It was a futile question. There was no time to discuss tactics as Herothi's form swept towards them across the boiling lake, raising a tidal wave to smash angrily at the cliff below them, spewing a myriad of shimmering droplets into the frigid air.
And then, he was upon them. The water swirled maliciously as Cynder rose up, vulnerable without his Behemoth, and sent his fire-essence out into the night.
Ardus watched in horror as two most opposite elements in the world - ice and fire - collided with a shattering rumble that seemed to bring the heavens to the brink of collapse. Cynder's flames snapped and licked at the impenetrable maw of Herothi's water-face, while the frozen monster stabbed brutally with paralysing jets of ice. They had become a single, mutating entity - no-one, mortal or no, could tell to which body the ice or fire belonged.
Ardus raised his hands towards the sky, calling forth the gathering cloud. Lightning sparked briefly like an electric blue snake tongue, lashing the clouds with brilliant light. The thunder answered its deafening roar, rippling across the land with terrible authority.
And above where Herothi's essence swirled and ebbed, a great pillar of cloud slowly coalesced, like a vertical battering ram preparing to burst him asunder. Then Ardus released the building energy, and suddenly the night was riddled with viciously stabbing knives of pure white light, crackling with power and intensity as they ripped into the lake. The surface sizzled with undulating pustules of electricity, and Herothi's form was smothered with a churning inferno of blazing power. The lake was boiling, steaming off, devouring the ice in Herothi's body -
Ardus was preparing to cheer in triumph as Herothi's water-form fell away - but the water rushed towards Cynder's fire in a shimmering wall of shocking proportions, enveloping him in Ardus' lightning and turning the fire inwards.
"No!" Ardus yelled, as Cynder's essence weakened - his human form had vanished, and the flickering tongues of flame were withdrawing into a single heart - Herothi dived forwards gleefully -
- and met the face of the rebel Shadow.
"I think this is mine," Mexii said vindictively, as she grasped Cynder's heart in her fist. At once, the fire was rekindled as Cynder's battered essence infused with Mexii's.
Mune, Juliexus and the Behemoth were in hot pursuit. They dived through the magical doorway before it snapped shut and leapt onto the battlements of Ardus' castle. At once, Mune let loose a hail of arrows and Juliexus unsheathed her sword.
"What are you doing?" Mexii shrieked, as her whole body began to flame. "Such weapons will not work against mortals!"
"They are no ordinary arrows!" Mune cried in reply, "you'll see!"
And Mexii did see. She saw a massive, fifty foot stone beast rise ponderously from the bed of the drained lake. A golem, formed out of the unforgiving stone of Ardus' mountains, bared down upon them, its footfalls each a miniature earthquake sending seismic booms across the gulley. Mune's arrows bounced uselessly off its flank.
"Well done, that worked!" said Mexii hysterically.
"No matter, we have driven off ice entirely!" said Juliexus triumphantly. "Herothi is now bound to earthly form!"
But Herothi's earthly form was almost unchallengeably huge. Great arms were now descending upon the group. Mune and Juliexus dived to the left while Mexii smote back with a raging ball of white fire. Herothi withdrew as though scalded, but then swept his arm around for a new attack. Mexii threw up a wall of fire to protect herself, but too late - she was sent flying into the air. She landed awkwardly, and Cynder's heart slipped from her grasp -
- and was caught, almost lovingly, by the golem. It groaned in savage victory as it straightened up to its full height. An evil glow now lit the inside of its skull, like a pumpkin at All Hallows. The Behemoth dissipated into a stream of heat that was siphoned up in Herothi's mouth like a mile-long tongue. Fire burst from the mouth and eyes as Cynder's essence threatened to escape - but Herothi squeezed the escaping gas with his hands into a withering inferno, blasting all of Cynder's power into Ardus' chest.
Ardus staggered, each footfall a thunderclap, and suddenly he was stationary - he had been frozen in time, been reverted to his previous statue form, standing proud but defeated in the middle of the lake. Like a clumsy child, the golem descended and turned the bust upside down, shaking it like a rattle, and caught the heart that fell, as if in slow-motion, from the stone chest.
Mexii, Mune and Juliexus were the only ones left. The Trinity alone, just as it had been foretold. And they were running.
Mune and Juliexus had pulled Mexii behind a rock, easily dodging the gaze of the lumbering golem.
"Let me go, I want to fight!"
"We can't Mexii, not yet," said Juliexus quietly.
"That thing killed your mother, your father, and countless other innocents of Karmine, I can understand why you want to fight," said Mune calmly. "But he has consumed all four of Karmine's elements. There is no competing with such a being."
"We can't just give up!" cried Mexii desperately, struggling to free herself from Mune's soothing touch. "He would wipe out the rest of Karmine in one swoop! The fate of humanity, centaurdom and the existence of every race on this world rests on our shoulders!"
"There is something you must know first."
Mune was looking uncharacteristically grave. Her eyes had lost their usual sparkle, and her tail and shoulders hung limp as if strung up in an abattoir.
"You never did hear the full Prophecy, did you, Mexii?" said Juliexus sombrely.
"Three alone shall stand before the Beast," recited Mune. "Three alone shall fall. And they shall unite under Ismara's Law and thus be gifted with the approval of Fate."
The golem had spotted them. It had begun to cross the lake bed slowly, but with purpose. It was only a matter of time.
"Listen to me, Mexii," said Mune hurriedly. "The Three and the Fate was an old folk story told by our ancestors for as long as we can remember. The Three wished to make their fortune, but Fate was not in their favour. They were divided in thinking and attitude, and didn't work well as a team. But when they joined forces and thought as one, they managed to salvage a great treasure that remains entombed under Herod's castle to this day."
"But we are already united in thought and goal!" Mexii protested. "How are we supposed to unite any more and combine our power against the might of the Gods?"
"You forget the middle part of the Prophecy," said Juliexus.
"Ismara's Law!" said Mexii. "What is it?"
"Sacrifice," said Mune, in a hollow voice.
Mexii's stomach flipped.
"But - you can't sacrifice yourselves for -"
"- for the entirety of life in this world," said Juliexus stonily.
"Ismara's Law states that sacrifice for a cause in a time of great need shall bring power. The bigger the sacrifice and the greater the need, the more immense the power."
"And as this is the most pivotal moment in the history of this land, the amount of power we shall gain will be -"
"We? So we will not die?"
"Death is not as black and white as it seems, Mexii. We are prepared to make this sacrifice, so our lands can live on without the overcast of shadow."
Mexii halted, her throat bone dry.
"Are you ready?" said Mune.
Mexii wavered. Then came the hardest words she had ever had to say:
And she joined hands with the two centaurs, forging a link that would forever be unbroken. At once, Mexii felt the life forces of the only friends she had known pour into hers, leaving their bodies lifeless. Her body was swelling as Herothi's influence was ousted completely, and her essence became pure. She stood at her full height and locked eyes with the golem, who was now blazing with fiery lightning.
"For my parents," she said, with quiet determination. "For Mune and Juliexus. And for Karmine!"
And she stabbed forwards.
And so it came down to light against dark. The power granted by the centaurs' sacrifice under Ismara's Law crashed head-on with the solid might of the golem. An almighty impact ripped through the world in a single beam of pure light stretching from the sky to the centre of the earth many thousands of miles below. Wave upon wave of devastating force emanated from the epicentre, like massive ripples on an interstellar lake. Time warped and light was bent as the two forces devoured each other.
And then, with a final ripple of finality ... silence.
The Prophecy had been fulfilled. The Trinity had united under Ismara's Law. And they had fallen. But they had destroyed their target in their own undoing - Herothi's essence was now but a ghost, a whisper on the breeze.
And now Herothi's influence was over, and as Mune had promised, life was returning to all the old Shadows, reborn as their previous selves ...
Mexii opened her eyes.