Greetings, fair reader! MLP author Steve Rzasa here. We’re at the great finale of our collaborative work, and to tie up all these loose ends, I’m going to do this in two parts. So don’t despair—there’s one last segment coming next Saturday. Enjoy!
* * * * *
The fight had been going well. I was sure of it.
I am Barzillai Broadhead, famed archer, after all and I am usually sure of a great many things. But I digress.
We had the fell beasts pinned down in the fetid chamber of the Tower of Gloom. Abelard, the Most High bless him, threw the archmage aside with a flash of blue-white light. His eyes glowed with the same light—I hoped it was an illusion. The archmage’s body slammed into the stone.
Tekla backed into me, a knife in each hand. Blood stained her tunic, but it must not have been hers because she favored me with a fierce grin.
By the tenth ray, I’d kiss her here and now, if weren’t occupied with battle.
Then he showed up.
Of all the rotten fortune.
It had to be the Landgrave Cristoph the Twenty-Eighth. He was a surprisingly handsome fellow, clad in all that black armor and sporting a blood red cape that flowed behind him as if caught in a summer’s breeze. He emerged from the lower steps at the rear of the chamber, and entered the room as a force of nature.
“You impudent worm.” He said it in little more than a hiss. I couldn’t decide if he was astonishingly old or a spry young lad. Mine eyes could not agree. “The light is far more devious than I’d imagined. Pray tell, how did you find your way through these cursed walls that refuse my egress?”
“Your friendly stone-man companion let us in,” I said, and offered a grin. “Quite helpful.”
“He is no companion of mine, only a chain around my leg I shall soon be rid of.”
“Less talk.” I reached for an arrow—my last one. Perhaps Tekla would be good enough to lend me a blade. This last one was surprisingly heavy—I must be tiring. “And more with the sending you to your maker.”
Deep breath, pull, let fly. All in a heartbeat. Ignore everything. Ignore Tekla, Abelard, the archmage’s limp form and the bodies of the dead beasts strewn about. Only the landgrave mattered.
The arrow flew straight and true—but only about halfway across the chamber. It abruptly banked and as I live and breathe, it picked up speed,
It was even odds whether I or Tekla cried the loudest when it thudded into her chest.
She collapsed. Both blades clattered on stone. I cradled her against me, and something… broke. Call it a wall, or a barricade, or whatever you will. Tears dimmed my vision. It became much harder to breathe. “Please—don’t let me lose her!”
Tekla murmured something—incoherent words. Her eyelids fluttered.
“You stand fast,” I whispered. By heaven, the arrowhead was lodged deep. Right by her heart—or in it. There was so much blood. I daren’t move it.
This warrior, this woman with limbs of iron who’d slain a half dozen fell beasts in this very room, whispered so softly it could have been in my dream. “Don’t… leave me.”
“I won’t. Ever.”
The landgrave’s laugh echoed all about. “That was far more effective than I’d dared. You’re all such weaklings—soft of body and heart.”
Abelard turned on the landgrave, hands extended and hatred blazing undisguised on his face. But he was seized in mid-lunge by a pulsing red mist—an aura emanating from the Archmage Initius. To my everlasting surprise, the archmage stood as tall and unbowed as the stone tower, with nary a scratch about him. It was as if Abelard’s pounding left no mark.
The same red aura pulsed from Landgrave Cristoph down. It darkened, deepened, solidified.
“Fool. You put your faith in fading light. Darkness swallows light and leaves nothing.” Cristoph flicked a finger. “Dispose of him.”
“Only after I have my revenge.” The archmage flung Abelard across the room. My friend hit the wall so hard his armor cracked and dust fell. Initius cried out, a savage and gleeful sound, and threw Abelard to the ceiling. His eyes were vacant and his body limp as a rag doll.
“Stop that! Release him!” Not a bad show of force, eh? Mind, I hadn’t any divinely-granted powers with which to back up such an order. Only one of Tekla’s knives, a lone blade extended against—well, against some awfully powerful bad men.
Confound it all, where was Raibert? Had he betrayed us all? The dark voice of the cynic in my heart confirmed it. He must have taken the crystal for himself—or worse, deemed the risk too great. He’d fled. A coward.
I grimaced. Such dark thoughts must be banished.
“You stand alone, archer.” Landgrave Cristoph advanced on me. “Your priest-mage is dead. Your woman—my slave, that is—lies broken and dying. I need only await her last breath, one final, futile gasp before I am free of this tomb. What have you to bargain with before I slay you?”
I had nothing. The blade in my hand wavered. And yet… “I have faith.”
The archmage sneered. “That is not enough.”
“I’d wager it is.”
No, I didn’t say it—though it matched my thoughts nicely. My voice blares—it does not slip around a corner and tap you on the shoulder before you know it’s arrived.
Raibert stood in the doorway. He leaned against the jamb, with silk rope coiled around one arm. He twirled something in his left hand.
A box. A small, wooden box bound by an iron clasp.
“No.” The landgrave froze.
“You—how did you get that?”
“I’m a thief, you know. No one remembers the thief. I stole it.”
“But the golem—blast that Rubble to bits!”
“He was an influence, I must say, but I’d rather take a look in here myself.” Raibert opened the lid.
The room went suddenly frigid. Frost crackled across the floor and up the walls, spreading out from Raibert’s hand and the box. My breath came out feathery gasps of white.
Raibert gritted his teeth and drew something from the box.
The Crystal of Darkness.
So small a thing—barely longer than a finger, and as thick around as a drinking tin. Yet it possessed a weight that seemed to bear down upon Raibert. And it was so black—black enough to swallow all light and warmth from Celis.
It throbbed red. Red as the aura glowing around Landgrave Cristoph and Archmage Initius.
“This could make me—all of us—wealthy beyond imagining.” Raibert’s teeth chattered.
Cristoph smiled, much as a man-wolf does before it devours its prey. “Yes. Yes it can. Think of your life then.”
Raibert looked right at me. I’d never seen his eyes so sad—and that’s when it hit me, sudden and hard as a hammer’s blow. He’d thrown back his hood. No hiding. No shadows. Just Raibert Wiley.
“It’s not my life that concerns me right now. It’s theirs—” He pointed at Tekla and I. “And his—” He pointed to Abelard.
“The priest-mage has gone to his worthless Lord, and the thief-slave is as good as dead. When she dies, I will be free, and the archer will be slain—or not. It can be however you wish. Only give me the crystal and you will see what it can do for you. For us.”
Raibert turned the crystal over in his hand. His fingers were near blue from the cold, but he did not let it go. I shivered but daren’t let go of Tekla—or the blade I held quavering in midair. I had to keep her warm and near.
Raibert smiled. His lips were purple. “I know what it can do. I believe.”
He dashed the crystal to the floor.