“Oh, he got deflated again by some mean old witch.”
“First Citizen for life! First Citizen for life!” The crowd chanted as Lev stood beaming before them. “Speech! Speech!”
Never needing much prodding when it comes to speechifying, Lev gave them a real barnburner about his pride in the patriotic citizens who had responded to their country's need.
"Mead all around!" he cried.
I watched the crowd. “Have you seen Kelm?” I asked Vlad.
“Why no, I suppose he doesn't know we're here.”
“I thought he could see the future.”
That's when Bert Askew rode up. “Kelm sends his regrets,” he said unctuously. “The signs just aren't right for him to come out today.”
“What? Is he afraid of a little rain?”
“Let it be, Marquand,” Vlad cautioned, eyeing Bert. “Kelm is fated to be elsewhere, is all.”
“Of course,” I replied. “I guess I'm tired. It's a long ride from the First World.”
“No problem,” Bert said, swinging off his horse.
I saw you cower behind your Mother. “I guess we'll go home and prepare supper,” she said.
“I'll be there soon . . . and it's good to be home again.”
We watched you leave then turned our attention back to Lev, who was thanking the citizens again and holding Ilse closely.
“Such a shame,” said Bert. “Such a shame.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Queen,” he said. “Don't you know?” He tsked. “Well, neither does he,” he nodded towards Lev.
I clenched my teeth. “What?”
“Oh, she's been with every manjack in the P.U.R.K. since you've been gone, and many of the women, too!”
“Ask anyone. And the baby, nuh-uh. Who knows whose it is?”
I'm glad you were not there to witness my anger, dear Pino. I pulled out my whip, declaring it Bert Askew bane. The crowd backed away from us.
“I thought you needed to know,” Askew yelped, voice cracking.
“What I need to know,” I denounced him, “is, who told you this?”
Askew gulped. “M-M-M-Master Kelm.”
“That's what he makes us call him when you guys ain't around!” Bert screeched, edging away.
“Justice!” I cried, “For your lies!” I fiercely lashed my whip across his body.
“Aggha!” he cried. “It's his baby! His!”
“Piercing!” I growled, casting flames of the faithful as I struck again. Askew shrieked.
“Kelm knocked her up! He told me himself, and he didn't even have to touch her to do it!”
“Destruction!” I shouted. The whip struck him mercilessly as he fell senseless to the ground. I stood above him, breathing heavily as I slowly became aware of my surroundings. I noticed the crowd, quailing away. There was Lev, Vlad, Ilse, shock on their faces. Then I heard a murmur and citizens were pointing at Askew, who lay like a broken doll. In fact, he was a broken doll, dark button eyes staring unseeing—a simulacrum, like Trask had been.
The crowd gasped as a bright, holy light erupted over the city from Kelm's tower. It descended slowly until hovering just above the square. Barely visible at the dazzling center, Kelm smiled beneficently.
“Ah, I knew it would come to this.”
I heard the words, “Master Kelm,” pass through the frightened crowd.
“Marquand, you've come such a long way,” he patronized.
“So have you.”
“If you only knew. Vlad,” he turned to my companion. “You always were the perfect asskisser. How does Lev's taste?”
“Like honey compared to yours!”
Some in the crowd laughed nervously.
“And you, dear Lev, how goes the revolution?”
“We've just signed a treaty with a powerful First World entity,” Lev couldn't help bragging. Then he frowned. “What's this I hear about you and my wife?”
Kelm snorted, “Yes it's true. I sent her a simulacrum in the form of yourself and filled her full of my vital essences. She said it was the best sex she'd ever had. She's fated to carry my baby.”
Ilse cried out, suddenly fainting into Lev's arms. He held her protectively.
“Who else is your vile simulacrum?” I roared.
From behind the glare I heard Kelm sigh as a ripple passed through the crowd and one after another of our citizens stiffened and fell to the ground, staring up at us with vacant button eyes. Only a few of us were left staring in disbelief, glancing from the dummies to where Kelm floated unconcerned. They were his all along.
Kelm laughed and that's when my sky turned white. I woke up here, in this damp tomb. I hope you and your Mother are safe. Kelm is not a vindictive man, but he is practical.
How much time had passed I know not, when I heard the sound of feet scraping along the floor. Someone was approaching, carrying a torch. Behind him scurried Lily Tesketin! She stopped before my cell, staring intently through its bars.
“How the mighty have fallen.”
Her scarred face was made even more hideous by the play of the guttering torch.
“My god, Lily”
“Don't you dare pity me, Marquand.”
“I . . . I'm so sorry.”
“Kelm said that you would be this way.”
“Why are you here, Lily?”
She smiled grotesquely. “I have a little proposition for you.”
“What is that?”
“Kelm wants you to accept his eminence,” she said. “He wants to make you Defender of the Realm.”
“And my first act, as Defender of the Realm, will be to strangle him.”
She laughed, “He said you'd say that, too.” She looked at the guard. “Give me your torch and open the door.”
As the man fumbled with the keys, I heard her mumbling a few words. The door clanged open and suddenly the man cried in pain. He fell to the floor as Lily wiped off her knife. She said a prayer as his life bled away.
“You're free, Marquand. He can't see us for the moment, I've opened up a little bubble of uncertainty, but we have to act quickly.”
“Oh, don't worry,” her ruined lips smirked. “I'm not doing this for you. Kelm has to die and there's no one else to do it.”
“What about Vlad and Lev?”
“They're safe for the moment, but holed up in the Citadel with what's left of the population.”
“By the Twelve!” I exclaimed. “How can I possibly reach him? No one can enter his tower who has not been there before.”
“But you have,” she laughed, looking around my cell. “After all, you're in the dungeon beneath the tower.”
“By holy Erastil!”
“Here's your sword. Now go, and Milani be with you!”
Stepping over the hapless guard, I made my way up a long winding staircase until I reached an airy room with a domed roof, Kelm's orrery. There I found him sitting confidently on a dais above me, relaxed, with his back to me, staring past the orbs spanning the starry sky.
“It's good of you to come,” he said.
“I don't suppose I had a choice.”
“There's always choice,” he snorted. “It's just not as free as we might like.”
I circled around, looking for a way to reach him.
“Ah, Marquand, don't waste your time.”
Suddenly, he turned to face me and I fell back in disarray, for I saw that there were now two heads on Kelm's broad shoulders. One was the nearsighted child of Destiny I'd once known and the other was the evil undead cyclops licht known as Vordakai!
“Yeah,” said Kelm, seeing my face. “Destiny's not all it's cracked up to be.”
At this the second head lolled, red eye glaring vilely, spitting at me angrily.
“Don't mind him,” Kelm smiled benignly. “Care for a drink?”
What had I to lose? “Yes, please.”
Handing me a crystal goblet of pure water, Kelm stared at me, eyes unfocused, almost blind, yet I had no doubt he was seeing me clean through.
“How did this happen?” I finally asked.
“Well, you remember the little showdown you and the boys had with me—I mean, Vordakai?”
“You thought you did. It was an illusion. Oh, Vordakai was trapped—in a soul jar he'd hidden in the floor in hopes of trapping one of you. But when he lost his battle he used it to trap himself instead, hoping you'd overlook his hiding place. The dust was a little sideshow magician's trick.”
“That's as plausible as everything else that's happened to me in the last five years.”
“Anyway, when I set up my dimension door and started poking around over there, god, I was in ecstasy. The library, it was sweet, and I soon learned what a badass V had been in his day. You guys had been lucky when you fought him, he was a figment of himself. Yeah, I wanted a piece of that. So, when I discovered the soul jar you'd missed and figured out who was in it, well, I did a stupid thing.”
“You let him out.”
“Letting him out wasn't a big deal, he was puny back then, but he had such potential! I hated to see it go to waste.”
“So you . . .”
Kelm looked back at me over his shoulder, Vordakai mostly hidden behind his head. “Like I said, he has vast potential, together we can finally realize my dream of ruling everything, everywhere. Is that so bad?” He patted Vordakai's head like a dog's. “The only way to control him is to be him, I figured. Our fates are twined.” He crossed his fingers, then sighed. “But even here I may be wrong.”
From behind, Vordakai slyly smiled.
“You must kill me, Marquand,” Kelm begged as the light gathered around him. “And soon.” He was gone.
I stood there for a moment to get my bearings. There was no doubt where he'd—they'd?—gone. Then I heard an ominous rumble and the tower began to shift. As loud pops quaked throughout the building and the dust of breaking plaster filled my nose, I cast a spell of expeditious retreat and let my boots of speed carry me down and outside the building as it crumbled around me. Hearing shrieks of pain I turned back but, after digging one sad corpse out of the rubble and seeing it's button eyes staring back at me, I turned and hurried instead to the citadel. There I found the remaining citizens of Tuskland huddled in abject gloom.
“I was married to her for years . . . our kids!” one man sobbed.
“One of them freaks was my business partner,” another groused. “He had all the money!”
“I always said he was a dummy, then he done gone and proved it!”
“I thought Janet was my girlfriend.”
“No, she was mine!”
“I like her just as she is,” said a third, holding what appeared to be a rouged scarecrow in his lap.
I quickly went inside where I found Lev, Vlad, and Skot Skevins sitting at the great table.
“Marquand! You're safe!”
“Yes . . .”
I shook my head. “He went to ground. Anyway, he's not Kelm anymore.”
“Not . . . Kelm?”
I explained what I'd seen. “He's VordaKelm now!”
They stared at me in silence.
“Uncle Marquand!” I turned to see you running towards me, your Mother following.
“Thank Erastil!” I breathed, taking you into my arms, sobbing.
“Let's never fight again,” you cried.
“Never,” I agreed as your Mother embraced us both.
“Well,” Vlad finally said. “What do we do now?”
That's when I noticed that you were carrying a large dolly. “Aren't you too old for that?” I asked. Again your eyes filled with tears as I realized that the dolly you carried was dressed just like Little Billee, fat cheeks like a squirrel's, hard button eyes shining.
“It happened to all the Billees,” your Mother added quietly.
I turned back to Lev and Vlad. “Where's Ilse?”
"Will still be a child, no matter the father."
I clasped Lev by the shoulder. “We have to go get him. Now,” I said.
“Now you're talkin' my language,” Skevins agreed, banging the table.
“Wait,” Vlad interrupted, “We're not ready for that.”
“It's now or never,” I said. “Kelm and Vordakai are about equally powerful now, if we wait much longer Vordakai will be in control.”
“But I thought Kelm was our enemy.”
“Kelm is on our side. He wants to die. He was fated to merge destinies with Vordakai and rule the world. What he didn't realize was that Vordakai was fated to consume him in the process. He wants us to help him cheat fate.”
“Holy crap!” Skot Skevins cried. “I'm going out to get drunk and laid. I'll see you in the morning.” He stormed out of the room.
“Vlad, start the paperwork for the troopers and notify all the towns in the P.U.R.K. If we fail they should . . .” Here he was at a loss for words.
“Pray,” I finished for him. “They can't hide.”
I send this letter with a courier as we leave Tuskland, forgive me for not saying goodbye, and tell your Mother that I love you both,