Cane, Vivian, Lillin and Karp followed Myles. Pip and Slender stayed with Rose. The silver haired woman pulled her companions away, urging them to look for the second key. Myles and the others went to the mansion entrance. As they reached the large dining room, Vivian cleared her throat.
“We still don’t know where to look,” she said as the others turned to look at her.
“The forest?” Karp said.
“It’s too big, too dangerous. I’ve seen Dremond get dragged by something then disappear without a trace. That wasn’t a dream, he’s not here.”
“What do you suggest?” Myles asked.
“While we explored the mansion in the past couple of days, I saw a pattern. The strange walls had no furniture, no paintings or tapestry. The rooms and corridors in good condition had some strange paintings. I’ve seen the same colors, same patterns repeat themselves. I didn’t connect them all until we came back here now.”
“What did you see?” Lillin, the youngest champion among them all, asked.
“It’s better to show you.” Vivian pointed at a painting in the dining room, of a mansion on top of a hill. A bright star glistened above the forest, twisting and distorting the space around it. “I believe we’re here!” she said.
“A painting?” Cane asked.
“A painted world, to be more precise,” Vivian answered.
“I don’t even know how to react to that!” Karp exclaimed. “We’re trapped inside a fucking painting?”
“A world inside a world, brilliant!” Myles started pacing around the dining room. “First she gets us to the painting, unnoticed. Then she traps us inside a dream world. Vivian you’re bloody brilliant!” Myles ran to the woman, held her by the cheeks and kissed her forehead.
“What got you so riled up?” Vivian asked. The look she cast at Myles was quite confused.
“The Scion is weaker than I’d imagined. She invoked the Holi Tribulations in a different world, hidden from the High Priest’s control. She’s not to be underestimated though. She’s weak, which makes her desperate and extremely dangerous.”
“That’s not all,” Vivian pointed out. “The pattern that repeats itself in most paintings, I can see it in this one too.”
“Where is it?” Myles turned towards the painting, took it off its frame then spread it on the table.
“Here,” Vivian pointed at a faint orange light between the trees. “It’s well hidden, almost imperceptible.”
The five champions smiled. They knew what to look for. Between the trees there was a small clearing. One only had to look at the large painting long enough to see a faint light that emanated from the clearing. By a small stream, a wooden shack could be seen. It was perfectly represented in the painting, along with the chopped firewood by the door, and the mutilated guard dog.
“That’s where we should be going,” Myles told the others. “Look, up here in the sky.”
He pointed at the star in the painting.
“It’s bright red,” Cane noted.
“Yes, that’s what will point us to the right direction.” Myles was beaming. He’d finally found a clue.
Vivian was still looking at the painting, frowning. Myles turned to see her absorbed in thought. She didn’t seem to be as happy as the others.
“What is it?” Myles asked.
“I think we should split up again,” the woman said.
“We’ll put ourselves in greater danger,” Lillin protested. She was a thin young girl. She looked like a teenager who hadn’t fully grown yet. Her long cornrow braided hair touched her hips as she moved about.
“There are two keys. If we don’t take them both, the Scion will still have a chance to escape. In order to kill her, we’d have to trap her here.”
“I’m afraid she’s right,” Myles said while stroking his non-existing beard. “Do you know where to look?”
“I’ll stay here in the mansion. She’s killed one of us. Maybe he was close to reaching the answer. We all know Guss secretly sought the second key.”
“I’ll stay with ‘er,” Cane proposed. “We’ll have a better chance to fight ‘er.”
Myles squinted at Cane then smiled. The frown he cast at the big bear had disappeared as soon as it appeared. Only Vivian was able to notice it.
“Keep your eyes open and your ears pricked. If she suspects you’re getting close to the key, she might come after you. We’ll keep her busy outside though. Most of us here can use some spells.”
Cane and Vivian nodded then disappeared inside the mansion. Myles, Karp and Lillin went outside. The air was cool as tree branches danced about. Lillin let the breeze hit her face as he took a deep breath in.
“This all feels surreal,” she said. “The air should be clean, but it feels stuffy. The cool breeze almost feels artificial.”
“It is,” Myles said as he advanced forward. “We’re inside a painting. If someone were to watch us from outside, he’d see our bodies moving inside the canvas. We have to hurry. We can’t allow her to get her hands on the second key.”
“Wouldn’t it be cheating?” Lillin asked.
“The rules don’t say anything about holding two keys at once. Her game is full of holes,” Karp was the one to answer. He looked tense, prepared for the worst.
“He’s right.” Myles moved inside the forest and the others followed. “We need to trap her in her own game. Take the two keys away from her, and we’ll win the game.”
“She said find the key holder,” Lillin told them again.
“Yes, your point?” Karp said, quite irritably.
“If we find her, we win. There’s no need to look for a second key.”
“What’re you suggesting?” Karp asked once more. This time, he was intrigued.
“LOOK OUT!” Myles shouted then dived to the side. The others did the same. A large dark ball was hurled at them. After missing all its targets, the ball soared to the air then circled around in the sky.
“Looks like it’s coming back!” Karp shouted as he backed away.
“RUN!” Myles shouted then bolted away, inside the forest.
The large ball turned towards the champions then followed them. The trees that blocked its way were reduced to smithereens. “This thing touches us, we’re toast!” Karp shouted as he ran at full speed.
“Split up!” Lillin shouted. “She’ll stay on one of us while the rest can go find the shack.”
Myles immediately changed course and ran to the right. Lillin took the left and disappeared within the woods. Karp kept running forward, hoping the ball would follow the others. He felt it approaching him, faster than before. Everything around him froze as the dark orb’s aura came closer. Karp jumped forward then turned towards the ball. He shot his arms forward then shouted “Inferno!”
A firewall, big enough to defend a city, was instantly erected between Karp and the large dark sphere. As it collided with the wall, sizzling sounds were heard. Karp felt the wall slowly losing its effectiveness. He had to do something of he’d be devoured by the freezing dark sphere. White fumes stemmed from the fire wall. The dark sphere flew backwards then charged at the wall again.
A cracking sound was heard. Fire hissed through the cracks, like a wild animal escaping captivity. Karp tried to subdue the flames to his will but found himself incapable of doing so. The energy he poured into the spell felt like a stream pouring into the ocean.
“Bloody hells!” he murmured. Karp released his control over the spell then ran for it. Fire crackled as it crept outside the wall. It looked like a beast pushing its way out. Its fiery tentacles lashed at the ball, repelling it. More cracks appeared. They spread at a dangerous speed until they covered the entire wall.
It shattered in a loud explosion which was heard inside the mansion.
“What the hell was that?” Vivian said as the walls around them shook.
“Something bad’s happening,” Cane answered. “You sure this’ll work?”
“Positive,” she answered. “You look anxious, is something bothering you Cane?”
“I dunno,” he answered. He was looking at his feet, shuffling them on the wooden floor. “It’s a feeling, a bad one.”
“Is that why you insisted on leaving your friend?” Vivian asked, trying to meet the big bear’s eyes.
“He’s – not – my – friend,” he answered. “He’s something else. I get a bad feeling looking at him.”
“You suspect him like the others?” Vivian asked. “Cane look at me. You have to tell me what’s on your mind. It might save our lives.”
“Yer a smart one,” he said after finally detaching his eyes from the ground. He looked at her. Large creases had formed between his eyebrows. “What d’ya know of Transmutation?”
“It’s a dark art, ancient magic too. Why do you ask?”
“I saw Myles turn from one man to another. He told me he could switch between two forms,” he answered. “Black Eyes, the man he was before, he’s someone I respected. He was strong and mighty smart too. But this one, this one gives me bad chills. Never felt like this in the other’s presence.”
“It’s impossible for a man to change into another Cane, not in that fashion. That’s never happened, and it never will.”
“D’ya mean I’m lyin’?” Cane retorted, huffing and puffing.
“No, I’m not. I’m saying you’ve been deceived. One can transform into an object, to hide. But human Transmutation is final. It’s a stage that one has to go through in order to attain Godhood. There’s no switching between two bodies. At best, one can transform into an animal, but never into another sentient being.”
“So? What does it mean for us?”
“Myles and the man with Black Eyes are two different beings,” Vivian answered.
“That’s insane!” he retorted. “I saw ‘im change in front of my eyes.”
“I don’t know how he managed to pull it off. Is this man with Black Eyes a wizard?”
“He said he could use magic, but he said he’s no mage.” Cane was lost. He hoped that by telling Vivian, he’d manage to get some answers. She seemed knowledgeable.
“Did he have anything magical on him? Like a wand, or a scepter? Something to channel magic through?”
“Swords count?” he asked.
“In rare occasions,” Vivian replied. Her arms were crossed. She looked at the ground, tapping her feet. “Only ancient and dark magic can produce swords that serve as catalysts.”
Cane answered. “He had some creatures he called familiars too.”
“Familiars?” Vivian almost shouted. “He said that? His words, not yours?” She grabbed Cane by the shoulders. She was frantic.
“What’s gotten into ya?” Cane pushed her away then straightened his clothes. “Yeah, his words, not bloody mine.”
“How many did he have?” she asked.
“I dunno,” Cane answered. He was scratching his head. “He had one, very powerful. Called ‘er Silver. He’s had others who shielded us against Drake, then the ones who protected me against Kandisha.”
“Drake?” Vivian was now screaming. “You’re the ones who defeated Drake?”
“Did you know that we were hunting him when you intervened? The thing got all riled up then killed all of my friends. I survived because his attention was focused on a strange sphere.”
“We were ridin’ that thing,” Cane told her.
“Drake is a powerful monster,” she started but was interrupted by Cane.
“We killed the bugger ta see ‘im return from the dead. Monstrous hedgehog he was, with sharp bones and regeneratin’ limbs.”
“When’s the last time you saw your friend with Black Eyes?” Vivian asked.
“Before we got inside the Castle.”
“And before that? Did you get separated?”
“Yea, for a while. He didn’t fight the Queen with me.”
“We must find the key, now!” Vivian strode through the corridor in which they stood. She took three turns before stopping in front of one of the strange paintings she saw before.
“Look for ones like this!” she told Cane who was right behind her. “There should be about sixteen, each for a champion that got inside the painted world.”
“What? Ya want us to split up?” he said.
“Yes, your friend is out there, wreaking havoc. He means to get out alone. He’d kill us all if we don’t get the key!”
“You sure?” Cane asked.
“It’s as you suspected, but I don’t have enough time to explain it all to you. He’ll soon find the key bearer, kill her then come for us. Go! Find the other paintings. Find eight of them then meet me in the dining room. Got it?”
Cane nodded then darted the opposite way. Vivian stormed through the halls, corridors and countless empty chambers of the mansion. Seeking and collecting the strange paintings.
Outside, the wild fire had spread through the forest. Multiple dark spheres hovered above the woods. They could be seen from afar, lunging down at the burning trees then launch back at the sky. There were about twenty dark spheres, battling the wild fire.
Karp had made it out unscathed. He ran away from the fire. He didn’t know where he was or where he was headed anymore. All he wanted was to leave the painted world. But the shack was hidden among the trees, by some stream no one could seem to find. As he ran, he heard a strange noise coming from his right, much like a twig snapping.
He stopped to investigate it. Rose emerged from the trees, holding a long sword. Pip was behind her, a dagger in his hand. Slender was nowhere to be seen. Karp looked around him, trying to find a way to escape. Fire crackled behind him. Rose and Pip blocked his way forward. He suspected Slender to be lurking somewhere in the forest.
“Where’s Stalwart?” Rose asked in her shrill screaming voice. “We only want him. Just tell us where he went.”
“I don’t know,” Karp answered. “We split up soon as those black balls attacked.”
“Then I have no need of you,” Rose announced.
Karp heard something whistling to his right. He turned but didn’t see a thing. In fact, he seemed to have lost his sight. Sharp pain signaled he’d been injured. His hands touched a wooden shaft as he inspected his right eye. An arrow had pierced through his eye. Karp fell to his knees. Another arrow pierced his chest.
The wild fire roared in the distance. The world around the champions seemed to have taken a new orange color. The wild fire roared again, this time louder. Trees burned and the forest seemed to fall to a raging spell that got out of control.
Then the most unexpected thing happened. The world had gone dark all of a sudden. In the sky above, everyone could see a flying lion, roaring as a volcano behind it erupted. Its wings covered the sky, exactly as Myles had told them. There was a visible crack on the silver frames around the painting. A face came and obstructed their vision. Everybody saw him, with his sharp cheekbones and hollowed eyes. Utar was observing them.
He looked at the champions for a short while then retreated, leaving them admiring the flying lion. The canvas floated in the dark sky for a few seconds then disappeared. The forest was back to normal. The floating dark balls hovered above the woods for a short while then disappeared. There was no trace of the wild fire though. Rose, Pip and Slender looked at each other in disbelief.
“Fuck was that?!” Rose whispered. She couldn't tear her eyes from the clear sky.