The voice, which was no more than a rasp, echoed down the dark stone corridor where the young prince suddenly realized he was standing. In that same instant, he also recognized its owner.
"Flagg!" he spat bitterly, his disorientation immediately superseded by a burning enmity towards his father's killer; one that would continue to rage inside of him until justice would at last be meted out—by his own hands, no less.
"That's right, Tommy," the voice responded, "Come ... I have such sights to show you!"
Due to years of conditioning to obey that voice without question, Thomas' subconscious found the command difficult to resist. As the voice continued to beckon, however, his thoughts steadily became more lucid and, on some level, he understood that reality had become displaced somehow. He noted that, as if in a dream, the quality of his surroundings was simultaneously both unreal and yet, paradoxically, somehow even more vivid than in waking life.
The corridor itself resembled the ones he had frequently walked along—often while being led by Flagg on some excursion—back at the castle in Delain where he had spent his first sixteen years.
"What glammer is this?" he demanded in his confusion, placing his palm against the stone wall. He then turned his hand to his face in order to examine it. Light, shadow, colors, and textures seemed to shift and dance lazily, fading in and out in such a way that things remained vague, no matter how hard he tried to focus. The sensation conjured unwelcome memories of inebriation.
"'Tis no glammer," came Flagg's reply. "Merely our ka at work."
"I don't understand," Thomas frowned as he continued his way down the seemingly endless dark stretch beyond. There were no torches on the walls, and yet he could somehow see a limited distance in front of and behind himself.
It's me, he thought with wonder as well as a subdued sense of pride. I'm the source of light. I ... Thomas the Light-Bringer.
"Is this real, or am I dreaming?" he rephrased the question.
"It is in fact both, bowslinger," explained the sorcerer. "Your body is indeed asleep, but your mind has transcended a depth which lies beyond any ordinary dreamscape. As I said, that is the power of our ka; it is the very thing that draws you to me even now, like a moth to a flame."
"Vengeance. Atonement. Justice," said Thomas, standing with both fists clenched. "Those are the things that drive me to pursue you, magician."
The corridor resounded with a derisive chuckle.
"How sickeningly noble of you! You really are your brother's kin, aren't you? Or ... are you?"
Thomas narrowed his eyes, but remained silent.
"You may believe that your actions are compelled by virtue," continued Flagg. "But I'm afraid there's more to it than that. You see, the answer is rather simple, really: You belong to me."
"I belong to no one!" declared Thomas, his voice now the one reverberating down the hall. "Least of all to some wretched creature like you."
Flagg's cackling echoed once again, followed by the distant sounds of rustling and squeaking. Thomas, foreseeing what was about to occur, quickly moved to one side of the hall. With the front of his body pressed flat against the cold stone surface, he calmly closed his eyes and stood his ground as he weathered the incoming swarm of bats, buffeted by a hundred pairs of wings. He was still scared of the flying mammals—he probably always would be—but the cruel experience in the eastern tower had prepared him for what to expect should he ever encounter them again.
"I'm not a little boy anymore," he murmured as the air quieted once more, "You can't scare me with your old tricks."
"Fair enough, Tommy. To your credit, you have matured quite a bit since the days of your youth. But make no mistake— you'll always be what you've always been at your core, because the one who fashioned you into what you are is none other than myself."
"Is that the reason why you're in my head?" asked Thomas. "So that you can try to fill it with more lies?"
"What makes you so sure that this is your head?" Came the cryptic response.
"Are you saying I'm in yours, then?"
"You can't rightly call it either, but you might think of it as a crossroads of sorts where the two become one. And do you know why that is?"
Thomas bit his lower lip. He could think of no explanation aside from some dark magic Flagg was using to summon him.
But he did said it wasn't a trick, didn't he?
"I just told you why. It's the same reason why you knew I was still alive after I escaped, and can sense where I'm headed. Or haven't you wondered about that ability either?"
The young prince felt a chill rise from somewhere within him. What Flagg spoke of was, without a doubt, the truth. While he never did understand with complete certainty just what it was that alerted him to the fact that Flagg had headed south, he had always assumed it was simply some kind of divine inner knowledge bestowed upon him by either the gods, or perhaps Fate itself.
But if that wasn't the reason, then what was it?
"Very well. I shall tell you. The reason why your soul is drawn to mine like a compass is because it knows from whence it originated! I am your true sire!"
"No!" Thomas cried in disbelief. "My mother and father-"
"Brought you into this world, and nothing more. I scarcely think I need remind you how Roland never even bothered with your upbringing, but without my intervention he never would have even considered trying to conceive you in the first place."
"What do you mean?"
Thomas listened with interest as Flagg explained Roland's asexual tendencies as well as his parents' contentment with a child as perfect as Peter.
"But because Peter posed such a threat to my plans even from the start, I decided to orchestrate the birth of a second heir— one that proved every bit as cowardly and subservient as I had hoped for. And thus did you come into existence — useless and unwanted to everyone else, yet the starring role in my own little stageplay."
Flagg's words stung Thomas' heart bitterly, because he already knew firsthand how much disappointment he had inspired just by existing. But to bastardize his own birth as being instrumental to the downfall of an entire kingdom? That was far worse than being regarded as nothing more than a mere accident!
The magician then went on to compare the circumstances that led to each of the brothers' births.
"Let us go back in time to about twenty-two years ago when your parents were newlyweds, shall we?" A full-length looking glass suddenly appeared in the middle of the seemingly-endless corridor. "But why tell you what happened, when I can show you instead? Behold!"
Thomas didn't move at first. He was certain that whatever Flagg was trying to make him look at would be too painful to bear. But when he saw the familiar image of the smiling woman reflected back at him, he ran to her without further hesitation.
It was Queen Sasha.
Even if Thomas hadn't already known who she was by the large portrait of her hanging in the castle, he could otherwise easily tell by her likeness—with her dark blue eyes and dark brown hair, the lady of the Western Barony resembled Peter in almost every way, just as Thomas was the spitting image of their father.
Although he had never met his mother, Thomas had always longed for her nevertheless. As a child, he often stood staring at her painting for hours, wondering what life might have been like if she hadn't died giving birth to him. Whenever he had asked those who had known her about her ways, they would always tell him the same thing; what a kind and compassionate woman she was, often adding how tragic it was that she had died so young. With the exception of Peter and Dennis, there was always something in the gaze and tone of these people that triggered a pang of guilt in the young prince. Although it was never stated outright, he could sense even from a young age that the kingdom had placed the blame of her untimely demise on him.
Do you hate me too, Mamma? he would sometimes ask the portrait. I'm sorry I made you die. Maybe if you were here and I was gone instead, then everyone wouldn't be so sad.
Thomas stood transfixed in front of the mirror. A painting was one thing, but the sort of true-to-life, moving image of his mother that was now before him seemed nothing short of a miracle. Even more incredible, for some reason, was the fact that the Queen standing before him was the same age that he was now. Surrounded by chattering maidservants, it appeared that Sasha was being fitted for her wedding gown. Thomas, who had always thought of her as captivatingly beautiful in the royal dress she was always pictured with, was in utter awe of her matrimonial resplendence.
She was radiant in her marital bliss, and yet there was also an undertone of nervousness in her expression that reminded Thomas of himself.
He knew what he was seeing was nothing more than an echo of the past—that she couldn't really see or hear him—but there was a brief moment when Sasha's eyes met his own that Thomas felt a surge of emotion leap up inside him like a flame. He began to extend his hand out toward her face when the scenery vanished, only to be replaced by a scene of Roland on horseback with his huntsmen trailing behind him. There was a fleeting pang of disappointment that was almost instantly superseded by a renewed sense of excitement.
Dad? he remarked privately. By the gods, you look so ... young!
Thomas had heard the tale of how his father had slain Delain's last dragon, Niner, more times than he could count. But to actually observe the event as though he had been present was something he never thought possible in even his wildest dreams.
As he watched how the spontaneous encounter in the King's Preserves played out, he was taken aback at his father's courage in the face of danger—how he had promptly taken action when no one else could even move—and admired him for it. Never a braggart, the King had apparently been downplaying this true act of heroism all those years.
Dark magic or no, Thomas felt blessed to be able to witness the scene that sparked the creation of his brother—as well as the enchantment of his father's sacred weapon. For the first time in his life, his heart swelled with pride for the man whom, at some point not long ago, he had regarded as nothing more than a silly old fool who talked to the stuffed heads of animals and ate his own boogers.
Thomas also felt a reverence for the rare creature that—dangerous as it was—was cut down while still in its infancy. It was almost a shame, when he thought about it. So he tried not to think about it too much, and instead simply accept the twist of fate as thus: Niner's tragedy would become a blessing for all the kingdom of Delain. Not only did it bring about a just and righteous king, but it provided a means of banishing an even more dangerous breed of dragon.
Indeed, each time that Thomas nocked Foe-Hammer—which was rare, as normally his non-enchanted arrows would suffice—and felt its blaze of heat on his face as he drew back the arrow in the gutstring, he would say a prayer to Niner, thanking the mythical beast for its sacrifice as well as a request to lend him his power.
And so he watched intently, unable to avert his gaze even during the scene which had always made him feel most squeamish: the part where Roland consumed the dragon's heart—whole and raw—as was custom. To turn away, he felt, would be a dishonor to both his father and Niner as well.
The scene shifted once more to reveal his parent's bedchamber. When Thomas saw his mother sitting up in bed, listening with rapt attention to Roland as he described the events of that evening, he felt a familiar pang of guilt that came with spying on his father in his trophy room so many years ago.
"Well done, my brave Husband!" he heard her exclaim, laughing and clapping merrily. Once he saw his father jump into bed with her, Thomas—though he had never before been intimate with anyone himself—knew enough to understand what was about to ensue, and he turned away with a flushed face.
"Th-that's quite enough!" he demanded, trying to ignore the passionate sounds that echoed from the looking glass. To his relief, everything faded just as Flagg spoke again.
"A little bashful are we, Tommy?" he teased. "Well, just wait until I show you how you were made! But first, tell me, did you happen to notice that your father came to your mother without the aid of my potions? Why, in fact, this was the only time he was able to love her without my help. This means that your brother resulted from a truly pure and loving union between your parents. Of course, Niner's heart may have played a part, as well. In any case, it's no wonder Peter was often said to have the heart of a dragon!"
Thomas had considered this latter statement before, but he had never really thought about the nature of the mysterious act that had brought them into existence in the first place. After all, if his parents had loved one another as they did, then how different could his conception possibly have been from Peter's?
"But what about you, Tommy?" continued Flagg. "Just how did you come about? Have you any idea?"
"The only thing I know," replied Thomas, humoring him. "Is that I was born in the first week of Ten-month. So I suppose I was conceived around New Year's."
"Quite correct!" Flagg confirmed, reactivating the mirror to display an outside view of the castle during a blizzard. "It all began on the very night of the New Year's festivities."
The surface now showed the interior of the dining hall, where a very drunk Roland sat among the rest of the partygoers. The atmosphere was especially lively that night, and Thomas recognized quite a few familiar faces—including a younger-looking version of Dennis' father, Brandon.
Perhaps the most surprising face of all was that of Niner's. To Thomas' knowledge, the dragon's stuffed head had always resided in his father's sitting room. But now, here it was mounted in the dining hall, the King toasting in its honor.
And then came Flagg, who of course looked exactly the same as he always had, and not a day younger. Thomas stiffened as he watched the magician present his father with a steaming goblet of greenish potion, which Roland finished off with a single swill.
The effect was almost immediate. The King's expression changed to something more akin to amorous determination, and he promptly rose from his seat and began to stagger away.
So what if he downed a potion on the night I was made? Thomas thought, failing to grasp the significance of what had been such a mundane routine.
"T'was a draught of double strength this time," Flagg explained, as if reading his mind (and indeed, perhaps he had). "The compulsion to brew it came over me suddenly, and I heeded it without question. Understand this, Thomas: Had I chosen not to act upon the urge, you wouldn't be standing here at this very moment."
Though he hated to admit it, Thomas knew the magician was right. As he watched his father make his way to the royal bedchamber, a shiver ran through his entire being as a queer thought suddenly occurred to him: If Roland were to change his course at this critical moment, would he, Thomas, suddenly disappear?
As per usual, Sasha was sitting up in bed, reading. Never the type to linger more than was required of her during such boisterous events, she preferred to retire early to the peaceful solitude of her chambers.
With her usual cordiality, she greeted her husband, despite her surprise at his premature return. As he advanced upon her, she pretended to overlook the predatory gleam in his eyes; tried not to grimace at his foul breath as he kissed her hungrily.
Once again, Thomas couldn't bear to watch. His ears burned at the sound of his mother gasping and moaning, but just as he was wondering when it would all be over, Sasha's vocalizations quickly turned to cries of distress.
He glanced up reflexively to assess what was wrong, and couldn't believe what he was seeing: His father was forcing himself on his mother as she begged him to stop.
He was a child born of rape.
Thomas spun around and covered his ears with his hands. "No! Gods—why!?" he shouted. "How could Father ever do such a thing?"
Try as he might to block out all sound, Flagg's laughter rang clear as a bell in his own head.
"What's wrong, Tommy? And here I thought you loved spying!"
"No more!" he pleaded. "Make it stop!"
"Oh? But we've only just started! Don't you want to see the rest? It's not every day a man is presented with the opportunity to witness his own birth, you know."
"I don't care! I don't wish to see anymore!"
"Oh, but I insist!"
And then from the void emerged two very cold, talon-like hands that seized his wrists, drawing them back around his waist as his mother's screams continued, becoming louder and more drawn out now.
"Let me go, damnit!" Thomas cried as he struggled in the magician's powerful grip.
"You will watch!" the spector of Flagg commanded, a hand clamped beneath the boy's jaw to force him from looking away.
This time the entire scenery vanished, only to be replaced by a full-scale replica of his parent's private chambers, as though they were actually there. Sasha was lying in her bed, fully pregnant now, with no one else but the midwife present.
Thomas, naturally, wasn't aware of the deal that Anna Crookbrows had made with Flagg so long ago, nevermind who she even was. But even from where he was standing he was able to catch a glimpse of a flash of metal between his mother's legs as the blade made its deadly incision in secret.
"What's that?" he asked, knowing—but unable to accept—what he was seeing. "W-What is she doing?"
Flagg simply tittered as they watched Crookbrows give the signal for Sasha to push. With all of her strength, the Queen bore down and Thomas slid out effortlessly—as did a torrent of her life-blood along with him.
Just as the infant Thomas entered the world, his mother quickly began to fade from it. As his newly-born self howled its indignation of being ejected from the womb, so too did he begin to weep.
"Mamma!" he called between sobs as he saw her grow pale and still. "No!"
"It's a funny thing, isn't it, Tommy?" Flagg confessed cruelly, stroking a thumb along the prince's jawline. "All this time, the kingdom of Delain blamed you for your mother's death, when it was I who had her killed."
As he loosed a shrill cackle, the poisoned well within Thomas had suddenly swelled to a dam, and that dam was now on the verge of breaching. He wanted to scream, but the only sound he could make was his breath as it came in ragged gasps.
"Hear me, cursed child of mine," Flagg told him, his voice dripping with false pity. "You were born into darkness, and that same darkness will follow you wherever you go, spreading to everyone and everything you touch."
All at once, Thomas was swallowed up in a dark embrace as the magician's cloak enveloped him. He could see nothing. There was only the sound of his nemesis's rasping voice, and the unpleasant feeling of their bodies pressed tightly together in the confined space.
"Continue along your path, and only sorrow shall await you; for your dear servant boy will surely pay with his life for your folly. Embrace your destiny as my progeny—a catalyst of destruction—and you shall be spared of any such pain."
"If ka wills that I am naught but a force of destruction," hissed Thomas. He could feel something warm and heavy building up inside his chest. His voice trembled, but grew louder and steadier as he continued, "Then so be it!"
The light that guided his way earlier had suddenly rekindled within him, bursting forth from his breast. Flagg released him—recoiling as if burned—as a blinding flash cut through the darkness, fully illuminating the now-blank void of their surroundings.
Hunched and hissing with his one remaining eye shielded while his cloaked flapped about him, Flagg looked every bit like a demonic raven. His suspicions now confirmed, he squawked in fury. There was no mistaking it—this was the light of the Eld. The very same threatening force that he had sensed in Peter from the very beginning had apparently also dwelled in Thomas all along. Only now that the younger brother was free from his control, it had slowly awakened from its state of dormancy.
Flagg had failed. Now that Thomas the Light-Bringer was aware of his true nature, there would be no more hope of beckoning him back to the shadows ever again. With his golden hair and pale blue eyes, the prince who was once considered ordinary and dull now blazed with a terrible splendor rivaling that of the legendary fallen angel himself.
"You have my word, magician, on the name of my father and mother—on all of Delain—I will make you pay!"
Surging with a sorrow that had now flared into a righteous rage, Thomas let loose a bellowing roar that raised the glare to the intensity of the sun.
Like a dandelion gone to seed, Flagg began to dissolve. Before he disappeared completely, however, he grinned, uttering one last warning:
"Your journey ends at Gilead, bowslinger!"
All was now whiter than the fiercest blizzards of Delain. But Thomas wasn't alone. He heard his name echoing across the endless expanse as someone called his name.
"Lord Thomas! ... Lord Thomas!"
"Please ... open your eyes, my Lord!"
The prince uttered a loud gasp as he jerked back into consciousness. Dennis was leaning over him, hands on his shoulders as he tried to wake him.
Thomas sat up, glancing around the camp in confusion. "Was I sleepwalking again?" he asked, hoarsely.
"No, my Lord," Dennis shook his head. "But you were carrying on so loud I was afraid the coyotes might hear. When I heard you calling out for your mother, I knew it must've been a dreadful nightmare you were having."
"It was no nightmare," Thomas said with a gravity in his voice that concerned Dennis greatly.
"What do you mean?"
"He was really there," Thomas explained. "He knows we're getting close, Dennis, and I think he's scared. He showed me things—terrible things—to try and mess with me. But I let him know he can't control me anymore. That I'm nothing like him."
As the events replayed in his mind at a rapid-fire pace, he found himself once again seized by the anguishing reality of his mother's death.
"He ... He killed her!" he choked, trying his hardest to fight back the tears.
There will be plenty of time to grieve later, he told himself as Dennis put an arm around his shoulder in a gesture of comfort. Once I've had my revenge, that is.
"What will you do now, my Lord?" Dennis inquired, wondering if there would be a change in their plans.
"We make for a place called Gilead," answered Thomas. "That's where he'll be waiting."
Thomas was unable to sleep until dawn that night. Although he was filled with a renewed sense of determination, his thoughts kept wandering back to what Flagg had cautioned earlier: Your dear servant boy will surely pay with his life.
Just another one of his lies, he assured himself.
But deep down, he prayed that it would never come to that; that he would never find himself being forced to choose between Dennis' life and Flagg's demise.