"Welcome home, Athala," Katrina greeted us, eyes glowing bright red. "It has been a long time since you were here."
A chill ran down my spine at the sound of her voice and the feel of her power. "Ya, Mistress," I automatically said, feeling myself fall back into my old role.
"How many nights did you spend down here?" she questioned, voice thick with false nostalgia. "More than the others, as I recall."
"Ya, Mistress," I bowed my head. I didn't share her same nostalgia; instead I recoiled at the horror of those nights spent freezing, naked, starving, and bleeding from beatings and punishments she'd doled out.
"You were always different than the others," Katrina went on. "Always playing with your tricks and experiments. I always found it quaint and a bit relieving, if I may be honest. You had such a knack for magic; Natas's power flowed through you so naturally, I feared he might have chosen you to replace me. But you were so distracted with your little experiments, you could never truly embrace his power like poor Aidan. I would never have expected you of all the apprentices to be the last one standing."
Olympia had told me Katrina had known but hearing her admit it aloud triggered something in me. Rage suddenly displaced fear as I looked up to stare down my old mistress.
"You knew!" I shouted. "You knew that magic is a lie, that it is Natas's power, not ours. You ripped me from my home, you murdered my family, you literally beat the humanity out of me, and then you sold my soul to that demon!"
"And gave you power like few in this world have ever tasted," Katrina scornfully retorted. "I gave you the power of a god!"
"Power of a god?" I challenged. "You think you have any power? You are just a slave, like you tried to make me."
"A slave!?" roared Katrina. "Is this the power of a slave?" Raising her fist, she picked Zimri up, suspending him midair and then flinging him down the corridor, into the stairs.
"Zimri!" I called, panic rising in me.
"Do not worry about your precious Alkite," Katrina said. "He is not dead. No, I have a special plan for him. I will take his mind, make him my puppet. Through him, I will rule Alkilion until I take it for myself. Then I will kill him."
"Touch him and you will die where you stand!" I snarled, leveling my worst glare at her. She just laughed.
"And how will you do that, child?" she taunted. "With no magic? Do you really think those little tricks that mountain sprite taught you will do anything against my power?"
Icy fear gripped my soul as I looked back to where Zimri was starting to come to. Looking down at my collection of tricks, I knew she was right. How could my little bombs, my sword, and shield ever stand up to such raw power?
"Trust me," I heard Olympia's voice whisper. "That power is nothing but a mirage. She cannot break the laws of nature, only twist them. Twist back!"
"I do not know how!" I protested.
"Yes, you do," she insisted. "Remember what I have taught; whatever she throws at you, there will be an answer."
"You had better tell me," I shot back as prepared to fight back.
"She not dead yet?" Zimri asked far more cheerfully than he ought to have.
"No, she wants you to be her puppet in Alkilion," I answered.
"So I heard," he replied. "How do we take her down?"
"Working on it." I quickly looked around, trying to find a good start. I had the shields and sword against fire and lightning attacks, the most common and basic offensive weapons. But I still hadn't cracked telekinesis and if she tried something more creative like an earthquake or a storm, I had no answer.
"There is no need to fight, Alkite," Katrina talked much more sweetly to Zimri. "Surrender to me and I will show you power beyond your dreams."
"I tried that once," Zimri said, deftly raising his shield. "Wasn't much fun. How about instead you give me Ariadne and then die?"
Katrina's face darkened. "I was not giving you a choice. You will be my servant in Alkilion."
"Make me!" Zimri challenged.
"As you wish," Katrina smirked. Beckoning with her finger, Zimri suddenly started flying towards her.
"Not again!" he shouted as he struggled against the telekinetic pull, driving his sword into the dusty ground for leverage.
Suddenly, I seemed to understand exactly what was happening. Acting before I had time to think my way out of it, I opened my water flask and threw the contents at Zimri. As the water hit him, it suddenly exploded in a plume of steam. A moment later, Zimri burst out of the cloud, scrambling towards me. His face was flushed red and mist soaked his face and hair.
"What was that?" he asked.
"Olympia's inspiration, I think," I answered. "We must get out of here. It is too cramped in here and if she touches us…"
"Yeah, the mind thing," Zimri agreed, grabbing my bag. With a quick motion, he lit a fuse and rolled a grenade towards the steam.
We sprinted out of the dungeon, back through the passages, and came out into the lower courtyard. Almost instantly, we were met by a hail of arrows. Zimri managed to get his shield up in time and the arrows plunked harmlessly off the dragonhide. Unfortunately, we were now trapped.
"Where to now?" Zimri asked as we retreated inside, closing the door behind us.
"Throne room," I said, rushing past him. "It is big and open and where I thought best to confront her in the first place."
Zimri trailed behind as I led us down the hall towards the central stairwell and nearly got myself skewered by a soldier ambushing us from a side passage. Zimri knocked me to the ground with his shield, earning a score across his forearm. He decapitated the spear and then the soldier two moves later.
Another attacked from the rear but Zimri pivoted in time to intercept the strike. Standing over me, he quickly dispatched the soldier with a slice across the throat.
"You okay?" he asked, pulling me to my feet.
"A little bruised but probably better than you," I pointed to the line of blood staining his shirt.
"Just a flesh wound," he smiled. "I can't have you having more scars than me. What would that say?"
I smiled despite our desperation. "Perhaps you ought to lead and I will direct you," I suggested.
"Sounds good. Straight?"
I nodded and we were off again. Zimri had to down three more soldiers between us and the stairs and another four on our way up to the main hall. He might not have been Titan, but he was damn good all the same. These mind-broken soldiers stood no chance against the trained and battle-hardened Alkite knight.
"Oh come on!" Zimri groaned as we entered the foyer before the throne room. Half a dozen officers in black armor, Katrina's personal guard, barred our way.
"Cover your ears," I warned, lighting one of the grenades and tossing it towards them.
Zimri and I shut our eyes and covered our ears as the bomb lit up the room. Yawning to clear my ears, I turned to see our enemies picking standing back up, reassuming formation.
"Uh-oh," Zimri breathed.
"We learn too!" one of the black soldiers shouted back.
Zimri and I exchanged looks and another insane idea came to me.
"We surrender!" I declared, winking at him.
"Wait…we what?" Zimri gaped at me.
"We cannot defeat them," I pointed out.
"I'm offended," Zimri retorted.
"We cannot beat them," I repeated with a roll of the eyes. "And the Mistress wants you alive."
"I don't intend to…oh!" His eyes lit up and he dropped the sword and shield. "Right, we surrender. Take us to the Mistress."
Two soldiers collected our gear while another two tied us up, pushing us toward the throne room.
"She is waiting for you," one of them said.
"How'd she get…nope, never mind," Zimri amended. "I don't think I want to know."
We were led into the throne room. Katrina sat on her throne, looking as regal as ever with Ariadne chained like a dog at her feet.
"Has the clever girl run out of tricks?" Katrina demanded icily, arching an eyebrow.
I smiled back. "Not quite."
I dropped down, tucking as much of me under the invisibility cloak as I could. It wasn't enough to truly vanish but it was enough to baffle my escort. For just a moment, both of our guards were focused on my sudden disappearance but that moment was all the time the Alkite knight needed. Whipping around, he sliced his bonds on the nearest spear blade.
Both guard turned their attention back to him while I scrambled towards the big doors. Freeing my wrists, I pulled the massive doors shut and slammed the locking beam across before the rest of the guard could assist their comrades. That left Zimri only four soldiers to deal with.
Three, I corrected as I turned to see one lying in a pool of blood at the Alkite's feet. While he preferred a sword, he used the fallen soldier's spear to great effect. Meanwhile, the two carrying our weapons and gear dropped their load, rushing to assist their clearly overmatched compatriot. I was closer and faster. Rushing behind him, I yanked his dagger from its sheath and drove it into his spine behind his neck, dropping him like a rock.
Zimri turned and flung his spear at one of the oncoming soldiers, striking him in the face. The other faltered for a step at seeing his comrade die but it was too late. Zimri had already picked up the other spear and soon impaled the final soldier.
"ENOUGH!" thundered Katrina, rising from her throne, face contorted with rage. "Enough tricks and games. I admit, you have fought far better than I expected. But it is time for this to end." Raising her hands, she shouted. "LEBE!"
The earth rumbled around us and emerging from recess of the throne room were four enormous stone gargoyles, at least four meters high and armed with stone maces the size of pillars.
"Bring ihn am Leben. Töte sie," Katrina commanded her golems, reclining back down on her throne.
"Uh, any ideas?" Zimri asked as we stared up in horror at the beasts converging on us.
"Uhhhh," I stammered, desperately trying to think. Golems were basically puppets controlled with magic. I had made them as part of my training; small ones to do house chores and the like. Even those had taken a tremendous amount of…
"Cut their strings!" I yelled to Zimri as I dove to my right, narrowly avoiding a mace crushing my being.
"Cut their…what?" Zimri shouted back, sliding under a grasping hand.
"Their strings!" I repeated. "She is controlling them like puppets! There is some sort of gem or stone that tethers them to her will, allowing her to feed them life force! Find and rip it out!"
"Like diamonds?" Zimri offered.
I looked up at the nearest golem and it looked back at me with its diamond eyes, a mere two meters over my head.
Part of me wanted to give up. I was exhausted and painfully sore. I had no idea how I was going to get up to the thing's head without getting turned into paste. But then I turned to see Katrina coldly and smugly watching us battle for our lives and fresh anger surged through me. I could not give up now, not when we were this close. I thought of Helga and her sacrifice. How many children had Katrina murdered for this battle? A dozen? A hundred? Was there a child left in Masala?
My resolve turned to steel as I charged the nearest golem. The mace came whistling down at me but at the last moment, I danced aside. Before the creature could raise back up, I leapt on top and clung on for dear life.
I was swung up over its head. At the apex, I let go, dropping a meter and a half on to the stone head, bruising my ribs in the process and knocking the wind out of me. Out of sheer desperation, I hung, grabbing the stone ears. A hand came up to swat me away but I slid off the head on to the shoulder. Drawing the dagger, I stabbed the point into the eye socket, just behind the diamond eye.
For a terrifying moment, I thought the blade would break first but the diamond shot out. The golem shuddered as its magical strings began to be cut. Again, dodging the hand, I slung myself around the back of its neck to the other side, popping out that gem.
The beast froze, becoming a statue once more. Then it began to fall, tipping forward into another golem coming over to finish me off. That golem swung its mace down at me, forcing me to dive off the shoulder. The first golem crashed into the second's knees, causing that one to stumble to the ground.
Ignoring the pain pretty much everywhere, I sprinted towards this golem. As it tried to get up, I slammed my dagger into its eye, ripping out the diamond. It faltered and fell and then struggled to rise again. Before it could get out of reach, I removed the final eye and this one too fell lifelessly to the floor.
A thundering crash behind me declared Zimri had taken down a third golem leaving one left. The Alkite emerged from the wreckage with a nasty cut across his brow but otherwise seemed to be okay.
We turned our attention to the final creature, who seemed torn between his directive to kill me and capture Zimri.
"Any ideas?" Zimri asked.
"Just one," I said breathlessly. "Keep it busy."
"That shouldn't be too hard," Zimri said with a grin and charged the creature.
I dashed to where our gear bag had been dropped. Thankfully the golem seemed to have made up its mind to focus on Zimri. Probably because the Alkite was whacking at its shins with his sword.
I grabbed our rope and to my relief found one final grenade. Quickly I tied the ceramic ball in the rope and rushed back to where Zimri was desperately trying to dodge the hand of the giant stone monster.
"Any time today would be fantastic!" he called.
I struck a piece of flint on some rubble, lighting the fuse. I had only a few seconds to get this off. Zimri screamed as the golem finally wrapped his stone hands around the Alkite. Whipping the contraption around my head like a sling in an ever-widening arc, I let out a war cry and charged the golem.
Surprised, the creature turned to face me. I swung the rope as wide as I could, trying to wrap it around its neck and slam the bomb into its face. But out of the corner of my eye I saw I was too late.
The fuse had gone out.
The rope caught the beast's neck and instantly tightened as it whipped around. The ceramic grenade came around and smashed right on the golem's nose.
The explosion nearly blinded me and set my ears ringing. Apparently the force of the impact was enough to ignite the powder. When I was finally able to see again, I saw the golem pitch forward, half of its face gone.
Zimri managed to wriggle his way free, tried to stand and then stumbled to the ground, holding his ears.
"Are you okay!" I shouted at him, rushing to his side.
"What?" he yelled back.
"Why do you never cover your ears?" I chided, half-joking.
"You miserable little wretch!" Katrina suddenly shrieked.
She had risen from her throne and strode toward us, face a thunderhead. Somehow, she seemed older as if our fight with the golems had aged her. But the mask of pure fury she wore told me we weren't close to done yet.
"I have had enough of you and your pathetic tricks!" she roared.
"My pathetic tricks just took down four of your greatest golems," I taunted through the exhaustion and pain. "You think your magic is stronger than my science now?"
Suddenly I heard Zimri scream. Turning, I saw sliding across the floor towards Katrina. Desperately, I grabbed his hand with one hand while the other wrapped around the finger of a fallen golem, the weight of the arm counteracting Katrina's pull. Barely.
As much as I had been hurting, it was nothing like this. I could feel my muscles and bones being pulled apart by the unbelievable strain. There was no way I could outlast Katrina's power, not before my arms gave out or I was ripped in two.
"Let me go," Zimri said.
"No," I answered through gritted teeth. "Never."
"Kill her for me, okay?" he said, releasing my hand while I maintained my death grip.
"No way," I said. "I am not losing you now, not when we are this close."
"Athala," he said quietly, brown eyes peacefully imploring me. "Let go."
Of the golem's finger.
For a moment we hurtled towards the Sorceress. I pulled myself on top of Zimri in a last, desperate attempt to save him. The superheated air around him burned me and for a moment we slowed. Then, my plan worked. I felt the hot, invisible hand latch on to me, instead of Zimri, and I was yanked free of him.
"ATHALA!" he cried as I was dragged across the broken stone floor. The next thing I knew, I was on my knees at her feet, Katrina's hand around my throat.
"Where are your tricks now, apprentice?" she snarled.
I struggled against the wall of air holding me down, trying to break free of Katrina's iron grip but it was pointless. This time, it was truly over. I had no tricks, no plans left. I couldn't escape.
"Zimri will avenge me," I told her defiantly.
"No, he will not," she answered. "He will bow down and serve me like everyone else. A pity you will not live to see me break his will to mine."
"He will never break."
"They always break," Katrina retorted. "Now I will do what I should have done at Black Falls."
I closed my eyes and waited. I wondered if it would hurt. I had told Helga it didn't, but I didn't really know. I was so tired, so sore. I hoped it wouldn't.