“What is this madness?” Jared growled, spinning where he stood, seeking something he could not see. “Who calls father?” he bellows, rage and fear mingled in his voice.
Liz stood on the landing of the great sweeping stair, striking down any that moved to attack the prisoners. There were much fewer priests and brigands by this point. how had they been so utterly surprised?
From the stair, the tiled mosaic ran between the two rows of altars, each spaced a dozen strides apart. Beside each altar stood a brazier with flames licking toward the cavernous roof far overhead. Beyond the last altar rose a dais of six steps, upon which lay the broken remnants of a magical prison; a ward that had held a being of immense darkness from time out of mind.
Only those shackles had been recently shattered. Was it Eronel’s doing? Or Jared’s perchance? And despite the sudden freedom, the smoke monster, perhaps accustomed to the feel of its once prison, had launched forward only to snatch up Eronel and return to the familiarity with his victim in hand.
Or had it sought to rescue Eronel from Jared. The scene could be understood from more than one angle. And who exactly had Ingrid called father? Surely Jared, but what if?
Ingrid strode into the center of the room and Jared stopped his frantic circling, as if he heard the scraping of her boot on tile. His breathing was heavy, laden with fear and rage. As I watched him I could see an abnormality in his features. A bestial form that pushed at the bones of his face. But only for a moment, then he was back to his plain weathered face and those funny little eyes.
Aoibhell and Brindle were helping several prisoners over toward the stairs, taking advantage of the sudden lull in the fighting. Even Liz stopped firing her arrows. It was as if the world held its breath for that instant, waiting to see what happened next.
All but Lilith. While Lilith was nowhere to be seen, a shout of pain came from the far side of the hall and a body hit the floor announcing her position, if only for a moment.
Jared whirled. He glowed with a black light, the purple sparks that flecked the edges of his aura seeming to war with the light from the sconces and torches. His hands crackled with power and he searched around as if blind, seeking the source of the cry.
“Who said father?” he raged, his voice oily and cold.
For some reason he could not see Ingrid who stood not twenty strides to his left. Then I realized he couldn’t see anything. Out of curiosity I clicked over to the green sight and saw that he had been gravely wounded. Not from any blow, none other than the glory of the magic that Liz and I had used to drive back the shadows. That which shattered her fear, had pulsed over him as well.
I remembered how my attempt to heal him had wounded and my most lethal wounding spell had healed him. His life had become so tainted that he could nearly become a lich, or so I imagined. However something small and fluttering held him back; keeping him a hair’s breadth from that tipping point. Was it love? The midge within him festered, the tiniest of wounds that would never heal. If he would just deny that flicker, he would cross over.
Oh how he tried, I could read that in him as clear as reading the words on a page. This mote that prevented him from eschewing the final thread of his mortality had grown so very weak over the centuries and yet it could not be quelled. Not even with the sacrifices of dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? And yet that meanest speck of light needled his spirit, foiled his plans. He could not even see it to excise it if he had had the means to quash it.
Now before him stood a daughter, a child born of a hate filled union between a monstrous necromancer and his latest protégé, Eronel. It was so clear to one who understood the true value of love. To one such as Jared, it may as well be on one of Golgotha’s seven moons.
I understood it clearly now. Here, in this valley protected from the horrors of the cataclysm, he hoped to culminate the final promise, fulfill the dark desire and merge his tattered soul into the depths of blackness that birthed the great shadow beast before us.
All that flashed to me through his vacant and unseeing eyes.
“Jared,” I called, stepping to the side.
He spun, purple lightning flashing toward where I had stood a moment before. I did not have to move far to confuse him.
His head swiveled, straining to catch the sound of any of us. Unfortunately for him, the roiling and crackling of the great smoke beast echoed around the chamber, creating false impressions.
He spun and blasted a stone pillar to his right, causing rocks to fall. A great wave of dust and ash spread out, engulfing him for a moment and he bent, retching.
Ingrid took a step toward him, holding out one hand.
“I forgive you, father,” she said, her voice strong. “I know it is you who first put these into the hands of our people.” She pulled the assassin daggers from her belt, holding them each by their worn leather handles. “I know it was you who showed the first necromancer how to prey upon our people. You who brought darkness into this place of peace and tranquility.”
She stalked toward him and by instinct he flinched back, stumbling over a dead priest and fell hard against an altar.
There was a thread of panic in him then. Her words, the forgiveness she had gifted him had forced that tiny mote in his spirit to pulse twice and double in size. Like a knife in his soul, each pulse a slash that spilled black hatred. He gasped and flung his left hand out.
Ingrid did not even flinch as the power lanced to her right, the strength of it blowing her hair around as if in a breeze.
“These,” she cried — Throat Ripper in her left fist, and Heart Biter in her right — ready to strike as she calmly stepped toward him. “These have tasted their last,” and she lunged forward, closing the final distance, the assassin blades flashing in the light of the braziers.
Jared cried out and a great screaming suffused the room. For a moment I thought she had slain him, foregoing Mother Crone’s final gift. But as the roar crescendoed and spirits of century upon century of dead rose in a torrent, I realized she had stabbed the blades into the altar to either side of her father, shattering them against the magic that had first formed them in the forgotten days.
She kissed him then, his life leech sucking her spirit in an attempt to steal her glorious essence. That kiss, you see, another act of love for a man who deserved nothing but eternal torment, caused the mote in his chest to double and double again. Only with each pulse it doubled and doubled as the love of a broken and angry daughter overwhelmed the foul heart of a the unwanted father.
In case you thought that this tale would end with love conquering all, I will say good for you and your sudden optimism. But such was not to be.
For you see, she had other weapons, and these she drew in one swift motion and cut her father; one thrust to the throat, and the other to the belly.
And like that Jared the Black bled his last upon the very temple he first desecrated seventy thousand years before. His smoking blood pouring over one of the altars he had used to sacrifice so many.
I rushed forward and pulled Ingrid from him, too late it seemed. Her heart fluttered and stopped, but there was a smile on her face as the light went out of her eyes.