nightshade and the Undead Emperor.

Marilynth immediately saw what was happened and she screamed in horror. She spread out her arms and balls of white light sprung from her outstretched hands, each one enveloping a citizen of the Empire, including me. The Tainted creatures were unable to harm us while we were surrounded by a globe of light. But Marilynth, newly awakened to godhood and having just summoned Avechna, appeared to be rapidly weakening.

“Avechna!” she cried. “Help me!”

“I WILL HONOR THE PACT AND STRENGTHEN THE NINE SEALS,” he said. “YOUR FIGHT HERE DOES NOT CONCERN ME.”

“Look at them!” she screamed. “They have been Tainted by Kethuru! You cannot allow them to exist, to overrun the Basin of Life!”

“IT IS TRUE, THEY HAVE THE TOUCH OF KETHURU ON THEM,” he said.

Rowena Nightshade set the Undead Emperor down on the same platform I was on. I backed away from him as far as I could, but he didn't seem to even register me as being there. As he walked to the edge of the platform, I saw the marble beneath his feet bubble and blacken, smoking with ill fumes. That was new.

“But that was not the pact!” the Emperor yelled out. “Avechna, listen to me! The Nine sacrificed themselves to create the seals. You know this to be true! The Nine became the Seals, and you are the sum of them all! The Nine Seals, Avechna! That is where your duty lies!”

“THAT IS MY DUTY,” said Avechna.

“Do not listen to that undead abomination!” shouted Marilynth.

“Abomination?” laughed the Emperor. “Avechna, part of you was formed by Urlach, the Master of Death, perhaps the greatest of the Nine! Does that part of you consider the undead an abomination?”

“ENOUGH!” thundered Avechna the Avenger. “THIS IS NOT MY CONCERN. I GO TO REFORM THE SEALS.”

With that Avechna faded from sight. We could feel Marilynth’s despair through the spheres that she struggled keep around us. Emperor Ladantine watched on, his eyes glowing greedily. The Tainted around us were closing in, though not yet able to pierce the globes of protection. Rowena still rode on her giant crow, circling around us like a vulture waiting for its carrion to stop moving.

“How long can you keep that up, Marilynth?” the Emperor called out. “Even a Vernal Goddess must replenish her power at some point.”

“Father, please, what do you want here?”

“I want to join you, daughter! Think of it, the both of us raised up to godhood, parent and child, ushering in a new age! We can rebuild the Empire! We can rule it forever, together!”

“I will never allow you to do that, father, you know I will not. You would Taint all of Holy Celestia and the elemental plane of water. You’d destroy all the works of the Light.”

“But how can you stop me, Marilynth,” he chided. “Soon, I will have the Horn of Urlach, which will make me and all the undead here invincible. Eventually, I will win, daughter. I always do.”

Was the light around her dimming? Or were the shadows from the Tainted Great Spirit of Mother Night surrounding her? She was obviously struggling.

"Marilynth, you know what you must do!" screamed Holy Mother Glaruda from below.

“I am sorry, my people,” cried the Goddess Marilynth. “I must do this final thing to protect the future of the Light. Forgive me.”

“Marylinth, no!” screamed the Undead Emperor as she plunged herself into the Pool of Stars.

Immediately, the globes of protection around us winked out - but the Tainted had no time to begin their slaughter, for the Pool of Stars began to burn with a Holy Flame that drove them back. The bright light made Rowena curse and I thought I glimpsed her face rapidly ageing. She swung around on her giant crow and started heading back south.

“Rowena, come back here!” shouted the Emperor.

“You are a fool, Ladantine!” she laughed. “Enjoy your tomb with your daughter!”

“But my ship will arrive with the Horn of Urlach! Rowena, we will both be invincible.”

Of course, the Undead Emperor never knew the kelpies by now must have sunk his ship, so he was waiting for something that would never arrive. The red light in his eyes burned furiously as he watched Rowena fly away, and he looked back at the Pool of Stars hungrily as the Holy Flame grew brighter. He raised his arms as if about to dive into it. Was this his final attempt to become a Vernal God? Could he possibly stop whatever it was the Goddess Marilynth was doing?

We'll never know, of course, for I did perhaps the bravest or most foolish thing I ever did. After all that time being his puppet, after all the terror and grief he put me through, I screamed in rage and charged into his legs, knocking him backwards. He scrambled up and finally turned his eyes on me.

"Lolly Pringle?" he said, gaping at me in astonishment.

With another bellow of rage, I charged at him again, this time leaping at him so that I hit him full in the belly. He tumbled backwards, cursing and clawing at me, but still I pushed him back. We were both rolling on the platform then, which was slippery by whatever foulness that he had coated the marble floor with. Somehow I found the inner strength to keep fighting and pushing, until I was able to shove him over the edge on the far side of the platform that overlooked the Crystal Sea. He grabbed my ankle and took me over with him.

The Undead Emperor was still cursing at me when he hit the jagged rocks below and was swept away by the crashing waves. Just as I closed my eyes to join him in death, the High Priestess of the Moon's silver torc around my neck began to glow. I placed my hand on it and immediately was yanked into a planar gate.

I found myself in the ethereal realm of the Serenwilde Forest before High Priestess Farella. I looked around and saw I was in a circle formed by the Coven of Moondancers, who were staring into a scrying pool. The High Priestess had saved me but she would not look me in the eye.

“What’s happening?” I asked, gasping and trembling.

“Avechna travels to the astral plane to reform the Nine Seals. The Great Spirits say the threat is passing. And, now, Princess Marilynth is doing something that has never been done. She is destroying a planar nexus. Not a bad solution really. It will save the higher planes and destroy Celest.”

“Destroy Celest? So that’s why Rowena left? That’s why the Emperor was so upset?" I asked, looking around when no one answered "Quickly, we must save who we can! I’m not a great gateweaver, I know, but I can help! I can coordinate gates on an aether channel across from the ethereal realm down to Celest. Where are your gateweavers? High Priestess?”

“You are the only one we rescued,” she said, still not looking at me.

“You mean I was the first one, don’t you?”

“With Celest gone, the last of the Empire will be too. The time for the ‘civilised’ age is at an end and we can go back to the purer time when the forest communes oversaw the healing of the Basin of Life.”

“You could have saved them at any time,” I whispered, realisation suddenly dawning as an image of poor Captain Symfale came to my mind. “All those innocent people...”

“None are innocent,” she said flatly. “Besides, look! It is too late now.”

I stared into the scrying pool and saw the destruction of Holy Celestine Empire. It was monstrously beautiful, a flash of white light followed by a cloud of fire and smoke that that engulfed the entire Isle of Celest, sending plumes of debris hundreds of feet into the sky. The High Priestess of the Moon and the Coven of the Moondancers kept staring into the pool, even when all there was left to see was ash.

* * *

So here I am, twenty years later, a retired aether correspondent. Writing these memoirs from my little farm in Estelbar, a very small furrikin of no importance, grey furred and literally long of tooth. Thus, I watched as Serenwilde Forest withdrew into itself, and the Tainted City of Magnagora rise to prominence to subjugate those of us in the south. Though I never saw it, I know the survivors of the Empire gathered on the far side of the Inner Sea and formed a nexus of power, another Pool of Stars. They tell me that New Celest will be even greater and grander than that of old and the Light will return to lead us into a new age. Perhaps it will be so, but I think I will not live to see it. Estelbar has its own small problems, raided by those orclach that were mutated by the Taint, those nasty creatures we've come to call 'orcs'.

Though I've retired to this little farm and my days of adventure are over, I sometimes wonder if history will simply note that Avechna the Avenger was awoken and reformed the Nine Seals, driving Kethuru back into his prison for another age. True, the Basin of Life was saved that day, but who will remember the cost? The great powers of Gaudiguch, Hallifax, and Ackleberry Forest are already fading into legend. Gloriana is now known as the Glomdoring Forest and none who enter ever return. The Tainted in Magnagora are apparently breeding amongst themselves, calling their offspring the viscanti race. Yes, the cost was great indeed.

And in my darker hours I wonder if the cost has even yet been fully paid.