Chapter 27
The Battle of Darkwall

Near Castle Darkwall, Gladius

"Nothing I had done before could compare to that battle. Though I was not in the thick of the fray, there were times I could see what was going on beyond the castle walls. We all sacrificed so much... Some people say death is the ultimate sacrifice, but there are worse things to lose than your life. Some of us learned that from experience."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

It was still a couple hours before dawn when the two opposing sides began to prepare for battle. On the rebel side, the teams charged with infiltrating the castle were the first to rise. There were four teams in all, three to breach the castle walls and one that would try to slip through the enemy lines and enter the castle disguised as Harald Svenson's detachment.
The gate team had the least enviable task. There was enough confiscated gear to outfit a full compliment and they had Giles' direct support, but they were taking an awful risk. Rebels who vaguely resembled Mark and his companions were loaded onto the wagons as prisoners, just as if Harald Svenson had been successful. A tarp covered the wagon carrying additional armaments disguised as the captives' gear. They left before the moat teams, intent on riding out a few miles so the Marauders would not see them exiting the forest.
The moat teams went the long way around to the eastern side of Castle Darkwall before splitting up to take their positions. Each team had two log rafts. The two decoy teams consisted of twenty men each, one of them led by Boss Milby himself. Because of their heavy equipment, Mark and his companions had to make do with four in each raft along with a riverman to help steer.
While the Marauders were being woken up, the moat teams cautiously crossed the moat. The land on which the castle was built had been sculpted to allow no foothold alongside the outer wall. It was also elevated a few feet above the waterline. The combination made their task more difficult, and more dangerous.
It took a delicate balancing act to keep the raft steady alongside the wall while they assailed it with hammer and chisel. By necessity, they had to work slowly and carefully. Too much noise would betray their position, after all.
The wall was sturdily built with two layers of large, heavy stones. Once enough mortar had been chipped away, they had to ease the block into the water without making a loud splash or sinking the rafts. The noisy mustering of the Marauders offered them some cover, but they could not afford to get careless.
It was slow going, but by the time the Marauders were forming up to march out, the charges were set. Now it was just a matter of biding their time until the opportune moment. They would have to blow the charges before daylight exposed them, but they also had to give the gate team enough time to get into the castle. If the gate team timed it right, they would slip by while the Marauders were still getting into position. For now, all the moat teams could do was wait.

* * *

Giles watched the Marauders pour out of the castle gates. What was the main force doing? They should already be forming up, drawing the enemy's attention. The risk of being exposed was much greater now, but it was too late to break off. They had already been seen. To flee now would throw all their plans into chaos.
He rode up alongside the rebel playing the part of the lieutenant. The pikeman had spent several hours coaching the rebels, but there was no telling what could happen when they were face to face with the enemy. Fortunately, the Guard was known for slacker discipline than the Marauders. Their poor reputation could play to the advantage of the disguised rebels.
"Stick to the road," Giles told the lieutenant. "The contingents haven't formed up yet, so they'll be off-balance. Hopefully we can avoid any of the more senior officers. Whatever happens, keep your wits about you. Your mission is to deliver these prisoners. Don't let anyone tell you different."
"Aye," the lieutenant replied.
Giles was none too confident in the odds of the plan working, but he had staked his life on giving it the best possible chance. The addition of fifty rebel fighters would go a long way to level the playing field for Mark and the others.
The pikeman's thoughts were drawn into focus as they got closer to the Marauders. They would be cutting across lines of formation soon, and something had to be done. Normally, a Guard detachment would be expected to let the Marauders pass first, but Giles saw the Guardsmen assembled in the rear of the formation. While the rebels might be able to fool the Marauders, there was not so much hope of tricking their 'fellow' Guardsmen.
Giles had to give the impression of urgency for the plan to work, and indeed, urgency was called for. He rode up to the front and took up the role of the unit's crowd-splitter, shouting, "Make way! Make way!"
Although the pikeman would have rather not drawn any attention to himself and the group, there was little other choice. Predictably, an officer from the Marauder unit took offense at the breach of protocol and rode out to confront them.
"And just who the hell do you think you are?" the officer demanded.
Giles kept his head low, counting on his helmet to obscure his features. The officer was a captain from the Swordsman Division, and it was entirely likely that he could identify the former general if he got a good enough look. Thankfully, the rebel playing the part of the lieutenant rose to the occasion.
"We're under strict orders to deliver these prisoners," he said firmly, probably not realizing the superior rank of the captain. "We need to pass."
"You can wait until the unit's in position," the captain said.
"These prisoners are at the top of the wanted list," the lieutenant said, continuing his admirable performance. "My orders are to present them to the King himself without delay."
None of the officers below the Five Generals had more than a vague idea of Randwulf's hunt for the son of Luther, but it was enough to give the captain pause. He rode back to halt the unit and open up a path. Giles knew they would have to hurry and make their way through before the more senior officers noticed what was going on and began to ask questions.
Much to Giles' dismay, it seemed that he had the ability to make his thoughts into reality. A pikeman in a general's armor rode up to the group as they were beginning to pass through the formation.
"You'd better have a damned good reason for disrupting my formation," he growled.
Giles recognized the man as one of his former company commanders, Captain Ethred. Now he knew who had been chosen to replace him. It made his position all the more precarious.
"I've got to deliver these prisoners," the lieutenant said. "Those orders come from the very top."
That seemed to have some effect on Ethred. Fortunately, he was not known for being especially sharp-witted. Perhaps the ruse would still work.
"You don't need forty men for a prisoner transfer," the new general said.
The fake lieutenant began to falter, his performance reaching its limits. Giles had to step in.
"Accountability, sir," he said. "We need to have full accountability for the detachment."
This interference by a supposedly common Guardsman sparked the general's ire.
"Did I ask you, trooper?" Ethred snapped.
Ignoring the lieutenant, he rode over to Giles.
"Answer me, damn you!"
Keeping his head low, Giles shouted his response just like a new recruit. "No, sir!"
Ethred invariably had a mind to badger Giles further, but he seemed to notice something. The pikeman cursed under his breath. Could his former subordinate have recognized him?
"Do I know you?" the general asked, trying to peer under the shadows of Giles helmet.
Before he could probe any deeper, Ethred's attention was drawn to the sight of the distinctive Inkari headbands worn by Giles' rebel doppelganger. The general immediately passed up the lowly Guardsman for the real prize.
Puffing up his chest in empty pride, he laughed at the wagonload of prisoners. "What have we got here? My, why am I not surprised to find you with a bunch of common criminals? Serves you right, traitor."
Ethred raised his pike to strike the Giles impostor, but before he could bring it down on the rebel's head, the real Giles intercepted it with his halberd. The general shot him a fierce glare, but Giles was not cowed by the likes of his former subordinate.
"Our orders are to deliver the prisoners undamaged," he said. "By your leave, sir."
Ethred did not appreciate the intervention in the slightest, but he was too frustrated and angry to think clearly.
"Get out of here!" he blustered. "I want you road rats to fall into the back the moment you hand over these scum. Is that clear!?"
"Yes, sir!" the disguised rebels shouted in unison.
It was a stroke of rare fortune, capitalizing on Ethred's anger to win a clear shot to the castle. Once they were away from the Marauders, the worst of it would be over. They could not afford to waste much more time. It would not be long before the charges were blown. They needed to be inside the castle walls before then.
The main rebel force had yet to appear. How much longer was it going to take? The Marauders would be in position soon. If they did not see the enemy, their gaze could turn inward, dooming the infiltration of the castle. Time was running out.

* * *

Cadmus sat on a stump, sharpening his knife on a small whetstone. He had gathered his detachment in the shadow of the barracks to avoid any prying eyes from the keep. Randwulf did not need to know he was still on the castle grounds.
One of his lieutenants approached him. He was the leader of Cadmus' personal guard and one his most trusted subordinates. Indeed, Cadmus made a point to select Marauders particularly loyal to him. Even so, few had a mind to put their loyalty to him ahead of their loyalty to the King.
"Sir, shouldn't we be heading out?" the lieutenant asked. "We would do well to use General Drusus' contingent to mask our deployment."
"There has been a change in plans," Cadmus said.
"Sir?"
The patrician continued to sharpen his knife. "His Majesty is being impractical, sending me and a hundred men for mere garbage disposal." He eyed the lieutenant. "The rebels' best warriors are coming here and His Majesty would just let it happen. They seek to cut off the head of this kingdom. Well, I say we rip out the heart of this revolution. When they come, we will be waiting for them. We will kill them to the last man. We will put their heads on pikes and parade them on the front. With their heroes dead, those miserable rebels will lose heart and be easy prey for my Marauders."
Yes, his Marauders. Cadmus savored the words.
The lieutenant was not so enthusiastic. "Sir, is it wise to disobey the King's orders?"
The lieutenant worried too much, Cadmus thought. Still, a less conscientious man would likely have ambitions of his own, so perhaps it was better for him to be that way. He just need a little persuasion to see things Cadmus' way.
"I will not let this kingdom fall into the rebel's hands," the patrician said. "If His Majesty cannot see the madness of his plan, I will save him from himself."
Indeed he would. He would single-handedly deal a mortal blow to the rebellion and save the kingdom. Surely it was feat suitable for the proper lord of the land. It would prove his right to the throne.
Randwulf's time was over. His obsession with the son of Luther would be his undoing. He was no longer fit to rule. The time had come for a change, a change that would be decided by this battle.

* * *

The dreaded pirate captain Bloodeye Redbeard stood at the front line of the Gladian formation, along with a group of savages and ragged, half-starved prisoners. He restlessly shifted his weight from one leg to the other. He did not like staying on land any longer than he had to, but for the money he was promised, it was worth his while. The downpayment alone was more than enough.
Even so, there was something suspicious about the whole deal. Bloodeye had been commissioned as a privateer in the past, but never as a mercenary. Also, Gladius was not known for its contact with other nations, even before he had razed the kingdom's only port. Why then did he first hear about the offer in Umm Qadir of all places?
It all came back to the man who told him about the deal in the first place: Blackscar. In retrospect, Bloodeye realized that all that gold had clouded his judgment. He had already lost the three other ships of his personal fleet and he needed to bring in some significant plunder if he wanted to hold his crew together. He was in dire straits and Blackscar took advantage of it.
The thought made the pirate captain uneasy. Blackscar had always been little more than a wild animal, a beast that had to be kept on a tight leash, but there was a cunning behind this plot. It was as if he'd suddenly found civilization. If anything, it made him all the more dangerous.
Speaking of Blackscar, he was curiously absent. He was always itching for a fight. There was no reason he would skip out on this opportunity, unless the newly civilized Blackscar had other plans.
Grabbing his bosun, he asked gruffly, "Wheah's Blahkskah? 'Ave ye seen 'im?"
"Nah, Cap'n," replied the bosun. "Ay ain't seen 'ide nor 'eyah of 'im."
Bloodeye bit his lip in apprehension. More and more, he felt like he had been set up. Blackscar had used him and now he was up to who knows what.
Just then, the enemy was sighted emerging from the forest. For the time being, he would have to focus on the battle. There would be plenty of time to deal with Blackscar later.

* * *

After crossing the drawbridge, an iron gate was all that stood between the disguised rebels and the castle interior. Usually, at least ten men of the Palace Guard would meet any arrival, but today there were only two. Giles wondered if the Palace Guard had been gutted to support the main force.
"Shouldn't you be with the rest of the Guard?" one of the Palace Guards asked.
"We were on our way back from Cruz when we caught these rebels trying to sneak into the country," the false lieutenant replied. "We have reason to believe it's the Drunkard Prince and his retinue, the ones from the wanted posters."
"That'd be quite the catch if it were true," the Palace Guard said. "Are you sure?"
The lieutenant looked back at the prisoners. "They haven't talked much, but I figure they'll sing a pretty tune when we take 'em below."
The Palace Guard laughed. "No doubt. Well, hurry up and hand them over. I don't know if you've heard, but your new orders are to join the other Guardsmen in the Marauders' formation. The fighting's bound to start any minute."
"Then quit your jaw-jacking and open up."
"Alright, alright," the Palace Guard said good-naturedly. He then called to the gatehouse, "Open her up!"
The gate slowly clattered open, allowing the rebels into the castle grounds. Giles looked around suspiciously. The grounds were bare. There were no sentries posted on the ramparts. Even with the bulk of Randwulf's forces being sent out to the front, security was too light. Something was wrong.
The one Palace Guard who had not spoken, presumably the junior, had been sent off to fetch some men to take charge of the prisoners. Several of the rebels dismounted to play out a standard transfer, dragging the prisoners off of the wagons. The remaining Palace Guard seemed rather impressed with their catch.
"If this is the real thing, wow," he said. "I mean, they've been giving us so much trouble. They say even the Stalkers couldn't take them. How on earth did you guys pull it off?"
"We have our ways," the lieutenant said.
"You're telling me. They're supposed to be the leaders of the rebel forces. If we've already got them in our hands, the battle will be over in no time."
The lieutenant nodded. "I'm hoping it'll be over soon."
Horns sounded in the distance, followed by the roar of battlecries. It had begun. Soon the disguised rebels would be joining the fight.
The ground shook as a deafening explosion tore a hole in the northeast wall. It was followed by two more explosions in the south and southeast. Rebel fighters could be seen pouring out of the breaches in the wall.
The lone Palace Guard panicked, but did not get the chance to raise the alarm. The false lieutenant ran his sword through the man's neck right after the third explosion.
The prisoners threw off their chains, which were not locked to begin with, and pulled back the tarp on the third wagon to claim their weapons. The fake Guardsmen all displayed a white band on their right arms and drew their weapons.
Giles quickly swapped his disguise for his own gear. He planned to leave the rebel fighters to fend for themselves while he rejoined Mark and the others.
He looked around with concern. There were still no sign of any defenders. It was not right. It reeked of a trap.

* * *

Mark insisted that he be the first one to go through the breach. The hole was only big enough for one person to go through at a time and although they had probably caught the castle's defenders off guard, they would surely be quick to rally against the intruders.
The swordsman charged forward with his shield held high and a barrier raised. In spite of the large cloud of smoke and dust, Mark at least expected a few arrows to come flying or hear the sound of the alarm being raised, but there was nothing. It was difficult to see clearly, but he was able to make out the figure of a single man running towards them. Mark quickly recognized the figure as Giles.
"What's going on?" Mark asked.
"I don't know," Giles replied, his eyes darting back and forth. "We got through the gates easily enough, but something's wrong. There were only two men at the gate. It has to be a trap."
"It doesn't matter," Sonia said as she emerged from the breach. "You have to get into the keep, Mark. We'll cover you."
There was nothing to be done about it. They had to go forward with the plan. Once the group was assembled, they moved to the inner wall surrounding the keep. While the two rivermen made a hole for Ignatiy to set a charge, the others formed a defensive ring, keeping an eye out for the enemy. Still there was nothing.
"Where the devil are they?" Edward growled.
"They're here," Adrienne said. "I can smell them."
"Then what are they waiting for?" Sonia asked.
The dhampir shrugged. "Who knows?"
"We need to get clear," Ignatiy said, lighting the charge's fuse.
As they were putting distance between themselves and the wall, a great roar rose up on the east side of the castle grounds, near the barracks. Dozens of Marauders rushed toward the main gate, apparently mistaking the disguised rebels for the main group of infiltrators. Spurred by the whoops and hollers of the Marauders, men of the Palace Guard poured out of the towers, both on the ground and up on the ramparts. The trap Mark and his companions had been waiting for had finally been sprung.

* * *

The Dark Knight Vincentian gritted his teeth. This was not the plan. The Palace Guard was supposed to stay hidden in the towers until he gave them the signal. Why were they coming out now?
"It seems Lord Cadmus has his own ideas about how this battle should be fought," Brenok said.
Vincentian turned to the apprentice, who simply smiled. The Dark Knight clenched his fist in anger. Why was his father disobeying the King's orders? Whatever the reason, he had to do what he could to salvage the situation. Drawing his sword, he hastily addressed the men assembled with him: Tariq, Ursus and the warlock's six apprentices.
"We follow our orders," he said. "See to it that the Guardian gets into the keep. After that, we take his companions alive. If anyone gets in the way, be it the Palace Guard, the Marauders or even Commander Cadmus, kill them."
Brenok's smile widened. "The fun begins."
There was another explosion. The apprentices took to the air. There was no time to waste. The time for action had come.

* * *

The inner wall had been breached, but they still needed to set one more charge before Mark could get into the keep. The explosion had drawn the attention of a group of Palace Guard moving to meet up with the Marauder detachment. Archers on the ramparts began blindly loosing arrows in the direction of the new threat. The smoke from the blast offered the group concealment for the moment, but it would not take long for the air to clear.
No longer obliged to hide her powers, Adrienne rushed to the wall, springing onto the ramparts in a single leap. While she took care of the nearest group of archers, Mark and the others faced off against the Palace Guards charging at them. Jill felled the leader with a well-placed arrow and the others were scattered by a trio of fireballs from Sonia.
Wasting no time to admire her handiwork, the fencer pointed to the two rivermen. "Help them set up the charge for the keep." Then to her cousin she said, "Get going. We'll take care of this."
Mark glanced over to the mass of Marauders over on the west side and hesitated. During that pause, an arrow whizzed past his head while another killed one of the rivermen. The swordsman was seized by Giles, who shook him roughly.
"Focus!" the pikeman shouted. "You've got a job to do. Don't worry about us."
Lest Mark protest, Giles pushed him through the hole in the inner wall. Ignatiy, Jasper and the surviving riverman followed. Mark realized the only way he could help his friends was if he dealt with Randwulf quickly. He helped Jasper and the riverman make an opening in the wall of the keep while Ignatiy readied the charge.
Because the charge was smaller than the other two, the resulting hole was barely big enough for Mark to fit through, but it would do. As Mark was about to go in, he saw the warlock's apprentices fly overhead, Brenok included. It was the last thing they needed.
Jasper was supposed to infiltrate the keep with him, but Mark knew the rebels needed every fighter they could get.
"You stay here," he told the thief. "Help the others."
"Wo' 'bow' ye?" Jasper asked.
"I'll be fine. They you need you more than me."
Now that all the charges had been blown, Ignatiy no longer had a task to keep his mind occupied and he was starting to get skittish. Although he had once pledged that he was no longer afraid of death, being back in Darkwall, coupled with all the noise and violence, was fraying his unsteady nerves. Mark rested his hands on the firebug's shoulders to calm him down.
"Courage, Ignatko," he said. "Now's the time for you to unleash all the Fire Master's power."
Ignatiy's eyes brightened at the thought and he managed a grin. "The Master will be pleased my work. This wretched place will see greatest flames this side of Hell."
Mark smiled. "Just try to avoid getting our friends caught up in it."
"I' yer ginna gew, ye need tah gi' gewin'," Jasper said.
The swordsman nodded and crouched to go into the keep. Before going in, he looked back to the thief one last time. "I'll be back soon," he said. "Take care of things in the meantime."
"Ye kin cown' on meh, yun mastah."
With that, Mark entered the keep. All that remained was to confront Randwulf and bring this battle to an end. Still, who knew what would be waiting for him inside? He would find out soon enough.

* * *

High above Castle Darkwall, above the din of battle, the wizard Shadowstryke faced the betrayer of his order. The warlock Shadowblight gripped his skull-capped rod and stretched out a long bony finger to point at his counterpart. There was no emotion to be found in the black pits that once held his eyes, but there was an unmistakable disdain in his bearing, like a nobleman looking down on a mangy dog.
"You should not have come back," he said, "you who were the least of our order. I could have hunted you down any time, but I let you live because you were not worth the effort. Remember that old Shadowstar fell to my arts. What hope is there for you?"
Shadowstryke was unfazed by the mention of the venerable grandmaster's name and simply smiled.
"A puppet has no place to lecture me," the wizard countered. "And pitiful little puppet you are, trying so desperately to hide your strings. You take up puppets of your own, but that does not make you the puppet master. In the end, you are still nothing more than a puppet. Remember this well: All puppets are disposable. The time will come when you are thrown away and all your plotting will be for naught."
"You know nothing!" Shadowblight hissed, losing his composure. "My master would not forsake me so! I have been chosen. Why else would he endow me with these powers? He has a plan for me. I am his representative. Gladius is just the beginning. Soon I will have my puppets take the reins of Titan and Byrn. Within a few generations, my hand will stretch from shore to shore. In his name, I will rule this land, nay, this world. Knowing this, you would dare to oppose me?"
"Your boasts cannot fool me, Shadowbright," the wizard said, deliberately using the warlock's former name. "Your fears are all too plain. You dream of such power, but can you see it?"
"What?"
"A troubled young swordsman once listened to the words of a wandering prophet and it led him to the throne. Did you really peer into the future back then? If so, indulge me. What do you see?"
Shadowblight furrowed his brow.
"You have nothing to fear from me," Shadowstryke said calmly. "My ways are not your ways. I will not strike you down like a coward while you are lost in your visions. Now, come, show me what you see."
If the warlock ever knew the meaning of trust, he had long since forgotten. Steeped in treachery as he was, it was all he knew and all he expected from others. Even so, he knew Shadowstryke spoke the truth. Although he would have exploited such an opening were their roles reversed, there was nothing to fear, but why? He could only imagine showing such restraint if there was no doubt whatsoever of his victory. Surely someone of Shadowstryke's meager standing did not have such certainty.
It made Shadowblight want to peer into the future. Was there something he had missed, some blind spot in his visions? He had to know, so much that he ignored his lingering doubts and dove into the murky waters of the future. Fully immersed in his prescient trance, he could speak no lie even if he wanted to deceive his audience.
In a detached voice, he said, "A red day dawns and a new generation pays blood for blood... The eagle finds the wolf... The wolf, no... No longer a wolf, but a chimera, a chimera that seeks out the eagle to mend his broken wings... The cubs of the lion, yea, the broken lion... They tear at the flesh of the bear... And the children of darkness grasp beams of moonlight to cheat their cursed fate... The shadows clash... And void... void..."
Coming out of the trance, the warlock's body relaxed. He bobbed slightly, momentarily lapsing on the spell that kept him airborne. Forgetting his opponent, he held his forehead, trying to sort out what he had seen. Shadowstryke took the liberty of interpreting the vision for him.
"The void you saw proves that you do not know what will happen, but I do."
This caught Shadowblight's attention, prompting him to look up at the wizard. His eyes burning with conviction, Shadowstryke pointed his gnarled staff at the warlock.
"I know that the future does not belong to you and your ilk."
Shadowblight scowled. "You will not live to find out."
With speed that belied their ancient bodies, the two mages loosed lightning-fast blasts of magic that collided into each other with the force of twin battering rams, streaking the sky in an explosion of sheer energy.
The air was still searing hot from the blast as the two flew headlong into each other, launching a magical assault unlike any the world had seen in centuries. The forces of Randwulf and the rebels seemed like mere insects from their lofty vantage, but the battle raging below was no less fierce.

* * *

The young Prince Claudius stood alone in the emergency armory of the keep. He had just finished tightening the straps on a light steel cuirass and was now browsing through the weapon racks to find a suitable replacement for his worthless épée.
Nearly three months had passed since his humiliating defeat in Stormtree. He expected to be upbraided by his father when the Marauders returned, but the King had not said a word to him. The fact that Claudius was not even allowed to observe the strategy session made it all to clear: defending Darkwall, much less the kingdom, was no business of his. As far as his father was concerned, his worth, or rather the lack thereof, had been proven. There would be no second chances.
The Prince had shut himself in his room to brood, but that evening he was approached by the Captain's wife. Even now, their conversation echoed in his mind.
"What happened in Stormtree was not your fault," she had told him. "There was unexpected interference that spoiled the plan."
"There is no excuse for thirty men being unable to apprehend a mere five people," Claudius replied sullenly. "I was too much of a coward to stand and fight. I should not have come back in disgrace."
"No, you made the right decision," the Captain's wife countered. "Foolish gallantry makes for fine ballads, but a dead man accomplishes nothing. If five were too many, what would you say to just one?"
"What do you mean?"
"Your father is luring the son of Luther to confront him. He will be waiting alone in the throne room for the son of Luther to come to him. He is staking everything on this."
"Why? Why would he go to such lengths?"
"I am not privy to the King's thoughts," the Captain's wife said, her tone implying that she knew more than she let on, "but what if you were there to face the son of Luther first?"
Claudius shook his head. "What chance do I have against him? You know everything he has done."
"You are a warrior, not a gambler. Do not fret over chances. Let me guess. He spared your life back in Stormtree, yes?"
"How did you know that?"
The Captain's wife smiled. "I have my ways, but never mind that. The important thing is that he spared you. He will probably hold back if you cross swords with him." She leaned in closer to the Prince. "You can take advantage of that weakness. He may relent, but you will not. He may not be willing to kill you, but if you seek his death fervently enough, you can win. Remember that he would kill your father and destroy this kingdom. If you can stop him, all your weakness in the past will be forgotten and your father will finally acknowledge you as his true heir. You will be able to take up the mantle of Conqueror with pride and one day wear the crown as the King of Gladius."
It was a tempting offer, the second chance he thought would never come, but there was something unsettling about it all.
"Why are you doing all this?" the Prince asked.
"Maybe it is out of loyalty to my husband and the lord he serves," the Captain's wife said. "Maybe it is because I love this land and do not want to see it fall to the rabble." She reached out and stroked Claudius' cheek. "Maybe it is because I am fond of you, little Prince. And then again, maybe it is all three."
The Captain's wife turned and walked away. She stopped as she was passing through the doorway to give Claudius some additional directions.
"You will need proper equipment if you are to face the son of Luther," she said. "If you do not know where to go, I will see that a servant directs you to the right place." She glanced over her shoulder, looking back at him. "Rest for now, my Prince. It will begin at dawn."
After a night of fitful slumber, the fateful dawn had come and there was no time to lose. Claudius was glad all the servants had been ordered to take shelter until the fighting was over. Surely old Norbert would have tried to stop him if he knew what his charge was planning to do. The task was difficult enough as it was. The Prince did not need any interference.
A choice weapon finally caught his eye and he picked it up. It was an old cavalry saber dating back to the days before the conquest. Drawing the sword from its scabbard, the Prince examined the blade. It had been well-maintained over the years, polished and keen. Surely it would serve him well against the fabled son of Luther.

* * *

Catherine had to admit that for all his apparent madness, Brenok knew exactly what he was doing. The sleeping spell he had used on her in Fiora would never work again thanks to the power of the Heaven Pendant, but he had done a good job of coming up with an alternative.
The vile concoction he gave her came dangerously close to killing her. It took a lot of precious energy to save her body from being completely ravaged by the potent drugs. Combined with the laborious transit of Mark's mind to wake his companions, her reserves dwindled down to nothing. Worse yet, her recovery was taking much longer than usual.
This was all invariably a part of Brenok's scheme. He could have killed her before, but he did not, so her life was not his target. He counted on her ability to counteract the drugs and measured out a large enough dose to still affect her after her powers had been exhausted.
Her body had significantly wasted away over the long weeks of her enchanted slumber, but that was hardly enough to stop her. Brenok could do little to weaken her flesh any further, which is precisely why the drugs were meant to restrain her greatest weapon, her mind.
A mere two days was not nearly enough time for her to clear the thick haze clouding her mind's eye. It was exceedingly difficult just to form a coherent thought, much less exercise her powers. The fact that she needed to make physical contact for simple telepathy was a sad statement of how far she had fallen.
She did not have time for this. Now was the time she was needed most and there was nothing she could do. Although she could not focus her prescience in any meaningful way, images still managed to leak through the haze. As difficult as it was to concentrate on what she was seeing, the images disturbed her nevertheless. Were they images of what would be or simply what could be?
Her thoughts turned to Mark. There was so much she wanted to tell him, so much he needed to hear, but it was now too late for that. He would have to face the truth alone. This was not how it was supposed to be, but perhaps it was inevitable.

* * *

Mark had to be careful not to trip on any of the chunks of masonry left by the blast. The smoke and dust had already started to clear, but it was still difficult to see. Some daylight filtered through the hole in the wall, but that was about it. The sconces were left unlit and the small, narrow windows were few and far between.
The poor visibility made Mark doubly wary. There was no telling what was waiting for him in the keep. His attention was turned to the sound of hurried footsteps behind him. He quickly raised his shield, drawing his arm back to strike down the potential attacker.
"No! Don't hurt me!" cried a frail voice.
Keeping his guard up, Mark lowered his sword. Both the voice and the footsteps belonged to a small, portly man Mark guessed was a servant. He did not have any visible weapons on his person, carrying only a small taper for light, and his fear seemed genuine. He did not pose any immediate threat.
Seeing that Mark was not going to run him through, the servant straightened himself up and stammered, "L-lord Mark, I presume?"
The swordsman nodded.
The servant then bowed, saying, "I have been ordered by Lady Edytha to escort you to His Majesty."
Lady Edytha? It was not a name Mark was familiar with, but it sounded like a native Gladian name. That did not necessarily mean anything, though. It could very well be a trap. Regardless, Mark decided to play along.
"Lead the way," he said, stepping back to give the servant plenty of room to start walking in whichever direction led to Randwulf.
The servant shuffled past the swordsman nervously, a ray of sunlight glinting off the beads of sweat forming on his bald scalp. Mark followed a couple yards behind him, giving himself enough room to react if it did turn out to be a trap. He kept his ears open and frequently glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one was sneaking up behind him. If it was a trap, he did not plan on getting caught easily.
Although the servant made the appearance of hurrying, he was not actually moving very quickly. Mark tried not to get impatient, but he wanted to deal with Randwulf as soon as possible so he could help his comrades outside. It begged the question, though. How exactly was he going to 'deal' with Randwulf?
The simplest answer was to kill him, but Mark had made a point never to say that was his aim. He never went any farther than saying he was going to 'confront' Randwulf and indeed his thoughts had not gone far beyond that point either. Once he was face-to-face with the usurper, then what?
Mark could not face him without a plan. He quickly decided it was not his place to take justice into his own hands. Randwulf's crimes were not just against him, but all the people of Gladius. There needed to be a proper reckoning. If possible, he would take the Conqueror alive, even if that meant a greater risk to himself.
Normally one would not have so much time to think while raiding the keep of an enemy castle, but the halls were completely empty. There was not a single guard, no one at all except for Mark and his guide.
The layout of the keep was rather simple. With no abundance of twists and turns to delay them, Mark and his guide soon arrived at the main hallway leading to the throne room. It was the perfect time for an ambush, Mark thought, but he was not met by dozens of guards. All that stood between him and Randwulf was a single person.
It was the blond youth who had challenged Mark and his companions in Stormtree. He was better equipped for the occasion this time, armed with a proper sword and wearing a steel cuirass. Surely Edward had said he was...
"Your Highness!?" the servant exclaimed.
Yes, Randwulf's son, Prince Claudius. The young Prince was every bit as surprised as the servant.
"Norbert? What are you doing here?"
"I should ask you the same thing, young master."
The Prince shook his head, gripping the scabbard of his sword to regain his focus.
"Never mind that now," Claudius said. "My business is with him." He eyed Mark harshly. "You, listen well. I am Claudius, son of Randwulf. You will not pass."
He drew his sword with a professional flourish, but the blade quivered in his amateur hand. Behind his façade of resolve was an unmistakable fear. He was in way over his head.
"I spared you once," Mark said, "and I'd do it again. I have no quarrel with you, boy. I come to see that Randwulf is brought to justice. Throw down your weapon and no harm will come to you."
Claudius pointed his sword at Mark.
"Draw your sword, mercenary."
Mark did not comply. He wanted to end this without fighting if he could. Drawing himself up, the swordsman temporarily detached himself from his compassion to maximize his powers of intimidation.
"You're no match for me," he said coolly. "Stand down or else."
The Prince was unmoved by the ultimatum.
"Do your worst."
It was not pride that made the Prince stand his ground. No, it was something else entirely. Desperation. His fear only heightened the effect. It made him dangerous.
He would not be won over by reason. As much as Mark did not want it, there seemed to be no other choice but to defeat the Prince. The swordsman slowly shifted into a ready stance, but did not draw yet. He would let the Prince make the first move.
"No! Stop!" the servant cried, stretching out his stubby arms in feeble attempt to keep the two opponents apart.
"Norbert! Get out of the way!" the Prince shouted.
"Young master, I beg you! Think of your mother! She would not have wanted this!"
The Prince was taken aback, but quickly dismissed the apparent nonsense.
"What does my mother have to do with this? Stand aside, Norbert."
The servant held his ground.
"I cannot."
"I will not let this man go unchallenged," Claudius vowed, his resolve only strengthened by the servant's interference. His voice now became harsh, exercising authority for the first time. "As Crown Prince, I am ordering you. Stand aside."
Still the servant would not move. The young Prince's face pinched in anger. He was already dangerously high-strung and now he had reached the breaking point. Howling like a beast, Claudius charged forward, shoving the servant out of the way with his free hand while raising his sword to split Mark's head right down the middle.
Mark managed to block Claudius' attack on the draw of his sword, but rather than pulling back to strike from another angle, the Prince savagely hacked at the swordsman's defenses over and over again. Although Claudius was not nearly strong enough to overcome Mark's guard, the relentless assault gave him little opportunity to counterattack. Mark was patient, though, and waited for an opening. When the Prince's stamina began to flag, Mark was able to cleanly bat away his sword, following through with a shield charge to keep him off-balance.
Claudius recovered faster than Mark was expected and the two engaged in a seemingly even exchange of blows. Detached from his fear, the young Prince was good, Mark had to admit, almost on the same level as a professional. However, he could not defeat the Guardian.
His sword told Mark everything he needed to know. The Prince was trying to convince himself that he wanted to kill his opponent, but even in his rage, there was the faintest hint of hesitation, of restraint. His resolve was incomplete, and so he would never prevail over the more experienced swordsman.
Mark had let the match drag on long enough. Randwulf was waiting beyond the doors ahead. He could not let the Prince stand in his way any longer.
The Prince conveniently provided the opening Mark need. He lunged at the swordsman, and Mark sidestepped the attack easily. While Claudius was still vulnerable, he got behind the Prince and gave him a sharp blow to the head with the pommel of his sword. The match ended then and there.
Once it was clear that the Prince would not be getting up again, Mark sheathed his sword. Worried that he might have hit his young opponent too hard, he crouched down beside Claudius and rolled him on his back. Taking off one of his gloves, Mark let his bare hand hover over the Prince's mouth. The swordsman was relieved to see that he was still breathing.
Mistaking Mark's intentions, the servant rushed up to him, falling on his knees and grasping the swordsman's sleeve. "Spare him, my lord! I beg you!"
Mark calmly put his glove back on and patted the servant's shoulder. "He's gotten all the hurt he'll get from me. Stay with him and lead him to safety when he comes to his senses."
Although Mark thought nothing of sparing the Prince, the servant was deeply moved by the act of mercy, so much that his eyes welled up and looked like he could burst into tears at any moment.
"Bless you, my lord," he cried, "bless you!" He then took hold of Mark's hand and kissed his fingers. "You honor the memory of your noble parents."
Hearing this, Mark grabbed the servant's shoulder. "What do you know about my parents?" the swordsman demanded.
The servant recoiled slightly and averted his eyes.
"His Majesty is waiting, my lord," he said quietly. "You mustn't keep him waiting."
The servant was right. Randwulf was waiting. His friends and allies were facing impossible odds just beyond these walls. His duty came first.
Rising up, Mark approached the doors to the throne room. He hesitated for a moment. This was the end of his journey. For better or for worse, it would all end here.
Mustering his resolve, preparing himself for a battle unlike any he had ever faced, he pulled the doors open. Not knowing what to expect, he quickly drew his sword and raised his shield to meet whatever threat was waiting for him. He was more than a little surprised when nothing happened.
There were no men lying in wait to ambush him, no trap sprung when the doors opened. The throne room was empty, silent as a tomb. A few sconces affixed to the heavy columns filled the chamber with a dim, flickering light. Along the walls were simple tapestries, grey wolves on fields of green, all their eyes seemingly fixed on the lone intruder, guarding the way to the Great Wolf on his iron throne.
The throne room was not entirely empty. He was there, waiting. Randwulf the Conqueror, the Usurper King of Gladius. Mark approached the throne slowly, as if something was holding him back.
As he got closer, the swordsman got his first good look at the man who killed his father and left so many lives in ruins. Atop a dais of pure obsidian, Randwulf sat on his throne as if he had been waiting a lifetime. His silver mane gave him the aspect of a beast, his sharp eyes still keen in spite of his years. Beneath his sable cloak was the gilded steel armor of the Conquerors, its royal purple gems glowing faintly.
There was a power to the usurper unlike any Mark had ever felt. It was almost like he was more than a single Elemental Knight. A hidden voice told Mark to stay away, but still he moved forward.
A loud creaking behind him drew Mark's attention. Apparently the servant had closed the doors. There would be no interruptions.
"Welcome, Mark the Guardian," Randwulf said. "I have been waiting a long time for this day. And now, here we are at last."