The Reality Saga Volume I - The Song of Steel

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Chapter Eleven

The True King stood alone in the grasslands, looking to the south. He knew not why he hesitated, or even why he had stopped at all on that particular day, only that something was tugging at him, a sense of imbalance that needed to be corrected. His eyes piercing the veil of distance, he saw a figure in silver plate riding towards him astride a spirited red gelding. The back of his mind whispered a name – Sarcodus – and he wondered what he should do with him. He waited until the man in silver was a mere ten yards from him before speaking.

“State your case, and do it quickly,” he called aloud. Sarcodus dismounted, leading the horse by the reins to where the True King stood.

“Atolibus...” he said. A look from the man in white cut him off without a word. Sarcodus took a deep breath and plowed forward. “It is your name, you know, Atolibus Sandrin. I was there when you first declared it so, all those years ago. I had hoped in coming here that I could bring you to your senses. There are those in need of you and they need you swiftly, in the manner that only you can provide.” A tingle ran down his spine as he locked eyes with the man in white. His Sight is open wider than I’ve ever seen. Has he had it open this entire month? No wonder the man is more than half mad.

“I have been aiding the people of this land unceasingly for weeks on end,” the True King said. “I have killed uncounted thousands of Magus, and yet for all my efforts their roots go deeper and deeper with each passing day. What say you to that, Sarcodus Arcadia? What have you been doing in this time to carry out your vengeance?”

“I’ve been thinking with my head on straight,” he said. He realized this was a poor way to open a dialog with the man and remembered his words to Schala – ‘We need Kristina to bring him out of it’ – wondering if there was some way he could use that to his advantage. He knew where the young woman was being held and was reasonably certain she was still alive, if a little ruffled, but there was no way in this life that he was going to be able to dig her out of Castle Lothanis’ dungeons on his own. He needed Atolibus, and needed him desperately. “I know where Kristina is.” In the blink of an eye Elysdeon was at his throat. His breath caught in his chest – even he had never seen someone move so fast. It was as if the intervening space simply did not exist. “If you kill me you lose her as well.”

“I can see your mind, you know,” the man in white replied, sword holding steady. “She is in... how very interesting. I can’t see the location itself. It’s as if you are clouding your thoughts with others just to bar my way.” The True King smiled. “That is an old trick, my friend, one which I am well acquainted with.” How to make him see, Sarcodus wondered. He needed to do it in a manner that would bring Atolibus to the forefront, and not this Light-crazed lunatic that stood before him with his sword against his throat. He had no doubt that the man would kill him, either. The Light did not care for niceties such as guilt or conscience. Not for the first time he wondered if he should have withheld that statement for when he had the man’s better nature brought out. Done is done. Nothing for it but to press on. It’s only your life on the line.

“Think with your head for a moment, Atolibus, and not your heart,” Sarcodus said. “If you go charging in, power blazing, the best thing you will accomplish is to kill the woman you love the most along with whatever citizens of the City are left. That will serve you ill – you will be known as a madman, if you are not all ready, and more importantly everyone will see you for what you are – Chaos incarnate. They will never trust you again, Atolibus. Mull that over for a moment before you think about taking my head. You will lose your kingdom by your very own hand.”

Sarcodus swallowed as Elysdeon pressed just a little harder against his throat. He knew if it pressed any deeper it would start to draw blood, and it would be a short journey from there to his death. He had to make this quick. “Remember what I told you, standing in the castle library when everything fell apart. I told you that if you went outside, you would lose the castle that very day. And look what happened, they baited you and you fell for it. I do not fault you for your heart, my oldest friend, for I know you meant it for the best, but look at what you have done. Look at what you’ve become. This isn’t you, not the real you. I know you’re in there, Atolibus. Awaken, and see the truth for what it is.” The True King pulled his sword back, eyes full of roiling emotions. Seething hatred, along with shame and horror, mixed with fear. Fear for what, Sarcodus knew not – more than likely Kristina’s safety.

“Ye gods...” the True King muttered, blade disappearing. He looked around at the empty plains and then to his own hands, seeing phantoms only he could discern. “I’ve killed so many... and not all of them deserving death.” He stepped backwards, stumbling, and then hit his knees with a cry and a flash of light. When Sarcodus could see once more it was Atolibus in his golden armor and Elysdeon’s usual form that knelt before him, while the quicksilver eyes that looked back at him were filled with tears. “Sarcodus... my friend. Help me. Help me... I have been lost in a sea of rage.” He looked at the man in silver’s throat for a moment. “I nearly... oh, my friend...” And then Sarcodus witnessed something he had never expected to witness again in his entire lifetime. Atolibus wept. Openly, uncontrollably in racking sobs, the man broke on his knees. Sarcodus moved to his side, a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“This was nothing you could have prevented,” he said quietly. “The prophecies have spoken of this day for hundreds of years. She needed her power, and you needed to reclaim yours.”

“What have I done?” Atolibus said, control fleeing him altogether. “Gods’ eyes man, I might have killed her.”

“I told you before, I know where she is,” he said quietly. Atolibus’ head snapped in his direction. “I needed you back in control before I told you. We can do this, with you leading the way.”

“Where is she, my oldest friend, tell me where she is that I may free her from the Magus?” he said. Sarcodus helped him to his feet, and the man in gold finally mastered himself. He closed his magical Sight for the first time in over a month, shaking his head briskly as his vision finally returned to normal.

“She is being held in the dungeons of Castle Lothanis,” he said evenly. “The Grand Magus has made her seat there, even though the castle is half in ruins and the city with it.” Atolibus nodded.

“That would stand to reason,” he said, voice finally calm and collected once more. If fire and death could be said to be calm, at any rate. “She has coveted the throne of Lothanis for over a hundred years now.” He gave himself a visible shake and then spoke again. “Very well. We have much to do, my friend, and not all the time in the world. Come. I will take us with my magic to a safe place where we can plan our attack.”

Schala had fled in the early morning hours, when she knew Sarcodus would be in the depths of sleep’s embrace. She felt pity for the man – for all he grated at her he’d been working ceaselessly in the last month, and it was taking its toll. She felt her leaving would be the best thing for both of them in the long run, and she could no longer deny what she felt in her heart was the right thing to do. She had sped like an arrow towards Castle Lothanis and traveled for a few days. She stopped when she reached the gates of the city, realizing that she had no real plan of attack. Had she been intent upon simply waltzing into the dungeons and demanding Kristina’s release? She shook her head and cursed herself thrice the fool – poor planning cost lives, and this time it was hers and Kristina’s that were on the line.

Kristina Terwynn. A beautiful young woman that had grown up without a mother or a father to guide her, one that had grown up not knowing the truth of her lineage and yet had become a force to be reckoned with in her own right. How many times had she wished she could simply walk up to the woman, take her in her arms and tell her who she really was? Her only child. She felt tears cloud her eyes at the memory of Jonathyn, poor lost Jonathyn, destroying himself and a hundred Magus in a flash of power during the Skirmishes. It had been during the end of the fighting, when the Castle had been on Condition Prime for months on end. Every last Gifted person was worn to the bone with the work, and yet they pressed on. In the end they had not gained victory so much as an unstable stalemate that she knew would boil into the full fury of war sooner or later.

What did she think she was going to do, alone in the center of the Magus’ power in the kingdom? Die, most likely, but she would die letting her daughter know that she loved her.

“I know what I have to do,” she whispered to herself, unbuckling her sword belt and letting it fall to the ground next to her mount. She slid from the horse and walked into town, unarmed, unafraid of death. She knew what she had to do.

Kristina saw light for the first time in a week when a new prisoner was led into the dungeons, manacled and shackled heavily, shielded from magic in much the same way she was. She only caught sight of their prisoner for a moment in the torchlight before she was unshackled and thrown into her cell, and the light of the torches disappeared with the soldiers carrying them, but what she had seen brought her heart into her throat. Schala? It’s her... how is she here?

“Schala?” she asked softly. A groan from the prisoner, who had been thrown into the cell directly next to her own. “Is that you in there?”

“What’s left of me, anyways,” the woman said, pain in her voice. She had been tortured before being thrown down in the dungeons. Her entire body stung with the memory of that, but she smiled to herself – she hadn’t given them anything useful. With what little magic she could slide under the shield on her Gift, she had managed to coerce the guards to toss her into the cell next to Kristina’s.

“Oh, I am so sorry to see you in here,” Kristina whispered. “But it is good to see a friendly face, for once. It has been so long... how long have I been down here?”

“It’s been a month since we lost you at the castle,” she said softly. Both women crouched in the corners closest each other to better hear one another. It mattered little – there were no guards in the hall. They weren’t necessary. There was but one way out, and it was guarded well on the other side. If Kristina had to hazard a guess, she would say it was set up that way to let the prisoner stew in their own fears and doubts. She herself was becoming intimately aware of those very same things. A month... she thought. It’s been that long. She longed for Atolibus’ touch, his smile, just a glimpse of him. Anything would be better than the constant darkness.

“How bad did they work you over?” she said.

“Bad enough,” Schala said, “but not so bad as it could have been, I guess. It was more of a cursory torture session than one for anything specific. They had no idea who I was, and I never saw Elvina.”

“I’ve seen enough of her to last a lifetime,” Kristina said, shuddering. The woman had been present at a number of her own torture sessions, and had devised some of the more diabolically ingenious things they had done to her. There was never any purpose other than to bring pain. She had no information to give them – she didn’t know about members of any of the dozens of insurgencies and resistance movements, she didn’t have any information about troop disposition or movements, and most importantly she had no idea where Atolibus was or what he was doing. No one would speak of him, other than to mutter a growled curse whenever his name was mentioned. She smiled at that – whatever the case, he must have been exacting a heavy price for the throne of Lothanis. “How did you come to be here, anyways? I had assumed you were safe with Sarcodus – I know the two of you got away. I’m sorry I left you like I did, but I had no other choice. I couldn’t stand there and watch him suffer like that.”

“I know,” Schala said. “It’s all right, I understand what you did. And it’s far too late for recriminations now, anyways.” She coughed throatily and then spat something onto the floor outside her cell. Blood, most likely, Kristina realized. The walls of her cell were red with it. “I am here because I walked up to a patrol and let them take me.” Kristina’s eyes went wide with the last of it.

“But... why?” she said. Schala was silent for a long while before she said anything again, and her voice was heavy with emotion when she did at last speak.

“Because in all likelihood I will die before this journey ends, and I couldn’t do it without first telling you something,” she said slowly.

As the days passed, the torture stopped, and Kristina and Schala were largely forgotten. They were fed once a day, but water was freely available through the dungeon’s plumbing system – they had not been designed to be innately cruel, and had running water installed in each cell, one of the more recent marvels of technology that the land had seen. As the days passed, the two women shared a great deal. Schala at last revealed herself to Kristina, to the woman’s utter shock and later delight. It was the only ray of sunshine Kristina had seen in the weeks she had been imprisoned. She knew the end was coming soon, but she found herself worrying less and less about it.

“Tell me more of my father,” she said, eyes sparkling with tears. There had been many tears in the last few days, but they had thankfully been those of joy rather than suffering, and she relished each and every one. Schala made to speak, but fell silent and rose to her feet when light spilled into the hallway. The door was opening, and the guards were coming in for what appeared to be a random inspection. Kristina blanched when she saw who was following them, however. The same grotesque mockery of a man they had threatened her with during one of her many rapes was there, only this time he was not being restrained. She whispered urgently to Schala. “They are going to rape us now, most likely. It’s happened to me more times than I care to count. Just go somewhere else in your mind when it happens. And don’t try to withhold your screams – it will only drive them to wrench them out of you even harder. Just let them go about their business, do what they tell you to, and it will be over soon.” To her credit, Schala stood tall.

“I’ve been forced before, it’s nothing I can’t handle,” she replied stiffly. A specter of the past haunted her eyes for a moment, and then she gathered herself, awaiting what was sure to come. The two guards stood with the large man behind them, looking back and forth at the two women as if trying to decide which one to deal with first.

“She’s damaged goods, and not to be touched, anyhow,” the guard on the right said, indicating Kristina. What he meant by that, she didn’t know, but she felt her stomach roil when she realized what would happen to Schala. “That one... you can have her, Krog... but no killing. She is to be taken to the City Square in a couple of days, along with the other one, and the Grand Magus intends to parade them in front of everybody in town. Some kind of penance for their crimes, or whatnot. That means she needs to be able to walk. No major damage. You got me?” Krog nodded excitedly, smiling. The guards unlocked Schala’s cell and threw the door open.

“If you’re thinking about fighting, lass, I’d suggest thinking otherwise, because it only gets his blood up,” the other guard said. Kristina was certain she heard pity in his voice. The two of them had never been cruel to her outside of the bounds of their orders, and neither one of them had ever had a hand in taking her by force, so she could at least be thankful for that. Krog stepped into the cell with Schala and both guards moved to stand in the doorway.

Schala felt abject revulsion rolling through her in waves, but she knew this was something she must endure. It would all be over soon, anyways, and what did a little thing like this matter in the afterlife? She was fairly certain that was going to be her destination, and shortly. If they wanted to abuse her by forcing this... man upon her, then so be it. She decided she would play along a little, in order to speed things on a bit. She let her shift fall to the floor and stood tall, nude. She had a goodly number of scars, some from swords, some from arrows, yet others from means magical. She was a shapely woman, and beautiful in a mature way. She turned and faced the back wall of the cell, pressing her hands against it, wiggling her behind lasciviously towards Krog. Why not get him excited? Excited men are done with that much quicker.

She grunted with the impact of him taking his pleasure of her, smashing her against the wall. She had expected him to be excited – she had not counted on his size. The man was massive, larger than any man she’d ever been with, and she could feel the walls of her womanhood stretching and tearing a bit. It was painful... and it didn’t help that he was going about it as forceful as a bull in heat. She bit down on her tongue to keep from crying out, and then remembered what Kristina had said to her, and cried aloud, feigning passion. Krog took this as a sign to increase his tempo, and massive fingers groped rudely at her breasts as he continued to take his pleasure of her. Just as she felt she could take no more, he withdrew. She breathed a sigh of relief, and then realized he hadn’t fulfilled yet. She gasped as she felt the head of his manhood pressing at her other entrance, one not truly meant for the act of sex... at least, not in the lands she came from. Oh, dear spirits, no, not there... Her silent plea went unanswered as what felt like a sizzling bar of steel pressed into her where it had no right doing so. She screamed then, loudly and truly. It was over in a moment, however, as Krog grunted with his climax, and then again as a foot of steel erupted from his chest. He slid to his knees, out of her, and fell over, drowning in his own blood. Schala slid to her own knees, sobbing softly.

“I’m sorry about that, milady, he was told not to do that,” the first guard said. The other one dragged Krog’s corpse out of her cell with a grunt and an oath – gods’ eyes, this bugger is heavy - and Schala thanked the guards with belated courtesy as they left the two women on their own, locking her cell once more. When the light disappeared with the closing of the door, Schala stopped sobbing.

“I don’t think I shall ever feel clean again,” she whispered. She felt violated, in the worst way, and knew of no way to make it any better for herself. She thanked the good spirits that it had been quick, even if it had been excruciatingly painful.

“Are you all right?” Kristina said. Schala coughed and then sighed.

“Like I said, nothing I haven’t been through before,” she said. Her tone was unconvincing, however. “Did they subject you to... that?” Kristina could only nod without speaking, and though Schala couldn’t see her, she could sense the woman’s assent. “I am sorry, my dear. I hope, for your sake, that you’ve had the chance to experience true lovemaking before this whole fiasco.”

“I have,” she whispered. Schala sighed, relaxing her body, wincing at the soreness in her nether regions.

“At least it was quick,” she said quietly. “Don’t let this ruin it for you, my dear. Don’t take this with you. If you leave here – when you leave here, leave it all behind. Don’t let it haunt you. That will not serve you well.”

“I have some satisfaction,” Kristina said, “in knowing that even if I cross into the spirit world, I can still tell Atolibus what has befallen me, and he can exact brutal revenge.” A vicious smile played about her face. “I don’t think he’ll be quick with them, either.” Schala laughed, a wonderful sound to hear in the constant darkness.

“There is that,” she said. “I don’t doubt it for a moment. But keep your heart, dear. Some day there will be Light once more.” She couldn’t help but wonder, though: how far away was that day?

Kristina sighed a deep sigh of release – death was coming to claim her, and she thought perhaps she might be ready for him, at long last. She had fought so hard, but when forced to at last face reality, an eerie calm crept over her. She didn’t know where she had found the self mastery to face her end so steadily, but she thanked whoever was responsible all the same. She looked at the stone wall dividing hers and Schala’s cells. The older woman had become a comfort to her in the past days, and she knew without her she would be reduced to a gibbering mess.

“Schala...” she croaked, barely able to speak. She breathed deep, mastering herself. Perhaps she wasn’t so ready after all. It mattered not, she found. The time was coming – soon, this very day even – and she would stand tall and proud when she walked before the people of Lothanis in the town square, where her gibbet awaited. “Schala... thank you. For... for being here, when I most needed you.” She thought she heard a faint sob from the other woman, but she couldn’t be sure.

“I know that it may not matter, in this life, but when we meet in the lands beyond, there will be time to share all that I have to share,” she said. Kristina leaned against the cold stone wall of her cell, breathing deeply. She knew it was but a matter of hours before the end was to come, and even being prepared to face her end did not inure her completely against the fear of that end. She was not afraid of pain – she had been tortured past the point of caring about such a small thing as pain. What scared her was knowing that, though she would die and cross over to the lands beyond, Atolibus would not be there to meet her on the other side. Atolibus would never be there to meet her on the other side, because of what he was, and even though she might be able to penetrate the barrier between the land of the living and the realm of the dead and commune with him, they could never be one once more. That thought, the thought of the permanent loss, chilled her and saddened her more than anything else. The last time she had seen him, he had been half-mad as the True King, shortly before he destroyed the Magus battalion that had taken her, and half the castle along with it. She had heard... rumors... of his doings, and what she heard darkened her spirit. Schala would not speak of it, but she was certain the other woman knew exactly what had been going on with Atolibus. Her reverie was broken by the sound of the doors of the dungeon floor opening. She took a deep breath – this would be her escort to the gallows.

“Well,” she said quietly, half to herself, “I guess this is it, then.” She rose of her own accord, stretching her limbs and composing herself as best she could. She reached for words that ran through her fingers as smoke. What does one say, she wondered, when one is about to meet their own death? “I love you, Schala.” Those weren’t exactly the words she’d planned to say, but they rolled out on their own, and they felt right. “For what you are, and who you are, and all you’ve done for me. In your own way, when it’s mattered most you’ve been a mother to me, here in the darkness. I will treasure that for the rest of my days, short though they may be.”

Heartfelt sobs were clear as the doors to her cell were opened by two Captain-ranked Magus in somber robes. They weren’t her usual guards, she noted, which left her feeling a little down. Those two had been kind, in their own way.

“At least you’re dressed for the occasion. Let’s get on with this, then, shall we?” She made to step forward, but magic of Air restrained her.

“What dignity have I left to strip? Will you drag me out bound hand, foot and spirit? Fine, do as you will. There is nothing left that you can take from me, nothing else you can do to break me. There is nothing to break. My heart has all ready left this world – it left when my love went mad. My spirit goes to join it. So do as you will.”

“Passionate words,” a sensuous voice called to her from the end of the corridor. She didn’t need to look to know who it was. That voice had taunted her endlessly, remorselessly, for weeks on end. Elvina had caused her more pain than she had thought physically possible, and she recalled begging the woman... not for freedom, but for a quick death. It no longer shamed her, thinking of those moments. What did they matter, in the end of all things? At least when the end came, she need no longer hear that voice in her nightmares.

“I knew you would come here,” Kristina said flatly. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist gloating in the end. Is this what you have always wanted, Andreida? A public spectacle of my death?” She smiled a slow, wide smile of satisfaction. “You’d better enjoy it while you can, because when Atolibus finds out about what happened... and he will, I can assure you, for as soon as you set my spirit free I will find him... when he finds out about what you have done, he will bend every ounce of his will towards destroying you beyond all recovery.” Kristina found the courage to laugh, deeply and truly. “My love will descend upon this place and rain down slaughter the likes of which you have never seen, never truly comprehended. I know his story. I know what he is. I have personally witnessed the aftermath of what he can do.” She laughed again, echoes of the sound ringing throughout the corridor. “I wouldn’t want to be you, when all of this is over.”

“Are you finished?” Elvina asked her, hands on her hips. “Do you not think that hadn’t occurred to me all ready? Pity for you. When this is over and done with, I will be long gone, hidden from all eyes by magic more potent than any you could drudge up. So let him come. Let him slaughter his own innocent citizens in a blind rage. It will be tragic, a story that lives through the ages. The True King, returned at last, slaying scores of his own smallfolk in a fit of madness. He will be branded a traitor and a madman, and all will fall into my hands.” Elvina laughed triumphantly, and then turned her head in Schala’s direction. “Don’t worry, love, your turn will be coming soon enough.” She yawned, stretching her arms above her. She turned and saw who stood in the cell next to Kristina’s, taking her in for the first time. “My, my, my, they said we had another high ranking officer, but no one told me that I had the Lord General Schala Winn right beneath my fingertips.” Elvina’s sensuous lips curved in a smile once more. “We are going to have some fun, you and I, before your days end. In the meantime, there is the small matter of her punishment.” She indicated Kristina. “Bring her to the scaffold, and make sure she has nothing to hide behind when you do.” She smiled sinuously as she strode from the room. Kristina understood the statement clear enough when her shift suddenly fell to pieces around her. She made no attempt to hide her nudity. Let them get a good look, she figured. It wouldn’t matter, soon enough. Death did not care about such petty things as dignity or embarrassment. The Magus Captains stood silently for a moment, appraising the woman standing before them with lecherous eyes. Eyes that darted away when they saw the smile on Kristina’s face.

“Think hard on what I said to your master a moment ago,” she said quietly, marking both of their faces plainly. “When all is said and done, Atolibus will come for you two personally. I’ll see to it.” She smiled as her garments mysteriously mended themselves and returned to their original positions. That hadn’t been the intended effect, but she thought it marked a point in their favor, and she would consider letting their deaths be quick, instead of agonizingly slow. She had no doubt Atolibus would mete out justice in stunningly gruesome fashion when he learned of her death, if he didn’t go completely mad first. She strode masterfully behind her captors, giving one last smile to Schala as she passed. Tears began falling down the older woman’s cheeks again as she walked, followed by silent sobs. At least someone here cares for me.

The sun was shining brightly in a cerulean sky above as her captors led her through the throngs of people awaiting her death. They didn’t know who she was, or what she represented, or where she was from – it was a spectacle, and with a lack of entertainment available since Atolibus’ initial rampage, they took what they could get. Most of them were just glad it wasn’t one of them walking in her footsteps. Life was cheap, and death could come at any time in the rule of the Magus. She saw a few faces in the crowd that she recognized, mournful faces – councilors and ex knights under the former King of Lothanis, hiding away under dirty rags and dirtier faces. But she knew them, and they knew her, and though they said nothing, the looks of compassion they gave her were enough to give her some heart.

At last they arrived at the scaffold, in the center of the town square. A lavish pavilion was set up opposite the works, a place for nobles and ranking Magus to watch the daily spectacle. Normally hangings and beheadings were done on a larger scaffold, positioned in the northern half of the town, one that could accommodate dozens, but this was a special occasion. Only nobles and high ranking officers were dealt with singly, and her bearing marked her at least of nobility. She saw Elvina seated in a luxurious throne she’d had built just for such occasions, seated in the center of the pavilion, surrounded by fawning nobles attempting to curry favor. It disgusted her to see men that had followed the real King of Lothanis kneeling before one so foul as the Grand Magus, and yet she understood it as necessary. If the kingdom were to survive, some form of government would have to remain in place once Atolibus retook his land, something which she felt was only a matter of time. A burly man in full black robes stood alone on the scaffold, next to a block that had been placed for her beheading. So it will be death by the axe, then, and not the rope. Splendid. And I suppose she’ll enjoy having my head to mount on the walls of the castle. She strode up the steps, standing calmly in the center of the scaffold, watching the spectacle unfold. Elvina eyed her suspiciously, noticing her garments, then rose from her throne and spoke loudly, her voice amplified by magic.

“For the crime of High Treason, the Lady Kristina of House Terwynn is hereby sentenced to death, effective immediately,” she called aloud. A crier standing next to her read a full proclamation recounting her horrible deeds, a list that stunned even her. After a moment, Elvina spoke again. “Has the prisoner anything to say, before sentence is carried out?”

“Is that the best you could come up with?” she called back loudly, defiantly. “I’m surprised you didn’t add ‘murder of the innocents’ and ‘drinking the blood of infants’ to the list. Say what you will, Grand Magus Elvina Elise, but you and I both know this is a farce, a spectacle held for nothing so much as your own amusement. Remember my words in the dungeons. If you have any hope for a quiet death, now is the time to turn course.”

“Let the sentence be carried out, then, in accordance with the laws of the Land and the Society of the Magus,” Elvina called aloud, sitting down once more, reclining in her throne with a smile on her face. The guards that had brought her from her cell pushed her to her knees – not unkindly, she noted – and forced her to kneel over the block. Her hands were bound, and her head was held in place by a cord of Air magic. The guards stepped down from the block, taking position near Elvina’s pavilion.

“May your aim be true, good sir, and my death be swift,” she said quietly to the executioner. A simple prayer given by many convicts at the time of their sentences, one which may or may not be granted, depending on the severity of the crime and the mood of the crowd. She had no doubt the current mood was a fel one, though she wondered about the executioner. Even with her Gift in chains, she should have felt the distinct presence of Shadow she could usually feel near any Magus, but she felt nothing coming from him. The crowd went silent, and she waited for the axe to come whistling down, hurtling her towards oblivion. Therefore, she was surprised when it did not come, and more surprised when she felt her bonds release, both magical and mundane. She rose, and watched the executioner.

He had apparently thrown his axe in a high arc through the air above him, and it glowed in the sunlight. The blade and shaft shimmered brightly for a moment before changing appearance, and suddenly it was in the executioner’s able hands... Atolibus’ hands. The robe was discarded, and standing before her was her love in this life, in all lives, standing in his golden plate, white blade in hand. He shot her a wink and a grin before turning to face Elvina.

“You didn’t really think I’d let you go through with this, did you?” he said. “Citizens of Lothanis, rise above your captors. I release you from your bonds.” With his words, the magic Elvina had expended to dampen the wills and spirits of the people was destroyed, and suddenly the smallfolk began taking up arms. Kristina could see Sarcodus striding through the crowds with a sobbing Schala in tow. Soldiers and mages that Atolibus had positioned strategically throughout the crowd struck as one, and everywhere in the city Magus died. Elvina witnessed what was unfolding around her and screamed, scythe coming into her hand with a thought.

“You haven’t won the war yet, sorcerer,” she said, disappearing in a pulse of darkness. Kristina half expected Atolibus to go flashing after her in a twist of magic, but he did no such thing. Instead, he sheathed his blade and embraced her tightly, and she found herself melting in his arms.

“I’m sorry it took so long to free you, my love,” he said quietly. “Everything had to be just right. I know what happened the last time I was here, and I didn’t want to destroy the rest of it in haste.” Kristina silenced him with her lips pressed to his, and there they stood as battle erupted around them in every direction. After a moment, she stepped back.

“I can’t tell you how relieved I am to see you again,” she whispered hoarsely. He could hear the double meaning in her words and flashed her a knowing grin. Light was dancing in his eyes, but it wasn’t the harsh, overpowering Light of before, it was the power that always rested in Atolibus. That, and merriment – he hadn’t been this happy in centuries. His relief that she was alive and, visibly at least, unharmed, was overriding everything else, and it was the only thing that had saved Elvina a quick and expeditious death. “I was so worried when I saw you in the skies that day...” He silenced her with an embrace, and they stood so for yet another moment.

“It was a long road, from there to here,” he said. “And we still have a lot of work to do to root the Magus out of our land. But I promise you, here and now, my love, that we shall do it together, as Atolibus and Kristina, and not as the True King.” He shuddered, and then mastered himself. “I think, at last, I understand what it is he represents, and I think I’ve managed to incorporate him into the rest of my being without the threat of him being unleashed like that again. I’ve learned.”

“There will be time for that later,” Sarcodus called to them. He was standing with Schala, sobbing in his arms, about fifteen feet away. Atolibus gave him a single nod. “We have work to do.”

“This is true,” he said. He called to the nearest unit of the Royal Guard, men he had secreted among the crowd. “Go forth, my friends, and free the rest of the prisoners in the dungeons. And bring me the men and women responsible for standing guard over my love.” She thrilled to hear the words from his mouth, and the power of feeling radiating behind them. The four of them stood on the pavilion where Elvina had sat, watching the city being quickly reclaimed. It had taken them a week of planning and moving men and supplies, but he had set everything up so that once he gave the signal – Elysdeon flashing through the air above him – the city would be his within minutes. The Magus had not expected this, as he had been rampaging about as the True King for weeks on end. He had gathered twenty mages of fair ability and four thousand men to be planted at random, and the effect had gone off completely as intended. They had scythed through the Magus ranks with minimal losses.

“Be kind to the two soldiers that were my guards,” Kristina said. Schala nodded at this. “They were not Magus – they were men of Lothanis, doing a duty to their land. They were not unkind to me, and they never participated in any of the rapes.” Atolibus’ head snapped towards her at the mention of the last of it. She could see the Light in his eyes again, power seething and raging. So he didn’t know. Too late to back out now. “Yes, there were rapes. I won’t go into details now...” And she knew she couldn’t, without losing her composure. She knew it would take years for those scars to heal, even if Atolibus’ potent magic healed her body completely. “The two men that stood guard over me never had anything to do with it, and they killed a man that defied orders when he took Schala.” Atolibus sighed, head bowed. She could hear his breath coming in a deep, even rhythm, and wondered what he would do.

“I am so sorry, both of you,” he whispered, barely able to speak. “If there were anything I could do...” Kristina pressed her fingers against his lips, standing before him.

“You have, my love,” she said softly. “You’re here, and we’re alive, against all odds. I didn’t expect to live to the end of the day.”

“I should have come sooner,” he said, shaking his head. Looking to the skies, he held back tears. “Gods’ eyes, I should have come to my senses sooner.”

“There was nothing you could have done about it,” Sarcodus said quietly. Atolibus turned his attention to the man in silver. “You had been restraining the power of the True King for ten centuries. It sought release, and until it was finished with you, there would have been nothing you could do. I am glad to hear that you have found a way to incorporate it within the rest of you – that should prevent another incident like this one from happening again.” Kristina pressed against him, wrapping her arms around his broad shoulders. She couldn’t feel the muscles underneath his armor to know if they were tense or not, but she could feel the aura of his magic writhing and twisting in the agony that he was certainly hiding from them. “Weep for what is lost when the war is over. There will be time enough then, my friend.”

“You are here, now, and that’s all that matters,” Kristina said, pressing her lips to his. He met hers with equal fervor, and within moments had control of himself.

“You’re right,” he said, chuckling lightly. “Leave it to a young woman and an old man to show me the error of my ways. Schala?” She looked at him, unspeaking. “Thank you for being here for your daughter when she needed you.” Both women looked at him with surprise on their faces. “You didn’t think I could tell? I knew it the moment I saw you. Part of me, anyways. It isn’t just in your looks – it’s your Gifts.”

“Remarkable,” Schala said. “I didn’t know such a thing could be done.” Atolibus shrugged.

“I doubt anyone else would be able to see it,” he said offhandedly. “I know Kristina’s power intimately, and yours has the same kind of feel. To be honest with you, I should have known who she was the moment we met, you and I go back some distance.” He fell silent when soldiers bearing the livery of Lothanis dragged four men forwards. Two were the guards that had been keeping watch over the women, and two were the Magus Captains that had brought them out to the scaffold. “Soldiers of Lothanis, rise.” They exchanged a surprised look, expecting death. Instead, they were greeted with a warm smile from their king. “You have done your duty, and in this you have not failed me. You protected my love as best you could when no one else would, and for that I commend you.” He turned towards the Magus Captains. “As for you two...” He drew Elysdeon and leveled it towards them.

“If you are to kill them,” Kristina said, “do so quickly, and with honor. They were kind as well, in their own fashion.” He looked to her for a moment and then nodded.

“My love has spoken on your behalf, and because of her, you shall be granted a death other than the one I would prefer to give you,” he said. “Receive my largess, then.” In an earsplitting crack, bolts of power erupted from his sword and destroyed both men where they stood in an instant. Sarcodus looked to Atolibus with an arched eyebrow.

“The power of the King?” he said. Atolibus nodded solemnly. “Very good, my old friend, very good. Harness that power. It was always intended to be thus.” Atolibus motioned to the soldiers before him and they moved off to their duties. He then addressed the three standing with him.

“We have much to do,” he said. Each of them nodded. “The Magus are being driven out of the capitol as we speak, but I promise you Elvina will be bringing reinforcements. It will take her time to regroup – I have been slaughtering her men in concentric circles away from the castle, and I can safely say she doesn’t have more than a thousand men within a hundred miles. Even so, she can move massive numbers quickly. Within a fortnight, maybe less, we’ll see an army unlike any that has been seen in this land in five hundred years, since the War of the Magus. Our forces here, as they are, cannot withstand such an attack. And then there is the matter of Elvina herself. The stronghold of the Magus must be found, and she must be eliminated.”

“The Egg,” Sarcodus said. Atolibus looked to him. “We must complete the Soul Egg.” He produced the piece he had managed to fashion while Atolibus was away and handed it to him. Atolibus fished out his own portion and, when the two came together, they were looking at the bottom half of an egg that would be about seven inches long and three inches wide when complete. Small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. “Before we can face Elvina, we must have the Egg, or as much of it as possible. Only with that, will we be able to turn the tide at the last.”

“Why is the Egg so important?” Kristina said.

“It is to play a larger part in this world, in the grand scheme of things,” Sarcodus said. “Its power is anchored in this world in two places, focal points for Light and Shadow. Those two pieces will be beyond our reach until we have the other two, which have been scattered who knows where.” Schala grumbled at him.

“Were you planning on telling me this any time while we were out looking?” she said.

“At that moment, it didn’t matter,” he said, waving her off. “We got what we could in the time we had.” She shook her head, muttering under her breath. “Leave over, my dear, what’s done is done. As I said, it didn’t matter then anyways. It does now.” Atolibus pondered for a moment, tapping his armored boot against the wood beneath him.

“So we have three primary goals, then,” he said. “Seeing to the defense of Castle Lothanis, finding the Egg and stopping Elvina. The Network will need to be informed. They can assist us in this.” Sarcodus shook his head.

“The Network is corrupt beyond reach,” he said. “I was coordinating with them in your... absence. We have a long standing arrangement, them and I. The last one that was sent to deliver messages to me was steeped deeply in the Shadow.”

“I discovered two of them in the castle, the day of the last attack,” Atolibus said. “I had hoped that the corruption wasn’t widespread, but your words are sound. If you can’t trust one of them, then you can’t trust any of them.” He sighed heavily. “Very well. We do this without their help. And there are no resources in the castle we can turn to – anything of value in the library was destroyed before the last attack.” He looked to the ruins of the castle with a forlorn look in his eyes. “This seems a very clever trap that has been laid around us. We cannot hope to accomplish all three of our goals in order, not in the time we’ve been given.”

“We can, if we do it right,” Sarcodus said. “Let me take my leave of you here, give me the post of Regent temporarily.” Atolibus looked at him quizzically. “Delegate to me the authority to rule, and in your stead I will see to the defense of the land.” Sarcodus smiled broadly. “I know a thing or two about war, in case you had forgotten.” Atolibus smiled along with him.

“If I were to do such a thing, there would be no other man save you that I would hand it to,” he said, laughter in his voice. “Very well, my friend. I hereby name you Regent to the Throne of Lothanis, with all the rights and powers vested therein. May you have joy of it.” Sarcodus nodded, laughing heartily. It felt so very good to be back in the swing of things, so to speak, in the middle of all of the chaos that was Life. He turned to leave, but stopped in his path.

“Remember what I said. The Egg, first. Do not seek out Elvina without those two pieces in hand.” he told them. “The last two will fall into place at the proper time, but you must have the other two first, for the Egg to be complete.” He gave Atolibus a sweeping bow and then turned and left towards the castle. Atolibus shrugged, wrapping an arm around both sets of shoulders, drawing them to him.

“I’m glad to see you back in your prime,” Schala said lightly. She gave the man in gold a friendly hug, appreciating his sincerity. He returned the embrace with a kiss to her cheek.

“I suppose now is the proper time for this, if there is any proper time for such a thing,” he said. Both women pulled away looking at him, confused by the gravity of his words. “Schala, there’s something I’d like to ask you.” She nodded. “I’d like to ask your daughter to marry me, but I’d ask for your blessing first.” Kristina’s jaw fell open, while Schala laughed aloud, clear laughter that felt wonderful. She studied Atolibus assiduously, seemingly scrutinizing every aspect of the man.

“I don’t know...” she said. Kristina looked at her expectantly. “Well, he is the King, and half mad to boot.” She laughed again. “I couldn’t think of anyone better. Yes, you have my blessing, a thousand times over.” Kristina put her fists to her hips.

“And were you planning on asking me how I felt about this any time soon?” she said defiantly, bringing a laugh from Atolibus. He went to one knee before her, taking her right hand in both of his.

“I ask you to be one with me, Kristina Terwynn, the love and light of my life,” he said solemnly. “There are no words to express my love for you, but I promise I will spend eternity showing you the meaning behind those feelings. Will you marry me, my love?” It was all she could do to nod ‘yes’ before falling into his arms, weeping. He swept her up into the air, laughing the entire time, and she laughed with him even as tears fell, even as a small voice in the back of her mind whimpered and cried. Nothing will ever be the same again. Nothing.

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