I turned away when the Death King pointed his finger at me, and I think I’ll always regret that.
We had him dead to rights, you know. Simon had plunged his lance through the thing’s rotten ribcage and Alan had just smashed the pendant he held his life in. Zara had summoned licks of flame that were eating him alive: all he had time for was a single, last-ditch effort. A pointed finger, a rasped word, and a ray of something purple that turned my flesh near to ice when it passed me by. I had the gall to feel a sense of satisfaction until I heard a stifled gasp behind me. Until I heard the fading laugh from our mortal enemy and turned to see the look of glassy-eyed shock on Anastasia’s face. She fell almost soundlessly and when I caught hold of her she weighed less than a feather. She was gone.
I don’t remember much of what happened next. There are small moments, flitting memories I can grasp hold of, lasting only until the inescapable horror of my Ana’s death chased me back into darkness. Eventually my companions left me–they must have. Alone in the Death King’s empty castle I awoke one day to find the food my friends had left for me rotting, the water spoiled. I scavenged what I could from the castle’s stores and made do. At first I resented them for returning without me, but I soon forgave them: Simon was a prince and surely now would be made king. Alan had made a promise to his lover, that he’d settle down with her when he was done. Zara wanted to travel the world. And Ana, my Ana–
Only I had no reason to return. What good is a hero when evil has been vanquished? He’s at best a mercenary, at worst a pawn. Every kingdom in the world would secretly wish to see me dead, perhaps even the one I chose to support. And whichever I did would fling itself into battle thinking they possessed the ultimate soldier.
I could have returned, fulfilled my Ana’s wish: a safe home for her fragmented little family. But the thought of seeing hope disappear from her little brother’s innocent face, her father’s tortured expression when he discovered his daughter’s fate… I found myself retching, heaving up nothing at all. I would rather die here, I decided, deep in the Death King’s lair. It was only fitting, since my Ana had done so.
It was a curious thing, but with every passing day her body failed to deteriorate. After what must have been a month her skin was still soft, a glow still present on her features. Every day I tested her pulse and every day I convinced myself anew I’d merely missed it the day prior. And each day I found nothing but the stillness of the grave. Each day I tore myself from her limp body and escaped into the winding passageways of the castle, wishing to simply disappear. Instead I must have pressed a stone in the wall or found the right cobble to step on, for one day a door opened for me that had been plain stone before. Inside was a vast library of deathly secrets, forbidden knowledge that must have made the Death King who he was. And so, little by little, I began to read. A hope burning faintly in my breast, the soft muted warmth of my Ana.
What else was I to live for?