(previous installments found here:
Part 1: link
Part 2: link
Part 3: link
Part 4: link
Part 5: link )
The time to sacrifice Hans to the amulet had finally come. He was brought, bound in chains, to the throne room where Gunther and Valberg were waiting. The room filled with thick fog as Valberg passed a hand over the top of his staff, and a flash of light erupted from the heart-shaped stone around the queen’s neck. Gunther drew his sword, but before he could strike the killing blow, a small group of guards stormed in. At first he thought something had gone horribly wrong until he got a good look at the people standing in front of him and realized they weren’t guards at all. In fact, three of them he’d never seen before in his life! The impostors moved aside, and the person who stepped forward was the last one Gunther expected to see; Helga! He wondered how she’d managed to escape the dungeons, where she found all these people, how she snuck them into the throne room, but above all, he wondered how she found out about his plan to sacrifice Hans to the amulet.
Gunther felt a sharp pang of sadness as the girl he loved as a daughter pointed her sword squarely at his chest, her eyes blazing dangerously. One look in her eyes, and he knew she wasn’t about to let him kill Hans. She jabbed her sword at him, but he made no effort to fight back. His mind searched for a way to talk his way out of this; he didn’t want her getting hurt! First he ordered her to call off her attack with an air of kingly authority, threatening dire punishment if she refused. Then when that didn’t work, he tried to trick her into believing he’d spare Hans’s life if she stood down.
A yawn from behind him told him Valberg had grown bored with their exchange, and he turned just in time to see the dark wizard’s staff pointed at Helga, glowing ominously. A flash of light erupted, but Gunther unthinkingly deflected it with his sword, causing the wayward blast of magic to shatter the chandelier. Everyone ran for cover as a hail of black crystals pelted them.
In the middle of the melee, Gunther looked back to see his beloved wife slumped lifelessly over her throne. Somehow, one of Helga’s allies was able to approach her long enough to remove the amulet from her neck. He made a mad dash for the stone, but it was too late. It sailed through the air out of his reach and was caught by Helga. Gunther cautiously approached her, one hand outstretched – so did Hans. Both father and son begged her to give up the amulet. Gunther watched her eyes darting back and forth, finally resting on Hans, and he knew all hope was lost. Just when he was sure she would give the stone to Hans, she surprised him by placing it on the ground between them. Before either of them could react, she brought her sword down with a thunderous CLANG!
The amulet turned black and rattled violently, causing the entire throne room to shake, as a large crack spread across its center. There was a strange gagging sound, and everyone looked on in horror as Edith was reduced to ash and swallowed by the crack in the stone. With a strangled cry, Gunther picked up her tiara, the only thing remaining of his lost love, clutching it to his heart. He stood rooted to the spot for several moments, watching Hans and Helga embrace, watching the son that never should’ve existed have the love he himself had been denied, and something in his mind snapped.
It all happened so fast… the ring of cold steel, a piercing cry, a flash of blinding light. The throne room lurched suddenly, and everyone was thrown backward. As King Gunther staggered back to his feet, he saw with satisfaction that the tip of his sword was stained red. His lips curled into a sneer. At long last, he’d finally exacted his revenge against his youngest son, but…
There was Hans, still standing exactly where he’d been! Gunther blinked dumbly. If his son was unharmed, whose blood was coating his sword? A half-stifled groan caused his head to whip around in the direction of the noise… to his former captain of the guard. The color had drained from her face, and she stared back at him with wide, wounded eyes. She clutched at her chest, but when she moved her hand, blood leaked through a hole in her rusted armor. The king’s heart dropped as he realized what must’ve happened; she stood between him and Hans! “What have I done?” he wondered out loud, but his voice was drowned out as his sword fell from his trembling hand with a dull metallic clang.
Gunther instinctively reached for Helga as she staggered back, but Hans got to her first. The king watched as Hans gathered Helga in his embrace, and her gray eyes fixed on him, eyes that saw his son’s pain but never his own. A sharp pang of jealousy stabbed his heart, just as it always did when he saw them together. If only it were his
arms wrapped around her, his
name she whispered in her last moments!
Hans glared at his father as he knelt beside Helga, but Gunther pretended not to notice, “My poor dear girl,” he whispered, caressing her cheek. Hans swatted his hand hard, his eyes blazing dangerously, as if daring him to touch her again. The king flinched, quickly retracting his hand. “I never wanted this to happen…” His voice faltered, his throat quickly becoming too tight to speak.
“Please forgive me,” he begged, but he regretted his words the moment he said them. What was he thinking?! He had all but killed her; of course she wouldn’t forgive him for that! The words were more for her sake than his own. She didn’t deserve to die angry because of him. He sighed, turning away.
Gunther watched as Hans’s panic-stricken eyes searched the throne room for anything that might keep Helga alive, finally resting on the heart-shaped amulet that he himself had only moments ago tried to use to bring his queen back from the dead. He could see his son’s mind working…
Before he could think twice, he grabbed Hans’s arm. “Hans, don’t!” he warned, surprising himself. He had no idea where this sudden change of heart had come from; all he knew was that he couldn’t watch his son descend any farther into darkness! For a split second, their eyes met before Hans yanked his arm back. “This isn’t what she would want…” A poisonous look from Hans told him he’d said the wrong thing.
The king’s mind frantically searched for the right words. There had to be a way to make him understand! “Please don’t make the same mistake I did,” he said, looking at his son with pleading eyes. Hans scoffed, clutching the heart-shaped stone even tighter as he turned on his heel. “Besides, it won’t work unless another life is exchanged-”
“Then it’ll be yours!
” Hans roared. He wheeled around suddenly, drawing his sword. Gunther took an automatic step back in a futile attempt to avoid the blade pointed at his throat. The mad fire burning in Hans’s eyes made him shrink back in fear, not for himself – he was past the point of caring if he lived or died – but for the life his son would now lead, consumed by grief and madness.
Gunther braced for the blow that would inevitably end his life, but before Hans could strike, a blond man – one of the disguised guards – tackled him, fighting to wrench the sword out of his grasp. “NO!” he shouted, throwing Hans’s sword at the opposite wall with a loud clank. “Look at her!” He jerked his head toward something behind Hans, and Gunther followed his son’s wandering gaze to Helga, staring up at him with sad, pleading eyes… as if she wanted Hans to spare his life. “She saw the good in you when no one else did. Don’t let her belief in you be in vain!”
Hans’s eyes softened; the blond man’s words had done their job. Momentarily disarmed, he gathered Helga in his embrace, gently clasping the ruined amulet around her neck. Gunther expected the stone to glow bright blue, just as it had when he placed it on Edith’s neck so many years ago, but after several moments, it remained its shade of jet black, and the crack in the middle hadn’t magically repaired itself. He realized what must’ve happened; when Helga destroyed the amulet itself, she also destroyed its magic. He glanced back at his chancellor, turned into a life-sized ice sculpture by a rogue blast of magic in the battle, and his heart sank. Without the dark wizard who conjured it, the stone was useless!
For one wild moment, Hans’s eyes locked with his father’s, and for the first time, Gunther was able to look at his son without seeing a bad reminder of all he’d lost. Instead, he saw a desperate young man about to lose the love of his life; he saw himself. The magnitude of the damage he’d caused finally sank in. Helga, the closest thing he had to a daughter, the girl who reminded him so much of his own departed wife, lie dying, and Hans would soon know the crushing pain of losing his love, the same pain Gunther had known every moment since his youngest son was born.
All Gunther could do was watch helplessly as Hans clutched Helga tighter to him, as if trying to shield her from her impending death, but it wouldn’t work… Gunther had learned that from his own experiences. He stroked her hair, assuring her she’d be alright, but Gunther knew as well as Hans that it was a lie. With her last strength, Helga begged Hans to promise he’d go on living without her, to let his inner goodness shine through and not allow her death to turn him cold and bitter, and Gunther felt a sudden surge of gratitude toward the girl for offering his son a chance to escape the life he led. Listen to her, Hans, he thought. Please don’t be like me…
Hans dissolved into loud anguished sobs, and Gunther knew Helga was dead. Watching his son mourning his lost love brought tears to his own eyes, but he blinked them back; he didn’t deserve their release. He reached for Hans, but the moment his hand touched his son’s trembling shoulder, his head whipped around angrily. “I’m so sorry, Hans,” Gunther whispered. He knew it was a poor excuse for an apology, but he didn’t trust himself to say what was on his mind without crying with his son. He wanted to hold him close, to dry his tears, but one look in Hans’s eyes let him know any comfort he could give was unwanted, and he silently stalked out of the room.
Outside the throne room, pandemonium ensued. The dark magic released by the amulet’s destruction caused the walls to groan and rattle as dust, stone, and glass rained down. Throngs of servants spilled into the halls from all directions, screaming and ducking for cover from the falling debris. They ran obliviously past, shoving and jostling each other in a frantic attempt to escape the impending castle collapse. Gunther was so wrapped up in his own misery that he was content to leave his staff to their own devices, but a nagging voice in the back of his mind reminded him that they were unlikely to survive should the situation descend into further chaos. They didn’t deserve to die for his mistake; he had to act!
”SILENCE!” Gunther roared over the din of panicked voices. The chatter immediately died as the servants gathered around, all eyes turning to him with shock and confusion. They seemed just as surprised as he was that he’d taken charge. “Now, I need volunteers to search the castle for stragglers.” Not one person stepped forward. Undeterred, Gunther turned to a plump kitchen maid. “Ah, Miss,” he beckoned her. “Check the servants’ quarters and kitchens; lead them out through the scullery entrance.” She nodded resolutely, taking off down the hall. Next he singled out a group of scared-looking young footmen. “You three, search the upstairs guest bedrooms, the library, the drawing room… you get the idea!” He motioned them up the stairs behind him with a swift wave of his hand.
The floor shifted suddenly, throwing everyone off balance. An elderly housekeeper landed on top of King Gunther, but instead of roughly shoving her off him as he normally would’ve done, he helped her back to her feet. Not even a moment later, a large chunk of stone broke away from the ceiling, falling dangerously close to a lady-in-waiting, but he pulled her out of the way just in time. Panic set in; the walls could cave in at any moment!
Frightened murmurs rose, but Gunther waved a hand for quiet. “Those of you on the left, continue down the hall to the courtyard,” he said urgently, moving through the crowd in front of him, dividing everyone into two orderly lines. “Those to my right, take the ballroom door out to the gardens. I want a guard posted at every exit to keep things moving as quickly as possible. Go!” He watched the servants disperse in opposite directions. “Careful, now. Don’t push!” he warned, ushering them along.
Gunther’s eyes scanned the crowd for his other sons, but they were nowhere to be found. His heart dropped. Their rooms were all the way on the other side of the castle; they were probably still in their beds, unaware of the danger! “You there!” he called to a tall valet as he passed. “Wake Prince Georg! Make sure he knows what’s happening; he’ll get the others to safety.” The valet stared dumbly at him for a moment before rushing down the hall. Gunther turned away, satisfied that he’d left the right son in charge. Georg was a natural leader… he’d seen it in the way he interacted with his brothers. He had no doubt that he would take command of the situation flawlessly.
The castle all but deserted, Gunther was left alone to brood in his bedchamber. After all this time, he finally realized he would never get his beloved wife back. The woman he knew was gone, turned into something dull and soulless by his desire to hold on to her, and the woman who awaited him in the afterlife despised him. She was ashamed of what he’d become, what he’d allowed her sons to become, but the one thing he knew she would never forgive him for, worse than using dark magic resurrect her, worse than subjecting their youngest son to a lifetime of torment, even worse than murdering an innocent girl he thought of as a daughter, was the fact that he claimed all the atrocities he’d committed were for her when they were really for himself all long, just so he wouldn’t have to endure the pain of being without her.
For so long he waited to be reunited with Edith, but now that it was going to happen, his fondest wish became his greatest fear. He chuckled bitterly; it was a fitting punishment. They would finally be together again, only for him to endure an eternity of her disgust and condemnation, never to redeem himself in her eyes.
Gunther absentmindedly glanced out the window, searching the crowd in vain for any sign of his youngest son. He had no idea why; a part of him knew he wouldn’t find Hans there. His heart sank. Hans had chosen to die with Helga rather than live all alone and unloved, the choice he should’ve made long ago. He should’ve been the one to die to bring Edith back, not Hans, and certainly not Helga. His life ended the day she died anyway… at least if he’d given his own life none of this would’ve happened.
A deafening rumble echoed through the room, sending what remained of the ceiling crashing down, but Gunther made no effort to save himself. As he lie pinned under a pile of rubble, all his thoughts were with Hans. He wondered what was going through his mind right now, if he was even still alive, and he wished he could be with him in the ruins of the throne room, that he could somehow rescue him from this and spend the rest of his life making up for the damage he’d caused him. But it was too late… The best thing he could do for Hans now was to leave his life forever. Please, save Hans,
he prayed to every god that existed. Take my life as some small symbol of atonement, just don’t let him die!
Then everything went black… black like his clothes, black like his heart.