~ Last of the Nine ~

Climbing down the stairs brought them to a large obsidian chamber whose walls were emitting an eerie violet light. Countless treasures had been stacked against them, from jewelry to weapons to armor pieces, each of which must have been magnificent once. But now they were all dull and gray, as though someone had robbed them of their splendor.

Adrammelech, however, was nowhere to be seen. In his stead lay two corpses, one of which belonged to a dwarf whose body had been burned to cinders, leaving nothing to recognize him by. The remaining body, on the other hand, was unmistakably Ri'zzar's. His expression was frozen in a scream of despair and his limbs had been torn off like those of a spider falling victim to a child's cruelty. Also, the part of his chest where his heart had once resided was nothing but a smoldering hole now.

Alyssa took a few steps forward, her gaze wandering through the empty room. “Why … is he already dead?”

“Because he was a fool,” came Adrammelech's voice from all around them. “He tried to change Meceruun's fate and failed miserably. And then he actually believed I would grant him new power so he could try again. But once a failure, always a failure. So the only reason I lured him here was to steal what little power he had left.”

A vague, translucent figure manifested in the center of the room, vaguely resembling Adrammelech's outline as seen in the mural above. Ri'zzar's fragment of the Splinter of Desolation flared up from within, deeply nestled in the bony shell enveloping the creature's head.

“And what do you plan to do with that?” said Maximilian, his sword at the ready. “Finish what he started?”

Heavy laughter shook the room, its pressure so powerful that the group slithered backward. “No, there'd be no point. Ri'zzar's plan would only have delayed the inevitable. And surely not for long. So all I'm planning … is to save myself. Which admittedly makes me a fool too. But Drake claimed destiny can be changed, so why not give it a try?”

Drake stepped forward, Carrazon clutched tight. “You don't deserve to change your destiny! Not after what you did to the dwarves. What was even the point of that?”

“The point was to gather as much strength as possible before the end draws near. So now there's only one thing left to do: kill you all and change my destiny … or die once more and break the final seal.”

A sudden beam of energy burst from the creature's mouth and sent the others scurrying away. The stairs were hit instead and crumbled into pieces, destroying the only way to leave the chamber. Witnessing such power caused the others to spread out even further, so that they couldn't all be caught in the same attack.

“Die once more? Final seal? What are you even talking about?” said Drake, who was still standing near the creature's head.

“You don't remember, do you? All of this has happened once before. In a somewhat different manner. See that corpse over there?” Becoming slightly more visible, Adrammelech turned in Drake's direction and slammed one of his paws upon the dwarf's dead body, crunching it to dust. “This was supposed to be your final companion before you make your way to Assar's hideout. And he truly was, in another life. But now I snuffed him out, dashing your chances at victory.”

Drake watched this unknown companion scatter on the ground, now robbed of name and form. But he couldn't quite believe it. “How could this be possible? History doesn't just repeat itself.”

“But all of it did just that, with lots of tiny deviations. And that's how we came here today, destined to fight one last time. If you fail, this world is truly doomed, as time cannot be rewound again. And if you win, you might still fail, for reasons already mentioned.”

The creature's paw shot forth and crashed into the wall, spreading cracks all the way toward the ceiling. Drake used that chance to land a hit, but Carrazon's magic found nothing to take hold of. So he backed away once more, not sure what to do.

“Let's assume you're telling the truth,” said Feyadal, one hand in his quiver to charge up a massive attack, “why would you risk Meceruun's destruction? What's the point of surviving if you'll die no matter what?”

Adrammelech spun toward him and the Splinters of Desolation pulsed in unison, calling to another. “Why bother living when you know you will die no matter what? And honestly, I'm sick of this game. I've been trapped, I've been used, I've been corrupted … and then I've suffered for hundreds of years, unable to die, unable to live, just waiting for this moment when I'm supposed to be killed for real. And all that … for what? A chance to make things right? Even though the game was already lost?” A gust of warm breath erupted from the creature's snout. “Forget it! You already had your chance, even if you don't remember. So let us end this misery and plunge all of creation into oblivion. At least then there won't be any further suffering. And until it happens, I can finally know freedom.”

“You want to doom all of life so that you alone can enjoy a little bit of freedom? Are you stupid?” yelled Maximilian from the opposite side and swung Elegnis at the same time. The wave of light leaping from within caused Adrammelech's form to ripple, but nothing more.

Adrammelech turned once more, his body wavering between translucent and opaque. “Call me whatever you want, but this flawed system doesn't deserve another chance. It has caused too much suffering, too much misery … all because they did whatever they wanted without thinking of the consequences. And then they didn't even fix them. Instead, here you are, trying to sort out their mess. Has worked out well so far, hasn't it? Especially for you!” He spun back to Drake, another burst of energy erupting from his mouth. Drake scrambled sideways and the beast followed, burning a swath of destruction into the ground.

“What are you even talking about?” yelled Drake, whose feet seemed drawn to Adrammelech's energy, barely able to keep ahead of his blast. “Who are they?”

Adrammelech responded by swinging his tail around, its sharp tip aiming to impale Drake. The vampire tried to jump over it, but his weight had suddenly tripled, gluing him to the ground. Seeing his predicament, Feyadal took aim and fired a powerful arrow to intercept Adrammelech's tail. Said arrow went straight through the creature's body without showing any effect, but somehow managed to tear through Adrammelech's tail, hurling it away.

The beast howled and whirled around, its paws enclosing Feyadal. “You must think you're so clever, having found my weakness. But you too are just a fool. You could have used your newfound power to do even more damage than this. But you're still keeping it a secret, aren't you? Just in case you can win this battle without using it. Which you won't be able to, believe me! Unless, of course, you want to die.”

“Fey, what is he talking about?” yelled Alyssa.

“Come on now, Alyssa,” bellowed Adrammelech, “I'm sure you've suspected the truth already. Feyadal should have been dead … and then he was perfectly fine. An impossible miracle, unless he 'borrowed' a powerful artifact that just so happened to be nearby.”

“Shut up!” screamed Feyadal and fired yet another arrow. This one glowed a deep red and was far more powerful than any of his normal arrows should have been. It grazed Adrammelech's paw, which the beast had raised in defense, and dark blood came spewing from within.

Alyssa swallowed hard, her eyes seeking Feyadal's. “So it's true? You really took a piece of Ri'zzar's splinter for yourself?”

“I didn't do it willingly! It just lodged itself inside my flesh when I broke the thing in half. And when I came to, I was healed. So what's the problem?”

“The problem is you keeping it a secret! I asked if you knew what had happened and you lied!”

“And why wouldn't I? It's an artifact infused with evil. What good could possibly have come from me revealing its continued existence?”

“We could have gotten rid of it before it falls into the wrong hands again!”

Feyadal balled his fists, the Splinter throbbing angrily. “We can't get rid of it!”

“Why not?”

“Because I plan to use it for myself!” roared Adrammelech and lunged at Feyadal. Waves of light and darkness intercepted his attack only inches away, both merging into a massive explosion that shattered the tips of Adrammelech's horns and flung Feyadal away. Alyssa raced to catch her friend while the beast reared up, its scream shaking the room.

And then, for no obvious reason, the walls melted away, revealing a bloody sky with volcanoes visible in the distance, all of which had been frozen over, even those in the process of spouting lava far into the sky. The ground faded moments later, giving way to a cracked, rocky surface that fell off sharply, opening to a frozen sea stretching for miles in all directions. Hundreds of figures could be seen within, some entirely frozen, others still wriggling around and screaming for help.

“Where the hell are we?” asked everyone in Drake's group, in one way or another.

Adrammelech, now fully formed, spread his wings and took to the skies. Fresh scars covered the lower half of his body, some stemming from the precise blade of a sword, others from the mighty blows of an axe. “Welcome to the Ninth Circle of Hell, where the most depraved of souls will suffer for eternity! I haven't seen this place in ages, but apparently it hasn't changed one bit. Almost makes you wonder why it needed a guardian in the first place … if not for one minor detail. But you all will soon be dead, so let's cut the banter short.”

The beast inhaled with the strength of a tornado and glowing particles could be seen gathering in front of its mouth, slowly forming a compressed sphere of energy. Feyadal took that chance to run right under it and shoot another Splinter-infused arrow at the beast's muscular torso. But Adrammelech just swerved aside.

“Spread out and strike from different sides!” yelled Maximilian and ran to the far side of the platform. Drake ran to the other while Feyadal stayed put, giving Alyssa two more sides to choose from. She took the one closer to Adrammelech and cast a barrier behind the beast. Seeing it spring up spurred the others into action, so Drake unleashed a flurry of energy to one side, Maximilian to the other, and Feyadal kept firing above and below and directly at the beast.

Adrammelech flapped his massive wings and the wind bursting forth flared up red, sending each attack back to the ground and also straight at Feyadal. Alyssa jumped to push him away, a barrier covering her back. Feyadal flew to the edge of the platform while Alyssa's barrier burst instantly, causing her flesh to be cut open and two arrows to pierce her legs. She screamed in agony and her body hit the ground like a rock.

An otherworldly screech drowned out Feyadal's responding scream, sounding eerily similar to someone dragging their nails across a blackboard, the only difference being its deafening volume. Adrammelech's sphere ballooned at the same time, only to vanish a second later.

What happened next could be felt before it actually transpired. The air turned seething hot, loose ground particles began to float, and the ice surrounding the platform began to crack in all directions. A beam of energy as big as Adrammelech then erupted from the empty space in front of his mouth and headed almost directly for where Alyssa was lying. Drake ran toward her to pull her out of danger, but by the time he touched her body, the beam was already upon them. He could only spin around and raise Carrazon to shield them from the blast. It sent him slithering backward, even when he stemmed his feet against the ground. And then it kept on coming and coming, rapidly tearing down his barrier while shredding the ground around them.

Alyssa rolled onto her back and thrust her arms toward the beam, erecting a secondary barrier to reinforce Drake's. Still, the beam didn't stop. If anything, it became more vicious, as pulse after pulse rippled through its length, hitting the barriers like a massive fist each time.

Trying to stop Adrammelech's onslaught, Feyadal was firing arrow after arrow, but each of them disintegrated when getting closer to the beam. Switching his position while staying on the platform didn't make a difference, so he jumped from the edge and slipped instantly, landing hard upon his ass. Rising to his feet, he was stopped before he could move. The ice was freezing him in place, rising as swiftly as though he was drowning. He turned to scream for Maximilian's help, but he was nowhere to be seen. The Splinter of Desolation, on the other hand, answered his call, encasing his body in a layer of warmth. It freed his legs and threatened to melt the surface too, so he picked up the pace and continued with his original plan.

An middle-aged woman whose naked body was frozen up her waist grabbed his clothes as he passed her by. Her grip was like steel and nearly made him fall again, so he stopped in his tracks and tried to pry himself free.

“Please, you have to save me from this place! I don't deserve eternal suffering. How was I supposed to know what these girls would actually be used for?”

The Splinter responded without Feyadal asking it too and her lower body melted in seconds, as did every single piece of flesh the ice had touched. Screams of despair erupted from her throat as she fell upon her severed body. The ice then rose once more, this time trapping her in the blink of an eye. Her hands shattered as Feyadal jerked himself free and the rest of her body followed his movement, also bursting into a myriad of pieces. A screech of pure agony rose from her shattered remains and soon faded into nothingness. But Feyadal had no time to regret what he had done.

A few more steps brought him behind Adrammelech. There he charged an arrow infused with both the quiver's magic and that of the Splinter of Desolation. A few seconds were enough to reach full power, otherwise the quiver would have been torn to pieces. Feyadal then aimed at the beast's torso and let a massive arrow fly, crimson energy trailing behind it.

Once again, Adrammelech just swerved aside, his beam barely faltering in strength. “Did you really think I'd be oblivious as to what you were doing?” spoke the beast in Feyadal's head. “You should have finished me off earlier. But now there's too much space for your arrows to even graze me!”

Feyadal shot again and again, trying desperately to prove him wrong. But none of his arrows even got close. Forcing Adrammelech to constantly switch places did provided Maximilian with an opening, however. One that he made use of by covering his side with Elegnis' power while dashing to Drake's side. Adrammelech's beam had forced him to his knees and the ground beneath his feet was starting to cave in.

“Drake, get out of here! I'll cover her for as long as possible.”

Drake turned his head, surprised at Maximilian's sudden appearance. He had been so focused on keeping up the barrier that everything else had become of secondary concern. “And then what?” he spoke through gritted teeth, his arms shaking under pressure.

“And then you jump upon that monster and rip that splinter out of its head! Might not be enough to finish it off, but it should at least be weakened, maybe enough for us to land the finishing blow.”

Not a bad plan … for a human. And if you fail, it's only him and Alyssa who will be cooked.

“Well … certainly sounds better than trying to outlast the blast. So … on three?”

Maximilian nodded and stepped in front of Drake, raising Elegnis to react in time. Raising its barrier at just that moment might have seemed more advantageous, but if he was off by even one inch, both barriers would have reacted as violently as their shockwaves would have done.

“One!” spoke Drake from behind him.

“Two,” continued Maximilian, his muscles tense.

“Three!”

Drake's barrier fell and Adrammelech's beam boiled their flesh for just a moment. Then Maximilian's barrier sprung into existence and they were safe once more. At least for a little longer. Drake collapsed and gasped for air, every breath rattling in his throat. He hadn't felt this drained in quite a while. And now he wasted precious time.

Without saying even a word, Alyssa thrust her left arm in front of his face. He furrowed his brow and turned his head, yet all she said was, “Do it!”

Yes, please do it! Taste her delicious blood! You could even suck her dry and let them die. Then Feyadal would never know what truly happened! Not that him finding out would truly matter. I'd just—

Shut up already!

Wasting no more time, Drake rammed his fangs into Alyssa's delicate flesh. She cried out in pain and her own barrier flickered. Then her blood came spurting from her wound and Drake devoured it eagerly, as though he had been starving for the last few weeks. He could feel the beast trying to emerge all throughout, so he focused his rising strength on keeping it in check, at least for long enough to pull his fangs free.

A second later, he was already on the move, a new barrier shielding him until he managed to escape the blast zone. The ground within had almost entirely been obliterated, delaying his escape by a couple of moments. But then he burst through and spun around, his eyes focused on Adrammelech. The beast noticed him too and tried to readjust its beam. Then another arrow came charging from behind and gave Drake the opportunity to leap onto Adrammelech's back.

The beast flapped wildly as he landed, first rising higher, then swaying from side to side to keep up the assault. Drake teetered and flailed about, quickly approaching the edge of Adrammelech's body. Almost there, he swung Carrazon and rammed it deep into the beast's hide to steady himself. Adrammelech's scream erupted in his head and the beam flickered for a second. One of Feyadal's arrows also found its target, but Adrammelech swayed at just that moment, turning what might have been a devastating wound into nothing but a laceration. The blood spilling from within slathered the ice and burned right through as though it was on fire.

Feyadal retreated to avoid being burned himself and was stopped in his tracks by a massive object rising behind him. He turned around and saw a monster frozen in the ice, its arms as massive as tree trunks and its skull shaped like a hammer. Numerous eyes dotted its body, all of which shot open and turned to Feyadal. A bloodcurdling roar then erupted from its slit-shaped mouth and its massive hands threatened to crush Feyadal from both sides. He threw himself backward, grabbed an arrow, and sent if flying into the beast's mouth. It burst right out the back and a fountain of blood followed. The Splinter's power had shredded its body.

Meanwhile, Drake was paving his way to the front of Adrammelech, each step of which was paid for with the monster's blood. It gushed from every wound he left in his wake and smoldered underneath his feet, enraging the beast further and further. But it couldn't shake Drake off. Not without abandoning the beam.

The final stretch still proved to be a problem, as Adrammelech's horns emerged side by side, acting almost like a gate before circling back around. The Splinter of Desolation was nestled in-between their point of origin, so removing it without climbing over would have robbed him of his foothold. Adrammelech's face was angled down, however, so not being thrown off would have been a miracle. But Drake just had to risk it.

Adrammelech reared up the moment Drake jumped, propelling him much higher than he actually intended. He had to cling onto Carrazon with all his might so as not to be thrown off. Then he slammed down hard and was exactly where he meant to be.

Yanking Carrazon free, he quickly aimed for the Splinter of Desolation. A new layer of bones sprang into existence at just that moment, shielding not only the Splinter but also causing Carrazon to bounce off uselessly. Drake stumbled backward in surprise and Adrammelech leaned further down so Drake would fall directly into his beam.

You stupid fool!

The beast took control and leapt right off, avoiding the beam by a hair's breadth. Then he swung Carrazon a dozen times, blasting the top of Adrammelech's skull. Bones cracked, the Splinter flared up, and suddenly there were a dozen crimson projectiles honing in on Drake's falling body. The beast flailed around to destroy them all, but one still slammed into his back, burning through Drake's clothes and blasting him back up.

“Did you really think I'd be powerless while trying to eradicate your friends?” spoke Adrammelech inside Drake's head. “You might have caught me in a bit of a predicament while climbing around upon my back, but now I will destroy you!” The Splinter of Desolation flared up once more and giant crimson spears blotted out the sky.

Do something!

Who do you think you're talking to?

Still, there wasn't much the beast could actually do while being airborne, except to erect a barrier and hope for the best. A second later, the spears came raining down, turning his shielded body into a meteor that slammed into the sea of ice. But the onslaught didn't stop there. Barrage after barrage came shooting from the sky, leaving him no chance to make a move. The ice shattered with every hit, plunging Drake deeper and deeper into the frozen wastes.

An arrow then burst through Adrammelech's back and the onslaught ceased. The beast roared in pain and the beam faded too, but only for a second. Then it started right up again, nearly catching Maximilian off guard.

Drake, now back in control, emerged from his bubble and leapt from his icy grave before his limbs could start to freeze. A second jump brought him back onto land, of which there wasn't much left. Adrammelech had risen even higher at this point, maybe hoping that Drake couldn't reach his back anymore. His secondary target had also shifted to Feyadal, who was now running from spikes bursting through the ice. They chased him from behind, cut off his path, encircled his body, yet he somehow managed to not get skewered, sliding, dancing, and jumping out of harm's way each and every time.

Drake looked to Adrammelech to Feyadal and back again, unsure how to proceed. Jumping once more could still have worked out, especially with the beast distracted, but getting at the Splinter without falling off again was a different matter. So maybe some support was in order.

Running to the edge of the platform, Drake yelled, “Feyadal, get over here!” The noise from the beam drowned out his voice, but Feyadal headed his way regardless, maybe having seen his scream. More spikes cut off his path, forcing him to veer aside. Drake swung Carrazon to cut them down, but the severed pieces rose once more, quickly forming a massive, impenetrable wall that Feyadal couldn't slip through.

Looking for a way to interrupt Adrammelech's attack, Drake spotted the gaping wound Feyadal's arrow had caused. It was slowly closing around the edges, so Drake wasted no time and struck it with a flurry of energy. Adrammelech roared when his flesh was torn once more and the spikes stopped rising. Feyadal used that chance to veer around them and propelled himself upon the ring of land by using the Splinter's power.

“I hope you have a plan!” he yelled to Drake.

A circle of energy formed around them, forcing Drake to act quickly. He wrapped his left arm around Feyadal's waist and jumped as high as his body would allow. The circles followed their every move, snapping shut behind them like giant scissors. To make the situation even worse, Adrammelech was also getting out of reach. Drake had just enough time to grab onto the very edges of the beast's right wing. He was yanked sideways in response, accidentally letting go off Feyadal.

Having only a second to react, Feyadal drew his dagger and stabbed it through the wing. It resisted like hardy leather, propelling Feyadal even closer to the edge. Therefore, he called upon the Splinter's power once again, turning his blade into one that could have sliced a diamond in half. He canceled the enchantment almost immediately, but still found himself dangling precariously as his knife had literally shredded the lower half of Adrammelech's wing. The beast wobbled in turn, its beam faltering and its height dropping.

Drake and Feyadal were both flung upward, needing all their strength to not be thrown off. Falling face down wasn't all bad, though. Because it gave Drake a front row seat to the damage Feyadal had caused. The wind was tearing through from beneath, opening the wound even further, nearly canceling the Splinter's regenerative powers. But Adrammelech still caught himself and ascended once more.

“Get off of me, you pesky gnats!” screamed the beast in their heads before swaying rapidly, flinging them from side to side.

Using Adrammelech's momentum, Drake actually let go and came flying toward Feyadal. The elf ducked away, but then felt something tugging on his back. Drake was dangling next to him with only one hand, while his other was nestled in the back of Feyadal's clothes.

“What the hell are you doing?” yelled the elf.

“I'm gonna throw you now!”

“Are you crazy? What's that going to accomplish?”

“You have to slice off the whole wing so that Adrammelech has no choice but to land. That should hopefully give us enough time to tear that splinter from his head.”

“Oh god … I hope you know what you're doing.”

Drake hoped so too and waited for the moment when Adrammelech swerved to the left, so that the link between his torso and the webbing would form a depression for Feyadal to land inside. He then used all his strength to hopefully throw Feyadal where he needed to go. His own grip failed him as he did and he plummeted back onto the ice. The rings from earlier accompanied his fall, once again snapping shut just inches from his body. And then he felt them in his back, slicing through his skin and nearly tearing through his spine.

Meanwhile, Feyadal flew and flew, taking what seemed like ages to reach his destination. So it shouldn't be surprising that he feared to overshoot his target and be annihilated in Adrammelech's beam. Then he suddenly crashed down and was dazed for a moment. Fortunately, Drake's plan had worked out perfectly, so Adrammelech was unwittingly preventing Feyadal from falling off.

The moment Adrammelech shifted again, Feyadal finally came to his senses and plunged his knife just underneath the creature's wing bone. From there, he yanked it downward, all the way to his waist, then returned to the start and sliced sideways, using Adrammelech's own movement to slide down quickly. The next wing bone stopped him for a second, forcing him to pull out his blade and thrust it back in before even a second had passed. Any slower and he might have plunged to his death.

Adrammelech thrashed about, desperately trying to shake him off, but doing so only quickened the pace at which Feyadal destroyed his wing. And then, at last, it came undone, ripping off with a sudden snap. Having no time to change his grip, Feyadal fell down with it. His heart dropped into his stomach, his breath got caught in his throat, and his head felt like it was going to explode.

Drake, whose body was bleeding all over, caught the elf in midair and pulled him back onto Adrammelech. The beast crashed down a moment later, ripping a massive crater into the ice and shattering all the souls trapped within. The beam had finally stopped at that point, freeing Maximilian and Alyssa. Neither of them was in any condition to join the fray, however. They dropped to the ground, breathing heavily, their bodies drenched in sweat.

“Come on, let's finish this!” yelled Drake and clambered to Adrammelech's head. The beast had landed on its side and seemed to be knocked out, with both eyes closed and its limbs unmoving. Drake almost getting eaten told a different story. Feyadal had to push him aside as Adrammelech turned his head and lunged at the vampire's legs. Teeth snapped loudly as they missed their target and Feyadal and Drake both tumbled down.

Rising swiftly, Drake made for the Splinter, which had been covered by bones once more. Adrammelech's head was blown sideways by the force of his attack, then his left paw came rushing from behind, breaking the ice forming around Drake's legs and flinging him skyward.

Feyadal avoided the attack by staying on the ground, then jumped onto Adrammelech's leg and from there to the Splinter, part of which had become visible once more. He thrust his dagger into the gap, then stabbed it over and over, acting like a psychopath. Bones cracked and broke and flew in all directions, even slicing through the elf's face. But he simply wouldn't stop. He had to finish this right now, while he still could.

“Die Alyssa!” screamed Adrammelech, forcing Feyadal to spin around. A sudden jerk sent him flying, and before he could react in any way, Adrammelech's massive teeth had already clamped onto his lower body. Feyadal howled as he felt his organs being crushed and tried desperately to pull the teeth apart. His Splinter burst aflame and his muscles bulged, but it simply wouldn't do, especially with the other Splinter interfering.

Seeing no other way out, Feyadal tried his best to ignore the pain and renewed his assault on Adrammelech's Splinter. Since it was almost out of reach, he had to stretch himself as far as the teeth would allow, feeling like his midriff would snap any second now. Then he stabbed and screamed and thrust his dagger behind the Splinter, trying to force it free. His body popped and cracked with every moment that passed, squirting blood and piercing his insides.

Having finally recovered, Drake came charging from afar. Circles of energy erupted as he passed Alyssa, all of which contracted instantly, threatening to tear his companions into pieces. Drake sliced and spun and sliced some more, ripping them apart. A new set appeared the moment he was done. Then came another and another, forcing him to stay.

Feyadal howled in agony, his insides busting like overripe fruits. His vision blurred, his movement slowed, and his mind was close to failing. Therefore, he screamed out loud, spurring himself on, and jammed the dagger behind the Splinter, hoping to loosen it at least a little. Then he grabbed it with both hands and pulled with all his might.

“Come out, come out, come out, come out!”

The Splinters throbbed, each after the other; the ground rumbled, lost souls screeched, Feyadal's bones cracked, his veins popped; and Drake could do nothing but watch from afar, still spinning and slicing and shielding his friends.

Then silence fell all of a sudden. Adrammelech's Splinter was yanked free and shattered into a thousand pieces. Each of them burst from Feyadal's grip and then erupted into a massive fireball that tore through Adrammelech's jaw and flung the elf away.

Drake, now free to leave his companion's on their own, followed Feyadal's arc to snatch him out of the sky. But a tremor stole his footing and Adrammelech's battered form emerged from the smoke. The lower half of his jaw had been shredded and a bleeding crater adorned the spot where the Splinter had once been.

“I'll kill you!” screamed the beast inside their heads, unable to speak normally anymore. He shifted to a predatory stance—his upper body hanging only inches from the ground while his backside was raised high—and spread his one remaining wing. Stars sparked up in response, their numbers legion, and then came shooting from the heavens.

Maximilian forced himself to his knees and grabbed Drake by his tattered trousers. The vampire turned and Maximilian said, “We have to take cover!” while nodding to Adrammelech.

Drake understood instantly and grabbed both Maximilian and Alyssa before jumping under the beast's ruined jaw. Adrammelech tried to pull away, so Drake rammed Carrazon into the beast's exposed flesh and stemmed himself against the pull. He still slithered, slowly but surely, which is why Maximilian joined him with Elegnis.

“Can't you just die already?” screamed Adrammelech as he reared up, yanking his opponents into the air. The beast then swerved to the side and fell back down, aiming to crush Alyssa underneath.

“Shit!” Drake let go and pushed himself off, which gave him just enough time to grab Alyssa and roll her out of the way.

She grabbed him as they stopped and pulled herself up. “I'm not … out of commission yet!” So she slammed her palms onto the ground and tried to establish a connection with this otherworldly plane. It wasn't one with nature, that much was for certain, but if the ground responded for even a moment—

The earth behind them shifted its form and became a spear that skewered Adrammelech's face. The beast roared in agony and the stars finally slammed down, some of which missed their target and burrowed themselves in Adrammelech instead.

“Now blow it up!” yelled Alyssa.

Drake needed no further explanation and returned to Carrazon to pull it out. Maximilian did the same and together they went as far as possible before plunging their blades into Adrammelech's flesh once more, this time so close that their swords scraped against another.

“Ready?” asked Drake.

“After being forced to act as a shield for almost the whole battle? You bet!”

“You're the one who came to take my place.”

“Whatever!”

And so they unleashed both of their powers, destroying Adrammelech's skull from the inside out. The gory bits smothering them all were a minor price to pay for what was unmistakably their victory. Adrammelech's body going limb soon after proved as much.

“Where's Feyadal?” was the first thing Alyssa screamed afterward.

They found him lying on the ice, smoke rising from around his body. Alyssa was about to run, but Feyadal screamed, “Stop! It'll freeze you in seconds!” He clutched the arm containing the Splinter and the remaining earth formed itself into a land bridge leading to his body. Alyssa crossed it quickly and dropped down next to her friend. She tried to speak, then covered her mouth, aghast at the gruesome state his lower half was in. His organs had been crushed and his bones were pulverized, leaving nothing to uphold his shape.

“Looks bad, doesn't it?” croaked Feyadal, his voice now barely a whisper.

Alyssa swallowed and lowered her hands, forcing herself to speak, “It's … awful, yeah. But I'm gonna make it better!” So she thrust her hands above his body and focused on fixing as much as she could.

Feyadal snatched her right hand before she could start. “Don't. There's no point anymore.”

“What are you talking about? I can't just—“

He rolled up his sleeve and revealed the Splinter of Desolation. Its surface had been shattered and the cracks were slowly spreading. “This is the only thing that kept my body from burning up. Once it's gone, so will I. So nothing I ever wished for will actually come true...”

Tears glittered in the corners of Alyssa's eyes. “And what did you wish for?”

“To prove myself … with my own power.”

Alyssa slapped him without even thinking about it. “This again? Don't you see what you've done? What you made possible?”

“But it wasn't my own—“

“What does it matter? The Splinter alone would have been useless, no better than a weapon that hangs on a wall. You alone decided how to use its power. And this is the result.” She waved behind her, where Drake and Maximilian where looking down at Feyadal. “Us all being alive.”

“I guess … that's one way of looking at it.”

Alyssa slapped him once again, tears now streaming down her face. “That's the only way to look at it!”

Feyadal smirked despite a spasm gripping his destroyed intestines. He then looked Alyssa in the eyes and raised his hand to gently touch her cheek. “Even then … my second wish can never come true.”

She placed her hand upon his hand. “Which would be … what?”

“To be with you … until the end of days. To hold you, to laugh with you, to”—he swallowed visibly—“to kiss you. And maybe … maybe—”

Alyssa put a finger to his lips. “Shush. It's okay. I can imagine the rest. But I truly wish you had told me this sooner. Without running away. I never cared about your power after all. Or your lack thereof.” She wiped away her tears and forced a smile. “I loved you just the way you were.”

“And here I hated myself each and every day. Even when I actually had a semblance of power.”

“Might have been stupid, but you still saved our asses more than once,” said Maximilian. “So without that decision of yours, we might all be dead by now.”

“See? So something good still came of you being an idiot,” said Alyssa with a smile.

Feyadal snorted, but then grimaced in pain. Alyssa clutched his hand and healed him anyway, at least to ease his pain. It seemed to work well enough, as his expression softened momentarily.

“Thanks … for cheering me up. And who knows, maybe I'll do better in my next life. If there even is one. So do your best and save Meceruun, you hear me? If you don't … guess haunting you won't be option, will it?”

“Don't worry,” said Drake. “We won't fail. We can't. Not after coming this far.”

“Great. But now—“

Alyssa cut him off by pressing her lips onto his. Warm tears trailed down his cheeks, some belonging to her, but most being his own. Grabbing Alyssa's head, he kissed her back with all his strength. It didn't last long, but at least one of his wishes had finally come true. And then he cried from the bottom of his heart, whimpering in Alyssa's arms while she cradled him gently, kissing his cheeks and brow and lips.

“I don't want to go!” he forced out in-between. “Not now. Not before making up for all these years that I wasted.”

Alyssa smiled meekly and glanced at the Splinter of Desolation. Its color had almost faded to a dull, lifeless gray. “And I'd do everything to keep you here as long as possible. Even give up all my power.”

Feyadal shook his head, wincing once more. “You can't. Even if it's possible. Drake and Maximilian need you to put an end to this.”

“I know.” But her head still dropped, shedding more tears. “And I will do whatever I can. I promise. But … there's something I still need. From you.” She placed her right hand on his chest and smiled as gently as she could.

Feyadal frowned, watching her teary eyes, her soft lips, her flawless skin. And then he realized. “Of course. How could I forget? I love you, Alyssa. I've always loved you. And I will keep loving you for as long as I remember. So … please look for me, if possible. I might not be who I once was … but maybe we can be friends again?”

“Of course. But until that day, I'll love you too.”

And so they kissed once more, putting all their passion into it.

When they parted moments later, Feyadal's skin was as pale and cold as snow. Alyssa was nothing but a blurry dot in his eyes and his limbs were going numb. So he gathered what little strength he had left and raised his quiver and bow. “Please take these to remember me by and to put an end to all this misery.” A tremor rocked his body and he groaned in pain, awfully aware of his flesh decaying from within. “Now go. Please! I don't you want to see … what happens next.”

Alyssa sniffled and rose to her feet after taking both of his gifts. “Of course, my love. Goodbye. And may you find peace in the world beyond.”

Maximilian opened his mouth, but he didn't know what else to say. So he too just muttered a “Goodbye” and turned around. Drake followed his example and together they marched away, never turning around, never looking over their shoulder, never seeing Feyadal's body turn to dust. The land bridge collapsed behind them, and then they were alone in the bowels of Hell.

Drake and Maximilian looked at one another, not sure what to do. Alyssa stood beside them, her shoulders slouched and her eyes facing the ground. Tears still glistened on her cheeks and her chest trembled with suppressed sadness.

Another minute passed with no one speaking a word. Then Drake took a deep breath and opened his mouth, “So … what do we do now? I don't see a portal or anything.”

“You follow your destiny to its inevitable conclusion, just like you did once before,” came a familiar voice out of nowhere.

Everyone drew their weapons and whirled around, checking each and every direction, but all they saw was Adrammelech's decaying body, half of which was now covered in ice.

“How can you still talk?” yelled Drake. “We destroyed your head!”

“Losing one's body means little in the afterlife, be it Heaven or Hell. But I obviously can't fight like this, so you're still the victors. It's not what I had hoped for, but I accept my defeat. If I couldn't win by using the Splinter, then I had no chance in the first place. So let me open a portal to your next destination. There you will acquire all you need to face Assar. So be ready for the end of your journey. It won't be long now.”

“Stop!” yelled Alyssa suddenly.

“I wasn't going anywhere. But if you want to take revenge, then you're out of luck. I won't reform for quite a while. And by then, it will already be too late.”

Alyssa clutched Feyadal's bow, her knuckles turning white. “No it won't. Not if we're victorious once more.”

“True. So go ahead and put an end to this story of yours.”

The air in front of them tore open like a giant sheet of paper, giving way to a swirling vortex of colors that tried to devour everything in reach. Alyssa's hair was yanked into her face and the earth around her started to float, quickly vanishing inside the vortex.

“How can we be sure this isn't a trick?” yelled Maximilian.

“You can't. But what else are you gonna do? Climb all the way to the First Circle of Hell and hope that someone opens the exit? If so, good luck. Because leaving is close to impossible. The ice alone would freeze you in minutes. And that's just one of many obstacles between here and there.”

Maximilian grumbled and turned to Alyssa. “I don't suppose there's a way to find out if it's save?”

“Well … one of us could stick their head through. But if the portal closes while they do...”

“It's not a trick, I promise,” spoke Adrammelech.

“That's worthless, coming from you!” bellowed Alyssa, still looking from side to side, desperately wishing she could kill the beast again.

Drake sighed and stepped up to the portal. “Let's just give it a try. It can't be worse than marching through Hell, which we don't have time for anyway.”

Adrammelech chuckled. “At least one of you sees reas—“

“Shut up!” screeched Alyssa, her voice sounding like a banshee's. She then fired an arrow into Adrammelech's frozen body, but it didn't calm her rage one bit. Biting her lips, she glanced at Drake. “Let's go then. The sooner we're gone, the better.” And so she herself stepped through the portal, her body vanishing with a wet slurping noise.

Drake and Maximilian watched the portal for a moment, but nothing about it seemed to have changed. That alone obviously proved nothing, but now they truly had no choice. So they raised their weapons and breathed in deep, steeling themselves for whatever might happen. And then they too vanished through the portal.