It wasn’t every day that Darkos got to reach the end of a two year journey to defeat a wicked overlord. In fact, this had happened approximately five times before. Approximately because it was kinda a toss up as to whether he could count Lord Direbane, but Darkos had only been twenty at the time, so he could be excused for letting the dastardly noble’s soul escape. He’d concluded each of the following four pilgrimages with the defeat of some evildoer, each more supremely terrible than the last. Still, it had been a jump to go from a half-giant that guarded a bridge and wouldn’t let people cross without paying three sheep’s head to the most damned person on the planet.
Ja’Eel Scilatia. Evil, dark sorceress. Dread overlord and scourge of the land for over half a century. Responsible for more destruction and devastation than any in recorded history. It had been bold, borderline stupid, for Darkos to take on the task where so many had failed, but for the good of the world, he’d wanted to. And for the redemption of his soul, he knew he had to. He would not fail his God again.
No, it was time for Ja’Eel to meet her match.
Darkos planted his hands on the door handle and wrenched it open with an ear aching groan.
By his side, Geela, the faithful and loyal companion that had tottered clumsily after him for so long, gasped with anticipation. He’d stumbled across the clumsy woman, sobbing into a pint of ale, at an inn near the mouth of the cavern that marked the entrance to Ja’Eel’s territory. When Darkos had asked what troubled her, she’d stumbled over her words, wringing her hands as she frantically tripped over herself to explain the tragic loss of her family at Ja’Eel’s hands and her desperation to enact revenge.
They had made quite the odd pair but had somehow made it here after so many months of triumphs and tribulations.
The doors opened with a resounding bang, and Darkos peered into the entryway of the massive castle. Where he expected terrifying, towering traps or other such malevolent oddities, he found instead a dusty hallway. The place looked as deserted up close as it had from a distance. Either the building truly was as deserted as it looked, or the dark sorceress was playing a game with them. He put a hand on his hilt and held out an arm to guard his companion.
Geela’s near-lethal clumsiness marked her as a target to the most mundane of obstacles, ogres, hydras, steep ladders. She wouldn’t stand a chance against a sneak attack, and Ja’Eel could be anywhere...
"Oh. It is good to be home again."
Darkos froze. The voice came, not from in front of him or perhaps overhead, as he’d expected. No. No, the voice came from behind him.
Before he could even turn, Geela—petite, golden-haired, doe-eyed farmer's daughter Geela—strode past him, eyes closed, inhaling deeply. She span once in the hallway, arms out to the side, a gesture that would look more in place in the middle of a sunsoaked meadow than in a decrepit, cobwebby castle. After a few twirls and a long sigh, her eyes snapped open and the look of bliss vanished from her face in a heartbeat. "I’m sorry you have to see it like this. It really truly used to be a lovely little place. I’m sure you’ll believe me when I tell you, this is not my fault. There’s a whole backstory, one more tragic, even, than the one I made up for you. Tea, by the way? I know I promised you a cup when we finally got home.”
Darkos stared intently at her, parsing these sentences very, very slowly. He blinked at her, squinting hard. It was like every time he closed his eyes, he saw the sweet, if fatally clumsy woman who had daringly joined him to avenge her relatives. Then his eyelids flipped open and there Geela stood, hands planted on her hips, surveying the room with cold disdain.
"I don't understand," Darkos said.
"Oh. Well, yes, I suppose you pictured our little victory tea party happening in a thatched hut or whatever sunny little hovel you thought I lived in." She started waving her hands and murmuring incantations. All around her, dust floated off the suits of armor and various table tops. The candles burst into flames, filling the hall with a not unpleasant glow.
“That’s not the part I don't understand," he said, trying not to be distracted by a floating armchair.
"Oh, you did think I lived in a castle? That’s more perceptive than I would have given you credit for. I am a little offended you’d pegged me for living in such a rundown one, however. Oh drat." She dropped her hands, looking at what looked like scattered, tiny stones on the ground. "We have mice. Guess the cats didn't stick around. Come on!" she shouts into the empty room. "It's been two years, you couldn't stick it out!"
"No, Geela, I don't understand!”
"What! The cats left, the mice are playing, and now I need to buy more cats to get rid of—”
"No, you died." Darkos couldn't believe it. "You died and I saved you. Like at least three times. Probably more. You always told me how lucky you were to have a priest traveling with you." Geela's various grisly fates flash through Darkos’s mind like a storybook from hell. How had any of this been part of some master plan?
"Well, I was lucky. A healer, a priest even, wasn’t really part of the plan. You just fell out of the sky and landed next to me while I was crying in the inn about Barney.” Her lips pinched nastily at this.
“Was Barney… no that wasn’t your uncle’s name, was it?” He’d never quite remembered the name of Geela’s departed family, but given her venomous glare, he’d gotten it wrong.
“No. No, Barney is my damned ex-husband. A real piece of work. The one who locked me out.” She whirled on her heel and continued storming down the hall, waving a hand as the place continued to reconstruct itself. “We split the chores. 50/50. I was in charge of the evil schemes, taking over countries, cursing royal children, stealing precious artifacts. He was the house spouse. Took care of the castle and all the guardians to protect it. He was happy with the split. He always said he was happy. He didn’t mind staying at home." She snapped twice and the large double doors at the end of the hall opened, leading to a truly disgusting dining hall. A nauseating odor wafted out. "Damn him to hell. Never fall in love, Darkos. Never do it. Love’s good for one thing only: breaking your heart, stealing your stuff, changing your locks, and leaving you broken."
Darkos opened his mouth to, probably foolishly, correct Geela’s counting, but a wave of stench washed over him, saving him from the potential anger he’d have incurred for his comment. Instead, he covered his mouth with a cloth and followed Geela into the dining chamber, still trying to reconcile what he was being told with what he thought he’d known. She just didn't look the part, all frail hands and bouncy gold locks.
"I resurrected you,” he landed on. “The sea monster that guarded the lake we had to cross—"
"See, he knew I hated krakens. I didn't even know he put one in the lake. That was my bad; I should have assumed something was fishy, beyond just the piranhas."
"But the hydra—”
"That one hurt the most. Emotionally, not physically. Kraken takes that inglorious cake. But Silvy... I raised her from a hatchling." Geela closed her eyes, allowing herself a moment to mourn the twenty-three headed fiend. "All the monsters guarding the castle were controlled by a codeword that we were both supposed to know. What a prick." The smell in the hall had lessened as the rotting food across the tables began to disintegrate into a fine powder. "Looks like he invited all his buddies over to trash the place before skipping town."
"That cursed potion though—”
"I figured at the very least that would be safe. I kept the antidote so I figured even if I grabbed the wrong one, it'd be fine, but as soon as my hair caught fire..."
Darkos had spent endless nights praying to Alerion to maintain the power necessary for all the resurrections he'd cast, never knowing this was just a case of an evil queen who'd been locked out of her home after a nasty breakup. The more he thought about it, the more mixed up he felt.
How had he even been able to resurrect Geela? How could his God, the God of Peace and Healing, have allowed such a monster to keep returning to the mortal realm?
"Oh, nice. Look at this. In my own hall." Geela held up what could only be a skimpy undergarment, the kind succubi and harpies often wore. "Feathers too. Ugh. It was the cheating that really started this whole," she waved a hand at the much cleaner room, "debacle. I found out, toasted some smug minx into coal dust, and then all the lies started coming out. Did I mention that?"
"No, you didn't tell me that. I think you conveniently left out a lot." Darkos crossed his arms, feeling betrayed.
Geela looked at him, her sugar-sweet eyes softening. "Oh I’ve hurt your feelings. I didn't mean to take advantage, I really didn't. But I needed an escort."
"I thought you were helping me defeat the evil sorceress."
"Well, I mean, yes, I did tell you that. If lying upsets you, you'd blush if you heard what I did to the King of the Southern Polar Region." She sighed, fixing the hall with a glum stare. "This is going to take hours to fix up. And I promised you tea. Still interested?"
Interested in tea, no. Interested in learning more about Geela and how she’d managed to trick both him and Alerion, yes. The next thing he knew, he was sitting across from a worked up Geela, bemoaning the betrayal.
"Never marry a coworker," she said, as she drowned her sorrows in another cup of tea. "In fact, just don't marry. Not worth the headache. "
The two sat in silence for a few minutes after this, before Geela drained the last sip of her tea.
"So what do you think? Rest for a few days, pick up the place, and then head out?"
"Head out?" He blinked. “You’re… kicking me out?” It did make sense. He was a holy priest and she was an evil sorceress. Technically he was lucky to still be alive.
"Well, I need to get revenge. And you know how clumsy I am when adventuring. It's really not my thing but the bastard does need to be taken down a few pegs." She stood up and brushed dust off her baby blue gown, before fixing Darkos with an emerald stare. "What do you say? Up for another adventure?"
The fact that they were even having this conversation was beyond surreal. Darkos had come here to kill her. She knew that but seemed wholly unconcerned. On one hand, as one of the most feared evildoers in recent history, she probably didn’t have to be concerned. On the other hand, Darkos had seen her in action and was kinda not impressed.
Which brought him back to Alerion. This pilgrimage had been his sixth, an unheard of number in his church. Somehow, despite bestowing a cause upon every other priest Darkos had grown up with, Alerion had withheld his blessing on Darkos.
Could this have been the reason? Could there be some deeper meaning behind him befriending this wretched woman? As Darkos thought over the adventures they’d had together, the late nights drinking ale by their firepit and the subsequent hungover battles when they were jumped in their sleep, he couldn’t help but feel, deep down inside, there was something very human inside Geela.
Maybe he could do more than just defeat her. Maybe he could sway her back to light. Maybe the first step towards redemption came in the form of teaching her forgiveness. Compassion. Kindness.
A started squeak snapped Darkos out of his thoughts and he looked up in time to see Geela shoot a small bolt of lightning at a mouse, which flew across the kitchen in a dramatic arc.
…or maybe not.
But one thing was absolutely sure. If he left her now, Darkos would never know why Alerion had saved Geela, why the God had given him the power to resurrect her time and time again. Darkos would return to his village once again, would attend the yearly Sending Off once again, and would, once again, fail to be given a true purpose.
Compared to that, what was helping an evil sorceress with a little revenge? Some good may come of this yet.
He sighed, mind made up. "When do you want to leave?"
I signed this book with a press back in January and it's finally launched! That means the first arc will no longer be available for free.