Zio lay, battered and beaten, on the desert sands before his own dais, the empty throne where he had presided. His own cultists had left him there, caught him before he could reach the hidden chamber he'd carved in its base. He'd been afraid the weak-minded herd would kill him, but they hadn't had the stomach for it. They'd only taken their revenge with blows and kicks, and he'd had more than his share of those in his past, usually from people who were experts in inflicting pain. He hurt from head to toe, but he would mend.
The rage that boiled up within him came from quite a different source. It had been such a beautiful plan, and he'd worked so long to fulfill it. Gathering the cult had been easy—a talent for acting, a supportive message, a bit of stage magic, and a few props had brought the terrified and desperate to shelter under his wing. Each of them helped lure more with their own sincerity, each one bowing to Zio and his made-up dragon god.
Pathetic, all of them, he thought bitterly. The weak, the worthless, those who couldn't take control of their own lives. They were made to be someone's pawns, and he had used them that way, used them to draw in Lukas Grant, as he'd intended all along. How he'd adored the frustration and terror on the face of their mother as Lukas had parroted Zio's lines back at her. It had been an incredible feeling, to finally have the power to hurt her.
Of course, that had sealed the boy's doom. It was clear that Elaine loved him, as she had not loved her firstborn, and therefore he had decided to go ahead with the plan.
"And that thrice-cursed hunter ruined it all in two days!" Zio screamed to the uncaring stars, clawing at the sand. Jason Cord had snatched back the boy's life, revealed the secret of Zio's parentage, and even turned his sheep against him. It was intolerable, how intuition and lucky guesses had destroyed months of careful intrigue.
Now, Lukas and Elaine would probably be happier; the entire incident would give them the chance to see some of the mistakes they had made and set them right.
And Zio was once more as he always had been. Alone.
What would you do with them?
It was no more than a whisper in his mind, a dark tickling at the edges of his consciousness, but Zio heard it clearly.
What would you do with them?
"Had I the power I would blast them all from the face of this planet!" he answered furiously.
"Yes, and they would deserve it, wouldn't they?"
Zio's head snapped up. That voice had been no stray thought in his mind.
"One who can appreciate your pain."
The shadows seemed to flow together, moving and shifting even though there were no new sources of light. They slid over the sand, over the stone of the dais and across the rock wall to gather in Zio's carved throne, until it seemed as if darkness itself somehow was sitting there. Then from the dark, shapes took form. Long, clawed hands reached out to grip the arms of the chair. A massively muscled torso could be seen, its lower extremities fading away into the shadows. Worst of all, its face emerged, hairless, featureless but for sunken eyes like pinpoints of baleful moonlight and a maw in which upper and lower fangs gleamed. It was the face of a demon, the face of evil and destruction, the face of pure hatred.
It had spoken truly. This, Zio thought, was a thing that could understand how he felt.
"What are you?"
"I am destruction. I am fear. I am hatred. I am the god eternally reborn in nightmares. I am the dark force."
"Dark...Force..." Zio murmured, pulling himself to his feet, despite the pain. "What do you want of me?"
The creature's eyes flashed, and Zio was thrust down to his knees on the sand.
"I will brook no insolence!"
Zio trembled. This was no dream, no phantasm.
"I only seek to know your will."
"My will is that you will serve. You possess cunning and wit, Zio, but you lack power. You were forced to hold your followers through tricks. You fought your enemies with stealth. The light of truth destroyed these weapons, freed your victims, turned your slaves. You were helpless against it, but my darkness can drown that light."
"My Master?" Zio asked hesitantly, using the title instinctively for the dark god.
"I know your heart of hearts, Zio. Your mother cast you off at birth. The people of Piata scorned you, its citizens abused you. All you have ever had you have taken for yourself; you were given nothing. You despise them for it, one and all. I will give you vengeance upon them."
"With my might, the cattle will come to your call and bow to me at your command. The foolish masses will bring me more power, and you will wield them against my enemies, until the final day comes."
The demon-god leaned forward, its gaze boring into Zio's.
"The day when you raise up your hand, and expunge all life from this miserable world! You shall be the instrument of their destruction. You shall have your final revenge—as shall I!"
Power. Vengeance. This dark god did know his heart, Zio thought. It offered to make him the instrument of a world's annhilation, a world that had given him nothing but anger and rejection from the moment of his birth.
"Yes," he whispered, and then again, more strongly, "Yes!"
"So be it."
The fiend's maw opened, and an explosion of darkness surged out at Zio, a black wave washing over him and into him, burning through his veins as if the dark god's black blood was possessing him, swallowing his spirit and merging it with his new lord's.
Zio felt no regrets at his devil's bargain. He would only do so if he failed.
The laughter of the demon echoed far on the night wind.