And now for the thrilling finale of Age Before Duty...
"Why did you bring him here?" Graham hissed.
"I have discussed his fate with my fellows, and we have come up with what we consider to be the ideal way of dealing with him," Death said softly. "I just wanted your family to be witness to this event so they will be reassured that he won't cause them any more trouble…after I take care of your son-in-law, of course."
"Father…" Alexander said in a voice tinged with agitation, "What is that cat doing here?"
"King Graham has informed me that that cat was once a dark wizard," Death said before Graham could speak, "And since the cat still retains his wizard's knowledge, King Graham made a bargain with him: in exchange for telling King Graham how to enter my realm, the cat will be restored to his original shape."
Alexander stared at Graham, his eyes wild.
"That isn't Manannan, is it?" he said in a trembling voice, pointing to the iron cage with a shaking finger.
Graham bowed his head.
"I'm afraid it is," he muttered.
Rosella and Valanice stared in horror at the mangy animal. Alexander strode up to Graham and glared furiously at him.
"How could you possibly have made such a bargain with that monster?" he snarled. "After all he's done to us?"
"It was the only way I could convince him to help me," Graham explained. "I was half-bluffing at the time, but then I was told that I had to keep my promise to him, no matter what."
"If that devil is changed back into a wizard, who knows what sort of evil he'll inflict not only on us, but the rest of the land as well!"
"I thought the exact same thing when it was suggested that I make that bargain with him," Graham said. "But I've slowly begun to realize that Manannan's time alone in Mordack's fortress has changed him, and that he's no longer the villain he once was."
"And once his original shape has been restored," Death said, "I plan to make sure that he can do no more harm for the rest of his days."
Alexander stared at Death suspiciously.
"You do?" he asked in a calmer voice.
"Yes," Death replied. "You have my word that he will never bring misfortune upon you or your kin ever again. Now, if you will excuse me, I wish to give Prince Edgar his life back before I deal with the wizard."
Alexander stepped back as Death hobbled over to Edgar's bed. Death held out both of his hands with the palms up, and a candle appeared in each of them: a tall, brightly burning candle appeared in his right hand, while a short, shriveled candle appeared in his left. As Graham looked at both candles, he could just perceive a faint glow surrounding the shorter candle, which was barely more than a shallow pool of wax with a feeble, spluttering flame glowing at the end of its blackened wick.
"Perhaps I should explain first," said Death, turning to Graham's wife and children. "It is my duty to watch over the lives of all mortals, and to come to them when their end is drawing near to ensure that their soul makes a clean break with their body. In my domain, these candles represent their lives; the taller and brighter a life is, the longer and healthier its owner is destined to live. This candle – " here he held up the tall one in his right hand " – is Prince Edgar's true life, while this one – " here he indicated the softly glowing stub in his left hand " – is the cat's life that is currently living on. Once I swap the cat's life for the prince's own life, he will return to his proper age."
He turned back to Edgar, who was staring unblinkingly at the two candles. Death slowly moved his hands towards Edgar's chest, causing Scrimshaw to nervously flutter away. When the candles were less than a few inches above Edgar's body, Death suddenly withdrew them and shook his head.
"What's the matter?" Graham asked worriedly.
"I cannot restore the mortal's life in a situation such as this," Death rumbled, stepping away from the prince's bed. Both of the candles he was holding vanished.
"A situation such as what?" Graham demanded.
"One in which so many emotions are radiating through the air," Death said. "Most of your emotions are foreign to me, and their presence confuses and distracts me, especially when they are so strong."
"Whose emotions?" Rosella asked.
"Many of them are shared by all of you," Death said, "But most of them are coming from that one."
He turned and pointed a bony finger directly at Alexander, who stared fearfully at Death for a moment then glanced nervously about the room. Graham looked at Alexander, then at the black cat lying in the iron cage, then immediately understood why Death had singled Alexander out: Manannan had stolen him from his family, raised him as a slave, kept him confined to a single house for most of his life, and even after Alexander thought he had finished the wizard off, he was the catalyst for Mordack's kidnapping Alexander as well as his mother and sister. Though all the members of Graham's family detested Manannan, none of them loathed him more than Alexander.
"Such dark, anguished feelings," Death remarked. "And so intense. I cannot save Prince Edgar in the presence of such emotions."
"Could you do it if I left the room?" Alexander asked.
"I'm afraid not," Death said. "The connection between you and the enchanted wizard are too strong, but though you have feelings of hate towards him, he has none towards you or your family. Not anymore."
Alexander stared confusedly at the caged cat, then turned back to Death.
"Then what must I do?"
"You must forgive him," Death said. "I know that such a thing may be difficult to do, but it is the only way I can successfully save this mortal."
Alexander glared at Death.
"You expect me to forgive that cold-hearted fiend?" he cried.
"There is no other way," Death said. "Once there is no more hate between you and the wizard, I can…"
"Never!" Alexander yelled, turning away. "After all that scoundrel has done to me and my family, you show up and say that you're going to change him back into a wizard? How will I be able to live in peace, knowing that Manannan is a human being once more – if he ever was human!"
"Alexander, please," Graham said. "Can't you find it in you to put all that Manannan has done behind you? His days of evil are over now, and Death has promised that he won't let him hurt us ever again."
"Put his deeds behind me?" Alexander scowled. "That's easy for you to say."
He turned around to face Death.
"Can't you at least try to give Edgar's life back to him?" he asked. "If it doesn't work, then maybe I'll try to forgive that filthy, good-for-nothing…"
"I can only try once," Death said solemnly. "If I fail, then the mortal will die."
Alexander gritted his teeth. Rosella ran to his side.
"Please say that you forgive him," she pleaded. "You've got to. Edgar's life depends on it."
Alexander stared coldly at his sister and turned away from her without a word.
"Son, I know it seems hard to do, but you must do it," Valanice said. "We've all been hurt by that wizard, but we can't hold on to our hatred forever. Someone who keeps such hate within him eventually becomes completely hateful himself."
Alexander said nothing. Graham glanced over at Edgar to see that he had closed his eyes and was breathing so shallowly that it appeared almost as if he were dead.
"Alexander," Graham said firmly, "For nearly seventeen years, Daventry had no male heir to the throne. When you returned home, we were hopeful that you would be the next king, but after you departed to the Land of the Green Isles and became king of that land, we began to grow concerned because of our lack of any other heirs and Rosella's reluctance to marry. Fortunately, Edgar has agreed to rule when I am no longer able, but now he is near death. For the sake of your homeland, you have to forgive your former master."
Alexander didn't even react to Graham's words. It was as if he had suddenly lost his hearing.
"Please," Rosella begged. "I don't want him to die."
"You must," Valanice urged. "For Daventry's sake."
"Remember, Alexander," Graham said quietly, "If it weren't for Manannan, you might never have met Cassima."
The mention of his wife's name made Alexander turn his head slightly, but he still remained mute.
"It was just…the way…it was written," said a low, weak voice: Edgar's.
Graham stared at the small bed, but Edgar's eyes were still closed. The hand that had previously rested on Scrimshaw hung limply over the edge of the bed, and Scrimshaw was nestled beside Edgar's feet, whimpering anxiously.
Graham stared confusedly at the prince, then turned back to Alexander, and was startled to see that he was also staring at Edgar. The hardened look on the young king's face had changed, but when he noticed Graham looking at him, he turned away once more.
Graham was about to speak to his son again, but Alexander suddenly spoke in a voice barely higher than a whisper, but in the silence of the room, the words seemed as loud as iron bells.
"All right. I…I forgive him."
"What did you say, mortal?" Death asked.
"I FORGIVE HIM!" Alexander screamed.
The noise echoed in the large room and left the ears of everyone present ringing. Alexander stood for a moment with his eyes shut tight and his teeth clenched, then staggered over towards the nearest wall and braced himself against it with his arm. Graham slowly walked over to his son and stared in astonishment at his face, which was streaked with tears. Except for when Alexander was an infant, it was the first time that Graham had ever seen his son cry.
Without a word, Graham placed a comforting hand on Alexander's shoulder for a few moments, then turned back to Death.
"Very good, mortal," Death said approvingly. "There is no more hate between you and the wizard any longer. I had better take care of him now before anything else occurs. It will take but a moment."
As Graham, Valanice and Rosella watched, Death opened the iron cage, lifted the scrawny black cat out and placed him on the floor. He then stepped back from the cat and raised his spindly arms heavenward. There was a sound like the rumble of distant thunder, and a cold wind whipped through the room. Overcome by curiosity, Alexander turned to see what was going on.
The cat became enveloped in a cloud of dark smoke, which slowly began to grow until it was as wide and tall as a man. Death then lowered his arms and the black smoke disappeared, revealing a thin, pale, ancient man standing where the cat had been. His long white beard was tangled and stained, his thin hands trembled, and he shuffled uneasily, as if he was having difficulty standing. He was clothed in a plain brown robe, and he wore sandals on his feet. Death approached him and spoke to him in a voice as cold as ice and unforgiving as stone:
"Manannan, King Graham has kept his promise to you and you are once again human. However, I am going to send you to a far away land, where you will have to start your life over again if you wish to survive. You still have all the abilities you had as a wizard prior to your transformation, but heed my warning: if you try casting any sort of black magic or attempt to harm or bring misfortune to another mortal ever again, I shall personally end your life. Farewell."
Death waved his arm, and Manannan disappeared. All of the royal family save Edgar stood awestruck by what had just taken place, almost too frightened to breathe. Death turned to face Graham.
"Do you think I might have overdone it?" he asked.
"Er…" Graham faltered, unsure how to reply to Death's question. "No, no, I don't think so…but I thought you said that you didn't interfere with the lives of mortals."
"I usually don't," Death said with a grin, "But in cases like this, I'm willing to make an exception."
"Ah," Graham said uneasily. "I see. How in the world did you change him back, though?"
Death's grin widened.
"It would be difficult for me to explain to you," he said. "To make a long story short, I merely called upon the help of some of my fellows. They are far more powerful than I, and I supposed that this was an appropriate time for them to lend a hand, as you mortals put it. I wouldn't recommend you ever visiting their domains, though, King Graham. They are hardly as welcoming and kindly towards mortals as I am."
Even though his voice was as toneless as ever, his words still made Graham's skin crawl.
Death suddenly scoffed and shook his head.
"But I've talked enough," he muttered. "It's time for me to return your son-in-law's life."
Death held out his hands, and the tall candle and the short, gently glowing one appeared in them again. He shuffled towards Edgar, who still lay motionless on his bed with his eyes shut. The rest of the family also edged closer to him, especially Rosella, whose anxious blue eyes kept darting from Edgar's aged features to the candle that was Edgar's true life. Scrimshaw still sat at the foot of the bed, his eyes fixed on his master's face, not moving so much as a feather.
As before, Death stood by Edgar's bedside and slowly lowered the two candles over him. This time, however, the glow of the stubby candle grew more intense as it came closer to Edgar's body. Death continued lowering the candles until they were just touching the prince's chest. Death held them there for some time while the family watched, standing as still as statues.
Then both candles became enveloped in two spheres of white light, and when the light finally died down, it wasn't the short, barely existent candle in Death's left hand that had a faint glow surrounding it, but the tall one in his right. Nodding to himself, Death stepped back from Edgar's bed and both of the candles vanished from his hands once again.
At first, nothing seemed to have happened to the ancient-looking prince, but as Graham, Valanice, Rosella and Alexander watched, they began to notice that the dark blotches on the backs of Edgar's one exposed hand were starting to fade, and the wrinkles in his face were beginning to grow indistinct as well. Before the family knew it, Edgar's thin white hair was starting to turn brown again, and flesh began to cover to his frail, almost skeletal features. In a few minutes, he had become younger in appearance than Graham, and in a few more minutes, he looked almost exactly like the man that Rosella had fallen in love with.
Soon, every line in the prince's face and every visible gray hair had vanished. Edgar's eyes fluttered open and he stared at the people who stood around him with the look of someone just waking up from a deep, restful sleep. He looked at his hand, attempted to lift it, and looked astonished when he was able to do it so easily. He stared at it for a moment, then slowly touched his face with it.
Then he saw Rosella staring at him, looking so joyful that she was close to tears. A wide smile broke out on Edgar's face. He shoved back the blanket that covered him and pushed himself out of his bed.
"Er..." said Death quietly as Edgar leapt into Rosella's outstretched arms with a jubilant cry, "I wouldn't do that just yet…"
He had spoken too late. Edgar had apparently still not regained all his strength, for as he threw his arms around Rosella, his legs suddenly gave out, and if Rosella hadn't caught him just in time, he would have fallen to the floor. For a few seconds Rosella held Edgar to her chest as Edgar stared awkwardly up at her, then, with the princess's help, Edgar staggered back to his bed and sat down.
Death sighed and shook his head.
"You young mortals," he muttered with an amused smirk. "You never change, do you?"
"Are you all right, Edgar?" Rosella asked, paying no attention to Death's comment.
"I'm…I'm wonderful," Edgar gasped, almost delirious with happiness. "In fact…I can't remember when I last felt this good."
Graham smiled. Though he was overjoyed that his son-in-law had become his old self and now had many full years of life ahead of him, the king still felt a faint twinge of jealousy towards him. Edgar had returned to his youth after a brief but doubtlessly unpleasant time in his final years, and Graham was fairly certain that such a thing would never happen to him in his own old age.
Edgar noticed Graham looking at him and tried to stand up again, but much more slowly and cautiously this time. Rosella stood nervously at his side, expecting him to fall again, but this time, Edgar remained steady on his feet. He wobbled over towards Graham and clasped his father-in-law's hands with much more strength than Graham had anticipated.
"Your Highness…" he said breathlessly, "I just can't express my gratitude enough! To do what you did, and all for my sake…how can I possibly repay you for what you've done for me, Sire?"
"That's quite a question, my boy," Graham said after a pause, smiling broadly. "I honestly can't think of anything at the moment."
"There has to be something," Edgar insisted.
"I suppose," Graham agreed. "How about continuing to be a good husband to my daughter, putting up with my constant words of advice, and being a kind and just ruler of my kingdom when I become as old and feeble as you were a few minutes ago?"
Edgar grinned and bowed his head.
"If that's truly all you ask of me, I believe I can manage," he said confidently, letting go of Graham's hands. "Thank you again, My Liege."
"It's my duty to ensure that the future of my kingdom is secure," Graham said officially, "But to be honest, I am not the only one who has done so this time. My son deserves some of the credit as well."
He gestured towards Alexander as he said this, who nodded slowly. Edgar unsteadily walked up to the young king and shook his hand, thanking him for the part he played in the restoration of Edgar's life in a low, earnest voice. Alexander respectfully acknowledged the prince's thanks, but still remained sullen and quiet, and he barely even looked Edgar in the eyes.
"And what am I, a mere spectator?" asked a familiar dull voice.
"Oh, yes," Graham said, turning to Death, from whom the voice came. "You have our thanks most of all, Death. Without your help, everyone's efforts would be in vain."
Everyone solemnly thanked the tall, robed figure. Death waved a dismissive hand.
"Pshaw, think nothing of it," he said. "I haven't interacted directly with mortals in eons, and it certainly was comforting for me to know that there is still some good in the hearts of man."
He slowly turned, his thin robes rustling like dry leaves.
"I must leave now," he said. "There are a great many others in your world that I must attend to. May you all have many years ahead of you before I see you again."
Then he turned his hooded head towards Alexander.
"Young mortal, I have some good news that will undoubtedly be of importance to you."
"Do you?" Alexander asked, looking up cautiously. "What is it?"
"A new life is about to become part of my collection," Death said. "Its flame is vibrant and strong, and it will burn very slowly and brightly for many years."
The tall figure silently turned away, then began to slowly dissolve, his shape becoming as insubstantial as a cloud of dust. Soon, there was nothing left of him but a wisp of mist, which slowly faded into nothingness, leaving nothing behind but a slight chill in the room.
Alexander turned to his family, perplexed by Death's last words. Before he could ask them what they thought he meant, there was a puff of white smoke, and Shamir Shamazel, Alexander's genie, appeared in the center of the room.
"Master!" the creature yelped breathlessly. "You must return home! Immediately!"
"Return home?" Alexander repeated, fear filling his eyes. "Why? What's going on?"
"It's your wife!" Shamir cried. "Her child is coming!"
Alexander froze for a moment, the words of Death and the words of his genie slowly coming together in his head. Then he let out an ecstatic laugh, though there were tears in his eyes again when he turned back to the surrounding people.
"I'm sorry for having to leave so quickly," he gasped hurriedly, "But as you can see, I'm needed elsewhere. Good-bye, everyone!"
With that, he and Shamir vanished.
For a moment, the four remaining people in the room did nothing but stare at each other. Then Valanice ran towards Graham and fell into his arms, overcome with emotion.
"Our son!" she cried, trying to hold back her sobs. "Our son, a father!"
Graham said nothing as he held his wife, but felt tears coming to his eyes as well. His heart had been filled with worry and grief a short time ago, now it was overflowing with happiness. Thoughts of Manannan, the perils of his journey, the crooked sorcerer and Edgar's brush with death were all pushed aside by the revelation that Graham and Valanice were soon to become grandparents.
Rosella looked astonished for a moment, then she frowned.
"He didn't even let us congratulate him," she complained. "And we can't even go and visit him, not with Edgar's parents staying here!"
"Don't worry," Graham said. "As soon as I make certain that everything in this castle is in order, we'll be able to visit Alexander and Cassima…and their child."
Rosella nodded while Edgar put a hand on her shoulder and quietly congratulated her on becoming an aunt. She smiled and turned her eyes away from him. Then Edgar looked into Graham's eyes.
"You were right, Your Majesty," he said.
"About what?" Graham asked.
"About Death," Edgar said. "He really isn't as horrible as people say he is."
"I know," Graham said. "I'll tell you all about him later."
"Wait a moment," Valanice said, finally regaining her composure and stepping back from Graham. "We need to tell Oberon and Titania that their son is well again!"
"Of course," Edgar agreed. "In fact, I'll go tell them myself."
Rosella looked Edgar up and down, then stared quizzically at him.
"In those?" she asked.
Edgar looked down at himself. In the tension and excitement surrounding his return to his youth, everyone including the prince had overlooked the fact that he was dressed in nothing more than plain white nightclothes. Edgar grinned sheepishly, then said:
"I don't see why not. My parents have worried enough about me recently, and I don't think we should let them be worried a minute longer than they have to."
"If you insist," Rosella muttered, rolling her eyes. "Are you sure you can walk?"
"I think so," Edgar said. "But could you come with me just the same? You know where my parents' chambers are and I don't."
Rosella smiled again, took Edgar's arm in hers and began leading him towards the door. Scrimshaw, who was still perched at the foot of the bed, watched the pair walking away, then took off and flew not towards Edgar, but towards Graham. Graham extended his right arm, and the pygmy griffin landed on it, wobbling uncertainly for a moment and scratching the king's skin in several places.
"Well, little friend," Graham said quietly, "It looks like your work is done for the moment."
The tiny griffin shrugged his shoulders and blinked several times, as if to say, "So what now?"
"I suppose you can do whatever you want now," Graham said.
Scrimshaw shrugged again. "Like what?" Graham imagined him saying.
"How about going on a little adventure of your own without feeling obliged to ferry letters and tokens to and from here?" the king suggested.
The griffin brightened a little at this idea, then grew concerned once more and turned to look at Edgar, who was just about to leave the room with Rosella. Graham cleared his throat politely and spoke the name of the prince, who looked over his shoulder in Graham's direction, as did Rosella.
"Edgar, your pet wants to know if he can spend a bit of time on his own," Graham said.
The prince grinned.
"After all that he's done for us these past few days, he more than deserves it," he said. "Tell him that his master is grateful to him, and he is free do whatever he wants now."
Graham turned back to Scrimshaw.
"Did you hear that?" he asked the furry, feathery creature.
Scrimshaw nodded frantically.
"Then off you go," Graham said, walking to a nearby window and moving the arm Scrimshaw was perched on towards it.
With a wild screech, the tiny griffin launched itself off Graham's arm and went gliding majestically through the air, not bothering to flap its wings until he had started to dip towards the earth. The autumn sun was nearing the horizon, and in its dying light, the yellow fields of Daventry shone like warm gold. Graham silently watched tiny figure of Scrimshaw as he flew away, as well as the vast countryside that he flew over. Valanice walked up beside Graham, put an arm around his back and let her head rest on his shoulder, and for once in many weeks, the king truly felt at peace. Once again, the future of his kingdom was secure, and hopefully it would remain secure until the time when he could no longer watch over it.
Seeing that her parents' eyes were no longer on her, Rosella embraced Edgar and stole a quick but firm kiss from him. Then, arm in arm, she and the future king of Daventry quietly left the room.
Meanwhile, Scrimshaw the pygmy griffin, to whom heirs and kingdoms had little meaning, flew low over the countryside's many treetops, occasionally inciting the anger of a flock of birds trying to settle down for the night. He swooped low enough over wild, churning rivers to feel the spray of the water in his eyes, then zoomed up again, turning over in midair and sometimes even flying upside down.
Scrimshaw had no idea where he was going or how long he was going to be gone – all he knew for certain was that he would return soon. Though, like his master, he had been born in another realm, Castle Daventry was his home now, for that was where his master had chosen to live. No matter where in this world he traveled, Daventry was the place that he would always return to.
And that's all for now, but I'll be back next year with another story! Happy holidays!
My Sierra fan art and fan fiction
The Quest Lives... (and the Injokes/References list could do with some contributions.)
Sierra Music Central - A great site for high-quality Sierra soundtracks!
"The two who are one will mostly emerge triumphant over the Good Who lazily turned Evil, and Chaos will reign no more."