Chapter 25

Leon Silverburg’s eyes were focused on the spot where Jowy had just stood.

He... was not the Bearer.

Leknaat had been right all along.

“Impossible,” he whispered. He could not have been so mistaken - he, Leon Silverburg! How could the Prophecy point to Atriedes?

Leon shook his head. It was his right! He’d earned it, hadn’t he? He’d lost everything. What more could be asked of the Bearer?

He pushed himself up. It wasn’t over yet. If he was not the Bearer of prophecy, then he would destroy that prophecy. That had been his mistake, of course. Bending his will to that of some long-dead seer.

He wasn’t beaten.

It was only a setback.

He’d get the Runes back.

He got to his knees.

Atriedes would regret the conceit of not finishing off his most dangerous enemy.

If those damn traitors hadn’t abandoned Leon when he’d needed them, Atriedes would be dead already. “Zalbard,” he shouted.

He got to his feet and brushed himself off.

The Dark One still hadn’t responded. “Zalbard,” he shouted again. He turned around.

Zalbard and the other twelve Dark Ones were kneeling, their heads bent to the floor. Why, Leon couldn’t imagine. Perhaps it was because of their stupid mysticism about personal combat - a challenge survived, even one lost, apparently impressed them.

“Get up, you,” Leon said, striding toward Zalbard.

The Dark One didn’t answer.

Leon sighed. He’d encountered their strange customs before. It all seemed like a lot of nonsense to him - better reserved for a ruler’s court than for diplomacy and battle.

“When I make a deal with the devil, the devil had best read the fine print,” said a voice from the shadows at the edge of the chamber.

Leon tensed. He remembered those words - he’d spoken them, after all. But he’d never heard this voice before. “Who goes there?” he demanded.

“Your words, Lord Silverburg,” said the same voice. “You spoke them after Zalbard left. In your arrogance, you believed those words were spoken only to yourself.”

Leon’s eyes narrowed. “Who are you?” he asked.

“That you intended to betray us,” said the voice, not answering Leon’s question, “we knew from the start. We have dealt with enough traitors to know that they will never change their ways. But so long as you were useful to us, we allowed you to believe that you would succeed in that treason.”

Leon stepped forward. But he still couldn’t see anyone in the shadows at the edge of the room. In fact, the shadows seemed deeper the closer he came.

“We were as yet unsure of who the true Bearer was. You provided a very useful service in showing us that Atriedes is the one spoken of in the Prophecy. But that is really the last useful service that you are competent to perform.”

“He got lucky this time,” Leon said. “It won’t happen again. If I’d had any sort of aid, he would be dead right now.”

“It is not the realm of practical men to consider what might have been. We have seen you defeated. The true Bearer has been chosen - the Banisher girl was correct in that respect, at least. We do not need a failed Bearer.” The voice seemed closer now, but Leon could not make out any definite shape in the darkness around him.

Leon stood firmly in place. “You’re wrong,” he said. “That Prophecy is nonsense. Coincidental. Atriedes has evidently learned how to steal True Runes, but that doesn’t mean that he’s some sort of legendary hero.”

“Do you truly believe that the Prophecy is untrue, Leon Silverburg?” asked the voice. “By the end, Windy believed thusly as well. We did not agree with the previous decisions made, including her elimination - it was such mistakes that required a change of leadership. But now we understand better why she had to be allowed to die.”

Leon’s eyes widened. “You are the one Zalbard calls ‘Master,’” he said.

“You are perceptive, Leon Silverburg. Were you not the blessed child of privilege, we would have gladly made you one of our advisors. But such as you have been given too much, and we do not apologise for our envy.”

“You would benefit from my service,” Leon said. “I know this world well. Its people, its habits - your agents have always said that my knowledge of these things is invaluable.”

There was mocking laughter in the voice, now. “But we have finished our business in this world. The Bearer and the Player will soon be gone. There are other, more important, issues for us to deal with then the affairs of this place.”

There as only a small ray of light left in the chamber, shining down on Leon. He looked around frantically. The other Dark Ones had been hidden by the shadows. Only he and the voice remained.

He turned back to where the voice had last come from. “What do you want?” he asked.

“We want you,” said the voice, “to kneel.”

Leon started to protest, but something sharp and fast hit him in the legs. He fell to his knees.

“We want you,” said the voice, “to bow.”

A great weight pressed against Leon’s shoulders. He tried to fight it, but it was impossible. He bent forward.

Before him, he could see a pair of armoured boots.

He forced himself to look up. The black lacquered armour of that Dark Ones’ master was more ornate by far than Yuber’s had been, and seemed to blend into the shadows as if they were a part of it.

Leon tried to look higher, to see the Dark One’s face.

Greaves, mail, breastplate, shoulder guards - all black, inlaid with rich designs in precious metals. But he had to look higher to see the face...

Just a little higher...

“We want you,” said the voice, “to die.”