“They have been captured,” Count Duvian said to Mark. “Hawkins and Theo are bringing them here at this very moment.”
Mark swallowed, but he refused to let Count Duvian see his anxiety. “Good,” he answered, but inside his heart was sinking. He knew he had spoken to Count Duvian as though their capture was unmistakable, but he was been hoping things wouldn’t actually turn out that way.
His thoughts turned to Hawkins. “That scum,” he fumed. Out loud he said, “Hawkins played his part well.”
The Count nodded. “He followed my instructions to the letter. His motivation, of course, the power I have offered him, but he will find out after we kill your three friends that he worked for nothing.” He chortled, rubbing his hands together.
Even though his hate for Hawkins was great, Mark couldn’t help feeling slightly sorry for him. His hate for Count Duvian grew at that moment as well.
“Anyway,” Count Duvian continued. “They will be arriving within the next few minutes.”
Mark’s stomach was suddenly plagued with butterflies, but he kept the nervousness out of his voice when he asked, “May I return to my room? I have a good view of the road from there.”
The Count nodded. “You may.”
Mark bowed and hurriedly exited. He knew it would take him a couple minutes just to get back to his rooms. He jogged down the many halls and ran up the stairways, releasing some of his energy.
“They’re almost here,” he thought with a shudder. He took a deep breath after entering his bedroom. “Let’s get this over with.”
He stationed himself at his window and watched and waited.
* * *
The Stone Fortress loomed above them, intimidating, threatening, powerful.
Jeff felt his knees go weak. “Look at the size of that thing!” he thought. “How are we ever going to get out of here alive?”
He glanced first at Matt, then at G. Matt was breathing deeply, obviously seeking to calm himself. G outwardly appeared calm, but Jeff knew him well enough to know that inwardly he was probably experiencing nerves like never before in his life.
They crossed the bridge over the moat. Matt knocked a stone and it fell into the still, murky water with a ‘plop’.
G gazed up at the Stone Fortress, awed by its immensity. His searching eyes glanced at one of the towers, then the other. He started. Someone was looking out of a small window at them, and he recognized that someone immediately.
“It’s Mark!” he thought excitedly.
Just then the figure pulled away from the window abruptly.
G was confused, but he didn’t have time to ponder the matter, because they were approaching the main set of doors.
* * *
“There they are!” Mark thought with elation. “They’re finally here!” It was all he could do to keep himself quiet and contained. He continued to look out the window, his gaze fixed on his three best friends. They seemed well, considering their situation. Mark couldn’t see them very clearly, but he could easily identify each of them. Matt and Jeff were staring straight ahead, but G was observing all he could of the Stone Fortress.
“If he keeps that up,” Mark mused, but then he swiftly drew back from the window. “He’s going to see me,” he finished the thought. He knew G had spotted him by the way his friend’s whole body jolted. His hand trembled as he reached up to push a lock of hair out of his face.
The reality of the moment struck him. “This is it,” he thought, “In just a little while the fate of the world will be determined.”
The idea scared him.
There came a knock on his door. Mark walked over and opened it. “I know,” he said as the servant opened his mouth. He pushed past him and headed for Count Duvian’s quarters.
The Count was exiting his room as Mark approached. “Perfect timing,” he remarked, pausing to adjust his sword belt. “I was just about to go meet you.” He smirked. “We have an entrance to make.”
Mark eyed him closely. “What are you planning on doing?”
Count Duvian began walking down the long, broad hallway, scratching his chin. “Well, for one thing, I do not want you to say anything at all.”
“Why?” Mark wanted to know.
The Count stopped and turned to look at him. “Because I only want you to stand there and look haughty. I do not particularly want you to make any eye contact. You are not like them anymore. Why should you deign to even look at them?”
Mark nodded thoughtfully. “You’re absolutely right,” he replied.
Count Duvian smiled. “Good.” He started walking again. “I am very much looking forward to viewing their pain.”
“As am I, Count Duvian,” Mark agreed, though only in word, not in heart.
A servant approached. “They are in the courtyard awaiting your presence, sirs,” he said, bowing.
“Very good,” the Count replied, dismissing him. “Now the real enjoyment begins,” he said to Mark.
Mark took a deep breath and nodded. “Let’s do this thing,” he said, determination in his every step.
* * *
“The great Count Duvian will be with you shortly,” a servant said before bowing and leaving the room.
“Fantastic,” Matt thought dryly, glancing around the elaborate courtyard.
There were statues in every corner, all very much alike, and all of Count Duvian, he supposed. The walls and pillars in the room were ornately carved with snakes and vines. Interestingly, the snakes had foot-long fangs and the vines were coated with thorns.
“What kind of creep are we dealing with?” Jeff wondered.
A door swung open and, with a flourish, Count Duvian entered the room.
For the first few seconds, G, Matt, and Jeff only stared at the villainous creature before them. He was so alike, yet unlike what they had envisioned he was be. He had the height, the weapons, and the muscles, but his face wasn’t as evil as they had expected. His goatee was well trimmed while the rest of his face was clean-shaven. In their minds they had pictured an unkempt beard or stubble.
“Welcome,” he spoke, his voice like silk. “to my humble abode.” He gave a small bow, mocking them all the while.
Matt returned it as best he could, his own taunting unmistakable. “Thank you,” he replied. “We are looking forward to our stay here.”
The Count’s features darkened. “Do you have any idea who you are dealing with, boy?”
Matt smirked. “We have a pretty good idea.”
Count Duvian straightened himself as much as possible, trying to bring out his height advantage at this critical moment. “Obviously, you do not know enough,” he said. He turned toward the door behind him. “You may enter,” he spoke in an authoritative tone.
Mark took a deep breath, and obeyed. His hand shook as he reached for the doorknob. His heart beat loudly, echoing in his ears. His arm gave just enough effort to open the door. He forced his mouth into a straight line and his body into a confident air. The moment had come. It was then up to him to provide the safety and protection his friends dearly needed.
And there they were. Mark fought the urge to grin.
“Mark!” G exclaimed, a smile coming quickly to his face.
“Good to see you, man,” Jeff said, his voice choked. He had been able to get one arm free, but it had soon been grabbed and yanked behind his back once more. Still, nothing could restrain the joy he felt at seeing his best friend again.
Mark tensed, feeling the emotion welling up inside of him, yet unable to let it out. His emotions were two-fold. He was very glad to see his best friends, but at the same time he knew they were about to get hurt like never before. He kept his eyes trained on a distant wall.
Matt immediately knew something was terribly wrong. Mark hadn’t even batted an eyelid when G and Jeff had spoken. He hadn’t even looked their way. Matt’s stomach suddenly had a knot in it the size of a bowling ball. “No,” he thought. “He can’t possibly have betrayed us! No way!” Yet as he studied Mark’s face, his uncertainty became fears.
Count Duvian smiled at them. “Ah, you foolish lads, coming all this way just to die.” He shook his head. “Heartbreak and death. The only things here to greet you when you arrived.”
“What do you mean ‘heartbreak’?” G demanded, though he well knew the answer. Mark still had not even glanced at them. But G was hanging on to a hope that Count Duvian had somehow threatened him into silence.
Count Duvian looked directly at him. “Why, he has betrayed you, of course.”
It took a moment for the words to sink in.
“No, Mark!” G pleaded. “Say it’s not true!”
“Say he’s lying!” Jeff added, but he knew in his heart the Count was telling the truth.
Mark had known this moment would be hard for him, but he didn’t imagine it couldn’t possibly be so very painful. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the grief on his friends’ faces and it was all he could do to keep from crying out, “He is lying! I didn’t betray you!” But he kept his mouth shut.
“Mark,” was all Matt said, but it was enough. That one word corresponded his pain, devastation, and heartache. That word begged for everything Count Duvian said to be rebuked and held as false.
The Count smiled again, but his smile was cruel. “It did not take much to convince him,” he said. “He seemed to thirst for power as much as I do.”
Jeff raised his sorrowful eyes to look beseechingly at Mark. For the first time, Mark looked at them. His look sent chills through their bodies and was the final stroke. His gaze was cold, merciless.
G had never felt so helpless as he turned away from Mark’s glare, emotion welling up in his chest. “No,” he whispered, all fight gone out of him.
Count Duvian enjoyed seeing their pain, while Mark inwardly was writhing with it. He hated having to turn the “look” on them, yet he knew it would completely convince them of his betrayal.
The Count turned to Mark. “Before I send them to the dungeon, is there anything you want to say?”
Mark looked at him, then at his three best friends. Only Jeff had lifted his head at Count Duvian’s words. Mark shook his head, keeping a haughty expression on his face.
“Very well,” the Count said. He motioned for Theo. “Take them to the dungeon and put them in separate cells. I will determine their demise later.”
Theo bowed, then he and his men took G, Matt, and Jeff away.
Count Duvian then turned his attention to Hawkins. “Well done,” he complimented him. “You played your role quite nicely.”
Hawkins bowed. “Thank you, Count. I would have been here sooner, except we had a terrible snowstorm that held us up for a few days.”
The Count smiled. “Ah, but if it had not been for that snowstorm, we would not have Mark on our side.”
“Good job, Hawkins,” Mark said coolly. “Now our plans for dominion can proceed, all thanks to you.”
Hawkins smiled. “It is sort of odd that we are now on the same side, don’t you agree?”
Mark only responded with a nod. His anger and hatred of Hawkins was burning very, very brightly at the moment, and he was afraid his tone might at some point give that rage away.
Theo had once again entered the room. “They are in their cells, Count,” he said, bowing.
Count Duvian nodded. “Very well. You may leave.”
Theo turned to go.
“Wait,” Mark ordered.
Mark faced the Count. “May I have the keys to their cells?” he asked. He allowed himself a small smile. “I want to do a bit of gloating before they die.” “Fall for it,” he was thinking inwardly.
Count Duvian seemed amused. “Of course. Who am I to hinder an evil mind’s desires?” He beckoned for Theo. “Take him to the dungeon and give him the keys. He can remain as long as he wants.”
Theo bowed once again. Mark bowed himself, then followed Theo out of the courtyard.
* * *
G paced his cell, his mind chaotic, his heart heavy. The engulfing darkness matched his mood. “I can’t believe it,” he groaned. “I had such faith in him…” He rubbed his face, frustrated. “I just can’t believe it.”
He punched a wall, but with little effort. “How could he be so weak? I never thought power could get to him.”
G sighed and reached down to massage his calves. The day’s travels were beginning to get to him as they always did. But the bodily pains were worsened by the recent events.
His mind left the present and thought back to a town he knew so well, a town he now knew he would never see again. The reality of the idea struck him. Never see Snowflake again? Never see his family or parents again? Never to go back to the life he knew, the one he cherished now more than ever.
The weight of it crushed him. He sat down in one of the corners of his cell and bowed his head.
* * *
The dungeon was pitch black except for a dim lantern every thirty feet. Water dripped in the distance. A rat scurried across the floor, its pitter patter resounding off the walls.
Mark swallowed as he followed Theo down the damp hallway. He didn’t really want to think about what the cells were like.
“Does Count Duvian leave bodies down here?” he asked Theo.
Theo shrugged. “Sometimes. Recently he hasn’t been, otherwise it would smell even worse down here than it already does.”
Mark inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. At least his friends weren’t having to deal with skeletons, or worse.
The air down there was thick and musty. It had an odd odor that Mark couldn’t place, and he hoped will all his might it wasn’t rotting flesh. As they passed cell after cell, the dungeon’s stench grew worse and worse. At times he could hardly breathe. Air flow was more suppressed with every step he took.
“Well, here we are,” Theo said, turning toward one of the cells. “Here’s one of them. The other two are right there.” He indicated with the torch he was carrying. He handed Mark a ring of keys. “This one here works for all the cells.”
Mark nodded. “Got it. Thanks.”
Theo turned and began walking back the way they had come. Mark watched him go, then looked at the cell in front of him.
The walls of the prison were made of stone. The door was sold oak with a barred window at the top. Mark could see through the opening that a torch was inside, illuminating the small room.
He took a deep breath, as well as he could in the putrid air, then inserted the key into the lock. It clicked loudly. The door creaked as he opened it and slipped inside.
Matt leapt to his feet, his first reaction being surprise, and then anger. “What do you want?” he demanded. “You here to gloat?”
Mark swallowed. “No,” he replied, his voice very low. “I’m here to set you free.”
Matt laughed dryly. “Sure. Give me a break. It’s probably a trap. What, is there a guy outside waiting to chop my head off?”
“Matt, listen to me,” Mark pleaded, taking a step toward him. “I did not betray you.”
Matt scowled. “Yeah, right.”
“You have to believe me,” Mark persisted. “I never even considered it. I faked everything because I knew Count Duvian would’ve killed us all on the spot if I didn’t.”
Matt still looked at him dubiously. As much as he had doubts, a small ray of hope began growing in his chest, a hope that had died only minutes earlier.
Everything Mark had just said made perfect sense. Pretending to become the betrayer was most likely the only thing he could do to save their lives. Matt suddenly felt much admiration for Mark and his gumption. Such a decision couldn’t have been made easily.
“You really didn’t betray us?” he asked, just to be sure.
Mark shook his head. “Never. You have to believe me. Please…” his voice trailed off. He so desperately wanted Matt to regain the faith he once had in him.
Matt felt such a happiness begin to dwell inside him once more that he couldn’t help but grin. “I do,” he said.
“Really?” Mark could hardly persuade himself Matt had said those two words.
“Really.” Matt’s smile faded. “I’ve really missed you, man.”
Mark choked, the joy inside him demanding to be released. “Same here.”
No more words were necessary. Matt took three steps forward and they seized each other in a tight embrace. Mark felt as though he would burst. Relief washed over him like a wave.
One down, two to go.
As the two pulled apart, Mark was grateful for the semi-darkness. He didn’t want Matt to see the moisture in his eyes. “Come on,” he said, heading towards the door. “Let’s get G and Jeff.”
Matt nodded. “And then we have to take care of Count Duvian.”
Mark flinched. “Don’t remind me. I’ve been thinking about it all day.” He opened the cell door and made a quick survey. “We’re good,” he reported, then swung the door open wider so they could walk through.
After another quick check, Mark made his way to the next cell. He unlocked the door, then tossed the keys to Matt. “Free whoever’s in there,” he instructed. “I’m going to try to convince who’s in here I’m not the betrayer. You do the same.”
Matt gave him the thumbs up. “Gotcha,” he replied, then started down the dark hallway.
Mark took a deep breath and entered the cell. He immediately recognized G’s silhouette, and was suddenly very much afraid this battle would be harder than the first.
G was still sitting in the corner with his head bowed. He didn’t look up when he heard his cell door being opened. “It’s time for me to die,” he thought resignedly, “at Mark’s hands.”
He heard the footsteps coming closer. There was the sound of knees cracking before he felt a hand on his shoulder. “G,” he heard a very, very familiar voice say.
“G,” Mark said, trying to keep his voice steady.
G lifted his head. “Mark?” he asked, but his tone wasn’t friendly.
Mark could feel the ice and he took a couple steps back. “Hey, man, it’s ok.”
In an instant, G was on his feet. He seized Mark by the collar and shoved him up against the wall.
Mark could feel his friend trembling beneath all the roughness and did nothing to fight back. He only maintained eye contact the entire time.
G raised a balled fist, poised to strike. “Don’t tell me it’s ok,” he growled. “How could you do it, huh? How could you betray us? I had so much faith in you,” he reared back to deliver the punch. “And you let me down.”
Mark didn’t even cringe. His heart burned with his own pain and with G’s. He didn’t think this would be so hard.
G’s fist wavered. As much as he wanted to get revenge, little revenge that it would be, he couldn’t seem to make himself punch his best friend. His anger screamed, “Punch him! Make him pay!” But the inner recesses of his heart restrained him.
Sweat poured down his face as his features contorted into a picture of grief and indecision.
Mark could feel his emotions long held back beginning to well up again as he saw the hesitation in G’s eyes. “G,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. “I didn’t betray you.”
G stared at him in disbelief, his grip on Mark’s collar tightening for an instant, then relaxing. “How am I supposed to believe that?” he asked, his voice cracking. “If it was all an act, how come you didn’t give any signal?”
Mark shook his head. “Would you have been able to fake the emotions you felt out there if you had known the truth?”
G released Mark completely and backed away, still unsure of what he should think. “And that look you gave us?”
Mark smiled slightly. “I made it up a few days ago. I knew I would have to do something to seal the deal.”
G still looked at him dubiously. “How can I be sure?” he asked. “How can I be sure you’re not just saying all this to get my trust back and then you’ll chop my head off later?”
Mark looked at him for a little while, then unbuckled his sword from around his waist. He threw it at G’s feet. “I’d never use it on you,” he said when the clattering sound the sword made had stopped echoing off the stone walls. “I’d use it on me first.”
The elation G felt at that moment was overwhelming. Every fear, every grief, every concern fled from him in a flash. Only joy remained.
He opened his arms wide. “Come here, guy,” he said, his voice cracking again, but a smile was on his face.
Mark was so relieved that at first he didn’t move. But then his emotions took over and he swiftly stepped into G’s embrace, never feeling happier. This battle was won.
Just as they were pulling apart, the lock turned in their cell door and Matt and Jeff entered.
Jeff didn’t do anything at first. He and Mark sort of looked at each other for a moment, neither saying a word. Then, Jeff grinned. “Good to see you, man,” he said. He gave Mark a quick hug and a good natured punch on the shoulder.
“Glad to see you weren’t as hard to convince as G or Matt were,” Mark said with a smile.
Matt snorted. “Even me being free didn’t convince this bozo at first.”
Jeff grinned again. “Hey, it could’ve been a trap.”
Mark turned solemn. “Unfortunately, yes, it could’ve been. You all were right to be cautious. You’ve been betrayed too many times already.”
“I’m glad one was a fake,” G said with a short laugh.
“I told you I wouldn’t,” Mark replied. “Never in a million years.”
Matt patted him on the back. “And we never should’ve doubted you.”
Jeff cleared his throat. “This whole reunion thing is great and everything,” he said, “but don’t we have some business to take care of?”
Mark inwardly shuddered as he nodded. “We’ll have to get your swords back.” He opened the cell door, looked around quickly, then beckoned to them. “Coast is clear,” he said. “I know where they would’ve put your swords. Follow me.”
They cautiously exited the cell. He led them up the damp, dimly lit hallway, out of dungeon, and took a right where they then faced a large wooden door. Mark silently turned the knob and opened the door. He checked to make sure no one was there, then entered.
Inside were all kinds of weaponry imaginable: swords, knives, shields, bows, arrows, spears, and even some machetes.
“Here they are,” G said, walking to the left side of the room. He picked up his sword and promptly began strapping it around his waist.
Mark kept watch at the door. “Hurry it up, guys,” he said. “Someone will probably be here any minute.” He anxiously searched the halls for any type of movement.
“Done,” Matt said as he finished tightening his knife belt. He and G and Jeff rejoined Mark at the entrance.
“Ok,” Mark replied. “Let’s go.” He took a step outside the room, but Jeff grabbed his arm.
“Hey,” he asked, “aren’t you forgetting something?”
Mark turned back. “Such as?”
G picked up another sword. “Look familiar?”
Mark started to smile. “No way. You guys actually brought my sword with you?”
“And your knife,” Matt added, tossing it to him.
Mark hurriedly undid the sword belt already around his waist and laid the weapon aside. Taking up his sword, he unsheathed it. Unlike the blade he had just been wearing, the hilt fit his hand to perfection and the weight was just right. He swung it around a couple times and began grinning. “Thanks, guys,” he said. He fastened the sword and knife around his waist. “Now we can get down to business.”
* * *
Mark led them down many hallways, up and down staircases, and through many fine rooms. Just as they were about to enter the courtyard, though, he suddenly stopped.
“What’s wrong?” Matt asked in a low voice, his hand on his sword hilt.
Mark swallowed and leaned against the wall. “You guys have no idea what Count Duvian is like,” he said. “He’s ruthless and cruel. He’s…” He shook his head. “I knew, I always knew, that eventually I’d have to face him. I guess I’m just not ready yet.”
G placed his hand on Mark’s shoulder and could feel his friend trembling. “We’ll be here the whole time to help you.”
Mark looked at him. “Do you realize how many men we might have to fight? I may not even live to fight Count Duvian.”
“Then go for him first,” Jeff replied. “We’ll take care of everyone else.” He drew his sword. “Now, let’s do this thing.”
Mark couldn’t help but admire their bravery. “Wait,” he said. He too had drawn his weapon. “Just in case we all die out there,” he swallowed again, “I just wanted to say thanks.” He cleared his throat. Speaking from the heart was quite awkward for him. “You guys didn’t have to come for me, but you did.” He gave a small smile. “A guy never had better friends.”
“It can go the other way, too,” G replied quietly. “You didn’t betray us, though I’m sure you were under a lot of pressure. Thanks for making our trip worth it.”
Matt was the last one to draw his blade. “Let’s make it even more worth it,” he said. “Let’s do what we came to this world to do.”
Mark smiled. “I couldn’t agree more. But,” here he grinned mischievously. “if I don’t live and you guys do and you get back home, I want you to tell my family that my last words were,” he paused dramatically as he placed a hand over his heart, “go Eagles!”
That forced them all to stifle their laughter.
“Only you would say something like that at a time like this,” G said, shaking his head.
“Hey, it helped,” Jeff replied. He stepped out into the complete open. “Now let’s rock this party.”
“What party?” Matt asked, joining him.
“The party where we’re going to be the only ones having fun,” Mark responded. He quickly scanned the room. “Strange,” he thought. “No one’s here.” He suddenly had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. They must have been discovered at some point.
“If we didn’t have to kill Count Duvian,” G thought, nervously shifting his sword from his right hand to his left. He wiped his right hand on his pants. “I’d be out of here in a flash.”
At that moment, a low chortle entered the room and began echoing off the stone walls and floor.
They all tensed, Mark more so than the other three. He took a bold step forward. “Ok, Count Duvian!” he shouted. “Come out now so we can kill you and get this over with.”
The laughter grew louder as the Count stepped out of the deep, dark shadows in the far corner of the courtyard. He had removed his cloak and they could see he had many weapons at the ready. The weapon Mark noticed immediately was the blade in Count Duvian’s hand. It was Count Zanius’s.
“Kill me?” the Count snorted. “I am surprised you have the guts to even raise your sword against me.” He strode to the center of the room, shaking his head. “Foolish, foolish boy,” he said. “You should not have attempted an escape.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Like I told you before, I see everything that happens in my fortress.”
“Not everything,” Mark shot back. “You didn’t see me make the decision to fake a betrayal. You couldn’t see me scheming in my mind how to best protect my friends.” He smirked. “Once I had become the ‘betrayer’, you promised me anything and everything I needed to happen so they,” here he gestured to his friends, “would survive long enough for me to free them so we could ultimately be here to finish you off.” His grin was almost sardonic. “You played right into my hand.”
G wanted to laugh at the Count’s flabbergasted expression. Mark had won the round of verbal onslaught.
Count Duvian quickly regained his composure. “I suppose you think you have won, boy?” He continued before Mark could open his mouth to answer. “May I remind you that you will be facing the best swordsman ever to walk this earth? No amount of wit you may have will compensate for that.”
Mark stared at him, a grim look on his face. “Bring it on, Count,” he said quietly.
Count Duvian seemed to not hear him. “You still have a chance, you know,” he said, fingering one of his knife hilts. “It is not too late to come join me in my quest for ultimate dominion.”
Mark hesitated, but his pause was only to try to find the best answer. Matt, G, and Jeff, however, weren’t aware of that.
“Stay strong, man,” Jeff murmured.
Mark turned to him and gave a small smile and a wink. “No worries,” he said.
Jeff breathed a silent sigh of relief.
“It’s too late, Count,” Mark finally announced. He placed his hand on Matt’s shoulder. “I’m not about to change my mind now.”
Count Duvian’s face contorted into a picture of rage. “Then you will die, along with your precious friends!”
Mark remained calm. “Like I said, bring it on.” Fear seemed to have no hold on him. His courage and determination suddenly made him feel invincible.
Death was not an option.
* * *
At some unseen signal, Hawkins, Theo, and thirteen other soldiers poured into the room. They were all armed with swords and knives and looked very much ready to do battle.
“I call dibs on Hawkins,” Jeff said, flexing the fingers of his free hand.
“Who’s that other dude?” G asked, gesturing to Theo. “I know he helped bring us in.”
“That’s Theo,” Mark replied, not taking his eyes off Count Duvian. “He also helped kidnap me. I beat him in a fight on the way here.”
“Really? Then he shouldn’t be too hard to beat,” Matt said. “I’ll take him.”
G smirked. “Typical.” He studied the rest of the opposition. “They don’t look like they’d be too hard.”
“Count Duvian has only the best swordsmen in his army,” Mark warned. “I wouldn’t take it easy on them.” He sighed. “I’m so glad Nigel’s not here.”
“Who’s Nigel?” Matt questioned, but before Mark could answer, Count Duvian started speaking.
“Show no mercy,” he commanded his soldiers. “They want to keep you from earning your land and wealth. They want it all for themselves.” He paused for a few seconds, then continued with his speech.
“Brainwashed,” Jeff thought as he watched the soldiers’ faces go hard. “He’s taken over their minds.”
Mark took his eyes off the Count, who was still talking, and turned to his three friends. “This is it,” he said quietly. “I have to take on Count Duvian right away or I won’t have the strength to fight him.”
“Understood,” G replied. He could feel the emotion mounting, not only inside him, but in the others as well.
“Kick some butt, man,” Jeff said, trying to smile, but finding it impossible.
“He’s got nothing on you,” Matt added. His stomach hurt, his grief mingling with anxiety.
Mark was able to smile, but the tears visibly formed in his eyes. “You guys are the greatest,” he said, his voice thick. He looked down at the ground and bit his lip. On sudden impulse, he pulled them all together in a tight embrace. “I hope you make it out alive.” His words were barely a whisper.
“So I say to you one last time,’ Count Duvian said in conclusion. “Show them no mercy!”
The soldiers cheered.
Mark sighed as he separated from the hug. “I’ve got some work to do.”
G squeezed his shoulder. “You can do it. Just let the mixture flow.” With that last remark, he turned and walked with purpose in his step towards the soldiers. Matt and Jeff immediately followed.
The fighting was about to begin. The sounds of sword meeting sword would soon echo off the walls. Blood would cover every blade. There would be injuries.
Death was inevitable.
Mark made immediate eye contact with Count Duvian. “Let’s do this,” he mouthed, his gaze icy cold. He could feel the mixture flowing, rushing through his veins like a flooded river. Whatever his battle brought, he was ready for it.
The Count had fire in his eyes. “You asked for it, boy,” he snarled. “Now you are going to pay the penalty for your foolishness.”
“What foolishness?” Mark asked simply.
And he lunged.
He didn’t order himself to do it. He didn’t mentally prepare for it. He just did it.
The response was like ramming his sword against a stone wall. The impact took his breath away and it was a struggle to get it back again.
“Like I said,” Count Duvian smirked. “You asked for it. You never fought nor will ever fight again the likes of me.”
“Especially since I’m finishing you off now,” Mark returned, focusing all his attention on blocking the Count’s blows.
Out of the corner of his eye he could see G fighting a soldier. He felt a thrill as he saw G deliver a crippling blow to the man’s leg, then move on to his next opponent.
Every instant, Mark feared he would hear one of his friends call out that another had fallen, that it was the end of the road for one of the four. Yet every instant passed without that dreadful occurrence and hope remained strong in his heart.
“You have no chance against me, fool,” Count Duvian sneered. “No chance at all.”
“Then how am I still in this fight, if you’re so great?” Mark asked tauntingly. “Why haven’t you finished me off already?” He reposted quickly, but this time the Count seemed to effortlessly ward off the attack.
Count Duvian smiled evilly. “You have not proven to be an exceptional fighter, so I am matching my abilities to yours. Does that answer your question?”
Mark felt a sinking sensation wash over his entire body. Count Duvian was toying with him, letting him think victory was possible. Mark knew once the Count sensed his opponent was growing tired, all would be lost.
“You’re gonna have to pull off something big,” Mark told himself.