Rise of the Horned King

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Chapter 6: The Festival of Lords

The King’s Manor was far, far grander than even the most fanciful minds could comprehend. In total, the Manor occupied an entire third of Tannym’s remarkable land. A massive wall, with golden latches and an endless line of armored guards stationed on every inch, ran in a rectangular shape. In keeping with both the Peasant’s Gate and Tannym’s main gate, the wall had no entrances. No, not a crack of open space in all the miles and miles it covered.

Within was an immense expanse of land consisting of wide-open fields, with a generous number of them sectioned off to the east and filled row by row with all sorts of gorgeous crops. Brick cottages sat upon the plots of farmland in clusters, forming a large village complete with fenced-in ranges for livestock, extravagant vineyards, and mills. It was here that His Majesty’s many serfs spent their days, doing all they ought in order to support their King’s massive House.

To the west, enclosed behind another set of walls was the circular Coliseum, in which the long-awaited Festival would take place. Unbeknownst to all but a chosen few, the walls were in fact an elaborate barracks hosting the vast majority of Elinwynn’s military: high-ranking Fangs, guardsmen, foot-soldiers, and even the lavishly-adorned guards of the High Priest.

Further inward, many miles from the serf-village and Coliseum, stood the Weeping Goddess in all of her solemn glory. Her polished marble visage stared ever into the distance, forever awaiting her chance at motherhood. Whilst Queen Shikal’s glorious likeness towered over the east, an enormous statue of Shinkitu guarded the west. The great firedrake stood regally, his maw dripping with flame, his wings outstretched, and his glorious right forelimb grasping a shining star.

Despite the all-surpassing glory of what came before, nothing was larger, nothing brighter, nothing as magnificent as Lorrok: a gargantuan mountain, its height and girth alone more than dwarfing the entirety of the Peasant’s District, out of which the King’s palace was carved. The stone walls glistened in the sunlight, as they should; for, they were embedded with rubies of all shapes and forms, arranged with the utmost attention. The Palace’s five towers rose high into the clouds, while its body expanded several miles in all directions. It was here that the Kings of Elinwynn had dwelt since the kingdom’s inception, alongside any they deemed worthy to be part of their prestigious Household.

Past the magnificently-adorned walls, Lorrok churned with excited activity; servants moved about hurriedly, rushing to complete their Festival duties in addition to their usual chores. Though it was spread throughout the palace’s many floors, the majority of the bustle centered around the Council of Kings: a massive hall whose ceiling stretched on and on, such that one could scarcely admire its massive painting of Shinkitu’s glorious form. The Sun-God’s crimson body coiled around the ceiling in a spiral, terminating directly in the ceiling’s center with his massive maw. On this day in particular the Council echoed with sounds akin to three armies making merry. And that was just as well, for it was constructed solely for the purpose of hosting the Festival guests, and it was they whose voices presently swirled into a numbing buzz.

Three sections comprised the Council’s main layout, each with its own tables arranged as individual open-air halls. The foremost and largest of the three, by far went to the Bokanites, who made merry in a manner best described as violent. Wrestling, boastful flyting, and outright brawls were engaged in with abandon, all the while laughing and speaking vulgarly in their harsh tongue. Their table alone must have taken decades of on-site construction, as it was entirely of stone rather than wood, and quite simply could not have been lifted or hauled.

Above the sparsely decorated table hung an equally large tapestry, depicting the goddess Mishkator mushing her chariot of divine wolves along the curves of a crescent Moon. Sitting directly below this tapestry was Berylian, the current High Chief of Bokanosh. Every scrap of food was piled high in front of the grey-bearded giant, who doled out each morsel according to some hierarchy.

On the other side of the Council rested a significantly smaller table, and of a completely different nature than the Bokanites’. In addition to being constructed of wood rather than stone, this table was joined by many others arranged in several rows like the mess hall of a barracks. Suspended above the cluster of tables was another large tapestry, this time depicting a golden lion standing on the precipice of a mountain. Below him was a rabble of white-fleeced lambs, looking up expectantly as the lion’s glorious mane shone like the Sun. It was here that the Sons of Althalos dined in a relatively reserved manner, without any clearly defined head on any of the tables. Indeed, for Berakiah the Chaste had mixed in amongst his men, chatting and mingling like any other soldier among brothers-in-arms.

The third and final table located in the Council was reserved for the Highborn of Elinwynn. Above the table hung two tapestries: the emblem of Shinkitu’s Faithful was on the left, while the crest of the Fangs of the Crimson Serpent hung on the right. Like the Hall of Forefathers, Elinwynn’s section consisted of an impossibly long table decorated with a crimson tablecloth and glistening silverware. Unlike the Hall, however, King Letharian was not at the table’s head. Instead, he sat on a platform elevated above the table. What’s more, he was joined by Bishop Arthgal, the two sitting on the left and right of the platform, respectively. Sitting in the center of these, crowned with his gold and ivory circlet and magnificently adorned in his amber robes, was Prince Ephraim. As always, his pale features sat in a neutral, if not grim expression as he used his right hand to dine in an elegant manner. His left rested calmly on the table in front of him.

‘Curse this wretched thing,’ the prince thought. Ephraim had, of course, heard of them before, but he had never imagined false wooden arms to be this uncomfortable. Why Father had waited this long to have him wear one was moot; after that dreadful dinner only two moons prior, no more chances could be taken. Still, he hated how it clamped to his shoulder, and that it was quite cumbersome by its very nature. Bishop Arthgal must have sensed something uncouth in the prince’s manner, for he placed a wrinkled hand on Ephraim’s shoulder.

“Remember, boy,” the Bishop whispered, without turning his head. “The Crowned Prince of Elinwynn mustn’t falter; most especially on the eve of the Festival.” Ephraim immediately stiffened his posture and stifled the fear that arose in his breast. Meanwhile, Letharian chuckled to himself—but nothing more. The old king reclined in his gilded chair, the same false air of vacancy dotting his features.

The Festival Feast raged on into the night, with the Bokanites consuming so much ale they began to sing. The Sons of Althalos had preferred to remain temperate, partaking solely of water the entire night. Elinwynn’s Highborn made the evening an insufferable wine-induced spectacle. Each lord boasted loudly of his lands—their yield of crops, the extravagance of their haughty manors, the distance their domains stretched beyond Tannym’s walls. Almost everyone made much too much of themselves, most likely due to the new Prince’s presence. Each lord had even brought his own wine, and sent many goblets full of their fermented regards directly to Prince Ephraim. Of course, they were tested by no less than three Lowborn tasters before any touched his lips.

The hours rolled on in quick succession, blurring together. Ephraim had scarcely finished his last course when Bishop Arthgal placed a hand on his shoulder once more, causing him to start.

“Come. It is time.” The Bishop then arose from his spot on the platform, and with a flurry of his hand called Elinwynn’s entire section to order. All fell silent as Ephraim and Letharian rose as well, each raising their hands in turn. The three then ignited their palms with orange flames, each varying in intensity. The Bishop’s was smooth and deep, Ephraim’s light and soft, and Letharian’s dark and thick with a white-hot center. They moved as one, pointing their palms upwards to let fly three embers in unison. The embers swirled together, growing steadily until they reached the Council’s high ceiling, then collided into one another in an explosive display. The sounds of merriment ceased, replaced with the collective noise of all three sections’ occupants rising from their seats.

Ephraim stepped down from his platform, followed closely by the Bishop, and finally his father the King. The three made their way to the center of the hall—surrounded by a barrier of guardsmen, of course—while the Highborn arose House-by-House, beginning with the Royals and ending with the lowest ranking lords. First among these was Lady Mirabeth, trailed by her myriad of maidens and loyal retainers. She shot an impassioned glare towards Letharian, before biting her bottom lip at the Bishop. Mirabeth had an increasingly grim premonition about these proceedings; something was definitely wrong with Letharian bringing up the rear in that heretical train. Seeing as there was nothing she could do about it, the Lady brushed it off and continued walking.

Meanwhile, Tybalt followed close behind with his House, scowling all the way. Behind him trudged his poor mother Ayleth, whose ghostly features suggested that her health had greatly deteriorated in the past moon. On either side of her were two youths, one with short brown hair, the other with long locks colored similarly. These were the twins Terrowin and Maerrowen, Tybalt’s younger siblings whose soft features betrayed their youth. Each grasped one of their mother’s hands and walked with their heads down. The entire train of Tybalt’s House exuded an aura of despair, for not even their place in Elinwynn’s procession did anything to cushion their disgrace.

The entire occupants of the Council of Kings funneled into the great expanse beyond the tabled sections, still separated by a subconscious barrier. Ephraim stopped right as he reached the center of the hall, marked by an immense statue of a bearded man clutching a tome covered in runes. The Prince proceeded to step onto yet another elevated platform, while Bishop Arthgal and King Letharian stood each on their own—pointedly beneath Ephraim’s. All eyes turned to the three as they stretched out their hands in a rigid, sweeping gesture, and declared in unison:

“Hail, Berakiah, Supreme Commander of Altharon! Hail, Berylian, High Chief of Bokanosh! Of behalf of all Elinwynn, we bid thee, our most distinguished neighbors, welcome!” It may have been due to the Council’s particular construction, but the three’s voices carried throughout the entire hall, despite the resounding cheers that commenced. Ephraim nearly scoffed at himself cynically; he knew the only reason Father and the Bishop were there was to make up for his lack of potency. He still had a long way to go if he was to one day be King.

“Altharon accepts this most wondrous of welcomes!” shouted Berakiah, followed by a chorus of precise chants from his men.

“Aye! As does Bokanosh!” bellowed Berylian, while the rest of the giants roared and stomped up a row.

“It is with great pleasure that I, Prince Ephraim—”

“I, Arthgal, High Priest of Shinkitu—”

“And I, Letharian, King of Elinwynn—”

“—Mark this, the beginning of the 200th decennial Festival of Lords!” The Council of Kings erupted with shouts of merriment from all three sections, shaking Lorrok’s very foundations.

“May the gods smile upon this glorious occasion, and may they grant us all peace and rest for the morrow’s festivities!”

Shrill shrieking split the silence of the tranquil morning, rousing the Creature from its slumber. Though the boils on its skin burst painfully, it slowly arose from the creaking wood. It then snorted restlessly as smaller chimeras skittered at its feet. The Creature’s three-pupiled eye twitched as pus leaked from its oversized socket. Its other eye, though, squinted with dreadful focus. Today was the day.

The Creature leapt through an adjacent hole in the wooden wall, landing with a sizeable thud on the dew-soaked earth. As it walked through the ruins of what used to be the serf-village, the other chimeras continued their accursed activities: fighting over severed limbs, shrieking in pain as their bodies contorted in and out of place, shedding scales and feathers only to replace them with itching, burning fur. The Creature ignored it all as it slunk onwards, dragging its oversized arm behind it. The other chimeras must have felt something different in their twisted peer, for many dropped what they were doing and began following it. A single thought spread throughout the Swarm: ‘Today is the day.’

The Creature’s following grew until it encompassed the entire horde of cackling chimeras, slinking and slithering past the outskirts of the serf-village. It stopped and raised up its head; its eye narrowed. Several miles from the ruins, past the massive open field, sat the stone walls of the barracks that guarded the Coliseum. With a deep growl, the Creature raised its massive hand to the sky, then cocked its head sideways. The air split with a palpable jolt, and the swarm of chimeras howled and reeled as their forms became transparent, their shrill voices inaudible. With the Swarm’s collective presence completely removed, the Creature lowered both its arm and head. It then took a deep, long breath, spread its hooved feet apart, and arched its back. With one explosive push, the Creature launched itself into a powerful sprint, thundering towards the Coliseum. For indeed, today was the day; the long-awaited day when they would tear them all to pieces!

Day had scarcely dotted the horizon when the sound of many trumpets echoed through the vacuous Coliseum. This was followed by a chorus of voices singing hymns long preserved from the days of Old. The Choir lifted its voice beyond the clouds, alerting all to the platform suspended high above. There, a series of torch-bearers lay their charges upon the ceremonial pyre, setting it ablaze that it may burn for the many hours which lay ahead. For today was the day; the day when the three most powerful nations in all the land came together in the name of a continued peace.

Beneath the pyre, the Coliseum was full to bursting with patrons from all around. Peasants occupied a diminutive section near the bottom, while various lords and ladies filled its remaining girth. Lady Mirabeth sat in the Royals’ box as always, joined by Lady Ayleth, and surrounded by both of their retainers; Bishop Arthgal stood in front of the Choir, comprised solely of Shinkitu’s Faithful; the King sat high above them all, attended by Commander Carleon himself in a private box at the top of the Coliseum. Fangs lined the Coliseum’s skyline, radiating a collective aura of intense heat. They were more than ready to rain fire down on any foolhardy scoundrel.

At the very bottom, on the Festival grounds was a gathering of warriors young and old. Some stretched, others fastened their armor, but all eagerly awaited their chance to rise into glory—if only for a day. A horn’s deep bellow announced the beginning of the Festival’s first event: a martial tournament. The warriors quickly lined up, ready for their time in the Sun. Among them stood Tybalt, arrayed in a black gambeson trimmed with crimson, with the crest of his household—an unbroken stallion facing down a great serpent—displayed proudly on his back. The young lord wore a terrifyingly focused expression; he was ready for blood. For today was the day: the day when he would carve a bloody path towards the redemption of his fallen House.

In another section of the Coliseum was a smaller group of individuals, all dressed in flowing robes complete with the crests and colors of their Houses. These distinguished themselves through deep meditations, made impressive by the small circles of flame conjured around each man. Terrowin and Maerrowen were among the youngest of this group, and spent the moments preceding their event by batting a fireball back and forth between them. They, like Tybalt their brother, held a look in their eyes reminiscent of pained determination. Even they understood a measure of what they had lost, and would do all they could to reclaim it.

Meanwhile, Ephraim was locked away in his own chamber, himself preparing for his own event. The prince, scarcely clothed, sat cross-legged with his eyes closed. The amount of heat in the room had sweat cascading down his back, and caused the candles to melt prematurely. His hair began to glow as flames ignited in a circle around him, whipping into a reserved cyclone. Ephraim’s face contorted oddly, followed by the flames dispersing into nothing.

“Damn!” Ephraim swore, opening his eyes. Try as he might, the prince just couldn’t focus. He knew not what—be it over-eagerness, or the sheer weight of his role as Elinwynn’s Champion—but something unnerved him. Despite the heat in the room, he felt a chill running up and down his spine. Worse still, he could swear he felt something else tugging at him, urging him back rather than forwards. Yet, he put it all away; now was not the time to lose his nerve.

Ephraim was just about to resume his meditation, when a light knocking finished off whatever shred of concentration remained.

“Alright love, time ta get dressed,” came Merrah’s cheerful greeting. Ephraim merely groaned in response. Though her smile was a welcome sight, trailing behind the Head-Maid were the three juniors that always bore his clothes for the day. Except this time there were five additional manservants, four of whom carried the many pieces of a set of armor, while the fifth came toting that accursed false arm.

‘But of course,’ Ephraim thought.

The Prince, once more alone in his secluded chamber, stared at himself in the mirror. His armor, though cumbersome, was not devoid of grace. The sleek bronze breastplate was beyond pleasing to the eye, and they’d even given him a cape fashioned just so that his armored false arm was mostly covered. His helmet was equally as impressive: it was crafted specifically for him, complete with slots for his ever-growing horns. While that mere fact greatly vexed him, Ephraim put it from his mind. He had no time to mull about, for today was the day; the day Father had planned since the prince’s birth, and for which he had trained Ephraim harshly since he came of age five short years ago.

The Coliseum’s east side went dead silent as Tybalt ran his twin swords through the gut of a young fighter, then retrieved them with a swift kick to the freshly-made corpse. The young lord, scrapes and bruises coating his body, shoved his blades into the ground, raised his fist to the air, and let fly a shout of victory. The audience erupted with cheers, while the bloodied and beaten bodies of the other would-be victors were quickly hauled off of the grounds. A deep horn signaled the end of the Festival’s first event, followed by Tybalt kneeling where he stood—in the blood of his final adversary. The Choir raised their heavenly sound just as a member of Shinkitu’s Faithful walked with great fanfare towards Tybalt’s location. The priest then lifted Tybalt’s lowered face, and presented him with a wreath fashioned out of gold.

On the Coliseum’s east side, Terrowin and Maerrowen were presently engaged with a challenge of their own. They danced gracefully as they conjured, then flung fireball after fireball at the flying targets, beating out all but the swiftest mages. In one final show of skill they clasped hands, and after mere seconds of channeling shot off a massive stream of flames. The twins’ combined assault incinerated the remaining targets, to the ecstatic shouts of the audience. Once more, a horn signaled the challenge’s end, the Choir sung their angelic tune, and a priest went out to declare the victors. Both Terrowin and Maerrowen received golden wreaths, causing them to raise a tandem shout of joy.

From his own place on the winner’s podium, Tybalt spied his siblings’ success. All of Letholdus’s children stood proudly, just as he would have wanted. The young lord was certain they’d regained some measure of honor for their fallen House. However, he still held that same look of bloodied determination, for their victories today were only the beginning.

The following hours consisted of all sorts of games: javelin throwing, chariot racing, wrestling and other tests of might, even military drills hosted by the Fangs. But as morning turned to midday, the events slowed until one final bellowing of the horns brought them to an end. The entire mood shifted in an instant; the Choir changed its upbeat tune to a deeper, more aggressive song; the grounds cleared both of contestants and equipment; the trumpets returned, accompanied by drums as they complimented the Choir’s dark tone.

The thunderous applause that ensued shook the entire Coliseum, such that Ephraim could hear it even whilst enclosed in the thick stone walls. Yet, his mind was focused, set on retaining an intense aura of readiness. The prince gripped the hilt of his blade tightly, and stalked down the narrow corridor with a dim gaze, as though he saw nothing but the light beyond.

As he emerged from the corridor, Ephraim looked not upon the massive audience, but the two servants waiting for him whilst holding the reins of a mighty stallion. The beast was arrayed in an amber-colored caparison, with a dragon’s head embroidered on the sides. Even so, the peculiar pattern of its coat—swirls of dull green in a sea of brown—along with its deep green eyes marked the horse as none other than Khephir: the very same beast which had been at Ephraim’s side since his first days riding. The prince walked near his most trusted of comrades, and placed one hand on its thick neck.

“Today, old friend,” he said. Khephir snorted and pawed at the ground in anticipation as his master seized the reins in his hand, then mounted with a graceful leap. The two then began the short trek to the center of the Coliseum, mount and master more than prepared for whatever came their way.

Just as Ephraim was making his entrance, a bare-chested Bokanite astride a massive wolf burst through an over-sized corridor from the other side of the Coliseum. Upon his head and cascading down his back was the white pelt of another wolf, marking him as the giant who stood on equal footing with the Chief. His sole weapon was a large club he hoisted above his head as his beast strode to the Coliseum’s center, belting out a harsh chant along the way.

A gryphon emerged from the third and final corridor with a young man astride its regal back. The youth wore the blue-dyed leather of the Sons of Althalos, yet had forgone a helmet such that his short blonde hair, as well as his Wreath of Victory may be proudly displayed. Both a longsword and shield were strapped to his back, and a stoic frown dulled his face.

The three neared the center, which had been speedily occupied by no less than one hundred heralds, each holding their scrolls in preparation.

“Distinguished patrons!” they all shouted in unison. Once more, the Coliseum erupted with praise. The heralds continued on in a mind-addling recollection of the day’s events. Ephraim grit his teeth to stop them chattering, then paused to finally look up at the audience. They were many, their eyes beaming down on him like judgmental beacons.

“It is now time for the day’s main event: The Contest of Champions!” The prince stiffened his posture.

“Hailing from the frozen isles of Bokanosh, the mighty Bodvar: son of Berylian Beast-Tamer!” Deep chants arose from one side of the Coliseum, whilst Bodvar pumped his club in the air proudly.

“Next, from the southern lands of Altharon, Sir Alvertos Gwynant: Holy knight of the Sons of Althalos!” A modest roar arose from another side of the Coliseum, though Alvertos remained unmoved.

“And finally, the great nation of Elinwynn’s very own Prince Ephraim: Child of Light, Son of the Sun!” This time, the entire Coliseum shook with cheers and shouts, overcoming all bouts of praise and joy that came before. Ephraim felt the weight of their cheers, such that his heart raced all the faster. His time had come.

“Now, without further ado, let the Contest of Champions commence!” With that, the heralds quickly cleared out of the Festival grounds, leaving the three Champions alone in the center. Ephraim tugged lightly on his reins, and Khephir began to move slowly. The others did the same, until they circled one another cautiously. All three had their eyes fixed on the other, gripping their reins tightly. They moved along in this way until they had each reached a wall of the Coliseum, still facing their foes dauntingly.

The trumpets sounded from above, sending both Ephraim and Khephir into a frenzy; the horse shot off into a sprint towards the center of the Coliseum, while Ephraim lowered his head and gripped the hilt of his blade. Bodvar and Alvertos acted in unison with the prince, very quickly reaching the center before breaking off into three separate dashes.

Khephir and Ephraim raced on, rushing along the Coliseum’s circular edge. Ephraim, still clutching his hilt, thanked Shinkitu for Khephir’s conditioning. Given his false arm’s lack of dexterity, only a horse as amazing as his could maneuver this adeptly without commands. But the prince scarcely had time for this, for Bodvar’s wolf suddenly and aggressively altered its course, darting after them with its jaws agape and dripping with saliva.

Khephir was fast; the wolf was faster. The horse barely made a sharp turn in time to narrowly avoid the perilous jaws, while Ephraim unsheathed his blade in time to slash at the unwary beast. This was done in vain, for Bodvar simply laughed batted the sword away with his bare hands; what little blood there was spoke to the thickness of Bokanite flesh. Meanwhile, Alvertos tugged on his gryphon’s reins, prompting it to spread its wings and take to the air. It flew to the skies powerfully, before Alvertos curved its path around to pursue his embattled rivals.

Ephraim, now racing in the opposite direction with a massive wolf on his tail, shifted his left shoulder in an effort to tug at the reins. Khephir swiveled around rather quickly, and charged headlong into Bodvar’s haughty assault. Ephraim leveled his blade like a lance just as Bodvar’s beast came careening forwards; yet again, Bodvar waved his thick arm to shield the wolf, this time taking a deep cut to his forearm. Almost immediately after, the gryphon flew directly in Khephir’s path, its talons raised to secure prey. Ephraim grimaced, yet yanked his shoulder backwards so that Khephir completely stopped his charge. The Gryphon landed with a painful squawk as its talons struck the ground a short distance from Khephir. Bodvar was close behind, yet slowed his wolf to a wary walk behind Ephraim. Again, the three Champions were locked in a tense circle, eying one another for the next move.

Another horn blared its deep tune; the three Champions promptly yanked on their mounts’ reins tightly. All came to an abrupt halt, yet the battle was far from over. Ephraim dismounted Khephir, who snorted irritably but raced off to its handlers nonetheless. The other two did the same, before drawing their weapons. Ephraim still held his shortsword; Bodvar once again raised his club above his head; Alvertos retrieved his sword and shield and lowered his head in a short prayer before assuming a rigid stance. Ephraim had hardly processed his plan of attack when the third horn blared through the air.

Bodvar immediately rushed forwards, bellowing a terrifying war-cry while Ephraim walked slowly towards Alvertos, heat steadily rising around him. Alvertos remained rooted in place, looking at neither of them. Bodvar thundered towards him, leapt into the air, and slammed his club down in a brutal motion.

The audience raised a collective gasp as what should have been either a near-evasion or painful pummeling took the form of blinding light. Bodvar let out a confused grunt as he was completely pushed back, his considerable girth shaking the ground as he fell. Ephraim looked on with elevated alarm as the light faded, revealing the stoic Alvertos standing strongly in its center, completely untouched. The prince’s blood began to boil, as did the aura of heat around him; this Alvertos would prove a difficult opponent.

Ephraim gripped his hilt even tighter, yet stopped walking as soon as he met Alvertos where he stood. The two locked eyes for a mere second before both launched themselves forward, clashing powerfully. Their swords were locked together, neither wavering for a single second. Seeing no more point in this test of strength, Ephraim leapt backwards and swung around his cape whilst raising a wall of flames. Without missing a beat Alvertos charged through the flames, bashing his shield into Ephraim’s helmet. The prince dropped his sword in the scuffle, clenched his teeth, and immediately surrounded himself with a circle of white-hot flames. It was Alvertos’s turn to leap backwards and cover himself. Ephraim retrieved his blade, then focused his mind, dizzied by the blow to his head. He could feel the flames growing in intensity around him; all he needed to do now was concentrate on his next move.

Before the prince could even catch his breath, his flames dispersed into nothing. A blinding light invaded his senses, and the next Ephraim knew he’d taken another hard blow to the head, this time knocking off his helmet. Ephraim’s vision returned severely blurred, but as he fell he spied Bodvar rear up from behind Alvertos and slam his club into the youth’s side. Many thoughts raced through the prince’s head.

‘How best to recover?’

‘What magic exists to nullify flames in an instant?’

‘What to—’ Ephraim’s thoughts were interrupted by a violent jerk to his chest. Bodvar had seized hold of him, and proceeded to hurl the prince across the field. Ephraim curled into a ball as he careened through the air, thankfully able to roll upon meeting the ground. He then attempted to right himself, to no avail. It was all he could do to rise to one knee. Sweat streaked down his forehead, as well as a trickle of blood from his nose.

Bodvar turned his attention back to Alvertos, who presently stood holding his sword in both hands, shaking with pain as blood trickled down his side. Ephraim took this opportunity to focus on a single directive: channel as much heat as he could for a decisive counterattack.

Ephraim’s right hand shone fiercely as he muttered the spell, all the while funneling heat into his palm. His entire arm caught fire, yet the flames did not burn him. Instead, they gathered into his palm as a condensed mass, then morphed into a palpable javelin of pure flame. Ephraim could feel the energy leave him like the very breath in his lungs, yet he grit his teeth and through a dizzied gaze took aim at his adversaries. With one last heave he rose to his feet, reared back, and threw the javelin with all of his might.

The javelin cut through the air ferociously, scorching the ground as it raced towards its mark. Bodvar and Alvertos were none the wiser, locked in tense combat with one another. Alvertos must have sensed the heat, for after dodging another of Bodvar’s brutal blows he glanced briefly to the side. A surprised expression came over his face, and he leapt hurriedly backwards. Bodvar was not as quick-witted.

The javelin struck true, barreling into Bodvar’s side. It burst in a massive explosion upon impact, singeing off the hair and scorching the skin of the giant’s side. Ephraim let out a sigh of relief as Bodvar roared in agony and fell to the ground in an agonized heap. The Bokanites in the audience fell silent. There now remained only two Champions who could still fight.

Both Alvertos and Ephraim struggled to rise to their feet, even more so to raise their swords for the conclusion of the battle. Ephraim still felt the brunt of the javelin’s conception. Yet, seeing as Alvertos nursed a grievous wound to his side, the prince was more than confident in his ability to end this battle once and for all. He pointed his sword in Alvertos’s direction as he slowly walked towards him. Alvertos did the same, until the two met face-to-face. They locked swords in a mutual salute, then leapt backwards from each other. As soon as their feet hit the ground, the two rushed forwards and clashed powerfully, sparks flying with each blow.

Ephraim swung his blade with precision, parrying each and every blow that came his way whilst striking his own. Alvertos kept pace with him, despite wincing with every clash. They fought until their wrists locked up with fatigue, causing them to drop their swords almost simultaneously. Ephraim panted deeply and stared at his adversary with a grim scowl. Alvertos returned this sentiment, though he too gasped for breath. Each stared at the other in turn, neither knowing what move to make next.

Ephraim lunged forwards, his gauntlet aimed at Alvertos’s neck—just as something struck him on his side with such force that he was flung violently sideways. His head spun, and the pain in Ephraim’s side made it increasingly difficult for him to avoid falling unconscious. The prince tumbled to the ground, while a charred, yet most-definitely-still-living Bodvar flung Alvertos through the air with a single kick. The giant’s eyes burned with rage; likewise, his lungs poured forth a never-ending torrent of roars.

Ephraim could barely stand; his armor had caved in on his side, both cutting into his flesh and impeding his breathing. Even still, he tried his utmost to raise his hand towards the giant. He concentrated what was left of his stamina, crying out for it to gather in his palm one last time. Ephraim sputtered painfully as a single spark shot from his fingertips.

“Damn it all!” he swore. The prince tried again; this time, not even a spark. He swore over and over with each futile attempt, till what breath he could muster went out of his lungs. Ephraim coughed bitterly, and fell flat on his back with a grimace. The pain in his side was unbearable, dizzying his already shaky vision. Ephraim closed his eyes and cursed the giant’s indominable spirit. Much to his great frustration, he was out of this fight.

An ear-piercingly loud screech cut through all other sounds, carrying throughout the entire Coliseum. Ephraim quickly opened his eyes and struggled against himself to sit up. Bodvar and Alvertos ceased grappling, and both joined the audience in turning to the perceived source of the disturbance. The screech returned, this time accompanied by a loud cacophony of gurgles, hisses, and roars. A deep, sickeningly green haze descended upon the Coliseum, crawling from the top and encompassing the sides. What followed was a terrifying silence, belying the extreme confusion and fear of the Coliseum’s occupants.

What looked and sounded like a raging flood burst through the fog above, yet it was not floodwaters that fell upon the poor audience. They came from all sides; creatures of crooked forms flew, slithered, or crawled from out of the haze in horrifying masses. The Coliseum filled with the shrieks of High and Lowborn alike as the creatures sunk their fangs, claws, and various barbed appendages into flesh. The King’s box was immediately evacuated; the Royals were next, vacating the scene nigh-instantaneously. Meanwhile, the Fangs atop the Coliseum walls wasted no time in releasing their collective arcane might unto the horrid intruders, raining down bolts of fire in abundance. Unfortunately, the creatures’ mere numbers rendered the counterattack utterly useless.

Ephraim did all he could to rise to his feet, but only managed to hoist himself up using his false arm like a crutch. His vision had still hardly cleared, yet instinct had him surveying the entire scene before him.

The creatures mauled everything in sight, moving like a swarm of locusts through a field. It was not long before many of them reached the Festival grounds, with blood and flesh still caking their claws. Panicked, Ephraim looked to the other Champions. He spied Alvertos limping towards one of the corridors, only to be plucked up by his loyal gryphon. Bodvar, on the other hand, beat his chest and roared indignantly.

The creatures rushed Bodvar’s position, maws dripping with venom and rage. The giant ran towards them in turn, still roaring defiantly. He immediately slammed his club upon the foremost chimera, crushing its head. Bodvar then delivered a crushing kick to another before clubbing a third in the side. He next spun around and flung his massive club, crushing a would-be flanker. The giant then seized and strangled a fifth chimera to death with his bare hands. This Champion, at least, would not go down easy.

Ephraim heard a scratching noise from behind, fracturing his attention. He winced and turned his gaze towards the wall behind him. There, crawled a diminutive creature which seemed an unholy mixture of reptile, bird, and rodent; its face angled itself into a beak, while its membranous wings conflicted with its fur-covered torso. Ephraim quickly scrambled to get on his feet. The creature, barbed tail poised to strike, leapt towards him just as he managed to roll out of the way. It hissed wildly, then made another swift leap towards the prince’s neck.

Bodvar stood upon a mound of fallen chimeras, and let out a final roar full of both victory and searing pain. The creatures’ blood, splattered on his face and coating his raised fist, burned like acid. Bodvar roared until his throat was raw, beating his chest to further block out the pain with rage.

A piercing screech split the heavens, overtaking Bodvar’s triumphant shouts completely. The chimeras surrounding Bodvar scurried hurriedly back into the fog which now pervaded the entire Coliseum. The giant grinned and spat in the creatures’ direction. Another screech echoed through the air, this time much closer than before.

From out of the fog emerged a scarred, boiled, crooked and yet human-like face, with matted black hair cascading down the left side. A massive body followed, equally grotesque with a mixture of fur, scales, and bare leathery skin wrapped around a disproportionate frame. The Creature dug its hooves into the ground, raised its oversized arm, and screeched madly as it launched itself towards the undaunted Bodvar. The two titans clashed wildly, grappling fiercely until Bodvar slammed the Creature into the ground with one well-placed sweep. The Creature roared, then slapped Bodvar in the face with its barbed tendrils. The giant roared in pain, then slammed his massive fists into the Creature’s head. The Creature shrieked painfully as Bodvar pummeled it further into the ground with each furious blow.

When Bodvar had bloodied his knuckles with the Creature’s blood, he was certain of his victory. He put his remaining stamina into one final downward strike, a smug grin appearing on his face. The Creature suddenly perked up, and tangled Bodvar’s fist in its tendrils. Then, before the giant could respond, it launched its oversized fist into his agape side. Bodvar staggered backwards, but the Creature kept its hold on the giant’s arm. It continued to strike him repeatedly in the charred wound, until Bodvar coughed up blood and lost his footing. As soon as the giant fell, the Creature yanked him towards its opened maw and sunk its teeth into Bodvar’s thick neck.

The blood-soaked Creature flung Bodvar’s corpse off of itself, then rose to its full height and released a shriek of victory. It recoiled sharply; something stirred within the fog, something other than its corrupted brethren. Prince Ephraim came barreling from the other direction, the small chimera latched to his face. The prince barely managed to pry off then toss it away, but not before its tail struck him in the neck. He grasped the wound in panic, and very nearly fell over. The Creature was upon him immediately, knocking him over with one slap of its tendrils.

Ephraim tumbled to the ground, his head spinning once more. He scarcely heard the Creature as it pounced upon then pressed its oversized arm unto his chest. The breastplate caved in, digging into Ephraim’s flesh. The prince let out a yelp of pain, stifled when the Creature wrapped its tendrils around his throat. Barbs dug into his skin, yet his body refused to respond despite his countless pleas. At that very moment, Ephraim felt another, more intense pain rising from within his chest.

“N-Now?” he muttered. The pain grew until it overshadowed whatever wounds he’d suffered. Intense heat gathered in his throat just as the Creature slammed down its massive fist. In that moment, Ephraim abandoned every thought of escape. Though he shook with fear, he decided that if the Abyss would take him, there was no point in holding back any longer. So he stopped stifling the contractions of his throat, and opened his mouth to spit molten material right in that monster’s eye!

That’s when it happened: a massive stream of crimson fire erupted from Ephraim’s throat, bathing the Creature’s entire body in vengeful flames. It roared in agony, flailed madly to douse the flames. In its fury the Creature flung a confused yet oddly gratified Ephraim with such force that he landed against a far wall.

The air went completely out of Ephraim’s lungs, while his vision left his eyes for a split-second. When again he could see he saw the Creature’s charred and bleeding form barreling towards him on all fours, its maw agape and dripping with venom.

Ephraim closed his eyes solemnly; there was nothing more he could do. Though his mind raced with questions, he no longer had it within him to go on. The Darkness would have him at last.

When he opened his eyes for what he thought the final time, what he saw was not the Creature’s vicious maw; it was the back of a large, black-cloaked figure completely blocking his view. The figure braced itself against the ground, then launched itself forwards. The Creature screeched as it was pushed back, then shoved to the ground and subdued. With some bestial might the Creature bucked the large figure off of itself, then slashed at its hooded face with its tendrils. The large figure narrowly dodged, flashing thick black armor beneath its cloak. The figure then drew a massive greatsword from the cavernous reaches of its cloak, and lunged back at the Creature with increased vigor.

Through fatigued eyes, Ephraim could only see blurs of movement. He barely noticed as his face was gently turned to the side, and a cold hand pressed against his forehead. The prince stared into the glowing red eyes of a second cloaked figure that kneeling by his side, which retrieved something from a satchel of some kind. Before he knew it, the figure had opened, then poured the contents of a flask into Ephraim’s mouth. The entire world spun in every direction, and the wounded prince finally allowed himself to slip into unconsciousness.

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