Friday, March 31, 2017

Chapter 32: What We Might Have Been

             Tarsus stood upon a sea of rubble, the remains of the once great palace that Malthus called home.  He pulled Malthir from his belt and he held the broken sword aloft.  A muted grey: lifeless and inert: was all that the sword offered him now.  Tarsus closed his eyes, and drew forth.
            Slowly, the half-blade came to life in a dull, pale glow.  Tarsus opened his eyes, focused on the faint light that gave this once mighty weapon a brief renewal.  “Where is she?” he asked of the power inside, funneling it through the blade it knew so well.
            Without delay, the power answered.  A ray of light fell from the broken edge of the blade, falling to the ground only a few paces from where Tarsus stood.  The Sunsword walked forward, but the light did not move from the spot it had settled on.
            When he reached the spot that the light touched, Tarsus got to his knees and carefully set the sword on the broken earth beside him.  He removed one stone after the next; a man transfixed; slowly digging his way deeper into the ruin of the castle.  He did not dig long before he found her.
            Cecily’s body was broken almost beyond recognition.  The side of her face that greeted Tarsus as he cleared away the stones atop her had was caved in.  Through a mouth barely open, Tarsus heard her take in short gasps; her breath clearly impeded by a large stone that sat atop her chest.  Tarsus removed it and slowly, gently, turned her head so that she could look up into his waiting gaze.
            What Tarsus took for a smile, struggled to shape her face as her eyes took him in. 
            “Am I dreaming?” Cecily asked.
            “No Cecily,” Tarsus answered.  “It’s me.”
            “I thought you must have been long dead,” Cecily said as tears of relief began to fall from her eyes.  “I’ve lain here, in the dark, with no sense of time…no sight of space.  All I have known…is how much it hurts.”
            Tarsus lowered a hand to Cecily’s cheek, letting his palm fill in the depression that the stone had shaped.  “I am…so sorry.”
            “I have relived my life a thousand times over,” Cecily said, unable to hide the hurt that consumed her now, “and even in my memories, I cannot escape it.  The pain is everywhere.  I no longer remember a time without it.”
            “But I can,” Tarsus offered weakly.  It was a foolish thing to say to someone so far gone in suffering.  “What comfort could my memory of her, healthy and whole, offer now?  Surely, all she wants is for this to be over: for me to finish it,” he thought sardonically.
            “Tell me,” she returned with a whisper.  Tarsus looked down at her in shock.  “I don’t want to die…having forgotten who I used to be.”
            Tarsus smiled sadly down at her.  “Very well.  You were brave, and strong.  Headstrong, even.  You came to my village with a goal in mind, and you did not stop until you had achieved it.  No matter how many grizzled, old soldiers called you crazy.  You persevered.”
            “I did not have to try too hard,” Cecily said, her smile still struggling against the pain.  “You and Finnian joined up right away.”
            “You inspired us,” Tarsus said.  He let his head fall, looking away from her misshapen form and remembering the protest Finnian had put forth at the idea of joining with Cecily.  “You inspired me,” Tarsus said quietly.
            “Finnian…never quiet believed in the same way you and I did,” Cecily deduced. 
            “No,” Tarsus agreed.  “The gods always seemed too…far away for him to see.  Even living amongst us, showing themselves as they do…he never truly believed in them.”
            “It seems more and more folk feel that way these days,” Cecily said.
            Tarsus raised his head a little, looking down at her in awe.  “Is that why you set out on this quest?”
            “For all the other gods out there…” Cecily coughed and her body shook with the effort of it, “…Malthus was the only one who ever proved worthy of worship.  He seemed…to care about people.  He built them the most beautiful city in the world.  And even when the power corrupted him, he did not let it corrupt his city.  He withdrew.  Shut himself away.  Let the city live on without him…for a thousand years.”
            “How do you know all of this?” Tarsus asked, struggling to keep a level tone so as not to betray the powder keg of anger just a spark away from exploding.
            “He told me,” Cecily answered simply.  “In my vision.  So I had to help him reclaim himself.”
            “Cecily, he used you,” Tarsus quietly thundered.  “He used us all.  Adulatio used us!  Cassius used us!  That’s what the gods do.  Because of Malthus, you will die!”
            “Not because of Malthus…” Cecily said patiently, “…because of you.”
            Tarsus was stunned.  “Cecily…” he began, but quickly lost all semblance of a reply.  She was right.   
            “You have come to kill me,” she said, just as matter-of-factly as before.  “If not for this quest, we would not be in this position.  If not for this quest, we never would have met at all.  I might have grown old…married a decent man and had a family.  I might have lived a full life…”
            Tarsus’s rage melted away.  “How selfish,” he thought, “that I should be angry at her.  When I am as I am…and she is as she is.”
            Cecily gasped audibly as she lifted her arm.  Tarsus began to tell her to stop, but before he could utter the words she had placed her hand over his that rested on her hollowed cheek.  “I might have lived a full life…but it would not be this life.  And this is the life I wanted more.  I know that, because I sought it…chased after it.  I wanted to find you, to travel with you…to fight alongside you and push through challenge after challenge with you.  And now it comes to it…even after all the pain…I want to die for you.”
            “Cecily…no…” Tarsus pleaded.
            “Yes Tarsus Cole,” Cecily said, her voice resonating and echoing all around him.  “If you would take my place, of your own free will, then I choose you as my heir.  It is what gods do…what they have always done.  They live in their people, and in so doing succumb.  And when the people no longer need them, they must die…to be reborn.”
            “That…” Tarsus said through gritted teeth, “is a bitter fate.”
            “No more bitter than man’s,” Cecily said, offering a gentle squeeze of her hand atop his.
            Next to Tarsus, the half-sword Malthir began to glow.  The Sunsword looked to it in surprise.  He was not channeling any power, yet the broken blade pulsed with light, each blaze brighter than the one that came before.
            “It is time for us to say goodbye,” Cecily said.
            “Cecily, I don’t think I can…”
            “You must,” Cecily said, interrupting his doubt and hesitation with her utter surety.  “And what’s more, you must promise me something before you do.”
            “Anything,” Tarsus countered.
            “Be worthy,” Cecily said.  “It is a great burden you take on with this power.  It will corrupt you…torture you.  You have no idea yet the pain it will inflict upon you.  But despite all that, I implore you to remember why you came on this journey with me.  You wished to be better…”
            “You think too highly of me,” Tarsus interrupted her.  “I wished to be great: a great warrior, a great leader…a paragon in the eyes of my compatriots.  Someone worthy of their admiration…their respect…and their jealousy,” Tarsus lowered his head again, unable to look at her, even though she could see naught but her own pain.  “…I wished to be great.”
            “Then be great,” Cecily demanded, “but abandon the shallow pools where you thought greatness to lie.  Seek it in the vast ocean of your own humanity.  It will be hard work, but there is great worth in such work.”
            The blade next to Tarsus flashed brighter, catching his eye.  He removed his hand from Cecily’s cheek and closed it around the grip of the sword.  He lifted it, and brought it over, leaving the flat of it hovering over Cecily’s chest.
            “What I have been given, I bequeath unto you…” Cecily proclaimed, “…my chosen.”
            “What you bestow, I humbly accept,” Tarsus heard himself say.  He did not know what possessed him to say those words, but they felt right now.  He slowly turned the broken blade, positioning its serrated edge over Cecily’s heart.  He held it there…”Cecily…”
            “Be worthy,” she repeated.
            “I am so sorry it had to end this way,” the words burst from Tarsus’s lips.
            “I am sorry,” Cecily said peacefully, “that it must begin this way.”
            The sword stopped flashing and held aglow, white and piercing.  It shook maddeningly in Tarsus’s readied hand, sensing what he was prepared to do to its master; fighting back in what feeble way it could.
            “I swear to you…” Tarsus professed over the escalating thrum of the once-dead weapon he held, “I will become great.  I will fight for the safety of my people, and defend them from others who would use them as pawns.  I will serve them…for you.  For Finnian.  I will serve them…for the man I used to be.”
            “Be worthy.”
            Tarsus called forth the power deep inside him.  For a moment, he felt his own power held at bay by the glowing sword in his hand, yet not for long.  What will was in the sword soon gave way to the singular purpose that Tarsus wielded.  The sword, and the remnant power of Malthus within it, became his.  
With a cry, Tarsus brought Malthir down hard.  He felt the blade pierce metal and flesh.  He felt it sink deep into the body of his friend.  He felt it come out the other end of her and hold fast to the brittle earth underneath.
There was an explosion of white light, yet Tarsus was not thrown back.  Instead, he was lifted up…higher and higher.  The light consumed him.
Tarsus Cole: militiaman of the village of Briarden and descendent of the barbarian Sunswords: both friend and enemy of Drake Mathix: loyal follower of Cecily Thorne and sworn brother of Finnian Pell: was gone forever.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Chapter 31: Communion

             “He is right,” Tarsus thought bitterly.  “I have sealed his doom, and in so doing, sealed Cecily’s…Finnian’s…mine.  It is over.”
            Tarsus’s glare did not waver from the smirking eyes of the demigod that lay in his lap.  That was all that was left to the Sunsword now: defiance.  He had lost to Cassius, in the end, but he would not give this childish fool the satisfaction of seeing him broken.  He had to be strong now: resolute.  Soon enough, Cassius would pass from this world, and then he could grieve; but not now.
            Tarsus opened his mouth to speak.  He did not know what he would say, but he felt he had to say something.  Cassius’s expression came to life with an impish glee, and Tarsus knew that he had given himself away.  However silent it was, there was no masking the demigod’s delight in the Sunsword trying to cover up his own weakness.
            But then, something changed.  Cassius’s body began to tremble, and the focus left his eyes.  He gasped shallowly, letting his head roll from Tarsus’s face to the alleyway. 
Immediately, Cassius let out a gasp.  It did not sound to Tarsus like a cry of pain, but rather one of shock.  Tarsus saw terror inform the half-man’s countenance; he watched as the horror slowly spread to consume the dying, disregarded prince of Malthanon.  Yet there was nothing in the alley to spark such fear.  The two of them were alone.  Thus, what the half-man saw there, Tarsus surmised, was not the simple, crumbling street leading to a ruined city.  What Cassius saw must have been a different road: a darker road.
            “Is that you?” Cassius called out, his voice thick with dread.  “Amelia?”
            “Amelia,” Tarsus mused as he was suddenly struck with an idea.  His lips curled up into an involuntary smile that he quickly reversed as the fullness of what he had to do occurred to him.  “Curse you Cassius!  You expose yourself.  And you leave me no other choice.”
            Tarsus bent his head low, bringing his lips close enough to Cassius’s ear so that the dying man could feel the warm breath of life dance past his lobe. 
Cassius became more frantic with each passing moment.  His body shivered with the awe of what he was seeing, and his eyes darted hither and thither, chasing the shade of Amelia deeper into the world beyond; a world that he himself would soon enter.
“Wait…” Cassius cried out.  “Don’t leave!  Please…”
“Why should she wait?” Tarsus whispered into Cassius’s ear, grimacing as the words left his lips.  “You killed her.”
“No!” Cassius pleaded.  “It was Adulatio!  Adulatio!”
“But how did she come to be worthy of the old god’s wrath?” Tarsus continued.  “Who was it that led her on that perilous quest to reclaim a sword?  Who quelled her spirit, that she should serve: docile and dutiful?”
“No…” Cassius whimpered amidst shallow breaths. 
Tarsus paused, marveling at how easy it was for him to manipulate this man whom he had considered a master of the art.  It was so effortless, not only deciding on what to say, but how to say it. 
Tarsus spat, disgusted at the simple revelation that came to him, “I suppose, Cassius, I have learned more from you than I ever imagined or desired to.  And by the gods…it is useful.”
“My birthright,” Cassius cried.  “All I did, I did for what I was owed.  And she would have benefitted.  I would have exalted her…her, and no one else.”
“Empty words,” Tarsus decreed.  “You defiled her.  Enslaved her.  Do you think she can ever forgive you that?”
“I…” Cassius was interrupted by a sudden heave.  His body was turning against him: the mortal half slowly overcoming the divine half.
Tarsus raised his head reflexively.  He loomed over Cassius, looking down on a pathetic creature struggling through a fit of coughs and gags.  “Which half of him is it that is fighting so hard to keep him alive?” Tarsus wondered.  “The human half?  Or the divine?”  That’s when Tarsus noticed something else amidst the human suffering that was enveloping Cassius: he saw tears, streaming down the demigod’s face.
“This is not the way,” Tarsus decided.  “It cannot be.”  He grabbed Cassius by the scruff of the neck, and propped the demigod’s head up so that the two of them could look each other squarely.  “There is still hope, Cassius.  Do not die having lived only for yourself.  Help me now, and when you find Amelia in the world beyond…she may think better of you for it.”
Cassius could only sputter and cough for some time, his body lightly shaking.  Yet his eyes found Tarsus’s again, and even through the death pangs that rocked him, he was searching the Sunsword’s countenance. 
For what, Tarsus did not know.  Yet the Sunsword suddenly felt the great shame of how he had behaved descend upon him.  He put on a forthright demeanor, meeting Cassius’s waking eyes with a show of steadfastness.  “I am a fraud,” he thought as he felt his face fall into the mask of what he wished to portray.  “And no better than he.  Cecily, forgive me for this.”  
“You…were well chosen,” Cassius stammered through short breaths and quick grins.  “Promise me something”
“What?” Tarsus asked dismissively.
“That man…no…that thing….in the cloak…” Cassius seethed as fresh drops of blood flew from his mouth.  “…kill him!”
 “I don’t know how…”
“Swear!” Cassius demanded, lifting his head from Tarsus’s supportive hand. 
Tarsus quickly grabbed Cassius’s shoulder with the hand now freed from supporting the demigod’s head.  The Sunsword squeezed gently, altering his disposition to one of stern resolution.  “I will kill him,” he said, with more than the simple words he used.  “I swear it!”
Cassius gave a slight nod in assent.  It took everything he had to keep his head up of his own volition.  “Your friend…must die.”
“How?” Tarsus asked urgently.  “Malthir is broken…useless.  It was the only conduit of Malthus’s power.  Without it, I cannot even offer to take her place.”
“You’ll need…power…of your own,” Cassius struggled to say.
Tarsus was silent, living in what he thought Cassius meant and how such a thing could be achieved.  “Cassius, son of Malthus, I offer myself in your stead, as one still living in this world.  I have drawn your blood, so I offer mine as substitute.  I have broken your body, thus my own shall serve.  I will be a vessel for your divinity, unto the end of my days.”
The demigod raised a hand to Tarsus’s face.  The Sunsword bowed his head to meet his extended finger, which was covered in the half-man’s own blood.  The suffering deity gave a few strokes of his finger, imprinting something on Tarsus’s forehead, then let his hand fall.  “You…are…my…chosen…” he staggered.  “…and now…so marked.”
Tarsus raised his head.  Cassius seemed different to him now, as though this surrender of power meant a surrender of life as well.  Yet the demigod’s eyes betrayed a hint of tranquility.
            “Use this…” Cassius said as he managed to bring a hand onto the hilt of the half-blade that stuck out from its resting place in his side.  He squeezed the grip lightly and tried to pull it out.
            “I can do that,” Tarsus said, gently pulling Cassius’s hand from the grip and taking hold of it himself.  “After.”
            “Tis only a sail…” Cassius said, the clarity fading from his eyes.  “now…you are the wind.”
            “Thank you,” Tarsus said ardently.
            Cassius’s head fell back, one final, peaceful breath escaping his lips.  Instantly, Tarsus felt the demigod’s body go cold.  Yet at the center of the half-man’s chest, a faint light appeared.  Tarsus watched as this small glow set off a ripple of light that extended throughout Cassius’s body.  Once the entire corpse was aglow, the light began drawing back to its origin in the chest, until it all came together in a pulsing sphere. 
            The completed sphere lifted up, out of Cassius’s body, floating upwards.  It halted in midair, hovering before Tarsus’s face, just above his line of sight.
            Tarsus felt the mark on his forehead warm.  He closed his eyes, reveling in the rapture that cascaded through him.  “Such bliss,” he thought.  “I want to live in this warmth forever.” 
            In such perfect contentment, Tarsus Cole remembered.  He remembered the ease of childhood and the delight of meandering into maturity, forming no bonds or ties to anything.  He remembered drinking at the White Light with Drake and Finnian, all three of them vowing to become knights.  He remembered swearing his loyalty to Cecily, his heart fit to burst as he did so, because it felt to him the first real decision he had made in his entire life.
            Cecily stuck in his mind, a phantom from a life that now seemed far away.  She was alone somewhere, underneath a mountain of ruin; she was suffering.
            “I have done what I promised her I would,” he thought, reflecting on that day that he pledged himself to her before Thaddeus Berk and his fellow militiamen.  “’My sword and service,’ I said.  And I gave her both.  But there is more yet to do.”
            Tarsus exhaled, letting that thought resound in his mind.  “I am ready,” he finally whispered.
            He could feel the white warmth of divinity float forward, inching its way toward him.  The heat on his forehead intensified to a cleansing burn.  He felt the power flow down from the top of him to the very bottom, like water cascading down a fountain.  There was a brief moment of pain, where his entire body felt afire.  But the burn passed, and all that was left was warmth. 
            Tarsus opened his eyes.  He looked down at the corpse he now held in his lap and found Cassius, with dead eyes closed, facing him.  Tarsus put a free hand to the demigod’s chest, and with his other already gripping the hilt of Malthir, Tarsus pulled the half-blade free from the body’s side. 
            Tarsus placed Cassius’s body onto the stone street of the alley and stood up.  He could feel the power of divinity coursing through him.  It was not all-consuming, the way Malthir’s power had been before the sword was broken, but he felt as though it lifted him: elevated him.  His senses were sharper, and he could feel the small well of divinity pooling in his stomach: a hidden reservoir that was his alone.
            The sword, by contrast, felt dead in his hand.  He held it aloft, traversing it with his gaze.  The blade was flecked with the blood of viscera of Malthus and his son, and had turned from the gleaming white-silver it had been when Tarsus found it to a faded brownish grey.
            With a thought, Tarsus tapped into just a little of the newfound power that resided within him.  The sword began to glow again, regaining a shade of its former luster and reawakening to the generational power of the god who created it.  Tarsus dismissed his gift, and the blade returned to the dull and broken thing it had become.
            “I’ve lost one friend today,” Tarsus thought.  Inside, he could feel his new power responding to his mounting anger: fueling it, and pushing forth his purpose.  “Now it is time to find another…and say goodbye.”

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Chapter 30: Dead End

            Cassius let loose a savage horizontal arc with the half-blade Malthir, swiping at Tarsus’s exposed face.
            The Sunsword recoiled quickly, successfully avoiding the strike but losing his footing in the process.  In that moment of ill balance, Cassius tackled him to the ground. 
            The huddled crowd of newly homeless citizens; all of whom had lost their homes the night before in the wake of the palace’s fall; began quickly rising to their feet.  The night before, Tarsus and Finnian slept among them, using this alley behind the White Light Tavern for some meager shelter.  Now, even that was denied them.  The legacy of Malthus had found its way here, and it yearned for Tarsus’s blood.  The townspeople sped out of the alley as quickly as they could.  They would leave Tarsus to finish this alone.
            Cassius got to his knees quickly, pinning a dazed Tarsus Cole to the ground with his body weight.  Without pause, the demigod swung his gauntleted fist down at his enemy, landing a blow across Tarsus’s face.
            On instinct, Tarsus brought his own fist up to meet the side of Cassius’s head.  The demigod was knocked off, rolling away from Tarsus.  The Sunsword managed to get on his feet, shaking his head, hurriedly trying to overcome the daze.
            “What are you thinking Tarsus Cole?” the voice of Cassius sounded in the mortal’s ears from everywhere at once.  “Right now?  In this moment?  Are you wondering how it came to this?  How you could be standing here, disoriented and alone?  How, at any moment, you will die by the blade you sacrificed so much to retrieve?”
            Tarsus heard the swing, but had not the wherewithal to move in time.  Instead, he brought up his own blade in an attempt to block, but the power of the attack only pushed the flat of Tarsus’s own sword in on him.  The blade smacked him in the back of the head, and the broken edge of Malthir pierced his skin at the back of the neck.
            Lucky for him, his feeble defense stopped the demigod’s slice from inflicting more than a flesh wound.  Nevertheless, the attack felled the larger, human warrior, bringing him to his knees.  Tarsus dove forward immediately, putting distance between himself and Cassius.
“Come on Tarsus,” he admonished, “you are better than this.  He’s
working with half a sword, and likely hasn’t ever bothered to train to fight.” 
Tarsus stood as these thoughts raced in his mind.  He opened his eyes to a bleary alleyway, with no sign of Cassius anywhere.  He brought his sword up to the front guard position and bent at the knees.  As his vision cleared, he listened as intently as he could.  His training was coming back to him, and his body began to relax.
Tarsus heard the cut through the air, coming at him from the right.  Without thinking, he stepped left, bringing his blade up over his right shoulder and angling it downward.
Tarsus pushed Malthir off his own sword, then spun on the balls of his feet to meet his attacker face to face.  Cassius was purple with rage.
The severed edge of Malthir flew at Tarsus’s throat.  Tarsus managed to sidestep the strike, but only barely.  “Half a sword does have one advantage,” he thought.  “Cassius is faster on the attack than I am, and his rage fuels his speed.  But anger is no substitute for training.  Time to show him some skill.”
Tarsus brought his own sword down in an overhead arc, which Cassius was able to parry with relative ease.  Yet the demigod was left unprepared for the elbow that Tarsus followed through with.  It connected with Cassius’s face, forcing the half-god backward. 
Tarsus did not relent; he hurled his own body into Cassius’s, taking advantage of the demigod’s disorientation.  Cassius flew backward, slamming into the brick wall opposite the tavern.
The Sunsword advanced slowly in the long point pose, his sword held before him completely parallel to the ground as he threatened Cassius with its tip.  The half-man could only swat the enemy sword away madly with his own stunted weapon.
“Toying with me, eh?” Cassius smirked.  “I expected no less of you.  After all, I’ve done the same, when I was in your place.”
“You know nothing of my place, half-god,” Tarsus growled.
“Do I not?” Cassius offered through a bloodied, blood-curdling smile.
“Is that why you chose me Cassius?” Tarsus asked pointedly.  “Because in your insanity, you think that we are somehow alike?”
“Insanity?” the demigod said with a laugh.  “It is so easy for you mortals to explain away what you don’t like about yourselves, isn’t it?  To ignore your own shadows and pretend they do not exist?”  Cassius turned his head and spat out a mouthful of blood.  Tarsus watched as it sailed through the air, but kept his eyes on Cassius.  When the blood landed, Tarsus heard the rattle of teeth.  The demigod turned back to him, with an incomplete smile and unyielding eyes, “I did not choose you because we are alike.  I chose you because we are the same!”
Tarsus let his sword dip.  “No.  Don’t listen to him.  It is not swords you have to worry about with this one.  Manipulation is his real weapon of choice.  Run him through.  End this…right now.”
Tarsus brought his sword back up in readiness for the attack he told himself over and over to perform.  He looked at this being before him who had taken his friend away; who had threatened to destroy him a number of times and had earnestly tried to follow through; who had sought nothing but command and domination from the moment the two of them had met.  Killing him would be a well-deserved punishment, earned many times over.
Yet Tarsus did not attack.  He held his sword firmly, readily…but he did not attack.  “We are not the same.”
Oh yes we are,” Cassius hissed.  “I promise you Tarsus Cole, had you the knowledge that I have…the experience.  Had you lived with an echo of the divine power all your life, knew of the ecstasies that it could offer you, and learned that there was more; not merely to possess, but to become.  If you held only a piece of the grand puzzle inside you, and you understood how broken you truly were…tell me…would you not have done exactly as I have done to be fixed?”
Tarsus hesitated a moment, imagining himself in Cassius’s place.  “No.  I know the feel of the divine power.  I held it in my very hands…and I gave it up.”
“A taste,” Cassius cooed.  “That is all you had.  And of power not your own.  Yet still, look at what you did to possess Malthir even for so brief a time.  You risked your life, your very soul, to descend into the UnderIsle and face its perils: friendship, love…loyalty.  You could have had any one of them in abundance.  But you refused.”
“They were not real!” Tarsus justified in a raised voice.
“You know better than that, Tarsus Cole,” Cassius teased, now stepping forward and allowing the tip of Tarsus’s sword to connect with his breastplate.  Suddenly, Cassius’s body began to glow with a faint, ethereal light, and both weapon and wielder were being pushed backward.  “Because they existed on the spiritual plane, does not mean they were not real.  But you are not interested in the spiritual plane.  You want to conquer in this world.”
“I have no desire to rule,” Tarsus countered assuredly.
“No.  You do not,” Cassius agreed.  “But you do desire greatness.  You desire that which could help you push past your mortal limits, and elevate you above others.  Finnian, Cecily, Drake…”
“How do you know of Drake?” Tarsus asked fearfully, lowering his blade.
“I know you, my boy,” Cassius answered in that flamboyant tone that Tarsus had not heard him use since first meeting him on the docks of Malthanon.  “I know your whole life’s story, and that need to be better has always been at the center of it.  I understand that, because I share it with you.  Such vaulting ambition will always drive us in ways that no other being; be they man or god, could ever understand.”
Tarsus pulled back his sword hand quickly, covering it with his other hand.  Cassius had struck him on the wrist, drawing blood and forcing him to drop his sword.  As he looked up, recovering from the shock of the surprise attack, he found the severed edge of Malthir screaming toward his heart.
There was no time to think, but Tarsus did not need time to think.  With years of combat training ingrained in him, he deftly pivoted to his right.
With Malthir missing its intended target, the momentum of the attack sent Cassius careening forward.  Tarsus was able to follow the flow of motion to grab Cassius’s wrist with one hand, and pull the sword away from him with the other.
In a continuation of his pivot, Tarsus circled around the back of Cassius, bringing the half-sword Malthir home to rest in the demigod’s abdomen.
Half of the remaining Malthir was now buried inside the half-god.  Instantly, Cassius fell to his knees, then backward into Tarsus’s waiting arms.  He looked up at the Sunsword with wide eyes.
“You’re right Cassius,” Tarsus said to him tranquilly.  “I do want to be great.  I have wanted that for as long as I can remember.  And you are right, I did turn my back on the bliss of the UnderIsle to return to the waking world.  But do you know what giving up so much…everything I thought I had wanted…do you know what that taught me in the end?”
“What?” the still shocked Cassius asked as the faint light, which had set him aglow only a moment before, faded.
“Greatness cannot be given, or taken, or stolen,” Tarsus declared.  “Greatness can only be earned.  That is what makes me different from you.  We are two villages, you and I…separated by a short road.  But between us…lies all the world.”
Cassius, still shocked at the deathblow dealt him, could only exhale in reply.  Tarsus watched his frightened eyes as they raced to decipher what this meant.
“You’re dying,” Tarsus finally said to him.  “But you don’t have to die as you lived.  You can still find greatness, even now.  Help me free Cecily from her pain.  Tell me how to save her, and you have my word…the echoes of the songs they sing of you in this world will be heard in the darkest depths of next.”
Cassius’s expression melted from wide-eyed terror to rational understanding.  He held there for a moment, and Tarsus offered him a small smile for comfort. 
Then, the corners of the demigod’s mouth pushed upwards, revealing that mischievous, incomplete grin he would wear to his death.  “Ha,” he sputtered amidst dribbles of blood falling from his mouth.  “You think you can appeal to my humanity?  You’ve killed me, mortal.  If silence is the only weapon left to me: my only means of hurting you: then I will be silent.  I care not for your pledges of redemption.”
“You call me and my kind foolish,” Tarsus retorted heatedly, “yet you are the biggest fool I have ever known.  You would rather die with secrets you will have no use for then give them up to me in order to save a life?  You are neither god nor man, but a selfish child.”
“Entreaties.  Insults.  Both routes lead you to a dead end with me,” Cassius spat.  “I would gladly see your Cecily suffer for all eternity from the other side, than help you to take what was meant for me.”
Tarsus Cole wanted to strangle the fool.  He desperately searched Cassius’s face, studying the demigod for the veracity of such a foolish final pledge, only to find all the proof he needed in the half-man’s triumphant eyes.  He bowed his head.  “What do I do now?  How do I get through to him before it’s too late?  I have nothing he wants.”
“You are coming to it, aren’t you?” Cassius asked with cruel, self-satisfaction. 
Tarsus raised his head to look down into the face of the dying half-man he held.  He gritted his teeth, “to what?”
“To the realization that it is over,” Cassius jeered.  “You have come so far, and done so much, but without my help…you have lost.  You have lost.”