The first thing Tarduk noticed was that it was hot – really hot. That made no sense: the last thing he remembered was being beneath the River Dormus, about to be frozen solid by rapidly advancing ice. The second thing he noticed was that his mouth was full of sand – he was face down in the stuff. That ruled out lying on the banks of the Dormus, since there was no sand there.
With a little reluctance, he lifted his head. He was in the desert, surrounded by ruins. It looked like there had been some huge battle here not long ago. Tarduk got to his feet and swayed, overcome by a wave of dizziness. When it passed, he started looking around. Right away, he saw Crotesius and Kirbold. Both were unconscious, but alive and apparently uninjured. Kirbold was lying next to a big chunk of stone half-buried in the sand. It had writing carved on it. Tarduk cleared away the sand and read: ‘Atero Arena.’
What? thought Tarduk. It can’t be. When we left to go north, the Atero Arena was whole, the Tournament was about to start. What could have done this?
Tarduk searched the ground frantically for some clue. He saw Glatorian armor and weapons scattered all around, obvious signs of a struggle, and one thing more: a Skrall shield, planted in the ground like a victory banner.
That was it, then. The Skrall had attacked Atero and destroyed it. And now… what? Were they attacking the villages? Or had they perhaps gone north to find the same place of power he had been seeking? He had to find out.
Words rang in his head, then. Someone, not long ago, had said to him, ‘Rock is already unyielding. Give it the power of the Great Beings to wield and no world is safe.’ But who had said that, and where?
He had a vague memory of an archway, a slab of stone, and someone speaking to him – and then he walked into the archway and… suddenly it all came back to him, a flood of memories surging into his brain. Yes, he had been underwater with Crotesius and Kirbold. They had been captives of the Element Lord of Water. Then the river began to turn to ice, as the Lord of that element attacked. The Water Lord had been forced to flee, and moments later, the air bubbles that had kept the Agori alive vanished as well. But they would freeze long before they drowned.
Desperately, the three started swimming for shore. Even as they did so, they could feel a disturbance in the water coming from upriver. Tarduk turned and saw a huge black shape racing toward them underwater. As it got closer, he saw it was a massive slab of rock. He barely had time to register that before he was flying up and out of the water, along with his two friends. Tarduk landed hard on the muddy shore. He turned in time to see three pillars of rock retreating into the water. The next moment, there was the sound of a great impact, and shards of ice flew up from beneath the river. The huge rock had smashed the oncoming wave of ice to bits.
Tarduk stood up. At first, he thought he must have hit his head when he landed. Standing before him was a mirror image of himself made from rock. But when it spoke, it was not his voice, but the unmistakable tones of a Skrall.
“Go back,” said the duplicate Tarduk. “You do not belong here. The Maze is mine to conquer, not yours.”
“We’re not looking to conquer anything,” said Tarduk. “We’re just looking for answers.”
“And some of us aren’t even sure of the questions anymore,” added Crotesius.
Tarduk expected the rock-thing to threaten them, or even attack. Instead, it just nodded. “You have encountered many dangers coming here, have you not? You are missing your homes.”
Crotesius and Tarduk said nothing. Kirbold just nodded.
“Then I will not delay your journey,” said the Element Lord of Rock – for who else could it be? “But I will warn you. Rock is already unyielding. Give it the power of the Great Beings and no world is safe. That power will be mine and no one else’s. Travel on, learn what you must. Take nothing back with you. And never return.” With that, the rock statue of Tarduk crumbled to dust.
“Maybe it is time to go home,” said Crotesius.
“No, not after we’ve come so far,” said Tarduk. “We’re close, I know it.”
The three Agori traveled along the bank of the river, keeping a watchful eye out for another Element Lord attack. A few hours later, they had reached the headwaters. There before them was a massive archway decorated with ornate carvings. Written across the top in Agori were the words ‘Spirit’s Wish.’
Tarduk was stunned at the sight. “I thought that was just a legend.”
“You’ve heard of this?” asked Crotesius.
“Read a carving once that referred to it,” Tarduk replied. “According to the story, anyone who passes through it gets the dearest wish of their spirit, or something like that. If it works, maybe we can get where we want to go right away, instead of more traveling on foot. It’s worth a try.”
“Doesn’t look like we have any choice, anyway,” said Kirbold. “There’s no way around it. We have to go through.”
Steeling themselves, the three Agori walked beneath the arch. There was a flash of light, a horrible sickening feeling, and then utter and complete darkness… until Tarduk woke up in the sand.
And now it made sense. The arch wasn’t some magical wish-granter – it was a teleportation device, just the sort of thing the Great Beings would build. It was designed to scan the mind of anyone passing under, and send them where they wanted to go. Or maybe where the Great Beings wanted them to go. There was no way to tell.
But why did I end up here? wondered Tarduk. I wanted to go to the Maze. I wanted answers… Or was the Element Lord of Rock right? Did I somewhere, deep down, really just want to go home? And so that’s where it sent me.
Crotesius and Kirbold were on their feet now, looking around at the ruins of Atero in shock. Tarduk knew that they would want to head back to their villages, and so did he. But once he was certain Tesara was alright, he was heading back north. He had to. This time, he would make it through the arch and find what he was seeking. This time, he wouldn’t waver. Even if he had to go alone, he was making the journey. He had set out to solve a riddle, and it seemed some pretty powerful beings were trying to solve it too. It was still out there, tantalizing him: a question without an answer. But he would answer it somehow – and soon.
Tarduk looked to the north. His destiny lay that way, he knew. And nothing would stop him from achieving it.