The young Korbat stared up at his father with large, frightened eyes. “I’m sorry, Daddy. I didn’t mean to let the Kadoatie in.”
His father sighed wearily and rubbed his eyes. “You didn’t just let the Kadoatie in,” he said in a voice that was part bemused, part angry. “Look around.”
The Korbat turned. The room was a wreck. Tinkling shards of broken decorative plates and vases decorated the floor like fallen confetti. The carpet was tracked through with mud. Wispy bits of fluff stuck out of the sofa, which had been torn almost beyond recognition. Chairs and tables lay on their sides, some appearing to be missing a crudely taken leg or two. One of the windows was shattered, the cold and wet outside blowing in.
“But I promise to clean it up, Daddy, I promise, I really, really do,” the Korbat said fervently.
His father shook his head. “As if you could fix it. It would cost half a fortune to replace this all, and we need all we can get for... just, no.”
“Just – go to your room, Darigan,” he ordered curtly. “Go. Room. Now. And stay.”
The Korbat’s forehead drew together with confusion and guilt. He slowly, sadly dragged his tail up the stairs, down the hall, into his room. He peeked around the door. “I’m really sorry,” he said quietly, once more.
Because, couldn’t sorries change anything?
Darigan shuffled his papers nervously and coughed once or twice. He took in a deep breath of foul-smelling air. That was it. His speech was done. He’d explained everything to his people as best he could, but would it be enough?
He didn’t dare look up, too scared of what might await him.
For several long, long moments, thick and heavy silence hung over the plaza. It seemed to grow and swell, ominous and dark.
“Boo!” someone screamed. A rock flew up from the gathered crowd. Darigan winced in pain. The fact that the rock had fallen short of the podium didn’t matter. It was the thought that really hurt.
His people hated him. Hated him. Their ruler, their leader, the one who had led them out of the darkness and into prosperity.
He’d thought that would have counted for something. It’d made him a hero, yes, but Darigan had always thought that what he’d done for his people went beyond just plain heroism. He’d thought he was important, he was loved, he would go down into the books of their history as the greatest leader of all time.
And then – everything he’d done – all the soaring castles, thriving markets, flourishing fields; the fairs, the parades, the years when no one went unfed or unsheltered, the years of blue skies, green hills, and golden sunshine and peace – all of that.
Gone. Replaced with crumbling ruins, a failing economy, withered crops. Poverty, despair, darkness for all.
And they’d turned on him, just like that. In a blink of an eye, he went from hero to villain. Idol to criminal. Admired to hated the guts out of.
Darigan raised his eyes to look at his people. Their forms were all hideously distorted with rage and anger and hopelessness. Their eyes glowed a smoky, menacing red. And they were all glaring at him with a look of pure, deep poison.
It’s not my fault, he wanted to scream at them. Why are you blaming me? It’s not my fault the Orb’s gone, that the Orb’s stolen. Blame those who took it! Blast it, blame Meridell!
But he couldn’t scream those things at his people. It would reflect badly upon him, as their leader. And the message probably wouldn’t even have gone through, in any case. It was too weak. Too pathetic. There had to be another way.
But there is...
Listen to us...
We can redeem you...
Darigan shook his head. Hearing voices. What next?
A rotten tomato smashed against the wall behind him, jerking the Korbat back to reality and the mob swelling up around him. He gave them one last, pleading look, then spread his wings for his floating citadel.
You should be...
What took you so long to finally trust us?
No matter, no matter, it makes no difference.
Darigan glanced at the three ghostly specters the hovered unsteadily at the edge of his vision. A faerie, dark eyed and malicious; a Skeith, grinning hungrily; and a Gelert, power flickering in his features. They were his new friends, his new allies.
“You can help me return the Orb?” he asked them.
Is that going to be all?
The Orb would restore you, but we can improve you.
His ears pricked up. Improve? The Three... they would help him become that more-than-a-hero, down-in-history person he’d always wanted to be?
Darigan’s eyes widened, something gnawing at his stomach. A sick sort of elation rushed through him. “Really?” he whispered. “How?”
While you steal the Orb, conquer Meridell. They should see what they’ve put you through. They should get what they gave.
And think of the rewards. Skarl is such a fat, old, rich fool. He’s probably got rooms of chefs, rooms of gold, rooms of jewels – rooms of everything you could ever imagine!
The Korbat smiled at all that. Yes, yes. It sounded good, very good. But Ambition... what did he have to say?
You already know.
Something flickered inside him. A strange desire to torment others for his own ends. This was too good an opportunity to miss out on.
“What do I need to do?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the three ghostly specters lean in for a huddle, conversing silently. They stood, nodded, and laid out their plans to him.
Darigan felt satisfaction rise up from somewhere inside. With the Three by his side, his power was unlimited. Soon, soon, he’d never have to say sorry to anyone, ever again.
Why did it take you so long?! So long!
You are unworthy of us. You do not deserve our help.
Watch yourself, Darigan. Watch yourself.
The Korbat trembled on the cold, hard floor, eyes raised reverently at the Three. They leered down at him, anger and spite screaming out of their every orifice. The atmosphere was tightly strung, with one threat piling on top of another, fear vibrating through the whole room.
Why shouldn’t we leave you now, hmm?
Pathetic weakling. Prove your loyalty to us.
We do not believe in second chances.
“No, no, no,” Darigan gasped, rocking back and forth. He held his head in his hands, as if in pain. “No, please. Please. It just took a little longer than expected, a few days, and it wasn’t my fault! It wasn’t! That stupid second in command was sleeping on the job; he forgot to open the door and let out –”
We don’t want your excuses.
He whimpered as the Three scrutinized him further, glints of steely cold magic flickering around them. Though they seemed to be mere hallucinations, or illusions, Darigan didn’t doubt that their magic would hurt for real.
“You’re invested in me, remember?” he said, pleading for everything he’d ever had, everything he’d ever dreamed of having. “Drop me now, and all that time, all that energy, it will all have been for nothing. You’ve gone in too deep to back up now. Please, please, please! Just give me one more chance – one more, that’s all I need, that’s all I need to prove myself to you, for you to get what you want. The Orb’s over there – I can do it, we can do it, just please, please... I’m so sorry.”
You have a point. It would be a little stupid to kill you now. Like losing a bet.
You are wrong. And you two – you’re wrong as well. We haven’t gone in to the point where withdrawal would cost us. But we will, soon. And though it’s utterly against our nature to offer another chance, I really do feel you have the dark powers in you to see it through. So, Darigan. Here’s your second chance. You ought to be thanking me on a knee.
Darigan gasped and nodded, relief rushing through him.
A sorry really could change anything.
The Orb gave a final, deathly shudder, splitting into two in his hands. The golden power from it flew into the sky, out of him. He sank to his knees, drained, weak, weary.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered one last time, clinging to one last hope.
It’s too late.