Kieren was immediately struck by the similarity in appearance between the Dark Lord and Beraut. The physical resemblance between the two was hard to deny and caused Kieren’s breath to catch in his throat when he first encountered his nemesis. Since Beraut and Madumda happened to look so much alike, it also caused Kieren some slight concern. It made him momentarily question whether he’d be able to do battle with someone who so closely resembled the one whom he had come to admire and had begun to turn to for advice.
To make certain this didn’t happen, Kieren began to focus on the differences between Madumda and Beraut instead. He quickly determined that Madumda appeared to be far older, not nearly as well groomed and didn’t exude the same courtly bearing as his mentor. This also led the young man to conclude that Beraut was far better looking and the more refined of the pair. Although this didn’t have much bearing on what was about to take place shortly, mentally it would make it easier for the teen to fulfill the task he was destined to perform.
Fortunately, Kieren also had an in depth knowledge about the Dark Lord’s reputation for unparalleled cruelty, his obsession with black magic and his immense lust for power, which helped the lad to further differentiate between the duo. When Kieren added this to his thoughts about the friends they had lost on this mission, which he now blamed on the Dark Lord, it stiffened his resolve to see Madumda destroyed.
While Kieren was internally debating his uncertainties, Madumda spotted the group on the stairway and began to study them as well. The warriors were busily lifting their weapons to defend their champion, but their actions didn’t seem to concern the Dark Lord in the slightest. Instead, he hissed his defiance and challenged their audacity.
“How dare you enter my fortress uninvited?” he snarled. “How did you manage to slip past my guards without being detected or destroyed? No, it doesn’t matter how you got in here, but you shall rue your decision to trespass in my home.”
While he had been speaking, Madumda continued to watch and study each individual within the group. He quickly noted what an odd collection of combatants were assembled before him, and judging by the expression on his face, it was obvious they were not what he was expecting. However, he recalled a small tidbit of information about reports of a similar group, but he didn’t have time to think about how the two items were related.
“Before I destroy you,” Madumda challenged, “I wish to know who among you was able to use such powerful magic? It was the release of that supernatural surge that alerted me about your presence here and beckoned me back to deal with you. Unless there is someone else who is not currently present, I see no one here who should be able to summon such magical power. The elf might be capable of some minor magic, but nothing close to what I felt. Are there others here that I do not see?”
The tension was thick when the standoff began, but Kieren managed to pull himself together and summon the resolve he needed to do what was required. Courageously, he prepared himself to perform the task he had been dreading, ever since he first learned about his birthright and had been told about this quest. He reached up, grabbed the hood on his robe and threw it back, thus revealing his presence.
“There are no others,” he announced, “and it was I who used the magic.”
The others gasped when Kieren became visible again, but most of them slowly started to realize it was what he had come here to do. Now, they had to place their trust in Kieren’s ability and rely on the accuracy of the prophecy.
“You used the magic?” Madumda asked, surprised. This was especially true after he noted how young Kieren was. “Who are you? I see nothing special about you and there is no way you should be able to command that kind of power. You are but a puny, young halfling. How could you have learned to control so much magic?”
The halfling comment wounded Kieren far greater than any sword could have done and it brought back a flood of memories from his youth. It was during his time growing up in Wildoness that he had been taunted by the other children, both elf and human alike. Whenever the others got angry with him, they would call him a halfling and this always hurt him deeply. Of course, Garreth and Romaric had never done this and always jumped to his defense when someone else did. They would scream at the females and pummel the male tormentors for their audacity and make an example of them, to deter others from following their lead. Now, Kieren fought to recover from having been reminded of all those terrible times.
After a brief struggle to regain control of his emotions, Kieren took a deep breath and moved down another step. He also took a moment to unfasten a few of the clasps on his robe before addressing Madumda again.
“You are certainly a poor judge of character then,” he taunted the sorcerer in return, “and can obviously be deceived, if you cannot detect my heritage.”
Kieren said this with a forced haughtiness, which was meant to hurt the Dark Lord in a manner similar to how the sorcerer’s words had wounded him. It worked, because the Dark Lord was infuriated by his brazen retort.
“You and your beggarly kin are of no concern to me,” Madumda hissed, visibly irritated, “but I am still curious as to how you could wield such magic.”
Kieren forced out the most evil laugh he could muster, while staring at the Dark Lord. He also unfastened the rest of the clasps on his robe and walked down a couple more steps, before he replied.
“It is because I am an heir of Ethelbert,” he announced, as he eagerly watched the Dark Lord’s reaction. “I am flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood and the one foretold of that would destroy you.”
“Impossible!” Madumda snapped back, his eyes blazing. “All the heirs of that blasted upstart have been destroyed. I have made certain of it.”
“Not quite. You seemed to have overlooked my family and me,” Kieren stated emphatically and with more confidence than he actually possessed.
Kieren was fighting hard to maintain this arrogant attitude so he could get under the Dark Lord’s skin. In fact, he knew it was going to be nearly impossible for him to keep up this façade for very long. It wasn’t like him to act this way or to do such things, so he worried that he wasn’t a good enough actor to be totally convincing. Regardless, he pressed on, despite his lingering uncertainty. If only he had been able to perceive how effective he actually was with his delivery, he would not have worried.
“No! That cannot be true,” the Dark Lord challenged. Madumda was still unwilling to believe the advisor he’d had executed had been right all along.
“It is,” Kieren assured him, “and the magic that you sensed was when I used the power of the Golden Medallion, which had been granted to me as part of my birthright.” When he made this pronouncement, Kieren slipped his left hand under his tunic and pulled out the chain and bauble, which he displayed proudly.
Madumda’s mouth dropped open in disbelief as he suddenly remembered the existence of this long forgotten royal symbol. Since it had not been seen in such a long time, he had failed to realize that it still existed and hadn’t considered its enormous potential. However, now that he saw it dangling from the young man’s neck, it visibly shook him. Noticing this, Kieren decided to push his temporary advantage even further.
“The reason I came here, though, was to retrieve something else that belongs to me,” he announced smugly, as he allowed a grin to form on his lips.
At this precise moment, Kieren brought his right hand out from the folds of his traveling robe and held out the Sword of Kings. He made certain it was exposed enough for Madumda to see it clearly, because he wanted the full impact of the weapon’s significance to sink in.
Seeing the sword again, for the first time in many, many years, the blood instantly drained from Madumda’s face. At that moment, the significance of the information revealed to him began to sink in. The Dark Lord slowly recalled the words of the ancient prophecy, which detailed his demise at the hands of a descendent of Ethelbert who would wield a power much greater than his own. That, he deduced, must be the Sword of Kings. Now, it was his turn to try to recover his composure and regain the upper hand from this tall, slender youth.
“You have proven to be very resourceful to get this far,” the sorcerer admitted, “but now you must deal with my unequalled powers. You are but an inexperienced boy and no match for me, regardless of what relics you carry with you. This time I will take immeasurable pleasure in destroying yet another member of your accursed bloodline.” As Madumda was saying this, Kieren took a moment to slip the Medallion back under his tunic, so it wouldn’t interfere with his movements once the showdown began.
“You may try,” Kieren replied, while exuding more bravery than he felt, “but I believe in the truth of the prophecy. It states that I will be victorious, and once you are gone the throne of Tarolia will belong to my family once more. As soon as your reign of terror has ended, the royal bloodline will be restored and I will be king.”
Kieren intentionally mentioned the prophecy again, in order to place an inkling of uncertainty in the sorcerer’s mind. The young man speculated that such a shred of apprehension might take away the Dark Lord’s edge and eventually cost him his life. Although Kieren had been working hard to display a brazen attitude outwardly, he was still being realistic about his chances in this current situation. It was the reason he had mentioned this legendary prediction again, as his way of acknowledging that he'd need every advantage he could summon, regardless of how minor it was. With that in mind, Kieren wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to rattle his opponent or place a shadow of doubt in his mind, no matter how slightly it actually affected Madumda.
“A big boast for such a weakling,” Madumda countered, even though he was concerned about the implications of the boy’s words. “You must remember that I have destroyed all of your ancestors, including many who were much more powerful than yourself. You are insignificant compared to them. You are but a kitten, while they were more like saber cats. Yet I was able to rid myself of them and I will be the one who shall destroy you as well.” It seemed as if Madumda was attempting to gain a similar psychological advantage by using his current analogy to lessen Kieren’s confidence.
While this conversation had been going on, Kieren continued to make his way down the staircase and managed to completely slip out of his robe as he was doing so. He didn’t want to be encumbered by the garment as he dueled with the Dark Lord. Kieren had already passed most of his friends, almost without notice, until Turquinine grabbed him by the shoulder and stopped him from going farther. At that instant, Kieren turned toward his giant protector and spoke softly to him.
“I appreciate your concern,” he admitted soothingly, “but this is something I must do. You know very well that this is the reason for our mission, so I cannot stop now. I will, however, do my best to make you all proud of me.”
After thinking about what Kieren had said, the Mitikuan nodded his understanding and released his grip. Kieren then gave him a wink before continuing on, to let the knight know his concern meant a great deal to him.
The young heir now lifted the Sword of Kings in front of his body while approaching the final step. As he raised the weapon and got ready to do battle, Madumda backed away slightly. Although he'd concluded that Kieren had not possessed the weapon long enough to have mastered its power, he feared the sword could still harm him in other ways.
As Kieren moved closer, Madumda slowly moved away from the doorway the companions had been planning to escape through, which was also the very same portal the Dark Lord had used to enter the foyer only minutes before. The sorcerer’s movements were very smooth for one his age, but Kieren quickly recognized he was holding no weapon, except for his staff. Not wishing to relinquish his advantage, Kieren continued to move away from the stairway, while wondering why Madumda had not tried to use his supernatural power against him.
“I’m sorry, but you seem to have me at a disadvantage,” the Dark Lord stated, while flashing a forced smile. “It seems that I am weaponless. I still have my magic, but as you probably already know, I cannot use it against you as long as you are wearing the medallion.”
Kieren was somewhat surprised by this statement, since he had never heard this tidbit of information mentioned before. Was it true? Did the Golden Medallion keep Madumda from using his magical powers against him? Kieren quickly considered this might just be another of the Dark Lord’s ploys, to encourage him to let down his guard or give him a false sense of security.
Beraut had never mentioned this fact, but maybe the wizard had merely forgotten to tell him, seeing there were so many other details that he had to disclose. The young man had no way of knowing for certain if this statement was accurate or not, but it did make sense. If not, Madumda probably would have already used his awesome powers against him. Kieren, though, could sense that the sorcerer was truly reluctant to use his magic even now, so he concluded the Dark Lord was probably telling the truth.
Knowing this additional bit of information helped to remove even more doubt from Kieren’s mind. During nearly all of the dreams he’d had concerning this eventual encounter, Madumda had defeated him through the use of magic, not with a sword. Since Kieren now knew this wasn’t possible, he began to believe he might definitely have a chance to win this confrontation after all. Suddenly, a new surge of confidence swept over him and he became even more determined to complete this task.
With this new resolve coursing through his veins, Kieren began to recall the sword lessons he had received in Wildoness. The young man now tried desperately to remember each of the finer points he had been taught during these sessions, since this knowledge would now be put to the test. Kieren would have to depend on every skill he had ever mastered, if he had any hope of surviving this encounter.
Madumda, however, was not standing idly by while waiting for this to happen. Instead, he planned on taking advantage of this minor distraction. While everyone else was staring at Kieren, Madumda slowly glided across the room and made his way to another interior wall. As soon as he was close enough to it, the sorcerer dropped his staff and then turned quickly to retrieve a mighty sword that had been hanging on the wall as a decoration. He examined the blade closely, in an effort to be certain it would serve his purpose, and once he was satisfied, he turned back to face Kieren again.
Kieren had nearly finished dredging up the mental notes and warnings his instructors had given him during his lessons when he was distracted by Madumda’s rapid movement toward the wall. Focusing on his adversary again, Kieren observed the Dark Lord retrieving the sword from the wall where it had been hanging.
“Yes, this will do fine,” the sorcerer muttered aloud after examining the weapon he had just recovered. With a sneer forming on his lips, he continued. “The time for deciding our destinies has arrived and there will be no turning back now. This day will forever change the history of the land and the outcome of this duel will determine if you or I shall rule the kingdom. It is now up to us to decide which course history will follow.”
Kieren wanted to kick himself for not anticipating Madumda’s move, but it was too late to worry about it now. No sooner had the Dark Lord finished speaking than he began to charge in Kieren’s direction. This didn’t leave Kieren any time to think about how he was going to respond, so all he could do was to instinctively raise his sword to ward off the first blow. That powerful stroke might have severed Kieren’s neck and removed his head from his shoulders, if he hadn’t reacted as quickly and decisively as he did. Regardless, it was a masterful blow and the force with which it was delivered caused Kieren to stagger backward.
Enjoying the advantage, Madumda was determined to maintain his aggressive posture and took a few more steps toward the young man, as he pressed his attack. Madumda was now hurriedly delivering his second and third powerful swipes at the teen, and once again Kieren was barely able to parry this attack. It looked as if the young man was in serious trouble and this confrontation might soon end, and badly for him.
Some of the companions sensed this and made a move to assist Kieren. However, Madumda noticed what they were up to and reacted before they had a chance to get very far. Lifting one hand ever so slightly, the Dark Lord muttered a few words and then flicked his wrist, which stopped the warriors in their tracks. Regrettably, they now stood transfixed and unable to move. Having no other course of action left to them, they prayed their young friend would be able to fend for himself.
As the others watched what happened next, they couldn’t shake their feelings of helplessness. They were now unable to intervene or assist Kieren as they had sworn to do and had done in the past. It gave them no comfort in knowing this was due to the fact that they were unable to contend with the Dark Lord’s magic. They would still feel responsible and believe they had failed in their duty if anything were to happen to the young prince.
At that moment, Madumda attacked again and delivered another flurry of blows. Once more, Kieren struggled to defend himself and maintain his footing, but miraculously he managed to ward off the Dark Lord’s aggressive move. However, in order to do this, he was forced to assume a totally defensive posture. Now, he concentrated solely upon surviving the engagement, not on winning it.
Noting his predicament, the Dark Lord flashed another sinister grin. No sooner than that had happened then the sorcerer began another energetic attack, during which blow after blow ricocheted off of the Sword of Kings.
Kieren strained to move the blade quickly enough from side to side, as well as up and down, in order to counter the sorcerer’s potentially deadly strokes. As he labored in this fashion, Kieren began to wonder how long he would be able to continue to fight off these punishing assaults. After nearly falling victim to one particularly masterful thrust, the young man regained his wits enough to carry on.
Even though he was struggling to hold his own, Kieren was still trying to study the sorcerer’s every move, to see if he could learn from him. The young man was searching for a sign of weakness and attempting to find patterns in the Dark Lord’s attack, so he could use the knowledge against him at the right opportunity. His observations were interrupted, however, when Madumda delivered his next devastating blow.
This particularly forceful swipe jolted the teen backward and slammed him up against the wall. This, in turn, knocked the air from his lungs and momentarily dazed him. It also caused Kieren to become virtually defenseless while he fought to catch his breath. Fortunately for Kieren, it also took a second or two before Madumda noticed his predicament, which gave Kieren that long to recuperate.
Once the Dark Lord realized the significance of what had just happened, he rapidly advanced toward the young man again, while preparing to deliver the final, fatal blow. Miraculously, Kieren recovered enough to dive to his right, which caused Madumda’s blade to slam harmlessly into the stone wall. The force of the blow reverberated down the length of the sword and stung the Dark Lord’s hands, before traveling up his arms. This caused Madumda to momentarily concentrate on the sensations rippling through his body, instead of focusing on the one he was attacking. This meant he ended up losing sight of his target, which took away his advantage.
By the time Madumda recovered, Kieren had done a complete roll and came back up on his hands and knees, with the sword still in his grasp. Panicked and fearing the lad was in position to stab him, the sorcerer wheeled around and sought to prevent this from happening. Upon pinpointing his opponent’s current position, Madumda immediately pounced in the young man’s direction.
Kieren had just pushed himself upright at this point and wasn’t prepared for such a move. He had barely gotten back to his feet, but somehow managed to lift the sword quickly enough to fend off Madumda’s next volley of blows. Fortunately, Kieren had anticipated the moves his adversary was going to make, since the Dark Lord had basically used the same technique each time he attacked. Fortunately for Kieren, this was due to the fact that Madumda usually defeated his opponents with magic, not with a blade. Therefore, his skills with a sword were not nearly as advanced as they might have otherwise been.
Madumda, however, didn’t let up in the ferociousness of this barrage. He relentlessly came at Kieren again and again, as his next powerful blow jarred the Sword of Kings out of Kieren’s hands and sent it clattering across the floor.
The companions all gasped in horror when they saw this happen and watched in disbelief as the terrified teen leaped to retrieve his weapon. Kieren knew he had to reclaim the sword quickly or he would surely die. Unfortunately, Madumda proved to be equally as quick and agile, as he showed that he too could react upon very short notice.
As the teen lunged for the blade, the Dark Lord kicked him forcefully in the side. This prevented the young man from getting very far, because the blow from Madumda’s foot hit Kieren squarely in the ribs and sent him sprawling upon the cold, stone floor. Kieren was still in fairly close proximity to the spot where the sword lay, but regrettably he wasn’t quite close enough to grasp the hilt.
As Kieren struggled to move nearer to the weapon, the sorcerer sprang between the teen and the sword. As he did this, the Dark Lord also placed one foot upon Kieren’s chest, which pinned the young man to the floor. It also effectively prevented Kieren from getting any closer to the weapon and appeared to seal his fate. Ever so confidently, Madumda began to raise his sword as he prepared to deliver the decisive blow.
Kieren’s companions emitted a collective groan as soon as they recognized the young man’s plight. They also struggled as hard as they could against the magical bonds that held them in place. Madumda turned and sneered in their direction, as if to mock their concern and helplessness, before turning back to the task at hand.
During this minor distraction, Kieren had continued to stretch out his left arm, with his fingers clawing at the stone flooring in an effort to reach the pommel of the elusive weapon. When the sorcerer turned toward the stairway and eyed Kieren’s friends, he unwittingly also released some of the pressure he had been exerting upon the lad's chest that held him down. This allowed Kieren to make a miniscule movement toward the blade, but not quite enough to grasp it.
When the Dark Lord refocused his attention on Kieren, he once again prepared to administer a lethal blow, but the young man wasn’t focusing on what his nemesis was doing. Even though he was at a severe disadvantage, Kieren never gave up on his struggle to reach the sword, so he was now at the point where his fingers were brushing lightly against the handle.
“It was a noble attempt, my young rival,” Madumda sneered, since he now felt assured that his moment of ultimate triumph was at hand. “It is now time for you to prepare to join your ancestors. It will do no good to struggle further, so accept your fate and make peace with whichever gods you honor. This kingdom will now be completely mine.”
Having made this boast, Madumda raised his sword skyward again. Both of his hands were gripping the pommel, with the tip pointing downward, as he prepared to thrust it through Kieren’s chest. Just as he was about to drive the blade through Kieren's heart, the Dark Lord suddenly stiffened and his cool, self-assured demeanor unexpectedly faded. Without explanation, his head began to jerk from side to side, as if he were searching the room for something. Finally, his gaze fell upon the doors leading from the foyer and he froze momentarily in place.
“NO! This cannot be,” he screamed, showing great fear and startling everyone within earshot. “It’s impossible. You are all dead and no longer exist!” he added. Madumda was as white as a ghost and it appeared as if all of the blood had totally drained from his torso.
This distraction was enough to give Kieren another opportunity to make a slight move to correct this situation. As Madumda turned toward the door, he also released some of the pressure his foot had been exerting against the teen’s chest. This minor change allowed Kieren to slightly shift his weight in the direction of the sword, although it still wasn't enough to draw the Dark Lord’s attention to him.
The young man continued to struggle, as he reached his arm out, until he was able to extend his fingers and finally touch the sword’s grip. Slowly, he resumed the excruciating process of inching the weapon toward him until he was able to wrap his entire hand around the hilt. Just as he was completing this maneuver, Madumda snapped his attention back to the prone young man, so Kieren was unable to do anything more to defend himself.
“What sort of a trick are you playing on me? Don’t try to pretend that you aren’t using your magic to make me hear those voices,” Madumda screamed, as spittle shot from his mouth. The Dark Lord obviously believed Kieren was responsible for whatever he was currently sensing. “Give it up! You are about to die and no illusion will save you now. At last, Tarolia will be mine.”
While the Dark Lord had been distracted and addressing him, Kieren continued to slowly move the blade into a position where he might be able to use it. The entire retrieval process had gone virtually unnoticed by his opponent, because the unexplained distraction had totally consumed Madumda’s every thought. Now, the weapon was nearly by Kieren's side, but unfortunately, the Dark Lord had regained his senses enough to once again prepare to deliver the deathblow.
Frantically, Kieren struggled to lift the sword so he could fight back, and in the process the sword’s pommel barely brushed against the sorcerer’s ankle. Immediately, a brilliant explosion of white light totally engulfed the room and temporarily blinded everyone within. When Kieren was finally able to look around again, Madumda was gone. For some reason, the sorcerer had completely, and inexplicably, disappeared.