“What the fuck was that about?” Fynn snapped.
Karzarul took the shape of an Impyr sitting in the grass, yawned even though he was dreaming. “Are you here again?” he asked.
Fynn ran his fingers through his hair. “We can’t be taking detours every time you see soldiers doing something you don’t like,” he said. “If we don’t catch Orynn in time it’ll be a lot worse than some collateral damage.”
“If it bothered you so much,” Karzarul sneered, “you should have said something.”
Fynn fumed. “Real fucking funny,” he said.
“You can still make sounds,” Karzarul shrugged. “Figure it out.”
“I never should have asked for your help,” Fynn said, starting to pace.
“You going to kill him yourself?” Karzarul asked, shifting to standing instead of moving to rise. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
Fynn ruffled his own hair with both hands. “You know I can’t do that,” he muttered.
Karzarul had been trying to avoid them this time around. For the most part. He’d tried watching from a distance, for a while, but it had made it too tempting to say hello. To see if things could be different, if they remembered him, remembered anything but fear. Wondering if they could make a space for him wasn’t sustainable. Easier to stay away and hope they’d do the same.
He knew better than to invite himself.
It had worked out well enough for the thirty years or so since they’d recovered their weapons. Fynn left his sect to let it wither, let Orynn sweep him off his feet. Then Orynn got his head scrambled. It wasn’t clear if it was the Starsword singing to him, glimpses of memories, or another thing entirely. Locking himself away and lashing out and finally attacking Fynn. Convinced he was a trickster, a traitor, trying to turn his head with sweet words.
Karzarul wouldn’t argue with the general sentiment. But it felt unfair to Orynn, to let him be this way.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Fynn said, still pacing.
“Yes, you’re very special,” Karzarul dismissed. “Do you have anything important to say, or is it only that you missed hearing yourself talk?”
“Sun above but you’re the fucking worst,” Fynn said. Karzarul grinned. “I don’t know why I’m surprised, I didn’t seek you out for your personality.”
“At least I have my looks,” Karzarul said.
Fynn looked like he might have thrown something, if he had anything to throw. “You kill Heroes,” he snarled. “Try to focus on that.”
“My track record with Heirs isn’t bad, either,” Karzarul growled.
Fynn stopped to laugh bitterly. “Try me,” he said, spreading his arms. “What could you possibly do to me that’s worse than what’s already been done?”
“I’m sure I could think of something,” Karzarul said, deliberately looming.
“Oh, please,” Fynn shot back, head tilted back to meet his eyes. “I can already tell you wouldn’t have the stomach for it.”
Karzarul caught him by the throat.
“Try harder,” Fynn said. “I’ve had boyfriends choke me harder than that.”
Karzarul let him go, recoiling. “What? Why?”
Fynn raised an eyebrow.
“Did you—oh! Oh. You meant that you—okay.” Karzarul rubbed at the moon on the back of his hand.
“Are we done with the posturing,” Fynn asked, “or did you want to try again?”
Karzarul looked him over, taken aback. “Did you want me to?” he asked, confused.
“What? No. Don’t touch me.”
Karzarul poked Fynn in the shoulder before he could stop him.
“Fuck’s sake,” Fynn said, rubbing his temple. “Trying to save my husband from himself and all I’ve got with me is the world’s oldest brat.”
“He’d better appreciate this when he gets back.”
“He’s not,” Karzarul said. “Coming back.”
“He dies, he gets reborn,” Fynn said. “That’s how it works.”
“His soul comes back,” Karzarul said. “He doesn’t. Being born at all doesn’t happen until most of us are dead. You won’t get to see whatever he comes back as. Not the way you are now. You’ll be new, same as him.”
Fynn raked his hand through his hair. “But you stay the same,” he said. “Same person, same memories. Even if you die.”
“I’m me,” Karzarul shrugged. “Always.”
Fynn was an important object lesson in not implying that murdering him would bring someone’s husband back from the dead. Pointless, when the man had wasted away anyway, food an ordeal that choked him and tasted of nothing.
These new ones hadn’t given him much time to recover, all smitten with each other and determined to kill him. The ones in a rush to kill him were the worst. Old enough to be dangerous, young enough to make him feel bad about it. Odd now, to think of Vaelon and Lynette so young, setting out for the Faewild ready to die. Karzarul hadn’t realized yet how young that was, for a human. How bizarre, to bind their souls to things so vast after only a quarter-century. It seemed too young, to live like that forever. It seemed too young to die.
His sympathy was dampened by the unrepentant killing of the monsters on the mountain below. Karzarul braced his hands against the parapet, maintaining Tauril form even as he watched from within and without the deaths of Bullizards and Brutelings. He always told them to stay out of the way, but they’d stopped listening since Needle.
“Elm,” Saina called from behind the Sunshield, casting her barrier wider around them. “You’re falling into his trap!”
Sid leaned closer to Karzarul. “Did we set a trap?” he asked.
“No,” Karzarul said. They’d only half rebuilt the Monster Kingdom after last time. He would have thought not having a ropeway would have made it harder to loot. That was the whole reason he’d picked this mountain, that no one else seemed to want it. It turned out that the calculus changed when it was someone’s.
“Every time you kill one,” Saina said, “he gets stronger.” Elm stabbed a Howler, and a comet of moonlight shot into Karzarul, blissfully unaccompanied by memory. “See?” she said.
Karzarul narrowed his eyes.
“I see you have discovered my secret,” he announced, projecting his voice further than strictly necessary.
Sid slowly turned towards him, raising a single eyebrow. Karzarul tried to ignore him, then finally shrugged. “If it works, it works,” he said. “Look, they’re heading straight up here now.”
“Great,” Sid sighed. He gave his spear a twirl as he stepped back from the parapet. “I’ll go poke some holes in them for you.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Karzarul said.
Sid shrugged. “Either I come back in a few weeks or I don’t,” he said. “They’re going to try to kill you, you know.”
“Do or die, now or never. Giving them chances will only make you feel worse.”
“Fight back like you mean it.”
He dreamt of desert nights, cold and clear.
“You should leave it down here,” Cori signed. “Let us have the next one who comes down to retrieve it.” The copper of the Sunshield glinted on the ocean floor, the sunstone at its center dim. Karzarul had already buried the man who’d carried it, weighed down his corpse with rocks.
“Maybe,” Karzarul signed as Cori wrapped his arms around Karzarul’s shoulders from behind. He wound his tail around Karzarul’s, nuzzling at his shoulder.
“Captain Skyla is doing a rum run soon,” Cori signed, holding his hands out far enough that Karzarul could see them in front of him. “You know you’re her favorite.”
Karzarul batted his hands away, glowing faintly. It was always tempting. Hard to tell where his own temptation started and the other Abysscales ended. They were all lust and violence, skin and scales. He knew most of it had to be them. Drink didn’t carry the same appeal when he couldn’t get drunk, not the way other monsters could. But their wanting made him want, and they always picked up on it.
Merri drifted nearer, tugged at Karzarul’s hair until Karzarul turned his head to kiss him.
There were times when he wanted to stay here. There wasn’t any reason he couldn’t stay here. Only that it all became too much, eventually. Whatever joy he could wring out of himself would run out, needing more to feel less until the thought of being touched repulsed him. Until he couldn’t bear to be looked at, felt a fool for thinking it could ever be enough.
It was Skyla who noticed the ship trying to overtake them, cannons at ready. The flag bore an eight-pointed star.
Karzarul crossed the distance a Misthawk, landed on two hooves. He didn’t like to take this form around just anyone, but, well. Either the Hero would be here, or Karzarul would sink the ship. Negotiations with random ships were beyond his current patience.
Except that the Starsword was on the hip of someone tall and broad-shouldered and large-chested, red curls down to her knees and freckles over her sternum.
“Oh!” Karzarul’s mind went suddenly and terribly blank. “Hello.”
Slowly, she descended the stairs to the main deck, her eyes narrowed. “What,” she said, “are you.”
“You’re the. The Starlight Hero? Now?” Karzarul had not prepared for this eventuality, though he should have realized it would happen. Her hips were doing a lot of things, going down stairs, that he wasn’t used to seeing in a Hero. A lot of her was doing a lot of things. There was a lot of her, was the thing.
“Maiete,” she said, still watching him, hand on the hilt of her sword.
“Right,” Karzarul said. Her shirt was tucked into her trousers instead of buttoned shut, and he kept getting distracted by her navel. Standing there was beginning to feel awkward. In an attempt to seem nonthreatening, he leaned against the nearby mast with his elbow, propping his head against his hand. “Hey.”
She looked, if anything, more suspicious.
“Are you the Monster King?” she asked, incredulous, looking him over.
“Depends on who’s asking.”
“… I am.”
“You’re Karzarul,” she said, not a question this time. “Why are you here?”
He stood straighter, brushing off his elbow with a shrug. “Maybe I wanted to say h—” She rolled her shoulders back, hands on her hips. “—hhhh. Hi.” He averted his gaze to the horizon, clearing his throat as if that was what had happened to the pitch of his voice. “Hello,” he said, overcorrecting and pitching his voice too low. He cleared his throat again.
“You’re here to say hello?” she asked.
“I don’t see why not.”
“What kind of ploy is this?”
“Must it be one?” he asked. He gave his braid a toss so that his bells would ring. “I’m not so terrible as my reputation would have you believe. I’m quite reasonable, in fact.” He fluttered his eyelashes a touch more than was coy, regretting it immediately.
“Is that so,” she said, cocking her head. “Are you trying to tell me you didn’t kill Taeryn?”
Karzarul paused and thought about the Sunshield half-buried in the sand. “I’ve never heard that name,” he said, which was not a lie.
“He was out killing sea-beasts,” she said, “and never returned.”
“Perhaps,” Karzarul suggested, “he should not have been.”
“They’re bad for business,” she said.
“Some consider them lucky,” he said.
“I’ll consider them lucky,” she said, “if you can bring me my husband back before I’ve killed every last one of the ugly bastards.”
Karzarul rubbed at the base of his horns. “You could have just. Lied. Instead of… you couldn’t even play along for—fine! Fine. Die, then, for all I care. Join your shitty husband. I killed your husband, by the way. You’re welcome.”
He rose from the deck before her sword could strike, and a Drakonis’ roar filled the air.
The Monster Kingdom was destroyed, again, after Zeno and Elruil killed him. Looted and left in rubble, again.
“Girls, it’s time to go,” Brissa said as she entered the den.
“Shhh!” said her youngest daughter. “It’s the best part.”
“You’ve heard this story a thousand times,” Brissa reminded her. Nonetheless, she knelt with the children to listen. Nene had gotten very good at telling it over the last two hundred years or so. They and Arynna had only adopted two children, but over the generations those children had multiplied into a whole passel of them to crowd into the floor of their den. The idea of Nene and Grandy as having ever been young felt as legendary as anything else when they’d been old longer than some countries existed.
“I didn’t waste my time,” Nene said, “fighting any of those other monsters. Remember, I was trying to get this over and done with quick as I could so I could marry my girl.”
Arynna patted their hand, skin wrinkled and paper-thin. Nene’s pale hand grabbed Arynna’s dark one, brought it higher to kiss her knobbly knuckles before letting her go to gesture again.
“With Arynna’s enchantments, I didn’t have to unlock any Rainbow Doors. She stacked so many on that glider I’m still surprised it didn’t explode. You’re not supposed to be able to use that many, but she found a way to stack them special. I got launched so high in the air, all I had to do was try to hit the top of Monster Mountain without breaking my ankles.”
“Are monsters scary?” asked one little boy. None of the children had ever seen one, when the Monster Kingdom had fallen so long ago.
“Very scary,” Nene said, holding their fingers up to their mouth like fangs. “And King Karzarul was the biggest, meanest, scariest monster of them all. A giant, with hooves and horns and fire breath. Five heads, each one uglier than the last!”
He only had the one head, and they hadn’t actually seen any fire breath, but it made the story better.
“When I saw him standing there, I aimed myself right at him, sword-first. I thought for sure it would never work. But he must not have planned for an attack from above, because the Starsword went right through him. He roared so loud he shook the mountain, and in his great and terrible voice, he said: what manner of Hero are you?”
He hadn’t actually roared. What he’d actually said was: what the fuck? But that wasn’t good storytelling.
“And I told him: I’m the Hero that killed you fastest of all.” They struck a pose. “You can call me Needle.” They’d named themselves after the Hero of legend, for luck. “With a final mighty roar, all the monsters vanished.”
The monsters hadn’t vanished on their own, but that part had been tedious. And they always left out the part where Karzarul had made a face, his brow furrowing and his mouth twisting, and he’d said: again?
That part didn’t make for a good ending.
Karzarul crouched, resting his chin in his hands. “Any last words?”
“This is a farce,” Malgath spat.
The Brutelings had put together an impressive guillotine on short notice. Karzarul did not think Malgath was adequately impressed by the guillotine. He didn’t have to like it to admit it was impressive.
“You could have used that opportunity to say something interesting,” Karzarul said, “for posterity.” He stood. “For the crimes of murder, attempted murder, attempted murder, torture, murder, desecration of a corpse—”
“That wasn’t me,” Malgath said.
Karzarul had taken the Sunshield away from him, as well as the sword he used as his magical instrument. The Brutelings had bound him up in sharp wire, an attentive audience as well as a jury. Karzarul thought he was controlling himself well, considering the state of bloodthirst all around him. They’d as happily rip out Malgath’s throat with their teeth, but they wanted to see how the guillotine worked. One Bruteling had already gotten worked up enough to kill another one.
They did that sometimes over trivial annoyances. Knowing they’d be back after the next full moon meant they considered it a form of time-out.
“Vivisection, then,” Karzarul decided. “That’s the word for it, isn’t it, when you cut out a man’s beating heart?”
“I put it back,” Malgath sputtered.
“Cutting off his fingers, cutting off his arms.”
“It was an experiment,” Malgath said. “Kelruil agreed to it, he agreed to all of it, he wanted answers as much as I did.”
“Did he?” Karzarul asked. “Did you tell him it was important? Did you make it feel right, carving him into pieces?”
“He’s fine,” Malgath said. “I would have put him back together even if the sacred spring hadn’t, he was never in any danger.”
“Is this what your love looks like?” Karzarul asked, crouching again. “That you need to see the bones of him, shine a light on every dark place inside of him rather than trust that it’s there?”
“I didn’t like doing it,” Malgath said. “He’s the only one who could. Enchanters will learn to make miracles with our work. No one else could do what we’ve done.”
“Who asked you to do it?” Karzarul demanded. “Only because you could? Does the fact that he could bear it constitute an obligation? You love the way a fire loves a forest. You tell me all the wonders that will grow because of you, while I stand here in the ashes.”
“Who are you,” Malgath said, “to stand in judgement of me? Do you think you’ll find him grateful that you’ve saved him from himself? He’s mine, forever and always. He’ll kill you for this, and the world will be no better for the loss of us.”
“Let him kill me,” Karzarul said. “If it means he lives a long and happy life, there is no better world.”
“Kill me, then,” Malgath said. “Cut my head off and get it over with. You could have killed me from the start, what was the point of this? Does it make you feel better to pretend that this is justice?”
Karzarul stood, threw his hands out with a twirl to gesture to the monsters and the ruins all around them. “The point is that I’m bored,” he suggested. “I am tired of this, I am tired of you. The absolute unmitigated horseshit of you. I am tired of letting him love you when this is what you do with it. I am tired of letting you have him. I am going to take everything you’ve ever accused me of. No more empires, no more kingdoms, no more legacies.”
He gestured to the Brutelings, who took their cue with gusto.
“No more head.”
Folwyth had known from the start the battle would be difficult. After the white wolf had killed Tanyth, he’d made it his mission to kill the Monster King. He’d traveled far and wide, learned every trick, made himself a weapon. He’d killed more men than monsters, but men weren’t easier to kill.
It was still harder than he could have dreamed. The Howler first, that great white wolf that had killed the greatest hunter in all of Yurith. Then it had changed, taken the form of a Tauril, massive and with a bow to match. Folwyth had managed to dodge the arrows, the axe that came down when he moved too close, had managed to strike if not ever at the core of him. He’d even managed to avoid the occasional fall of a lantern, iron bowls full of oil that burned to light the barren mountainside.
Then Karzarul had taken the form of a Drakonis, luring Folwyth higher up the mountain. Great gnashing teeth and fire breath, eyes that watched his every move. But if he timed it right, Folwyth could send out starbursts to explode in those many eyes and blind him. It gave him enough time to build up enough energy for a supernova, though it took a lot out of him to even try.
It seemed like it might be enough, as the moon-white Drakonis started to fall out of the sky. But then its shape turned to light, the way it had before.
“Another one?” Folwyth asked breathlessly despite himself.
What could be worse than a Drakonis?
Karzarul landed with two hooves on a high ledge, a toss of his braid and a swish to his tail. He stretched his hands above his head with an arch to his back, stroking his horns as he worked out the kinks in his limbs. The crescent of his crown sat in front of them, the shape of his skirt baring the thick muscle of his thighs. “Well,” he said with a ringing twitch of his hip, “I’m willing to concede that I’ve had worse.”
“If you were clever,” Karzarul said, summoning the Moonbow into one hand and twirling an arrow into the other, “this would be the part where you’d surrender.” He licked the tip of his arrow, nocked it with a wink.
Folwyth almost didn’t dodge out of the way in time, the arrow embedding itself into the stone where he’d been standing. Pure concentrated power, they drove a hole straight through whatever they hit.
Whatever else he’d been prepared for, this hadn’t been it. He’d thought Drakonis would be the worst of it. No one had mentioned the King of All Monsters looking like that. The way he laughed when Folwyth stumbled, the way he chimed as he moved. The tinkling of bells echoing on the hard cliffs of the mountain. Folwyth tried to throw more starbursts, but Karzarul twirled away from them with a roll of his pelvis that felt… deeply unnecessary.
Folwyth tried to focus on getting closer, and not on what he was getting closer to. He needed to drive the Starsword straight through his heart if he wanted to end this.
“You just can’t stay away from me, can you?” Karzarul asked.
The tone also felt unnecessary.
Karzarul sighed, the Moonbow disappearing from his hand. “I never could say no to a pretty face,” he said, taking one impossibly great leap to land on the farther side of the flat area where Folwyth had been standing. Folwyth had to spin around to follow his descent, no more than fifty feet of level ground between them. Karzarul pulled his tunic off with a long arc of his arm, briefly not visible as he tossed the garment aside.
“That wasn’t necessary,” Folwyth muttered. The exertion of the fight was getting to him, making his face feel hot.
Karzarul rolled his shoulders, cracked his neck. A chain appeared around his left forearm, and with his right he twirled the heavy end of a meteor hammer. “Swords are a bit intimate,” he said, “don’t you think?” With that, the hammer flew toward Folwyth.
It wasn’t only the matter of the hammer, of the chain. It was the way Karzarul kept moving like the bells he wore were an instrument, and it was all Folwyth could do to time the music and determine when the strikes would come. It was the way Karzarul would spin his entire body along with the twirling hammer, dodging a low supernova with a cartwheel. If Folwyth tried to aim higher, he’d fall to the ground, legs out to either side of him, letting the chain wrap around his neck before dropping his head to let the hammer strike out.
As Folwyth tried to figure out a plan of attack—any plan—he tried to parry the hammer instead of dodging it. The chain caught around the blade of the Starsword, but Folwyth held tight to the hilt, and as a consequence Karzarul yanked him closer along with it. Folwyth found himself face-to-face with the Monster King, silver eyes looking straight down into his, a hoof between his boots.
“You never take me dancing anymore,” Karzarul sighed.
In a panic Folwyth tried to unwind the chain from his sword, spinning his entire body with it. Karzarul did the same, parallel motions until they’d untangled themselves. Before Folwyth could take advantage of the closer quarters, Karzarul used his elbow to control the spin of the hammer, sent it knocking into a lantern. When it rebounded, spinning in confounding configurations around Karzarul, it was covered in burning oil.
“It’s on fire now?” Folwyth complained, barely audible over his own ragged breathing.
“You can try again, you know,” Karzarul said, the blazing hammer still spinning. “I won’t stop you if you want to leave. Run away, pretty Hero, and fight me again some other day.”
He wanted to run. He wanted to stop. “I am no coward,” he spat.
“You’ll die a very brave death,” Karzarul said, and Folwyth only narrowly dodged a great burning sweep of the hammer at the level of his head.
Folwyth tried to move closer, tried to spin and weave so that he could move in the direction he wanted without getting hit. “I am no fool,” he said, “to trust the kindness of the King of All Monsters.”
Karzarul laughed. “You think that would be kindness?” he asked. The flame went out on the hammer, a sudden turn and a flick of his arm to send the chain wrapping around Folwyth’s wrists so that the weight would drag them down. Karzarul stepped on the other end of the chain, the Moonbow in his hand all at once, arrow nocked and drawn at the level of Folwyth’s chest.
“Kindness,” Karzarul said, “would be letting you surrender.” He tilted his head, looking down at the Hero who couldn’t hold his sword. “I’d even let you stay the night,” he said with a wry smile. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” he said, “to get a good night’s sleep?”
It shouldn’t have been tempting. It wasn’t tempting. Not to stop, not to rest, not to breathe. Not to lose, not to be done, not to give up. Not those eyes, not that smile. Not the sound of him or the way he moved, not the unspoken promise of him.
“You killed Tanyth,” Folwyth said.
“I did,” Karzarul agreed.
“One of us has to die,” Folwyth said.
“We don’t,” Karzarul said.
“I can’t live with that,” Folwyth said.
“You could learn,” Karzarul said.
“My dreams,” Folwyth said, “are haunted. I would rather die than bear it.”
Karzarul sighed. “Maybe next time.”
“Laurela,” Karzarul said, brushing willow branches out of his way. “It’s dinner time, come on.”
“I’ll be there in a minute,” she said, which she had probably been saying since he’d first tried to call her in using her bell pendant. She was curled up in the spot where the trunks split, nearly upside-down with her book against her knee. There was a leaf in one of her ruddy-blonde braids, and the Starsword was cutting into the bark of the tree. She liked to keep the sword strapped to the stump of her left leg now that she was tall enough, the blade exposed, leather armor covering the hilt. She never wanted to wear anything but short pants and long tunics. The willow branches were dense enough to give the illusion of privacy, a curtain between her and the world.
“Yes,” he agreed, taking the book away from her and tucking a silver piece of moonlight between the pages. She protested, wiggling to try and threaten him with her sword leg. “In a minute. Not ten minutes, not when the book is done. It’s time for dinner.” He tucked it into the saddlebag on his lower right shoulder.
“When I’m the Monster Queen,” she said, “I’m going to make it monster law that dinner is whenever I say it is.”
“Uh-huh,” he said, picking her up by her arms to haul her out of the tree. She kicked her legs in front of her in an obnoxious flail that was not enough to endanger him. “Put your leg away,” he added. With a huff she pulled the flattened sheath off her back, strapping it onto the Starsword.
She’d been saying she was going to marry him for ten years now, since the first time she’d made a Tauril bring her home, six years old with her leg hacked off. She’d lost it to Gwenviel along with her parents, though she hadn’t seemed as upset by that as she had by Karzarul’s refusal to treat her as an authority figure.
Karzarul set her down on his back, and she sat with her back against his. She balanced with one bare foot pressed against him and her sheathed sword sticking straight out. He headed back down the gentle slope of the hill, hooves crushing wildflowers. Yellows and pinks and blues dotted the grass in all directions, wild horses grazing in the distance. Vaelon had found the spot when the willow tree was small and left a Door to come back when it was bigger. “I remembered more,” she said.
“Yeah?” he said. He didn’t get his hopes up. She remembered a lot of things. Only some of the memories were hers. She’d been given the Starsword when she was practically a newborn, no sense of distinct personhood yet. Her mind had grown around it in strange ways. Sometimes she seemed old for her age. Most of the time she did not.
“I remember a place,” she said, “called the Rusty Spoon.”
Karzarul swallowed a lump in his throat, but didn’t stop walking. “You liked the beer,” he said, “and playing irritating songs.”
“I knew that was a real one,” she said, triumphant. “The songs must be why he stabbed me.”
“The man with the red feather in his cap.”
Karzarul sighed. “That never happened,” he said. “Pretty sure that’s an unrelated murder.”
“I would remember if you’d been stabbed by an angry fop,” he said.
“Shoot,” Laurela said. “Who got stabbed, then?”
“I don’t know,” Karzarul said. “Lots of people get stabbed.”
“We should look into it,” she said. “Check records and things. Make sure they caught the guy.”
“Solve mysteries later,” Karzarul said. “Safi says you’ve been skipping self-defense classes.”
“I don’t need self-defense,” she insisted, wiggling her sheathed leg in the air. “I can do the sparky thing, and the boomy thing. If Gwenviel shows up I’ll kick her in the head.”
“That won’t help if you lose your sword,” Karzarul said.
“I’m not gonna lose my sword,” she said. “Besides. I’ve got you to keep me safe.”
“You can’t count on that.”
“I can always count on you,” she said. She noticed the leaf in her hair and tossed it aside. “Can we have cake for dinner?”
“I made goat stew,” Karzarul said.
“The mint one or the peppers one?”
“The peppers one.”
“Can we have cake after?”
“Knock Safi over without using your sword,” he said, “and you can have cake.”
“If there’s a cake,” she said, determination in her voice, “I’ll find it.”
“If you want to end up grounded, you can.”
“I’m too old to get grounded,” she protested.
She huffed. “You’re mean,” she said.
“I know,” he said.
“You’re the worst,” she added.
“I know,” he said, ducking his head to walk through the Rainbow Door.
“When I’m Monster Queen, we’ll always have cake for dinner,” she said as they emerged on the mountain.
By the time Karzarul awoke, Tomas had already killed Gwenviel. It was anticlimactic, not getting the opportunity to avenge himself. Tomas had more a right to avenge Laurela than anyone, but Karzarul still would have liked to help.
He didn’t have it in him to kill Tomas, and it didn’t seem worth the effort of convincing him that neither of them had to die. What would that life be? Watching an angry young man turn into an angry old one? Better to die, and dream, and see if things could be different next time. Maybe next time there could be a window, however brief, where he could pretend it wouldn’t end the way it always did.
“I have to say,” Karzarul said, twirling his hammer, “the stoicism really isn’t doing it for me.”
The Hero continued to say nothing, all heavily-armored and square-jawed. It had been a while since one had shown up looking like a knight. Karzarul was irritated as much by the lack of reaction as he was by the murder attempt. Even when they were trying to murder him, Heroes usually had the decency to acknowledge that he was fucking with them.
The total silence, nothing but the clatter and creak of armor as he avoided the meteor hammer, was creepy.
“Do you have a name, at least?” Karzarul asked, as the hammer slammed down into the ground and left a crater. “Am I supposed to write ‘return to sender’ on your back before I kick your corpse downhill?” He cartwheeled over a supernova, twirled through starbursts with only minor damage to his legs. He spun his hammer in wide enough arcs to give himself some space, striking out before the Starsword could build any more energy on its blade.
“I am not here,” the knight said finally, “to reward the attention-seeking behavior of an abomination.”
“Rude,” Karzarul said, though he wasn’t sure which part he found most objectionable. A shame with that jawline. ‘Abomination’ was a tricky one to come back from. “Is that what they told you? Which kingdom’s Heir broke you this time?”
“I follow no false prophets,” the knight said, gathering almost no energy on the blade before swinging it outward. It was still enough to be annoying. “I serve in the Light of the Sun.”
“Oh, they made a mess of you, didn’t they?” That trick with the smaller arcs of light was proving to be troublesome, since it happened too quickly to interrupt the wind-up. “And still no introduction.” Karzarul pivoted the turn of the hammer with his leg so that it would wind around the Starsword’s blade, using it to yank the knight closer. The knight attempted to headbutt him, which felt uncalled for. Karzarul moved his head out of the way just enough to catch his ear. “Scared to hear me say your name?” he taunted.
The knight kicked him in the chest, which was something of an accomplishment in that much armor. Karzarul let his meteor hammer disappear, throwing the knight off-balance, pulling too hard at a free blade. He fell backward, rolled back up to his feet with murder in his eyes. Karzarul was already swinging the hammer he’d remade.
“Vile, shameless thing,” the knight said through his teeth, swinging the Starsword at a rapid pace, starbursts and supernovas falling off it irregular and staccato.
“One does one’s best,” Karzarul said, though more of those strikes were hitting their mark, the knight better able to get closer as the arc of his hammer was repeatedly interrupted.
“Hideous, aberrant, nightmare.” Closer and closer, Karzarul could have summoned an arrow, but did he want to? He could call it a mercy killing, getting rid of a man so miserable, but then he’d have to sit and wait for the next one. “Shut up.”
He liked dreams. No one ever died there.
“Make me, mystery man.”
The knight was too focused on sliding the Starsword through him to stop Karzarul from grabbing his face, pressing a kiss to his mouth that he didn’t deserve.
“Elias,” the knight croaked, “you fucking horror.”
“Elias,” Karzarul sighed, “try being less of an asshole next time.”
Elias pulled the Starsword back and tried to cut off a head that was already gone. His hands shook.
Breakfast was congee, and the table was a half-broken crate, sawed-off tree trunk logs for chairs. Karzarul had already helped himself to three bowls. Minnow had given Leonas a second bowl without asking. Leonas had been awake for three hours by the time the sun rose. He was wearing a white blouse and tight black pants that had been left ‘mysteriously’ in the morning, accompanied by a scrap of paper with a purple lipstick kiss. Karzarul had eaten it before Leonas saw it.
“So,” Minnow said between spoonfuls, “how would you feel about it if Leonas were my boyfriend?”