A young witch attempts to gain the power of the Golden Pool
|The Golden Pool
The old wizard, Mordon, was dying.
He lay in bed because he lacked the strength to stand, his shallow breath gurgling in his chest like the purr of a kitten.
She sat over him with a grief-stricken expression and dabbed his forehead with a cool damp cloth. Mordon smiled up at her with his hollow cheeks and sunken eyes, thankful for her kindness. Weakly he coughed her name, “Hollana…”
“Yes, Master, I am here.”
“When…when I am gone,” he said in a cracked and feeble voice, “you must go to the Golden Pool.”
“The Golden Pool? But you told me I was never to go near it—that the Guardian would destroy me.”
“Listen to me! You must go!”
Hollana sat back, startled by his sudden anger. His face softened then, and his scowl changed to his usual odd smile—for a moment he looked at her with loving eyes. “I know I have been hard on you these past few years, Hollana, but only you can do this.”
“Yes, Master, I will obey.” Her eyes lowered in obedience then lifted again full of youth and vigor. “But you will not die, master. I will take care of you—make you strong again.” She reached for the yellow gourd that sat on a small table near the bed. “Here,” she said, putting the gourd near his cracked lips, “drink this. I have made a new batch—stronger than the last—and filled with much more magic.”
He sipped lightly of the black potion and then coughed raggedly again. Pushing the cup away, he said, “I’m afraid the elixir will no longer be enough to sustain me, Hollana. I am old—so very old.”
“No! You will live.” Tears welled in her eyes. “You cannot leave me. You’re all I have.”
Gently he grasped her hand. “Do not fear, my child. Listen carefully. When I am gone, my enemies will try to take control. The balance of nature itself will tilt against us temporarily. Humanity’s only hope will be with you.”
“With me? But what can I do? I am but an apprentice—I have barely seen seventeen winters.”
“The moment I die my adversaries will know it, and then they’ll make for the Golden Pool. Whoever gets there first will determine the fate of the world.”
“But Master, please, you’re talking nonsense—stricken with the fever. I have neither the strength nor the knowledge to defeat the Enemy.”
“You need nothing but your courage, my dear. I will provide the rest.”
A chill ran down her spine like the touch of the snow water that ran down from Mount Hebris. She felt her fate unfolding before her. This is what she had trained for—this one confrontation with Death and Chaos—this one conflict in the never-ending battle for the dominion of the earth. If she failed, the world would be thrown into darkness.
Respectfully she asked, “What do I need to do, master?”
“You must leave now—without hesitation! Climb the mountain to the Golden Pool.”
“But I am not prepared for such a journey—”
“You must go NOW!” He choked and coughed, struggling to sit up, and for a moment his eyes blazed with their old fiery strength again, then dimmed as he fell back into his pillow. “There is no time. You must leave this instant.”
“But what of you? Who will care for you when I am gone?”
“Do not worry for me. My life is in the Hands of the Maker.”
Hollana realized then, that this was the last time she would ever see the old man alive: this callous man, this unsympathetic sorcerer who had raised her since she was an infant—the only family she had ever known. Desperately she fell to the bed, grabbing at his hands and sobbing. She held his frail fingers in hers and then lifted them to her cheeks. He cupped her face tenderly as her tears spilled down.
“You have been like a daughter to me, and I have loved you no less. But the time has come for you to fulfill your destiny.”
“Yes…yes, Master,” she wept.
“Remember—the moment I die, they will know. Then they’ll come. You must hurry.”
She slowly stood and looked down at him. Softly, she said, “I will not fail you…Father.” She could not be sure that he had heard her, or had cared. Without even stopping for her shoes, she turned and walked out the door.
Before her in the cool mist of the morning stood Mount Hebris, and at the top, nestled in its arms, lay the Golden Pool. Thunder muttered threats in the distance. The air felt charged with power and turmoil, thick with static and expectation. Holding her breath to contain the labor of her heart, Hollana mustered her courage and defiantly strode forward.
She had not gone far when the storm hit and doubt crept back into her like a leaking ship. Her hands and feet were cut and bleeding from the jagged rocks and gnarled knuckles of the bitter and broken mountainside, yet still she pushed onward. She felt chilled to the bone; so cold and deprived that she could not even shiver. She breathed in shallow, dying gasps, and wept like the rain, ceaselessly. The storm whipped her into tatters and rent what little courage remained from her. Then as suddenly as it had started, the rain stopped.
Somewhere above the enveloping gloom, daylight still held the peaks, but its touch was lost in shadow, leaving only a premature dusk. In the heavens, early stars glittered coldly against the velvet dark, while ahead of her the mountaintop crouched like a waiting beast.
By the time she reached the saddle between the mountaintops, her legs had gone numb with strain. Yet she made it. And when she stood at the crest of the piled stones, she could see what lay ahead of her.
A cluster of mountains leaned away from each other to unfurl a small valley in their midst: a rich grassland, fed by a network of delicate streams and small pools. In the remaining light, the whole floor of the valley had a lush hue, an aspect of luxuriance, far deeper than the green sprouting of buds and grass. And the streams and pools seemed to catch the sun like liquid diamonds. It might have been a place out of time, sheltered from winter by the surrounding peaks: an instance of late spring or summer made possible by an abundance of water and sunshine amid the lingering cold of the mountains.
She was ready to move down into the valley, when she collapsed gasping with pain. Her awareness seemed heightened, as if her nerves had been tuned to a higher pitch. Fear boiled off her like steam, and she knew immediately that Mordon was dead.
She wept openly. She could not restrain herself: the ascent of the mountain had stretched more than her physical limitations. Like the rock beneath her feet, that remembered its own breaking, Hollana remembered her love for Mordon and the loss that tore at her shattered heart. Weakly she headed down the mountain and out into the valley.
Ahead of her at the center of the glen lay an area of complete yellow like a disk of pure gold. The Golden Pool. The water called out to her senses, warning her of power that had welled up from the depths of the earth.
The wind came up suddenly and whistled through the blades of long grass. Instinctively, Hollana flattened herself to the ground as the Dragon of Chaos, the color of dried mud and burnt leaves, swept overhead, banked sharply and prepared for another attack. If she had not heard the ominous flapping of leathery wings, the dragon would have killed her on its first pass. Before her, a dark rider entered the glen, his pitch-black steed rearing and snorting plumes of hot breath as if it had just been on a long run. Heavily cloaked in black, he stared into her, his eyes smoldering flashes of red. Death pulled his gleaming sword as a lightning bolt danced along its length.
“By the Maker, they’re here!” Hollana quickly stood and sprinted for the Golden Pool. Death viciously kicked and spurred his horse to a gallop to cut her off as Chaos swooped down again from the darkening sky.
She plunged into the water as if it were a pool of nightmares. The force of power seemed to accumulate against her every step. She could discern it clearly enough to know that it was neither toxic nor tainted. Rather it was an expression of the earth’s power, purer than anything she had ever experienced before. Energy seemed to crackle across the surface of the pool: incipient lightning—imminent hysteria. In those unreflecting depths, no stars existed. Instead, the stark golden water stretched down into the marrow of the world.
If she drank it—would she go mad?
Stooping without hesitation, she lowered her face to the pool and drank.
The touch of the water on her lips and tongue was as cold as fire. When she swallowed it, it burned within her like a blaze of absolute ice.
The dragon passed over her and its talons tore at her shoulders, knocked her down, and then veered into the Dark Rider and unhorsed him.
In an instant, utter anguish seemed to swallow her whole. Cursing mutely against the pain, she pulled herself up and stood on the balls of her feet, poised for combat. Blood ran down her arms and face—dripped into her eyes.
She reached within herself, felt the Earth’s potent power coursing through her veins, and then released a slash of blue flame which sundered the night.
A tremendous swirl of distortion appeared, destructive as a tornado, and maddening as a swarm of wasps. It seethed with force as though every link of material reality had been torn apart. She sent it whirling into the dragon.
The cobalt blue flame struck Chaos in the chest. Its entire frame snapped rigid. Blood spurted from a widening wound above its belly; its eyes protruded from its head as if they were about to burst; its teeth gnashed the laden air. Then it mounted upward, screaming into the heavens.
The hot blaze of Hollana’s heart anchored her within herself, enabling her to continue to be who she was when every mote and particle of her specific being had been torn asunder. Moment by moment, blinking blood from her eyes, she regained her sight.
Death approached her from the far side of the pool. His hood had fallen back and Hollana could see every aspect of his abused features. As she stared into the broken landscape of his face, the Golden Pool swelled and boiled beneath her feet. Hollana stepped back, her body trembling.
The Wyrm of the Earth exploded from the depths of the pool, its golden body extending above the waters. Hollana bit back a scream as the snake’s length, seeming to have no end, thrashed about on the surface. Its flat gleaming head opened revealing a gaping fanged-mouth and then arched its body preparing to strike Death as he stood upon the shoreline.
In a blur of motion, Death leaped to one side and struck the serpent with his sword. Hollana felt more than heard, the snake’s body thud heavily on the surface like a fist dropped on a coffin lid. Then it collapsed in on itself with a noise like a thunderclap, sucking down its own venomous power until it winked out as if it were a snuffed candle dropped into water.
Hollana staggered to keep her footing amid the frothing pool. Her lips were pallid, and her skin had taken on an ashen hue. With all the strength she could muster, she faced the Dark Rider. He glared at her as stunned moments passed between them. Straightening his back and squaring his shoulders, he sheathed his sword, and then bowed graciously to Hollana. Wordlessly he turned away, mounted his ebony horse, and again stared at her as if measuring her strength. Then he pulled his hood back over his grotesque features, wheeled about, and rode off at a gallop.
Hollana remained where she was, staring into the gloom. Her strength began to slowly return to her as she felt the power of the Golden Pool cure her wounds and heal her tired body. As her heart rose, she raised her arms and her voice as well and shouted to the heavens, “I am Mother Earth!”