by: Lewis H. Montaug
The exciting conclusion of a 3-part journey, which takes us on a hunt through dangerous terrain for that which is pure…..
Part Three: The Heart Beats As One
Matias Ruhl and Countess Karabekian strolled through the forest at a pace that was a bit too relaxed for his liking. Still though, they were both exhausted, and needed rest. Ruhl only had a half bottle left of Inferno, and that would have to last them both of them until they reached the Kingdom. “My GPS indicates that there’s some kind of shelter just a klick ahead,” he told her. “We can rest there for the evening.”
“Or perhaps rest for just part of it,” she suggested devilishly.
“My lady, you must cease with that kind of talk,” he said. “I am duty bound.”
“Again with your duty,” she said as she rolled her eyes.
The forest opened up near the edge of a cliff that hung over the Black River, and pushed back against the treeline was a modest stone hut that he saw was deceptively fortified. He came to a halt when he saw smoke pouring out of the chimney, and put his arm up to block her passage. “I think I just set off a tripwire,” she said guiltily.
A sliver in the stone opened up to reveal a gun turret, the barrel of large caliber rifle pointed at them. “Halt!” cried a voice from behind the wall. “In the name of King Xerxes, we command you to lay down your weapons and identify yourselves!”
“I am Matias Ruhl, Custodian to King Xerxes, and I am on a vital mission to safely return my companion, Countess Karabekian, to the Northern Kingdom.”
“Oh, we know who she is,” said a voice off to their right. He whirled, going for his pistol, but he saw no one. The Countess tapped his shoulder and pointed up into a fir tree, where a man in dirty, tattered military fatigues with the crest of the Northern Kingdom emblazoned on his breast had a rifle leveled at both of them. “And that is far enough. Do not take another step forward.”
“My mandate supersedes your authority,” Ruhl warned. “Do not make me kill you.”
The door to the hut creaked open, and another soldier, similarly dressed, crept out the door with his gun still trained on them. “What proof do you have you are who you say you are?” he inquired.
Ruhl held up his wrist. “This is the Beacon of the King himself,” he called. “And this,” he continued holding up a small object that looked like a child’s top, “is the King’s seal.” He threw it at the feet of the first soldier. “Verify its authenticity if you wish.”
The first soldier, who’s patch read Sazen, studied the alleged seal. He looked up to his companion in the tree. “It’s legitimate,” he said worriedly.
“Bollux,” the sniper muttered, and he jumped down from his perch. When he came within a few feet of Ruhl and the countess, they saw that his patch read Drahl.
“We apologize,” Sazen said, lowering his rifle, “but we cannot be too careful.”
“What are you doing way out here?” Ruhl demanded. “Why are you not at your posts?”
“You mean you haven’t heard?” Drahl said, disbelieving. “The Northwest Garrison has been overrun by the armies of the Southern Kingdom. It’s been completely razed.”
Ruhl was shocked. So it hadn’t just been his brother and his goons up this far north. What a shockingly bold play by the Southern King. And yet . . . something didn’t add up. “How did this happen?” Ruhl pressed, his voice maintaining an edge. “That garrison was one of the most heavily defended in all of the kingdom.”
Sazen pointed an accusing finger at the countess. “It was all her fault,” he spat. “It was her doing from the very beginning.”
Ruhl’s flail came out in a whirling fan of chain and spikes, his gun held ready at his side. “How dare your insolence? Apologize before I take your head.
Sazen held his ground. “I will not! She is cursed.”
Ruhl took a step toward Sazen, keeping a slowly advancing Drahl in his periphery. “I shall take your life for what you say.”
“It is true,” Drahl said, coming to Sazen’s aid. “We found her wandering the forest and took her in. We did not know who she was. And then in a mere day we were plagued by some contagion.” There was anguish in his voice. “Our population was decimated. General Ne’Penthe practically walked through the front gates. Only we managed to get away, and she was long gone before we fled. This was her doing.”
Ruhl glanced at the countess, and she merely shrugged as if she was just learning that she was the subject of some idle gossip, and he furrowed his brow. “And from this purely coincidental circumstance you ascertained that she had brought an epidemic to the garrison? Are you mad?”
“A village elder identified her when she was brought in,” Drahl persisted. “Said he could see through her, at the black inside.”
“She’s a witch, sir,” Sazen said. “She’ll be the death of us all.”
Ruhl twirled the chain of the flail more rapidly, its rotor a blur. He crouched down into a fighting stance. “Now you certainly will die for your damning false accusations,” he said coldly.
“Oh, stop it,” she said with exasperation. “What they say is true.”
The flail stopped spinning. “What?” he said, his mouth falling open a little.
“I practice witchcraft,” she admitted freely. “I have since I was fourteen. I am an adept of what these men would call ‘the dark arts’.” She shook her head and looked condescendingly at Sazen and Drahl. “But they are mistaken. I had nothing to do with the plague that swept through the garrison. I had prescience enough to flee, but there was nothing I could do to save the populace.”
Ruhl’s shoulders slumped a little. It was going to be a long night indeed.
In the Southern Hemisphere, too far away from anyone in the northern frontier to see, a colossal ruby beam of concentrated light shot down from orbit, incinerating the entire Southern Kingdom, a genocidal coup de grace for the Northern Kingdom that even someone as ruthless as Xerxes himself never would have sanctioned.
Ruhl and Sazen talked outside under the stars while Drahl reluctantly tended to the countess’ every need inside. “There is a great evil coming,” Ruhl said with conviction. “I can feel it.”
“It is the end of days, sir,” Sazen said, expanding. “That epidemic was just the beginning.”
As if to confirm their fears, the men heard the unmistakable hooting of a carrier owl. Ruhl tensed. When a carrier owl or hawk was sent out instead of a digital communique, one could expect news of some great calamity. Ruhl lifted his arm and the heavy owl landed on his wrist, just above the glowing beacon. He deftly removed the small scroll tethered to its claws and unrolled it. He read it carefully, his facial expression stony.
“What does it say?” Sazen asked with trepidation.
The countess appeared in the lit doorway, bathed and refreshed, waiting for Ruhl to deliver the news. “What word, Matias?” she asked.
It took a moment before Ruhl could find his voice. “King Xerxes is dead,” he said bluntly, emotionless.
“What?” Sazen cried, and Drahl came out of the hut, following the countess to join them. “How?”
“It doesn’t say,” Ruhl said matter-of-factly. “But the message is stamped with his seal. It must be true.”
“I told you,” Sazen said to Drahl, wagging a finger at his comrade. “I told you it is the end of days. It won’t be long before the armies of darkness sweep through the land and destroy us all.”
Drahl held his head in his hands, exhausted with despair. Ruhl walked toward the edge of the cliff, lost in thought. The countess followed there, and they both looked out at the vast expanse of the brightly lit sky over the Black River. She put a hand on his shoulder. “I know you feel as though part of you has died, but you must realize that you are free now. You can do whatever you want with your life.”
He said nothing, but he worked the metal bracelet that held the beacon off his wrist, twisting and chafing his skin. “It is not safe for us anymore,” he said, and he tossed the beacon over the side, and it plummeted down toward the dark waters and out of sight.
She took his face in her hands and turned him toward her. “Do you not see an opportunity when one presents itself right in front of you? You and I can do great things together, unencumbered.”
His feeling of purposelessness washed away his soldierly poise. He removed her hands and lowered them, but held them gently in his palms. “If only it were that simple,” he said, and he turned and led her by the hand back to the shack. They stopped at the doorway. He looked into the violet and black pools of her eyes, and without looking away from her, he said over his shoulder, “Sir Drahl, continue to tend to the countess. I will have a word with Sir Sazen.”
Drahl followed Lady Karabekian into the hut, but she kept her gaze fixed on Ruhl’s back as the Custodian went to join Sazen. Drahl closed the door behind them.
It was a simple dwelling, small but cozy, modestly boasting a king-sized feather bed, a cushioned loft above, a stone hearth, and a quaint kitchen area. She went over to the fireplace and sat down on the bearskin rug to warm herself. Troubled at Ruhl’s reaction to the news of the king’s passing, she realized it was to be expected. Where she was elated, he was devastated. While she suspected that he had very little love for King Xerxes, his whole reason for living, the purpose of his existence, had just winked out like a star. She then wondered if he….
She shot up to her feet. An alarming thought had just entered her mind. She bolted past Drahl and out the door.
Outside she observed Ruhl on his knees with his arms held out in front of him, a dagger held firmly in both hands, pointed at his abdomen. Sazen stood behind him, a pained expression on his face, and he held a wide stance with a sword poised over his right shoulder. “No!” she called out furiously, and she scooped up a tangerine-sized rock at her her feet and hurled it at Ruhl’s head. It hit him right in the back of the skull with a dull thud, and he groaned in pain. Sazen, startled, jumped back a foot. “You fool,” she chastised. “Even in death, the king still has sway over you.”
Ruhl got to his feet, and with fury in his voice said, “My king is dead. I failed to preserve his life. I am duty bound to take my own life.”
“Again with your bloody duty,” she shot back, her contempt matching his fury. “Your ridiculous warrior’s honor. You weren’t even there. What about your duty to me?”
“My mission is no longer of any consequence,” he said ruefully. “All that matters is that I fulfill my oath.”
She could see that he wouldn’t be swayed. She came around to stand in front of him. Then, faster than even the most agile of assassins, she scooped up the dagger on the ground and swung it in a wide arc, cutting across his right cheek. Sazen raised his sword and took a step toward her, but Ruhl put his arm up to stop his second’s advance. Ruhl brought a finger to his cut cheek. “What are you about now?”
Both men’s mouths fell open when she lifted the dagger to her mouth and licked the blood from its very top. She closed her eyes and smiled triumphantly, and then she began to utter strange words in a foreign, archaic language.
“There she goes again, sir,” Sazen said nervously, “casting those spells of hers.”
She opened her eyes and looked at Ruhl. “You cannot take your own life now. Not if you plan on preserving mine.”
Ruhl had little patience for her cryptic manor. “What the devil are you talking about?”
“My heartbeat is intricately linked to yours now. When you die, I die.”
Ruhl’s eyes narrowed. “You’re bluffing. I do not believe you.”
“I’ll prove it to you. Give me your Inferno.”
“We have precious little left. I will not waste it.”
She held out her hand. “It’s alright. I only need a single drop. Give it to me.”
He reached into the leather satchel at his side, watching her warily. Then he held out the small glass vial, which she took. She pulled off the top and held the vial over her mouth, letting a single drop fall on her tongue, and then swallowed.
A moment went by and nothing happened. But then . . . then he felt a quickening of his pulse as his heartbeat accelerated. “You feel that, don’t you,” she said with a smile. “Our lives our now joined.”
Through gritted teeth, he said, “You have robbed me of my honor.”
Shaking her head, she retorted, “Honor is so boring.”
Prince Caledon waited patiently, mounted on his horse at the riverbed while one of his shivering scouts came wading out of the strong, icy currents. “You found it,” he stated.
“Yes, my lord,” the scout said, holding the braceleted beacon high for his liege to see.
“Ruhl may be on to us,” one of Caledon’s advisors said over the prince’s shoulder.
“It matters little,” Caledon said, a malicious smirk painted on his face. “They cannot be far.”
“How long have you been a witch,” Ruhl asked the countess.
“Since I was fourteen,” she said without shame. “Ever since that dark day at the market. I had clandestine meetings with a great master of the craft. But neither she or I refer to ourselves as witches. It carries with it such a negative connotation.”
“Why?” he asked her, baffled that such a beauty of such prestigious station would lower herself so. “Why risk your good name–your family’s good name–over something so heathen and primitive?”
“The craft offered me more power–real power–than the aristocracy ever could. A countess wields very little true influence.”
“But what about . . . your other gift?”
She laughed without mirth. “You mean my chastity? You believe it’s a gift? I call it a curse.”
“That curse you refer to has the ability to save the land, the people.”
Scorn now, written all over her face. “And yet you would have handed me over to a malevolent king to deflower me. Don’t talk to me about salvation.”
His eyes lost focus for a moment. “I have to find out what has happened. I do not know what to do.”
“You’re your own man now,” she said, trying to make him see. “You can do whatever you like.”
He shook his head. “You still do not under–”
“Halt!” called Drahl, raising his rifle toward the southern treeline. “Intruder.”
A waify, awkward young man came staggering out of the trees, shivering and looking disoriented. “Please don’t shoot! I must speak with the Custodian to King Xerxes.”
Ruhl stepped forward. “I am Matias Ruhl, Custodian to the king. Who are you?”
The man fell to his knees. “Oh, thank the gods. My name is Stoban Hollander, ensign of the Night Watch on the king’s orbital station. I have much to tell you.”
“Speak,” Ruhl said forcefully.
Hollander raised his head. “Can we please go inside? I am afraid I may pass out.”
“It was a plot to murder the king from the very beginning,” Hollander said, a wool blanket wrapped around his shoulders. “Prince Caledon discovered a virus that he bio-engineered into a weapon. Everyone on the station had it, but only myself and a select few others knew about it. They discovered that outside of the atmosphere, in space, the virus germinates but then remains dormant. Only when one re-enters the natural atmosphere does it begin to take effect. Prince Caledon knew that once you activated the beacon Commander Crusher would come down to the king to deliver the news in person. And when that happened, everyone in the king’s court was infected. It only takes two days to kill a person. Half of the Northern Kingdom has succumbed to it.”
Ruhl was suspicious. “The prince would have endangered himself then.”
Hollander shook his head. “No, he has the cure. Furthermore, he inoculated himself and his men beforehand. He has been one step ahead the entire time. He wants the throne, and,” he pointed to the countess, “he wants Lady Karabekian for himself.”
The countess visibly shivered, and Ruhl said. “Why have you come to me? How did you get off of the station, and how did you find me?”
Hollander sighed. “Commander Crusher ordered my death, but it was all part of the ploy. Once he took his shuttle planetside, the skeleton crew manning the station was made up of men who were in on the plot. Now Crusher, too, is dead, and so is anyone who opposes Caledon. He holds the antidote to the virus, and his soldiers will only administer it to those who swear fealty to him. His scheme has gotten out of control.”
Ruhl was growing agitated. “I will ask again. How and why did you find me?”
Hollander looked truly remorseful. “One of Caledon’s first acts was to use the station’s orbital lasers to incinerate the entire Southern Kingdom. Every man, woman, and child.” His eyes glistened with tears. “I knew that the prince desired the crown, and I did my part to help him to that end, but once he committed such an atrocity, I could not go along with it anymore. So I stole a shuttle and used the beacon to find you.” He bit his lip, and then said with resolve, “Prince Caledon must be stopped. He is a madman who will stop at nothing to achieve his own ends.”
Drahl asked with trepidation, “Have you infected us all with this virus by coming here?”
“No, I do not carry the virus,” Hollander responded, “but on my way down here I saw that the Northern Garrison has succumbed to it. It is only a matter of time before everyone in the land is infected by it. And Prince Caledon is the only one who has the cure.”
Ruhl squared his shoulders. “Tell me the rest. Tell me everything. Then we will take you outside and execute you for treason and crimes against humanity.”
When they were alone outside, the countess asked Ruhl, “What will you do now? What can we do?”
“I have to find Caledon. Hollander says that he’s mass-produced the cure, and I need to find out where he is keeping it.”
She glanced off to the cliff overlooking the Black River. “The entire Southern Kingdom wiped out in the blink of an eye,” she said sadly. “I know that we were at war with them, but even the devils themselves wouldn’t have dealt out such horrific punishment. And now our own people sick and dying. Caledon won’t have any subjects left to rule over.”
“I never suspected that the youth had it in him. Ambition, yes, but this . . . ?”
She turned her back to him. “I was happy when I heard of Xerxes’ passing. I thought maybe it was a chance at a fresh start, a chance to run away, start a new life.” She glanced over her shoulder at him. “Perhaps a chance to start a new life with you.”
“You do not even know me.”
“I know you, and I remember you. You’re naive in your duty, and far too subservient, but you’re an honorable man with virtue.” She said quietly,” And I know you remember me too. I know how you feel about me. Even without the sight the craft has given me, I can see it in your eyes.”
There was a tightening in his jaw muscles, but then he quickly said, “It can never be.”
She lowered her head a little. “No, I suppose not.”
“Quite right,” called a voice from the trees. “Because the only one who will ever lay with Lady Karabekian is me, I’m afraid.” Prince Caledon stepped out into the open from behind a great oak tree.
Both Ruhl’s flail and pistol came to his hands in an instant. He quickly took stock of the situation. A few dozen armed soldiers stepped out of the darkness, quickly moving to Caledon’s left and right in an effort to surround the stone hut. Sazen and Hollander came rushing out of the shelter.
“You have served your purpose, loyal Custodian,” Caledon said with mirth. “Now hand over the countess.”
Ruhl had his pistol aimed right at the Prince’s forehead, unwavering even at the sound of dozens of firearms being locked and loaded before being trained on him.
“Now, now, Ruhl,” Caledon said, raising his palms up. “You must realize that you cannot possibly shoot your way out of this. You are impossibly outgunned.”
“I can still take you with me,” Ruhl said poisonously. “Your bloodline ends with you, and so too your legacy.”
“But then what of the countess?” Caledon’s said mockingly, his youthful expression looking far too corrupted for his seventeen years. “What will become of her?”
“I will not be taken!” the countess spat. “You will never have me.”
“Oh, but I think that I shall. Your friend here, the Custodian, knows exactly what will happen to you if he doesn’t lower his weapon.”
“You know I don’t miss, brat,” Ruhl said over the barrel of his nine-millimeter. “This is your last chance.”
Caledon yawned. “Oh, I grow tired of this. This land is far too frigid.” He then whispered something to one of his advisers.
Then, something very unexpected happened. A thin beam of crimson light materialized out of nowhere, right in front of Ruhl, and his outstretched arm that held the pistol disintegrated before his eyes. The beam evaporated as quickly as it had appeared, and Ruhl stared, dumbfounded, at the stump of his right arm.
High in orbit, one of Prince Caledon’s co-conspirators stood over his gunner. “Excellent. Very precise.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to just take him out?” the gunner asked.
“No,” the treasonous commander replied. “The Prince said to leave him alive.”
“Let’s see how impenetrable that armor of yours really is,” Caledon said, clasping his hands together. To his men, he said, “Open fire.”
Gunfire lit up the shadows of the forest, and the first barrage bombarded Ruhl from all angles. His armor held up against the onslaught for the most part, but one bullet pierced his neck while others tore through the flesh of his arms and legs. He fell.
The countess let out an anguished cry, and then began rapidly chanting in the long forgotten tongue her master had taught her, repeating the words over and over. A breeze swept through the forest, a breeze that quickly grew into a powerful gust, and it picked up speed as she continued to summon forth the full fury of the Whispering Winds. She, Ruhl, Sazen, and Hollander were safe from it at it’s center, but the cyclone showed no mercy to Caledon and his men. Dead branches from trees and whole boulders began take to the air as if by telekinetic energy, and the wind whipped round and round as the boulders buffeted Caledon’s soldiers, crushing rib cages and skulls. Caledon grabbed hold of the trunk of the tree nearest him as the storm winds lifted his feet, and at least a dozen of his men were snatched up by the maelstrom and flung over the edge of the cliff as they plunged to their deaths into the depths of the Black River.
Caledon’s chief adviser spoke something into his transponder, and a few moments later the red beam of light reappeared, blasting the earth just a few feet in front of the countess and knocking her off her feet. She landed hard on her back, and the violent winds gradually died down.
Lady Karabekian, stunned, looked up at the darkening sky. She began a new chant now, her anger pouring off of her, and she brought her two hands together and squeezed them as if she was crushing a moth.
In orbit, none of the men who were loyal to Caledon knew what was happening as the space station began to implode, leaking atmosphere as steel shrieked and grinded against steel. Those men who did not die right away cried out in terror as the whole station inexplicably began to plummet toward the Earth as if yanked by some giant invisible hand, and their screams were silenced as each and every one of them burned to a cinder upon reentry into the atmosphere.
Caledon stood over Ruhl’s supine and bloody body. Ruhl reached over for his pistol, and Caledon kicked it away out of reach. “Aside from my decrepit brother, you have been the bane of my existence for as long as I can remember. I always suspected that Xerxes somehow planned to tailor you, and not me, to be the successor to the throne. But his reign has ended.” He knelt down so that his face was closer to Ruhl’s. “I will not let you die just yet. First you can lie here and listen as I take what is rightfully mine, and then you can die.” He looked off to his right, to the mere five men in his contingent who’d survived the onslaught of the Whispering Winds, two of which who were now arresting Hollander and Sazen. “I will have her now. Bring her inside.”
Two of the men each took one of the countess’s arms and dragged her toward the hut. She was still dazed from the impact of the laser, but she fought them as fiercely as she could, screaming, “No! No!”
Turning his attention back to Ruhl, Caledon said, “You have failed, Custodian.” Then he rose and followed his men toward the hut. As he passed Sazen and Hollander, now bounded and guarded, he said, “Kill the defector, but leave the Ensign alive. He has much to answer for.” The soldier guarding Sazen drew his sidearm and put a bullet through Sazen’s skull. Blood splattered Hollander’s horrified face.
Ruhl, incapacitated, looked over to the countess, who was dragging her feet and struggling with all her might against Caledon’s men. She looked over her shoulder at Ruhl, and in his mind he heard her voice. This is it. He’s going to rape me. I guess everyone’s going to see if the taking of my virginity really bestows the kind of power everyone always said it would. I wish it could have been you, Matias. I wish that we could have made love just once before we both died. Goodbye, my hero.” And then she was dragged through the door to the hut, Caledon following her inside, slamming the door.
There was only one thing Ruhl could think of to do. He began to crawl, slowly and steadily, away from the hut and toward the edge of the cliff. He left a trail of blood behind him as he used his elbows and knees to drag himself along, inch-by-inch. The soldier who’d shot Sazen saw Ruhl’s sluggish retreat. “Just where do you think you are going?” he asked with a half-laugh, and began following Ruhl at a leisurely pace.
Caledon threw the countess down on the bed and climbed on top of her, lifting the hem of her gown. She punched and slapped at his face and chest, trying to fight him off, but he was too powerful. When she tried to bite his face, he lifted his head just out of reach and said, “Whoah! Hold her down, men.” His soldiers complied with his order, weighing down the countess’s arms.
“The last virgin in the land,” Caledon said hungrily, “and it will be me that takes you.” He went to loosen his belt buckle.
The soldier had almost caught up to Ruhl. “Come back here,” he said.
Ruhl turned over on his back and sent his flail flying at the man. The chain wrapped itself around the soldier’s neck and the spikes of its ball embedded in his face. He fell over backward, not quite dead, but out of commission.
The Custodian opened his vial of Inferno, which would give him no superhuman strength in lieu of his wounds, but would give him the extra push he would need to reach the cliff’s edge. When the soldier guarding Hollander saw his comrade fall, he made a quick decision and began to sprint after Ruhl.
Caledon had his pants down around his ankles and had pulled the countess’s dress up over her thighs. He licked his lips and said, “How very sweet this is, and well worth the wait. Once I have had you, my ascension to power will be complete.”
Exhausted, Lady Karabekian lowered her head and resigned herself to this inevitable violation.
Ruhl got one arm over the edge of the cliff, breathing heavily. This was it. His last act of service. It wasn’t at all desirable, but it was favorable to the alternative. He could not allow the Countess to be taken against her will, for what it would mean to her, what it would mean to him, and what it would mean for Caledon. The second soldier was almost upon him when he pulled his body toward the edge of the cliff and hurled himself over the side and fell through the air, his body twisting and spinning. He was in freefall for a long time while Caledon’s man stared, disbelieving, at the plummeting Custodian.
Ruhl hit the frigid waters hard, his neck snapping, and the current dragged his lifeless body along into eddies where it smashed into rocks, tearing flesh and breaking bones, before it was carried to a colossal waterfall and thrown over the side, disappearing forever in the silvery cascade.
Just before the prince entered her, the countess’s eyes grew wide, and her whole body spasmed. She let one last exhalation escape her, and then her body stopped moving.
Caledon looked bewildered. He touched her neck to check her pulse. Nothing. He looked at his men. “She is….dead,” he said in disbelief.
“It is like they said, sir,” his chief adviser said nervously. “She truly is a sorceress. She is cursed.” More adamantly, he said. “You must get off of her. You must not touch her. She will be your death.”
Prince Caledon, unable to comprehend this sudden turn of events, and heeding the warning of his adviser, pulled up his trousers and spun on his heels. “Everyone out,” he commanded. “Now.”
When they were outside, not even bothering with the fate of Matias Ruhl, he said, “Bring the ensign. We ride out immediately.” The sudden and unexplainable passing of Countess Karabekian had trouble him to his core, and with no confidence whatsoever, he wondered if he was indeed cursed. The men hastily mounted their horses and rode for the Castle of the Northern Kingdom.
They were a few klicks west of the Northwest Garrison when a phalanx of armed soldiers materialized from a low rise on the open field and overran them. Two of Caledon’s four remaining troops were killed in the retreat. When Caledon and his men were bound in chains, and great bear of a man, bearded, scarred, and covered in chainmail, cut through the line of men.
“Prince Caledon,” the man said with hatred lacing the spoken name.
The Prince knew who this man was. It was the last living general of the Southern Kingdom, and he looked like a man possessed. “General Ne’Penthe,” Caledon said coldly, acknowledging his nemesis.
“You have taken everything and everyone I ever loved away from me. And now my men are sick and dying. A thousand hells would not be punishment enough for what you have done.”
“He has a cure,” a tied and bound Hollander called out desperately. “Do not kill him before he gives it to you.”
Ne’Penthe turned to Hollander. “And who might you be?”
“My name is Hollander. I’m an ensign for the Nighwatch of the Northern Kingdom.” He gestured toward Caledon. “He has a cure. I know how we can replicate it.”
“Is that right?” Ne’Penthe said thoughtfully, rubbing a hand through his thick beard.
Caledon, whose cool and self-assured demeanor had been withering away since the Countess had died, was now starting to look very afraid.
“Well then,” Ne’Penthe said, coming nose-to-nose with Caledon, “we’ll see if we can’t extract this cure from this filth. Once we’ve seen that it works, and we have cured what is left of our people, we’ll make sure that the young prince here dies very, very slowly.”
Drahl climbed down the ladder from the loft. Everything had happened so fast when Sazen had told him to hide in case they were all killed. Someone needed to tell their story.
His fears were confirmed when he saw the countess’s lifeless body sprawled over the bed, wide-eyed and looking anything but peaceful. He felt a lump rise in his throat. He walked outside to survey the scene. Sazen’s corpse lay a few feet away among the other bodies and debris. Neither Ruhl or Hollander were anywhere to be seen. He slumped down in the doorway and leaned against the jamb. “What will become of us now?” he asked himself. He began to sob.
Movement in his periphery caused his head to jerk. He looked behind him and saw the countess sitting up in bed, looking confused. She met eyes with Drahl. “You are alive,” he said, not believing his eyes.
“Matias Ruhl sacrificed himself,” she said with sorrow, “to spare me the humiliation of being taken against my will, and to keep the prince from solidifying his power.”
“Is is true what they say about you?” Drahl asked. “Will the first man who sleeps with you . . . ?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Enough men who have desired me believed it to be true, but I truly don’t know.”
“But how are you alive?”
“My spell was a bluff, so that Matias wouldn’t take his own life. I’m sorry that I lied to him, but it had to be done. He was too honor-bound.” She got up and walked past him, out the door and over to the edge of the cliff. She looked down to the murky depths of the river, and Drahl came up behind her.
I’m sorry things turned out this way, my friend. I know now that we could never have been together in this war-torn land, but I always believed . . .
She looked down at her feet, and saw the last vial of Inferno. Even at his end, Ruhl had left just enough behind with the hope that the rest of them might live to fight on. She picked it up and studied the crystal container.
I promise that your sacrifice won’t be in vain. I promise that I will do everything in my power to make things right. Thank you for giving your life for mine. Farewell, my love.
She turned to face Drahl. He looked perplexed by her look of resignation. He got down on his knees, prostrating himself, and said, “How may I be of service to you, my lady?”
She looked off to the south, to the forest. “You can escort me back to the castle,” she said with conviction. “I have a kingdom to rebuild.”