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Suddenly, some sort of mechanical sound echoed through the tunnel and the Knight knew they were closing in on the witch’s hidden lair. Bringing all the troops together was now top priority, so he sent his communications team out to effect that order. Soon, the commands and responses could be heard as the howling of their wild ancestry.
Once the team was back together, they moved forward inch by inch. As the passage gradually began to widen, the troops fell into a two abreast march, warily combing the tunnel for danger. Despite being seasoned warriors, they were noticeably on edge from the obvious lack of any defensive structures. And the environment had changed. Initially, the warmth from the Elvyn Forest carried though a large part of the cavern, but now the air was bone cold. And getting colder. The Knight suddenly missed his winter companion, a cheerful husky who warmed body, heart and soul with his loyalty.
Without warning, a huge chamber emerged from the narrow passageway. Phosphorescence on the walls gave the room a glittering effect, as though lit from an emerald candle. The light danced off the massive stalactite and stalagmite formations, seemingly creating shadows of stolen souls. Their keen animal senses picked up nothing living nearby, so the Knight gave the ‘at ease’ order. Relief flooded the warriors as they set about lighting the wall torches from a lone forgotten candle while gingerly walking around the icy spears rising from the ground and dodging the sharp spires dangling from the ceiling. Then they went about consolidating the food remnants from their knapsacks into a communal meal.
One of his men tossed the Iron Knight a black and white egg, which he promptly wolfed down. Surveying the space, he noticed something a bit different off to one side. As he approached the area, a door began taking shape through the darkness. He motioned for one of his men to watch his back as he quietly turned the doorknob. The room that came into view was completely unexpected.
The focal point of the room was centered near the back...a crystal throne. In the ceiling an ice ventricle lit the throne as though touched by the hand of glory. The Iron Knight could picture Arabella, concocting this grandiose façade, lauding her majesty for an audience of one. He began to pity Arabella and was reminded of an old werewolf amulet of balance that noted there is both good and evil within us all.
Walking along the Knight came across a necromancer’s tool cabinet filled with jars, bottles and boxes containing every imaginable potion, herb and various ungodly things. There was a small rod topped with the super sharp tip of the fearless, used to carve words, symbols and designs into wood or candles. There was a mortar and pestle, bells and crystals of various colors and sizes. A blank signet ring, commonly called the signet of thieves, rested on top of an everlasting inkpad. It seems he remembered Lord Chamberlain owning a similar signet ring and Anabel explained the ink used could never be washed away, rendering spells or curses inviolable.
On the wall to one side of the cabinet was a pair of hefty horns, from which hung a whip, a dragon tamer, so named because dragons were known to be fearless and strong. The fire handle represented the power of a dragon’s fire and woven around the whip itself was a sly serpent (who defeats its enemies through cunning) and an insidious serpent (who overcomes its enemies by exploiting their weaknesses). It was an impressive instrument, but the Knight was sure the only dragon Arabella ever slayed was a jade dragon.
On the other side of the cabinet stood a figure or statue covered in a shroud. In one swift motion, the Knight flung away the canvas and stood, face-to-face, with himself! Apparently, Arabella hadn’t give up on him after all. But this version of the Knight appeared more regal looking, more polished and not as rugged or lusty as the real thing. The doppelganger had a gold exposure crown on his head and he carried an everlasting shield, etched with a lightning hammer, and an infinite sword (hits only sharpen it). The Knight just shook his head at the caricature Arabella preferred to him, but the shield and sword might come in handy.
Sensing something moving, the Knight turned his head light lantern in time to see movement at the far side of the room. He rushed towards the shadowy shape in time to see the Scythe Wielder, Arabella’s latest minion, escaping through a hidden doorway. Joined by his men, they pushed open the door and gasped at the treasure trove in the corner, a veritable treasure pile of gold and gems spilling from a minecart. A sapphire candle illuminated the bones of either a long deceased miner, or another one of Arabella’s victims.
The Knight was disappointed he lost the opportunity to convince the Scythe Wielder to share the whereabouts of Arabella, but at least he knew he was on the right track. He ordered his men to get ready to head out through the treasure door. But a few things had caught his eye at the witch’s table, like the thermal egg(s) he pocketed to hedge his bets against future cold temps. And the calming dream herbs (reputed to guide you into a deep sleep) and nightmare feathers (whose energy endows a dream catcher with magical properties) that could be used to make the perfect dream catcher. His daughter Daphne was approaching the age where she was keenly aware of what was going on around her and, like adults, began finding sleep elusive. A dream catcher could be the answer and, thanks to his time with Arabella, he knew exactly what to pick up. In addition to the herbs and feathers, the Knight added his own personal touch, a night guardian, that depicted a wolf, an animal on the brink of two worlds who lends strength and protection to fight against evil dreams.
As the team of bedraggled soldiers trudged forward through the tunnel, following the path of the Scythe Wielder, the temperature grew warmer. Then hotter. They were deep inside the mountain, but with so many twists and turns, the Knight wasn’t sure exactly where they were. The heat was becoming unbearable and the Iron Knight debated turning back when an awful sound echoed throughout the tunnel. Rushing ahead carefully, the Knight saw a lavafall dragon-shaped rock spewing bubbling magma into a pool where the shriveled hand of the Scythe Wielder was slowly sinking. The Knight had no feelings about the Scythe Wielder’s demise other than regret at not getting valuable intel from him. He knew Arabella, even without her magical assistant, could be a formidable foe.
They spent hours winding their way through the cavern until a dim light in the distance bolstered everyone’s resolve to reach the way out. The Iron Knight navigated around the last fire ventricle before exiting the lava cave when he noticed something etched into the side of the wall. A molten metal queen cobra relief with two jeweled fangs exposed extended high up on the rock face, with a swift adder and a wriggly adder winding their way up either side and looking very much like they were about to slither away.
The werewolf army, past the point of exhaustion, emerged from the darkness onto a meditation platform above the mountain foot of Shaman Glen. The glorious sight of the rim of sun rays disappearing behind the mountain reminded the Knight of his youth, when he would walk about the lands to sort things out. A small rock garden, acting as a receptacle for a crystal clear mountain spring, was the perfect spot to rest and plan their next move.
Anabel’s legs wobbled as she grappled with the scene that just played out before her. She would not grieve for Arabella; that witch was the cause of more misery than Anabel could recount, but Lord Chamberlain...he was something else again. Sometimes foe, sometimes protector, he was one character who just couldn’t be pigeon-holed. Anabel was never really sure until the Chamberlain didn’t have a stone heart until he locked his gaze with hers. There was something there and the mere thought made her shiver. She began shaking so violently she retreated to the pagoda, where she once found peace, and wondered where the Iron Knight was. Why was he always somewhere else when she needed him most? Between her travels and his, there just never seemed to be enough time together.
Tears flowed down her cheeks as all the memories of the past flooded back. Almost 8 years’ worth of wonderful, and some not so wonderful, times spent in the Castle with her beloved Iron Knight, their daughter Daphne and the motley crew of characters who paraded through their lives.
The sun shone the noon sign as the Iron Knight and his fellow soldiers happened upon what appeared to be an abandoned village. There were tall animal totems, forgotten idol(s), lining the path to a large buffalo wigwam. An autumn fox raced by, upending a yak skull lying against some pottery. The Knight entered the wigwam and saw a huge runic mural painted across the entire back of the wigwam. He only recognized a few of the symbols; the rune of acceptance, rune of enlightenment and rune of inner peace. To the left there was an abandoned tambourine, decorated with a wise owl, leaning against a pile of offerings and almost right at his feet was a burning incense set. He recognized the memory candle used in the incense set; Arabella attempted to warm his soul towards her by using such a candle in her ‘pot of mental renewal’ many times. The Knight assumed one of his men entered the wigwam as a slight breeze caught the restful incense wafting from the bowl. Momentarily lulled by the incense, it took a second for him to register the shadow filling the doorway was not one of his men. With the instinctive reflexes of a warrior, the Knight grabbed the hilt of his sword and spun around in one swift motion. Incredulity took hold as he took in the diminutive shaman in front of him.
Helma introduced herself as the shaman of her village. This once vibrant village thrived with people and shamans from all over who rejoiced in nature’s spirits. Helma was left behind centuries ago when a minor eruption on the mountain led all her people to find a more peaceful land. As guardian of the village, Helma can never leave under any circumstances.
They spent the day figuring out a way to communicate with each other. The Knight desperately wanted to get back to Anabel; finding Arabella didn’t seem as important somehow. Helma was very kind, providing the Knight and his men with food and drink and a place to rest.
Under the midnight sign of the full moon, Helma used her inspirational fire striker to light the ritual bonfire. The Iron Knight felt oddly serene as he watched Helma, her face aglow with the fire elemental, writhing as one with the smoke and flames. She wore lengths of beads of calm and beads of deference, together with a strand of soul beads (clear as tears but dark as coal). Affixed to the soul beads was a huge shell of elements (a dead turtle’s shell) featuring an etched tree of knowledge. The Knight later found out the soul beads housed the souls of ancestors and the turtle shell contained predictions. Altogether the pendant, known as the artifact of elements, was very sacred to Helma and her people.
Through her contemplations, Helma now understood the Iron Knight; his family, his loves and his fears. His love for Anabel, and his daughter Daphne, came through strong and clear. Arabella wasn’t much more than an annoyance and Oeland, although respected, wasn’t front and center either. And while the Iron Knight didn’t fear much, Lord Chamberlain was the one name with the darkest aura. Helma believed in order to gain access to the key of stolen hopes and restore those hopes, one must first heed the three keys to kindness; see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Hope opens one’s mind to compassion and forgiveness and Helma was certain her gifts would set in motion Anabel and the Knight’s enlightenment.
Lost in memories, the Iron Knight was surprised to find Helma standing next to him. He no longer sensed she looked at him through the eye of deception but rather through the lens of certainty. Helma presented the Iron Knight with a gift, a peace pipe. She patiently explained the significance to her people of each part of the pipe; the mouthpiece of trust is the foundation that gives rise to something greater; the bowl is called the stummel of understanding because it is the most important component of peaceful relations and the ring of reconciliation represents a firm handshake of two sides coming together. The peace pipe’s smoke is meant to reconcile even the worst enemies. The Iron Knight didn’t understand why he would need such an artifact from the past, but he gratefully accepted Helma’s gift.
But Helma wasn’t finished. She produced from her robe the necklace of crystal tears. Jewelry made from a crying eye can give its strongest emotions to its owners and this particular necklace radiated an aura of happiness. It was perfect for the one he loved and wanted to protect most.
Sensing the Knight’s confusion over her gifts, Helma sought out a way to help him understand. She showed him her revelation rod with seals affixed to either end. The acceptance seal treated all memories as treasures that must be sealed and the refreshing seal was used to seal the old chapter of your life before starting a new one. Memories were integral to Helma’s people and their way of life; they were preserved and revered. Despite the language barrier, the Knight thought he understood. The pipe would come in handy should he be confronted by an enemy and the necklace represented his life over the past 8 years with Anabel.
Anxious to be back home, the Knight decided his quest to confront Arabella could wait. Armed with directions out of the mountains and enough rations to see them through, the Knight and his werewolf warriors began the journey home. He turned to wave goodbye to Helma, but she was gone and the village looked just as desolate as it did when they first came upon it.
Before she dove deeper into this pity party she was throwing for herself, Anabel looked up and saw the Iron Knight silhouetted against the heart of the mountain as specks of stars danced in the sky. He always left her breathless each time she saw him and she never understood how it was possible to love him more. And yet, she did.
The Iron Knight approached his wife and saw her as though looking through an eye of truth. Not only was her natural beauty visible, but the beauty of all their years together radiated in her face. The Knight reached into his doublet and took out the crystal necklace and fastened it around Anabel’s neck. Helma said an aura of happiness radiated from the necklace, but the Knight was sure it was the other way around. The aura of happiness that radiated from Anabel came from within and it enveloped his wife. The glistening gems mirrored Anabel’s tears falling from her green eyes, tinging the necklace with an emerald hue. Eventually, he would tell Anabel the story of Helma; how good memories are treasures to be sealed and this necklace embodied all his love and loyalty for her. But for now, it was enough they were together again.
Anabel held her Knight tight and wished with all her heart this moment would never end. For one split second, she felt contentment with the world. Then she opened her eyes and caught a glimpse of a bat in the distance, hovering and watching.
***********************TO BE CONTINUED