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  • Andrew M. Trauger

Chapter 19: Till the Walls Crumble

Near the entryway below, Selorian staggered past the slain butler. His lungs burned from running across the entire castle complex, driven by the Slayer’s lust for blood. Gasping for air, he rested hands on knees to catch his breath and surveyed the balcony above him. On one side, the duke of Alikon threw punches at a hairless ascetic with the futility of one trying to grasp water.

On the other side, standing alone, a raven-haired girl—perhaps a young woman—in a frilly pink dress grinned down at him as she leaned against the railing. The insincerity of her smile caught his attention. She wore it like a mask, concealing any number of emotions that likely were nothing to smile about.

Kill him.

“Who is she?” Selorian said aloud. A slight tilt of the head accompanied the girl’s smile, and the curl of a sneer played at her lips. Still, she forced the smile, though it was unclear whether she mocked him or tried to hide an inward pain. Secrets were stored behind that façade.

What are you doing, you fool? Kill him!

Selorian glanced over at the bald man; neither he nor the duke was Schumann. “Who? Where is the man I saw?”

He’s right there. The Slayer wrested control long enough to focus Selorian’s eyes on the bald ascetic.

The savant suppressed the sword’s command to focus again on the young woman. His eyes flashed with lavender as he probed her mind. Hollow emptiness stared back at him, increasing the hypocrisy of her persistent grin. A grim scene of abuse formed in his vision—emotional, psychological, mental abuse. Brief physical abuse. But the abuser was neither of the men fighting across the balcony from her. The smile said otherwise, but her vacant eyes pleaded with him. She needed help. His help.

She is nothing to you. Kill him! Or I will kill you.

Selorian shifted back to the conflict on the balcony. The duke defended against a barrage of hands and feet—rapid movements that landed blows far more frequently than the duke could block. How could any man move with such alacritous speed? The duke would surely fall at any moment.

Fool! You are wasting time.

A wave of searing heat washed through Selorian’s brain as the Slayer pushed him to obedience. He tore at his hair. “Shut up!” Summoning a massive globe of eldritch energy, he swirled it around the Slayer.

What are you doing?

Selorian spun the sword in tighter circles and extended it toward the balcony, flinging the twisting mass of energy into the ascetic. A concussive blast resounded throughout the grand hall, rattling the windows. The duke toppled over as the violet vortex exploded before him. And in a shower of plaster and broken wood, the ascetic crashed through the wall behind him and into the room beyond.

Lenair scrambled back to his feet, shaking his head and catching his staggered balance on the railing. He pulled his sword, and with a quick glance at Selorian, darted through the hole in his wall to continue the fight.

You idiot! I am not your personal slingshot.

“Confidence, Slayer,” he answered. “I just bought you some time.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Kiyla’s head whipped about as the rumble of explosion shook the castle. “That ain’t good.”

“Ain’t nuttin good out here,” Elric said. “Specially these soldiers switchin’ sides an’ killin’ each other.”

The soldier at Elric’s feet scowled through the pain of a sword wound and a broken arm from his fall off the battlement. But his eyes burned with an unnatural hatred as he resisted Elric’s attempts to subdue him.

Kiyla stood over him and tossed her ash blonde braid to one side. “Hold him.” She had lost track of the number of soldiers they had sorted through, but it was enough that she and Elric had developed a routine. Elric wrestled the man to his knees and locked the soldier’s arms behind him. And Kiyla delivered a powerful knee to the soldier’s gut.

“Tie ‘im up.”

Elric released the wounded soldier and gave a despairing shrug. “We ain’t got no more rope.” He cast a despondent glance along the ground below the battlement as several more soldiers writhed where they had fallen. “I wish more of ‘em was on our side.”

Far too many were clouded in delusion, some to the point of madness, as if an inner conflict between loyalty to Alikon and the magical influence of that cursed screech had broken their minds. Far too few simply needed their help and encouragement to continue the virtuous fight.

“Fine. We’re done here. Let’s go.” Kiyla and Elric raced for the castle doors. They rushed past the grisly scene at the base of the steps and charged inside. But the massive symbol hanging from the ceiling froze them in mid-stride.

“Sonuvacrap,” Elric breathed in a deflated whisper.

Kiyla cracked a few vertebrae in her neck. “Nine Hells.” She scanned the area—a shortbow lay on the floor near the marble inlay of Alikon’s seal—a sheaf of wheat on a green field. Sounds of struggle filtered through a jagged hole in the balcony wall. And at the top of the grand staircase, Selorian dropped an aura of inky blackness around him. Kiyla cursed. “Not good at all.”

“What’s going on in here?” said an authoritative voice from a side passage. “What was that explosion?” Sir Rossalo Brighton stepped into the vestibule, stripped of his wedding garb and wrapped in chainmail, a wavy-bladed longsword in his right hand, and a massive shield slung across his back.

Lady Karlina stepped forward from behind her groom in her torn and bloodied gown, her hair disheveled and her face a mixture of horrified shock and unadulterated anger. She leveled a fierce glare at Kiyla and Elric. “He asked you a question. Either you answer him, or he cuts you down!”

* * * * * * * * * *

From within the clarifying darkness of his nimbus, Selorian saw the woman in the pink dress in a new light. He recognized her as the duke’s youngest, Lady Gretchen. Her smile conveyed a more distinct meaning—a sneer of deadly intent. His earlier assessment flipped, and he wondered whether the lady was helpless at all. But she was no concern; his target was in one of the interior rooms, and the Slayer drove him forward.

With a second crash of splintering wood and plaster, the duke’s body broke through the wall near the previous hole and careened against the balcony railing. Debris sprayed across the balcony and onto the marble floor below, pelting Sir Ross and his bride.

The bald ascetic casually stepped through the broken wall and kicked a board aside, his hand quivering with power and reaching for the duke’s chest.

Selorian felt his head would explode with the Slayer’s screams. Though the man looked like none of the pictures in Schumann’s house, the Slayer remained adamant.


Duke Lenair clutched his chest in pain, his breathing ragged and shallow. He tried rising to his feet, but collapsed.

The ascetic paused before striking another blow on the ailing duke. He stared at Selorian’s veil of darkness with an iridescent flash in his eye. Then, as if parting window curtains, he peered clean through the veil into Selorian’s eyes. “Who in the Nine Hells are you?”

Piercing the veil was new to Selorian, and the shock of it sent ripples of fear down his spine. How could someone penetrate my cover? He worked through his options, but the Slayer seized his mind. His eyes rolled back and filled with the lavender glow of eldritch power. From the wellspring of his soul, Selorian answered in a booming voice not his own: “I am your Slayer!”

“Rink off!” Schumann replied, then he lunged into the darkness and impacted Selorian’s chest with an impossibly quick hand.

The savant flew backwards across the balcony and slid on his back past the grand staircase and into the opposite wall. Immense pain wracked his body. He thought his heart might have been impaled by fragments of his sternum. He placed a hand upon his chest, but nothing was broken. When he opened his eyes, Lady Gretchen knelt beside him within the dark aura, holding a dagger to his throat.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sir Ross spun toward the commotion above him, his wavy-bladed sword aloft and ready. The image of a sphere of darkness hurtling across the balcony shocked him. The hairless man jumped back toward the duke, pinning him against the railing with a single hand.

The duke’s body quivered beneath the chokehold. “Bray…” he croaked. He struggled and clawed for air, but the ascetic held firm.

“Father!” Karlina yelled.

She moved to aid him, but Sir Ross grasped her arm. “No, I will shield him. Go back to the courtyard and save your people.”

Lady Karlina hesitated, then nodded and ran out of the castle.

With an expert flourish, Sir Ross presented his rectangular shield, emblazoned with the turret of the Border Lands. “Bray!” he yelled up to the balcony. “Unhand the duke, or you will know the wrath of the Shield!”

Bray paused from choking the duke to provide Sir Ross a dismissive sneer. He tossed the duke aside, leaving him gasping for air and clutching a damaged throat. “Do you think I’m the least bit worried about your little piece of metal? The duke’s as good as dead; I have only to say the word, and he dies. Your sorry excuse of a hero is curled up at my slave’s feet, and you three are in a hopeless position. You’ll be dead before you can ascend the stairs. It’s been all too easy, I think.” The ascetic’s eyes glowed a pale green, and a glittering mote of light cascaded from his hand to the marble floor, where it touched briefly before flashing outward. “Dance for me, slaves.”

As commanded, Elric and Kiyla began to dance in tandem, as if they had practiced the footwork together for years. Bray pretended to stifle a yawn while he clapped in mock applause.

Sir Ross felt a shudder course through his body, but his shield blocked much more than weapons. He thrust his sword upward in defiance. “I am not impressed by your trickery, Bray.”

“No? Well, perhaps you’ll be more compliant with this.” Bray raised a hand glowing with vibrant hues, but a violet globe of energy sailed across the balcony and slammed into his head.

“Why don’t you dance for me!” said a voice from within the sphere of utter blackness. Volley after volley of eldritch blasts hurtled from the opacity, each one knocking Bray further sideways until he was forced to duck through the destroyed wall into the duke’s chambers.

Lenair struggled to his feet, and Sir Ross wasted no time gathering up Ataraxia, the duke’s shortbow, and tossing it up to him. Lenair caught his favored weapon, breathed a quick prayer over it, and shuddered under the surge of healing power it released into his body. Without a word, he charged back through his destroyed wall, pulling an arrow from his quiver as he went.

Sir Ross gave the dancing pair of freeblades a bemused shrug and bounded up the steps to join his liege-lord in battle.

* * * * * * * * * *

Inside the chilled, unnerving darkness, Selorian squeezed the slender, shaking hand that clutched his arm. “With me you are secure,” he said softly. Gretchen’s weak smile was her only response.

Never before had someone else stood with him in his void, and Selorian could not have predicted its effect on one not attuned to eldritch powers. With little doubt, Gretchen had entered the sphere to kill him, but as she placed the blade against his neck, her eyes widened as if she was seeing for the first time. But the acute clarity the veil of utterdark provided him also cleansed Gretchen of the fog clouding her mind. She dropped the dagger and fell upon him with silent sobs. Her entire demeanor had changed; now she trembled and clung to him as if her very life depended on him. Over and over, she whispered the words, “He’s gone.”

Across the balcony they walked, arm in arm. In the vestibule below, Elric and Kiyla danced a vigorous jig, but Selorian carried a broken vessel at his side. And the Slayer no longer said anything about it. What is going on Slayer? Where is your vociferous denouncement now? “Come,” he said to Gretchen, “his capacity to disconcert you has dissipated.”

“Thank you,” she said, but the words trickled from her painted lips like the final drops from an emptied glass. The clutch she held on his arm softened, then slipped.

Selorian grasped her drooping body. She sagged and fell limply in his arm. “No!” he growled. “I am to save you! Say something. Why do you wither in my arm?”

Hollow eyes stared back at him. Gretchen’s lips scarcely moved as her breath expelled. “All…is gone.”

Light gray tendrils of mist rose from Lady Gretchen’s nostrils and open mouth, floating on an invisible breeze that swirled around the Slayer. Wisps of ethereal absorbed into the bent and poorly hammered blade, and Selorian’s mind echoed with the slow sigh of satisfaction.

“You!” he hissed at the sword.

Laughter filled his mind.

“You killed her!”

Confidence, Wielder. I just bought her some time.

Selorian threw off his globe of utterdark and screamed at the top of his lungs. He laid Gretchen’s ashen body at the top of the stairs. Violet filled his eyes, traced lines throughout the tattoos across his body, and swirled with audible cracks along his fingers.

The Slayer screamed in his head, and Selorian’s voice echoed.


* * * * * * * * * *

Cora looked up from the wounded woman she tended in the courtyard. That was Selorian’s wretched voice. He’s in the castle! Her eyes darted to Lady Karlina who knelt beside her, wrapping a man’s bloody arm. They had helped so few of the injured compared to the field of casualties that spread out before them. A bandage covered the wound in Karlina’s shoulder, but it was already spotted with blood. Even in the midst of this great tragedy, the Lady of Alikon displayed exceptional strength and courage. But her face was etched with pain.

“My lady,” Cora said, touching the woman’s arm. “They need my help.”

Karlina nodded. “Go. These are my people. Bring a quick end to this madness.”

As Cora ran toward the castle, she knew the grim fierceness displayed in Karlina’s eyes would be, as a lady in the Border Lands, a frequent look. If only she had not met such ugliness on her wedding day.

Cuauhtérroc met her along the colonnade, his body spattered with blood and a deep scowl carved into his forehead. “I hear dees scream.”

Cora slid to a stop. “That was Selorian. My guess is he found Schumann. But that means Schumann wasn’t after Lady Kar—” She blanched.

“He is going to keel dees duke,” Cuauhtérroc finished.

Glancing back at the macabre courtyard, Cora grabbed the savage’s shoulders. “Look, much as I’d like you to help the duke—much as I know you want to handle Selorian—I really think you need to stay out here. Evil is all around, and still the soldiers are inflicted with madness. Someone must protect Lady Karlina. Can you do that? Can you stay with her and keep her safe?”

Cuauhtérroc nodded. “I weel do dees.”

Cora drew her rapier and scampered up the portico steps. She froze in her tracks, staring slack-jawed at the hideous tapestry of the Nephreqin symbol hanging from the ceiling. A chill swept through her spine. She assumed the Nephreqin was masterminding a coup. But seeing it progress—seeing people die to prevent it—reality was far harsher than her imaginations.

Her focus shifted to the two-person dance in progress. Elric’s breathing labored as he continued to jig. Kiyla’s quick feet mimicked a shadow-boxing routine.

“What in the Nine Hells are you two doing?”

“Cain’t…stop,” Elric huffed.

“Hexed,” Kiyla said between shuffles. “Cursed to dance. I hate dancin’.”

Elric’s eyes pleaded. “Help?”

“This would be easier if I had my lute,” Cora said. She walked a circle around the pair, singing a rapid succession of notes that escalated in speed as they raised in pitch. There it is… A resonant frequency in the vestibule stood out, echoing with elevated volume above the others. Cora locked onto that tone, weaving a series of notes in and around that frequency until the whole room vibrated with amplified waves of sound. Then she sang a fully discordant tone, high and piercing, clashing and colliding with the roomful of sound. The sonic energy dissipated, taking with it the strains of magical compulsion that bound the freeblades.

Kiyla stopped dancing and clutched her knees, panting. Elric collapsed in a heap on the floor.

“You…really…should…get…more exercise,” Kiyla said between gasps.

“Well, you two make a nice pair,” Cora said. “So, did either of you see Schumann?”

* * * * * * * * * *

Duke Lenair circled the perimeter of his chambers, staring down the shaft of an arrow at Leydon Bray, who turned with him along the opposite wall in a circular stalemate. He strained for a new plan, but nothing came to mind as he slowly rotated around his room. The ascetic would simply deflect the arrow he had nocked on Ataraxia, as he had done several times already. His room bore the scars of shafts embedded in the walls and furniture. But he was ready should Bray suddenly spring an attack. Unfortunately, everything the ascetic did was sudden.

Sir Ross circled the room beside him, his wavy blade tapping against the mighty rectangular shield of the Border Lands. Thicker than standard shields, reinforced, and enhanced with Dareni contraptions, no two Border Land shields were alike. And only the heroes of those lands carried one as a reward for gallantry and sacrifice.

The germ of an idea formed in the duke’s head. “Spread out, Ross. We have to pen him in before he can circle back to the door—well…the holes in the wall, anyway.”

Sir Ross nodded and widened the gap between them as they crept forward, steadily encroaching on the ascetic.

“Are you serious?” Bray scoffed, his eyes shifting between them. “Do you think you can entrap me?”

“No,” the duke answered, “but I do know you bleed. And the one in darkness has a trick you cannot dodge, it appears.”

“Is that fear in your eyes, Bray?” Sir Ross asked in mocking tones. “Uncertainty? You thought you had him, didn’t you? What was it you said—‘curled up at your slave’s feet’? Whatever that was supposed to mean, I am sure it didn’t include a thorough head drumming.”

“And I believe you said I was as good as dead,” Lenair added. “You only had to say a word?”

A wicked gleam flashed in Bray’s eye. “Why yes, I believe I have a promise to keep.” With a quick clap of his hands, he spoke the ancient word of unraveling. “Omkomma!”

A tangible, shimmering wave swept across the room from Bray’s hands to the duke, stirring up unseen dust and ruffling the flowers in a vase. The duke’s hair fluttered, but he stood with resolute firmness, glaring down the shaft of his arrow with one eyebrow raised.

The men paused and waited. Lenair grinned. “Is that it?”

The gleam disappeared from Bray’s confident grin, replaced by a swelling shadow of doubt and confusion. He shouted the ancient phrase and pointed at the duke, as if extra volume and directional assistance would help accomplish his goal. The vase of flowers fell over, spilling water on the floor. Lenair stepped back to brace himself, but his concentration never faltered, and the arrowhead aimed at Bray’s chest never wavered.

“You see, Bray,” the duke said, “the thing about magic is that there is always a way to counter it. You set up horrid vibrations within my body, but Ataraxia is a purifier, and it has cleansed me of all your corrupting influences. And there’s one other thing Ataraxia can do…”

He breathed an ancient word across the string and released the arrow. As before, Bray flashed the back of his hand to shunt the projectile aside. The timing was good and his hand true, but instead of deflecting it as before, he merely nudged it. The arrow buried fletching deep into his thigh, with the arrowhead ripping out the other side of his leg.

“…strike with remarkable accuracy,” Lenair finished. He reached back and, in one fluid motion, grabbed another arrow, and launched it. Bray swiped a hand to deflect this one as well, but as before it adjusted around his attempt and buried into his stomach.

Bray howled in pain, clutching both leg and stomach. Wide eyes gaped at the duke, a look of panic blanching his hairless skin as if he had seen his ghost.

Sir Ross charged in with sword aloft. As he bore down, Bray performed a hasty sidestep and shunted the sword aside with his bare hands. The wavy blade sliced through the backrest of the duke’s lounging couch.

Even while standing on a pierced leg, Bray rapidly kicked Sir Ross in the knee, center shield, and jaw—in one smooth motion. The third kick sent the knight reeling backward without his sword and into a low table, which took his feet out from under him.

Lenair released his arrow and quickly nocked another. Exacting precision was a limited power the bow displayed; it healed more often than it killed. The duke relied more often on his skill and timing. Even with distractions, Bray deflected the first arrow into the spine of a book on a hand-carved bookcase. Lenair cursed and launched the second arrow, which Bray brushed aside into the wall behind him. Even injured, he was lightning quick. But he was not invulnerable. Lenair’s mark was closing in.

* * * * * * * * * *

Stepping through the ruined wall, Selorian’s body quavered with eldritch power. Fury welled in his breast, and when he saw the man whom the Slayer called Schumann crouched in the far corner of the room, flicking aside the duke’s arrows, that fury was unleashed in a maelstrom. The sound of a metal fork scraping across a porcelain plate poured from his open mouth, and the entire room fell into shadow.

Lenair shuddered and spun on him. Sir Ross moaned on the floor where he lay. Bray backed uneasily against the wall, quick glances cast toward a closed window as if he were contemplating a jump through the glass.

“Kill them both!” The words leaked from the savant’s mouth like gravel sliding off a rusty shovel, tenor layered with baritone and a shrill pitch shrieking over the top.

“I don’t know who you’re bloody talking about!” Selorian yelled, this time in his own voice, a voice filled with anguish. The room grew a shade darker. “I’ve never seen this man.”

The Slayer seized his wielder in a grip of mental anguish. “You really are an idiot.” With each word forcibly spoken, blood dripped from Selorian’s mouth.

“You killed Lady Gretchen!” the savant screamed. “Who else do you want?”

Duke Lenair’s arms fell to his side as horrified shock enveloped his face.

“I did not. The hairless man is both Schumann and Bray, and I want his soul!” The savant gagged on the blood dribbling up as the Slayer made him speak, but now he knew. And so did everyone else.

* * * * * * * * * *

Cora raced to the top of the grand stairs with Elric and Kiyla on her heels. Lady Gretchen lay in a crumpled heap against the wall, her skin a sickly ashen hue. The clash of conflict reverberated from the broken sections of wall ahead of her, and a fell presence emanated through the openings. Goosebumps crawled across her skin and the hairs of her neck stood on end. She forced herself to ignore the chill and the darkness forming inside the duke’s chambers and knelt to feel for a pulse on Gretchen’s neck. Nothing. By the Maker! Why the younger daughter?

Selorian’s incoherent babbling rumbled through the torn-out wall, his voice alternating between a blood-curdling screech and a cry of utter misery.

“What the rink?” Elric said, clutching his ears.

Cora cursed. “Elric…I need some help here.”

Elric stared at the nearest hole in the wall, a scowl deepening on his forehead as his feet shuffled ever closer.

“Elric!” Cora yelled. “We’ve got to get the Lady Gretchen out of harm’s way. Can you grab her feet for me?”

The young soldier’s face hardened. He turned to Cora with a grim determination utterly foreign to his jovial demeanor. The transformation of fun-loving to deadly serious—lethally serious—was as frightening as any blood-rage she had seen in Cuauhtérroc. Perhaps more; his voice dripped with righteous anger. “I’m endin’ this.”

Cora sighed and nodded. She could no more stop him from entering that battle than she could stop music flowing from her heart. It was his calling.

She turned to the brawler, who crept toward the hole in the wall. “Kiyla, please. I need you to help me protect the Lady Gretchen.”

Kiyla hesitated, staring into the duke’s chambers. She looked back at Cora, her face pale. “He’s gonna die in there.”

“You don’t know that,” Cora said. “And you can’t control it. So right now—Kiyla, look at me! Help me carry the Lady Gretchen out of harm’s way.”

“She’s dead.”

“I know.” Cora sighed. “But we can’t leave her crumpled against the wall. She’s nobility. She deserves better than this.”

Kiyla turned back with shoulders sagged in defeat. “Can’t help him; can’t help her. What am I here for?”

“I told you it might get ugly. Cuauhtérroc is with Lady Karlina, and I’m going to stay with Lady Gretchen. You have a job to do, Kiyla…to run hard and fast, to find anyone who is able to come to the aid of their duke. Gather the forces, amass the defenses, bring in all—”

“Shut up,” Kiyla quipped. She grabbed Gretchen’s legs, and together, she and Cora carried Gretchen’s limp body away from the rubble to the safety of an adjoining room.

Cora nodded appreciation. “Go. I’ll stay here with her.”

Kiyla swung her braid aside. “Be back soon as I can.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Elric blinked back the palpable dread radiating from Selorian and filling the room. In the shrouding gloam, the only tangible source of illumination was a coruscating swirl of lavender that orbited the savant as he strode across the floor.

I was created for this!” the Slayer declared through Selorian’s gurgling throat. “I am your Slayer!

A violet blast streaked out from Selorian’s outstretched hand, and Bray deftly side-stepped it. A shower of plaster and mortar erupted from the wall behind him.

Elric pulled together a lifetime of resolve. This was what he had dreamed of; this was why he quit the family business and why Westmeade’s guard held no promise. This is why he joined Cora’s freeblades. It all coalesced into sharp focus, as if his entire life had been about this very moment. He yelled his best imitation of an Audric war cry and charged into the room, vaulting over the back of a couch and throwing himself at Bray.

Bray offhandedly knocked his sword aside, and with a quick, sweeping motion, raked his feet, sending Elric tumbling awkwardly against the far wall.

* * * * * * * * * *

Duke Lenair shook his head clear. The oppressive weight of Selorian’s gloom amplified the gravity of his declaration—the Lady Gretchen was dead. Vengeance would be swift and thorough, but it would have to wait. Bray—Schumann—was the imminent threat, and for the moment, this tattooed man, clearly possessed by evil, was an ally in the fight against the Nephreqin coup.

He raised his bow and nocked another arrow. He was running low. Most of his best shots had been deflected. His eyes narrowed and he breathed the word of accuracy once more. It would tax Ataraxia’s power, but it had to be done. Now we finish this. Fingers released the string; the arrow warped and straightened, speeding across the room toward Bray’s head.

Bray tried to brush it aside as so many before, but the arrow dug into the flesh of his arm, ripping a furrow from elbow to shoulder.

Selorian followed with a globe of eldritch energy to the side of Bray’s head, blistering skin and throwing the ascetic into the wall. Lenair fired a second arrow, pinning Bray’s bloodied shoulder to the wall.

Stepping forward for a final shot, Lenair’s boots bumped against Sir Ross. A quick glance at his future son-in-law showed a man contorted with pain, and the duke hesitated. Instead of taking the shot, Lenair touched Ataraxia against the knight’s forehead and whispered a soft word across the bowstring.

From a nearby corner, Elric gathered himself and lunged toward Bray with another battle cry. But even with a shoulder pinned back, the ascetic brought up a knee and caromed Elric back to the floor.

“That is enough!” Bray shouted. He pulled himself off the arrow pinning his shoulder to the wall, and with a powerful lunge, he threw himself over a chair, landing astride Sir Ross and squarely in front of the duke. “Heal this!” He embedded his arm elbow-deep into Lenair’s torso.

The duke’s eyes and mouth shot open with the shock of unmitigated pain as Bray’s hand reached inside his ribcage and wrapped around his heart. His body trembled with violent convulsions, and Ataraxia fell to the floor.

As blood spurted from the duke’s abdomen and poured down upon Sir Ross, the hero of the Border Lands prayed. “Maker, give me Faith.” He flicked a lever on the inside of his shield. Razor-edged blades emerged from slits on each side of his shield. With a mighty grunt, Sir Ross thrust his shield straight up, slicing Bray’s arm clean off above the elbow.

A severed arm dangled from the duke’s torso. The ascetic staggered back in shock, grasping the bloody stump.

“That’s for my wife!” Sir Ross yelled.

In a swirl of lavender, Selorian laughed darkly and launched another series of blistering globes into Bray’s body.

Bray’s eyes darkening with vicious hatred. Despite the assault of eldritch energy, he grabbed a corner of Sir Ross’ shield with his good hand and rammed it straight down, driving the bladed bottom into the knight’s abdomen. The hero of the Border Lands grunted beneath the eviscerating wound.

Repeated volleys of amethyst globes streaked across the darkness, finally driving Bray away from his gruesome attacks.

Undaunted, Elric leaped up yet again with a shout and swung for Bray’s chest. Bray attempted to deflect the sword attack as before, but found his arm meeting with the sharpened edge.

A scream of sheer pain and defeat escaped the now handless ascetic.

“That is for the duke!” Elric yelled.

The ascetic dropped to his knees, his arms reduced to bloody stumps held out before bewildered eyes.

Lenair’s room flashed with a sudden lavender brilliance. Tendrils of swirling energy fanned out from the savant, each of his tattoos limned with violet light. Selorian brandished the bent, roughly hammered blade in both hands, and with a cry equal parts rage and joy, he took Bray’s head. “And that is for the Slayer!”

Shadows blanketing the duke’s chambers vanished. Selorian stood motionless for a moment, a confused frown forming over blinking eyes. He trembled as he saw the headless, dismembered body at his feet and the severed arm protruding from the duke’s torso.

“Help me,” Lenair moaned, forcing each word and fearing they were his last.

Selorian dropped the bloodied sword and stared at his hands. His knees wobbled, then he ran to a corner of the room and threw up.

Sir Ross lay at Lenair’s feet, his eyes wide and his breathing shallow, as if the slightest movement would finish him.

“You there…” Lenair croaked.

Elric snapped into action and dashed to the duke’s side. His gaze fell upon the forearm, and he blanched. “Yessir! Oh, cripe, by the Maker!”

“My bow…” Lenair whispered. Elric quickly retrieved Ataraxia from the floor and placed it into the duke’s hands.

“Get…it…out…” Lenair gasped, as healing flowed from his bow.

Elric paused, breathing hard. He met the duke’s eyes.

Lenair nodded. “Do it quickly.”

The young fighter from Westmeade mustered all courage and took hold of Bray’s severed arm. The duke quivered with fresh waves of pain as Elric worked the crooked arm out of his ribcage and free of his body.

It was not the first time Duke Lenair owed his life to the purifying powers of Ataraxia. But it was the first time he found the shortbow’s limit. As the fingertips of the ascetic’s arm pulled free, Ataraxia was drained. Lenair cried out in pain and collapsed. He was conscious but all thoughts were on remaining so. Even with his blessed bow, he was teetering on death.

But for now, he was alive.

* * * * * * * * * *

As the sounds of combat subsided, Cora felt the dark presence fade. Perhaps the room even lightened a shade or two. Certainly, the oppression had lifted. Curiosity told her to step back onto the balcony and peer into the duke’s chambers. Was Selorian dead? Who else? Fear of what she would find stayed her feet, and she remained at Lady Gretchen’s side, saddened by the loss of one younger than she.

On the bed where Cora had laid her, Gretchen stirred, and Cora bit off a shriek. Gretchen’s eyes flew open and she gasped mightily for breath. Her body convulsed and her head thrashed from side to side. She grasped for something solid and real, finally finding and gripping Cora’s arm. Cora winced as fingernails filed to points dug into her skin, but she endured it. I thought you were dead. She gawked at the girl. You were, right?

“Peace, my Lady,” the songsage said in soothing tones. “It’s over.” I hope.

Stroking Gretchen’s raven-black hair, Cora began a lullaby.

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