The sky is ablaze with the colors of sunset, though the sun itself cannot be seen, and the horizon is limned in all directions, making it impossible to tell just in what direction the sun is rising or setting. At the horizon, the sky meets with a sea of roiling clouds, and all about, there are countless sky islands not simple disks with hanging stalactites like Rephidim, but twisted shapes, like great hunks of clay grasped in a child's hand and twisted about, then turned to stone and adorned with clinging vegetation, crashing waterfalls with no apparent source, spiraling towers, and weathered menhirs inscribed with arcane runes. Firebirds flit about, then soar, circling above and then shooting off, dancing, twirling, this way and that, their shrill cries echoing like distant peals of thunder.
The perspective of the dreamer is that of one floating in space, without substance, without form … but then, the viewpoint rushes in toward one of the sky islands, one with a circular courtyard surrounded by stone menhirs, some of them toppled, and beyond that, scraggly, twisted trees, and rock formations that twist outward from the central disc like the arms of a hurricane. As the viewpoint rushes in, Envoy can be seen standing there, swathed in billowing white fabric, flapping about in the wind. And then as the viewpoint seems to collide with Envoy … the viewpoint is hers, through her eyes.
Envoy finds herself standing on a circle of stone tiles. Here there is a patch of clover growing between the cracks. There, some grasses poke through. Across the way, some blood red mushrooms. Lines are inscribed upon the stone, forming various polygrams circumscribed by the circle, with smaller runes set within the points of the stars. Envoy stands at one end of the circle. At even points on the corners of a triangle among the shapes scribed on the circle, there are two others standing here. A gray fox'taur … and a white, platinum-haired bat … both of them likewise adorned in white.
Hovering above the circle is a stone statue supported by naught but the air. It is a statue of a bat, arms, legs and wings akimbo in a bizarre pose, as if running or dancing in air, with runes inscribed across all parts of the stone surface, and inlaid with gold, silver, enamels, powdered gems, and other glittering materials. It is a statue of Zakaro, and she floats above the circle.
Envoy blinks a few times, finding this environment quite different than the other Realms she's been to. Looking to the white-clad Eeee, she calls, "Wynona? Is that you?"
Wynona seems to come to life at Envoy's query, and turns to look at her. "Envoy? Is that " She blinks. "No, wait, you just asked me that. Er, I mean … What I mean is, yes, it's me." She pinches herself. "Ow!"
Yffryn giggles at Wynona's reaction. "You know, that doesn't really work."
The Aeolun grins, and turns towards the Fnerf next. "Can you hear me too, Yffryn?"
Another sky island glides by, this one looking as if it were part of a castle or mansion that had been torn apart a grand hall, with a far wall with cut-glass windows, majestic columns, and hanging pots of flowers, and a table, but open to the air. Upon this is set a feast, and at one end is seated a female bat, her fur covered in runes, reclining at the table and sipping from a goblet, as she looks down upon the threesome.
Yffryn looks back to Envoy. "Oh! Hello there! Wait … this can't be. This must be some sort of trick. I heard you were killed. Are you some sort of ghost?"
"Heard I was killed?" Envoy asks, looking surprised. "Heard from whom? Wynona and I are being held captive at the Temple of Inala near Babel."
"Oh? That's terrible! I mean … that's good! Oh! I mean, that's good and terrible!" Yffryn exclaims, looking flustered. "What I mean is, it's good that you're alive, but terrible that you're held prisoner."
"Well, you can inform the High Council when you wake up," Envoy says to the Dream Mage. "Assuming you still have Wynona's talisman, so that you won't forget all of this when you do wake up, hmm?"
The bat up at the banquet table yawns, covering her mouth, then picks up what looks like a leg of poultry that is flaming. She takes a bite out of it, savoring the juicy meat, and the flames don't seem to hurt her in the least. She nibbles on it some, then gestures with it as she looks down at the threesome. "Do let me know when you're done bantering, wouldn't you?"
Yffryn flutters her eyelashes. "Wynona's talisman? Whatever do you mean?" She looks over to Wynona.
Wynona reaches to her nape, and finds a crystal pendant there. "Oh! Well, mine is still here, all right. And I'm here … so that must mean I still have my pendant, now doesn't it?"
"Then how is Yffryn here?" Envoy asks, then looks up to the dining Eeee above. "Unless you needed three of us here for something, Zakaro?"
"It would seem," Zakaro says, pausing to idly nibble at the flaming leg, the flames growing more faint as there is less meat on it, "that you would be here, needing something from me. Your party of adventurers has done well traversing my puzzles and challenges, and to complete my challenge, there is yet one test remaining. A contest to see which of you is worthy of a boon from me."
Envoy crosses her arms. "I'm not falling for that trick again," she says. "I have something to offer you, but you have to agree to my terms first."
"A very wise move for anyone who deigns to be a sorcerer," Zakaro says, with a mild tone of approval in her voice. She waves with the poultry leg as if to urge Envoy to continue.
Yffryn, meanwhile, says, "Well, I'm ready to continue."
"Not so fast!" Wynona says in a loud stage whisper. "Give Envoy a moment!"
"It's a trap, Yffryn. Remember what happened to me when I 'won' Inala's boon," Envoy says to the Fnerf. To Zakaro, she says, "I need to know something from you first. How far would you really go to achieve ultimate, absolute power over magic itself?"
"That is a moot question," Zakaro says, snorting. "I would go nowhere at all, for what I already have."
Then, the bat picks the last of the meat off of the poultry leg, and tosses the bone over her shoulder, adding it to a considerable pile of bones and shells in the corner of her banquet hall.
Envoy grins. "You don't have anything real, though. Can you even leave this Realm of yours? Can you tell me where magic comes from?"
Zakaro is midway into picking up squirming insect to take a bite out of, when she looks down at Envoy, eyes narrowing. "I can, I can, and I have no intention of doing so. And what does it matter what is real, and what is anything else, so long as it pleases me as well as anything ought? Not that I should even entertain your absurd accusation. Do not try my patience. I know well enough that you have not made yourself popular with Inala. Far be it from me to grant you undue leniency on her account."
"I don't think you have any power of your own at all," the Aeolun comments, and looks to the other two mages. "There's nothing for us to compete for."
"Hsst!" Yffryn whispers loudly, "Don't make her angry! What are you doing?" Louder, she says to Zakaro, pointing to Envoy, "I'm not with her."
Zakaro glowers at Envoy. "Do you ask for a demonstration of my power? To those foolish enough to ask for one, I am well known to grant demonstrations. And if you do not learn from the experience, I am certain your survivors would."
"It's all just a dream, Yffryn," Envoy reminds the Fnerf. "It's only as real as we believe it is. And I don't believe that Zakaro has any power over us."
Yffryn frowns. "I wouldn't be so sure about that. You haven't forgotten what happened to Elise, now have you?"
Wynona shrinks back, covering herself with her wings. "Oh dear… "
The rune-covered bat smiles mirthlessly. "Hmm. So, the one who comes to take my challenge … challenges me instead. You should carefully consider the implications if you should be found to be wrong, proud little creature."
"Wynona, don't be afraid," Envoy says, trying to reassure the air mage. "And Yffryn, you should remember that I broke Inala's possession of me without any magical aid. We are the ones who make them more real. We are the ones with the actual power here."
"Little creature," Zakaro hisses, "you have not answered my question, and my patience is short."
Instead of answering, Envoy turns her attention to the floating statue. She concentrates as much as if she were casting a spell, and imagines the figure breaking up and crumbling to dust.
As much as Envoy's imagination might dictate it, as much as she might be able to mentally picture it, her own will doesn't seem to impose itself upon the dream environment. The statue is still there.
It was worth a try, Envoy thinks, and turns back to Zakaro. "Okay, give me a demonstration if you can. I still don't believe in you."
Zakaro smiles wickedly. "All right. How about … if I make someone in the material world … someone you care about … die?" She raises her fingers as if to snap them.
Wynona's ears flush. She looks as if she's about to say something, but hasn't quite the nerve to say it.
"Someone not present in this little group, I assume?" Envoy asks. "It would be too easy otherwise. And likewise someone that has never been to the Dream Realms, lest you take advantage of an old link."
Zakaro's eyes narrow, as if still considering pulling whatever demonstration this might be.
Wynona sputters, "B-besides! Instantly killing someone … that would be more Sunala's realm, wouldn't you think? You wouldn't want to make a demonstration within her sphere of influence. Who knows? She might get upset at … you know … working in on her territory?" She grins nervously and hopefully.
"I can't think of any sort of convincing demonstration you could give, Zakaro," Envoy says, shaking her head. "Not here, on your home turf. No, it would have to be something in the real world, with no link to the Dream Realms at all."
"Well then," Zakaro says, her voice dripping with venom, "there's hardly any purpose in you remaining here, now is there?"
"On the contrary," Envoy says, still grinning. "I'm here to watch you die. Just like Gorphat. Or, I'd be willing to see you leave, as Rephath has done. She was smart enough to get out while she was ahead, before the Royal Mages could control her."
"Rephath?" Zakaro sneers. "Where is Rephath? What has she done, run away? Afraid of some mages controlling her? How pathetic. And you mean to impress me with this?"
"No," the Aeolun says, shrugging. "I don't need to impress you at all, because I know why you are here. I'll bet you can't even remember back beyond six years, aside from the collective myths and stories that involve you. That's all you are, you know, an image from some stories that a bunch of Eeees believe in."
Yffryn lets out a whimper, and then says, "No! Please don't listen to her, Zakaro! I believe in you! It's … aheh … uhm … some sort of misunderstanding." She looks to Wynona as if for support.
Wynona just gives Yffryn a "What are you DOING?" look in return.
"I was there when they subdued Morpheus," Envoy says to the rune-covered Eeee. "I saw these Realms come into being. You aren't the Goddess Zakaro. You're just a magical artifact in the biggest power scam of all time. You were made to control your followers, to gain enough power so that it could all be stolen by the ones who created you."
Several of the firebirds shriek as they blaze trails through the sky. Zakaro, her face rigid with anger, glares down at Envoy … then she starts digging into several of the foods on the table, roughly stuffing them into her mouth and chewing fiercely, then washing them down with a gulp of wine, and swallowing hard. "You're almost enough to spoil one's appetite," she coughs. "No one steals power from me."
Envoy grins wider, and says, "I can prove it all, too. Just go to the Crossroads, and fly up into Morpheus' prison. The Ritual of Seven Wounds is being recreated there, and you are part of it, waiting to take his wings. If you were the genuine Zakaro, you would have already done this to your father. But Morpheus is your father. Go and see for yourself if you aren't afraid."
Zakaro looks … stricken. After a moment, she regains something of her composure. "This is simple enough to test. Let us go, then … and if I am not satisfied … you will pay for this insolence." There is a flash … and she is gone, a puff of smoke slowly dissipating in her wake.
Looking to the others, Envoy asks, "Want to come along? It should be interesting."
Wynona walks over to Envoy wordlessly, casting about with anxious looks at the strange surroundings.
Yffryn has her face covered with her hands. "Envoy, Envoy, ENVOY! You're going to tear this place apart before I have a chance to STUDY it!"
"Good," Envoy says to the Dream Mage, and takes Wynona's hand. "To the Crossroads, and Morpheus, then."
Once Envoy focuses her will upon it, it seems that this is something she can impose upon her surroundings. One moment, she is in Zakaro's realm, and the next…
… the mists clear, revealing a winged ki'rin, an Eeee, and a Fnerf, standing on the stone circle within the arches of the Crossroads. The statues of Barada and Gorphat are ruined, along with their archways. The archway of Rephath is closed by a heavy iron gate, with no path visible beyond it, and no statue, though relief carvings of the ceremonial balance and dagger above the archway make it clear whose path was once accessed here.
Inala's archway is taken up by a large statue of herself, and Zakaro's archway is almost full of her own representation. Sunala's and Blakat's archways seem much less defined by comparison, and the statues are only about waist high.
Yffryn looks around, faintly dazed. "Oh! We're back here again. … I do hope we're not going to have to start all over. That would be dreadful."
Envoy looks up to where the prison should be. "We have to fly up, down into the prison."
Sure enough, there's the "portal", and beyond can be seen the wounded statue of Morpheus, though it's not clear just what else is in there with him.
"Maybe you can jump up, Yffryn," Envoy suggests to the Fnerf, and flies up towards the portal herself.
Wynona follows after Envoy … and when they pass through, Wynona lets out an alarmed squeak, as she tumbles end over end … but she manages to recover, as she finds herself in the other chamber.
The chamber is as Envoy remembers it, with walls fashioned of stone and crystal mostly crystal with a walls that taper inward, with a high ceiling smaller than the circular floor. On a stone bed or altar in the center of the chamber is a huge statue of a prone man a hybrid of Khatta and Eeee fashioned of stone, crystal and shadow, with a horrible gouged wound in his chest. About the room stand four statues: Inala, Blakat, Sunala, Zakaro. At their bases, leathery cables fashioned of the skins of Eeee run up to twine around the statue of Morpheus. There are places for the statues of Rephath, Barada and Gorphat, but Rephath's place is empty, and the statues of Barada and Gorphat are reduced to rubble.
Envoy lands on the statue of Morpheus well out from under the portal, just in case an extremely heavy fox'taur is going to fall out of it, and looks for Zakaro.
Wynona does a flip, then lands on a bare section of the floor … and then dives for cover as a rune-covered bat whips by.
Zakaro thrashes about, her shrieks echoing off the chamber walls. "This is a cruel joke!" She wings around the chamber, tossing and twirling about. Her size seems indistinct. One moment, she seems as large as any of the statues, and the next, she seems no larger than Envoy. It's not that she's changing sizes. It's just … that this environment doesn't perfectly follow rational laws. It's a dream, after all.
Nonetheless, Zakaro's tantrum seems to be making this fact a little more obvious at the moment.
Wynona squeaks, "Now … now calm do " and then she cuts herself off, throwing her hands to her head and running them through her hair, with a bewildered look, as if utterly uncertain what she should be doing now. She looks to Envoy as if for help. She voices it, too. "Help?" she squeaks.
"Break the cord, Zakaro!" Envoy calls to the screaming figure. "Break the tie between your statue and Morpheus, and prove that you are not bound by his power!"
Zakaro flutters about, occasionally bouncing off the walls, the ceiling, the floor, and then bounces off the cord running between Morpheus and the statue of Inala. She skids against the floor, and puts a hand up to her forehead. She brings her hand down, and stares at it in wide-eyed disbelief. There is blood on her hand. She shudders violently.
Just then … a winged fox'taur flaps into the room, and gently sets down near Wynona. "Well! It looks like dream magic is useful here after all." She wiggles her nose, and with a poof, the pair of ethereal wings on her back vanish.
Envoy makes her way down to the floor of the chamber, and approaches the stunned Zakaro. "Do it, Zakaro," she demands. "Break the cord, or else accept that you are a sham."
Yffryn looks about. "What … what is this place?"
Zakaro seems fixated on the blood on her hand. "This is … a powerful illusion you have wrought. Surely, you are a powerful sorcerer. Yes … an illusionist. You have … impressed Zakaro."
"The heart of the Dream Realms," Envoy calls back to Yffryn, "the cage in which Morpheus has been bound." To Zakaro, she says, "Don't be ridiculous. If you were truly who you think you are, nobody could fool you with magic. Nobody."
Zakaro stands unsteadily on her feet. "Of course. I was merely testing you," she says, though she doesn't sound very convinced or convincing. She just doesn't seem to have quite that aura that Inala had. That force of personality. That godhood, however false. She visually ticks down the statues, then walks over toward the one that bears her own likeness, and follows down to look at the cable of Eeee skins that runs from its base up to Morpheus.
Envoy follows along behind the surprisingly mortal-seeming bat, and looks up at the giant cable as well.
Zakaro closes her eyes, and seems to gather up her strength, her energy … herself. She doesn't necessarily grow … but she seems more definitely a giantess here, at least as large as the statue in her likeness, and easily dwarfing the cable of hers that helps to bind Morpheus.
The goddess seethes with magical energies, the powers of chaos, the powers of sorcery and spirits, manifested in wispy spirits that whip about her feet and rise up on occasion, only to dissipate into the air. Some of them seem to form demonic or skeletal shapes, while others seem angelic in their delicately sculpted features.
Leaning against the statue of Morpheus, Envoy places a hand against one of the crystal protrusions as she watches Zakaro manifest herself. I hope this works, Morpheus. Her pride won't let her fail, I think.
Envoy hears a whisper, a tousling breeze against her ear, though she can't make out the sound exactly.
Zakaro gestures with one outstretched hand. The spirits whip outward at her unspoken command, tearing through the cable, made from the skins of Eeee. The leather snaps and breaks apart, fragmenting … and the cable is gone.
"YES!!" Envoy cheers, throwing up her arms and jumping! "YOU DID IT!"
The runic bat looks sourly down at Envoy. "Yes. And I hardly see any point in it. Come, Wynona, Yffryn. I shall see the two of you compete for my boon." She snaps her fingers … and in an instant, she, Yffryn and Wynona are gone, leaving only puffs of smoke in their wake.
A breeze tousles Envoy's mane again … an insistent whisper, but too weak to be clearly heard.
Envoy clambers back up onto the statue of Morpheus, and finds the crystal on his chest that she touched to talk to him before. Once again, she presses her horn to it and whispers, "Morpheus."
Envoy doesn't experience a shift of perception this time … only a faint whisper: "… you can't … move a mountain … by erasing it … from the map … "
Envoy's heart sinks. "She didn't sever the link then. But how can she? There has to be a way! What else can I do, short of challenging her directly? I can't kill her."
From Morpheus, she can only hear a resigned sigh.
"I'll have to go back to her," the Aeolun whispers. "I'll have to go back and stop the contest, even if I do have to … kill Zakaro."