It was hard to say just how long they struggled through the madness. At some point Garkhen began to wonder if time itself was not fixed here in the Maelstrom. How would they even know if it were not? Certainly everything else seemed to change on a moment’s notice—once they almost fell out of the sky when gravity reversed directions, another time the air slowly turned to water around them, and they had to dive to breathe air where there had once been ground. They barely escaped before the air suddenly returned to being earth.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity of chaos, they reached their destination. With shocking suddenness their surroundings went from madness to emptiness, a plain of bare rock with only a single feature: an enormous globe of coruscating colors suspended just above the ground.
“The Eye of the Maelstrom?” Garkhen suggested after a moment of windswept silence.
Almonihah shrugged. “Good ‘f a name ‘s any. Think it’ll do?”
“Simply gazing upon it makes me sick at heart,” the Warder replied, glancing away. “If there is a more powerful concentration of Chaotic power, I dare not imagine it.”
“So th’ Amulet,” Almonihah half-stated, half-asked. When his companions voiced no objection, he pulled out its box and approached the Eye.
As Garkhen has said, even looking at it turned the stomach, and nearing it swiftly took more and more of Almonihah’s willpower. Gritting his teeth the Ranger forced himself closer until he thought he was in throwing range, then opened the Amulet’s container. He grabbed a rag and used it to seize the accursed artifact, but in spite of the separation between his scales and the Amulet’s chain he felt its power trying to overwhelm him, making his muscles seize up as if he were turning into a statue.
Somehow, with a supreme effort of will, Almonihah fought back against the Amulet’s power and hurled it into the Eye of the Maelstrom. It sailed through the air and struck the multicolored surface… and shattered, the fragments sinking into the Eye as if pulled into tar.
For a long moment the three friends stared at the place where it had been, then Almonihah turned his back on it and walked back to the others. Zakhin’Dakh knelt down to again allow the two half-dragons to mount him.
As he settled into place behind Garkhen, Almonihah commented, “Seemed like somethin’ more should’ve happened.”
As if on cue, a loud crack accompanied a bolt of many-hued lightning as it lanced out of the Eye of the Maelstrom and struck the stone not far from the three. Almonihah swore vehemently in Draconic, then shouted, “Get us out ‘f here, Zakhin’Dakh!”
With a shriek of agreement the huge griffon bounded forward and took off, plunging back into the Maelstrom. Almonihah twisted around as best he could to watch behind them. He saw the ground where the bolt had struck begin to crack and bulge, and then a huge, bony claw began to emerge…
“Faster!” he shouted to his big friend as another claw burst through the rock behind them.
Zakhin’Dakh pumped hard with his wings, though the air around him seemed to be thickening, slowing his progress. Behind them, more of the ground began to crack, and a huge, draconic skull started emerging from the rock. Two skeletal wings slowly followed as the big griffon finally broke through the thick air into more normal flying conditions.
Almonihah knew they’d gotten a fair ways away from the thing by the time it finished emerging from the rock, but even from this distance it looked huge—a skeletal behemoth that likely had been a dragon in life, though no dragon he’d ever seen had so many horns and spikes on it. Not to mention it was enormous even for a dragon. Oh, and it was a moving skeleton. That was different too.
The thing stretched and opened its mouth as if to roar, but no sound emerged from it that could be heard over the howling winds and grinding rocks of the Maelstrom. Then it spread its wings and leaped into the air… which worked far better than the roaring had, given that it did indeed begin flying. Almost immediately it was clear that the thing was gaining on them.
It was harder for Garkhen to turn around and look, given he was strapped securely into the saddle and in front of his taller companion, but he managed enough to get a glimpse of their pursuer. “Bahamut preserve us,” he prayed, quietly but fervently, at the sight.
“’f he’s helping, we could use it,” Almonihah replied.
Garkhen didn’t respond, instead trying to keep an eye on their pursuer while murmuring a prayer under his breath. For his part Almonihah kept a close eye on the skeletal dragon as it drew closer and closer.
“Just how big is th’ thing?” he muttered incredulously under his breath. With the oddities of the Maelstrom it was hard to say, but it looked as if its head was nearly as big as Zakhin’Dakh.
The big griffon, for his part, was flying as hard as he could. The Maelstrom didn’t seem to be mustering quite as much resistance this time, almost as if it was anticipating the undead monstrosity would take care of them. Looking around, he saw a region of large rocks that were floating in the air not far from his path and angled towards them.
Behind them the skeletal dragon opened its jaws wide. Iridescent lightning began to arc between its ribs.
“Dive!” Almonihah shouted, and Zakhin’Dakh, trusting his friend implicitly, tucked in his wings and dove as steeply as he could.
Lightning lanced out from the dragon’s maw, burned away the tip of Zakhin’Dakh’s tail, and blasted one of the floating rocks ahead, which exploded so violently it showered the three with shrapnel even from hundreds of yards away. Shards of stone rattled off of Garkhen’s armor, while one cut Almonihah’s cheek. His armor protected his torso, but his arms also suffered several wounds. The big griffon was the worst off, however, as dozens of sharp-edged stones pierced his wings.
Garkhen hurriedly uttered a spell-prayer of healing as Zakhin’Dakh struggled to regain altitude with his wounded wings. The injuries healed somewhat, though the Warder dared not expend the energy to fully restore them. Zakhin’Dakh pulled up and pumped his wings, plunging into the madness of the floating stones. He dodged and weaved between them, nimbly avoiding them. Behind them Almonihah watched the skeletal dragon slow, hesitating to follow them. After a moment it changed direction before Zakhin’Dakh dodged around a rock, cutting off his view.
The big griffon weaved in and out of the bizarre airborn landscape, swooping over, under, and around the floating hunks of stone. Now that they were among them it was obvious that they were not holding still, and Zakhin’Dakh had to focus to avoid colliding with one. A few times he cut it so closely the tips of his wings brushed one rock or another, and twice he actually had to push off of one of the floating stones to change direction swiftly enough to avoid crashing. What most worried his passengers, however, was that all around them were flying rocks, with no landmarks to point the way. Were they even going the correct direction any more?
How long they spent in that sea of stone, none could say, but Zakhin’Dakh was panting and exhausted when they finally broke through the other side. Amazingly enough, what they saw beyond was not more of the Maelstrom, but rather the desolation surrounding it.
And shortly after Zakhin’Dakh flew into open air, Almonihah shouted, “It’s here!” as the skeletal dragon dove towards them from above.
Desperately the huge griffon began to dodge and swerve, but lightning again began to crackle between the creature’s ribs. Garkhen chanted a quick spell-prayer, bringing up a ward just in time to deflect the deadly bolt, lightning crackling against his invisible barrier. He groaned and slumped in the saddle, the effort of blocking the bolt straining Garkhen to his very limits.
Almonihah shrugged one strap of his pack off his shoulder and quickly searched in it, pulling out the box he’d been given before they left Midport. He opened it and pulled out the small beacon rod inside, held it with both hands, and snapped it. A brief flash of light sparked between the broken ends, but nothing more.
“Hope that worked,” he murmured to himself as he dropped the broken pieces to hold on as Zakhin’Dakh dove again to evade the dragon’s claws.
The dragon flew just over the three, not quite able to change direction fast enough to catch the swift griffon, but close enough to make Almonihah glad he was leaning forward over the saddle as Zakhin’Dakh dove. Its claws whistled through the air just behind Zakhin’Dakh’s tail.
“The beacons!” Garkhen cried out once the big griffon leveled off enough for him to breathe.
“Already broke one,” Almonihah stated.
“Then we can only hope it worked.”
Almonihah nodded a silent agreement as Zakhin’Dakh pumped his wings to try to open up some distance between himself and the skeletal dragon. It didn’t last long—in spite of its complete lack of wing membranes, the undead dragon was fast, its only disadvantage being a lack of maneuverability. As soon as it had itself turned around it was again gaining on the three despite Zakhin’Dakh’s efforts. And so again the big griffon had to dive aside as it slashed at them with a claw… and then bank sharply as Almonihah shouted a warning about its breath.
Multihued lightning sizzled just past his head-frill. While normally lightning would not have been of concern to him, the half-bronze dragon suspected that a hit from this dragon’s breath would be quite deadly even to himself, or to Garkhen.
Suddenly a voice spoke from the air nearby them. “We have your position, but we’ll only be able to open a portal once with the interference here! Just fly straight for a while and we can get you out!”
Almonihah looked about suspiciously, wondering if it were a trick of the chaos around them. Garkhen, however, exclaimed, “It is the mages from Midport!”
“Right, but flyin’ straight’s easier said than done.”
“I can do it!” Zakhin’Dakh interjected. He dove one last time as the dragon made another pass and then leveled out.
Almonihah watched the skeletal dragon come around for another pass. “They’d better make that portal ‘f theirs quick…”
The big griffon held his course even as the dragon behind him finished turning and started closing, its jaws opening.
The Warder chanted a spell-prayer and held up his symbol of Bahamut. After a brief moment there was a searing flash of light as the dragon’s breath met Garkhen’s ward in the air just behind Zakhin’Dakh. The Warder groaned as the strain of maintaing the ward struck him, but he hung on grimly until the bolt of chaotic energies faded… and then promptly fell unconscious, avoiding falling out of the saddle only because he was strapped in.
Almonihah swore under his breath. “’f they don’t open up that port…”
A sudden rippling split the air in front of Zakhin’Dakh, soon forming into a circular view into the interior of a building. The big griffon had only enough time to close his wings (and thereby avoid having them hit the edges of the portal) before he was through, talons and claws suddenly meeting stone floor as he crashed into the ground at full speed, Almonihah tumbling off his back and across the floor as he did so. The half-bronze dragon came to an abrupt stop when he smashed into a wall as Zakhin’Dakh skidded to a halt, partially on his side after his legs had given out from the impact of landing.
So, here’s the rest of chapter 17. I just… I think I scared myself off from it. I’m still not particularly happy with it, but it’s done. I was trying to write a hectic, climactic final scene, and… didn’t really get what I wanted.
Chapter 18 is going to be the final chapter, and it’s already in progress. I’m hoping to wrap it up by next week, but either way I’ll post next week.