DO YOU FEAR THE COMING LIGHT?
The voice slithered in that peculiar way shadows did. Encroaching, it scraped against Ralsei's eardrums—volatile as gurgling water.
FIND FEAR IN IT? REVEL IN IT? OR DO YOU AWAIT ITS CALL?
Ralsei was strolling through shadowed streets when that grinding voice intruded, shattering the thick silence. It rung inside of his eardrums, clawing out with its crackling vowels and breaks. Uttering those sentences scant, it disappeared into the night. Ralsei huffed. The voice picked the strangest of times to drop by, without fail... Not that he minded the company.
He returned to his thoughts. Footsteps echoed against smooth card roads, their borders run with stripes of colour—the only colour amidst the midnight-painted surfaces surrounding him. He loved his kingdom—what prince wouldn't—but the black did grow intimidating at times.
Especially with nobody else around.
About him, linen banners lined the streets—dark in print—hanging still. On them, sigils of a winged circle with three triangles beneath. Ralsei smiled to himself.
Now that he'd stopped keeping track of the nights, the voice allowed him a steady sense of time. The chunks in-between its calls may be forgettable—absent—but when it did appear, its every dripping word would cling to his mind, refusing departure. It took a while for him to get used to, but these days, he thanked his lucky stars he had something to keep him grounded.
He adjusted his glasses. It was all too easy to lose oneself in the dark. One moment you see perfectly, and the next you're blind.
Nearby, a child skipped along, sandals clacking short and sweet. The daughter of the local innkeeper. Her arms outstretched, she flung streetside banners up, letting them flap back against non-existant winds.
"A clubs must bear a heavy life," she giggled. "It bears the burden of three heads! Aaaa~ eats your brains whole, and hard to balance on one neck."
As she walked past, Ralsei offered a wave. She bobbed her head back at him.
What a strange child. It was always so lively in this empty town.
A PRINCE WITH NONE TO SUBJECT.
There it was again, that modulated voice. He was beginning to wonder if his head was in the right place. Imagining voices was something crazy people did, after all.
He put on his most convincing smile. The voice was formless to him, but that didn't mean he was formless to it. "You're getting much more skilled with your sculptures, aren't you?" he said. "That girl looked almost as I remembered her!"
The voice crackled, and somehow Ralsei could tell it was grey.
MAKE NO MISTAKE. THE DENIZENS ROAMING THE STREETS OF YOUR MIND... THEY ARE FULLY ITS OWN.
"What do you mean by that, Mr. Voice?" he asked.
No answer came. That was fine. The voice would return—it always did.
He often wondered who it belonged to—that shapeless will, watching over him like a benevolent Angel. Unnerving, yet gentle.
As Ralsei made the hike to the town square, he recited to himself the familiar Prophecy. Soft murmurs, hardly audible, but in the overwhelming stillness, it could pierce heads. The smell of old pages tickled his snout—he hadn't cleaned that tome in a while, and his fingers itched at the thought. What would the Heroes think if he'd handed them such an unkept excuse for a guide manual?
Ah... the Heroes. His heart pined as his mind wandered. He longed to greet them. Memories of the soaring warmth that came with fulfilling his purpose had never left him—never since his conception at world's beginning, when first that bliss flooded his core.
From the walls, whispers abounded. So eager to gossip.
YOU AWAIT THE LIGHT SO EAGERLY... WHY?
Ralsei jumped, nearly tripping on a stair. Always so loud. Always booming, rattling his temples. He wished the voice would at least warn him.
"Because it's my duty," he said, pouting. "My purpose. Even if I have to wait a thousand nights, I won't fail it."
He marched on, shadows giving way, tome under arm. The thirty-fourth time the voice asked. Or was it the second?
YOU AIM TO RECEIVE GUESTS THAT WILL NEVER COME.
"They will come," Ralsei said, "and they will save the world from destruction. We will restore balance."
AND IF THEY DO NOT?
"You need to have faith, Mr. Voice!" Ralsei said. "Trying to change my mind won't work. They will come, and we three will be the best of friends. I'll see to it myself!"
The voice hummed, almost grizzly. It seemed amused.
WHETHER OR NOT THEY WOULD COME SHOULD BE THE LEAST OF YOUR WORRIES.
"Exactly!" Ralsei said. "That's why I'm here—to guide them and keep them safe on their journey to the edge of the world." He paused, the warmth of a blush creeping on his cheeks. "It will be tough, I'm sure... but with our friendship, we would make it through!"
The voice cackled out his ears. So loud. Ralsei clutched the rim of his hat, pulling it over and burying his head in its folds.
I ADMIRE YOUR NOBILITY. TRULY, YOU ARE THE PRINCE THIS WORLD NEEDS.
A howl of wind broke the still air, scattering sands. Cold.
Freezing... Slithering... Colder, yet colder.
The world around him, and the voice's tone.
IF YOUR EXPECTATIONS FAIL YOU, HOW WOULD YOU REACT, I WONDER?
Ralsei wheeled around. That sounded like it came from the cliff walls.
He hadn't a moment to collect his thoughts when it hit—a wave of dreamlike bliss and an indescribable surge of motivation. It settled as quickly as it flared, like a dust heap disturbed. In moments, it was gone. There was no mistaking it.
That warmth. That fuzzy feeling... one of love.
He was supposed to be doing something important, wasn't he?
Ralsei's breath escaped him for only a moment. He dashed back, hopping down stairs he had just finished climbing. The warmth was brief, but its memory lingered. Was it them? Was it finally time?
As he reached the bottom, he shook himself awake. Slowed to a skip, down another flight of stairs, toward his castle. He needed to get ready. Banners around him hung proud—a reminder of his duty. A heavy burlap cloak weighed on him, dragging behind as he descended. A spike of excitement—not from the nearing Lightners, but of his own heart. Perhaps he should greet the Heroes in person, instead?
Ralsei chortled. Of course not. They were supposed to make first contact in the castle. He wasn't going to be the one to violate the Prophecy after he'd spent so long going over the darned thing.
Soon after, the heroes arrived, and he could hardly contain his glee. Not a fiber of relief stretched in him—only a washing fulfillment as he recounted to them the Prophecy in full. The Spade Jack—Lancer—had ambushed them, but the Heroes fended him off. Watching them fight, discorded as they were, inspired like a crashing release. The Monster Hero was more than a little rude, and the Human Hero more than a little distracted, but he knew well they would come into their own given time.
The best part? He would be there to help them through it.
As Ralsei gathered his things, whispers danced in the edges of his hearing. They would be departing soon—the Monster Hero off on her own already. The ends of his cheeks betrayed a smile, a giddiness pumped in his bones, springing them forth as he moved to catch up with the Human Hero—Kris, he was called.
Once more, something slithered against his eardrums. His scalp tingled.
I WILL BE GONE FOR A TIME.
Ralsei stopped in his tracks. The Great Door—heavy gates that guarded the only passage east—loomed tall in front of him. Golden and gleaming, their first milestone. Kris looked back from the other side.
Ralsei trained his gaze ceilingward, hands still trembling. "You were the one who brought them down here, right?" he called out. The voice hummed, bouncing off the walls—of the room or of his skull? He wasn't sure. Neither was he of how he knew it was the voice who brought the Heroes to him. He just did.
The Great Door called to him. Wide open on its hinges, even before the Heroes reached; no wonder Lancer managed to slip in. Tugging on him was the Lightner beyond—not by his arms, but his heartstrings. He had to make this quick.
"Um... Thank you!" Ralsei said, fiddling his fingers. "I-I know we haven't been able to talk much at all, really. I still don't know who you are..."
I AM NO LONGER NEEDED.
Ralsei shook his head. "Everyone is needed, Mr. Voice! Even... Even you!"
Even if it was a little unnerving an entity, it deserved as much kindness as anyone else. He would be remissed to deprive it.
...Where was it going, again? A creeping sense of loss ate away at his core. He couldn't shake the feeling that if he let those slithering words go, they would remain lost to his memory forever.
"I'm sorry... Maybe I've taken you for granted all this time...," Ralsei whispered, lowering his head. "I won't lie. I've always found the fact that I could hear you... disconcerting."
"If you're ever up for it, though," he said, "I could bake you a yummy cake! You know, as a thank you for keeping me company for so long? Oh, um, of course... you would need to show up with a corporeal form for this, and..."
Ralsei hesitated. Now the time to bid goodbye, weaving his words came so uncertain. He didn't think this through.
He picked at the rim of his hat. "I'm sorry. Was I being inconsiderate?"
YOUR KINDNESS FALLS ON A MIND THAT CAN'T APPRAISE IT.
The Great Door slammed shut, and their quest began in earnest.
As they waded through the violet Fields, they happened across foe after foe—card warriors, jigsaw sentries... Of course, as many of them laid lifeless—flat against carpet dirt—as did stand in their way.
"Susie...," Ralsei pleaded, trailing behind her. "Please, I know the citizens of this land can be a bit much... but I implore you, please do not treat them too harshly."
The purple monster scoffed. "Bunch of pansies is what they are."
To the side, Kris kept his silence. Well... relative silence, anyway. Ralsei swore half of those crawling whispers came from the human's lips.
Sighing, he weaved between his companions, taking head. His glasses often clouded in plant-dense regions, but that wouldn't be a problem for long. Not much farther stretched the Great Board, checkered in red and black, floors glazed with linoleum. He dug through his pockets, searching for something he knew was there. A violet clover.
Cuts and bruises swelled on Ralsei's forearms and hands, dull stinging. Candies only did so much to heal you, and even then, pain tended to linger for a time.
It anchored him to the present, though, so he couldn't complain.
Many a Rudinn and Hathy had fallen, and many he'd had to bury himself. His hands trembled as he recalled the feeling of limp sludge on palm, staining it black. How could a Hero hurt another so easily? Under the gazes of his opponents, Ralsei had been made to draw his scarf to a blade, but actually using it? His stomach churned at the thought.
Behind him, the two Heroes were bickering about something again. Even if their personalities clashed, their squabbles were growing ridiculous. Enough to thin his patience. Enough that he needed to break away to catch fresh air.
How did things end up this way?
In his head, the memory of an old cat tending to his patchy tent surfaced, and with it dragged that unpleasant conversation. Ralsei grimaced.
"Why do you try so hard...?" the shopkeeper sang, voice blithe and untethered. He reached into a heap of pillows, retrieving pouches that jingled at move. "...Why try to convince me?"
Ralsei stared back. "Because I'm a Hero. It's my duty."
The shopkeeper laughed, and Ralsei struggled to maintain his smile. He had stubbornly refused to listen to him, this old cat, and every word that escaped his torn mouth dripped with condescension.
Ralsei pressed his thumbs together. "I've told you this already, but we're here to save the world. Even if you don't believe we could, all I ask is that you have hope."
"Hope...?" the shopkeeper grinned. "I see no point in it."
"Everyone needs to have hope," Ralsei said. "Without it, what point would there be to living?"
"For the sake of it... You don't need such a silly thing to live..."
"How could you say that?" Ralsei said. "I understand if you don't want to help us, but..."
To the side, Kris was browsing the shopkeeper's collection of foods and armours, hand on chin. Ralsei had tried to get him into the conversation, but to no avail. The human seemed to show little initiative of his own, preferring to let the prince lead the way forward.
Behind the counter, the shopkeeper unfurled the pouches, spilling coins. Gingerly, he stacked one atop the next, clattering. "Your friend outside...," he said, "has been running around, spreading chaos..."
Ralsei froze. He was hoping that wouldn't get brought up. To the side, Kris perked up, as if suddenly listening.
"The locals...," he said, "...they despise her. Wish her ill..."
Ralsei brought his hands together and bowed, hat nearly tipping over. "I'm very sorry! I—," he looked to Kris, who watched in silence. Ralsei grit his teeth. "We'll keep her from doing it again!"
The human gave him a slight nod, then turned back to scanning shelves.
The shopkeeper tilted his head, cotton puffing from a cheek gash. "Now... why are you apologizing to me...?"
"I—," Ralsei hesitated, "...because it's our fault?"
"It's bold of you to assume...," the shopkeeper said, "...that when things go wrong, it's of your doing..." He laughed. A tired laugh that chilled the air.
Did he hear that right?
Ralsei peeked his head up. "You... You're laughing...? Weren't you mad at us?"
"Now, why would I be...?"
"You—," Ralsei cut off, unsure if he should continue. "Your fellow Darkners, they were..."
With a clack, the shopkeeper placed the final coin on the pile of a hundred before pushing it aside. "For a Darkner in my condition...," he said, "neither Light nor Dark hold a future..."
Ralsei brought his hands down on the wood, toppling the coin stack. The shopkeeper reached out half-heartedly as golden chips rolled away on floorpads. One made its way between Ralsei's toes, spinning to a halt. The prince cleared his throat.
"You may not believe there to be much point left in our existence," he began, fingers tapping. The shopkeeper turned to him, grinning still. "You may believe the world a lost cause, and you may even despise it—it and the Lightners—for what it has taken."
In the corner, Kris looked on, curious.
"Even still, when push comes to shove, it is one worth keeping alive—if not for yourself, then for others." Ralsei fished in his robe, letting his shoulders fall as the familiar clover folded under his fingers. Somehow, he could tell it was violet. "We will seal the Fountain and save the world. All I ask is that you care."
For the first time, the shopkeeper's grin faltered. Ralsei readjusted his glasses, hands itching to move. Did he go too far?
Kris seemed to deliberate something. Ralsei frowned. Did the human realize others could hear him when he whispered to himself? Ralsei might want to warn him otherwise. He imagined it would become cause for embarassment.
But, if he were to confront him, and Kris responded with scorn...
"...Not that it matters to me, anyway."
Ralsei shook awake. The shopkeeper looked straight at him, eye alight with incandescent orange from beneath. A revolving button. A rusty throat. His grin had sooner returned, and he aimed it strong at the prince.
"One day soon...," he said, "you too, will realize the futility of your actions..."
Before Ralsei could chime back, Kris stepped in. He placed a handful of star-molded marshmallows on the counter, followed by a shimmering shard and a pouchful of coins. He leaned over and whispered something to the shopkeeper.
The old cat's grin grew.
His companion urged him to leave them. When asked why, Kris simply told him they needed to talk in private. Not wanting to defy a Lightner, Ralsei marched out of the tent and joined Susie in waiting. Few words passed between the two.
What happened next he didn't need recall. The aches and scrapes biting at his flesh were reminder enough.
"Susie, stop that!" Kris yelled. Flanking them was a squadron of Ponmen, eyes staring daggers. Literally. Diamond missiles crystallized and sprayed from their white nuclei, cutting craters into checkered tiles. Even as Kris coordinated evasion, chips of red and black—thrown up from impact—lodged themselves in skin and fur, drawing inky blood.
Heart racing, Ralsei pored over his options. Susie charged ahead of the group, swinging wildly as Ponmen circled her, alert and light. Kris had warned their enemies of Susie's attacks, but the monster always found a way. That was, unless...
"Kris!" Ralsei barked. "Cover your ears!"
The human brought his hands up without missing a beat. Ponmen were known for their lack of mental faculty, and that rendered them perfect targets for sleeping charms. A bloodthirsty monster may require some exertion on his part, but nothing impossible. He breathed in.
Singing a tune of deep sleep at the top of his lungs, he...
"What do you have there?" a gentle voice crooned.
Ralsei blinked, glasses cloudy with dew. He brushed them off with furry fingers, almost fumbling. For a moment, it was dark.
That was strange. Where were all the Ponmen?
Standing before him was Kris, a speck of violet clutched between his fingers. He held it out to Ralsei. "A clover," he said, "for you."
Ralsei stared at the little purple leaf in his hands. A three-leafed clover, leaves fanning out like a paper club.
"It's rare, isn't it?" the human said. "Mom told me it means good luck."
Ralsei swept his head around. In place of red and black, rolling violet sprawled. Under his feet was cushioned, yet scrappy flooring. Grass.
"If you don't want it..." the human said, expression unchanging, "I'll keep it for myself."
Ralsei startled. "Oh, of course I'll take it!"
With a deft hand, he plucked the clover from the human's fingers and pocketed it, smiling from ear to ear.
"Thank you!" he said. "I'll cherish this forever!"
The human nodded and turned to leave. Ralsei followed closely behind, humming to himself. What was this? A genuine act of friendship? His heart soared at the thought. He would have to make it up to the human later.
...Hm? The human? What was his name again?
"What's that song?"
The voice wrenched Ralsei from his thoughts. He shook himself awake. "I-I'm sorry?"
"That song. You keep humming it to yourself."
Ralsei blinked. "Ah. It's just a lullaby," he said, laughing nervously. "Something I learned back in my castle. If I put some magic behind it, I can even lull people to sleep!"
"Oh," the human said. That was odd. It wasn't often that the human showed interest in the prince's dealings. Maybe he's had a change of heart?
Or he was asking for someone else.
His gait even and expression unbreaking, the human brought a hand to his chin. "That sounds... useful... ..."
The hulking sentries withdrew, shutting stone eyelids, lowering themselves on resting pedestals. A figure of purple laid slumped on the floor, snores like shredding wood. Kris rested against a pillar, breathing heavily, and Ralsei procured from his pocket a little violet clover to hold close.
You didn't let precious items slip your fingers.
Shielded by red canopies above, Ralsei found his legs grew heavier and heavier. The start of their journey seemed so far away now, and they're only in the Scarlet Forest. Lancer's constant ambushes were of no help, either. The Spade Jack would drop by whenever he pleased, claim madness, cause a ruckus, be chased off by Susie's axe, only to do it all over again. For the first time in his life, Ralsei felt... tired.
Still, he marched on.
So did Susie.
"Where did she go!?" Kris shouted as he turned a corner, nearly running into a shambling Rabbick. So loud. Ralsei lagged behind, steps off-balance and breaths labored.
"Kris... please...," he panted, "slow down..."
But the human didn't hear him.
Quivering fingers outstretched, he watched helplessly as the blue figure in armour disappeared into the distance, leaving only trampled grass in his wake.
Blocky corpses lay strewn about, and the smell of rancid ink assailed his nostrils. His glasses, still damp from earlier, misted with a faint black.
Still, Ralsei carried on, guided by his purpose. That blissful wash of purpose. Breaking into a sprint, he forced his legs onward as they creaked and complained. He couldn't lose it. That purpose. He couldn't lose his friends.
Black. Inky black. Black and white.
A stab of pain—dull and creeping—sprung from behind his eye socket. Ralsei groaned.
For a moment, all was black. The next, he saw. He blinked.
Where was he now?
"HALT, HERO," a voice boomed, grinding against his ears. Ralsei reached out to cover them when a stream of missiles burst from a platform above, ringing as they grazed fur ends and struck the card flooring. He tripped, his glasses coming loose as his head banged on metallic black. Through misaligned lenses, he saw. Spade arrows.
"King!" Ralsei jarred.
Overhead, a single figure loomed, cloaked in shadow. His feet echoed as he stepped forth, heavy as the air they breathed.
Ralsei picked himself up, rummaging through his mind for spells. What was he going to do? Where was he? Around him stretched endless dark, hollow yet stark. Just below the balcony, a massive white sigil decorated the wall. A winged circle with three triangles. The Delta Rune.
His heart thumped, erratic. What of Kris? What of Susie?
"YOU HAVE SOME NERVE COMING HERE ALONE, LIGHT WORSHIPPER," the King bellowed, materializing another wave of arrows, "OR DID YOUR PRECIOUS LIGHTNERS ABANDON YOU, TOO?"
"I—," Ralsei hesitated. Why was the King here? "Of course not!" he said. "My friends would never abandon me!"
"YET YOU STAND ALONE," the King guffawed. He hurled his projectiles in a white blur. Ralsei yelped, tugging hard, wrapping his scarf around his body. Forcing breaths and magical power, he willed its fibres to harden to steel. The spade arrows bounced about, many whizzing past harmlessly, many threatening to knock him over as they stabbed into his makeshift shield. He planted his hind foot firm.
Howling laughter rung. A pair of gravelly voices carried off even walls like a chorus of bells; Angel's bells. The din pierced the prince's ears. Behind him, the Dark Fountain pulsed. It blasted up the ceiling, flaring shadow.
"Why are you here!?" the prince demanded.
The King smirked. "YOU ASK A KING WHY HE GUARDS HIS THRONE?"
"No!" the prince scowled. "I'm asking why you're in front of me! We were just in the Forest! What did you do? What did you do to my friends!?"
The King's laughter shook once more, and the prince swore he heard something else in the darkness. Past the Fountain. Something slithering. Yet he couldn't see it.
"YOUR FRIENDS... ARE LOST," he declared, "PREY TO THEIR OWN FAILINGS! AND MY SON..."
The King gestured at the Fountain. Pulsing, morphing... it gave way to figures of black, struggling like puppets held down by a thick mud. Was a Fountain supposed to be able to do that?
The shadows parted, and before it...
The Spade Jack hung aloft—floating—in the void of the Fountain. His crooked mouth babbled indecipherably, thumping at the prince's skull. That voice. It lured him. Lured him to grasp his furs, pluck them out. To claw at his eyes. So loud. Enough!
"IT IS A KING'S WAY TO DISPOSE OF PIECES THAT NO LONGER SUIT HIS NEEDS," the King said, the mouth on his stomach churning spit. "TO MAINTAIN A RULE, SACRIFICES MUST BE MADE. YOU KNOW THAT WELL, DON'T YOU? ...PRINCE."
The prince reeled back. "No, that's not right!" he said. "That can't be right! How... How could you do this to your own son!?"
"TO SHAPE AN IMMORTAL KINGDOM," the King said, "OR TO BE FORGOTTEN—ABANDONED—TRULY AND UTTERLY, KEPT ALIVE ONLY BY A DISTORTED DREAM."
The prince grit his teeth. His pleas fell on deaf ears. In the face of true bloodthirst—of true hatred—words like his carried little meaning. He understood that. That ink-drenched axe burned in his mind. The King... they said he cared deeply for the future of Darkners. Why did he, of everyone, speak as if it all were... temporary?
More, how had the prince managed to grasp the King's words?
"HAVE YOU YET TO REALIZE," the King said, "THE NATURE OF YOUR QUEST?"
"I..." the prince scowled. What need a monarch have, to insist on speaking such dizzying things? "The Prophecy—!"
"LOOK AROUND YOU, YOUNG ONE! WHAT DO YOU SEE!?"
Nonsense. The prince groaned, adjusting the frames on his snout. He squinted, head pounding.
The Fountain? The Spade Jack enveloped in its climbing eruption? Troublesome as he was, it ate at the prince's heart to see him that way. Ink spewed from his orifices—his utterings pure chaos. Why live in such a state?
One step back.
The room? The shadowed platform that held his feet? Cold and even—in colour, in texture—with only a massive spade emblazoned on its surface; still, it paled when compared to the far wall's Delta Rune. It brought to mind images of his home town. How long ago had it been since he walked those lively streets, linen banners flying? How long ago since he last cleaned the castle calendars, dusted in cobwebs? How did he ever manage to keep time? To anchor himself?
Two steps back.
The King's overhead balcony? The King himself? Towering, great, proud. A monarch that the prince couldn't hope to be—nor would want to be. Cracked by such hatred, and such lonesomeness—isolated from all but loss, and with few to call his own.
To call his own...
Abandoned by Lightners, the only thing he had left...
"A... A Fountain chamber...?"
"A FOUNTAIN CHAMBER."
The prince blinked. "Huh...? Y-Yes! A Fountain chamber! One that I walked into. One that I..."
A crack of pain sprung in his skull, dull and murky. That was strange. When had he walked in? The grand doors leading out stood closed—sealed tight. He shook his head in attempt, but the warmth of wake never bled him.
One step back. His feet clicked against a ledge. Behind him sprawled a gaping emptiness—a maw to consume the careless. Cold.
"YOU DIDN'T," the King said. "YOU FOUND YOUR WAY HERE, BUT NOT BY WILL. NONE AN INKLING OF DIRECTION. OR DO YOU BELIEVE I WOULD HAVE LET YOU IN MYSELF?"
The prince wheeled his head around, taking in the shadows—encroaching. Wracking his brains to remember. Remember something. "I... Then, how...?"
The King chuckled. "IT'S SIMPLE, REALLY."
"YOU CREATED IT."
"ALL IN YOUR MIND."
The King's mouths rumbled, and the prince knew he was telling the truth. How could he have known that? Casting split shadows, the King smirked. "A FALSE PURPOSE. A FALSE ADVENTURE. ONE TO FILL A VOID OF LONELINESS."
A single speck of violet glided amidst the monochrome.
It was only then the prince realized... he couldn't remember his name.
THUD! BANG! CRACK!
The doors far right of the chamber creaked, vomiting splinters. Beyond it, something was struggling to set itself free. Something... Many, many things. They pressed and pushed against card construction, hinges spewing sparks. The prince drew his scarf. With a burst of magic, he stretched it staunch, serrated edges forming where tassles once hung.
All the while, the King howled with laughter.
The doors flew open and a riptide of flesh burst in—soldiers and citizens alike—crowding the platform where the prince stood his ground. In their appendages were daggers and staves, primed, sharpened to paper-fine. The mass of Darkners shifted, closing in.
The prince backed away, but there was nowhere to back away to. Overhead, the King withdrew from his balcony, cape trailing behind, never to be seen again.
With a crack, a front row of Darkners lunged. The prince swung his scarf true, slicing the heavy air, when all came to a stop.
He opened his eyes. The charging Darkners, then so eager, seemed to waver at the sight of his fabric blade. They wavered, and so did the prince.
Why did they fear him?
An emptiness crawled in his heart, and all warmth fled his hairs. The light grew so dim... The weight of decisions so suffocating, when Kris wasn't there to make them.
The prince clenched his jaw, entering a stance and willing his legs to move. There was only one decision to be made. The enemy was right there. His weapon wrapped itself safe around his neck. He struggled. Struggled to breathe. Think back to Susie, as she cut her way through hordes of minions. Cut down like she did. Move them. Your arms!
Yet, there came no response. Only silence. Silence and the ever-present whispers. Beyond the mob of angry souls, the Delta Rune gleamed white. For the first time in the prince's life, the Prophecy's symbol lent no comfort.
Shaking off their fear, the Darkners lunged with renewed vigor. Daggers gleaming, struck true, as they sliced open a neck—
Ralsei leapt awake, crying in pain. Or rather, the lack of it. A single blocky leaf fell upon his snout, dusting scarlet.
Above him, Kris stood, bangs obscuring his eyes. His hands had been on Ralsei's shoulders. The prince could feel it. Two patches of warmth where his arms jutted out.
With a start, he shook awake.
"What— Where am I...?" Ralsei trembled, limbs struggling to hoist him. Kris remained where he was.
"The Scarlet Forest," he said, voice indifferent. "You passed out."
Unsteady legs. Ralsei squinted at the shadow flares that lit the sky pale, wiping the blur from his sight. "Where's Susie...?"
"Gone," Kris said. "Couldn't find her."
"Did you check the Bake Sale?"
The human stared at him. Wordlessly, he turned to walk past.
Ralsei frowned. He'd never made much note of it before, but thinking back, Kris had always been rather rude. Walking, talking as he pleased. Why hadn't Ralsei confronted him about it yet, again? And that whispering... that grating whispering.
He paused. Was that how a Hero was supposed to act at all?
In the recesses of his mind, the King laughed.
YOU CREATED HIM.
Ralsei narrowed his eyes and trailed behind, a muddy ache eating at his temples. The bruises on his forearms swelled but faint, though their memory remained. Candies only did so much to heal you—that, he recalled.
And as he dragged, Kris walked along. Uncaring. Plastic.
A Black Ponman nested in shrubs, overlooking a ring of roads. A stationary sentry, its black nucleus of an eye whipped about, a lasso of cutting diamond swishing in sterile winds. It didn't notice the Heroes, and Ralsei was certain that it couldn't.
Kris stood to the side—always to the side—poring over a glazed blue sign. An inscription hammered on a blocky trunk. As Kris pondered, he seemed to be listening to... something. Hand removed from chin, he marched across the leafy paths, steps resolute.
Ralsei stifled a groan. The puzzle instructions never made sense, yet Kris would throw himself at them heedless at every step. "Revolve around the center and look carefully," it read. "The darker it gets, the more you can see."
To see in the dark. A joke. Yet would blindness be such a curse?
The words of the King echoed further, and he struggled to set them loose. They bounced back and forth from ears to eyes to ringing teeth, and he just. couldn't. shake them. He marched and looked around.
Did the trees always look that plastic?
YOU SCULPTED THEM.
The grass bit at his soles from under. Too even. Still, he marched on.
As they reached the twisting Maze, waves of sentries blocked their path. Kris led the way, spreading kindness, spreading hope. Rudinns cheered, and Hathys pined. Hope choked the air, yet Ralsei received none. Not an ounce of warmth was spared for him.
The enemies they faced. They said the same things, over and over.
Can't they say more than those same three lines?
ALL IN YOUR MIND.
As they reached the final stretch of cliff—Card Castle looming close—Ralsei's memory faltered. Lancer had stopped showing up, but Kris marched on heedless. What had happened? Why were people cheering? He didn't know.
All he knew was that it stuffed him full. A filling emptiness.
"The King is full of lies," a part of him said, caressing the cavity that stretched from inside. "He's trying to get you to abandon your calling, just as he'd been abandoned himself."
Of course. The King was abandoned, wasn't he?
"When you are most blinded," another whispered, "and light is scarce, you find the answer. Trust in the void that grows in you. It's what makes you who you are."
But what can be more blinding than Light?
"You don't know how he brought you to face him in that chamber," one said. "He would do anything to thwart you—to win. You mull over his words, yet you can't be sure until you face him again."
Obviously. He can't be sure of anything.
"Then," they said, "why do you struggle?"
The voices crept in unison, rattling his eyes. He yearned to shut them.
"Struggling against yourself is like fighting to be forgotten—a task for fools and denoting of fools. You want to stop? You can't stop."
He can't stop.
"If you can't stop, then march!" they screamed.
Ralsei screamed too, but he was already screaming.
"March!" they barked. "March, march, march! March until your legs give out and ink leaks out your soles! Until the world is right, you can't stop!"
He didn't want to.
"March!!" they howled.
"I don't want to!!"
With a sharp cry, Ralsei snapped awake. An even surface cooled his back through burlap robe. The ceiling shone dark.
In the distance, a castle loomed. A black geyser shot true from its midst.
He jumped to his feet, ankle close to twisting. An innkeeper's daughter—so sweet and slight—waved at him from the distance. Her head was off.
It must have been too heavy for her.
A shriek echoed off the walls—of the room or of his skull, he didn't know. So loud. Yet who was he to complain when it was his own vocal cords straining?
A single inky tear clung to shaggy lashes. As growing gusts swept it along, the piercing scream peeled away to hesitant laughter.
Then, that hesitation vanished. His skull rung once more.
He drove his arm into a midnight wall, ink and splinters pooling.
"Why am I here!?" he cried.
"The Heroes! They— Where are they!?"
Only the cold. The cold and the black.
Screaming, Ralsei clawed at the spot where he'd just laid, the warmth on that patch of card still fresh. Behind him, a lone linen banner danced in freezing winds.
"Take me back!" he roared. "Take me back, right now!"
A scratchy robe dragged heavy on his shoulders, his neck cramping. With a heave, he threw it off.
A slight waft of pollen.
The robe caught a breeze, puffing up, gliding gently down on violet grass.
Ralsei stared on, hat rim shielding his eyes from shadow flares. Something clouded his vision. Still, he saw.
A FALSE PURPOSE.
Over the shifting horizon, he observed the roaming sentries chatting aimlessly with their comrades. They seemed so... content. The rolling fields billowed dirt that clung—to his clothing, fur, eyes...
A FALSE ADVENTURE.
He laughed, shaking his head. Somewhere along the line... When did it all go wrong? The air flowed so crisp, and the dew clung strong. Smiling weakly, he marched on.
It was all a dream, after all.
ONE TO FILL A VOID OF LONELINESS.
Passing a patchy tent, he procured a pouch of coins, leaving with a hat stuffed to the brim with star-molded marshmallows. He snickered. Not at the world around him. Only at himself.
That voice that spoke to him so oft in past—challenging him when it had no stake—returned in glimpses. Why did it so persistently challenge him, anyway? What had it to gain from picking at his resolve? Its slithering slathered his scalp with ick as he recalled its crackling vowels, crackling breaks, like flicking tongues against eardrums.
...What had he to gain from challenging himself? The hollow satisfaction that came with convincing a fictional foe? There was never a benevolent Angel—never a formless voice. Only his loneliness.
And if he would meet it again, he would surely curse it.
Beyond the scratching weeds, the Great Board stretched—red and black repeating endlessly. What was he to do? The human in blue... He would so confidently lead them all forward, sword and shield glistening red. The weight of decisions suffocated, yet he stood staunch through it all. What would Ralsei have ever done without him?
He knew just what he would do. He would hum.
Ponmen rose from their pedestals as he strolled along, eyes locking. They hopped from even heights, legs nimble. However, they didn't strike. They didn't have the chance to. Many didn't even wake from their dormancy atop marble lookout posts. They simply slumped back into rest, same as their kin on the floors.
Ponmen, all brawn and no brain, perfect subjects to sleeping charms. Ralsei needn't even try. He paced in leisure, taking in the sights. There used to be a time when the Board ruled itself, kings and queens of black and white. But now? Now, there sat only one King.
And that King's laughter reverberated in his mind.
He noted the sleeping Ponmen, their silhouettes hardly distinguishable from basic stone. Whoever thought up such a pitiful excuse for a sentry? He would surely have done better. A master of delusions, he'd have thought up something fierce.
Something that horrified him.
Tile bridges crissed and crossed, eventually giving way to scarlet. Irritatingly even. He set foot on the leafy paths.
But he didn't stop singing.
Whenever he crossed a Rabbick, he would sing to it until it fell. A subject so mindless, second only to the Ponmen. He noted its shambling gait, worthless as a chaser.
He would come across Bloxers, stubborn as blocks. Their encounters always began the same way—screaming to move, that he's interrupted their training—but they ended the same way, too. Shuffling body parts, he made note of what went where. Sung it a song of sleep, and subjected it to rest.
Rudinns and Hathys were the same old types, but this time, their happenstances wouldn't end in burying limp sludge. He noted how Rudinns hesitated to fight, and how Hathys craved love and nothing more. Easy to please, easy to subject to his whims. A sleeping song coloured the air—a colour a break from black—and little by little, the soldiers fell.
His tune trailed into cracking laughter, but did he stop singing?
No, it grew louder.
The purple monster absent from his side, he could march easy. Sentry after sentry, king after king. Easy to please, easy to sing.
From the warmth of the Fields, to the Forests of plastic, spanning from tiled Boards to even bridges up Castles.
Slowly but surely, the kingdom fell.
Subjected under a lullaby.
Yet even as his throat dried and lungs scarred, that creeping emptiness never left. Dreadful, consuming, dark—it begged for him to stop.
But he wouldn't. Not until the job was done. Not until he charmed every last, and in their dreams that cluster dense, they would answer his every beck and call. Only then, would he be satisfied.
He would destroy it. Destroy every note. Every subject. Tear up the falsities.
Until nothing was left.
He reached the final halls, torn and ravaged from distant struggles. He marched into the chamber beyond. Across grand doors, a single shadowy geyser flared and blasted the ceiling, pulsing wild. There, not a soul stood. Not a laughing King.
Nobody but himself.
He crossed a barren platform, echoes consumed by the Fountain's void. Truly empty. A meaningless dream.
He laughed, but the Fountain consumed it. He screamed, but the Fountain consumed it. He longed for hope, but the Fountain consumed it.
At last, he had reached his destination. A single symbol painted on the card walls. A familiar memory surfaced once more—one born of endless, droning recitals.
The symbol of the Prophecy. The Delta Rune.
Charging, he hammered the sigil with bare fists, furs refusing to come off. He bludgeoned and pounded, ink splattering across, invisible against the dark walls. An enemy deaf to his songs. A purpose he can only ever be subjected to.
Pain dissolved his bones, but he hammered on. Cracks sprung and sparks flew. Dents gave way as his eyes ran with black. He wound up for a final strike, bringing both hands down on the sorry symbol.
Linen tore in the middle, threads stubbornly clinging, but soon gave way. The two halves of the banner floated carelessly onto cold, dark streets—no wind to carry them. An empty town square. An abandoned castle stood in the distance, and that same geyser Ralsei had guarded, waiting for someone—anyone—to arrive...
He clasped his hands, so recently abused—not an inkling of pain coursed them.
Every single memory. Every last emotion. He'd fabricated them all, and for what?
All because he was alone.
The Great Doors never opened. The Heroes never arrived.
He was alone.
The cavity in his chest grew. Darkness lapped away at his heart, clinging like tar, consuming until nothing but despair was left. His joints buckled and he allowed them rest—one knee after the other slumping against the chilly floor, a dull toll of bone on card.
Why? Why did the Lightners abandon their subjects...?
Crouching over, his head weighed on him. Eyes... damp...
How he longed for them.
"...What a sorry state. Ha ha..."
Ralsei jerked, inky tears burning in his periphery. "Who's there!?" he shrieked. How many more? How many more would come to him before it would end? Leaping up, he clawed at his scarf, clutching it, willing magic into its threads.
He steeled the length of cloth point-forward, the warmth of its tail suffocating him. A soft chuckle rang as a pudgy form hobbled forth in the shadows, trailing cotton.
"Stop! Don't come closer!" The order came aggresive, but hardly convincing. What was it now? Why now?
Before him, the ragged shopkeeper trudged along even roads, smiling grimly. He offered a slight wave.
Ralsei snarled. "How did you get past the door!? The Great Door! It was sealed!"
"It wasn't closed...," the shopkeeper grinned, stumbling to a stop mere feet from him. "You opened it, remember?"
Ralsei reeled back. That didn't sound right at all. "I— ...No! I didn't!" he barked. "It was... It..."
It was already open. Wide open on its hinges, even before the Heroes reached.
Huh? The Heroes...?
"Suddenly losing your wits...?" the shopkeeper asked. "You let them out... those 'Heroes,' didn't you? Walked them out the door yourself..."
"I... I— I didn't...!" Ralsei stammered. Why? Why was this accursed shopkeeper still talking to him? A delusion—every action, every conversation—and he'd destroyed them. Why wouldn't they stay forgotten?
"You caused a real mess, you did," the shopkeeper croaked a tired laugh, scratching behind his ear. "Came running back here, wailing like a beast... Hours in front of the Great Door, prying open a chapter you'd already closed."
"I was here the entire time!" Ralsei screamed.
"This eye might be old, but it hasn't blinded yet..."
With a flick, Ralsei levelled his scarf's point at the old cat, tension pulsing.
The shopkeeper merely chuckled. "You won't cut me... or would you?"
Ralsei trembled—his very spine did—as he planted one foot after the next. The shopkeeper stared at him behind shadowed eye, grinning that same condescending grin. He should have killed this delusion, too. Killed it a long time ago. Yet...
Images crashed against his brain. A mob of angry Darkners, cornering him against a gaping ledge-side. A slithering laugh. The shopkeeper's plump bearing. A dagger, carving his throat. Ink. His inhibitions, pictured as threads holding together bursting wool... Snapping... One by one...
And as the last thread split, he lunged forth.
Raising his blade, he swung—!
Dust. His scarf sawed through; its edges caught on sandy cotton, disjointed vibrations crawling up his wrists. The shopkeeper held stout as serrated fibers dug into his seams, echoing tears.
Why didn't he fear him?
"Why are you here!?" Ralsei cried, ink streaming.
The shopkeeper looked on. He placed a limp paw on the prince's shoulder.
It felt... real.
"Why are any of us here... really...?" he chuckled, pressing gently. "I saw you... running like a mad-doll, making a fuss by the Door..."
A pressure on Ralsei's shoulder. The paw was pushing him away. Slow, but resolute.
"...So I figured, why not do you a favor, and push it open a bit... loosen the hinges..."
It grew. It lifted his blade from the gash it'd carved. Slow...
"With the world come to what it is... I figured, what would it hurt to help...," he coughed. "...When currency fails, you can always trust good deeds to be returned..."
With a final push, Ralsei stumbled back, scarf still in hand. The red cloth fell limp, along with his arms.
"...Like now. If you actually wanted to hurt me... you would have tried harder."
Knees weak, the prince slumped to the floor once more.
The shopkeeper dusted his shoulder. He fished about in his rags with fumbling fingers. A grin crept, and he procured a small violet leaf from his pockets, bathing it in the orange glow that shone from his twisted mouth. The colours clashed...
He held it out for Ralsei to see. His eyes widened. A three-leafed clover.
"Where did you find this?" Ralsei trembled, plucking it deft.
The shopkeeper straightened his robes. "Don't know. It was pawned off to me..."
"I—" Ralsei twirled the leaf around in a tender pinch.
Ah... That was right...
"Noticed it peeking from your pocket," the shopkeeper said, "not too long ago. Trouble, it was, picking all those scattered coins from pillow creases... Come to think of it, the customer that gave it to me..."
Ralsei grimaced. A memory of a Lightner...
These whispers and moving figures... they always found a way to insert themselves back in his life—to keep him entertaining them. That was how the game was played. He understood that—learned it, though he couldn't remember when. Even still, Ralsei found his heart pining. It begged him to listen, just one last time...
"What...," Ralsei began, sniffing. "What happened out there?"
The shopkeeper tilted his head. "...You don't remember?"
"I...," Ralsei said, "...not really."
The shopkeeper laughed. "Then why would you do all that, ya'rascal? These seams are cold, but they ain't bulletproof! If I had a heart, it surely would have stopped dead...!"
His voice echoed, and for a moment, the shadows seemed to retreat. Ralsei cradled the violet speck close. It was warm.
"Shouldn't have thrown caution to the wind like that, though...," the shopkeeper said, fixing his scarf. "Not when the cards are still on the table... An old colleague of mine, he... learned that the hard way. When someone's still around to enforce consequences..."
Ralsei's eyes moistened, inky.
"Well, not that it matters, anyway... Maybe...," he paused, "...maybe you were right to lash out... Both of you."
"No," Ralsei said, "it matters! It matters a lot!"
The old cat grinned. "Then... why did you destroy everything...?"
Ralsei opened his mouth to answer, but nothing came. His throat, hoarse... How long had he been singing?
His hat dripped with moldy sugar, a strand of muck hooked itself on an eyelash... A faint waft of marshmallows—not in air, but in memory. His knuckles swelled with a dull pain, the impact of bone on card wall resurfaced in his thoughts. Candies only did so much to heal you.
That was strange. Why did his knuckles ache...?
The shopkeeper yawned, scratching the fabric of his lip. He turned to walked away.
"Wait... Wait! Please...!" Ralsei cried weakly. Did the shopkeeper hear him...? His stomach sunk with every echo of his steps, and in his chest flared a terror. He reached for the shrinking figure with quivering fingers. "Please..."
In the distant intersection, the shopkeeper paused. "...Did you need something else...?"
"Please! Help me!" The words slipped his tongue before he could catch the thoughts that sent them. His body weighed on him, and he struggled to keep his back straight. "I... I don't want to..."
The shopkeeper looked patiently on as black stretched to fill the boy's eyes, falling freely. Ralsei raised a sleeve to scrub it off, but the black only clung to that too. His breathing shook, and a stuffed throat struggled against him.
"I don't want to be alone anymore!" he cried. "Forgotten... abandoned... like some—! I don't want it to—!" he sniffed, "I don't want this world to die!"
The shopkeeper frowned.
"It was supposed to be—! W-We were—! I was...! Why...? Why did everything end up this way!?" Ralsei hiccupped. "What... What did I do wrong...?"
The shopkeeper sighed. "It's bold of you to assume...," he said, "...that when things go wrong, it's of your doing."
"I... I was just fulfilling my duty...," Ralsei's voice trembled, "my role... given by the Prophecy. I..."
"It is what it is," the shopkeeper said.
"I wanted friends... people to rely on me. Susie... Kris... They were my friends, and I..."
"...It is what it is."
"I threw them away. I threw everything away!"
Inky droplets flung themselves off fur ends, splattering against pitch black streets. Cold and dead. Empty.
Ralsei buried his snout in his hat, horns against the flaps. Sugary muck wrapped itself on shaggy fur. Did it always smell so dusty—so bland? His senses, numb from the black, itched for something to wake them. But nothing was there. Nothing but that swallowing black. Drizzling tears mounted to a downpour as the boy sobbed, uncaring of the world.
The world... What would soon be left of it?
The shopkeeper cleared his throat. A rattle of springs. "It seems...," he said, "that I am no longer welcome. That tent won't tend itself... I'll be off. Good luck with your... grieving..."
He scratched his nose. Steps echoing—
"Please!" Ralsei jerked. "You have to do something! You said you managed to open the Great Door for me...!"
The shopkeeper's frown deepened.
"There's a human!" he said. "A Lightner named Kris! He was the one... the one who gave me this clover! He..."
A dull pain cracked Ralsei's skull, and he bit back a scream. A rattling. A slithering. He cursed. Kris... Kris! What happened to Kris!?
"He... He's still on his way to Card Castle!" Ralsei said, suddenly unsure of himself. He wracked his brains, but no memories surfaced. None remained that he hadn't thrown away. "You have to help him! To seal the Fountain! Save the world! He... He...!"
The shopkeeper held up a paw. He shook his head.
"But... But why—!?"
"Didn't I already tell you...?" the shopkeeper said, grin returning. "...Neither Light not Dark hold a future for me... and that means their Heroes, too. Don't mistake an act of passing fancy, for a commitment to help... These old rags have little else in them."
The winds picked up, and the shadows grew. Under the shopkeeper's tired gaze, the prince shrunk back.
"One day soon...," the old cat said, grinning weakly, "you too, will begin to realize the futility of your actions. Perhaps... you already have...?"
Ralsei reached out. "Please...!"
"At that time, feel free to come by my shop. I'll make you tea..."
"No... Don't do this...!"
"And we can toast... to the end of the world!"
In the distance, the shopkeeper waved, footsteps fading. Somewhere... somewhen... an innkeeper's daughter waved back.
But that night?
That night, Ralsei sobbed.
A FALSE PURPOSE.
What had he been fighting for...? One head to say it's meaningless, and the other that it's false. Which should he believe?
A FALSE ADVENTURE.
A violet clover. A pleasant lullaby. Memories came crashing, yet warmth kept receding. A gnawing emptiness that strangled one's core.
ONE TO FILL A VOID OF LONELINESS.
A linen banner, shredded in two. Ralsei's shoulders gave out, elbows folding under a body that refused to move. "Please...," he whimpered, "...what are you trying to tell me...?"
THAT YOU HAVE NO HOPE.
He struggled to push, but fell again.
YOU ARE ALONE.
He leaned on an elbow to push, but failed.
YOU ARE UNLOVED.
Toiling on the freezing street, he struggled to lift his head.
NO PLAYERS IN A GAME.
He grasped at his dress robe. Where did that warmth go?
UNNATAINABLE BY ONLY YOU.
Something stuck out in the shadows. A speck of colour.
NO FRIENDS. NO ALLIES. NO ENEMIES.
He reached out for it...
YOU WILL ROT.
A familiar softness brushed his fingertips. Somehow... he could tell it was...
With a heave, he set himself upright, tripping over feet and stumbling back. He cracked his head against card—no pain. Something warmed his fingers. Something faint, but real.
Ralsei smiled, tenderly laughing. The dark... somehow, it wasn't so intimidating anymore. If all was lost, and all abandoned, the least he could do was be there when it ended.
Craning his neck, he turned to look at the shopkeeper... only to be greeted by still air. Not a soul stood there. Perhaps, one never did. In his hands clutched a single three-leafed clover, its stark violet a break from the black and blue. His fingers trembled. The Prophecy had failed.
He was no longer needed.
Cackling. Crackling. Cracking.
Padded footsteps echoed. They echoed off walls and facades that cupped a town square. The ink of his teardrops enveloped his vision, choking it. Ralsei hummed to himself a song of sleep—one he knew so well—and marched with perfect clarity. Even as shadows around him grew, even as his breath shuddered and darkness spewed from his eyes, he walked with direction. That direction was forward. In the shadows, he saw.
How long ago had he lost his glasses, their frames that creeping green? How long ago? How long ago had he begun to see in the absence of light?
The Prince of Dark steeped his toes in an inky void, trusting it to float him. He closed his eyes, and all that ever was and will be dissolved to black.
In his immortal kingdom, he will forever rule.
IT APPEARS YOU HAVE REACHED AN END.
WILL YOU TRY AGAIN?
YES / NO