Elena sat on her throne with the four remaining members of her council. In front of her stood, Fabius’ advisor who had insulted her soundly the last time with his tricks. But she was surprised at the two people who had accompanied him; a rugged stoic man, who had been announced as the Commander of the Northern Alliance and a woman wearing a shawl who looked frail and sad. Two light scars lined her face.
“Who is this woman?”
Before Lord Tremane could speak, the woman looked up. “I am Mariam. I am a close friend of Fabius and I think I can help.”
A look of approval passed from the old Lord to the woman. Does the woman have magic?
“So, I understand you’re here to seek our help. Why should we help you?”
“Because irrespective of what either of us believe about who started this war, there are monsters outside destroying your city right now. Your people are dying and it is petty of you to think about not accepting our aid.”
Elena scoffed. “I raised this city, Lord Tremane. Do you think I can’t hold off these pile of bones?”
“You can be as stubborn as you want, Elena Tarbon. The truth is that these monsters feed off magic and they are sucking your people dry. The only thing slowing them down is the Northern Alliance.” The old Lord flicked the staff in his hand, spinning it a few turns before slamming it down on the floor.
Elena laughed out. “And you expect me to fall for this ploy? How do I know that these monsters aren’t your creation? I’m sure Ianthine will be annexed once I agree to a truce and everything will be dandy under the Throdden rule. Arbok’s claw, Fabius didn’t even have the decency to come himself for this meeting.”
The showman’s confidence faltered for a moment and his age became apparent. “Fabius isn’t here because he’s dead, Elena.”
Elena blinked a few times. Had she heard right? Fabius…is dead?
“And you expect us to believe that? Why haven’t we heard of it?” Trianna raised her high-pitched voice.
It wasn’t the showman who answered. “Because the Northern Alliance would have splintered. Especially if they came to know that one prince killed the other.” Androl spoke. “That is a bold statement to make in front of your enemies. I cannot fathom what you would gain by this.”
The showman let out a sad laugh. “Lord Androl, sometimes it isn’t about politics and manipulating people. I have grown up in these lands and felt the winds and the farms. I’ve lived among these people, travelled every inch of the northern states. Heck, I have even entertained them for over three decades. And I understand that the land is changing as are the people. And you are part of this land as much as I am. You are not my enemies. I have spent half my life tracking magic and even though you have brought it to the fore only now, it is as much a part of me, even though I don’t wield it. Magic should be a part of our lives and I don’t want these monsters to destroy the land. I stand for all the people. If we don’t stop it now, who rules the land will become immaterial.”
Elena felt tears forming in her eyes. Fabius is dead. The man wouldn’t lie about that would he? He did seem sincere and felt more about the land and the people than she ever had. She strode towards the man and held his chin up. “Very well, Lord Tremane. What would you have us do?”
“We draw out Darius. Hopefully if we kill him, the monsters will stop.”
“Darius?” She chorused with the Androl and Falmus.
Androl interceded. “Darius Throdden is alive?”
Elena looked up in shock at the man. When had the older prince died?
Lord Tremane seemed unruffled by Androl’s knowledge. “Yes, he returned last night. And he has a vendetta against magic, it seems. No one can reason with him and…”
Elena couldn’t help interrupting. “Your prince is controlling the monsters and you have the gall to come to us?” Elena asked.
The lady who’d been quiet so far cleared her voice. “He’s no longer Prince Darius. He doesn’t care about anything but destroying magic. Not even his own family. He slew Fabius for… He…” the woman winced… “is no longer even human.”
“How does he command such a monstrous horde?”
“He found them in some caverns in Halaa, opened up by the chasm you created. Hundreds of innocents died right in front of him and he’s convinced that all magic is evil. He considers it a disease and wants to eradicate it from the face of Quindor.”
Elena staggered back. Could I have caused quakes as far as Halaa? “That is a lie. The gorge didn’t even harm a farmhouse here, much less people.”
The woman looked up, her eyes swollen and red. “Does it really matter if it is a lie? He believes it and the monsters are real enough. Empress…Elena…look I know you loved Fabius and he died loving you. He died stabbed by a brother he trusted more than his life. He wanted to save you and magic and…You have to at least help save the land as he wanted.”
Elena felt unnerved. The council stared at her. Fabius is gone. But the woman spoke the truth. She had to save her people even if it meant running the risk of trusting the Alliance. “How do we stop the monsters?”
Lord Tremane nodded. “Darius is still human; at least in form. A well placed arrow should put him down. But we don’t know where he is. Last we saw him he was headed towards the gorge. And we don’t know how to draw him out.”
The loss of Fabius was eating away at her by the moment and she felt short of breath. Elena steeled herself. She needed to hold her feelings in check. Her people were being subjected to a fate worse than death. “So what are you proposing?”
Lord Tremane shrugged. “I hoped you had the answer to that. Swords, arrows and my tricks slow them, but nothing stalls them. Even cannonballs didn’t seem to faze them much. And I can only imagine what will happen if they get inside the city.”
“And none of our magic injures them in the least. Flames, ice, mind control, nothing works. They even slay our familiars like balloons.” She could see the anguish in Falmus’ eyes. His bear had exploded on contact with one of the bonegoths. “And we can’t definitely get close to them.”
“When does your army arrive, Androl?” she turned towards him.
He opened his mouth to object the mention of his army but Elena stared back. “They should have already arrived but my runners haven’t come back yet.”
“What army?” Lord Tremane asked. Falmus and Trianna looked on confused as well.
Elena ignored them. This wasn’t a time for exposition. She need to know all the pieces on the board. “They aren’t all magic users are they?”
“About two thousand of them are. But all of them are trained in combat, even the women and children.”
Mariam shrieked. Everyone in the room turned towards her.
The woman looked Androl. “Were they Halan?”
Androl stiffened. “Why do you say that?”
“Because Darius told us that he had taken care of thousands of Halans with magic who were marching towards here.”
Elena had never seen the man even flinch but Androl collapsed on the ground. “No, that’s not…”
She drew in a deep breath. “I must stop all this. Even if it kills me.”
“Empress, what are you planning to do?” Lord Falmus jumped to his feet.
“These monsters may not be affected by magic. But doesn’t mean I cannot bury them inside the ground.”
“And kill thousands more? You don’t even know what the last earthquakes did and you hadn’t even intended to create that one,” Lord Tremane spoke in an even tone, but Elena recognized the stern disapproval in his voice.
“Then what do you want me to do? Leave my people to the monsters for their magical feast? No. He hates magic and I am the one who raised this city. If anyone can lure him out it’s me.”
“Don’t be a fool, Elena. Darius has turned into half a monster himself. And besides…” Mariam lowered her head. “He hates me more than he does you. I betrayed his love and his trust. He’s deranged beyond all reasoning. If anyone deserves to die, it should be me.”
“What are you talking about?”
The woman looked on the verge of weeping. “I am his betrothed. And I cheated on him.”
“What? Why…” Elena stopped herself. It’s none of my business. She never understood the reason for one to be unfaithful. But if my husband-to-be turned into a madman, I wouldn’t stick by him.
“It’s the reason Fabius is dead.”
“Mariam, no. That man is deranged.” Tremane drew the woman into an embrace.
Elena stepped forward. “What do you mean?”
“I slept with him.” the woman didn’t meet her eyes.
Elena felt a burning pang of jealousy burn through her and instinctively, the gems on her fingers grew warm and Mariam doubled down with pain.
“Elena, no…” Androl pushed her bodily.
She stopped herself. What am I doing? Fabius wasn’t mine. But she couldn’t help hating her. “I’m fine.” She glared at the woman as she stood up, holding her mid-section. “So, we’ve established that we can use this woman as bait. But how do we kill that Arbok-cursed prince?”
“He isn’t stupid.” Lord Tremane commented. “And if we miss that chance, he will never fall for it again.”
“I can wield a sword.” Mariam said defiantly.
“As if he can’t. You can’t beat him when he’s surrounded with monsters who do his bidding. You may not have magic but we don’t know whether he can or cannot make them hurt you.”
“That’s it,” Elena exclaimed. “Adaline’s shard.”
The rest of Council gasped.
Androl groaned. “Not that, Elena.”
She looked defiantly around the room. “The gem will give her magic and Darius cannot defend against that.”
“Wait…you have a gem that can give us magic?” Mariam asked.
“Yes, but only when they use the gem.”
Lord Tremane interjected. “So, how do we know when she gets magic from your crystal, she isn’t vulnerable to the bone-goths?”
Elena stopped. She hadn’t thought about that. “I…I don’t know.”
“Which means someone’s going to have to try it out.” The showman said.
“Yes, but no magic-wielder can use it. It would kill us.”
“Which is why I am going to.” The man said, flicking his staff from one hand to another.
Elena breathed hard. Adaline, save us.
Mariam stepped past the shattered bone-goths, marveling at the gem in her hand. She almost envied Elena. She knew they could never be friends. She had ruined any chance of that. But she would fix what she had sown.
The old showman had proved that using the crystal did not lead the monsters to attack him. But the rumblings had grown stronger as hordes of the monsters seemed to be leeching out magic form the ground.
She walked towards the gorge, unimpeded. A sortie of men led by Nermo followed her as discretely as they could. She felt bile rise to her mouth as she surveyed the battlefield. Hundreds of men lay dead, some squished to pulp by the giant feet of the monsters, and others long dead before the monsters had even shown up.
Mariam waded through the dead towards the gorge where she’d seen Darius head after he’d killed his own brother. She would not think of that. She needed her focus if she was to see this through.
She trudged past the last horde of monsters who were still rummaging through the carcasses, possibly looking for barely alive magicians to drain. She concentrated on the brown crystal in her hand. She felt it grow slightly warm and looked towards one of the hunched monsters who had pulled up a limp soldier in Alliance garb. Sucellok bless him. She prayed for him.
The monsters shuddered and looked up, its hollow eyes staring straight at her before it burst into splintered bones. Mariam scrambled back as flesh and blood rained down near her. Evidently, inside the bones, the bone-goths were the same as humans. And the crystal works.
“See how I mow down your monsters, Darius. These are the true corruption like you.” She shouted out. She had been running the insult several times in her mind but the words felt hollow.
She burst two more bonegoths before calling his name out again. She stepped back as a horde of bonegoths emerged from the gorge and approached her. There was no way she could take down that many. But instead of attacking her, they started circling.
“Hello, Mariam.” The man she’d swore to marry appeared before her.
Mariam jumped back. “Darius….why are you doing this?”
“You dare address me you filthy whore? I cut through mountains and ravines and fire to get to you. And you couldn’t even wait six months before lining up to snare my brother. I see right through you. You only wanted a king as your husband. I was elder so you came after me. When you thought I was dead you went after Fabius. What did you intend to do if Fabius lost and that accursed witch won the war? Will you then go lay with a woman?”
Hot tears streamed down Mariam’s face. She had seen Darius angry before but never had she imagined such barbed thorns ever coming from him.
“Darius, I know you are angry…”
“Angry? No, you are beneath my rage. You think your pitiful betrayal matters to me? I have seen villages burnt to ash before my own eyes, families and children burned to cinder. I know more loss than you can ever fathom. And I hold the cure. My only regret is you aren’t infected. I wish I could get rid of you then. But maybe Sucellok has grander plans for your miserable life.”
Mariam pressed the crystal in her hand but Darius tackled her. The crystal went flying from her hand. By the time she righted herself, the mad prince held the crystal.
“You think I wouldn’t note the thing you’ve been killing my bone-goths with.” He raised the brown crystal high above his head. “Is this magical? And yet the bone-goths aren’t attacking you?”
Mariam grabbed the hilt of her dagger in the belt and twisted herself around swinging the dagger towards Darius’ ribs. But her hand rang with pain as it twisted against his side. The dagger slipped from her grasp. To her horror, the blade had turned inwards.
Darius wore an expression of pain. He lifted his shirt.
Mariam gasped. He wasn’t wearing any armour but the only mark her blade had made was a small puncture in his skin from which a tiny bit of blood trickled out.
“What sorcery is this? What have you done to me?” Darius brought down his sword against her neck in a flash.
Mariam froze. “Darius, by Sucellok’s breath, I didn’t do anything.” How is this even possible? Does he have magic?
He dabbed his skin where the blade had poked him and pinched it. “It feels strong like stone.” He looked at the crystal in his hand. “This is magical, is it not?”
Mariam kept her eyes on Darius and inched away from the blade.
“So you wanted to protect yourself from me with this?” He laughed. “And look what it has done. It’s ironic how magic itself is giving me the tools to destroy it. I imagine skin like steel isn’t the only trick this gem has hidden right? How do you get it to work?” He held the crystal aloft.
Mariam rolled through and pushed her entire body against Darius’ legs. It felt like she hit two rocks but her momentum rocked the prince who tumbled over and fell on to the ground. She tried kicking the sword from his grasp but the prince rolled away from her and brought down the pommel on her head.
Blinding pain erupted on her temple where the sword made contact but she managed to push herself away from another strike.
Darius laughed. “Don’t worry. You will not die by my sword. You do not deserve such an honourable death. No…You will die from the very corruption you sought to use against me.” He pressed the crystal in his palm.
Mariam scampered back. Can he use the crystal?
Darius’ eyes turned white as he toppled backwards motionless.
Mariam jumped back in horror, but her former fiancé did not move. She picked up his sword and rammed it down on his chest. He injured hand snapped back as the sword splintered along the middle.
But Darius did not rise, his face frozen in an odd smile of ecstasy. Mariam hesitantly approached him, holding her right wrist, which she knew had broken. She lay down and put her ears to his chest but it felt hard as stone without a heartbeat. She looked into the face she still loved and tears erupted from her eyes.
The sound of the monsters moving had her scampering for the crystal, which had fallen out Darius’ palm. She held out the crystal ready to take down as many monsters as she could.
But the monsters on the edge of the gorge had begun climbing down. The rest of pack also broke the circle and followed the others.
Mariam stood stunned. No, I can’t let them escape. She pressed down her left palm as hard as she could digging her fingernails in, but nothing happened. She tried twice more to no avail.
Why isn’t it working? She opened her palm. The crystal had turned transparent like a diamond.
A few of the Northern Alliance soldiers rode in charging departing monsters led by High Commander Nermo.
“Mariam, are you okay?” the man jumped from the horse and landed beside her.
She buried her face into the man’s chest, bawling. She would never be okay.