The Reality Saga Volume I - The Song of Steel

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Chapter Thirteen

Atolibus sat alone in his chambers, letting his power rise higher and higher, becoming one with the inner aspect of the True King. He would need the full power of the Light this day, to do what must be done. Need. Seek out places where the Shadow gathers... there will be more than one... but you should be able to identify all but one. Not all that dissimilar to what you were doing as the True King... but focused, and able to see past deceptions. On the arrow of thought, his power reached out of his body and touched the world around him, bringing him images and sensations of things happening near and far.

Farmers lived and died by the sword as ravening hordes of the creatures of nightmare swept down upon them from parts unknown. Atolibus could smell the foul beasts’ hides, and taste blood in his mouth as claws tore him limb from limb. In a distant land to the southwest, beyond barren deserts, legions of Magus descended upon a solitary castle, laying siege. He could hear the screams of pain as magic tore the world asunder, the clash of metal on Shadow-forged metal as men fought to the death. In the distant east, past the windswept peaks of the Nightvale Mountains, Skyriders converged upon a castle that looked to be built in the clouds, attacking the one point of strength in that land.

Everywhere he looked, all around him was chaos and death. He could feel rage boiling within him, rage unlike any he had felt before, and he used that rage, channeled it, letting the power of the Light explode into a shimmering sphere in the center of the room. Images swirled within that sphere, a giant globe with spots of darkness indicating places where the Shadow gathered. A huge blot was about to overtake Castle Lothanis.

“That must be the army heading in our direction,” he mused to himself. The doors to his chambers opened as he pondered the sphere, and Schala and Kristina entered the room. Atolibus took them in briefly – Schala’s usual armor, and Kristina’s simple raiment made for good combat attire. He nodded to each of them, motioning them to stand next to him. Kristina took up the place on his right as she wrapped an arm around his waist, nuzzling against his golden plate. He draped his own arm over her shoulders, welcoming the warmth. “See the dark places on the globe? Those are spots where the Magus are.”

Schala whistled through her teeth – there seemed to be points of darkness nearly everywhere. There were three, however, that stood above and beyond all the rest. Atolibus pointed to one. “That’s the army descending upon the castle. Sarcodus will be dealing with them.”

“Why not deal with them personally?” Schala said. “You’ve done as much before.”

“They are protected,” he said quietly, brow furrowed. “Something is surrounding them, some strange will or power contesting my own, bending mine away from them. As things stand it is a task best suited for steel and arms.” The globe swirled, bringing the cold, frozen tundras of the deep north into view. Nestled north of Rimsfall’s borders, the northernmost realm of the Ten Realms, lay a single void that seemed to absorb all light near it.

“That can only be...” Kristina said. Atolibus shook his head.

“Dear spirits,” Schala said. “So much power... surely that cannot be Elvina.”

“It is not,” Atolibus said. “I thought so myself, when I saw it first, but I realized that it was impossible – there is far too much power there for that to be her. That place is Chaos incarnate... and not our goal. No. Here is where we need to be.” The image swirled once more, and before them was Lothanis. Three hundred miles due northwest of Castle Lothanis, as the crow flies... far enough to not be detected, and yet near enough to send troops whenever needed. Atolibus’ breath caught in his throat – so close to the castle, and all of this time it had escaped his notice. He didn’t see how such a thing could have been possible. It would take a mage of power rivaling his own to hide such a place. He realized now why a spell such as this one would never have worked in the past – without mastery of his aspect as the True King, he would not have been able to wield enough power to uncover this spot, at the last. “That is our goal. The Grand Fortress of the Society of the Magus. Elvina will be there, in the throne room, awaiting our arrival.” Light shimmered around Atolibus’ body for a moment, and a bolt of pure energy connected between his hands and the globe. A gateway wavered into fitful existence, fighting him every step of the way. Within perhaps two minutes he had it under control, and a simple gateway stood open before them. The image on the other side was that of plains and grasslands... and a forbidding castle in the distance. A city seemed to surround the castle, much in the same manner as Castle Lothanis. “I’m going to set us down a few miles out, for safety’s sake. I’d hate to fall right into a trap that was waiting.”

“So this is what it all comes down to,” Kristina said quietly. Schala stepped forward, grim determination on her face.

“Come on, you two, let’s be on with this and get moving,” she said, motioning both of them towards the gateway. Atolibus took a deep breath, letting his power calm for a moment before he stepped through, sword drawn, ready for anything. The ladies stepped in behind him, and the gateway shut of its own accord.

Grand Magus Gregor Solara sat at a command pavilion surrounded by evening campfires, meeting with the five ranking Lord Generals he had at hand, each commanding an entire legion of twenty thousand. He was taking reports from each man as he sat, nodding for some, glaring at others, and issuing orders to yet others. He had a hundred thousand men at his command, and at his Master’s bidding, he was going to bring down Castle Lothanis once and for all, and at last destroy the center of power for the Kingdom of Lothanis, Atolibus’ personal seat. He only lamented that he was forbidden from facing his ancient nemesis on the field of battle. He remembered his Master’s admonition – ′If you should see him on the field, know that your death is at hand, for he will not rest until you are destroyed utterly and beyond my power.′ They were words he took to heart – he had seen Atolibus’ power firsthand, and knew he was unable to withstand him.

What maddened him the most was that the man had spent the last month undoing decades of carefully laid plans. That was why he marched at the head of an army to the castle – Atolibus had slain over sixty percent of all of their strength alone and unaided during his rampage. He had forces broken up all over the land, but even now, when victory still looked at hand, he was not so certain. Everything came down to this fight. Either they would break Lothanis’ power, and the rest of the Ten Realms of Syreal would soon fall with her, or they would be ground to dust at the walls. It had happened before. He did not doubt the possibility that it could happen again. A thousand years ago, the recently fallen Vorathi had been at their most powerful, and they had tried the same thing, and come to nearly the same point, when the True King had taken the field and driven them off with his power.

“I’ve heard everything I need to hear,” he said. “Begone from my presence now, and see to your duties.” Each Lord General bowed deeply before making their exit. Gregor let out a deep sigh. It all came down to this battle. He looked to the dark skies above, listening as distant thunder rumbled across the plains. Please do everything you can to protect her, my Master. Atolibus will be coming for her. He heard no words in response, save the image of a nod – his Master consented. He breathed a sigh of relief, knowing Elvina would be safe. Even if he should fall this day, she would be safe, and their legacy would go on. He supposed he was growing soft, in his years, but with each passing day he cared less and less. They loved one another, in the darkness they shared. He rose as he heard horns blaring through the camp. They signaled the return of sentries, and soon he had fifteen men dashing through the camp on black horses, all waving frantically, shouting ‘to arms, to arms!’ The eldest, a grizzled Captain by the name of Dagget, made his way straight to the pavilion to report directly to the Grand Magus. He leaped from his horse and knelt with both fists to his heart. Gregor nodded and he rose.

“My lord, they are forming ranks outside of the castle,” he said simply.

“How many?” Gregor asked. He expected, with the state Lothanis was in, to meet no more than twenty thousand, and perhaps a few dozen mages for support. He knew he could crush that kind of number. Something in Dagget’s eyes put him in an uneasy state of panic, however.

“If my scouts report correctly,” the older man said, voice shaking, “they have a hundred thousand men out there. I don’t know how many Mages, they’ve been hidden amongst the others.” Gregor slammed his fist down onto the table next to him, shattering it where it sat. “They are being led by the Regent and Supreme Lord Commander of the Armies.”

“Atolibus?” Gregor stammered. Dagget shook his head. “Atolibus has held those titles for nearly a thousand years now... who else would it be?”

“I didn’t get his name, sire, only a description,” he said. “Silver armor and a crimson cloak.” Gregor’s eyes narrowed, and a smile curved across his lips.

“You’ve done well, Frederick Dagget,” Gregor said. “Go get yourself something to eat, while there is still time.” He laughed aloud. “Sarcodus Arcadia, you old fool, I’ll make sure you meet your gods on this day.”

Elvina sat alone in the throne room of the Grand Fortress of the Magus in the middle of the floor, sitting inside a circle drawn of raw magic. Standing before her was the shadowy form of her Master. His pull on her mind had never been stronger, and yet she felt oddly at peace. She knew Atolibus was coming. One way or another, everything would be settled this day. At long last, she would know either vengeance or release.

Solara bids me protect you,” her Master said to her. She eyed him carefully. She didn’t think Gregor would have gone so far as to beseech their Master, but she smiled lightly when she realized she would have done the same. And would do so now.

“My only request of you on this day, my Master, is that you do the same for him as you have done for me,” she said, bowing her head, kneeling within the circle.

I might have known,” he said offhandedly. “Very well, my child. You have done well, in bringing things to where they have come. Just a little further now, and all our goals shall be realized.” Cloying darkness enveloped her, searing her to her very soul. “This spell will reinforce the power of the Stone of Perdition I have given you, and serve as a conduit to My power if it becomes necessary. Atolibus will stand before you, with Schala and Kristina at his side. Do not be fooled by his words – he comes with hate for you in his heart. He will offer you what he sees as the noble way out, but you must not falter. Your task is not to defeat him, merely to hold his attention long enough for Solara to do what he must do, and bring down Castle Lothanis once and for all. If he smashes the power of the strongest Realm in the land, even with the losses you have suffered it will all come toppling down, and the Society of the Magus will be there to reap the harvest.” Her Master disappeared before her in a cloak of darkness, and she felt alone once more.

Reaching to brush the hair from her ears, she felt a stone hanging from her right ear where there had been none before. Must be the conduit to my Master’s power. Standing, she looked to the sky above her, visible through the enchantment on the ceiling of the castle’s uppermost floor. She could see clouds above in the darkness that threatened a downpour unlike any ever seen. She felt it fitting for what was to take place on that day.

“Come to me, Atolibus... come to me, and seal the death of your kingdom,” she said to herself, striding over to her throne and seating herself, saving her energy, waiting for the moment when everything would come together at once.

Sarcodus rode back and forth across the front lines from his place in the saddle. He had borrowed Atolibus’ prized mare Nightmare for this occasion – he figured the man in gold wouldn’t mind. He wouldn’t be needing her at the moment, anyways, where he was going. Sarcodus sent a silent prayer to the gods for the safety of his friends, and then turned his attention to the soldiers that were assembled before him. They extended for miles in each direction, the Gifted peppered among their ranks, hiding in the garb of common soldiers. They had done their part – no magic of the Shadow save that of someone incredibly powerful would penetrate through the shields they had erected, but it had cost them the ability to use their power in this fight. The only true Gifted member of this army would be he himself, and he knew that power needed to be held in check until the last, greatest need. He knew who would be leading the army that they were soon to meet, and knew that the man was very likely his better in a challenge of arms, but he dare not wait any longer.

“Lancers at the ready,” Sarcodus called. The front rows of soldiers lowered their pikes. All of the available cavalry had been called in, and there were over ten thousand that would be leading the charge, followed by the rest of the infantry on foot and the archers at the rear and flanking ranks. “On my command, we march.” He surveyed the field for a moment, looking to the south, where two hundred thousand men would decide the fate of a nation and the fate of the Ten Realms. “The fate of this land, the fate of all of the lands, rests on your actions today. For if we fall, my friends, rest assured the Kingdom falls with us. This is the last stand. Today we meet our destinies. There can be no turning back, no giving ground, no quarter, and no surrender. It is kill, or die.” He raised his sword, thunder crackling above him, and a hundred thousand soldiers raised theirs with him, the sound of steel rasping against leather and metal ringing through the air. “It is Death, the Magus come to bring to our homeland. It shall be Death that we bring to them.” Letting loose a tremendous cry, the men and women convened before him rose in a battle song with him, and when he waved his sword forward, the march began. The one hundred thousand soldiers of the Army of the Ten Realms rode to battle singing an ancient battle hymn in a forgotten tongue that lifted their spirits and set their blood to boiling. Soon, they would taste vengeance.

“This place is a ghost town,” Schala said, taking in the town around them. It looked like just about any other village in the land, with smithies, farriers, tanneries, and various other trade shops, as well as inns, taverns, and homes. The startling reality was that it was completely and utterly barren. Not a soul moved in the streets, just the wind, howling a keening, lonesome tune that sent shivers down Schala’s soul. Her Sight told her much the same, for the brief moment she opened herself to it. “There isn’t a single person here.” Her eyes would have told her that the people had locked themselves indoors, but her Gift told a different story. There was no life to be felt, not a single living thing inside the city.

“I fear what happened to these smallfolk,” Kristina said, whispering a prayer under her breath. She gripped her staff tightly, standing on Atolibus’ right as they moved carefully through the empty city. The main road of the town, paved with well fitted stone, led straight through the center of the town and directly to the gates to the Magus stronghold.

The castle loomed before them, like any castle they’d seen, and yet not. All three of them could feel the direct focus of the Shadow’s strength here. The walls of the castle were apparently made of polished black marble. It was beautiful, in its own dark way, with high parapets and pointed, swirling towers capped in silver, and darkly forbidding. It did not rival Castle Lothanis in size – something Atolibus thought might have to do with why Elvina had wanted it for her seat of power so badly – and yet it seemed to loom with dark intent. Atolibus’ eyes were locked on the black castle, as if he could feel something the others couldn’t... Kristina could see recognition in his eyes. She didn’t understand the look, and shrugged it off. They continued their walk through the town undisturbed, though the visceral feel of dread built as they walked, reaching ever higher.

“This is not right,” Kristina said suddenly, stopping in her tracks mere yards before the open drawbridge to the castle, looming before them. “I expected us to have to cut our way through here, and yet we’ve seen no one... almost as if they are expecting us.” Atolibus shook his head.

“That isn’t it,” he said, eying the castle warily. “It’s a reasonable assumption to make, but that isn’t it at all. When I was in the form of the True King, I slew countless hundreds of thousands of men. I destroyed the greater portion of their strength, leaving quite a bit of the land in ruins in my wake. They have emptied out the castle to support the assault that is about to encounter Sarcodus’ army in its path. I suspect that if we do encounter anyone, it will be the servants and layfolk of the castle.” The look in his quicksilver eyes hardened. “Some of them may be people you recognize. Undoubtedly the castle is served by slave labor. Keep your hearts open, but keep your mind open as well. If any make to raise hue and cry, kill them where they stand. Anyone who stands in our way, cut them down. It is my hope when this is all finished, and the Egg is complete, that they will be released from their shackles, along with the men and women that have fallen to the effects of the lingering death. Nevertheless, if any of them stand in our way, don’t hesitate. The enemy is the enemy, even if it wears a familiar face.” Kristina and Schala nodded, and the three of them stepped forward onto the drawbridge, moving towards the open gates of the dark castle itself.

Sarcodus grunted as he buried his sword in the head of a Magus soldier, smiling as he pulled the blade back and the man slid to the ground dead. Everywhere around him was the full madness of battle. He didn’t know which side was gaining the upper hand. All he knew was that he’d killed over two dozen men and managed to stay atop his horse the entire time. He laid about with his sword, charging through a knot of black-mailed soldiers, spurring Nightmare to lift her hooves. She leaped and crashed into several men, crushing them underfoot as her massive weight came down atop them. Sarcodus decapitated one man and took another man’s head off at the nose with the back end of his stroke.

From the first, the battle had been chaotic. It had pleased him to no end when he saw lances of Shadow fly through the air, only to be harmlessly reflected away from their intended targets. Some of them returned to their caster, which spelled the end of a many a Magus at the front line. The Magus were no fools, however, and quickly switched tactics, drawing weapons to meet the cavalry charge at the van of the Ten Realms army. He himself had been at the head of that van, cleaving men down left and right as Nightmare led him into the thick of battle. From every direction he heard cries of pain and anguish, witnessed blood spraying and limbs flying as wickedly sharp metal met bone in thousands of terrifying instances of blinding pain. Nightmare proved her lineage as Atolibus’ steed, killing more men than him with her powerful hooves, sometimes ramming men with her head, covered in mail barding to deflect an arrow, or turn the blade of a sword.

After what felt like hours of pure chaos, Sarcodus found himself at the middle of the fray. He looked left and right, seeking a target. He was surprised when a patch of ground perhaps ten yards wide and ten yards long cleared open. He swallowed hard when he saw the rider sitting on a black stallion that was slowly cantering towards him.

The starlit sky bore witness to Elvina, alone in her throne room. Sitting, pondering, reminiscing. She could feel the presence of the other three coming ever closer – like three fires at the back of her mind, two of them small, and yet bright, and the third dwarfing the other two, indeed dwarfing almost everything of her own mind with its power. Damn them all. Them and myself. Her heart simply wasn’t in it – her hatred for the man in gold, or having control of herself. The power of her Master’s control over her was waning at the moment – she took that as a bad sign. Things were not faring well for Gregor, she worried. She would know the moment of his death, if it happened, but regardless, for her Master to loose his control on her mind told her that larger things were taking place. She thought she could remember a day when she had guided her own actions.

“Yes, and look what havoc that wrought upon those poor people,” she thought to herself, face turned, eyes cast down. She knew as well as any rabbit in the snare that she was well and truly caught, with no choice in the matter. And that, in all probability, she would soon be joining her long dead family in the afterlife. She didn’t think she’d get such a welcome reception, though. She sat heavily in the throne behind her, arms carved with the same serpents that had intertwined them so many years ago, the last time she’d stood prepared to do battle. Leaning back in her seat, she gave a sigh, looking up at the night sky with her chin resting on her closed right fist. “Such a beautiful night… perhaps the stars will have mercy on my soul?” Tapping her scythe against her lap, she doubted such would be her lot.

Gregor did not waste time fighting; that was for the rank and file to handle. He kept his blade sheathed, cantering through the milling battle calmly astride a fine black stallion, the armor of the Grand Magus on his chest and a black, winged helm atop his head. Any time a member of the enemy’s army managed to make it near him, he cut them down with a massive burst of fire. He had been more than a bit surprised to see the bolts of Shadow that the van had cast come hurtling back at their lines, but he smiled all the same – a sound tactic. Unfortunately, it had cost Sarcodus the use of his Mages’ strength. Flames were erupting all around the field, cast by the members of the army that were truly Gifted and not simply commanding the power that they had sworn themselves to. That there were so few of them grated at him – they never seemed to have enough Gifted members on hand, and in a situation like this that could prove costly. Once in a while he saw a sudden blizzard spring to life, halting the flames – some of the Mages in Sarcodus’ retinue still had command of their Gift. He kept his mind clear as best he could, but every Magus that died left behind a brief resonance of Shadow, and with so many falling everywhere it was all he could do to concentrate.

And then he saw him, astride what was perhaps the finest mount he had ever laid eyes on. Sarcodus Arcadia was plowing through the crowd, cutting Magus down left and right. Gregor cast a ward that caused any man within a ten yard circle to suddenly find a reason to be elsewhere, and cleared the way. Sarcodus locked eyes with him and Gregor smiled to his enemy. He did not fear this man in silver, even if he was of an age with himself.

“A pity,” he said, surveying the field. “A pity for you, that you come before me alone, without your man in gold to protect you.” He slid off of his mount, bidding the horse flee back to the command pavilion, miles behind them to the south. He would have no need of him when he was finished with the old man. Sarcodus did the same, and the mare he had ridden in on charged off to the north, lashing out with her hooves and taking men down whenever they crossed her path. She missed her kind master, the man with gold skin and the steel tooth on his back. She hoped she would get through this crowd of men and back to the castle, where she would see him again. Many of her brothers and sisters had died when he had gone mad, a moon’s turn ago, but she didn’t fault him for that. She knew his heart, and he had always been good to Nightmare.

“So kind of you to leave me room to butcher you,” Sarcodus called back, gripping his sword tightly with both hands. Gregor drew his own black steel, resplendent in the darkness. He had never felt so alive as when he stood on the field of battle that day, preparing to do away with a foe that had long been a thorn in his side. The two men maintained their distance for the time being, circling slowly, eying one another and appraising each others’ skills. Gregor took matters into his own hands and made the first move, dashing forward, blade flashing in the darkness.

Atolibus, Schala and Kristina’s trip through the castle was largely uneventful, and somewhat anticlimactic after all they had been through to get where they were. The weight of what they were there to do rested heavily on all of their shoulders. With each step they took, rising ever higher within the walls of the castle, they felt the tension growing. Atolibus stopped them just before a magnificent set of massive, ebony doors.

“Thank the gods,” Schala said, breathing heavily. The anticipation was killing her. She wanted to scream with it, for reasons she could not divine. The feeling building in her chest was a feeling of dread, but she knew they could not stop. “A moment, and I think I’ll be ready.”

“However this goes...” Atolibus said, “know that I love you both. In the short time we’ve all been together, you have both been the greatest treasures this old man has ever known.” Kristina felt her eyes misting up, but Schala guffawed.

“Save your speeches for when we finish this,” she said, taking a deep breath. “We’re here for a reason. No doubt, on the other side of this door, Elvina waits for us. I can feel power on the other side... insane power. I don’t remember her being this strong before. Something is feeding her strength from parts unknown.”

“Your observation is astute,” Atolibus said. “I knew it when we stood outside the castle. Whatever has allowed her to nearly bring ruin to the land is channeling its power in this world through her, here, in this very place. We need to be wary of this. Be on your guard at all times.”

Sarcodus and Gregor clashed alone, in the middle of the full fury of war. They battled fiercely, sword to sword, for over fifteen minutes straight. Each time Gregor managed to press Sarcodus back towards the outer ring, the man in silver had pulled some new trick out of his hat and fought him back to the center. He grudgingly found himself admiring the man’s skill with the blade. For the first time in centuries, he had a true challenge.

“I’m going to take great pleasure in your death,” he said, grunting with the impact of Sarcodus’ sword against his own. Several times he’d thought he had him, was inches away from having the man’s head, when suddenly his own mortality had flashed before his eyes as the man in silver’s blade whistled a hair’s breadth away from his throat. Sarcodus never spoke, and seemed to not even hear the man’s words as he worked the fine piece of steel in his hands. He could not guess at the style the man had trained in – it was more than one, indeed more than a dozen. He could remember snatches of images and sounds that seemed to remind him of that from a time so long back he couldn’t name it, and yet they would not come to the surface.

Any time he thought he had found a hole in the man’s defense it closed, and he was the one turning and blocking. Arcadia switched from fencer to brawler to whirling berserker in the space of seconds, keeping him on his toes as they circled the ring he had cleared. He drew on his power, channeling strength into his blade, attempting to push the man in silver backwards through sheer brute force, but Sarcodus was not fooled by this maneuver and, with a burst of his own magic, whirled aside faster than the eye could see and scored Gregor’s chest plate deeply. This brought on rage, and lightning began falling in the clearing. Any time a bolt came near Sarcodus, it seemed to roll away from him, off into the crowd of soldiers that fought mere yards away. He let loose torrential waves of fire and wind from his fingertips, but nothing came close to touching the other man.

Seated in a massive black throne before them carved in the manner of a serpent in flight was the Grand Magus herself. At once Atolibus’ gaze fell into hers, and they locked eyes. Kristina tensed, hands gripping her staff tightly. Schala slipped an arrow from her quiver into her bow hand, ready to draw at the slightest provocation. Fire wavered fitfully in sconces set along the black marble walls, while soft laughter filled the room as Elvina stood. The hairs on Atolibus’ neck raised when he realized that the sound was not coming from anyone in the room.

“Elvina,” he called aloud, Elysdeon outstretched in hand. He was death walking, coiled and ready to destroy. He turned and leveled his blade directly towards her as he continued. “Death comes for you, here and now. I offer you one chance, for what we shared all those years ago and the love I once bore for you. Lay down your weapon and submit to my power, and you can keep your life.” Nothing less would do, and she knew it. Besides, if she surrendered most likely she’d be put on trial and hung for her crimes, anyhow. There could be no going back, not this late in the game. She understood that at the end. What else was there? A small part of her wondered if that was not her Master’s very aim in the first place, but she was too far lost to her rage to care.

“Why choose a slower death when I can end it now?” she said to them all, spinning her scythe in her hands. It came to rest as she gripped the handles tightly, curved blade in the air. Her gaze took in all three of them, scanning each slowly, a tight lipped smile spreading across her face. “Or maybe I’ll just settle for the three of you, right here. Don’t you agree?” Atolibus’ eyes narrowed.

“I’m offering you one last chance,” he growled, “either lay down your arms and surrender to me now, or be destroyed, today, in this very room.” Take the surrender, please. He knew she wouldn’t. He could feel another presence in the room besides the four of them but he couldn’t explain it, other than as a deep seated sense of impending resolution. Elvina’s eyes locked unwaveringly with the man in gold.

“Never,” she said, voice barely above a whisper. He could see the power dancing behind her eyes, fierce chaotic light unlike anything she had ever wielded before. Elvina’s eyes moved to Schala and she cried aloud as her bow was wrenched forcefully out of her hands. With a sweeping gesture, she was thrown aside and against the far wall, leaving her unconscious. Elvina’s other hand came up half a second later as her eyes moved towards Kristina, and the younger woman yelped as her staff snapped in two and she herself was flung against the wall next to Schala. Neither one of them could move of their own volition – their limbs were bound by a spell. Elvina brought both hands together as her eyes met Atolibus’ again, and he could feel the strain of the spell she was chanting, but he resisted with blade outstretched.

“Then your life is forfeit,” he said with a snarl, spinning Elysdeon in hand. The power of her spell shattered violently against a field of solid Light that had sprang up between the two of them. The look of shock on her face fell away quickly as she reached up with her right hand and pulled the cloak off of her shoulders, tossing it aside. She spun her scythe in hand once and then met his gaze again, gesturing for him to come to her with a smile and a wink. He growled aloud and then lunged forward, blade outstretched even as she dashed forward to meet the attack. As he neared her he spun, whirling about with his sword grasped momentarily in a single handed grip, cloak flourishing wildly behind him. The sound of metal clashing violently with metal rang throughout the entire chamber, reverberating sharply off of the walls. Atolibus stepped back, bringing his sword down in the process. He caught the tail end of her scythe and nearly sent it violently sailing through the air.

Sarcodus panted heavily – fighting Solara was wearing. He had expected the man to be good – had expected to lose his head quickly. Indeed, the man was quite gifted with his blade, light and quick on his feet in the manner of a fencer. But he relied on his magic too much, and whereas Sarcodus was more inclined to use his own power in subtle, more devious manners, Solara was brute force, fire and thunder. In truth, he had expected more out of the man. He thought he could remember a day when that had not been so, but his memories were still murky, of yet. Now, if he could just get him to quit hammering at his shields so maniacally, he might have a moment where he could end the whole thing.

Gregor was perplexed – how was his opponent still drawing breath? He had taken down younger, better men in just such a contest, and never before had it taxed his strength so greatly. I may need your assistance, my Master, he thought out to the world at large. He was surprised to feel no response, and worried. He should have lent him strength, it had been promised, and for it not to come in a moment such as this was disconcerting. In a flash of intuition that sent bolts buzzing across his brain, Gregor finally understood what was happening, finally understood the apparent randomness and capriciousness his Master employed. The Egg. He doesn’t give a fig about the Magus, he seeks to restore the Egg. I am of no use to him other than as a pawn to keep the larger part of Lothanis’ power hemmed down here, instead of at Atolibus’ back when he storms the Grand Fortress. He wants the man to face Elvina with no more than himself and his two friends. A look of rising horror crossed his features. We’ve been played. Gods’ eyes, we’ve all been played. He smiled, stepping back and away from Sarcodus. It was done with. His Master’s hold on him was completely free for the first time in all of his long memories spanning back to the beginning of the Magus, during the Fall.

“I am going to give you a gift, Arcadia, my old friend,” he said.

Immediately Elvina’s weapon began to change shape in her hands, flowing from the form of a polearm to a three foot black sword in the space of a moment.

“Better?” she asked him. He grimaced, and then brought Elysdeon up in a block as she pressed the attack. He could smell the distinct signature of Shadow behind the spell, but it wasn’t something that she was actively casting, and without knowing where the origin point lie he was forced to leave it be. He turned his wrists, trying to use her momentum to his advantage with a surprise stroke, but she caught the attack and turned it aside with her own blade. He looped the weapon through the air a few times, weaving and stalking about the chamber.

“You’ve trained… you’re better than you used to be,” he said. She paced around opposite to him, the light in her dark eyes dancing madly. He felt a surge of power as she brought down her blade, and Elysdeon glowed aflame as he fed it magic to match hers. When their weapons clashed again bright white met insipid black and sparks of color flew. He danced backwards a pace to give himself some breathing room. Raising his arm into the air, violent magical power glowed around him. Crackling energy danced up the blade of the sword, and as he brought Elysdeon down with a sweeping motion, twin bolts of sheet lightning arced their way towards Elvina before she could close the distance between the two of them. She deflected their power with her own dark sword and then grunted as he darted forward with blinding speed, clashing blades with her again. Elysdeon hummed brightly with power as he drew more through it.

“And to think, I used to fear you,” she said, whirling about and bringing her own sword back into play. “If this is the best you’ve got that’s just disappointing, old man.” Atolibus deftly met each attack of hers, and when he parried a mad slash towards his midsection she nearly lost her footing. A blink of an eye and he had a spell out and ready. Tossing his sword into his left hand and drawing it back behind him, his free right hand shot out, fist closed, while a humming glow of white light formed around it. Without a word his fist came open and a barrel width pulsating beam of Light erupted, closing the distance between the two of them faster than thought. She brought her sword up and regained her stance in the nick of time, grunting as the force of his magic was deflected by her own blade.

“You’ve only seen the first card drawn,” Atolibus said. “You’ve yet to see the whole hand.”

Panting slightly, Elvina took a few wary steps back, away from her foe. Atolibus planted his feet firmly, taking hold of Elysdeon in both hands. Elvina steeled herself for further violence, breathing deeply and smoothly – she’d seen the look in his eyes, that same look of grim determination the man always had when he’d made his decision.

“You don’t have anything, or you’d have shown it to me all ready,” she said as she lunged forward, blade outstretched. Solid metal rang again as their swords clashed, Atolibus holding his ground, Elvina pressing all of her might into it. She growled when she realized that he was laughing. “Something amuse you?” Another solid blow landed squarely across his blade in her anger.

“As quick as you are, that weapon is no more a part of you than the ground beneath your feet or the rain up above,” he said, checking a blow of hers and whirling about left and right, darting high and low, trying to take her by surprise. Elvina was at her best when trying to fend off an attack; this he knew from personal experience. He gathered she was rather unaccustomed to the manner of attack which she found herself facing, however. She spun and he took a step back, lowering his center of gravity and compensating for the force of her weight behind her stroke. She continued her onslaught and he contemptuously deflected her blows, watching how she held herself, ascertaining the pattern behind her movements. Let me show you a taste of what a real swordsman is like.

Sarcodus was shocked. Gregor had dropped his sword and was slaughtering his own men with his unbelievably immense power. Thousands of them died without ever knowing they were betrayed by their own. What was going through the man’s mind, he wondered, that he would do such a thing?

“I will tell you of my Master, and his plans for your Ten Realms,” Gregor said. Before so much as another word could come from his mouth, however, he died in a pillar of black flame that reached high into the sky. Sarcodus leaped aside, throwing up a shield of Light to ward the heat of the Shadow-driven flames before him. When the conflagration ended, Gregor was nowhere to be seen, and the only thing that spoke of his passing was a round scorch mark on the earth beneath his feet. Sarcodus sheathed his sword, sending up a silent prayer to the gods above to protect his friends.

“Luck be with you, my friends” he said quietly. A fierce cry began to rise from the men of the Ten Realms army around him.

Atolibus changed tactics, flowing from defense to attack in the space of a heartbeat. Where in one second Elvina had been on the offensive, suddenly she was finding herself pressed from all directions. She’d never seen anyone move as gracefully as he did with that monstrous blade in hand, neither as graceful nor as quick. It was taking every ounce of strength and shred of skill she had to defend herself. Each step was only a hair away from being her last. A spike of pain lancing through her mind nearly drove her to her knees with its intensity. Gregor...

“Impressive,” she said, panting heavily. Heaving a blade around against the greatest swordsman in all of Syreal was not something she was accustomed to, and she could feel the toll it was taking – she was beginning to tire, another unfamiliar sensation. Most of her battles were fought with wits and magic, not with brawn and swords. Atolibus stepped back and, before she could even think to press the advantage, a flash of light filled the room. She felt a thump in her chest and, when she opened her eyes, she found that she was ten yards away, lying against the black stone wall opposite the room from Kristina and Schala. She forced herself to her feet and raised her hand, summoning her blade through will and a cord of Air. She caught it in her outstretched palm, keeping a tight hold on it. Atolibus was stalking towards her again, a dangerous gleam in his eye.

Elvina raised both arms, chanting quietly and quickly to herself, a crackling field of energy springing to life around her. Waving her sword before her, she cast a spell. A dense field of light sprang to life around her and extended ten feet outwards from her body. The shield sparkled with prismatic light, and she smiled – the nature of this particular shield was something she knew he hadn’t seen. Opponents had expended their strength trying to fight their way through it, and men had died simply touching the fierce energetic pulses of power coursing throughout the field. Her smile was one of triumph. A smile that was quickly replaced by fear when Atolibus simply walked right through it, wrinkled his nose as if smelling something foul, and continued walking as if nothing were amiss. Standing six feet away from her he stopped, smiling.

“Isn’t this precious?” he said, looking around and above himself at the sparkling field of energy she had erected. He continued in the sardonic tone he had taken on. “A field of prismatic light, refracted from a single source… let me guess, that stone dangling from the ring you wear in your left ear?” As he spoke she felt heat from that same ear, and cried out as a small flash of light and a puff of smoke issued forth as the stone simply transmuted into ash. The little gold post of the earring was all that was left.

He chuckled softly to himself as the field vanished and her jaw dropped slack. No one had ever been able to guess the nature of that particular spell. No one ever gave a second thought to the jewelry that she wore. Even Atolibus wouldn’t know the nature of some of her more complex adornments until she used them, and by then it might be too late. She prayed he wouldn’t catch to the new stone on her right ear, but she had a terrible feeling that he would know exactly what it was and what to do about it. “A shield such as yours is always subject to… complications, shall we say? Foci are always required, to those without true strength in the Gift.” She snarled wordlessly, stepping back a pace. Atolibus flashed her a disarmingly charming smile, as if everything were perfect in the world.

“Did you think that in all of the time I’ve walked this world I haven’t learned a few things here and there?” he said to her, incredulous. “Back during the War of the Magus, five hundred years ago, your kind did some unspeakably powerful things, spells of such magnitude that you couldn’t comprehend them with your limited power. The Grand Magus back then, Trythea Elise, a relative of yours, no?” She nodded silently. The woman had been dead hundreds of years before Elvina was born, but she knew who she was. Every member of the Society of the Magus did. She was something of a legend, in her own twisted way. “She had the power to move mountains and shatter cities on her own. A power which magnified when she created the Stones of Perdition.”

Elvina froze at the mention of that particular artifact – how could he know she had one? Atolibus’ tones dropped low, sinister. “You remember the Stones, don’t you?” She nodded, ice creeping inexorably down her spine. She didn’t like the direction this conversation was turning in. “Well, in truth, the Stones were similar to that very same one you had on your ear. Three of them. One to manipulate a human being, any human being save one very, very skilled in their Gift and with complete force of will. One to shatter cities and armies, to bring a kingdom to its knees. And one to do the same thing which you did – erect a defensive shield. Though this shield was designed to hide something with as much mass as, say, a city, or perhaps a fleet of ships, or an army moving through disputed territory. Grand Magus Trythea Elise was nearly unstoppable, nearly omnipotent with these.” Elvina took another step back. This time, she felt the cold stone of the wall behind her.

“…and something stopped her,” she said at nearly a whisper. Atolibus nodded, the gleam in his silver eyes growing stronger.

“I did,” he said. “She tried to bring an army into the city of Lothanis. That was the last mistake she ever made.” Atolibus cast his right hand to his side and every last torch in the chamber blazed with renewed fury. “I killed her, and I destroyed two of the Stones myself. The Stone of Destruction, and the Stone of Manipulation.” He tossed his sword to his right hand and cast his left out similarly to the sky; lightning arced overhead, the crashing boom of thunder nearly deafening Elvina. “I slaughtered that army to a man. Do you know the logistics of that war, Elvina?” She nodded, afraid to move, back pressed up against the wall. The sword in her hand may as well have been a thousand miles away for all the good it did. “A hundred thousand men, some of them no more than boys conscripted for service against their will. One hundred thousand men, much like what you bring to bear today. And every last one of them, dead at my hand. The fields ran red with blood that day! And for what? Your foolish games of power? That ends, now.” Her breath caught in her throat.

The glow of power that surrounded him was nearly blinding, and as she ached to wield the stone she had just been given, the words of her shadowy master rang through her head – only at the greatest of need. She withdrew the Stone of Defense from her belt, raising it above her. Atolibus laughed aloud as he saw the glowing bar of power in her hands. “So you have it, after all. I was hoping you would, thank you for saving me the trouble of doing this at a later date.” The stone crumbled in her hands, and she nearly leaped from her skin in surprise. Such a thing should not have been possible. Hardening her resolve, she drew on the stone hanging from her right ear, calling her Master’s final gift of power to her aid.

Atolibus gathered as much energy as he safely could without risking damage to the structure or his friends, and brought his hands together. The immense flood of power that filled them came together and exploded. His spell charging forward, he furrowed his brow as it struck a suddenly black wall of air, shattering apart with violent fury. He raised his sword with his right hand and covered his eyes with his left arm as the spell dissipated. Bringing both sword and arm down, he looked upon a wholly different Elvina.

Blackness had washed the white from her eyes, and they glowed with dark power. Power that was not hers, he could feel. It had a familiar scent to it, as if he knew it from somewhere, but he couldn’t put a face to the name just yet. And the way his power exploded against it, he knew it was somehow opposite to the magic he was using. Darkness being wielded in defense of Light as two mighty wills struggled for dominance. How Elvina could command pure Shadow untainted and controlled by at least a fleck of some other spell element, in the quantities that she was wielding it, was beyond him – so far as he knew, he was the only man living that had complete command of any element at its most raw and powerful state.

“Well this is new,” he said, incredulous. Her posture changed as she stalked towards him – stronger, taller, certain of herself. The blade in her hands took on layers of menace that hadn’t been there but a moment before – this Elvina was intimately familiar with it, he could see it in her steps. She made the first move, blade arcing down towards him nearly as quickly as he himself could move. When he parried, she slid aside and flicked her wrist, turning the downward slash into a sweeping arc coming from below. He compensated with another parry, and she simply whirled around his attack like liquid. Her next counter-parry was met with a solid block, and he grunted. The force of her blow was far more powerful than anything she could have mustered with her own physical strength. He stepped aside when she came at him directly, and instead of faltering as she had earlier, she deftly changed her angle of motion, bringing her blade in for a glancing slash across Elysdeon. Atolibus turned, forcing his full strength into a slash. She caught it and expertly turned it aside. He smiled in spite of himself. “This is turning out to be entertaining after all. I have to thank you for that, my old friend – here I thought this would have been over and done with all ready. Where would the fun have been in that?”

“You are a fool, Atolibus Sandrin, and you always have been,” she said as she circled around him, blade constantly weaving in her hands.

“I still remember the first time we met,” he said, stalling even as he spun his own blade in his hands. “You were beautiful then, you know. And you had the same sense of humor you do now. Do you want to know what it was that struck me the most, though? It was the sweetness. You were one of the gentlest spirits I’d met, it was something that radiated outwards. I wasn’t the only one that took notice, you know. Even King Daerid commented on it, and his lovely wife Naella kept that tree you grew for her until the day she died.” Keeping her talking was giving him a moment to think. He knew he could destroy her utterly, but doing so would tear apart any living thing caught in the crossfire within a few miles. Unleashing the full might of the True King, uncontrolled, never lead to a good end. It had to be done right where he was, as he was, but it couldn’t be done hastily.

“That was a different life, and I was a different person. That woman has been dead for almost two hundred years,” she said. “If I kill you here, she’ll stay that way, thankfully.”

“You mean the same woman you were during those days with Kristina back in her settlement, what was it, ten years ago?” he said. The look on her face was answer to his question – she seemed to go pale as a ghost in an instant. He could feel that the power she was being fed had waned dangerously, as much as it would with her still connected to that firedrop she had hanging from her right ear. He could sense that the stone was the conduit. He formed an image in his mind, of it powdering into dust, but before he could release the power of the spell, something distracted both of them.

From behind them, about thirty yards across the room against the other wall, Kristina rose to her feet. The magic Elvina had wielded against her left her sight wavering and every muscle aching. She itched to climb into a bed and not leave it for days – rest, relaxation and a good night with her husband all to herself. That above all would do wonders for her mind and her spirit. She turned her head to the side, looking down at Schala. Her mother seemed to be unconscious but her breathing was regular, and she knew she’d be awake before too long. Probably in better shape than Kristina herself, no less. She turned her head up and looked forward. The sight before her was what stopped her breath in her throat.

Atolibus was standing before Elvina, crouching slightly with feet wide, sword in his hand. Elvina was in a similar position with her black weapon, and neither of them seemed to notice her immediately. Kristina used the advantage of surprise and softly chanted a spell to herself. Just as she was bringing her hands together, preparing the magic that would bind Elvina’s sword to the wall behind her and throw the woman herself backwards rather violently with a whip cord of Air, both of their gazes snapped in her direction. Kristina had no time to do anything as she felt the power Elvina was unleashing rip through her. Fallen. The lingering death.

Atolibus had little time to react as he saw Elvina unleash a torrent of power in Kristina’s direction. He knew the nature of that particular spell as soon as he felt it come to life. As quickly as he reacted, he could only bleed away a little bit of the brunt of it before it hit his wife. His eyes went wide and a cry escaped his throat as time seemed to slow for him. Elvina cackled insanely as Kristina slumped to the floor, the tidal flood of black energy soaring through her and rending the air with screeching, wailing cries.

He sheathed Elysdeon as he wielded the powerful magic of Teleportation, ignoring the intervening space entirely. He slid and knelt before her just as she was about to collide with the floor beneath, catching her in his hands. She felt so light in his grasp, so frail. Her skin was the palest white a human could possibly wear. No sweat came from any of her pores – she was deathly cold. A growl built in his throat, humming throughout the room as he delved her body to learn the full extent of the damage. His magic told him the truth of the matter – she was as near death as it was possible to be and still draw breath.

“It hurts…” she said. “So cold…” She went silent, eyes closed heavily. The spark of life in her dwindled to virtual nonexistence. She grew limp in his arms, and, head knelt, he set her down gently in front of him. No tears would come. Nothing. He felt as if the core of him had just been ripped away, and nothing would come. His heart felt like a solid lump of steel inside of his chest as he slowly rose to his feet, his eyes sparkling with unshed tears. When his steel gaze fell across Elvina, they glowed with sheer, unabashed hatred. Unfettering the blocks in his mind, he let his magic run rampant through him. The room seemed to sizzle with the glow of his power. He focused his thoughts into a single object – the sword. Elysdeon hummed from its sheath with violent energy, radiating darkness.

“Death…” he muttered icily, stepping forward. “I am Death.” As much power was coursing through Elvina at the moment, she paled visibly in front of him. He strode forward, drawing Elysdeon with vengeance in mind and hatred boiling inside of him. Pure rage. He’d never known such unrestrained fury before. Never known it was possible, never known he was capable of it, even when in the form of the True King. He was focused on one thing alone – destroying Elvina to her soul. “You die. Now.” Sliding forward, blade outstretched, he wielded the massive weapon anew, the sheer force of his blows and the fluid grace of his motions more deft than any Elvina had ever seen, even from him. The skill at which he had fought before was but a pale shadow. She began sweating visibly as they danced about the room, working to her fullest even with the power boosting her skills at its peak. Every fiber of knowledge went to defense – if she paused for but a moment she would lose her head. He pressed forward, slowly wearing her down. In a roar of pure agony and rage, head thrown back, he released his power.

Pressing her about the room as if it were nothing, Atolibus prepared another spell. Unchained Light energy seethed in his mind, and he released it all as if hurling a bolt of lightning. The beam of energy collided with a solid wall of blackness. A very small rounded wall that only shielded Elvina from the front had wavered into dark life, extending a bare two feet on either side. All of her energy was focused into it, and as much as she could draw upon her master’s hidden source, she was still being forced back. Her shield was failing, flickering in strength.

She felt a jolt as something forced even more energy through her, and suddenly the shield was holding. Not growing stronger, but holding steady. She could feel the pure Light energy that Atolibus was pouring into it, could sense a glimmer of the truly monstrous power behind the man. She silently prayed to herself that he would break off the magical assault and return to the blade – at that moment she felt more confidence in her sword skills than with her magic. Atolibus knew he wasn’t getting anywhere. All of his power going into it, and still her shield held its position. Damn. If this doesn’t work, then I’ll wear her down and take her head myself.

Schala opened her eyes and saw the battle raging in front of her, Atolibus holding a burning sphere of Light in his hands and controlling the massive beam of energy that was issuing forth from it, Elvina holding a pulsing ball of Shadow in hers and controlling the shield protecting her from Atolibus’ magic. It looked simple enough to the naked eye, but her Sight told her otherwise. Where Atolibus stood, an impossibly bright burning Light raged out of control, threatening to consume everything around it. Opposing him was a darkness so complete she felt the breath leave her chest, and she slammed her Sight shut half a second later.

Her mind raced through battle tactics – between mages locked in combat, there was always some difference between them, and one ended up using a weakness of another to finally vanquish him. What she was seeing was two directly opposing forces that were nearly equal in strength. She knew that neither of them would get anywhere if things continued the way they were. Atolibus didn’t appear to have ferreted out the focal point of her inexplicable strength, and yet Schala could see it – when she looked up at Elvina’s right ear, she could see the firedrop hanging from it pulsing with pure Shadow, feeding the field before her somehow. Forcing her hands to move, picking up the bow that had clattered to the floor next to her, she pulled herself to her feet as quietly as she could and drew an arrow from her quiver. Nocking the fletchings to the string, she pulled on it and held, steadying her aim.

“Only one shot,” she said to herself quietly. She wouldn’t have been heard if she’d screamed – with the thunderstorm going overhead and the noise from the magic of the two swordsmen in front of her it was nearly impossible to hear herself think. Her eyes flicked to the ground next to her and she saw Kristina lying there, cold, pale. She could feel the presence of the lingering death in the room, and knew its magic. Growling, she set herself about her task. Worry about her later. Stopping Elvina and completing your task are the most important things right now. If it doesn’t end here, it never will. She targeted the firedrop – she knew Elvina’s skin would be warded by magic against missile weapons; she’d seen arrows snap in half upon striking the woman other times. She only prayed that field of strength wasn’t encompassing the stone as well. Releasing the string, the arrow whistled through the air, striking true.

For a moment, Elvina felt a difference in her strength. Something had gone powerfully wrong in the blink of an eye. She could feel the connection to her master fading, and suddenly she understood the whistle that had passed her ear. Her earring was gone. Mustering all of the strength from herself she could, suddenly she felt herself being pressed back. Now she was taking the full brunt of Atolibus’ power all by herself. A blinding flash of light filled the room as her shield and Atolibus’ beam burst apart. After that, darkness.

Atolibus saw Schala stand and draw the arrow in the blink of an eye. As soon as the arrow had connected with the firedrop, he felt the shield weaken and renewed his efforts. Both of them burst apart in a bright flash of light. Sensing his moment of truth, he darted forward with Elysdeon in hand. Slashing mightily, he snarled when he felt resistance. When the light cleared, he saw her body fall, separate from her head. Both head and corpse disappeared in a flash of darkness less than a second later.

Elvina was dead, Schala was standing, panting with effort, and Kristina was still lying on the ground. He howled in rage and fury, ecstasy and agony at the same time. At long last, one of his greatest foes was vanquished, but at what cost? They still had not found the last two pieces of the Soul Egg, and without it his wife was as good as dead. Though it had been mere hours before, his wedding felt years off, far and distant.

“Atolibus…” Schala said. He knelt to the ground again beside his fallen wife, paying no attention to the woman standing off in the distance. Kristina was all that mattered to him, and he had failed her. He cradled her body in his arms, shaking with rage. Lightning crashed overhead, the storm above gaining intensity. “Atolibus.” This time, he heard the urgency in her voice and looked up, unblinking eyes meeting hers.

“What?” he said tonelessly. She had her fists on her hips, meeting his gaze with a level one of her own. Standing her ground, she continued.

“Look,” she said quietly, walking to where he knelt, holding out her right hand. In it was a piece of the Soul Egg, shimmering brightly with power. Atolibus marveled at it, and wondered where it had come from. “The anchor to the Shadow for the Egg’s power in the world of the living, bound to an undying soul. This was a part of Elvina from before her birth, and she never knew it.” He saw that she had cast aside her bow and unsnapped the quiver from her back, letting it fall to the ground. She knelt next to him. “There is one last thing left to be done before the lingering death can be annulled.” She looked at Kristina’s still form, and then looked Atolibus in the eyes. Smiling. She stood again and took a few steps away from him, raising her arms to the sky. Lights of all colors crackled between her arms and her hands, from her fingertips. Atolibus carefully set Kristina down, and slowly rose to his feet. She looked in his eyes again. “You know what that means, correct?” He nodded sullenly.

“You are the last shard of the Soul Egg,” he spoke, barely above a whisper. She nodded, smiling again. “The anchor to the Light for the Egg’s power in the world of the living, bound to your undying soul.”

“I knew you’d be the one when I saw you and your men charging into battle, when Elvina nearly destroyed me,” she said. “The woman had the means to do it, if she had brought all of the power of her master to bear.” The words rang throughout his head like a tolling bell – her master – and suddenly he understood the full nature of what had just happened before Elvina’s death. He knew she must have been drawing on some other power than her own, had felt something in the room with them, but the thought of a living will to supply that strength left his blood running cold.

“She is going to miss you terribly,” he said softly. Schala nodded, tears running freely down her face. Atolibus rose, embracing her one final time. “Thank you, Schala. You don’t know how much this means to me.”

“I think I do,” she said. “Jonathyn once did the same for me. Now I have a chance to repay that debt. When I am gone and the Egg is complete, take Kristina and go to the dungeons of this place. There you will find thousands of people that have been taken over the years. Some of them will be recovering from the effects of the lingering death, and may not be well to travel. Get them out of here as quickly as you can. There’s likely to be some interesting things happening here once the Egg is complete and the power of the Shadow diminishes.” She smiled at her daughter, cradled in Atolibus’ arms. She kissed the tips of her fingers, and placed them on Kristina’s pale brow. “Tell her, when this is all over. Tell her everything that I didn’t have time to tell her, even when we were together in the darkness. About her father, about me, and about what happened on this day. She will need you there at her side. You’ve chosen wisely in your Queen, Atolibus Sandrin. At least, for as long as you hold the throne.” She had a twinkle in her eye, and Atolibus smiled back at it. “If I had to guess I’d say that wouldn’t be a long period of time, would it?”

“You were always a sharp one,” he said. “Thank you, again, for all the years of service you’ve given to the kingdom, and for what you do here and now.” She kissed his brow lightly, and then stepped back. The light she had been channeling above her suddenly plunged, engulfing her and radiating every color of the spectrum. When it was finished nothing remained of her save a single glimmering shard of the Soul Egg, hovering before him. He took a deep breath, producing the rest of the Egg with his magic. “Here goes nothing...”

Sarcodus stopped for a moment, a new sensation rising in his chest. The Egg. He’s done it, the crazy old bastard, he’s really done it. He took a moment to look around. In every direction Magus were finding themselves beset and caught unawares, their access to their easy power suddenly fleeing entirely. With a sharp whistle Nightmare came plowing through the ranks towards him, and he vaulted atop her, a sharp cry of joy escaping his lips.

For the Ten Realms,” he said, voice amplified by magic. Thousands of voices answered him as the song of steel carried them onward. Victory was achieved in minutes, and the army that had been bearing down towards the castle with the intention of destroying it once and for all suddenly found themselves routed, breaking ranks and fleeing in every direction. “No quarter, no surrender and no mercy. Down with the Shadow. Down with tyranny. Down with the Magus!” Another cheer escaped his lips even as his thoughts turned inwards. Now if only I could believe that myself. Would that it were that simple. I hope I haven’t damned us all.

Laying Kristina down, Atolibus set the unfinished Egg and two shards together, and they wrenched themselves out of his hands in a sudden burst of power, flying high into the air above him, spinning and flashing golden light in every direction. Massive pulses of darkness seemed to swirl around it as well, the balance to the Light it was spilling. Balance in magic, he realized. He thought he could hear ominous laughter in the distance, even as he could feel the power of the Shadow fading. Kristina awoke in front of him with a gasp as the Soul Egg returned to his hands.

“Dear spirits,” she said, clutching her abdomen. “The pain... it’s gone. I was... did I... was...” She looked around the room, confused. “Where’s Elvina, and Schala?” He sighed heavily, extending a hand to help her to her feet. “Is it over?”

“I am afraid it’s just beginning,” he said, pulling her to him in an embrace. “Come with me, my love. There is much to tell you. About Shadow and Light, and the nature of magic.”

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