Mirror, Mirror
Chapter 24 - Hollow Victory

Steve wasn't too worried about the fight. The Sorcerer was invincible, but with the shield, so was Marcellus. Steve just needed the Sorcerer to stay busy long enough for him to do what he needed to do. He turned to Annette and touched her. "Don't react," he said quietly. "You have to try to get out, all right? I know you're afraid, but you were very brave for Marcellus just now. I need you to be brave for yourself and your mother now, all right? Just edge as slowly as you can to the exit and try not to let him see you." He kissed her cheek, then stood up and headed toward the fight.

Marcellus and the Sorcerer were evenly matched in skill, and they seemed to be stuck in a never ending sparring match. The Sorcerer managed to get in a blow finally, and was furious to discover that it had no effect. Steve smiled, thinking that he finally knew how the dragons felt. When he was close enough to see them both clearly, and far enough away not to be heard, Steve pulled out his dagger. He eyed the Sorcerer closely, looking at the crystal pendant. It was small and hung from a metal chain that didn't look very sturdy. Steve held the dagger aloft and waited for an opportunity. Marcellus kept the Sorcerer on his toes, matching stroke with stroke for a few more minutes. Then, at last, he managed to knock the Sorcerer's blade from his hand. Like the gentleman he was, he waited for the man to pick up his sword.

When the Sorcerer moved to pick up his sword, Steve finally got a clear view of the chain. He concentrated on it, hoping against hope that the charm had the one flaw that would allow his plan to work. Then, he threw the dagger as hard as he could. The dagger flew swift and sure to the Sorcerer's chest, severing the chain. The charm worked long enough to keep the dagger from penetrating the man's chest before falling to the ground. Steve was relieved. As he'd hoped, the spell only worked for attacks against the Sorcerer, not those directed at the pendant itself. Marcellus pounced on the little crystal immediately, smashing it violently with the hilt of his sword.

The wizard growled angrily and attacked Marcellus before he could stand up. He pounded on Marcellus furiously, keeping him down, despite all Marcellus' efforts to stand. Then, he started to yank on the shield, kicking at Marcellus the whole time. Steve rushed toward them, but before he could reach them, the Sorcerer succeeded in getting the shield away from the prince. He used the shield as a weapon, slamming it down on Marcellus' arm, forcing him to drop his sword. He kicked Marcellus' sword away, and struck Marcellus again with the shield, this time in the head. Then, with a growl he threw the shield across the room in Steve's general direction. He yanked a dazed Marcellus up by the hair and drew his dagger. He forced Marcellus' chin up and pressed the dagger to his throat. Steve felt Marcellus' sudden fear, nearly as strongly as he felt his own. There was an echoing fear from Stephen, who knew, all the way in Steve's world, that Marcellus was in mortal danger.

"Did you think that would be enough?!" the Sorcerer shouted. "Did you?" He scanned the room and glared at Annette, who had managed to edge almost to the mouth of the cavern. "No, you don't, little princess," he said darkly. He raised the hand that held the dagger. "Come." The shackles that still bound Annette's wrists glowed, then pulled her toward the Sorcerer. Annette struggled, but to no avail. In seconds, she was at his side. He shoved her to the ground and placed his booted foot on her neck. He pressed down just enough to make her whimper and struggle against him, then pressed the dagger back to Marcellus' throat. He smiled at the room in general. "Now, King Stephen. Show yourself, or they both die!"

Steve stood frozen in place. His heart started to pound, as feelings of fear and utter defeat washed over him. Despite all their efforts, Marcellus and Annette were both at the Sorcerer's mercy. And so, by proxy, was he. He removed the Spirit Gem from around his neck, and the Sorcerer immediately trained his unnerving gaze on him. His smile widened. "At last," he said. "I shall finally have what I deserve. Empty your hands."

Steve put down the Gem and his sword. "What is it that you want from me?" he asked.

"Only what is rightfully mine," the Sorcerer replied. "Your crown, and the royal ring from your finger."

"What???" Steve, Marcellus and Annette chorused.

"Your crown, and your ring," the Sorcerer said again. "In essence, your throne, which rightfully belongs to me."

"Bollox!" Annette cried.

The Sorcerer pressed his foot down on her neck. "Shut your mouth, you insufferable little bitch!" he hissed. "I swear, the first thing I shall do when I take the throne is to teach you some manners!" He pressed down harder on her neck, and she started to choke.

"Stop, stop," Steve cried frantically. "I'm... I'm listening to you, all right? Why do you say the throne rightfully belongs to you?"

The Sorcerer lifted his foot just enough for Annette to breathe again, and turned his attention back to Steve. "Does not the throne of any country belong to its king's eldest child?" he asked.

"WHAT???" they cried again.

"My name is Antoine Royce Pereira. I am the son of King Stephen Pereira the First and his first love, Antoinette Milanier. My mother told me of my heritage on her death bed, and since then, I have sought to reclaim what is rightfully mine. It took years to learn enough magic to perform my first spell. I attempted to take your place by exchanging you with your closest match in blood and spirit, which should have been me." Steve's eyes widened, and he registered Marcellus' sudden shock. That's how I got here?!? "When that failed, I was forced to try more conventional methods of removing you from my throne. When even my assassins were unsuccessful, I took Annette, knowing you would come after her. And now that you have, you will give me what I desire. Your crown, and your ring. Now, or I'll kill them both."

Steve stared at the sorcerer for several seconds. What could he do? How could he give over his crown to this maniac? He couldn't doom his people to be ruled by a man who got his kicks from torturing children! But he certainly couldn't stand by and watch him kill Marcellus and Annette either. Steve swallowed. "How... how do I know you'll let them go?"

He smiled. "You'll just have to trust me." Steve shook his head. "Very well. The sex slave first, then." Steve felt Marcellus' panic rise as the Sorcerer pressed the dagger harder against his throat.

"No, no!" Steve cried. "I'll do it! Just... you have to let one of them go first." The Sorcerer frowned at the command. "Please," Steve added. "As a sign of good faith. Let one go, I'll give you the crown, and I'll... I'll trust you to let the other go when you have what you want."

Antoine grinned. "Very well, Stephen," he said. "I'll let you decide. Who shall it be? The whelp, or the whore?"

Steve swallowed hard and looked from Marcellus to Annette. He didn't trust the Sorcerer for an instant. He wanted to choose Marcellus, but if the Sorcerer went back on his word and killed Annette, thousands of people would die at the hands of England's soldiers. But if he killed Marcellus... Steve felt sick. Keeping his eyes fixed on Marcellus the entire time, he said, "Let... let the princess go."

The Sorcerer lifted his foot and kicked Annette harshly away from him. She cried out in pain, but didn't waste time recovering. She scurried away, far out of the Sorcerer's reach. "Now," he said. "The crown."

"Let her go completely," Steve said.

"Very well," he said with a smile. "Release." The magical shackles opened and clattered to the floor. The Sorcerer jerked his head, and they slid to the opposite end of the room. "The crown, and the ring," the Sorcerer said slowly. "Now."

"Very well," Steve said weakly. He pulled off the crown with shaking hands. The ring was a little harder to get it off, since it had never left his finger since the very first day he'd arrived. He twisted it off and set them both on the ground a couple of feet away from the Sorcerer. He backed away from them with a sinking feeling in his heart. He hadn't realized until now how attached he was to the country those items represented. He looked up, trying not to think about the fact that he was dooming his people to a rule of tyranny and evil. You'll get them back, he told himself. You will. "They are yours," he said aloud. "Pacificana... is yours. Now let Marcellus go."

The Sorcerer gazed down at the crown for several moments, a slow smile spreading across his face. He looked back up at Steve, and his smile grew wider. "We did have an agreement, didn't we?" he asked. Something in the Sorcerer's tone made Steve's hackles rise. He moved toward them, but before he could take a single step, the Sorcerer moved the dagger away from Marcellus' throat. Steve thought for a moment that he would keep his promise. Then, the Sorcerer smiled wider than ever. He drove the dagger deep into the side of Marcellus' neck, pushing it until the tip broke through the other side. Then, still smiling, he pulled the dagger out and pushed Marcellus toward Steve. "There," he said, humor in his voice. "I've let him go."

Steve thought he might have heard a shriek from Annette, but he couldn't be sure. His own scream drowned out all else. Far away, Steve knew, Stephen was screaming, too. Blood flowed from both sides of Marcellus' neck, quickly drenching his tunic. Steve felt an intense, searing pain in his neck, and he could feel complete, all-consuming terror coming from Marcellus. The Prince's eyes were wide, and he stumbled forward, clutching at his throat. Steve caught Marcellus before he fell, lowering him gently to the ground. His chest heaved with sobs. He covered Marcellus' neck with his hand trying to stop the blood, knowing it was hopeless all the time.

Steve could still feel panic from Marcellus, and the fear coming from Stephen got progressively stronger. Finally, Steve felt a slight disturbance in the air that seemed to come from in front of him. He tore his eyes away from Marcellus long enough to look up. Across from him kneeling on the ground with his arm under Marcellus' shoulders was a shadowy mirror image of himself. Stephen. They looked at each other for a split second, each seeing their own pain and horror etched on another's face, before looking back down at the man they loved. Marcellus' eyes were still open, and he looked at both of them. He opened his mouth to speak, but coughed up blood instead. He continued to cough, and his mouth and chin were soon covered with blood. "Noooo," Steve wailed. "No, no, no." When the coughing fit finally stopped, Marcellus' eyelids fluttered, and his body began to convulse. Steve gripped Marcellus' shoulders tightly, feeling Stephen do the same, as if holding him tight enough would stop the inevitable. Finally, the convulsions stopped, and Marcellus lay still.

Steve was overcome by an unbelievably intense sense of emptiness, as the presence he'd felt within him ever since he bonded with Marcellus suddenly disappeared. Steve started to quake. He heard a nearly inhuman wail echo through the cavern, and it was only after it ended that he realized the sound had come from him. Steve laid Marcellus on the ground and closed his half open eyelids. Then he bent over, laid his head on Marcellus' chest, and cried. Steve's body shook with the force of his anguished, gut wrenching sobs, and his heart ached with unfathomable grief.

Slowly, as the force of his sobs decreased, Steve thought he could hear the sound of Annette crying, too. Then, he became aware of a different sound - one that had no place in the same room with a dead man. Laughter. The Sorcerer was laughing. Steve's body tensed, and he sat up slowly, swallowing the rest of his tears. The Sorcerer stood a few feet away, wearing Pacificana's crown and the royal ring, and watching Steve with an amused smile. Steve was so enraged by the sight that his quaking increased, and his vision actually blurred for a moment. "Pathetic," the Sorcerer said, voice laden with contempt. He laughed derisively, then turned his away from Steve and drew his sword. "Now, my little princess," he said, looking at Annette. "I believe I promised you a lesson in manners." Annette shuddered, and cowered against the wall of the cave.

Steve's fury redoubled, and he felt a fiery heat burning in the pit of his stomach. He rose to his feet with uncanny grace and went to retrieve his sword. By the time he had the sword in hand, the heat had consumed him completely. His skin tingled, and his vision seemed to be covered by a red screen. He covered the considerable distance to the Sorcerer in two steps, and swung the blade at his neck. The Sorcerer turned quickly, barely managing to block the first strike. Their swords rang loudly on contact, and the Sorcerer staggered back, taken off guard by the force of the blow. Steve gave him no time to recover. Fueled by a rage he had never known before, Steve struck again and again. Each blow was powered by the inhuman strength given to him by the Dragon King. Eventually, the Sorcerer's sword snapped in two. He continued to try and fight, but he was no match for the dragon's strength Steve possessed. Finally, Steve knocked the broken blade from the Sorcerer's hand, and immediately plunged the sword deep into his chest.

Steve drew the blade out and stepped back. The Sorcerer's face registered shock and disappointment. He staggered back and fell to the ground. Steve stood over him, waiting for his labored breathing to stop. When the Sorcerer was dead, Steve dropped his sword to the ground and walked back to Marcellus' body. Eyes blurring with tears, Steve sat down beside him and let sadness take over. At some point, he felt Annette sit down beside him and put her arm around his shoulder. He sighed shakily and wrapped his arms around her, letting her cry into his chest. Eventually, their tears subsided, and they sat quietly for several minutes, just breathing and holding each other.

"What will we do now, my Lord?" Annette asked softly.

"We will go home," Steve said.

"But... how will we get past the Dragons?" she asked.

Steve sighed and stood up. "I will take care of that. Sit here, and don't watch me." Annette looked puzzled, but she turned her eyes away from him. Steve went back to the Sorcerer's body and picked up his sword. He raised the sword and prepared to strike, then stopped himself. First things first. Steve reached down and pulled his crown off of Antoine's head. He took the ring from his finger as well, sliding it back onto his own finger where it belonged. He put the crown back on, then raised his sword and brought it down hard on the Sorcerer's neck, severing his head with one strike. Frowning, Steve tugged at the man's cloak, pulling it out from under him. He covered the Sorcerer's head with it before picking it up and tying the ends together to form a makeshift bag. Steve wiped his sword clean on the cloak and put it back in its sheath.

Steve walked back to Annette and knelt beside her. "All right, little one," he said. She opened her eyes again, grimacing when she saw the bag. Steve tied it to a loop on his belt and began working his arms underneath Marcellus' legs and shoulders. Steve lifted Marcellus up, straining under his dead weight. Steve blinked back fresh tears when Marcellus' head lolled back, and his body hung limp and lifeless in his arms. Annette's eyes shone with tears as well. "All right, Annette," he said, voice cracking. "Let's go."

"Yes, my Lord," she whispered. "I... let me just..." She moved in front of Steve and took hold of Marcellus' arm, which swung loosely beside his body. She lifted it and laid it gently on Marcellus' chest, then burst into tears.

Steve smiled at her, tears rolling down his cheeks. "Thank you, little one," he said softly. "Come. Hold on to me." Annette clutched the side of Steve's tunic, and they walked out of the cave.

Chapter 23
Chapter 25

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