Chapter 29
Bonds

Castle Darkwall, Gladius

"The threads of fate bind all people together. Closest kin and the estranged, friends and enemies, comrades and rivals, countrymen and aliens... No matter how distant or different two people may be, there is always something tying them together. These bonds can unite us... but they can also tear us apart..."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Randwulf was impressed. He was certain the son of Luther had exhausted himself before he drew the sword of the Dragonslayers, but the young swordsman stubbornly fought on. The son of Luther had youth and natural talent on his side, but he was only one man and he had only a few months' experience as an Elemental Knight. In the end, he would be no match for the combined power of the lives Randwulf had taken into himself.
It would be a waste to kill the son of Luther. Indeed, Randwulf doubted he could bring himself to do it, even at the cost of his own life and all his plans. Forcibly absorbing the son of Luther was not much more appealing. He was likely to shut himself off, like his father had done, and cheat Randwulf out of the bulk of his abilities and memories. Worse yet, his mind could rebel and deep down, Randwulf feared that his will might lose out to his determined young opponent. No, there had to be another way. If the son of Luther was too strong to be a slave, what if he could be convinced to become Randwulf's partner?
It would not be easy, but it was worth a try. The son of Luther was worn in mind and body, still struggling with the shock of Randwulf's revelation. His friends were fighting and likely dying beyond the walls of the keep. If ever he could succumb to the power of suggestion, now was the time.
First, a gesture of good will. Randwulf plunged the both his swords into the floor. The son of Luther was not the sort of coward who struck an unarmed man and even if he was, Randwulf was hardly defenseless. Yes, the move had the desired effect. The son of Luther kept his guard up, but he was no longer poised to attack. He would listen.
Randwulf was used to taking whatever he wanted by force, bending people to his will through fear. Neither tactic would work here. It would be difficult, but he was never the type to shrink from a challenge.
"You never cease to amaze me, Mark the Guardian. I wonder if even your father could have lasted so long against all my new powers. Nevertheless, it should be clear to you that you cannot defeat me."
"Tell me that after I'm dead," the son of Luther said defiantly.
Randwulf could not help grinning. The boy's spirit remained unbroken even as his body was at its limits. The Conqueror reminded himself that threats would not work here. Easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar.
"What do we gain by fighting each other?" Randwulf asked. "If either of us dies here, who profits from it?"
"Gladius won't be free as long as you draw breath."
"So you mean to kill me."
"I mean to see you brought to justice."
Ah, yes. The son of Luther was a scholar, was he not? Why not use philosophy against him?
Randwulf asked him, "And what is justice, Mark the Guardian? If I fall this day, what will happen to Gladius?"
"The rightful king will rise to the throne. The tools of your tyranny and oppression will be taken apart. The men who have made the people of Gladius suffer these past twenty years will answer for their crimes."
Best not to focus on these 'crimes'. Strike where he is weakest.
"By 'rightful king', do you mean the Drunkard Prince? Is that your idea of justice?"
"He is the heir to the line of Everard."
There was hesitation, ever so slight. Randwulf could very well win by attacking from this angle.
"That is not good enough," he insisted. "Do you find it just to put a man like him on the throne?"
"Edward has his flaws, but the throne is his by right of birth."
More hesitation. Merely repeating words rather than speaking from the heart. Yes, this was the key. The Conqueror pressed his advantage.
"And you call that just? Surely you know him better than I. Will you sleep easy at night knowing the kingdom is in his hands? Will you take comfort knowing the sacrifices of your comrades will be honored by his every word and deed, that he will put the needs of the people before his own wants?"
Silence. Excellent.
"You cannot hide it," Randwulf said, more confident than ever. "You have no faith in the man. You have focused so singularly on facing me that you have not thought about what would happen next. You dare not think of it, lest you come to see me as the lesser of two evils.
"What has the Drunkard Prince done to deserve the throne? If nothing else, I earned this land through my own craft and might. At very least, I gave the people order."
"Order and justice aren't the same thing," the young Guardian said.
"Can there be justice without order?"
"No, but there can be order without justice."
The son of Luther was mustering his defense. Randwulf could not afford to give any ground. He was so close.
"Now we are just playing with words," he said, dismissing the riposte out of hand. "You avoid my questions because you are afraid of the truth. You think only in abstractions because you cannot face reality. You can prate about justice all you want, but in the end, you are fighting for that drunkard's benefit and you know he is not worth it."
"A kingdom is more than just one man."
"But the king is its crown, and the Drunkard Prince is no more than a ring of tin. Your heart will never be at ease unless Gladius is ruled by a man who governs with conscience. You could be that man. In fact, I can think of no one else."
It was a dangerous gambit, but to gain the son of Luther, it was worth sacrificing his rule, if but for a time.
Predictably, the Guardian replied, "I have no desire for such power."
His virtue would be his undoing. Now to exploit it to the fullest.
"That is precisely why the kingdom is safest in your hands. You have no greed, no lusts of the heart to lead you astray. You seek justice? Who better to administer that justice than you?
"I rule through fear. People follow me because I have subdued them with my strength. There is no loyalty. My men are like a pack of wild dogs, waiting to tear me apart at the first sign of weakness. You, on the other hand, have won the respect of your companions, their love even. The people out there are not fighting for the Drunkard Prince. They are fighting for you. You are their center."
Would these honeyed words be enough? Could he twist the son of Luther's morality for his own ends? The young swordsman did not answer. Was victory his? There was only one way to find out. Walking out of easy reach of his swords, he extended his hand to the Guardian.
"Come, join me. Become one with me and together we can rule this land. My strength tempered with your compassion, fear replaced with love. It is yours for the taking."
The son of Luther did not take Randwulf's hand. Instead he bowed his head and spoke in a low voice.
"'Et dixit illi haec tibi omnia dabo si cadens adoraveris me.'"
Randwulf frowned. "I have no use for Imperial, boy. Neither of us are patricians, now are we?"
"I was just recalling someone else who made a similar offer," the son of Luther said. "If only you could be banished so easily."
The boy was more stubborn than he thought, but Randwulf was not about to give up. If anyone could be made to see the grand scope of his plan, surely it was him. Surely he would realize that Randwulf was right and embrace him.
"Do you not see what I am trying to do?" he asked. "When the warlock remade Randwulf and Luther as a single man, I realized the truth about the Elemental Knights. We are taught that the Elemental Knights were created after the Great War to maintain the balance of power in the world. However, the true aim of the Council was to rein in the potential of the strongest bloodlines. Without the nonhumans, magic itself became the great threat to mankind. We, the descendants of those mighty bloodlines, must suffer for their fears.
"Our ancestors were tricked into being nothing more than the wielders of magical tools rather than becoming true masters of the elements. Because we are trained to rely on the Gems, we never learn about our true powers. I seek to end this. I have tapped into the hidden power within myself to master the very technique the warlock used to create me. I will unite all eight bloodlines into single being of untold power. This power is ours by right."
The son of Luther raised his head to meet Randwulf eye-to-eye. In his glare was the same resolve he came with, the resolve to undo the Conqueror and all he had built.
"You've caused enough suffering with the power you already have," he said. "All you've done is given me more reason to stop you."
Randwulf sighed. What a disappointment. Perhaps his vision was simply too great for mere mortals. A pity.
"I had hoped reason would prevail with you," Randwulf said, drawing his sword once more, "but you are blinder than I thought. If you will not stand at my side, I will have you at my feet."
It was such a waste, such a needless waste. Together they could have been unstoppable, but now he would have another will to subdue. It would take energy better spent elsewhere, but there was no other choice left.
Even though he had only given himself a brief moment to reflect on the thought, it was a moment's lapse that he could not afford with an opponent like the son of Luther. Even in his weakened state, he was not to be underestimated and Randwulf paid the price for not attacking right away.
The son of Luther was clutching at his chest. Randwulf felt a strange new energy, not from the Gems and not the Guardian's element. Before he could react, a stone shaft burst from the floor and thrust his body into the wall. Were it not for his armor, his chest could have easily been smashed in.
Almost as Randwulf hit the wall, a row of stone pillars rose up and struck the ceiling, separating the Conqueror from his quarry. Randwulf hung there pinned to the wall and despite the consequences of the previous lapse, he took another moment to appreciate the turn of events. It seemed that he was not the only one who had expanded his reach beyond the powers of the Elemental Knights. Interesting.
Wielding his sword, he smashed through the shaft pinning him to the wall. Upon landing, he winced just a little. That attack had a little more bite than he would have expected. Looking up at the ceiling, he saw that the throne room had suffered too much damage during the fight and would not hold up if he recklessly smashed the pillars raised by the Guardian. It was no serious impediment, but he could afford to give the son of Luther the chance to catch his breath. Indeed, he could use a little rest himself. After all, he was not as young as he used to be. At least not for the moment.

* * *

The air above the castle took on an unnatural hue from the titanic clash of magical energies. For all the exertion of the two former members of the Shadow Clan, no progress had been made in their duel. That did not stop the warlock Shadowblight from maintaining that the advantage was entirely his.
"How long do you intend to continue this farce?" he asked his counterpart. "You cannot defeat me. I draw my power from the myriad souls my master commands. How can you hope to stand against me?"
Shadowstryke only shook his head.
"Have you fallen so far, Shadowbright? A true mage draws his power not from captive souls but the Planet herself, from the currents of mana washing over her. This is one of the first things we teach novices. Have you forgotten even this?"
"A novice is all you will ever be!" the warlock snapped.
"Better to put your trust in a wise novice than a senile master."
Even before his fall, Shadowblight's pride had been a fragile thing easily bruised. Had he eyes left in his withered skull, he would have glowered fiercely at the wizard's retort.
"Do not think I will treat you to a quick and easy death."
"If your power is so great," the wizard challenged, "why has this little contest dragged on for three hours now?"
It was a fine question, one that undermined all Shadowblight's posturing. Before he could assert that he was simply playing with his opponent, prolonging the well-deserved torment, a shock washed over him. It was a warning. Two powers were coming together, powers that were not meant to draw close to one another. They could only be joining with one purpose in mind.
"Those wretched little ingrates..." the warlock muttered. "They will not escape me so easily."
In want for a distraction, Shadowblight raised his arms and began to channel energy into a massive orb. Then, with a scornful smile, he told his rival, "Here, see if you can save your precious little puppet."
The warlock then cast the gigantic orb down to the earth, bearing down on Darkwall's keep. It was the last thing anyone would expect him to do. All the better. Yes, he might lose Randwulf in the exchange, but he was always replaceable. There were more important things at stake.
As he predicted, Shadowstryke immediately went to stop, divert or at least lessen the impact of the warlock's attack. That gave Shadowblight the freedom to tend to more urgent matters. If he was too late, years of work would be for naught. He could not let that happen. Indeed, he would not let them get away so easily.

* * *

Edward's head felt like an ingot being worked over by a clumsy blacksmith. By all accounts he should be dead, but it seemed that even in the heat of a full-fledged battle, the order sparing his life held. Since he was not dead, he expected to find himself in the dungeon, but when he opened his eyes, he found that was not the case either.
He was lying on a wide bed in a bare-looking room. He was stripped of all his gear and shackled at the wrists and ankles. Rather than chaining him to the bed posts, which he could probably break off with little effort, the chains ran under the bed, making it far more difficult to break free.
"Awake at last, I see," a woman's voice said. "I was beginning to wonder if you would sleep through the entire battle."
Sitting at a boudoir a short distance from the bed was the owner of the voice, a tall middle-aged with a proud bearing and long black hair that showed a few stray hints of silver.
Struggling fruitlessly against his restraints, the Prince growled, "What is this? What's going on here?"
Instead of answering Edward's questions, the woman cradled a massive sword, much like Edward's own, gently stroking its wide blade.
"Crafted in the fashion of the legendary sword of Giants," she said. "Wielded by Everard himself during the War of Unification. Passed down from one Mountain King to the next until it was lost at the Battle of Greystone."
Edward could hardly believe what he was hearing. Did his eyes deceive him?
"It couldn't possibly--"
"Oh, but it is," the woman interrupted. "Did you think the Marauders would ignore the body of the late King of Gladius?" She glanced over to the far corner of the room, where Edward's gear was gathered, noting, "You did well in your attempt to recreate it, your father's sword."
How did this woman come to possess his father's sword, the celebrated blade of the Mountain Kings?
"Who are you?" Edward demanded.
"I am the wife of Gunnar Terentius, Captain of the Gladian Guard."
Edward spat. "I have no business with that dog's wench. Release me at once. I command you."
Contemptuously, the woman asked him, "By what authority, little princeling? Unless you have sworn fealty to His Majesty, you have no rank here. Bold of a mere commoner to make demands on the grounds of Darkwall itself."
Edward's pride would not suffer to be called a commoner. The blood immediately rushing to his head, he howled, "You wench! Be thankful for these chains!"
Not intimidated in the slightest by his howling or the furious rattling of his chains, the woman replied simply, "I am. After all, it was my order that brought you here. Once that boor Cadmus decided to disobey His Majesty, I could not risk the Drunkard Prince getting slain and made into a martyr, though I daresay you would profit more from being dead than alive."
"Your order?" the Prince scoffed. "Randwulf's Palace Guard takes orders from a woman? Ha!"
Though Edward was doing everything in his power to heap scorn in the impudent woman, she met him measure for measure, her own subtler brand of contempt arguably the more potent.
"You really are quite the charmer," she sneered. "Yes, my order. The Palace Guards are not the only ones who heed my command. I had hoped to bring a quick end to your recent adventures, but I should have known better than to rely on the competence of men to get anything done."
Edward rolled his eyes. "I'm so sure you could've stopped us with a dozen chambermaids."
The woman held her chin as if she was seriously considering the option and said, "Perhaps I should have tried that."
Edward had had enough.
"You've had your fun, wench. Now release me."
"No, you will be staying right there," the woman said firmly. "Any other requests?"
"How do you know about that sword?"
The woman looked down on the blade fondly and gave it another loving stroke. "A lady ought to know about her wedding present."
"Wedding present?"
"I thought it was in rather poor taste," she said, "but possessing the sword of the late King made my husband quite the envy of the other officers. A kingly gift for such a simple man. You can imagine the effect it had on men like Lord Cadmus." She paused. "Oh, that is right. Lord Cadmus was rather obscure before the invasion. I do not believe your paths crossed back then, not enough to leave much of an impression at any rate."
"How would you know?"
"I used to live in the castle. I was fortunate the warlock did not damage the keep too severely. Or perhaps I was unfortunate, depending on how you look at things. Although I cannot say I envy the carcasses left out for the crows."
"Better to die than to fall into the enemy's hands," Edward insisted.
The woman glared at him. "Your opinion would mean more if you had the decency to die back then." She looked wistfully into the distance. "Ah, it makes for a pretty picture. Father and son, cut down on the field of battle in their valiant struggle against the barbarian hordes. The stuff of legends." Once again casting her damning gaze on the Prince, she continued, "Instead we have a coward who fled, sinking into a pathetic life of drinking and whoring and foolery. The Drunkard Prince, no, the Clown Prince."
Even with her prior display of impudence towards him, she had taken it even farther, to far to suffer any longer.
"How dare you!" Edward bellowed, fiercely rocking the bed in a vain, furious effort to break free. "I'll snap your neck, wench!"
Unable to break free and make good on his threat, Edward was unable to redress the latest insult. It only succeeded in making the woman regard him with even greater scorn, if such a thing was possible.
"Ever the gentleman. I see the years have done nothing to improve that temper of yours. The body of a grown man, but still the same petulant little boy."
On top of her impudence and insults, this presumptuousness was especially grating on the Prince's nerves. She did not know him and had no right to pretend she did. He promptly told her as much.
"You don't know me, wench."
"Oh, but I do," the woman countered. "I know you like no other. Does the name Edytha mean anything to you?"
"What if it does?"
"What do you think happened to her?"
Why was the woman bringing that name into it? It was no secret that his elder sister was named Edytha, so it did little good to feign ignorance. Perhaps she was trying to tarnish his sister's good name to taunt him further. She would likely continue whether he said anything or not, and he would rather have a word in first.
"She's dead, no doubt," he said. "Why? Do you mean to say you saw it happen?"
The woman shook her head. "She did not die. No, she was taken alive when the Marauders stormed Greystone. The daughter of King Edgar, his firstborn child. A kingly gift, much like this sword."
The woman looked him dead in the eyes and Edward saw it. Oh, how he wished he did not see it, but there was no denying it. Yes, twenty years had passed, but how did he not see it sooner?
The woman smiled. "Finally you see it, my dear brother. Any words of gratitude for your sister for saving your wretched life?"
Once the immediate shock had worn off, Edward was filled with a new anger toward the woman he once knew as his sister. Rather than dying with honor, she chose to live in disgrace. And she dared to call his life wretched?
"My wretched life!?" Edward fumed. "I'm not the one who sold herself body and soul to the enemy!"
Indignantly, Edytha snapped back, "I accepted my lot in life. I took responsibility for what I had become. What have you done? Twenty years of drowning yourself in ale, rampaging like a mad bull whenever liquid courage rallied your little band of drunken failures. You have done nothing but heap shame on Father's name and the memory of our hallowed ancestors. When you face them on the other side, how do you intend to justify your place in their company?"
Now this was a question he could answer with pride. His chest swelling, he replied, "Here, now. The deeds of this day will earn me my place among our ancestors."
Mockingly, Edytha asked, "How? Lying chained to your sister's marriage bed while better men fight and die?"
Edward did not let her get the better of him, not this time.
"Even with your treachery, they will remember who brought warriors to the field this day."
Dismissive as ever, his sister replied, "If you think you are the one who cobbled together that band of rebels, you are a more of a fool than I thought. If it was something you could have done, it would not have taken twenty years. Rather than finding yourself here in the heart of Darkwall, you would be passed out in a tavern somewhere if it were not for the son of Luther."
Touching that rawest of raw nerves, Edward lost his cool once more.
"I don't need him!" the Prince shouted vehemently. "I don't need anyone!"
"You are not only a fool but blind if you cannot see what the son of Luther has done for you," Edytha said. "If all goes according to plan, he will realize that you are not a cause worth fighting for. If this little rebellion succeeds, they will look to him, not you. And if he has any conscience, he will not put the people of this kingdom at your mercy."
Edward felt a chill.
"He wouldn't dare."
The Prince was talking more to himself than to Edytha. His sister seemed to be amused by this, all too eager to exploit the weak spot she had exposed.
"You would know better than I," she said, a greater condemnation than simply asserting it herself. "Has he ever deferred to you as the rightful lord of this land?" she asked. "Did he ever regard you as a leader? Or did he claim leadership for himself and treat you as nothing more than a fellow comrade?"
Each of the questions weighed heavily on him, but Edytha did not stop.
"Who goes to face His Majesty? Is it not tradition for kings to fall by the hands of kings? No matter what glory you could have won for yourself out there, it would pale in comparison. If I were you, dear brother, I would pray for the rebellion's defeat. It would be less cruel a fate for you."
Edward cursed the snake of a woman before him, masquerading in the skin of his late sister. He cursed the son of Luther for plotting against him from the start. Most of all, he cursed himself for letting all this happen. After twenty years of yearning for the Crown, it never seemed so far away.

* * *

A well-placed punch left a hapless Marauder clutching at his crushed windpipe. He would not die quickly. Although Stefan could appreciate the professionalism of a swift kill, there was something entirely gratifying about making his enemies suffer. He delighted in the stunned look on their faces as he snapped their bones like dry twigs. They would come at him with such confidence, grossly underestimating what he could do to them without any weapons. And they would pay dearly for underestimating him.
The blast that destroyed the keep threw the castle ground into total chaos. Billowing smoke and scattered rubble put both sides in disarray. Stefan cursed his luck. He was probably dead and now there would be no reckoning. It was the main reason the fighter was inflicting more pain than necessary to dispatch his enemies. Someone had to pay, even if it would never be enough.
While Stefan was busy hunting down the next victim to fall to his arts, he found himself in a somewhat open area. There he saw the desert man Tariq. Although the desert man's face was covered, he was no doubt scowling. The feeling was mutual.
"You are not the one I seek," he said in gruff Bannish.
Deigning to reply in kind, Stefan said, "Neither are you, but surely we can make do." He cracked his knuckles. "I've been left wanting for a challenge. I'll let you decide whether we use magic or not."
"A true warrior does not need the devil's arts."
"I was thinking same thing," Stefan said. Assuming a fighting stance, he beckoned to his opponent. "Come at me."
The desert man settled into his stance. It appeared that it was going to be a contest of wills to determine who was the more impatient, who would risk making the first move. This was not the case. It was mere deception, masking his preparation to spring forward. The sudden charge no doubt caught many other opponents unaware, but Stefan's reflexes were too sharp for him to be taken off his guard so easily.
Tariq brought his blade down in a diagonal slash--which was dodged with little effort--then turned his wrist to make a quick horizontal slice. Stefan jumped back, giving Tariq enough time to bring his sword up for an overhead chop. The fighter rushed in, catching the blade in his hands before the desert man could throw his weight into the swing. Tariq struggled to follow through in spite of the interference. When that got him nowhere, he drew the dagger at his waist and swiped across Stefan's chest.
The cut only succeeded in making the fighter angry. He fiercely kicked the desert man's side and, while he was off-balance, tried to wrench the sword out of his hand. Tariq did not surrender his weapon easily and tried to stab Stefan in the arm, forcing the fighter to break and jump back. Taking advantage of the distance between them, Tariq quickly slashed with sword and dagger, but Stefan was faster, even finding an opening to deliver a solid punch to Tariq's face.
Stefan got in close, trapping Tariq's arms with his own, and then threw all the weight he could into a headbutt that was sure to break the desert man's nose. He struck again for good measure, but when he went in for a third, Tariq met him with a headbutt of his own. Hitting forehead-to-forehead hurt both of them about equally, but somehow Tariq had the presence of mind to fall onto his back and throw Stefan off him.
Stefan scrambled to his feet and charged at the desert man to hit him before he could get up. Only he was already on his feet. With his sword turned down, he held up a hand to stop Stefan's charge.
"Hold," he said.
More because he was taken off-guard than anything else, Stefan stopped.
"I tire of this match," Tariq continued. "If it pleases you, I will suffer you to claim victory."
Stefan balked at the idea. "If you weren't prepared to fight, you never should've challenged me."
"I have no stake in this fight," the desert man said, "and neither do you. I will not waste any more of my strength on such a meaningless battle."
The fighter was not about let him go so easily.
"You can concede defeat after I've pummeled you into the ground."
"You waste my time, infidel," Tariq growled. "Begone!"
Before Stefan could stop him, Tariq raised his sword and a sudden rush of smoke-filled air swept between them, too intense for the fighter to simply charge forward. By the time it died down enough for the smoke to clear, Tariq was gone.
Stefan spat at the ground contemptuously. "Damn coward. Just like him..."

* * *

Outside divine intervention, Mark did not see how he survived the attack on the keep. He blacked out shortly after it happened, but somehow he had thrown himself on the unconscious Claudius and the servant Norbert while using the Earth Pendant to raise several stone pillars to help prop up the crumbling ceiling, which now groaned under the weight of the upper levels.
At first, it looked like Norbert had been knocked out, but he had merely fainted and was roused by a light tapping on the cheek. The old servant looked rather disoriented, but not much worse for wear, at least as far as Mark could tell with so little light.
"Are you okay?" Mark asked.
"Yes, my lord," Norbert answered.
By the looks of it, Claudius was more or less unharmed as well. Mark took a moment to assess his surroundings. The keep was sturdily built, but it had suffered a critical blow. The swordsman could sense the powerful magic that still clung to the broken stone. As the wizard would never do such a thing, that only left the warlock, but why?
"Mark the Guardian!" a voice bellowed. Randwulf. "I know you still live! Answer me!"
Mark was not especially eager to respond. What would he say? No doubt the Conqueror wanted to continue their duel. He was in no position to fight now. He had to get Claudius and Norbert out of harm's way.
Randwulf's voice cried again, "Answer me!"
"I'm not dead yet," Mark said, raising his voice just enough to be heard. "Claudius is still alive, too. If you want to keep fighting, let me get him clear of this rubble first."
Randwulf laughed. "You risk your life to spare your enemy's heir... You must have driven the Drunkard Prince mad. The keep will not last much longer. Damn that conjurer and his meddling!"
As if to emphasize his point, the rubble overhead shifted noticeably. Indeed, there was not much time, but what to do? Mark wondered if the same earthen pillars he was using to support the remnants of the ceiling would be strong enough to lift the overhead rubble up off them and open up an escape route. Unlikely. And the walls would probably just collapse in the exchange. Perhaps he could open up a hole in the ground. Surely the weight of the rubble would not cause the basement levels to cave in, would it?
Whatever he was going to do, he needed to hurry. While he was channeling energy into the Earth Pendant, he heard Randwulf's voice again.
"I had hoped to settle things between us, Mark the Guardian, but that damned conjurer has robbed me of that. I will not suffer you to die here. You will live to see the morrow. My gift to the next generation..."
Before Mark could react, he, Claudius and Norbert were enveloped in a stone bubble and thrust forward, tearing through the thick wall of rubble. He then heard a deafening crash. The stone bubble crumbled away, revealing them to be just outside the keep. There was not much left standing.
Although many of the people who had been fighting on the castle grounds were dead, the noise of battle continued to roar, both there and in the distance. Nevertheless, for a little while, everything seemed to go silent. After all Mark had been through to face Randwulf, was that really it?

* * *

The Gladian loyalists and their Arman allies had been locked in battle with Randwulf's dreaded Marauders for a few hours now. Most of that time had been spent fighting skirmishers and other irregulars meant to wear them down before the Marauders moved in to finish them off. The Allied lines held fast, which was fortunate, for the Marauders would show no mercy.
Siegfried Martel was thankful for all the allies assembled over the course of Prince Edward's travels, but it was the Scotian swordsmen he appreciated most of all. The hastily assembled militia of loyalists consisted entirely of aging veterans and hot-blooded, untried youths. The Scotians, on the other hand, were professional soldiers in their prime, masterful in the sword arts and bold to a fault. Although his pride wanted to believe otherwise, Siegfried knew that without them, the loyalists would not have been able to hold the line against the Marauder advance.
Siegfried had been trained as an infantry swordsman before he was accepted into the Palace Guard, but in the years since the Battle of Greystone, he studied mounted combat and became reasonably adept at fighting on horseback. Though the mounted Allies numbered little more than twoscore, they were nevertheless useful. Cavalry had always been a weakness of the Marauders, after all.
A trumpet call was raised on the enemy side. It was the old call for a cavalry charge. The Guard, of course. They had been holding back up until now, so Siegfried had nearly forgotten about them being mixed in with the Marauders for this battle. The old captain saw the charge coming. They were rushing into the wedge between the two contingents of the Marauders in an attempt to break into the Allied formation. The Allies would not make it so easy.
"Open it up!" Siegfried shouted. "Let them in!"
The order was passed down. Though fighting was pitched on the front line, fresh troops moved in and split the formation where the two Marauder contingents met, where the riders of the Guard were heading. They formed a pocket to allow the Guardsmen in. They would be in for a nasty surprise.
As the Guardsmen plunged into the Allied formation, the men lining the pocket thrust out their spears, creating a wall of sharp points that no horse would dare challenge. Some of the spearmen closed off the pocket so the Guardsmen could not escape. All that was left was to finish them off.
Siegfried was pleased with the result, but there seemed to be too few riders for a charge that was surely meant to break up the stubborn Allied lines. What then?
He saw it before it was too late. Well over a hundred riders coming unannounced to hit the western flank. The first charge had been a decoy.
Siegfried hastily shouted new orders. "Spears, pikes, to the right! Guard the flank! Horsemen, to me! We'll best them at their own game."
The Allied riders mustered around Siegfried while any available spearmen and pikemen moved to outer line of the western flank. A few of the more zealous riders would have gone that moment, but Siegfried stopped them before they could ruin his plan with their impetuousness.
"Horsemen, hold your ground! Wait for my signal!"
The Guardsmen charged with halberds lowered to plow through the Allies with their crossbowmen fired bolts into the ranks to weaken the defenses. Once the all the Guardsman formation had gotten around the Marauders, Siegfried swung his sword down sharply.
"Charge!"
To make up for their inferior numbers, Siegfried had the riders wait until they could strike at the Guardsmen's flank, turning their own tactic against them. If they were Marauders, they might have been quicker to react and adapt to the change in circumstances, but the Guardsmen's lackluster training left them ill-equipped to respond to the turnabout. Even more to the Allies' advantage.
The riders moved in quick, not giving the crossbowmen the time to line up their shots. Fighters on the ground hurried to the riders' aid, lest the Guardsmen pull themselves together enough to overwhelm the greatly outnumbered Allied riders.
Siegfried was in the thick of it until he saw the man leading the Guardsman charge, none other than Captain Terentius himself. That was one he had to take for himself at any cost. After cutting deeply into the neck of the Guardsman he was fighting, Siegfried withdrew from the roiling melee to intercept Terentius, who seemed to be trying to flee.
Siegfried got around in front of Terentius, pointing his sword directly at him. The challenge was issued. Terentius could not possibly decline. Even if he was that much of a coward, he would never be able to command another fighting man for the rest of his days. Whatever motivated him, the Guardsman Captain raised his halberd to meet the challenge.
Like two knights in the lists, they charged at each other. Because he wielded his halberd two-handed, Terentius did not have a significant advantage in reach, which was all the better for Siegfried. The old captain swung widely, striking Terentius' side, but not before his opponent thrust the point of the halberd into Siegfried's gut.
The exchange of blows unhorsed the two of them. For a moment, Siegfried feared he had taken a grievous hurt, but looking down, he only saw a dent in his cuirass. Had the armor been but a little thinner or the thrust more forceful...
Terentius had dropped his halberd when he fell, so he drew the sword at his side the moment he got back on his feet. Siegfried was all the more confident now. Even though the Guardsman Captain was quite a bit younger, the likes of Terentius could not hope to best him in a swordfight.
The Guardsman Captain clumsily parried Siegfried's first swing, but it left him open for a follow-up attack. The old captain sidestepped and slashed downward, cleaving the buckles holding the front and back of his breastplate together. Terentius made an all too hasty swipe at Siegfried's neck, but it was easily dodged. Inverting his sword, Siegfried hooked Terentius' neck with the crossguard and tried to force him to the ground. In a rare display of quick thinking, the Guardsman Captain turned his blade and stabbed at Siegfried. The old captain had to jump back. It was a close call, but it put him right where he wanted to be. Siegfried thrust his sword deep into Terentius' side, just below the arm. He reckoned he skewered the Guardsman Captain's heart, for he fell limp almost instantly.
Taking his boot to the body, Siegfried drew out his blade. The old captain stood triumphant over the new one. He did not waste much time to regard the body of his fallen enemy. He was not worth it.
Siegfried spat on the carcass at his feet. "May the carrion birds claim you, dog."

* * *

When he was playing the part of the minstrel, Jasper liked crowds. The bigger the crowd, the more people to entertain, the more people who might toss a coin or two his way. However, he was not so fond of crowds that were brandishing weapons with murderous intent. And this was the situation he found himself in now.
He was a firm believer that it was best to avoid a fight whenever possible. He was no warrior, and though he had already gotten his hands dirty, he knew his abilities were better used to disrupt the enemy. Taking the scrawny Ignatiy with him, he sought out buildings on the castle grounds that would be particularly helpful to the enemy, like the armories, and set them ablaze.
Shortly after using Ignatiy's bomb contraptions to explode a smithy, Jasper caught sight of a figure he recognized as the so-called Green Bandit Roque. He was not part of the teams that infiltrated the castle, but any help was welcome given how much the odds were stacked against them, even if the Green Bandit's vaunted abilities were questionable at best.
Jasper moved closer to hail Roque when a dagger came flying past him.
"'Ey, ain' wi on th' seym soide?" the thief asked.
It was the thick of battle and someone as inexperienced as Roque was likely to be jittery, so Jasper was not worried too much about the stray dagger. Then a few more flew his way and the Green Bandit rushed at him with a dirk drawn and ready to make a few extra holes in his hide. Jasper drew his own knife to intercept the initial thrust. Up close, it was clear that what Roque had done was no accident. He had every intention of killing Jasper.
"Ye tahn'd treytah!?"
"Fool!" the Green Bandit scoffed. "I was never on your side to begin with. Did you honestly think I would help you after the way you humiliated me? Working for Randwulf pays well, but I would have done it for nothing just to get back at the lot of you. You all have always been foolish, sparing your enemies like you do. You should have killed me when you had the chance. You should have killed those Guardsmen, too, but it is too late now. If someone set them free and gave weapons, I hate to think what they would do."
Jasper felt the ice shoot through his veins. If that mad dog Svenson were cut loose...
As if reading the thief's mind, Roque grinned evilly. "I just remembered how fond you are of that little nun. What a pity. Then again, she might still be alive if they have not finished sporting with her."
Jasper saw red. He could have flayed alive that grinning devil before him, but any moment wasted on Roque was a moment better spent flying to Teresa's side. He left the hated Green Bandit to whatever business he came for. The thief could always settle the score later. Teresa came first, always first. Perhaps he could warn her in time. He had to try.

* * *

The fighting was fierce, but King Breandan was proud of each and every on of his brave Scotian swordsmen. Each did honor to King, country and their family names with every swordstroke. Few of them had seen actual combat before, but none of them shrank from their foes. None gave an inch of ground, even when they fell.
The lines of battle had blurred, putting Ally and Marauder in a great bloody mix. Reason to fight all the harder. Breandan felled foemen left and right. His sword sang as it spilled the blood of the enemy.
All was going well until he saw one of his swordsmen struggling against a burly, bearded axeman. Another man came to his aid, but neither lasted long. One was killed outright, but the other was only wounded. Before the axeman could finish him off, Breandan rushed to the man's aid. He intercepted the axeman's wicked-looking weapon and the two exchanged a few blows. The axeman clearly had not expected such a formidable opponent, but rather than being angry or frustrated, he looked delighted.
"Finally, a man worth killing!" the axeman beamed. "Tell me your name, foreigner, so that my axe will know whose blood it spills."
He spoke Bannish, so Breandan responded in kind.
"Gi'e me yer nam, axemon, an Ah'll till ye mine."
The axeman was more than happy to oblige.
"I am Sven Leifson! I command the Axeman Division, pride of the Marauders! I have fed the wolves across three nations. I love slaughter more than a woman's touch. Blood is sweeter to me than mead. Now, tell me your name before I send you to the abyss."
Breandan recalled the man from yesterday's briefing. Sven Leifson, one of the Five Generals. He appeared every bit the brute he was said to be. Killing him would be a great benefit for the Allied side, not that Breandan would have declined a challenge from even a common foot soldier. He was not expecting a proper duel in the heat of battle, but he would take it all the same.
He held up his sword as he answered the axeman's challenge. "Ah am caad Breandan," he declared, "o' the Hoos o' Bruis, Keing o' the Scots. Ah've cam tae this laund tae repey a debt o' honor. Tae slay a beast leke ye, Ah'm glad fra it."
With the formalities out of the way, the two opponents clashed with a roar from either side. They exchanged a couple blows, but then the axeman changed tactics, hacking away too furiously for Breandan to counter. He was thrown onto the defensive and Breandan knew all too well that once an axeman put a swordsman on the defensive, the swordsman's chances of victory dropped dramatically.
To stop the axeman's onslaught, Breandan gave him a swift kick to the gut. It was not as effective as a blow to an unarmored man, but it connected with enough force to stop him. Before Breandan could retract his foot, Sven gave a quick strike with his axe. The blade cut through Breandan's greaves and stuck in his shinbone. Paying no thought to the pain, not even crying out, Breandan brought down his sword, stabbing right through the axeman's neck and burying the point into the ground.
When the axeman stopped moving, Breandan twisted axe blade out of his leg and leaned heavily on his sword. The pain of his injury was just now hitting him, but it was a small price to pay. With the death of one of the Five Generals, the Allies were one step closer to victory.

* * *

Jasper ran as fast as his legs could carry him. He could not waste the time it would take to go around the battlefield, so he dove right into the thick of it. The pitched fighting played to his advantage, in a way. Although it was a challenge to weave through the crush of people doing their very best to kill each other, there was very little attention paid to him. He had to dodge the occasional spear thrust or arrow, but where people are in the fight for their lives, they care little for someone who is just running by.
Jasper did not get involved in the fighting. It would have only slowed him down. He could not afford even a moment's delay, even though it might already have been too late. He could not think about that now. He could only think about running.
As he ran for the treeline, there were a few more arrows to dodge. Rowanites, Amazons, maybe. A normal person would be hard-pressed to dodge one of their arrows, but Jasper was just a touch faster than any normal person.
More arrows and a couple javelins sent his way as he entered the forest. They would do well not to waste their precious ammunition on him. After all, who in Randwulf's service would possibly dress like him? No time to worry about that now. Hurry. hurry, hurry.
At long last he caught sight of the camp. If there were any benevolent gods in the world, he prayed to them that he was not too late, if only to warn them before the freed Guardsmen attack. He leapt, sailing over the palisades, and scrambled for the hospital tent. Surely she would be there, and there she was. She was standing outside, with one of the wounded Guardsmen near her. It was not too late.
"Stey awey frum 'im!" Jasper yelled. "Thay meen tah kill ye!"
There was no time for finesse. The thief threw himself bodily at the Guardsman, knocking both to the ground. He drew his dagger, intending to finish off the Guardsman before any of his comrades came to join the fray.
Before he could slit the Guardsman's throat, Teresa cried out, "Jasper, wait! Stop!"
Confused, Jasper did stop. The Guardsman offered no resistance, which gave Teresa time to explain.
"It's all right, Jasper," she said. "It's over now. Merrick here warned us before the Guardsmen could attack."
Jasper breathed a sigh of relief. "Thahnk Gow... Oi woz sew wurri'd."
Realizing he had attacked and nearly killed the very man who saved her life, Jasper got off the Guardsman, helped him to his feet, and sheepishly apologized.
"Sowry 'bow' thaht, chum."
"Don't worry about it," the Guardsman said.
There was a look in the Guardsman's eyes, almost like he regretted the fact that Jasper had not killed him. Maybe it was just the thief's imagination. Whatever the case, he did not get to think about it because Teresa started talking to him.
"You're the first person from the outside I've seen since everyone set out this morning. No one's brought any wounded back to the camp."
Jasper scratched his head. "Oi doan reckon thay kin affohd tah," he said. "Thayah owtnumbah'd pritty bedly. Thay kin't beh sendin' peple beck fis wey i' th' middle o' fin's."
"Then I have to go to them. Who knows how many lives hang in the balance?"
"Sister Teresa, be reasonable!" one of the monks said. "It is madness out there! Those heathens will not spare you on account of your habit, or because you are a woman. If anything, they will only pursue you more eagerly."
"I can't just sit here doing nothing," Teresa insisted.
Jasper rarely found himself agreeing with clerics, but the monk was right. It was too dangerous and he did not want her to put her life at risk, not when it could be avoided.
"Luv, ye prummis'd Mahk ye'd stey 'eyah."
"He'd understand."
"I will go with you, sister," an old friar said.
Jasper recognized him as the one who spoke with Mark the night before. Tough old goat to go out on the battlefield at his age, and without a weapon to boot.
The one monk from before seemed no happier with this turn of events. "Brother Teofilo! I must protest! Our numbers are diminished as it is. We cannot risk any more of our brethren's lives!"
The friar was not so easily swayed, though. "Our numbers mean nothing if we forget our purpose, Brother Philippus. Our lives are in God's hands. Our time will come when He decides, not a moment sooner and not a moment later."
This seemed to be enough to silence the monk's objections. Teresa, the friar and a few other volunteers went into the hospital tent to gather supplies. While Teresa was loading what she needed, she spared a moment to grab the sleeve of a man patrolling the inside of the tent.
"See if we can spare a few guards to carry people back to the camp," she said.
Jasper never failed to be amazed at the change in her whenever she set her mind to the task at hand. She stopped being a timid little mouse and became something greater. Of course, just because she was more assertive in this from did not mean she warranted his protection any less.
"Oi'm gewin' wif ye," Jasper said. "Oi'm no' ginna let anyfin' 'appen tah ye."
Shouldering her medicine bag, Teresa smiled. "Well then, let's go."

* * *

There was blood and death aplenty on either side of the castle wall, but for the twisted Brenok, it was not enough. The rebel forces were putting up a greater resistance than anyone expected. It was a far cry from the wholesale slaughter that ruled the day in the Byrn campaign. How utterly disappointing.
Brenok had a remedy, though. He had just the thing to spill blood and pile on fresh corpses. His master was too busy playing with his old friend to utilize all his resources. As the last surviving apprentice, it was Brenok's duty to pick up the slack. At least that would be his excuse.
Not far from the castle gate was a hatch on the ground. Brenok had opened it before, but he had done it from afar and only lured out a few of the master's pets. Now was the time for him to open it wide and loose each and every one of them. They had been cooped up for far too long.
The hatch swung open and it did not take long for the smell of blood to draw them to the surface. Now the real fun would begin. The thought alone was enough for Brenok to smile from ear to ear.
"Dinnertime."

* * *

General Einar Ulfson did not like leaving his men in the middle of battle, but a runner came with an urgent message calling for the generals to meet. With the fight the rebels were putting up and the added menace of the warlock's monsters attacking everyone in sight, their strategy had pretty much gone to the dogs. Now was as good a time as any to regroup and figure out what to do.
A relatively calm spot had been secured in the rear of the main formation, near the moat. How long that would last was anyone's guess. Drusus and Reinard were already there.
"Ho, Drusus," Ulfson said.
The dour knight simply nodded, seemingly lost in thought. Maybe Reinard was in a more talkative mood.
"Ho, Reinard. Where's Leifson and Ethred?"
"Dead," Reinard said bluntly.
"Terentius?"
"Dead."
Ulfson spat on the ground. "Damnation. Did you see what happened to the castle?"
"It looks like the warlock attacked it himself," Drusus said, finally joining the conversation.
"The King?"
Reinard shook his head. "We don't know. The fighting's too heavy inside to get any information. And now all these hellspawn running around..."
Ulfson could not believe it. They were Randwulf's Marauders, the dreaded wolf-feeders who had crushed two kingdoms. How could this happen? Wild rumors were flying about, military discipline breaking down. They were but a half-step from total chaos.
Speaking of wild rumors...
"Is it true that the Commander never left Darkwall?" Ulfson asked.
"He was supposed to use my unit for cover and he never showed," Drusus replied.
Unbelievable.
"What madness is this?"
Reinard stared out onto the battlefield. "These rebels are putting up more of a fight than we bargained for."
"A good thing we razed Byrn," Ulfson said, "or we'd have them to contend with, too, no doubt."
"We cannot fight both the rebels and the warlock's monsters without incurring greater losses than we can afford," Drusus said. "The buffer units of are all but wiped out. We must think beyond this one battle."
"What are you proposing?"
"Surely you have already heard Reinard's suggestion."
Reinard's suggestion. The runner had said something about it, but Ulfson did not believe it. In fact, he nearly gutted the runner on suspicion of him being a rebel agent. No Marauder could possibly think it up, after all.
"A truce?" Ulfson balked. "The reputation of the Marauders will be ruined!"
Drusus was stone-faced, unmoved at the thought of what that could mean. "Our reputation counts for little if we are all dead," he said. "Once those monsters are gone, we can regroup and crush the rebels outright. Too many of their number harry us from the forests while we contend with the main force. This will draw them out."
"I didn't mean for this to be nothing more than a trap," Reinard objected.
"I know," Drusus said, "but we must consider our options on all levels. Until we hear otherwise, our orders are still to crush them."
"Then why are we talking about truces?" Ulfson demanded.
Reinard seemed to be losing his patience. "Don't you get it, Ulfson? Even if we can defeat the rebels and the monsters at the same time, what then? We'll be lucky if even half our numbers survive. Think of how long it will take to train replacements. How will we defend the kingdom until then?"
Defend the kingdom... It was a funny thing when Ulfson thought of it. He was one of the original Marauders, a wild mountain bandit forged into a true warrior under the harsh tutelage of the Wolf of Cygnus. He owed his loyalty to Randwulf alone. The Marauders were his home. And yet, after twenty years, Gladius had become their land and the idea of holding loyalty to a place did not seem so foreign.
"I still don't like it," Ulfson said, "but if you can get the rebels to agree to a truce, I'll see that my men abide by it."
Reinard smiled. "Thank you, Ulfson. My man should be meeting with the rebel commander now."

* * *

When the ranks of the Marauders showed signs of breaking up, the Allied forces were heartened at first. Then the reason became clear and the cause for celebration faded away. The warlock had loosed his beasts on the battlefield. They had no sympathy for the Marauders who fell to the monsters' onslaught, but they knew the Marauders would not be the only victims. And so it was.
It was madness. The Allies and Marauders were still locked in their bloody combat and all the while the warlock's creations preyed on both sides. The vile Threshers would swarm on formations of men like locusts to a wheat field, and the brutal Red Demons wreaked havoc far and wide, each with the strength of ten men and the fury of the hells' blackest devil.
A change of strategy was called for, and to that end the field commanders assembled to plot their next move. Whatever they did, they needed to do it quickly. Only they were having a difficult time coming to a consensus. Then help came from an unexpected quarter.
One of Siegfried's men approached the assembled commanders with two enemy soldiers in tow. He saluted the old captain and said, "Captain Siegfried, we've got two Marauders here. Came waving the white flag."
Siegfried sneered at the hated Marauders. "Ready to surrender, are they?"
The senior of the two Marauders, a lieutenant by the look of him, asked Siegfried, "Are you the leader of the rebel forces?"
"No," the old captain replied, "but I am his representative."
"Can you speak for the men assembled here?"
"I can."
Drawing himself up, the lieutenant said, "I come under the authority of General Reinard of the Spearman Division. As you should already know, the warlock's creations are butchering the men of both sides. It is the General's conclusion that the warlock has betrayed the King. I am here to offer a truce until these monsters are wiped out. Once the monsters are destroyed, we will hold an armistice until contact with Darkwall can be restored."
Incredulously, Siegfried asked, "And how can I trust the Marauders to keep their word?"
"We are all Gladians, are we not?"
Siegfried spat on the ground. "Any man who willingly serves Randwulf has no right to call himself a Gladian."
Desperation broke the lieutenant's composure and he cried out, "Our men are dying, sir, needlessly! What would you have us do!?"
The Marauder was right. Men were dying needlessly. If the Marauders stuck to their word, their combined forces could easily wipe out the hellbeasts and the lull of the armistice would give them time to regroup. If Randwulf had been killed in the attack on the castle, it might be enough to force the Marauders to surrender. It was a chance worth taking.
Siegfried looked at the other field commanders. They knew what he meant to do and nodded in assent. Siegfried then turned to the Marauder lieutenant.
"You will stay here as my hostage," he said. "I will send one of my men to General Reinard to act as his hostage. Once I hear the Marauders' give the call to fall back, I will respond in kind. At the first sign of a double-cross, we will retreat into the woods and let you deal with those monsters yourself."
"I understand," the lieutenant said. He looked to his fellow Marauder. "You heard the man. Give word to the General."
The other Marauder saluted. "Yes, sir."
Sergeant Bertram stepped forward. "Captain, I'll go."
"Thank you, Bertram," Siegfried said. "I pray this General Reinard proves to be a man of his word."
Bertram smiled grimly and said, "If not, I know I'll be properly avenged."
Siegfried saluted Bertram for his courage. "For Gladius."
Proudly, Bertram returned the salute. "For Gladius."

* * *

A hail of fireballs sent a couple Marauders screaming to their deaths. She had racked up quite a tally so far, but Sonia the Defender was not finished yet, not until every last one of Randwulf's men breathed their last, ideally under her boot. However, killing Marauders was not her only business. After the warlock struck the keep with that terrible blast of magic, she feared Mark was trapped inside... or worse. No, he had to still be alive. She would know if he had died. The Gems would have told her. There was still hope.
Still, she needed to get to him somehow. It was difficult to rescue someone out of a collapsed building in the middle of a battle, though. She had to thin out the enemy a little more and gather some help.
She did not get far when she had to dodge a body flying at her. She recognized the crumpled heap as one of the volunteers from Watercress, the Sons of Greystone or whatever they called themselves. Looking just ahead, she saw a hulking figure assailed by three or four men. Though armed with spears and javelins, they could not stay clear of the giant's reach, or the reach of the massive club it wielded.
Sonia knew there were no giants on her side, so it had be an enemy, possibly one of the warlock's monstrosities. It pounded one of the men into ground like a tent spike and batted another away like a ragdoll. Sonia rushed to the survivor's aid, sending a couple fireballs ahead of her. The fireballs hit their mark, but to no effect. Was the giant protected by some sort of ward?
The smoke cleared a little and Sonia got a better look at the giant. It was no creation of the warlock at all, but a man. He was huge, at least nine feet tall and rippling with thick muscles. He was bare-chested, sporting intricate tattoos that exuded magical energy, the wards that protected him from her spell, no doubt. His whole right side was plastered with burn scars and long, healed-over cut ran from his waist all the way up to his forehead. It was not quite as horrific a sight as the mangled Tardos they fought in the Wasteland, but the giant was terribly disfigured all the same. Then Sonia remembered who he was from Giles' briefing. He was called Ursus and he was one of Randwulf's special operatives.
Then, all of the sudden, the Gems pulsed, flooding her mind with old memories. She saw the giant as a younger man, before his disfigurement. She saw fireballs fly out and strike him. He burned, but he did not die. Not heeding the pain of his charred flesh, he charged forward. The sword of the Defenders was batted away and from its perspective Sonia saw her father with main gauche in hand. Boosted by the power of the Gems, he leapt higher than any normal man, opening that long gash that ran nearly half the length of the giant's body. It was a grievous cut, but not fatal and not enough to stop the enraged Ursus. All it took was one solid, brutal hit and her father went down, never to rise again.
While Sonia was consumed by the Gems' memories, Ursus seemed to be struck by his own memories of that time. His one eye wide in surprise, he held his head as if the memory was going to burst out of his skull, moaning as it all came back to him.
"That, that armor... That sword... The pain... THE PAIN!"
With that final howl, Ursus charged at Sonia faster than she would ever have expected from the lumbering brute. He brought down his heavy club to crush her then and there, but the fencer was ready for him. She raised her buckler, projecting a blazing red-orange disc to bear the brunt of the blow. Even though the disc hovered a few inches above her buckler, she could feel the clubstrike when it landed. Ursus struck again and again in surprisingly quick succession. The club caught fire and the giant abandoned it, tossing it aside as he delivered a he delivered a sharp kick to the fencer's gut that sent her flying back like a rock skipped across a lake.
The wind knocked out of her, Sonia had to struggle to her feet as the giant came at her. Lighting her rapier, she made a thrust at the giant's belly, but he caught the flaming blade and gave it a quick tug, pulling the fencer into his waiting knee. Her armor did little to lessen the shock, but the pain had just begun. Before she could recover, Ursus took hold of her wrist and yanked her arm, dislocating her shoulder with a loud pop. Sonia could not help but to cry out in pain and drop her rapier. Ursus then lifted her up by that same arm, deaf to her screams as it twisted in his pitiless grip. He silenced her screams with a hard slap, followed by a backhand to the other cheek. Then he did it again. Slap. Backhand. Back and forth.
In spite of all the pain, Sonia mustered the energy to plunge her main gauche into the giant's wrist. He only grunted, but reflex forced him to release her. He stared at his wrist briefly, plucked out the main gauche and tossed it away. Looking down at the fencer contemptuously, he kicked her like a dog. It would have surely spilled her guts were it not for her cuirass. Sonia the Defender was a formidable warrior, but she was only human. With her weapons out of reach and all the damage she had taken, there was not much more she could do. It seemed like the brutal giant would claim another generation of House Leon.
It would not have taken much to finish her off at that point, but Ursus was not content doing something simple like crushing her head underfoot. He went to a dead horse lying nearby and actually managed to lift it, albeit with some difficulty. Because of the considerable weight of the horse, Ursus could only walk slowly. All the din of fighting around her seemed to die away, leaving only the heavy footsteps of the giant.
The fencer was not about to die like this. She saw her rapier nearby. She had to get it. Only her legs were not cooperating. She could not stand, nor even crawl about on her knees. All she could do was pull herself forward with her good arm. All the while, the footsteps drew ever closer.
Just a little bit farther. If she could just get her hand on her rapier, she would have a fighting chance. She would somehow draw on all her power and overwhelm the wards protecting the giant. She would give him the blazing death he so richly deserved.
Closer, closer. Sonia to her rapier. The giant to her.
The hilt was almost within her reach when a booted foot stood in the way. She looked up to see a man with his arm outstretched. She looked back to find Ursus with a throwing axe lodged in his forehead. First the giant's arms gave out, dropping the horse unceremoniously on the ground, then his legs as he fell to his knees. Finally he fell forward, collapsing with a might crash.
Sonia looked back to the man, who in turn looked down at her.
"That would have been a shameful way for the Defender to die," he said, "but I guess it had happened once before."
How did he know about that? He did not look old enough to have seen the Battle of Greystone for himself, nor had she seen him in the rebel camp. She would have recognized him with the distinctive purplish scar running under his eyes. That scar...
She remember now. When they were attacked by pirates, she had fought with a man with the exact same scar. Only he was different now, well-groomed with a proper set of clothes and outfitted like a professional soldier with a cuirass, greaves and bracers. He was no longer the ragged pirate, half-crazed like a mad dog. He looked at her in aloof pity, with just the faintest trace of contempt.
"And this is why they don't let girls wear the gear of Elemental Knights," he said. "You tried, you tried real hard, but you always were a tomboy. It was not your burden bear, and still you did your best, I'll give you that."
The words of the seer Lucius echoed in Sonia's mind.
The cub that was lost still lives. The young lion will return.
It was impossible, but there was no other explanation. Could it be? Was it really...
"Leonard?"
The pirate smiled. "So you remember after all. You were so little when I... left."
It was him. Her brother Leonard. He was supposed to be dead, long dead, but there he was. Alive and well after all these years.
Sonia had to struggle to speak, to ask him, "What... What happened to you?"
"You know about the pirate attack on Sandstone," Leonard said. "I was one of the few they took alive. They were going to sell me off as a slave to the desert people up north. Apparently there are more than a few with a taste for fair-skinned young boys. Wouldn't that have been a sorry fate for the heir of House Leon?
"Well, that was not for me. Pirates live by a rather simple code, you see. The strong live to exploit the weak. All I had to do was prove I was one of the strong. I broke free, killed my overseer and five other crewmen before they were able to stop me. Normally an outrage like that would earn a man a quick and painful death, but Captain Bloodeye saw my potential. Of course..." He pointed to his scar. "There was a token punishment for the crewmen I killed."
He looked out into the distance. "Raiding and pillaging is fun and all, but I was born for a greater purpose. It was like I was in a dream these past twenty years, but then someone was kind enough to wake me up. Now here I am."
Leonard walked over to the body of the fallen giant. Stamping down on Ursus' neck, he wrenched his axe free and then hacked off the giant's head. Straightening himself to observe his handiwork, Leonard shook the blood from the axe and then hooked it to his belt.
"There," he said with no small satisfaction. "Father's death is avenged, and I have a trophy to hang on the mantle. This is just the start, though. Randwulf has been rather generous with me, but I don't like the way he conquered my country or how his men destroyed our house. I'll probably kill him for it. Then there's Prince Edward and all the survivors of the old army. I'll probably kill them for losing the kingdom in the first place." He licked his lips. "There are a lot of people I may kill, but only one that I will most certainly kill."
The memory flashed in Sonia's mind. She was still a small child snuggled next to her cousin when she was woken up by a scream. It was one of the maidservants. Leonard was there and he was holding a knife. She did not understand it at the time, but over the years she came to know what her brother was doing there that night, what he meant to do.
"No!" she cried, ignoring the pain of her injuries, trying to get up. "You can't! Mark never did anything to you! The feud's over!"
"Who says it's over!?" Leonard snapped. "It only ended because Father was weak and surrendered to the Arans. They've taken everything that rightfully belongs to us. Everything!"
"That's not true! You let Great-grandfather poison your mind! Do you have any idea how much you hurt Father? He was never the same man after you disappeared. You broke his heart!"
Leonard scowled. "Father was unfit to lead House Leon. If I hadn't failed, he would have come to appreciate what I meant to do. If not for that damned Luther..."
"You let a selfish old man turn you into a monster! He ruined our family and nearly brought down the whole kingdom with him!"
Enraged, Leonard ran up to Sonia and backhanded her. It had taken the greater part of her remaining strength just to get up on her knees and the blow nearly knocked her over, but she was able to hold her ground.
"You'll not speak ill of him!" Leonard screamed. "Great-grandfather was a great man, a man of vision! Neither Father nor Grandfather could match his greatness, but I can! I will!"
Worked up as he was, Leonard was closer to his old persona of the mad-dog pirate. However, the sight of his battered sister seemed to tug at what little humanity he had left. He calmed himself, letting out a sigh. His face showed some signs of shame at what he had done, but only a little.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have hit you, but you should know your place. You forget that you are just a woman."
Anyone else on any other day would have found themselves knocked flat for saying that to her, but even if she had not been beaten so soundly by the giant, Sonia would never be able to raise a hand to her brother. The unexpected weakness before him, the storm of emotions being reunited with him at last, the threat of what he planned to do, they made her desperate.
"Please, Leonard," she pleaded, "let it go. The feud is over. Great-grandfather's ghost has haunted us long enough. Let it go. Mark is a good man. You'll see. Just let it go, I beg you. I don't want to lose you again."
Leonard shook his head. "You've let that Aran whelp deceive you, but it's you who will see... in time. Deceived or not, you're still my sister and I'm going to take care of you. Wait here. Once I've finished my business with the Aran whelp, I'll treat your wounds."
Not far from them was the sword of the Defenders, lying where Sonia dropped it. Leonard walked over to it and picked it up. It took a moment, but the Gems responded, flickering faintly but acknowledging him all the same. Sonia did not understand, but Leonard did and was more than happy to explain.
"Did you know the Gems will remember their old masters," he asked, "even the ones who didn't perform the Rite of Succession? They only seal off their power from the ones they deem unworthy." He held the weapon appreciatively, getting a feel for its weight and balance. "My training was incomplete, but it should be enough to kill an Aran." He began to walk away, stopping briefly to wave at his sister. "See you later, Sonia."
Sonia tried to rise to her feet, but her legs would not cooperate. The pain was so great and her body so weak. She had to stop him, but there was nothing she could do. She could only continue to beg fruitlessly as he disappeared into the haze.
"No, Leonard, don't... Don't go..."
It was too late. It had been too late since that day all those years ago, maybe even before then.

* * *

Treachery upon treachery, did it never end? The Dark Knight Vincentian hated the warlock with every fiber of his being, but he never would have imagined Shadowblight betraying the King so spectacularly. As formidable a man as Randwulf the Conqueror was, there was little chance he survived the attack on the keep. The Five Stalkers were scattered. The Palace Guard stumbled over his father's men with their competing orders, but the untrained enemy was no better off. The situation only got worse and worse.
Vincentian hoped to find some of the companions of the son of Luther, to neutralize the only real threat among the enemy's number, but it was difficult to find a mere handful of people amidst this chaos. Then she appeared. The Darkling.
There was plenty going on both within and beyond the castle walls, but all that faded away. The world around the two dhampir vanished, leaving them and them alone. For years they had been here in Darkwall, him above and her below, but ever since they were first separated twenty years ago, not a single word had passed between them. Until now.
Vincentian raised his visor. All he could say was her name.
"Adriana."
Absently, he recalled that she liked to call herself 'Adrienne' ever since she became a rebel, debasing her proper name to fit in with her vulgar confederates. It made no difference to him, though. His sister was still his sister, no matter what she chose to call herself.
While he was at a loss for words, she had no trouble coming up with something to say.
"That stunt you pulled in Arma was pathetic," she sneered. "What were you thinking?"
Embarrassed and ashamed, Vincentian bowed his head.
"I was... irresponsible. I shouldn't have tried to use that woman. It was wrong of me to try to leave without you."
"You're damned right it was."
The wave of embarrassment passed and Vincentian looked up to meet Adrienne's eyes.
"Now it ends," he said coolly.
"Not quite yet," Adrienne replied, cracking her knuckles. "I've got something for you."
With her dhampir speed, she darted forward, faster than any human could possibly react. Of course, Vincentian was no mere human but a fellow dhampir and every bit her match. Still, he was taken by surprise and it was enough of a lapse for her to get in a good, solid punch that sent him flying back.
Vincentian got up, his jaw mending and the blood drawing back into his mouth as he walked back to Adrienne.
"What was that for?" he asked.
"For this," she replied, running a finger down her cheek. "Scarring a girl's face. Didn't Mother teach you better?"
"I didn't do it because I wanted to."
"But you did it anyway."
"Saying I'm sorry won't change what I've done. I'm here now, aren't I?"
Adrienne crossed her arms. "I guess that'll have to do." Then, quite contrary to her character, a faint smile crossed her lips and she breathed a sigh of relief. "We can finally end this nightmare."
Vincentian removed his helmet, the sword slung across his back and the one strapped to his waist. He unhooked his cape and unbuckled his cuirass, letting it all fall to the ground.
Drawing a silver stiletto from his boot, the Dark Knight looked to Adrienne and asked, "Are you ready?"
Adrienne simply nodded, pulling back her hood and drawing an identical stiletto. For two who so often hid their faces from the world, the time for hiding was over, here at the end. Their eyes met and did not stray as they drew closer. They who had suffered torment beyond anything a common man could imagine or endure, they sought a longed-for release. And they would have it.
Standing at arm's length, both placed their free hand on the other's shoulder while the knifehand drew back, poised and ready for the final strike. They were born together, lived and suffered together, and now they would die together at long last. It would be quick.
Lost in their own world, absorbed in this promised day, their preternaturally keen senses did not avail them, did not warn them of the approaching threat. They did not see or anticipate the heavy blade with its hooked tip as it came cleaving through Vincentian's left arm and Adrienne's right. Ignoring the loss of his own arm, the Dark Knight looked down to see Adrienne's knifehand still gripping the stiletto. His own knifehand was empty. His stiletto stuck out of Adrienne's chest as she fell backward.
Vincentian rushed to her side, crying, "No, Adriana!" Hastily he wrestled her stiletto from the severed hand and held it out to her. "Take it! You have to finish it!"
She did not respond, only staring up at the sky. Vincentian put the knife in her surviving hand, trying to close her fingers around the hilt, but she would not grip it as she needed to.
"I'm sorry, Adrian," she said, choking on her words as blood dribbled from the corner of her mouth. "I... I can't... I'm so sorry... I didn't mean, didn't mean to leave you again..."
Tears streamed from her eyes. Curling wisps of smoke rose up as they burned her skin, so much more delicate than his own. Her body stilled and the stiletto fell from her slack hand, never achieving its intended purpose. Vincentian could only stare helplessly as a hateful voice spoke nearby.
"You worthless inhuman filth."
In a flush of anger, Vincentian turned to meet the loathsome voice of his father, only to be taken aback by what he saw. His father, Cadmus Martial, with the blood of his own children staining his blade, was no longer the man he was when he set out this morn. Indeed, he was no longer a true living and breathing human. The blood did not pump in his veins. His heart did not beat. He was pale as a corpse with an open wound in his neck and bloodstains running down his armor.
"What happened to you?" Vincentian asked, although he already had a good idea what had happened.
Cadmus sniffed, "Someone got a lucky shot in, but the warlock still honors his pledge to me."
The pledge, that hated pledge. The source of all their family's misfortune.
The Dark Knight glowered at the abomination before him. "And all you had to do was murder your wife and sell your children to that conjurer."
Pointing an accusing finger at his son, Cadmus said, "Your mother would have kept you hiding in the dark your entire life. She was a monster and a disgrace. You should be thankful the warlock saw some value in you two. Because of what I did for you, you were able to surpass the limits of your wretched kind and enjoy a seat of honor in this kingdom. If your sister had not clung her rebellion like a fool, she could have joined us at the top."
"I shamed myself and Mother's memory by cowing to you all these years," Vincentian said bitterly. "If only I had had the courage to join Adriana in chains!"
"You lily-livered ingrate!" Cadmus spat. "You would throw away everything that's been given to you? Well, if you want to be in chains so badly, I can make it happen!"
"You can try," Vincentian hissed.
The Dark Knight rose to his feet. Ice was in his glare, revenge in his purpose. He would make amends for his years of cowardice. It would end here.
His other arm had long since reattached itself and now it was time for his trusty blade to perform one last service. Cadmus swung at Vincentian, but his father's living death did not make him any faster and the attack was easy to avoid. Vincentian picked up his sword Twilight, raising it just in time to intercept another swing. There would be no holding back. Cadmus stood no chance.
Vincentian smashed through Cadmus' blade on the first stroke and hacked off an arm at the shoulder on the second, taking the other hand with it. Cadmus stared blankly at the stump where his right hand once was when Vincentian thrust the point into his gut, piercing his breastplate as if it were nothing more than copper leaf.
The Dark Knight drew out the blade, shredding the viscera with its serrated edge. Even in his living death, it was more than Cadmus could take. He fell to his knees, but perhaps because he could no longer feel pain, he was able to maintain a defiant front.
"You think this will stop me, boy? I'll be back."
Vincentian did not say anything. A sweep of his blade took Cadmus' head, finishing the monster once and for all. After everything that had happened, the death of one of his chief tormentors should have given him some measure of relief, but the victory had an empty feel to it.
A raspy cackle drew Vincentian's attention to the accursed warlock hovering nearby. There was his archenemy, the one who deserved to die above all others.
"Truly you are my finest creation!" the warlock exulted. "An unstoppable killing machine. Not even the bond of blood can stay your hand. And now, without the Darkling, no one can release you from my curse. You will face countless deaths, but never die. You are not a man, not even dhampir anymore. You are a demon."
Vincentian tightened the grip on his sword. The warlock cackled again.
"Just as you hate yourself, so the world will hate you. You will never find peace or comfort or happiness. You will suffer eternally and the more you suffer, the more you become my slave. Fight if you have courage, despair if you do not. It makes not difference. Nothing will change your fate."
The warlock then glided over to Adrienne's body, inspecting the damage from a distance. He scowled and looked back to Vincentian with those empty sockets of his.
"You may have freed the Darkling's soul," he said, "but I can still salvage her body. Her will was always more volatile than yours. Perhaps you have done me a favor, giving me a soulless doll for my experiments." He allowed himself a grin, exposing his jagged yellow teeth. "I may even feel generous enough to let you watch."
All Vincentian's anger, all his hatred, along with the dark magics bestowed on him by the warlock, he channeled them into his blade. Then, hoisting it like a spear, he hurled it at damnable warlock, hoping to pin his carcass to the ruins of the keep destroyed by his own treachery. If only it were so.
However, with a wave of the warlock's staff, the sword stopped in midair, quivering briefly before bursting into a million pieces. Steel splinters flew at the Dark Knight like little javelins, but the pain was nothing more than a minor distraction compared to the sinking of his heart. In the end, he could do nothing to avenge the years of torture. All his strength was for naught.
"Childish..." the warlock said dismissively. "That which I have made can be unmade . Allow me to show you what true power looks like."
Drawing on the true power of the Darkness, the warlock gathered his energy before loosing a purplish bolt of lightning that surged into Vincentian's body, blasting it apart in an explosion of blood, flesh and bone. The warlock cackled again, watching the tiny chunks of flesh try to pull themselves together. Truly a marvel, the deathless killing machine he created.
He did not get to admire the Dark Knight's regeneration for long when a beam raked across the ground, narrowly missing the warlock. He looked up to see his rival waiting for him.
"Shadowbright!" he shouted. "You have not finished with me yet!"
It was just as well. A loose end that needed to be tied up, long overdue.
"Fool!" the warlock snapped. "You had your chance to escape, but now it is too late! Prepare yourself for oblivion!"

* * *

The roars of battle beyond the castle walls continued to rage. The massive blasts of magic continued to boom and crackle high in the sky. But on the castle grounds, the fighting was all but over. Fires burned, smoke billowed, but the sight of a living man was few and far between.
The thinning of the enemy's ranks would be a relief to any normal man, but not for Stefan. No matter how many Gladian pigs he killed, it would never be enough, but so long as they were there for killing, it would quench, at least in part, his burning thirst for vengeance. Now he did not have even that.
He continued to stalk the grounds, looking for someone, anyone to kill. Of course, even if he did find someone else, there would be little satisfaction in it. So long as his true nemesis was out of reach, it was all rather meaningless.
"Looking for something, friend?" a voice asked.
All of the sudden, Stefan was face-to-face with Brenok. The fighter could not believe he had gotten the drop on him like that. Even with all his witchcraft, for him to hide his presence so completely from someone with Stefan's training...
Surprise quickly melted away in the fires of burning anger.
"You!" the fighter howled, swiping hand like a blade at the hated apprentice.
Normally, that would have been a killing blow, but Stefan's hand simply passed through the illusory Brenok. The apprentice reappeared a short distance away and Stefan lunged forward reflexively, aiming to smash in that grinning face. Another illusion. Brenok kept appearing again and again. Each time Stefan attacked the moment he saw the apprentice, not even attempting to distinguish illusion from the real thing.
After going through a good half-dozen in this fashion, the Brenok Stefan attacked did something different. He dodged, an indication that this one was probably the real thing. Stefan did not relent. Rather he attacked with even greater fury. Aided by his magic, Brenok easily weaved in and out of the blur of kicks and punches.
Holding up his hands in a display of mock surrender, all the while avoiding the fighter's lethal barrage, Brenok addressed Stefan like a schoolboy trying to talk down an angry classmate.
"Hey, hey, hey! Hold on there, friend! You've got the wrong man!"
As angry as ever, frustrated that his expert blows were not connecting, and confused at the apparent nonsense he was hearing, Stefan sputtered, "What kind of fool do you take me for, traitor!?"
Brenok ducked to avoid a kick that would have liked to knock his head clean off. "Steady on there. I've never served anyone but myself, so I've betrayed no one."
"I'll kill you all the same!"
With that Stefan threw himself at Brenok with even greater intensity than before. It did not avail him any, though. Anger can be useful for a fighter in moderate doses, sharpening his aggression, suppressing softer sentiments that could interfere with decisively felling an opponent. However, too much anger leaves him blind, easy prey for cooler heads. Brenok may not have been a fighter, but he knew that much and Stefan's unbridled rage made his task all the easier.
His voice as steady as ever, the apprentice said, "You're wasting precious energy. And for what? I'm not the one you want and you know it. You may hate me, but you hate him more."
Stefan stopped. Underhanded fiends would have taken advantage of the opening and launched a quick, cowardly strike, but Brenok was in an entirely different class of underhanded fiend, a class far more cunning and sinister. He had Stefan right where he wanted him and grinned broadly as he pressed his advantage.
"Yes, it's coming back to you. You know it all too well. I wasn't the one who abandoned my friends to tromp around in foreign lands like a vagabond. I'm not the one who wasn't there in your hour of need. It's like you've forgotten."
Stefan gritted his teeth. "I haven't forgotten."
"No you haven't, but you've let your edge go dull. Let me sharpen you."
From within his robe, Brenok pulled out a small orb of black crystal on a thin golden chain. Although ten years had passed since he last saw it, Stefan instantly recognized it. A pulse of its power sent a shudder through his whole body. The Hell Pendant. But how?
"Where did you get that!?"
"It wasn't easy," Brenok said, "let me tell you. I wanted the power of the Crystal Knight for myself, but those clumsy Marauders killed that mangy shepherd before I could get to him. Now I can't assemble the whole set. No matter, though. This little bauble has a few other tricks to it."
Brenok swung the Pendant back and forth like a pendulum. Whether he wanted to or not, Stefan could not help being transfixed by it. With each swing, it gave off another pulse that shook the fighter to his core. Although the Omnimancer Kyrios had not been fused with the other Pendant Bearers for long, it was enough to leave a lasting impression. However faint, the power of the Hell Pendant had a hold on him and each pulse of its energy was like a voice in the distance calling out to him, calling him to come closer.
As he swung the Pendant, Brenok spoke in a hypnotic voice. "Focus, Stefan. Focus on your anger, your rage, your hatred. Think of everything that should be yours if not for him. Focus on your hatred for him. Feel your rage, let it take shape. Feel the change in you. Can you feel the change, Stefan? Feel it!"
The Pendant gave off a pulse stronger than the ones that came before it. It felt like an iron hand squeezed Stefan's heart. His mind went blank and the strength left his legs, causing him to fall on his knees. He caught himself before landing face-first in the ground. It had begun.
First it felt like hundreds of thick worms were burrowing under his skin, writhing and twisting at an increasingly frenetic pace. While Stefan screamed in incredible pain, his muscles swelled to twice their normal size, tearing his clothes to tatters. The color drained from his skin, leaving it white as chalk. His hair grew long and thick, like a lion's mane. His jaw stretched out, extending into a short muzzle. His teeth twisted into sharp fangs and his nail grew into black, stubby claws. The whites of his bulging eyes flushed blood-red and the transformation was complete.
Drained from the ordeal, the changed Stefan stared at his clawed hand before touching his face. He screamed anew, this time not in pain but horror. What had happened to him? What had he become?
"Don't whine," Brenok said unsympathetically. "I've given you the power you need to take what's yours. Do what must be done and I'll reverse the spell. Do it quickly and I will grant all your heart's desires." He moved in close, looking Stefan square in the eyes. "She can be yours with my help. Kill him and you will have her." Taking a step back, Brenok then pointed with his rod. "Go now."
The creature that was once Stefan turned his head in the direction Brenok was pointed. He sniffed the air, catching the scent of his prey amidst the jumble of other smells. Without another thought, he sprang forward, on the hunt.
Rapt in the delirium of his triumph, Brenok burst out in his maniacal laughter. Everything was crumbling down all around him and he would have it no other way. He would reign as king of the chaos and tragedy of this day.

* * *

Mark woke up with a start. Before he could even get his bearings, the servant Norbert rushed to his side.
"How are you feeling, my lord?"
Reflexively, although in truth he was not so sure, Mark replied. "I'm fine." He looked around, more than a little confused. "What happened?"
"His Majesty used the last of his power to save you and the young master before the rest of the keep collapsed."
It all came back to the swordsman. Randwulf had apparently sacrificed himself to save Mark and Claudius. Mark passed out shortly thereafter. Either he hit his head on the way out or it was an after-effect from when the keep was first hit.
How long had he been out? Being among the rubble had apparently protected the trio from all the fighting, but there was no telling how things were going. He could still hear the noise of battle in the distance, but things seemed rather quiet in the immediate area. He did not know if that was a good sign or not.
Claudius was still unconscious, but this place seemed to be relatively safe. Worried about his companions, Mark picked up his sword and prepared to head out.
"Stay here and don't move," he told Norbert. "This is the safest place for you."
Very much afraid for his sake, the old servant grabbed his arm and cried, "You mustn't, my lord! You are hurt! You are in no condition to fight!"
Mark would not be dissuaded. Recognizing Norbert's genuine concern for him, he was firm but gentle in his reply.
"My friends are out there," he said. "They are fighting for their lives and I must go to them. Would you ask me to forsake them?"
Norbert bowed his head. "No, my lord."
"Then do not cling to me," Mark said. "Your heart is in the right place, but I have a duty to my comrades." He glanced down at Claudius, then unhooked his uncle's sword from his belt and handed it to Norbert. "If he should wake up before I get back, tell him to stay here. He can protect the both of you with this sword. Take care of him until then."
"Of course, my lord," Norbert said as he accepted the sword. He then took Mark's hand and kissed his fingers. "God preserve you, my lord."
Mark smiled. "And may He preserve you as well."
The swordsman had barely stepped away from the rubble when a wind blade flew at him. With his shield lost in the ruins of the keep, Mark was barely able to deflect the attack with his sword. He grabbed the Earth Pendant with his free hand. Its barrier would be the surer defense against any more magical attacks.
Mark knew who was behind the wind blade and soon Tariq the Assassin emerged from the haze blanketing the castle grounds. Their eyes met and Tariq pulled down the mask covering the lower half of his face for the first time. Mark took it as a sign of the gravity of the impending duel.
"The witch-man will not rob me of my vengeance this time, Nasrani," the Assassin declared. "The old Franj's blood-debt is on you and you will pay. You survived the trials of the pyramids, so there is no doubt that you are an opponent worthy of dying by this blade. Come at me!"
Mark went into a fighting stance, still gripping the Earth Pendant. The Assassin had been a formidable adversary back in the desert and was not likely to have gotten any weaker between then and now, only this time Mark was already exhausted from fighting Randwulf and still disoriented from being unconscious so long. He was none too sure about his chances, but if he wanted to come to his companions' aid, he would have to go through Tariq first.
Before the duel could commence, Mark saw a hulking figure appear behind the Assassin. At first, he thought it was Edward, but then it did something Edward could not possibly do. With a single swipe of its hand, the figure batted Tariq aside. The Assassin flew into the rubble, his body slamming against one of the larger slabs of masonry. He lay crumpled on the ground, completely still. Mark could not tell whether he was dead or simply unconscious, but he had more pressing concerns.
The figure stepped forward, revealing a twisted corruption of the human form with bulging muscles, sick whitish grey skin, blunt claws, and a shaggy mane. It vaguely resembled the Red Demons Mark had faced before, so he figured it was one of the warlock's creations. Then it did something no conjured beast should be capable of doing. It spoke.
"Marrrkh..." it moaned. "Dhieee..."
Mark saw something hanging from the creature's neck, a small crystal orb, blue as the open sea. The Water Pendant. His guts tightened as the terrible realization hit him.
"Stefan? My God, Stefan, is that you? Who did this to you?"
The transformed Stefan lumbered toward him, slowly, deliberately, hissing, "Yourrr ffault... Alwaysss yourrr ffault..."
Still reeling from what had become of his friend, Mark's head swam in confusion. How was this his fault?
"Stefan, I don't know what you mean. I want to help you."
"Thenn dhieee..."
Stefan continued to walk forward, not stopping. Neither quickening nor slowing his pace. Simply advancing. Mark had to do something, had to bring him back. But first he had to stop him.
"Me dying won't help you any," Mark said.
"Yesss, it will... The onnly wayy... Dhieee..."
"Why, Stefan? Why is it the only way? Do you really hate me so much?"
"Yesss!" Stefan snapped. "I hhate you!"
Mark's heart sank. After their bitter reunion in Arma, he had hoped for a change in the fighter's heart, prayed for it, done everything he could to show his good will. In spite of his best efforts, it had come to this.
"After all we've been through, I had hoped you'd see that I'm you friend."
Stefan vehemently and sloppily spat on the ground. "Not ffrriendh... Trraitorrr..."
Mark was not having any of this. He threw down his sword, then drew the knife from his boot and cast it aside as well. He held his arms open, accepting whatever may come.
"If that's how you want it," Mark said, "then you'll have to kill an unarmed man. I won't resist."
Stefan stomped the ground angrily. "Pickh it upp! I khan't khill you iff you dhon't ffight!"
Just as Mark expected. No matter how his shape was changed, no matter how bitter his anger and resentment, he still adhered to his code. He was still a man of honor. There was still a chance for Mark to get through to him.
"I'm not going to fight you, Stefan. I'll do whatever I can to change you back, but I'm not going to fight you."
This only made Stefan all the angrier. He furiously tore at the earth, howling in frustration.
"Dhamnn you, khowarrdh! Affterrr all you'ff dhonne, you ssstill wonn't fffight likhe a mann! Fffinne! You dhonn't dhesserrff a mann'ss dheath! You khan dhiee likhe the dhogg you arre!"
With a bestial screech, Stefan charged forward on all fours, kicking up dirt in every direction. Mark had to fight his instincts to not dodge or make a dash for his sword. He still believed Stefan's self-control would win out in the end. Then again, if Mark truly had betrayed his friends by returning to Gladius and if that betrayal had turned Stefan into a monster, then accepting the fighter's wrath was the only way he could take responsibility for his crime.
Stefan launched himself into Mark head-first, hitting the swordsman with all the force of a battering ram, knocking him flat on his back. Pinned to the ground, Mark saw the mad rage in Stefan's wild red eyes and realized that there was no hope of the fighter coming back to his senses. He was lost, and Mark would soon pay the price for losing him.
"I'll rrripp your thrroat out, you wrretch!"
Stefan opened his jaws wide, baring twin rows of crooked fangs. Out of reflex, Mark shut his eyes, but he quickly corrected himself. He could not turn away at the last minute, Now more than ever, he could not afford to avert his gaze.
He looked back at Stefan to find that he had not moved. Some drool dripped down from his fangs, but that was all. His body was all tensed and ready to strike, but nothing happened. Was this a change of heart? Was Mark's willing sacrifice enough to still the burning hatred within Stefan's heart? Sadly, no. That was not it at all.
Stefan's head suddenly jerked upward and eyes burst into geysers of blood. A choked gurgle was the only sound that escaped as Stefan's limbs went slack and his body fell forward onto Mark. Panicked, Mark rolled Stefan off of him, getting up and shaking the fighter by the shoulders.
"Stefan? No, Stefan!"
It was too late. He was already gone. Despite everything, Mark considered Stefan to be a friend to the very end. He wanted to save the fighter, but he had failed.
Considering how Stefan died, it did not take Mark long to figure out who had dealt the fatal blow. Just then, he heard Catherine's voice echo from the depths of his mind.
I am sorry, Mark, but there was no way to save him. Even if his body could be restored, he would still have the heart of a monster. He would never rest until you were dead. I could not allow that. Only one of you could live, and I chose you.
This is Brenok's work. His malice knows no bounds. Surely this is not the only trap he has set for you. I cannot help you any further. Be careful, my dear... I cannot lose you...
Mark was at a loss. He had been in love with Catherine ever since they traveled together to thwart the Omnimancer's ambitions, but so had Stefan. Mark shut himself off from the world for years, and then he left on the eve of Byrn's tragic fall. Stefan, on the other hand, had remained at Catherine's side all these years, leaving only briefly to further his training, all so he could serve her better. However, his faithfulness did not win him the prize he so fervently sought.
Mark knew Catherine did not reciprocate Stefan's feelings and deep down he knew there would come a time when she would have to make her choice clear, but he never wanted it to be like this. He never wanted to trade his life for Stefan's. He had failed his friend and now there was nothing he could do. With the weight of his guilt bearing down on him, the swordsman could not fight back the tears even if he tried.

* * *

Gripping the blade of his ancestors, everything felt right. No, not quite, not yet. Soon. Everything would be made right soon. This day had been a long time coming, but the past twenty-one years was punishment for his failure then. He had been given a second chance and Leonard would see the honor of House Leon restored. And after that, who knew? As he had told his sister, there were many people who deserve to die for the offenses committed in his absence.
His sister... Although it was a crime against their ancestors for a woman to wield the hallowed gear of the Defenders, her heart was in the right place and he would forgive her. Taking the side of their family's hated enemy was harder to forgive, but once the Aran was dead, she would see the error of her ways.
The Gems were not telling him much. In time they would recognize him as their rightful master, once he won the contest of wills. In the meantime, even though they resisted him, he could use them to seek out other Elemental Knights. Of course, there was only one Elemental Knight he meant to find.
The reluctant Gems guided Leonard to the man he sought. He had been waiting for this day for far too long. He approached the Aran from behind, identifying him by the glint of the blue gems on his pauldrons. More than that, there was power radiating from the Guardian's gems and resonating with those in the Defender's blade. It was the first time Leonard felt the power of another Elemental Knight. He did not plan for it to last long.
The Aran was kneeling over some grey-skinned monster. What was he doing? Crying? Pathetic. Was that his sword lying in the grass, unreddened after hours of fighting? Worse than pathetic, it was shameful for the one who was supposed to be his archenemy, whose continued existence had tormented him all these years. Was this really the son of that hellbeast Luther? He was more a woman than even Sonia. He was not worthy of a proper duel. Leonard would not even issue the challenge demanded by the Warrior's Code. After all, such a lily-livered man, one who would weep over mere monsters, could not even be called a warrior.
Were it not for the great vengeance to be exacted, the Aran would not even be worthy of dying by the ancestral blade of House Leon. It would be quick. One decisive thrust and six generations of dishonor would be wiped clean. Here, now. At this very moment, he--
A gloved hand clamped on Leonard's mouth as he felt the sharp pain of a knife plunge into his neck. Whoever had taken ahold of him was strong enough to keep him from struggling too much, not that there was much he could have done anyway. It was all so sudden, and he was already starting to feel light-headed. Who on earth could have gotten the better of him?
Through the corner of his eye, he could see the blade sticking out of his neck and the hand that gripped it, still pressing down, trying to dig ever deeper. He saw the red gem at the end of its hilt and recognized the blade, knew its owner. His attacker. His killer. How? Why? How could it end like this? Why did it have to end this way?
His vision dimmed and he felt the blade of his forefathers slip from his fingers. The questions repeated themselves. How? Why? He never heard the answer.

* * *

Leonard's body slumped in Sonia's arms, but she did not have the strength to hold him up. She had fought through the pain to catch up with Leonard, painfully resetting her shoulder so her arm could do its bloody work, but now she was spent. Her brother's body fell to the ground, the main gauche still sticking in his neck.
The noise was enough to rouse Mark. He looked at her with a tear-streaked face, without the slightest clue of what had just happened or what had nearly happened. He could never know. He was the sort who would blame himself for the rest of his life. That was her burden.
"Our fathers risked everything to reconcile our two houses," she said. "Now the feud is truly ended."
Mark looked at her and Sonia knew her face betrayed her. Even beaten bloody as she was, he was perceptive enough to see through all that.
"Sonia..."
The fencer held up her hand to stop him.
"Don't say anything. You look like you're having problems of your own. We just... need to be left alone right now."
She turned to walk away, but she did not know where she was going. She did not make it far before her legs gave out on her. She fell to her knees. She was in immeasurable pain, but even with the thrashing she had received, the physical pain paled next to the rending of her heart.
Tears welled up in her eyes, but she fought them back with all her might. She had made vow and she did not intend to break it, not even now.
The memory came back to her. She had just started her training under Killian. Fencing is no easy art, especially for a mere child. When she received her first serious injury, she bawled up a storm, but her master was having none of it.
"Don't cry!" he barked.
If anything, this only made her cry all the more. Killian's demeanor softened and he got down on one knee to meet Sonia face-to-face. He then went to work calming her. It was no mean feat, but he was able to bring her down to quiet sniffling. He placed a hand on her cheek and smiled gently.
"Look, Sonia," he said in an uncharacteristically soft voice, "it's alright for little girls to cry, but a warrior can't show any weakness. Not ever. No matter what. You have to choose. Are you going to be a warrior?"
Even at that young age, Sonia had a fierce sense of purpose. Wiping away her tears and putting on the bravest face she could muster, she gave her master a firm and decisive nod. Killian grinned, this time not out of kindness to a crying little girl but the pride of a master proud of his disciple.
"You've made your decision," he said, "and I expect you to live by it."
Remembering her vow only made it harder, but Sonia could not hold it back any longer. She surrendered to despair and the tears burst forth unlike anything she ever knew. She was broken, defeated.
"Forgive me, master... Right now I can't be a warrior..."

* * *

Tariq the Assassin's head throbbed well before he opened his eyes. He touched his head and saw the blood on his hand. He pulled off his turban and slowly rose to his feet, still disoriented from the blow he received.
Thinking about whatever had attacked him, he remembered his purpose. Fearing he had missed his chance, he rushed out only to find the man he sought, the Nasrani, not far from where he left him. He was kneeling over the carcass of a hideous beast. Was that the thing that attacked him? Good that it was dead, but what was the Nasrani doing?
It did not matter. There was one thing that needed to happen. One thing only. Tariq threw down his scabbard. The Nasrani's corpse would be the new sheath for his blade.
In a loud voice he shouted, "Nasrani! You will not escape my vengeance while I still draw breath! Pick up your sword and fight!"
The Nasrani did not get up. He just stayed there by the creature's side.
"Did you not hear me, Nasrani? Pick up your sword!"
Still nothing. Tariq got closer and saw that the Nasrani was crying, actually shedding tears for the beast. It was unseemly for a warrior to behave so. This was not how the worthy opponent he acknowledged was supposed to act. Though he was a mere infidel, he had to have some measure of pride. Surely that would stir him.
"Where has your courage gone, Nasrani? Will you weep like a woman over that monster's corpse? Fight me!"
Any man should have met such words with steel, but the Nasrani did not move. Tariq drew closer still.
"Have you become a coward?"
No answer.
Although he was frustrated and angrier than ever, he noticed that the Nasrani did not have his sword. Tariq walked over to where it lay. He did not touch it with his hand, for the sword of an Elemental Knight was rarely kind to the touch of any save its master. He kicked the sword over to the Nasrani. Even that was dangerous, but fortunately it was not enchanted to harm any unwelcome hands, or feet in Tariq's case. Again the Assassin goaded the Nasrani to take up his sword.
"Fight!" he yelled.
The Nasrani did not pick up the sword. It was more than the Assassin could bear. He held his blade up to the Nasrani's neck, the edge scraping against his jawbone.
"If you do not pick up your sword and fight me like a man, I will take your head now, even though it will have lost its worth."
"Enough..." the Nasrani said in a low whisper.
"What was that, Nasrani?"
Raising his voice enough to be heard, the Nasrani asked, "Hasn't there been enough death for one day?"
"All I seek is one more," Tariq said. He stepped back and assumed a fighting stance. "You die and it will end for both of us."
Tariq had hoped that the Nasrani would arm himself and end this, but instead he bowed his head and clenched his fists.
His fists quivered as he growled, "No more... No more!"
With that shout, the air erupted in burst of electricity. The Nasrani snatched up his sword and charged at the Assassin. The blast of magic and the sudden explosion of aggression took Tariq off-balance. He only narrowly blocked a forceful swing of the Nasrani's crackling blade. The electricity traveled through Tariq's sword and into his body. The muscles of his arm spasmed and seized, but not so much that he could not block the follow-up.
A new surge of electricity left the Assassin unable to move fast enough. It would have been an easy opening for a killing strike, but the Nasrani loosed another blast of electricity as before, knocking Tariq further back. Lightning bolts sprang from the Nasrani's sword, rending the earth to Tariq's left and right. Next the Nasrani loosed a large orb of electricity right at the Assassin. Tariq used his power to raise a shield, but the orb burst through the barrier and struck him square in the chest. He flew backwards, flopping on the ground briefly in a new wave of spasms. Smoke rose from his body as he struggled to his feet. He felt numb from head to toe, but it was not over yet. The Nasrani was still coming.
The power radiating from the Nasrani was unlike anything he had ever seen before. Was this the same man who refused to face him only moments ago? It was not possible. He was more djinn than man, a shaitan terrible to behold. Yes, that was what it was. He was not human, so how could any mortal hope to prevail against him?
Fighting uncooperative limbs, Tariq loosed a wind blade at the Nasrani, then another. Two swift strokes of the Nasrani's sword and the wind blades were cut apart. Impossible. He was not human. There was no hope of victory.
Terror-stricken, the Assassin no longer thought of avenging his father or upholding his family's honor. With a sweep of his sword, a crosswind rose up to mask his retreat. His mind wholly focused on fleeing, his pride had no chance to compel him to stand and fight. Though his legs were like lead weights, he ran. He ran for all he was worth. He would keep running until he was far beyond the reach of the demon-man. Only then could pride return to assail him for being a coward, but until that time came, he ran.

* * *

In spite of the hours of struggle and more magical energy than anything the world had seen since the end of the Great War, the two former members of the Shadow Clan were at a stalemate. The wizard Shadowstryke had focused the entirety of his being into their epic duel, but even so, he was not unaware of the many sorrows wrought below. Yes, the history of the world had always been stained with warfare. There were bigger, bloodier and more devastating battles in the past, but that did not diminish the tragedy on the ground. It was a perfect illustration of the bitter fruits of the warlock's mad schemes.
"Look down there, Shadowbright," the wizard said. "Look at all the lives that have been lost, ravaged."
The warlock laughed scornfully. "Why do you concern yourself with those vermin? They are nothing more than insects."
"Do you enjoy toying with human life so?"
"I could ask you the same question. How are we any different?"
"I do not use them for my own ends. I simply help them along the path they have chosen for themselves."
"You give them too much credit," Shadowblight sneered. "Their existence is meaningless without people like us to make use of them. They should be honored that higher beings would deign to give them purpose." He caressed the skull at the head of his rod. "The world would be better off if we simply purged it of this pestilence once and for all."
Shadowstryke shook his head. "I knew you were a lost cause, but I did not realize you were so far gone. I knew you were depraved, but I could not have imagined the depths of your depravity. You leave me with only one choice."
The wizard drew the rusty blade at his hip. Such a simple, unassuming weapon was easy to overlook, but now that it was drawn and awakened, Shadowblight immediately recognized it for what it was.
"It cannot be..." he gasped. "Red Martyr..."
Red Martyr, the keepsake of their master, Shadowstar. A common sword taken from a long-forgotten battlefield, it had been infused with the great power of the Grandmaster himself, but with that power came a terrible cost.
The wizard flew forward and though the warlock tried to dodge, he could not save himself from the point burying itself deep in his stomach. Flakes of rust fell away as the blade glowed iridescent and electricity arced between the two of them.
Clutching the blade with his skeletal fingers, Shadowblight screamed, "Are you mad!? You will kill us both!"
His face taking on the aspect of an ancient war god, there was no fear or wavering to be found in Shadowstryke. His path was set the moment he drew Red Martyr. No, it had been set all those centuries ago when he fled with the blade in hand in hope of one day confronting the traitor and avenging their fallen brethren.
"The world no longer needs people like us, Shadowbright," the wizard said in serene resignation. "Accept your fate."
"Noooo!"
Whatever powers bestowed on Shadowblight by his dark master, they did not avail him. Betrayal had no hope of conquering loyalty in the end. Self-service fell to self-sacrifice. That was the lesson of Red Martyr as it lit up the sky like a second sun, exploding with a deafening boom like a hundred thunderclaps. In its wake, it left nothing behind. All that remained was the battlefield below and the mortals who struggled there. They would have to find their own path. Whether they rose to glory or succumbed to folly, it would be the choice they made and not the one made for them. Such was the parting gift of the wizard Shadowstryke and the end to the Battle of Darkwall.