32. This Is Not How the Story’s Supposed to End

The cellar is lit by a single candle. It’s small — perhaps 10’ x 10’. Three of the four walls are lined with shelves stocked with canned food. There are sacks of potatoes and onions half-buried in one corner. Lavinia, Camilla and Claudius have burrowed down among the potatoes. Valerius is stretched out on the dirt floor. Valeria is crouched next to him. He’s cold and his pulse is weak. The cellar is damp and frigid; though he’s wrapped in a wool cloak, it’s impossible to keep him warm.

She doesn’t bother to explain what’s happening upstairs — it’s clearly audible: The blows on the front and back doors, the wood planks groaning. Camilla and Claudius jump and clutch each other each with each impact.

Valeria surveys the space. If the torches don’t light, she’ll be reduced to holding off a dozen Drow warriors by throwing canned goods. She holds the first torch over the thin, sad candle flame, and after a tense moment, it roars to life. She hands it to Lavinia, saying, “They hate light.” The second catches as well. She positions herself by the door.

They hear the parlor door shatter, pounding footfalls, sounds of battle, Tereus’s voice shouting in an unfamiliar language. The second door collapses with a screech. There’s a long, ululating war cry from Lucius, then silence. The sound of footsteps hurrying back and forth as the Drow search. Lavinia gives a sob of terror, and Valeria glares at her, makes a “cut it out” gesture at her own throat. 

There’s a shout — someone’s found the steps to the cellar. The heart-stopping sound of boots pounding down the stairs, then a moment of delay as the Drow murmur among themselves. They’re just a few feet away, on the far side of a hardwood door.

Valeria studies the situation almost with curiosity, trying to imagine how it would appear to Tereus. The door is bolted and barred, and opens inward. The stairs are too narrow for more than one Drow to attack at a time. She thinks, You have to assume they’ll get the door. They have all night. If they can’t use a battering ram, they’ll find the axe outside and use that.

Her son lies unconscious on the floor beside her, so close that she’s afraid she’ll step on him. The air is bad and getting worse — the candle and torches are guttering.

She thinks of what Tereus said: “The horses are dead. We’re outnumbered and low on ammunition. It’s not even midnight yet.”

They’re out of ammunition. Tereus and Lucius are dead. The Drow have everything: Weapons, training, time, freedom of movement. They’ll figure out the door. Valeria will resist, but she’s an unarmed civilian surrounded by canned food, without a can opener.

Only one outcome is possible: She, her sister, and her children will die. 

Tereus and Lucius — army veterans, armed with swords — were down in under a minute. 

Valeria feels stupid, overwhelmed with a kind of dreamlike horror. She thinks, This is not how the story’s supposed to end.

Tereus smiled at her, then turned to the darkness and said, “Nothing matters now.” A tender, black-eyed angel of death. 

There’s a stirring outside, a few brisk orders in Drow. The battering ram starts up. There’s a grotesque absurdity to the operation: The angle is bad, she can hear the Drow arguing and scuffling around between blows. They get oriented, and on the fourth blow, the door shatters above the oak plank barring it. 

The torch flares up, and Valeria thrusts it at the woman working the battering ram. She squints, averts her face, directs the next blow at the bar itself. Valeria smells singed hair. A dart whistles by. Camilla and Claudius are crying.

Two more blows, and the plank shatters. The Drow calls an order over her shoulder, and shoves the battering ram at Valeria’s knees. Valeria staggers, trips over her son’s prone form. Two Drow with blowguns take up positions, and they hit everyone but Claudius, who wedges himself between his sister’s limp body and a bag of potatoes. 

Valeria feels giddy, confused. She takes a step towards Claudius, loses her footing. She’s on her hands and knees, vision fading, when a Xyrec scoops up her screaming son, pierces him in the neck with a dart, and covers his face with a black cloak.

For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.


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