Finally, he had some time away from his encumbering role as King. Marble City was busy as usual, but for once it seemed to be getting on perfectly fine without him. Vertico wanted to spend time with his sons. His youngest, Terbino, had come of age two days earlier and the eldest, Lokken, was becoming a very intellectual young man. After a glance out the hollow lancet window, King Vertico strolled down one of the many limestone stairs of the castle.
The maids were as courteous as ever, bowing politely as they performed their usual duties. It was clear there were new recruits among their ranks, their faces shying away as he passed. Later he would take the time to settle their nerves. The King had learned that kindness was a hard thing to do sometimes, as strange as that seemed, but the results it produces can be quite staggering. He smiled warmly as two of the newer recruits passed him, each forcing out a nervous smile.
A surge of heat greeted him as he strolled into the luminescent main hall. Flaming torches hung on their charred stone pillars. The walls were red and black, the representative colours of Marble City, colours that dated back to his grandfather’s father’s rule. Red was a colour of intimidation and black was a shade of emptiness in his mind. Such colours did not sit well with him and yet it was part of the castle’s history, who was he to change that.
He beheld the large marble and gold encrusted staircase gracing the end of the hall. Its flights consisted of well chiselled limestone with several polished gold nuggets ingrained into the hard oak rails; a stark reminder of the extravagant rule of his bloodthirsty great grandfather.
At the base of the steps was the Head Councillor named Figoth Mylan. He was a chubby fellow who clearly abused his free food privileges, yet he was such a jovial man. Vertico personally made sure that he rose to the head of the councillors as he was fair and merciful in the courts. The High Councillor was only several years younger than him, and having another aged member of the court present during deliberations made the whole process less tedious.
The man was busy trying to interpret a piece of Sentinel parchment. His rounded face tilted close to it but his confused expression told Vertico he was likely losing his vision. At last he let out a defeated sigh before looking up. A friendly smile quickly replaced the confused look as he spotted his liege.
“Ah... How is my good King this afternoon?” he queried.
“Free for once... I had almost forgotten what it felt like, and how is the High Councillor?” Vertico replied, maintaining his smile.
Mylan gave a defeated grim expression.
“The small things in life can be quite a nuisance. The new calligrapher... Sweet young boy, but I swear to the Greater Good he’s never touched a quill in his life. I’ve tried all morning to decipher his scrawls. It resembles a Hildurian ogre’s breakfast.”
The King smiled in sympathy.
“You’ll decide what is best Mylan, you always do my old friend. Now I best be off, I wish to spend some time with my boys,” Vertico stated cheerfully before making his way to the other side of the hall.
The Head Councillor bowed courteously before faring him well.
Vertico took his time as he left the hall and entered one of the many lengthy corridors. Several old portraits hung upon the walls, depicting harp-carrying harpies and the ancient famous explorer Guldan, standing atop Fheia Summit.
While keeping his purposeful gait, the King came to a fork in the passageway. His face went blank for a moment as his eyes paused on the gloomy right passage. This direction led to the Hall of Kings, a noble place where all of Marble City’s previous kings eternally rested. One day he would join them.
His daydreaming was interrupted as two broad men emerged, one was fully dressed in a guard’s crested armour and the other was his advisor and old battle companion.
“Lost your way in the middle of the hallway again my King?” the advisor said with a cheeky smile. “You’re getting old.”
Vertico couldn’t help but smile back.
“I’m only as old as I feel Elsen... And if I’m counting right you’re more than twice my age,” he replied smugly.
Elsen nodded, smiling.
This was no ordinary man, he looked barely over thirty, yet was roughly one hundred and thirty years of age. At one stage he was Marble City’s finest general, until Vertico asked him to be his personal advisor.
“So what brings you to the middle of this corridor? I would’ve thought you’d be in the Councillor’s Hall listening to Duglio’s attempts to rise up in the ranks.”
Vertico looked down the right passage one last time before replying.
“Mylan has left Curdler in charge of that meeting, and that leaves me time for my boys,” he answered.
The patrol guard was standing at attention the whole time the older veterans chatted. Elsen gave him a gesture of freedom. Quickly, he slipped away from the two.
“Terbino’s just finished his practise for today, learns quickly that boy. He’ll make a good King someday,” the advisor commented.
The King’s eyes narrowed quickly.
“You know as well as I do that right is for Lokken... He is the oldest,” he said in an authority-filled voice. He knew all-to-well this would have no effect on Elsen. The man could wrestle with an ogre or troll and come out on top.
“I think I’ll need to give you some of my ‘advice’ on that one Vertico. I do not wish to upset my King, but you must realise some things about Lokken... Anyway I’ve revised some patrol routes, I best explain them to the guards starting their duties. Terbino was heading to the yard with the archer girl… um Mylan’s Daughter, last time I saw.”
Elsen nodded his head in farewell as he continued to stroll in the opposite direction to his King. What the man had said plagued Vertico’s mind. There was a secret about Lokken that he planned to take to the grave. But... it didn’t matter, the past was the past, Vertico convinced himself as he walked onward.
He knew his way around the castle well, even more so when it came to the secret passageways, these corridors ran throughout his home like a person’s blood lines. One day he would need to tell his sons about them.
He could not help but squint and shelter his eyes when he emerged into the sun’s intense glare. The air was fresh with nature and pollen, bringing back memories of his younger days… days of the war with the ogre tribes.
He felt the squelch of grass under his boots, temporarily forgetting Elsen’s words, as he examined the partially-eroded courtyard walls. Patrolling guards emerged from random trap doors dispersed on top of the walls. Even from where he was standing, he could see their expressionless faces. He made his way towards the hedge maze, there were several benches within that Terbino and the archery girl, Mary, were likely occupying. Mary was an odd girl, not at all feminine. She liked most male hobbies and activities, which was likely the reason his youngest son was close friends with her. Her personality echoed her father’s, but showed far more independence.
The maze took up a vast area within the courtyard. The longer Vertico stared at it, the more it reminded him of the city’s much larger labyrinth far to the south.
As he approached, he heard laughing and sniggering, he recognised Terbino’s amongst them. His son had developed into quite a burly person and with it his voice deepened.
Curious, Vertico marched into the entrance taking several corners and foliose corridors to try to get closer to where he thought Terbino was. It took him very little time to realise he was now utterly lost. A sigh escaped his lips as he looked at the surrounding walls. He retraced his steps to find his elusive son, resulting in another dead end. He had to admit that the architecture of the maze was flawless, everywhere looked identical. It took him a few more moments to discover he was repeating the same circular route, and after more attempts to retrace his steps, he discovered a small central opening. Ivy-covered benches lined the periphery of the area.
He walked forward smiling upon seeing Terbino’s usual group of friends relaxing. His son sat on one of the benches with Mary next to him. Councillor Duglio’s little brother was also there gnawing on a piece of lorn meat. He sat on the ground while listening to his peers chat.
Councillor Curdler’s twins were lying on their backs staring happily up at the sky, gossiping about something that had recently happened in sword class. The twins weren’t identical. One was a boy, the other a girl, both still fifteen years old.
Mary and Terbino were the first to notice the new comer. The rest, who had their backs to Vertico, looked around. Quickly they sat up as though their literature teacher was present. Duglio’s brother was so surprised at the King’s unexpected arrival he threw his snack into the plant wall behind him before folding his arms.
“Father,” Terbino said, standing up. He paused, thinking of something else to say.
“Son,” Vertico replied with a smile. “I do hope I am not interrupting anything...”
Terbino shook his head.
“Of course not, did you have need of me?” he queried expectantly.
The King noticed Mary shuffle away from his son’s side. She obviously did not want him to think she was attracted to the prince.
“I was hoping I could spend some time with you... nothing serious,” Vertico replied.
Duglio’s brother stared up at him with awe-filled eyes; it was as if he were looking up at the Greater Good itself. The twins, however were calm and relaxed, smiling politely and didn’t seem bothered by Vertico’s presence. Mary was tense, but that was likely because she didn’t want to make the wrong impression. Terbino looked around at his friends and waved.
“I’ll be back later. Hendrick, don’t steal my seat!” he ordered, grinning.
The male twin gave a gesture Vertico was not familiar with. Terbino smirked then followed his father out of the opening.
“You know I think you better lead. I wouldn’t have a clue where to go from here,” Vertico commented.
The young prince smiled and happily took charge, shortly they were out on the soft courtyard grass. Resting beneath one of the limestone walls was a cosy bench. Vertico gestured to his son to follow him to it.
Once seated, the King sighed cheerfully, It felt good to be relaxing.
“I have some time off from the city’s affairs so I thought I’d see how things are progressing for you,” he explained.
Terbino raised his head a bit.
“Progressing in what father?”
“Oh, I mean I just wanted to see how you were doing. It must be nearly a month since I’ve had a proper talk to you and Lok,” Vertico answered. “How is sword class? Can you beat your old man yet?”
Terbino looked smug.
“Top of my class... I think I may finally know a way around your famous ‘Hilt guard’,” he replied happily.
“Well let’s go to the arena then my boy,” Vertico suggested, rising with effort.
The prince nodded in enthusiastic agreement.
They walked across the courtyard and through several guarded gates. While strolling to the arena they passed the old barracks where the armoury and blacksmith were once located. The arena was the location where severe law-breaking convicts once fought to death to gain freedom. Since Vertico’s father’s rule, the practise had stopped. The King and prince talked about a great many things as they neared the arena, girls... battles... history, and such. Vertico was surprised to hear that Terbino was starting to look at girls a bit more. The boy was telling him of a ‘goddess-like’ woman who was the daughter of one of the veteran guards, describing her with such passion and lust. Fine blonde hair; smooth skin; extraordinary figure... And so on.
It was a short walk from the old barracks to the arena, about the same length as a typical battle line. Sure enough, as they approached the old arena keeper marched out flailing his withered fist.
“King Vertico! I am thoroughly disappointed in you. You should not be out here by yourself, where are your bodyguards?” the keeper yelled.
The King rolled his eyes. This man was well aged and frail yet he had the opinions of a conquesting Torkilian.
“My son will be my bodyguard today,” Vertico answered with a wink; making the lad puff up, clearly proud of the temporary title.
“That may be very well and good, but I tell you there are malicious things in this world and I promise to the Greater Good they’ll be more than happy to remove you from the physical plane,” the keeper grumbled. “Well I suppose it’s up to me to make sure you’re safe. Your father would be rolling around in his grave.”
The way this old gentleman went on was quite baffling. He was about twenty years older than Vertico... that made it even more unbelievable that he was even standing upright.
“I think granddad would be rolling around in laughter if anything,” Terbino whispered to his father.
The King grinned, nodding in agreement.
“Very well Ian. You may be my bodyguard for the time being,” he conceded, as if giving the man a great honour.
“You may be King, Vertico, but I am still Keeper Ianolus to you! Now, why are you here?” the elderly gent barked.
It was clear that Terbino was finding this man quite rude... And to act in such a manner to a King seemed unspeakable. Vertico simply smiled and walked forward.
“My son and I wish to practise in your arena.”
“Do you now? Well you won’t be using those sharp things in your belts. I won’t be responsible for the death of the King or the prince. I’ll get some of my duelling blades,” Ianolus grumbled, before whipping around and marching into a small hut located on the periphery of the arena.
The two nobles strode into the middle of the sandy area. The King was quick to disrobe leaving himself in his under garments. Terbino was not wearing the usual royal robes; instead he had on casual higher class garments that were unlikely to restrict his movement.
The King was quite bulky for a man of his nobility and even more so for a man of his age. Usually time would weather away muscle tone but it seemed he was lucky enough to escape that process.
“It will be interesting to see how the sword moves have changed since I was classed,” he commented happily to his son.
Ianolus soon emerged holding a rusty sharp axe and two duelling swords. He limped over to them.
“If I see any stupid moves... I’ll take these off you in a second,” he warned.
“What’s the axe for Ian?” Vertico questioned with interest.
Ian’s eyes narrowed.
“My name is Ianolus, Vertico. And this axe... it’s to make sure you two stay safe from any possible assassination attempts,” he replied gruffly.
The King chuckled but quickly converted it into a cough.
Both royal men grabbed their weapons and inspected them. The edges were spurred and relatively thick. It would be incredibly hard to slice anything with them. The points were rounded off to the shape of a typical gold coin. With the force of two trolls it might be possible to skewer a sack of grain but otherwise these weapons could only cause bruises.
“Alright you young’ens; anything above the neck will result in an instant disqualification. I want to see some good skill now. Fight!” Ianolus yelled with a sudden burst of cheerfulness.
The two quickly began circling. Foot work was the most important asset in any form of fighting and both their stances formed an ‘L’ shape. In this stance a person was both sturdy and manoeuvrable. Terbino twirled the sword around his fingers fluently. He faked an attack to Vertico’s torso then quickly whipped it down towards the King’s shins. Vertico remained quite still, the only action he took was to raise his leg so that the prince’s blade whistled harmlessly passed. In retaliation, Vertico guided his blade towards Terbino’s right shoulder. The prince managed to dodge the blow by shrinking to the left. Vertico noted that his son’s footwork was very good. The boy’s entire body shifted to the left as his left leg moved forward. This made his unequipped left hand the lead.
Many inexperienced fighters thought an empty hand had little use in combat... however used well it could be a better asset than any weapon. Terbino kept his leading hand out as if using it to predict future strikes, limiting Vertico’s options. There was the choice of a corkscrew strike, an upper thigh slash, or he could change his stance to mimic his son’s. This would potentially allow the King the chance to grab Terbino’s left arm and use it to manipulate against upper body attacks.
The prince was on the defensive, his sword in line with his body instead of in front. This was a dangerous place to be if he wasn’t quick enough to glance away possible thrusts... Although if he did manage it, he could grab the sword’s pommel and there was nothing his father could do then. Both nobles mapped out possible moves as if playing a game of logic in their heads.
Once again their blades clashed. Vertico faked a corkscrew strike to the centre of Terbino’s chest and his son took the bait. Aggressively the boy attempted to shunt the blade away. At the same time the King stepped forward, dipping his weapon down by his side. As Terbino’s blade shunted nothing but air, the King swirled the duelling sword over his shoulder to slash across the prince’s now exposed chest. Something Vertico did not count on was Terbino’s free hand, which he used to grab the pommel of the weapon’s hilt, leaving Terbino’s blade the only one free for attack. To make a strike it would require the prince to either make a long twirl which would allow his father time to recover, or he could cross over his arms. This move was strictly forbidden in sword class, but it would provide the perfect thrust into the King’s stomach.
Terbino decided quickly, crossing over his arms, pushing the point of his weapon towards his father’s exposed stomach. Vertico knew exactly what his son would do before he did, and had set up a trap for just the occasion. Crossing over your hands for the quick kill looks inviting but there is a reason why the experienced fighters don’t do it. Vertico had his leg and knee out ready. As Terbino brought the point downwards, Vertico stepped to the left, then with all of his might threw the prince over his outstretched right leg. Terbino’s thrust attack propelled the King’s throw, the young prince awkwardly toppling over his father’s leg, landing with a thump on the sand. In a show of victory, the King tapped Terbino’s chest with his blade.
The fight was quick and there was no pain involved. Vertico offered his hand for his son to grab, which Terbino accepted while Ianolus applauded.
“I see you still have it Vertico,” he shouted, some distance back. The King gave a wave of thanks then pulled his son from the ground.
“You crossed your hands Terb,” he stated.
“Yeah, I know,” the prince replied, looking disappointed.
“It is very easy to manipulate an opponent when they cross themselves up. In that fight you defeated you, I just helped,” Vertico continued. “Care for another round?”
Terbino nodded with a smile.
“Always keen to spend quality time with you father.”
Again they readied themselves into the correct battle position and distance. Each following fight did not take long. Terbino would get steadily closer to winning however Vertico, with many years of practise and training, was always one step ahead of him. He was the best combatant in Marble City after all... except for perhaps Elsen, who was by far the most extraordinary fighter he’d ever seen.
After the fifteenth battle, Terbino puffed out a retreat. He was a very fit boy but he had never been in a real battle before. Vertico had had his fair share in Shining Forest against the ogres, who were immensely strong and merciless. The only benefit was that he was far more agile than them, as strength meant nothing if it was manipulated against its wielder. The royal sword fighting classes were crucial to his success in the field.
Vertico smiled as he walked to the arena wall, leaning against them with a sigh of relief. Ianolus collected the swords and shuffled back to the cabin.
“You fight well my boy. Only thing is you are too enthusiastic to get into it. I can assure you that in a real fight the opposite feeling will occur. Although you use your legs well. There were many times you could throw me, but that is something you’ll learn in time,” Vertico said.
Terbino nodded in agreement whilst puffing.
The sun was between the horizon and the middle of the sky. It was nearing nightfall, and Vertico let out one last sigh before pushing off the wall and collecting his sandy robes.
“I’d better head off to see Lok. And no doubt you want to get back to your friends,” he stated, walking towards the gate. The King gave Ianolus a final farewell before continuing up the path with his son.
The castle looked magnificent with the fading sun in the background. It was truly a marvel of Sendurius Region. It was difficult to imagine that this place was once forest like its surroundings... It seemed so aged and had an ancient feel about it. He smiled as he watched Terbino run off to catch up with his friends. His son was a good boy and truly just and virtuous. If only he were born before Lokken... The King forced the thought away. Now he was going spend time with his first son.
The King strolled up the pathway, songs lilting from birds as they nested for the night. It felt amazing being free for one day, it was a day he would remember and cherish.
Once inside, he knew exactly which path he’d take to get to his son. Flames from torches that were lit early by servants lined the walls below the heightened windows covered with long thick blankets. Heat at night was a luxurious thing.
His walk took some time, as Lokken had chosen a room far from the busy lifestyle that remained fairly constant near the centre of the castle. Vertico did not mind the walk however. It was nice strolling and reminiscing. Encountering another person along the corridors became far more infrequent compared to the morning. Few maids stayed during the night, guards were always prevalent but they had specific duty routes. Councillors and distant relatives were usually with their families either in castle rooms or high-classed homes in the residential area of the city.
Eventually the corridors opened to a small groomed courtyard. The grass was trimmed short, without a single flower present. A lone path traversed the middle of the courtyard leading to a rather gloomy doorway. The entire courtyard was dark at this time, with the surrounding walls blocking the sinking sun, casting a dull shadow over the area. Vertico continued toward a lone guard who stood at attention in front of the chamber door ahead. His spear moved vertically, allowing him passage.
“Good evening my King,” he greeted.
“And to you Quill. I trust my son is home?” Vertico queried.
“That he is, hasn’t left all day.”
“I see, thank you. I wish to speak with him now, and I may be a while so you have a good night if I don’t see you when I come out.”
“I will, you as well my King,” the guard named Quill replied with a stiff but courteous bow.
With that, Vertico walked forward and knocked on Lokken’s door. The reply was fairly instant.
“Who is it and what do you want?” The tone sounded tired and grumpy.
“Your father and I’ve come to see you,” he answered turning the handle of the door slightly.
There was frantic movement inside and within moments the door opened, revealing a smiling Lokken.
“Father! What brings you to see me?” the boy asked with genuine happiness.
Vertico smiled in reply.
“Must there be a reason my son?” he answered.
“No... Of course not. Come in.”
Vertico strolled into the chamber. The room was not well-lit. Several small candles sat on a dreary desk on the far wall. Jars containing odd things within lined the shelves. Scrawled parchment and several empty bottles of ink were scattered here and there. The royal bed was made-up and seemed unused. To the right of the room stood an excessively large bookshelf home to numerous black-covered books, tomes and scrolls. Overall it was a rather dim and depressing room.
Lokken hurried over to a dust-covered seat and pulled it out. He gestured to it in an attempt to please his father. The King smiled and graciously accepted it.
“What have you been doing with yourself these days Lok?” he queried, curious about the odd collection of vials and jars.
“Oh, some very powerful stuff father, you wouldn’t believe some of the secrets hidden in magic,” Lokken started before turning on the spot. An adventurous cockroach scampered across one of the blackened desks. Vertico traced it with his blue eyes. It was odd that this place looked so dirty and unmaintained. Lokken was always a clean boy, not to mention the maids were paid to clean every room.
Lokken spotted the lone cockroach which had paused briefly, allowing its antennae to inspect a piece of coiled up parchment.
“Watch this father,” he said quickly.
Vertico watched intently as his son pointed his finger at the small creature. After muttering something under his breath, a very thin crack of red lightning struck outwards instantly singeing the little insect. The King released a small gasp but maintained his composure. He certainly did not approve of elemental magic... but then again he had been saved by that form of magic in the past. Elsen bore some skill in that art.
“I... uh... impressive Lok. That was... interesting,” he stated, obviously startled.
“Wait, wait, wait. You haven’t seen the best part yet,” Lokken said, happily. He walked over to the bug and then hovered his hand above it. With a hypnotising movement of his fingers, he muttered more words under his breath. The charred creature twitched slightly. As Lokken’s chants grew louder, the insect regained its colour. Soon it seemed normal again, giving a shake of its abdomen before scampering out of sight.
This time Vertico could not maintain his composure. He was obviously worried and this was given in clear sight of his son. That spell was resurrection – a form of necromancy which was a truly dark form of magic. That type of spell was only prevalent in some of the darkest places of Gaulatraus region, far to the west. Vertico tried not show his mild fear but Lokken had spotted it, he looked disappointed.
“Don’t worry father, its safe. I would never abuse these spells. I’ve been taking lessons from Master Maurus to make sure they don’t get out of hand,” his son explained quickly.
“Did he teach you that spell?” he asked with narrow eyes.
Lokken looked worried.
“Uh... no. I found it on an old piece of parchment. It’s been hidden in the library for a while now,” he answered, staring at his feet.
The King sighed. He felt sickened but did not want to show it, he always wished to show an interest in both his sons’ lives. It was just disturbing that Lokken had taken a fancy to the dark magic of all things. He remembered when Lokken was first interested in magic; one of the first spells he conducted was a light spell of healing. As long as Lokken did not abuse his skill, then... he supposed there was no harm.
“I am very impressed son,” the King lied. “I haven’t seen such... skill in some time,” he continued. “Maybe you should get some extra teaching from Elsen? He knows his magic well.”
Lokken smiled weakly, his posture raised a bit.
“Yeah... maybe,” he replied, still unsure.
Lokken did not show his father any more spells that visit, the look of fear on Vertico’s face had obviously struck a nerve. The remainder of the time they talked, ate dinner, and discussed future matters. Lokken showed particular interest in the day-to-day affairs of being a King. Perhaps showing a bit too much interest at that stage of his life... but Vertico ignored this. He enjoyed spending time with his son, without the looming presence of dark magic.
Later that evening, he decided sleep would be a good idea. The following weeks would likely be busy again. It saddened him that he may not have quality time with his sons for a fair while, but one thought picked him up. His sons were good people, maybe misguided or growing up too fast, but they were decent. He had done a good job somewhere down the line. He smiled, things were going to be alright.