Torgun took a step forward. “What would Shirry think, Luctus?” Contrary to Daida, his tone was sympathetic.
Daida wouldn’t stand for it. “If he cared one whit for Shirregard, we wouldn’t be here. They say he destroyed Halmilibranth.”
“It hasn’t been Shirry’s Halmilibranth for decades now,” Luctus said, with only the smallest hint of heat to his voice.
“But why, Luctus? What do you hope to gain by doing this?” Torgun asked.
The Great Sage looked at Torgun. “I don’t expect you to understand, old friend. Maybe I am crazy, or maybe I’m so tired of playing a losing game, I’ve decided to flip the board.”
“You’ll have to make your way through us, then,” Daida snarled, brandishing her battle wand.
“I’ve come to terms with that. We all know the outcome though. Queen takes knight, queen takes bishop.” He made no move to prepare for the coming fight, only giving and sad smile, but the same couldn’t be said for the other two.
Amidst the buffing, Torgun unslung the familiar bag containing dungeon hearts from his back and passed it back to Shayla. “If you get a chance, run. We’ll keep him occupied.” Shayla accepted the bag without a word. She had never run from a fight, but this was bigger than her.
Luctus addressed her directly. “Oh, little one, I’m sorry they’ve brought you into this. Far better to have died with the rest of your army. It would’ve been painless, you know. It will still be painless, but it’s no fun to know it’s coming. Better the cattle not see the slaughter before it’s their time.”
“Come closer,” Shayla spat back. “This heifer wants to plant a hoof in that pretty mouth of yours.” She couldn’t quite believe what she was saying—and to whom.
Luctus barked a humorless laugh. “Have you been giving lessons, Daida? It’s been quite a while since anyone but you has talked to me like that.”
“Just get on with it, you grandiloquent prat!”
“But I have been—or hadn’t you noticed?” The sage gestured to the ceiling, and high above Shayla could just see a fine sift of dust filtering down, never quite reaching them before it winked out.
Torgun transformed in an instant, gardener become reaper, and he sprinted toward the sage.
Luctus fixed him with dead eyes, and within seconds the druid’s enormous mana pool was gone. Torgun swung and swung again at the sage, roaring all the while, but to Shayla’s eyes Luctus simply flickered in and out of existence.
“It’s a shame, really,” Luctus said. “I wouldn’t have wanted you to be awake for this. Best make it quick.” The Great Sage’s gaze sharpened suddenly, and Shayla couldn’t help but give a startled squeak when, without warning, the druid simply collapsed. Like snow leaving a mountainside, grey dust cascaded over itself, no longer able to hold the form it once had. Instead of piling up, the dust simply spread out before dissolving away.
Daida hadn’t wasted the intervening time, and swung her battle wand with a shout. Heat, light, and sound blasted away from the woman, and even without being the focus of the spell, Shayla could smell her own burning hair. For a moment the afterimage obscured her vision, and she could have sworn the sage was toast. No one could withstand a blow like that! But no; as she blinked away the afterimage, Shayla was shocked to see Luctus still there, still unmoving. It didn’t look like a single strand of his graying hair had been singed.
With another growl, Daida herself disappeared, and for a moment Shayla was sure she had met Torgun’s same fate. Instead, all around the room more Daidas appeared, each one a perfect copy of the other. With one voice they shouted at Shayla. “RUN!”
Once again a direct order unglued Shayla’s feet, and she bolted for the exit, moving as wide around the sage as she could.
“We never expected you’d have to use this one for real, did we Dai?” Luctus said to the air as he brushed off further flashes of light. Shayla ducked her head and ran. If one of those beams hit her she stood as much a chance as Torgun had.
She hadn’t reached the end of the hallway before all went still and quiet. Against her better judgement, she turned.
Daida of the Searing Light knelt on one knee, manaless and panting.
“You never did like me much, did you?” Luctus asked the woman. When she glared at him, he continued. “That’s alright. You know, I’ve always admired you. So fearless. Oh well, perhaps we’ll meet again in another life, and I can have another shot at impressing you.”
The hero opened her mouth to retort, but she never got a chance. Instead she turned grey and began to collapse in on herself. Shayla couldn’t watch. The night had been too much. She’d lost four heroes. The entire world had.
“Wait a moment,” Luctus said behind her, and Shayla found herself frozen, only to be picked up and carried back the way she had come. “It’s such a delight to have all the seeds at last, you know? I should have taken them ages ago. If only Shirry had let me. Stingy elves.”
Shayla was turned to face the man, not of her choice, and once she reached him, he too lifted into the air. Together they floated down the hallway. Almost Shayla thought they were heading back into The Sorrow, but Luctus halted their flight in front of the princess’ statue. They settled to the ground, and Shayla felt the magic’s grip release. She could have struck then, but she knew it would be useless.
Luctus stared up into the statue’s eyes, and for a moment his face held the same expression Reymond’s had. “This is all your fault,” he said, and for a moment Shayla thought he was addressing her. His eyes were still fixed on the statue though.
Then he turned toward Shayla and spoke to her in truth. “Those were the days, you know? Before the Alliance fell apart. Merilyn was just the first piece of it. Then Lars died and Gliteau just couldn’t forgive us; couldn’t forgive me, really. Oh well, she’s gone now, and so is her precious inbred city. Then we had Carnasa, Birregun, Fendilur, and finally, Sarvaal.”
He released a breath that was halfway between a sigh and a frustrated yell, and Shayla jumped in spite of herself. “Then we’ll see if the gods will deign to see things my way.” He said, then snorted. “Gods and their precious rules…”
He stood in silence for a moment, again staring up into Princess’s Merilyn's face. Finally he broke away and glanced toward Shayla. “Now, little one, it’s time to go to sleep.”
Shayla lashed out on instinct, fully aware of the futility of the gesture. This is it, Ma. Shaylie’s picked her last fight. Never thought I’d end up a Hero of the Realm, did you? Only that I’d dirty my dresses and scare off all the menfolk. Her thoughts went to one man in particular. A too-young-for-her man with blond hair.
Luctus caught the guard as she fell away into her dreams, and he lay her down gently at the princess' sandaled feet as the last of the mana drained out of the great city of Sarvaal.
Wilson A. Bateman was raised all around the world, but predominately in Utah. Never able to constrain his interests to one field, he has degrees in German, Biology, Professional Writing, and Computer Science. He thrives on mixing Psychology and Philosophy into his work, and has recently made his debut in the Fantasy and LitRPG genres with his books: Auger & Augment and Serpent & Spirit.
He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his beautiful husband and their three hideous children.