I sit on a white canopy bed, the bed of every girl’s dream, staring at a gorgeous red dress, the dress of every girl’s dream, wondering how the hell I wound up in such a nightmare.
I have no time left. I’ve spent a year trapped in Lucitopia. A year doing the silliest things, like individually clipping every split end off of every single hair on my head or digging through apothecary books looking for the medieval equivalent of a tampon. I threw knives at a wall for eight hours straight every day for five months. I made my own toothbrush. Those last two were good choices, actually, but there were so many moments of my life here in Lucitopia that I wasted, and now I’m out of time.
I stand, wearing just a light slip, and let Ghost Dress lace me into the heaps of silk and bone that are my skirts and kirtle. If Asphodel thinks his sword is heavy, he should try wearing this dress for twelve hours. Men always measure strength in brute force but make any one of them carry around a skirt like this while wearing a suffocating corset and I guarantee he’ll faint before lunch.
I could try to fight him. I could make Asphodel drag me to the battle, but that would only strengthen his position. Torvold would lose his mind if he saw me kicking and screaming. The more distraught I am, the more distraught Torvold will be.
Rather than try the blunt-force approach, I’m selecting the wait and watch option. If I stay close to Asphodel, which is where he needs me in order to inflame Torvold, I just might find some way to kill Asphodel before he kills Torvold.
I hope. I don’t know why I’m still hoping. I know how this ends. But still. I hope with all my heart.
Ghost Dress leads me outside the Ebon Spire to the open area between it and the iron gates. As soon as I pass through the arch, I freeze.
A sea of Thralls stands packed like kernels of corn on a cob in front of me. Asphodel sits atop his black warhorse, gleaming darkly in is black armor. His helm rests on the pommel in front of him, leaving his head bare, so I can see his gorgeous face. Next to him is another mount with no rider. She is an elegant white mare who wishes she was as beautiful as Rancor, but no equine will ever be as lovely to me as that fancy jerk.
Asphodel waves a hand and the sea of rotting flesh parts in front of me, making a corridor to my mount. There is no stench, no smell at all, and I don’t know if that’s real or if Asphodel has created some kind of illusion in order to be able to stand being among his creations. I take a deep breath and walk toward my horse, and as I do I see a familiar face appear among the Thralls. It’s Gingivitis.
I don’t know why it hurts me to see him as a Thrall, but it does. Not an hour ago, that blank eyed fish-zombie was a person. I never knew his name. I never bothered to ask, but he was still a person. Granted, he was a loathsome person who leered at me, held a knife to child’s throat, and had probably done way worse things in his malodourous existence, but that doesn’t matter. No soul deserves to be a Thrall. Not even the ones I don’t like.
I walk through the sea of damnation that Asphodel created, my heart chilling with every tortured orca-call that barks from their melting bodies. I mount my elegant white horse. She doesn’t even try to bite me, which is just sad. When I’m settled, I look over at Asphodel.
“Did you like my gift?” he asks.
I pause, thinking carefully. “What gift is that, seeing as how you’ve given me so many.”
He smirks, detecting my bitterness. He cocks one finger at the crowd, beckoning. Thrall Gingivitis lurches forward and stands in front of me.
“This gift. He offered you insult, did he not?”
“Yes,” I whisper, staring at him. His two front teeth are gone. I guess I knocked out the second when I hit him on my way out the door.
“I punished him for you. Not the wedding present you asked for, but exemplary of my affection for you.”
“Yes. I understand that now.”
“Shall we wed before or after the battle, my betrothed?” Asphodel asks in an offhand way while I stare at the tortured thing before me.
I hate Asphodel. I’ve never hated anything before. Not even Lucitopia. I think of dreaming about kissing him, and I want to throw up. I can’t believe I thought he was anything other than evil. It’s right there in his name—Asphodel the Evil Sorcerer. They don’t give out names like that on accident, but I allowed myself to get reeled in by the pretty package, thinking that there had to be some buried hurt inside of him that could explain or even excuse his actions just because he’s got bedroom eyes and great abs. I am a giant fool. On the inside Asphodel is as gruesome as his Thralls.
I look over at him, plastering a bright yet brittle smile on my face.
“I don’t fancy myself old enough to be a widow, so let’s set the date for after you confront Sir Torvold the Bold, shall we?” I bat my eyelashes at him in a mockery of flirtation.
He kicks his mount into movement. If he’s smiling, it’s not because he’s thinking happy thoughts.
Remember those rolling hills Rancor and I rode past on our way to the Ebon Spire? Well, it turns out, one of them is Knob Knoll.
There’s nothing remarkable about it. You can’t tell the difference between Knob Knoll and the scores of other hills around it. I don’t even see any knobs. Unless you count the giant one in black armor sitting on the horse next to me.
“You look amused, Princess,” Asphodel comments. “May I ask why?”
I look out from the top of the hill, my bottom lip quivering with a smothered laugh, but I manage to hold my tongue. I’ve already learned that Asphodel leaves no slight unpunished.
“Ah. Here’s your paramour now.”
At first, I don’t know what he’s talking about. All I see is a smudge on the horizon. That smudge turns into an ant swarm, which becomes an army marching over the hills.
There are many banners. Some are checked, some striped, some have the image of an animal like a chimera-griff. Beneath each banner is a man riding a horse, and behind him march all the men who fight for that knight. I count over a dozen different banners with scores of men following them.
“All the good men left in the world,” Asphodel says.
In the middle front rides a huge knight in golden armor astride a white stallion. On either side of him ride five women, one girl, and one man all dressed in white. The banner above his head is a golden angel on a white field.
“He’s late,” Asphodel mumbles. “Not as eager to win you back as I’d thought.”
“You needn’t keep speaking on my account, my betrothed,” I say in honied tones. “If ever you grow tired of your own voice, rest assured, I stopped listening to you hours ago.”
Asphodel laughs in spite of himself. “Maybe I will marry you after the battle, for I find you continually amusing. And I like to keep those I’ve conquered close. Speaking of which.” He turns in his saddle and snaps.
Ghost Suit and Ghost Dress ride up on pair of old dun-colored nags. Their defining clothes are slouched down in attitudes of defeat. Neither of their collars are turned in my direction, which means they can’t look at me.
“Tell me, Princess. Have you ever heard of a cautionary tale?” Asphodel asks.
“I’ve read every kind of tale you can imagine,” I reply tightly. “And you should know, that in nearly every story, the evil sorcerer dies.”
He nods and looks out at the massing army and the bright crush of banners, armor, and shining young faces in every hue. At the forefront is Sir Torvold the Bold, flanked by Virtue.
“Let your heart flutter for Sir Torvold while it may, Princess,” Asphodel says, sneering. “He won’t look this good for much longer.”
Asphodel is right about one thing. My heart is fluttering. It’s Midsummer’s Day and the air is warm, so like Asphodel Torvold has his helm hooked to the pommel of his saddle rather than sweating underneath it before the battle has begun. His dark hair and tanned skin show up sharply against his golden armor. He is twice as broad and an entire head taller than any other man on the field, but he is no brute. His shoulders are enormous because he’s carrying all of Lucitopia on top of them.
Now that they are closer, I can see the Virtues flanking him. Loyalty rides close, but a little behind and to the left with Fortitude and Dexterity. With them is the Great Griselda. No idea which Virtue she is, but I should have guessed she was one of them.
In line with Torvold, and to his right, is Faith, Mother Maybe, and our mysterious hostess. I know who she is, and now that I can make out her face I can’t believe I didn’t recognize her at first sight. She is Love.
Love rides closest to Torvold, just to his right. Next to her is Mother Maybe, but now that I see Faith on her other side, I know Mother Maybe’s true name. Hope. Faith, Hope, and Love ride with Torvold.
“My heart doesn’t flutter because Torvold looks good,” I say quietly. “It flutters because he is good.”
“He is the flower of all virtue,” Asphodel says mockingly. Then in the silence that follows he truly hears his words and the truth in them shines through.
“He is the flower of all Virtue,” Asphodel repeats slowly, and this time we both hear the capital letter on Virtue. “He is their Champion.”
I shake my head. “No,” I say, but Asphodel already knows he’s figured it out.
“Thank you, Princess. They say Love never dies, though I’ve tried.” Asphodel drops his head, shaking it while he smiles ruefully. “But I don’t have to kill Love. I just have to kill Torvold, and Love will die.”
“You’re wrong,” I say.
“Don’t lie to me,” Asphodel growls. “I’ve searched for this for too long.”
The two armies face off against each other over a flat bit of ground between the hills. On one side are the Thralls. On the other are humans. There are more Thralls than humans. Asphodel stays on top of Knob Knoll, but Torvold rides Thunder up to the front line.
Torvold dons his helmet. He draws Calx. I can’t hear his battle cry, but I see Thunder rear up on his hind legs, and I hear the answering shout from his army. Then they charge.
Yup. Total badass.