Prologue

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.

Vertico paused.

“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.

Chapter 1 - In The King's Memory

Two Years Later

Blood trickled down his upper lip and stubbled chin. He coughed out congealed blood, gasping for the air that he didn’t need. It was almost good to feel human again, even if it came with pain and struggle. Part of him savoured the agony, while another, more human side, pushed it away; desperate to be immortal and unfeeling once more. He collapsed into the cushioned armchair with a deep sigh; he had gotten too close to the boy this time. It was dangerous to tempt fate like that, but he just had to see what the lad had become after all these years.

The arm chair groaned under the large man’s shifting weight. A lone mug stood on a table beside him, and with a simple wave of his finger, it began to fill with clear water. Swiftly the man splashed the contents of the mug onto his face, cool and refreshing. Diluted blood washed down his top and out of sight. He let out another sigh and shifted his weight to get comfortable. The armchair creaked in protest before silence befell the small cabin once more. Relentless wind battered against the walls carrying the screams of the man’s past; his lovers, his family, his friends. People he cared greatly for who had died through murders, battles, or perhaps simply through age and disease. Yet fate had cruelly spared him from all that, for perhaps over four millennia now. Loneliness taunted him as he sipped the nearly empty mug. Perhaps had he known what life, nay, existence would be like following the choice; he would have chosen death over immortality.

He stirred slightly from his gloomy thoughts as a sudden blue light illuminated the outside of his cabin, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared.

‘Lightning,’ he thought to himself. Without time to query it further the cabin door opened revealing a tall toned figure. The seated man smiled to himself, perhaps if there was one good reason for choosing immortality, it’d have to be his son.

“Elsen, my boy,” he said softly to the silhouetted figure.

“Father, you didn’t…” The figure named Elsen stepped forward with disappointed sad eyes. “You know what it does to you to be near him. Trust in me to tell you what becomes of him,” he pleaded, looking at the dried blood stains on his father’s vest. He got no response.

Slowly the cabin door closed itself as the two men stared at different areas of the cabin, refusing to make eye contact. The silence of the room grew, only to be interrupted by raindrops hitting the cabin’s roof. After the extended period of silence, Elsen moved to the chair opposite his father’s.

“I do have some news to report,” he said looking at his father’s feet.

“Excellent. Do share…”

Elsen took a deep breath before starting.

“Vertico’s health is not well. I have not interfered with its deterioration even though I will lose a friend by the time the illness has run its course.”

Elsen’s father shook his head in genuine sorrow.

“I’m sorry my boy. You are truly strong to let nature takes it course in this way.”

Elsen nodded, then bowed his head; summoning the strength to continue.

“His boys seem to be taking it especially hard. The youngest, Terbino, refuses to believe his father is even capable of dying and Lokken… He has grown silent and moody, refusing to eat, sleep or have visitors. I do not understand how they will deal with Vertico’s passing when the time arrives.” There was a brief silence as the seated man nodded his head thoughtfully.

“Grief will stay with them no doubt, but they’ll survive and move on with their life. Just be their friend Elsen, be their Uncle.”

Elsen paused as a frown formed.

“Even…?”

“Yes, even him. It is not his fault, he is the way he is,” Elsen’s father commented. “Thank you for telling me Elsen, it is relieving having eyes on Marble City.”

Elsen reluctantly smiled.

“Of course father, but I also must note that something seems… amiss of late.” He paused, pondering his next words. “Something dark seems to be afflicting the city; unseen but ever present. I cannot identify it but I know it is there.”

Rain filled the void while Elsen awaited his father’s advice. As the thudding rain grew more consistent, the seated man stood up and stretched.

“I have felt something as well. I suggest you wait until whatever driving this darkness rears its ugly head, then you decapitate it at the source.”

Elsen nodded his agreement as he, too, stood up.

“I will do as you suggest father, thank you for your time.”

“Oh and Elsen… If dark times do descend upon Marble City, do not be so quick to blame the boy… it may be due to other influences.”

Elsen paused as he took in his father’s words; reluctantly he nodded before disappearing out the cabin door.

The large man rubbed massive hands through his cropped hair. He did not agree with his own words… Don’t blame the boy… chances are it would be due to the boy. Had he the courage and willpower when the boy was born to do what needed to be done, this inevitable darkness would never have taken root in the now doomed Marble City.

One Is Only Truly Dead If They Are Forgotten

It was a particularly cold day. There was no rain or distant storms, the sun was clear in the sky, yet a chill was apparent in the air. The atmosphere of Marble City had become drearier of late, not from gloomy weather, but from an uncertain future. All citizens seemed to brood whilst keeping an ear out for particular news from the castle. Two young men were especially saddened; the princes of Marble City: Terbino and Lokken Tarrenay.

Their father was Vertico, the King of Marble City. Sickness and age had finally taken its toll on his withering body, and it seemed increasingly unlikely that he would make it through the day. The healers and health-magicians could do nothing to help the dying man. His passing was inevitable... as all death is. The princes sat side by side outside their father’s chamber on a large oak bench. The magicians were trying, as a final attempt, to extend Vertico’s life for one more day. Tears welled within each of his sons’ eyes. They loved their father and to them, he had seemed immortal.

Councillors and nobles would pass by every so often, paying their respects in the form of coined gifts to a decorated cauldron. Their faces shied sadly away from the young princes. They knew all too well that nothing could be said that would cheer them or change the situation. Silence was in their best interest. It created an awkward sullen environment but better than an angry one. Grief can make one do foolish things.

Strange chanting could be heard on the other side of the chamber door. This would be the fifth attempt by these particular magicians. Lokken knew all too well that their attempts were in vain. He had mastered healing-magic almost six months ago. Nothing could be done against age-related afflictions. It was like trying to bend nature in the form of magic... which could be done with another form of magic but he doubted his father would let him use his ‘darkened’ talents to extend his existence.

Terbino listened intently next to his brother. The chants intrigued him and gave a false hope, any hope was better than none. He turned suddenly to face his elder brother.

“Do you... Do you think it’ll work?” He voice carried lingering hope. A lone tear rolled down the elder prince’s cheek.

“Terb...” he started, looking at his younger sibling’s hazel eyes. Witnessing a form of desperate determination he felt slightly envious that he could not share the misplaced faith in his brother’s heart. “I don’t know brother... But I’m going to say yes. Father would not give up easily,” he lied. He hadn’t the heart or willpower to tell his brother the truth. Better to let the false hope sustain him than suffer from knowing of their father’s inevitable fate.

That was enough to keep Terbino listening, hoping, and praying... Perhaps he knew deep down his brother was lying to him, but he refused to believe it. His father had battled ogres, survived assassination attempts, and ruled with such strength in his humility. Even such a factor as age didn’t seem to slow him down... until now. He broke free from his thoughts as the broad strong figure of Elsen arrived. His face showed no expression but the princes knew all too well that he was stricken with grief. He was old enough to be the King’s grandfather if not older, yet he loved and protected Vertico as a brother. Terbino felt saddened not just for his father but for Elsen. They had battled foes, lived through peace and essentially ruled together. Two non-related brothers almost like perfect puzzle pieces... now Elsen would have to live... or exist without his dearest friend, unless somehow the magicians prevailed.

Elsen was as tall as Lokken and as broad and stocky as Terbino. He looked not a day over thirty with shortened brown hair and a perfectly groomed upper lip and chin. He wore an out-of-place eye patch over his left eye where the blade of an ancient foe had landed. Equipped on a Lorn-hide belt was his infamous glowing golden blade. His lower lip trembled ever so slightly as his gaze connected with the two devastated princes.

Unable to contain his sadness, a fresh stream of tears rolled down Terbino’s cheeks. The sight seemed too much for Elsen to handle without taking action. He fell to his knees and embraced them both with muscular arms. Lokken grew stiff but accepted the comfort, while Terbino gave in completely and held the closest thing he had to an uncle. Withdrawn sobs were muffled against the advisor’s royal robes as Elsen closed his unpatched eye sadly. They were still boys in his mind; still young at heart and too full of youth to remember their mother’s passing. Terbino had just reached eighteen years of age, while Lokken was nearing twenty-two. This would be their first proper encounter with death and for it to hit so close to home would be devastating.

He said nothing as he released them; no tears or water lines were present on his face, just a long scar running from his left cheek to his forehead. A slight frown-line was the only indication of his emotional turmoil.

“Your father loves you both, and I know more than anything he wants the two of you to know that,” he said softly. Lokken gave a grim attempt at a smile, while Terbino’s eyes continued to water. Before anything else was said, the chamber door opened.

The magicians bowed their heads in defeat, signalling they had failed in their objective. More tears rolled down the youngest prince’s cheeks. Lokken took in a breath as he continued to stay strong for his younger brother. The cloaked magicians walked out of the room slowly, their faces remaining hidden, while the head magician paused in the doorway.

“His Lordship wishes to speak with his sons,” he said grimly. Elsen nodded and allowed passage for the defeated healer. Both Lokken and Terbino arose simultaneously, nervous of the possible words their father held for them. Elsen remained outside, not wishing to intrude on the grieving family.

The chamber was well-lit despite the gloomy situation. The dying King lay quite still on his royal-blue bed whilst comforted by two thick blankets. His face was tinged grey and held pained eyes. Both Lokken and Terbino knelt at the side of the bed, next to their father. Vertico smiled weakly and stretched out his hand, first touching Terbino’s palm, then Lokken’s.

“My boys...” the King started. “You have grown into such strong strapping men, I am proud to be your father.”

“And we your sons,” Lokken replied with a squeeze to his father’s hand again. Terbino nodded his agreement. There was another tear tracing previous tracks down his cheek. Vertico squeezed Lokken’s hand back and after a short series of throaty coughs, he continued.

“I have to do the tedious task of naming one of you my heir,” Vertico attempted to joke without any happy replies.

Lokken’s eyes widened slightly. It was obvious he did not expect that there was a choice in the matter. He was eldest; he was meant to be the next King wasn’t he? His grip on his father’s hand tightened. Terbino seemed mildly taken back but continued to look at his father, unable to think of anything to say. There was silence for a time as Vertico looked at his sons with piercing yet friendly eyes. Finally he spoke.

“Do not hate me for my choice Lokken. But I...” Vertico started before a series of coughs tore up from his lungs. “But I wish Terbino to be my heir to the position,” he finalised. Both sons seemed surprised by what they had heard. Lokken’s face grew a light shade of pink but he stayed silent, while Terbino looked shocked, almost scared. He knew little in the way of controlling a region. He had always expected his older brother to take on that role.

The silence in the room stretched, the atmosphere had changed. Lokken’s hand was withdrawn from his father’s and Terbino stared blankly forward, his face free of tears. Vertico gave a grim expression realising the effect this had on his children, but he did not falter nor change his mind.

“I love you both, and I know in my heart you’ll both become great men,” he concluded, ending the awkward silence. Terbino gave a grim smile to match his fathers. Lokken’s expression did not change, but a flush continued up his cheeks and forehead.

Again the silence renewed and they all knew there was nothing more to be said. Shock had numbed the pain of their father’s inevitable death yet troubles grew in both princes’ minds. Another series of coughs resonated from their father. After regaining his posture he turned to face his boys once more.

“I would like to speak to Elsen in private. Would you tell him?” he asked, directing the question to either who would listen. Terbino gave a shaky nod. Lokken stayed motionless with his eyes staring at the floor. “I will talk with you both again soon,” he quickly added.

Stiffly both sons arose, slowly making their way to the door of the chamber. Only Terbino looked back at his father. He was given one last smile and a slight nod. Terbino returned it with more tears accumulating. Lokken was first out the door and did not pause as Elsen turned to face him. Continuing in silence, he walked around the corner of the passageway and disappeared from view. Terbino stopped outside the chamber’s door and gave a grim, almost desperate expression to Elsen.

“He... he wants to see you Uncle,” Terbino declared, stuttering slightly. Elsen nodded but said nothing. Hastily he walked into the chamber making sure the large door closed behind him.

Unsure and with questions beginning to form in his mind, Terbino made his way to the bench again. He stared at the door with wide eyes, staying quiet while sitting upright. The questions grew overwhelming as he waited and it seemed such a long time that Elsen was with his father, although it was likely only minutes. Lokken was also nowhere in sight, but Terbino was sure his brother wouldn’t leave without saying one more farewell. Yet Lokken did not return the entire time Terbino waited. He sat alone with nerves brewing.

Eventually Elsen emerged with a defeated look. Bruised lines ringed underneath his eyes and a clear frown line dominated his forehead. Terbino stood up hopefully. Elsen stopped dead to look at the young prince with a pained expression, a lone tear escaping. He shook his head as if it were the hardest thing he’d ever had to do. Terbino’s lip trembled uncontrollably and all strength left him. He fell to his knees, wailing in grief. Elsen caught the young prince in his arms and held him tight... The King of Marble City had died.

Silent Murder

Several days had passed following King Vertico’s death. The number of citizens attending the burial ceremony in the Hall of Kings had not been witnessed before in many hundreds of years. Lokken, however, never appeared. Terbino and Elsen presented the heart-felt eulogy at the time. It was truly touching and brought a majority of the citizen’s to tears and even the occasional smile when Vertico’s younger and much more mischievous days were described. All and all, it was a day that many would remember, especially the grief-stricken Terbino.

Following the ceremony, Terbino locked himself in his room for hours without food or water. He had lodged something in the way of the chamber door to stop unwelcome guests. The pain of his father’s passing was too much for the new King to handle, especially with the sudden burst of responsibility and attention. He just wanted to sleep away the pain; to lie curled up in his royal blue bed with his eyes closed; to reminisce of better and easier days.

It wasn’t until the morning following the ceremony that someone made contact with the grief-stricken boy. Terbino was in his usual curled up posture in bed when Elsen appeared, in a flash of blue, on the opposite side of the room. Terbino barely moved as Elsen walked up to him. Carefully he took a seat on the bed next to the saddened boy.

“Terbino,” he said, awaiting an answer. There was a dull pause before Elsen repeated, “Terbino?” This time Terbino gave a muffled grunt. The covers slowly moved upwards to fully conceal the new uncrowned King’s head. “Terbino, please listen to me,” he tried again. There was a louder grunt and the blankets moved down slightly. “Your father loved you more than anything in this world. He’ll not be resting easily seeing you in such distress.”

Again there was a pause until Elsen heard the boy sobbing beneath the feather-stuffed blankets. Softly the advisor patted the lumped figure. “At least eat some food my boy,” he continued, conjuring a platter of fruits and a generous slice of lorn rump meat. Elsen did not expect the response he got. Terbino ripped off the blankets and knocked the platter to the closest wall.

“He said he’d talk to me again! He... He lied to me. He... Why did he make me King? Damn him!” Terbino yelled sending his fist angrily towards the wall behind the bed. There was an unnatural swishing sound and Elsen appeared in the flight path of the fist. He caught it in his own hand to prevent a likely painful collision with the marble wall. There was nothing he could say though; he knew this was Terbino’s grief talking. The distraught boy tried to push the retired veteran back in dismayed anger. Elsen rocked backwards slightly but stayed firm. With the prince’s anger growing, Terbino tried to throw poorly aimed punches at him. Each one was dodged or intercepted. Elsen leaned forward and embraced him once more. After a few weakening slaps and hits, the prince fell into the embrace and wept. He wept for a fair while, accepting the comfort given to him.

Eventually he pulled backwards revealing his devastated face to Elsen properly. The rings under his eyes were dark and puffed up; dried tear marks were visible on his cheeks; his sandy brown hair was ruffled and untamed. Light-coloured stubble lined his jaw as he stared upwards with enlarged, watery eyes.

“I can’t be King Elsen, I...” he started, dropping his head back down.

“You have the ability to surpass your father in becoming a better ruler Terbino. Believe me, I see a unique strength in you, something your father had to develop through hardship. You were born with it,” the advisor stated, patting the grieving prince’s arm. Terbino gave a weak whimper but said nothing more.

The cracked platter, lying next to the wall where it had previously collided, began levitating. The large fracture in its middle sealed up and miraculously more exotic foods appeared. It hovered slowly to Elsen’s out-stretched hand and steadily lowered itself onto his palm.

“Please Terbino, eat something,” Elsen pleaded one final time, this time getting the response he wished. The pained soon-to-be King grabbed a modest green apple, took one sullen bite then stopped to look sadly forward.

“Do you know why?” the boy asked. “Why he chose me to be King?” There was a pause as Elsen ran over several responses.

“No,” he finally answered. “He must have had his reasons.” Again there was a pause and Terbino nodded his head.

Elsen stayed with the grieving boy for some time, offering what little comfort he could give. Terbino, however, was eating and drinking once more, and that was something miraculous in itself given the dreary situation. It took a fair while before he would actually leave his room or accept any visitors apart from the advisor. When he decided he was ready to accept his new-found responsibility, Head Councillor Mylan and several others started organising the largely anticipated crowning ceremony; the event that would truly make him a king and nearly above the law.

While preparations were under way, Terbino temporarily had time to spend on other things. He did feel bad that he was neglecting time for his friends, and despite not being in the best of moods, he decided to spend the last day of princely life with them. The maids were in his room once more, cleaning and arranging items neatly whilst he slipped on his royal red overcoat.

“It is good to see you up and about, my Lord,” A red-haired girl around his age commented. Terbino gave his best attempt at a smile. She was quite pretty, with stunning blue eyes. He tried to say something but no words came. He just didn’t feel like talking. He continued to show his current version of a smile while giving a nod. She smiled back and went back to her duties. Feeling awkward and slightly ill-mannered, Terbino walked out of his chamber door towards the grand marble staircase.

There were many occupants of the castle this morning as he made his way down the gloriously decorated staircase. The hall seemed filled with party-organisers, councillors barking orders and tired looking guards. Head Councillor Mylan stood on a temporarily raised stage pointing at different areas of the hall, ordering the decorators around and making comments on other councillors’ work. He stopped upon spotting Terbino.

“My prince and soon-to-be-King, how are you faring?” Councillor Mylan asked, attempting to hobble off the raised stage. Terbino gave his rehearsed false smile.

“I’m fine, High Councillor. How goes the day?” he replied with a bit of effort. Mylan continued to wobble over, the underside of his belly showing through the bottom of his robe.

“Fine, fine as you, my lad. The crowning ceremony will be ready by mid afternoon tomorrow and this glorious city shall have you, lad, as its new ruler. Surely that is exciting!?” Councillor Mylan said in glee. The last words of his sentence: ‘exciting’ echoed around the room several times.

The young prince did not have time to answer as his older brother made himself apparent behind Councillor Mylan.

“Forgive me High Councillor, but I do not think my brother wishes to think about why he has this new role of responsibility. Our father has just passed away if you haven’t already forgotten,” the darkly cloaked figure of Lokken announced in annoyance. Councillor Mylan looked shocked and lowered his head, slightly ashamed.

“Ah yes... of course, please forgive me, both of you,” he whispered before retreating to the stage. Terbino turned to face his brother.

“How are you coping?” he queried.

Lokken stared right back. His eyes were bloodshot and his skin wore a new shade of pale, his loose black hair dangled unkempt in front of his face.

“Father... would not want us to mourn his death, but rather to celebrate his life,” Lokken answered. There was a pause and Terbino gave a grim expression.

“It’s hard though. I don’t really know how to... Things just won’t be the same again will they?” he whispered.

“Let time do its thing little brother. The pain won’t go... but it’ll be easier to hide.”

Several maids hurried down the stairs behind the talking princes. They rushed passed in the direction of Head Councillor Mylan; the young red-haired girl was among them. The Head Councillor acknowledged their arrival and sent them to work on various sections of the hall. A lone guard passed behind Lokken with a glum look. The hall looked like a complete shambles with piles of decorations, wooden furniture and splinters of oak tree supports strewn around.

“I hope you feel better little brother. Spend time with those that care for you... perhaps Mary? I however must be off. Farewell.” Lokken patted his brother on the shoulder before walking away.

Several decorators and maids made a wide gap for the elder prince to pass. He marched up the stairs with his black and red cloak fluttering behind him. Mylan frowned, watching from a distance as Lokken walked off, then turned to see his future King. Terbino’s head was bowed, and he looked slightly lost. His face reminded Mylan of a young puppy; still so new to the world and taking advice and protection from whoever would give it. The poor lad looked up and spotted the Head Councillor looking at him. Mylan gave a weak smile.

‘You’ll do fine my boy,’ Mylan thought to himself before turning to continue organising decorating plans.

The celebratory planning in the hall became a bit much for Terbino and he decided he’d resume his goal of meeting his friends. After navigating the many corridors, which he knew like the back of his hand, he reached councillor Duglio’s chamber. Duglio’s younger brother Jaeger lived here with his rather frail retired parents. He gave three knocks on the chamber door. For a few seconds he heard nothing then a distant cry.

“Hello?” The voice likely came from Jaeger’s mother. Both his parents were in their late fifties and sadly his father already suffered from memory loss.

“Hi Mrs Paetrow, It’s Terbino. I wondered...” Before Terbino could finish, the door swung open and Jaeger and his mother were standing there.

“Tino! You’re King!” Jaeger exclaimed in excitement. Jaeger’s mother smacked the back of his head.

“That’s no way to address our new leader Jaeger.” Terbino gave a laugh.

“It’s alright Mrs Paetrow, to be honest I’d prefer less formality. Makes me feel less in charge and more human,” he commented.

Jaeger’s mother gave a light chuckle.

“Of course Terbino. Is there anything you needed of us?” she queried looking more than happy to supply hospitality to her new King.

“Just wondered if Jaeger was free?” he replied.

Jaeger was quick to answer.

“Of course I am!”

“Well there’s your answer,” she said, rolling her eyes.

Terbino couldn’t help but grin as Jaeger stepped out. “I expect you back for lunch Jaeger!”

The two teenagers walked down the hall talking, Jaeger slightly more excited than Terbino. The portraits left and right of them added more personality to the atmosphere.

“I’m really sorry about your dad by the way. I thought he was a good King...” Jaeger commented with a grim expression. Terbino stayed silent. They marched side by side through a maze of corridors. After rounding a corner and passing several extinguished torches, they came to a long passageway that had no exits except for a corner right at the end. Near this exit, they saw a guard stumbling backwards. They could both tell instantly that there was something wrong.

The two nobles looked at each other, slightly worried. The guard fell backward and slumped against the wall. The shadowy hallway concealed what was wrong. Terbino increased his pace forward with Jaeger right behind. As they neared the fallen man, the prince noticed something dark flicker around the corner some distance ahead. His heart raced and there was a cold twinge deep in his stomach. The guard looked motionless as they reached him.

The two young men looked at each other again then at the still guard. His face was concealed by a helm, and as far as they could tell there were no wounds or blood.

“Are you alright?” Terbino asked, kneeling next to the man. When he did not get a response he turned to face Jaeger. “Go get help.”

His friend nodded shakily before having a final look at the unresponsive guard.

‘Perhaps he overheated?’ Terbino thought to himself. The guard’s armour was fairly heavy and it seemed unlikely many weapons could easily pierce it. With uncertainty, he reached for the man’s visor. It was stiff but with enough force it squeaked open.

The sight that greeted his eyes made Terbino reel back in fear; blood leaked from the guard’s mouth and nose; his eyes were a dull grey as he stared blankly forward. The young King gasped in horror, this guard was dead, and Terbino had seen him fall. The dead man’s mouth was open wide; his tongue had been severed releasing blood from the remaining stump. Terbino could see more blood at the back of his throat which was also severed. It would seem some sharp weapon had sliced through him.

Blood continued to dribble nauseatingly down his chin and onto the breastplate he wore. The young King watched transfixed with terrified eyes. He couldn’t feel his legs; fear gripped him, holding him captive. The flow of time seemed to change in Terbino’s mind as he lay hunched against the wall, unable to turn away. Jaeger came running back, several guards and councilmen with him.

High Councillor Mylan pushed passed Jaeger to investigate. He stared with mild disgust and shock. He turned to look at Terbino then at the rabble of men behind him.

“Take King Terbino and Duglio’s brother away from here,” he ordered in a strict voice not suited to his personality. Two guards stepped forward, one grabbing Jaeger’s arm and the other Terbino’s. The new King was raised to his feet but he seemed very unsteady; his eyes still wide and afraid.

“Come my King,” the helmed guard said in a concerned tone.

“Take them to the guard’s chambers for safety,” Mylan added, kneeling next to the body.

The two young men were escorted back the way they came. The guards were silent as they walked behind them.

“Terbino...” Jaeger said before pausing. Terbino didn’t answer straight away; he was staring at the floor as he walked. The terrifying image of the dead guard’s face burnt eternally into his mind. With effort he raised his head to face his friend.

“He... he was bleeding from the mouth. Did he get attacked?” Jaeger asked, already knowing the answer. Terbino nodded shakily, his eyes watering up.

“His tongue... it was gone,” he stated, looking down at the ground.

The escorting guards looked at each other through their concealing visors. They knew that was just plain odd. Jaeger had a horrified expression.

Before he could say anymore, Lokken appeared around the corner in front of them. He looked pale and slightly afraid, a look he did not wear well.

“Terbino! What happened?” he asked hastily, grabbing his younger brother’s shoulders. Terbino looked up into his brother’s eyes. They were bloodshot, afraid... He was worried. It was at this moment Terbino knew, despite everything, that his brother cared deeply for him. The fear shown in his expression revealed the previous shock he had felt at receiving the news of his brother being in possible danger.

“He was dead Lok. Someone... Something sliced off his tongue,” Terbino said with his bottom lip trembling.

Lokken frowned, a crease forming on his forehead. He embraced his brother tight, something he had not done for some time.

“His tongue?” he whispered to himself as Terbino whimpered against him.

The guards stood at attention while the elder prince was present; as was custom near royalty. Jaeger stared at the two brothers looking worried.

“Why would anyone want a tongue?” he whispered nervously. Lokken turned to stare at Jaeger, eyes narrowing. He said nothing, but something told Terbino he was in deep thought.

“Excuse me my Prince but we must take them to the safety of the guard’s quarters,” one of the escorting men said suddenly. Lokken eyes rose to meet the man’s visor.

“Yes... Be quick. You must keep them near you at all times until this matter is settled,” he ordered before looking back at Terbino.

“Do whatever the guards tell you Terb. Be safe,” he concluded while patting Terbino’s shoulder.

“Wait!” Terbino shouted quickly. “Where are you going? Come with us.” There was a pause as the group’s eyes rested upon Lokken.

“I must lend a hand in solving this mystery. I will come back though... I promise,” Lokken said in a soothing tone.

Terbino nodded shakily.

With that, the elder brother stalked off in the opposite direction. The guards resumed their march forward, keeping both youths in front of them. They navigated more corridors, passing many hurrying guards. Finally they arrived at the main hall where the previous decorators and councillors were now absent. The main guard’s quarters were up the marble staircase near the royal chambers to provide extra protection. The group of four walked up the stairs, their boots echoing. At the top, four much larger guards emerged, each holding enormous halberds.

The two escorting guards stopped abruptly and saluted their superiors. Terbino and Jaeger paused to look up at the towering men.

“High councillor Mylan wishes them to be kept safe. There has been a murder,” one of the escorting guards informed them.

“We have heard. They are witnesses?” one of the bulkier men queried, looking at Terbino and Jaeger. The younger guard nodded.

“Our Prince Terbino and this is a councillor’s brother,” he continued indicating towards them. The four bulky guards raised their visors and bowed stiffly.

“Thank you Victor... Quill. You may both return,” the head guard said, relieving the two guards of their childminding duty.

Despite their size, Terbino felt more than happy to be in their company. He had just witnessed a murder for the first time in his life... it wasn’t unusual for someone to want to be around some very stocky protective figures. With their visors raised Terbino could see their faces clearly. Each looked heavily scarred, stubbled and rather stern. The head of the four guards stepped forward and introduced himself.

“Greetings my Prince. I am Malik Hario, Guards Captain and retired war veteran. I served with your father in the battles against the ogre tribes,” he stated in a deep voice. Terbino stepped forward and shook the man’s hand.

“It is good to meet you Malik. If only it were under better circumstances,” he said with a grim expression.

“Indeed. And this is...?” Malik replied, looking piercingly at Jaeger.

“I am Jaeger Paetrow, brother to Councillor Duglio Paetrow and son to retired veteran Dueno Paetrow,” Jaeger replied, slightly fearful under the captain’s intimidating stare.

“Veteran...? Veteran of what?” Malik queried, narrowing his eyes.

Before the guard’s captain got his answer a familiar face emerged from one of the hallways.

“Elsen!” Terbino shouted. The retired general looked up, spotting the young prince.

“Terbino... I heard what happened. How are you?” he queried, looking into the future King’s eyes.

“I don’t know Elsen… that man… he was,” he started, his voice wavering. Malik gave a grunt before walking passed to speak to Elsen.

“You helping us mind the children... General?” Malik queried with a cheeky grin.

“Can’t now Malik. Need to investigate something... Don’t let them out of your sight,” Elsen replied quickly.

There was a sudden flap of the red and black flag bearing Marble City’s emblem above their heads. Elsen eyed it suspiciously.

“I mean it Malik, stay close to both of them. Something’s not right... I sense something... Dark,” he commented, looking around the hall below them. The four guards including Malik tightened their grip on the halberds. The flags around the great hall began flapping more aggressively.

“What’s coming Elsen?” Malik asked, eyeing his surroundings in concentration.

“Something born of the greater evil. Stay inside the quarters. This evil... is being controlled. I sense dark magic afoot,” Elsen answered. He gave Malik a quick nod before disappearing on the spot. Jaeger gave a soft gasp.

“Where’d he go?” he questioned with wide eyes. Malik looked around and indicated to two of the other guards to assume leading positions.

“Stay in front of them. High officer Rhoul and I will have your back and flank,” Malik ordered lifting his halberd into a defensive position.

Marching defensively, the group of men walked away from the top of the staircase and towards the guard’s quarters. Upon reaching the large oak doors, one of the leading guards knocked twice. The effect was instantaneous as another man opened the door from the inside. Both leading guards gave a nod as they walked passed him. Terbino and Jaeger followed suit with their heads bowed. Malik halted before indicating to Rhoul to continue onwards. Terbino could hear Malik ordering the lone sentry to seal the door temporarily, allowing only people who knew the safe word to enter. Jaeger looked pale and terrified as he stared at Terbino with wide eyes.

“Is something after us?” he croaked out nervously. Terbino also looked frightened.

“I don’t know, but we’re safe here. Who would attack quarters guarded by elite officers and war veterans?” he stated looking around.

“Greater Good... I hope you’re right...”

No Witnesses

Within the quarters, there were dozens of heavily armed men. Each bore Marble City’s emblem upon their chest plate. They were stocky in build, as were most men in their profession. Many also had battle experience from the recent Ogre Wars within Shining Forest. They were quick to recognise the young prince, raising their visors in a sign of respect. Several that weren’t wearing helms saluted instead, he felt overwhelmed as he marched forward. They heard Malik catch up behind them, his heavy boots thudding against the ground.

“Rhoul take them to the back chamber, station two guards outside the door and you stay with them,” he ordered.

“And you captain?” Rhoul asked.

“I must gather the men and tell them of their comrade. They must be ready for combat... If Elsen is correct, something is coming,” Malik answered, turning on the spot.

The two leading guards paused to listen to Rhoul’s orders. Terbino and Jaeger looked around nervously, and something at the back of the new King’s mind told him things were going to get worse. There was a sudden eeriness to the castle; as if a darkened cloud had covered all of Marble City, creating the atmosphere of gloomy death. An ethereal wind, unaffected by walls of stone and marble, blew throughout the castle, disturbing the usually still flags hanging above the hallways, and intimidating the residents. As Elsen had guessed, something dark was afoot, and Jaeger and Terbino had a feeling it was after them.

After navigating more corridors and hallways, the guards led them to a distant chamber near the very east end of the castle. This entire section was still part of the guard’s quarter, and there were only three well-known entrances into the area. One of which they had used. Each one of these entrances was heavily defended. The two leading guards assumed stationary roles outside the chamber door forming a blocking X with their halberds across the entrance. Rhoul and the two younger men walked inside. There was a large open window at one section of the room and a cool chill greeted them. The sky was indeed darkened by clouds. The chamber bore two single beds made with red blankets and white sheets and pillows. A clean wooden desk was located to the right of the door they had entered; all in all a fairly cosy room even if a little dark.

Rhoul stationed himself near the desk, grabbing a sturdy seat to make himself comfortable. He indicated the two beds for Terbino and Jaeger, who took a seat either side of a bed.

“Do you know who the guard was?” Rhoul asked looking at them. His persona somewhat relaxed.

Terbino and Jaeger shared a look.

“No... He was stationed on the lower floors,” Terbino replied.

Rhoul turned to look out the window as distant thunder sounded.

“I guess I don’t need to ask... but do you feel that?” he queried, looking back down at his arm. The hairs on their arms and legs began to rise, as if static were affecting them.

“I felt it since the stairway. It feels… strange,” Jaeger said quickly.

“Elsen seemed to know what it was,” Terbino noted, staring outside.

Time passed slowly while they remained guarded in the room. Terbino assumed his crowning ceremony would be put on hold whilst the murder was investigated. During their voluntary incarceration they got to know the high officer Rhoul. He had removed his plated-helm revealing thick sandy-brown hair and partially obscured dark green eyes. A compacted sadness intertwined with secrecy resided deep within them, perhaps due to the impacts of warring with the ogres. There was a single scar across his forehead. It would likely have been caused by a slicing weapon, like an axe or sword.

“How did you get that... cut?” Jaeger asked absentmindedly.

Rhoul rubbed his hand across his forehead.

“In the war... Malik pulled me back just in time,” he answered with a smirk. “Elite striker-ogre tried to cut the top of my skull off. Almost succeeded too,” he continued with a grin. Jaeger looked at it with what could be construed as admiration.

“What happened?” Terbino asked. “I mean to the ogre.”

“Malik happened to it,” Rhoul answered with a laugh. “They had a bit of a duel in the midst of the battle. Malik’s sword broke before he could deliver the killing blow,” he explained, rather bemused that he’d turned into a temporary story-teller.

“And then?” Jaeger asked, his eyes transfixed.

“Malik dodged blows from the ogre’s axe, before managing to wrestle it off the creature,” Rhoul said bluntly, smiling.

Terbino’s eyes opened a bit.

“He wrestled with an ogre!?” he asked incredulously.

“Malik is about the same size as an ogre... just more agile. After getting the axe off it, he tripped it up and in one sweep took its head off,” Rhoul finished, smiling at their expressions.

The two young men stared at the high officer with admiration. He was a survivor, no... a warrior from the great war against the ogres. That was an amazing feat.

“How many did you... like... you know, kill?” Jaeger asked curiously. Rhoul was about to answer when there were two sudden thuds outside the door. He stepped up, grabbing his idle halberd. He faced the door, looking slightly alarmed.

“Take this,” he ordered, withdrawing a short sword from his meshed belt. He threw the blade to Terbino who caught it easily by the hilt. “Stay back.”

Without warning a blackened shroud swirled noiselessly into the room through the large window. Thousands of dark particles merged and became corporal behind the unsuspecting Rhoul. Terbino and Jaeger simultaneously gave a surprised warning cry making the guard twist around, holding his halberd out defensively. He was just in time to witness a blackened curved blade shear through the air towards him. The prince and his friend cried out in horror as the man’s head leapt from his shoulders in a fountain of sickly, dark red blood. Horrified, Terbino pointed the sword shakily at the terrifying creature. Eerily, it silently turned its face to its new prey. A charred skull was barely visible beneath the hood. The black particles of its’ cloak flowed, merging and dissolving to reveal the skeletal frame within. Fear gripped them as its presence slowly ate away at their resolve. The shadowy blade disintegrated and merged with the malevolent monster’s arm. It held out its skinless hand revealing charred and cracked bones while facing the prince. Almost instantly his weapon was ripped out of his clutches and into the creature’s.

Terbino and Jaeger backed away terrified, the wall behind bringing them to a halt. The creature floated gracefully towards the terrified two, lunging forward with the short sword. Both cried out in fear, Jaeger’s voice was instantly replaced by sickly gargling as blood splattered Terbino’s face. Young Jaeger was lifted from his feet as the creature held him up using only the sword it had skewered his upper chest with. With ease the creature flicked Jaeger to the side; his body crumbling lifelessly. It gave an evil grin revealing lines of canine teeth. As quickly as it had arrived, the creature dispersed, leaving no trace of its existence. Terbino was left cowering in the corner with the bloodied short sword at his feet. Instinctively he whipped it up, holding it out in front of him while his body was shaking uncontrollably. He felt light-headed, blood and adrenaline pumped around his body at such a speed his heart could not cope. His vision blurred as his eyes closed. Before the darkness of unconsciousness took him, he heard distant thumps upon the chamber door. Then there was calm.

Chapter 2 - Secrets of the Past

The difference between knowledge and ignorance can be life.

The prince awoke with a start, the room housing him seemed so familiar. An old armour cabinet sat against the far wall. The bed he was lying on was made with woollen red blankets and white sheets. A cool wind blew in from the gapping maw of the window. He soon realised that this was his own chamber and no one else was present. That wasn’t unusual in normal circumstances but... then he thought about it. Did he dream of the wraith? Was that horrid creature a disturbed figment of his imagination? Slowly he arose.

He had been sweating profusely in his sleep. The cool wind emphasised this as it passed through his robes. Quickly the young prince looked down.

‘Why am I in my robes?’ he thought. If he had dreamed it all, why was he not in his undergarments? Motion brought a sudden shock as he realised he was not alone as he first thought. He twisted around quickly to face the possible threat, with his arms out and fists clenched.

“Terbino... Are you alright?” the familiar voice of Elsen asked.

All of a sudden the realisation hit, he had not been dreaming. What he had beheld was real.

“Jaeger! Is he alright!?” Terbino cried out, eyes wide and scared.

Elsen reluctantly shook his head. He walked forward; worry evident on his brow. Tears welled up in Terbino’s eyes.

“Terbino, try to calm yourself… tell me what happened?” Elsen asked while trying to comfort the inconsolable prince.

“It was a monster Elsen!” Terbino yelled, tears freely rolling down his cheek. “It... it came in through the window and just... just cut Rhoul... and... and...” he continued before wailing in grief.

Before Elsen could say any more, there came a soft knock at the door. Both turned to look at it before Elsen stood up.

“Who goes there?” he asked in a suddenly stern tone. The reply was fairly instant.

“There’s a few of us Elsen. Is the King ready for visitors?” said the familiar voice of High Councillor Mylan. Elsen turned to look at Terbino. The young prince quickly rubbed at his eyes to conceal any trace of his tears; an unsuccessful act at that. “Who are the visitors Mylan?” Elsen asked, his eyes still on Terbino.

“Urm... Young Terbino’s friends. Also Councillor Curdler and I wish to speak with him for a minute,” Mylan replied, his voice somewhat distant behind the door.

Another wave of tears rolled down Terbino’s cheeks. His friends... How could he explain to them what had happened to Jaeger? He could barely explain it to himself. Elsen turned to face the door once more.

“I think another time would be better...” he started before Terbino cut him off.

“No... It’s ok. Let them in,” he whispered, wiping his eyes once more.

The advisor stopped undecided.

“Actually he says it’s fine. Just... keep it short,” the large man said, wavering slightly before unlocking the door. Three youthful faces appeared first with the two older councillors trailing behind. Elsen stepped to the side as the group walked passed, giving their individual versions of a greeting.

Terbino fell backwards onto his bed, running his hands through his hair. The prince’s best friend Mary was first to reach him. She gave him a fairly intense teary embrace. Her soft brown hair blew lightly to the side as the air whistled tunefully through the window. The two others were Curdler’s children, Hendrick and Celia. Hendrick was large despite his age and had developed quickly through puberty, before even his older friend Terbino. Golden locks rolled down from his head in what was considered fashionable to Marble City’s youth. Celia also had golden blonde hair that ended near her upper back. She was petite in figure compared to her slightly older brother.

The councillor’s gave a nod to Elsen as they walked into the chamber, their faces grim and saddened. Elsen reciprocated their expressions.

“Does he know what happened?” Mylan asked, looking at the group of youths.

Elsen followed suit with his eyes, a worried frown formed.

“I’m not too sure... It appears something attacked them,” he started. “I felt something dark when I left, it must have stalked them.”

“Perhaps this is a little beyond us Elsen. The supernatural is rare in these parts, why would it cause mischief here?” Curdler queried, his beard and moustache merging to conceal his mouth.

The youthful nobles appeared to be in state of grieving. Their dear friend Jaeger had been in many of their classes and it seemed so surreal he was gone... forever. Mary continued to stay latched to Terbino’s side. Her head nestled against his shoulder.

“He didn’t deserve to go like that,” Hendrick stated in anger with his fists clenched.

Terbino looked at him with sullen hollowed eyes. There were no more tears, he had no more in him.

“No one deserved that, no one,” Terbino said quietly. Softly he placed his hand around Mary’s waist, she whimpered slightly before moving her head back to look into his eyes.

“I’m so sorry you had to experience that Terbino,” she wept. A reply could not escape his lips, instead he bowed his head in silent sadness.

Hendrick paced backward and forward while his younger sister stared with tears in her eyes. The three older men stared at the youths. They had all experienced death before, mostly on a large scale.

“Perhaps we should continue outside Elsen, let them all have time to grieve,” Mylan suggested.

Elsen nodded; his eyes still on Terbino. The two councillors and the old advisor unobtrusively made their exit allowing the youths to have the needed time alone.

There was a dull awkward silence after they left. Hendrick had temporarily stopped pacing, while Terbino continued to look at the marble floor with lost eyes. It was obvious he was not coping. The pain of losing his father and witnessing three murders, one of which being a close friend, had taken its toll. The accumulative effects had left him more than traumatised; it was possible that his mind would break. His sanity lost with those he loved... For the moment it seemed intact even if treading on extremely thin ice.

“And I can’t believe Duglio thinks you did it!” Hendrick yelled angrily, relinquishing the long silence.

Mary looked up suddenly.

“He thinks you killed them Tino. He tried to get revenge on you while you were out,” she said running her smooth fingers over his hand. She then gripped it tight. “Stay away from him. They detained him at first but released him, blaming grief as the source of his actions,” she added.

Terbino’s eyebrows narrowed slightly at the news.

“He thinks I killed his little brother!? Jaeger... my best mate!?” he yelled incredulously.

Hendrick looked at Mary with a grim look.

“He thought you went enraged cause of... you know... your father. Thinks you killed the guard in the hallway too,” Hendrick explained, looking at the ground uncomfortably.

There was an awkward silence as the tears had temporarily slowed. Terbino was staring at Hendrick with completely bewildered eyes.

“He... he can’t be serious. I...” Terbino gasped, unable to find the words to continue.

“We know Tino. We know you didn’t do this,” Celia suddenly said, finding the strength to join in.

Terbino looked at the ground once more. He didn’t know what to say... He was there. He saw what happened, but to reiterate it didn’t seem possible, especially given his frame of mind.

Their voices fell silent once more, leaving only the soft melody of the calm breeze outside. This lasted for several moments before the quiet click of the door disturbed the abysmal silence. Elsen’s un-patched eye peered around to check in on the youths. Only Celia looked back at him. Her face still grim with dried tears.

“There will be a hearing later this afternoon Terbino... If you’re up to it, we need you to describe your assailant,” the advisor whispered; a furrow of stress imbued upon his forehead.

The young prince gave a jolty version of a nod.

“I will be back soon to escort you there. For now spend some time with your friends,” he added before the door creaked closed once more.

All Eyes Are Upon You

The group of four had spent most of the time in silence. There was nothing more that could be said; only pain arose from words. The looming daunting task of retelling his attack lay heavily on Terbino’s heart. The idea of reliving the attack whilst explaining it to a room of pompous, ignorant councillors was highly unappealing. Eventually there was the expected knock on the chamber door. Elsen stepped through looking smartly dressed for the occasion. He paused at the foot of the bed, standing above the sullen prince.

“Are you ready Terbino?” he asked, extending his hand. The group of youths stared at Terbino with worried expressions. A stiff nod was his only reply as he accepted the advisor’s courteous hand up.

Before leaving the room Terbino gave a last farewell to his saddened friends. Their expressions were grim, only Mary was able to reciprocate a hand movement. The walk to the hall was long, each step eating away at his inners, the feeling of nausea creeping up his throat. His only comfort was the knowledge that Marble City’s finest warrior was walking beside him.

A familiar face awaited him at the top of the marble staircase. Lokken gave an expressionless look as Terbino approached him, his black hair slicked back behind his ears and dark brown eyes intense.

“Are you alright Terbino?”

The younger prince gave an attempt at a nod, his face pale and fear ridden. The elder brother looked up at Elsen.

“He should not be forced to talk in this state Elsen. Take him back to his room, I will order this hearing postponed,” he commanded with piercing eyes.

Elsen stared back, unrelenting.

“We must hear the truth of this matter before time blurs both his memory and accuracy. Besides, it would be best for him to get it over with,” the advisor replied, stepping forward.

“And you think you know what is best for my brother, my blood?! Step aside old man, you are relinquished of your duties,” Lokken sneered angrily, closing the distance between them.

“My duties are not finished boy until I say they are. Now slither back to that catacomb you call a room. Terbino, come,” Elsen replied with a hint of anger. He shoved the elder prince to the side and softly pulled at Terbino’s arm.

The young prince looked up at his two idolising figures. The nearby guards even broke their usual stiff stature to take a sneak peek at the two disputing high-status figures.

“I will not hesitate in stopping you myself you hapless insignificant fool,” Lokken growled angrily ripping Elsen’s hand away from Terbino’s arm.

Elsen gave a light chuckle.

“I’d like to see that. Try it,” Elsen whispered, calm and collected.

Terbino could take no more.

“Stop... Please stop. I, I can do it. I can tell the councillors what happened. Please don’t fight over this. I’ll be alright,” he cried out, making both men stop to look at him.

“You do know little brother that I am always here for you. Do not let people force you to do anything you are not ready to do. You are strong... but even the strong can break,” Lokken commented softly.

He shot Elsen an evil glare before turning to proceed down the stairs.

“Come Terbino. The councillors await,” Elsen said, leading the boy down the stairs behind Lokken.

The hall was still in tatters from unplaced decorations and incomplete designs. Temporary seating had been placed for the hearing. The rather uncomfortable chairs had been taken from the guard’s quarter and placed in a pattern encircling a bare spot. Terbino was led to this spot with Lokken on his right and Elsen on his left. The many councillors stood at attention as the royalty walked to their designated area. Terbino quickly looked away as he noticed a red-faced Duglio standing two seats back with his arms folded tightly. Mylan, currently located at the front of the seating arrangement, wobbled up to Terbino and placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“This has been an incredibly tough couple of weeks for you my lad. I promise you I’ll do my best to make this go smoothly and quickly,” he said comfortingly before giving a forced smile.

The councillors took their seats as their superior began to speak. Elsen, Terbino and Lokken were forced to stand as no chairs were given. Constant light emitted from the torches hung upon various sections of the hall walls.

“My dearest councillors, as you are all quite aware, we are brought to this hearing on very grave business. Within our very own castle three grisly murders took place. Two of Marble City’s finest guards and a young boy of noble birth were slain without mercy,” Mylan announced, his voice echoing throughout the marble room.

Duglio stared with loathing at the guarded younger prince. His expression clearly portrayed restraint in his actions. The man had much stubble around his chin and bore many features similar to his younger deceased brother. His eyes were a pale green intertwined with tiny spots of brown, surrounded by a tanned face and strongly built chin. All in all a fairly attractive male with a clever mind to match. The hearing commenced as Mylan moved in front of the seated councillors describing the extent of viciousness committed in the crimes. This continued for some time until the councillors were allowed to question the only survivor and witness.

Elsen and Lokken continued to stand silently behind the nervous prince as various councillors stood up indicating their questions. The first was that of Curdler, the second highest in the councillor rank. His bushy beard muffled some of his speech as Terbino stared.

“Before young Jaeger and guardsmen Rhoul were murdered, you came across the body of guardsmen Luiter,” he stated to set the scene for the other councilmen.

Terbino nodded shakily.

“Now it was both you and Jaeger who came across guardsmen Luiter, is this correct?” The councillor continued.

Terbino paused in his reply.

“We... we did not just find him dead. I was at the end of the hallway with Jaeger... We saw the guard fall against the wall. He was not already dead when we discovered him,” the young prince answered.

This set off a number of whispers and chattering among the councilmen.

Another councillor with snow white hair and a pale complexion stood up.

“Did you notice anything suspicious at the scene? Other than the body of course...” he asked in a frail voice.

Terbino thought back on it.

“I cannot be sure but I thought I saw something dark flicker behind the hallway corner when I arrived,” Terbino replied, his heart hammering in his chest.

The councillors looked at each other with worried expressions. Even Elsen had stopped to look down at the mortified prince. Curdler stood up once more.

“Describe to us what you did upon finding Guardsmen Luiter,” Curdler ordered before taking his seat once more.

There was a sudden silence as Terbino began to relive the murder.

“I went to him and asked him if he was alright... when he didn’t respond I told Jaeger to fetch help,” Terbino started.

Several councillors stroked their beards while nodding in a supportive manner.

“After that I wanted to see what was wrong with him... I mean the guard. So I lifted his visor and...”

“That’s enough my lad,” Mylan said comfortingly. “We know what happened from there.”

Curdler turned to face another close councillor to compare their thoughts on the subject. Suddenly Duglio stood up, his face red with anger.

“Did you force my brother to keep your murderous action silent? Threaten him with death or torture? And when he wanted to come clean to Rhoul, you killed them both! Didn’t you!?” he yelled.

Terbino stepped back in shock and fear.

“Duglio you are completely out of order! Take your seat or you will be removed,” Mylan ordered sternly. His eyes narrowed in on the hatred-filled councillor. Jaegar’s elder brother turned from Terbino to glare at Mylan. There was a sudden crack of green light that shot across the room, the point of it hitting Duglio square in the chest. The councillor thudded back in his chair clutching his upper body in pain.

“If you accuse my brother of such acts again lowly scum, I will have your head served to the ogres of the forest,” Lokken snarled angrily, his hand bearing a faded green glow.

Mylan looked utterly shocked and stuttered for a bit.

“I... uhhh... Lokken you are forbidden to perform such sorcery under...” he started before the elder prince cut him off.

“Forgive my actions High Councillor, but in these troubled times, I will defend the honour of my family by whatever means I see fit. Rest assured I will not cause serious harm least it is well deserved,” he muttered before falling back in place beside Terbino.

A dramatic silence filled the hall, broken only by Duglio’s grunts of lingering pain. Each man stared at the fierce protective figure of Lokken. No one wished to challenge his action any further and Councillor Curdler quickly resumed the subject of the murders.

“Terbino... After you were escorted from the murder scene of Guardsmen Luiter and taken under the care of Head Guardsmen Malik Ignius you and Jaeger were taken to a safe room with Guardsmen Rhoul. Two men were posted outside this room for extra protection. Describe to us what happened whilst there. Your account of this is the only one we have; the two guards stationed outside have no recollection of the event,” Curdler said, stopping to scratch at his beard.

This part of the crimes against the city had not been recorded by the councillors as of yet and therefore they did not know what to expect from the young prince. Each member sat up with their attention entirely on Terbino.

“For a while when we were in the room nothing happened, Rhoul told us some old war stories, but then we heard something outside the door. I thought it sounded like the guards falling over or something... but I’m not sure. That’s when it came in through the window,” Terbino explained frantically. His hazel eyes widened at the memory of the creature.

“Just what exactly was ‘it’?” one of the councillors asked, narrowing his eyes. The room fell silent again.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. It... it was like a man, I think, but... but he had no skin. He was just black bone. He wore a cloak, like a black swirling cloak thing and he didn’t seem completely there... I mean he was kind of see-through. He held a type of curved blade which he used to kill Rhoul. But... but after he... he did... the weapon kind of merged with him, like fused with his arm, and then he used Rhoul’s sword on Jaeger,” Terbino said with fear and sadness eating away at his will to go on.

The council fell completely silent as they looked forward with utter astonishment. What Terbino had described was a form of demon. An ethereal or wraith form. It did not seem plausible that one would be in Marble City, let alone Sendurius Region. They were only ever found in the City of Fallen in Gaulatraus Region, many leagues away.

“And why, your highness, would a creature like that kill two people of apparently no significance while leaving the King... you, alive?” Duglio asked angrily, his face shaking quite violently at this point.

Terbino stuttered before looking at his feet. He whispered with tears in his eyes.

“I don’t know.”

There was another pause before Duglio continued.

“And why in hells name would it use Rhoul’s sword to kill my brother!? You just said it used a curved blade to cut Rhoul’s head off. Your ‘story’ my almighty Lord is full of idiotic holes. Admit the truth already! You are a murde...” Duglio raved on angrily before Lokken pointed once more at him.

“Silence now. If you wish to leave here with all of you limbs, you will shut that loud insolent trap of yours,” Lokken threatened, a green glow accumulating in his forefinger.

The angry councillor fell silent temporarily before deciding to storm from the room muttering.

“Your brother won’t be there all the time murderer... I’ll see to it you get what you deserve,” he growled before vanishing down a corridor.

The councillors, Terbino and his two protectors were left in an uncomfortable silence. Elsen placed a comforting hand on the young prince’s shoulder. Mylan hobbled up to them scratching his forehead, more as something to do rather than the urge to rid an itch.

“I do apologise my prince. He really should not have been involved in this hearing. We thought a councillor of his... rank would be more professional,” the large man said, looking apologetic. Terbino tweaked his lips upwards in an attempt to look unbothered.

“He’s lost his brother. It is understandable,” he replied, sounding tired.

“Perhaps it is understandable but no one will be forgetting his treacherous speech soon brother... I’d recommend you remove him from his post permanently. Such blatant hatred towards a person of your status should be made an example of,” Lokken suggested, eyeing the corridor in which Duglio left.

Elsen’s brow narrowed disapprovingly.

“It is alright Lok. I’d likely act the same had I lost you, but may I request he is temporarily relieved of his duties until deemed capable of making well-placed decisions? With continual payment of course,” the young prince asked.

Mylan gave a weak smile.

“You bear much of your father’s caring nature,” he commented softly.

“Perhaps too much of it,” Lokken spoke quietly, turning his face away from his brother.

Elsen frowned in annoyance.

“An honourable act Terbino,” the advisor added, intending directly to undermine Lokken’s words.

The Council spoke among themselves with hasty whispers, their eyes darting up to watch Terbino then the corridor. The voices stopped quickly as Mylan raised his right hand.

“We understand this must be very hard my dear boy. We thank you for helping fill in the pieces,” the chubby Head Councillor acknowledged aloud. The Councillors all nodded their heads in agreement, looking frightfully similar to hungry chickens.

“You may return to your chamber while we continue here.” The room fell silent once more as Terbino bowed slowly.

“I will remain here and give my accounts. I shall see you in a few minutes,” Lokken said, eyes hidden. “And you... keep him safe until I am there,” he added, referring to Elsen.

It was clear Elsen resented being commanded by Lokken but gave no reply.

“Let’s go Terbino,” the experienced advisor said leading him towards the marble stairs.

Secrets to Die For

The young prince could hear the councillors talking as he made his way up the staircase... he had a feeling inside of him that they were unsure of his testimony. Every step up, his mind grew heavier with worry. What if they started to believe Duglio? Believe that he did kill not only Rhoul but his friend as well... Silently with his face bowed in shadow, the prince continued, with Elsen by his side.

“I sense your unease Terbino,” he whispered softly. “You need not dwell on it more than necessary, the council cannot accuse you of any actions without a motive, and they all know you in some way... We could not see you as a cold killer – it is not in your nature,” the broad man commented, his face a picture of stern concentration.

The prince nodded in unsure agreement. Elsen knew of these matters better than any other and if there was someone to trust in such matters, it would certainly be him. Both reached the top of the stairs simultaneously. Everything seemed gloomy this day... perhaps it was due to the grisly events that occurred the previous day, or maybe just in Terbino’s head, or maybe... something was to come. It was a daunting thought and the young prince tried to force it from his mind.

The voices died out slowly as the two distanced themselves from the hall and neared Terbino’s chamber. Flags bearing Marble City’s emblem remained as still as the grave, torches rested unlit in their usual slots on the marble walls. Storm clouds could be heard in the distance over the Eastern ranges of Sendurius, adding to the ghastly atmosphere. Before long, both the prince and advisor were no longer in hearing range of any maids or guards. This gave Elsen the chance to speak without being overheard.

“Something dark has shrouded your kingdom Terbino,” he started. “Yet I do not understand its goal.”

There was a pause as both stopped walking. Elsen turned to face the young prince.

“Something of the greater evil has been revived in Marble City... by whom and why remains elusive, but it brings only ill-content with it. I must show you something,” Elsen concluded, turning to walk quickly.

Terbino remained quiet but his eyes grew larger in fright. In silence he followed swiftly after the advisor.

It did not take long before they were in Terbino’s chambers where Elsen made sure the door was locked behind them. He paced backwards and forwards in haste before speaking.

“The wraith you described... It intended to bring you torment perhaps... But why not death? Why does it not hunt you directly?”

Terbino backed away to his armour cabinet as Elsen paced passed him. There was a pause before the advisor looked up.

“It is frustrating not understanding the enemy’s objective. So until I understand things better I will do my best to protect you... And show you things that will allow you to protect yourself,” he said walking towards the prince. “Stand aside,” he ordered abruptly before grabbing the top of the armour cabinet. Terbino stepped to his left as his uncle pulled the cabinet to the side.

Behind it lay a mouse-sized hole with cracks spreading up the marble. The prince unobtrusively leaned closer to get a better look.

“You see this? It leads to a network of unused and mostly unknown corridors, but it requires a form of structural code or key,” the advisor explained slowly getting to his knees. “There are five marble blocks surrounding this small entrance. Each block must be removed in a particular sequence to allow later blocks to be removed. It is complicated at first but becomes easier the more you use these passageways,” he continued. “I will show you the sequence...memorise it. It may one day save your life.”

Terbino watched intently as Elsen removed certain bricks of marble from the wall connected to the hole. Slowly the mouse-sized hole grew into a man-sized hole.

“What happens if I don’t do it that way?” Terbino asked slightly worried at his memory capabilities.

“Certain blocks will remain wedged if you do not use this exact sequence and you will not be able to fit into the hole. If that happens you must place the blocks back in place and retry. It is similar to those puzzle boards you once enjoyed,” he explained with a quick smile.

The last block tapped lightly on the floor as Elsen placed it. He looked back at the young prince continuing to show a weakened but warm smile.

“After you,” he said, gesturing towards it.

Terbino did not know how to react to the idea of a secret passageway in his room. Slowly he slipped through the hole, his feet making a squelchy noise as they connected with the ground. Slimy growths could just be made out in the darkness. Terbino made a disgusted face as he stepped further into the darkness. Elsen’s large boots thudded against the ground, their weight crushing any foliose growths beneath.

Odd chime-like noises softly whispered through the air as Elsen waved at the hole in the wall. The blocks all aligned themselves in perfect order, fitting together, leaving only the mouse-sized hole. Iridescent symbols glowed on each block temporarily before falling back into darkness.

“I know it’s slightly unappealing, but depending on any possible future situations, it may be the lesser of two evils,” Elsen’s voice sounded out, echoing down the pitch black passageway.

Terbino jumped slightly as an immensely bright sphere of light rose from Elsen’s right palm. It levitated above them revealing their desired path. “It’s a bit sludgy because this is where the rain water flows down from the castle towers... Best not to use it in heavy rain, it becomes slippery and dangerous,” Elsen stated, walking forward.

The odd ball of light followed the advisor’s steps like an obedient dog. Terbino did the same whilst inspecting the slightly eroded walls of the passageway. There was a slope to the corridor allowing water to flow down. They both continued onwards as Elsen explained the history of the place. It was built due to Terbino’s great grandfather’s paranoia of possible assassins. Before long the two males came to a fork in the passageway. One direction had a sharp incline downwards. The other levelled off, revealing cleaner marble ground.

“You don’t want to go further down... that leads to the sewer chamber. It’s emptied only once a week, wouldn’t be a pleasant experience, I’ll tell you that,” Elsen stated, cringing at the thought. Terbino managed a brief smile before turning to the second option. “This is where I need you to pay particular attention Terbino. Further down this passage, there are many different turnoffs and forks. You must not use any of them until I specify which ones. Sometime in the last hundred years, they’ve been occupied by some very dangerous beasts. Especially in the last twenty years. Not sure how it happened but trust me... it’s just better to stay away. They don’t come up to this pathway though... so stick to this one and you’ll be fine,” Elsen whispered, with a serious face.

Terbino suddenly felt ill and afraid. The looming darkness of the corridor, just passed the intensity of the ball of light, became extremely daunting.

Elsen led onwards with his hand instinctively on the hilt of his glowing blade. Terbino followed closely behind, a chill down his spine. The dark corridor was long, and seemingly endless. The young prince’s eyes played tricks on him at every step. He imagined just passed Elsen, a deathly-looking apparition would appear in the faded light and sweep towards them menacingly, but nothing of the sort happened. Eventually they came to one of the forks Elsen mentioned earlier. One path led left, another led right, the one they were on continued forward. They paused to look around. The area was ridden with webs and cracks, yet no sludge grew here... presumably because no rain-water flowed through this direction.

“Both these side passages are dangerous. The right leads somewhere in the city, and if I’m correct this one leads to the giant maze,” Elsen stated, pointing at the left-turn off.

Terbino faced the left passageway in awe.

There were many stories of the giant marble maze, none of them particularly pleasant. It was a hugely built labyrinth, consisting primarily of stone and marble. In Terbino’s great, great grandfather’s time, the worst type of criminals had the choice of either battling similar minded individuals in the arena, or testing their luck in the dreaded maze. The usual choice was battling of course. It was rumoured that a beast resided in the labyrinth and there had been few stories of escapees, fewer still that actually bore some truth.

A cold gust of wind rushed passed them as they both stared down into the abysmal darkness of the passageway. Small hairs on the back of the prince’s neck rose as it brushed passed.

“Shall we continue?” Elsen queried, pointing towards the central route. Terbino nodded his head shakily. Both marched onwards as the gleaming light hovered above them with a mind of its own. They passed many more forks and turns, each with their own distinctive odour. One led to an old pit full of executed criminals, another led to a retired building in town that had recently been renewed as a bakery. Two more went to other openings in the castle, which were deemed safe of beasts and dangerous predators. The last turn off lead to an apparent dead end as the path had never been completely finished before the colonising creatures had moved in. Builder’s corpses and a few elder councilmen’s carcasses were presumed to still lay there from an onslaught of beasts.

The central route finally came to a large opening. The ball of light dimmed and shrunk downwards into Elsen’s outstretched hand. Upon resting on it, the sphere disappeared in a puff of farewell smoke. Next Elsen waved his hands at the walls of the opening. Old disused torches hung on the walls and each erupted into illuminating flames. It did not take Terbino long to realise this place was a tomb. Skeletons lay wrapped in frayed material upon dusty deathbeds. Despite the dust and accumulated dirt, the area looked fairly organised in neat sections. Curiosity got the better of Terbino.

“Where are we?” he asked, stepping forward to examine the closest of the skeletal remains.

“This is the burial chamber of previous High Councillors. One day Mylan, Curdler and possibly myself will lay here,” Elsen answered in slight admiration.

“Mylan knows about these passageways?” Terbino queried, whilst softly brushing dirt off the side of a deathbed.

Elsen nodded.

“He and several others, it is not common knowledge, but a select few of Marble City’s nobles know of them,” the advisor replied. Slowly he walked forward towards an out-of-place ladder.

Terbino abandoned his inspection of the body to follow Elsen. The ladder looked relatively new compared with its surroundings, its structure looked sturdy and trustworthy.

“Where does that go to?” the prince asked curiously. Elsen looked back with slightly saddened eyes.

“The Hall of Kings.”

Terbino fell silent. The Hall of Kings was the place where his father had recently been placed to spend eternity. It was a grand hall in the castle where all the previous Kings of Marble City were laid to rest.

“Shall we?” Elsen said, gesturing Terbino to go ahead of him.

Carefully Terbino made his way up the ladder halting at the top where a wooden trap door blocked his ascent. Without much force, he pushed against it until after a few subtle squeaks of wood against marble, it opened. There appeared to be only darkness on the other side of the door, until his eyes adjusted. The trap door had opened up into an empty marble coffin. Located on one side of the lid were two metal bars used to side the lid off. Terbino grabbed a hold of them and heaved with all his might. Slowly but surely the old heavy lid slid to the side revealing blinding bright torch light.

Both the prince and advisor made their way out of the marble coffin. Had there been any witnesses, the sight would have been alarming, yet the hall was empty of the living. Elsen pointed at the lid, which jolted back into place as if no one had ever emerged. Terbino stared at the floor for some time without uttering a word.

“We should probably get you back to your chamber for now,” Elsen commented, looking towards the door.

Terbino looked up briefly at the advisor then at the coffin he had just emerged from. The surface of the lid had words carved skillfully into them.

Upon reading them, the young prince turned back to Elsen, confused.

“Where is the body of my ancestor that’s supposed to lay here? The carvings say this is where the body of Leoyial rests,” Terbino asked.

Elsen rubbed his beard thoughtfully. “This King was before my time, but I believe he died in combat outside of the castle walls... although his body was never found to confirm it,” the advisor replied. The hall fell silent once more. “Come Terbino. We should go before you are sought after,” he added before walking towards the hall’s great decorated doors.

A shiver of grief ran up the prince’s spine as he passed the most recently placed coffin; the one that held his beloved father. Elsen respectfully opened the door to allow Terbino through. As the prince walked through, the advisor gave one last look into the Hall of Kings, his eyes focussed upon Vertico’s resting place. His face bore no expression but deep in his eyes you could see an everlasting sadness. Slowly he closed the door behind him.

Chapter 3 - Coincidence is One Thing

Water remains clear. Blood goes fickle.

It did not take long for Terbino and Elsen to arrive back at the prince’s chamber. They had walked from the Hall of Kings through the main hall where the previous councillor’s hearing was held. All the seats for the hearing were now empty which brought Terbino a minor form of relief. Upon reaching his chamber door, both he and Elsen noticed it was slightly ajar. Given that the advisor had locked it prior to descending into the secret passageway, this was alarming for both of them. Elsen pulled his adopted nephew behind him whilst placing his other hand upon the hilt of his blade. Slowly he pushed the door open and stepped inside. His hand relaxed upon realising who the intruder was.

“Lokken?” Terbino said, before walking up to his brother.

The elder prince’s pale face was forming an annoyed frown and there was an awkward pause before he spoke.

“I said I would be coming up to see my brother. Did you take him elsewhere to purposely annoy me advisor?” he queried, staring passed Terbino at Elsen.

Again there was a pause before the advisor smiled, unbothered. Unwilling to be bated into another argument, he placed his hand upon the younger prince’s shoulder.

“I must talk to High Councillor Mylan about some matters. I suggest if you wish to leave this chamber, you ask someone to escort you,” he said before whipping around to leave the room.

Lokken’s face formed a deeper shade of red; the whites of his knuckles grew while clenching his fists. His long black hair obscured most of his expression, but Terbino could see anger welling within his older brother.

“You will know your place old man. Ignoring one such as me will be your downfall. I swear it,” he growled, whilst holding back the urge to curse the advisor.

Again Elsen turned around, smiled, and this time gave a wink just to add insult to injury. With that he strode boldly out of the room.

Lokken was about to pursue when Terbino stepped forward to block his brother.

“How’d it go?” he asked, hoping his brother would forget about their adoptive uncle. Lokken forced his stare from the door to look at Terbino. He suddenly smiled.

“Things will be fine Terb. They talked for a bit and decided your story must bear truth. The councillors have issued a warrant on the creature you described. Preferably dead,” the elder prince said, standing tall and proud. “You needn’t worry. Nothing will harm you now least they wish death upon themselves,” he added, patting his brother’s shoulder.

Terbino took a seat on the end of his bed with his head in his hands. Lokken looked uncomfortable, trying to think of something to reassure him.

“Lok, it’s not the danger to myself that I fear. Jaegar was killed... And Rhoul,” Terbino started, trying to hold back the wave of sadness within him.

Lokken’s eyes looked towards the floor as he brushed his black hair away from his face.

“And... I don’t... I mean I... I just can’t... Can’t get the image of Jaeger’s face out of my head, he was so scared. He didn’t deserve what happened to him,” Terbino added, tears flowing from his enlarged eyes.

“What happened to your friend was a despicable act that will not go unpunished. I swear vengeance will come upon the creature that has wronged you, but you must rid these feelings of sadness my brother...” Lokken said, walking towards the window.

The younger prince looked up, surprised at his brother’s words.

“How can I not feel sadness? He was my best friend!” he sobbed, wiping his eyes clear.

“Anger Terbino, anger and hatred… Convert your sadness into anger. Anger is both more useful and powerful,” the older prince stated, continuing to stare out the window.

Terbino’s tears stopped as he stared solemnly at the ground. His mind became empty of any words and distant rain clouds grumbled over the Sendurius Ranges as the room fell silent.

“I will place a spell upon the entrances of this room if you’d let me. It will allow me to detect when dark creatures enter; thus allowing me to protect you,” Lokken said, watching the storm clouds move closer.

Terbino mumbled a yes of a sort before falling silent again. Odd noises resonated from Lokken’s pale hands as he pointed at the open window and the chamber door.

“There... Nothing can get in without me noticing,” he concluded, finally leaving the window to stand above his younger brother. “Chin up brother. You are soon-to-be King, so everything will be...” he said, before becoming interrupted by a knock on the door. There was a pause before Lokken walked toward it.

“Who is it?” he asked, his hand reaching for the handle.

“Uh... it’s Mary...” a small voice said on the other side.

The elder prince turned back to face his disheartened brother.

“Visit another time. We are... busy,” he replied in a stern tone. Terbino looked up and quickly wiped at his eyes.

“It’s alright Lok. Let her in,” he said, trying to sit up straight and Lokken nodded with a weak smile.

Slowly he opened the door whilst looking at Mary with narrowed eyes. She uncomfortably passed Lokken with pinched lips. She greeted both softly, feeling nervous whilst in the presence of Terbino’s protective older brother.

“Alright Terb. I have got to go. Have a good evening,” he said, before strutting out of the room abruptly.

There was a slight pause as the door shut after him, leaving a penetrating silence to drag the already depressing atmosphere down. Mary spoke first, her voice higher than usual.

“How did it go? Are you alright?” she queried, her hand reaching towards his. The dried tear marks upon Terbino’s face were still clearly visible.

“Duglio really thinks I killed Jaeger. I couldn’t even talk to him, I... I just froze,” he whispered, his face stony and tired. Mary’s warm fingers slid welcomingly across his cold seemingly lifeless hand.

“He’s hurting like us Tino. He sees things where there are only falsehoods. Don’t take it to heart... I know it’s hard but you have everyone else here for you. I’m here for you,” she replied, her eyes watery and saddened.

Terbino placed his spare hand upon hers and he looked up into her eyes.

“You’re the best friend anyone could ask for Mary.”

There was a bit of a pause again.

“You’re such a girl!” Mary jested to try lighten the mood.

Terbino gave a small laugh before giving Mary’s hand a slight squeeze.

“Thanks,” he said with a serious expression before standing up to give her a hug.

The two spent the time attempting to joke to raise each other’s morale and keep their mind off the ghastly events of the last few days. Late evening came quickly, the cool air from outside flowed in through the gapping window. Terbino used his large sheet of material, which lived above the window frame, to cover it, attempting to retain any remaining heat. Soon both had slipped under the covers of his bed to keep warm. Many citizens of Marble City would find this hugely controversial but these two had spent many nights together in the same bed in a non-sexual manner. They had been friends for many years and neither one would want to risk their friendship for moments of unaccepted passion and physical contact. This evening they did hold one another which was different from previous times, mainly as a means of comfort and warmth than anything else. Soon they felt the weight of exhaustion take over and they entered a deep sleep.

Circumstantial Evidence

Both Mary and Terbino awoke with a start as the chamber door slammed open revealing two councillors surrounded by five well armed guards, one of which included Malik. Curdler was one of the councillors while the other was an elderly white haired man that had earlier queried Terbino on the wraith. The councillors looked somewhat surprised to discover Mary in bed next to the prince but did not waver in their original objective.

“Terbino, arise at once and do not fight against us,” the white haired man demanded. The young prince stared somewhat confused and shocked at their sudden entrance.

“What... what’s happening?” he stuttered in worry. Malik marched passed the guards and councillors and grabbed the boy’s arm, forcefully pulling him from the bed like a lightweight blade from a weapon’s rack. Terbino winced in pain from Malik’s intense grip. Mary screamed out in surprise as her friend was pulled across her.

“What are you doing? Let him go!” she shrieked. She leapt up to attempt to pry Malik’s grip from Terbino’s arm. Two guards bypassed their leader and held her back. She continued yelling as her friend was forcefully escorted from the room by the Head Guardsmen, followed by two guards and the councilmen.

Curdler looked at the ground unhappily and with an expression of uncertainty. Terbino was practically being dragged down the hallway, protesting futilely, as Malik marched on with a stony expression.

“Please, just tell me what’s going on? I promise I’ll come with you, just stop hurting me please,” he cried, trying to find his footing as the group marched on. Several maids and on duty guards looked on in confusion as the prince continued to protest.

“Alright Malik, loosen your grip. Don’t hurt the lad,” Curdler ordered, attempting to sound worthy of his position, although given the current situation it did not work.

“I’m not giving him any chances of escape. He knows well and good what’s happening,” the Head Guardsman yelled back angrily, his voice echoing down the halls.

Curdler fell silent again, his position gave him no authority over Malik while the man was in this state.

The group neared the marble staircase where they were intersected by at first Lokken and then Elsen. The elder prince looked menacing at the group as his hand began to glow green.

“Release my brother at once Egona! Else you’ll be picking up your seven layers of skin from this hallway,” he threatened viciously whilst raising his glowing hand.

Malik’s eyes narrowed on the older prince.

“Your threats and feeble intimidation attempts will not work on me boy. Step aside now lest you wish your threat to become a reality but on this runt,” he roared, shaking the young prince like a doll.

Lokken’s hand grew bright green before suddenly returning to normal as Elsen waved his hand over the elder prince’s, somehow disabling the magic.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to insist you let my King go Malik. The evidence is not sufficient for the accusation. We will accompany him and hear his side in a rational manner,” the advisor said calmly, pointing at Malik’s vice like grip. Instantly like a key in a lock the hand sprung open revealing a large red hand print on Terbino’s forearm.

The young prince fumbled forward at the sudden feeling of freedom. His eyes were wide with fear as he picked himself up off the ground. Lokken lent a hand, helping his younger brother to his feet.

“What’s happening Lok?” he asked in a high pitched, scared voice.

“Everything will be explained soon Terb. Don’t worry I’ll sort everything out. Just a ridiculous mix up is all. The councillors are all waiting for you in the grand hall,” he answered, whipping around causing his red-rimmed black cloak to follow. The grand hall was full of councillors each with narrowed eyes as Terbino entered. He was marched into the centre of the hall where he was encircled by seats occupied by judging councillors. One face was not present that the prince expected, he could not spot High Councillor Mylan among the glares of councillors.

Curdler and the other councillor marched from the group to find their designated seats. Terbino was surprised when Curdler walked to the central, slightly higher seat where Mylan was usually located in these council trials.

“I, Councillor Mayaghan Curdler take the temporarily position of High Councillor given the circumstances. Any objections or queries?” he announced. All councillors fell silent except for one who was located near the back of the many judging eyes.

“I, Duglio who have been stripped of my duties wish to have them reinstated so that I may address questions to the accused,” the familiar face of Duglio emerged, looking menacing.

“Any opposed?” Curdler asked, leaving a brief pause. None of the council raised any objections allowing Duglio to march to the front of the seats where he glared evilly at Terbino.

Soon everyone was in their correct position and the hall fell deathly quiet with all judgemental eyes upon the younger prince.

“Terbino Tarrenay, son of King Vertico Tarrenay. Do you understand why you are here and what you are accused of?”

“No I don’t understand what’s going on. Please explain it to me,” Terbino replied in genuine confusion. His reply sparked muttering from the councillors. Before they continued, Mary was escorted to the hall by the two guardsmen that restrained her earlier. She had tears rolling down her face and seemed completely at a loss.

“Terbino you are being accused of the murder of High Councillor Figoth Mylan during the night. How do you plead?” Curdler continued, attempting to ignore the sobs from Mary who clearly had been told before arriving in the hall.

The prince’s face went even whiter at hearing of Mylan’s death.

“I didn’t kill him! I swear!” he cried out in horror, feeling his body shaking uncontrollably.

“If I may councillors, I would like to lead the accusations on Terbino,” Duglio said, standing from his seat. Curdler immediately protested with annoyance.

“You are too closely involved in this Duglio. We will...” he started, before another nearby councillor interrupted.

“I think it’d be wiser to let Duglio lead the accusations.”

Many of the councillors shouted their agreement forcing the defeated Curdler to take his seat.

Duglio stepped forward narrowing his eyes with a grin of triumph present. He neared Terbino and paced a bit before starting.

“Councillors I will admit that I am entangled in this situation with the death of my own blood, but is it not understandable that I will show no remorse or mercy in my questioning as a result? Does it not seem more logical given the circumstances?” he started, quickly gathering followers in the seats.

Many councillors nodded in agreement. Elsen, Lokken and Curdler could do nothing but watch as the councillors fell to Duglio’s persuasive grip.

“Shall we start from the beginning then...? Mylan was discovered with his throat slit and the murder weapon thrown from the window and discovered in the castle grounds below,” he stated, causing a fresh wave of tears from Mary. “This weapon has been known to once be in the possession of the accused is that not right? Say... Prince Lokken can you clarify this?” he continued.

“I clarify nothing,” the elder prince spat.

“Remember it is your duty to tell us what you know despite any connections or feelings you may have on the subject,” Duglio continued.

“Fine... he has had that dagger in his possession in the past but it is not hard to get from his chamber! Any fool could get...” Lokken started, before being cut off.

“I see so the weapon was indeed his or has been in the past. Please Councillors take account of this.”

The councillors murmured to each other before Duglio continued.

While strictly in normal circumstances, council trials usually forbad any unauthorised men or women from viewing, it seemed this rule was forgotten as maids and servants began to watch from afar, whispering and murmuring.

“Now of course this alone is not enough to accuse anyone let alone future King, however a well-respected member of this castle, a guard in fact, was wounded last night. His witness accounts accuse Terbino and only Terbino.”

There was a sudden hush of the councillors as they became enthralled with Duglio’s speech.

“His words were that he was patrolling around his usual route near Mylan’s chambers when he witnessed Terbino emerging from Mylan’s door.” Again there was a pause as Duglio let the councillors become more deeply entranced. “He claims that he greeted Terbino who unexpectedly lashed out at him causing him to fall backwards off the railing located near Mylan’s chamber. Given the fall, it is miraculous this man is still alive although it is with a heavy heart that I must say he is now unable to move his legs and is in immense agony at this point in time. That is why he could not join us,” Duglio announced with a fake-saddened expression.

The council continued to stare intently at Duglio as if his words were carried by the greater good itself. Terbino stared in shock upon hearing Duglio’s arguments. He wasn’t there, how could he be accused?

“Before we continue Duglio...” Lokken started unexpectedly, before being interrupted.

“Councillor Duglio,” Duglio corrected sternly.

“May I know what motive my brother would have in killing members of this castle? Members that would soon serve under him? Why would he kill anyone?” he asked, feeling smug that there could not possibly be a reasonable answer. Duglio smiled as if expecting the question.

“I do not want to remind us all of Marble City’s dark history, but given the circumstances I must deem it acceptable. Some of our elderly members, say Elsen, may remember our latest King’s grandfather. Vertico’s grandfather was known as a vicious tyrant with an insatiable blood lust. We understand now that he was unstable and his need to kill was a part of his mentality. Unfortunately in this case, he needed no reason to kill. He enjoyed it and found pleasure in torturing and murdering his underlings. Of course in those days he was King and his word was law, but we have evolved from such primitive behaviour thanks to late King Vertico’s father who instated new rules and laws. I do not wish to step beyond my boundaries but it must be noted that this behaviour could be hereditary leading such behaviour to occur in our prince here,” Duglio explained with flawless logic. Many councillors nodded in agreement.

“He has been alive for eighteen years Duglio. Why would he suddenly start now?” Lokken asked, suddenly sounding unsure.

“We have all noticed a steady increase in mutilated animals and creatures over the last two years – since our prince first came of age. A man with these mental instabilities does not instantly murder and kill humans. He starts off small with barely noticeable acts like killing rodents or birds. He increases his actions to include larger more substantial beings until just recently he kills a fellow man,” Duglio concluded with pride.

The councillors all burst out pointing their fingers angrily at Terbino. The prince stared at the mass of noblemen in fear as they appeared swayed by Jaegar’s brother’s convictions.

“I didn’t kill anyone. Please listen to me!” Terbino cried out futilely. Suddenly the crowd died down as a whimpering voice emerged.

“Stop please. He didn’t kill my father. I... I was with him last night,” Mary said, tears still rolling down her cheeks. The hall fell completely silent once more. “I was with him all last night. He couldn’t have done it,” she repeated. Duglio paused for a bit before a grin of victory came across his face.

“Now our prince Terbino is an intellectual boy. Unlike his great grandfather he is not able to kill at whim, therefore he must be clever and plan his murderous actions. Who would suspect him if he spent the night with the daughter of the murdered? Quite ingenious but also think further. It would not be difficult to sneak away unnoticed once she was asleep and commit the act before returning without her being any the wiser,” he concluded walking back to his seat with his head held somewhat higher than usual.

There was a brief pause as the council discussed the evidence amongst one another. Terbino stared at Mary who stared back with unsure eyes. Duglio’s words did more damage than was intended. Even the prince’s best friend now had doubts.

“I would like to address everyone if I may,” Elsen said, stepping from Terbino’s side.

“I am a war veteran, an advisor to the late King, and a man who is at least twice the age of anyone here. I have witnessed the devilish behaviour of Terbino’s great grandfather and I have witnessed the caring nature of Terbino himself. The two are on separate ends of a good – bad continuum where the worst of Terbino’s nature would result in a mosquito being allowed only one spoon of his blood rather than two,” Elsen started.

The council gave a few laughs at the last statement. “Killing and murder are not in his nature and given my experience I have yet to witness someone who can falsely act in such a way after the action of murder, therefore I conclude he is very likely not the murderer you seek. Do not make a hasty decision based on circumstantial evidence given by a man who by all rights wants the accused killed as well,” the wise advisor concluded before stepping back.

Several councillors nodded their heads in agreement while the vast majority stayed unsure in their expression.

Shadow of an Old King

The council continued to talk amongst each other while Terbino sat worried and scared of the potential outcome of his trial. He did not want to become imprisoned for the rest of his life, especially for a crime he was sure he did not commit. There was an eerie cold wind that blew into the hallway causing dimples to accumulate on his arms. After a brief session of time Curdler stood up attempting to regain some control in his favour.

“I believe we must discuss this in a more private setting councillors, I believe Terbino should be allowed to return to his room in the meantime,” Curdler suggested.

There were a few mutters of agreement but most councilmen stayed silent.

“You may return to your room Terbino. There will be two guards posted outside your room – I’m afraid you are not allowed to leave until further notice,” the councillor added, before stepping down from the High Councillor’s seat.

Two guardsmen escorted Terbino back along the corridors. Elsen and Lokken remained behind to attempt to sway the councillors who were now standing up to leave to a more private room. Terbino looked over his shoulder at his best friend. Her face was red and puffy from crying, her eyes hollow as her ruffled brunette hair partially obscured her expression. Terbino wanted to be there with her, somehow make her feel better. Give her the comfort that Elsen had once given him upon Vertico’s death. She looked up briefly at the saddened prince with wide eyes. It was clear she could not muster any gesture or expression to let him know she believed him, or that she was going to be alright. She just... stared with bloodshot tearful eyes.

Soon the hall was out of sight as Terbino was marched onwards. The black and red banners above waved slowly in the ethereal wind as they had done in the past. Maids and guards stood with their backs against the walls as Terbino was escorted passed. Their heads bowed as if they were ashamed to serve one such as him. His reputation forever sullied by the recent events, he continued to march on, his bare feet moving in time with the loud clanks of both the guards’ greaves. Nothing made sense about his convictions. How could the guard have seen him? He didn’t go out at all the evening before, he stayed with Mary. When was his dagger stolen? He could have sworn he saw it the day prior.

After what seemed an eternity of walking and thinking Terbino reached his chamber door with both guards either side him.

“You have a choice prince. Would you like one of us to accompany you inside? Or would you prefer both of us out here while you are in your room?” One of the guards said gruffly.

“I would like to be alone please,” Terbino replied after a pause.

“As you wish,” the guard said, opening the chamber door. “Call us if you need anything,” he added, before closing the door after the sullen prince.

His room seemed colder and dreary. The bed lay unmade and the blind covering the window had not been opened. On his far desk there were some parchments, a jug of somewhat stale water and some unused quills. It was true his dagger was missing; could he have imagined seeing it the evening before? Or perhaps he was mixing it up with a different memory of another night. Everything seemed confusing and unconnected. He fell to the bed sobbing with his hands running through his brown unwashed hair. What if they found him guilty? What would happen to him then? The thought scared Terbino more than anything in his life except maybe the wraith.

He lay sobbing on his bed for some time before being interrupted by a sudden snap of the window blind. It instantly rolled up allowing a burst of sun to enter the room. Given the whole commotion of the morning he had not realised it was such a beautiful day outside. Slowly Terbino arose from his bed to inspect what had just happened. Cautiously he approached the blinding window. As he neared, he felt the hairs on his arms raise up. Something did not feel right. Carefully he placed each hand either side of the ledge then put his head out the window. There was a sudden flash of something black before his eyes. It gave a loud cry upon discovering Terbino’s intruding face. The prince let out a surprised shout until realising it was only a bird of some sort. It soared away in a disgruntled fashion leaving his heart to pump away at the speed of a torkilian.

Both guards crashed into the chamber bearing smooth blades that they held threateningly in front of them. This startled Terbino further until realising they had no hostile intent.

“What’s wrong Terbino?” one of the guards said, looking around the room carefully. Terbino’s face grew red.

“Nothing... just a bird startled me,” the poor lad said, whilst walking over to his desk. He grabbed some of the water and swilled it down. The guards slowly placed their weapons back in the scabbards.

“I see,” the guard replied bluntly, looking at the prince gulp down the water.

Terbino looked up at them both and noticed them staring at his water almost hungrily.

“Do you want some?” he asked, holding out the jug. They eyed each other uncomfortably as if accepting would be improper.

“Uhhh.... sure,” one of them finally said, before graciously accepting the drink. After swilling down a substantial amount he passed it to his companion. “Thanks.”

“Yeah thank you,” the second guards said, before returning it.

“I’m Quill by the way. I’m usually stationed outside your brother’s room,” the taller guard announced. His face was pale with thick blonde hair on top and a sloppily shaved beard on the bottom.

“I am William. I’m just usually wherever they want me,” the shorter but much stocker guard commented with a laugh. “Anyway we best get back into position Quill. Thanks again for the drink prince,” William said, before turning to leave the room, his heavy armour clanked with each step.

Terbino was left all alone again, but at this point he preferred it this way. It seemed that everyone or mostly everyone was against him. He sat on the edge of his bed trying to comprehend the situation he was in. His bare feet toyed with his boots as his mind descended further into despair and worry. Finally he pushed his feet into them, his confusion made him feel a sense of frustration and anger. He was interrupted from his thoughts by two thumps outside the door. At first he thought it may be the guards getting in position but then it became far too silent to be normal. Unexpectedly the chamber door creaked open revealing a familiar face. Celia stepped forward swaying her hips seductively. Behind her were the two either knocked out or dead bodies of the guards. She continued towards the prince who started stepping backwards in shock.

“Yo... you! You did all this!” he stuttered in surprise. Celia stayed silent as she continued. Her walk was clearly meant to be attractive, alluring even. With Terbino up against the wall she pressed herself upon him.

“All alone and no one believes you my poor Tino,” she whispered into his ear before licking his neck. He quivered backwards, somewhat repulsed. “All they see is a murderer... the shadow of an old King,” she continued rubbing her fingers down his front, attempting to unbutton his night wear. The young prince pushed her hands away in frustration, face growing red.

“How could you do this? How could you kill Jaeger – he was our best friend!” Terbino shouted in growing anger.

Celia smiled lustfully pulsing her hips against his, slowly removing her clothing in a rather seductive manner. Terbino pushed her away attempting to understand why and how she could do such a thing.

“And your brother... mmmm... yum, yum... I just paid him a little visit. Let’s just say it’ll take the maids months to clean his remains from the walls,” she said joyfully while continuing to de-clothe. Terbino roared forward pushing her backwards on to his bed.

“If you hurt my brother I swear I’ll kill you!” he yelled angrily, holding her down. Suddenly her eyes flashed yellow before returning to normal. It was enough to make him recoil in surprise.

“And Mary... Well that little whore will be fun to play with when you’re all used up,” Celia said, rubbing both hands through her long blonde hair.

“Stay away from her you bitch!” Terbino cried out angrily, grabbing her and throwing her in an aimless direction. This happened to be where the window was. Suddenly the chamber door slammed shut due to an invisible force while Celia flew towards the window. The small collection of bricks that formed the secret pathway began moving out of place to reveal the hidden passageway. Celia grabbed the side of the window frame at the last second preventing her from falling to the distant ground below. Terbino quickly jumped forward to grab her arm. She was practically naked at this point while dangling from the prince’s arm. Her eyes flashed yellow once more... this time he did not flinch; but he did notice something unusual. There was a small hole in Celia’s neck where something sharp had pierced her.

Celia continued to grin happily as Terbino struggled to keep his grip upon her arm.

“You’re not Celia! Who are you?” he suddenly yelled.

Celia giggled smugly.

“Clever boy, unfortunately Celia’s taken a permanent holiday from her shell... she lent it to me so I may utilize it how I wish,” she responded, rubbing her free hand over her chest.

“What did you do to her!? Bring her back now!” Terbino commanded angrily.

“Oh Tino... Tino... Tino. You poor lad, she’s dead... And you killed her,” she said with a smirk. Suddenly there came crashes on the door.

“Oh no... here come the party crashers. Don’t you hate that?” she whispered evilly. The booms on the door grew louder followed by voices.

“Open the door Terbino! Now!” The voices and commands grew angrier and louder.

The prince began to panic.

“They’re going to kill you my poor Tino. Killing your best friend, killing a guard, killing the high councillor. Raping and killing poor Celia. Kill kill kill, such a beautiful word,” she cawed joyfully.

At that, Terbino let her go to make a run for the secret passageway. The possessed Celia managed to hold on to the window frame watching as her victim disappeared from view. Suddenly the chamber door burst open allowing a surge of guards and councilmen in.

“Help! It was Terbino! He... He... Argghhh,” Celia screamed before letting go of the window frame. The guards and councilmen ran to the window quickly, gasping in horror at the somewhat naked girl lying broken on the castle grounds far below.

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