Torchlight flickered across the throne room, casting shadows that made grown men jump. King Rapheus drew his ermine cloak closer about his shoulders to ward off the cold, but the chill seeped all the way to his core. It seemed like night was falling more quickly than ever lately, and the rate they were burning peat would exhaust the supply well before winter was out. Their reserves were sparse enough as it was, what with the poor harvest this year. His people would suffer greatly, and there was little he could do.
The Court was in full attendance in the drafty hall, though each one wished they could retire to their own warm hearths. But to excuse yourself from a day at Court was to fall that much farther behind in the intrigues of politics, and not one of them was willing to make that sacrifice. They buzzed about the king like tired moths, maneuvering and dealing with petty words and smaller deeds.
All conversations stopped, however, at the slow thunderous knocking on the wooden double doors that framed the far wall. The doors opened slowly, majestically, to reveal the powerful figure of the Champion. Resplendent in shining mail and plate, his polished axe held firmly in one hand, the Champion clanked forward at a measured pace, towering a full head over even the tallest of courtiers. Everything the Champion did was measured and deliberate, it seemed. Never once had any of the courtiers seen him misstep, nor had they ever seen him lose. He was a juggernaut of power and skill, and he was King's Face of Death.
"My Lord," he said simply, bowing his head. Even his voice was powerful, a rumbling thunder generated deep inside a massive chest. "The town of Gentledowns has fallen."
"Fallen, you say?" came the tired but concerned reply. "Have bandits struck again? Or are the Tragars encroaching upon our borders?"
"Neither, My Lord. It is the Briarwood. It grows."
The uproar was immediate from the Court: shouts of protest, shock, or denial. It took all of the king's energy to quiet them with a single shout. "Champion, you are sure of this?"
"Your Majesty, I am sure. The Demon Prince has returned."
"It can't be!" whispered Rapheus, ashen faced and trembling. "We are not prepared. The Court Wizard is... our allies are... the HEROES, good Champion! The Heroes are gone!"
Impassive as always, the Champion watched carefully as the king absorbed the news. At his side, a thin, sallow-faced man with a goatee stood up and strode silently towards the double doors. "Astrologer?" queried the Champion, suspicion clear in his eyes and heavy on his lips.
"Fret not, my dear Champion." The distaste was evidently mutual. "Someone must sound The Call."
You'd heard the stories growing up, but you never believed them. Fanciful tales of castles and knights, warriors and magicians, and the fabled Kingdom of Arancia. The bedtime stories you were told were always passed on with joy and verve, though tinged at times with sorrow and regret. And when you were old enough, you were trained in the arts of war, the arts of survival, and the arts of make believe.
But as the years passed, reality set in and you found yourself firmly rooted in the present. The stories from your childhood drifted away like a tattered fog, and life moved on.
Which is why, on a cold autumn morning, you were very surprised to find out that all those tales your parents told you were true.
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