The captain walked over to the altar, stood behind it, and began to chant. As he chanted, the rest of the crew filed into the room, and knelt in orderly rows before the altar. As each one knelt, they began to chant with the captain. The liquid metal inside the altar began to boil, and noxious fumes arose from within, making the companions in the cage above gag and retch. A few minutes after the last crewman entered the room and took his place before the altar, everyone stopped chanting. The captain addressed the crowd.
“Brothers! What a glorious trip this has been! We met the forces of Calimshan on the open water, and we sent them to hell!” The crew cheered, and the captain paused for a moment before continuing.
“And now, my brothers, we have five glorious sacrifices for our lord. Never before have we fed so many souls to our lord at one time. Never before have we caused so much destruction at one time. Never before have we stood to receive so much power!
“But, our lord is merciful. All are welcome in his new order. Everyone has a place in the perfect world we are building. Just as each of you were given the opportunity to join us, we will extend the offer of friendship and brotherhood to these brave souls. Each will be shown the vision, and each will be given the chance to accept the blessings of our god, for is he not benevolent? Is he not just? Indeed he is, my brothers, as you all know. And just as you know his grace, it will be offered to these prisoners so they may join us in the new world order and help us create paradise!”
The cage moved down to the floor, and opened up. Kaine stepped out, and it closed behind him. Two guards forced him to his knees, and held him there.
“The time has come, Kaine. Gaze into the altar, and see the great things our lord has planned for you. Know his power, and his mercy. See your future, and know your destiny. When you are ready to receive his gifts, all you need to do is reach forward, and touch the altar. In an instant, we shall be brothers forevermore!”
Kaine glanced at the altar unwittingly, and was instantly entranced by a vision of himself, sitting on the Golden Lion Throne of Calimshan. A line of foreign dignitaries were bringing him tribute from around the world, and beside him…
“No! That’s not real! That’s impossible. No one knows about that…”
Beside him, Alaria sat and smiled. So beautiful, so peaceful. What did she ever see in him? He knew that he didn’t deserve her. Why was she here? Fortune was surely his friend. And then, she turned to him, and her smile erupted into laughter. Laughing at him. Mocking him. His brother behind her, also laughing at him, mocking him. The whole court laughing at him. Flames igniting, the palace burning.
Then, a faceless man in smoking plate armor enters the room. With a casual flick of his hand, he knocks the foreign dignitaries aside, smashing them into the walls. He walks up to Kaine’s brother, and crushes the man’s throat before he can even scream. Alaria sits, paralyzed with fear. The man opens his arms wide, then claps them together in front of his chest. The shockwave rushes outward. It destroys the castle, kills the foreign dignitaries and the members of the court. Only Kaine and Alaria remain, still seated in their thrones. Around them, nothing but burning bones and smoldering ashes.
Everything fades to black around them. Kaine and Alaria, and the faceless man. Around them, nothing but cold, empty space.
The man raises his arms, and the light rises. Kaine and Alaria are sitting on a large stone deep in the woods. Their lunch is spread around them, and their horses are casually grazing in the meadow a few feet away. They’re laughing, and kissing. Everything is so wonderful. They are together, and that is all that matters.
The image fades, and the faceless man becomes the captain, and whispers in his ear.
“You can have it again, Kaine. You can have her again. Like it used to be, before the Lion devoured you. Just you and her, together. Touch my altar, and follow me to your bliss.”
Kaine looked up, and his arms flew to the altar. “Give her to me!” he cried.
As soon as his hands touched the altar, a look of peace and tranquility settled upon Kaine’s face. He stayed there for a moment, kneeling in front of the altar, and then he stood up and walked to the back of the room. He knelt next to the last crewman, and bowed his head in supplication.
The captain turned his attention back to the cage, where all of the companions stood quietly, dumbfounded by what they had just witnessed. Had Kaine really just converted, or was it all part of the ruse they had planned? None knew for sure. The cage opened, and Nightshade stepped out. The guards forced her to her knees, and she looked into the altar.
“Larissa Eliane Kariendar! You drop that roll right this instant, young lady!” She froze for a half second, then bolted out of the kitchen. One of the palace guards stepped in front of her to grab her, but she slid through the man’s legs and was back on her feet, running at top speed through the castle halls. If only she could make it to the cellar…to her hiding place…
She rounded a corner. She could see the stairs leading down. A sudden fist in her face. Pain exploded in her head, and she crumpled to the floor. Her sister, laughing at her. Kicking her as she struggled to get up. The guards catching her, taking her to her mother.
Her mother’s cold, cruel eyes, her voice calling for the Whipmaster. No, mother, please…not again. The sting of the whip. Biting her tongue to keep from screaming. Pain. Shame. Humiliation. Laying in her bed, hungry. Forced to go three days without eating as punishment for the single roll she had stolen.
Her father, training her. Do it again. Do it right this time. What is wrong with you? Why can’t you get this? Again! Do it again. Thrust. Parry. Dodge. The wooden practice sword smacking the side of her face. Her sister, laughing at her. Her father, laughing at her. Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about. Do it again! Shoulder up! Feet apart! Why are you so worthless, Larissa? Can’t you do anything right?
Later, the Shadowmaster. An old, decrepit man with a sickly cough and pus in one eye. I can teach you the Path of Night, but there is a price to pay. I do not give away my secrets for free. You are a beautiful young woman…
She kneels in front of the Shadowmaster, but things are different this time. A faceless warrior steps into the room. He grabs the Shadowmaster by the throat and throttles him. He breaks his neck, and tosses the body aside like a rag doll. He takes the girl by the hand, and leads her out. They find the chef, and then bake him in his own oven. They find her father, and the man holds him down while the girl beats him to death with a practice sword. They go to the throne room, and she makes her mother beg for forgiveness before plunging a sword into her heart.
They find her sister, and it’s Larissa’s turn to laugh.
“And now, there is no one left, little one. You have your revenge, for I have given it to you. Follow me, and no one will ever laugh at you again. In my arms, you are safe forevermore.”
Nightshade opened her eyes, and laid her hands on the altar.