The Black Ankh
by Laura Campbell, aka Shadow of Light Dragon
The two guards brought their spears up, standing to attention.
Mellorin ignored them and paused in front of the heavily barred doorway they stood on either side of. Speech drifted from inside and echoed down the stone corridor.
Mellorin frowned. He was alone in there. Why was he talking? Suddenly she smiled. Perhaps he was going mad. She unbarred the door and pushed it open.
The prison within was small and bare but for a pile of filthy straw, a bucket, a tin plate scraped carefully clean of the remains of breakfast, and a dishevelled man. He wore a dirty shirt and trousers. Leather armour and a royal purple cloak were piled neatly in one corner of the cell, partially covered by straw.
After a brief glance around the cell and a whispered Reveal spell to make sure the prisoner was indeed alone, Mellorin grinned and stepped inside. The torch behind her cast her shadow across the man where he sat. He squinted up at her for a second before rising to his feet.
"It's time, my Lord," she said.
"What dost thou hope to achieve by this?"
The Dark Avatar chuckled. "You expect me to tell you? Or are you insulting my intelligence by pretending you don't already know?"
For some reason he looked as though he was trying very hard not to smile. Mellorin shrugged off her annoyance and asked, "Are you planning to put your armour on, or will you die before your people looking like a beggar?"
Lord British turned away to dig through the straw like a mangy animal. Mellorin made a face at the room's stench and went back through the door to wait for him.
"Thou wilt not win, thou knowest."
By the Virtues, he really was mad.
"Keep telling yourself that, Richard," Mellorin replied, examining her fingernails absently.
"The Avatar will return."
"Ah, yes. The same Avatar who abandoned you on the Isle of Fire... how many months ago? The same Avatar who fled Britannia and hasn't been seen since? The one who's using her powers to tear down cities and crush nations into submission?"
He slowly fastened his cloak around his neck. "She would never-"
"I saw only what thou didst show me."
"So afraid of the truth, are you?" Mellorin looked at him without smiling, the torch lighting one side of her face with gold. "Come, Richard. It's time."
He took a shaky breath. "Thou dost not have to do this."
Mellorin shook her head. "You're wrong. But even if I didn't have to, I'd want to." She reached back and drew the Blacksword. Its jewel, in which the daemon Arcadion abided, glowed faintly. "Come."
Lord British came out of the room and preceded her down the corridor, not giving the dark Avatar the chance to lead the way.
He wouldn't have followed.
People pressed forward, whispering hopefully as the monarch of Britannia entered the huge cavern. Somewhere in the crowd a knight and a squire gently pushed their way nearer the king.
The growing noise died abruptly as two Killorn guards and Mellorin came in.
People closest to the front started to back off.
"Such devotion," Mellorin murmured.
The knight and squire kept coming, their movements unnoticed in the shifting crowd. If they could catch Lord British's attention... then what? The knight scowled for a second. They couldn't do anything.
He froze, then realised his king was looking straight at him.
The squire also stopped dead, then looked at his friend in bewilderment.
"Both of ye, forget trying to save me."
"My Lord," Sentri thought, willing himself to be heard. "We must do something."
"Watch over the people. Can I depend on ye?"
He inclined his head a fraction. "We will try."
"Do not let them lose hope. The Avatar will return. Believe that."
"Kneel," Mellorin commanded.
Lord British stared at her as though she was insane. "No."
She gestured to the guards and they came forward, one standing on his left and one on his right. They both clapped a gloved hand on his shoulders and forced him to his knees. Mellorin stood in front of him with Arcadion.
The cavern was deathly silent. Every eye was on the king and the Guardian's Avatar, every breath held in fearful expectation. But there was not one who actually believed Lord British would die.
The guards stood back.
Lord British didn't look up at his executioner. He stared straight ahead, right through her.
Mellorin slipped the point of her sword under his chin and lifted it, ostensibly to expose his neck.
The king still didn't look at her.
"No last words?" she asked softly, stepping away and bringing up the Shade Blade in both hands. "No glowing sermons on Virtue? No empty promises of returning avatars? She promised," Mellorin continued, her voice rising. "Elora promised to defend Britannia. And where is she?"
Lord British drew his breath as though to speak, but his reply resounded like a fanfare through the minds of all present: "In your heart, Britannia."
"We can do what she'd do," someone breathed. "We can save him."
The crowd started to shift again, slowly. Many faces looked at Mellorin with the grim expressions of people ready to fight.
"You had best put them out of that brilliant notion pretty soon, Richard," Mellorin said, so softly that only Lord British himself heard. At those words, he finally looked up at her. "Or you won't be the only one Arcadion feeds on today."
Aloud, Lord British said, "Stop."
"To let him defend himself at least," a gargoyle growled.
Mellorin smiled down at the king, who now chose not to look away from her eyes. Voice still pitched low, she said, "I did. He just threw his shield away."
"I would sooner die than see even a scratch on such a shield," was the noble reply. Mellorin had to bite her lip to keep from laughing.
"Are you ready, then?"
He lifted his head higher.
Mellorin had to force herself not to tear her gaze from his. The compassion and hope in his blue eyes burned her. She felt like a damp torch, designed to carry a flame but unable to; coated with the wrong type of liquid. But... he could help her... if she let him...
"Your weakness is showing, Avatar," the Guardian's Voice whispered in disapproval.
...or she could kill him. Steal a measure of power until she had enough to break free of the Guardian's shackles. Then, unrestrained by his or British's virtues, she could light her own fire. One that consumed all.
A painful force gripped her mind. "You are mine!" the Guardian snarled.
Not for long, Mellorin wanted to reply. She didn't, but he knew, and the pain increased.
Below her, the Lord of Britannia watched her struggle. He saw her body shake as she fought to control her agony.
"Let me help."
With a cry that was half pain, half despair, and all fury, Mellorin pulled the Blacksword back. Remotely, she heard herself say: "This sword will be thy death, Lord British."
And she lunged.