The fighters in the courtyard looked like swarming ants as the dragons flew over Londre in pursuit of the fleeing Wyvern. Lars couldn't tell who was winning, only that the battle hadn't yet been decided. There was absolute chaos in front of the gates of Londre Castle. Several fires had broken out and edifices that had been toppled by magical barrages had been dragged to use as blockades. At first he thought that was where they were stopping, but then the Wyvern flew straight past the castle and up the great hill towards Londre Tower. It flew straight up the side, then perched on the eyrie at the very top of the tower, licking its wounds until it dissipated in a cluster of magical fire, returned to the Lisle crown for proper healing.
"She must have holed herself up in the Tower," said Lars, "Adryl was right – she has been using it as her base of operations while pretending to be locked in it to incite civil war!"
"I must be the one to confront my sister," said Eadric, "The Crown is in here. I can sense it. Only Gemfire can neutralise its power."
"There'll be defences inside the Tower. We'll hold them off for you," said Ander.
The dragons perched on top of the Tower for long enough for their riders to dismount, then soared into the sky again. The other Wyverns had caught up with them now. The aerial battle would be left up to the creatures of the air. Ander kicked down the door and they ran inside. They were almost immediately greeted by a pair of Ogres. One of them nearly crushed Lars' skull with its huge club but he jumped out of the way, then used the brief second it was unbalanced to stab it through its single eye with the Sword of Defeat. Ander took out the second Ogre. They ran down the winding spiral staircase, wary of more creatures lurking in the darkness.
"That way," whispered Eadric as he pointed to a door to one side of the staircase, "I can feel the Crown."
To their surprise, the door opened easily in Eadric's grip. The room inside had clearly once been a dungeon but was now luxuriously decorated. Brightly coloured silk sheets covered the walls, a table laden with silver cutlery and a roast hog stood to one side, a sedan chair covered in silk pillows to the other. Robyn sat in a velvet-back chair, reading a book and sipping wine from a crystal chalice. On a velvet cushion in her lap was a crown that looked like Gemfire but was not. It was smaller and the jewels were duller, their glow like that of a hungry furnace in Hell rather than the stars in the sky.
"Why, hello, brother!" she said, smiling sweetly, "Did you come to rescue me? I thank you for your loyalty, although the evil King Terian is already dead. By the way, you don't happen to know where he put his crown, do you?"
"I know exactly where Gemfire is, you traitor!" hissed Eadric, "And its out of your hands!'
"Why, brother, what kind of lies have these criminals been feeding you? They broke the curfew on their exile, you know."
"I did NOT! I was invited back here by the rightful King Terian!" said Ander.
"Ah, yes, the man who put you all to shame. And yet he died so easily, in the end. I'm afraid his authority ends with his death. As a Queen who ruled Ishmeria jointly, I am the sole ruler now. I revoke your pardons."
"If you're Queen, where's Ishmeria's Crown?" demanded Lars.
"A good question. Brother, where is my Crown?"
"Gemfire's with me, and you'll have to pry it from my cold dead hands, you witch!" he yelled.
"So you won't see reason. I thought you might not. Long years in exile can change a man," she sighed, "And with so much of my power wasted because of your interference. I'll have to spoil the surprise, and show you the remaining Gem of the Lisle Crown."
Eadric acted immediately but Robyn had already begun casting before they had even entered the room, and her hands were closer to the Crown. Just as his lips formed the last syllables of the ritual to summon the Gem Wizards, his words were contorted into a scream. Gemfire fell from his hands and he pitched forward, a red stain spreading across his back. Behind him stood the last Gem Wizard of the Lisle Crown, bloody sword in hand.
"GARTH!" cried Ander, "you treacherous bastard!"
"No, he's not in control of his own actions!" Lars pulled him back before he could rush the old man.
"He's quite right. Garth is a Gem Wizard bound to the Lisle Crown. He only had free will because he had never been awakened. I knew the Wizards of Gemfire would try and make contact with you all at some point, and that he would be exposed to enough power to awaken him!"
"Why didn't the moron tell us?" Ander cursed.
"Maybe he didn't know," said Lars, "They do things to your head when you become a Gem Wizard."
"And now my only contender to the throne is dead, and I have both Crowns," she said, stepping behind Eadric and picking up Gemfire while Garth stood guard. They could see the power welling up inside Garth's impassive eyes as he watched them for any sign of moving towards the Crown.
"Ishmeria will never accept you, even if we don't succeed!" said Ander.
"I do not care whether you pathetic insects recognise me as your ruler. I will sacrifice them all and populate Ishmeria with more fitting servants. I will ascend to immortality through the power of the Gems!" she said, waving her arm, "Garth! Kill them all!"
Garth sprang forwards, hurling fireballs at them. Lars ducked under the barrage, rolled forward and swung at the Gem Wizard with his dark blade. A dome of magical energy circled him but the hoyl sword passed straight through it, catching Garth across the face before he could dive out of the way. They circled each other.
"Why don't you use Gemfire?" asked Ander.
"I'm not wasting that much power on you fools. Garth will eventually kill you all, even if the Coryll brat does have a magical sword, and it will amuse me to see you die by the hand of your former ally!"
"Aren't you worried you won't be able to use it?' asked Ander, "I mean, you're not even a real Queen. Lankshire lost the throne fair and square to Tate."
"Terian is dead! I didn't lose any battles! I was manipulating the entire war on all sides! Don't compare me to you failures!" she yelled.
"Hm… even so, you might not even have enough power to use it," he said, "You've made a hash job so far, prying out the gems of the Crown like some kind of thief and breaking it, and then not even recognising a fake Gemfire!"
"How dare you! I will animate you as a skeleton and have you kill your own family for this!"
"Please don't, you'll only turn me into a frog by accident," he said, "Look, Lars is holding his own against Garth."
"I'm really bloody not…" cried Lars as he tried to stop Garth pinning him to the floor and choking him to death with hands that were on fire. He could feel the Goddess' will protecting him where he should have been dead at the start of the fight but her constant stream of disparaging comments were sapping his will.
"… Lars is holding his own against Garth, so you clearly haven't even summoned him at full power. I bet you couldn't even get the Dragon to show up at all!"
"I'd have thought you'd seen enough of the dragon when it pulled down the walls of your stronghold, but if you insist," said Robyn, "It might solve all my problems at once to have the Dragon eat you all."
She placed the Princess Crown on her head, then held up Gemfire in her hands and threw back her head, ignoring the fact that the Princess Crown immediately fell off in her reverie of power, "By Lankshire, Ishmeria and the Crown! ARISE, FIRE DRAGON!"
Gemfire burst into magical fire that almost made her drop it, then a ring of flames appeared on the floor before her. The flames rose into a roaring column that made a large hole in the roof, through which Ander could see a dragon and a Wyvern battling underneath a watchful silvery moon. Then the flames dissipated and a single figure stood there, smaller than a gigantic fire-breathing monster that ate entire castles out of spite, but somehow just as imposing. His eyes smouldered.
"Father?" Robyn took a step back, "Oh, you'll do. Help Garth kill them! He's being useless again!"
"No," he said, "You just said I was fired."
"You said 'fire Dragon'," said Eselred, "Plus, you didn't ask nicely. And you told me to kill my allies. And you killed your brother. And you're my daughter, so you should have a little more respect for me, young madam!"
"You are still a Gem Wizard! You are under the control of the Ruler of Ishmeria!"
"I AM the Ruler of Ishmeria," he said, "I am a Lankshire. A guardian of Gemfire. And I control myself. Garth, you are needed back at headquarters. If you don't retreat at once, I'll force you to!"
"I don't think he can," said Ander.
"Oh, you're right. We never finished teaching him to," Eselred sighed. Then he drew his broadsword and ran over to Garth. Grabbing him in one hand, he pried him away from a relieved-looking Lars, then threw himself against a wall. Then he swung the broadsword with all his might at Garth. The blow would have bisected an ordinary man but it connected solidly with Garth's magic barrier. The shield shattered into a million shards, like a globe of delicate stained glass.
"Your shield is down. We retreat when our shields are down," said Eselred. Watching Garth disappear, he turned to Gweyn, "Your gems need to recharge and you are surrounded by your enemies. I suggest you retreat. Very fast. As far away from Ishmeria as possible, although I doubt any other civilised land will give asylum to a necromancer."
"That won't change anything! I'm not the only one who holds my beliefs! How else do you think I found allies? The power that lies within Ishmeria is meant to be used!" Robyn spat, "And it will be at the hands of another Lankshire, father! Our family is cursed! Our fate can't be separated from this power!"
"No, Robyn, it is an honour to be chosen as a guardian, but an honour with more responsibility than privilege," said Eselred, "I should have taught you this as a child. I was lax in my duty as a father and as a King. I am sorry, Robyn. I shouldn't have been hypocritical. But I will still punish you. As a father and as a King. You are banished."
"And if I refuse to leave? Will you add the murder of your own daughter to our legacy of blood? There will be none left of us – it will be a relief!"
"No, Robyn, it was not an order. It was a fact. You are banished."
"What do you mean? What's that sound? WHAT'S THAT SOUND?" she screamed, clutching her head. Lars screamed as well and pointed at her feet. A ring of dark energy had appeared beneath her feet and a miasma rose from it. Withered claws reached up, clutching at her arms and legs. She fought off a few of them but was quickly overwhelmed. She was still screaming as she was dragged into the Abyss.
"Where did you send her?" demanded Ander.
"It wasn't me, it was Garth," said Eselred, "He was summoned back at the Round Table. As for where… the same place as Griff, I imagine."
"Who summoned him? I didn't think the other Gem Wizards could…"
"It was Adryl," said Eselred.
"Adryl's back? But he was stuck underwater or something!"
"When you were busy preparing for your battle, Garth managed to use his powers in reverse. He used an inverse Word of Banishment to summon Adryl directly back to Ishmeria."
"Is he going to be okay?"
"He is incredibly weak but most of his illness was due to being banished from Ishmeria. A Lankshire cannot be parted from the land."
"But Eadric didn't seem all that…"
"It is a condition of the mind. Eadric has always suppressed the part of himself that was a Lankshire," Eselred bowed his head, "And now he has come to realise that he is part of the family, he is dead."
"I'm sorry for your loss, Your Majesty," said Ander.
"I am not King any more. If anyone deserves to rule Ishmeria, it is Anise. I may have fled with the Crown and hidden it away, but she was the one who arranged everything else. Your return. The Wizards slowly withdrawing their services from the world. She is even more devious than Robyn. I… I am a failure. I will serve better as a mere tool."
"What about Garth?" asked Lars, "Won't we see our friend again either?"
"Garth must be trained up properly as a Gem Wizard. The process takes many years. After that, he must decide what to do. We are going to restore the balance of Ishmeria's magic. We ask you to restore its earthly balance. After that, there should be no need for so much secrecy. Garth can lead a normal life, even though he is a Gem Wizard."
"I don't think any of us will ever lead a normal life," said Lars, "We're exiles."
"Terian pardoned you…"
"You don't understand," said Lars, "An exile is what you become in your heart. Sometimes you never really leave. I am home, but a part of me will never truly belong anywhere any more. I lost my old life. I lost the right to have it back."
"Where do you belong, then?" asked Eselred.
"Anywhere my Goddess wishes me to be," he said, "She may be merciless when it is your time to be defeated, but when you embrace Her word, when you accept your defeat gracefully, she will guide you through the night. And in your darkest hour, when there is nowhere left to go, she will shield you from your worst enemy. She is all aspects of Defeat, kind and unkind. And now she has allowed me to live, I must return the favour and live for her only."
With those words, Lars turned and walked out of the chamber, dark blade propped up against one shoulder. Eselred took his son's body and followed him down the stairs.
"What about the Crowns?" asked Ander, "Is it okay to leave them there?"
"Someone will be along very soon to take them," said Eselred, "I'm not allowed to. It might trigger my occasional relapses. Of course, I would never do such a thing as fully regain my memory and not tell anyone!"
"Of course," Ander nodded, taking one last glance at them.
"No looting! You shouldn't have lost to Terian if you wanted the right to poke around in here!" said Eselred sternly, "Get in front of me or I'll push you down the staircase!"
"How are you going to push me down the stairs if you're not behind me?"
"Would you like to find out how? Get a move-on!"
After the incident, neither Garth nor Eselred were ever seen again, although Eselred sneaked plenty of letters past the supposedly high security of their base. He seemed to be regaining his youth, as though he had been given a second chance in life of sorts. Garth was learning fast and had been allowed administrative privileges in Lisle.
Adryl was welcomed as the new King. The people liked his innocent charm. Although physically frail, he had a frightening wealth of knowledge on all matters. He worked with Bryan to improve the University of Cambry until it reached international renown. Anise continued to be the real power behind the throne, although she had difficulty employing secretaries in case they were expected to take any more bullets for her.
Erin and Gweyn returned to southern Ishmeria and founded the new Ishmerian Navy. They were a formidable force, although Adryl forbade them from invading other islands. They got around this by becoming their trade rivals instead, aided by Erven and his nefarious list of black market contacts. Eventually, Erin proposed to Gweyn and they were married. Lenne became the children's godfather.
Ander led the Lyle family as wandering adventurers. Like all adventurers, they felt cloistered by the confines of Ishmeria and eventually left of their own volition to seek out new and strange lands. They made sure to return every year to inform King Adryl of the wonders they had discovered for the betterment of learning, and many of their discoveries ended up in Cambry National Museum.
Erik took over Griff's role of Border Guard Captain, being of similar temperament. Now that Ishmeria was a vaguely habitable place to live again, illegal immigrants were becoming a real problem. Erik's axes didn't find them much of a problem, as they could cut through their necks with relative ease. Sometimes I have to visit Ishmeria disguised as an asylum seeker to make sure Erik isn't murdering genuine asylum seekers. We get into lots of fights. It also keeps him on his guard, because, like me, many illegal immigrants can fight back.
Loryn became official Ambassador to the Elven settlement within Ishmeria's forests. As a result of his negotiation, Elves gained equal rights to humans. His plan of finding a human wife within the ruling family fell short when he failed to find any Lankshire or Tate ladies who wanted to marry such an old man. He considered not telling them his real age in future but decided that was a bit mean.
As for me…after giving Eadric a proper burial, I went where my Lady Defeat sent me. I am her official bard, the keeper of the history that isn't written by the victors. I am sent off all over the world to find losing battles and write about them. It is hard work because all battles have a loser – in fact, many of them have no true winner – but sometimes other people get involved in my project, and how the Goddess has a small flock of worshippers. They are pushing me to start a proper religion. I don't know how I am going to afford all those Churches and Hymn Books and things! I don't want to end up as one of those money-grubbing Churches that charge money for people's souls not going to Hell!
This is my first book, properly published by Londre's new, modern printing press. I hope to bring out more soon. My next one is going to be about the Elves of Erion Forest. I hope you enjoyed this one enough to read it when it comes out!
Lars Coryll, Grand High Paladin of Spatula, Goddess of Defeat.