Chapter 5
His Own Shadow

AZ 1456 - Late Winter
The Ruins of Castle Euros, The Darklands

Ionathas had heard the stories of Old Euros' fame. Over a thousand cursed years were not enough to blot out all traces of its former glory. He could only wonder how grand the royal palace must have been in its splendor. Now only a burned-out skeletal ruin remained.
Here was the site of the appointed duel between Ionathas and the dreaded Knight of Chaos. With his army in ruins, Sir Caligo challenged Ionathas to meet him man-to-man to decide the victor. Reckless though it was to take up the challenge, it was a chance to spare the battered Third Legion from another battle, but only if he prevailed.
If Corona were still with him, she would have tried to stop him, no doubt, but she never returned from her own duel with her mortal enemy the King of Dragons, who had formed a league with the Monarch Lich. Would his fate be the same?
The Knight of Chaos was an inhuman monster of great power and cunning, but something had happened to him. The battlemages said his overwhelming dark power had waned and his formerly invincible army was in shambles. Whatever the reason for his current weakness, now was the time to strike.
Ionathas found Sir Caligo in the throne room, sitting on the remains of a marble throne ravaged by the ages.
"I have been waiting, Ionathas, son of Salemon," he said. "We meet again."
Ionathas drew his sword and pointed it at Caligo.
"I will see Duke Cronos and the men of the Third Legion avenged, fiend."
"Is that why you fight?" Caligo asked. "Not a very worthy cause, but we two are much alike."
"I'm nothing like you," Ionathas replied defiantly.
"Do not be so certain, boy. I was called hero once too, before the very people I bled and spilled blood for turned against me. It would be a mercy for me to kill you now that you would never see that day yourself."
"I'm not going to die here. I'm going to defeat you and see all the power of the Dominion crushed."
"The Dominion!" Caligo scoffed. "Ha! What is the Dominion? I walked the earth back when these lands were still green, before that old lizard cursed them. The Black Xotika thought they could hold the Dominion together, but it crumbled after the death of a single king. Do you think the Dominion is so great a thing even with a Lich on the throne?"
Ionathas was surprised to hear such talk coming from the Dominion's champion of champions.
"If you esteem the Dominion so lightly, why do you serve it?" the free knight asked.
"Immortal or no, a man rules or a man serves," Caligo replied. "It would seem for all my power, I am nothing more than a servant."
"Do you think that excuses you?"
"I do not seek excuse or pardon. If you seek to punish me for my sins, then let your sword do the talking."
"I will."
Sir Caligo leapt from the throne, drew his sword and both he and Ionathas charged at each other. Though Sir Caligo was known to move quicker than any mortal man, he did not use that ability. Instead he seemed to match himself perfectly to Ionathas' strength and speed. He was toying with the free knight, Ionathas knew, but perhaps Ionathas could use that overconfidence to work his ruin.
While they were exchanging blows, Sir Caligo said, "You are skilled, boy. Nearly as skilled as Telemachos, son of Meleagros. He valiantly gave his life to defend your Duke. Wasted it, I would say. He did not think highly of you."
Ionathas did not let the Knight of Chaos' taunts unnerve him.
"If I have to surpass Sir Telemachos to defeat you, I will."
"Ha ha! Show me then!"
Sir Caligo started to strike quicker now and harder. Each blow was more difficult to parry than the last. Ionathas' hands were starting to go numb from the force of their swords clashing and he could not hold his ground as the Knight of Chaos continued to press him.
And then a particularly fierce stroke shattered Ionathas' sword as if it were glass. The prized blade that had served him ever since the Kobaloi attacked Maranthe all those years ago was gone.
"It would seem you are beaten," Sir Caligo said.
Defiant to the end, Ionathas still gripped the broken hilt in his right hand and drew his pugio with his left.
"Not while I still draw breath, monster."
Sir Caligo laughed, not a scornful laugh but rather one of delight, or as close to the emotion as he was capable of.
"You are indeed Telemachos' equal," he said. "Now let us see if you can surpass him."
He threw his sword as if it were nothing more than a knife, the point piercing the stone at Ionathas' feet.
"Take it," Sir Caligo said. "It is the cursed blade Soul Drinker. The souls of all the men and women I have killed are sealed within it, including your precious Duke. The only way you can free them is by taking my head. When the blade tastes my blood, it will take me and release the others."
"What trickery is this?"
"No trickery. A test. If you are worthy, you can master that blade and use it to defeat me."
The Knight of Chaos drew out an ancient bronze sword and waited for Ionathas to take up the challenge. All good sense told him to make do with his broken blade and his pugio, but everything depended on him defeating Sir Caligo. If that meant turning his own wicked blade against him, so be it.
The moment Ionathas took hold of Soul Drinker's hilt, his very spirit was shaken by the surging waves of fear, sorrow, anger and hatred from the multitude of the cursed blade's victims. Any intelligence that guided those souls had long since wasted away, leaving only the purest, darkest emotions all bent on avenging their lives cruelly cut short.
I'm not your enemy! Lend me your strength and I will avenge you!
If his voice could be heard by the raging multitude, it was not heeded. There was no reasoning or pleading with them. They would drown him, dragging him down to the depths with them, or else they would shatter his mind just as Sir Caligo shattered his sword.
Ionathas dropped to one knee. Was this his fate, to be consumed by Soul Drinker's curse? He thought of the men of the Third Legion, the Hawks of Maranthe, Duke Cronos, and Corona. He could not fail them. He would not.
He answered the multitude's rage with his own. His spirit burned with white-hot flames as he roared like a lion among jackals.
BE STILL!
The tortured souls of the multitude quailed and receded. It was then that Ionathas realized that by mastering the souls of the slain, the wielder of Soul Drinker mastered the blade. With that blade, Ionathas would destroy the Knight of Chaos.
Rising up, Ionathas charged forward. The first stroke cleaved through Sir Caligo's bronze sword and the second took his head. After the headless corpse fell to the ground, it took Ionathas a moment to realize it was over. It seemed so easy.
There was no great flash of light or burning fire to mark the release of the hundreds of souls Sir Caligo had trapped in the cursed blade. They simply evaporated and were gone. However, they were replaced by a dark presence no less potent but somehow subdued without any effort on Ionathas' part to repress it.
Sir Caligo's voice spoke to him through the blade.
You have done well, Ionathas, son of Salemon. My victims have found their rest and my cursed life is at an end. Better a prisoner here than in the flesh.
"This was your intention all along."
Yes. For over a thousand years I waited to find a man fit to end my living death. You were that man. If you seek a reward, go and drink my heart's blood and you will gain my powers.
"You spent a thousand years trying to rid yourself of that curse. Why would I want to take it up?"
How else do you intend to kill the Monarch Lich? You need all the power your can get and even then, it will not likely be enough.
"No. Your evil power can die with you."
Ionathas drove the point of his new blade through Sir Caligo's breastplate to pierce his heart. No one else would lay claim to his cursed blood either.
"You won't be alone in there for long, monster. I'll see that your master joins you soon."
I look forward to seeing you try, Ionathas, son of Salemon.
Ionathas took up Sir Caligo's scabbard and sheathed Soul Drinker. It seemed the scabbard had some ability to suppress the souls trapped inside. Perhaps that was part of the reason why the Knight of Chaos had not gone completely mad over the long years of wielding the blade.
Ionathas did not care to conjecture about the scabbard's nature, though. His thoughts were focused on clearing the way to the Black Keep and giving Soul Drinker a taste of Lich blood.