Rise of the Horned King

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Chapter 14: Home

No-Name smashed his fists into the ground with enough force to shatter the stone, only narrowly missing Ephraim as he slid through the giant’s legs. He was fast; the nameless Ghoul, however, proved faster when he spun around, grabbed Ephraim by the leg, and flung him across the vast cavern with bone-shattering force. Ephraim quickly tucked into a ball, rolling until he regained enough control to right himself. No-Name was already upon him, slaming another powerful fist in a downward strike. There was no time for Ephraim to dodge; yet, No-Name’s fist did not hit its mark. Ephraim grunted with exertion as he held his ground, pushing No-Name’s fist back with his left arm.

The nameless Ghoul wasted no time, striking with his free fist with even greater force. Ephraim’s right shoulder popped as he hastily caught the blow, nevertheless sinking into the fast-crumbling ground beneath him. The struggle continued until the veins on Ephraim’s head protruded noticeably, while No-Name roared and pressed down relentlessly. Ephraim bared his fangs as he, too roared in defiance. With one, massive upward thrust Ephraim threw off No-Name’s ferocious fists, freeing him to level his own for a powerful strike. The nameless Ghoul staggered with the blow, yet stood as strong as ever.

That was when the combatants leapt back from one another, followed by each unsheathing their weapons in dramatic fashion—Ephraim a longsword, No-Name a mighty greatsword as long as Ephraim was tall. Their subsequent clash shook the cavern like a minor quake. Sparks flew everywhere; both Ephraim and No-Name swung their swords with abandon, until both of their edges cracked with one, final collision. No-Name threw his massive blade aside, and let fly such a terrifying roar that one would’ve thought him a rabid beast. Ephraim did the same, a burst of flames escaping his lips.

“That’s enough!” exclaimed Koz’s unusually exasperated voice. “More than enough; too much, in fact! Are you trying to kill each other?” Ephraim simply roared in response, the slits of his reptilian eyes narrowing dangerously. It did not take long for him to realize what he’d done, however, for the snarl on his face disappeared.

“My apologies, Koz,” he said, shaking his head vigorously. “Once his blood is up, who can resist getting carried away?” No-Name calmed as well, even echoing Ephraim’s excuse with a nod and accompanying grunt.

“Oh dear,” Koz said. “What am I to do with you two?”

“Say what you will, but we both needed that.” Ephraim massaged his shoulder, then stretched out his back. “Besides, I’m supposed to be training anyway.”

“This is not what I had in mind. Need I define the word, ‘restraint’? Nevermind, you’ll do as you please anyway.” Koz placed a hand on his forehead in frustration. Ephraim laughed, while No-Name bent down to retrieve his greatsword. He ran his fingers down the entire blade, scrutinizing the cracked edge especially. The nameless Ghoul did the same with Ephraim’s longsword before stomping off, presumably back to his forge.

Ephraim continued stretching, focusing on his left arm—which, besides its pale skin, looked identical to his right. What’s more, it no longer shook or twitched whenever he tried to use it.

“Koz?” Ephraim asked.

“Yes, yes, what is it?”

“Will I ever feel with this arm? Not feeling pain isn’t so bad, but otherwise…”

“Oh that’s right, I keep forgetting how new this all is to you. For us, not feeling pain is more of a nuisance than anything else.”

“How do you usually cope with it?”

“Well, we just have to be extra careful of our surroundings. Otherwise, we’d lose our heads—literally.”

“Hmm…”

“Don’t worry, you’ll probably develop some level of feeling eventually. The most we’ve got is an odd pressure when touching things, though.”

“I suppose that’s not too bad, considering.” Ephraim poked at his left hand, feeling only the slightest tingling sensation in his left shoulder. “Oh, there it is.”

“See? Now come, before we’re late.” Koz looked, for lack of a better term, stressed. “There’s still much work to be done in the mine.”

“Lead on.”

As Koz and Ephraim walked through the tunnels, the former muttered to himself oddly. Ephraim could not help feeling a bit unsettled, yet opted to keep quiet for the duration of their trek. Once they reached the Hub, everything began to make sense: instead of the usual traffic, the various entrances and exits leading to the many tunnels and caverns of Kalonnde were completely empty—save for the Elder, surrounded by a circle of shrouded mages, and accompanied by both No-Name and, most importantly, Millicent.

“What is this?” Ephraim asked, more than a little concerned. Koz simply kept walking, until he joined the party of Ghouls standing in the center of the Hub. The group was completely silent, and the look on Millicent’s face told Ephraim that this gathering was both planned, and of immense importance. It was the Elder who spoke up first.

“Young Ephraim,” he said, his voice as dry and cracked as ever. Ephraim immediately knelt before him, his head to the ground. “When you first came here, you were but a lost soul, drifting with the tide. You were angry, confused, and endlessly proud to a fault. But we are all witness to the man you have become: a man who is wise beyond his years, hard-working, and above all earnest.”

“It is with the greatest of pleasures that we honor you this day, and send you off to walk the path you have chosen.” The Elder blinked to where Ephraim knelt, and lowered his staff to rest on Ephraim’s shoulder. “Wherever you go, whomever you decide to be, know that you will always be one of us—a cherished brother, an impassioned lover, and a faithful friend.” At this, Millicent looked like she was going to weep, but still wore an amicable smile. Koz had closed his eyes and turned away, while No-Name stared blankly at Ephraim’s kneeling form. Ephraim himself barely held back the tears beginning to well up in his eyes.

“I knew this day would come,” he muttered. “I knew that it was I who set it in motion…yet still I cannot find the words to express my immense gratitude for everything that all of you have been to me.” Before Ephraim could break into weeping, the Elder fell down on one knee, and raised Ephraim’s head with one clawed hand.

“Rise, Ephraim, for now is no time mourn. This is but a temporary parting; you yourself have deemed it so.”

“You’re right; thank you, Elder!” Ephraim rose to his feet, drying his eyes. The Elder was already back in the circle, with his hands clasped onto his staff. All eyes were on Ephraim as he stood as proudly as he could, and bellowed: “Thank you, all of you! This is not goodbye, by any means; merely, until we meet again!” The party of Ghouls cheered as if applauding a performance, followed by Koz, No-Name, and finally Millicent lining up in front of Ephraim.

“I never thought I’d see the day when someone made me so emotional,” Koz said, his sly grin nowhere to be seen. Instead, he smiled with the genuine warmth and glow of happiness that Ephraim had ever seen in the bald Ghoul. “Like you said, this is not goodbye. Still, we’ll…I’ll miss you terribly. You’d better come back, you stubborn bastard!” Koz embraced Ephraim like he would a brother, and the two laughed together like they thought they’d never see each other again. Koz then patted Ephraim on the shoulder, and stood to the side. No-Name stomped forwards unceremoniously; that’s when Ephraim noticed the large sack slung over the nameless Ghoul’s shoulder.

“…For…you…” No-Name set the sack down in front of Ephraim rather gently, then untied the string that held it together. Ephraim gasped as the nameless Ghoul pulled out his shining bronze breastplate, with the royal crest still intact. This was not all; No-Name retrieved, then laid out the entire set of armor Ephraim had worn at the Festival of Lords, the dents buffed out, and the bronze polished until it looked like gold. Finally, No-Name pulled out a longsword sheathed and wrapped in cloth. This, he placed in Ephraim’s hands personally, before looking him in the eyes.

“…Come…back.” With that, No-Name turned away, and stomped off without another word. Unlike Koz, he exited the seen entirely, most likely to return to his trusty forge. Ephraim was at a loss for words; he’d never thought his and No-Name’s relationship to mean so much to him, even more so from the latter’s perspective! He simply stared at the sword in his hands, whilst trying not to start crying again.

Finally, Millicent stood before Ephraim with a smile full of both love and the sort of pain Ephraim hoped never to cause her again. The two locked eyes, yet no words were exchanged; instead, they embraced in wordless bliss, both of them trying, and failing, to remain composed. The Elder, his accompanying mages, and even Koz exited the scene, granting the couple what may have been their final moments together.

Gathering all of the things he’d need for his journey was a simple matter. Ephraim laid out everything in his room, letting out an anxious sigh. He had his boots, undergarments, armor, cloak, sword, rope—and as much elixir as could possibly fit both on his person and in his travel-sack. Ephraim let out another exasperated sigh.

“It’s finally happening, isn’t it?” he asked. Millicent, who sat behind him on the stone bed, rubbed his shoulder reassuringly.

“I suppose it is,” she said, smiling sadly. “You’re not having second thoughts, are you?”

“Of course I am, but there’s no turning back now. I wish these infernal nerves of mine would calm down.” Ephraim laughed nervously, then fell back unto Millicent’s lap. She placed her hands around his head, then kissed Ephraim’s nose.

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I plan on staying until you’ve gotten enough rest.”

“Is that so? Well I’d better stay awake, then!” The two laughed quietly.

Despite his jocular tone, Ephraim really couldn’t calm himself enough to fall asleep. Everything finally hit him; the fact that he was leaving, that he was returning to Elinwynn, that he’d have to journey the distance alone—and more heavily, what he’d have to do once he got there. Millicent felt him shaking, so she hugged Ephraim even closer, and laid her head on his chest. She felt his breathing calm considerably, followed by the cessation of his trembling.

“Have I ever told you how much I love you?” Ephraim whispered.

“Not nearly enough.” Millicent closed her eyes, and tucked her legs so that her feet touched his.

The hours passed, with Ephraim only sleeping a for cherished few. Nevertheless, he knew that if he didn’t leave soon, he never would. Thus, he arose once he felt himself energized beyond the point of falling back to sleep. Millicent felt him stir, and reluctantly let him rise. Despite his attempts to move as slowly as possible, it took Ephraim a dreadfully small amount of time to get ready for his journey. His boots were strapped, his armor donned, a cloak thrown over his shoulders, his blade strapped to his back, and finally his sack of elixir-filled flasks slung over his back in mere moments. With a deep breath, Ephraim offered his hand to Millicent one last time.

The couple traversed the long, steep tunnel leading to the surface in abject silence; only the clanking of Ephraim’s armor made any sound, for neither could think of what to say to the other. There was still so much left for them to share, so much affection that they longed to pour into one another. But with every step, their parting grew closer and closer. Before long, they’d exited the tunnel entirely, yet continued to walk until they came to the threshold of Kalonnde’s territory: the top of one of the Great Chasm’s mountainous walls, a winding path carved out of the crags. The Sun only barely peeked through the twilight, so that the stars still shone visibly through the clouds.

Ephraim and Millicent stopped only when the cracked earth of the Chasm began to give way to dead roots. They stared at the path, strewn with the sprinklings of buds and creeping green grass of Alikkarn’s vegetation. Silence prevailed between them, and they stared into the path until the Sun shed its blueish-gray veil.

“I have to go,” Ephraim whispered, finally. The couple, still hand-in-hand trembled as one. They then embraced closer than they ever had before, each without any intentions of letting go.

“You’d better come back,” Millicent sobbed.

“I will, no matter what.”

Ephraim released his hold on Millicent’s hand, placed one foot on ground, then another. He didn’t dare look back as his reluctant steps became a steady stride. Onward he went, marching on in the bright light of day, and to the even brighter future that lay ahead.

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