It had been a long time since they’d fought side by side, but Nevala remembered it like it was yesterday. Ivan knew the elves had wised-up to his tricks, and likely would be anticipating him to follow the same pattern. He and Nevala planned carefully on how to take advantage of this fact, and when the time came, they risked a dangerous gamble and burst through the door of the tower and out into the open plaza.
The elves didn’t immediately fire on them, instead aiming at the image of them standing just back from the doorway. The elves knew the two running toward them were merely illusions, and they needed to conserve what little ammunition they had left.
By the time they realized they’d been duped it was too late to react, as Nevala reached the keg of oil which the elves had left behind in the plaza. Sometime in the midst of the chaotic battle in the plaza, the oil keg had been knocked over, punctured several times, and had leaked everywhere.
Nevala ignited the oil with a small burst of flame and then drew on his connection with the fire, building it up in an instant as it spread across the oil. The wall of fire gave the elves pause, which was all Nevala needed to push the fire outward, hungrily lapping at the nearest elves and searing their flesh.
Seeing the damage he had done, Nevala stepped into the flame to use its protection to observe the battlefield. Half of the remaining elves were now down, and the others were quickly regrouping. Nevala opened a gap in the flames and let Ivan through to initiate the next phase of their plan.
Ivan filled the plaza with illusionary smoke. There was enough actual smoke choking the air that the illusion had a psychological effect on the elves, and they started to cough as they breathed in the illusion, momentarily disoriented as they covered their mouths and noses, trying to limit the smoke’s effects.
Nevala and Ivan moved forward, taking advantage of the chaos they had caused. Flame-shrouded hands and vicious claws led them as they waded over the sizzling corpses of the elves Nevala had recently burned. They began to slaughter the disoriented elves with abandon, trying to break through their ranks and off to the other side, freeing them to pursue Oberon and assist their friends.
Everything was working smoothly, and they were almost free when Ivan stumbled forward suddenly, collapsing at Nevala’s feet. Nevala quickly dispatched the nearest elf to him before seeing if Ivan needed assistance, and instead found an elf standing over Ivan, a bloodstained sword in his hand.
Ivan was on his hands and knees, blood dripping down his back as he coughed and spat. And then he fell to the side and rolled, blue eyes dead and staring into the cloud of smoke above him. The cloud which was no longer as thick as it had been without Ivan to maintain it.
Nevala didn’t have time to mourn, but with Ivan dead, Nevala also had no reason to be cautious any longer about possibly harming his friend. He pulled at the burning flames all across the plaza, drawing them to him and swirling them around his body in a vortex of fiery death. He lashed out with the flames in wide arcs, burning elf after elf who raised their bows against him, or who attempted to rush him with their swords.
He danced across the plaza, dodging arrows and stabs alike with equal skill, burning and killing as he moved, his grace of movement matching that of the flickering flame.
He hardly noticed when the last elf perished. His own energy gave out at nearly the same time, and he collapsed to the plaza, expecting to be destroyed by an elf who had lain in wait for the right moment. He knelt, breathing heavily until he finally willed himself to look up.
The plaza was littered with corpses, human, wolf, and elven, most charred black by the fires, some of which still raged around him. There was only one person standing, and it was the last person he’d expected to see.
She was standing over Ivan’s body, which lay naked on the plaza, unable to maintain its unnatural canine form without Ivan’s focus. Scheherazade stared lovingly into Ivan’s lifeless eyes, her face contorted in sadness. “Rest well, my love, in the interim,” she whispered. “May you find peace in your rebirth.”
“Scheherazade . . .” Nevala said, climbing to his feet.
“Greetings, Nevala,” Scheherazade said as she turned toward him, smoothing out the wrinkles in her ghostly dress incapable of being smoothed out. “We have much to discuss.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Zach dismounted from Micah’s back, and he and Micah split up to advance on Oberon from two separate angles, hoping to flank him to give them an advantage. Zach doubted it would make much of a difference from the confidence in Oberon’s stance and step. He was completely sure of his ability to defeat them, and likely would do so quickly as well.
Micah dashed forward, testing Oberon’s defenses. Oberon deftly stepped back as Micah reached him, and then stepped to the side and forward, stabbing his sword into Micah’s shoulder. Micah took the blow easily and shifted his foreleg into a bladed tentacle, snapping it out quickly and thrusting the point of the tentacle into Oberon’s armpit, where the armor was lighter and exposed by Oberon’s strike.
Oberon was as unfazed by the attack as Micah had been by Oberon’s, and they both pulled back, Micah with a frustrated snarl and Oberon with a wicked sneer.
“Did you really think it would be this simple?” Oberon asked as he and Micah began to circle each other, ignoring Zach completely. “I am a god, Changeling. I am more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”
Zach advanced slowly as Oberon’s back was turned to him, making eye contact with Micah briefly. When Oberon had almost turned back to face Zach, Micah dashed forward and nipped at his heels, and Oberon deftly danced out of the way, putting his back squarely in Zach’s view.
“I’ve slain those as arrogant as you before,” Micah growled. “I’m not afraid.”
“You should be,” Oberon replied as Zach stepped up behind him, raising Excalibur above his head and preparing to hack down with it. The sword descended and Oberon disappeared from sight, causing Zach to stumble forward from the momentum of his strike.
He regained his balance and started to look for Oberon when he heard Puck cry out, “Zach, watch out!”
Zach sensed movement from behind him at the same time he noticed Micah charging toward him. He dropped to the ground, catching sight of Oberon’s sword out of his peripheral vision as it thrusted forward where Zach’s back had been.
“You’re trying my patience, Puck,” Oberon said, glancing to the side. “What makes you think it’s a good idea to continue to do so?” Puck began screaming in pain as he writhed on the ground, doubled over as his face contorted in agony.
Micah took advantage of Oberon’s momentary distraction and redoubled his speed, jumping over Zach to slam into Oberon, hungry jaws snapping for Oberon’s throat. Oberon managed to get his arm in the way, and Micah clamped down on that instead, sharp fangs piercing Oberon’s armor and the flesh beneath.
Oberon wasn’t bothered in the slightest, and he laughed in Micah’s face as Micah raked his fore claws across Oberon’s body armor and his hind claws across Oberon’s legs. “Oh, how sharp your teeth are, Changeling!” He taunted, and then he stabbed upward with his sword, using it as additional leverage to push Micah off of him.
Micah slid off the sword and landed, backing away as the wound closed in his side. The sword had come away clean, of course, but when Micah opened his mouth to growl at Oberon, Zach noted with interest that Micah’s teeth were red with Oberon’s blood. Perhaps the king was mortal after all.
“You think that will be enough to kill me?” Micah taunted. “How long are we going to dance like this, Oberon? Are you going to try to kill me yet, bastard?”
Oberon cackled at Micah’s question and disappeared from sight again, reappearing next to Micah and slashing down with his sword. Micah accepted the hit and snapped back with his teeth, clipping Oberon’s wrist, causing an open wound for an instant, but then it was gone.
They had several more similar exchanges as Zach reached for Excalibur and tried to figure out how he would possibly be of any help in this battle of masters. When it came to Oberon, he was definitely outmatched, but it appeared as if Micah could hold his own.
Which gave him a few moments to think. If Oberon was still similar to a human at his core, full of blood, muscle, and bone, then he wasn’t as similar to Micah as Zach had originally surmised by seeing them fight. He would still need all of his components in order to continue to function. He had an idea.
“Micah!” He shouted, knowing Micah’s keen ears would be able to hear him, despite his intense concentration on the battle. “Micah, drain his blood! Suck him dry and—”
He was slammed backward as Oberon appeared in front of him, kicking him hard in the stomach. Zach fell to the ground, breaking his fall with his right arm as he clutched at his stomach with his left. He felt a tear in his shoulder as he landed, the bullet wound from a week before stretching and breaking open, and he felt blood begin to trickle out and soak his shirt.
To make matters worse, Oberon was now standing over him, and all mirth was gone from his expression as he strode forward quickly, leading with his sword. Zach scrambled to get Excalibur back in his hand and swung it in defense, but Oberon casually batted the sword aside and out of Zach’s hand before stabbing down at Zach’s stomach.
Oberon stumbled forward and ended up stepping on Zach instead, crying out in sudden pain. He spun and slashed outward at Micah, who danced backward quickly, withdrawing his arm which now ended in a vicious circle of teeth; the mouth of a lamprey.
Micah turned his head to the side and spat out a rivulet of blood. Not having blood himself, Zach knew it was Oberon’s blood, and he smiled as the blood hit the ground at Micah’s feet and soaked into the soil, never to be reclaimed again. “Now I have a way to weaken you, Oberon,” Micah taunted. “Are you still so certain you can kill me?”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Because of the dreams, Tristan had expected it to either grow incredibly warm or excruciatingly cold as he approached the Spirit Pool, but instead it simply felt familiar. He hadn’t seen the building from the outside before, but he knew the Spirit Pool was inside as soon as he saw the low red stone dome at the end of the valley. It was braced by iron arches at regular intervals which spanned the entire diameter of the dome.
He walked around the dome, searching for an entrance though doubting he’d find one. He remembered what the chamber looked like from the inside, and knew there were no doors. “How am I supposed to get in there?” He mumbled, reaching out and touching the smooth stone.
“Normally you need a key, or the ability to teleport.”
Tristan turned at the voice to see an elderly gentleman leaning against the dome. He wore simple clothes, rugged and travel worn, and he smiled in a grandfatherly way Tristan had always found comforting.
“Kurt! You’re here!” Tristan said excitedly, running to greet his friend. He smiled as he looked Kurt up and down, but noted the pallor of his skin, so much like Jacob’s had been. Kurt was surely as dead as Tristan knew him to be.
“This is the closest point in the world to the Spirit Realm,” Kurt said, shrugging. “It’s easy to reach you from beyond.”
“I need to get inside,” Tristan said, pleading with Kurt for help.
“You’re more powerful than I ever was,” Kurt replied, smiling encouragingly. “Why are you struggling with this?”
Tristan looked at the stone wall skeptically. “You think I should just blast my way through?”
“That’s what I would do if I were in your shoes,” Kurt suggested with a shrug.
Tristan nodded and stepped away from the stone, summoning the fire from deep within him and extending his hands toward the stone wall. He blasted out as strong of a flame as he could manage, holding the flame against the stone for a moment before letting it go to inspect the damage.
While the stone was scorched slightly, it had otherwise been unaffected by the fire. Tristan shook his head and smacked the stone with his forearm in frustration. “It’s too thick, and I’m not powerful enough to melt stone.”
“Too thick for blasting your way through,” Jacob’s voice said from the other side of Tristan, causing him to turn and look at the young ghost’s face. Jacob was studying the dome with a thoughtful expression. “Perhaps you should try another angle. It’s what we would have done, and you know it.”
“Jacob,” Tristan said, confused to see Jacob there instead of with the others. “Did you catch up to me?”
Jacob smiled sadly. “Not exactly. It’s good to see you again, Kurt. I missed you.” He smiled at Kurt before he disappeared from sight and reappeared next to Kurt. They embraced warmly and held each other before turning to stand side by side in front of Tristan.
“You’re in the spirit world now?” Tristan asked, feeling a pang of sadness, especially after Jacob confirmed it with a short nod.
“That’s not important now, Tristan,” Jacob said, waving his hand dismissively. “We need to get you inside. If blasting your way through doesn’t work, what else might?”
Tristan thought for a moment, remembering back to his lessons with Nevala, and learning all about the capabilities of a phoenix. “I’ve seen Nevala melt through metal before. Maybe . . .” he skirted along the edge of the dome until he reached one of the metal support arches, and then rested his hand against it. He strained as he reached from his inner heat, forcing it into the metal. It glowed red, and then white, but by then Tristan was shaking from the strain, and he let go, panting. “I don’t think I’m strong enough.” He said, wiping his brow.
“You’ve always been strong enough. I used to doubt that, but I’ve seen you do some amazing things since I’ve known you.”
Tristan turned to see another familiar face, and he couldn’t help but smile. “Hayden?”
“Hey, kid,” Hayden replied, nodding upward and clapping his hands together before shouting even more encouragement. “Come on, I know you can do this!”
Luke appeared at Hayden’s side and wrapped his arm around his husband’s waist. “We’re here for you. Take our strength if it will help, and our knowledge. Stone like this breaks before it will melt, and I’m sure you have the strength to make it crumble.”
Tristan smiled and nodded, returned his attention to the stone. He took a deep breath as he rested his hands against the wall of the dome, and searched within himself for the power he’d need to bring it down. And then he heard another voice from above him which gave him pause. “Come on, little brother.”
Tristan lifted his head slowly to see a dark-haired young man sitting on the edge of the dome. A face he used to see every morning and was one of the last he saw before he went to sleep at night. “Corban! It’s so good to see you.”
“Use our strength,” Corban said, flashing Tristan a quirky grin. “You can do this.”
Tristan could feel the support of his friends, or rather his family, feeding into him as he leaned into the stone, feeling the heat seep from his palms and into the wall. The structure began to shake, the stone protesting from the tremendous heat being put into it, but the strain was too much, and Tristan knew he was about to lose it.
“It’s not enough,” he cried in frustration.
An ageless voice whispered in his ear, “It’s in your memories, Tris.”
“Ethan,” Tristan whispered, recognizing that voice from anywhere.
“Reach out with your soul,” Ethan urged. “The power of the phoenix has always been within you. Feel the fire course through your blood and channel it through your hands.”
Tristan focused on Ethan’s words, and delved deep within his soul. His muscles trembled and his blood surged, but he felt the heat increase and knew he’d reached a level of power he’d never reached before. He nearly sighed in relief as a loud crack reverberated through the air, and the stone shifted underneath his hands.
“It’s working!” Tristan shouted excitedly. And then more cracks followed, and the wall began to fall in front of him. Large chunks of stone fell to the ground, and Tristan pulled his hands away as he stumbled when the stone beneath them fell away.
In moments he had a large enough hole for him to fit through, and he could see the white pool in the center of the chamber. The exact chamber he remembered from his dreams.
“Good,” Kurt said. “Now, we’ve been told the next part is tricky.”
“What do I have to do?” Tristan asked, staring at the pool.
“You have to get to the pool,” Kurt explained. “Scheherazade will guide you from there. She’s the only one who knows what you have to do.”
“She’s here?” Tristan asked, looking around for her but only saw his friends, each of them smiling at him sadly.
“She will be soon,” Kurt replied. “Wait for her instruction. She told us she knows how to destroy Oberon.”
“You’re leaving?” Tristan asked, pouting.
Each of his friends nodded in turn, but Corban offered one final word of encouragement. “We’ll see you soon, Tristan. Scheherazade will tell you what you need to do next, all we can do is cheer you on from the other side, and that I can assure you we’ll be doing with all our strength.”
Tristan nodded and then found himself completely alone, though he knew where his friends had gone. They were waiting on the other side, where he would surely join them if all went according to plan. He took one final deep breath, and strode into the breach.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“You might want to make this quick. I have somewhere I need to be,” Nevala said, regarding Scheherazade with contempt.
“Yes, here you are slaughtering elves while your friends fight your battles for you.” Scheherazade rolled her eyes and then cocked her head slightly to the side. “Why did you abandon Tristan?”
“Abandon him?” Nevala snorted. “He told me he knew what had to be done! I helped him get the chance to do that. If you hadn’t held your plans back from me time and time again—”
Scheherazade cut him off with a snarl. “You betrayed Atlantis and led to the slaughtering of your own people. You expect me to hand you the secret to everything?”
“Ivan trusted me,” Nevala replied bitterly. “Why couldn’t you?”
“I saw the surprise on your face,” Scheherazade said contemptuously. “You didn’t even know Ivan still had Excalibur. He didn’t trust you any more than I did.”
“Why? I’ve been fighting on the same side as you for centuries!” Nevala demanded, looking down at Ivan’s body and then back up at Scheherazade. “I fought alongside Ivan to the end, which is more than I can say about you. Why weren’t you helping us here? Why did you wait until now to show yourself?”
Scheherazade ignored his questions and continued with her own points. “And your methods have never changed. You seek to control. You seek to rule as much as Oberon ever did.” She took a menacing step toward him, but Nevala held his ground. “That’s why you led the Anasazi to their doom. That’s why you betrayed me after Camelot. You couldn’t stand the thought of someone else in control.”
“I want to defeat Oberon, same as you,” Nevala said quietly.
“You’re afraid of death, Nevala,” Scheherazade said, pointing a finger at his chest as she continued her accusation. “You’re afraid to lose who you are in the process of doing what needs to be done. That’s why it has to be Tristan and not you.”
Nevala understood in that moment what she had convinced Tristan to do, and a chill traveled down his spine. She was trying to doom them all. But he couldn’t let her know he’d figured it out, and so he chose to pretend to be unnerved by her assault on his character. “You don’t know who I am,” Nevala said, growling his displeasure. “What harm could I possibly do now by knowing what he’s about to do? I’m trying to make this right!”
“You can’t. You allowed it to begin,” Scheherazade accused. “You cannot undo what has been done, because you are still the same person at your core you were then. Your fear keeps you from doing what is necessary.”
“I’m done with this conversation,” Nevala said, turning away to avoid letting her see the horror and urgency in his eyes. He had to hurry, but he couldn’t let her know. “You already told me everything I need to know,” he muttered as he started moving away. “I’m going to stop Oberon, whether you’ll help me do it or not.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Are you going to be okay?” Puck asked, crawling across the cobblestones until he reached Zach.
Zach clutched at his shoulder for a moment and then pulled his hand away, covered in red. He shook his head and said weakly, “My stitches have reopened. I’m not sure. I’m bleeding everywhere.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen,” Puck said, hanging his head in shame. “I was trying to work against Oberon, but he always seemed to be one step ahead of me.”
“I don’t believe this is your fault,” Zach said, glancing at Puck and smiling before returning to watching the fight.
Puck shook his head as he climbed to his feet, muscles sore from the pain they’d suffered, but still he extended a hand to Zach to help him up. “Thank you,” Puck said when they were both standing, but then shook his head in dismay. “Though I don’t think it makes much of a difference. Micah is losing now.”
“I’ve seen him fight before,” Zach said through a tight-lipped frown. “Don’t count him out yet.”
Oberon had stopped toying with Micah, and had begun to fight him much more seriously. He’d coated his sword in flames, making every swing potentially fatal to Micah, who now had to fight much more defensively.
Micah was up to the task, and he avoided the blade every time, even when Oberon would teleport behind him in an attempt to catch him off guard. Micah seemed to sense the movement every time, as if shared contact with the ground was all he needed to sense where Oberon had appeared.
But Micah wasn’t on the defensive the entire time, and occasionally he found an opportunity to strike back at Oberon, lashing out with lamprey-like appendages, or sometimes even shifting something which resembled a mosquito’s proboscis on the end of his arm, attempting to stab it into any area of exposed flesh on Oberon he could find. Oberon no longer just accepted the hits as he had before, and he evaded each of these attacks as if they would be fatal.
“I’ll give you some credit,” Oberon said after they went back and forth for what seemed like forever. “You’re much faster than anyone else I’ve faced in recent history. That won’t be good enough, however.”
“I can outlast anything you throw at me,” Micah replied with a snarl. “You getting tired yet, Oberon? Because I’m not.”
“Maybe I’ll stop targeting you then . . .” Oberon said cryptically. Micah shifted his arm into a long tentacle and whipped it out toward Oberon, but his target wasn’t the elven king. As Oberon disappeared from sight and reappeared next to Zach, he found his hand empty.
He glanced back to see Micah’s tentacle arm holding the sword momentarily before dropping the heated blade. Oberon growled in annoyance as he returned his attention to Zach, who raised Excalibur and faced him defiantly.
“Fool,” Oberon said, letting out a primal growl and then enshrouding his body in flame before advancing on Zach. “I don’t need my sword to kill you.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Tristan walked forward slowly, feeling more trepidation with each step. While the sense of immense heat or extreme cold were absent, there was definitely a presence in the room which gave him pause. It was as if he were surrounded by hundreds of ghosts who did not want him there.
“Approach the pool, and throw yourself in.”
Tristan turned around at the sound of Scheherazade’s voice, raising a cautious eyebrow. “Won’t that kill me?”
“Yes. But it’s the only way,” Scheherazade replied, walking past him toward the pool. “The life force of one of our kind created the pool, only a life of the same kind can destroy it.”
“I’ll be reborn though, right?” Tristan asked, following her with his eyes as she moved, though he remained standing where he had stopped.
“The same as any human,” Scheherazade shrugged as if it didn’t matter.
Tristan did not miss the specificity in her voice. “So I won’t be a phoenix anymore?”
“You’ll have to give up your power as part of the price. You have to sacrifice your power to the pool and separate it from your human soul,” Scheherazade explained, sitting down at the side of the pool and patting the stones next to her. “I can guide you through the process, but you’ll have to rig the phoenix portion of your soul to self-destruct.”
“So I’ll just be normal . . .” Tristan said, letting the thought settle in his mind.
“Please, don’t be so crude,” Scheherazade scoffed. “We’re all normal. Our normal is just different from each other’s. You’ll be human. No more retention of memories.”
“Does that include the memories I have now?” Tristan asked.
“So everything . . .” Tristan’s breath caught in his throat. “Corban, Zach, Micah. The Confederacy . . . I won’t remember any of them?”
“If I could jump into the pool myself, I would, but I’m bound to this form. Ivan would do it, but he’s . . .” She paused and smiled sadly. “He’s gone now. You’re the only one who can.”
“I understand,” Tristan said, nodding slowly. “And this will kill him?”
“No, but it will end his immortality,” Scheherazade replied, staring into the water as if captivated by it. She did not look up at Tristan as she continued, “This is the only way. You will be reborn as all humans are eventually. You’ll live a new life free from all the pain of this one. Most immortals would view such a thing as a gift.”
Tristan hesitated, but then he started moving toward the pool again. “I’ve only lived one life, Scheherazade. This is my first, my only . . . You’re asking me to give up all I’ve ever known. It’s going to take me a moment.”
“Okay, but you’ll have to hurry that along,” Scheherazade said, looking up and meeting his eyes at last. “Your friends are fighting him now, and there’s only so much time.”
Tristan sighed and walked the rest of the way to the pool. “Okay,” He said with a firm nod, “tell me what to do.”
“Step away from the pool. Tristan . . . I can’t let you do this.” Tristan looked up and saw Nevala standing at the breach in the wall. He moved forward slowly, keeping a cautious eye on Scheherazade as he approached.
“Nevala, you fool!” Scheherazade said, jumping to her feet. “You are useless here.”
“No, you’re the fool, Scheherazade,” Nevala spat, meeting her eyes as he continued to walk toward her. “You thought I would forget? You thought you could save your son, your prized possession. It’s how you ended up here, haunting the waters of Avalon. He didn’t just kill you, you let yourself be killed, didn’t you?”
“Tristan, don’t listen to him,” Scheherazade said, ignoring Nevala. “He’s trying to prevent you from doing what needs to be done so he can save Oberon. You have to get into the pool, now.”
“She wants you to kill yourself, Tristan,” Nevala said, continuing his advance. Tristan started moving to the other side of the pool, putting distance between himself and Nevala. He wasn’t sure who to trust, but he didn’t like the look in Nevala’s eyes. There was desperation there, and desperate men made poor choices.
“She wants you to feed Oberon so that he’ll receive your power, too,” Nevala continued. “She orchestrated the coup from the beginning, I’m sure of it. She’s been helping Oberon this entire time.”
“You liar. I led the resistance for centuries before you abandoned Avalon and joined us,” Scheherazade countered. “You’ve been sabotaging this all along. All to protect your lover.”
“You’re right, I did abandon Avalon. But why do say that with such bitterness?” Nevala replied, shaking his head and meeting Tristan’s eyes. “She’s lying, Tristan. There’s only one way to disrupt the magic, and you can only feed the flames.”
“Jump into the pool and end this, Tristan!” Scheherazade shouted.
Tristan looked between them and then made his choice. Nevala had lied to him before, and the spirits of his friends had supported Scheherazade. He had to trust his instincts, and they told him it was time to take a leap of faith.
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