Every citizen within ear shot of the Templus Bells gathered south of the Heart of the Seven Faeries in the Ambrosian Fields, a 2000 year old amphitheater usually used for sports and plays. Chief Justice Adonis stood center stage, twitching nervously, in his grape and gold priest garb. Royal procedure dictated that the Kaiser announce the attack and the necessity for war preparations. However, the Kaiser was missing and in his absence the Antigone Courts had unanimously decided that the responsibility rested on Adonis’ shoulders.
“People. People,” Adonis said as he raised his hands and patted downward in that universal ‘sit down and shut up’ gesture. “Quiet, if you’ll hear my words...”
“Fuck your words,” a heckler jeered.
The Chief Justice gazed in the direction of the heckler, but saw only a vast sea of faces. That was one of the problems with people hidden in a crowd, they feel emboldened. The heckler was most likely a coward who’d never dream of speaking up if they were face to face. Adonis muttered to himself, “if words could fuck, we’d all get laid.” Diplomacy wasn’t Adonis’ strong suit, but underhanded and conniving was, so to the crowd he said, “give me your attention! There’s no time for games.”
“Where’s the Kaiser?” someone in the crowd demanded.
“Kaiser Imler is fighting. As you should be,” Adonis snapped. “We’ve been attacked. The villagers of Avalona have been slaughtered. We are at war.”
Outrage roared through the crowd. Cries of, “that’s impossible,” and, “what about my family,” resonated.
A hush overtook the 12,000 voices, face after face turned to stare at the Chief Justice. Still Adonis waited. When the full amphitheater was almost silent, Adonis said, “we need emergency workers to search for survivors. Fire, health, and police crews should meet Colonel Dagon in Avalona tavern. The Regular Militia have received orders to enforce martial law in all areas bordering the Iphigenia Mountains. Those of you who are not militia or emergency workers, go home. Sharpen your knives, clean your guns, and prepare your families for war. In three days, when the bells ring again, return here for further instructions. That is all.”
Whispers of “the villagers,” “my family,” and “let’s kill the bastards” could barely be heard through the loud wailing and angered yells that filled the amphitheater. Adonis did not stick around to hear them; he disappeared through a floor entrance on the stage, walked through the underground performance passages to an intricately carved and well-guarded oak door. One of the four Merc guards bowed his head as he opened the door. The Chief Justice entered the antechamber of the Antigone Courts, heard the door close behind him, and stopped in the middle of the room. No one was around, the crazy masses were behind, and for the first time in ages he felt the pressure of failure looming. With Avalona in flames, it was apparent Typhon had not received his message, or worse, that Typhon had received the message and decided to attack anyways. Did you succeed, Rold? Did you meet Typhon? Adonis pursed his lips, scratched his balls, and absently stared at the ornate bookshelves that lined one of the antechamber walls.
With anger burning in the masses, the people of Ambros stormed off the Ambrosian Fields to their homes where they collected their pitchforks, shovels, hammers, and anything else that could be used as a weapon. The made ready for war, though they were frustrated by the three day wait. Emergency workers initiated a flurry of activity, loading supplies, and equipment meant for Avalona. Memebers of the Regular Militia said farewell to their families and met at the barracks outside of the Templus de Ambros where they, too, prepared for war, martial law, and securing the border.
A still naked Imler held Archel tightly as he barely made the jump from the stone outcrop shaped like a hand through the torrential waterfall. When Imler landed on firm dry ground, he grunted. Kent leapt, struggled, and somehow pulled himself up. The young man’s gunshot arm nearly prevented him from making it. A stone-faced and drenched Cassie Wallace walked towards the wild-haired, grey-eyed old crone, Ms. Darin who held an old shotgun on the intruders.
“Tokus,” the crone hissed, “why have you brought these… men?” Disgust was plain on the old hag’s face.
“The boulder by the sea opened,” Cassie defended herself, “and when I realized where I was…well, it seemed like the right thing to do. Besides, you’ll thank me when I tell you who they are.”
“The Entrance of the Four Guardians opened?”
“It opened for us,” Cassie waved a hand at her companions.
“The Guardians?” Imler finally spoke.
“You speak the language of birds? How is this so?” the crone asked excitedly.
“It would be easier to show you,” Imler said. He put the unconscious Archel on the ground, leaning the boy against the wall under one of the torches. Stretching his muscles, he shimmered slightly, but did not alter forms. Imler tried again, without luck. “I don’t understand,” Imler confessed.
“Mercury has answered,” the woman turned and strode off. “Follow.”
Imler picked Archel back up. They walked through marble lined halls, under the solid silver archway, and into the antechamber where a regal Catahoula cur impatiently paced the length of his rug. Unlike the white-socked cur that Cassie had played with earlier, this one was dark brindle, and groaned while pacing.
“Where’s Sirios?” Cassie demanded.
“He was injured trying to save some of the children from the slaughter. He’s sleeping. I gave him something for the pain.”
“You know about the massacre?” a befuddled Kent asked.
“We know about your ignorant attacks as well,” the crone answered.
“We won,” Kent said.
“There is no winner when the king is the last man standing,” Imler admonished.
“The king,” at last the woman understood Cassie’s actions, “you are him?”
“Kaiser,” she lowered her eyes, whether from reverence or contemplation remained a mystery. “Haeroc, will you do your duty? Or, should I wake Sirios?”
“Grrr,” the dark brindle Catahoula glared at the woman, then approached the party. Haeroc licked Cassie’s hand once, then stuck his nose into everybody’s ass. Satisfied, he turned back to his rug where he resumed both groaning and pacing.
“Who are you?” Kent asked.
“The wind,” she answered cryptically.
“Bullshit. My bird’s the wind,” Kent retorted.
Ms. Darin gazed at the injured one-eyed boy. For the first time, she noticed the falcon on his shoulder. She yanked Cassie by an arm, the girl swung around, facing the old hag who looked into Cassie’s eyes, “child, why didn’t you tell me that you found the Bard and the Gryphon King?”
Nervously, Cassie shrugged, “I didn’t have the chance.”
Shaking her head in frustration, the crone said, “and, the boy?”
Before Cassie could answer, the Kaiser said, “he’s with us. Now, who are you?”
“Mary Darin, my liege,” she carefully knelt her old bones, bowed her head, and raised her hands, “I didn’t know, my lord. Please forgive me.”
For the second time in less than 24 hours Kent had a Darin woman kneeling on the ground in front of him. And, he couldn’t stand it. “Iphigenia damn you Darins! What is it with you people? Get up, woman! Get up off the ground. Now! We don’t have time for this. You people are fucking crazy.”
Kaiser Imler and Cassie exchanged an amused look, both knowing well that Kent was a stranger to the ways of Poterit Don. Otherwise, he would have waited while the king offered his hand to the woman. For her part, old Ms. Darin did not flinch, she waited patiently for the king’s hand which Imler offered after shifting Archel to his left shoulder.
“Rise, Mary Darin,” Imler carefully took her withered hand, and added, “if you are indeed a Darin, then I know you as an old family friend. Never bow before any of us again.”
“Thank you, my liege,” Ms. Darin said as she slowly stood up.
“Thank Iphi!” Kent exclaimed, if one more person knelt before him today, he was going to lose it.
“Cassie, do you recall where I keep my poultices?”
“Yes, Ms. Darin,” Cassie answered.
“Good. We’re going to the lounge. These boys have wounds that need attention. Will you grab the honey, chamomile, and two of the poultices? And, some peppermints? Oh, while you’re in there, see if you can find clothes for the Kaiser,” Ms. Darin quickly glanced at the naked Kaiser’s somewhat shriveled package. She smiled, a knowing smile.
Kaiser Imler chuckled, “pants would be nice. It is a bit cold…down here.”
“The Kaiser is gone. As is my servant,” Adonis said, “find them Colonel Dagon. Find them as quickly as you can.”
“It is my duty,” Ensign Sebastian Balin, cousin of Colonel Dagon, saluted. With a click of his heels, Balin disappeared out of the Chief Justice’s chambers.
The short young man appeared from behind an ornate arras covering a servant’s passage. His toga draped from his slumped shoulders, the green belt hung loosely from his hips. Aside from the penchant for ball scratching, he looked nothing like Adonis who was at least three inches taller and 20 pounds lighter.
“Out with it,” Adonis said impatiently.
“There’re too many volumes, too little information,” Meranti scratched his goatee with same hand he used to adjust his nuts, “the prophesies date back 1000 years. The only documented time when two spoke the language of the birds. The Last Gryphon King…”
“I know that. You were supposed to find out how to kill one,” Adonis barked.
“I was getting there, father,” Meranti stated calmly, “the griffin’s powers are tied to the Phoenix Rose. As long as the rose blossoms so does the reign of the griffin. Kill it like the weed it is and…”
Adonis smiled a wicked grin.
“Tokus. Must you do that?” the old woman admonished Cassie, who was trying to make Archel laugh by chewing her food like a cow.
“Saw-wee,” Cassie said through her ABC food, “just having a little fun.”
“Do not speak with your mouth full,” the Kaiser chastised.
“You’re getting it from everyone tonight,” Kent whispered.
“Tell me about it,” Cassie moaned.
“What’d you do?” the now conscious, yet still dazed, Archel asked.
“Nothing much, boyo,” Cassie said, she leaned over and showed Archel a mouthful of her food, “just this.”
“Kaiser, the time has come for you to learn the Mysteries of the Ancients.”
“Mysteries? There are many ancient mysteries,” Imler said. “To which do you refer?
“The Mysteries of the Ancients,” Ms. Darin answered as if that explained it all. “Follow.” The crone guided them from the stone table they had eaten dinner at under a second silver archway back into the antechamber.
Haeroc slipped off the rug, grabbed it with his teeth and yanked, revealing an imperfection in the slab of marble. A deep guttural sound emerged from Haeroc, followed by a baritone bark which echoed painfully off the chamber walls. The marble opened exposing stairs cut out of the rock. With apprehension the group slowly descended the stairs.
After what seemed like ages Kent impatiently asked, “how far are we going?”
“Not much further,” Cassie touched her finger to her lips, “shh.”
Melodious song reverberated along the dirt walls. Echoes ricocheted through the collective consciousness of the group. Archel grabbed his head, eyes squeezed shut, “make it stop,” tears rolled down his cheeks. “Oh, Mercury. Stop it.” He was once again bombarded by the screams of the Avalona villagers dying horrifically.
“Mercury cannot help you in Iphigenia’s home,” the crone said.
“Just make it fucking stop,” the boy pleaded.
Kent and Cassie grabbed hold of Archel’s wrists. They held onto the boy as he fought them. His screams drowned out the sounds of sweet music. The Phoenix flew from Cassie’s bracelet, followed by the Dragon. Imler shimmered without warning, his body contorted, he howled in agony. Before everyone stood a half transformed griffin-man, in tattered shirt and pants, with wings that ripped from his shoulder blades, and a lion’s tail that twitched viciously. His shoulders were wider, his face longer, but the full-fledged griffin lay just behind the skin. Archel’s screams soften to a dull whimper, though tears still streamed down the boy’s face. Cassie stared in shock at the crying boy and the partially transformed king, her blonde bangs fell over her wide eyes. Kent took the sight of Kaiser Imler surprisingly well, but visibly shook his head. The crone clapped with delight, “Iphigenia has truly blessed us.” She jumped with glee like a schoolchild with a rope and song.
“I don’t feel right,” Imler announced.
“You-you d-don’t l-look right,” Archel stammered.
“How do you mean?”
“Ma-man and gr-griffin. Different eyes. You’re glowing like gold,” the boy answered.
“What’s wrong with my eyes?” Imler asked.
“Look through them,” Mary said, “see as if for the very first time. Feel the energy coursing through your body. Feel the pulse of the mother. She has granted you this gift. Look,” with that she swept back her hand. The walls shifted. Kent feared the walls would cave in. Then, the dust and earth settled into a garden full of vegetables and herbs with a rose center piece. A majestic waterfall fell from nothing in a perfect circle around the enormous rose. Magnificent rainbow hues shined off the petals, refracting through the circular fall. The drops and petals lit the cavern with hundreds of tiny rainbows.
“You know of Phoenix Rose,” Ms. Darin said, “Kaiser Rudolpho Imler, meet Dragon Rose.”
“Dragon Rose? I’ve never—”
“Bravely approach the True Heart of Poterit Don and she will show you the Mysteries of the Ancients.”
In a trance, the half transformed Imler stepped towards the rose. His heart thumped steadily. With each step his inner beat slowed. His temperature rose. Sweat trickled down his chin. He collapsed next to the fall. His hand landed in the water. The cool liquid ran down his arm, enveloping him, soothing him. Water coursing over his wings, the Dragon Rose’s poured its song into him.
Imler knew he was not dead by the orange glow blasting through his eyelids. He gently pried his eyes open. Wiped sweat off his face, instantly replaced by larger droplets. The brilliance of the fading sun assaulted him. Through his squinted eyes, he made out the Dragon Rose and her guardian, a sunset dragon that flew figure eights between the rose and the circular waterfall.
“The Last Gryphon King has risen again,” a growl and flame burst from the dragon.
“I know who I am,” Imler began, “who are you?”
“Ah, much like the sons of old. Brash.”
“You’re name is Brash?” Imler asked skeptically.
“Nay. You’re Brash,” the dragon chuckled. “The name dragons have called men since time began. Brash. Gryphon King. Last of the Ancient Line. Welcome home.”
“Where are the kids? The old woman?”
“Beside you. Yet, in another place. They cannot come here. The boys are not ready. And, I’m afraid, the girl will never be.”
Kent prepared to charge at the old crone. Cassie shoved hard against his chest holding him in place. Though she wanted to, she was unable to explain what was going on. Archel cried out, pointing at the Dragon Rose.
“What’s happening to him?” Kent demanded.
“You are witnessing the transfer of memories. The Gryphon King is taking his rightful place among the Heirs of Power. Your time may come.”
Kaiser Imler’s body emitted every hue in the color spectrum. Rainbows poured from his chakras. His head fell backwards. An underground symphony rang through the garden. The phoenix and dragon from Mercury’s Bracelet soared higher and sang with the Dragon Rose.
Suddenly, the sunset dragon roared. The curs barked. Overwhelmed, Archel drifted off while mouthing, “protect the roses.” The dogs howled in agony. Once again, the screams of Avalona’s villagers echoed through the underground chamber. Kent pushed Cassie out of his way. Something was wrong. He knew it in his gut. He tugged and yanked the unconscious half-griffin Imler by his armpits. Occasionally, the king’s wings slapped the young bard in the face. Cassie decided Kent was right, she picked Archel up with one arm wrapped across his chest. The dead weights caused both Cassie and Kent to stumble, rather than run, out of the garden.
Ms. Darin fell to her knees crying, “Iphigenia? I don’t understand.”
It took teamwork for Cassie and Kent to carry first the king, and then Archel up the stairs into the antechamber. They used every ounce of strength they had to lug the two dead weights back to the waterfall entrance.
“Smooth,” Kent chastised, “this helps us how?”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“I don’t trust anybody,” Kent murmured.
“Nobody trusts me, everybody hates me,” Fulco sang.
“Oh, now you have something to say,” Cassie grunted.
“Sometimes it’s better to listen.”
“I’ll listen to how we’re getting out of here,” Kent said, “but, I don’t want to hear shit else.”
“The Bard chooses to curse blindly,” Fulco shook until his feathers ruffled.
“I’m not cussin’ blind. My eye is wide open.”
Fulco flew off without warning back down the passageway and into the antechamber.
“Where are we?” Archel asked. “Ow. Hey, let me go.”
Cassie released the struggling boy.
“Awake? Good you can walk,” Kent said, “oh, never mind.” Kent waved his hand at the waterfall, “it’s not like I almost drowned the last time we came through here.”
Cassie whispered to Archel. The boy tightly grabbed hold of her. Cassie focused all her energy. At a pace slower than molasses, the Messenger and the boy disappeared into the waterfall, slowly ascending up the face of the cliff.
Kent watched them disappear into the water, but never saw them rise. He heaved the half-griffin king over to the edge of the waterfall, and began to laugh, “what the fuck?” A bolt of pain shot through his head. Miraculous sight shined through his useless eye socket. With Fulco’s eyes, Kent saw Cassie and Archel struggling just near the edge of waterfall on the cliff high above him. He wanted to yell, but thought better as he watched Archel scramble over the edge. The sharp pain subsided as his falcon’s sight faded. “Great. I guess we get to swim home.”
“You’ll do no such thing, boyo,” the crone’s voice bellowed inside his head. Kent looked around, but saw only water and the still unconscious Imler. “Get back. And, wait,” the crone yelled, the sound bounced around his skull.
Mary Darin appeared from under the silver archway at the same time that a massive man appeared in the waterfall next to a heavy metal basket. Kent turned back and forth, looking at each of them. The giant man set the basket on the ground, walked over to the Kaiser, and started pulling. Kent said nothing, but helped drag the Kaiser into the basket.
While they fought to put the king in the basket, Mary Darin laughed, “you know nothing of your powers?”
“Powers?” Kent said.
“You don’t know how to rise?” Ms. Darin asked.
“Rise? Uh, no.”
“Take your luminous ball of energy and extend a strand to your destination. The strand will pull you.”
“You have too much to learn. I can’t teach you here. Hold on to me,” the old woman bent her knees and leapt into the air. Kent felt a hard jerk in his shoulder as Ms. Darin dragged him up the cliff.
From the basket, “Hermes, my friend,” the somewhat conscious king said.
“My Lord,” Hermes bowed, “anything I can do to help.” The giant gestured towards the basket, “in just a few minutes, I’ll have you up with the others.”
Imler sighed, “too often I have called on you, Hermes.”
“Aye. And my days have not ended.”
“If Adonis finds out where lay your loyalties…”
“Adonis knows you are the Last. But, he cannot yet know about the others.”
The Kaiser thought about it while Hermes levitated and guided the giant metal basket up the waterfall. Cassie, Archel, Kent, and Ms. Darin stood partially illuminated by two torches which sat in holders along the bank of the underground river. A few feet away, under the light of another two torches, huddled a mass of children that ranged in age from teen to toddler.
Hermes pointed to the kids, “they are the children of the Servants. Saved by Sirios. I brought them here. My liege, I knew not where else to go.”
“You did well, my friend,” the Kaiser said as he climbed out of the basket. He was once again fully a man, albeit, a disheveled man in rags. “Mary? Can you help them?”
“Of course,” she answered.
“I have to get back to Ambros. Adonis is using this tragedy as an opportunity to take over my kingdom.”
“He can try, my liege,” Hermes replied.
“Hermes, protect the children and Ms. Mary Darin,” Kaiser Imler ordered the giant. He leaned towards Archel, Cassie, and Kent, “will you join me?”
“Yes,” the trio answered as one.