"Zachery?" Lionel choked out. God, the hope in his voice made my heart hurt.
"In the flesh." He shrugged.
"I thought… Goddess, I thought you hated me."
"I don't. I never could," he said, sighing. "I hate what you did. I hate what you've become. But I don't hate you."
Lionel threw his arms around him. "I love you."
"I love you too." He finally looked at me. "Witch-girl, you look well."
"Why didn't you respond to any of my messages?" Lionel asked.
"For the first week after I left, I was just so angry," he said. "I ripped down all the paintings you had made me, threw out all the things you had bought me, and tried to talk my father into breaking off the engagement. And then you kept sending me messages about how much you loved me and wanted me to join you? I thought I was going to have an aneurysm."
He held up his hand. "Let me finish. So I kept sending them back, because I knew that if I even thought about putting pen to paper, I'd break you. And you're already so broken. I couldn't have that weighing on my conscience." He looked up at him, smiling. "But that last message you sent, the one that said it was the last one, since you were going to fight… him, changed my mind. I couldn't let you face him alone."
"I'm glad you're here."
"I'm not staying. After this fight, it'll be the last time you see me."
"W-what?" Lionel stared at him, face white.
"I can't—no. I won't be with you while you're still mixed up in that Goddess forsaken cult. I'm still allied with Queen Noelle and the rest of our monarchy, and nothing's going to change my mind."
"Nothing," Lionel said, chuckling. "Even the fact that she had me in constant pain for six months? The fact that she had one of the loves of my life try to kill me over his descendant?"
"She knows what's right for all of us, and sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."
"Zak'ai'ya," Lionel said softly, then switched into the Shade language.
They spoke for nearly ten minutes, Lionel going back and forth between pale and blushing, while Zachery seemed unmoved.
"Sign it," Zachery finally said. He pulled out a folded up piece of parchment from his pocket. I couldn't read it, but I already knew what it was. The annulment of their engagement. This really was the end of their relationship.
I had won.
Then why did it feel so hollow?
I rubbed at my chest. A dull ache had appeared with every beat of my heart.
Tears streamed down Lionel's face as he signed it with his Shade name. "There. I hope that you're happy with whoever you're with in the future."
Zachery pocketed it, even as he was trembling. He didn't want this. We all knew he didn't.
"Zachery," I said. "Don't do this. I've been part of it since you left, and really, it's not that bad."
"Says the 'wild card.'"
"Do you really value country over the love of your life? Over your first? Over—"
He glared at me, and my legs gave out. I fell to the concrete, shivering.
Before I could say anything else, Lionel grabbed him by his wrist. "We're not in a relationship anymore," he spat, "and let me just tell you now that if you lay another finger on her, I'll—"
"You'll what, L'ion? Kill me? Then you'll just get sealed again. Or worse, have your powers sealed and live the rest of your life in the penal colony with my cousin."
He let him go, eyes wide. "I'm sorry. Goddess, I'm so sorry. I love you so much, and it hurts… Goddess, it hurts so bad."
"I know," he said. "But I'm doing the right thing for my people." He sighed, and stared at the ground. "I'll give you one last gift."
"What is it?"
"Take from me."
"What?" Lionel cried. "No! Never. I could hurt you… I could kill you, I could—"
Zachery put a finger to his lips. "Just enough that you can use my blessing. We all know that the witch-girl's going to get knocked out in the first thirty seconds..."
Rude. I had prepared this time. Just because one of the cultists had managed to snatch me before didn't mean that I was a sitting duck.
Lionel grimaced before taking off his gloves. "I'll be as gentle as I can."
Was he really going to do this? Lionel was right. If he couldn't stop in time, he could drain Zachery dry, and then… Bile crept up my throat at the mere thought.
They clasped their hands together, and Lionel swept him into a deep kiss. Shadow energy flowed from Zachery's body to Lionel's, and I could see his magic swell with power. Zachery really was that strong. At the least, it didn't seem painful.
They broke apart, and Zachery sank to the ground, dry heaving.
I shot to his side. "Are you okay?"
"I'll… I'll live," he choked out. "I didn't think it'd be like that. It was like he touched my shadow soul."
"Lionel?" I asked. "Are you okay?"
His magic seemed to spiral off into the sky, a blazing black that threatened to consume everything around it. He stared at us, but he was looking through us, not at us. Was he gone? Again? No… I couldn't deal with him snapping like that. Not again. It'd break me.
And as if it had never happened, he snapped back to normal, shaking his head.
"I'm fine. It was just a bit overwhelming. I've never taken from someone that powerful before." He rubbed his arms. His hair was moving, as if there were some imaginary wind blowing, and his eyes were still glowing with magic.
He slipped back on his gloves, then stared at a car about fifty feet away.
Before I could say anything else, the car crumpled up into a ball. Jesus Christ. And that was just from taking for only a minute. Hopefully, no one was in that car.
"Let's do this." As soon as Lionel touched the warehouse door, the illusion on it shimmered, and the normal, boxy, warehouse turned into a carbon copy of the building from the Eastern Province.
I lost my breath, and Lionel squeezed my hand.
"It'll be alright. I'm going to take him out, and everything's going to be okay."
I truly did hope so. Even with the Oliveira, Leavitt, de Witte, and de la Fontaine blessings, Jason's father was almost fifteen times older than him, and that much more more powerful. My palms grew clammy as we wandered around the first floor.
"Where is he?" Lionel roared, and all the cultists—workers—froze up. "You said you'd be here, and I'm ready to fight!"
Nathaniel appeared out of nowhere. "Master, he's not here. Mistress Cartwright, you look well, and Master de la Fontaine—"
"Don't call me that," he snapped. "I'm not a part of this. I'm just here to support Lionel."
"I see. Well, Zachery, I'm glad you're here for him."
Ugh. He still looked really bad. His skin was ashen, and his eyes were sunken in and dull.
"Are you sure you can fight?" I asked. "You look..."
He glared at me, and that answered my question.
"Okay. Forget I asked."
"You're here early," Nathaniel said. "What exactly do you plan on doing when he gets here?"
"I'm taking him out," Lionel said. God, when his voice sounded like that… So nonchalant. He might as well have been talking about the weather.
I could tell that Nathaniel was fighting the urge to cringe. After Lionel tore up the place the last time he was here, he was gonna do it again with some super powered Shade fight?
"...I see," he finally said. "Yes, that's probably for the best. I'd ask for you to do it outside, but that could attract the attention of some… unsavory types."
Mother of Light cultists.
And just like the Prince Consort, he wouldn't be beyond murdering them in cold blood.
"Do you want more fighters?"
"No. This is between me and him. I don't even really want Meredith and Zachery fighting with me."
"I understand. Well, good luck."
He was going to need it. If Lionel lost, and Jason's father regained the cult, things would go downhill so quickly the queen wouldn't even be able to do anything before he overran her city again. And this time, without Lionel around to tell them to fuck off…
He could win. Overthrow—or worse, kill—the Queen of the Shades, take her place as their goddess's avatar, and inherit all her powers. Jason's father. King of the Shades. Just the thought made my stomach churn. He could become a god, and…
Lionel squeezed my hand again. "It's not going to happen. I—we're—going to take him out, and he'll never bother us again." He turned to Nathaniel. "Tell everyone to change into traditional clothing, evacuate the entire building, and send everyone to our world. I won't be responsible for the deaths of any innocents."
"Of course, Master. I'll do so right away."
He pulled out a necklace similar to the one Queen Noelle used at her New Year's Festival and slipped it over his neck. He repeated Lionel's orders in the Shade language, and it echoed throughout the entire compound.
All the workers froze up.
In hindsight, I should have brought my translation necklace with me.
One worker asked a question, and he merely repeated what he had just said. She nodded.
Everyone stripped off their robes, and underneath, was traditional Shade clothing. Figured.
Nathaniel sighed. "I'm staying. I have to get everyone and tell everyone the news, whatever it is."
"It's going to be good news. I promise."
"I hope so." He drew a circle on the floor, and the workers went into the circle single-file.
Not gonna lie. It was weird as hell how well-organized everything was. You'd think some cult dedicated to overthrowing the monarchy would be more like anarchy.
As soon as the last person vanished, Nathaniel sighed. "It'll be horrible to try and get everyone recollected, but I understand why you did this. You're so merciful, Master."
Lionel gave Nathaniel a kind smile. "These are my people now, and I have to do whatever it takes to protect them." He waved his hand, and pushed all the cubicles, desks and chairs to the corner of the compound.
I shuddered. If he wasn't a god now, he was damn close to it.
Nathaniel went pale. "When did you get the de la Fontaine blessing?"
"Zachery gave it to me about an hour ago." He fidgeted a bit, bouncing from foot to foot. "What's taking him so long? I want to get this over with."
"He said today. When today, however..."
I needed to stop sweating so much. If I kept this up, I'd smudge my spell circles.
"Mistress Cartwright, are you sure that you want to fight him?"
A flare of anger bubbled up within me, and I said, "Hell, yes I do! He kidnapped me, nearly had my best friend killed, brainwashed the love of my life and one of my closest friends, broke up our relationship… He needs to die."
The words surprised even me.
Lionel let out bitter laughter. "I thought you were against it."
"There are some people that are just evil. And I've realized that. You're right. He doesn't deserve to live."
"Zachery," Nathaniel said. "You said that you weren't going to stay with him, but you're fighting along his side?"
"My reasons are my reasons. Yes, I love him, and I'll never love anyone else as much I as I love him, but I cannot, and will not, be with him as long as he's the leader of this sham religion."
Lionel went pale. "Truth be told, I still worship Her. No matter how powerful I get, She could smite me in an instant."
Nathaniel shrugged. "If you say so."
This was starting to get a bit ridiculous. Was he bluffing? Trying to get us in the building so he could destroy it and kill us all?
"Lionel," I said quietly. "Can you sense his shadow soul?"
Zachery crossed his arms. "If this keeps up, I'm leaving—"
Lionel's eyes widened, and he gritted his teeth. "Julian."
"That's Master de Witte to you." He was leaning in the doorway, his trademark shit-eating grin on his face. And to add insult to injury, he was wearing a carbon copy of Lionel's robe.
"I'll never worship you!"
I tapped the detonation spell on my right wrist and shot at his torso, but in a shimmer of black light, he teleported away.
"Really, Miss Cartwright?" he drawled, and my blood boiled. "You're going to fight dirty?" Before I could react, he teleported over to me and grabbed me by my chin. "I could kill you in an instant—"
Lionel, in a blur, snatched him by his hood and threw him to the floor. "This is between you and me! Lay another finger on her, and I'll kill you where you stand."
"Is this really how you're going to fight me, L'ion? Four against one? An old man, a halfbreed witch, your ex-fiancé and a wannabe leader? Pathetic."
"I have no personal stake in this, Julian," Nathaniel said. "It's three on one."
And he disappeared into Lionel's shadow.
I swore under my breath. As soon as I thought we had an ally…
But it made sense. Nathaniel, at the end of the day, was a peon. A relatively high ranking peon, but a peon, nonetheless. No matter who won, he'd have a master.
"It's one on one," Lionel said, through gritted teeth. "Meredith, Zachery, leave. This is between him and me."
Jason's father threw off his robe. I was half expecting him to be covered from head to toe in spell circles, but it seemed like he had eschewed that part of him for now.
I balled my fists. I could get him right now, couldn't I? Activate the killing spell and grab him by the throat like I'd wanted to ever since he had me kidnapped.
Even Zachery was trembling.
"I'm not going to repeat myself," Lionel said. "Leave. This has nothing to do with you."
"It has everything to do with me!" we yelled in unison.
"He brainwashed you!" Zachery cried, his voice a near scream. "He ruined the man that I loved, and turned him into a monster!"
Lionel went pale. "Is that really how you feel?"
"I wouldn't go that far," I said quietly. "But you've changed. I'd give anything for the man I loved back."
He swallowed audibly, then said, "I see. Well, Julian, let's do this. Meredith, Zachery, back up."
So he was really going to do this. Fight the man who had sullied his mind. My heart began to race as Zachery dragged me to the spiral staircase.
We watched from above as Lionel stripped off his own robe, and looked him straight in the eye.
Jason's father matched his gaze and said something in the Shade language. Lionel went even paler.
"Latho'chiel," Zachery said quietly, "Ritual combat, to death or surrender."
"That's a thing?"
"Do you know anything about your history, witch-girl? All supernaturals have that rule."
Knowing the two of them, it was going to be to the former, not the latter.
"So we can't interfere."
"Not unless you want them to start all over again," he said, voice hollow. "They can't even shift back to heal their wounds."
And as we had learned from the sealing, if a wound lasted too long, they had to heal the human way. Ugh.
But he was giving Lionel an out. If he thought he was going to die, he could surrender. Surrender and run.
"Lionel!" I cried. "If you think he's going to kill you, surrender!"
He turned to me, blue fire in his eyes. "Never. He's dying today."
Zachery wrapped his arm around my waist and pulled me back. "There's nothing we can do."
I buried my face into his chest, and he gingerly patted the back of my head. "I wish I could do something," I choked out, tears welling up in my eyes. "What if he dies?"
For the first time since he had shown up, his voice softened. "Have some dignity, witch-girl—Meredith. Do you think that watching you cry will make him fight any better?"
"No." I wiped at my eyes.
"He's going to win. He's strong, remember?"
We both knew that. The real question was if Jason's father was stronger—
Lionel launched himself at Jason's father, and socked him straight in the face. "This is for Meredith and Zachery!"
His eyes widened, and he collapsed to the floor.
If anything, we all knew that Lionel would win in a physical fight. He was younger, bigger, and stronger. Magically, however…
Jason's father merely stared up at him, clutching his cheek, as if he wasn't expecting Lionel to stoop that low.
"Pathetic," he said, then spit out a tooth. Mottled black and red blood dripped from his lips. "Are you really going to fight like a common street rat?"
"No, I've just always wanted to do that. Now, lets fight like Shades."
He let out a quiet chuckle, pulling himself to a standing position.
"I've never even seen latho'chiel before," Zachery said quietly. "We're a peaceful people, there's usually no need..." He squeezed my hand and gave me a look.
Lionel gathered up a blast of shadow energy and threw it at Jason's father's head, but he teleported out of the way.
"You haven't even gotten a single hit on me, Julian! Are you really as powerful as you say you are? Stop running like a coward."
His eyes widened again, and a dusky blush came over his cheeks. Maybe Zachery was right. Lionel had this in the bag.
Lionel summoned a sword nearly as big as he was, pulsing with shadow energy, then charged at him, screaming.
Jason's father threw up a shield of shadow energy, and his swing bounced off. Lionel swore.
"Is this all you're going to do?" He let out bitter laughter, then swung at his shield again. It shattered. "Dodge and block? Is that that you know that if you actually fought me, you'd lose?"
...Maybe getting a bit too cocky there, Lionel.
"...Fine. Let's do this."
Something about this didn't seem right, however. I had seen Jason's father's powers. He could brainwash people with just the help of a magical incantation. That was magic I had never even seen before. He didn't even use a spell circle, and Valerie, a full-blooded witch, couldn't even do that. Was it because of his mixed blood? Was it because of the sheer amount of rituals that he had done to increase his power?
I stared down at the fight below. Lionel had switched to a smaller sword, and was hacking and slashing at Jason's father. Black and red blood oozed from the wounds on his torso, staining his clothes.
"Doesn't this seem a bit… weird to you?" I asked.
"Jason's father is super powerful, right? Then why is he fighting like that?"
He turned to me, eyes wide.
"Lionel!" I cried. "Don't—"
Zachery clapped a hand over my mouth. "It's latho'chiel! You can't interfere."
Lionel turned to me, and that was all he needed. Jason's father summoned a mass of shadow energy and clocked Lionel straight in the face. He flew across the room and slammed into the opposite wall. A few of the patched up cracks opened back up, and the building shook.
"You really are pathetic," Jason's father said. "Just get it over with and surrender."
"Lionel!" I shrieked. "Get up, God please, get up..."
"Meredith. Calm down. He's going to be okay," Zachery said, even as his voice cracked.
"...I hope so..." I sank to the floor, trembling. If I hadn't distracted him… If I hadn't…"
"Just stay quiet."
Lionel laid on the floor for a few moments before pulling himself to a sitting position. Black blood dripped from his nose, and he was trembling, but he stood, panting.
I swallowed the words I wanted to say. This wasn't looking good. At all.
"Zachery," I said quietly. "What are we going to do if Lionel… if Lionel..."
"Flee. I'll go back to our world and warn Queen Noelle, and you should come with me. Okay?"
"But it's not going to happen. He's going to win."
Now that I had gotten a better look at both of them, Jason's father looked really bad. He looked paler than usual, and his hair was dull. Maybe it had been a while since he had last shifted back?
That could work in Lionel's favor. My heart felt a little lighter at the thought.
The building shook again, and a few pieces of plaster rained from the ceiling. This place was barely stable after Lionel tore up the place the last time, and now…
Lionel yanked off his gloves and launched himself at Jason's father again. As he said, all he needed was to grab him once, and—
I swallowed. Please let this be over quickly. Please, please, please…
Whether I was just thinking it, or if it was a prayer to whatever god or goddess would listen to me, I didn't know. I swallowed again, bile rising up my throat.
Lionel tackled Jason's father and wrapped his hands around his neck, draining him.
…What was going on? Why wasn't he fighting back?
The building shook again, and more cracks started climbing up the walls.
"We need to leave," I said.
"The building's unstable. Can't you see all the cracks?"
"And leave Lionel behind?"
"Do you want to die under a ton of rubble?"
The building let out a low groan, and I grabbed Zachery and ran as fast as I could.
We passed by Lionel, and I mouthed, "I love you," before running out the door.
As soon as we got outside, the building imploded. Bits of debris and dust rained down on us as we ran all the way to the waterfront.
My heart fell. Lionel was in there.
...Lionel was in there.
Lionel was in there!
"Oh, God," I mumbled, tears streaming down my face. "What have I done…."
"You didn't do anything."
I turned back. Zachery had rested his hand on my shoulder. "He did it on purpose. He knew that the building was unstable, and if he couldn't win, he'd..."
"He had asked me to marry him," I choked out, sinking to the ground. My tears stained the concrete as I wept. "Lionel!" I finally shrieked. "Yes! The answer is yes! I love you! Please say you..."
Even Zachery started to quietly whimper. "Goddess, please," he murmured. "She Who is Most Wise, please take his shadow soul into your bosom, and..."
He burst into full on tears, wailing like a mother who had just lost her child.
Nathaniel appeared next to me.
"...Who won—Oh, by the Goddess! What happened?"
"The building collapsed," I said quietly. "Nobody won."
He dusted off his clothes. "I came when I felt the disturbance on the illusion spell. But I didn't think…. Mistress Cartwright, Master de la Fontaine, I'm so sorry…"
Part of me knew it was for the better. Even if Lionel had… God, I didn't even want to say it… Jason's father was gone too.
"I'll get all the workers back here and start going through the rubble. We'll find his dust and have it put into an altar, just like his grandfather's. Hopefully, his next life will be more peaceful."
Something finally snapped within me, and I screamed, sprinting back towards the rubble. "Lionel! Lionel, don't do this! I know you're in there!" I dug through the debris, just screaming and crying, tears streaming down my face. "Lionel, no..."
I touched my mark, praying to whatever god or goddess who would listen for me to feel his presence one last time.
I wailed, pounding my fists on the bits of concrete and wood, finally breaking into the pieces everyone said he'd turn me into. I just never thought it'd be like this. Never like this.
Zachery ran towards me and used his telekinesis to toss bigger pieces of debris into the river. "L'ion… You have to be there. I'm sorry. Goddess, I'm sorry for all the things I said."
Not before long, other cultists were helping me dig. At this point, I was looking for anything that even vaguely looked like him. He had to have survived. He was strong. He was ours. He wasn't going to slip away from us like this—
A bit of rubble to the north of us started moving, and my heart sang. I rushed towards it, my pulse racing. Could it be...?
A freckled hand emerged from the rubble, and I grabbed it.
"I found him!" I screamed.
All the other workers surrounded me, and started digging him out.
Lionel coughed as we dug him out. His clothes were ripped and torn, he was covered from head to toe in bruises, and blood was dripping from his lips, but he was alive. Here. With me—with us.
"Lionel," I said, sobbing, "God, I thought you were dead."
"You weren't getting rid of me that easily," he said weakly, still coughing.
"What happened?" Nathaniel asked. "How did you survive?"
"The de la Fontaine blessing," he said, shivering. "Slowed the fall of the building."
"L'ion..." Zachery said. "I love you. This made me realize that more than anything. I'll stay by your side forever." He pulled out the annulment papers and ripped them into pieces.
"The answer is yes," I said. "I'll marry you."
He beamed, tears streaming down his face, and that was all I needed. Everything was okay.