Chapter 28

Castle Darkwall, Gladius

"Those we would call our enemies come in many forms, tangible and intangible. The simple struggle of living from one day to the next forces us to face the lesser of these enemies on a regular basis. There are, however, greater enemies we struggle against. Our lives are defined by the outcome of these struggles, whether we overcome or are overcome. Some would say that our greatest enemy lurks within ourselves."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Facing Randwulf the Conqueror at long last, Mark found himself at a loss for words. As much as he thought he had prepared himself for this moment, he had no idea what do or what to say. Seeing his opponent so tongue-tied, Randwulf smiled.
"This is the part where you swear revenge or babble on about justice," he said. "But before we get to all that, I would like to thank you."
"Thank me?" Mark asked. "For what?"
Randwulf bowed his head in a modest show of deference. "For sparing the life of my boy. He is weak and unfit to follow in my footsteps, but every now and then he shows some spirit." The Conqueror drew in a deep breath. "Yes, that wild, untamed spirit... Just like his mother." He gently rested a hand on his heart, saying, "Except for what lives on here, that boy is all I have left to remember her by." He paused. "Until now, that is."
Mark kept his wits about him. For all he knew, this was nothing more than a trick to get him to lower his guard. Trick or not, Randwulf seemed to be lost in another world.
"My queen was an amazing woman," he continued. "At Greystone there were professional soldiers who threw down their weapons and wailed like babes when faced with my Marauders, but this woman put them to shame." The usurper chuckled softly. "If this kingdom had a hundred like her, my invasion would have been in vain. I claimed her, but I could never tame her." Randwulf shook his head. "How ironic that a woman so fierce and brave should die in childbirth. It was not her first time, after all."
Randwulf eyed Mark as if he was trying to gauge the Guardian's reaction. Mark did not know what to think. Was Randwulf trying to weaken his resolve? The story did not earn the usurper any sympathy if that was his aim. Whatever he was after, Randwulf was not finished yet.
"What I loved best was her eyes," he said, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "Those eyes, deep blue like the sea... Claudius inherited those eyes, but he was not the only one."
Randwulf looked at Mark again and it finally hit him. Mark could feel heart sink. He did not want to believe it, but if Randwulf was speaking the truth, it was clear where the conversation was heading. Randwulf grinned, pleased to see the realization finally sink in.
"And so it comes to you at last. You are no fool, Mark the Guardian. You know of whom I speak. Yes, she truly was an amazing woman, my queen, your mother."
With the blood rushing to his head, Mark snapped, "Shut up! You have no right to speak of her!"
"No right!?" Randwulf scoffed. His expression became grim as he stretched out his hand. "Let me show you something about my rights, boy."
Reflexively, Mark raised his shield, but it was no defense against the earthen spike that burst from the floor behind him. Although it did not penetrate his armor, the spike struck with enough force to knock the sword out of his hands. The swordsman quickly recovered, scrambling to pick up his weapon, but wave of earth cracked open the foundation and carried the blade to Randwulf's waiting hand.
Mark watched in disbelief as Randwulf casually gripped the hilt. The gear of an Elemental Knight was supposed to react violently when touched by anyone outside the bloodline or seal off its powers at the very least. That did not happen. Rather, the Gems in the Guardian's sword glowed weakly, as if they recognized the wielder.
Randwulf gazed at the blade in bittersweet nostalgia. "I see you have not forgotten me entirely, my old friend."
The memory of the Gems flashed in Mark's mind, disjointed glimpses into the Battle of Greystone. A younger Randwulf was there, but he was not the same man seated on the iron throne. The passing years alone could not account for it.
The force of the Gems' memory became stronger, burning like hot coals inside the swordsman's head. They forced him to remember the oracle of the seer Lucius.
The wolf and the eagle are not two.
"Who are you?" Mark demanded, struggling against the mental assault.
"I am Randwulf the Conqueror," the usurper said. He paused, glancing at the blade in his hand and then back to Mark. "I am also Luther the Guardian. Twenty years ago, the two Elemental Knights fought to a draw. Both were on the brink of death, but it seems being mostly dead is not the same as being all dead. From two fading lives, the warlock created a new one.
"Surely you have many questions, Mark the Guardian, but first, there is something I must know."
Randwulf rose from his throne and threw the sword of the Guardians at Mark. The tip sank into the earth upturned by the Conqueror's earlier spell. Randwulf then drew his own sword and sprang from the obsidian dais with an agility that belied his years.
Blocking Randwulf's attack with his shield, Mark drew out his sword to counterattack. When the usurper's blow landed, Mark was forced to give ground. Randwulf was much stronger than he was expecting. For underestimating his opponent, he was lucky to get off with only being knocked back several inches. Taking the lesson to heart, he now rightly gauged this duel as the fight of his life.
In the pitched exchange that followed, Mark quickly sized up his opponent. They were about evenly matched in skill and strength, but Mark had a slight advantage in speed. He also noticed that although the sword of the Conquerors was better suited for two hands, Randwulf wielded it one-handed, keeping his left arm hidden under his cloak. The usurper was holding back, but then, so was Mark.
After a series of strikes and parries, the blades of the two Elemental Knights locked, momentarily bringing the duel to a standstill. Looking into the eyes of his enemy, Mark saw neither anger nor hatred, but joy, sheer delight at the longed-for match of equals.
"Excellent!" Randwulf boomed. "You are everything I could hope for in a swordsman, but as you should know, the measure of an Elemental Knight is more than just his skill with a blade."
The Gems in the usurper's sword flashed, giving Mark a moment's warning to avoid an eruption of stone spikes between him and Randwulf. The Conqueror then made a broad sweep of his sword that sent those spikes flying. Most flew wide of the mark, but the rest were thwarted by sword and shield. It proved to be nothing more than a distraction, for Randwulf followed through with a massive wave of earth that tore through the stone floor like dried clay.
Mark dove to the side, loosing a lightning bolt in mid-jump. A wall of earth rose up in front of Randwulf. The bolt crashed into the wall, erupting in a shower of sparks. Undaunted, Mark channeled more energy into his blade, forming a large orb of electricity. He sent the orb flying at the wall, hoping to break through Randwulf's defenses, when the Conqueror smashed through the wall himself and intercepted the orb with his sword. It seemed Randwulf misjudged the power of Mark's attack, his boots grinding along the floor as he was steadily pushed back. It looked as if he would be overpowered, but with a sudden surge of strength, he batted the orb away. The orb exploded when it struck the wall, rocking the throne room and leaving a large hole in its wake.
Foolishly, Mark allowed himself to be caught staring at the damage. His attention drawn by a growing red-orange glare, he barely raised a barrier in time to deflect a trio of fireballs flying his way. But how could that be? The Conqueror only wielded earth-based spells.
The answer lay in Randwulf's outstretched left hand. The red glow was slowly fading from the black crystal orb capping the usurper's scepter. He had been hiding it before now and it was clear why he had done it. That scepter was a potent relic of elemental magic. It was Randwulf's trump card and Mark had almost fallen prey to it.
"Surprised?" the Conqueror asked. "The greatest weakness of the Elemental Knights is the limit placed on their power. A mere thirteen spells for a single element. It is a cruel joke."
The black crystal glowed blue as Randwulf shot several icicles at the Guardian. There was not much strength in the attack, and Mark easily deflected it. It was only a demonstration, the swordsman reckoned.
"This scepter grants me the command over all four elements, one at a time or all together."
The crystal orb flashed a rainbow of colors before piercing the air with a powerful beam of light. Mark's barrier erupted on impact, sending the swordsman flying backwards. Somehow, he managed to land on his feet, focusing more energy into a new barrier just in time for the second blast. This time the barrier held, though it demanded every ounce of Mark's power.
The Guardian held up his shield and dug in his heels as he pressed forward against the beam. If his barrier failed, he could only pray his shield was as sturdy as it was fabled to be. The advance was slow, painfully slow. It was like he was in a shoving match with a man twice his size. Every step was an accomplishment and though he stumbled here and there, he was gaining ground, inch by painstaking inch.
Mark had never had to exert so much power for so long. His brain felt like it was on fire, his heart like a lead weight. His legs seemed to put up at least as much resistance as the beam, but he was not about to give in. Inch by painstaking inch, he moved forward.
Just when Mark thought he could not hold out any longer, the beam was cut off. He almost fell flat on his face in its sudden absence. Quickly regaining his bearings, he saw that he was now only ten paces away from Randwulf. The Conqueror seemed to be fatigued from the prolonged attack, but he was not nearly as bad off as Mark, who was near the end of his rope.
Straightening himself up, the Conqueror grinned, pleased at Mark's performance. "Impressive," he said. "You have put up quite a fight, Mark the Guardian, but this is the end. You have exhausted your powers. You cannot withstand another blast."
Saying nothing in reply, Mark let go of his shield, letting it fall to the floor. Gripping his sword with both hands, he called on the last of his strength and charged at the usurper.
"Fool!" Randwulf shouted, pointing the scepter at his seemingly reckless opponent.
A third beam shot from the black crystal, but Mark was ready for it. Moving ever forward, he jumped to the side, turned on the balls of his feet, and jumped again toward Randwulf. Raising his sword high, the Guardian threw all of his weight into a powerful overhead chop. Striking the black crystal with all his might, Mark was rewarded by the distinct sound of the crystal cracking.
Seeing light shine through the cracks in the crystal, Randwulf quickly threw the scepter away, a mere moment before it exploded violently, destroying one of the pillars in the room. Just as Mark had wagered, the damage to the crystal rendered it unstable. Now that Randwulf had lost his trump card, the swordsman once more stood a chance against him.
Seeing the damage to his throne room, Randwulf had every reason to fly into a rage, but he did not. Rather, he laughed heartily, almost happily, at the sight of all the destruction.
Sounding immensely satisfied, the Conqueror said, "You have been worth the wait, Mark the Guardian. Should I have expected anything less from the son of Luther the Guardian and my dear Nyssa? There is not a single Elemental Knight walking this earth who could defeat you." With his free hand, Randwulf reached for the hilt of a second sword strapped to his right hip and said, "Unfortunately, I am no single Elemental Knight."
Randwulf drew the sword. Why had Mark not noticed it before? It was no ordinary sword either. Those blue gems belonged to no other blade but the sword of the Dragonslayer. Those same gems glowed in recognition of their master.

* * *

Beyond the keep, chaos reigned. Cadmus' detachment was pitted against the Five Stalkers and the Palace Guard was caught in the middle. The rebel fighters were no better off. For all their zeal, they were hopelessly outmatched. Unable to form a united front, they would have been wiped out quickly if the enemy were not in such disarray.
Mark's companions were holding their own, but they were separated in the heat of battle and forced to fend for themselves. Ringed by a dozen spear-wielding Palace Guards, Edward lashed out with all the success of a baited bear with one leg chained to the ground. No matter how the Prince tried to come at them, the Palace Guards judiciously kept their distance while giving him as little room to maneuver as possible. They were trained well enough to read his moves and were not intimidated by his loud bellowing and the mighty swings of his sword.
For all his strength, Edward was too slow to gain the upper hand. He attacked with greater ferocity, abruptly changing direction in a vain attempt to take them off guard. All he did was drain his stamina to no effect. As his movements became more and more sluggish, his opponents became bolder.
They had been poking him with their spears the whole time, not with any hope of piercing his thick armor but simply to harry him. It did its purpose. Even as he was needlessly tiring himself, Edward grew angry and erratic, putting himself at a further disadvantage. Now that their target was vulnerable, the Palace Guards moved in.
First, a shot to the knee made the Prince's right leg buckle under him. As he went down, he was jabbed in the side of the head with a spearbutt, knocking him off-balance. He caught himself before falling over, but another Palace Guard followed up with a blow to the back of his head. Another struck his wrist, causing him to drop his sword.
Before Edward could pick it up or draw another weapon from his belt, all twelve Palace Guards sprang on him, clubbing him soundly with their spears. The Prince flailed at his attackers, but he could not stop them all at once. Even his bullish strength could not withstand the relentless barrage.
It would have been easy to kill Edward then and there. Had they been Cadmus' men, the son of Edgar would have likely met his end in that moment. However, the Palace Guards did not answer to Cadmus. Theirs was a different mission, to take the Drunkard Prince out of the battle without taking his life. As Edward collapsed under their onslaught, it looked like that mission was accomplished.

* * *

Although Giles had more than his fair share of opponents to deal with, he still managed to see Edward fall under attack by the Palace Guards. As he moved to go to the Prince's aid, a blast of magic tore into the ground only inches from his feet. The pikeman looked up to see the warlock's apprentices flying at him.
The apprentices flew in a diamond formation to focus their combined powers. None of them were strong enough to attack effectively on their own, none except for the one Mark called Brenok, who was canny enough to mask his powers. Giles had not forgotten what Brenok had done to the refugees he had tried to save in Byrn. Would that his pike piece that black heart...
The apprentices charged another blast, but this time Giles was ready for it. The attack bounced harmlessly off his shield, its destructive force unleashed on the Marauders in front of him. The moment he deflected the attack, Giles thrust his pike skyward with all his might, straining its enchantment and nearly tearing his arm out of the socket to bring a swift and well-deserved end to Brenok. He struck a moment too quickly, though, sticking the apprentice at the head of the formation instead. He did not even realize he had caught the wrong man until after he slammed the body into the ground to assure his kill.
Brenok was already gone, completely vanished, just as Giles had unwittingly triggered a trap that claimed the other apprentices in short order. Jasper, who had been waiting on the rooftops, sprang upon one of the low-flying apprentices, slitting his throat as he rode the body into the dirt. A flawless shot from Jill pierced the lung of another. Yet another was snatched away by the coils of the Darkling's whip, while the last one was smashed into the wall of the keep by a jet of water, apparently from Stefan. A good showing, but the most dangerous one of the lot had gotten away.
Giles had no time to celebrate, though. As he was drawing his pike out of the dead apprentice, the shaft was split asunder by a broad-bladed sword with a cruel hook at its point. Giles knew that sword. Cadmus.
The pikeman was barely able to raise his shield in time to block the next forceful swing. The old patrician's bluster was not entirely unfounded. He was not as good as he imagined himself to be, but he was still not one to be taken lightly.
"You're mine, traitor!" Cadmus bellowed. "You won't get off with forty lashes this time!"
Giles said nothing in reply, abandoning his stump of a pike and drawing the shortsword at his hip. He quickly assessed the situation. Although he was younger and stronger than his former commander, Cadmus had superior reach and was far more accustomed to swordfighting. He could not afford to be careless.
Cadmus seemed to think he had the advantage. Rather trying to seize the momentum, he drew himself up proudly and thumped on his chest.
"I have to pay you back for what you tried to do to me in Byrn."
"My only regret is that I didn't succeed," the pikeman growled.
Cadmus laughed. "As if a savage like you could spill patrician blood! Now, die like the dog you are!"
Without further delay, Cadmus threw himself forward with a roar, bringing his sword down in an overhead chop. The move was easy enough to dodge, but the patrician surprised Giles by quickly shifting his weight to charge with his shoulder, knocking the pikeman back. Cadmus then swung upwards, more to keep Giles off balance than to land a successful blow. Giles awkwardly intercepted the blade with his shield, but was unable to recover his footing. Cadmus pressed his advantage, hacking relentlessly at the pikeman and driving him back. Only when Cadmus reared back did Giles see an opportunity to strike. The two thrust their swords at the same time, but to dodge the patrician's strike, Giles' aim was not true. His blade did nothing more than cut Cadmus' cheek. So much for him being unable to draw patrician blood. However, far from being angered by the wound, Cadmus grinned wickedly. He twisted his wrists, and Giles realized what he was doing a moment too late. The patrician drew back his blade sharply, raking its cruel hook across Giles' neck.
Reflexively, Giles dropped his shield to clamp his hand over the wound. As the blood streamed down, he was already starting to feel lightheaded. He knew the wound was mortal, but he could not give up, not yet. He tried to swing at Cadmus, but his strength was draining away quicker than he was expecting. Cadmus easily batted away the feeble attempt of an attack and gave the pikeman a swift kick to the gut. Giles' legs were too unsteady to hold him up and he fell to the ground. He did not have much longer. At the very least, he would not die alone.
Giles made one last, desperate thrust at Cadmus, but the point only glanced off the patrician's cuirass. Looking at the pikeman as if he were nothing more than a toothless dog, Cadmus took off Giles' swordhand with a quick, contemptuous stroke. With nothing left to lose, Giles let go of his neck wound, heedless of the blood spraying freely, ever quickening his death. He drew the knife from his belt and threw it. It was a hasty, clumsy throw that wasted the last of his strength. Was that really the best he could do?
Even with the failure of his last resort, Giles refused to surrender. If nothing else, he would not face death lying down. He no longer had the strength to stand and it was all he could do to prop himself up with his elbows. He did not have much time left. Cadmus could simply watch the last flicker of life fade away, but he was not the type to take such a passive approach. The patrician raised his sword to take Giles' head and bring their match to an end.
All that was left for Giles was to glare at Cadmus in the vain hope that his hatred would drag his killer's soul along with him into the inky pits of Hell. But the stroke meant to end his life never came. Instead, Cadmus was nearly knocked off his feet by an arrow that sank into his thick neck. With a stunned look on his face, the patrician touched the shaft, disbelieving what had just happened. Realizing the truth, his eyes became vacant and he staggered off, disappearing into the plumes of smoke wafting across the castle grounds.
A part of Giles wished he could see Cadmus die with his own eyes, but what he had witnessed would have to do. His vision grew blurry. He knew there was not much time left. He tried to follow the path of the arrow, hoping to see who made that blessed shot. He could not be certain, between the smoke and his failing eyesight, but he could swear he saw a figure in green. Jill? He wanted to believe she was the one.
A smile crossed his lips. Jill may not have been able to save his life, but he would rest easier knowing that Cadmus Martial no longer walked the earth. He wished he could have done more, but maybe this was enough. With his last breath, he prayed for his comrades' victory, that Randwulf and his minions would soon be joining him.