by A. Merc Rustad
Hero’s Choice was originally published by Silver Blade Magazine in October 2009.
Dark Lord Mrakota raised an eyebrow at the squirming infant. “This is the brat that’s prophesied to kill me in fifteen years? He doesn’t look like much.”
The boy waved a chubby fist and gurgled. A tuft of ebony hair covered his head, and large blue eyes stared up at the Dark Lord with infant wonder. Mrakota had to admit the brat was cute.
“Yes, Your Eminence.” The Stargazing Wizard stroked his beard. “I quote the ancient words, ‘And a child with a star upon his brow shall rise up, and on the final hour of his fifteenth year he will slay the lord of shadow whose name means dark.'”
“Ah.” Mrakota squinted as torchlight reflected off the bright, metallic blue birthmark shaped like a star in the middle of the baby’s forehead. “Hard to miss that, isn’t it?”
His Trusted Lieutenant, Darren, fidgeted and shifted the baby to the crook of his arm. “What will we do with him, my Lord?”
Mrakota looked out at the misty riverfront from where he stood on the bank. A star blazed across the sky with a distinctive blue cast to its tail. His men had caught the midwife trying to sneak the baby out of the village and to the river, where a basket floated at anchor. When questioned, the old woman said the mother died in childbirth and she didn’t know who the father was.
“Typical,” Mrakota muttered.
“My Lord?” Darren asked. “What are we going to do with the boy?”
“It should be obvious,” the Stargazing Wizard said. “We must let the babe be sent downriver where he will be adopted and can grow to manhood—”
“And in fifteen years come kill me.” Mrakota gave his advisor a deadpan look. “Brilliant strategy.”
The Wizard huffed and turned away in a sulk, petting his crystal ball.
Darren’s face was impassive, although a hint of tension kept his shoulders stiff. “Kill him then, my Lord?”
Mrakota considered that as he lifted the infant out of his Trusted Lieutenant’s arms. He was chilled from being out in the autumn night, and he didn’t want to get another cold. He had just overcome the first one a few days ago.
“Might want to support his neck, Sire,” Darren whispered.
Mrakota nodded and looked into the boy’s eyes. The baby smiled and cooed, a bubble forming on his tiny lips. The Dark Lord smiled. “I’ll adopt him.”
“What!” The Stargazing Wizard spun around, his eyes bulging. “But that’s just not done, most glorified Evil One!”
Mrakota shrugged. “I like being unconventional.”
It seemed unfair to snap the infant’s neck. He preferred killing uprising peasants and resistance leaders. For three years he had ruled the empire with only a moderate amount of brutality. Besides, he was nearing his self-imposed quota of needless slaughter for the month. He didn’t anticipate the upcoming board meetings over that.
The concept of fate didn’t appeal to him anyway. He had gained the title of Dark Lord from his own ambition and skill.
“Your Magnificent Darkness, I must protest this outrageous decision.” The Stargazing Wizard drew himself up and looked down his beak-like nose at Mrakota. “This is folly.”
Mrakota wrapped the edge of his heavy, fur-lined cloak around the boy. “If you study the histories, you’ll see most chosen ones had a vendetta against previous Dark Lords — death of their people, parents, village, whatever.”
“Well, Hero—” he nodded at the boy he’d just christened “—will have no reason to hate me.”
Darren offered a lopsided smile. “Reverse psychological tactics, my Lord?”
The Stargazing Wizard twirled the hem of his embroidered robe in what Mrakota took to be an Ominous Gesture. The wizard was getting good at those. “Be warned, my Dark Liege, only your demise will come with this.”
Mrakota shrugged. “Same thing would happen if the prophecy comes true though, wouldn’t it.”
“Yes, Spawn of the Pits, but—”
“Everyone dies eventually,” Mrakota said. It was a philosophy he had accepted half a lifetime ago, at the age of eleven. “I’d rather have my heir learn how to rule my empire the proper way if he’s going to kill me and take over.”
He waved for his men to head back to the Lair of Malice, his castle.
Holding his new son against his chest, Mrakota whispered, “Whatever happens, Hero, you’ll always have a choice. That I promise you.”
“Something is wrong.” Adom paced around the small hovel, etching a track in the dirt floor. “She should be here by now.”
“Calm down, she’ll be here.” The ranger Greenhood — tall, lean, and with the obligatory stubble on his jaw — lounged on the only stool in the hovel. He was honing an already sharp dagger on a whetstone. “I contacted the midwife myself. She’ll send the babe to us.”
Adom rubbed his thick white beard. “What if she was found?”
“Stop fretting. If something’s happened, I’ll just go rescue the boy and bring him here myself.”
Adom frowned at the ranger, although he couldn’t see the man’s expression for the deep green hood shadowing it.
“Things were better in the old days,” Adom said, “when we didn’t have such unpredictable Dark Lords running the land.”
There hadn’t been a bout of razed villages or magically deranged creatures produced from the pits since Mrakota’s predecessor. It just wasn’t natural.
Greenhood chuckled. “True, but it makes some of my jobs a little easier.”
“Speak for yourself.”
Adom needed to get the Chosen One, then bring the child to his adopted parents in a backwater village for fifteen years. As usual, some disaster would destroy the hamlet, and he would rescue the boy and train him for his grand Destiny.
Appointed to be the Chosen One’s wise old mentor by the Fates, Adom had embraced the calling. He spent a decade meditating at the Stone of Fallen Heroes. Two days had he spent wrestling philosophical concepts in the Seven Winds — did it matter it was a pub? He’d even taken up magic theology and fencing on the side, and had long practice in being obscure and cryptic in his speech, thanks to years as official representative of the Force of Resistance.
The Resistance never accomplished anything, but it was a prime testing ground to work on his vagueness. It had worked well on his late wife whenever she had demanded to know where he was. “About the matters of the Fates,” was a better excuse than saying he’d been pub-crawling.
A tiny hearth fire crackled, and the room was stuffy with smoke. They had boarded up the single window and put a big wolf hybrid outside to warn them of anyone’s approach. The waiting strained Adom’s nerves.
He huffed and made another circuit in his pacing. He needed a smoke.
Greenhood handed him a tamped pipe.
Adom mumbled his thanks and lit up. The spicy pipe weed helped distract him. A sharp, pungent smell filled the room. Wonderful calm flowed through him, relaxing him, blurring the edges of his vision.
“What time is it?” he asked.
Adom grumbled under his breath. The child should have been brought to their doorstep by now. Why was this not going according to plan?
A deep growling outside made Adom jump.
Greenhood rose with all his ranger-trained grace and walked to the door.
“The Dark One has the boy,” said a quiet voice from outside.
“What!” Adom shoved Greenhood out of his way and glared at the messenger, another ranger. “What do you mean?” He hoped his eyebrows bristled in the appropriate manner.
Cloaked in dark green and brown and with the hood pulled over his eyes, even in the strong moonlight, Adom couldn’t see the ranger’s face. “The midwife failed, and the Dark Lord has taken the child to his castle.”
Adom spluttered on his pipe. This was inconceivable. “What do we do now?”
“Well.” Greenhood stepped outside. “I guess that means we have to rescue him.
It wasn’t a problem to find a wet nurse, but one who wasn’t working against him was difficult. Mrakota did his best to shush Hero by whispering a poem about “seventeen hundred ways to kill a man for fun” in lullaby-fashion to the baby. Hero refused to tone down his demands for food.
Mrakota gritted his teeth and kept smiling. “Haven’t you found anyone?”
Darren shook his head. “I’m sorry, my Lord. I have all my men asking their wives and sisters if they would be willing to nurse Hero. I’ll ask my wife as well.”
“Well, get some harpy milk or something. Oh, and add some honey, I’m told that always works.”
“Yes, my Lord.” His Trusted Lieutenant bowed and hurried off.
Alone with Hero, Mrakota sat in his personal chambers, a rich suite of rooms decked out in deep scarlet and black. The combination fitted his rank and the deep tones were soothing. Still, something brighter&38212;maybe in pale blue— would be more appropriate for his son.
Hero wailed again.
Mrakota began questioning traditional fathering practices, if he was going to be kept awake at such hours. He’d owned a hellhound whelp once, and when it was small, it had suckled his finger until its mother could feed it. The healers had eventually mended the blackened nub of his finger afterwards. He wondered if the same trick would work for Hero.
The boy sucked on his finger, soft gums and warm tongue an odd sensation on a hand used to holding a scepter or a sword. Mrakota smiled.
The door opened, slamming against the wall. Mrakota looked up sharply. “Don’t slam—”
An old man in a gray robe, large hat and a gnarled walking staff stood glowering at him, accompanied by a ranger.
Mrakota blinked. Damn it, did someone leave the secret passages unlocked again? “Yes?”
“Unhand that boy.” The old man leveled the end of his staff at Mrakota. “At once.”
The ranger swung his bow up and aimed a notched arrow at Mrakota’s chest. “We will not allow you to kill the Chosen One.”
“Ah.” Mrakota nodded in understanding. He wasn’t worried—not yet. “You must be his future wise mentor and guide?”
“Yes, I am Adom and this is the most feared, unstoppable ranger, Greenhood.”
“A little early to be storming my castle to kill me, isn’t it?”
“To rescue our charge, a task appointed to us by the Fates? I think not!”
Mrakota narrowed his eyes. “Keep your voice down, you’ll wake him.”
The old man obliged. “Give me the boy.”
“Or what?” Mrakota offered a practiced sneer, the one he saved for appropriate occasions. “The ranger will kill me?”
“No, I’m supposed to leave that to the boy.” Greenhood lowered the arrow tip until it pointed at Mrakota’s stomach. “But I can still shoot you where it hurts.”
Mrakota tensed, hoping no one noticed his sudden, rapid heartbeat. “And traumatize the baby by getting blood on him? How virtuous of you.”
“Enough!” Adom thumped the end of his walking staff hard on the carpeted floor. It made no sound. “Without your pathetic minions of terror to protect you, you are helpless. It would be easy to take the Chosen One, just as it was easy to break in here.”
“You’re mocking me.” Mrakota raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that my job?”
“Er, well…” It was difficult to see if the old man had blushed, given his thick beard.
Mrakota conceded that in this position, they did have an advantage. He couldn’t reach for a blade while still holding Hero, who was now asleep. “What kind of life would he have with you, old man? He might not live past his first birthday.”
“And you expect me to believe you would treat him and raise him well, spawn of evil?”
Mrakota cleared his throat. “Don’t flatter me. My son —”
“I knew you were his father!”
“Hah.” Adom’s bony fingers tapped his staff. “Right.”
Mrakota refrained from enlightening the two intruders. As far as he knew, he was the only Dark Lord in recent history to remain a virgin this long.
“Pin him to that chair,” Adom said, looking at the ranger.
Mrakota stiffened, although he kept his expression nonchalant. He carefully brought one arm up to shield Hero. Where the hell were his men?
Adom took a step forward. “We must be away before the minions are alerted to our presence.”
“Actually, all my men were just in the barracks,” Darren said from the doorway.
Mrakota relaxed, pressing a finger against his mouth. His men obeyed as they surged forward, completely silent.
The arrow went high when one of the Legionaries tackled Greenhood from behind. The shaft stuck in the headrest of Mrakota’s chair, startling him.
The Legionaries overwhelmed the ranger and the old man in seconds. To their credit, the intruders held their tongues. Hero continued sleeping.
The Legionaries gagged the ranger and the old man, confiscated all their weapons and other belongings, and forced them to kneel.
Mrakota looked at his Trusted Lieutenant in expectation. “Well?”
Darren bowed. “My Lord, I found a wet nurse for the child. Lila says she won’t mind another child with our daughter.”
“Excellent!” Mrakota stood and handed the sleeping Hero to Darren. He wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers. “Tell her I’m most grateful.”
Darren bowed his head, his voice just above a whisper. “My wife and I are happy to serve, my Lord.”
Mrakota nodded, pleased Hero would be in good hands. The thought of Darren asking his wife to nurse another baby in the middle of the night impressed Mrakota. His Trusted Lieutenant had backbone.
Darren slipped out, holding the baby. Adom stared after him in pure envy.
One of the Legionaries tilted his head at Greenhood. “Sire?”
“Take the ranger and chain him in the dungeon somewhere. He can be tortured and released in the morning.” It was better not to piss off the entire Ranger Alliance just yet by killing Greenhood, but there were standards he had to adhere to as well. Plus, he enjoyed the sounds of a ranger’s screams now and then. “I can handle the old man.”
His soldiers saluted and dragged Greenhood out with them. They shut the door.
Adom glared at Mrakota and mumbled something into the gag.
“Oh, yes.” Mrakota untied the strip of cloth and tossed it into the fire.
“Plan to reveal your malicious scheme to me now, evil one?”
“Actually, I thought I’d just kill you.”
Mrakota picked up one of the sabers from a rack of gleaming blades on the wall next to his chair. Then he turned and walked over to his prisoner.
“Wait—you can’t kill me!”
“I haven’t mentored the Chosen One for the minimum time required yet!”
“Oh.” Mrakota titled his head to one side. “You do have a point.”
Adom’s mustache twitched. Mrakota assumed he was sneering.
“In that case… ” Mrakota shrugged and stabbed the would-be mentor through the chest. “Do it in the afterlife.”
Two Years Later
Mrakota paused outside the nursery. It was past Hero’s bedtime, yet he detected a quiet voice droning on and on. He narrowed his eyes. This had better not be yet another botched rescue attempt.
Carefully, Mrakota opened the door and peered around. The dim lamplight gave the blue walls a comforting glow. Toys, rattles, and blankets lay scattered on the rugs. In the lavish crib made of bone and cushioned with velvet, two-year-old Hero lay snoring. He clutched a cloth dragon doll in one chubby hand.
The Stargazing Wizard sat beside the crib, reading from an aged scroll. “…’And a child with a star upon his brow shall rise up, and on the final hour of his fifteenth year he will slay the lord of shadow whose name means dark.’ That’s you, boy. And Mrakota is the one you must kill. You are the Chosen One, and you have a grand destiny to fulfill—”
“What the hell are you doing?” Mrakota asked.
The Stargazing Wizard jumped and almost fell off his chair. He bowed with a flourish of his cape. “Most Dreaded Evil One!”
Mrakota folded his arms over his chest. “Yes. Now answer my question.”
“I was only reading to the child the hallowed prophecy—”
“You’re indoctrinating him.”
The Stargazing Wizard shiftily fingered his staff, a long, black rod with a carved head shaped like a star that had a demonic face. “He must know of his destiny.”
Mrakota snorted. “He can’t even speak a coherent sentence yet. Now’s not the time to tell him he’s supposed to kill me when he grows up.”
“Your Wickedness, the prophecy cannot be avoided. Is it not better that he understand you are evil incarnate and that he hate you from a young age so that it will be easy for him to fulfill his destiny?”
Mrakota concentrated on keeping his voice down. “No.”
He had listened to his advisor’s ceaseless disapproval on watering down his dark nature by having a family and caring about someone — other than himself — so often it was background noise. The Stargazing Wizard couldn’t tolerate shades of gray.
But now it was getting personal.
“You’re trying to turn my son against me. Stop.”
The Stargazing Wizard’s eyes flashed. Mrakota knew it was just a bit of magic to make him look intimidating. It didn’t work.
“Your Malevolence surely jests. I am loyal to you.”
Right. It had been awhile since anyone had tried to double cross him, and a betrayal was inevitable. “Are you?”
“Yes. I seek only—”
“Uh…” The Stargazing Wizard made another Ominous Gesture. “We all are pawns of the Fates.”
Mrakota rolled his eyes.
“It is my destiny to prepare the Chosen One,” the Stargazing Wizard said at last.
“You’re the one who wanted to send him downriver in a basket. Besides. I thought Hero has — had — some old mentor for that.”
“One can never have too many guides.”
Mrakota snorted. “Has it occurred to you that if Hero kills me, you’ll be out of a job?”
The Stargazing Wizard waved a hand dismissively. Mrakota assumed that meant he had no doubts he could find a different Dark Lord to leech off in the future.
Mrakota stepped between the wizard and Hero. He put an extra measure of threat into his stare. “Save your lessons for when he’s older. And, until then, stay away from my son.”
Glowering, the Stargazing Wizard picked up his staff and swept from the room.
Mrakota sighed and took the chair. He rubbed his forehead with a thumb and forefinger. “This isn’t going to be easy, is it?”
The past two years had gone by with fewer catastrophes, attempted assassinations, mass local uprisings, plagues and wars than usual. Hero hadn’t done much except play, eat, drool, and cry when he was tired. He’d tried to grab the candle flames whenever near them, as well. Still adorable, but hardly a threat to Mrakota’s reign.
Knowing how stubborn and persistent the Guild of Old Mentors was, there would be someone to replace Adom. And it wasn’t as if the Stargazing Wizard had been overly subtle in his own ambitions.
Mrakota still doubted the inevitability of the prophecy. But how long would that last once Hero grew up?
Five Years Later
Hero jumped, startled awake by the ethereal voice. He rubbed the sleep grime from his eyes and glanced around his bedroom. Nothing had changed. The chest of toys rested against the wall, and the glowing skulls on the fireplace mantle gave off a soft, yellow glow. Hero didn’t like sleeping in total darkness. “Who’s there?”
“Over here, boy.”
Hero turned around. He clapped his hands over his mouth and muffled his scream.
A ghost stood by the headboard, leaning against the wall. It was an old man, dressed in a long robe and pointed hat. He glowed faintly blue-silver and there was a hole in his chest.
Hero calmed down. Just a ghost. He’d never met one, of course, but ghosts couldn’t hurt him. Daddy always said that.
Hero scooted a little further away just in case. “Who are you?”
“I’m Adom. And I was going to be your Wise Mentor.” The ghost scowled. “Until that son of a…” He mumbled something incoherent into his beard.
“What?” Hero said.
“You’re too young to hear such words. Anyway, your oppressor—Mrakota—killed me.”
Adom waved the question off. “It took me seven years to figure out this ghost vocation.” He huffed and folded his arms over his translucent chest. “You must be warned, boy. Your so-called ‘father’ will never let you live.”
Hero scratched his head. “But he’s my dad. The prophecy says I have to kill him.” He decided to ask Daddy in the morning.
“Exactly!” Adom leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner. “You know he’s a Dark Lord, boy.”
“Hero. My name’s Hero.”
“Yes, yes. But think about it, boy. Dark Lords always kill anyone they must to keep their own lives. Family—hah! They don’t matter. You don’t matter. He may pretend to care about you but—”
“Are you trying to indoctrinate me?” Hero asked. He’d heard his father use that word before. It sounded important.
Adom scowled. He looked like the Stargazing Wizard, and that sent a shiver over Hero’s back. He decided it was a good thing Daddy had made Adom a ghost.
“Of course not, I’m just trying to show you the truth of things, boy.”
Why didn’t the ghost seem to understand he had a name? “What’s that?”
“Mrakota will kill you, boy! That’s his whole plan—to keep you from doing any good, as your Chosen One status proclaims you will, and then he’ll kill you before your fifteenth birthday.”
“Oh.” Hero thought about that. “But I thought the prophecy was about me.”
“But how can they both happen?”
Adom opened his mouth, then snorted. “Well, of course he won’t succeed—”
Hero scratched his head. “Then why are you upset?”
The ghost stared at him. “Um, well. He could grievously wound you.”
“Mark my words, boy,” Adom said, shaking a finger at him. “Mrakota will try.”
Hero didn’t want to think about Daddy killing him. “Go away or I’ll tell Daddy you’re here. He’ll re-kill you.”
“No you wouldn’t—”
The ghost glared and faded away.
Hero flopped back on his pillow and pulled the blanket up over his head.
Mrakota twitched and debated stabbing himself or simply murdering everyone in the room.
Unfortunately, given it was a mandatory board meeting, he couldn’t get out of it unless he was dead—assuming he was fortunate. Advisors manifested quicker than would-be heroes.
Across from Mrakota, the Minister of Finances shuffled a handful of papers. “Even with raising the taxes until the peasants can’t afford to eat, the quotient of rebel leaders and peasant uprisings is low this quarter. We’re going to have to be selective in villages razed or we won’t have the sufficient funds for the winter—”
“Speaking of which,” the Minister of Violence interrupted, toying with his battleaxe. “Your Impressive Darkness, there’s been a bloody decrease in public executions lately. We didn’t make quota last quarter. There’s also not enough falsely accused innocents being executed or criminals being made examples of.” He sounded disgusted at the shortcomings of society.
“No new Old Mentors have been caught?” Mrakota asked.
Since there hadn’t been a massive wave of prejudice against some minority in the last few years, he had decreed all Wise Mentors outlawed. The rangers were doing a solid job of protecting the geezers from his Dark Legionaries so far.
“Never mind that,” said the Minister of Terror. “I’ve been taking a census on how much the population lives in dread under your rule, and the numbers are sinking rapidly.” She tapped a chart with squiggly lines splattered across it. “The mention of your name is just not inciting fear into their hearts like it used to, Evil One. I’ve outlined a plan…”
“That doesn’t matter!” The Minister of trade pounded the bone table they were all gathered around. “What about our shipping routes with the lich king’s realm? Sales of corpses have plummeted and inflation on imported enchanted weapons is becoming unreasonable.”
Mrakota pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed as his advisors began arguing over whose points deserved his consideration first. He’d placed a decapitation ban on his meeting room after the mess last time. The stains hadn’t come out of his favorite silk shirt. Now he considered removing the decree.
He’s promised Hero they could feed the swans today, and yet he was trapped inside the tower with half a dozen advisors who tested the limits of their vocal chords and his patience. At the back of the room, the Stargazing Wizard watched him from the shadows, petting his crystal ball.
He’d promoted the Stargazing Wizard and sent him to oversee the far end of the empire. To Mrakota’s extreme annoyance, his advisor had used his position to make frequent visits to discuss matters of state, such as now. And he would often sneak away to speak to Hero when Mrakota was otherwise occupied.
Mrakota had serious considerations about firing his advisor-turned-regent—at the stake.
It would have to wait until after business was taken care of.
Mrakota tipped back in his chair and cleared his throat.
None of his advisors noticed.
Mrakota narrowed his eyes. He surveyed the table, then calmly stepped onto it, walked over to the Minister of Trade—the easiest to replace—and ran the man through the neck. He sidestepped the spray of blood.
“Pay attention, all of you.”
The room fell silent.
Mrakota nodded and resumed his seat.
The dead trade minister slumped over the table with a gurgle.
“And send his corpse to the lich king,” Mrakota added.
“Won’t that be taken as an insult?” the Minister of Violence asked. He licked his lips.
Mrakota considered. “I’ll call it a promotion and relocation. The lich can reanimate him to handle the trade finances on that end.” Mrakota accepted a towel from the Minister of Terror and cleaned his saber. “As for the rest of the issues brought to my attention…”
Mrakota left the Minister of Terror to her plan for inciting a better percentage of fear in the populace. He ordered his agents to stage a massive rebellion that his troops would crush next month. “See if we can get six thousand or so rebels taken prisoner and then crucify them along one of the major roads.”
Nods of approval came from around the table.
“That should make up for the slump in quota,” Mrakota went on, “and leave room for three or four villages to be slaughtered. Make sure they’re plague-infested or too poor to pay taxes. That ought to decrease the surplus population and not negatively affect the economy.”
He stood and waved off further questions. “Any other trifling details you can handle yourselves. It’s why I pay you.”
He swept out of the tower, rather than fleeing, and left his traitorous advisors to scheme among themselves for the rest of the day. He meant to spend his afternoon with his son.
Mrakota and Hero sat by the garden pond where the black swans swam. The Dark Lord looked at his son. “Yes?”
Hero fretted his lip with his teeth. “Will I have to kill you when I grow up, like the prophecy says?”
Mrakota tossed a crust of bread to the birds, wondering if the moat had been filled with fresh piranha yet. The swans ate as many fish as the piranha did the birds. He handed Hero the rest of the loaf.
Denying the conversation unnerved him was pointless. It wasn’t like they were discussing the results of the recent tourney or the latest dragon raid.
“That depends on how much faith you put in destiny, Hero.”
The boy swallowed. “I don’t want to hurt you, Daddy.”
Hero looked at Mrakota, forehead crinkled in confusion. The expression bent the lines of the star-shaped birthmark. “But won’t I have to?”
Mrakota snorted. “Hero, do you know why most prophecies come true?”
“Because people want them to. That’s why they believe in fate, or curse the gods when things go wrong, so they have someone to make tough choices for them, and someone else can take the blame.”
“So I don’t have to obey fate?” Hero tossed the rest of the bread to the swans. “The Stargazer says I have to.”
Damn that wizard. “Look at it this way,” Mrakota said. “If I was as ‘evil’ as the prophecy seems to indicate, why would I have taken you in?”
Hero pulled the firestick out of his pocket and struck it against his pant leg, then watched the tiny red flame. It was a good six inches long and packed with oil and a flint-and-tinder starter and wick. He’d carried it everywhere since Mrakota had given it to him for his birthday. It had been easier than having Hero steal live coals from the hearth so he could light hay bales on fire with glee.
“Because you’re a good Dark Lord?” Hero asked.
Mrakota’s lips twitched. “I’m as evil as necessary, but you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.” He gave his son a rough hug. “I hear there’s a black stag loose in the forests. Want to go hunting?”
Hero’s face lit up. “Yeah!” He snuffed out his firestick and jumped up.
Mrakota grinned back. “Race you to the stables.”
Hero took off. “Can’t beat me, Daddy!”
Mrakota let him win.
Panting in mock exertion, Mrakota leaned against the stone arch that formed the doorway to the stables. A column of Dark Legionnaire troops marched by in perfect military formation. Mrakota beckoned his Trusted Lieutenant over.
Darren saluted. “Yes, my Lord?”
“I think it’s time I found a new advisor to replace the Stargazing Wizard. Since he’s here on business, I might as well finish his promotion. Something involving fire, a rack, and rusted blades sounds fitting, don’t you think?”
A slow, appropriately wicked smile showed Darren’s teeth. “A marvelous idea, my Lord.”
“See to it by the time I get back.”
The woods were thick and lush in midsummer. Mrakota breathed deep, enjoying the ripe, woodland smells: earth, leaves, and rotted wood. After a day of hunting, he would return to a find the results of an execution, that of the Stargazing Wizard. Yes, it was a good day.
“It kind of stinks in here,” Hero said.
Mrakota ducked under a low maple branch and smiled back at his son, who rode a black, red-eyed pony named Fluff. “You’ll get used to it.”
“Can I burn down a tree?”
“Not right now.”
“Maybe when we get home, though.” Mrakota didn’t need an uprising of dryads like his predecessor. “Keep your eyes and ears open for that stag.”
He turned his gaze forward once more and stared down the steel-tipped length of an arrow.
Mrakota started and reigned in his horse. A green-clad ranger crouched on a broad limb, balanced with uncanny grace, the long bow stretched to its limit. The ranger’s hood shadowed his face, but a swath of sunlight that angled down through the trees showed his mouth and the grim set of his jaw. Greenhood.
I’m too merciful for my own good, Mrakota thought.
“Stop,” the ranger said.
“I just did.”
From his peripheral vision, Mrakota noted other rangers gliding from behind trees and encircling his small hunting party. The horses stamped and nickered in unease. He’d taken only four escorts. They weren’t even that far from the Lair of Malice. Mrakota’s hand tightened on the leather reins.
He worried that Hero might be hurt in a fight. Despite being paid to serve him, and die if necessary, he never did like seeing his men ambushed and slaughtered.
The four Dark Legionaries eased closer, ready to surround Hero and protect him.
“What do you want, ranger?” Mrakota asked.
“No.” Mrakota forced a lazy smile. “If I recall correctly, you won’t kill me.” With a fluid motion, he drew his saber and backed his mount until he blocked Hero and the pony. “Which you’ll have to do to get him.”
The string creaked as the ranger drew it further back. “I never planned to kill you.”
Too late Mrakota recalled Greenhood’s other threat. “Oh, hell.”
The bow twanged and the arrow slammed into his stomach, just below the ribs. Pain flared through his torso and Mrakota toppled to the loamy forest floor when his horse reared.
A loud baying from a wolfish dog sent the horses into panicked rearing and bucking. Mrakota gritted his teeth and turned on his side, one arm shielding his head.
One ranger grabbed Mrakota by the arm and dragged him off the path before the horses trampled him. Then the green-cloaked man faded into the shadows. Mrakota glared after him. It hurt to breathe, and he knew his black silk shirt must be ruined. Damn that ranger.
Hero’s frightened shout hurt Mrakota’s ears. He struggled to his knees and his spine brushed against one of the massive blackthorn trees. A lump of terror for Hero’s safety dulled the pain for a moment.
Mrakota jerked his head around to where he’d last seen Hero. Fluff pranced around in confusion. The pony’s saddle was empty.
“Help! Daddy, help!”
Mrakota snapped his gaze up.
Greenhood gripped Hero around the waist with one arm and hoisted the boy into the tree. Hero waved his firestick at the rangers, but the flame guttered before doing any damage.
“Hold on!” Mrakota pulled himself to his feet with aid of the tree. The pain in his stomach made quick, graceful movement impossible. He swore under his breath.
Something hard clubbed him on the back of the neck. Mrakota dropped face-first into the dirt and leaves. The arrow shaft snapped, sending a new jolt of agony through his side. That’s it, no one is ever leaving my dungeons again.
He blacked out.
Hero tried not to cry. That wasn’t how the son of a Dark Lord handled fear. His eyes stung anyway and he sniffled. When was Daddy coming to save him?
Greenhood strode into the meeting hall, pulling him along by the arm. Hero didn’t like the ranger. He didn’t like this drab, drafty hall, either. Columns supported arched wooden rafters and ugly furs hung over the windows. There was an open fireplace and a pot full of something that smelled like dead animals and rotting vegetables. Stew.
There was a table in the middle of the room, and seven old men dressed in robes sat around it. Wizards? They didn’t have the mysterious aura that the Stargazing Wizard had. They all looked grumpy, like Adom. Hero took a step back, but Greenhood didn’t let go of his arm. He clasped his firestick, wondering if setting the ranger on fire would work.
“So, this is the Chosen One.”
The speaker was the grumpiest looking of the men. He peered out from bristling eyebrows, a pipe clenched between his thin lips.
Does he ever start his beard on fire when he lights that? Hero wrinkled his nose at the pungent smell of weed.
“Come closer, boy,” the old man said.
Greenhood grunted and nudged Hero forward.
Hero swallowed, but drew himself up. “My name is Hero. And you’d better be nice to me. I’m going to be the next Dark Lord, you know.”
The table rocked as the old men pounded their gnarled fists on it and howled with laughter.
Hero’s face grew hot. He glared at them and wished Daddy would stride in, black cloak swirling around him, and shut them up. His heart pounded. What had happened to his father? None of the rangers would tell him.
“Boy,” the first pipe-smoking man said between bursts of wheezing laughter. “You’re Destined for much more. You are the embodiment of Good and Light and the salvation from the man who has you imprisoned and deluded in his castle.”
Hero frowned. No one had him in a dungeon, and he wasn’t sure what deluded meant. “What?”
“Be patient with them,” Greenhood murmured. “The Guild of Old Mentors is a little… eccentric.”
“Oh. But what are they talking about?”
One old man leaned forward. “You don’t know, boy?”
Hero struggled to keep them straight, but they all looked the same. “Know what?”
“You are the One.”
“Yeah, I know.” Hero fiddled with the firestick. “Daddy told me all about the prophecy.”
The old men raised their shaggy eyebrows in unison.
“And,” Hero went on, shuffling his feet. He didn’t like being questioned like this. It was too much like a surprise test one of his tutors would spring on him. “He said I don’t have to do what it says if I don’t want.”
“Bah!” all the Old Mentors growled.
“It is Fate,” the man with the grayest beard said. “You can’t deny it.”
“Daddy says I can.”
Hero thrust out his jaw. “I don’t believe you.”
But he wasn’t sure. What if Fate made him do something bad?
“Boy, there is much we can’t tell you now, because the time isn’t right,” said the one with the puffiest eyebrows. “But know this—we only do what’s best for you. You, boy, are the Chosen One. You have a grand Destiny.”
“I have to pee,” Hero said.
Greenhood tugged Hero’s arm. “Lavatory’s this way.”
“Wait!” commanded the Old Mentors.
Hero jumped. He hoped they wouldn’t decide that he was better off dead since he wasn’t going to listen to them.
“We must complete business here,” one of the Old Mentors said ominously.
“You must go on a quest and attain the Sword of Peace,” the old man continued. “You will be accompanied by faithful companions. When you have found the Sword of Peace, you will have found the weapon to defeat the Lord of Darkness—”
“You mean my dad?”
“Yes, yes. Mrakota. His very name means ‘dark’.”
“I know,” Hero said. “His mom gave it to him.”
The speaker huffed. A smoke ring curled up and burst when it touched his eyebrow. “And when you have returned, after vanquishing many evils—”
Hero clenched his thighs. “I really have to go.”
The old man almost screamed the last words of his speech. “You will return and fulfill your Destiny!”
“All right,” Hero said. “Can I do that after I pee?”
Mrakota struggled to sit up in bed. The fireplace crackled with amber flames, and the dusky scarlet walls of his private sanctum glowed. The light caught on the golden threads interwoven into dark tapestries and made the pictures appear to dance and shift. It didn’t help Mrakota’s pounding head.
The healer, who had identified herself as Valerian, pressed her smooth hands with exaggerated gentleness on Mrakota’s shoulders. “You are injured. You need rest.”
“I don’t have time for this.”
He glared at the robed herbalist and spoke through clenched teeth. “My son has been kidnapped.”
“And you have been shot.”
Mrakota gave Valerian a level stare. “Obviously. Now get the damn arrow out and get out of my way.”
The healer pursed her lips and brushed her brown hair back from her face. “Hold still. I will draw the pain into myself and then close the wound.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Mrakota struggled not to smack Valerian. She was, after all, just doing her job, even if his Dark Legionnaires had captured her and brought her to him at sword point. “Why not just let me keep the pain and you concentrate on healing me?”
Valerian blinked. “I guess it’s possible…”
Mrakota winced at the sharp twang in his stomach. The silk shirt, made of the finest, toughest threads, had prevented the barbed tip from ripping into his guts. A painful hole still opened his flesh, but it could have been worse. There was a method behind his dark, brooding fashion sense.
The woman sighed. “As you wish.” She closed her hands around the wound and mumbled under her breath, “One… two… three!” She yanked the arrowhead out.
Mrakota yelped. Blood welled and dribbled over his stomach.
Valerian ignored him and pushed up his ruined shirt hem, then pressed her hand over his abdomen. A faint blue glow surrounded her fingers and a sharp tugging sensation dug into Mrakota’s muscles. He clenched his teeth, and the pain subsided to a dull ache.
The healer straightened and wiped her hands on a towel laid out for her. “There.”
Mrakota squinted down at himself. There was a puckered white scar but nothing else. “That’s it?”
She shrugged. “I could bother with herbal poultices and salves and ritual cleansing and all. But since you are in such a hurry, yes, that’s it.”
Mrakota smiled. Once she got past the passive healer training and needless patient coddling, she had an attitude toward her art he appreciated: direct and no-nonsense.
“I still recommend a week of bed rest and lots of herbal teas,” she said. “You dash around on rescue missions and your head is only going to hurt all the worse.”
“I’ll worry about that later.” Mrakota pulled his shirt down and swung his legs over the bed. His vision spun. Gingerly he touched the lump on the back of his skull and winced.
Valerian smirked as she began to repack her handbag. “I told you.”
Mrakota knew he’d regret moving so soon after regaining consciousness. But until his son was back in the protection of the Lair of Malice, he had no time to rest. “Darren will pay you and then you can go.”
Valerian spun back towards him. “You’ll pay me?”
“Of course. Why so surprised?”
“No one ever pays me. Something about being a healer gives them impression gold would insult me.” She rolled her eyes. “You think I wear this shabby robe because I like it?”
Mrakota smiled despite himself. A tighter dress would be more attractive. He cleared his throat. “I’ll double your payment.”
She smiled, her teeth white against her tan face. “I should work for Dark Lords more often.”
Mrakota chuckled. “Just me.”
He nodded at Darren and did his best to stride to the door. Each step sent a sharp twinge of pain through his side. Mrakota steadied himself against the wall with a hand.
“Easy,” Valerian said.
He gritted his teeth. “Darren, pay her and let’s go.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
Mrakota staggered into the hall outside his chambers. The arched stone passage was a sharp contrast to the warm, comforting humidity of his private sanctum. He needed a way to find where Greenhood had taken Hero.
The Stargazing Wizard might be able to scry the location in his crystal ball—
“Except I ordered him executed,” Mrakota muttered. “Damn it. Darren, is my advisor still alive?” He preferred long, torturous executions for the times when he might need to spare the condemned after all. At least for a little while.
“Um, I’m not sure, my Lord.”
Mrakota narrowed his eyes. “What?”
Darren adjusted the chin strap on his helmet. “It’s just—”
“Tell me, Lieutenant.”
“He’s gone, my Lord.” Darren looked straight ahead. “His tower is empty, and none of his entourage has seen him. Actually, I think his entourage is gone as well. The Stargazing Wizard has fled.”
Mrakota leaned against the wall, finding it hard to catch his breath. He reminded himself to find some enchanted armor the next time. “So it’s a good bet he was gone before we left on the hunt. He could have betrayed our location to the rangers.”
A muscle twitched in Darren’s jaw. “It sounds like him, my Lord.”
Mrakota took a slow breath. “Then I just need to figure out where that ranger would have taken Hero.”
“Why not ask the healer, my Lord? She’s bound to have knowledge of all the hidden bases.”
Mrakota leaned his head against the wall and tried not to laugh. How could he have missed that? He turned to his room and almost collided with Valerian.
She took a step back, her expression determined. “I will not betray my friends.”
“I have no intention to initiate an all out slaughter. It wouldn’t fit in my schedule, anyway. I just want my son back.”
“You swear you will not hurt my people?”
Mrakota sighed. “As long as they stay out of my way. You know where Hero’s been taken?”
“The Guild of Old Mentors. Where else?”
“I expect to be paid.”
Mrakota’s teeth showed in a grin. “A mercenary healer. That I like. Before you go, would you take care of this head injury?”
Hero bit his lip and slouched down in his chair, hoping the old men wouldn’t notice if he sank into the floor and disappeared. The shouting kept getting louder until it hurt his ears.
The Old Mentors couldn’t agree whether to send him on a quest now, or train him for several years and send him when he was older. The prophecy didn’t say. Added to that, they couldn’t decide who should be his mentor now that Adom was dead. Hero didn’t tell them Adom was haunting his bedroom.
He glanced around, running his thumb over the firestick. Well, Daddy would want him to try and be sneaky, to get away on his own. Greenhood stood in the shadows near the door, watching.
Hero waved at the ranger. “I have to go again.”
None of the Old Mentors noticed.
Greenhood jerked his head at the door. Hero covered his mouth to hide his delighted grin. The plan was working! Once he got outside, he would set the building roof on fire, creating a distraction, and—
A swirl of blackish purple smoke exploded into the middle of the hall. Hero gasped. The old men shut up.
Emerging from the oily mass, his ugly staff lit with flickering red light, came the Stargazing Wizard.
“Silence!” he boomed, even though no one was speaking.
Hero tried to make himself as small as possible. The magus always smelled like mold and never made any sense. And he glowered ominously all the time, which gave Hero bad dreams.
“I shall take the boy,” said the Stargazing Wizard. “I will train him well and prepare him for his grand Destiny.”
Hero turned towards the exit. If he ran fast, he might get away while everyone was distracted.
The door burst inward and smacked Greenhood in the face.
Mrakota stalked in, a gleaming saber in one hand. His sable cloak swirled about him and a dark expression clouded his eyes. “No one is taking my son for any damn reason.”
Hero clapped his hands. “Daddy!”
There were more of the Dark Legionaries following—Hero saw them outside—but Greenhood kicked the door shut, locking them out. He whipped out a hunting knife.
Mrakota didn’t even look at the ranger. He simply reversed his saber and stabbed backwards. Greenhood blinked in shock, then looked down at the length of steel in his middle.
“Serves you right,” Hero said.
Mrakota withdrew his blade. Greenhood fell backwards.
Mrakota looked around the room with the perfect measure of contempt and threat.
Hero mimicked his father as best he could. One of these days he would master the Dark Lord look. For now, he stayed put since he didn’t want to get in the way. He didn’t have a weapon. Maybe another wizard to teach him how to create fireballs.
The Stargazing Wizard’s eyes bulged with temper, then he chanted something and flashes of red lightening flared from his staff.
Hero ducked under the table.
So did the collection of Old Mentors. Someone booted Hero out and he tumbled on the floor. He landed on his back and stared up at the magus.
The Stargazing Wizard extended a hand.
Hero gasped scrambled backwards on his heels and elbows. A purple net, glowing and sparkling, tangled his feet and started dragging him forward. It made his legs itch. Magic. Hero tried to kick it aside, but the magic hung on. “Let me go!”
The Stargazing Wizard laughed.
Before anything else happened, a dark cloak swept between Hero and the Stargazing Wizard. Mrakota’s saber flashed down, cutting through the net. The magic popped and hissed, then let Hero go.
Mrakota kept himself between Hero and the magus. “You always did have to waste too much effort on show.”
The Stargazing Wizard let out a frustrated howl, then the fog swirled around him and he vanished.
“I hate it when he does that.” Mrakota reached down and pulled Hero up. “It always leaves such a stench in the room. Not to mention the smoke stains on the floor.” He glanced down at the Old Mentors huddled under the table.
They stared back in embarrassment.
Relief poured over Hero. He scrambled up and flung his arms around Mrakota’s neck. “I knew you’d save me!”
His father hugged him back, then swung him up piggyback style and carried him toward the door. Hero didn’t care that it made him feel like a baby. He looked over back at the dumbstruck Old Mentors.
They gaped at him.
Hero stuck out his tongue and thumbed his nose for good measure.
Then the door slammed shut behind him, and he was outside. The Dark Legionaries crowded around, surrounding Hero and Mrakota in a protective circle. Rangers lurked on the edges of the clearing and wisely stayed there.
Mrakota put Hero down, then knelt to face him. “Are you all right?”
Hero nodded. “Are you all right, Daddy?”
Mrakota smiled lopsidedly. “I am now.”
The Dark Legionaries parted a moment and a woman in a tattered brown robe and bare feet stomped across the lush grass of the clearing that surrounded the Guild House. She planted her hands on her hips and glared at Mrakota.
“How many casualties did you create?”
Her nostrils flared.
“He got in my way.” Mrakota took Hero’s hand.
The woman huffed and folded her arms. But she didn’t protest.
“Daddy?” Hero asked as he looked back at the hut.
“Can I set it on fire?”
Mrakota smiled. “Go ahead.”
“What!” Valerian sputtered. “You said—”
“I’m not the one doing it, am I?” Mrakota said.
Hero wasn’t listening anymore. He whooped and dashed back to the building, flicked his stick, and threw it up on the roof. The thatch caught fire, exploding in brilliant flames. The heat knocked Hero on his back and he stared at the inferno in awe.
The Dark Legionaries surrounded him and pulled him away from the conflagration. Hero jumped around in excitement but let them lead him away.
This was why he wanted to be a Dark Lord, just like his father.
Four Years Later
Mrakota feinted at Hero’s side. “Keep your blade up. Up!”
Hero scowled and blocked. He was trying, but there was so much to remember in his lessons, and besides, Mrakota was always better than he was.
He blinked sweat out of his eyes, determined not to mess up. It was the first time Mrakota had let him fence with a real sword. He couldn’t lose or make an idiot out of himself.
They circled in the courtyard. Overhead, the sky was darkening with thunderheads. Hero sulked because rain would stop him lighting the local village shrine on fire like he’d planned.
Mrakota slapped the flat of his saber against Hero’s arm. “You’re making this too easy.”
Hero jumped. He glared harder—he didn’t like sword fighting, he wanted to learn how to cast fireballs. But none of the wizards would teach him that because Mrakota said so. It wasn’t fair.
“I’ve won twice now,” Mrakota said in a bored voice. “Going on three times…”
Furious, Hero parried and lunged forward. He was going to win this time!
He knew he’d overreached and he felt his foot slip. Thunder cracked above and he stumbled forward, leading with his short sword. The blade met resistance, then Hero crashed into Mrakota and they both went sprawling on the ground.
There was something hot and sticky on his hands. He looked down.
His sword was sticking out of Mrakota’s side. Blood was starting to leak onto the courtyard stones.
“Ow,” Mrakota said, staring at the sky. He looked pale.
Hero gasped and sat back, horrified. “I didn’t mean it! Dad, I’m sorry!”
Hero could only stare.
Already the Dark Legionaries were running to fetch the healer and Darren pressed a cloak around the wound, cursing.
Hero blinked back tears, stunned. He hadn’t meant to stab his father—they were just fencing. Mrakota couldn’t die.
He’d seen people killed, sure, but they were just peasants or rangers and none of them meant anything. This was his father.
Valerian hurried out and shoved Darren away, then knelt by Mrakota’s side.
“Do you like sharp pointed objects in your guts?” she snapped.
Mrakota spoke through gritted teeth. “It… seems so…”
He turned his head towards Hero. For the first time in his life, Hero thought Mrakota looked scared.
Hero jumped up and ran for the lavatories before Mrakota said anything. He couldn’t see straight.
It was an accident. Wasn’t it?
Hero scrubbed the blood off his hands, then kept washing until they hurt. What if next time he did it on purpose, like the prophecy said? What if his Destiny made him do kill Mrakota for real?
Darren said training accidents happened all the time. Hero didn’t think this was a common mistake.
It felt a lot more like someone had shoved him.
Three Years Later
Mrakota caught the spy by the arm and smiled disarmingly at the boy. “I need a word with you. Benson, isn’t it?”
Benson gulped. “Yes, Most Evil Dreaded One.”
Mrakota nodded and steered Benson amiably towards an alcove in the castle hallway, where they had the illusion of privacy.
Benson wasn’t more than fourteen, but he’d joined the kitchen staff last year and had seemed so innocuous, butchering animals with a delight that Mrakota approved of, that the Dark Lord had thought nothing of it.
Until now, when his plans were being thwarted and he was losing profits due to information leaks. He’d narrowed the list—and body count—down to gawky, happy-to-please Benson.
Mrakota hated loose ends. He leaned against the alcove wall, watching the spy. “I’ve been noticing your work, Benson.”
“Um, thank you?”
Mrakota nodded. “I admire your skills in the kitchens, but not so much elsewhere.”
The color drained from Benson’s cheeks. “Um.”
Mrakota patted his shoulder and drew a knife with his other hand. There was no point in cluttering up the dungeons and he hated the upkeep expenses. “It’s not a question of your loyalty.”
Benson stammered. “It’s not?”
“Not at all.” Mrakota knew the kid was unflinchingly devoted to his cause in the Rebellion. They always were. It was admirable, really. It just wasn’t practical on his end to let it continue. “This is simply a matter of necessity. I can’t take any chances you’ll undermine my rule later on. You understand.”
Mrakota stabbed Benson in the heart and dropped the body. The maids would clean it up later.
Hero stared at the corpse. He’d overheard the entire scene and wasn’t sure whether being numb was a proper response for a Dark Lord in training.
He’d liked Benson. They’d set the kitchen on fire once, laughing the entire time.
And now he was dead. Sure, Mrakota was entitled to kill whomever he wanted. That was what Dark Lords did, right?
Hero swallowed and shuffled off in the opposite direction. He and Benson looked a lot alike, they were the same age, and the parallels weren’t lost on him. Benson had been loyal—he wouldn’t double cross Mrakota. Hero had been certain about it. After all, he’d been more than eager to light the entire kitchen on fire. No one did that with Hero and wasn’t trustworthy.
So if Mrakota could kill Benson that easily, why couldn’t he do it to Hero too?
Now Adom’s ghostly babbling about Mrakota trying to murder him was sounding much more plausible.
One Year Later
Hero glowered. “I’m old enough to do this on my own.”
Why did Mrakota have to always boss him around, treat him like he was an incompetent two-year-old? Parents never understood. No, it was always do this, don’t do that, stop burning down the local villages, and a hundred other things that always spoiled everything.
Hero folded his arms and gave his father his most belligerent look
Mrakota wasn’t moved. He still had that same I-know-better-because-I’m-your-father expression Hero loathed.
“Just last week you were saying how you never wanted to go on a quest,” Mrakota said. “And now you do?”
Hero scoffed. “I need a damn reason for everything?”
“You damn well do.” Mrakota didn’t relent with his cold stare. “So. Care to tell me why you’re so eager to dash off?”
Hero worked his jaw. “Hell no!”
All Mrakota did anymore was spend time with Valerian. Hero shook his head. Valerian was nice—he didn’t have a grudge against her. Hell, she would understand him, but she wasn’t interested in talking with him. No one tried to see things from his perspective.
Didn’t anyone understand the pressure to be the Chosen One and live up to that?
Adom had been in his head for years now, nagging away. Hero hoped that a quest would give him the perspective, and distance, he needed. He wanted a definitive answer on how much of a choice he really had.
Plus, he kept remembering Benson’s body in the alcove. He’d wake up at night wondering if he’d end up the same way. It made him shiver.
“It’s not like you really care.” Hero kicked at the cobblestones of the courtyard, scuffing his boot. “You just like to control everything.”
Mrakota sneered back at him. “I’m ruler of the largest empire in the known world, what else do you expect?”
Hero glared harder. This wasn’t the first argument they’d had, but it was working towards being the most explosive. He almost brought up Benson, then thought better of it. No sense in encouraging Mrakota to try that same it’s-not-a-question-of-loylaty-I’m-just-killing-you-out-of-necessity shtick on him. “You’re always telling me I have these stupid ‘choices’ but you never really let me do what I want.”
Mrakota’s expression hardened. “A quest is dangerous. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
Hero laughed, scornful. “Right, or maybe it’s because you’re scared that if I do go, I’ll come back and kill you.”
His father spoke through gritted teeth. “This has nothing to do with the damned prophecy.”
“Is that why you didn’t want me to play with weapons when I was younger?”
“You were five years old. Of course I didn’t want you playing with the enchanted battleaxes.”
Hero almost shouted back that the last duel they’d had, several years ago, had nearly gotten Mrakota killed. Now who was the one getting hurt? “That’s just it! It’s always about you, what you want.”
Mrakota shook his head. “Hero, calm down.”
“No, I’m sick of listening to you, and being controlled, and—and everything about this stupid place.” Hero turned and stomped off. “I’m leaving! And you can’t stop me!”
“Come back here!” Mrakota called after him.
Hero didn’t turn around. “Don’t follow me, Dad.”
He blinked hard, surprised to find his eyes were watering. It had to be from the harsh sunlight in the courtyard.
Hero saddled his warhorse—a massive black steed to replace Fluff once he’d outgrown the pony—and swung up. Taking his short sword and his cloak, he kicked Fluff the Second into a gallop and thundered out the gates. Dark Legionaries got out of his way in a hurry.
The wind keened in his face as he rode. He’d made the right choice; he needed to get away from the Lair of Malice and all the laws and “protections” and his father’s overbearing rule.
All he had to do was stay away for a whole year—the prophecy stipulated he’d kill his father on the final hour of his fifteenth birthday. If he wasn’t here before he turned sixteen, maybe he could get out of it all together.
Mrakota ground his teeth as he watched Hero storm. Anger made his breath short, but a deep wedge of guilt cut into him, too. Maybe he had been hard on his son the last few years; he’d made sure Hero knew all there was to being a Dark Lord.
He’d needed to see Hero was ready. Had he messed up somewhere? He sighed. It was easier to kill a teenager than raise one.
“Shall we bring him back, my Lord?”
Mrakota turned to find Darren watching him from a safe distance. He wasn’t surprised. Everyone who had been in the courtyard had gone into hiding when the argument had started. When Hero became angry, things—and people—often got set on fire.
Mrakota shook his head. For the first time in his life, he had no idea what to do.
“No, just let him go.”
“He’ll come to his senses, my Lord,” Darren said. “I have a daughter his age, you know. She’s the same way.”
Mrakota smiled wryly, even if he hadn’t calmed down yet. “You may have a point.”
“Indeed, my Lord.”
Mrakota turned back to the Lair of Malice. He was meeting with an emissary from a goblin horde later that afternoon, to discuss the raid route scheduled for the autumn. Just because he was having family problems didn’t mean he could neglect terrorizing the populace.
Adom smirked, watching from the bedroom window. As he had always known they would, the Fates were seeing their will done. With the boy off on his quest, it would be too easy to banish the illusions he had about Mrakota anything other than soulless evil.
All his training to become the Chosen One’s mentor wasn’t about to go to waste. Not while he could still manifest. Being trapped in the castle didn’t frustrate him half as much as not having his pipe.
When Hero slept, Adom found he could sneak into the boy’s dreams, even from a distance, and speak to him. He saw Hero’s disillusioned resolve not to fulfill his Destiny wavering.
Adom chuckled. Hero couldn’t withstand flawless logic or the persuasive wisdom and charm Adom possessed. Soon enough, the boy would see the Truth, and he would return when the time came and kill Mrakota.
And when that happened, Adom would finally be free to haunt some other place. A pub sounded delectable.
One Year Later
Candlelight flickered on the ebony velvet tapestries draped over the walls. A refurbished crystal ball sat on a pedestal in one corner and played sultry, low-key string music. In the middle of the table, held in a blood-red vase, a single black rose blossomed. There was a delicious array of fresh salad, grilled fish, crispy bread garnished with butter, and silver chalices brimmed with a non-alcoholic grape vintage.
Mrakota found it hard to breathe. He’d had several romantic dinners with Valerian before. They’d been spending a lot of time together, even more since Hero had left. But this night was different. This time, he really would tell her.
Under the table, Mrakota clutched the small ivory box. Come on, you’re a Dark Lord. Just ask.
What if she said no?
He’d fought slavering monsters, laid waste to stretches of countryside, and led campaigns at the head of his Dark Legionaries. He had crushed insurrections and fought off assassins. Battling sorcererous creations, defeating giants, surviving the occasional board meeting—all that hadn’t unnerved him.
Proposing to Valerian scared the hell out of him.
“This is a lovely rose,” the healer said, smiling at him across the table. She wore a pale green dress adorned with rich, mauve accents. It was low cut and tight fitted. Mrakota appreciated the tailor who’d designed it. He appreciated how it showed off Valerian’s figure even more.
“I didn’t know you could develop such delicate violet and scarlet highlights in the petals.”
“I’ve been working at it,” Mrakota said. “I decided to save it for a… special occasion.”
A coy smile turned up her lips. “Oh?”
“Yes.” Mrakota took a sip of the grape juice. It didn’t help his dry mouth.
Just act, damn it.
Mrakota stood, walked over to Valerian’s chair, and went down on one knee. He offered her the ivory box. “Will you be my Dark Lady?”
“You mean marry you?”
“Um, yes.” Mrakota’s heart pounded.
Valerian smiled. “It took you long enough to ask me. Of course I’ll marry you.” She opened the box and examined the plain gold ring. “It’s gorgeous! And not too flashy, just what I like.”
Mrakota grinned. “If you put it in the fire, the words ‘I love you’ show up as ancient runes.”
Valerian laughed in delight. “That’s precious of you, Mrakota.” She slipped the ring onto her finger, then she leaned forward and kissed him.
Before Mrakota could suggest they continue the evening in the more comfortable bedroom adjacent to the chamber, someone pounded on the door.
“A dragon is attacking!”
Mrakota sighed. “Can’t it wait?”
The voice paused, then shouted again. “No, my Lord!”
“Damn it.” Mrakota smiled apologetically at his fiancée. “I hope you can excuse me for a bit?”
“I suppose.” She smirked. “As long as you make it up to me later.”
Mrakota buckled on his spelled breastplate and donned a black cloak.
It annoyed him that he hadn’t heard any sounds of attack yet—not from the dragon or his men. Was this really such an emergency?
Mrakota swept through the halls until he emerged in the courtyard. He stopped short and looked at Darren. “You could have told me.”
“Sorry, my Lord, I didn’t recognize him at first. Not with the beast and all.”
Glowing in the numerous torches around the courtyard and on the battlements, a massive red dragon sprawled on its side. Its curling gold horns glittered with a crust of jewels, and its enormous bat-like wings stretched out nearly the length of the wall. The dragon was snoring.
The young man standing near the dragon’s head held Mrakota’s full attention.
Dressed in travel-worn finery, his dark hair falling in mussed curls to his shoulders, and the star-shaped birthmark gleaming in the torchlight, Hero stood with easy confidence and studied his nails.
Relief rippled through Mrakota. His son was alive, unharmed, and had returned. He waved off his Dark Legionaries, then nodded at Hero. “Welcome home.”
“Yeah.” Hero hooked his thumbs into his belt. “Thanks.”
“So, how did your quest go?”
Hero shrugged. “Fine.”
Mrakota forced a smile. “Good.”
They stared at each other in awkward silence. The dragon continued snoring.
Mrakota had so much he wanted to say: how glad he was Hero was back, to assure him he wasn’t angry, ask him about his trip, et cetera. They could feed the swans and piranha and talk.
Mrakota cleared his throat. “Why don’t you come in, have something to eat?”
“Sure. Uh…” Hero glanced at his dragon. “Mind if I leave Fangs here?”
“As long as it doesn’t eat anyone.”
“Nah, he had lunch before we left.”
A rather disquieting thought, considering it was now dinnertime.
“Lieutenant, watch the dragon.”
Darren swallowed. “Yes, my Lord.”
Mrakota nodded towards the front gates of the Lair of Malice. “Coming?”
Hero sauntered across the cobblestones. Mrakota dismissed his guards and led Hero to the small dining room alone. He took a seat at the head of the table, and Hero straddled another chair to his immediate right.
They stared at each other again.
Hero looked away first. “You know what day it is?”
A tendril of nervousness wrapped around Mrakota. “You’re sixteen in a few hours.”
“Yeah. One, to be precise.”
“Thanks.” His mask of teenage nonchalance weakened, and stark uncertainty flickered across his expression. He turned his head away.
Mrakota leaned back in his chair. “This is the day the prophecy said you are supposed to kill me.”
Hero winced and fiddled with a black crystal fork on the table. “Yeah.”
Mrakota hid the sudden flicker of anxiety in his stomach. He’d deliberately not thought about this day since Hero left. “Well, there’s no rush. Tell me how your quest went.”
Hero shrugged again. “I set off with six companions. A mercenary guard, an elf, a dwarf, this thief we picked up in the eastern regions, some old guy supposed to be my mentor, a babe said to be my True Love—” Hero rolled his eyes “—and I swear, she was a total moron. Well, we were supposed to find the Sword of Peace. Turns out the last owner had turned it into a plowshare, which is why took us a whole damn year to find.”
“What did you do with it then?”
“Left it to the farmer. No point in reforging it again, right? I mean, who wants something called the ‘Sword of Peace’?”
“It wouldn’t fit a Dark Lord.”
“Exactly. So on our way back, we got ambushed by goblins and fled into this network of caves. The old guy got lost; fell down some bottomless pit or something. Not like I care. He was irritating as hell. Then we found the dragon.” Hero’s eyes brightened. “There was a freaking load of treasure, too. But old dragon-breath didn’t feel like sharing. He chomped the babe and that thief like that.” He snapped his fingers.
Mrakota chuckled in appreciation. “What did you do?”
“Stayed the hell out of the way, that’s what. Once Fangs had toasted our guide for trying to snitch some of the gold, he seemed pretty content to talk. So I asked him if he’d mind flying me back here. I said I’d make sure he had a steady diet of peasants. Hope you don’t mind?”
Mrakota shook his head. “There’s usually a surplus anyway.”
“That’s what I thought.” Hero balanced the fork on its prongs and held it there with one finger. “So Fangs flew me here, and, yeah, that’s it.”
“What about your other two companions?”
“Oh, the elf and dwarf are following on foot. They know how to get here. And since I had to leave Fluff the Second outside the mountain, I’m hoping he knows how to get back as well. So. Quest is over, and…” Hero let the fork topple to the tabletop. “I guess I get to finish my Destiny.”
Coldness seeped into Mrakota’s chest. He offered a tight smile. “I suppose.”
Hero took a breath. “Did you ever think about… killing me?”
Mrakota’s eyes narrowed. “Why would I?”
Hero shrugged. “You know, to thwart the prophecy and all.”
“No.” Mrakota leaned forward. Hero didn’t make eye contact. “I’d never hurt you—regardless of what happens.” He paused. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, this ghost named Adom has been on a mission to convince me you’re evil and will try to kill me. He’s been at it for years.”
Mrakota snorted. “I need to find a way to permanently get rid of that mentoring idiot.”
He didn’t want to pay someone to do an exorcism, but that was looking like his only option.
Hero stood and fingered the hilt of his broadsword. He walked to the door, dropped the cross latch down, and turned back to Mrakota.
Then he drew the blade.
Mrakota’s throat tightened. He’d never wanted to believe Hero would turn on him. He couldn’t bear that.
Hero swallowed and walked back to the table. His heart thudded so hard he marveled that his father didn’t hear it. “Aren’t you going to fight me?”
Mrakota tipped his chair back and shook his head. “Your ‘destiny’ is your choice. I’m leaving it up to you.”
“Yeah, but… um… if it can’t be avoided, you could at least fight back.”
“And wound you? I don’t think so.”
Hero’s knees quivered. He kept waiting for Mrakota to lash out — verbally or physically, or both. It unnerved him how calm his father remained. His stomach was already so twisted with dread he was glad he’d not eaten anything. He’d have gotten sick for sure, and that would have been a pathetic way to end this confrontation.
If only he had more time. He’d missed Mrakota. He’d missed the Lair of Malice. Even though his bedroom was haunted, he missed the old comforts of home. Now he didn’t even have a chance to enjoy them.
“Go on, boy, you have no choice.”
Startled, Hero glanced sidelong at Adom’s ghostly shape hovering a few paces away. Hero snapped his attention back to his father. Mrakota didn’t seem to notice the apparition.
“Do it,” Adom persisted. “Before he springs a trap on you and tries to kill you!”
He’d never kill me. Hero bit his lip. Would he? He remembered seeing Mrakota murder the kitchen boy to avoid “future risks”. Hero hadn’t forgotten how easily that could have been him under the Dark Lord’s knife rather than Benson.
“Of course he would,” Adom said. “This is all a ruse. He’s going to pull a lever under his chair and send you falling into a pit of firedrakes!”
We have firedrakes under the dining room?
Adom stamped a foot in the air. “Just kill him, boy.”
At last Hero met Mrakota’s dark gaze, and they stared at each other, unblinking. The blue star on his forehead itched with sweat.
Mrakota spoke, his voice steady. “So choose.”
Hero didn’t want to hurt Mrakota, but he wasn’t sure he had a choice.
“Why else would you be here?“Adom said, his tone urgent. “If you had a choice, would you have returned just in time to fulfill your Destiny?”
Hero had no answer for that. The timing, the way events had played out to bring him home just before his sixteenth birthday…
“Kill me,” Mrakota said, “or sheathe your sword and let’s have dinner.”
Hero’s jaw worked. Didn’t Mrakota hate him?
It would have been easier if Mrakota was angry. Then he wouldn’t feel so guilty about this.
“You know,” Hero said, “during the quest, everyone kept telling me how this would play out. You’d be set on stopping me, raving and threatening, and it’d be a long, drawn-out, bloody fight. That you’d fight dirty and use treachery and all that.”
Mrakota smiled wryly. “I live to disappoint.”
Hero couldn’t bring himself to smile in return. “But I guess they were all wrong.”
“Looks like it.” He titled his head. “Is there a draft in here?”
“I don’t feel anything.” Hero didn’t look at Adom.
Hero’s breath came harsh and rapid.
His whole life had been leading up to this moment.
“Do it!” Adom shouted. “You’re a failure otherwise. Do you want people to think you are weak, cowardly worm, boy?”
I’m not a coward.
“Prove it, then. Destroy the spawn of darkness!”
None of them had every considered how hard it would be for him. This wasn’t some faceless evil hiding in the shadows. It was just his dad.
Over the course of his journey, he’d fought brigands and monsters and fiends. He’d battled useless hirelings of over-ambitious fief lords, driven off would-be thieves, and crossed swords with hired mercenaries. Being the Chosen One had its perks — he’d won all those conflicts. Intensive training from the Dark Legionaries over the years had helped, too.
But he’d never murdered anyone. Hero couldn’t look his father in the eyes any longer. He didn’t want Mrakota to see the tears in his own.
His hands trembled when he lifted his blade and pointed it at Mrakota’s unprotected neck.
Mrakota’s knuckles whitened on the arms of his chair. But still he didn’t try to defend himself.
“Good, now run him through. It’s easy — do it, boy.”
Hero readied his arm to strike.
Mrakota braced himself.
What would happen if he didn’t kill Mrakota? Would Fate intervene and force him to act? All his so-called faithful companions claimed they were loyal to him until death. He saw through it. None of them gave a damn. As long as he did what they wanted, they mouthed the right words and mimed the right actions. It was never sincere.
But Mrakota had always cared, and even if he never said it, Hero knew his father loved him.
Hero couldn’t find his voice, his vision blurring. How could he go through with this? The point of the sword quivered and touched Mrakota’s throat, drawing a drop of blood. Did being the Chosen One — of what and for what purpose, no one had even been able to tell him — mean he had to become a monster?
“No?” Adom shrieked. “Why not?”
Hero lowered his arm. He was sick of not knowing. If Fate was inexorable, it could damn well possess him and make him finish it.
He had made his choice.
“I can’t do it.” Hero wiped a hand across his eyes. “Screw fate. I’m not going to kill you, Dad.”
Mrakota swallowed and dabbed his neck with a napkin. “Ah, thanks.”
Adom wailed and then disappeared out in a translucent puff of mist.
“In fact,” Hero said, “this whole Chosen One business sucks. You never get to burn down the occasional village for the hell of it.”
“I’d much rather be a Dark Lord.” Hero smiled, hopeful, desperate to have Mrakota forgive him for how close he’d come to making the wrong decision. “When you retire, of course.”
Mrakota stood and clapped Hero on the shoulder. “Of course.”
Relief washed through Hero. He rubbed his nose. At least Mrakota didn’t hug him. That would have been embarrassing.
“Although I doubt your companions will be as pleased,” Mrakota said.
Hero laughed, remembering the horrified look on Adom’s face. “Hey, I can always feed them to Fangs. He’s not a picky eater.” He’d never liked the elf or dwarf anyway. He didn’t even remember their names.
Hero wiped his forehead, hand shaking. “What’s for dinner, anyway?”
Mrakota rubbed the back of his neck. It took a moment for him to reply. “Was thinking of drake stakes, just the way you like them.”
Hero grinned. “Flame broiled. By the way, do we have drakes under the floor?”
Mrakota looked blank. “Why the hell would I have fire-breathing lizards under the dining room?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Hero shrugged. “It might be cool.”
Mrakota’s lips twitched.
A thunderclap shook the room, startling them. Mrakota stiffened and Hero’s eyes bulged. He recognized that entrance all too well.
“No!” boomed the Stargazing Wizard. The smell of smoke filled the room and tendrils of dark purple mist swirled around the table legs. “You must fulfill the prophecy, boy!”
“I’m getting sick of hearing that,” Hero said.
“So am I.” Mrakota spun around to confront the Stargazing Wizard.
Swathed in violet smoke, eyes glinting with magic, and his demonic staff leveled before him, the Stargazing Wizard looked pissed off. “This was not meant to be!”
“Shut up already,” Mrakota said. “No amount of whining will change things.”
“You don’t understand, Most Evil and Despicable One.” Spittle flecked the wizard’s beard. “The second prophecy declares that I shall reign when you are dead!”
So that’s why he was so desperate for me to fulfill my prophecy, Hero thought. What a jerk.
Mrakota gestured at Hero to retreat to a safe distance. “Let me handle this.”
Hero backed towards the door. “Yeah, good idea.”
Mrakota could handle the ex-regent. Hero remembered too well the purple net of magic that had snared him the last time he’d seen the Stargazing Wizard.
Hero didn’t recall any prophecy about the Stargazing Wizard, but then, he’d never made a point to look into them. He’d only paid attention to the verses concerning him.
“You will die.” Red lightning crackled on the end of the Stargazing Wizard’s staff and around his head. “I will rule!”
Hero’s jaw clenched. He was never hiring any wizard advisors.
Mrakota took an imperious step towards the magus. “No you won’t.”
“It is my Destiny!”
“I don’t think so.”
Hero tried not to snicker.
Mrakota scoffed and took a step sideways.
Multiple functioning weapons decorated the walls. Mrakota had once told him, “You never know when you’ll need a spear, flail, saber, mace, or any other standard or exotic weapon.” Hero was glad his father always thought ahead.
Mrakota bounded toward the nearest wall and the Stargazing Wizard roared in fury.
Magic spat from the staff head. It struck the floor where Mrakota had stood. The Stargazing Wizard readied another blast.
Hero sprinted to the table, grabbed a candelabrum, and hurled it at the magus. It bounced off the Stargazing Wizard’s staff. The second bout of red lightning missed Mrakota by a blade’s width.
The heat singed the hem of Mrakota’s cloak and the smell of burnt fabric added to the unpleasant stench of smoke.
“Stop running, my former Liege of Darkness. It is useless.”
Mrakota lunged at the wall, grabbed the hilt of a saber, and then rolled to safety. He jumped up. With a practiced flick of his hand, he unclasped his cloak and tossed it aside.
Hero’s heart pounded in his throat. He didn’t want to get close enough to the magus and get zapped, but he had a sick feeling the Stargazing Wizard might be better than Mrakota this time.
Chips of stone exploded around Mrakota as a third blast hit the wall. A steel lance melted into a molten stain on the granite. The rest of the weapons in a fair radius were blackened.
Hero took a step back, keeping the table between him and the magus. He had to think. Mrakota needed help, a distraction, something. Hero didn’t have time to summon the Dark Legionnaires. What could he do?
The table was empty of candelabra, so he scooped up a handful of crystal silverware and hurled them at the Stargazing Wizard.
With contemptuous ease, the magus flicked his staff around and a violet barrier appeared, scattering the utensils. The Stargazing Wizard muttered an arcane word and Hero’s legs jerked out from under him. He landed on his back, the wind knocked out of him.
It gave Mrakota the opening he needed. Hero struggled up in time to see Mrakota grab a dagger from the wall and hurl it at the wizard. The magus spun and erected his shield again. The dagger ricocheted. A gout of red lightning seared at Mrakota in return. The Dark Lord dodged with a curse.
Hero used the edge of the table to pull himself up. He kept hold of his sword. It was a simple, mundane weapon. After seeing how the elf’s Bow of Might had misfired, bounced an arrow off several rocks and shot the elf in the ass, Hero had foresworn all magic weapons. Ordinary steel was good enough for him.
Mrakota spun to face the wizard, who glowered back, looking petulant that his attacks hadn’t left Mrakota as a smudge on the stone floor.
Mrakota flicked a bit of soot off his shoulder. “You need to work on your aim.”
“I will not need to, you fool. You cannot escape your fate — you will die.”
“No chance, moron.” Hero straightened, but still kept the table between them. “Wouldn’t you know it, the clock just ticked the hour.” The gong atop the astrology tower sounded, proving him right. He smirked but he didn’t like the way the magus was looking at him. “I’m sixteen — birthday is over.”
The Stargazing Wizard’s eyes bugged. “No! This cannot be happening.”
“It just did.”
Power swelled in the end of his staff, building into a torrential surge. “Then you will die as well!”
Hero’s mouth went dry. Oh hell, I shouldn’t have pissed him off.
Mrakota stalked towards the Stargazing Wizard.
Hero kept his sword at the ready. He wasn’t going to get blasted cowering. His legs shook but he held his ground. A Dark Lord didn’t break down and start begging at the first sign of defeat. Well, not a true Dark Lord.
“You think you can defeat me, boy?”
Hero’s temper flared. That was it. No one was calling him “boy” and living to tell about it.
“Actually, hell yeah I think I can.” He stomped around the table and headed straight for the Stargazing Wizard.
The ex-advisor looked startled, but the power in his staff kept growing.
Mrakota was almost within striking distance. Hero smiled. Together, father and son would take down this annoying fanatic.
The Stargazing Wizard whirled with a cackle and let loose his magic straight at Mrakota. Hero opened his mouth to shout a warning. Too late. Mrakota tried to dodge. But the magic was faster. It slammed into his chest, throwing him across the room.
Mrakota hit the wall and slumped to the floor. He didn’t get up.
Hero screamed. “No!”
Boiling temper flooded through him, giving him more strength than he’d ever felt. He charged the wizard. With all his might, he swung his blade at the wizard’s head.
The Stargazing Wizard blocked the stroke with his staff. Hero attacked again, so enraged he couldn’t see straight. This wasn’t fair. He’d chosen — he’d chosen — to keep his father alive! The Stargazing Wizard had no right to kill Mrakota.
Hero swung again, battering at the staff.
This was for his father.
Mrakota couldn’t breathe. The breastplate smoked and it was far too hot in the room. Stars danced in front of his eyes. His ears rang and his limbs refused to respond to his commands. Damn it, this was not a time to deal with rebellion.
Over the war drums pounding in his head, Mrakota heard Hero’s scream of rage and denial. The Stargazing Wizard laughed. The sound of steel hitting wood resounded with an unnatural crash.
Mrakota blinked, took a deep, shuddering breath, and with tremendous effort pushed himself away from the wall.
His fingers stiff and every muscle and joint protesting against the slightest movement, Mrakota pried at the buckles and at last detached the ruined breastplate. At least the spelled metal had warded off the worst of the magic. It clattered to the floor. Neither Hero nor the Stargazing Wizard noticed.
The two combatants moved in a furious duel, sword against staff. Hero was inexorably gaining the upper hand. His teeth showed in a snarl and he battered away at the Stargazing Wizard’s staff. The lack of a magic sword prevented the blade from slicing through the wooden stick.
Step by step, the Stargazing Wizard backed towards where Mrakota lay. Though he was pressed to defend himself, the magus didn’t appear desperate. Did he have some final surprise up his robe sleeve?
Mrakota gritted his teeth against the pain and got to his knees. He pulled a new saber from the wall and held it ready. His shirt was ruined, and there were smoke burns on his clean-shaven jaw. The wizard would pay for that.
Then the Stargazing Wizard barked words in an unfamiliar language and Hero froze in mid-swing. Purple light encased his arms and hands.
Mrakota stared, horrified, as Hero stood and began to turn his sword towards his own chest.
“What are you doing?” Hero gasped. “Let me go!”
“You cannot break the binding spell, boy.” The Stargazing Wizard laughed again. “The prophecy has been fulfilled. Even though you refused to obey, you have still been responsible for your father’s death.”
Mrakota plunged the sword into the Stargazing Wizard’s back. “Shut. The. Hell. Up.”
The magic snapped and Hero dropped his sword.
Hero stumbled back, wide-eyed. “Dad! You’re alive.”
“Not… possible… ” The Stargazing Wizard feebly tried to push the saber out of his chest. Blood added a nice pattern to the front of his robe.
“I live to disappoint.” Mrakota jerked his blade out and the Stargazing Wizard crumpled to the ground. His body disintegrated into a pile of violet ash and his staff withered into a crooked twig. Mrakota smiled in satisfaction.
The doors slammed against the walls, busted open with a battering ram. Darren burst in with a squad of Dark Legionnaires. Valerian followed close behind.
Damn, now he had to replace the door.
Mrakota waved them aside. “Everything’s under control.”
Valerian sighed and smiled. Mrakota returned the smile in relief and Darren sent one of his men to fetch the servants to clean up the mess.
Hero kicked the Stargazing Wizard’s remains away and threw his arms around Mrakota. “Thanks, Dad.”
Mrakota hugged him tight. “Any time, Hero.”