Merchant of Tiqpa 2 Ch10

Locke was uneasy as he waited in the lobby of the palace the next morning for the king. He had collected the heads from several key members of the organization–which were mostly intact thanks to Victoria and the rest choosing to mutilate other parts of the body first–and had written up a report detailing how they had managed to infest the city and outlining some of their broader, overarching goals. The only thing left to do now was to turn everything over to the king, collect his bounty and then be on with his merry life. There was, however, still one problem: what bounty was he supposed to collect?

The king had sent him on this quest as a ‘small favor’ to root out the ‘miscreant faction’ that was terrorizing Witherence, and he had promised that, if Locke removed the filth, then he would let Locke choose between the ingredient needed to make the antidote for Eliza or his daughter’s hand in marriage.

He wasn’t big on the idea of marriage within Tiqpa to begin with. There were more than a few people who had jumped at the idea for one reason or another, but it had never been something that had interested Locke. In fact, the entire concept seemed rather foreign and pointless. To make things even more complicated, he wasn’t exactly keen on the idea of his first marriage being to an NPC, especially one that he had no positive romantic feelings toward. In fact, if she somehow died tomorrow, it would be one of the few times someone’s death might be good news. At least, then he wouldn’t have to deal with the decision facing him.

“You’re not backing out of it,” Eliza said resolutely. She was the only other person who had come with him, and like always, she seemed able to intuit what he was thinking. “If you do, you know what I’ll do anyway.”

Locke wanted to argue with her, but he knew her well enough at this point to know that it would just be a waste of words. Instead, he just sighed and looked down at the floor.

“Now that is no way for a young prince to carry himself,” King Windsor said as soon as Locke’s eyes found a tile to rest on. “You should be looking toward the heavens and your next conquest, not to what you have already won.”

“What I’ve already won?” Locke repeated the king’s words hollowly without looking up. When he finally did, he found the king standing before him in what Locke could only guess was his most formal attire.

“Coy is only an attractive play for certain women, not a soon-to-be prince.” The king’s massive grin split his face as he stared at the bag of heads at Locke’s feet. “I see you brought dinner. Or is that just for you?”

“I only wanted to bring evidence that I am capable of killing for my bride-to-be.” Locke forced a fake smile in order to hide his general ambivalence on the subject and the fact that he was preoccupied with Eliza’s fate.

“Are you certain that it is safe for her to still be here?” the king asked pointedly, looking at Eliza. “Are you not worried she will turn at any time?”

“I’m safer with her around than your daughter,” Locke quipped back.

“Ah, yes, that is a good point. But I trust that if the carrot does not work with my daughter, your stick will adjust her attitude out in no time,” the king replied.

“I’m sure it will,” Locke answered. Then, gesturing to the king’s regalia, he asked, “Did I interrupt you?”

“Not at all. I was just being fitted for the wedding. I take it you are planning to choose my daughter over the cure for your . . . friend.”

“Well, about that . . .” Locke began, stealing a glance at Eliza. “I want both.”

“Both? And what makes you think I will be so generous?” The King raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah, I got to thinking about it,” Locke said, finally showing a little real interest in the conversation. He noticed Eliza’s hand creep back to one of her swords as soon as the words start coming out of his mouth. She watched him with an expression that was a barely-contained mixture of horror and astonishment, clearly not happy that he was going to push to get what he wanted.

He understood her point of view. She was trying to ensure a relationship between the StormGuard Alliance and the people of Witherance that could, once cemented, prevent bloodshed and save lives. It was an alliance between two political entities that was already well on the way to rapidly improving the StormGuard Alliance’s strategic position in this area. Yet, Locke’s insistence on saving Eliza could very well undo the work that had already been done and put them back at the starting line.

“I got to thinking about it,” he repeated as he pressed on despite Eliza’s dreadful expression, “and I couldn’t get over how quickly you were willing to throw your daughter at a stranger. Even if I did have a title, there are plenty of other worthwhile suitors in the area of means and wealth. That’s when I realized exactly what you’re after, how little control you actually have, and how much you need me to solidify your legacy. You want me, an outsider, to hold the merchants under the crown’s royal thumb so that you can regain control of the city you’ve slowly let slip through your fingers. That’s why you’re going to have me marry your daughter: so that our interests will be united. You’re hoping to attain all of this for free and without the fear of me using them against you in the future.”

“And here I was waiting for you to disappoint me like that spoiled brat of mine,” the king said, clearly impressed.

“I’m going to assume that I’m not too far off the mark,” Locke continued. “Your desire for me to let Eliza die stems solely from the fact that you want me to sever as many ties as possible with the StormGuard Alliance. That way, I’m only beholden to you in the future, not them. She’s clearly their representative with me, and you need her out of the picture because she’s a threat to your plans. You think her being so close to me, and a friend, might cause her to pit me against you in the future, so you want me to isolate myself by choosing to let her die.”

Despite feeling self-assured in his conclusions, Locke felt like a villain at the end of the movie as he carried on with the amount of information he was dropping. Normally, he preferred to keep what he knew to himself–unless it suited him otherwise. Now, however, he knew that the king might still try and leverage him into the same position if he didn’t spell everything out in as obvious a manner as possible. Forcing the king’s hand and showing that he knew what cards he was holding was the only way Locke was going to properly secure the deal he wanted.

“However, I’m going to throw the deal back at you: I’ll either marry your daughter, join your family and help you secure your throne, or I’ll finish what the filth you had me remove started. The choice is yours, but understand that saving Eliza isn’t part of the bargain. I’m going to have her cured either way, and I don’t want just enough for her. I want seeds to guarantee that the same poison can’t be used against me in the future. If you want to secure your legacy, then I’ll help you–but only if you help my friend. She’s very useful to me.”

“Hmmm . . . merchants. Always wanting to renegotiate finished deals. I cannot tell if your constant need for better terms will be a good or bad thing for our people when I die, but at least you will not be as stiff and foolish as the first suitor of Margaret’s I had to kill off.” The king’s previously-joyful expression had faded as Locke laid out what he wanted, and now he wore a lopsided frown that was halfway between amused and mischievous. “Alright,” the king said. “Your points are valid, but if you want more, then so do I.”

“What do you have in mind?” Locke leaned back in his chair as he waited for the king’s response.

“As you said, I want to ensure my legacy and keep you closer to us than to them.” The king gave Eliza a passing glance before looking back at Locke. “Margaret’s affections for you are clearly negative, and your bloodthirsty venture through Witherence has not improved her disposition since your last visit,” the king continued. “If you can somehow tame the shrew and sire something of value before the end of the year, I will give you what you want.”

Locke took a moment to consider what the king was implying and then said, “That’ll take too long. Eliza doesn’t have that much time.”

“So you are not opposed to the idea?” The king tilted his head back so that Locke found himself looking into the king’s protruding chin rather than his eyes. “That is good enough for me. Then we have a deal.”

“But it will take too long to prove.” Locke repeated his concern. There were also other concerns that had to be addressed as well–Locke wasn’t even sure those type of relations would be allowed between player and an NPC–but this issue was the most pressing. If he didn’t have the time to meet the king’s terms, the rest wouldn’t matter anyway. “She doesn’t have the months required.”

“You are worrying about small details. Just start the process, and I will know. I will know, and I will reward you with the flowers needed to produce her cure. Finish the process, and I will give you the seeds her alliance so desperately wants so they do not have to be dependent on us.” He looked at Eliza. “What? Did you think that I was unaware of the reason your armies have yet to stamp down our doors and murder us where we stand? I may not retain the same power I once did, but I still have just as much knowledge.”

“I think that sounds reasonable enough,” Locke said, extending his hand. The logistics can be worked out later. This at least ensures Eliza has a chance to live.

“Good. I am glad you agree. We have the wedding set up and the papers drawn in the main part of the palace.” The king snapped his fingers, drawing the attention of two servants who came quickly carrying robes. “Change and follow them to the main event.”

“What, not even a practice rehearsal first?” Locke looked at the robes uncomfortably as he took them from the servants.

“It is sometimes best to remove the pretense, lest something goes wrong with the frolicking. Your bride has already invited too many loose ends to the occasion, but I suppose weddings need witnesses.” The king extended a hand in the air, as if waving goodbye, while he walked off. “Chop-chop. The priest gets paid by the hour.”

There are priests in the center of a Hellspawn town? Locke looked down at the robes again. “Do I get any privacy while I change?” he asked one of the servants, sparing Eliza a glance.

“Change, my lord? It is customary to wear the robes over your outfit, my lord. It should be fine,” one of the servants answered.

“Shy,” Eliza said as Locke shifted around under the garments, trying to straighten them out as they caught on his existing clothes going down. “I . . . I’m sorry I doubted you.”

“Doubted me?” Locke didn’t want this to be more emotional than it needed to be, but there was something he had to say. “No, you weren’t wrong to doubt me. I would have picked saving you over her if I could have.”

“Shy . . .” Eliza repeated his name for the second time but didn’t say anything else.

Locke wished he could have a good look at her face just so that he might be able to glean some glimmer of understanding into what was behind the tone in which she replied, but the robes were proving to be more troublesome to put on than he had anticipated. For monkish clothes, they were tighter in some areas than a new pair of skinny jeans on a girl. How do people even get these on? He tugged on the red, gold and white folds of cloth as he attempted to maneuver them into a properly-fitting position. How am I even going get them off when this is over with?

“My lord, if you can’t . . . Would you like our assistance, my lord?” one of the two servants offered.

“No, no, I got it,” Locke answered, hoping it was true as he pulled hard and prayed the fabric wouldn’t rip. “There!” He congratulated himself as the abusive struggle came to an end, and his overpowering didn’t result in any unwanted tears. “All good. Now, let’s get to my wedding.” Will this impact my real life dating at all? Locke wondered as he followed the two servants. I wonder if my friendly neighborhood Ash is watching . . . Is she going to explain to me how the . . . mechanic . . .  for creating heirs works between players and NPCs in Tiqpa? One thought after another flew through his mind, closely followed by a couple dozen more, as the four walked silently from one hallway the next. Finally, they arrived in a cathedral-sized room lined with pews and all the markings of a wedding.

Margaret stood waiting for him at the end of the aisle, and with despite the distance separating the two, Locke was able to catch the glare she shot him as he stepped into the room, reminding him just how much his lovely bride-to-be hated him. Victoria was standing on Margaret’s left along with two other Imps that Locke guessed, given the resemblance they shared with Margaret, were either her sisters or close relatives.

“I’m surprised you didn’t invite the goat,” Eliza said quietly as she took in the scene. “You’ll need a best man.”

“You mind filling in for him? We didn’t expect the ceremony to be so soon, so he took the morning off to study. He’s got a big test next week.” Locke answered.

“Fair enough,” Eliza answered, excusing herself ahead of Locke and walking down the aisle to the where the best man would normally stand.

Isn’t the bride the one who is supposed to make this awkward, last-minute walkthrough? He followed after Eliza a moment later, and he could feel everyone’s gaze on him with every step he took. The hall was packed with everyone but people Locke liked and knew. He recognized many of the people in attendance from the party the other night and some of them from Victoria’s mercenary crew, and there in the front row sat the king, smiling his usual wicked grin. The grin that lets you know he’s planning something, Locke thought as he walked down the aisle.

When he reached the altar, where the priest and Margaret were waiting, the king made sure to stop them before anything went any further. “Have them sign the papers first before the proceedings,” he ordered the priest. Like a good and proper servant, the man produced a marriage contract with Margaret’s name already signed.

Well, aren’t we prepared. What’s with this ridiculous rush? Locke smiled awkwardly as he wrote his name down on the paper. There goes my bachelorhood in Tiqpa. He sighed with the final stroke of the pen and looked back up to be greeted by a sympathetic look from Margaret.

“Not super excited about this either?” Margaret asked him in a hushed tone, not loud enough for the king sitting on the front pew to hear.

“I imagine few people are ever enthusiastic about political marriages,” Locke said. “But we do what we must for our country.”

“Well, at least there is honor in that,” Margaret said, and Locke noticed that she had grabbed Victoria’s hand at some point during the brief exchange of words.

“It’ll be fine,” Locke assured her. “We’ll make the most of this and both be better off for it. As for my part in things, I’m really sorry about the way we were introduced. And for putting you in this situation.”

“No, don’t be. I should be thankful that you saved Victoria and her family . . . and all the other prisoners. You’ve done this city a great service. I’m just . . .” Margaret’s expression faded back into a depressed frown. “I’m just as happy to be here as you are.”

Which means not at all, but you’re making due with what you have to, Locke interpreted the last line. “We’ll be fine, Margaret. We’ll be fine,” he said reassuringly, reaching across and grabbing her free hand before looking at the priest. “If you don’t mind, let’s finish this up.”

“That is the spirit!” the king cheered from the pews. “Let us finish this in time for tea!”

Wow, he really is pushing for this to be quick, Locke thought, looking around at the room. Something isn’t right. Why is he so impatient? Locke searched for any clue that might give away what was making the king so anxious. The palm of his free hand itched, and Locke unconsciously let it drift back a bit so that he would be ready to grab a weapon. His heartbeat picked up tempo, and he felt a nervousness worm its way into his gut.

“Hey, we might not like it, but we’re in this together now whether we like it or not.” Margaret misinterpreted his actions as the nervous fidgeting of a man standing at an alter. “Let’s make the best of it, husband,” she added punctuating the last word with a mix of hostility and sarcasm at the same time.

“Yeah, of course,” Locke said.

The rest of the ceremony went down exactly as he would have expected. There was an awkward moment and a shuffling of feet when the priest said ‘You must kiss the bride’ instead of ‘You may kiss the bride,’ and Locke found himself making out with an NPC, which, to his surprised, felt exactly as if it were a person in real life.

Given the massive amount of detail and perfection that went into the creation and manifestation of the Tiqpa universe, he didn’t know why he had expected anything different. There was another awkward shuffle after the long and drab reading of marriage rights, and they were re-introduced as Mr. and Mrs. Chicken Plucker, the Crown Prince and Princess of Witherence.

Then it was over. Locke stood rooted in the same place holding Margaret’s hand, his eyes searching the room for some sign of a potential threat. It seemed like the whole event was going to prove uneventful, and Locke’s concerns began shifting focus onto other matters. What happens next? ‘Cause, you know, this is a game, and I don’t know her, but I still need Eliza’s cure.

The king stood up and snapped his fingers. “Reception, people. I have foreign dignitaries coming in soon, and this wedding reception will be the perfect mask.” He pointed from left to right, signaling for his guards to usher everyone into the reception room. One by one, the king’s soldiers left as the rest of the crowd mingled. After assigning orders to the rest of his household staff, he came up to greet Locke and Margaret, both of whom were just silently watching the shifting bodies in the room, hands still held from the ceremony.

“So it seems I have a new son sooner than I expected.” The king smiled as he put one of his giant hands on Locke’s shoulder. “If I had waited for her to choose a decent political match, I would be dead before she figured out how to say ‘Yes,’ much less ‘I do.’”

Wait, does that mean I have to call him Dad now? Locke fumbled around for a moment as he chose his words. “Well, I must say I didn’t expect things to happen so quickly. Was there–” Locke began to ask why there had been such a rush when he felt Margaret squeeze his hand and turned his attention over to his bride. “What? What’s wrong?” he asked as Margaret’s eyes bulged, watering and red.

“Shy! Back up!” Eliza grabbed Locke’s shoulder and forcibly yanked him away from his new bride.

Margaret’s face squirmed into a pained expression, and blood started to dribble out of her mouth. “Wah . . .” Margaret gagged and stumbled around to face Victoria. “W-why?” She barely managed to get the full word out before crumpling up and falling to the floor at Victoria’s feet, clutching onto the other woman’s robes tightly.

There was a scream from the pews, and Locke heard the sound of panicked footsteps as dozens of wedding attendees poured out of the room and into the halls.

Victoria stood over Margaret, clutching a bloodied dagger in one hand and laughing. She kicked Margaret in the face, and the dying woman rolled across the floor away from her. “Because, as entertaining as you were to use,” she screamed, “I cannot allow your marriage to become the cornerstone of an alliance that will undo everything I’ve fought so hard these last few months to accomplish.”

“You fought these last few months? But weren’t you a prisoner?” Locke and Eliza stepped away from the psychotic woman, ushering the king with them. Even in his shocked state, Locke quickly and quietly used the Tiqpa messaging system to send a message to everyone in the Blue Phoenix Brigade for help.

“Prisoner? You mean my father: he was the prisoner. I made sure he was one of the first they locked up, the disgrace. He didn’t know it was me, but he should have. How could a merchant whose very livelihood depended on independence and freedom bow and kowtow to a crown that seeks to oppress every shred of dignity and honor our people hold dear?!” Victoria spat on the ground next to her. “To think that my own father would betray his people and side with the crown, night after night spreading his propaganda like the craven fool he was!”

The king, for his part, chuckled as he stared down at his fallen daughter. “And here I thought I would never find a use for you, dear Margie,” he said blew her a kiss. “I am sorry, son,” he said turning to Locke and stressing the last word, “but I will be leaving. My men are setting up a reception, and as I mentioned earlier, I have foreign dignitaries to attend to.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” Victoria barked as she raised her dagger and pointed it at the king, who was already walking down the aisle and out of the room. “Lieutenant! Kill this man where he stands! Don’t let him reach his guards!”

“Yes, Captain!” her right-hand man said, pulling out a sword and charging the king. He didn’t make it within five feet of his target before the towering monarch turned to face him, a smile plastered across his face. The king’s hand moved so quickly that Locke barely saw the dagger that flew out and struck his assailant right between the eyes, killing him instantly.

King Windsor didn’t even slow down his walk as he casually exited the room, Victoria’s crew, Locke, and Eliza all left watching after him in shock.

“It seems I’ll have to just settle for you,” Victoria said, wiping the blood from her blade onto her robes.

“Why did you kill your friend?” Locke asked, still backing up toward one of the palace chapel’s side doors.

“Friend?” Victoria laughed and stepped forward to kick Margaret’s body again. “You mean this tool of mine? This scum from nobility? How could I ever be friends with one of her kind? She represents the chains that bind and oppress generation after generation of my people, and you expect me to be friends with her?” Victoria’s sinister cackle grated on Locke’s ears.

“She trusted you.” Locke just couldn’t understand how Victoria could betray someone so coldly. “You did this to her? You locked your father up? How can you speak of honor after all that you’ve done?”

“I did what had to be done for the cause, and since we can’t kill the king . . .” She scowled at her lieutenant’s dead body. “We’ll have to settle for the prince. With you dead, there will be one less weapon against us!” she shouted, raising her knife before rushing toward Locke and bringing her dagger around in a swift stabbing motion.

Locke was much less mobile than usual thanks to the ridiculous robes he had on for the ceremony, and though he tried to jump out of the way, he wasn’t going to be fast enough to dodge the attack.

Eliza unsheathed one of her swords and sliced off Victoria’s arm in the same movement, stopping the dagger inches before it struck Locke in the chest. Then, in one fluid and quick motion, she reversed her grip on the blade and beheaded Victoria.

“Get out. I’ll pr–” Eliza’s eyes squeezed shut and her hands shot up to hold her head. “I’ll . . .” She tried to speak again, but couldn’t. She was having trouble holding onto her blade, and she buried her face in her arms.

She killed someone! Locke realized what was going on. “Eliza, fight it. You have to fight it. We’ll get the medicine, just . . . just stay in control!” Locke grabbed Eliza’s shoulders. He instinctively wanted to hug her, to comfort her in hope that it might help, but the sword between them let him know that it would probably prick more than a cactus.

“Shy. Shy . . . I . . . I need to . . . I need to . . . It’s . . . I . . . ” Eliza began mumbling incoherently as the poison took its full effect.

“Fight it!” Locke urged. He grasped her shoulders more tightly, but it didn’t seem to have any effect on her at all. This was just one kill. This was just one, single kill, and it’s this bad. Locke scowled as he tried to figure out what to do. I need to get that flower as quickly as possible and make her the antidote.

He was so busy focusing on Eliza, trying to calm her down, that he had forgotten about everyone who was left in the room. He didn’t even notice them until they burst into a frenzy as they charged him.

“For the Captain!” one of them yelled as he moved closer, pulling out a blade he had hidden under his robe.

“For Victoria!” another shouted and charged.

In all, there were over a dozen members from Victoria’s outfit left in the hall, and every single one of them appeared to have produced a weapon. They jumped over pews and streamed down the aisles toward Locke and Eliza, who stood near the altar, Victoria and Margaret bloody and dead at their feet.

“I’ll get this,” Locke said. “Just try not to kill anyone.”

He turned to face the group and didn’t hesitate as he pulled out a handful of poisons from his inventory and tossed them in the center aisle. Normally, he would have to rely on one of the other members of the group to set them aflame, but without anyone present, he was going to have to rely on the next best thing. He grabbed one of the large, ornate candelabra that had been set up next to the altar and heaved it onto the shattered poison. The flames instantly reacted with the combustible liquid and erupted to life with a small explosion. The three men closest, unprotected and unprepared for such an attack, were caught in the blast. The man in front suffered the brunt of the attack, and he was thrown backward several feet, where he collapsed into an unconscious heap, covered head-to-toe in flame. The other two men fared better than the first, but their fates were going to be the same. Both men were initially forced to their knees by the attack, and though they tried to beat out the fires that covered their bodies, Locke knew that the poison would do its job and eventually win out.

He then turned to another Imp approaching from the right and activated Holy Finger of the Sun God. The beam of light shot across the short distance and seared a hole directly through the man’s chest, and even before the dead Imp hit the ground, Locke had pulled out his own weapon, the two-handed maul Sloth Slayer, and braced for the next two. Despite having a fairly keen sense of battle awareness, however, he had no idea what to expect from here on out. He had been quick to react with his most powerful skills early on, but now that he had used those tricks, he doubted that they would work a second time. Several of these men had seen him in battle before, and most knew what to expect.

The first Imp to reach him came from the right, thrusting his blade forward in a linear fashion, and Locke responded by clumsily hefting his maul in front him of him and attempting to parry the attack away from him in an upward fashion.  No sooner had Locke done so, however, than the Imp pulled his sword back and changed tactics. Rather than attacking Locke directly with his weapon, the Imp grabbed ahold of Locke’s maul with both hands and latched on. Locke’s feeble attempt to deflect the Imp’s blade had no impetus behind it, and the Imp was easily able to grab a firm hold and prevent Locke from controlling his own weapon. Locke struggled to free his maul from the Imp’s grasp, but the slightly smaller man had a strong grip and refused to let go. Then the second Imp arrived, thrusting his sword forward in an attempt to catch Locke off guard while was occupied with the other man.

“Crap!” Locke screamed when he saw the second blade coming straight toward his chest with pinpoint precision. Locke watched the sword creep closer in slow motion as if he was nothing more than a helpless passenger in a car watching a traffic accident unfold. I’m gonna die. The deadly point came closer and closer to piercing his chest, and time seemed to grind to a halt–right up until the moment another blade flashed in front of his vision and parried the attack. The sword was already too close to miss entirely, but rather than impaling him through his heart, it bounced away to knick his shoulder instead.  His vision flashed red with a brief bit of pain and lost two percent of his health, but that was nothing compared to a killing blow.

“I’ve got you, Shy!” Eliza landed a solid kick into the Imp’s gut before he could recover his balance and immediately launched herself into a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree spin, landing a roundhouse kick that connected squared into the other Imp’s jaw. Unable to hold onto the maul any longer, the Imp crumpled to the door.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen her use anything but her blades. Locke took a brief moment to appreciate the finesse of her movement, happy that she hadn’t stabbed either of them and made her condition worse.

“Eliza,” Locke insisted. “You know my kind is immortal. Just get out of here. I’ll figure something out.” He grabbed her arm and pushed her toward back toward the altar and the nearest exit, hoping she would take the hint before something worse happened. There were still at least nine other men in the room with them that Locke could count, and they were all making their way to them. Locke was able to fully appreciate just how large the chapel was in order to allow them a momentary lapse in the fight, but, eventually, they would be forced into a fight one way or another.

As if on cue, another man with a blade barrelled down on the duo and tried to stab at Locke, once again using the same opening attack as the previous two.

It’s always the same thrust! Locke was annoyed, more so by the fact that he didn’t have enough time to convince Eliza to leave. Rather than using the head of his maul as he had before, he caught the blade using the haft and turned it to the side. Then, taking a tip from Eliza, he brought his knee up and caught the man in the gut before he could slow his momentum. Without hesitation, Locke brought the Sloth Slayer around and lifted it up above his head, much like a lumberjack would while chopping wood with an axe, and slammed it down. There was a sickening sound of bone crunching as the man’s head caved in, and he fell to the ground dead.

Locke was so pleased with himself and the quick, clean kill that he failed to notice that the man Eliza had first kicked, the one who had successfully knicked him, was back on his feet and coming in for another attack. Eliza tried to repeat her same maneuver, but the man had apparently learned from his former folly. He caught her foot mid-kick and shoved her backward, pushing her off balance, and stepped closer to Locke in an attempt to stab him again. Locke turned to dodge, but he was too slow. The blade sank into his right arm, pulling off over 30% of his health and causing another small tick when he pressed his blade harder into the stab wound.

“Ahhh!” Locke couldn’t stop himself from screaming out in pain as the soldier twisted the blade, pulling off another 4% of his health. Locke stumbled backward awkwardly, trying to get away from the pressing blade. Off balance as he was, however, he quickly lost his footing and tumbled over backward, landing squarely next to his now-dead wife.

“Let’s kill this bastard for Victoria!” the man shouted, moving in for another attack. It was clear that the man was going to press his advantage for all it was worth, and he showed no signs of relenting.

Locke scrambled as he tried to push himself up off the ground. He knew he was going to take another series of blows before he could, but getting back to his feet was the only option he had. If he stayed down, he was dead no matter what. He could hear a cacophony of noise as boots crashed against the hardwood pews and carpeted floors as more and more men rushed closer, and he knew that the remaining cluster of enemies was going to be on them any second.

Then the noise changed. The harsh sounds of approaching men were replaced with a raucous din of slashing, gurgling, screams, and the unmistakeable sound of blood splattering as men died.

Locke quickly scrambled to his feet to see what was happening. In the time it had taken for Locke to stand back up and turn around, they had all been killed. Eliza had foregone his warning to not kill, to escape the palace and leave him to figure things out, and instead slaughtered every single one of them.

“Eliza!” Locke called out to her, but as she turned to face him, pulling her twin blades out of her last victim, Locke knew that she wasn’t Eliza anymore. Her eyes twitched, and her hands shook, and he could see the visible struggle for her to regain her senses. “Eliza, it’s me. It’s Shy. You have to calm down now. We’ll get you the medicine. Everything will be okay.” He held up both hands in an attempt to show as little aggression as possible. “We’re gonna be okay,” he said, repeating it slowly as he edged closer to her.

“Shy . . .” she said as she met eyes with him. “Run . . . I . . . I can’t stop it.” She trembled, her red-rimmed eyes cringing closed. “Get out of here,” she pleaded desperately.

“I’m not going to leave you. Everything is going to be okay.” Locke took another step toward her. Please let this glitch-thing where something horrible might happen if I die just be Ash trying to mess with me. He swallowed hard as he watched her knuckles whiten as she gripped her swords tighter.

“Shy! Came as quickly as we could!” Reginald shouted as he burst through the door with the rest of the Blue Phoenix Brigade in tow. “What’s going on–” He couldn’t finish his sentence before Eliza had cleared the distance between them and lunged blades-first straight at him. It looked at first like Reginald would be skewered just as quickly as the other guards had been, but just before the blades made contact with him, his yellow shield spell made its presence known, lighting up and thwarting her attack momentarily.

Her sharp edges went in for another blow, this time shattering the shield and nearly striking Reginald. Sparky’s interference was the only thing that saved the Satyr, her shield rapidly moving to deflect the swords a split second before they struck.

“What the heck?” Reginald stammered and stepped back, dazed by the sudden attack.

“She’s lost it! The poison must have taken effect. Everyone, subdue her!” Tubal shouted from behind them. He pulled back the string on his bow and fired off a rapid succession of arrows. Just as fast as he could shoot them, however, they were just as quickly parried. Eliza’s swords flew back and forth in front of her like she was a madman swatting flies, knocking the shots away. It wasn’t a complete failure, though, for as long as Tubal was firing arrows, Eliza was busy swatting them out of the air and not pressing forward for another strike.

While Tubal kept Eliza locked down, Sparky took advantage of the pause and slammed herself shield-first into Eliza. The Demon fighter danced back gracefully just before the blow landed and launched herself into the air. She kicked out at Sparky’s shield and allowed the Dragon-Knight to simply throw her back without causing any real damage. Eliza flipped over in a backward somersault, her feet finding purchase on the back of a pew, and springboarded back toward Reginald again.

“Why is she going after me?” Reginald complained, scrambling back as he tried to get out of the way of her attack.

Once more, Sparky blocked intercepted Eliza’s attack, this time fighting with both sword and shield as she worked her way between the goat and demon. Tubal’s arrows began whizzing toward Eliza again, and the Demoness changed her attack pattern in order to avoid them. It was unlikely she was going to be able to parry both the arrows and Sparky’s sword at the same time, so she did the next best thing: she shifted her stance and strafed to the side, placing Sparky directly between herself and the archer. The was no way for Tubal to safely aim around his sister and still hit his target, so he was forced to halt his attacks in order to avoid striking her.

Sampson, who had lumbered in after them, came out swinging with her own two-handed axe ablaze. “Go to sleep!” she yelled as she slammed her weapon downward toward Eliza. Eliza didn’t just parry the attack, but somehow found a way to use it to her advantage. She crossed her swords and caught the shaft of the downward-swinging axe then forced it to the side. The force behind Sampson’s swing forced her to carry through with the movement, and her axed crashed into Sparky’s shield, knocking the Dragon-Wing back. The deftly-executed maneuver also left Sampson exposed with her axe against the floor, unable to pull it up in time to block an attack.

Katherine and Bianca pushed into the room after Sampson, immediately taking advantage of the high ceilings and swooping into the air before beginning their whip attacks on Eliza.

With Eliza occupied with Sampson, Sparky crouched down into a defensive posture with her shield up and gave her brother a clear line of sight, allowing a few arrows to snipe through and nag at Eliza’s furious assault.

Eliza, however occupied as she was, was prepared for the arrows. Some mysterious sixth sense or a battle-hardened level of awareness allowed her to react in time. She turned herself to the side, presumably in order to present as small of a target as possible, and danced away from Sampson to the side again. Sampson’s axe swung around into the space she had only just occupied, and several of the arrows buzzed past, finding only empty air. Eliza angled herself so that she was able to deflect a quick stab from Sparky’s blade using the sword in her left hand, then reversed the sword and slapped an arrow out of the air before it could reach her. She twisted herself around as she came to a halt, bringing her right-handed sword across her body, and stabbed the blade into Reginald’s left arm, then his left shoulder, and then stomach in a rapid succession of unblocked jabs.

Reginald let out a muffled yell through clenched teeth and grabbed Eliza’s blade during her third strike, catching it and holding it in his stomach. “It’s always freaking me,” Reginald grumbled. He desperately tried to maintain his grasp on the blade, but his struggle didn’t last long. Eliza stopped blocking Tubal’s arrows for a moment, a long enough opening for her to catch a dart in her left arm, but the break in her defense wasn’t without purpose. She slammed her other sword down into Reginald’s wrist where he gripped her blade, slicing cleanly through and removing the Satyr’s hand.

As soon as Reginald unwillingly relinquished control, she wrenched her sword free from his gut and immediately swatted away the arrows coming her way. She then rolled back away from the group and sliced off the shaft of the arrow protruding from her arm. The arrow point was still lodged in her arm, but breaking off the excess allowed her to move about freely without her movement being restricted.

“Reg Reg!” Sparky shouted, and her voice was filled with hurt and anger. She rose up from her crouch and charged shield-first at Eliza.

The Demoness was in the midst of dodging Bianca and Katherine’s whips as they snapped down at her from above. The two almost-identical Succubi were well versed in this type of combat. It was their go-to move during almost any combat situation, and it was clear that they were trying to entangle her and pull her into the air like they did with most opponents. The way Eliza fluidly shifted between their attacks like a splash of water rolling about in a glass, however, made it impossible for them to land a single attack.

Locke dragged his eyes away from the skirmish that had held him captivated. It dawned on him that he hadn’t been able to make a single move the entire time, despite watching the entire fight unfold, and he felt almost helpless to do anything. He desperately wanted to help, to subdue Eliza so that she could be saved, but he was almost afraid of getting in the way. He had been fairly successful in hand-to-hand combat over the past week, but he also knew that everyone present was at a level above him when it came to fighting with armed weapons. He was far from proficient at wielding his two-handed maul, and he had this sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that told him it would be a mistake if he tried to force his way into the fight.

Instead, he turned his attention to Reginald and rushed around the fight and over to where the Satyr was bleeding out on the floor. He popped open a few health potions and began pouring their jolly red goodness down the goat’s throat one after another. “How close was it?” Locke asked as Reginald finished chugging the last one and his severed arm regrew.

“I had less than five percent left,” Reginald said as he looked at his regrown hand. “I don’t usually give dating advice, but your damn girlfriend is crazy.”

Locke’s initial response was to deny that she was his girlfriend, but he knew that it would just be a waste of time trying to argue the point at the moment. He turned back to the fight to see how the struggle to subdue Eliza was going. It took a moment for him to parse it all out, but he was quickly able to surmise what had happened while he was tending to Reginald. Eliza had, somehow, managed to throw her sword like it was a javelin and spear Katherine through the chest before Sparky reached her. The Dragon-Knight must have slammed into Eliza because the two were both tangled up in a heap in a shattered pews.

With Sparky on top of Eliza, it seemed like the fight would finally be over. Unwilling to give up the fight, however, the crazed Demoness shifted her weight, bucked her hips and sent Sparky rolling off her.

Thanks to her target being pinned on the ground between two pews, Bianca’s next attack finally landed as intended. Her whip snapped closed around Eliza’s hand, and she was yanked up into the air by the Succubus. With one of her swords gone and the whip securely wrapped around the hand holding her remaining sword, it once again seemed like the fight might be over. When Eliza dropped her only remaining weapon, Locke to let out a sigh of relief.

Unfortunately, his hopes weren’t realized. Eliza may have been stuck dangling from the end of a whip, but she wasn’t going to remain there for long. She rocked her legs back and forth like a pendulum as she gained momentum and then pulled herself up in a powerful jerk using her ensnared wrist. Her free hand latched ahold of the whip, and she quickly began to pull herself up.

Each and every tug brought Eliza closer to Bianca and simultaneously jerked the Succubi farther down out of the air. Tubal attempted a few tentative shots, but Eliza’s movements were too erratic, and the archer was probably afraid of striking his own comrade as the two women bobbed up and down in the air. Finally, when Eliza reached the end of the cord, she used her final tug to twist her body around and land a kick squarely across Bianca’s jaw. The blow was hard enough to daze Bianca long enough for her to drop the whip and send Eliza, with the whip still tangled around her wrist, falling to the floor.

Sampson rushed over and caught Eliza in a princess-carry before she landed spine first on the top edge of a pew. Eliza showed her gratitude by using her free hand to land a perfectly-placed blow on Sampson’s chin. Luckily for Sampson, since Eliza was being carried and didn’t have a foot on the ground to channel any force into the punch, it didn’t seem to hurt that much. When Eliza quickly repeated the action three more times, however, Sampson panicked and dropped the unrelenting woman just as Bianca had moments before.

Sampson automatically reached for her chin to wipe away the blood, and Eliza seized the opportunity. She sprang to her feet and snaked around behind the burly Minotaur, shedding Bianca’s whip as she went. As soon as she was within arm’s reach, Eliza grabbed ahold of the two-handed axe Sampson had strapped to her back and jerked it free. She hefted the weapon with both hands and swung it in a horizontal cleave aimed at Sampson’s exposed back.

Sparky launched herself forward and pushed off as hard as she could, using her wings to propel herself forward. She rocketed into Eliza and took the blow meant for Sampson’s back on her shield instead, sending her skidding off to the side momentarily until she adjusted and got back up.

This isn’t good, Locke thought as he rushed over to Katherine and fed her a health potion, hoping to get her back in the fight as quickly as possible.

“Shy, do something!” Tubal blurted out. “Sampson has no axe, Bianca has no whip, and my arrows aren’t landing! If you don’t do something besides medic duty, this ain’t going to end well!”

And if it doesn’t end well, she might never recover again. Locke panicked. He quickly pulled out an Icy Touch in one hand and his own whip, Time’s Grip, in the other. He tried throwing the Icy Touch on Eliza, but she darted away before it was even close to her. The Demoness flipped away like a rogue gymnast hyped up on energy drinks, automatically bringing up Sampson’s axe and blocking two more of Tubal’s arrows with the flat of the blade as soon as she landed. She bounced between pews and the floor with equal grace, never seeming to fully touch down in one spot before twirling away to another.

Sparky followed after her like a mad dog, and Locke tossed another Icy Touch at Eliza, causing her to continue her acrobatic jumps.

I don’t have an infinite number of these, Locke grumbled as he closed the distance with the bouncing woman, throwing a third Icy Touch at her.

Bianca, having recovered but lacking a whip, managed to impress everyone as she predicted Eliza’s landing spot. The Succubi sprinted forward and body checked the Demoness into a wall, allowing Locke’s fourth Icy touch to hit them both. Bianca fell backward off of Eliza, covered in the black shade of Icy Touch, and slouched onto the ground, revealing that Eliza had planted Sampson’s axe right into her chest upon impact. The unstoppable Demon pushed herself off from the wall, and Locke could see a bright, crimson gash on her chest that mirrored the one on Bianca’s. Eliza planted her foot on Bianca’s stomach and wrenched the weapon free.

As Sparky arrived moments later, Eliza’s laggard movement was evident. Icy Touch, now rank 13 thanks to his and his trusty Golem’s hard work, slowed Eliza down enough for Sparky to pen her in. The Dragon-Wing had plenty of time to maneuver her shield around and block incoming attacks while keeping Eliza’s back against the wall.

Reginald, who hadn’t been seen since being stabbed at the beginning of the fight, pulled out his milk cannon and began assisting his girlfriend with a wave of white goo. Eliza tried to dodge it at first, sliding sideways along the wall and trying to angle it so that the spray would hit Sparky instead of her, but Reginald aimed higher and arched the stream so that both women were covered with the sticky substance. with the penalty.

The sugary substance started to work its magic, and Eliza and Sparky both began to gain weight noticeably as Reginald continued the downpour. Unfortunately, the snare was having a far greater impact on Sparky than Eliza, and by the time Locke cleared the distance to the other side of the chapel where the two were battling it out against the wall, it was evident that Sparky was fighting a losing battle.

When Locke got close enough, Time’s Grip in hand and one of the small, obsidian-colored, heat-seeking ear daggers he had looted in the other, Tubal signaled Sparky with a yell. “Switch out!” he shouted, and his sister bounced backward as fast as she could under the effects of Santa’s Sweets. With Eliza’s slow speed, Tubal was able to finally land another arrow into Eliza’s right shoulder, and it had just enough stopping power to slow her down so Locke’s next attack could work.

Locke threaded the dagger through the final link on the end of the chain, and rather than trying and failing to hit a quick target with Time’s Grip after experiencing just how bad his aim with the weapon was, he threw the dagger that didn’t miss instead. It carried the end of the chain smoothly right into Eliza’s leg, and as it struck, Time’s Grip wrapped around Eliza’s calves and robbed her of her balance, causing her to fall flat on her back.

“Eliza!” Locke cried out in panic as he watched her slam into the ground. He wanted to run to her, to comfort her, and cure her. He knew full well what she had just been put through: she had been struck by two arrows, slammed into multiple times, had her chest slashed open in the same fashion that had killed Bianca, and now she was entangled in a life-draining chain. Yet, despite all that, he hesitated. He had seen how quickly she had taken any act of charity, such as Sampson’s catching her, as an opportunity to kill her good samaritan, and she still had two working arms, even if she was injured.

“Quick, get a whip to bind her top half!” Locke shouted. Eliza twisted her body and kicked her bound legs, trying to break free of the chain. In her fit of rage, she even struck at it with Sampson’s axe trying to extricate herself.

“Don’t die on me,” Locke pleaded as he watched her writhe on the ground, the knife in her leg likely not helping at all. “Eliza, please snap out of it.”

After struggling for a few minutes, Eliza stopped. She blinked numerous times as if she were trying to adjust her focus after a long nap and a bit of clarity seemed to return to them. She stared up at Locke as if seeing him for the first time in a long while, and he couldn’t even begin to read the myriad of emotions as they flickered through her gaze one after another.

“Shy . . .” she croaked out the single name, her voice broken and harsh. “Please . . . “ She took several shallow breaths and swallowed hard, a pained expression crossing her face as if that simple action caused her pain. “Just let me die. End this before I lose it again . . . I’m . . . . I don’t want to go back to that place in my head  . . . that place where I’m forced to watch my body hurt innocent people . . . people who have done nothing wrong, people I care about . . .”

“I say don’t do it,” Reginald replied hastily. “But keep her tied up. If she goes crazy again, I don’t think we can restrain her a second time.”

“Yeah, Shy, I’m with Reginald on this one,” Tubal said as he came up beside Reginald, the goat slowly shuffling away to put distance between the two without jumping fast enough to make his move obvious.

“Shy, please . . . ” Eliza begged, her voice almost a whisper as she struggled against the chain. “Please, trust me. I’m okay with this. I can’t risk someone else being hurt because of me . . .”

“Give me a few health potions,” Sparky demanded in a voice that belied her real life nature rather than the overly-masculine Dragon-Wing persona she typically used. She stuck out her hand and looked at Locke expectantly, a determined glint in her eye.

“You sure it’s okay? What if . . .” Katherine, who had finally recovered, asked as she flew over and landed next to Tubal.

“Give them. Now,” Sparky repeated, cutting off Katherine’s protest, but it wasn’t needed: Locke was already handing them to her. He was far more worried about Eliza bleeding out at the moment than he was about her losing control again and killing anyone else in the Blue Phoenix Brigade.

“Sparky.” Eliza shifted her attention to the Dragon-Knight as she approached. “You know of honor. Let this be the end of it.” Eliza squirmed uncomfortably and took several more shallow breaths. “Just let me have a good death.”

“There is no honor in a death that can be avoided. I won’t let you free until you swear, you swear on my life, on Shy’s life and on the lives of everyone you care about, that you will not give up and kill yourself. Swear that to me now,” Sparky demanded, forcefully grabbing Eliza by the back of the head and pouring a healing potion down her throat.”

Eliza coughed harshly, choking on the thick red liquid, but as soon as she had her breath, Sparky was on her again. “Swear it, now!” Sparky demanded.

“I can’t,” Eliza said between heaving breaths. “Dying is the right thing to do.”

“No, it isn’t,” Locke argued. “It’s never the right thing to do–to give up. We can fix this. We can solve this. I’ll get the medicine from the king, and everything will be okay.”

What little color there was in her cheeks seemed to drain away as she contemplated her situation. Several long, tense moments drew out before she finally gave up. “Fine, I swear it,” she grumbled.

This all happened because I was too timorous and craven to save her. Locke cursed himself as he looked down at Eliza. He felt like a knife was lodged in his abdomen as he watched her wounds recover. I was too weak to protect her, and this was the result. This is what my goofing off and ineptitude has produced. Even with the entire Blue Phoenix Brigade on hand for assistance, they had almost lost. They had almost failed.

“Is this still necessary?” Sparky asked Eliza, not Locke, as she scraped her sword against the links in Time’s Grip which still held Eliza bound. “Do we need to worry?”

“No, I . . .” Eliza paused to look around at the mayhem and destruction she had caused. The cathedral was practically in shambles: pews had been shattered and strewn across the room, dead bodies were piled up, and there were patches of dark red blood splattered and pooling everywhere. The scene was grisly and unholy.

“I’m okay. I think,” she finally answered. Her words may have said one thing, but the glint in her eyes and the uncertainty in her voice told a different story. Eliza was always confident in everything she did, everything she said, and it was so completely unlike her to be unsure that the waver in her voice gave it away immediately. “I’m okay now, I think,” she repeated, the second time softer than the first.

“Are you sure? Do you want us to restrain you until we get the cure made?” Locke asked, as he too took in the scene around them. Each kill makes it harder for them to maintain their sanity, and she did all this? “I’m sure the StormGuard Alliance will send me a second bodyguard. You don’t need to worry. We can come up with something else until you recover.”

“No, I’m okay,” Eliza repeated for the third time.

Cautiously, Locke unwound the chain. He didn’t feel comfortable doing it, but the weapon was slowly draining away her life every other second. She might not be in any immediate danger of dying from it, but it wasn’t going to make things any easier reaching a decision, either. He could keep her tied up for a while, but feeding her health potions every other minute to offset the life drain wasn’t a solution they could keep going forever.

“Be careful and let us know if you feel like you’re losing control again . . . If that’s possible,” Locke offered as he helped her to her feet.

“Yeah, I will,” she said with a weak smile. “I know what I need to do.”

“Alright,” Locke nodded.

Locke tried to step back and let her regain herself, but Eliza unexpectedly pulled Locke to her and hugged him. He was so surprised by the motion that he froze, standing stiff like a street sign, as she clenched onto him tightly. “I’m sorry,” she whispered in his ear. “I’m sorry it has to be like this, but I know what I have to do now. I know that I can’t be near you.” She clenched him tightly one last time and then let go. As sudden and surprising as the hug had been, she ended it just as quickly. She pushed him back away from her with enough force that Locke stumbled backward, pinwheeling his arms as he tried to keep his balance.

“Stop her!” Tubal yelled, and Locke tried to recoup his faculties in time to figure out what was happening.

In one quick motion, Eliza leapt over several pews, recovered her swords from where they had fallen and darted out the main door. Sparky, Sampson and Tubal moved as if they were going to give chase, charging through the door after her, but Locke knew that the speed difference was far too real for them to have any hope of ever catching.

“Shy,” Tubal called a minute later as he reentered the room, the first one to give up the chase. “She’s gone.”

“Where the heck did she go?” Reginald asked, turning to the others. “She couldn’t have gotten far, could she? Did she tell you where she was going when she was whispering to you earlier?”

“No.” Locke shook his head. “I don’t know where she went. I don’t . . . I don’t know.” He felt that same emotional knife from earlier extricate itself from his gut and wrench itself into his chest. He clenched as he stared at the big double doors she had fled out of. He held out some small bit of hope that someone had stopped her, but he knew all too well that no one other than the king would have a hope of being able to halt her escape.  

“Well, where do you think she might have gone? You think her people at the StormGuard Alliance will know?” Reginald asked, placing a hand on Locke’s shoulder.

“I don’t know, but we need to go after her right now.”

“No, no you don’t, mate. Did you see how fast she was moving?” Reginald asked. “We can’t chase her. We need to find her end destination and be there instead. Before that, though, you need to go talk to the king.”

“You think he’ll know?” Locke asked. His head was clouded, like a blind ship searching for land through a dense fog while taking on water by the minute. His senses were numbed, as if nothing made any sense, and he couldn’t seem to think straight. Why am I so fog-headed about this. He mentally kicked himself for not being able to put a plan together. “You think he’ll have an idea of where she might be headed? He’s clever, that’s right. He’s smart. He’ll know something.” Locke tried to guess at why Reginald had suggested that, but it was hard to even hear the few thoughts he found over how loud his heartbeat was.

“No . . .” Reginald shook his shoulder and said, “Mate, pull yourself together and think: Even if you run out that door right now and find her, what then? You still don’t have the flower, you still can’t make the cure, and you still don’t know how long it’ll be until her next episode. She’s killed someone now. Unless you somehow did this, or those Witherence guards did this, she’s killed a lot, so it’s only a matter of time before another incident occurs. That’s why she left, and that’s why you need the cure before you go looking for her.”

“Yeah, alright.” Locke looked at the bodies Reginald was motioning toward as he nodded. “Yeah, I need the cure. That’s right.”

“Good. Now go find the king, get the flower, kill the turtle and save your princess,” Reginald advised, patting him on the back.

“The turtle?” Locke asked, looking at his friend confusedly. Wait, I understand the flower, and I get the princess, but what turtle?

“I don’t know, this feels like a castle, you’re about to be off grabbing a flower for its power, and you plan on saving a princess who just ran off to another castle or someplace . . . It just seems like there will be a giant turtle somewhere along the road.” Reginald shrugged as if his explanation was obvious enough.

“I don’t get him sometimes either,” Sparky said, shaking her head. “But he’s right: You need the flower.”

“Alright, I’ll go talk to the king,” Locke said, quickly running out of the chapel and toward the reception room where he knew the king was. He didn’t know which way to go, and if he had been told earlier, he had already forgotten. As soon as he left the chapel, however, he found a guard who was more than happy to point him in the right direction.

When he reached the reception room, he discovered a banquet hall set up with a series of circular tables that were easily large enough to accommodate ten people per table comfortably. The ceiling was at least twenty feet high, and the walls were lined with hanging, purple drapes that framed enormous paintings instead of windows, and the center of each table had a string of purple orchids.

“They were her favorite,” the king said as Locke burst into the room. The king was standing just inside the doorway on a raised five-by-ten platform, two steps higher than the rest of the room, looking out over all of his guests. The place was filled with people, probably the envoy the king had mentioned earlier, and none acted as if murdered had been committed on a short time ago. They were all chatting merrily, seemingly obviously to everything that had just gone on.

“Huh?” Locke turned to look at the king and realized that the other man was staring over all the people, not at them.

A wry smile formed on the king’s face. “She said it clashed with her skin tone, the purple of the flower, but she wore it every day nonetheless.”

“Sir, I need to talk to you abou–”

“She told me when she was young that she would never get married. She said that, if I forced her to marry, it would be the death of her.” He paused to chuckle again. “I told her that hanging around commoners would more likely result in her death. I suppose we were both right.”

“Sir, I really–”

“About the flower to cure your friend . . . It is still about that flower, and your friend, not my daughter, your bride, who lay dead at your feet moments ago.” The king chuckled softly before turning to face Locke. “Oh, no, do not misinterpret my intentions and think I am saying this to make you feel guilty. I am just pointing out the fact that you still remain as single-minded as ever. You do not know where your friend is, but you do know what became of your bride.”

“The one you let die,” Locke said flatly. He didn’t care much for Margaret while she was alive, but at the end, he had bonded with her enough to be irritated that she had just been so casually tossed aside. “The one you used like a pawn. The one you told that she’d reach the end like a queen, only to turn around as if nothing happened when the knight took her from behind.”

“Yes, that one. To be fair, though”–the king’s face melted from the wry smile to a flat stone wall of expressionlessness–“I did tell her not to invite Victoria. I told Margaret that her friend would betray her. Children never listen. You two could be married, your friend could have her hands clean of blood, but children never listen. They think they know best. I am turning one hundred and eighty-three this year, but the woman with sixteen fewer decades than I thought she was the wiser, smarter and more reasonable of us. She did not know that, when I was her age, I had to go through my fair share of Victorias to make it here today, to be the man I am.”

Locke started to see the wisdom and possibly twisted love of the king. “So you left her to be betrayed, hoping it would be the grindstone with which to polish her ignorance.”

“Yes, that I did. Although, I also had my backup plan. At the second table from the end, closest to the left wall, you will find a young woman named Clara. She is your new fiancee. A tad younger than Margaret, but I trust you will enjoy her submissive attitude more agreeable than Margaret’s fire,” the king said and gestured to an incredibly fair, light-blue-skinned girl with purple hair who was wearing a white dress.

“And you’re certain I’ll marry her this time because I still need the flower?” Locke asked.

“Heavens no, good lad. I am certain you will marry her because it is part of the marriage contract you signed.” He rested a hand on Locke’s shoulder and produced a copy of the marriage license Locke had signed earlier with the other. “My son, you need to learn to read the fine print if you are ever going to be a good leader. For instance, the document you signed today requires that, in the event your spouse dies before she conceives an heir, you must marry the next oldest female sibling with an identical contract. Also, you would have been forced to marry her in the event Margaret was unable to prove she was with child after three years time. Oh, wipe the glum look off of your face. You will still get your flowers, even if you do not have a bargaining chip that you can see at the moment.”

“What?” Locke asked as he read over the contract. He hadn’t noticed the literally incredibly small print underneath the standard marriage form, but it was there, and he had apparently agreed to a lot of things. However, it wasn’t all stacked against him. Apparently, in the event of her death, he was still the crown prince. He was also allowed a six-month grieving period before he had to marry the second sister. The last key piece of information he noticed was that, in the event of his death or a disappearance in excess of five years before the conception of an heir, all his belongings and assets within Witherence would be ceded back to the royal family. If I died in real life, how would he even know?

“I am saying you do not need to fret about the shaky ground you stand on in negotiations for the flower. I am going to give you as many as you need and transfer the seeds necessary for their schemes over to the StormGuard Alliance,” the king clarified.

“Why?” Locke asked. He couldn’t help but be suspicious. It didn’t make sense. That’s not your character. That’s not who you are.

“Because I have great plans for you, and they do not involve us starting off at odds over a common floral arrangement.” King Windsor patted him on the back. “I would personally recommend you meet the woman who will inevitably be your bride, relax and have a drink. I will have an attendant bring you our version of the antidote and some of the recent blooms to make your own.”

“Okay,” Locke answered uneasily. He didn’t know what the king’s game was, but he would figure it out.

“Shy,” the king said in a low voice, stopping him as started over to meet Clara.

“Yeah?” Locke turned around to see the calculating monarch smiling at him.

“You’re now a part of the royal family. Do not give away a valuable commodity because you think it is the right thing to do. I have seen enough rotations of the sun to assure you that cruelty is an absolute necessity for doing what is right. Even if it means killing half of all the people in this town through a slow and gruesome death to ensure the safety of Witherence and the prosperity of the royal family, I expect you will not disappoint me again.” He didn’t wait for a response and waved off Locke dismissively with a gesture small gesture as he turned and left the room.

Clara was even more attractive up close than she had been from across the room. She was wearing a stunning white laced dress that clung beautifully to her curves, and she stood up to greet Locke before he even reached the table. “So, you’re my future husband,” she said as a way of greeting. “I’m sure working with you will be a great pleasure,” she added, bowing her head slightly.

“I’m sure it will.” Locke looked around for a cue of what to do. Do I shake her hand? What’s the polite etiquette here?

“Yes, father has high hopes for you. I hope I’ll be able to assist you in reaching them. Come, do sit down,” Clara offered, indicating a place next to her. “Tell me all about yourself.”

“I’d rather not.” Locke didn’t want to be rude, but he already had the sneaking suspicion that this woman was a worse, and deadlier, schemer than her father. “Just lost a wife. It’s been a long day. Do you mind telling me about yourself instead?”

“Oh, of course. My hell, what a rough morning you must have had. I imagine you aren’t thrilled to be doing any talking of any sort after the earlier events. I’ll fill in for you, then.” She then began introducing him to everyone at the table and telling him about everything except for her. She introduced them with the kindest words, but each compliment was placed just well enough that Locke could get a sense of what their weaknesses might be too.

Locke was happy that she was doing the talking. It meant he didn’t have to. He was able to sit back and secretly send private messages to the rest of the group letting them know what was going on. He felt bad having to cancel his date with Sampson on Friday, but he was relieved to find out that the entire Blue Phoenix Brigade had cleared their schedule to help him. They all expressed the same determination that he had to find Eliza. Find her and bring her home.

You know, if she had just waited, everything really would have turned out fine. It’s a shame it wasn’t in her programming, the voice that had been nagging him all day said.

Yeah, well, get some popcorn, Locke thought back. ‘Cause the show isn’t over yet. He said to the mysterious voice as much as to himself, and he steeled his determination. I will bring her home. You just watch me.