Rise of the Horned King

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Chapter 9: Forward

The first thing he did was cut his hair. As soon as Ephraim severed the first strand, he felt liberated.

“You’re right, Millicent,” he said. “This is cathartic.” Millicent, who stood behind Ephraim to hold his hair, beamed with joy.

“Of course I am! One’s appearance is crucial to overall health and well-being. You can’t find yourself while hating the way you look, after all!”

Ephraim snipped away until his hair met the appropriate length. He then leaned over the pool of spring water carved from the earth in front of him. What were once his long and oh-so-precious locks now barely fell past his ears. Ephraim grinned; he’d always hated wearing it long, especially in a braid. Oh yes, he much preferred it this way.

Ephraim’s smile disappeared the longer he admired his reflection. His horns, which were nothing more than stubs a short two moons ago, had grown until no amount of hair could conceal them. No wonder he’d had so many headaches; he’d gone through a number of growth spurts! Millicent must have seen the sad glint in his eyes, for she was quick to place her hand on Ephraim’s shoulder reassuringly.

“You may look and act a little different, even from us,” she said. “But that doesn’t matter. We’re family now.” She then placed her chin on his shoulder, so that both of their reflections occupied the pool’s surface. Though his body tingled with slight discomfort, Ephraim abided Millicent’s rather, affectionate display.

“You know, I was always told—in vague terms, mind you—that my life would be a never-ending series of trials. Until now, I’d thought my body itself the first and greatest of these…” Ephraim unconsciously grasped the nub below his left shoulder. “But I suppose things are much different from what I’ve been told.” The two passed a moment in silence, whilst Ephraim stared longingly into the pool.

“I don’t know if it’ll make you feel better, but whoever made you did a very good job.”

“W-What do you mean?” Ephraim blushed at the sudden compliment.

“I mean, look at you; you breathe, sleep, even bleed—just like a man! And, forgive me for assuming, but you even ate normal food before coming here, right?”

“Yes, but—”

“I knew it! Why, as far as I’m concerned, you’re the most perfect Ghoul I’ve ever seen!”

“I, um…” Ephraim was, understandably, at a loss for words. He still did not quite like being called a Ghoul, but that was not what bothered him the most. Ephraim hadn’t noticed it before, but she was right; he had yet to hear any of Millicent’s people breathing, and still had many questions regarding that elixir. Even still, Ephraim chose to brush his worries aside for the time being.

“Ah, I see. I’m just a pretty face, then. Is that why you took me in the first place?” Millicent giggled along with Ephraim as he chuckled softly.

“Well, to answer your question seriously, I’m not really sure,” she said. “It’s not like I was the one who brought you here.”

“Wait, you aren’t? Then who?”

“Oh, that would be Koz and old No-Name.”

“Huh? You mean—” Memories leapt jarringly to the forefront of Ephraim’s mind. He recalled a hazy vision of a large man grappling that horrid Creature, black armor flashing beneath his cloak.

“You mean that brute—pardon me—that well-endowed gentleman travelled all the way to Elinwynn? For what?”

“Hmm…you’d have to ask Koz. They don’t tell me much of the surface.”

The thought of the Brute going anywhere, or doing anything requiring even the most rudimentary level of intelligence made Ephraim’s head hurt. But even more so, he felt a pang of guilt arise in his gut.

“That means I owe him an apology, as well.”

“I can take you to him, if you want.” Millicent, still resting her chin on Ephraim’s shoulder, beamed with a joyous smile. “Koz too. He may be able to tell you what they were doing there in the first place.”

“Yes, if it isn’t too much trouble.”

“Not at all.” Millicent shot to her feet energetically, followed by Ephraim’s methodical movements.

Ephraim caught himself admiring the way Millicent walked; she skipped along like a child, yet her hips swayed as with practiced grace. It took little time for Ephraim to realize what he was doing, and he quickly looked away with a slight blush. When did he start seeing Millicent as a girl, and not just some odd-looking stranger? No matter; he brushed that thought aside as they continued down the tunnel.

As Millicent had told him, Kalonnde’s Hub consisted of the wide, open base of the Chasm itself. Ephraim gazed on in awe at the way the torches, mounted on each tunnel’s exit, lit up the canyon’s imposing rock walls. Yet he could not help but wonder if this was solely for his sake. Surely the Ghouls, most likely accustomed to the dark, could make do without light. All the more reason for Ephraim to be apologetic; they’d done so much for him, and just so he would be comfortable!

“Come on!” Millicent called. To Ephraim’s surprise, she had already bounded across the rock walkway, stopping only when she realized he wasn’t right behind her.

The duo walked deeper into the hub of Kalonnde, running into what little traffic was to be had. Ghouls entered and exited the various tunnels dully, most engaged in some activity or other. Of these, none moved more deliberately than those heading towards a tunnel much larger and wider than any Ephraim had seen thus far. Most walked with pickaxes slung over their shoulders, while others carted trollies either empty or full to the brim with crystals the shape of spearheads, and the same color as Millicent’s eyes. Ephraim almost asked why they were doing this, but decided against it.

‘One thing at a time,’ he told himself.

After traversing yet another tunnel, they at last came to what Millicent told Ephraim was the nameless Ghoul’s private chamber. Ephraim heard what sounded like metal being pounded unto a hard surface, right as a heatwave wafted past his face.

“Is he?” Ephraim pondered.

“We all need something to occupy us down here,” Millicent said, with a giggle. “No-Name’s quite the smith, if you asked me.”

‘Quite the fighter too, if I remember correctly,’ Ephraim thought.

“Helloooooo! It’s us! May we come in?” The pounding ceased, followed by the sizzling sound of hot metal being plunged into water. The deep rumble of an affirmative grunt echoed from within the large chamber, which Millicent took as permission. She reached to grab Ephraim’s arm, then caught herself. Although, he did not seem to mind as much this time, and actually motioned for her to continue—which she did with glee.

The no-named Ghoul pounded away at a massive sheet of metal, with an even larger hammer in his meaty hand. He glanced up as Millicent entered with her arms wrapped around Ephraim’s, then plunged the red-hot metal back into the makeshift trough next to his anvil. All kinds of weapons lined the walls of the chamber, including a greatsword that looked like its top half was eaten away by some form of acid. But what caught Ephraim’s eye was the large set of black armor, set on a rack in the corner of the room.

’He is the one who saved me!’

The nameless Ghoul continued his work as if they weren’t there, taking up the wet sheet of metal and placing it in the furnace behind him.

“Ahem,” Ephraim cleared his throat. No-Name paused, then focused his eyes on Ephraim’s significantly smaller form. His face was, as always, completely expressionless.

“I wanted to apologize for my behavior,” Ephraim announced. “As well as thank you for what you did in Elinwynn. I surely would’ve perished if not for your intervention.”

“…Was…Koz plan…”

“You have my thanks, nonetheless.”

“…Forge, I must…” the nameless Ghoul mumbled, then turned his back to Ephraim. Before he could say anything else, Millicent placed a hand on Ephraim’s shoulder.

“We should go,” she said.

As they walked down the tunnel and back towards the Hub, Millicent did not seem bothered in the least; the same could not be said of Ephraim, whose face twitched with irritation. He could not tell if the Brute hated him, or if he was just as dismissive of everyone else.

“Don’t worry, he isn’t very personable. Especially with strangers.” It was like Millicent had read his mind. “Still, you managed to make him talk; that’s a feat in itself!”

“If you say so.”

The duo strode down the tunnel until they again reached the Hub, noticeably busier than before.

“Do you still wish to see Koz? He’s probably in the mine.”

“Of course. While we’re on the subject, what are those crystals used for?”

“Oh, many things. But I know you mean the most pertinent uses. We mostly crush them up for our elixir, but they’re also a prime component in making new Ghouls.”

“Making new—” Ephraim paused, remembering the Elder had mentioned something of the subject. “Nevermind. May I ask what the elixir is for?”

“As I’m sure you’ve noticed, it makes for a great meal,” Millicent smirked. “More specifically, it makes for our only meal down here. We can’t really digest anything else.”

“Ah, so that’s it, is it?” It now made since why Millicent was so excited by Ephraim’s simple ability to eat. It also further proved that, no matter how much he may deny it, Ephraim really was a Ghoul—which may sound less and less terrible each time he said it, but he still couldn’t bring himself to fully accept it.

Once he and Millicent cleared the opening, careful to avoid blocking the ever-present traffic, Ephraim’s mouth hung agape. The mine was much larger on the inside than he previously thought; the already exceedingly wide tunnel opened up into an even wider base, which lead to several smaller tunnels carved out of the purple-tinged earth. Lining each and every wall were those same crystals Ephraim saw before, strangely untouched by the miners as they trudged back and forth. Ephraim decided that these were for show, and thought no more on the subject.

Millicent lead Ephraim to the very back of the mine, where a lone Ghoul sat on a rock reading what Ephraim recognized as a book of spells—complete with runes on the spine. Unlike the others Ephraim had seen, this Ghoul was completely bald.

“Greetings Koz,” Millicent called. “Taking a break, are we?”

The bald Ghoul did not look up from his book, instead giving a half-hearted wave.

“Yes, yes, I know. The crystals won’t mine themselves.” Koz then looked up irritably, before cocking his head in puzzlement. “Oh, you’ve brought the visitor.”

“Why, yes. This is Ephraim. Ephraim, this is Koz.”

“N-Nice to make your acquaintance?” Ephraim said. The bald Ghoul’s resigned manner unnerved him. It was as if his mind was elsewhere, and did not appreciate being shackled in conversation.

“Likewise. What brings you two here, if I may?”

“Well, first I would like to thank you. I’m told you and, No-Name were the ones who came to my rescue.”

“Oh, that? Think nothing of it.” Koz waved a lanky hand dismissively, his voice dull and vacant. Like with No-Name, Ephraim didn’t know whether to be flattered or offended.

“There is something else, though. If you don’t mind me asking, why were you two in Elinwynn to begin with?”

“Hmm…that’s a rather complicated question.” Koz rubbed his hand over his bald head, then shut his book. “Let’s see…ah, I should mention that we Ghouls send scouts to the surface. We like to remain slightly informed of the happenings around us.”

“But why Elinwynn? That’s quite the trek, if I’m informed correctly. There has to be some other reason.”

Millicent almost interjected; that’s when she saw the grave expression on Ephraim’s face. This was, after all, Ephraim’s most pressing concern, and it just may affect his decision to stay in Kalonnde. The thought of Ephraim leaving both shocked and unnerved her, causing Millicent to almost lose control of her tongue.

“Since you’ll be staying awhile, I suppose there’s no harm in telling you. The Elder and I, as well as the rest of Kalonnde’s mages, are very acquainted with our Father’s magics. We can feel it, if you will, oozing from everything it gives life. Now, we usually don’t interfere with outsiders, but when I felt Father’s magic on you, I knew we couldn’t just leave you there.”

“I get the feeling this wasn’t the plan.”

“Quite astute of you, Ephraim. No, you are not the reason we traveled all the way to Elinwynn. There was, is a cloud of magic hovering over Elinwynn so dark, and so potent that we sense it—even leagues away.”

“But that means—”

“Yes. If we can sense it, then it is undoubtedly a manifestation of Father’s magic—albeit revoltingly distorted. I was tasked with scouting forward, in hopes of discovering its source.”

“What in Shinkitu’s name could—those creatures! You don’t think…” Ephraim’s voice trailed off. Millicent placed her arms around Ephraim’s pained shoulders, while Koz rubbed his head again.

“It’s hard to tell. Their little frenzy made it too dangerous to stay behind, though it did give us a chance to take you. I had hoped to talk with you concerning the subject eventually, which is part of the reason we brought you here in the first place. But judging by your reaction you know even less than we do.”

In that moment Ephraim could feel his vision blurring. The Creature’s vicious maw flared before his mind’s eye, followed by the sudden recollection of those hideous screeches. If that were not enough, he could feel heat rising from his chest. He cursed through clenched teeth, then fell to his knees despite Millicent’s efforts to support him.

You won’t get anywhere holding it in like that!

Ephraim thought he heard the booming voice of…Kimshoko?

Let it out, boy! Only then can you be rid of it for good!

The heat travelled up into his throat, making him want to poke his eyes out just to distract himself from the pain.

Let. It. OUT!

“Fine!” Ephraim opened his mouth to scream. What followed were not words, but crimson flames! They poured forth from Ephraim’s mouth in a torrent, curling and spreading outwards as they came in contact with the rock below. Both Millicent and Koz were forced to swiftly exit the chamber, rushing through the tunnel whilst calling out for everyone else to do the same.

The flames would not cease pouring from Ephraim’s mouth, burning his throat and scorching the rest of his body’s fair skin. All of his thoughts of panic and sensations of pain were drowned by the same cursed thought as it reverberated through his mind:

Do not let it consume you! Make it yours to command!

Make it yours to command!

Make it yours to command!

All attempts to scream turned to howls of pain; the flames bore down powerfully, feeling to Ephraim like they were trying to force themselves beneath his very skin.

MAKE. IT. YOURS!

A powerful roar echoed through the entire mine, reaching the Hub in a matter of seconds. Millicent’s body moved on its own, turning from her frantic pace only for Koz to block her with an outstretched arm. She protested fiercely, but all it took was one stern look from the bald Ghoul for her to give up—though she pouted darkly. Millicent’s usually calm, playful demeanor was replaced with such a serious, desperate countenance that even she was alarmed. Meanwhile, the usually tranquil Hub buzzed with the sudden panic. Onlookers murmured with panic and confusion. The crystals were precious enough that not even a minor quake could shake the miners from their posts; just what was going on?

The crimson flames licked at the cavern’s walls, setting the all-important wooden beams ablaze. But before any serious damage could be done, the fire suddenly retreated, like the receding of the tide. The fire settled on a single silhouette walking steadily towards the mine’s entrance, only to disperse as soon as the fire-clad figure stepped from the threshold. The gathering crowd gasped as a young man like nothing they’d seen before stood before them: his muscles were impressively toned, while his skin was a dark mahogany, like he’d had a healthy life in the Sun; a pair of horns the color of polished ivory curved slightly above his ears, standing out amongst the spiky, light red hair which fell no further than his neck, while the fledgling antlers of a yearling faun crowned his temples; finally, his eyes shone a piercing crimson, with slit, reptilian irises. Millicent was the first to call out to him.

“E-Ephraim? Is that you?”

The young man smiled like a tremendous weight had fallen off his shoulders, revealing teeth that were a mix of terrifyingly sharp canines and pointed incisors.

“In the flesh!” Millicent immediately rushed from the crowd and threw her arms around Ephraim’s newly-tanned shoulders. Ephraim patted her on the head, then looked longingly at the barely perceptible sky. Though he hadn’t a clue what just happened, he was now certain of at least one thing: the quest to carve his own path out of life was only just beginning.

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