You leap towards Korthion, knife in hand, but it’s too late. Your cowl is down, your cloak billowing in the currents of arcane force rising from the Ascendant Bloodcrystal, and he can see you.
He gestures, and you freeze in midair, caught in the grip of his sorcery. The air feels as if it has turned to stone around you, and you cannot move, cannot even speak. From the corner of your eye you see Lucan immobilized in the same way, his sword drawn back to strike.
Anacepheon moans and tries to stand. Korthion makes a slashing motion, and the ancient Emperor is hurled back upon his throne.
“Do not,” moans Anacepheon, “oh, fool, fool, do not, do not…”
“Silence,” says Korthion. For a moment you think he is going to kill you, but he ignores you and crosses to the table of black marble.
A rictus grin comes over his dead face as he gazes upon the Ascendant Bloodcrystal.
Then he seizes it and lifts it with both hands.
“Mine,” he hisses. “Mine.”
The glow in the Bloodcrystal’s depths brightens. Your shadow-cloak begins to snap and billow from your shoulders. You struggle against the invisible force holding you with all your strength, but Korthion’s power does not wave.
A shaft of green light erupts from the Bloodcrystal, stabbing into the cavern’s ceiling.
“Yes,” he whispers, his yellow eyes reflecting the storm of emerald flame raging in the Bloodcrystal’s heart. “They’re mine.” He looks at you and laughs. “Your life is mine. All their lives are mine, mine to do with as I wish. I will be God! The world is mine, and I…”
“Failed!” Your mother’s voice thunders in your skull. “Useless weakling! You failed, failed, failed…”
Korthion keeps ranting, and your mother’s voice keeps shrieking, but suddenly you notice your shadow. It’s moving, rotating. So is Lucan’s, and Korthion’s, rotating to point at something behind Korthion…
Korthion staggers, and a foot of bronze blade, etched with smoldering hieroglyphs, erupts from his chest.
His mouth falls open, but no sound comes out.
Sophia leans up behind Korthion, smiling, resting her chin on his shoulder.
“You know, darling,” she murmurs, “when you placed that binding spell upon me, you really should have made certain that it worked.”
Korthion shrieks, his eyes wide with horror, and Sophia steps back, ripping her sword up. The bronze blade tears through Korthion’s chest and exits through the top of his head. His torso and skull fall to the floor, neatly bisected, the black blood of his veins turning to smoldering ash.
Sophia leaps forward, snatches the Ascendant Bloodcrystal from midair, and darts for the narrow stone bridge.
An instant later the spell holding you collapses, and you race after Sophia.
But it’s too late.
Sophia whirls as she runs along the bridge, spinning her bronze sword in great arcs. The blade cuts through the stone like silk, and enormous chunks of the bridge fall to splash in the lake far below. You just barely catch yourself before going over the edge, and soon Sophia stands perched upon a narrow tongue of stone seventy feet away, all that remains of the bridge.
Leaving you and Lucan stranded upon the platform.
“No!” wails Anacepheon, trying to rise from the throne and failing. “Stop! The power…the power is not worth the price!”
Sophia laughs, long and wild. “Do you think I care about power? No.” She lifts the Bloodcrystal. “This is…art.”
“Art?” you say.
“True art speaks to the condition of mortal men,” says Sophia. “And you know what the condition of mortal man is, do you not? Pain. Suffering. Torment. Death and blood and misery and suffering without end.” Her eyes widen, almost as with desire, and she lifts the Bloodcrystal. “And with this…oh, the suffering I shall wreak with this. All of Malarae will be my canvas. The world shall be my canvas!” She laughs again. “Becoming a goddess in the bargain is merely a bonus. Farewell, Countess! You were a worthy foe. Perhaps after I use the Bloodcrystal, I shall return here to see if you and Lucan died in each other’s arms. The two lovers, together forever in death.”
“How very artistic,” you say, wishing she were close enough to hit her with a throwing knife. Or two, or three.
Sophia turns and vanished up the stairs on the far side of the cavern.
“She will use the Bloodcrystal at any moment!” wails Anacepheon. “Failed, I have failed!”
“We failed, didn’t we?” says Lucan, face grim.
You say nothing and stared at the charred remnants of Korthion, thinking hard. Korthion tried to use the Ascendant Bloodcrystal immediately, to escape his pact with the dark spirit. But Sophia doesn’t care about power. She only cares about her twisted “art”, about the death and destruction…
About seeing the death and destruction…
“Yes,” murmurs your mother’s voice. “You do understand her, don’t you?”
“Caina,” says Lucan. “We’re going to die here. I love you, and…”
“Shut up, both of you,” you say. “This isn’t over yet.”
Both Anacepheon and Lucan look at you in surprise.
“Don’t you understand?” you say. “Sophia doesn’t care about the power, or becoming God, or immortality, or anything else. She cares about her ‘art’. She wants to see Malarae die. She’s not going to use the Bloodcrystal right away. She can’t see the city die from down here, can she? No. She’s going to go someplace where she can see the entire city, and then she’ll use it.”
“Emperors’ Reach,” says Lucan. You know the place. It’s a parapet built onto the side of the mountain, near the entrance to the Valley of the Emperors. From there you can see the entire Imperial Citadel and all of Malarae.
And it’s only an hour or so away from Anacepheon’s tomb on foot.
“We’ve got to find a way out of here,” you say, looking at the ruined bridge. You might –might- be able to catch a grapnel on the stub of the bridge and go hand-over-hand on the rope. Or you could try climbing down the pillar, swimming the lake, and climbing up the far side.
That assumes there’s nothing living in the lake, of course. And it will take time that you do not have.
“Wait,” says Anacepheon. “I can aid you. Some of my powers yet remain. I knew the Emperors’ Reach well, before my pride destroyed me, and I can send you there in a moment.”
“How?” you say.
“A path through the netherworld, the spirit realm,” he says. “There is risk involved…but it can take you there in but a moment.”