Race to Mount Ghardur

Mexii was elated.

Her very essence thrummed with energy. Another mind brushed with hers, a mind with a landscape so vast and rugged that she feared she might get lost in it. Her senses were twice as sharp, and suddenly the world seemed to be exhilarating and alien.

Cynder would often talk to her with his mind-voice, enquiring after their journey and the extent of Herothi's powers. Mexii told him all she could - after all, when it came to the final fight, Cynder needed to know what Herothi was capable of as much as they did.

But Gray suddenly felt abandoned. It hadn't occurred to him that he had brought his loneliness upon himself by not socialising with the Trinity - he was too used to the company of his own kind, who preferred their own company. But the Trinity had made plans without him, and now they had a protector, a stronger, more glorious protector that would fulfil their requirements much better than he.

He wanted a purpose, like Mexii had. He wanted to be powerful enough to avenge Imasa's demise himself, instead of having to rely on a young girl, a fancy, fiery apparition and some four-legged mules who seemed as alien to him as Herothi did. He was just the pathfinder, the guide, the chauffeur. It did nothing to boost his self-confidence.

"Well - let's hope Kilma's keeping him busy," said Cynder's mind-voice in Mexii's ear, as they reached the bleak black scree at the base of Mount Ghardur.

"Wouldn't Herothi just finish her off like that?" said Mexii in surprise, clicking her fingers to emphasise her point.

"Don't be so impertinent, mortal. Battles with the Gods last a lot longer than your short-lived skirmishes. When there is a forest fire, it can last for days, as fire and earth struggle to prevail over the other. Kilma and Imasa are mortal enemies of each other, but it takes Kilma thousands of years to shatter Imasa's landmasses with her frosts every winter, while Imasa simply pushes forth more land from the ground as towering mountains, which take a thousand years to grow."

"But Herothi isn't a god, he's a demon," Mexii challenged. "A collection of spirits summoned accidentally by my father. What god would answer to mere mortals?"

"I did, mortal," said Cynder reprovingly. "I answered your call, and it's a damn good job I did, too."

Mexii was annoyed at how he kept calling her 'mortal'. Technically she was immortal, at least while the shadow of Herothi's essence hung over her - but she didn't dare argue with the hottest-tempered God she had ever met.

And Cynder's abrasive personality seemed to be rubbing off on her. Within a day she had become hotheaded, derisive and determined for revenge. Cynder's warlike idiosyncracies were a blessing and a curse.

And Mexii could feel him growing more powerful as they began the strenuous climb up the sides of the volcano. He seemed to revel in the sinister scent of the smoke rising sinuously from the vents around them, and burn with desire to be reunited with his element stone. As they climbed, the dense smog clouded upon their forms, throwing the jagged outcrops of the mountains around them into mysterious relief.

At last, they reached the summit of the volcano, two days after the clash of Herothi and Kilma began. Mexii looked around for a pit of roiling magma, or at least a small lava flow, but found none. Instead, there was just an extra large stone, surrounded by a circular gap out of which steam was pouring.

"The plug," explained Cynder to the rest of the group (Mexii was repeating his words to them). "Made from rapidly cooling lava as it emerges from the volcano. Underneath there is my usual haven."

"Do you hold court down there with dragons in a courtroom surrounded by lava-falls?" asked Gray inquisitively.

"No, of course not, that's what the bards used to say," Cynder snorted with amusement. "I must admit I find this perception rather favourable, though," he added thoughtfully, a satisfied crackle in his voice.

"So - what now?" said Juliexus. She was starting to sweat in the heat from the steam vents beneath their feet.

"We look for the fireheart, of course," said Gray. "Where is it, Cynder?"

"It is in a place no mortal can access it, for obvious rea -"

Mexii cut off in mid-sentence as she spoke for Cynder. A sinister cold was creeping down the backs of their necks. The streamers of steam were shrivelling like old cabbage, and the rock beneath their feet rumbled restlessly.

Soon their breath was forming a mist in front of their eyes. Then, they began to shiver.

"Well, it looks like Kilma popped her clogs, then," said Cynder, with barely concealed surprise. "Bring it on, big guy."

And sure enough, Herothi emerged like a swarm of needles from the steamy soup around them, his new guise glistening in the light from the brazen sun.

"You like my new body?" were his first words, thrumming with evil. "I thought it fitting, considering the status of my defeated opponent."

He was forged out of the broken pieces of Kilma's statue. Icy sinews linked his limbs together, and razor sharp icicles dripped from his every inch. His eyes blazed with frigid brightness, cutting through the steam like frozen daggers.

"Does that mean we shall have to inhabit that travesty of a body when we defeat you?" Mexii retorted.

"Well, well, well, someone's really let the cat out of the bag. I see you only have one more addition to your group, a puny elf with no power whatsoever! A mere minion of one of my former victims. Whereas I have now encompassed another whole element, another God's strengths. We shall see, we shall see. I cannot wait to experiment with the four heads, the eight arms and the twelve legs I shall soon be in control of."

He let loose an evil cackle that echoed away across the hills. The steam began to rise as the snow began to fall, and Herothi's ice wraith body swung into action.

The End

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