Right from the start, it’s clear which way this battle is going to go.
It’s not just a question of numbers (Asphodel has more) it’s that the touch of the Thralls is poisonous to normal people, and only Torvold can actually kill them with Calx.
The regular foot soldiers only have the power to hold back the Thralls temporarily. They can bludgeon them into immobility, as I did with my pan, but bludgeoning takes time. They bludgeon away, and it saves some of their lives, but it’s not a way to win.
Torvold needs to be everywhere at once, and he nearly is. Great plumes of smoke and ash fly up and around him as he makes wide sweeping motions with Calx. He scythes through the ranks of Thralls with as much economy of motion as can be, but no one could keep that up forever.
And Asphodel sits on his horse, waving a hand to conduct his gory orchestra, not even breaking a sweat.
“Aren’t you going to fight?” I ask, when I can no longer hold back the tightness in my chest.
“If Torvold manages to get through my army and challenge me, I will fight him.” He leans over in his saddle and smiles at me. “Don’t want to tire myself out beforehand, now do I?”
I glance down at his sword. I can’t help it. I want to grab it and kill him right now. He sees my eyes drop down and laughs his cruel laugh.
“Still wondering if you could snatch up my sword before I can? Any time you want to find out, try it.”
I look away. I need to find something I can use against him. I have to come up with a plan. You know…the thing I’ve never had? Yeah, one of those.
“You’re not going to use magic?” I ask tightly.
“Why waste my energy creating an illusion?” he replies.
I look out at the battle, and I can see Torvold halfway through the sea of Thralls, and though he fights on, even from here it’s obvious that his strength is flagging. I take a deep breath, trying not to scream or cry or do something really dumb like hurl myself at Asphodel’s head, when I see it.
There’s a bright flash of white, thrashing hooves, and rainbow light refracting off a spiral horn of bone and crystal. Rancor comes charging up from behind Torvold, impaling Thralls and bucking like a bronco.
Whatever magical crystal is in his horn must be in his hooves, too, for every time his kicks a Thrall it bursts into ash. Rancor twists out oddly, and screams (very unnerving to hear an equine scream) and I think he’s foaming at the mouth. He tears through Thralls like a kid through wrapping paper on Christmas.
Rancor has gone bat-shit crazy.
And it isn’t pretty. It’s like watching a beauty queen completely lose her tiddly-winks, tear out her hair extensions, and make one of those drama-tragedy-mask faces with mascara running down her face. It’s not easy to watch, is all I’m saying.
Rancor runs out in front of Torvold and starts blazing a path for him, giving Torvold a much-needed break. Even if Torvold wanted to raise his sword at a Thrall, Rancor wouldn’t let him. It’s as if that deranged unicorn had decided that every single one of the Thralls was his to kill.
The men hurrah Rancor, fanning the flames of Rancor’s insane charge. Torvold is very good at killing Thralls. Rancor is exceptional. It’s as if he were made for it. At one point it looks like Rancor just can’t help himself anymore and he starts running over Thralls, galloping over them and gleefully turning them into ash.
“That blasted unicorn,” Asphodel says, grinding his teeth.
“He is a perfect menace,” I say lovingly, like that ball of murderous crazy was my special little man.
I just hope that Asphodel doesn’t summon the bats as they seemed to be more effective at deterring Rancor than Thralls. But as Rancor mows down row after row of Thralls, and bats don’t appear, I suspect that Asphodel can’t call for them. I approached the Ebon Spire at sunset, when bats usually come out, and though it feels like the battle has gone on for hours, it is still mid-day here on Knob Knoll.
Asphodel kicks his mount forward. Torvold has made it through the Thralls with his bannerman, Jackanet the Loyal, holding his colors high. Fortitude stands beside Loyalty. She strips off a white glove and throws it to the ground. Asphodel the Evil Sorcerer has been officially challenged by Torvold the Bold, Champion of Virtue, and he has no choice but to face him in single combat.
The Thralls stop fighting and pull back. The armies of men disengage as well. One of the Thralls limps forward and picks up the white glove thrown by Fortitude and carries it to Asphodel. Asphodel takes the glove and removes one of his own, finger by finger. Then he throws it to the ground.
The armies part. Rancor patrols the ground between them, snorting, but he does not attack. The two knights dismount, remove their helmets, unsheathe their swords, and walk to the cleared, flat ground atop Knob Knoll.
Asphodel is smiling.
This is exactly what he’s been waiting for. For all my worry about Torvold tiring himself to the point of exhaustion, or flying into an unbalanced rage over me, the truth is that Asphodel might be a good enough fighter to beat him even without any tricks.
He did say that Torvold was the best knight he’d encountered in a hundred years, but I don’t think you can know something like that without first being able to kill a hundred years’ worth of darn good knights.
If Torvold fights, he will lose. If he loses, Lucitopia dies. Torvold can’t fight. It goes against everything he is, but the only sure way to save Virtue is for him to turn around and walk away. I watch him mount Knob Knoll in his golden armor, the picture of heroism, and I realize that he’s the one who should’ve hid in the tower.
Asphodel is waiting on one side of the clearing. Torvold positions himself across from his foe. I must stop this. I see Faith, Hope, and Love standing on a far hill, watching.
Jump. And the net will appear.
I jump off my horse. I run between the two knights. I hold up my scarlet-clad arms and shout,
“If we sacrifice the best of ourselves so that the rest may live, what’s the point of living at all?”
Torvold stops, recognizing his own words. I turn to him.
“You are the best of us Torvold, not me,” I say. “Asphodel doesn’t want to be king, he wants to kill you because if he kills you…”
And then I feel a hot throbbing hole open up in my middle. I look down and see the tip of a broadsword sticking out of my bellybutton.
I should have come up with a plan.
That whole notion of jumping and the net appearing? Utter garbage. Just a bad idea all around.
Of all the ways I could have died protecting Torvold I can think of about a dozen that would have been more effective than this. Jumping in front of Asphodel’s killing blow, for instance, or pulling a Rancor and just going bat-shit crazy on Asphodel would have been much more useful ways to get myself impaled. But this is embarrassing.
“I’m so sorry,” I say to Torvold.
I see his face crumble. Then Asphodel pulls the blade back out—way more painful than going in, by the way—and I topple to the side. Asphodel steps over me to strike at Torvold, and Torvold parries.
Then a sound comes out of Torvold. It’s not really a battle cry, it’s much more personal and painful to listen to. A storm unleashes on Asphodel. Torvold is hitting Asphodel so hard I hear the clanging of their swords through the ground. The blows are fast and punishing, and I have no idea if this is great swordsmanship or not, but I don’t see how anything could handle being pounded on that way for very long.
I feel something soft and hairy nibbling on my head. Then Rancor’s warm tongue slops across my face. He’s trying to drink my tears. The only problem is, I’m not crying. I’m in a universe of pain, but I’m not heartbroken. I’m actually too cheesed off by the idiotic way I’ve thrown away my one shot at a heroic death to cry over the fact that I’m dying.
Torvold strikes Asphodel so hard on the breastplate that his armor comes off on one shoulder. The loose armor disrupts Asphodel’s ability to swing and he has to back up and unhook the straps on the other shoulder, abandoning the chest and back plate altogether. Without the armor, Asphodel is more exposed, but he is also faster and lighter.
Oh no. Asphodel just disarmed Torvold. Calx comes flying in my direction and nearly kills me a second time. Asphodel brings his sword down on Torvold, but Torvold grabs his wrist with both hands and then pulls Asphodel into his knee.
Asphodel lets out a giant oof sound and then Torvold opens up on him. He knees Asphodel in the gut over and over, every time jamming his knee harder into Asphodel’s solar plexus. Finally, Asphodel drops his sword, and then it becomes a fist fight.
Calx is just a foot away from me. This sucks worse than any period cramp I have ever had in my entire life, but I roll over onto my hands and knees. When I don’t black out from the pain, I do a little baby crawl to Calx.
I know if I touch Calx it will burn, but maybe the burning will distract me from the giant hole in my colon.
The brawl has come to the ground. Torvold is doing something to Asphodel’s arm that look like an MMA move. Not that I’m an expert in mixed martial arts, or anything. And I’m pretty sure they didn’t have jujitsu in these types of stories, but I guess if it works it works.
I reach out and grab Calx, thinking I’ll just get it over with, but when I touch the metal it doesn’t burn at all. In fact, as soon as my hand is all the way around the hilt, I feel a jolt of energy and the pain from my wound isn’t that bad anymore.
I stand up. I walk over to the struggling knights. Asphodel has gotten on top Torvold. Calx pulls me forward until I am holding the blade to Asphodel’s chest.
Both knights look up at me and freeze.
“Impossible,” Asphodel says through swollen lips and broken teeth. “No one from this world can wield that sword!”
“Then it’s a good thing I’m from Fresno,” I say.
Asphodel makes a move to dive for his sword, and I stab him right through the heart.
And that’s all I got.
I see the ground rushing up and then it stops and I’m lying next to Asphodel. His left hand, bare from throwing down his glove to accept Torvold’s challenge, is right in front of my face. Across the back of it is the cut I gave him in my dream. He was there, in my dream. Maybe it wasn’t even a dream. Maybe I only thought it was a dream because it felt so surreal. That cut on his hand is real enough.
That lying sack of—
“Princess!” Torvold sobs, lifting me into his arms.
He holds me to him and cries. At least I’m not the one crying this time. I’d love to wipe his tears away, but Rancor’s gone and shoved his fat head in between us and I can’t even see Torvold. I can’t see anything, actually. I’m definitely dying. Maybe I’m already dead.
I feel gooey.
I open my eyes and see Torvold’s expectant face. I see all of their faces hovering over me—Dex, Tudie, and Jackanet, Thunder and Rancor, Faith, Hope and Love. Even Griselda is here. Still don’t know who she really is, but I’m just happy to be able to see anybody right now. I feel inside the hole in my dress and am delighted to find that there is no hole in my belly anymore.
I sit up and laugh. Torvold laughs and hugs me. Somewhere in there he took off his breastplate and I can feel his chest against mine. I’m laughing and crying and Rancor is sneaking a lick even though these are definitely tears of joy and not heartbreak.
I pull back and look around. All of the Thralls are gone. A middle-aged man and woman are standing behind the Virtues, smiling. She’s wearing a grey dress. I smile and wave at them.
“That’s it?” I ask Hope. “It’s over?”
“It’s over,” she says. “All of the souls Asphodel captured are free, including your father’s. You’re a hero.”
I look at Torvold and he hugs me again. “I thought you were dead,” he whispers.
“Me too,” I whisper back. We stay like that for a long time.
“Why don’t we see to the wounded?” Love says. I open my eyes and see her shooing everyone away from Torvold and I. “You, too, Temperance,” she says to Griselda, dragging her away.
“That’s who she is,” I mumble. “Temperance.”
“Glad she’s gone, then,” Torvold says. He’s doing that cheeky-yet-blushing thing that I find absolutely devastating.
He pushes my hair behind my shoulder. I know I’m covered in glittery unicorn snot, and he’s covered in sweat and dirt and lots of other nasty things from fighting a battle and grappling with an evil sorcerer to the death, but neither of us care.
He kisses me. It feels like falling and floating and flying and…like something else. Something I’ve felt before. A barfy butterfly. We both pull back and look at each other, like we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. Oh no. Torvold narrows his eyes at me.
“Wait. Did you say you were from Fresno?” he asks. He doesn’t have a British accent anymore.
“Oh shi—” we both say.
And I’m out of Lucitopia.