223 Enter, Theolonius Stalwar
\"Zedd!\" I heard someone call for me. It sounded like a woman, someone I knew. \"Zedd, can you hear me? Zedd! Get up you fool.\"
I felt the gentle touch of her palm against my cheek. I felt numb all over, but I could clearly feel her hands against my face. The gentle touch soon changed into stinging sensations. Then I realized she was slapping me, trying to get me to wake up.
\"Would you stop it?\" I asked. \"It hurts you know.\"
\"Thank the gods you're alright,\" Elsa said. She was grinning from ear to ear. \"What happened here?\" she asked.
The ground below me was wet. Rain was still falling above our heads. Thunder rumbled, as though the heavens were shouting angry words at us that night. I leaned against my elbows and looked around. I saw a pool of blood had formed around me, mixed with rain water. The corpses of fallen custodians littered the forest.
\"Where's Raiya?\" I asked. What happened after I gave my \"encouraging\" speech to the custodians was still hazy in my mind.
\"I don't know,\" Elsa said. \"I should ask you the same.\"
\"She was with me when we were ambushed,\" I said. \"She was injured, on the verge of death. I got her into this… cave…\"
It all came back to me then. I killed all these men then Raiya came out. I hurriedly got up. I stretched my senses as far as I could and then some. There was no trace of the witch. The only proof I had of her deed was the absence of Eva's fragment.
\"Zedd?\" Elsa said. \"What happened between you and that witch?\"
\"She tricked me…\" I said. I couldn't believe the words that came out of my mouth. \"Fucking bitch tricked me…\"
A man I didn't know approached us. He was wearing a cloak that hid most of his body. \"My lady,\" the man said. \"We have to go. We can't stay here for long.\"
Elsa nodded. \"Do you know where the witch went?\" she asked me.
\"She's long gone by now,\" I said.
\"Then let's go,\" Elsa replied. \"We came here to get you. We'll worry about Raiya later.\"
We left the forest that night as the storm intensified. Lightning bolts lit our way as we navigated treacherous land. We were forced to reduce our horses' speed to a trot; running in that terrible weather only increased the chances of deadly accidents.
\"Why aren't we heading toward your estate?\" I asked Elsa as I rode behind her.
\"Your little adventure with the custodians is bound to reveal my identity to Stalwart,\" Elsa replied. \"Did you know that Konig was elected Chancellor after Fischer's assassination?\"
\"I heard it from the custodians,\" I said. \"Where are we headed?\"
\"A safe house only a handful of my people know of,\" Elsa replied. \"What happened with Raiya?\"
\"Later,\" I said. \"It's a long story.\"
Right then, Beatrix rode beside us. She looked at me when a lightning bolt flashed above our heads. She was smiling. I didn't know what to make of that mischievous grin she gave me.
\"Did you really kill all those men?\" she asked after the lightning subsided.
\"It was either that or die, cornered like a sewer rat,\" I replied.
Thunder rumbled, and I couldn't hear the next word she said.
\"What?\" I asked.
\"I said the men here are terrified of you,\" she reiterated. \"They say you're a demon in human form.\"
I chuckled. \"It's clear they have never met a demon before,\" I said.
One more lightning bolt flashed above us, illuminating the road ahead.
\"Did you see that?\" I asked Elsa.
Elsa raised her hand to signal her men to stop. \"What the hell is that?\" she asked.
\"Someone's standing there in the rain,\" Beatrix, who had better sight in the dark than all of us, said. \"He's waving at us.\"
Another lightning bolt flashed above our heads. Then another. Then another. Soon, the night sky was illuminated by hundreds, thousands of lightning bolts. They interlocked, creating large shockwaves that caused the earth to shake as they exploded.
\"What the fuck is that?!\" a man behind screamed.
Right before us, an old man stood, waving at us, smiling as though he was greeting old friends.
\"Shit!\" I said. \"Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!\"
\"What?\" Elsa asked. \"Who is that?\"
\"You stay here,\" I said. \"It's time I faced my destiny.\"
I tried to dismount, but Elsa stopped me. \"Who the fuck is that, Zedd?\" she asked, anger flaring through her nostrils.
\"It's the man we've been running from,\" I said. \"I don't know how he found us, but there's no escaping it now.\"
\"Do you mean…\" Elsa whispered.
\"Stalwart?\" Beatrix finished her sentence.
\"In the flesh,\" I replied. \"Stay here. With any luck, he'd be content to take me and call it a day.\"
\"Why the fuck would he want you?\" Beatrix asked.
\"Because he's my grandson,\" Stalwart replied.
He was standing between Beatrix and Elsa's horses. He looked at us with an amiable smile. His white beard wasn't as long as the one he had when I met him in the fragment of time. They were indeed different people. His eyes turned to look at me. They grew cold, detached.
\"Hello Myles,\" he said. \"Have you told these people that you were their biggest liability?\"
\"Myles?\" Elsa said. \"What's the meaning of this, Zedd?\"
\"Zedd is but a name the witch gave him,\" Stalwart replied. Although it was raining heavily, his clothes weren't affected by it. It looked as though water was evading him.
\"The witch?\" I heard Elsa's voice rising.
\"Lady Vogel,\" Stalwart turned to look at Elsa, \"it is my understanding that you wish to take out Hartwell, my most loyal servant.\"
Elsa's anger immediately subsided. \"What of it?\" she said. \"I'm following the rules, your rules if I'm not mistaken.\"
Grandpa chuckled. \"Indeed,\" he said. \"I'll appoint you leader of the Merinsk branch if you gift me your estate, how about it?\"
\"What will happen to him?\" she asked, jerking her head toward me.
\"He's coming with me,\" grandpa said. \"He's betrayed your trust, don't you see it? He's been playing games he understood nothing of. He deserves to be punished.\"
\"What about my father?\" Beatrix asked.
Grandpa's head slowly turned toward Beatrix. \"Lady Bodrick,\" he said. \"It's a pleasure to finally meet the infamous merchant robber. What about your father?\"
\"I want to see him suffer,\" she said. \"You can't take that away from me.\"
Stalwart roared in laughter. The sky got illuminated with more lightning bolts and sparkling explosions. With a flick of his finger, Stalwart directed a lightning bolt at Beatrix. Horse and rider were instantly charred as a large lightning bolt descended on them with a loud explosion that sent me and Elsa off our horse.
\"You've grown bold!\" grandpa said. I turned to see him levitating in the air. His arms were raised toward the sky. \"It's time I taught you a lesson in humility, Lady Vogel, grandson.\"
Lightning bolts descended from the sky. In a blinding flash, all the men that were escorting us died, charred to the bone. Large cavities on the ground replaced the spots on which they stood. Grandpa aimed his arm toward our horse and decimated it with another lightning bolt.
\"I've reigned over this continent for more than a century,\" grandpa told us as he slowly descended. \"Do you think that you, mere children, can outsmart me?\"
Elsa suddenly started levitating above the ground. She was struggling to breathe as her legs writhed helplessly in the air. Grandfather slowly approached her, a large grin on his face, a murderous look in his eyes.
\"Hartwell had informed me about the Aether Spring your family hides in that estate of yours,\" grandpa told her. \"I was surprised that such a treasure was hidden away from me for so long. To tell you the truth, I respect your father and his forefathers for pulling such a trick on me.\"
\"Stop!\" I screamed. \"You want me. She's got nothing to do with this.\"
Stalwart chuckled. \"Myles, O'Myles,\" he said. \"You haven't learnt anything about me, have you?\"
\"I know that you're a self-absorbed megalomaniac, for one,\" I said. \"I know that you put your needs before your own fucking son!\"
Stalwart let go of Elsa then turned to me. She fell on the ground, coughing, wheezing. I looked at her, and saw anger in her eyes. There was something else in there beside anger, something worse. She looked disappointed, deeply hurt by the secret I'd kept from her.
Grandpa approached me with steady, slow steps. I couldn't tell if he was angry, or simply bored. He had that nonchalant look about him, one that said he didn't care what happened or what he did with me. I knew then, that I was in deep shit.
He raised his arm and was about to summon another lightning bolt when something zoomed past me. I heard a thud, then grandpa flew off, propelled by the force of a powerful punch. Then I saw who was responsible behind the attack. My eyes grew wider. My jaw dropped open.
\"Sam?\" I asked, bewildered.