There was a loud creak, and both Morteus and Periphral spun around to see Isoldé rush into the room. For a second, everyone just stared at each other, confused.
“Isoldé?” Morteus asked.
“Yes, Isoldé,” King Periphral answered at the same time that Isoldé answered.
“I’m here. I was held up by some soldiers, but…” Her voice trailed off. “What are you doing standing there with your sword on the ground?” Isoldé’s eyes flickered back and forth from Morteus to King Periphral.
“Uh…” Morteus was too flustered to say anything.
King Periphral frowned, staring at the girl in front of him. “You’re- You’re Isoldé?”
“Yes, I am,” Isoldé answered, her dark brows rising. “And you’re the murderer of my parents.”
“The murderer of your parents?” Periphral brow furrowed. “I don’t recall…” His frown deepened. “But if you’re Isoldé-” He stared at her, looking into her eyes.
Morteus took a deep breath. He assessed Isoldé’s stance, and thought it would be best to sort out the entire mess before she did anything rash. “Isoldé. I know you want to take revenge for your parents, and so do I, but Periphral probably has something to say.”
Isoldé looked at Morteus, absolutely confused. “What are you talking about? You aren’t you trying to kill him?”
Periphral spoke up before Morteus could think of an answer. “Isoldé, tell me, can you remember anything of your parents?”
Isoldé looked taken aback. “Why would I tell you? You were the one that caused me to have to live with that monster Von Mont all these years. You were the one who killed my parents.”
Periphral stared, and felt a look of familiarity on Isoldé’s face. Her eyes were the exact shade as her mother’s, and the way her mouth moved, and the color of her hair… “Isoldé,” He felt a thrill as he said her name. “Believe it or not, you’re- you’re my daughter,” Periphral thought that he might possibly have gone crazy. By common sense, his daughter was dead. But he was sure of it. Her name and her looks were not just a coincidence. She was his daughter. Periphral restrained himself from rushing to embrace her.
Both Morteus and Isoldé looked shocked. “But if she’s you’re daughter… Then no one killed her parents- so how did she end up with Von Mont? Then… Wouldn’t that mean that King Alistair did not kidnap your daughter? Wouldn’t that mean you attacked my father for nothing, nothing at all?” Morteus felt his previous anger rushing through his veins.
Periphral shook his head, deep in thought.
“Wait, wait, wait. Back up a second,” Isoldé’s firm grip on her sword started to slacken. “Periphral can’t be my father. He killed my parents.”
“Who said that?” Periphral whispered.
“Von Mont,” Isoldé replied. “You were the one who led to his demise, too. He saved me from your hands, when you killed my parents. For that I’m grateful to him, despite the monster he is inside.”
Periphral’s eyes widened. “Intriguing.”
Morteus hand jumped to his sword, his head unable to wrap around the entire state of things. What if Periphral was just saying this to confuse both of them? They were all certainly completely bamboozled by the turn of events. “What’s intriguing?” He asked, his eyes narrowing.
“If you would listen to my opinion,” Periphral’s eyes were shining as he gazed at his daughter, “I can explain. From what I now know, we’ve all been played by Von Mont.”
“Played by Von Mont?” Both Morteus and Isoldé were shocked for a moment, but Morteus was not entirely surprised. Kill him… Von Mont’s voice danced in Morteus’ mind.
“What do we do?” Morteus whispered to Isoldé from the corner of his mouth.
“Listen to him,” She whispered back. “It’s never too late. I don’t want to make a single mistake and lose our lives, just because we rushed into things. This could be a ploy.”
Morteus nodded, and stooped to pick up his sword. Periphral made no attempt to stop him.
“Previously, Von Mont was a king. He was the king of the kingdom Von Wreal,” Morteus let out a small gasp. Didn’t Periphral just say he conquered Von Wreal? Periphral nodded and continued. “He was notorious for his crimes, and at that time, your father-” He inclined his head, casting his gaze in Morteus’ direction, “Well, Alistair owned the gem.”
“The gem?” Isoldé asked, confused.
“The gem,” Morteus answered. “The gem that can freeze time. Didn’t Von Mont tell you about that?”
“Nothing of that sort exists,” Isoldé shook her head, troubled. If it did, Von Mont should’ve told her… She glared in suspicion at Periphral. What was she doing here, letting him spin tales? He should be dead by now. He wasn’t her father.
Periphral shook his head. “It does exist. I can prove it later. But I need to explain this, so you can both understand. Von Mont wanted the gem, for obvious reasons. He attacked Alistair. He was the biggest enemy that Alistair had, so together, Alistair and I defeated him, conquering his kingdom,” He looked at Isoldé, torn between continuing the story and crying over fifteen years of loss. “In a way, we did lead to Von Mont’s demise.”
Isoldé’s eyes widened. “Von Mont said you had attacked him… Not the other way round…” She lapsed into silence.
“So… My dad’s an enemy of Von Mont’s?” Morteus asked. That makes sense, A voice in his head said, That’s why he wanted to kill me. “Then that would mean Von Mont’s your enemy, and if Isoldé’s your daughter, Von Mont would be her enemy too…”
“You see!” Isoldé scoffed. “I’m not your daughter. You killed my parents. If I were your daughter, why would Von Mont bother to take me in these… fifteen… years…” Her voice trailed off as her confidence wavered.
“Yes,” Periphral’s expression was a mix between anger and remorse. “Von Mont kidnapped you fifteen years ago, telling you that I killed your parents, turning you against your own father…” He blinked as a few tears formed in his eyes. “I wrongly accused Alistair, which… which in the end, did lead to his death…”
Rage gripped Morteus as he listened to King Periphral. So it was Periphral’s fault that his father died, after all. His father hadn’t done anything wrong, at all… It’s not him who’s to blame, it’s Von Mont. He realized with a start.
Isoldé made an odd choking sound. “This is ridiculous. It’s not possible… Being fooled for fifteen years… You’re not my father.” She said, but her grip on her sword loosened. The likeness between them was undeniable.
Periphral smiled sadly. “I’m not saying this is what happened, but it’s my opinion on what happened…”
Morteus blinked twice. “How do I know you’re not lying?” Even while he said it, he looked between Isoldé and Periphral and couldn’t argue. They looked too alike. That’s why I thought I’d seen her before. I lived with her family for fifteen years! Morteus thought with a start.
“Why would I lie to you? Why didn’t I kill you when I could’ve?” King Periphral replied. “We were tricked for fifteen years, Morteus. All of us.”
Isoldé shook her head. “No, no, stop this, Morteus. He’s manipulating us, using us…”
Periphral’s expression was of sadness. “I’m your father, Isoldé. The separation all these years, the misunderstandings… I don’t want revenge. It just makes things more complicated. All I want is for both of you to understand the truth.”
Isoldé’s wavy hair swirled about her. “As implausible as it is, even if you were my father, why would… Why would Von Mont keep me all those years? Why didn’t he just finish me off, if I were his enemy?”
“I think he must have wanted to groom you, make you believe that I was his enemy, and then come kill me. Then after you had killed me, he would tell you that I was your father and would’ve left you to die in remorse and pain,” Periphral struggled to keep himself calm and collected. “He wanted my ultimate downfall.”
“But if he wanted your ultimate downfall, wouldn’t he have thought of the situation where I’d find out that you were my father, and turn against him instead?” Isoldé faltered. “Of course,” She said to herself. “He said he would join us later. He could be watching us now.”
King Periphral sharpened. “Von Mont’s here?” C.V… His thoughts immediately jumped to the gem. “He was the one who blackmailed me… So he must be here for the gem.”
Isoldé looked completely lost. “You know what?” She burst out, frustrated. “I don’t believe any of this at all,” She was unable to grasp the huge holes in the fabric. “Von Mont couldn’t possibly have planned out something so complex.”
“If Von Mont couldn’t have planned it, neither can I,” Periphral said softly. “There’s as much reason- if not more- to suspect that Von Mont has a big part in this. Which… knowing him, he would be prowling around, ready to slit our throats…”
“He’ll have it by now if he wanted it,” Morteus’ heart sank.
Isoldé nodded. “I practically lived under your castle all my life. Von Mont had tunnels running all over the castle.”
“So that’s how you got in…” Periphral murmured. “Seems like the guards I stationed outside the castle were rendered useless.”
Morteus stood there, mortified. What if… “Father-” He couldn’t stop himself from blurting out the word. A smile flashed across Periphral’s face at the name. “Where did you keep the gem?”
Periphral didn’t see what he was getting at. “Why?” Misgiving flitted across his face before he answered. “I entrusted it to Isabelle.”
“Then I suggest we go find mom immediately,” Morteus was too worried to suspect Periphral anymore. All the details matched, and if all that Periphral said was the truth, there was no doubt that Von Mont would have gone after her. Isoldé dithered, still in denial.
“We’re about to go trooping into the enemy’s lair,” She tried to clear her mind. She gripped her sword tighter, indecisive.
“Isoldé. I am your father,” Periphral looked straight into her eyes, his voice firm. “I am so sorry for everything you’ve been through, so sorry that I couldn’t find you. I love you,” he seemed to struggle with himself, then pulled his head roughly away, knowing he couldn’t keep it together for much longer. Only time could make her believe. “Isabelle is in the shelter. She’ll be safe there.”
Morteus paced back and forth, sheathing his sword. “I’m not very sure of that,” He said, biting his lip.
“For all we know, Von Mont is after her now.”
Both Alistair and Periphral made the same mistake.
Von Mont’s mouth stretched into a mutated grin.
“Fools,” He leapt over the rock with grace and knocked down the guards. Though his plan had not gone as smoothly as he had wanted, nothing would matter once he got the gem.
The world would be in his hands.
Three shadows hurried through the corridors of the castle, one grey-haired at the front, an eager young lad following, and a doubtful-looking girl following hesitantly behind.
“Hurry,” Morteus said. “If Von Mont gets hold of that gem, he could easily slaughter us all.”
Isoldé expressed her disbelief. “You’re both out of your minds.”
Periphral quickened his footsteps, not meaning to ignore her, but focusing on more important matters at hand. “Once we get the gem, I can prove everything to you. Right now, though, finding Von Mont is more important.”
The battle sounds grew gradually louder as they neared the back exit of the building. Periphral made to open the door, but Isoldé restrained him.
“No, don’t. Some of my soldiers are stationed here. They would fight to their deaths to claim your life,” Isoldé warned. Periphral turned to her in surprise.
“I thought you wanted me killed,” A small smile spread across his face.
Isoldé looked down, unsure. “Not before the truth is known,” Periphral’s eyes glittered with tears.
Morteus shifted impatiently. “We can sort this out later,” He turned to King Periphral. “Is there any alternative route?”
Periphral shook his head meekly. “Not that I know of.”
“We can use the tunnels,” Isoldé said, taking charge. “All the soldiers are probably above ground by now,” Morteus was at once too aware of the clashing and clanging of metal surrounding him. People were losing lives because of this mess Von Mont had caused. How many people had been tricked, manipulated?
“Wait for me here,” Isoldé exited through the back door. Morteus could hear a loud and harsh clash over the commotion. Isoldé came back in after a few tense moments and threw her cape to Periphral.
“Cover your face,” She said, not kindly, but not harshly either. “You won’t want anyone to recognize you,” Periphral took off his red and purple cloak and threw on Isoldé’s black cape. “Let’s go,” Isoldé pushed open the door and they walked out.
It was the most frightening vista Morteus had ever laid his eyes on.
There were mangled bodies on the ground, swords and arrows scattered everywhere. The pavement was rugged, and the earth and soil was churned by the fiery rage of battle. Those who were still alive were hardened to the bone, dripping with a mixture of dirt and blood. The clatter of armor and sword chilled their spines.
Morteus let out a small groan. “Let’s get away from this forbidding sight.”
Isoldé led them to a manhole a few meters away from the door. Morteus took note of the metal covering that was lying on the ground a meter away. She lifted this by herself. He raised his eyebrows in wonder.
Isoldé dropped in first, followed by the king, and lastly, Morteus.
“Shh,” Isoldé put a finger to her lips, the light from above shining down on her. “Sounds echo through the tunnels,” She whispered, and looked to Periphral. “Where’s the shelter?”
King Periphral answered her immediately. “About a hundred meters south of the castle.”
Isoldé nodded and stepped into the darkness. Morteus clung to the sides of the walls, not knowing where they were heading. “How do you know where we’re going?” He muttered. King Periphral uttered an incomprehensible word of agreement.
“I practically lived here all my life,” Isoldé said, and Periphral felt a twinge of guilt. “I know every inch of the ground within a kilometer of the castle,” She murmured.
They trampled on in silence, feeling the wet and muddy walls with their hands.
“We’re here,” Isoldé murmured as they reached a dead end. Morteus bumped into Periphral and Isoldé frowned, reaching for the ceiling above. She pushed on the heavy metal covering the tunnel, and flipped it open, letting the light in.
Intense light greeted them from above, and they all blinked, trying to adjust to the sun.
“Hurry,” Isoldé said, grim. “That metal was just recently removed and covered back. It wasn’t even packed back with soil yet.”
She lifted herself out of the hole in one swift movement, then offered a hand to Periphral as he clambered up with difficulty. “Thank you,” Periphral smiled. Isoldé gave a curt nod.
Morteus jumped out of the hole with somewhat more grace, and the three of them rushed to the mound of earth rising up from the ground. Their feet trampled the grass, and Morteus recognized the little hill they had set foot on. He had been there with Darren, when he heard of the king’s plans of attacking Candida. There was a little cave carved into the rock, and the entrance was left open, with no guards in sight.
“Where are they?” Periphral’s voice was shaking. “I had a small army of soldiers follow them.”
Isoldé frowned. “They could have been intercepted midway. We should trace our steps back to the castle.”
Morteus sighed in exasperation. “I have an easier way. Why don’t we just look inside the cave?” He entered the cave, his sword held in front of him.
The sight that met them was heart wrenching. There were bodies of children lying on the floor, unconscious, some gagged and tied together. Morteus caught sight of a body hunched in a corner, and some movement at the other side of the cave.
Isoldé leapt back, wondering what her master would say if he saw her.
“Von Mont…” Morteus and King Periphral couldn’t help but let out a growl.
Von Mont was advancing towards the figure in the corner, which looked slightly like…
“Isabelle!” Periphral exclaimed as Von Mont rushed across the room and held his dagger to her neck. Morteus could see from the dim light dappling the walls of the cave that Isabelle was clutching a package tightly.
“Don’t move, or she dies,” Von Mont’s eerie voice sent shivers down their spines. Then he spotted Isoldé, and a smile played on his lips. “I’m highly disappointed in you, Isoldé. Seems like you didn’t have enough resolve to finish off that father of yours,” He sighed. “I suppose you found out that he was your father?”
Isoldé stared at him, at a loss for words. So it is true. Shock radiated from her expression.
Von Mont smiled, seeing that he had touched a raw nerve. “No matter. I have the gem and your mother in my hands now. Nothing can stop me. Now if you’ll all kindly drop your weapons to the floor, to ensure the life of this pretty lady over here…”
His dagger pressed harder on her neck and small beads of blood began to form.
“Stop!” Periphral moaned. “I’ll surrender my sword,” He placed his sword upon the ground. Von Mont looked pointedly at Morteus and Isoldé, who were motionless with distress and astonishment.
“It’s true…” Up to now, Morteus and Isoldé weren’t absolutely sure that Periphral was telling the truth. But unless Von Mont was playing along with his game, which was improbable, Periphral was right all along.
“Your swords,” Von Mont hissed threateningly, and Isabelle let out a little yelp of pain, unable to say anything with a sword pressed to her neck.
Periphral looked at Morteus pleadingly and he dropped his sword. Isoldé was still clenching her fists, furious at the man who had tricked her for fifteen years. “You made me hate my father all these years. You used me, tricked me. You tricked the entire army!”
Von Mont chuckled. “That was because you were easy to manipulate,” He glared at her. “Now drop your sword or your mother dies.”
Isoldé’s eyes widened as the truth hit her. “My mother,” Her sword clattered to the floor immediately.
Isabelle looked like she wanted to say something, and tears came into her eyes as she opened her mouth. A line of blood formed at her neck and Isoldé shouted out. “No!”
“Shush,” Von Mont said, his voice slippery. “You all better behave, or dear mommy here’s going to perish today…” Isoldé quietened to a whimper. “Now. All of you move away from your swords and come towards me.”
“Mph, Mph!” Von Mont clamped his hand over Isabelle’s mouth as she protested.
King Periphral began to move immediately, but Morteus stayed where he was. “He can’t be trusted,” He said in an undertone. Isoldé shifted forwards as well, averse to the thought of losing her mother again.
With reluctance, Morteus moved forward, away from the only weapons they had. Without weapons, even as three they could not take on Von Mont.
“Good,” Von Mont said, and they stopped a meter away from him. He kept the knife pressed to Isabelle’s neck and struggled to wrench the package out of her hand.
Isabelle held the package firmly in her grip and Von Mont ceased his efforts to yank the package out of her hand by force. “Give me the gem, Isabelle,” His voice was sweetly venomous. “Before you regret it.”
Her expression clearly showed that she was by no means going to surrender the gem. “No,” She made a choking sound and threw the package across the cave.
What followed happened simultaneously. Von Mont’s eyes widened, and he made a beeline for the package, withdrawing his dagger and rushing across the room. King Periphral rushed towards his wife without a moment’s hesitation. Isoldé jerked in Von Mont’s direction, but Isabelle gave a slight shake of her head and her looked pointedly to the swords on the floor.
Morteus caught her message and rushed to pick up his sword, tossing Periphral and Isoldé their swords in an instantaneous move.
Von Mont took no notice of it, staring at the package in his hands. The four of them watched in trepidation as he gingerly tore off the covering, revealing a sparkling, glittering gem.
King Periphral frowned. “What-”
“Shh,” Isabelle put a finger to his lips.
Von Mont’s face lit up in glee as he fingered the gem. “Now, it’s mine!” Morteus and Isoldé stared in shock as a few moments passed. Had it worked? Had it happened? Had Von Mont already frozen time? Were they dead?
No. Von Mont seemed to find something wrong with the gem as he flipped it from hand to hand. He glowered at Isabelle, apoplectic with outrage. “This isn’t the gem. It’s not working!”
Morteus, Isoldé and Periphral looked to each other in wonder. They held their swords so they were pointing to Von Mont.
“That’s right,” Isabelle beamed. “And now you’ve got three swords pointing at your neck. I suggest you just capitulate and answer to our demands.”
“Ingenious,” Periphral murmured in admiration. “You hid the gem when I gave it to you, didn’t you?”
“And replaced it with my pendant I grabbed from the dressing table, remember?” Isabelle’s face was stretched in a wide smile as she watched Von Mont sink to the ground in incredulity.
“Sometimes I really wonder where you get your ideas from.” Periphral smiled at his wife, then glanced at Von Mont. “I have one question. How did you know I still had the gem?”
Von Mont sneered at him, clutching at his dagger. He smiled dangerously. “I saw it under that throne of yours.”
Periphral’s eyes widened. “How did you find out the… the password?”
Von Mont fiddled with his dagger. “Six letter combination. What else could it be? It could only be the name of the daughter you couldn’t forget after fifteen years,” Isoldé’s eyes opened in wonder, and Von Mont jerked towards King Periphral. Isoldé rushed forward and knocked his dagger out of his hands, flipping him so that his hands were held to his back.
“You ruined fifteen years of my life and nearly succeeded in making me kill my parents,” She snarled in his ear. “I won’t ever forget that I owe that to you.”
Morteus unbound a few of the children and tossed the ropes to Isoldé, who used them to tie the fuming count. She removed his black cape, which contained a few more knives and scimitars. She gagged him and bound him tighter, tossing him to a side.
She smiled widely at the hateful look Von Mont cast at her. “I know where you hide all your weapons. The one mistake you made of trusting your enemy.”
“I think that’s enough now,” Periphral said softly. “Come here, Isoldé.”
Isoldé turned to her parents. “Mother. Father,” Joyful tears were shining in her eyes. “It’s been fifteen years.”
Reveling in the discovery of their lost daughter, the king and queen held her in their arms, tears running down their faces. Wordless love emanated from them as fifteen years of separation melted away in their embrace.
Morteus stood at the other side of the cavern, ill at ease. The three of them, a united family…
A tear rolled down his cheek. He could never be united with his father, not until his death day. And it was partly Periphral’s fault.
His breath became hitched and tears flowed down his face. Never would he see his father again. Never…
King Periphral looked up at Morteus, seeming to read his mind. “I’m sorry that you never got to know your father, Morteus. He was a great man.”
Morteus nodded, afraid to speak lest he broke out in another torrent of tears.
“But you’re not alone, Morteus. You have us. You’ll always be part of our family,” Periphral smiled.
Morteus’ guilt avalanched down on him. “Even after all I’ve done? To Darius? To Darren?” He asked in a cracked voice.
“We’ll always love you, Morteus,” Isabelle held her arms out to him and embraced him in a tight hug.
Morteus stiffened, then threw his arms around her and sobbed convulsively, feeling the warmth and love of the family.
Right here, right now, he felt like he was home.