Rise of the Horned King

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Chapter 7: Into the Darkness

The sheer heat emanating from the throne room was intolerable. The very air howled like a desert wind, despite the room’s noted lack of windows. The many paintings of kings past stood no chance, nor did the Royal’s prized tapestry displaying their exhaustive family tree. All were sacrificed to the sheer force of King Letharian’s rage as he stewed in the middle of a vortex of pure flame. His massive golden throne, though overlooked by a grand golden mosaic, outshone everything in the fast-melting chamber. Every trace of Letharian’s vacant facade evaporated into nothing, just as all the moisture in the air sizzled away.

“Curses!” he yelled. “Curses! I swear by the Sun—no, the blackened heart of the Abyss itself, they will burn!” At that, the vortex exploded with a loud crash, blowing away the melted carcasses of the statues bordering the throne.

“Letharian, please!” shouted Arthgal, himself more than a little frazzled. He was the only man bold, let alone arcanely skilled enough to stand the King’s wrath; yet even he could do nothing about the sweat coating his entire body. “The scouts have not yet found his body; the prince may still yet live!”

“Then where IS he, Arthgal?” The King sat far back in his throne, then let out a deep, defeated sigh. “All of our planning is ruined, all of our work, for naught...” Letharian placed one hand on his temple, and closed his eyes. “My Ephraim, my perfect heir, lost…”

The heat subsided, though not the slippery, sizzling sound of liquified metal creeping as it cooled. Servants and attendants emerged from doors bordering the massive room, many still sweating while others nursed burns ranging from minor to tragic about their person. Bishop Arthgal slowly crept to the king’s side, shivering despite the residual heat. In all the years he’d served Letharian, Arthgal had never feared him; until today. The Bishop opened his mouth to speak, but immediately shut it when Letharian’s eyes met his.

“Do I even want to know?” Letharian growled. Arthgal cleared his throat.

“W-W-Well,” he began. “Carleon and Berakiah’s combined forces have managed to quell the beasts for now, although the death toll is hitherto unknown.”

“What MORE?”

“N-Not much beyond what you already know.” Arthgal knew by the look on his face that the King was still far from calm. “Lethar—oh, Your Majesty—I am sure that the prince still lives. I will do all in my power to find him.”

“Your power? You would do well to drop those airs of yours, bishop. I am in no mood!” For a man who’d spent his entire life either living by another’s machinations or contriving his own, it rattled Letharian a great deal to not know what was happening. Arthgal was himself far less composed than usual, in part because he could no longer predict the King’s own thoughts, or, as it apparently seemed, rely on his good graces moving forward.

“Well? Have you anything else?”

“Y-Yes, of-of course. Ahem. I do know that the Festival guests—those that survived, mind you—are not at all pleased by these…developments. The Bokanites in particular—”

As if on cue, the large doors to the throne room were thrown open with such force they shot off their hinges. A massive axe flew from beyond the opening, and landed directly in front of the throne—only narrowly missing Bishop Arthgal.

“Deceiver!” boomed Chief Berylian’s monstrous voice. “By what manner of your accursed sorceries have you slain my son?” The giant marched, unattended, directly forward, passing the great distance towards the throne in mere moments. Letharian’s face contorted in a vicious scowl as he launched out of his throne and descended the stairs of his platform. The heat from before seemed an evening breeze compared to what now coated the King’s ferocious person.

“You speak of things you know nothing of, Bokanite!” he roared. “T’was not you only who lost an heir this day!”

“What then do you say in your defense, worm? Why do our sons, along with countless others of my brothers lie dead? What were those creatures, if not beasts conjured by your putrid magics?”

“Stay your blubbering; I know little more than you. My troops spoke of a beast prowling about my city, and that only once before. Not even I anticipated a force like unto that horrid swarm!”

“…You knew, then? YOU KNEW, AND BREATHED NOT A WORD!” Berylian slammed his fists into the polished floors with an intense roar; cracks spread from the places of impact until they ran up the very walls. Letharian immediately unleashed his own unbridled fury, growing three times his normal height whilst cloaked in flames that would’ve outshone the Sun.

“Swill your rage, giant! Lest you forget before whose throne you stand!”

Berylian reared up to Letharian’s enflamed form and stared him square in the eyes.

“Elinwynn will pay for this! MARK! MY! WORDS!” The chief then thundered past the ruined palace doors, neglecting to retrieve his axe. Letharian exhaled heavily, before eyeing the axe. He spat in its direction.

“It is war, then!”

Tybalt awoke with a forceful jerk, his shoulder aching terribly. He noticed with alarm that he was in a room that was completely unfamiliar to him: the bed he lay in was far too large, and covered with thick wool blankets; candles hung on the walls, illuminating the room so that Tybalt saw the elaborate carvings of the Sun-God’s serpentine body bordering the room on all sides; finally, the Branch Family crest, which usually hung right over the entrance of his room, was replaced with the Maw of Shinkitu—the Main Family’s crest.

“Where am I? What is—” Tybalt was interrupted by a tug on his sleeve. He looked to his right, where his sister Maerrowen knelt by the foot of his bed. Her face was streaked with tears.

“You’re alive…you’re alive!” Maerrowen threw her arms around her brother’s waist, clinging to him like they hadn’t seen each other in an age.


“I’m so glad… We thought…we thought…” Tybalt placed an arm around his sister tenderly.

“What happened?” he asked.

“The short version is that the Festival is ruined,” said another, lighter voice with a natural smugness that instantly marked it as Terrowin’s. “And that you’ve been asleep for almost a week.” The youth reclined in a chair adjacent to Tybalt’s bed, looking bored as he read from a book much too big for him.

“A week? That’s…give me the long version!”

“Alright, fine.” Terrowin closed his book, then sighed like life itself was a bothersome trifle. “The Festival is ruined, because of an unforeseen attack by a swarm of monsters.”

It was then that everything rushed back to Tybalt in painful, stinging fragments:

He stood, swords drawn, between his brother and sister and a monstrosity that could only have come straight from the Abyss: it looked like an unholy cross between a bull and a lion, but with serpent-like eyes and untold amounts of putrid tendrils protruding from odd places. All around him were wails and screams of High- and Lowborn alike, as other, more grotesque creatures laid into them with sharp claws and crooked fangs. Tybalt rushed at the monster with a shout of aggression, then everything went black…

“I remember…” Tybalt muttered, clutching his head. “Where are we?”

“Oh, that? We’re in Lorrok, brother! The King’s own palace!”

“This is no time for your games!” Tybalt shot to his feet, fully intending to throttle the truth from Terrowin’s sly mouth. However, Maerrowen did all she could to hold him back.

“It’s true, Tybalt!” she yelled. “We were brought here as soon as it was safe to move you!” Knowing that his sister was the last person that would lie to him, as well as feeling a sharp pain in his shoulder, Tybalt laid back down.

“Fine! Tell me why we’re here, then.”

“Well, that’s…I think it’s better we show you. The servants left this for when you awoke.” Terrowin pointed to a set of garments that were neatly folded and set on another chair at the front of the room. Tybalt’s eyes widened, both with shock and unyielding rage; besides the usual linen undergarments, the clothes left for him were crimson robes trimmed with gold, accompanied by a golden circlet with two rubies at the center.

“Is this the Royals’ idea of a joke?” Tybalt said, scarily quiet. He shook with such rage that Maerrowen fell backwards in fear. “They choose now, to mock me? They will pay for this! Ten—no, one-hundredfold!”

“Brother, please!” Maerrowen sobbed. “There’s something else…

“Out with it, then!”

“Our cousin…is dead.”

“That’s—what? What did you just say, Maerrowen?”

“She said the prince is dead, Tybalt!” Terrowin shouted, his own rage kindled. Silence came over the room, creeping over every inch of free space. Tybalt, still in a state of shock, looked down at his cowering sister.

“I’m sorry, little one,” he said, absently. He then slowly stood to his feet, and immediately walked to the chair bearing his new garments. Tybalt could not help but let a devilish smile crease his otherwise handsome features.

“This isn’t how I pictured it…but it seems Shinkitu’s favor shines upon us, at last!”

Ephraim slowly opened his eyes, but a dull haze numbed his senses. He felt exceedingly distant, like the flame of his soul had grown dim. Swirling all about him were those same flurries of starlight to which he had become so accustomed. Like before, they tossed him back and forth in a rhythmic fashion. Unlike before, the prince felt himself sinking; as though whatever force he’d always felt dragging him down had gotten a firm hold on him this time. He sunk ever deeper into the sea of multicolored bliss, feeling alarmingly comfortable with it.

It was then that the prince heard the chimes of a bell echo through the lights. His eyes drifted lazily towards the noise; he noticed that he was not alone. For, above him loomed what looked like a large woman clad in violet robes. Though a hood concealed her face, Ephraim could see the black hair that flowed freely down to her shoulders. Two sets of black-feathered wings—one protruding above her shoulders, the other below—adorned her form in graceful fashion. The woman swayed along with him in the luminous waves, moving closer with every ebb and flow. This did not alarm him, though; rather, he maintained a comfortable detachment to the entire experience, such that he completely gave himself to the waves. As he stared dispassionately at the woman, Ephraim saw her reach her hands towards him expectantly.

Ephraim continued to sink beneath the colors, until they all blended into one; darkness covered the reaches of his vision, while the bells chimed with vigor. Just as he was going to close his eyes and give himself to the Darkness, the woman clasped Ephraim’s arm of her own accord. He felt her tug at him, ripping him from the Darkness’s grasp. All of the colors swirled anew as the prince felt himself rise above the waves. Still, he closed his eyes, falling into what he thought would be a deep slumber…

Ephraim jolted into awareness violently, and he shot up with breath both haggard and laboring. His eyes fixed on what little light they could, yet with the violent upward motion he could scarcely make anything out.

“W-Where?” he tried to say. Ephraim’s ears rang painfully as his aching body immediately gave out, sending him right back unto the cold, hard ground. The pain in his side made him squeal, but what truly jarred him were his memories—which, though very hazy, presently caught up with him. The Festival; grotesque creatures attacked the Coliseum! Worse still, he was mauled by that miserable, disproportionate beast! Ephraim’s muscles tensed painfully as he again tried in vain to stand. It was all he could do to roll unto his back. As he lay catching his breath, all Ephraim could see in the dim candlelight were curved rock walls, like those of a cave. And as far as he could tell, he was alone.

The sound of skittering feet, along with the ambient glow of a torch startled the prince. He quickly sat up, then tried his utmost to stand. Failing that, he propped himself against one of the walls and cleared his throat loudly. The footfalls ceased, as did the torchlight’s methodical approach.

“Who goes there?” Ephraim labored. He surprised himself with how hoarse he sounded. “Show yourself!” The torch went out, and whomever stood there scurried hurriedly in the other direction. Ephraim pushed himself against the wall in an effort to stand, but pain shot through his side. The bindings on his wound grew wet with fresh blood, yet he persisted. Anything was better than stewing alone in the dark.

Ephraim was instantly grateful for that little candle in the other chamber, for even its miniscule light had permitted him some sense of place. But now, he was met with nothing but a wall of blackness so thick he could scarcely discern anything within or without. With a deep breath he conjured a single flame in his palm. Ephraim then shoved along the wall until he felt his legs regain a measure of strength, at which point he staggered to his feet.

The prince managed to walk at a fairly brisk pace, though he knew not where he was going. His flame had managed to pierce through the blackness, but only just. Ephraim was quite certain that, had he possessed another hand, it would take a miracle for him to discern it from anything else in this accursed tunnel. Even so, he could swear he spied a form disappearing around the corner. The prince sped up his pursuit.

“Wait!” he called out, right as he turned the corner. Ephraim’s already pale countenance grew white. At least five pairs of eyes stared back at him blankly. These eyes were unnatural; more like orbs of smoldering onyx, devoid of any pupils or irises to speak of. Ephraim dropped his flame and turned to run, only to strike what felt like a chilled slab of marble. He then felt two massive arms wrap around him, followed by a dizzying motion which could only have been some brute slinging the prince over his shoulder.

“Unhand me!” Ephraim yelled, worsening the growing ache in his throat. He flailed about madly, doing all he could to break from the brute’s grasp—clawing, punching, kicking—to no avail. The prince even tried magic. His mind recalled every offensive spell he’d ever been taught; all but one of them could cause the tunnel to cave in on itself, or otherwise flood it with so much fire even he would perish. That lone, ordinarily benign spell was perfect for this situation: Ephraim began emitting scorching levels of heat from every part of his body, hoping to grow so hot so fast that the brute would have no choice but to let him go.

Whatever hope Ephraim sowed into his current plan of escape was completely dashed. Even though the brute’s skin sizzled and cracked, he remained unmoved. The prince was dumbfounded; not only did he maintain a methodical stride, he didn’t even utter a single grunt of discomfort! All he could do now was resort to the weapon of his tongue.

“Don’t you know who I am? Prince Ephraim, firstborn of Letharian, King of Elinwynn!” Nothing. “My father will have your head, you hear me!” Ephraim called the brute every vulgar name he’d ever heard, which, admittedly, was not a long list; the brute remained undaunted. He spat a torrent of insults he’d have been ashamed of if he wasn’t so angry; his captor drudged on unchangingly. With a flustered sigh, Ephraim begrudgingly sheathed the blade of his tongue, having proved itself dull.

“Where in Shinkitu’s name am I? Where are you taking me?” the prince muttered, without any expectation of an answer.

“Home,” came the elongated and exceedingly dull response. This so shocked Ephraim that he involuntarily stiffened. At this point he’d thought the brute deaf, or otherwise impaired! If it weren’t so dark, one could have seen the redness in Ephraim’s cheeks.

Silence prevailed until rays of light shone from somewhere ahead. They illuminated the dark tunnel, bathing both Ephraim and the Brute in a welcome warmth.

The tunnel’s end came mere seconds later. The light burned Ephraim’s dark-adjusted eyes; he hardly had time to process, however, for the Brute just as swiftly set down and then pushed Ephraim into the torch-lit room with an oversized hand. This, the prince abided, if simply because it was less demeaning than being carried—not to mention the brute’s considerable bulk. But that didn’t mean he was at all content with the situation; his face bore the most indignant expression it was capable of.

The Brute ushered the prince forwards with another, surprisingly gentle nudge. A supremely irritated Ephraim turned with a scowl, getting a glimpse of his assailant: the Brute looked like a man both tall and broad, if a bit top-heavy; he possessed wrinkled skin both pale and grey; strands of black hair fell around a broad face, stopping at an equally thick neck; he was completely bare-chested, with only a loincloth coating his nether-regions; finally, the blackish-red orbs that passed for his eyes shone brightly in the light.

“What are you?” Ephraim asked, eying the brute’s scorched shoulder. The Brute simply stared vacantly with his shoulders slumped.

“Oh, do forgive him,” spoke a voice from behind. “He is a trifle slow, I’m afraid.” The voice was a woman’s; smooth and fine, with a soothing edge coating every syllable. Ephraim spun around whilst retaining an affectedly irritated scowl, only to drop it in favor of a puzzled stare. Before him stood a woman slightly shorter than Ephraim himself, and who wore a patchwork of cloths shaped like a modest gown over her very thin build. She, like the Brute, possessed skin of an exceedingly pale grey, while her hair was a deep black; unlike the Brute, both her skin and hair were of a much smoother and delicate sort. Her eyes were nothing short of dazzling, like polished orbs of ruby. They, too, bore neither pupil nor iris, such that Ephraim could not tell exactly where she was looking—which unnerved him more than he would like to acknowledge.

“Slow is an understatement” the prince growled. “Where is this? Tell me!”

“I’ll never tell,” the Girl giggled. She smiled at him playfully, almost patronizingly so.

Ephraim’s patience had run so thin it would snap with a bad breeze. He wanted to explode, but didn’t. In fact, he’d resolved not to. Something about this girl’s presence was off, so much so that he felt more uncomfortable than angry. What’s more, the Brute still lumbered over him like an oppressive shadow.

“Fine. Tell me, then, who are you?”

“Who I am doesn’t matter,” the Girl said, clasping her hands behind her like a child.

“Then what does matter?”

“All will be revealed in time, Prince Ephraim.”

The prince shuddered; the Girl’s tone had gone from playful to unbelievably cold in an instant. The Brute shoved him forwards almost on cue, this time with much more aggression. If Ephraim wasn’t certain before, he was now; whoever these strange people were, he was their prisoner.

The solemn trio traveled down a surprisingly short tunnel, which lead to a wide and relatively open chamber. Two torches were mounted at the entrance; other than that, nothing lit the chamber, which looked more like a cavern with every fresh glance. The back of the cavern housed an elevated slab of rock, which lead into the mouth of yet another tunnel. This is all Ephraim had time to survey as the Brute gave him another forceful nudge. The prince spun around with a scornful glance, then begrudgingly trudged forwards.

“We’re here,” the Girl cooed.

“Hmph. Now what?”

“You’ll see.” The girl’s voice again turned cold, sending a chill down Ephraim’s spine. The prince mumbled some half-hearted threat, but stiffened when he heard the Brute growl his discontent.

From out of the blackness above the rock platform echoed the light chimes of a bell, followed by what Ephraim recognized as incense flooding the dim chamber. The prince almost asked what was happening, again, but right as he opened his mouth a hunched figure clothed in hooded violet robes, clutching a long stave topped with three skulls—one of a man, another of a large crow, and the third of a goat, all of which had small bells attached to them—emerged from the blackness beyond.

“Elder,” the Girl said, bowing slightly. Even the Brute grunted whilst nodding as respectfully as was possible for one of his ilk.

“This…is he?” croaked the Elder.

Before Ephraim could even think, he was face-to-face with this so-called Elder; it was like he’d warped from the platform to meet him!

The Elder reached out a shriveled hand that sorely needed its nails trimmed. Ephraim batted it away on instinct; the Brute was upon him instantly, his large hands subduing the prince violently. The Elder waved his hand discouragingly. The brute growled, but loosened his hold on Ephraim’s thin frame nonetheless. The Elder again reached out to touch Ephraim’s face, then his chest. The prince shuddered internally, both with rage and intense discomfort.

“Yes, yes,” the Elder mumbled. “Yes, indeed. He is undoubtedly one of us.”

“Delightful!” the Girl giggled.

“What?” Ephraim asked. “What do you mean? What does he mean?”

“We’ll take him to his room immediately. With your leave, Elder.” The Elder nodded his hooded head, and was gone within the blink of an eye.

“Wait! What’s the meaning of—” The Brute scooped Ephraim up in his bulky arms yet again, ignoring the panicked inquiries laced with curses streaming from the prince’s mouth.

The Brute must have run out of patience, for he flung Ephraim down unto the rock floor as soon as the trio exited the tunnel to reach another, notably smaller chamber. The prince immediately scrambled to his feet, venom on his lips, only to be pushed forcefully into the stone wall. He fell in a heap next to what must have been a bed constructed of stone, with a single cloth for warmth.

“Welcome to Kalonnde, Ephraim,” the Girl said, smiling widely. “I hope we can become great friends!” With that, the Brute hauled a massive stone over the chamber’s entrance, cutting off what little light emanated from the tunnel’s torches. Ephraim let out a roar of frustration as he rushed towards the stone with a balled fist.

“Let me out this instant! You can’t do this; I’m the prince! You hear me! You have no right to…” He banged and banged on the stone until he sprained his wrist, then fell back with a hopeless cry. Silence encroached upon the dark chamber, and for the first time since regaining consciousness Ephraim’s mind cleared. His anger waned, whilst confusion swallowed up every other emotion.

That’s when it hit him: he was alone. No servants. No guards. No Merrah.

Until this moment Ephraim thought himself a man; strong, stoic, unwavering in the face of danger. Anything but dependent upon anyone. Yet, with the realization that he was trapped in a strange place he’d never been, without a single ally to speak of, Ephraim couldn’t contain himself. He’d never felt fear like this before. When the prince felt tears welling up in his eyes, he bristled against the cold stone and curled himself into a ball. What was he, a prince far from home, to do now?

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