Chapter 30 – One Final Lesson


Sixteenth of Learning 1142

Leata had arranged a suite for Eric and Chari, who for the first time would be sharing a bed. Probably not the best night for it, but they had to get through that first time at some point. At least they were in the palace. When it began, whatever it was, who knew where they would end up?

Leata showed them to their new chambers, which were very much to Chari’s liking. There was a large living area with a fireplace, a sofa and several comfortable chairs facing it. There was a small bedroom off to one side, most likely for a servant, and a master bedroom off to the other.


It was all well furnished, mostly in earthy colors, browns and greens. No patterns at all, just solid colors. Everything had rounded edges, instead of sharp corners.

“Nice,” said Chari, almost immediately upon entering.

Leta stood with them, just past the door. “Glad you like it. I’ll leave you to it. Congratulations to you both. I’m so proud of you.”

Eric looked at Leata surprised. “Thank you Leata, for everything. You feel it too, don’t you?”

“I think I do. I don’t know what will happen, or how, but I believe in you My Prince. And though I don’t know Princess Chari as well as you, I believe in her too. I suppose I have to since Sheba does.”

Eric nodded. Chari cleared her throat. At first, Eric thought it was because she was uncomfortable at the praise, but then he realized what she meant.

“Of course,” said Leata. “Good night, Your Highnesses.”

She bowed and was gone from the room.

“Finally!” said Chari.

“She would have left in a few minutes,” said Eric amused.

“I’ve been waiting all night. I thought dinner would never end. Shall we inspect the bedroom?” She held out a hand to Eric.

He smiled and took it. He seemed tense. Eric was perfectly at home protecting people he loved from danger, but this was something else. Chari watched him with a mixture of amusement and fondness. She didn’t often see Eric out of his comfort zone and found it enjoyable.

The bedroom was in the same color scheme as the lounge. There were the usual chests of drawers, and at the far end of the room a very large canopy bed.

“That’s a big bed,” said Eric.

“I think it’s good. You never know how much space we might need.”

“You weren’t planning on jousting on it, were you?”

Chari laughed. “I might consider it, but only one of us has a lance.”

Eric looks surprised, then broke into laughter. She joined him. The joke had broken the tension.

Eric turned his gaze back to the bed. Chari wasn’t sure he had noticed anything else in the room.

“So, what say we get out of these clothes?” she said.

Eric looked at her again, and slowly took off his vest. His eyes were on her now.

“You know, maybe we could just lie down for a little…on the bed,” he said.

Chari smiled gently and shook her head, bemused. “Sure.”

And so they lay there for a long time, just holding each other. They had all night, after all, and Chari wanted Eric’s first time to be memorable. Of course it was her first time too. She was just more ready for it. Though they were the same age, she felt like she had been left to her own devices more and so had grown up faster. Eric seemed a bit more sheltered, in everything perhaps but combat.

She was lying there, letting her mind drift, when she dozed off. Eric must have too, because a short time later they were woken by a gentle tapping. At first she didn’t hear it. When she realized what had happened, she frowned but disentangled herself from Eric and without waking him went to the door.

“This had better be good.”

“Sorry to disturb you.”

Maynor’s voice. She opened the door. Two guards stood to attention at either side, not Twylian guards, but the men at arms her father had brought with him from Melar. It made Chari bristle. She didn’t need guards, and they wouldn’t likely be able to help anyway. Whatever was going to happen was already in motion. She couldn’t blame her parents though. She was their only child, and they were doing what they could. Perhaps when it started, it would give them a small measure of peace that at least they had tried to protect her.

She turned her attention to Maynor, who looked tired and a bit rough, like he had been woken from sleep only a short time ago. There was no urgency when he spoke, however.

“I need Eric for a short time. I’m sorry to disturb your wedding night, but there are a few things I need to tell him. Privately, I fear.”

Chari looked annoyed, then nodded, but she didn’t open the door for him to enter. Instead she closed it again, and found Eric just getting out of bed.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“Maynor said he needs you.”

“For what?”

“I have no idea. I didn’t ask. But he wants to talk to you. Privately.”

Eric put his vest back on. Chari watched him look around for his boots.

“You’re wearing them. You were so distracted by the idea of sex, you didn’t even think to take them off.”

Eric looked embarrassed. “You might have mentioned it.”

She shrugged. “You’d have gotten around to it. And whatever is going on, you’d better get back here soon, young man. We have a marriage to consummate.”

“How’d you get so romantic?” asked Eric.

Chari grinned. “Just hurry up and get back here.”

There was nothing else left to do but go with Maynor, but before he left, he kissed her, a gentle promise that he would return, and they would continue where they left off.

Then he was gone and the door closed behind him.

“Maynor damn well better have a good reason for this.”

Sulkily, she sat down to wait, realizing that the sofa was far more comfortable than it looked.


It was very late at night when Kalutu heard the knock on the door. It was so low that he wasn’t sure he’d heard it at first. He crossed the room and opened it. Outside stood Maynor, looking disheveled but relaxed.

“Hello Kalutu. Would you please wake Prince Dahr? With time running out, I think he needs to learn one final lesson.”

Kalutu looked surprised, but followed instructions. Soon a bleary eyed prince appeared in the anteroom.

“Is everything okay?” asked Dahr.

“Yes, but there’s still one lesson I’ve been saving for the end. I had hoped to have more time, but here we are. Get dressed, and come with me.”

“Now? What time is it?”

“It doesn’t matter. Danger doesn’t wait for you to wake up. Sometimes, you have to adapt to circumstance. I want to see how well you adapt. Oh, Kalutu, just Prince Dahr. You remain here, please. I’ll send for you shortly after the lesson is over, and you can join us.”

Kalutu didn’t at all like the sound of that. However, Maynor was in charge of their combat training, so he nodded, waited for Dahr to dress, and closed the door when they left.

Dahr followed Maynor through the palace corridors. He tried to figure out what their destination was going to be. To his surprise, they were heading toward the kitchen. He started to ask why, but Maynor held a finger to his lips.

When they got there, he saw Eric standing near a table that the chef used to prepare food. There was a wooden stool next to him, but Eric must have stood when he’d heard them coming.

“Maynor, what’s going on?” asked Eric.

“Didn’t I teach you patience, My Prince? Follow me, please.”

He led them through yet more corridors and out the servant’s entrance to one of the gates where, to their amazement, Striker stood with her pet kreve, but the guards were conspicuously absent. Striker looked like she was expecting them.

Eric and Dahr stared at the beast, never having seen one before. Like something out of a nightmare, it loomed before them, parts of it seeming to blend with the shadows around it.

“It’s all teeth,” said Dahr. “I hope it’s eaten.”

“You’ll be fine,” said Maynor. “She won’t hurt you.”

“Is she not hungry because she already ate the guards?” asked Dahr.

Striker laughed. “Come on. We don’t have much time.”

Maynor opened the gate, and the five of them left the palace behind; Eric, Dahr, Striker, Maynor and Stalker, who ranged ahead.

The streets were mostly deserted and, by the time Stalker had passed, they were completely deserted. One look at the beast had sent people fleeing. They passed quickly through the temple and guild districts and then into the city proper.

This wasn’t somewhere Eric went often, but it wasn’t his first time. Dahr looked around with interest.

“Where are you taking us?” asked Eric.

Maynor didn’t look at him. “We’re going outside.”

“Outside? Outside the city gates? Does my father know we’re going?” asked Eric.

To Eric’s surprise, it was Dahr who answered. “No, Eric. Father doesn’t know about this.”

Eric was going to ask something else, but seemed to think better of it.

When they finally reached the wall, Maynor had a word with the guards, and they opened the gates just enough to let the kreve and the rest of the group out. Then they were outside on the plains surrounding the city. The same plains that a short time ago were filled with the fires of people commemorating a hundred year old battle. Eric had had enough.

“I’m not going anywhere until you explain what’s going on,” he said to Maynor.

“Sure you are,” said Dahr. “This is what we’ve been waiting for.”

“Then let Maynor say that himself,” said Eric.

Dahr shook his head. “The person you really need to ask is Striker.”

Eric turned to Striker, who stared at the two of them surprised.

“Is this true?” asked Eric.

She didn’t address him, but turned to Maynor instead.

“Go back to the palace. It’s late and you’re tired. Tomorrow, you’ll remember nothing of this.”

Maynor, as if in a dream, smiled, nodded and turned around, saying nothing at all to the princes. When he was gone, Striker motioned for them to follow. Dahr started walking, but Eric just stood there.

“Just wait.”

“No,” said Dahr. “We have to see this through, Eric.”

“But no one knows where we are.”

Dahr smiled, sadly. “Which means no one else can get hurt.”

Eric thought about that for a moment and reluctantly started walking.

“I still don’t understand. Dahr, do you know what’s happening?”

“I think I do.” Dahr looked at Striker. “You’re one of them, aren’t you? One of the undead.”

She looked at him surprised. “Now how can you possibly know that?”

He shrugged. “I’m pretty sure that’s something you don’t need to know.”

“Where are you taking us?” asked Eric.

“Does it matter?” asked Striker.

“She’s taking us to the Undead King,” said Dahr.

Eric had been studying Striker, but now he whirled on Dahr.

“Are you mad? We’re turning around right now.”

“No, Eric, we’re not. We are exactly where we need to be.”

“Did George tell you that?”

“He didn’t have to. Can’t you feel it?”

“No. I only know that with every step I take, I’m getting further and further from my new wife.”

Dahr looked apologetic. “I’m sorry about that, but there are things we don’t get to choose. You know that. And honestly, isn’t it better that she remains safe in the palace?”

Eric thought about that. He remembered his mother’s body surrounded by undead, and a fire began to build inside of him.

“We should capture her and take her back with us.”

“Eric, she’s Tier 2 and has a giant kreve for a pet. Do you really think we can do that, just the two of us?”

Eric studied the kreve and then Striker.

“What did you do to Maynor?”

“He’ll be fine. He’ll sleep it off and in the morning he’ll just be a bit tired. I must say, you’re taking this better than I expected. Of course, I didn’t expect you to unravel what I was so soon.”

“But now that we know, you expect us to follow you to the Undead King?”

“Actually I’m not taking you to my king. I’m taking you to my queen. No one has seen the Undead King in more than 50 years.”

“But what about the Undead War?”

“He wasn’t here for that, though we did attack on his instruction. He’s been traveling…somewhere called Earth, but I don’t know where that is.”

Eric didn’t have time to consider the implications of everything that had just been said.

“We’re not going with you.”

“Are you sure?” asked Striker.

“Yes,” said Eric with the conviction of a king giving an order. At that moment, even Dahr believed that nothing could budge Eric from that spot. He had made up his mind. But Striker’s orders came from a different throne, and whatever power his words might have had in other company had no affect on the undead.

“Prince Eric, I have many powers at my disposal, but there’s one that is stronger than the others. If I use it, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

“Are you threatening me?”

Striker grinned. “I guess you can say that. The power I speak of is seduction. I strongly suspect I can get you to do whatever I tell you to do. After all, it worked on Maynor, and he’s a much higher level than you.”

“That’s a very strange threat,” said Eric.

“Yes, well. It certainly wouldn’t kill you, and you’d undoubtedly enjoy it, but there’s no telling what Princess Chari would do when she found out.”

Eric paused for a second, mind racing. If he couldn’t control himself and ended up having sex with Striker, it would hurt Chari terribly. Particularly if it was the first time. Chari had made no secret of her feelings on infidelity. He tried to picture her reaction when she found out that Eric had lost his virginity to Striker instead of her. He could picture the pain in her eyes. She wouldn’t be able to blame him, but she wouldn’t be able to live with it either. It wouldn’t be his fault, but she wouldn’t be able to accept that reality. It would be as bad as if he had chosen to do it. It would break her.

He wondered if Striker could take him against his will and then thought about Maynor. His strange behavior. The far off look in his eyes. The fact that he’d walked off without acknowledging either him or Dahr. He realized that Striker wasn’t making an idle threat. She could do what she claimed she could, but Chari would suffer the consequences, and that he couldn’t allow.

Eric had one more card left to play. After all, Striker had only arrived that day and couldn’t know much about the situation at the palace. “Chari and I barely know each other. We have an arranged marriage. What makes you think Chari cares who I do or don’t have sex with?”

Striker shook her head ruefully. “You still don’t get it, do you? Prince Eric, I’ve been with the Misfits of Karmenon for many long months now. I’ve had long conversations with the guild master of the Adventurer’s Guild in Pelaro. I’ve been living among humans for longer than you’ve been alive. Do you really think I’m the only one?”

Eric stood stunned. A glance at Dahr told him he had the same reaction. “Are you suggesting you have spies in the palace at Twyl?”

“I suggest nothing. I’m stating it straight out.”

Eric turned imploringly to Dahr. “Now do you see why we have to go back?”

“Eric, you’re not thinking clearly. This is Sheba’s will. It’s what she’s wanted from the beginning. Think about it. I was pulled into your transition, and George was there waiting. Sheba said that me serving George served her purpose. George was the one who introduced me to Merck, who happened to have the Misfits of Karmenon hot on his trail. Striker was there. Do you really think Sheba doesn’t know what she is? Do you think that Sheba wasn’t involved in placing her in the palace. This has always been the plan, Eric. From the very beginning. Every step of the way has been guided and controlled by your goddess. Are you going to deny her now?”

Dahr could see the raging conflict played out on Eric’s face. The doubt, the fear, and the effort of thinking through all of it to come to the only conclusion he could. When he spoke, his voice was hard and cold, but also resigned.

“Fine. I’ll come.”

Dahr turned to continue, Striker relaxed, and Eric leapt at her, summoning his shield, and drawing his sword in a single motion. Stalker roared and charged, barreling into him, sending him flying. Eric landed hard on the ground, but somehow rolled and regained his feet. He launched himself toward them using Protector’s Leap. It helped close the gap, but he’d been knocked back so far, he was still out of striking range.

“Stalker, sit!” snapped Striker.

The beast sat, but continued to growl and snarl at Eric.

Striker crossed the remaining distance between them faster than Eric could have imagined, one second yards away, then beside him. She grabbed him with a strength that no mere human could match, planting her lips hard against his. He was like a child in her grasp. He struggled helplessly while she kissed him, a deep, passionate kiss he could do nothing about.

He felt light headed, aroused, able to think less and less as each second passed, and moment by moment he felt the strength leave him. Dahr stood and watched, not moving at all. He wanted to, but his limbs were not his own. At first he thought Striker was controlling him too, until he realized it was George’s influence. He tried to fight it only briefly, but he was just a young man. He had no strength to fight a god, or whatever George was.

When Striker finally pulled away, Eric stood transfixed, a dreamy smile on his face.

“There,” said Striker, “much better. Prince Eric, follow me please. And be quick about it. We have to be far away from here before the search begins.”

“Yes, Striker.”

She started walking. A moment later, Dahr felt whatever was holding him fade and he could follow as well. There was no hope of leaving now even if he wanted to, because he couldn’t leave Eric alone with Striker. Not after what he saw. They had no choice but to follow her orders and wait for an opportunity, though what sort of opportunity he was waiting for, he had no idea.

Striker moved away from the city, Dahr almost next to her and Eric just behind them. And every step drew Eric and Dahr further and further away from the city of Rish. Away from their parents. Away from Chari and Kalutu. Away from everything they knew and loved.

Dahr felt alone. Eric was with him but was completely under Striker’s control. Everyone else was gone. Well, everyone except George, and Dahr no longer considered him trustworthy. Still, there was no one else to turn to.

“George,” he whispered, “I just thought you should know, I’m pretty annoyed right now. You’d better stay out of my way.”

George chuckled in his mind. Is that any way to talk to your benefactor?

“What’s your game?”

My game isn’t the problem. This whole thing is Sheba’s plan, not mine. And I’m caught up in it, the same as you are. Blame me, if you like, but I’m a victim here. But we can still win, Dahr. Believe me when I tell you that.

Dahr didn’t reply but instead trudged along besides Striker, wondering if he could believe anything that came from George. 


Forward to Epilogue – Those Left Behind 

Back to Chapter 29 – You’re Never Too Old