Is this the end?
My knights lay scattered across the field, broken swords and shattered shields. Their cries of anguish echo over hissing flames and the low growls of the damned. Twisted souls of crimson and searing white, fashioned as skeletons with gaping maws and long limbs, tower over their captives ready for their master’s command.
“Give up, Alastair. It’s over,” Marcius says, pressing his boot against my neck. “You’ve lost.”
Lightning flashes, illuminating his slim silhouette. Always a liar, even Marcius’ appearance is deceiving. With his angelic features and smooth words, he had everyone convinced. That is, right up until he tore a hole in this world. Using the forbidden arts, he cursed the kingdom of Etria with long nights overtaken by grotesque creatures of the dark. Apparently, he refused to share his good looks with his creations. Perhaps out of concern that they’d have better hair.
Crops withered. Cities fell. Rivers burned. Families cowered in their homes, hoping sharpened steel could beat back beasts of nightmare. I vowed to end him. As the crown prince of Etria, I’m the greatest warrior to ever live. An unstoppable force.
But now the taste of copper fills my mouth, gurgling in my throat when I take a breath. There’s a spear of glistening ebony glass protruding from my chest, another digging into my thigh. I’m almost tempted to request he spear my other leg, if only to spare me the annoyance of an asymmetrical maiming.
Marcius grips the handle of the spear in my chest, unaffected by the blade slicing into his palms. His maniacal grin widens, crimson eyes flickering like a dying flame. He forces the blade deeper.
“Gah!” I choke on blood filling my lungs. Pain scorches my nerves. Something’s slipping away inside me. I think it’s me, or it’s gas about to pass from the beef stew we had this morning—maybe that’s a bit too optimistic given my current predicament.
“You’ve fought all this time for nothing,” Marcius says, chortling. “Etria cannot escape the inevitable. The end has finally come.”
“It hasn’t,” I argue, spitting blood. Marcius’ lip curls in exaggerated disgust. I grip the spear. The edges split my skin. “So long as I’m still breathing, Etria will live on.”
Red mana overtakes Artheno, my sword forged by a dragon’s breath in the heart of an active volcano. A sword so mighty that the Gods themselves have threatened to steal it from me for they wish to also wield such power! But I spat in their faces and told them they’d have to rip the blade from my cold, dead hands. Together, we are unstoppable! Marcius cocks a haughty brow, forming another spear in his own grasp. I don’t feel the cut, only see my right hand gripping Artheno detach in a spray of red. If I scream, I don’t hear it through the roaring pain in my ears.
“Goodbye, Alastair Clearbrook.” Marcius raises the spear, aiming for my skull.
This isn’t how my tale’s meant to go. All my life, I’ve passed every seemingly insurmountable task, including the bickering between parents concerning who I liked better. I’ve mastered deceiving both of them because I’ve always preferred my aunt.
Why am I to die here? Why now?
Death be damned! I have a kingdom to protect. A crown to wear. A castle by the sea to rule—where I have plans to befriend the sentient turtles. There’s so much I haven’t done, haven’t even seen; riches and wine out there to fill my pockets and cellars. There’s a world bathed in darkness that I must bring into the light. The future king of Etria will not die like this in the mud!
Marcius brings the spear down.
The world erupts into blinding colors. Twisting blues and purples, swirling pinks and reds, a vortex of unbearable light and warmth. Pain ebbs away like water in a stream. My hand reforms in sparkling starlight, Artheno in my grasp. The holes in my chest and thigh heal without a scar. I fall as the colors burst into searing light.
When the light wanes, I’m staring at the most unimpressive chandelier ever created. There’s a white flame in a strange orb hanging from the ceiling. No gems or iron chains to hold it up. It’s set on a golden circle with brown arms swinging around it to produce a surge of air. But a lackluster chandelier is the least of my concerns.
Am I dead?
Sitting up, I inspect my injuries, finding myself renewed. There are no marks from battle, no bruises, scars, or cuts. Even my once aching muscles are as fine as fine can be. Certainly not dead. As expected, the world has been set right. The strongest warrior of Etria is at full force and ready to defeat his foe! Marcius won’t stand a—
Where is Marcius? My knights? The army of the damned?
Peering about this outlandish place, there is nothing recognizable. A desk as dull as the chandelier rests beside me. The chair toppled to the floor. A glowing box sits atop the desk next to fire that doesn’t burn the canopy covering it. There are scattered papers, peculiar in their pure white color and odd text.
Then I spot him. Another in the room, cowering in a corner, legs tucked to his chest and bottom lip quivering beneath wide eyes as brown as autumn leaves. A scrawny form like this, well, I’d wager he’s some form of goblin, but he lacks the claws and tipped ears. He also doesn’t stink of fresh farts.
“You!” I bellow, surging to my feet. I point my sword threateningly at the boy, who hiccups in consternation. “Show yourself, Marcius. This meager appearance does not deceive me.”
The boy is a curious face for Marcius to wear; fragile and small. Unruly black hair drifts over tired eyes surrounded by dark bags. His garments drape over a delicate frame. There are childish drawings of some bearlike creature on his billowing pants, and his shirt somehow has lettering on it: I’d rather be sleeping.
This is by far the most ludicrous hallucination Marcius has ever conjured! How dare he scoff at me in such an outrageous manner!
“So be it. If you will not release me from this spell, I will do so myself!” I grip Artheno, summoning my mana to prepare for our glorious battle. But nothing happens. Where is the flow of the world? Of all life and death within my veins? There’s nothing. A barren and raw sensation fills my gut, and Artheno remains mute in my grasp.
“What sort of dark magic is this?” I shout, striding closer to scrawny-Marcius. “These games are tiring! Speak!”
“I-I’m no-not Marcius,” the boy finally squeaks, shuddering so vigorously he knocks against the wall. I press the tip of my blade against his throat. He throws his hands high, whimpering, “Ple-please, I’m no-not him!”
“Do you take me for a fool?”
He shakes his head earnestly. “No-no! But it’s true!”
Perhaps the boy tells the truth. Marcius would never take a form he deems beneath him and this one—I give him a swift once over—reminds me of a stable boy on the first day of the job. Frightened and meek. Although the stable boy from my memory was of that disposition because a very perturbed horse chose violence one day and busted his balls with a single kick. May his balls rest in peace.
“Speak your name,” I demand.
“Uh…my name is-is Morgan Myres.”
“Morgan of House Myres, what is this fetid place, and how can I find Marcius?”
“About that—” Morgan clasps his hands in appeal. “Co-could you put your sword a-away first? I’m cle-clearly not a threat.”
“Clearly.” I could snap his neck with one hand and it wouldn’t even count towards my morning exercise routine. “But do not sway the conversation.”
I raise Artheno, bracing to strike. “I will not ask again: what is this place and where is Marcius?”
He doesn’t answer. I swing the sword down.
“Marcius isn’t real!” Morgan bellows. “He’s a character from my book, and so are you!”