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The Price of Freedom, Chapter 12: Finale

The cries of war echoed upon the winds. The earth shook with the thunder of hooves. The ear-numbing clash of steel rang out, the violent hammering of a hundred blacksmiths at work.

‘There is blood in the air,’ Aefion hissed, his eyes focussed on the burning orange skies. A flock of birds were fleeing, desperate to escape the battle over the next ridge. Dust clouds loomed up ahead and Aefion held up his vambraces in the wan sunlight. Slowly, the Bloodstones began to pulsate with light, filling up with power.

‘The Knights of Vigilance have sallied forth,’ Cassandra murmured, her eyes alight with hatred. ‘The battle is raging.’

’It’s time for your revenge.’ Aefion’s teeth were fixed in a bestial grin. He could feel the energy burning like a flame within him as the lust for battle rose. The wind tugged at his black mane as he and Cassandra rushed across the plains.

‘Yes, Tenegrin will pay dearly.’ Cassandra said bitterly. She tightened her grip on the axe.

As they topped the ridge, the companions looked down across the battlefield. The screams of the wounded ripped through the air like daggers through bark. The clamour of weapons was deafening. Black satyrs battled fiercely against human soldiers clad in scarlet and gold livery. Swords of steel clashed with bronze spears and the stench of blood and sweat was everywhere. The battleground was littered with the detritus of war: broken weapons, abandoned shields and the bloodied corpses of the slain.

Knights mounted on brightly caparisoned destriers with eyes of flashing azure charged like titans into the ranks of the satyrs. Armoured from head to foot in shining, steel plate, topped with eagle-winged helms, and mounted on their heavy, monstrous warhorses, they were a menacing sight. They wielded diamond-tipped lances and swords that gleamed with otherworldly light, weapons that left glittering trails of sparks in their wake.

A contingent of shaggy, black Minotaurs armed with a variety of man-sized weapons smashed into a regiment of Galladorian infantry, bellowing in bestial fury. It was like a trio of gods striding amongst vermin. The men were well equipped and disciplined but they didn’t stand a chance. Aefion averted his gaze from the slaughter.

Cassandra’s eyes burned with blue fire. She raised her arms, small traces of energy surrounding her and forming into a circle of protective power.

‘Come on, we’ll skirt around the battle and make our way to Vigilance.’

Silence greeted the pair as they entered the city. The gates hung open forlornly, battered and decorated with a dozen arrows. As they walked cautiously down the main roadway, no trumpets blared, no guard of honour marched out to meet Cassandra and her rescuer. The red and gold banners hung without moving, the windows were blank eyes and their footsteps echoed hollowly on the flagstones. There were no signs of the populace; all traces of life were gone.

‘Where is everybody?’ Cassandra looked about, despair written on her features.

’Don’t worry,’ Aefion said as he touched her arm. ‘There are no bodies, and few signs of battle.’ He indicated the building to his right. ‘Look, no damage.’

‘So he must already have the staff. He’s thrown everyone in the dungeons and taken over. As I expected.’

As if on cue, an evil laugh echoed out across the deserted city.

‘An arcane arrow will shut the bastard up,’ Aefion snarled.

They hurried through the empty streets and boulevards, past deserted courtyards and across the spacious marketplace. Finally, they reached the inner wall: a ring of white marble stretching around the twin towers of Brock’s castle. The centrepiece of the ring, the barbican, reared above their heads like a mighty cliff face. Two guards were posted above the open gates.

They were solidly encased in transparent crystal. Their facial expressions were stern, as if they hadn’t been aware of the attack that came from behind.

‘That confirms my suspicions,’ Cassandra muttered. Pushing past Aefion, she raced across the square and up the steps that led to the keep. Aefion’s eyes lit up as he pursued her.

This was no fair damsel.

The king’s chamber was vast and richly furnished with tapestries. A golden throne sat regally at the centre of the room, perched atop a dais of white marble. Behind it towered a colossal dragyn statue, its eyes staring hawklike at anyone who entered.

The throne was occupied.

Lounging decadently on the scarlet and ermine lining, was the scrawny, balding noble, Jasper Tenegrin. His three brawny bodyguards clustered around him like a pack of muscular hounds protecting their master. On his not-so-noble brow he wore the royal circlet, a band of gold centred with a ruby.

At his feet, chained like a dog, was King Brock. His clothes were ragged, and a strip of cloth obscured his eyes. There was something wrong with the way he moved his head as Aefion and Cassandra approached. No, Aefion thought. He’s blind.

Aefion’s gaze was then directed at the slim, wooden staff Tenegrin held in one hand.

‘Damn,’ the noble cursed as Aefion and Cassandra spread out and readied their weapons. ‘I was hoping you weren’t going to show up.’

‘What have you done to my father?’ Cassandra gasped, her eyes wide in despair. She began to move, but one of the thugs put his sword blade to Brock’s neck.

‘Careful,’ Tenegrin sneered. ‘You wouldn’t want my man’s blade to slip, would you?’ He chuckled maliciously.

Cassandra’s face turned dark, and her eyes became hard and flinty with loathing.

’You’re going to die, you bastard.’ Her every word was edged in poison.

‘My dear…’

’Don’t call her that, human filth,’ Aefion broke in. ‘Hand over the staff, and, while you’re doing that, tell your minions to run away and take up farming.’ He glanced along the length of his outstretched left arm. The bloodstone was fully charged.

‘Back off, elfling,’ Tenegrin growled. He gestured with the staff. ‘I think it’s time your race learnt a little lesson about arrogance.’

The quartz crystal at the staff’s tip gleamed with white power and a second later a bolt of crystalline fury streamed towards Aefion. With lightning fast reactions the elf rolled aside, evading the giant crystal that formed where he had been standing. There was a bright nova as the prison hardened. His arcane arrow fizzled into the back of the throne, missing Tenegrin’s head by inches. Aefion’s eyes faded into crimson as he felt the hatred of this man building up within him. He could feel Cassandra’s gaze on his back.

’Don’t call me elfling!’ He sprang forwards, rolling through the air to dodge another beam of light, and fired again. A second crystal formed up beside him, its edge dangerously close.

But this time the arrow had flown true.

The staff fell from Tenegrin’s hand, colliding on the floor with a wooden clattering. The arrow had caught the noble fair in the face. Tenegrin issued a wordless gasp of pain before his body slumped lifelessly. There was a slight movement and one of the thugs raised a bulky-looking crossbow to aim at Aefion.

’Don’t even think about it,’ the elf hissed. ‘Unless you also want a nasty shock.’ Aefion’s eyes flashed and locked with the thug’s own. ‘Oh yes, your master lives. But by Loriell’s breasts, the shock hurts.’

The man’s mouth curled into a wicked smile.

‘Die, bitch!’ He rushed towards Cassandra, hatred written on his bulldog features.

‘After you, cur!’ She raised her axe and blocked a blow from the crossbow’s haft, before following through with a swift kick to the man’s groin area. He crumpled, gasping in pain. ‘How do you like that, huh?’

She began to lay into him with the butt of her axe. Each blow produced a terribly audible crack from his body, accompanied by a scream of agony. Her face was a mask, betraying none of the emotions that raged within her.

Aefion rose from his crouch to meet another thug, his next arrow already whizzing through the air. It burst on his left shoulder, throwing him to the ground where he lay, unconscious.

The last thug had his sword drawn but stood motionless, undecided. But as Cassandra strode purposefully towards him and Aefion raised his right vambrace, the thug’s blade fell to the floor with a clang.

‘No! Don’t kill me,’ he squeaked. He dropped to his knees, holding up his hands defensively.

‘How pathetic,’ Aefion spat, leaping into the air. His boot connected with the man’s chin, cracking his head back and sending him sprawling on the floor. With Tenegrin and his cronies dealt with, Cassandra rushed to her father. Kneeling, she wrapped her arms around him, all hardness vanishing from her face.

‘Why,’ she sobbed, ‘why did he have to do this to you?’

‘Cassandra, my daughter,’ Brock said softly, ‘At least I’m alive. I’m glad you’re safe.’ He lifted his head and reached out his hand. Aefion stepped forwards and took Brock’s forearm firmly. ‘Thank you, Aefion of Arileth. Vigilance is in your debt.’

‘No,’ Aefion replied. He shook his head. ‘There is no debt.’

After Brock had been escorted to his quarters, Cassandra, her face distorted with hate and rage, returned her attention to Jasper Tenegrin. Aefion accompanied her. For a moment she studied the unconscious man. He was everything she despised.

She yanked an iron ring from his belt that jangled with numerous keys. Then she paused, before backhanding his face with her fist. There was an audible crack as his jaw broke. It looked to Aefion like she was going to kill the man, but she regained her composure quickly. Turning, she swept down the steps, reaching out as she did so. With a shimmering of blue light the staff lifted from the floor and flew to her hand.

‘Come on, Aefion.’

As Cassandra began releasing the populace from the dungeons, she turned from her beaming subjects and whispered playfully into Aefion’s ear.

‘Can you deal with Tenegrin?’

‘Cassandra…’

‘Give him a choice.’ She shrugged her shoulders. ’I’ll give you something…special.’ She winked slyly. Aefion nodded his understanding.

‘Leave it with me.’

Jasper Tenegrin awoke to the sound of distant cheering. A brief glance around revealed no one in his field of vision. He was not tied or chained down. An evil grin spread across his face as thoughts of escape leapt into his mind. But just when he struggled upright the sound of steel being dragged across stone grated on his senses. Twisting his head around he watched, horrified, as Aefion strode into view, twirling his sword. A knife was clutched in his other hand.

’I’m going to give you a choice,’ the elf said quietly. He lowered the sword and placed the knife on the throne’s arm. ‘Take your own life, or get out. And don’t show your ugly face here again.’ Turning his back on Tenegrin, he walked away.

There was a moment of silence and then Aefion detected the slightest rustling. Instinctively, he ducked to one knee, watching the knife hurtling over his head to clatter harmlessly against the far wall.

‘Killing me wasn’t one of the choices,’ he hissed. In one fluid motion he whirled around and hurled his sword. The weapon spun end over end before slamming point first through Tenegrin’s chest.

Aefion smiled grimly. Cassandra owed him another round.

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