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Day 24 of the 8th month, 189th year of the Britannian Calendar
That was how long it had been since we’d last seen the sun. It half-blinded us as we emerged from the prison caverns of Wrong, and made us trip and stumble over the rocky coast of Lost Hope Bay, yet even so, we were glad for its presence. The aches of the travel-weary, the wounds of battle, they can be soothed by rest or by magic, but there is no balm for the palpably oppressive gloom of the Underworld, except to escape from it – and between Dupre sliding halfway down an underground mountain amid the cacophony of the rockfall clanging against his armor, and a hallway of explosive traps culminating in a fight with four demons, that had been no easy task.
Yet escape we had, with the Shard of Hatred nestled in my pack, and it was a relief. The six of us each found a perch, taking a moment to catch our breath now that we were back on the surface. The lapping of the waves against the rocks, the steady rise and fall of the waves, was soothing – the only sounds of running water in the Underworld were the roars of waterfalls echoing off the cavern walls. The light fluttering of wings had me tense for a moment until I heard the call that accompanied it and relaxed, reminding myself the sound no longer meant the approach of yet another pack of mongbats and the inevitable fight they brought with them, but that of harmless gulls, or perhaps even an albatross. Compared to the dank and dismal place we had just come out of, this was pure tranquility.
But as much as I wanted to sit and savor the scenery, there was still work to be done and my desire to see it finished won out. Reluctantly, I rose. “We’ve still a job to do,” I told the others. “We make for the Abbey.”
And one by one, they rose as well, without complaint.
Long as it was, the walk through the Deep Forest was refreshing, in a way. Though the thick canopy filtered the sunlight, it was still brighter than the torches we were forced to make use of in the Underworld – and better still, instead of seeing little more than the inky black beyond the glow of the torch, here in the forest we were treated to a display of nearly every shade of green imaginable. Shamino was certainly in better spirits because of it, humming a jaunty – though slightly off-key – tune as we walked. Iolo only just managed to hold back a grimace – though not well enough to keep from amusing Jaana in the process. The snap of twigs beneath our boots, the twitter of the sparrows in the trees, the rustle of the leaves as a squirrel darted along a branch – they were far more comfortable noises than the reverberations of the caverns. Still, as we neared the keep, my unease grew bit by bit. I remembered well the encounters I had in the Lycaeum and Serpent’s Hold – how could I possibly forget them? The whispered lies, with just enough truth to make them believable, that filled my head in Faulinei’s presence, the crippling fear that came from Nosfentor’s approach, that fear that had come far too close to overtaking me… though the Shadowlords could be banished and defeated, it was not so easy to do the same with the vices they stood for.
At least this one would be the last.
The towering trees thinned eventually, traded for the crenelated stone towers of Empath Abbey. We wound our way around the greenery and merrily bubbling marble fountains of the courtyard, through the expansive archway on its eastern side. Ascending the stairwell there, we walked down the wide, inviting hallways until we arrived at the alcove where the Flame of Love was kept. Barbra, the Flame’s keeper, curtsied as we entered, and I bowed slightly in return. “Clear the room, if you would,” I told her. “And I think it would be best if you made sure none enter until we emerge again.” If Lord Michael spoke the truth, then those living in the keep had never felt the effects a Shadowlord could have on their mind when encountered face-to-face. I wanted to keep it that way, if I was able.
Barbra asked no questions on the matter – just curtsied once more, replying, “As milord requests.” She walked out of the room, shutting the solid oaken door behind her, and that was that. I turned to the Flame, watching it crackle and dance – not the cool blue of the Flame of Truth, nor the brilliant red of the Flame of Courage, but a soft, pleasing yellow. Then I cast my gaze upward – the room, unlike the others, was left open to the air, and I wondered briefly what might happened if it rained.
I shook the thought from my mind, taking out the Shard. It was no time to get distracted by idle musings.
I took a few breaths to steady myself, then called out, clear and loud, “Astaroth!”
The name rent the air, echoing off the walls before the darkness descended, and I’m still not certain I didn’t hear a thunderclap, despite a cloudless sky. The shadows deepened, thickened, drew themselves together into the form of the Shadowlord I had just named, glowing red eyes deep in a face hidden by a cowl – and I was no longer in the Abbey.
Instead I was thrown into the midst of vivid memory.
A father’s whimpers, begging for mercy from anyone who passed by, slammed into the stocks for simply not giving enough to the poor, and that mercy not for himself, but for his child, who shared the same fate for neglecting to turn in his own father.
A man rattling his chains behind bars, cruelly imprisoned, desperate for news of the boy he had been torn away from, hope fading with each passing day.
Blackthorn’s dungeons, catching glimpses of the instruments of torture kept there, the frenzied cries of their victims, thrashing against the unforgiving iron restraints still hanging in the air.
Shamino, glowing bolt driven deep into his chest, struggling for each raspy breath even as they intertwined with barely suppressed groans of pain, not knowing whether they were his last.
The faces of dozens upon dozens injured in some way or another by what the Shadow before me had wrought – and my hatred burned. An absolutely murderous scream tore from my throat, piercing the illusion, and I lunged, wanting to rip, to tear, to destroy, to kill—
–only to find my shoulders gripped by Dupre on one side and Iolo on the other, restraining me, and my axe in one hand.
I hadn’t recalled it being there before.
Past grievances drifted through my head, magnified into full-out rage, tempting me to fight against my own companions, that seething hate still bubbling beneath the surface, demanding I turn it on those who would dare hold me back. Swallowing hard, and with great effort, I shoved those temptations aside, casting the Shard, where it clattered into the brazier. The Flame burned brighter, grew larger, and the calm, steady glow became a full out blaze, roaring as it caught the Shadowlord’s cloak, consuming Astaroth, who protested the inevitable with an unearthly shriek that splintered the clashing light and darkness into a thousand pieces – and then it was silent.
Nobody breathed for the space of a few beats.
And then Johne’s voice: “It is done, then.”
I turned to face him, and nodded, once – enough of a pause to steady my own voice.
“It is done.”
In Other News
The Ultima Codex was the initial host for the Shroud of the Avatar fansite kit, a collection of assets and graphics put out by Portalarium to assist anyone looking to create a Shroud-focused website in achieving a visual feel consistent with that of the project’s official website. Of course, since then, the look of the Shroud website has changed some. As such, Portalarium have finally issued a new fansite kit, and the Codex is once again happy to play host to it.
Also, one of the Shroud of the Avatar companion apps has been formally released on the iOS App Store. Matterio’s SotA Community Application is available as a free download. This app, you’ll recall, is focused more on the community that has emerged around Shroud of the Avatar; within it, you’ll find news feeds that aggregate from a number of Shroud fansites, the Avatars Radio stream, an embedded IRC client that connects to the official Shroud chatroom, an events calendar, and an embedded viewer for content from SotAWiki. And Brenton has ported his Shroud of the Avatar companion app — this was the one with all the in-game reference materials: maps and crafting recipes and the like — to Unity. This has made that app effectively cross-platform; he is now using essentially the same codebase to build both iOS and Android versions.
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Ultima VI Gates of Creation by OC ReMix