Chapter 1: The Tower of Prince Daniel
As knight-errant Ser Arin Hanson stood in the tower’s window, he thought of what he faced to get to this point.
He thought of scaling mountains and suffering through the scorching heat of endless deserts. He traveled countless days to get to this point and battled off gnomes and trolls and ogres and undead and, well, everything– just to get here.
He climbed to the top of the tallest tower, in the heart of the most cursed land in all the known kingdoms, to save the last descendant of a foreign throne.
The reward for their return was riches unimaginable… and the promise of a royal marriage.
So, it was safe to say, Ser Arin was a little more than confused as he looked across the tower keep to find laying on the sprawl of satin sheets not the beautiful princess he intended to save…
… but, a prince.
His mouth opened, hanging wide. A string of words rolled over his tongue, intending to find their escape, but never doing so.
He turned back, glancing out the open window into the hellish ghostlands and hollows he fought through to get here.
Was he in the right tower?
Arin took a deep breath and stalked closer to the bed.
His hands rose slow to remove the charred and battered metal of his helmet, to let the length of his dark, sweat-ridden hair fall and cling to the curve of his jaw. For weeks, he prepared himself for this moment, but currently found himself a little hesitant to proceed.
At least the rumors of beauty were true, Arin thought, as his eyes traced the coils of the sleeping prince’s long, dark hair that framed a peaceful, handsome face.
It wasn’t so bad, he guessed. It could be a lot worse. He could be a troll, or an ogre– or, hey, he could be dead. No rewards for bringing back a dead body.
“Let’s just… get this over with,” he mumbled to himself as he took a knee beside the sleeping prince.
His lips rolled together as he eyed the mouth of the enchanted prince. It was just one kiss, right?
He drew in a deep breath and braced himself as he closed his eyes and leaned down to place so gently on cursed lips a single and sweet ki–
A hand flew up and slapped against Arin’s mouth, stunning him.
“I’m sorry, but,” Prince Daniel started, eyes wide and glaring at the knight leaning over him. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Arin drew back, flustered. “I-I was… you’re supposed to– but I thought?”
“I was just sleeping.” Daniel’s face fell from revelation. “Were you going to kiss me?”
“What? No, I was… I saw something, look, I just– okay, wait, let me start over.” Arin rose to his feet and coughed. “My name is… Ser Arin Hanson and, and I’ve come to… rescue you?”
Daniel eyed him for a moment, lips pursed, contemplating, as Arin held his breath and tried not to notice the blush creeping across his own face.
“Then what are we waiting for?” the prince asked as he bound from the bed and took to the window. “Let’s get out of here, sweetheart. Or did you have a sonnet and dance number to go along with that kiss?”
Arin rushed out a sigh and slumped his shoulders.
This was going to be a very long, and very uncomfortable journey.
Chapter 2: Damsel in Distress
In a castle keep, buried in shadows and haunted memory, the Wolf King sat on his throne of ruin. Brief glimpses of moonlight poured in through the broken bricks overhead, causing silver curtains of light to bring the age of dust to dance. Wolves stalked through the darkness around their king as from the main hall, a young man came.
The King stirred and rose his sight to his loyal attendant who took knee before the rise of his throne. With a wave of a hand, he beckoned the man to stand.
“Someone’s come for him.”
The talons of the King’s gauntlet rose to trace the line of his scowl.
“A knight,” the attendant continued in an Irish brogue. “I don’t recognize him, but he’s made it to the tower.”
The King sat in thought for a moment longer before lowering his hand to a monstrous beast at his throne’s side. “Go greet our new friend.”
The wolves hiding in the darkness bound to life at the command. The attendant tensed as they passed swift on padded foot, grazing his sides in pursuit for the unknown knight come to steal away the captured prince.
The King called out before his attendant could take leave.
“Yes, Your Grace?”
“Follow them. If they can’t bring the prince back to me, then you will. Do not fail me, Jack.”
Jack halved himself in a bow before making his way out to the darkness of the cursed lands.
“So,” Daniel started as he glanced out the tower window to the darkness below. “How are we going to do this?”
Arin pursed his lips in thought before seeing the bedroom door. “Are you kidding me?” he groaned as he started toward the room’s exit. “You’ve had a way out all this time and you never took it?”
“No, don’t touch it!” Daniel said a moment too late.
A blast of force and blinding light struck out against Arin and launched him back. His world flipped and spun, and so did his stomach, as he landed on his ass somewhere past the bed. His throbbing head rolled into his hands. A shadow overcame him and brought him to glance up to see Dan standing over him, arms crossed tight over his chest.
“Did you really think I just forgot to check the door? There’s a spell on it.”
Arin shakily rose to his feet and returned his damsel the same patronizing stare. “I also thought you were under a spell, so forgive me, Your Highness, I wasn’t exactly given all the details.”
“So what was your plan then?” Daniel asked.
“The plan was to kiss a princess.”
Daniel rolled his eyes. “All right, and then what?”
Arin’s shoulders pinched, bringing his armor to clink together. “I don’t know, come up with something witty to say to win her over?”
“You didn’t even plan this out?!”
“Look, I got this far without a plan, didn’t I? Give me some credit.”
Outside the window, the distant sound of howling rose from the trees, bringing Daniel to tense.
“We need to go,” the prince said in an airy breath.
“Yes, obviously.” Arin groaned as he sat on the edge of the prince’s bed.
“No, I mean now. We need to go now.”
Arin let off a deep sigh as he glanced up to see Daniel standing at the window, petrified and paling in the overhead moonlight. His annoyance was quick to displace as Arin pushed himself off the bed and stepped closer. “Are you all right?”
Another, much closer howl, brought Daniel to rush to his bedside and tear off the sheets. “You don’t understand. He’ll kill you. You’re not the first to get this far. If you want to make it out of here alive, we need to go now.”
Arin watched as Daniel tied together the ends of his sheets and knotted them on the post of his bed.
“Help me move this over to the window.”
There were quite a few questions this confused knight-errant had to say, but for the moment, he approached the end of the bed and dragged it closer to the window with one great heave. Daniel stepped back, surprised by his rescuer’s strength, but gave no words of admiration or thanks.
“We need to hurry, we don’t have much time,” Daniel said as he hurried to the wide, arched window.
Before he could grab hold of the length of his makeshift rope, a hand caught his, beckoning his eyes up to match gaze with Arin.
“W-what are you doing?” Daniel rushed, but before he got his answer, he was lifted from the floor and draped over Arin’s shoulder plate.
“You want this done fast, right?” Arin asked as he held Daniel with one hand and grabbed the rope with the other.
“It’s not going to hold both of us, you idiot!”
“You’re ten pounds sopping wet,” Arin said. “Just shut up and hold on. Oh, and you might want to close your eyes.”
“Why?” Daniel demanded.
“Well.” Arin sighed. “You said we needed to hurry.”
Arin loosened his hold on the rope, bringing them to zip down the length of satin sheets into the darkness below with the prince screaming the entire way.
Chapter 3: The Wolves
They struck the barren hill beneath the tower without incident. Dust and dirt flew up in a cloud as Arin’s heels planted down and he released the end of the makeshift rope. A smile spread broad over his lips, a smirk almost, as he stood triumphant. Unfortunately, his success was dampened quite suddenly when the prince he bore over his shoulder squirmed and kicked like some fussy child with no words of praise to say.
“You’re going to get me killed, I just know it,” Daniel sputtered, still shaking in fright at their dead plunge from his tower window. “Ugh… I think I’m going to be sick.”
Arin rolled his eyes and lost his proud pose. He bucked the prince off his shoulder and let him fall into the dirt at his feet. “Yeah, well… ta-da! You’re out of the tower.”
“I think I prefer the tower.” Daniel groaned into the dirt.
“Would it kill you just to give me a little bit of thanks? ‘Gee, Arin, you’re a swell guy for saving me.’ 'Wow, Arin, thanks for pulling my ass out of that tower!’ 'Arin, you are just the nicest for coming all the way out into goddamn nowhere to find me.’”
“Arin.” Daniel glared up with words hot on his tongue.
Those words, however, would need to be saved for a different time, as the sound of howling grew nearer. As Daniel sat paling beneath the shadow of his tower, Arin let off a deep sigh. It seemed his work was far from over. He turned toward the prince and scooped him back up into his arms.
“What are you doing? Put me down!”
“And risk losing you? Yeah, I don’t think so.” Arin started off toward the stretch of hollows surrounding the barren hill. “Besides, Your Glorious-ness, I’m really starting to doubt your ability to not get captured. I mean, we’re hundreds of miles away from your kingdom right now. It must have taken the guy that kidnapped you forever to get out here. How did you not find a way to save yourself?”
“Can we talk about this later?” Daniel asked as he poked his head up to peer over Arin’s shoulder. “Maybe focus on getting us out of here first.”
“Why, yes, Your Majesticness!”
“Would you stop!” Daniel snapped before calming himself down with a sigh. “Dan. Just call me Dan.”
Arin barreled through the treeline, shouldering his way past the reaching hands of dead trees as he started their way through the labyrinth of oaken giants and curls of fog. The only sound he heard was that of twigs snapping beneath his feet and the echo of howling that followed after them. It took him nearly two days to figure out his way through the hollows when he first arrived in the cursed lands. In that time, he saw no sign of anything living here. No birds, no bugs, no animal– big or small. But right now, those howls, it sounded like an entire pack was after them.
He couldn’t exactly say he wasn’t nervous. At least he could convince himself that the sweat rolling down his cheek was due to exertions and not fear.
Arin slowed down to a stop at the top of a small hill.
“What? Why?” Dan tossed his wide, fearful eyes around. “Why are you stopping?”
“Gimme a minute, all right? You think I just know my way through here?”
He caught sight of a notch in a tree and began running again.
“You… marked your way?”
“I did plan some of this out.” Arin huffed. “I mean, don’t let me stop you from believing I’m just an absolutely amazing knight.”
“I think the word you’re looking for is 'lucky’.”
As Arin dropped down into a dried up creek, his eyes rose to meet the vicious teeth and dark hides of four massive, black wolves. He came to a stop, almost immediately, and felt Dan’s arms tighten their hold around his neck.
“…you just had to say 'lucky’, didn’t you?” Arin whispered.
There was no time for him to plan, no moment of stillness that could grant him the grace of fleeing these monsters. The foremost wolf broke into sprint for him and Arin was left with only a split second to make his move, and hopefully, he choose right. Once again, he tossed the prince to the side just before feeling the weight of the gigantic beast barrel into him. The world spun and he felt massive jaws clamp down on his arm. He twisted and fought with the wolf until he was able to find some footing to stand. His arm cranked back and, with what might he had, he jabbed a quick and heavy fist into the side of the wolf’s head.
As quick as the first wolf came, so did the others.
“Arin!” Dan shouted as he scrambled to his feet.
His eyes rose at the beckoning to see the other wolves approach. A curse was hot on his breath as he hit the wolf on his arm again and again until, at last, he broke free. He wasn’t sure if his arm was broken or if the wolf’s teeth pierced through his plate and leather to break skin, but at the moment, the concern of his wounds was far from his mind.
The distance was closed between he and Dan, and with a quick step, he put himself between the prince and the wolves.
“Stay behind me,” Arin demanded as he took out his sword.
The knight and prince slowly backed away from the advancing beasts. When one of the wolves lunged, Arin was swift to knock it back, sword raised against it, a warning that he was prepared to use it, if need be. In this way, he and Dan were able to navigate their way through the hollows, one step at a time, with the hungry wolves ever following. The further they went, the harder it became for Arin to keep the wolves at bay. He danced back and forth between snapping jaws. A moment of success was followed quick by failure as teeth clamped down on his arm in an attempt to separate him from the prince.
“Goddamnit!” Arin barked as he bashed down his sword’s pommel on the wolf’s muzzle.
Blood bubbled through the torn leather of Arin’s glove at the wolf’s retreat.
They couldn’t keep up this fight. They were losing.
“What are we going to do?” asked Dan in a fearful breath.
Arin didn’t come this far just to lose.
He weakly rose the weight of his sword to hold against the wolves, as with the other, he reached back and grabbed Dan’s hand.
“Do you trust me?” Arin asked as he glared down the advancing beasts.
Dan didn’t answer, but that did not stop him from gripping back at the hand that held his own.
“Just… hold on tight.”
The sword flipped around in Arin’s hand, pommel up, as he turned swift and lowered a shoulder into Dan’s stomach, mid-stride, to hoist the prince up and off his feet. With every ounce of strength left in him pooled together, he ran. Blood smeared and soaked through the leather of Arin’s glove as he held tight onto Dan as he darted back and forth between trees. The prince let off a scream and Arin swung back his sword just in time to slice against a pair of open jaws. The howls and snarls were all around them now and the labyrinth was never-ending. Sweat coated every inch of Arin’s body as he forced himself further and pushed himself harder than he ever had before. He felt closed in on. The woodland walls wrapped tighter around him, like a coffin ready to hide his corpse and story forever. His breath became short and labored, the air was thicker here. He had to keep pushing. To save the prince. To save himself.
Just then, the fog dispersed and the hollows dwindled. A cliff to a ravine. It was their only chance.
Arin came to an immediate stop at the ravine’s edge and looked down. Jutting rocks poked out from the cliff like teeth. The descent dangled between what would kill them and what would be survivable. Hesitation stayed the knight’s decision only until he heard the tramping of paws and snarls nearing them.
A deep breath filled Arin’s chest as he brought Dan down off his shoulder.
The prince ran his hands through the coils of his long, dark hair. He muttered something off, out of fear and desperation, but Arin wasn’t listening.
Dan turned back to him, stared at him with those wide, dark eyes as the wolves entered the clearing.
“I’m… so sorry,” Arin told him.
Dan opened his mouth to speak, but Arin pulled him close to his chest and fell back into the ravine’s maw.
Into the jagged darkness, they fell.
Chapter 4: Jack the Black
Their bodies twisted on the descent.
Though the prince was protected in the arms that embraced him, the same could not be said for his knight. Rocks tore like knives across his face and arms. Brief breaths of moonlight flashed across Arin’s eyes as he spun and spun and spun, until at last, he laid still in the belly of the ravine. His breaths were chopped and strained. Bones ached and muscles throbbed as he tried to lift himself, only to find, he could not.
“Oh, fuck.” Arin coughed as he lowered his head.
His head was dizzy from pain, but that time of haziness was fleeting when he saw the prince laying beneath him, unscathed, staring up at him. A deep breath puffed his chest as he clenched his jaw and waited for the reprimand he knew Dan would give him. Despite his efforts, he knew he would be reminded of how stupid he was and how his reckless actions could have cost them their lives.
He was prepared to hear insults, but was surprised to instead hear the prince’s soft voice tell him, “You saved me.”
Arin looked down on Dan, speechless.
Their breaths heated the air between them, claiming the color that now flushed Arin’s cheeks. His hair draped down in curtains, thankfully concealing what telling emotion was coming over him. Arin cleared his throat and weakly retreated from atop the prince to instead lay by his side. A wince contorted his face before he at last settled to look up at the moon hanging above the mouth of the ravine.
“I just… did what I had to.”
He heard shifting beside him which beckoned his attention to turn from the moon above to the man at his side. Dan was on his elbows with a smile spreading across his face.
“What you had to?” Dan echoed with a laugh. “Arin, you just threw yourself off a cliff–”
“– it was nothing, really,” Arin mumbled.
“–you threw yourself off a cliff… for me.”
“Yeah, well. It’s not like you were asking me to do it.”
Dan laughed and rose a hand to sweep back his hair. “I’m not– Arin, I’m just…” His smile softened. “Thank you.”
Arin groaned and cursed as he pushed himself up to stand. “Don’t go thanking me just yet. We still have a long way to go. And, I’ll be honest, I have no idea where we are.”
Dan followed him up, turning his head this way and that, as he looked across the wide ravine that drove through the cursed lands like a scar. His tongue flickered out over his lips before he softly said, “I think I know the way.”
“How?” Arin asked as he rolled his shoulders to rid himself of the ache. “There’s no way you could have seen this place from the tower.”
“No, I meant… I meant that I saw it on my way in.”
Arin’s brow pinched together as he shot the prince a wary glance. “On your way in? Like, on your way in… when you were kidnapped? Or… on your way in like…”
Dan’s face shifted in that moment. A telling emotion tightened the muscles in his jaw as he turned his eyes elsewhere, as if, he were ashamed.
Arin stiffened. “What?”
Dan looked back to him. The moonlight above illuminated his dark eyes, revealing a glimpse of pain. His throat contracted. He swallowed.
“I wasn’t… kidnapped.”
Arin’s mouth opened, a question hot on his tongue, but before any words could rise and escape his lips, the air crackled and spat as blaring light shot from the dark and nearly blinded the knight.
“Look out!” Dan cried out.
Arin felt the prince’s weight hit him, knocking him back off his feet to watch as a snarling blaze of fire engulfed the place he once stood. He heard again that startling hiss, that birth of light and life, and followed the sound to find its source. A knight in black armor stalked through the ravine toward him, a whip aflame in his hand. Arin scrambled to his feet and reached for his sword only to find, it was gone. His eyes darted back toward the area where they fell. It had to have come down with them.
The black knight rose again his whip. The fire danced above his head until with insufferable force, he lashed out his fury. Arin was swift, and maybe lucky after all, as he dove away in search for his dropped blade. The whip cracked again when Arin rolled behind a boulder to evade its strike. Rock crumbled and tore away from where the quickened leather licked. It was then Arin realized that Dan had not followed him nor ran. The fire raged against the dust and cracks of the bedrock as the prince stood silhouetted by its flames.
“Dan!” Arin gasped in horror.
The black knight approached Dan with the length of his hellfire whip unfurled at his side. The prince did not run as his knight had, but stood still in petrifying fear.
“Go back to your tower, Danny boy,” the knight said in a near laugh. “Let’s just pretend this is a bad dream.”
Dan was silent.
“You don’t want him to think you’ve been naughty, do you?”
A glint of silver caught Arin’s eye and he turned. His sword.
“N-no,” Dan ushered out quick before his fear took him.
The black knight tensed, his voice losing its air of playfulness. “What did you say?”
Dan straightened himself. “I said ‘no’, Jack. I’m not going back.”
The black knight throated a laugh as he held the ends of his whip in his hands and drew it taut. “I don’t think you understand. I wasn’t asking, Danny. I’m telling. You’re going back, even if I have to drag you there myself.”
Fury and lunacy brought new life to the flames as the black knight closed the distance between he and the prince. As Jack neared, close enough to reach out and grab hold of Dan, Arin stepped between them.
“I think you heard him,” Arin said, sword raised against Jack. “He’s not going anywhere with you.”
Jack smiled. “And you really think you can stop me?”
A glare hardened over Arin’s face, silence was his answer.
“Oh, this will be fun.” Jack laughed as the whip hissed and spat sparks against the bedrock.
Arin took in a breath and braced himself.
A moment of stillness, and then, chaos.
Chapter 5: The Knight Fight
It was unnatural how Jack moved.
The world re-birthed in hellfire as their dance begun. The snarls of fire encircled Arin, damning him with their cheers for the black knight that stood against him. His armor weighed him further, sweat coated every inch of his skin as the air turned hot and near impossible to breathe. The whip licked out, again and again, striking quick at his armor and splitting it clean. A maniacal laugh rose from Jack’s silhouette when Arin stumbled backward. He rose his arm to deter an attack, but the whip only embedded in his skin, driving deep like teeth.
Pain enveloped his senses as the fire crawled through his veins, rendering his good arm useless. Jack yanked at the whip, forcing Arin forward and down on his knees. While he knelt blinded in agony, he heard the laughter draw nearer.
“Is this the best they have?” asked Jack as he kicked away Arin’s sword. “Tell me you’re not the only one they sent, you can’t be!”
Arin glared up through the wet lengths of his hair.
“How ‘bout I give you the chance to run. We’ll see how far you can get! Make a game out of it.”
A string of curses was rising from Arin’s throat just when Jack’s head was jerked to the side by a flung rock from Dan’s hand. The black knight stumbled back and rose a hand to grab at his face. The loss of concentration brought the flames to flicker and die, and with them went the agony writhing through Arin’s arm. He leapt to his feet and swept into Jack’s midsection, rising him far off the ground before slamming him down against the bedrock with a shout of anger.
Arin pulled away the whip from Jack’s hand and flung it backwards. Before the black knight could regain himself, Arin slammed him back down and pulled out a small knife from his belt and held its blade against Jack’s neck.
“All right, pal,” Arin heaved, nearly snarling. “I don’t know where the fuck you came from, or who you are, but you’re going to leave me and Dan alone, you got it?”
Jack smiled and began to laugh, so Arin pressed the knife further against his skin until the smile failed.
“You have no idea who you’re dealing with,” Jack warned.
“You don’t scare me.”
Another laugh. Jack leaned up against the knife to look Arin directly in the eye.
“It’s not me you’ve got to worry about.”
It would be an easy thing, he thought, to cut this knight’s throat and end it once and for all. He’d never have to worry about him following after them, worry about him sending others. It would be easy, but it wouldn’t be right. Arin shoved Jack down one last time, for good measure, before lifting off him. As he retreated, he stooped to collect the whip. He might be merciful, but he wasn’t stupid.
“You said you knew the way,” Arin huffed as he approached Dan who stood at the ravine’s side, both terrified and surprised. “I think we better go… before anything else can go wrong.”
Dan lingered a moment longer to look back at the fallen Jack before rushing to Arin’s side.
“There’s a bend in the ravine, maybe half a mile from here. We can climb up there.”
“All right,” Arin said. His shoulders began to drop. He felt pretty heavy.
“Do you– do you have a horse or anything? Something that can get us out of here fast?”
“Yeah, there’s… I have a… horse.” His head felt light, his vision was spinning.
He turned to see Dan’s worried eyes just before his head lolled back and his weight dropped. To the ravine’s bedrock he crumpled, exhausted and pushed past his limit. He felt the prince’s hands grab at him, try to shake him out of the spell he was falling under, but it was no use.
Arin closed his eyes.
He dreamed of terrible things. Darkness falling over a kingdom. Screams and fire. Flashes of visions overcame him, but colors smeared too quick for him to react to what he saw. He found himself behind the walls of the inner keep in a courtyard left desolate. Nothing grew on this ground. There were no workers or soldiers who stood manning the gates, only him. A great quake shook the ground and brought dust to fall from the bricks of the wall that stood between he… and the beast. Something lurked in that darkness, something terrible and wicked. The quakes grew closer, the darkness was coming.
It called his name.
It was coming for him, and Arin didn’t know if he could stop it.
Just before it broke through the gates to claim him, he awoke with a shout.
Arin grabbed at the thing nearest to him and clutched on. What he grabbed was warm and soft, what he grabbed embraced him with long arms and held just a little bit tighter.
“Hey, it’s all right,” Dan said. “We’re all right.”
Labored breaths rushed in and out of Arin’s chest as those nightmares still lingered behind his eyes, waiting for him to return. He lowered his head onto Dan’s shoulder and loosened the death-grip he had on the prince’s neck.
Normally, he would withdraw and laugh away the embarrassment. He would say something witty and stupid and act like he never let himself look vulnerable. But Arin was tired of more than just the exhaustion that made him feel so very heavy.
“Where are we?” asked Arin as he finally raised his eyes to look about their surroundings.
“Out in the Hollows,” Dan answered, almost as out of breath as Arin was. “I tried getting us as far as I could. I think Jack’s gone. Are you all right? You really scared me there.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.” Arin removed himself from Dan’s arms and instead leaned up against a crooked, dead tree. He let off a sigh and looked this way and that. “Who was that back there?”
The softness of Dan’s face dissipated, and in its stead came nervousness. “He’s the King’s Jack.”
Arin’s brow scrunched as he began removing the bits of his armor that this Jack wrecked. “King? What king?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Dan answered before resuming his walk through the Hollows.
“Doesn’t matter?” Arin echoed before tossing off his shredded breastplate to the dust of the Hollow’s lifeless woodland bed. “Uh, I think it matters a lot, actually.”
“They… they didn’t tell you anything when they sent you after me, did they?”
The knight pried off one pauldron at a time before rolling his shoulders and relishing the freedom. He stumbled after the prince. “Assuming that I thought you were a princess, no. No, they didn’t.”
A sigh lifted Dan’s shoulders before they dropped. “It’s the Wolf King.”
Arin slowed. “Wolf King?”
“It’s… it’s a long story.”
“You know how long it is back to your kingdom, right? I think we might have some time for a chit-chat.”
Dan turned and looked back at Arin.
“He… he wasn’t always a king. A long time ago, he was a good man, but I don’t even know if you could call him a man anymore. But back before… all of this craziness… he was a part of my kingdom. Everyone knew him as the advisor to my father, but I knew him as Mark.”
Chapter 6: The Story of Mark
No one was quite sure where Mark Fischbach came from.
No one could remember him in his youth, or if he even had a family, but they also could not remember a time that he wasn’t always there. Like many of the men in King Avi’s region, Mark was a hunter. He came to town at the end of the week and sold his game, speaking only when needed, before leaving as quick as he had come. For the most part, he passed unnoticed. That was until the day of the Great Hunt, where King Avi and his son and daughter took to the woods with a company of chevaliers, the loyal knights of the highest Order. They sought out from those woods a great elk to grace the king’s table. Instead, what they found was tragedy.
In the heart of the deepest woods, Prince Dan and Princess Dana rode ahead of the knights and Avi. While the prince and princess were not keen on slaying any manner of beast, great or small, they did enjoy seeking out the elk for their father to take. It was there, in that deep wood, that the prince and princess came across the den of a large, fearsome wolf. The beast must have run off most of the local wildlife, for he was unafraid of the horsebound heirs and quite ravenous. The prince was stricken with fear only until he heard his little sister call for him. Before he could reach her, she was gone.
Try as they might, no one was able to find the wolf that killed the princess or even a trace of her remains. A large bounty was placed on that wolf’s head and all manner of hunters raked through the woods to avenge the death of their beloved princess. However, their efforts were wasted.
That was until the day a man came to the gates of the King’s keep with a tarp covered cart. He pulled the cart straight to the front steps. As the King and his only begotten son looked down to this commoner’s cart, tears and joy overcame them. For beneath the tarp lay the monstrous beast, dead as dead could be.
To honor the skilled hunter, King Avi gave to him the bounty that he promised and a title of his court. From that day forward, Mark Fischbach was the faithful right hand of the king, the youngest that had ever taken the title. While King Avi was light-hearted and generous to his people, Mark was not. Though he was much colder of a counterpart to the king, he kept the coffers full and disciplined the knights and made them great. The kingdom prospered and there was happiness for many years.
But power does not come without consequence and Mark was not immune to its effects. He pushed his title further, punished those he thought unlawful without the permission of his King. There were even rumors of knights loyal to Mark digging up corpses in the graveyard. For what purpose, no one knew.
When he was brought before the throne to answer for his behavior, Mark showed no remorse and told King Avi that he was better suited for the throne than the Avidan family. In his anger, he cursed the kingdom and warned that the streets would run red if King Avi did not give him his rightful place on the throne. When King Avi denied him, Mark left the keep and took with him three knights whose allegiance was his.
That night, in the thick of fog, a pack of wolves came into the kingdom. They dragged people from their homes. Screams filled the air and, true to his word, blood ran like rivers. At the head of this pack rode Mark and his knights. The chevaliers manned the gates to the keep, ready to fight and die for their king, but as quick as Mark and the wolves came, they were gone.
As people came to the streets to claim their dead, they stood in horror. Though blood splattered the streets and homes lining the way to the kingdom’s keep, there were no bodies to be found.
The people of the kingdom wept that night for their lost, and soon after, King Avi rose a royal bounty against the men who struck such woe through his domain.
The posters scattered the countryside.
Wanted Alive, Ser Wade Barnes, Knight Betrayer.
Wanted Alive, Ser Robert Muyskens, Knight Betrayer.
Wanted Alive, Ser Sean McLoughlin, Knight Betrayer.
And then there was the largest of bounties;
Wanted Dead, Mark Fischbach, the Wolf King
“So,” Arin began softly. “How do you fit into all of this?”
Dan hesitated, though his quick walk through the hollows did not wane. “It’s… a little more difficult to explain.”
“You know, logically speaking, the last survivor of a royal name makes for a good hostage. Whatever he wanted you for, at least you know he probably wasn’t going to kill you.”
Dan let off a sharp laugh that startled Arin. “Yeah, at least I have that going for me. All things considered, I guess I should be thankful, right?”
“You know what I meant.” Arin rolled his eyes. “I mean, the guy seems like a fucking psychopath, but we’re on our way out of here, right? Further we go, the less likely he’ll catch us. We got past one of his knights and those crazy ass wolves, so what else can–”
“–his only knight.”
“Sean– I mean, Jack. Jack is his only knight left.”
“Wait, I thought you said there were three?”
“There were,” Dan answered.
“So? What happened to them?”
Dan continued walking, holding his eyes up to the dead canopies of the trees for a while. “Mark killed them.”
“Oh, okay. But… you know, why?”
“Because he wanted to, I guess. Arin, I don’t really know what you came through to get here. I don’t know if you had to deal with many psychotic tyrants in your day, but what I do know is that Mark is far from anything you’ve ever seen before, all right? I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. I’ve never… made it this far before. But when Jack gets back to him, and he finds out what happened, he’s… he’s not going to be very happy.”
“Oh, fucking boo-hoo.” Arin scoffed. “Like I give a shit.”
Dan stopped his quick walk rather suddenly and turned. So suddenly, in fact, that Arin almost ran straight into him.
“Arin,” Dan started, near terror in his eyes. “You don’t have to take me back. You don’t know what he’ll do to you, but I do. You’re not the first knight to come after me. I have watched so many people try, and… and they all failed.”
“Hey, I knew this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.” Arin flashed a smile in hopes it might banish what worry the prince had. “Look, we got this far together, right? Further than you’ve been before, that’s what you said.”
Dan thought over it for a moment and then slowly nodded. “But, Arin, at least be honest, most of it was blind luck.”
Arin shrugged. “Yeah, well, I’ll take what I can get.”
When he saw that he hadn’t soothed Dan’s mind as much as he wanted, he placed a hand on the prince’s shoulder and gripped firmly. “Dan, I’m not going anywhere, all right? Whether you like it or not, you’re stuck with me.”
A smile worked over Dan’s lips. It was weak, and maybe Arin’s eyes weren’t seeing it right, but it was a smile.
“I do have to give it to you,” Dan said. “You definitely don’t know when to quit.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Arin grinned as he nudged the prince and continued onward. “C'mon. Lead the way, Your Oh-So-Regalness. I don’t know about you, but I fucking hate this place.”
Dan let off a small laugh as he watched Arin stumble over his feet, cursing the whole way. Before he followed, he gave one last glance to the hollows behind him, losing the smile he once held for Arin.
“Hey, Your High and Mightiness. You coming or not?”
Dan turned and quickly trotted over the woodland bed to rejoin Arin.
The worst was behind them, Arin thought.
But Dan knew better.
Chapter 7: Escape from the Hollows
They traveled a ways further, only stopping when the thick of the hollow began to fade into the ghostlands beyond. Arin plopped himself down on a fallen log and took this time to regain himself. His muscles were strung tight. He couldn’t remember the last time he pushed himself this hard. Before this venture, he was throwing out drunkards from taverns and chasing off gnomes in old ladies’ gardens. It was hard to believe that he was actually doing the knight work that he always dreamed about– and he was doing it well. Or, well enough.
“You’re still bleeding.”
Arin glanced up just in time to see Dan kneel in front of him, mere inches away. A rush of heat washed over him and bloomed color over his cheeks. There were a few droll things he thought to say as the prince took out a pristine, monogrammed handkerchief to dab at the cuts on the knight’s cheek. Words tumbled over his tongue, eager to find their way out to conceal the fact that Dan’s closeness visibly affected Arin, but escape, they never did. Instead, he watched the prince tend to him, surprised and unsure of how to respond to such a gesture.
The corner of Dan’s lips ticked into a soft smile. “You know, you’re not what I expected.”
“What do you mean?” Arin asked, trying to calm down his pounding heart.
Dan finished his work and sat back on his heels. “Well, there are a lot of knights where I’m from, you know? And the ones that go out under the King’s request are usually older and more seasoned than the young, handsome men like yourself.”
At this, Arin snorted a laugh.
“So when I first saw you,” Dan continued, “I never would have thought you’d get me this far, let alone get me out of that tower.”
“What? Oh, no, that’s not–” Dan let off a twittering laugh as color overcame his face as well. “I just meant that… you really surprised me, Arin. In the tower and, and with the wolves and Jack. I’ve never met anyone that was able to face all that and come out unscathed, well, almost unscathed, I mean. What I’m trying to say is, you’re brave, Arin. A lot braver than I’ve ever been.”
Arin shifted on the log. He tried to match Dan’s wide, innocent gaze, but found himself unable to. “Thanks, Dan. That… means a lot.”
Dan turned his eyes down to the handkerchief in his hands that he fussed with. “I’m sorry if I’m coming off a little… odd. It’s been a long time since I’ve spoken with someone who wasn’t, you know, insane.”
Arin eyed the kneeling prince. There were times that he acted like the royalty Arin thought him to be, but then, in times like this, he seemed more like a frightful child. He wasn’t quite sure what Dan had been subjected to while trapped in the cursed lands, but whatever it was, it wasn’t good.
He turned his sights up and peered through the thinning treeline out into the ghostlands. “Are you afraid that guy might come for you? That king guy?”
Arin turned back to Dan to see him staring down at his bloodied handkerchief before folding it up and tucking it into his pocket.
“It’s not a matter of if he’ll come. It’s when.”
“Well, if it makes any difference, this time you’ve got me protecting you.”
A soft smile pulled across Dan’s lips before he flickered his eyes up to the knight sitting before him. “Just promise me you’re not going to drop us off any cliffs or towers. I don’t think my stomach can handle any more of your improvisations.”
Arin smiled back at him and shrugged. “Where’s the fun in that?”
Just as Dan began to laugh, a scream split the air and launched both knight and prince to their feet. The woodland bed trembled as something drew nearer through the mists of the hollows. Arin snatched Dan’s shoulder and drew him back to stand behind him. As he readied himself for an ill-prepared fight, a massive horse bound over fallen timber before trotting nearer. Arin’s shoulders dropped and a groan split his lips before he stomped over to the horse’s side.
“Aggro, are you shitting me? Where were you?”
“Aggro?” Dan questioned as he eyed the beast that snorted and stamped the ground.
“Yeah,” Arin replied as he gave chase to the stallion’s bridle to stunt his cocky prance. “Dan, Aggro. Aggro, Dan.”
“He’s a piece of shit,” Arin said before being whipped in the face by the tail of his steed.
“Oh, stop it.” Dan laughed as he approached Aggro who curiously neared. The prince rose one hand to cup at the horse’s cheek, as with the other, he stroked down the dark fur of its muzzle. “How did a majestic thing like you get saddled with a mean knight like him?”
“Saddled,” Arin mumbled.
“Arin, don’t pout.”
“Well, this mean knight just went through hell to save you, but you’re singing praise for the fucking horse!”
“Are we jealous?” Dan smiled.
At that, Arin rolled his eyes and trudged closer to lift himself up into the saddle. “Were you wanting a ride out of here? Or do you need some alone time with the horse that had nothing to do with getting you out of that tower?”
“He brought me you, didn’t he?” Dan said before rounding Aggro’s side and taking up the hand that Arin reached down for him.
“Hold on tight, Highness.”
Dan’s arms encircled Arin’s waist as he laid his chest flush with the knight’s back.
Arin drew in a quick breath and focused his eyes on the ghostlands. He snapped the reins and nudged his heels into Aggro’s side. With a whinny and a leap from their horse, the prince and his knight escaped the thick of the hollows and entered out into the desert of the ghostlands. They rode through the remnants of the night and into the next evening, never once looking back to the cursed land and the evil that took shelter in its woods.
Time stood still as Jack knelt before the throne of his king, eyes lowered to the shadows beneath the cracks of the stone floor. There was silence and stillness that enveloped the whole of the throne room in near serenity, but within that peacefulness, a maelstrom of fury waited to unleash. The silence was almost too torturous to bear.
“You let him go?” asked Mark in so cool a tone, Jack felt his blood turn cold.
“They disarmed me–”
Paws and claws tore at the stone as the once passive wolves bound over broken pews and decimated columns toward the King’s sole knight. Teeth gleamed against the moonlight as hunger and madness swirled in the golden eyes of the beasts set to tear off skin and meat from Jack’s bones. He rose his hands to stop them, to fight back the inevitable feast he would make for the King’s pets, but before their jaws and maws were able to fill with his blood, the king snapped his fingers and the wolves froze in place, silent once more.
Mark’s silver talons rose to rest against his lips as he looked down on Jack, waiting.
“I can do it, Your Grace,” Jack sputtered, desperation illuminating his crystal blue eyes. “I’ll bring him back, I swear I can. Just give me one more chance.”
Mark rose from the throne and descended the stone steps. The furred cloak he bore over a shoulder fanned out and turned to darkness at his feet. He stopped at the last step before Jack, casting out his shadow to swallow the knight whole.
A deep breath swelled Mark’s chest before escaping slowly in a near growl.
“I do not hand out forgiveness, Jack. It has to be earned.”
From the side, a great, white wolf approached. Between its teeth it carried a silver claymore. The wolf bowed before the king who took up the blade and admired its sheen.
“You know,” Mark began as he looked into the ruby encrusted on the claymore’s hilt. “That’s what’s wrong in this world, Jack. So many people think that everything should be freely given with no intent on giving back. I ask you to bring the prince back, that’s all. And when you return empty handed, you want another opportunity to fail?”
“Please, Your Grace,” Jack begged.
“I will find the prince and I will bring him home,” Mark told his knight in a voice that rumbled like thunder. “And as for your request of forgiveness, I’ll grant it.”
The claymore twisted into Mark’s hand, and like the axe of judgment, he swung it down with the weight of his fury to slice through armor and flesh and bone. Screams of horror and pain bubbled and rose from Jack as his severed arm fell to bloody the ground. The wolves leapt to it and fought over tendons and muscles. As the knight clutched at the bones jutting from his shoulder, Mark swept past him.
“Oh, and Jack,” he said without looking back. “Clean up this mess before I return.”
With that, Mark began his greatest hunt.
Chapter 8: Strangers in the Night
The layout of the ghostlands was flat and jagged, like shards of glass jutting from a web work of sand left scattered over dark slate clay. Aggro’s gallop through this desolate, lifeless land never waned. There were no food sources to find here, no water or shelter, except that which its travelers brought.
Supplies were low for the prince and knight, as most of what Arin had brought was used on his journey here. There was no use in tracking down the elusive sand lizard for a snack or trying their hand at shooting vultures from the sky. It was best to ride on, and hope that they could break from the merciless titans of sand and clay before they succumbed to their hunger or thirst.
The interactions between prince and knight were few and far between as they rode. Now that most of Dan’s worries were left in the mists of the cursed land’s hollows, Arin thought it best that he let the prince be. If Dan needed to talk, Arin would be there, but there was no sense in pushing him to open up to a man who threw him out of a tower window. Besides, this time of quiet did Arin well. Now that they were out of the thick of things, he was able to rest himself and plan out their journey back to the kingdom that Dan called home. For a night or two, he sat himself around a quaint campfire built with thistles and needles. The map of the world lay before him and across its sprawl of golden parchment ran the black ink of the kingdoms and their borders. He gnawed on a nearly dried out piece of bread, allowing Dan the more savory cheeses and dried meats that he still had a bit of. He traced his finger across forests and mountains and the kingdom beyond. There was still quite a lot of footing they would need to do. Though he wanted to make it back in one fell swoop, Arin knew it was best if they stopped along the way at inns and taverns, for the sake of their sanity.
They would need money, he thought as he finally tore off a chunk of bread. He was a piss poor hunter, and he wasn’t expecting Dan to be much better. Maybe there was some local work he could do as they made their way through the townships. It would be nice if at least one of their nights was spent in the warmth of an inn bed, instead of the stretch of burlap over two twigs he called a tent.
There was much to think about, much more to deal with, and because of this, Arin fell fast asleep over his folded out map and was out cold until morning.
It wasn’t the breach of morning light over the sand dunes that roused the head of this sleepy knight, nor was it the birthing heat from the rising sand. What woke Arin on this fine new morning was the drawing sound of singing. He rubbed at his eyes and dispelled the dance of dreamless sleep as he shifted himself on the rock he made a pillow the previous night to find the source of this beautiful song.
Aggro laid in the sand across from the remnants and ashes of the long dead campfire. And leaning against him, brushing the length of his coal black mane, was the singing prince. It seemed Dan tried to keep his voice low, in fear of being heard or in attempts to not wake the sleeping knight. Spellbound, Arin listened to the song, knowing its tune, but never hearing it sung so beautifully before. There was something in him at that moment that warmed, some change that he felt instantly as he watched the kind prince tend to their weary steed with a soothing, airy voice. It was a sin, Arin thought, to end such a sound.
He waited a moment longer, capturing this moment in memory, before gently saying, “You’re really good, you know?”
Dan startled, his pitch turning into a near yelp causing Arin to smile fondly.
“How- how long have you been listening?” asked Dan as he brushed Aggro’s mane faster, a clear attempt to hide his embarrassment.
“Long enough to know you’re good,” Arin answered as he rose from the grit of the sandy rock to stand. “Where did you learn to sing like that?”
Dan puckered his lips and retreated the comb from Aggro’s mane. “I’ve always liked singing. It’s second nature at this point. When I was in that tower, singing was really the only thing I had to pass the time.”
“Guess the King didn’t leave you any arts and crafts to do?”
Dan let off a small laugh. “He definitely did not.”
“No instruments or books?”
“How about a pet to take care of?”
“Not a one.”
“And with all those wolves, he didn’t have one to spare?” Arin asked as he went over and tore down their campsite for packing. “Well, isn’t he just selfish? Can you just imagine that, though? One of those wolves up in that tiny tower? What would you do for food? Would it just shit in the corner?”
“Arin.” Dan bowed his head and smiled at the imagery.
“What? These are important questions we need to ask. If it did shit in the corner, what would you do? Just fling it out the window? Oh, man, how would you wash your hands? Just have to deal with constant wolf poop hands.”
Dan let off a twittering laugh, halving down in a bow in attempt to contain himself. Arin liked his laugh. If all it took to hear it was some stupid shit on his end, he might just stay a fool from here on.
When Dan rose, and his laughing died off, the sight of a brilliant smile took the place of his once worried frown. Arin might have liked that smile more than the laugh.
“Thanks,” Dan said.
Arin rolled his shoulders and looked around. “For what?”
“For you– for this. Arin, you’ve got a pretty good way of making things seem a lot less scary than they are.”
“I don’t think things are scary. Frustrating and tiring, but not scary. The further we go, the more things will be normal. No more deserts, no more dead lands. Soon we’ll see the normal life of the common peasant-folk. Just people getting piss ass drunk and every town you go to smelling incredibly like one, giant heap of horseshit.”
“Wow, such a beautiful image.” Dan sighed. “How did I ever survive this long without it?”
“Beats me.” Arin fastened down their supplies on Aggro’s saddle. “But that’s what you have to look forward to now. You know, and the castle and gold and party that’s probably waiting for you when you get back.”
“Oh, don’t remind me,” Dan groaned. “The party.”
“Is it bad?”
“Do you have any idea how many people are going to come up to me? Everyone will want to know what happened, everyone will want to know what it was like. I’ll be expected to drink and dance and… really, I just want to act like it never even happened.”
Arin drew the leather straps a little tighter and shrugged. “I’ll dance with you.”
“No, Aggro– of course me. Jeeze, don’t act too surprised.”
“No, I mean, you know how to dance?”
Arin hesitated. “Well… not exactly, but I mean, how hard can it be? You just kinda, spin around a lot, right?” He looked over to see the prince staring at him. “Right… Dan?”
“Okay, when we get back, I’m teaching you how to dance.”
“No, no, no–”
“Yes, yes, yes–”
“Dan, no. It’s dumb. Why would a knight need dancing skills? Am I going to waltz my foes into an early grave?”
“It’s not dumb, and if you’re going to this party, you need to know how to dance.”
“Who said I’m going?”
“I did. Just now. As your prince, you have to do as I say.”
“Is that right?” Arin shifted himself and crossed his arms. “Last I checked, pal, I’m not from your kingdom. So you can tell me what to do all you want, it’s not going to change a thing.”
“I’m sure I can change your mind,” Dan said as he stooped down to hand Arin the last of the supplies.
“Oh, yeah? How’s that?” Arin asked as he turned to place the roll of a bed wrap on the saddle. When he turned back, Dan was noticeably nearer with a smile crooked over his face. A rush of heat overcame the knight that could not be claimed by the raising sunrise or the heat of the sand.
“I have my ways,” Dan said as he grabbed the saddle’s horn and lifted himself up onto Aggro.
Arin smiled and jumped up on the saddle behind Dan.
They rode until the sun passed over them and lowered behind the peaks of far off mountains. Their bodies ached, exhaustion claimed them, but they still had a while until they could leave the ghostlands behind. Though Arin wanted to press further, Dan cautioned him against it. At nightfall, the scorching heat of the pale desert turned into nothing but a veil of darkness. They would lose their way if they tried going off into the night. A little bit further, Arin had thought. Anything to close the looming distance between them and a hot, hearty meal and warm bed.
Just then, a speckle of light caught Arin’s eye off in the darkness. He beckoned Dan’s attention and closer to it, they rode.
Aggro slowed against the sand as Dan’s wary hands gripped at the reins.
“It’s a camp,” Dan said as he narrowed his eyes on the fire. “We should go.”
“What? Are you crazy?” Arin reached under Dan’s arms and snatched away the reins before he could lead Aggro away. “Dan, we’re low on food, we’re low on water. If there’s someone over there that can give us either of the two, it would be a miracle.”
“Arin, we don’t know them!” Dan hissed in a whisper. “For all you know it could be a goblin tribe or, or–”
“–or really stupid people that got lost in the ghostlands,” Arin finished before pressing himself against Dan’s back to guide Aggro closer.
“No one comes to the ghostlands! That’s why it’s the ghostlands!”
“Would you stop?” Arin hissed back.
A silhouette moved in front of the campfire, causing Dan to draw back and cower in Arin’s arms. “Arin, let’s just go.”
“Are you scared, Daniel?”
“Yes, I’m scared! What if it’s Jack? What if… what if it’s–”
Suddenly, lantern light illuminated at Aggro’s side, startling not only the horse, but its two riders who leapt and yelped in fright. The lantern lowered, only barely, exposing the face of its wielder who looked far too excited for someone in the ghostlands.
“Hey, hey, Barry!” Ross called out. “I told you there were other people in the ghostlands! And you said no one comes here! Pay up!”
Chapter 9: A Night in Odd Company
While Dan had turned into Arin, clutching at him like a frightened cat, his knight let off a relieved sigh.
“Barry! Barry!” Ross called out, skipping back over the sand dunes for their campsite. “Hey, Barry!”
Arin awkwardly shifted Dan in his arms as he led Aggro after their guide toward the site of the strangers’ camp. It was an extravagant thing, considering where its location was. A barrel of a coach sat beside the face of a sand buried titan of rock. There were tables and clutters of maps. Equipment scattered here and there as linens and clothes strung over wires. Upon nearing the warmth and safety of the fire light, Arin dismounted and pulled Dan down with him, who at the time was still a little shocked to see other people. With a nudge in his ribs, Dan awoke from his spell and followed after Arin, warily.
“Barry!” Ross near shrieked. “Barry! There’s–”
The door to the coach flung open and the first sight from its depths was a mountain of books and parchments. Behind this tower of knowledge, a more than annoyed voice groaned. “Yes, Ross, I heard you the first time. You know, maybe you should keep your voice down? It might attract…”
The books lowered and allowed Barry to see Arin and Dan.
Barry sighed as he shambled over to a table and sat down his books, lifting his freed hands to rub at his face as Ross came to his side.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Ross said with a broadening smile. “What are the odds, right? Like, I haven’t seen anyone in days and it just so happens–”
“God damnit, Ross.” Barry’s shoulders dropped. “You can’t just walk up to people. Do I need to remind you where we are? Do you want to get robbed and left for dead?”
Dan stirred at Arin’s side. “Yes! Exactly!”
“What?” Ross frowned. “They’re not going to rob us.”
“What’s there to rob?” Arin mumbled as he fingered through a stack of papers.
Barry rushed over and snatched the parchment away. “Could you at least give me your names before you go around manhandling my things?– Ross, I swear, don’t you dare say a thing.”
“Manhandling,” Ross cooed with a growing smile.
“I’m Arin and this is Dan.” Arin motioned between them. “Now who are you? And… what are you doing all the way out here?”
“Learning,” Barry said before turning his eyes over to Ross to see him knock over a stack of books. “Well, at least I am. I’m Barry. Barry Kramer. That piece of work over there is Ross. I hired him thinking he’d actually be of use to me out here.”
“Boy, were you wrong.” Ross laughed as he shoveled the books, and some sand, back onto the table.
“Exactly, what are you learning?” Dan asked as he walked over to help Ross. His eyes fell down to the cover of an old, leather book.
“Rune making. There’s a type of powder I need from a specific rock. The only known location of it is out here in this wasteland. I was hoping we wouldn’t have to come this far out, what, with the cursed lands so close and all.”
“I thought we were going to the cursed lands.” Ross said as he made his way over to tend to the fire. “I bet that’s where you two are headed, right? There’s a princess out there that needs saving.”
Arin tried hard to suppress a smile as he glanced over to see Dan looking less than enthused. “A princess, really? Is she beautiful?”
“Arin.” Dan groaned.
“Of course,” Ross answered. “She’s a princess.”
“If you want to head off to the cursed lands, be my guest,” Barry said. “Me and Burgie can head back to town without you.”
“Burgie?” questioned Dan.
With that, Barry motioned over to a plump mule sleeping peacefully in a nest of sand. It was hard to believe that such a thing could pull the immense weight of Barry’s coach and the extent of all their belongings. The image of the poor beast huffing and puffing as it tried to climb sand dunes was enough to melt Arin’s heart.
“And… how far is it? To the town, I mean,” Dan asked.
“It’s not that far, really.” Barry said. “Maybe a day. Two if you have to constantly stop for someone with a bladder problem.”
“Hey,” Ross snapped as he tossed Barry a glare. “I told you I was perfectly fine collecting it in bottles.”
“And I told you not to drink so much on our way out here!”
“Speaking of drinking,” Arin started as he nonchalantly turned his sight elsewhere. “You wouldn’t… happen to have any extra supplies, would you? We’re running pretty low on just about everything.”
Barry chewed at the seam in his mouth before giving a nod. “It’ll cost you.”
“We don’t really have any money,” Dan said with a near grimace.
“Well, what else you got?” Ross asked. “Any jewels? Ancient artifacts? That’s a pretty nice horse– you know, we’ll just take the horse.”
At that, Aggro snorted.
Arin puckered his lips in thought before stalking over to Aggro’s side and rummaging through their supplies. After a moment of searching, he found what it was he sought and walked over to Barry.
“How about this?” He said as he offered out Jack’s whip. “It’s magic, or something.”
Barry took the stock and turned it over in his hand. His fingers traced the pale inscriptions scratched into the dark leather. “The writing is impeccable.” The Rune-Maker stepped quick to the fire to examine the runic symbols. “Pyromancy, right? Where in the world did you get something like this?”
“I took it.” Arin answered as he took up Aggro’s reins and led him over to where Burgie rested. “In a fight against a knight named Jack.”
Barry’s eyes widened and he quickly dropped the whip. His face began to pale as he looked from Arin to Dan. “Oh, oh no. No, I don’t want it. You can take it back, thank you. Take some water and food, but you need to leave.”
“What? Why?” Arin dropped the reins and walked over to Barry, placing himself between the Rune-Maker and the safety of his coach, lest he tried to run.
“This was Jack’s whip? The King’s Jack? As in, the Wolf King’s Jack, right? This is, this is dark stuff. I don’t want it.”
“It’s just a whip. It’s not going to hurt you.”
“No, but there are people who would if they knew what it was and knew that I had it. It’s… amazing you lived. You must be something great to go up against Jack– maybe completely crazy– but something great, too. Did you, did you kill him?”
A range of emotions coursed over Arin’s face. His mouth opened, ready to explain, but Barry gave him no time.
“Oh, I was wrong. You’re just completely crazy.”
“You didn’t kill him?” Ross intervened. “So, you just took his weapon and ran?”
“I didn’t run,” Arin fought. “We had a fight, I won, and I walked away.”
“You don’t walk away from Jack,” Barry said. “No one walks away from the Wolf King’s Jacks. Did you go all the way out to the cursed lands just to fight him?”
“No, not exactly.” Arin gave a glance to Dan. “I… went after the princess.”
“Did you find her?” Ross pressed. “Where is she? Was she alive? Is she as beautiful as they say?”
Another smile pulled at Arin’s lips as he looked over to Dan. “I don’t know, Dan, was she beautiful?”
Dan let off a long and deep sigh before turning to Ross and Barry. “I’m… the princess.”
There was silence.
A most hilarious and awkward silence.
“But,” Ross started, a little confused. “You’re a dude.”
“Yes, Ross, I’m well aware I’m a dude,” Dan answered. “I’m Prince Leigh Daniel, son of King Avi. I have no idea where the rumor started that I’m a princess, but I can assure you, I am not.”
“But… why would a prince be in a tower? I thought… I thought that was a princess thing.”
“Ross, men can be captured, too,” Barry said. “This isn’t some happily-ever-after fairytale.”
“It’s a long story,” Dan said. “It doesn’t really matter anymore.”
Arin gave the prince a glance to see his actions betray his words. He was tense, as if he was expecting at any moment for Jack to appear from the sand, for the black knight to drag him back to that lone tower lost in the depth of the hollows. The more it seemed Dan tried to pass off his experience as trivial, the more concerned Arin became.
“Please,” Dan softly said. “We don’t have anywhere to go. If you let us stay, I’ll repay your kindness. Whatever it is you want, I can get it for you, just name it.”
Barry softened in expression and looked down to the black whip laying in the sand. “All right. You guys can stay. I guess it wouldn’t hurt having more people around, in case anything happens, I mean.” At that, the Rune-Maker let off a sigh. “Guess I better start making dinner. Ross, can you grab them some water? I think there’s still some canteens over there.”
Ross gave a heavy nod and leapt off at Barry’s word. In the meantime, Dan neared the campfire and sat by its warmth, losing himself in the dancing flames before him. Arin watched the prince, for a while, before making his way over to sit by his side. He took a deep breath and smiled. “I know its no fancy pants castle, but this is pretty great, right? Interesting people, big campsite. Next thing you know, we’ll be out of here.”
“It is nice,” Dan agreed before cutting a smile. “Don’t get me wrong, you’re great company.”
“Naturally.” Arin nodded.
“But it’s refreshing to see other people,” Dan continued. “And I know the further we go, the more people I’ll see. Soon, all this will just be a faint memory, right? Maybe I’ll forget it all together one day.”
“But not me, of course,” Arin argued. “I mean, I’m a large part of this journey. At least one half of it. You can forget everything else, but you have to at least promise not to forget me.”
Dan let off a soft laugh as he set his elbows on his knees and showed his knight a fond smile. “How could I forget you?”
The breaths of light from the fire drew a golden shine over the prince’s long, coiled hair. Embers and light speckled his eyes like stars, the like of which nearly ensnared Arin, if he let it. He smiled back at Dan, once again wanting to say something to make him laugh, to broaden that smile, but finding himself more content with the way that Dan was looking at him right now, in this moment.
That moment, however, was fleeting, as Dan looked back to the fire.
“You know,” he began as his arms crossed over his knees. “It would be nice to have someone like you in the kingdom. Someone who doesn’t treat me like I’m some gem on a pedestal.”
“This is rather sudden, Daniel. Shouldn’t we court for a while before I just move in?”
Dan bowed his head into his arms with a laugh. “Arin, I’m serious. It’s been a long time since I’ve met someone like you. I know that we haven’t known each other for long, but I feel… I don’t know, I feel safe with you around, you know? And, I think it would be best not to just throw myself back into being a prince. Having you around would make things easier, I think. Besides, just think of the sweet armor you’d get. And you’d get to call yourself a knight to the royal family.”
“It definitely sounds like it has its perks.” Arin smiled.
“Just think about it, okay? But, I really would like it if you’d stick around.”
“I think I’d like that, too.”
The two shared a smile that lasted until they were rejoined by Barry and Ross. The smell of roasted meats permeated the air about the campfire. Together, they all sat, sharing in a bountiful meal and conversation that continued on until the embers gave their dying breath. They learned that Ross was previously a painter and bard, that was before joining Barry in his venture to the ghostlands. He told them of his quest to find a subject so beautiful, his love for his craft would be rejuvenated, and that he would not stop until finding such a sight. In the meantime, however, he fetched his guitar from Barry’s coach and strummed them a sultry tale of a lady of the night he once encountered. All worries that existed beyond the glow and warmth of the campfire ceased to be, as Arin and Dan found themselves building bonds with these two men, eccentric in their own ways.
As they turned in for the night, with Barry and Ross sharing the cramped quarters of the coach, Dan and Arin huddled by the remnants of the campfire, sitting shoulder to shoulder to watch the fire expire.
It was in this time of quiet and solace found in the company of two that Arin was able to summon the courage to speak freely to the prince at his side.
“You know, Dan,” he started low, fearful that the dunes around could hear him. “If you ever wanted to talk… about what happened in that tower, I’m happy to listen. You don’t have to act brave, or pretend that it didn’t all happen. That stuff can eat away at you, if you let it. I just, I just wanted you to know that… I’m always here for you. Don’t be afraid to lean on me if you need to.”
The prince was quiet, for a time, before literally taking Arin’s word to heart and leaning his head down to rest on his shoulder. A deep sigh left him.
“I don’t want you to think less of me,” Dan said. “And I know you would.”
Arin’s lips fell into a frown. His head cocked to the side and he rested the curve of his jaw against Dan’s forehead. “Why would I think less of you?”
“Because I do.”
With no words to say, Arin looped his arm around Dan and pulled him closer. They remained this way, silently embraced in each other’s comfort, until they fell asleep at one another’s warmth until daybreak.
Chapter 10: The Horde
It was just before dawn when Dan opened his eyes.
He panicked, only for a moment, thinking these last many days were only a dream and he still waited for someone to come save him from the hollows’ tower. A deep breath left him in a rush as he closed his eyes again to banish the thoughts that haunted him. Strings of memories ran through his mind. Memories of a time that wasn’t so confusing. A time where the world made sense. Before he could allow his mind to wander any further, he felt warmth move against him. Dan’s brows pinched together as he looked down to see Arin nestled in his arms. They were a mess of tangled limbs on the desert bed. Dan wasn’t quite sure where he started and ended, and where Arin began. The knight mumbled something in the throes of his heavy sleep. He tightened his arms around Dan, as one would a pillow, and pressed his head against the prince’s chest.
Dan smiled softly.
He withdrew a hand from their entanglement, doing his best not to wake the bear that slumbered so peacefully against him. Dan drew his fingers through the lengths of Arin’s hair, brushing it back and away from his face so he might steal a peek at the man in his arms.
The thoughts he was having came to an abrupt stop as reason smacked him swift across the face.
No, no, no.
Not this time.
Dan’s hand froze in place. It wasn’t anything, he told those phantoms of reason and logic. They were just friends, that was all. He missed having company, he missed feeling someone else. That’s all this was– curiosity, and maybe a hint of loneliness. Was it so wrong to be locked away for so long and miss the feeling of being loved?
Oh, no. Not that word. Something else.
God, that’s even worse.
His internal struggle was not meant to last as he felt Arin begin to stir. A sweat began to build on Dan’s neck. Should he pull away? Would Arin mind how close they were? This was awkward, wasn’t it? He was being awkward again, he just knew it. Excuses and words flooded his mouth in preparation. He just needed to apologize. He should have known better.
A groan left Arin as he stretched himself out. Before Dan could muster the words of his justification for holding the knight in this way, and before he was quite ready, Arin embraced him further and tightened his hold around Dan.
“I hope this isn’t weird for you,” Arin mumbled through the fogs of his sleep. “You’re just too damn comfy.”
Dan swallowed down the lump in his throat. His mouth ran dry.
“N-no, not at all.”
“Just, push me away if you need to. I won’t mind.”
“No, I… it’s.” He steadied himself. “I like this. It’s nice not sleeping alone anymore.”
“You better mean that. Because I’m down for man-on-man time every night.”
Dan throated a laugh as a smile pulled across his lips. It didn’t take long for Arin to fall back asleep and take with him what worry the prince had. Dan curled himself into the knight, basking in his heat, relishing the comfort he found. Maybe he romanticized this for a moment. Maybe he thought of what this could lead to. Whether or not it was just a silly thought, he couldn’t tell. But what Dan found in Arin’s arms in this moment was something he so desperately needed.
Sweetly lulled back to the depths of sleep in the arms of his knight, Dan let down his walls and thought no more over the boundaries he was pushing with Arin. It didn’t matter now. All that mattered was that he was safe, they all were safe, and fear was far from the prince’s mind.
Sudden and sharp, like the sting of a knife across his skin, Dan snapped awake. Pain breathed life into him and with it awakened his sense of impending doom. It called for him, as it always had. It was a call he knew too well. He withdrew his hand from Arin’s hair and dug his fingers down beneath the fabric of his shirt, gripping tight at the item– at the pain– that warned him they were no longer alone.
Fear widened his eyes and fueled him to rise out from Arin’s embrace and stand still on pale sand and rock. He looked past the dunes, flickered his eyes all around him. Where? How far did he have?
Arin stirred again at the lack of heat against him.
“Dan? You all right?”
“We need to leave.” Dan whispered.
“Leave?” Arin reluctantly sat up. His hands rose to wipe away the grit of sand from his beard. “What are you talking about?”
The pain turned from pounding to constant. A last and final warning.
“Arin, we need to go.” Dan started toward Aggro. “Wake up Barry and Ross. They need to get out of here.”
“Fucking wait a second.” Arin groaned as he scrambled onto his feet. “Dan, what’s wrong?”
“The Wolf King. We need to move. He’s here.”
“Here? What, are you serious?” Arin chased after Dan. “H-How did he– wait, no– how did you–”
“It doesn’t matter,” Dan snapped as he leapt atop the horse and grabbed at the reins. “We have to go!”
The coach door swung open and Ross stumbled his way out. His hair was a mess atop his head and his eyes were hardly open. He let off a yawn and rubbed at his jaw. “Wha-what’s going on?”
“Ross, you need to wake up Barry.” Dan said. “Grab what you need, but we have to go. All of us.”
“Dan, wait,” Arin said as he stepped in front of Aggro, hands raised. “Just calm down, okay? What’s going on?”
“Uh, guys?” Ross called.
“Arin, there’s no time to explain. Please, just listen to me.”
“Ross, would you just–”
It was then that Dan turned to see the youthful bard standing pale with his eyes out to the distant dunes. Dotting the horizon stood an all too familiar horde. Their faces were nearly visible against the failing colors of night sky. Distinct, blanched orbs took the place where their eyes once had been. Jaws hung wide, distorted and broken, with shattered teeth jutting from black, rotting gums. Charred bones peeked through parchment-like skin, hiding the truth of the people they once had been and solidifying the horror of the monsters they now were.
“What are they?” Arin breathed a fearful breath.
Dan tightened his hold on the reins. “His army.”
From the darkest depths of their gullets rose a howl to chill the blood and petrify any who may hear their cry. It was a call to their commander, a signal that they had found that which they sought. In a manner befitting nightmares, they descended from the dunes in a wave, nearly flying over sand on their pursuit of the unsuspecting men below.
“Barry!” Ross cried out before bounding into the coach.
The prince was frozen in place on Aggro’s saddle as his knight let off a string of curses and bound to action. Arin swept across the campsite, grabbing items and tossing them up and onto the coach. Closer and closer the hellions came, their howls making Dan feel more than ever like a frightened child.
“God fucking damnit!” Arin barked as Burgie’s harness snapped. “Son of a bitch!”
Barry flew out of the coach and sprinted to nearby tables, collecting what he could, while Ross made his way out to aid Arin.
“What happened?” Ross asked as he held up the broken bits of the harness. “What did you do?!”
“I didn’t fucking do anything!” Arin snapped as he strode over to Aggro and snatched the reins from Dan’s hands. “All right, pal. Looks like it’s up to you. Ross, get Burgie out of here.”
“Right.” Ross nodded and swept up onto the mule. His heels struck hard against Burgie’s plump belly and off and away they went.
“Dan, go help Barry. Or get him inside. I need to figure out a way to hook up Aggro to the coach. It’s the only way we’re getting it out of here.”
“You won’t have time.” Dan said in so distant a voice.
“Well, I have to fucking try something! Go help Barry!”
Dan leapt off Aggro’s back and watched as Arin rushed to the coach’s side. It took a moment for the prince to collect himself before taking off after Barry. The horde was almost upon them. Their feet quaked the rock and sand beneath him. He could already feel their cold skin, smell their decomposition, and hear the wheeze of their hollow breaths. They were a sight he never wanted to see again, and he wasn’t alone. The Jacks hated them too. He remembered Sean would–
Dan froze. Realization brought him to gasp as he turned and sprinted back towards the remains of the campfire. Sweat built over his skin, dripping down his neck and slipping beneath the cover of his tunic. His hand flew down and clawed at the sand before rising from its bed the black whip belonging to the crazed Jack.
As quick as he found it, he turned, and dashed toward the horde.
“Dan!” Arin cried out. “God damnit, Dan!”
Dan’s breaths rushed in and out, his heart pounded. It took all that was in him to push forward and not cower before the monsters that came for him. His eyes fell down to the whip. He remembered. Torrents of memories, of times not so long ago, came to him. He twisted the end of the whip and from it popped a small, but sharp blade. Dan bit into his lips and braced himself as he jerked the tip of the knife against his palm. Pain brought him to cry out, but determination numbed him. As ruby red droplets coursed down the center of the blade and into the whip’s handle, the runes alit with a crimson glow. Fire and light licked through the lash and blazed bright as Dan took hold of the whip that now followed his command.
He drew back the knot and threw his weight into the lash, sending out blazes to brand the desertscape and build a wall between he and the ever nearing horde. The beasts snarled and screamed at the searing heat, just like he remembered they would. Again and again, he brought the whip down, scratching the length of his wall further and further. It was all he could do to buy Arin time.
The twisted faces danced through the breaking flames. Their bulbous, gaping eyes stared out at him, and he stared back.
Beyond that pallid haze, Dan knew who really saw him.
And he didn’t know if that made him feel stronger or more terrified.
“Dan! Hurry!” Barry called out, atop the coach.
The prince stared a moment longer at the monsters through the flames before turning and sprinting back for the comfort of the coach. As he came near, Barry slapped down the reins and Aggro took off. The coach lurched through the rock and dust beneath it before rolling quick. Dan’s legs blurred beneath him as he came to meet the moving coach and jump onto its rear. His fingers slipped against the metalwork, but Arin’s strong hand grabbed at his arm and pulled him up and out of harm’s way. Dan huffed as he dropped against the top of the coach and turned his sight back to the failing magic flames and the monsters that stalked behind them.
Triumphant, Dan collapsed and let off a moan of relief. It was only when he looked up that his moment of victory became tarnished by the scowl he faced.
Arin glared at him in a way he had never seen before. The knight’s lips were closed tight, tapering down. A look of anger, of judgment, that Dan was not ready to see. The prince’s heart fell down into his stomach. Why was he looking at him like that?
Unfortunately, that was a question that would not be answered right now against the howls of desert winds and creaking of wagon wheels.
But Dan knew, when the time came, it would not be a conversation he was ready to have.
Chapter 11: The Prince's Secret
They rode through the day, never once losing their speed in fear of the demons that may have followed. Ross and Burgie found them along the forgotten trails and with the group together once again, they made their way through the last stretch of the ghostlands and into the world beyond. Green crept out through the desert grave, sprouting and flourishing to remind those weary travelers that life always prevailed the harshest of trials. The stale heat of the desert air was quickly replaced with the soothing musk of bark and earth as they left the ghostlands at last.
Ribbons of golden sunlight streamed down through the canopies above, bringing warmth and light to the lush green under-bed below. It was because of the serenity of this forest land, and the distance they put between the horrors left in the ghostlands, that the coach began to slow until at last finding its rest near a river bend. Barry loosened the makeshift harness from Aggro’s shoulders and allowed him to canter over to the water side. Arin and Dan lowered from the bowed top of the coach as Ross and Burgie neared.
“Ross, I need you to get some wood so we can build a fire before it gets dark,” Barry said as he sat down to make repairs to the broken harness.
“Oh, so are we not going to talk about the zombies?” Ross asked as Burgie dropped to the ground, exhausted. “Because, I really think we should be talking about the zombies.”
“Not now, no.” Barry said. “We can talk later. Right now, we need to make sure we set up camp before it gets dark.”
“I’ll get us firewood,” Dan tamely said as he began toward the thick of the forest.
“And I’ll help,” said Arin.
Dan looked back to him, to still see the remnants of that glare he had been given when the horde arrived. The prince swallowed down the lump in his throat and gave a nod. HIs eyes flickered over to Ross and Barry who were also giving him a worrying glance. He was certain he would hear more of it later.
With Arin joining him at his side, they walked out in search of wood for their fire. Their journey was one made in silence, a thick and awkward silence that seemed almost aggressive. It was when they had traveled far enough away from the camp that the others could not hear them, Arin began.
“So, he has an army. An army that you just happened to not mention, why?”
“Arin.” Dan sighed.
“–and you can’t act like you didn’t know about it, because you did. Oh! And the whip? You know how to work the evil, magic whip belonging to one of the Wolf King’s assholes. How did you figure that one out?”
“It’s a long sto–”
“Story, yes,” Arin snapped. “I know. You keep saying that. Look, Dan, I’m trying really hard to respect your privacy. I don’t know what you went through, and I don’t want to make you talk about it, but you’re leaving out a lot of vital details. LIke, say… a whole fucking army of undead.”
Dan winced at the harshness of Arin’s voice and quickly tended to picking up sticks for tinder.
“Can I at least ask where they came from? Are there more?”
The prince let off a deep breath before lifting himself up, tinder in arms, and giving his knight a sorrowing glance. “A lot more.”
Arin’s lips curled together as he lifted his hands and ran them through the length of his hair. “Well, I guess fuck me then, right?”
“Arin, I didn’t tell you because… I guess I wasn’t expecting him to send them out after me. He’s been building that army for a long time, I didn’t think he’d risk losing them. Do you remember how I told you there were others before you? Other knights that tried to get me away from him?”
Arin looked up to see the hinting look in Dan’s eyes. His face fell. “Are you fucking serious right now?”
“It started with the people his wolves killed in my kingdom. After that, the numbers just grew. Anyone who came, anyone who got close to the cursed lands, he took them. The other Jacks, Bob and Wade, they’re in there, too.”
“Wait, just… wait. How is he doing all this? Not anyone can just fucking wake up the dead, right? Like, it takes someone, someone who’s a…”
“Damnit, Dan, are you, are you serious? He’s a fucking necromancer?!”
“Please, Arin, don’t be mad.”
“Mad? Oh, no, I’m not mad– I’m fucking pissed! You made it sound like he was just insane, but now I get to know he’s not only insane, but an insane, talented, undead warlord! What’s next? You going to say he’s immortal, too?”
“I didn’t ask you to get yourself mixed up in this,” Dan fought back. “I told you if you wanted to leave, you could. It’s a lot to take in, I get it, but you don’t have to be a dick to me about it.”
A groan left Arin as he leaned himself up against a tree and rubbed at his face. Slowly, he lowered himself to the ground. There was silence again as Arin tried to mull over his thoughts and Dan tried to straighten his out. After a bit of time, the knight let his shoulders slump as he turned his eyes over to the currents of water trickling down the riverbed.
“I’m sorry,” Arin said. “I didn’t mean to sound… I don’t know. I’m just. Worried.”
“Yeah.” Dan walked over and sat by Arin’s side. Together, they watched the water run. “Me, too.”
“Is there anything else, then? He’s not really immortal, right?”
The prince let off a weak laugh before shaking his head. “No, I don’t think so. At least, not since I last checked.”
“Wouldn’t that just be the pits?” Arin placed his elbows on his knees and closed his eyes for a moment. “So, how did you know?”
“You got to be a little more specific than that.”
“I mean, how did you know about the zombos? You didn’t see them, but you knew they were there. Do I have to worry about you now, too? Got some secret power that you’re not telling me about?”
“No, it’s…” Dan reached down under the cover of his shirt and grabbed at his necklace. He pulled it out and held it up. On the long, thin chain hung a golden ring with a ruby red stone. “I know when he’s around. It sort of reacts to him.” The prince turned to look at Arin. “You know what I mean?”
“I can’t say I do, actually.”
Dan rolled his eyes and looked back to the ring. “It’s magic, kind of like an alarm. When he’s close, it feels like it’s trying to melt off my skin. It didn’t use to hurt, but I think that changed when he became so… hateful.”
“Changed? What, so you had it before he went crazy?”
The prince nodded and tucked the ring back under his shirt. “I don’t think I need to tell you that it’s–”
“A long story, got it.” Arin puckered his lips. “Well, Daniel, I hope one day I get to hear the story. You know, in its entirety. ‘Cause from what tidbits I get, it sounds like quite the tale.”
“I don’t know if I’d say that. It definitely is crazy. I’ll give it that much.”
“We better get back,” said Arin as he rocked himself up and onto his feet. After dusting himself off of dirt and dust from the bark, he offered down a hand to Dan. “Can I at least ask how you know so much? About the Wolf King being a zombie farmer, about the Jacks, about… everything?”
Dan took Arin’s hand and was pulled to his feet. He looked back toward the river. “The way everyone else saw it, I was alone in that tower. But really, I was a lot closer to the Wolf King and his Jacks than anyone had been before, closer than anyone cared to notice.”
Arin considered this before stooping down to collect some branches. As he rose, a bundle in his arms, he gave the prince a failing smile. “I care.”
Dan returned the smile. “I know. Why else would you still be here when a crazy, immortal necromancer is coming to murder us all?”
“It’s definitely not for the money. I’m not getting paid enough to deal with your bullshit drama.”
A laugh escaped Dan as he followed Arin back to the campsite, dropping down to collect twigs as he went. “Then why stick around?”
“I don’t know.” Arin shrugged. “Guess you’re just starting to grow on me.”
“Yeah?” Dan smiled.
“Well, sure. You know, despite how frustratingly cryptic you are about everything– and not to mention the fact that you snore–”
“– yeah, I don’t snore–”
“You know, despite all of that, I like having you around. And if I let some necromancing asshole come and kill you, or take you away–”
“– or make me a zombie for his army?”
“–yeah, or make you a zombie– that means I have to go back to doing all the hero work I was doing before without anyone to keep me company. Plus, I can sometimes come off as a little bit of a jerk myself. And if you haven’t noticed that by now, then well, you’re the first to see more to me than just one big grump.”
“Oh, I noticed. Like, within the first minute of meeting you.”
“So why are you sticking around then?” Arin asked as he bent over to break off a chunk of a log. “Is my terrible sense of humor too charming for you to leave?”
“I don’t know.” Dan said as he swiveled his hip into Arin’s ass, making him lose balance and drop his twigs. “I guess you’re just starting to grow on me.”
Arin gave a sad look to his pile of twigs before shooting Dan a pout. “Well, now who’s the jerk?”
As the prince pranced back to the campsite, he left his knight to hastily pick up his tinder and give chase after him. They arrived back at the same time to see Barry and Ross giving them those worried glances.
“Is everything all right now?” Barry asked. “You guys sure took your time.”
“It’s fine.” Arin said before dropping down to his knees in a small clearing to start their fire.
“So, can we talk about the zombies now?” Ross pushed.
“They’re the Wolf King’s army,” Dan told them as he put his bundle by Arin’s side. “There’s not much more to say than that.”
“Well, that’s disappointing.” Ross huffed.
“Do we still need to worry about them coming after us?” asked Barry as he began to ready some meat for roasting.
At that, Dan looked out to the distant treeline from where they came. It was difficult to imagine such toxic, vile things traversing through a land of such color and life. But he knew as well as anyone that no manner of pleasant thoughts could keep darkness from trying to corrupt this peaceful land.
“I… don’t know. It might just be safe to assume they are.”
“So we need a plan then,” offered Ross. “We can’t just keep waking up every day to run from them.”
“I can’t ask you guys to stick around for me.” Dan said. “Not with everything that’s going on.”
“Well, you don’t have to ask,” Ross answered as he folded his arms tight over his chest. “It’s already been decided.”
Arin lifted his head from the beginnings of his fire. “Uh, what?”
“We decided,” Barry started, “that it would be in everybody’s best interest if we made sure that Dan got back home to his kingdom. I get to travel and look for more ingredients, Ross gets to search for his muse, and you guys have the pleasure of being in our company.”
“Is it a pleasure though?” asked Arin. “I mean, if we really think about it?”
“Nope, no second thoughts!” Ross said with a growing smile. “You’re stuck with us 'til the end!”
As Barry and Ross neared the campfire with smiles ranging from friendly to mischievous, and Arin looked more wary and pained than the Rune-Maker and his bard, Dan found a smile of his own working over his face at the sight of these three men. Before he could linger any more on his growing admiration for the entertainment they brought him, he heard his knight stir.
“So? What do you think?”
“The more the merrier, I guess.” Dan said.
“Huzzah!” Ross cried out. “This moment deserves a song!”
“No, no it really doesn’t,” Arin called out as he rose from the campfire to go after the bard.
At the leave of the knight, all that remained was prince and Rune-Maker, and Barry neared to lay a hand on Dan’s shoulder.
“Thanks for letting us tag along,” he said to him.
“Thanks for wanting to.”
As Barry left him, returning back to his work with their evening meal, the smile that Dan held slowly began to fail. His eyes turned down to the growing flames of the campfire as he began to lose himself to his thoughts. His hand rose and traced the line of his ring beneath the cover of his shirt. The evening went on as it once did. Together they gathered around the fire as the day began to fail and again they shared in meal and company. The longer the prince spent with these men, the more he felt his stomach twist in fits and sour. Words tumbled over his tongue, again and again, searching for the way out, but ultimately being denied. Throughout the night, he remained at Arin’s side. He laughed at his jokes, discouraged him from arguments with Ross, and teased him whenever he could. He liked Arin. He liked him so much.
It was because of that fondness that he stirred in the middle of the night to see Arin still sitting by the embers of their campfire. He had decided to keep watch sometime in the evening, lest the horde returned. Though dark circles ran rings beneath Arin’s eyes, he was adamant on staying alert, determined to protect them. Dan rose from his covers and trudged over to where Arin sat.
“May I join you?” he asked, nearly startling the knight from his dazed spell.
“You need to get some sleep, Dan. Don’t worry about me.”
“I’ll worry about whoever I want to worry about.” Dan took his place at Arin’s side and looked down to the embers. “You should sleep, too, Arin.”
“And let the zombos catch us off guard? Yeah, I don’t think so. I made a promise to get you back alive, not undead.”
The corners of Dan’s lips ticked into a faint smile at the thought of his protection under the knight’s watch. “They won’t kill me, Arin.”
“That’s just what someone would say before getting killed.”
“I mean it. It’s not me you need to be worried about, it’s you and Ross and Barry.”
Arin’s brow fell over his dark eyes as he slowly blinked at the embers. “And why do you say that?”
Dan looked over at Arin. His eyes traced the lines of his face illuminated faintly by the embers. He thought of all the knight went through to get them this far. All the injuries he sustained just to protect Dan and get him home safely. The thought of such generosity hurt Dan’s heart. And so with these thoughts, he pulled out the ring he hid beneath his shirt and ran his thumb against the smooth, cold circle.
“Arin. There’s a reason this ring lets me know where he is. And, and a reason why I know so much more than anyone should know.” Dan spoke softly, fearfully. “He gave me this ring a long time ago, back before… all of this. It matches the one he wears. They, they used to be a promise between us. A vow.”
The dizzy haze passed over Arin’s eyes as they flickered up, alive and bright, to stare at the prince.
Dan drew in a breath and braced himself.
“Arin, the reason it’s complicated, and, and confusing is because, despite everything that’s happened, I’m the reason this all started. I, I didn’t tell you the whole truth, and now, I don’t know how much longer I can pretend being the damsel in distress.”
“Dan, what are you saying?”
Dan closed his eyes and steadied his thoughts. The words that tumbled so endlessly in his mouth finally found their escape.
“He didn’t kidnap me, Arin. I went to him. The Wolf King… Mark, he’s my husband.”
Chapter 12: Nightmares and Daydreams
There was silence between the knight and prince as they stared at one another, waiting. The embers hissed and cracked, drawing them both out from their spells. Dan’s words rolled across Arin’s mind, fitting into the holes of this journey like puzzle pieces. Clarity was in his grasp, and with it, the beginnings of anger.
“So, all this time you’ve never actually been in danger,” said Arin, his voice low. “I’ve been throwing my life around trying to protect you, and it’s all for nothing?”
“It’s not for nothing, Arin,” Dan shot back quick before he could continue. “I’ve been trying to get out of that tower for months. I’ve been trying to get home.”
“But he’s your home.” Arin let off a sharp laugh. Realization felt like pins in his skin. His stomach felt sick. “After everything he’s done to your family, after slaughtering god fucking knows how many people in your kingdom– people you knew– you go off and fucking marry him?”
“Arin, that’s not how it happened–”
“Oh, then please, Dan, inform me how it happened. Let me guess, you thought it would be exciting to be hooked up to someone with power. Life back in your castle seemed pretty boring compared to going off and fucking a murderer, huh?”
At this, the prince rose to his feet. Color claimed his face, whether from anger or embarrassment, Arin didn’t know and he didn’t care.
“You have no idea what happened, Arin. Don’t you fucking sit there and judge me. I know I have my problems and I’m trying to fix them.”
“Like how you thought you could fix your husband?” offered Arin with a condemning glare.
Fury snapped Dan into an almost rage before he realized there were others in their camp. His hands clenched into fists and he bowed his head to let off a quick breath before returning his eyes to glare down on Arin. “Stop assuming you know what my life is like.”
At that, Arin rose to the challenge and stood to face off with the prince. “It must be so hard, right, Dan? Being born royalty, being pampered your whole life. Even when you’re ‘kidnapped’ you’re never actually in any danger. All the while, the people who care for you– that you deceived– aren’t so lucky, are they? How many knights was it, Dan? That came to save you. They died for you. They’re gone and they’re not coming back. But while they’re now forced against their will to be in your husband’s army, you were sitting pretty in your little tower. Did he come for you? Did he drop by often enough to maybe relieve a little of your stress? Were their lives worth the good fuck he gave you?”
Dan’s hand swept across Arin’s face, jerking his head to the side.
When Arin turned back to him with pain throbbing in his cheek, he saw the tears welling in the prince’s eyes.
With what strength Dan had, he forced back a sob as he said, “You have no idea what he put me through.”
More than just sickness twisted in Arin’s stomach and plagued the thoughts he had. A war of emotions raged through him and spent what little compassion he had left for the prince.
Holding back his own angry tears, the knight leaned closer and whispered hatefully, “I’m sure you deserved it.”
All trace of passion faded from Dan’s face as he stared at Arin. He expected the prince to fight back, to swing at him again. Instead, Dan turned down his eyes and quietly walked away. There was a part of Arin, as small as it was, that felt compelled to follow after the prince who left the aura of the campfire and slipped away into the darkness. But Arin was far too proud, too angry, to admit that he was wrong. His hands rose and aggressively slicked back the length of his hair as he sat back down at the fire side. With elbows planted on his knees, he buried his face in his hands and began to regret ever climbing that tower.
What awoke Arin so suddenly at the first sight of morning light was the loud clumsiness of Ross tearing down their campsite. A groan escaped him as he straightened out his back and stretched to rid the ache from his bones. To dispel the call of sleep still beckoning him, Arin lifted a hand and rubbed at his eyes. He winced when his fingers brushed his cheek and it took him a moment to realize why. Arin’s eyes flickered up and over toward the bedroll where the prince slept only to find him gone. A rush of worry chilled his chest before he banished it with the recollection of their fight.
“Where’s Dan?” asked the knight as he rose himself to stand.
Barry glanced over to the bedroll before shrugging. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen him.”
“Should we go look for him?” Ross asked as his arms were full of pots, pans, and knickknacks. “I mean, what if the zombies took him? He could need us, right?”
“I wouldn’t bother,” Arin mumbled as he made his way over to the river. “I’m sure he’s just fine.”
As he crossed paths with the Rune-Maker, he caught sight of Barry’s curious and concerned scowl. Arin looked away and pulled his shirt off and balled it up in his hands. “Where are we going today?”
“There’s a town not far from here.” Barry told him as he folded up the bedding. “We can restock our supplies and actually rest a bit. We wouldn’t be traveling very far today, but I thought it would be a good idea if we all just relaxed for a while. You know, before we jump right back into the frying pan, so to speak.”
Arin scoffed as he tossed his shirt on the ground before unbuckling his pants. As he descended down into the cool water of the river, the Rune-Maker made his way over.
“You seem a little tense, Arin. You all right?”
Arin shivered against the water before dunking his head under. As he rose and slicked back his hair out of his face, he cast Barry a short glance. “Just peachy.”
Barry lingered for a while, though Arin wished he wouldn’t, before giving a slow nod and turning back toward their camp to leave Arin to his bathing. The knight ran his hands over the curves of his shoulders and down the thick of his arms. He tried his best to shed his mind from the new questions and fears the prince cursed him with. He thought of that beautiful, golden ring and how fondly Dan touched it. He thought of a handsome king touching the prince in the same way and found himself falling sick.
It shouldn’t matter to him. Why should he care about the decisions and mistakes the prince made? Why should he be thinking of Dan and his stupid ring when he should be worried about the undead horde and their commander that surely followed after them. It shouldn’t matter, but to Arin, it did.
He was being stupid by letting his feelings get the better of him. And even more stupid for letting Dan affect him. It should have all been professional. He never should have gotten close, he never should have begun to care.
Arin groaned and slunk down into the water.
They were almost to the heart of the kingdom. It wouldn’t be long now. He would return Dan, say goodbye to Barry and Ross, and go back to being alone.
Things were easier that way.
As he climbed out of the water and dressed himself, his ears perked at the sound of Dan’s voice.
“When are we leaving?” the prince asked as he walked back toward the campsite from the woods.
“Uh, here shortly, I think,” Barry said as he drew Aggro near to the coach. “Is everything okay? You were gone for a while.”
Arin neared and scratched a hand through his hair to shake out the water as Dan entered into the coach, where he would stay. The knight and Rune-Maker exchanged a glance before Barry let off a deep sigh.
“I guess we’re off then.”
“I guess so.”
They rode the main trail through the woods in a much more relaxed gait than before. Barry led the coach as Ross followed it atop the noble Burgie. Inside, the prince rested, and on the back of the coach, Arin sat. The sound of the spoked wheel grating against the traveled road soothed his frayed mind. He let it drone out all his other thoughts, but even with his ill-thoughts banished, his stomach still twisted in fits with a heart still heavy. True to his word, the town wasn’t very far off from where they had camped for the night. It was just after midday when they saw the pale smoke rings from chimneys dot the blue sky.
Stone fences guided their way until they met the heart of the city where all manner of folk collected. As they came to a stop just at the market, Barry handed them all a small pouch of coins and instructed them on where to go.
Ross was in charge of replenishing their stores. They needed meat, bread, and vegetables. And before the bard could leave, Barry gave him a very stern talking to about sticking to the list. Arin was sent off to find them lodging for the night. There was an inn next to the tavern that should have room for them. The last on the list was Dan, who was in charge of finding suitable stables from Aggro and Burgie. Before he was sent off, Barry pulled out a cloak and handed it to the prince. As they were starting to enter back into the realm of his father, his face would be one easily recognized. The last thing they needed was for his presence to be blown up all over the town.
Dan drew on his cover and slipped away through the market, blending in with the faceless strangers that passed.
Arin watched him silently leave before heading off toward the inn.
It felt so weird being around this many people again. He felt out of place and strange. Not knowing how to interact with these strangers, he kept his head low and slipped into the inn. The place was nearly vacant, allowing him the peace of mind to speak shortly to the innkeeper. Two rooms were open for use and their keys were handed over to the knight. With his duties done, Arin escaped to the fresh, village air. He gave a lasting glance to the inn as he stepped out, and by doing so, didn’t see the young woman he nearly barreled into. Together, they collided, and the small keg the woman carried fell against the stone below.
“Oh, fuck, I’m sorry.” Arin said once he snapped out of his spell. He dropped quick to grab the keg, only to find himself grabbing the woman’s hand instead.
His eyes trailed up her porcelain skin, traced the weaving ink of her tattoos before lifting to see her wide, green eyes. The air escaped him, as did his thoughts and action, bringing him to hunch there awkwardly as she hoisted up the keg and shifted it into her arms. The length of her black hair danced over her shoulder as she looked up at Arin, waiting.
The knight stalled a moment longer before letting off a nervous laugh. “Oh, I’m… still in your way, huh?” He bound to action and opened the door with an arm, standing aside to let her through. “I’m really sorry about that.”
“Don’t mention it,” the woman said with a smile before walking into the inn, her long, raven hair bouncing as she walked.
Arin cleared his throat and stepped nervously away, not exactly knowing which way he was supposed to be headed. Before he could gather his bearings, he felt a soft nudge in his side as the woman returned to him.
“You’re… not from around here, are you?” she asked him with the curl of a playful smile.
“Uh, no. No, no, I’m not. Just passing through.” His hand rose to push the hair out of his face and away from his reddening cheeks. “I’m… Arin, by the way.”
“Suzy.” The woman looped her arm around Arin’s and led him down the street. “I’m the co-owner of the tavern in town. The Howling Harpies. I’m guessing you haven’t been there yet, have you?”
“I’m not… much of a drinker, really.”
“Oh, that’s fine,” Suzy said. “You can just buy me a drink then. It’s the least you can do for making me almost lose my stock to Marzia. Is that where you’re staying for the night?”
Arin straightened himself. Well, she was a bit forward, wasn’t she? “Yeah, uh, it’s the only place in town, right? We’re only here for the night.”
“There’s more of you?”
“Three others,” Arin told her.
“And are they as handsome as you?”
The knight let off a laugh. His tongue seemed tied at the moment.
“Well, if they are or aren’t, I could give you a good discount at the Harpies. We’re more than happy to take in travelers. Makes the place more interesting.”
“I’m sure we’ll consider it.” Arin smiled.
“See you do,” Suzy told him before loosening her hold on his arm and giving it a pat. As she began her way toward her tavern, she called back, “And don’t forget about that drink.”
“It’s the least I can do,” he agreed.
“The very least.” She smiled.
Dan wandered the streets for a while, enjoying the time to be alone in a crowd of people. Despite Barry’s worries, no one seemed to recognize him as their crowned prince, and for that, he was grateful. He traveled down the boulevards and listened to the calling of sellers and buyers of goods. Children chased one another beneath the shade of a great oak and lovers walked arm in arm. There was happiness here, despite how close this town was to the ghostlands. Dan could lose himself here, create a new name and story so he could hide among this happiness in hopes that one day it might infect him, too. It was an intoxicating thought, but one made in vain.
No matter where he went, he knew the shadows of his past would follow. There was nowhere in this world he could go to lose his mistakes.
For a time, he began to wonder if it was even worth it. Even if he got home, how long would it take for Mark or Jack to come? Anywhere he went, the safety of others would be at risk.
Dan sighed as he held up the ring on his necklace.
Maybe Arin was right.
Maybe he did deserve his misery.
Dan’s fingers curled around the ring and with one quick pull, the necklace broke. He wanted to throw it as far as he could. Let someone else be burdened with its weight. For every second it touched him, he could feel Mark getting colder, becoming more hateful. And after that display in the ghostlands against the horde, the ring burned ever stronger with the Wolf King’s anger.
But the prince couldn’t bring himself to discard his ring. It was just an item after all. Whether or not he wore it, he still was bound to the Wolf King by ribbons unseen by the naked eye. There was no point in abandoning it besides alleviating his own anger for only a moment.
So Dan palmed the ring and broken segments of his necklace and tucked it deep inside his pocket. The burning metal was less severe this way. Less of a reminder of how terrible a person he was. The prince then collected himself and made his way back to the center of market, where the others waited for him, except Arin.
As he approached the argument that Ross and Barry were getting into, Dan looked this way and that, searching for his knight through the moving crowds. He turned himself back to the Rune-Maker and bard and listened to their quarrel.
“Yes, Ross, I know how fun it would be, but we don’t know the type of people that would be there. The last thing we need is to be recognized by the wrong person.”
“Oh, c'mon and live a little. It’s just a tavern. I think after the week we’ve had, we deserve a few pints of good ol’ booze.”
Barry lifted a hand to rub at his eyes. “Grab a few drinks, sure. But I don’t feel safe sleeping when there are a bunch of drunk strangers right outside our door.”
“Well, Arin seems to think it’s a good idea.”
“Where is Arin?” Dan intervened before the two got lost in their squabble.
“He’s at the tavern,” Ross answered before shooting Barry a glare. “Where we all should be.”
“Arin says the tavern will give us room and board. He met the owner, I take it, and worked out some sort of deal.”
“What sort of deal?” asked the wary prince.
“I have no idea,” Barry replied. “All I know is that he’s expecting us to stay there. To be honest, I don’t think it’s that great of an idea. We’re far too close to the ghostlands to just prance around out in the open. We don’t know if the Wolf King has anyone stationed here. The last thing we need is to be all overly drunk and facing the horde again.”
Ross groaned and dropped his shoulders. “Stop being such a worry-wart.”
“Ross, we just saw the undead army. How can that not worry you?”
“I could go for a drink,” Dan said. “Let’s just go. If you don’t want to stay there, we can always go back to your coach or see if the inn will take us.”
Barry grimaced before looking to an overly excited Ross. He groaned and threw up his hands. “Fine. You win. Let’s go.”
“Yay!” Ross jumped. “Let’s get wasted!”
“No, no. We’re just having a few drinks,” Barry corrected him. “No getting drunk.”
“You don’t own me!”
Dan let off a sigh and shambled after the two toward the tavern.
It was a short journey to the Howling Harpies. Ironwork bars decorated the multi-colored, stainglass windows. Above the door hung a swinging sign with a painted pair of harpies adorning the threads of aged wood. The sound of music already found Dan’s ears before entering and the smell of strong liquor soon followed. It was not quite dark yet, but the walls were filled with people and tankards. Voices and laughter muffled the prince’s ears as he, Barry, and Ross made their way through the patrons to find the waiting bar and barman.
He was a large man with dark hair and beard. Despite the pandemonium of patrons, his voice was abounding.
“Ey’ welcome, welcome,” Jon the barman said as he leaned himself against the countertop. “What can I do you for?”
“I want the biggest of whatever you got,” the bard called out.
Jon shrugged his shoulders. “What’s with this guy? You got something against men partaking in the pleasures of life or something?”
“What? No, I just–”
Jon filled up two tankards and slammed them down on the countertop. Foam brimmed the metal mug and began dripping down its side.
“Look, pal. You look like you need one of these bad boys. How 'bout it, huh?”
“No, I’m not–” Barry stammered.
“Drink! Drink!” Ross cried out as he took a tankard for himself and hoisted it high. “To our health! To our happiness! And to our journey!”
“I’ll drink it if you shut up,” Barry snapped before taking up the weight of the tankard.
Just as Ross was about to gulp down the amber drink, he froze in place, eyes wide. Slowly, the tankard began to fall from his lips. Curious, Dan followed his eyes over to a short-haired girl behind the bar, refilling drinks. He returned his sight to Ross to see him straighten himself and place down the mug.
“You all right?” Barry asked, foam clinging to his mustache.
Ross slowly nodded, dazed. “Yeah… I, I think I just found what I was looking for.”
With that, the bard left them in pursuit of the barmaid.
Barry wiped off his lips and watched him go. “Guess I’m drinking alone then.”
“You still have me,” Dan said as he approached the bar and took up the mug Ross left behind. “I think I need this a lot more than Ross did anyways.”
The prince sat himself down and settled in the worn bend of the bar stool as he set his elbows on the counter and let off a rushed breath. His eyes focused on the puffs of foam before he hoisted up the tankard and let the fizzing drink swirl down his gullet. He grimaced at the strong taste, but that didn’t stop him from drinking the mug empty. Barry sat at his side, thumbing the metal and wood of his mug.
“So, what a week, huh? The cursed lands, the ghostlands and the undead. Must feel pretty strange sitting in a tavern like this.”
“Yeah, it does,” Dan answered, low.
“It’ll make for quite the story, though. You’ll be telling it for the rest of your life. It might seem bleak now, but one day you’ll look back on it and be proud that you were able to make it through everything you did.”
Dan scoffed and slid his empty mug closer to the barman for refilling. “Don’t sound so sure of yourself.”
“I could say the same for you,” Barry returned. “In the end, everything always works itself out, no matter how jumbled or broken. It’ll take patience, and a lot of talking through, but it’ll get better. That goes for that tower of yours and for Arin.”
At the name, Dan looked over to see the Rune-Maker giving him a knowing look.
“You know,” Barry continued. “I’m not blind, but it seems like you two are. He cares for you, Dan. A lot more than you probably realize. And the same goes for you. He means a lot to you, but he’s too thick-headed to see that. Being on the sidelines and watching you guys together is… well, it’s infuriating. It might not be my place to say, but I really want you both to stop being so proud and make-up already.”
Dan smiled softly as he took back his refilled tankard and took another drink.
“Barry, that’s a lot easier said than done. I don’t think there’s anything that can fix what I broke.”
Barry hummed as he looked down to his drink. “You know, I’m a light-sleeper, too. And I’m not deaf. About last night, the argument you and Arin had, you’re not a terrible person, Dan. I don’t know you’re whole story, but I don’t have to in order to tell you that. I might not have known you before all this, but I know you now. You deserve happiness just like everyone else. And when we get you back to your kingdom, I’ll do my best to help you find it.”
The prince’s eyes became misty and his smile trembled. “You make it sound so easy.”
“It’s not,” Barry told him. “But it’s not impossible, either. You’ve been locked away for a while, Dan. On your own terms or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s no surprise that you forgot what it was like being happy. We’ll get you there, though. All of us. Arin included, once he stops being a butthead.”
Dan let off a laugh. The first sincere one he had for today. His body leaned and he knocked a shoulder against the Rune-Maker. “Thanks, Barry.”
“Don’t mention it.”
They continued drinking, for how long, Dan wasn’t sure. But he knew that with each new pint he got, he felt much better than he had the night before. His hand swam in dizzy stupors and his laugh grew louder with each new story Barry told him of his past with the eccentric bard. As he finished his last pint, he slammed it down against the bar.
“You can’t want another one,” Jon said, concerned. “Where are you even puttin’ those things anyways?”
“You know, I have no idea,” Dan slurred with a laugh. “I haven’t–” he burped. “–I haven’t had a drink in a long time. Not like this. My husb–… a friend, never kept this stuff around. He couldn’t drink, isn’t that weird?”
“That is really weird,” Barry slurred back.
“No idea why.” Dan shrugged. “Hey, you know what? I should talk to Arin, right?”
Barry slammed down his mug as well and stared at Dan with a gravely serious face. “Dan, that is a great idea.”
“I should apologize for being… dramatic or something. But he was the one who was being inappropriate. If I wait for him to apologize, it’s never going to happen! He’s… really stubborn.”
“Yeah, he’s totally stubborn,” Barry agreed.
“But, you know what, Barry? I like him. I like him so much. Maybe more than that. Even if he’s an ass sometimes, I still really like him.”
“Good for you, Daniel! Now, if you can only get him to admit to liking you, too, then you can run away together and live happily… happily ever after!”
"Where do you– have you seen him?“ Dan teetered on his stool as he spun this way and that in search.
"I can barely see anything,” Barry noted as he lifted up his mug and inspected the insides. “What’s in this stuff, anyway? Strong. It’s really strong.”
“Who you lookin’ for? I know everyone in this place,” Jon said as he pried Barry’s mug from his hand before he spilled ale all over himself.
“Tall guy, long hair.” Dan smoothed down his own long hair. His face then scrunched up, angrily. “He looks like this a lot.”
“Ah, grumpy guy, huh? You know, someone like that came in with Suzy. Last I saw of them, they went down to bring me up some more barrels. If you find them, can you tell them to hurry up? I’m dealing with some seriously thirsty clientele here.”
Dan gave a long, slow nod as he pushed himself off his stool. As he straightened himself, he looked back to Barry. “I’m going to tell him how I feel. He needs to know.”
“Go get him, champ!”
“I will get him! Thank you!”
And with that, the prince stumbled off through the crowds in search for the cellar. The pipes and drums called him further as butterflies fluttered furiously in his stomach. He swallowed down the aftertaste of his drink as he began to piece together his words. He first had feelings when Arin threw him off the cliff. Well, not because he was thrown off the cliff, but the way he protected him. No one had done something like that before. All the other knights ran when the wolves came, but not Arin. Arin was a fighter. And Dan liked that about him.
Against the far wall of the tavern, the prince found the cellar door and lowered down its steps to meet the heavy wooden frame. He pushed open the door and slipped into the cold dimness. His eyes strained and he pushed onward past large barrels and flasks of different ales. There was a glimmer of candlelight just past the wooden support posts, drawing Dan closer to its flame like a moth. Before he could near any further, he saw the silhouette of bodies burning against the lantern. Against the wall, the knight had lifted the sleek body of the tavern owner up, her legs wrapped around his waist. Heavy breaths rushed from their lips as they pressed flush against each other. Delicate hands coursed down Arin’s bare back, digging nails against his skin.
The butterflies in Dan’s stomach soured and all he could do was stand and watch as someone else was able to touch the knight in ways the prince never would. He watched their mouths explore one another’s bodies. Listened as she moaned the name of the man the prince adored. Slowly, he retreated from the scene. Sickness churned in him. He was so stupid. Stupid for coming down here, stupid for thinking that someone like Arin could like someone like him. Stupid for thinking that happiness was that easy to achieve.
Dan raced up the stairs, his head spinning. He heard Barry call out after him, but he didn’t stop. He needed fresh air. He needed a moment of silence to steady himself and gain back his reason. The sickness in his stomach lurched, almost bringing him to vomit, but he swallowed it down. Quickly, he slipped out of the tavern’s back door and made for the tree line. The air was bracing and chilled, nipping at his skin and nearly freezing him still, but he pushed on. He could still hear the drums and pipes and knew he had to go further.
His breaths misted against the evening air as he finally stopped. Hands rose and raked through his coiled hair, pulling it flat against his scalp as he leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
He was so stupid for falling in love so easily.
The sound of footsteps approached him. Barry.
“Please,” Dan begged. “I just want to be alone.”
“I think you’ve been alone long enough.”
The voice that spoke to him was deep and rumbled like thunder, sending chills coursing down the prince’s back. He turned slowly, in disbelief, to see an all too familiar face staring back at him. All the thoughts of happiness Dan had escaped him, as he found himself standing before a nightmare.
“Hello, Daniel,” Mark said as he closed the distance between them. “It’s been a while.”
Chapter 13: Desperation
Dan stood petrified.
Though the scenic beauty of the forest he found himself in was one drenched in serenity, a storm approached. Glimpses of moonlight crept through the pines’ canopies, accentuating the contrast between Mark’s pallid skin and the black, leather raiment he wore. The prince knew every inch of the Wolf King. He knew every muscle and movement he made, but seeing him here, in such a peaceful and quiet place, seemed so wrong. He was out of his element, out of place, like the chess piece of the black king surrounded by white pawns. He was a spark waiting to ignite. Ignite and consume the land, and its people, in his infernos.
“What are you doing here?” the prince asked in an airy breath, his head still spinning.
“I’m here for you,” Mark answered with a rumble of a surprised laugh. “To bring you home.”
The King drew nearer, forcing Dan to begin a careful retreat.
“There’s no use in doing that,” Mark continued as he rose his taloned gauntlet to remove the glove on his opposite hand. “You can’t run from me anymore, Daniel.”
Dan swallowed down the fear building in his throat. “I can try,” he said, mustering what courage he had.
Just then, through the darkness around them, specks of gold burned bright like stars. They appeared all around them, closing in at every side.
“Can you?” asked Mark as his white wolf appeared from behind him with his claymore between its teeth.
Dan’s back met against a pine and his hands lowered to grip into the bark. It was all he could do as the Wolf King took from his omega’s teeth the fearsome weight of his sword. More wolves approached, encircling them, preventing him from escaping. Sweat beaded against the prince’s brow and slipped down his cheek. He wanted to scream. He wanted to beg for this nightmare to end, but fear kept the words locked in his throat.
Mark looked at the ruby red gem in the hilt before sliding a talon down the edge of the claymore’s blade. “You’ve really surprised me these last few days.” He walked closer. “I knew that tower was getting too small for your free spirit, but I never thought you would want to leave our home. That you’d want to leave me.”
“Mark,” Dan said, almost begging.
The Wolf King stopped before him, claymore in hand. His black eyes flickered up to his beloved. There was no compassion in those eyes, no sympathy. Tension was strung tight between them and only worsened as the wolves drew closer. Dan swallowed down the knot building in his throat as he stared at the weapon in Mark’s hand. There were so many times that Dan saw that blade in action. He saw the devastation it wrought. It was only a matter of time, he thought, when the day would come that he would be on the other end of its violent edge. And from the look of fury on Mark’s face, he feared today was that day.
Dan’s eyes closed in anticipation. He could already feel the cool silver against his skin, the bitter kiss of pain, and the darkness of relief, if Mark was that merciful. But instead of cold metal, the prince felt the warmth of fingers touch at his face as Mark’s palm cupped his cheek. His eyes opened.
The veil of the Wolf King’s ire withdrew and in its place appeared the pain of heartbreak.
“You don’t need to be afraid of me, Danny,” Mark told him in almost a whisper. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
Dan leaned into the hand on his cheek, savoring the warmth. It was a break from his senses. He knew better than to fall back into this endless play, but the warmth of another was something he so desperately needed. A breath filled him, and as it escaped, so did the weight of his fears. His hooded eyes slid down to Mark as they shared one peaceful moment after nearly a year of chaos.
“Then let me go home, Mark,” Dan said.
The hand on his cheek began to fall.
“Your home is with me,” the Wolf King reminded him, his eyes darkening. “Why do you want to go back to those people? Haven’t they put us through enough?”
“Mark,” Dan pleaded. The spark ignited.
The Wolf King withdrew. His ungloved hand rose to sweep back his coal black hair as his eyes flitted across the grass of this small clearing. “There’s nothing back there for us, why don’t you understand that? How many times do I have to tell you– I’m your family now. We don’t need them.”
The wolves’ hackles rose as the tension rebirthed. Their eyes were vicious. Their teeth gleaming.
Dan pushed off from the tree. “I know you don’t need them, Mark. You don’t need anyone. We’re all just expendable, aren’t we? First my kingdom, then Bob and Wade–”
“–they tried to take you away from me–”
“I’m not some object for you to own!” Dan snapped, tears in his eyes. “Please, Mark. If there’s any part of you that still truly cares for me, then you’ll let me go.”
“Until death do we part,” Mark rumbled as his glare rose to pierce through the prince. “Those were our vows.”
“I know,” said Dan in a broken voice. “But you’re not the same man I married.”
“You’re so right,” the Wolf King agreed. “I’m much more.”
From the distance, down near the town, a voice called out bringing Dan’s blood to turn cold. He felt himself become light, near weightless, as he watched Mark’s head turn toward the sound of Barry calling the prince’s name.
“You should be grateful to be the sole recipient of my unconditional mercy, despite how many times you defy me.” The Wolf King took up his claymore and started for the treeline. “Perhaps it’s time I remind you how lucky you are.”
The color vanished from Dan’s face. He made haste after Mark, attempting to stop him, but the white omega and the pack came between them. They were a wall of fur and fangs, snarling as the prince made an attempt to near their alpha, the King. Dan’s breath became labored with fear as Mark unlatched the length of his furred cloak and let it fall to the ground. It would only be a nuisance during his hunt.
“Mark, please,” Dan called out as he tried to push himself through the wall of wolves. “Just take me back! I won’t run anymore, I swear. Just please, don’t hurt anyone– they’ve never done anything to you!”
“They kept you from me, haven’t they?” Mark returned in a growl. “After I’m done here, there won’t be a soul alive brave enough to mention your name without fearing what I may do to them.” The Wolf King rolled his shoulders and cranked his neck side to side. “Chica, come. Make the call.”
The white wolf bound over its brethern and came to the King’s side. A breath puffed the wolf’s chest before it lifted its muzzle to bellow a deep and haunting howl.
The Horde had been summoned.
Arin sat down on the basement’s cool stone flooring as he made an attempt to lace up his boots, but found his eyes wandering up to watch Suzy redress herself. His skin was flush, his arms and legs weak and trembling from the workout she gave him. He was spent, completely, but the sight of her curves and porcelain skin, the way her hair cascaded down her back and nearly touched the dimples above the round of her ass made him stiffen up, eager and willing for more. He needed this, more than he knew. His head felt clear now. His worries were miles away. And the sight of that beautiful smile of Suzy’s was enough to make him almost forget why he was here in the first place.
“Are you sure you can’t stay another night?” she asked him as she shimmied herself back into her skin-tight leggings.
That’s right, he remembered now.
Arin’s eyes fell back down to the laces in his boots that his hands had been holding for the last ten minutes or so. “I… made a promise to someone that I’d get them back home. As much as I wish I could stay and make this my new daily routine, I can’t break my promise.”
Suzy’s smile softened. “Must be someone special.”
“Yeah,” Arin’s brow lowered as he tightened the laces with a quick pull. “Something like that.”
A shadow overcame him, beckoning his eyes up to see Suzy kneeling down in front of him. She took up the laces of his other boot and aided him.
“You know,” she started. “Whenever you’re done being someone else’s knight in shining armor, it’d be nice if you came back. I could use someone like you around here.”
“Like, as a stress reliever or–?”
“For a lot of things. Don’t get me wrong, this was… really fun, but I could always use a guy like you.”
“A guy like me, huh?” Arin smiled and leaned back. “And what exactly is ‘a guy like me’?”
“Oh, you know… strong, intimidating, handsome–”
“Don’t forget hilarious and charming,” he added. “Oh, and incredibly well endowed.”
“And humble.” Suzy smiled. “What do you say?”
It was a thought that he mulled over, and the sight of Suzy’s smile did nothing but tempt him more. As nice of a notion it was, Arin sighed. “If you asked me that a week ago, I wouldn’t hesitate. But there’s a chance for me to become a royal knight. The kind that doesn’t wander the world and sleep in chicken coops or wonder when the next meal is going to be. I’m… not sure if the position is still open for me, but if it is, I have to take it. It’s what I’ve always wanted.”
“I wish I could change your mind.”
“I mean, maybe another round or two and you just might.”
She hummed a laugh before pulling her hair back away from her face to lean in and press a kiss against Arin’s forehead. “I think I’d rather you chase your dreams. And if it doesn’t work out, you know you always have a place here.”
Together, they rose to stand, hand in hand. Arin bowed his head, looking at their hands entwined. “Thank you, Suze. For everything.”
“We better get back up there,” she said as she gave a glance to the rafters above their heads. “Holly and Jon are probably wondering what’s taking me so long.”
“Yeah. I should probably check in on the guys and make sure they’re all right.” Arin sobered for a moment. “Besides, I have someone I need to apologize to.”
“Someone special, I take it?”
“Yeah,” Arin mumbled. “Something like that.”
Suzy gripped Arin’s hand a little tighter before making her way back upstairs with the knight in tow. Before they were able to make it to the cellar door, the sound of a deep howl cut through the noise of the patrons above and the music that still strummed into the night. Suzy stopped for a moment, crinkling her brow in thought.
“Did you hear that?” she asked. “It almost sounded like…”
Arin’s hand tightened on Suzy’s.
“A wolf,” Arin breathed, beginning to pale. Before he let his worries claim him, he pulled Suzy back away from the stairs. “You need to stay down here, all right?”
“Huh? What are you–”
“Suzy, stay down here. You need to hide. Whatever you do, don’t come out, all right? Not until it’s safe.”
“You’re starting to scare me, Arin. What’s going on?”
“The Wolf King,” he tried to explain as he rushed to the cellar door. “I need to find Dan.”
He heard Suzy call out behind him, but he didn’t turn. His thoughts were rushing in torrents, his peace entirely gone. He climbed the stairs and found the patrons still partaking in their drinks, dancing and oblivious to the haunting howl of a demon beast hiding somewhere in the night. He shouldered through the crowd, fervently searching for a familiar face and finding only one.
Ross was carrying trays of tankards with Holly, intoxicated on more than just strong liquor. Arin came to his side and swept the trays out of his hands.
“Ross, where’s Dan?”
“Fucking Dan!” Arin snapped. “Where’s Dan? I can’t find him.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Ross shrugged. “Last I saw him he was with Barry, or something.”
Arin’s head lifted and he looked about the bar. Waves of strange faces was all that he saw. His heart was racing, his stomach dropping.
“Is everything all right?” Holly asked as she took up the trays. “You don’t look so good.”
“Oh, he’s fine.” Ross said with a smile as he waved away the knight.
Before Ross could tail Holly any further into the crowd, Arin snatched his shoulder and drew him back.
“Jeeze, what’s your problem–!”
“The Wolf King’s here,” Arin hissed. “And I don’t see Dan or Barry. Now you’re going to help me find them before we all fucking die, do you understand?”
Ross sobered. “Y-yeah, yeah. Where– where do we look?”
“Go around the bar,” Arin told him. “Go everywhere. Whatever you do, don’t say shit about why you’re looking for them. The last thing we need is a fucking panic.”
Just then, a scream.
Arin and Ross turned toward the front of the tavern where the crowd began to part. The voices of the patrons died to silence and so did the drums and pipes of the band. A woman was sitting on the ground, trembling, as voices around her whispered in worry.
“T-there’s dozens of them,” she sobbed. “They’re everywhere. I-I don’t know where my sister is. We ran, but they kept coming. I-I think they got her. I think she’s dead.”
“Who’s coming?” a man asked.
The gaping eyes of the woman flickered up. Horror paled her face, stripped it of its youth. “The undead.”
Just as the words left her lips, the stain glass windows shattered and shrieked as they rained shards of colors down against the tavern floor. The hollow eyes of the Horde glared through the darkness beyond.
And then, chaos.
The waves of patrons that once stood still came to life and all that could be heard were the rise of screams. The Horde clawed their way through the windows with black ooze gushing between their jagged teeth, for tonight they hungered. Not even a moment had passed before blood splattered the walls and seeped through gashes and guts left flayed and torn. The unfortunate souls that stood too close to the windows became the first victims of the Horde. No sooner than their bodies fell that they rose again. Another soldier for the Wolf King’s army.
“God damnit,” Arin snarled as he grabbed Ross and Holly.
With bard and barmaid in his grasp, the knight threw his weight through the frantic drunkards toward the cellar door. They pressed themselves against the wall, trying to keep out of the waves lest they be drawn in and lost. Arin opened the door and turned to Holly.
“Suzy’s down there,” he shouted over the sound of screams. “Close the door behind you, barricade yourselves in. Whatever you do, don’t let anyone else in.”
Holly nodded and darted into the cellar, before she closed the door behind her, she looked up at Ross.
“Be safe,” she called to him.
“You, too,” he called back.
“We need to find Dan and Barry and get the hell out of here,” Arin said. “We can lead the Horde away. Ross, you have to give me something to go on. When did you see them last? Where did they go?”
“I-I don’t know! Barry was at the bar with Dan. They, they were getting really drunk. I think Dan came over here, by the cellar.”
“The cellar?” Arin asked. “Why would he…”
“He was looking for you, I guess, I don’t know! Wherever he went after that, he went fast. They left, I think. Both of them.”
Arin’s face fell. No– he had other things to worry about, this could wait. He needed to find Dan and Barry, needed to make sure they were safe.
“Maybe they went to the coach or the inn. Ross, we need to get out of here. If I make us a path, can you keep up?”
“Well, it’s that or death, so I’m hoping I can, yeah.”
“Ross, for the love of God, not the time!” Arin snapped before making his way over to a small, round table and breaking it off its stand with a few good kicks. He picked up the top and held it in front of him like a shield, hoping it would be enough to ensure a way out of here. “Get behind me and stay behind me.”
“Let’s go save ourselves a princess,” Ross said as he grabbed ahold of the back of Arin’s shirt.
The knight rolled his eyes before forcing his way toward the back door. His fingers dug into the threads of the wooden table top as Ross reached around him to open the door. He hoped the Horde was concentrated at the front of the tavern. As the door opened and exposed the darkness, the sight of white, glowing eyes appeared. Arin took in a deep breath and held up the makeshift shield as he barreled through the advancing undead. He didn’t look up past the wood, fearing to see just what these monsters looked like up close. The shield battered against their bodies, forcing out screams and snarls as they clawed and scraped themselves against the small barrier in an attempt to claim the knight and bard.
“Would you just fuck off and die?” Arin cried out as he swung the shield and knocked a creature off its feet. As it writhed on the ground below him like a maggot, he rose up the shield and bashed it down against the living dead until it lived no more.
Ross shot out from behind Arin and ran in front of him. “I’ll go check the coach. You go to the inn.”
“If they’re not there, get ready to leave,” Arin called out after him. “We’re going to need to get the fuck out of here as fast as we can.”
Now separated, Arin took off down the cobbled street, alone.
No matter how far he went, the sound of screams ever followed. The Horde beat themselves against every door until it splintered. They swarmed like flies to those who tried to run, but failed. Their claws were thick with blood. Their mouths gnawed at entrails. It took everything in Arin to keep his stomach from lurching into his throat. He couldn’t save these people, no matter how hard he tried. There were hundreds of undead and only one of him. The only hope he had was to find Barry and Dan before it was too late.
The inn was dark. The glass of its lower windows were shattered in the same way the tavern’s had been. Glass crunched beneath the knight’s boots as he entered into the main parlor. Shadows concealed the room, hiding the extent of what damage the Horde had done. Arin’s heart raged. Every inch of his skin was coated in sweat. Every sound felt amplified as his fear found new heights.
“Dan!” he called out. “Barry!”
There was no response. His imagination ran wild with the possibilities of their fates. He imagined the Horde surrounding them with those hellish grins broadening at the feast before them. It was because of these nightmarish visions that Arin tore through every room of the inn in search for the prince and Rune-Maker. The more he looked for them, the less he feared what may happen to himself. The waves of the Horde did not make him fear for his own mortality. It didn’t matter what happened to him, he just needed to know Dan and Barry would be safe. He needed to deliver on his promises to see the prince return home. The conversation of the previous night was quick to his mind and tore at his sanity like daggers. He thought of his judgments and hateful words, he thought of the horror on Dan’s face and his tears.
As Arin stood in the last vacant room, seething at his hatefulness, he let off a shout and picked up a chair to toss across the room and shatter on the wall.
He wouldn’t forgive himself if the last words he spoke to the prince were said in spite.
He had to find them.
Arin knew what he had to do.
Despite the sound of screams and the town’s people that rushed past him to escape the Horde, the knight didn’t feel or hear a thing. His mind ran empty as he made his way back to the coach to retrieve his sword that had seen him through so much. With it grasped in his hand, he returned back to the center of town. The eyes of the undead followed him. He heard their bones scrape against the stone behind him, but still he walked. When he felt completely surrounded by the darkness and by the demons pursuing him, he drew in a breath.
“Mark,” he bellowed out, his voice echoing off into the air. “I know you’re here.”
The undead around him stilled, forever watching with their gaping, soulless eyes. Arin turned to them, waiting for them to descend upon him, but descend, they never did. Frozen, they were. Nothing but motionless husks of people both fresh and long dead. Before the state of these beasts could bother Arin any further, through the creeping fog down the street came the Wolf King.
The knight turned toward him and clutched tighter at his sword.
Behind him, in the breaths of mist, came a giant, white wolf.
The claymore in Mark’s hand rose to rest over the leather straps on his shoulder. “You know my name?”
“Where’s Dan?” Arin demanded. “What have you done with him?”
A deep laugh rumbled out of the Wolf King’s grin as he lowered the claymore to stand before him. “You’re the knight from the hollows.”
“Where is Dan?” Arin asked again, voice darkening.
“Where he should be,” the necromancer answered as he approached. “Now let me put you where you belong.” The claymore spun and down its blade ran a deep red current of electric malice that illuminated the lunacy in the Wolf King’s eyes. “In your grave.”
Chapter 14: The Red
The demonic claymore collided with Arin’s blade. The knight blocked the blow, but the pure malice that struck him with such brute strength reverberated through his bones and awoke every fear he ever had. The flash and spark of the Wolf King’s formidable blade drew shadows across his face, branding apathy forever in the King’s scowl. Arin swung back, but Mark effortlessly danced around the attack. He moved like a phantom. This war was waged on a rehearsed waltz the King had used against all men who ever dared face him.
Metal clanged and snarled. Dirt scattered at their feet as the Wolf King pushed the knight back, one step at a time. This fight was not one Arin could win. It was now only a matter of when he would eventually be too exhausted to hold his own against the monster who terrorized this land and its people.
Arin swung, but the Wolf King caught the blade in his taloned gauntlet before pummeling the pommel of his claymore against the knight’s face, busting his cheek and drawing first blood. Arin’s head was spinning, his sight pulsing. With only one hand, the Wolf King wielded his claymore and spun it again and again to bash against Arin’s sword until its blade shattered. Silver shards rained down at their feet, the shrieking cry of broken metal drained the knight of hope and, in its stead, filled him with unrivaled horror.
Talons swiped like daggers when it was not the ferocious might of the demon blade he had to fear. Skin tattered like cloth, blood bubbled and mixed with the coat of sweat that burdened him. It was after feeling the silver talons dig into the meat of his forearm to still his movement that he realized that the Wolf King wasn’t aiming to kill him, he was toying with him, as a cat would do a mouse.
Arin’s face twisted in pain as Mark clutched tighter, burying the tips of his gauntlet deep to pierce bone.
“It’s incredible, isn’t it?” said Mark as he twisted Arin’s arm, forcing him down on one knee. “The affect he has over people. Intoxicating, really. What was is that sold you to him, I wonder? His laugh? No, it was something more than that.”
Arin felt the talons release from his arm just in time to feel Mark’s boot slam against his chest, forcing the wind out from his lungs. The knight fell. Dirt clung to his bloodied skin and busted cheek. Through the dizzied spell overcoming his eyes, he saw Mark plant the claymore in the ground and lean down to flash him the fangs of his crazed smile.
“You heard him sing.” Mark rumbled a laugh. “That’s when you knew. You’d do whatever it took to make him happy. It’s a curse we share, I’m afraid.”
“Y-you… don’t care about his… happiness.” Arin spat blood.
At this, Mark’s smile fell. “Of course I do.” His gauntlet shot out and snatched the knight’s neck. Needles stuck in Arin’s throat as the Wolf King dragged him up to his feet. “I was the only one that cared. I was the only one that saw how unhappy he was. That’s why he needs to be with me.”
Weakly, Arin grabbed at the Wolf King’s arm, finding it impossible to loosen the hold on his neck. He forced down a mouthful of blood and wheezed a trembling breath. “Over… my dead body… you dumb… motherfucker.”
Mark hummed. “Poor choice of words.”
With the same strength he used to wield the claymore, the Wolf King turned and launched Arin across the street to shatter through a shop’s window. His body twisted. Glass embedded his skin like teeth until he at last laid still among debris and blood. A moan of pain fled his lips as he tried to find the will to stand. His legs gave out beneath him. His knees, shaking. Just as Arin grabbed hold of a table to raise himself up, he heard the crunch of glass beneath Mark’s boots and turned to see the Wolf King nearing.
“You’re resilient,” the king noted, almost impressed. “Like a cockroach.”
Arin pushed off from the table and swung a quick fist, but Mark caught it and returned the favor, forcing him back down against the glass.
“I’ll make sure to tell Daniel how fierce you fought for him,” Mark said. “How even in the face of death you pushed on.”
“Go fuck yourself,” Arin snarled, rising again.
“And so we continue!”
The Wolf King snatched the knight and pulled him out into the street. Surrounding them in a wave was the undead. Their soulless eyes gaping, soaking in the scene of the struggling knight and their commander. Mark dropped Arin to the ground as he sought out his waiting claymore, allowing Arin a moment of peace. He looked about, searching for a weapon that just wasn’t there.
“Maybe I’ll lie,” Mark announced. “Maybe I’ll tell him how terrified you were, how you begged me to let you go. I’ll paint for him in great detail how I dispatched you from your pitiful life. A mercy killing, that’s all this is.”
Suddenly, Arin began laughing.
The Wolf King hesitated to grab his claymore, confused. He turned to watch the knight crawl onto his knees and sit back.
“That’s all this is?” Arin echoed. “Face it, I’m not the one afraid, you are.”
Mark’s scowl darkened. He pulled the claymore out from the ground and began his return.
“You’re afraid to lose Dan. Your wolves couldn’t stop him, your fucking knight couldn’t do it. You can drag him back to that fucking tower, you can try to hide him, but he’ll always run from you. Go ahead and kill me, but it’s not going to stop him from seeing you as the fucking monster you are.”
The Wolf King hastened his step, claymore burning bright with a ruby red.
Arin stopped his laughing only for a moment to spit out more blood. His head was reeling. Maybe it was the adrenaline pumping through him, or maybe he realized just how hopeless it was to fight, but he kept laughing until he felt a sharp pain burn into him, catching the air in his throat and freezing it. His eyes dropped down to see the claymore’s tip buried in his shoulder. He followed the blade up to see Mark inches away, staring him down.
“Oh, I’m not going to kill you, not today,” the Wolf King told him. “I’m going to keep you in the darkest pit I can find and I’m going to cut you apart, piece by piece. And right before you die, I’m going to sew you up and bring you back so I can do it all over again. I’ll subject you to things you couldn’t imagine in your darkest of dreams. And when I stuff you back into your hole, where no one will ever find you, you’ll have years to reflect on how you failed your prince.”
Arin stared up at the Wolf King in horror, his face paling.
“So beg me to put this to an end,” Mark snarled as he pushed the blade deeper. “I want to hear you beg.”
Arin’s face contorted as he tried to hold back a scream as the wicked red ran into him, tainting him, corrupting him. Just before he blacked out from the pain, he heard a familiar voice call out the Wolf King’s name. The blade embedded in Arin’s shoulder made a slow retreat, and as Mark turned at the summon, he was able to see Dan standing at the end of the street. The state of the prince was one akin to the abuse Arin had found. His attire was shredded, by claws and paws. Scratches tore at his arms and face and the blood ran streams down his cheeks to collect in droplets at his chin. He may not have been a victim to the cruelty of the wolves and undead, but they did not let him pass through their ranks without consequence. Though such terrible things became him, that did not extinguish the burning fervor in Dan’s eyes.
The Wolf King’s gauntlet gripped tighter at the hilt of the claymore. The air grew thick with anger. An anger that hung heavy like smog to fill Arin’s throat and make it difficult to breathe.
“Please,” Dan begged as he trudged closer. “Just stop. Enough people have died, Mark.”
A laugh rumbled in Mark’s throat as he gave a glance back to where Arin knelt. “I disagree.”
Dan closed the distance between them. As the Wolf King turned back, the prince came flush against him. Their mouths blended, tenderly, and a quick breath rushed out from Mark as Dan’s hands rose to graze the bare skin of his neck. The claymore dropped, fell lifeless and still on the ground, as the Wolf King rose his talons to rake through the prince’s long, wild hair.
Arin sat in disbelief and felt the world fade away from him. He felt no more pain, no more fear. He was, in a word, hollow.
The prince withdrew from the kiss just far enough to speak. “Take me home, Mark.”
Silence befell the Wolf King as he bowed his head into the prince, rushed with thought. After a time of consideration, he turned his head to the side and summoned the waiting white wolf. The monstrous creature came to stand by its alpha’s side. As the prince came to sit on the beast’s back, the Wolf King looked down at Arin with a sneer.
“I have a friend of yours,” he told him. “A hostage among my ranks. If you follow after us and attempt to take what is mine again, I will kill him. You live to see another day as a free man. Be grateful.”
“Listen to him, Arin,” said Dan in so soft a voice. “No one else gets hurt this way.”
Arin seethed, silently.
The Wolf King took up his fallen claymore before mounting his omega. He cast down the sight of a curling smirk to the fallen knight as he took hold of the white fur and said, “Take us home.”
A bellowing howl escaped the wolf, a retreat for the horde, before it took off and disappeared into the curtains of fog.
Arin was left among the dead. Wounded, alone, and defeated.
Chapter 15: The Mists
It was morning when the survivors crept from the remains of their homes to see the damage that had been dealt to their quaint township. Mothers took to the street, searching for the children that never came back. Husbands stood apart from the crowd, searching for the faces of their loved ones, only to find they were no longer here. Countless names were called by countless desperate voices, but no one answered. There was some hope, as little as it was, when friends were reunited to mourn those they did lose. Among all this misery, Arin still knelt where he was left. He hadn’t yet found the will to move, though the injuries he sustained during his fight were only worsening. Despite the throbbing pain in his shoulder and the muscles that ached and the bruises he felt welling on his bones, he just couldn’t move.
All the knight could do was remain as he was, staring off at the mists, and hoping that he would just wake up from this nightmare.
His mind felt broken, just as the glass of countless windows had been. All he was left with were the pieces and the knowledge that he was meant to put it back together again. Sometime after hearing the townspeople come back to the streets, he heard a familiar voice call out his own name. His heavy head slowly turned, unsteady, to see Ross making his way down the street for him.
“Oh my God.” The Bard rushed over and knelt down, taking in the extent of the knight’s wounds with wide eyes. “Arin, are… are you all right? What happened to you?”
Arin looked back to the mist ahead of him. “He has Dan.”
“Fuck, your shoulder.” Ross gasped as he moved away the tattered pieces of what was Arin’s shirt. “You’re bleeding, Arin. Really, really bad. We– we need to get you somewhere. Can you– can you stand up?”
“He has Dan,” Arin repeated, turning his eyes back to Ross. “And Barry.”
Ross’ face slowly fell, as did his eyes to the bloodied stone below them. “He’s… alive, at least. I started to… I really thought that he was gone.”
Ever so weakly, and far more unsteady than he would have liked, Arin rose up to his feet with Ross following after him. The bard laid a careful hand on Arin’s arm, examining the deep puncture wounds where the talons had embedded. Though he tried his best to stay strong, the color on Ross’ face was diminishing by the second. It was probably taking all that he had in him not to be throw up at the coppery odor of blood paving the street and still bubbling out from Arin’s gashes. Before Ross was able to lead Arin back toward the center of town, where the other survivors collected, the knight began walking out toward the mist.
“H-hey,” Ross called, chasing after him. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to get them back,” Arin told him, his voice grave and strained.
“You’re kidding, right? Arin, you– you can’t just go after them.” Ross threw himself in front of the knight, stunting his progress. “Look at yourself! It’s amazing you’re able to move at all, and you want to go get the shit beat out of you again?”
“I have to do something, I can’t just fucking sit here and let them get away!”
“What hope is there?” Ross laughed to hide a sob. “If you go after them, you’ll get killed. If you, if you go.” The bard’s face began to twitch. He grimaced and looked down, but Arin saw his tears all the same. “I’ll be alone.”
“Ross,” Arin breathed.
The bard rose a sleeve to wipe at his eyes. “I’m not like you, Arin. I might act like I can fight, but I can’t. Do you know what I did when I got to Barry’s coach? I hid. I crawled inside and shut the door and waited for someone to come, but no one did. I just heard screams. I was afraid I’d be the only one left. I thought, I thought… when I open that door, it’ll just be me.”
“Ross.” Arin sighed. “They need me.”
The bard looked up at Arin. “I know. I just… don’t want to lose you, too.”
“You won’t.” He lied.
Ross swallowed down the lump in his throat and sniffled back the emotions he felt overcoming him. When he calmed himself, he gave a small nod. “All right. But we need to fix you up first. You need a doctor. Badly.” The bard saw the shattered pieces of Arin’s broken sword. “And… a new weapon, I guess? – wow, he did that?”
“Yep!” Arin said as he trudged his way to the center of town with the others.
“And you want to go after him again?” Ross pushed, amazed and concerned.
“And you’re… not afraid?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“So… you are afraid?”
Arin carefully made his way through the crowd. He found it an easier venture than most, as people withdrew from him at the sight of his many, terrible wounds and the fact that he was still standing despite losing so much blood.
“Ross, real talk? I am so beyond pissed right now, I don’t think I’m able to feel anything else. So, I might be afraid. I probably am. Fuck, I might have some broken bones and internal bleeding, but I sure as shit don’t feel it.”
“Wow.” The bard tailed him through the crowd. “So, what was it like?”
“What was what like?”
“To go against him. What’s he look like? The, the Wolf King guy.”
Arin leaned up against a wall as he waited in line for the doctors. “Like a giant asshole.”
“And you– do you really think you can get them back?”
“I have to try, Ross.”
Some time had passed as the few doctors who lived in this town made their way down the row of wounded. In the meantime, Arin thought of what all he needed to do. His mind was so heavy with thought that he didn’t even notice they had begun sewing up his shoulder and wrapping his arms with a warming poultice and bandage. He thanked them afterwards and immediately came to stand, startling the bard.
“Ross, I need you to go get help. Tell them who Dan is, tell them where he’s being taken and that you need as many people you can get to help me get him back.”
“Take a look around, Arin,” Ross said. “Do you really think anyone here is ready to jump on a horse and chase the guy who did all this? No one’s going to want to help.”
“You have to try. I don’t care if you have to go a ways out of here, but you need to send someone.”
“Why don’t I just come with you?” offered the bard. “I know if there were two of us–”
“No,” Arin cut him off. “You need to stay here.”
“Ross, you’re staying here with all our stuff. If Barry and Dan are able to make it back here, they need someone to be ready to get them moving. What if we both go and end up getting killed? Then who’s going to save them?”
Ross didn’t reply, but the look on his face spoke volumes.
“Look,” Arin continued, his voice softer now. “I’m responsible for this. I should have been with Dan. I should have protected him, but I was selfish and stupid and now he’s gone. I have to do this, and I can’t be worried about what would happen to you if you came with me. Please, Ross. We’ll make it back. No one’s leaving you.”
His reply hesitated before he at last sided with just a simple nod. Ross looked down the road where the coach sat with Burgie and Aggro. “I’ll find someone, Arin. I’ll send help.”
“I know you will,” Arin answered. “You’ve got this, Ross.”
“I got this,” he echoed back, reassuring himself. “I can do this.”
With the bard now motivated, Arin made his way to find a sword. There was a blacksmith in town with the forge sitting outside, still warm. There must have been some weapons left behind, he thought, there had to be. He tried not feeling too guilty about stealing a sword, though it still felt wrong. He rationalized it by saying he would avenge the village and its people. He’d make the fucking Wolf King bleed. For hurting these people, for taking Dan from him – hell hath no fury like his.
Arin swept his borrowed sword into its sheath before unhooking Aggro from the coach and mounting his back. His boots slipped into the stirrups, his hands gripped the reins.
“C'mon, let’s go.”
Aggro snorted in agreement before bounding into a gallop to the ever growing mists. The horse and its rider disappeared in the fog.
The rumble of hooves beneath Arin soothed his mind long enough to start on a plan. He couldn’t wing this one. Not like he would do before. A sudden movement from Aggro to bound over a fallen tree on the trail made Arin hiss in pain. His hand shot up and grabbed at his wounded shoulder. No, he had to do this. His pain didn’t matter right now. He needed to find Dan. He needed to protect him.
For the briefest of moments, he swore he heard the wolves howling off through the curtains of fog. They were laughing. Mocking his attempt of heroism. They knew as well as he how this would end, but he still had to try. He could gain an advantage in the fog. He had the element of surprise and could use it. It may not be much, but it might just be enough. He tried not to call out for the prince, though his name was hot on the tip of his tongue. There was so much he needed to tell him, so much to apologize for. He needed to find him, he had to.
Arin wasn’t sure how far he traveled before he thought himself gaining ground against the Wolf King. He sat on needles as he waited to see a glimpse of black through the white mists. Would he happen upon the Wolf King himself, or would he collide with the pack?
Just fucking focus, he told himself.
An eerie static took to the air and made Arin pull at the reins. The hairs on his neck prickled as he and Aggro came to a stop in the lost depths of the forest. His ears strained in the silence, ignoring the fervent pounding of his own heart. Something felt off. Something wasn’t right. He dismounted and stood at Aggro’s side, his hand gripped firm at his sword’s hilt. There was something here– someone. Arin’s dark brown eyes scanned the fog around he and Aggro. He felt his stitched shoulder begin to throb. As it did, his vision began to darken and dance. He heard a laugh. It echoed around him, grew nearer.
Arin drew his sword.
A voice crawled between his ears, reverberating through the seams of his scattered thoughts.
“There is no hope.” The dark voice told him, over and over again.
Arin winced and dropped the tip of his sword to the ground. His hand rose again to clutch at his shoulder. He felt something writhing beneath his skin. It twisted through his veins like worms.
No hope, no hope, the voice continued.
He closed his eyes and steadied himself.
He couldn’t listen. He had to keep going.
When Arin opened his eyes, he saw the Wolf King standing before him between the rolls of fog. He was smiling at him. There was pity behind that smile, but more than that, there was contempt. Arin’s vision swayed. He couldn’t decide whether or not to believe the phantom that stood before him. Was he real, or was he only a ghost of the corruption that spread through him?
“Turn back, Arin,” Mark said to him. “You know you can’t beat me.”
Arin hesitantly drew closer, his sword held tight in a paling fist. The closer he came, the more he saw this shade for what it was. The edges of the Wolf King’s smile twisted in the mist. His edges were blurred. He was only a ghost, one to haunt the knight for the rest of his days, however many of those he had left.
Arin ignored the phantom and continued forward.
Mark’s eyes followed him as he passed. Just as Arin thought he had put the Wolf King behind him, he reappeared before him.
“All sorts of men thought they could take my prince from me. They all failed. What makes you different?”
“Well, maybe I care more,” he fought back, without reason.
“More than me?” Mark asked him, intrigued.
“Of course more than you,” Arin snapped. “Why am I even bothering with this? You’re not him.”
“But I am, aren’t I? Rather I’m here with you… or you’re going insane.”
“It feels like it, yeah.”
“Just give in then. If you can’t face me physically or mentally, why try at all?”
“Because I have to.” Arin pushed on. “I have to get Dan.”
“He’s safer with me.” The phantom followed him. “If he goes with you, only disaster follows. Wherever he goes, it will be something new. If not me, then other terrible people that would find possessing him financially advantageous. Mercenaries, assassins, foreign rivals– you can’t protect him from them all. Only I can.”
Arin slowed down. His vision was spinning. He felt sick.
“So turn back,” Mark’s phantom encouraged him as it came to his side. “Live what life you can. There’s nothing holding you here.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Arin answered as he looked over to the phantom. “Dan’s holding me here. Maybe you think you’re the only one who needs him– but you’re not. I went through hell to get him the first time, and I’ll do it again. So go ahead and try to coax me into running away, tell me how pitiful I am and how weak– I really don’t fucking care. I’m coming after Dan. Whether or not I have your blessing, he’s leaving here with me.”
Mark scowled, silent.
“You were right about one thing though,” Arin told him through the throes of his dizziness. “It was his singing. Before that, I knew it was expected of me to protect him, but now I have the need to. I want to give him the freedom that you never did. So why try at all? Because, I might just be crazy for him, all right? He pisses me off, he drives me insane, and let’s not mention all the new scars added to the collection for saving his royal ass– but I’d do it all again for him. He’s my prince, not yours.”
Mark hummed a laugh. “Your affections stand against a bond made throughout years of intimacy. Why would he want you, when he has me?”
“I know what I stand against: a crumbling castle. It doesn’t matter how tall you built your walls, they’re falling down. And I’m sure as hell the one kicking it apart, brick by brick.”
“So for the prince’s heart then. That is why you are fighting me?”
Arin let off a sigh as he rose his head to look at the Wolf King. Whether this was a sickness sprouting in his thoughts or a true connection he shared with the tyrannical necromancer plaguing this land, Arin still believed that some part of his words made it through. Ghost or not, he knew the Wolf King was listening.
“You already lost that fight,” Arin told him. “He’s not yours anymore.”
The vision of the Wolf King darkened before him, his scowl deepening. The phantom returned to wisps in the fog that now drew back like a veil. Arin readied himself and brandished his sword. Apparently, he struck a chord.
The first sight he saw through the pale mists were the quick footed wolves running at his sides. He drew back for a moment, aimed to strike them, but just as sudden as they came, they departed. As a few more sets of the pack ran past him, he realized he hadn’t found the tail of the Wolf King and his wolves. Arin had intersected them. Placing himself right in the middle of Mark’s clutches.
Suddenly, a flash of white fur appeared against the blurred outlines of the dark trees. Boots hit the ground far too fast for Arin to see, and he heard their advance on him near like the growing sound of war drums. He spun and threw up his sword, barely blocking the hissing hate of the Wolf King’s enchanted claymore.
Mark’s eyes were vicious and cruel. He pushed down against Arin, closing the distance between them and their blades.
“I’m going to make you regret this,” Mark threatened.
The force that drove Arin back now was unlike the one he met in the village this morning. Back there, each strike was calculated and precise. Mark was fluid. He was in control. But now, he was even more a force to be reckoned with. Fury made him reckless, and like a fire, he tore through the woodland bed, aiming to burn down all that he could, no matter the consequence. Arin parried and took a quick step back to gain some grounding. He searched through the fog. Dan was here, he knew it. Mark wouldn’t be foolish enough to leave him too far behind.
Again, they collided, and again Arin was forced back. He made breaks in contact, just long enough to put in some distance and ready himself for another round, though he didn’t know how many were left in him. The pain in his shoulder was becoming unbearable. His stamina was beginning to fail. He just had to hold out a little longer.
“Enough of this,” Mark snarled as he swung at Arin to make him retreat. Free of contact, the Wolf King turned and summoned out his omega from the mists.
Arin turned to see the white wolf approach in a sprint. The beast darted forward before lowering down its upper half and letting its occupant tumble off its shoulders. The man twisted and spun as he rolled across the ground. Just before Arin recognized that set of clothes and that beard now matted with blood, Mark hoisted up his hostage and placed him between he and the knight.
Barry’s face was swollen and bruised. His left eye was closed completely, while his right gaped forward in fear. The edge of Arin’s sword lowered as he rose his opposite hand up to pause these events from unfolding.
“Let him go,” Arin said.
“I told you what the consequence was for following me.” Mark kicked at the back of Barry’s knees to force him down. His claymore rose, the edge rested atop Barry’s shoulder.
“I said let him go!”
“And I plan to.” Mark smiled. “Tell him it will all be over soon. That he won’t even feel a thing.”
Arin’s lips sealed.
“Say it,” boomed the Wolf King.
The knight dropped his sword and rose his other hand in surrender. He took a hesitant step forward. “Let him go, and take me.”
The blade at Barry’s shoulder turned into his neck, pressing harmfully against his skin. Mark’s glare narrowed on Arin, waiting.
“You promised me a torture pit, remember? Barry has nothing to do with this. He didn’t take Dan away from you, I did. So let him go.”
The moment lasted for what felt like an eternity, as Arin stared off with the Wolf King and waited for his decision to be made. He saw the claymore shift, it’s blade fell back onto Barry’s shoulder. Arin let off a choppy breath as he felt the tension begin to wane.
Suddenly, a deep rumbling laugh escaped Mark’s growing smile.
“Do you really think I care whether or not he’s a part of this? I told you, if you came after us, he would die.”
“Please,” Arin begged.
“So now that you are here, watch him die.”
The claymore swung back. The lunacy returned to stain Mark’s dark eyes as he freely condemned Barry to death. Before the metal could sweep so cleanly through the skin at the Rune-Maker’s neck, the wind whirled as an arrow pierced through the air to strike against the Wolf King. The shaft pierced his sword arm, forcing the claymore to drop. Mark snarled in pain as he retreated from Barry. The thunderous roar of hooves neared as through the fog came a wave of horsebound men. Each rider bore the weight of silver armor, and on their breastplates, engraved over their hearts, was the royal sigil.
Arin’s face fell in disbelief as a single word escaped his lips. “Chevaliers.”
The foremost rider came to a quick stop before nearing the knight and Wolf King. In his hands he held the bow that shot the arrow. He wore a sash about his armor, a symbol of his superiority over the other royal knights.
“Try to grab that sword and I’ll put the next one between your eyes,” the leader threatened.
A dark laugh crept out through Mark’s gleaming grin as he snapped the bolt through his arm. “It’s been a while, captain. No longer hiding behind castle walls, I see.”
“Hand over Daniel and I might just consider letting you drag your sorry hide back to whatever hellhole you came from.”
“You can have him over my dead body, Brian.”
“Planned on it.” He loosed the arrow.
Chapter 16: Sacrifice
The chevaliers struck their heels against their horses' sides and began their charge.
Arin watched as pandemonium dispersed the mists as the Wolf King summoned his own cavalry charge. Wolves and chevaliers clashed together. Horses screamed. In the chaos that unfolded, Arin was able to dance his way through the royal battle to find Barry still kneeling on grass and mud. His hands swept across the Rune-Maker's face in an attempt to coax him out from his dazed state.
"Barry," Arin called to him. "Barry, you need to get out of here."
Life slowly came back to Barry's eyes and his head bobbed. He rose to his feet with Arin's help and limped away to hide beyond the towering trees surrounding this earthen arena. With Barry safe and away from Mark's malicious hands, Arin sought out his fallen sword and took off in search of the prince. It was a blessing that the Wolf King was distracted by the sudden appearance of the chevaliers, but Arin wasn't sure how long that distraction would last. He needed to hurry.
"Dan!" Arin cried out. "Dan, where are you?"
The only sound he heard was the clashing of metal and vicious snarls of bloodthirsty wolves. He pushed forward.
"Dan!" He tried again, desperate and near to tears.
Suddenly, through the chaos, he heard a voice call back to him.
Newfound life bloomed through the knight and banished all pain from his body. He rushed through the trees, forgetting his fears, until he at last found the one thing he forever searched for. They stood with a roll of mist between them. Their bodies were bruised, their faces bloodied, but there was something else they shared that made everything else pale in comparison. Alit in their eyes, gleaming brighter than any shred of darkness, was hope.
Tears spilled down Arin's cheeks as he closed the distance between he and the prince and barreled into his arms, nearly tipping them over to fall on the woodland bed. The knight's arms tightened the embrace, nearly fearing him to be another phantom.
"I'm so sorry," Arin sobbed. "For everything. I should have-- I could have--"
Dan gripped back.
"I'm sorry, too," he said, softly. "I just... I just wanted to protect you."
Their foreheads met and they shared this moment of silence, of warmth, and intimacy. Arin's eyes fluttered open to look at the prince who looked back at him. To see those wide, chocolate eyes again was worth all the pain. Overcome so wholly with emotions, Arin gripped at the back of Dan's neck.
"Don't you ever leave me again," he told the prince.
A weak smile pulled across Dan's trembling lips as he breathed a laugh. "Only if you promise to do the same."
"Dan," Arin started, a confession lingering on the tip of his tongue.
Before Arin could let his emotions propel this intimate conversation forward, he heard heavy paws tear away at the ground behind him. He broke from the prince's embrace and turned to see through the swirls of fog the massive, white wolf. The knight pushed the prince behind him, shielding him from the vicious glare the omega cast at them.
Dan gripped at Arin's arm.
"Mark can see through her, Arin," the prince whispered. "He knows you found me."
A smile crooked over the knight's face as he rose up his sword against the wolf. "Well then. Guess he won't be too happy about me stealing you away then, huh? Hear that, Markimoo? Dan's coming with me. Checkmate, you fucking dick!"
"Arin, I said he could see through her," Dan hissed. "Not that he can hear through her."
"I mean... maybe he can read lips?"
Suddenly, the wolf bound forward and tackled into knight and prince. They tumbled across the ground, tearing up all manner of leaves and debris. Jaws snapped and snarled as they tried to pin and rip at the knight. Teeth snapped against the sword Arin held out as a guard. The wolf jerked at the blade, but the knight would not let go.
"Aggro!" Arin boomed.
He planted his boot against the wolf's throat and attempted to push her away, but to no avail. Again he called for his horse as the omega forced him onto the ground, down against the prince who he kept behind him.
The wolf successfully ripped the sword from Arin's hands and tossed it aside before turning back with a rumbling snarl. As it bound forward to sink teeth deep into the knight's neck, a flash of black rushed into the wolf and bucked it far from the knight and prince. Aggro tramped the ground between its master and the beast.
As the omega tried to near, the dark stallion reared and kicked, keeping the wolf at bay.
Arin flew to his feet and hoisted Dan up to join him.
"Chevaliers showed up," he told Dan. "If they can keep Mark away, we can get out of here."
Dan nodded and grabbed a hold of Aggro's saddle and swung himself up to mount his back. One hand gripped at the reins as the other lowered down to help Arin up. With knight joining him atop Aggro, Dan let out a shout and pulled at the reins, sending the beast they rode into a gallop. Trees flew past their sides as Aggro bolted through the thick woods with hopes of an escape. The omega they left behind did not linger for long before following in pursuit. As Arin's arms wrapped tight around the prince's midsection, he heard rise from the fog a deep, haunting howl.
"Fuck me," Arin groaned. "More zombies, are you serious?"
"She didn't call the Horde," Dan told him. "We're riding too fast for them."
"Then who the fuck did she call?" pushed Arin.
Aggro curved his path through the woods, hooves pounding the earth beneath them. Tension was strung thin through the air, making it difficult for them to breathe. A sharp pain nipped at the stitches in the knight's arm, bringing him to wince. The pain burned through him, turning his blood to fire. His vision grew dizzy, he felt weak. The grip he had on Dan's waist began to loosen. Slowly, he felt himself slip from the saddle.
"Arin!" Dan called out.
The prince twisted and grabbed at the knight, keeping him from falling off.
Before he was able to be pulled back up, a great force struck Aggro and forced the riders to flip off and roll against the ground. Thorns and twigs scratched against them, ripping tears through their skin for more blood to shed. Aggro screamed.
"Aggro?" Dan called as he weakly pushed off from the ground.
He rose far enough to see the black horse laying silent and still, blood staining its coat and mane. Tears rose from the prince as he rushed over and knelt beside the horse. His trembling hands brushed down its coal colored muzzle as he begged for Aggro to get up. Behind him, Arin struggled to lift himself. The pain was unbearable. He slowly sat up and gripped at his shoulder. HIs lips rolled together and he closed his eyes, trying to withstand the wave of corruption that battered against him.
When his eyes finally crept open to lift and peer through the mists, he saw the Wolf King.
The omega stood behind him, its white fur stained with dark, fresh blood.
"Aggro, please," Dan wept. "Hold on. You're going to be all right. Just, just... hold on."
Arin crawled up and onto his feet. Forward, he trudged, placing himself between Dan and the violent man that forever chased him. He stood against him without a weapon, without strength, but that did not stop him from protecting the prince.
Mark's eyes narrowed, his scowl deepening.
"I will relish every one of your screams, Arin." He rose the claymore. "You are a sickness that has plagued me for far too long. That ends now."
Arin swayed, dizzied and drunk with corruption-- with his corruption.
Before he could summon a response to the Wolf King's threat, he felt warmth at his side as the prince came before him, shielding him from the nercomancer's wrath.
"If you want him, you'll have to go through me," Dan said.
Mark's face darkened. Arin's wound burned further.
"Daniel... step aside," Mark hissed.
"No, Mark. I'm not letting you hurt him." Dan shot back. "You might be able to break me, but I will not let you break him."
"Do not force my hand. If it means hurting you to get him, I will do it."
The prince took a deep breath. With a head held high, he took a step forward. "Then go ahead and hurt me, but I am not letting you take him."
Mark's talons curled tighter around the claymore. His head bowed, and for a moment, he was silent. When his eyes returned to the prince, he spoke. "Then I hope you can forgive me."
The stillness between them was shattered as the Wolf King bound forward and swung at prince and knight. If it hadn't been for Dan pushing him, Arin would have caught the blade in his chest. As they fell apart, the Wolf King rushed to pin the knight and end this chase, but the prince was quick to wrap his arms around Mark's neck and hold him long enough for Arin to crawl away.
A frustrated snarl barked out through Mark's teeth as he swung around and back handed his gauntlet across the prince's face, forcing Dan to fall to the ground. As Arin tried to crawl back onto his feet, the prince scrambled after Mark. The Wolf King was an unstoppable force, but that did not prevent Dan from bounding to action to stunt his husband's thirst for revenge. It was a failing fight, but the prince did not give up.
Arin crawled up to stand. In horror, he watched as the prince took blow after blow. Each time he fell, he rose again with that much more passion. HIs face was bloodied, his clothes torn. He hardly looked a prince anymore, but a fighter.
The Wolf King was not aiming to kill Dan, but beat him down until he was broken. The longer their fight went on, the more sick Arin became.
He had to do something.
He couldn't just stand here and watch Dan suffer.
Mark swept Dan up into his arms and pinned him against a tree. Their breath was heated and their glares matched. The prince squirmed beneath him, but he just pushed himself harder against him. The Wolf King snatched Dan's jaw and held him still.
"Keep fighting me," begged Mark. "You're only making me want you more."
Dan spat in Mark's face.
A laugh rumbled out from the Wolf King before he bashed the prince into the tree, forcing the air out from him.
Suddenly, the sound of hooves approached.
Before king or prince could turn at the sound, Arin barreled into Mark and freed Dan. The knight did not fight the Wolf King, but held him back, as out from the woods came what remained of the chevaliers.
The captain swept beside Dan and hoisted him up into his saddle.
"What, no!" Dan gasped as he fought against Brian's arms. "No, no! Get Arin! We need to get Arin!"
"We have you," Brian returned. "That's all that matters."
"Arin matters!" Dan cried out. "I can't leave him-- I promised! I promised him!"
When the chevaliers and their prince disappeared into the fog, Arin released his hold on Mark and sat back. He heard the wolves run after them, but knew the damage had been done. A breath filled him, steadied him, as he looked up to see the Wolf King standing over him.
"You just damned yourself," Mark darkly said.
Arin gave a weak nod.
The Wolf King smiled.
His gauntlet curled into a fist and bashed against Arin's face.
Chapter 17: Fear and Hopelessness
The chevaliers rode straight through the forest and to the town left in shambles by the Wolf King and his Horde. Among these royal knights was the shaken Rune-Maker and their crowned heir, Prince Daniel. At the appearance of these armored men, the townspeople garnered hope and greeted them with cheers and cries. No such jubilee was found on the prince who sat in petrifying silence atop the captain's white horse.
"Spread out and give aid where you can," Brian told his men. "Garrison the town and be ready for retaliation. I seriously doubt we've seen the last of Fischbach and his mutts."
At the leave of the other men, Brian dismounted his horse.
"We need to go back," Dan somehow spoke through his shock. His eyes fell down to his hands, coated in the dry blood of Aggro. He felt the need to cry, but no such tears came to him. "Brian, we need to--"
"No, we really don't, Your Highness." Brian snapped, aggravated and exhausted. "I understand that he was your friend, I get that, but I am not jeopardizing my men or you just to go back and save one guy."
Dan looked down to see his captain giving him a stern look. A breath filled Dan and left him slowly. "Brian, he saved me from that tower."
The captain's lips fell into a frown. "That doesn't change my decision, Daniel. And maybe it's just me, but it looked like he stayed willingly. I might not have known him, but it seemed to me like he knew the most important part of this was getting you back safely. There's... a lot we need to talk about."
"I don't want to talk," Dan seethed as he closed his eyes to steady himself. "I want to save Arin."
"And I want His Highness to realize how big of an asshole he's being," Brian returned. "Guess we all can't get what we want."
With that, the captain grabbed at Dan and pulled him off the saddle. The prince felt heavy, like a sinking stone. Now down on the ground, he watched as the captain led off his white horse. He had known Brian his whole life. First as a ward, then as a knight. It was because of his fearlessness, and equal parts stubbornness, that the young boy who catered to the royal family rose through the ranks to become one of the highest ranked chevaliers their kingdom had ever known. Once his mind was made up, Dan knew there was no changing it. His eyes fell down to the dust at his feet as he realized the gravity of his new reality.
Arin was gone.
And without the help of the chevaliers, he was never coming back.
Before Dan could slip so quickly into the folds of heartbreak, a voice called out his name and he turned. Standing behind him was Barry. His face was swollen black and blue, but that did not diminish the happiness shining from his one, good eye.
"I didn't think we were getting out of that one," Barry said as he made a slow and limping approach. "I never thought Arin would come after us like that. Not with everything that happened."
Dan looked away.
"You know," continued Barry, "he's a lot stronger than we give him credit for. Luck probably has something to do with it, but, by all means, it was amazing he was even able to move after what happened, let alone find a way to rescue us."
A warm hand touched Dan's shoulder, beckoning him to turn his misty eyes back to see the faint smile of the Rune-Maker.
"He'll find a way out, Dan. Knowing him, it wouldn't be too surprising if he was already on his way here."
"You don't know Mark," the prince breathed.
"Maybe not," Barry said. "But I know Arin. He won't give up, Dan, he never has. Have a little faith, all right? I'm sure... I'm sure he'll come back to us."
The hope of Barry's statement hung in the air, but Dan could not find himself moved by it. Faith? No, he had no faith. He had spent a year at Mark's side, seeing the cruelty he held against all others. He once thought himself immune to it. At least, Mark always swore to him he'd never hurt him.
Dan glanced down to his shredded sleeve where the bare of his arm lay exposed. The skin puckered and pinched, turning into silver scars. Claw marks, they were. But no claw marks made by wolf or Horde. He was gifted these scars by silver talons. They were the first of many wounds.
The prince shifted his arm, hiding away the reminders of his past before lifting his eyes and looking to Barry.
"I know Arin will come back," he told the Rune-Maker. "But when he does, he won't be the same."
The hope Barry held in his weak smile flitted away as he looked on the prince with forlorn eyes. Not being able to withstand the thought of losing Arin any longer, Dan walked away to somewhere quiet and lost, where he was able to mourn over the broken promise he made to Arin.
After taking in the devastation wrought on this poor town, Brian thought it best his men wait until the next morning to take the prince back to the kingdom that waited for him. With some convincing, the captain granted Ross and Barry passage with them, as he found that they should be rewarded for their efforts to bring Dan home. The majority of the chevaliers took to helping repair what all this town had lost. Walls were boarded, windows fixed. They were unable to wholly right what the Wolf King had wronged, but with what time they were given, they did what they could.
In the center of town, Brian set up a campsite of sorts for his ragtag team of companions, before leaving Ross, Barry, and Dan behind to find them a good meal. Upon his return, which wasn't long from when he left, he carted foods of all kinds and a plump cask of ale similar to the make found at the Howling Harpies.
"The place was deserted," Brian said as he helped Barry in making a slew of stews and soups. "It must have happened all too fast. I have my men out looking for any hiding survivors, but it looks like this is all that's left of the town."
Dan glimpsed over to see Ross paling. His heart was on Holly, the barmaid, who had not shown up after the initial attack.
"We'll leave right before dawn," Brian said as he unbuckled his armor and set it down by the wayside. "We should be able to make good time and get back to Skyhill before nightfall. There's a lot that needs to be done before we can call this over."
"When we get back," Dan started, nearly startling the two men who sat at his side, "I want you and your men to go out to the cursed lands."
"Daniel," Brian warned.
"--go out to the cursed lands," Dan firmly returned. "I want Arin back."
Brian rose a hand to rub at his face. There was a strained silence between them, one that visibly affected Rune-Maker and Bard.
"All right, so let me get this straight," Brian started as he tossed his piercing, blue eyes across their campsite at the prince. "My men just fought and died to get you back. We have been out here for months, searching for a sign of you, and when they finally get home-- back to their families-- you want them to go back out and die some more?"
"That's an order, captain," Dan barked.
"Fuck you and fuck your orders," Brian shot back. "You don't get to boss me around after what you pulled, you hear me? You can't run away one day to be with a freak like Fischbach and then decide you want to be our prince again."
"You know why I went." The prince glared. "And things changed."
"No, you changed. Maybe for the better, or maybe for the worst-- I haven't figured that out yet. My men and I are staying in Skyhill with you, whether you like it or not." Brian's face winced and his emotion changed. "Dan, look... there's something we need to talk about."
The prince bowed his head into his hands. His fingers raked through the coils of his hair. "And what's that?"
The captain shifted himself and looked down to the fire that separated he and the prince. He took a time to collect his words before raising his gaze to his prince.
"King Avi's dead."
The world shattered.
"He was sick for a long time," Brian explained before taking a seat before the fire. "After you had gone, he only got worse. We came after you because we knew he didn't have much time left. Just before we got this far, we got word by hawk that he had passed in his sleep. I wish I were able to tell you just how sorry I am, Danny, but I do not have the luxury for grieving. I need to get you back to Skyhill. I need to keep you safe."
Tears slipped down the prince's cheeks. He was speechless.
Brian rose again and let off a deep breath.
"You're not our prince anymore, Dan," the captain said. "You're our King."
The veils of darkness danced in the decrepit depths that Arin found himself in. He awoke slowly, battling back the beautiful voice of death that called for him. He was heavy and weak. His clothes were damp-- with what, he didn't know. When at last he had found the strength of his consciousness, Arin tried to move his arms only to find that he was unable to. Spiked shackles clamped down over his wrists, stringing him up and spread against a bricked wall oozing all manner of foul things. The musk of mildew and blood clung to the air, making Arin wince back the putrid stench of this dark pit.
His memories were shredded like ribbons, so in this time of silence and dark, he pieced them back together.
He remembered the town and Suzy. Something terrible had happened there, but what? Arin's eyes clenched shut as he forced himself to recall just how he came to be here. He remembered howling. Just like that, it all came back to him in a rush. The Horde, the Wolf King, the prince.
Was he able to get away? He was with the chevaliers still, wasn't he? All that he had done, all the fighting he pushed himself through, it all could not have been made in vain. Suddenly, a deep burn licked against Arin's shoulder, bringing him to hiss in pain. He tried to look past the darkness and see what state he was in, but found the darkness a stronger opponent than his curiosity.
Chains cackled and chimed as he pulled at his restraints, echoing off to die far away in the darkness. Fear brought sweat to laden his skin. A bead of it kissed down his cheek and collected in his beard's matted hair. From the darkness rose the thunderous sound of clanking metal. Arin searched the shades with wide eyes before seeing a door far from his side open and expose the silhouette of a man with a flame twisting in his hand. The stranger made a leisured and quiet approach to a table where a bowl of oil waited. The flame in his hand moved to the bowl and softly illuminated the dungeon the knight had found himself in.
Hanging above in the tall darkness of the ceiling he could not see, were countless rotting corpses strung up by metal hooks. Shadows carved horror across their gaunt and skinned faces and hollowed out eyes. Sickness churned in Arin's stomach. In realization, he paled in dismay. The secretions he found weighing down his clothes were not of the dampish pit he found himself in, but from the rainfall of blood that dripped off the meat hooks to stain all things below.
Heels clacked against stone as the man approached.
Arin forced his eyes down to see not a stranger, but a terrifying and familiar face. The Wolf King was calm and silent, uncannily so. There was no anger on his face, no emotion of any kind. He was peaceful, and that scared Arin even more.
Breaths were gulped down by the knight as he tried to compose himself. His chest rose and fell, rushed, as he watched Mark raise his talons to the collar of Arin's tunic. With a single bladed finger, he sliced through the bloodied fabric until it lay halved. Muscles glistened and twitched between the Wolf King's hand. Dents and curves of Arin's body shifted in the shadows as the hunter examined his prize.
"What are you going to do?" demanded Arin with the only breath of bravery he had left.
Mark's eyes flickered up to him, but a reply did not rightfully come. Instead, he drew his talon down Arin's sleeves until the strung up knight was free from the holds of his tunic. The Wolf King examined him further until at last coming to the stitched wound of the knight's shoulder.
"Does it burn?" asked Mark as he plucked at the stitches forcing Arin to grit his teeth through the pain.
The bladed talon unthreaded the wound until it lay exposed. Only with the brief breath of light from the oil bowl was Arin able to see his skin beginning to turn black and rot. His face contorted, in anger and disgust.
"W-what the fuck did you do to me?"
Mark was silent as he walked back over to where the oil bowl lay. His hand worked over the silver gauntlet, unlatching it piece by piece. Arin seethed as he watched the Wolf King, but that anger was soon displaced as he saw more and more of the gauntlet fall away. When the metal was gone, all that remained were the skeletal remnants of his forearm and hand. The bone was black, as though it had been charred by fire. The needle-like fingers curled in and out as Mark made his return to Arin.
"It's the infection of my corruption," Mark told him as he rose his black hand to caress the knight's cheek. "Call it my gift to you, if you want. You didn't think I was able to become what I am by sheer will alone, did you? Power requires sacrifice. And this was a sacrifice I am willing to make."
"So that's it then?" Arin asked. "It'll just eat away at me?"
"For a time," answered Mark. "But I don't intend on just waiting around for it to take over. I have other plans in mind." The Wolf King walked to another table and lifted from its top a carving knife. "It's always good to practice your skills. You never want them to become dull. When I was just a hunter, it was important to hone your abilities and make efforts to better yourself."
He returned to Arin. The knife in his skeletal hand.
"Let me show you how good I have become."
Arin's breaths became labored and rushed as the knife rose against his skin. His fingers curled into fists, he braced himself.
In the dark depths, no one could hear how Arin screamed.
Chapter 18: Homecoming
Daylight yawned a breath of light over the land. The quaint township that had seen such terror now rest peacefully, with only the chevaliers stirring in the streets. While Brian prepared himself to escort the prince and his companions back to the capital, the others remained behind, in the event the Wolf King returned. There were few words spoken between those who readied themselves to leave. Ross and Barry sat atop the coach led by Burgie while Brian and Dan rode ahead on white horses. Their gait was one made in leisure. Though the prince kept his eyes down on the pure white mane of the steed he rode, he could feel the heat of Brian's eyes burning into him. It would be a long journey if he remained in silence, but Dan didn't have the heart or peace of mind to entertain a conversation he didn't want to have.
Behind, Ross softly asked Barry what had happened out there in the woods. Dan listened intently for the retelling of their tale, but this time, he would know how they were found. Barry explained that the Wolf King knew they were being followed and stopped to face off with who tried to stop them. Arin fought bravely.
Dan's hands gripped into his reins.
"I don't know how he did it," Barry told Ross. "I saw a bit of it where I was left. Then, I was taken out between them. He was going to kill me, Ross. There was no question about whether or not he would. I had never been more terrified than I was right then. Arin tried to coax him out of it, he said... he said he'd go with the Wolf King if it meant I'd walk free."
Dan smiled, weakly. That idiot.
"Next thing you know," Barry continued. "The chevaliers showed up and all hell broke loose. Arin pulled me out of there and then he went after Dan. One of the chevaliers grabbed me after that when the Wolf King took off through the woods after Dan and Arin."
The sound of Aggro's screams flooded Dan's thoughts. Snowy fur turned red.
"Maybe it's better I didn't go with Arin," Ross said as he tuned his guitar and thumbed a few chords. "That sounds like a terrible time."
"I mean, just look at my face," Barry said. "I don't think there's a bone in here that the Wolf guy didn't break."
Ross looked him over. His hand rose and lightly touched at a few of the Rune-Maker's bruises. "I don't know." He shrugged. "I think when it all heals up you'll look pretty badass."
"Well, thank you, Ross." Barry pinked.
"That or you'll look like a potato," the bard mused before strumming again. "Potato face."
The two continued in their light banter for a while longer before silence fell between the companions again. The light of day shattered through the canopies and the heaviness in Dan's heart only dropped further as he began to recall the path they followed. The branching birches were a familiar sight. The scent of wildflowers wafted through the forests to greet them. This was it, he thought as they peeked a hilltop.
Down across the valley sprawled the kingdom of Skyhill.
Sunlight drew a blanket of light across the buildings and homes that grew out from tamed soil and green growth. Walls etched the land like a stroke from a paintbrush, protecting all those who claimed residency in this great and peaceful kingdom. Colors stained the sky, rolling waves of magenta clashed with fiery swirls of orange to paint the most beautiful scene. Dan felt emotions well in him. Warmth filled his chest and lightened the burdens he bore.
He was home.
"Imagine the excitement when they see you," Brian said as he came to a stop just before the hill's descent. "Wouldn't be too surprised if they mistake you for a ghost."
A breath escaped the prince. "I am a ghost."
As the prince reined his horse forward, Brian lingered for a moment longer before following after him. It was like walking through a dream as they came to the city's gates. The guards came to life when they recognized their prince and called out for the gate to raise. The wall's sandstone bricks were a sight he thought we would never see again. People gathered. People cheered. But Dan was too gone to hear them. He followed Brian down the streets with the coach, Barry, and Ross behind him. His eyes turned between the buildings. Some were familiar, some were not. He searched for the bakery where he used to get his sweets only to find a tailor shop replacing it. New replaced the old. It felt strange being here again. Some part of him felt off, as if he didn't belong here anymore.
When they at last came to the inner keep where the castle waited, he heard Barry and Ross share a collective gasp. Spires pierced the heavens above and the imperial banners wove proudly. The estate of the royal Avidans' was a massive thing that swallowed at the horizon. A thousand ironwork windows were lit with twinkling candles to welcome home the lost prince. They came to a stop at the curve of the drive, right before the porch and landing that would lead to the belly of the royal keep.
The prince and captain dismounted to greet more chevaliers who bowed before them. Dan floated up the stairs, unaware of his royal guard, as his heart and mind were still lost in those misty woods. There was elegance all around him, but all he could see were rich, brown eyes and a crooked smile. Voices welcomed him home, but all he heard was the promise of a foreign knight echoing between his ears.
Barry and Ross followed in tow behind him, spinning round and round to capture all the sights that could be found in the castle. Brian walked at Dan's side, eyes forward.
"Your coronation has been set for the end of the week," the captain told him. "The invitations will be sent out immediately. I have kept in correspondence with King Felix to let him know of our circumstances. He has pledged a large sum to give aid to our country in this dark time. Remember this for when you see him."
"Captain, you're back!"
Dan looked up to see a familiar face.
"Don't act so surprised, Kevin," Brian returned. "It makes it seem like you were wanting me gone."
"What? No! I just meant--"
"Did you even look to see who I came back with? Always be observant-- it's a crucial point of being a knight. For my chosen squire, you should know a lot better."
Kevin's eyes widened as the captain and prince passed him. Suddenly, life bloomed in the squire and forced him to give chase. "Is that... Dan? It's great to see you!"
"I believe you refer to him as 'Your Highness'?" Brian looked back to Kevin with a condemning glare.
"Dan is fine," the prince distantly said, much to his captain's distaste.
"So," Ross started, "where are we staying?"
"The castle has numerous guest rooms for boarding." Brian told him before looking to his squire. "Kevin, if you don't mind, show these two around."
"Yes, sir," Kevin chirped before turning to the Rune-Maker and bard. "You guys can follow me. There's a lot of stuff here to see."
As the three left, Brian turned to Dan. The prince was lost to his thoughts, as he had been all day, but with a warm hand placed on his shoulder, he looked over to the captain.
"I'll take you to him," Brian softly said.
Dan gave a nod and followed.
The prince never liked visiting the royal mausoleum outside the castle grounds. Despite the beauty of the architecture, and the serenity of the gardens surrounding it, Dan never could shake the feeling that this place was not one for reminiscing the departed, but a home of shame and words left unsaid. Brian stood waiting outside the heavy stone door, allowing the prince his moment of silence in the presence of his father's tomb. Flowers still adorned the monument placed above the sarcophagus. Other blessings were left behind by friends and family, small trinkets that carried more meaning than Dan probably knew.
His long fingers brushed against the stone alcove as he let off a deep, heavy breath. He wasn't sure what he was expected to do down here. There were no waking ears that could hear his countless apologies, no eyes still open that could see how old he looked in this very moment. The tip of his tongue flickered against the dry skin of his lip.
"I'm so sorry," whispered the prince to the king's grave. "I never should have left you, Avi."
His lips twitched and rolled as he suppressed the need for tears. If he let his emotions have him now, he would never leave this dark and distant place. There were so many things he wished he could have told Avi. Instead, his final memories of his father were ones made in anger. Dan's eyes turned over the many vibrant colors of the flowers decorating the monument. There were lavenders and lilacs in the spread of a wreath, roses and carnations of pink and red blossomed in beautiful bouquets. They were all so stunning. But of all these flowers that lay before him, the one that caught the prince's eye was the simple, single lily. Its white petals stood out well against all others. For some reason, Dan just couldn't look away from it. Slowly, he plucked it from the monument and brought it up to his nose. The potent fragrance of the sweet flower overpowered him and took him to a time long ago.
The lily flower always found its way into his room. Never in bouquets or wreaths, never anything more than simple and white. It was pure. Pure and simple, just like the love he found blooming in secret within the castle walls. A lowborn man, no matter how decorated, had no standing as a suitor for the heir of an empire. Back then, it was innocent and sweet. Back then, it meant more to him just to know that someone saw through his royal title to see the lonely man he was. Of course, in the public eye, they were nothing but professional to each other. The advisor was courteous to his prince, and the prince polite to his King's chosen confidant. That, however, did not stop the longing glances and subtle touches.
It all started with a lily, much like this one that the prince now held with a bittersweet fondness.
The times after that were not so kind, and so Dan put back the lily flower and gave one last look to his father's tomb.
"I'll right my wrongs, Avi," Dan swore. "I'm done hiding from my past. I'll make you proud."
He kissed the stone slab as a single tear rolled down his cheek. With his final goodbye spoken, the prince scaled the steps back to the waiting world, knowing well what he had to do.
That night, they gathered together in the Great Hall to enjoy a bountiful meal. Skewered meats sizzled in gravy broths. Crisp, golden bread was broken and paired with platters of the finest cheeses known to Skyhill. There were vegetable stews and cream covered bagels. All in all, it was a feast for kings, though Dan hardly touched even a crumb. The same could not be said for Ross, however, who had all sorts of gravies splashed across his face. His mouth was full, cheeks bulging, but that did not stop him from wanting more.
Barry was a more quaint, and far more polite, eater. As he slowly chewed at the buttered bread on his plate, he watched his counterpart with concerned eyes, as if waiting for him to choke.
Brian sat to Dan's right and Barry to his left. Kevin also joined them at the table. Despite his normal timidness, the squire's excitement over their journey knew no bounds. The retelling of their tale was now told by Ross, who greatly exaggerated each detail. There was laughter and suspense as Kevin and Brian listened to all that they had to face to get to this point. It was a tale worth telling, but the story fell muffled to the prince's ears. There was an itch building beneath Dan's skin. His thumb coursed restlessly over his fingers. His knee bounced beneath the ornate table. He should have felt safe in the comfort of his own home, surrounded by the warmth of his friends, but Dan had never felt so out of place.
The meal passed without consequence and when the hour grew late, they retired to their designated quarters. The unease Dan felt was amplified when he finally crossed the threshold into his old chamber. Everything remained the way he left it. He imagined the top of each dresser succumbing to the weight of dust and for the curtains of his balcony to hold a musky stench of neglect. Instead, what he found was polished wood and the scent of clean linen. It was almost as if he had never left at all.
Dan stepped closer to the wooden bed posts and looked down onto the gold and blue threads of his elegant bedspread.
He should have felt peaceful, but he was overcome with disgust.
His hands rose quick to rub at his face before at last raking through his hair. He knew he could not continue this play.
Storming across the room with purpose and passion, Dan opened wide his armoire and dug through the many royal raiments and suits. He had almost forgotten how many formal attires he had. For the last year, he wore only what Mark gave him. His hands viciously pulled out a long cloak and satchel. He filled it with odds and ends he found in his room before taking out to the hall. The corridors were dark and lifeless as the whole of the castle fell into a slumber. The few sconces that were still lit burned dimly and acted like stars to guide Dan on his path.
There was no second guessing now, no hesitating.
With all that had happened, and with who he had lost along the way, Dan slithered down the staircase and out to the castle yard with newfound determination. He found a sword and dagger left near the chevaliers' training rink and took them both. His hands quickly fastened the leather strap around his waist as he made his way to the stables. The dark eyes of the royal horses stared back at him. They were just as restless as he was, almost as if they knew what it was he had planned.
He took one from its stall and dressed it for riding.
Just before he took to its saddle, his trembling hands lingered on the craft of leather.
"I can do this," Dan encouraged himself. "I have to."
A breath of courage filled him as the prince rose to mount the saddle. With reins in hands, he knocked his heels against the pale horse's side and took off into the night.
No matter what fear found him, no matter what horrors waited, or heartbreak, the prince would redeem himself.
Dan was going to kill the Wolf King.
Chapter 19: The Return to the Tower
Arin hung on a thread between the realms of living and dead. In the darkness, he faded in and out of consciousness, ignoring the subtle and soothing call death made for him. It would be all too easy to give in, and maybe there was even a part of him that wanted to, but he had to hold on. For a shard of hope, for a glimpse of light in such dark, for something. His hair was weighted and wet, from sweat and blood, and clung tight to the sides of his jaw. Though Mark abandoned him to be strung alone in the dark depths of the castle's dungeon, without so much as an inkling of sight, he knew how mangled and broken his body looked. The kiss of the Wolf King's knife carved effortlessly through his skin and muscle. It performed like a pen etching the love letter of Mark's fathomless hatred to Arin, the knight who stole his prince away.
The Wolf King only wrote one letter at a time with his knife, among other gouges he made, to ensure that the pain would never fail Arin. He would return, hours later, knife clean and sharpened, to start again. On one of these ventures, the knight had more than just screams to give the necromancer. Though his body hung from shackles and chains without strength, and his head lolled heavy to the side, defiance smoldered in his dark eyes. He watched Mark light again the brazen basin before approaching his workbench where his carving tools waited. As he looked over his knives and ran the blackened thumb of his corrupted hand down each blade, Arin rolled back his head and used what strength he had to speak.
"Do you really think he'll want to be with you after he finds out what you've done to me?"
Mark's eyes flitted up and over to the knight.
Stars danced over Arin's eyes as he let off a wheezing laugh. He almost couldn't feel the pain anymore. All that he could feel was how cold his body was becoming, how numb. The corruption in his shoulder had worsened. He felt it beneath his skin, wriggling around like a maggot, infecting him a little more as time wore on. A part of it rooted in his brain. His sanity was beginning to wane.
The sound of heels clacking across the stone floor drew Arin to roll his head forward to see Mark standing in front of him, knife in hand.
"He's mine whether he wants to be or not," said Mark in a deep rumble. "Your torture will not affect that."
"Then why keep me alive?" The chains chimed as Arin leaned forward as far as he could to match the Wolf King's merciless gaze. "How many times can you get your rocks off to my screams before you get bored?"
A smirk curled over Mark's lips. His charred, skeletal hand rose to pinch at Arin's chin before he leaned closer. A whisper escaped him, "You'd be surprised."
"Try me," goaded Arin, his nose nearly brushing against the Wolf King's face. Their eyes locked. "You can't break me."
The cold, black bones slid up to caress Arin's cheek. Disgust riddled the knight, but he knew that withdrawing would only make him look weak. Mark's eyes fell hooded and narrow. His lips twisted further into a smile. "Oh, I'll break you. You know, your determination to not surrender is... well, it's almost admirable, really. It's been making me consider an alternative, rather than just keeping you sadly locked down here. But no matter how strong I think you are, you'll still break. It's just a matter of time, and I'm a patient man. In the end, I always get what I want, Arin. Always."
There were no words between them now. Only their fierce glare stood matched as the Wolf King rose up his knife to cut once more into the knight's chest. It was his final letter to make the inscription complete.
One word spoke out from the dark red gashes across Arin's chest:
The prince stopped just before entering out into the ghostlands. There were still patches of grass jutting through the cracks of the beginning wasteland. He could already feel the dry heat of the desert and feel the thirst and hunger that would come. After dismounting his stolen horse and hitching it to a tree, he set himself to making a campsite. For hours now, he resided in silence. He had stopped in the small village that the Horde had attacked those few nights ago to collect what food and supplies he might need. He had to be careful, however, as there were still chevaliers lingering behind to give aid. The last thing he needed was to get this far only to be stopped by those men who swore their allegiance to Brian. It was an amusing thought, that, despite being sworn to serve his family's name,
they would rather defy him than their captain. Dan didn't blame them.
He collected twigs and knelt down to start his campfire.
Even he was afraid of the reaction the decorated lead chevalier would have upon finding he had disappeared. Of course, Brian should have expected this. Was there ever a time that Dan actually listened to what the captain said?
A spitting spark ignited the tinder. Smoke rose.
The prince let off a sigh and leaned back to watch the fire grow. He didn't want to go behind anyone's back with this, but he had to. He had been passive for far too long, and now that Arin was the one needing help-- Dan had to act. The thought of his knight was foremost in his thoughts and smothered any worry he had. Arin made him stronger. And now it was almost time for Dan to use that strength.
The prince looked over to the waiting horizon, to where the stretch of the pale ghostlands lay, and beyond that--
He swallowed the lump in his throat and looked back down to his campfire.
Beyond that, was Mark.
Bittersweet memories bubbled up through the cracks of his determination, in the attempts to steer him away from the finality of his decision to end his husband's tyrannical rule once and for all. Memories of laughter and love, however ancient they may be, tried to plague his reason and slow the plan he made to infiltrate the castle. He breathed. Stay strong, he told himself. This was his punishment for putting the kingdoms at risk. He had to do it, he had to. These thoughts kept with him as he huddled beside the campfire until the light faded away and he was left surrounded by darkness. Nerves kept him awake, even though he was tired. He knew he needed to rest, there would be no way he could finish this venture without doing so. To soothe himself, the prince thought back to what brought him this far. He recalled the first time making it through the ghostlands with Arin.
It was before they happened upon Barry and Ross, on a night much like this, by a campfire so quaint and failing that it brought them closer to share in the warmth. They sat in a nest of sand, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip. Their conversations were few and far between, but Dan knew that Arin was just being a gentleman by not prying into his curious past. Arin might think himself a grump, but he was caring and gentle. It didn't matter how loud and brash he appeared, beneath that facade was a man willing to throw down his life to protect others. He was a true hero. And as time passed, Dan found himself falling for him even more.
Even if it took fighting through the Horde, or facing off with the wolves, or even going up against Jack-- Dan would get Arin back.
He leaned back against a tree and rested his head. It was hard to believe he was going back to where all this began willingly. It wasn't so long ago when he stood in the hollows, terrified to see how his escape might affect his captor. He fidgeted like a child, always glancing back over his shoulder as if he expected Mark to be standing right there. He would come, he knew it.
'Well, if it makes any difference, this time you've got me protecting you.'
Dan softly smiled.
With the thought of Arin warming him better than any campfire, the prince closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.
What awoke Dan at daybreak was a swift kick to his boot, nearly launching him out of his skin. As dizzy gleams danced in his eyes, and his hand fumbled at the hilt of his stolen sword, he felt another, much softer kick, push his hand away from his weapon.
"Oh stop it," a familiar voice groaned. "Like you would even know what to do with that."
The prince rubbed at his eyes and blinked away the heavy sleep that still called for him. His eyes narrowed as they turned upward. Morning light blurred his vision until things at last came into focus. Standing over him, arms crossed tight, was Brian and his ever constant scowl. Dan dropped his shoulders and slumped against the tree where he slept. He should have known.
"H-how did you find--"
"You're really not as unpredicatable as you think," the captain answered as he stamped out the embers of the prince's campfire. "Would it kill you to at least leave a note? There's a crazed murderer out there determined to keep you his pet, and you don't even have the common courtesy to let me know you're just being stupid?"
"Brian, did you come here to drag me back to Skyhill, or was your plan just to insult me until I lose all motivation?"
"Is it working?" Brian smiled.
"Why are you here?" Dan pushed. "I'm not going back without Arin."
"I know you're not. And I also know I can't trust you to do this on your own without falling back into Fischbach's arms the second he bats his eyes at you. That's why I've decided to come with you."
Dan straightened. "What?"
"You heard me." The captain groaned as he sat himself down. "You are my king after all-- or you will be. What sort of knight would I be if I let you just prance off to your demise all alone? The least I can do is join you."
The prince looked his captain over, searching for a shred of sarcasm or false pretense. Instead, what he found in Brian's eyes was nothing short of solemnity. Dan shifted himself where he sat and placed his elbows on his knees in thought. The pale smoke from his campfire still rose in small puffs, coiling in the space between he and his captain. His plan for the Wolf King's castle was made for one man alone. Any more than that would put too much stress on him. What if something happened to Brian? How could Dan live with himself knowing he was the reason for Brian's injuries-- or worse. Then again, he was the only one the prince knew that could possibly stand matched against Mark and survive. The captain was an amazing fighter and a trained guardian. Those skills could guarantee their journey would be successful.
"And is that what you really want?" asked Dan, eagerly. "You're not just doing this because you feel obligated?"
"Of course I feel obligated," returned the captain with a laugh. "But I'm doing this more for me. The first time Fischbach left Skyhill, I should have gone after him. Instead, I stayed behind, thinking my place was among our people. I was cautious, but that cautiousness caused you to go out alone after him. I have no idea what happened to you in those next months after the first attack, and I don't plan to pry, but my inaction caused this."
"Brian, don't think like that."
"Even if I don't, it's still true, isn't it? In any case, I know I can't turn you off from going after your friend. So if I go with, and finally put an end to Fischbach, I can sleep better at night knowing Skyhill, and you, are safe."
"It won't be easy, you know?" Dan said. "There's a good chance we'll both die, or worse."
"Have to try, don't we? Besides, we'll have help."
Dan's brows knitted. "Help? From who?"
Just then, Ross jumped out from behind a tree. His arms were wide, his fingers dancing, as he sang, "Ta-da! Here I am!"
"Ross?" The prince shot a glance to the captain. "He's our help?"
"And me," called out Barry as he walked out less dramatically. "You can count us in, Your Highness."
Dan rose to his feet and looked between Rune-Maker and bard. "No, you can't. You guys. You don't know what you're up against here. I've put you both through enough trouble, I don't want to see either of you get hurt."
"Well, that's not your decision to make, is it?" Ross asked as he pulled out a borrowed sword and proudly held it.
"You aren't on your own anymore, remember?" said Barry with a soft smile. "We'll follow you until the end, and maybe even after."
"We've got the makings of an army," Brian said. "So what do you say?"
The prince turned from one man to the next. There was the seasoned captain of the chevaliers, stubborn and strong, sporting the white armor and blue crest of their people. Next was the eccentric bard who looked far too strange holding a sword in place of his guitar, but there was fire in his eyes and a readiness that made Dan hopeful. Last was the Rune-Maker, a lifelong student to an ancient craft. Out of all these companions, he was the least experienced, but that did not stop him from wanting to stand for what was right. The prince took in a deep breath, the like that puffed his chest with pride. He gave them a nod and a soft smile.
"I say... we might actually stand a chance now."
"So that's it then," Brian said as he rose to his feet and looked to their group. "Let's go give Fischbach hell."
Four, white horses stormed across desert sands. In lead was the prince who guided the others' path through the far off ghostlands. Each day they drew closer to the dark depths of the cursed lands, and the home of the beast. No matter what waited for them, Dan knew he no longer stood alone in this fight. Among those men he rode with, his fears could not find him. He knew Arin was alive, and he was going to save him, no matter the costs.
As Dan slowed his horse to a stop beneath the tall window of the lone tower that hid in the depths of the hollows, he knew this was the point of no return.
The final fight was about to begin.
Chapter 20: The Castle of the Wolf King
"So, this is where you've been?" Brian asked as he looked up to the crooked tower that sat alone in the center of the hollows.
The prince dismounted his horse and approached the long, makeshift rope of sheets that still hung out the looming tower overhead. The once satin fabric dulled under the relentless elements, losing its vibrant color to instead hang as lifeless as Dan once felt. His fingers curled around the sheet and lifted it up to look at. "More or less," he replied. "There were times that Mark would take me back to the castle when I was behaving myself."
The captain's eyes flickered down to look at his crowned heir. There was curiosity and concern in those eyes. For him, it was hard to see the Wolf King as anything less than apathetic and cruel. Dan didn't ask him what his thoughts were, he didn't want to know. Ross and Barry dismounted and hitched their horses to a nearby dead tree before approaching the prince at both his sides.
"So what's the plan then?" asked Ross as he planted his hands on his hips. "How far is the castle from here?"
Dan shook his head. "Weeks away. We're not riding there."
"What?" Ross squeaked as the prince tugged at the sheet, testing its durability. "That's where they are, right?"
"It will take too long," Dan answered. "By the time we get there, Arin will be dead. I'm going to go up there, and you guys will need to follow me one by one. The last thing we need is one of us to rip the sheet and fall."
"Lead the way," Brian urged as he patted his horse goodbye.
The prince rushed out a sigh before turning his eyes back up to the tower window. His grip tightened on the rope before he leapt up and scaled its length. At the strain, the sheet began to dance and slither, awakening from its dead state. Dan kept his eyes up and his breath slow. He never liked heights. It wasn't until now that he began to wonder if that's why Mark built this tower for him. He never would have to fear Dan trying to leap out the window, because the vertigo alone was enough to make him sick. As he finally came to the lip of the window, he dug his nails into the dusty brick and hoisted himself up inside the circular room. Everything remained just as he left it. A layer of dust and age had since corrupted what belongings he had. Cobwebs strung between the bed's posts as spiders and insects alike now claimed all he had left behind.
Dan looked out the window and called quick for the next companion before dizziness overtook him. Away from the window, he shambled, until he came to the center of the room. So many of his days were spent here. It was weird for him to be back, just how it felt to be back in Skyhill. No matter where he went, nothing felt like home. Hopefully at the end of this that would change.
One by one, the others climbed the rope and entered Dan's secret hideaway. He watched as they curiously wandered across the room. Ross found a collection of parchment where Dan had written songs. Scratches of ink crossed out words that didn't flow while other words were trembling and thin, as Dan's hand had been when he wrote them. Brian entered the window last and stood still beside the bed. There was no curiosity on his part, only sadness and regret. The captain didn't wander like the others, but joined the prince at his side.
"All right, we're here," he said as he looked to Dan. "Now what?"
The prince turned toward the door at the far end of the room. It was a simple thing, old and wooden, but it was far more than just a door. He approached it slowly, seeing the glimmer of an enchantment placed over its face. The air pushed back at him as he neared, keeping him from reaching for it.
"We need to open this door," Dan said. "Don't just go for it, or you'll just get thrown back. Mark put a spell on it after one too many failed attempts of running away."
The other men came to stand beside the prince and look at the enchanted door.
"What if we try to break it?" Brian offered. "We could use the posts from the bed and fashion together a battering ram."
"Do we have time for that?" asked Ross.
"There has to be an origin point for the spell," Barry said as he tried to get a little closer to examine the enchantment. "An inscription, a rune mark, or something. Spells can't just hang over something like this for extended periods of time, they have to be projected."
As Barry continued his examination over the enchanted door, the others started searching the walls and rafters overhead. Hands skimmed over dusty bricks. Eager eyes scanned any crack or crease that could be hiding away the foul source of the Wolf King's magic. An hour had passed and their efforts returned fruitless. The more time they wasted on this endeavor, the more agitated Dan became. It was like watching grains of sand trickle through an hourglass. Their time was running out.
Suddenly, Ross let off a gasp, summoning his counterparts to look over to him.
The bard stood behind the bed. His fingers trailed over the wooden threads before he lifted his head and called out. "Guys, I think I found something."
Brian and Dan quickly rushed over to where he stood and looked down to the headboard of the prince's bed. Faint lines carved through the wood, almost too faint for anyone to notice. The sight of them surprised Dan. He had spent a collective few months in this room, staring at the same brick walls, laying in the same bed every night. How could he have not come across these markings before?
"Barry, I think I found it!" Ross proudly said with a broadening smile.
The Rune-Maker came over and knelt by the back of the headboard. With a soft touch, he traced the markings and gave a nod.
"Looks like you did, Ross. Good job."
"So, what now?" asked Brian, clearly becoming irritated by lack of action.
"Now," Barry started as he pushed himself up to stand. "We destroy it."
A wicked smile started over the captain's face as he looked back down to the wooden inscription. "I hope you don't mind, Your Highness."
Dan's mouth opened to speak, but there was no time, as Brian began bashing away at the wood with a heavy and armored boot. Years of stress were relieved in this moment, Dan thought, as the captain was having way too much fun destroying the whole of the prince's bed. Even after the headboard was properly demolished, it took both Ross and Barry to stop Brian.
"How about you save your energy?" Barry offered. "I mean, it looks pretty fun, but we might still have a horde to face."
Brian heaved his breaths and doubled over. When he rose, he let off a deep sigh and smiled at the Rune-Maker before clapping him hard on the back. "All right, Mister Magicman, did that do the trick?"
To save the others from pain, Dan walked back over to the wooden door and stopped. He hesitated before reaching for the door. It would go unsaid that he still feared the barrier between he and the door. There were so many times in these prior months that he flung himself at it, hoping to break through and finally be rid of his personal prison. Dan reached a hand out, slowly, and just like that, his fingers touched the doorknob. A relieved sigh rushed through him before he looked back to see his companions' smile.
"All right," Dan started. "I need you to trust me on this next part. The three of you are going to go after Arin. The opening of the dungeon is beneath the castle walls. It's a, a sewer gate, of some sort. I don't know what you'll find down there. Whatever you do, keep out of sight. I can draw attention away from you, but not for long."
"Wait, what?" Ross started. "Where will you be?"
Dan swallowed the dry patch in his throat as he slid from out of the pocket of his pants the gold and crimson ring that plagued him so. "I'm going after Mark."
"By yourself?" Brian stepped forward. "No, I'm going with you."
"No, you're going with them," Dan pointed. "They need you a lot more than I do. Get Arin out of there and make your way back here. I can do this, Brian."
"That's what you said last time, Danny. You said you could do this alone and I let you leave. I will not be making that mistake again."
"It's my choice, not yours, all right? Have a little faith in me for once, would you? I know I fucked this up before, but this time is different. I can do this."
A pained look tensed over Brian's face. His eyes fell downcast and his body shifted anxiously. When his mouth opened, the voice that came out of him was not as strong as it once had been. "I can't lose you, Dan. Don't make me go back to Skyhill without you. I won't do it."
"You won't have to," the prince said as sincerely as he could, placing his wedding ring on his finger. "Get Arin away from there. I'm going after Mark."
Ross and Barry nodded, accepting the mission at hand. The captain, however, hesitated a moment longer, thinking over his decision. When he at last nodded his head in agreement, Dan twisted the doorknob and opened the door.
Beyond the portal waited the castle of the Wolf King.
Malicious winds and torrents of rain greeted them as they passed the magic door that led to the heart of the cursed lands. A storm, great and terrifying, churned in the black sky above. Flashes of lightning breathed light through the slate clouds to illuminate the monstrosity of the castle and its bridge that stood before the prince and his companions. While Dan looked upon the place he once called home in loathing, the others marveled at the immense carcass of horror that jutted out from the barren wastelands and mountains before them. Where the companions stood was in the ashes of the fallen kingdom. The corpses of buildings and homes resided in shambles, barely bearing the strength to stand. They were charred titans, standing before the companions as tribute to the Wolf King's carnage.
As Ross and Barry walked out from what were the remains of a tower to stand in awe, Brian remained at the prince's side.
"So, how are you going to stop him?" asked the captain with more than a hint of concern.
"I'll figure it out," Dan answered with his eyes still latched onto the whole of the castle. After a while, he looked to Brian. "Don't worry about me. Just keep safe and get out of here as soon as you can."
"You, too," Brian said. "If we're able to get your Arin out of here, I'm coming back for you. I'm not leaving you here alone."
"Don't worry about that right now. First, get Arin." The prince started walking toward the bridge. "I need to find my husband."
The walls surrounding the castle's inner keep were torn asunder. As Dan walked forward, allowing the rain and wind to bring his clothes to cling to his skin, he looked on this once noble place that had since turned into a graveyard. The past spoke to him with whispered breaths as he imagined the kingdom's people running in panic toward the castle, hoping to find refuge, only to be denied. He could imagine their screams and cries as they clawed at the gates, begging to be let in as the Wolf King and his army descended. Phantoms of yesteryear resided in the courtyard. The frantic calls of the guards were close to Dan's ears. He could feel the desperation still hanging in the air. Countless people died here, all by the hand of the man who once held the prince's heart. It was a frightening thing to see again the extent of Mark's malice. Though Dan had been a victim to his husband's anger, he was never the recipient of such unadulterated cruelty such as these people.
The rain and wind withdrew from him as he entered into the quiet dark of the castle's main entrance. The embellishments that once decorated this hall now darkened from neglect and fell tattered and torn. Dan's eyes lowered down to the purple threads of the rug he walked across to see the countless claw marks from monstrous wolves. The further he walked through the darkness of this corridor, the more he felt eyes ever following him. Despite the shift in the shadows, Dan kept his chin up and eyes forward as he strode on, knowing any shred of fear would call down the pack upon him. His presence did not go unnoticed, by wolf or king, as the crimson gem in his ring began to glow.
Pain pulsed through his hand, racing like his heart.
Mark was close.
The companions came to the edge of the gorge where the bridge came to its end. With Brian leading the party, they scaled down the cliff side to where the mouth of the sewer gate waited. Wind swept through the jagged scar of the gorge, pushing and pulling the men in every direction. An ill place of footing would send them plummeting to the rocks below and their journey would meet its end. The shelf they shimmied down was slick and cracking, forcing them to take one slow step at a time. Rain blinded their eyes and the rocky teeth nipped at their fingers, drawing blood. Hearts raced. Breathing became difficult.
Suddenly, a shot of lightning coursed out from the sky and struck at the wall of the gorge, causing the rock-face to bust and crumble down above their heads. Brian and Barry were fast to push themselves flush against the cliff. The same could not be said for Ross. The bard looked up at the thunderous roar. Light illuminated his pale eyes and reflected the shard of rock that fell down to strike hard against his shoulder, throwing him off balance.
His footing slipped and the rock beneath him broke. His hand reached out to save him from the fall, but the shelf was just out of his reach. Horror painted his face pale as he twisted through the air. His name echoed out, booming like thunder, as Brian dove after him. The captain tore his sword out from its sheath and jammed it into the rock-face, lodging it in the cliff as he dropped down and snatched Ross by the arm. His dead weight fell and jerked at Brian's arm, nearly snapping it from its socket. A cry fled the knight's mouth. He gritted through the pain and hoisted the bard up. With Barry's help, the two scratched their way up to the sewer gate and threw themselves inside its tunnel.
Once inside the cramped and slimy stone chamber, Brian sat himself back and winced as he grabbed at his shoulder. Ross gulped his breaths and laid in the watery waste, seeing the flash of life rush before his eyes. Barry crouched by the captain and pried off the armor pauldron over his shoulder to look at his arm. A bulge of bone pushed at his skin. His shoulder was dislocated.
"You can't go on like this," Barry told him as he wiped the rain from his eyes. "We need to get you back-- back to the tower."
"Fuck the tower," Brian hissed as he rolled himself forward to stand. "I made it this far, I'm not turning back."
"You can't fight!" Barry fought. "Brian, if you go against anything, you're going to die!"
"Well, then, I guess I'm going to die." The knight collected his sword and weakly slipped it back into its sheath. "We need to press on. Dan's counting on us."
Before they were able to move further, Brian was stopped by a soft hand on his arm. He turned back, only barely able to make out the sight of Ross standing behind him. Tears and rain shimmered in his eyes.
"Y-You saved me," Ross breathed.
"Of course I did," Brian returned, standing tall.
A surprised laugh escaped the bard who glanced back to the beginning of the tunnel before turning back to the captain. "How can I... repay you for that?"
Brian shifted closer and grabbed at Ross's shoulder.
"Just... don't do anything like that again, all right? I'm too old to be your knight in shining armor." While Ross looked down at his feet with a softening smile and a blush masked by the darkness, Brian turned and shambled his way down the tunnel in lead. "This Arin better be worth the trouble, I'll tell you that much."
The three followed closely through the dark. Each footstep through the muck at their feet amplified down the tunnel, echoing back to them in an ethereal breath. They weren't sure how long this pipe would go, or if it would break into different sections and lead to opposite sides of the castle grounds. Brian hoped that wouldn't be the case, but knew that their luck surely couldn't hold out for the extent of this journey. After sludging their way for about an hour, they came to a large circular room where tunnels ran each direction. The smell they found in this chamber was horrendous and brought each of the men to cover their nose and wince back the stench of rotting meat and unmentionables.
Brian stood at the ledge that looked over the collected water. His eyes flickered back and forth between the three, dark tunnels ahead.
"Now what?" asked Ross in a soft voice that still managed to echo in the chamber.
Brian sighed and unsheathed his sword. "It looks like we'll need to split up."
"I mean, that's not exactly a good idea," Barry pointed out. "What if one of us gets into trouble? It'd be safer in numbers."
"It would," agreed Brian, "but if we managed to go down each route one by one, we'd be wasting a lot of time that we don't presently have. Dan's up there with Fischbach. He might be able to pacify him for a while, but if he even gets curious whether or not Dan came alone, we're all dead. We split up. Be careful, don't push yourselves. If you find Arin, get back to this room. Whatever you do, don't get lost."
Ross fervently nodded and took the tunnel to the East.
Reluctantly, Barry made his way to the West.
Brian shifted the sword with his one good arm and took the tunnel to the North.
One by one, they slipped into the darkness alone.
The monstrous doors to the throne room were left shattered and unhinged, allowing Dan an easy access. Further still he walked, ever following the stretch of the royal rug that would lead him straight to the broken throne. He passed pews and columns left in disrepair. Overhead, banners caught wind from the cracks and holes in the ceiling and billowed out while torrents of rain fell in waterfalls to pool on this hallowed chamber's floor. But these sights were not what drew the prince into the forgotten throne room. Down the length of the hall, relaxed on the weight of the stone throne, was the Wolf King.
Mark didn't stir even as Dan came into view. He hardly seemed surprised at all. Instead, he waited patiently for the prince to make his approach before making the subtle move of placing his elbow on the throne's armrest to shift down in his seat.
The humming pain of Dan's ring was much softer now, almost mirroring the calm found on his husband's face.
"I knew you'd come back," Mark rumbled, pleased. "You always do."
Dan took in a deep breath to steady himself. His ears twitched at the soft sound of padded feet against stone. He knew the wolves had followed him and now slipped back to hide within the throne room's shadows. They watched, as they always had.
"I didn't come here to be with you, Mark," Dan told him. "I came to give you one, last chance to be the man I know you can be. This doesn't have to evolve into a fight so long as you take responsibility for your actions."
"And I have," Mark returned. "It's not exactly a secret who's responsible for nearly toppling a kingdom. I've never hidden from the truth of what I've done."
"That's not what I meant." The prince glowered. "You need to give up. Give me back Arin and surrender yourself over to Skyhill. Accept the punishment you deserve."
A deep laugh growled in Mark's throat. The tips of his talons rose to touch at the corner of his amused smile. "And let the scum drag me through the streets before burning me as a witch. It's a nice thought for your people, Daniel, but you know I'm not going to do that." He rose from his throne. "Here I thought you just came for your precious knight. I'm a little surprised to see you seeking my surrender. Are you doing this as my prince, or Skyhill's new king?"
Dan stilled. "You... knew?"
"Of course I knew." Mark laughed and lowered from the steps to stand before Dan. His black eyes flitted up, gleaming knowingly. "Did you really think sickness could kill that stubborn, old man?"
The smile that twisted over Mark's lips brought Dan's heart to plummet into his stomach. He thought of the white lily, laying perfectly atop Avi's monument. It was no trinket from a loved one. It was laid in spite.
"How could you do this to me?" Dan breathed, tears brimming his eyes.
"I'm not to blame, Daniel, you are. All you had to do was be good. You just had to listen to me and trust that what I'm doing is for the good of everyone." The smile Mark held began to fail as his face slipped into a state of festering anger. The ring burned. "Instead, you pushed me away. You wanted to make me the bad guy. I gave you everything you ever wanted, but that wasn't enough for you, was it?"
The Wolf King started walking toward Dan, forcing him to back away in retreat.
"So now, here you are," Mark growled. "Crawling back, asking me to give myself up, because you know there is no one in Skyhill that can break me down. Do I frighten you, Daniel? Does my kingdom frighten you?"
The eyes of the wolves sparked through the shades, shining like stars.
"This isn't a kingdom," Dan said with a glare. "And you are not a king."
"I wasn't," Mark agreed, his smile returning. "But, I am now."
The Wolf King's gauntlet shot out and snatched the prince's hand, raising it up between them. Dan winced at the pinch of metal. He attempted to pull away, only for Mark to hold on tighter.
"Do you remember our vows? 'Through sickness and in health, until death do we part'. With Avi gone, you're the new ruler of Skyhill." Mark's talons crushed the wedding ring to constrict on Dan's finger, causing him to moan in pain as the metal cut into his skin. The Wolf King pulled the prince closer, his wicked smile broadening. "Which means I'm the new king of Skyhill."
Dan tried to pull back his hand, but Mark's grip was unyielding. With a tug, the prince was guided over to a broken wall where the whole of the cursed lands waited beyond. The storm still brewed overhead, roaring with thunder, alive with anger.
"And I have just the thing for our people, Daniel," Mark said. "Call it a gift, for how they have treated us. It took years to complete, but I think it's finally ready."
Together, the Wolf King and prince looked out to the cursed lands below to see nothing but darkness. That was until a flash of lightning illuminated the land and the horde of ten thousand soldiers gaping up at the castle with soulless, white eyes. All warmth escaped Dan at the fearsome sight of the legion. The wind and rain whipped across his face, further turning him cold. His gaping eyes swept over to see Mark smiling at him. Lunacy burned bright in that smile. His eyes were blacker than the corruption in his soul.
"I haven't forgotten you, Daniel. Without you, none of this would be possible. There's a gift here for you, in this castle. It took a lot of effort on my part, a lot of manipulation, but I finally made a breakthrough. He's much more compliant now. You'd be proud."
"What have you done?" the prince whispered, fearing the answer.
In the dark of the dungeons, a figure slipped out from the sewer tunnel to stand. Their eyes danced over the darkened room. The sound of swinging chains chimed overhead. The smell of blood was foul.
"I did what I had to," Mark answered. "He was a threat to us, but he isn't anymore."
The figure found a brazen bowl. With a strike of firestone that they had sheltered in their pocket, they drew spark and lit the oil. Warmth breathed through the dungeon, illuminating the black armor of the king's knight. A sword drew too slow and the figure fell before the black knight. A call for help escaped them, a soft plea for the knight to stop this dark play. The firelight edged the black armor as the knight advanced the fallen man who held up their hands in surrender.
"I only made him reach his potential," Mark explained. "Under my control, he's a perfect fighter. A true knight. A King's Jack."
With two hands gripping the hilt, the black knight drove down the sword into the chest of Ross O'Donovan, ending his life and silencing the pleas from his lips. When all had fallen to silence once more, the sword retreated and the knight turned to the brazen bowl.
A breath escaped his lips and extinguished the flame, shrouding the black knight, Arin, once more in darkness.
Chapter 21: Long Live the King
A roar of thunder shook out the strength from Dan and with a flash of lightning, the newfound fears pooling in his dark eyes illuminated. Dread weighed down in the prince's stomach like stones as their opposing gazes matched. The growing smile on Mark's face was one birthed from pride. Pride that he had outmatched Dan once again. No matter the efforts the prince made to outdo his husband, Mark was always one step ahead. There was something in that devious grin, that mocking smirk, that told Dan that the Wolf King was well aware that he had not come to the castle alone. Sweat began to build against Dan's skin. One telling sign would be enough for Mark to notice his apprehension on his companions' whereabouts and fates. If he had any hope of breaking through to him, he had to make sure Mark thought him alone. He needed to stay calm, but that was becoming a torturous chore. He wasn't sure how long he would be able to keep up this play.
"Where is Arin?" Dan demanded in the calmest breath he could manage. "I want to see him."
"Are you sure of that?" Mark returned. His eyes flickered across the prince's countenance, searching for that shred of vulnerability that Dan knew he must hide. "What do you think you can accomplish by seeing him?"
Dan swallowed the dry lump in his throat and kept his head high. "I just want to see him."
The crumpled ring biting into his finger began to burn further. If he were allowed a moment to act without his husband's constant watching, he would claw at the metal and pry it off his finger, whether or not that meant tearing his skin in the process. Instead, he was forced to act as if the distorted ring wasn't causing him pain. He was forced to pretend that all that Mark had done was not a surprise to him. If there was one thing he knew, Mark thrived on the reaction of others. It propelled him to commit worse acts, to continue to shock and awe his victims. If he could deny Mark of that satisfaction, there was still a chance of forcing him to back down. The twisted smirk began to fail and, in its place, hung a soured sneer. When Mark turned his eyes elsewhere, Dan glanced down to see the dagger tips of his husband's gauntlet curl into a fist.
"Why does he matter?" Mark snapped. "Why did you come all the way here for only him?"
Dan looked back up to the Wolf King before he noticed his eyes elsewhere. His heart was pounding. He felt himself teetering on a thread over a lake of knives and fire. He knew he was not going to make it out of this castle. Mark wouldn't allow that. He just needed to buy time for the others. He needed to hope that they were able to get out of here and away from this damning chaos. The Wolf King began to pace in front of the prince, a beast ready to lunge, but not before receiving his answer. Maybe it was the company he kept, the prince thought as he watched him. He was more wolf than man. A predator ever looking for prey.
"You know why, Mark." Dan sighed, tired. "There's no point in having me say it."
"I want to hear it."
"Why? What will hearing it do for you? If you're looking for justification for doing what you've done, and what you plan to do, look elsewhere. I'm not going to be your reason for being a monster."
"A monster?" Mark echoed, surprised. "You aren't my reason for being a monster. You were the chain holding me back from becoming one. I hesitate because of you. I doubt myself because of you." A new emotion overcame the Wolf King's face, one that Dan had not seen in a long time. The sight of it almost alarmed him. He was scared. The pacing stopped abruptly. Mark's eyes danced over the stone floor between them before flickering up, warm and innocent. "I need you, Daniel. You're all I have left."
And that was all it took for the facade of the Wolf King to fall and for the prince to see again the face of Skyhill's most skilled hunter. The silver armor, the gauntlet, these castle ruins-- they were not a home for Mark. Much like the tower walls that caged Dan, these monstrosities claimed his husband and further tainted his warped mind. The thought of him suffering alone in the dark pulled at his heart and drew him a step nearer. "Mark, there's still time. It's not too late for you."
A deep laugh hummed out from the weak smile the Wolf King held. His eyes fell down as his bare fingers stroked the knuckles of the silver gauntlet. "I'm afraid it is, Dan. I've... I've done terrible things. I worked so hard to get to this point, what would the point be if I stopped now? Even if I did, I'd be running for the rest of my life. If I'm ever caught..."
Dan closed the distance between them and laid his hand atop Mark's. Gently, he pulled it away from the gauntlet that housed his corruption. The Wolf King looked up at the prince. There was clarity in those dark eyes. The clouds of revenge and insanity parted, allowing him bittersweet transparency.
"There is still time," Dan said, gripping onto Mark's hand, hoping that this lucid moment wasn't fleeting. "You can end this right now. Don't think over what might happen, that's a worry for tomorrow. Right now, you can make a difference, Mark. I'll help you in any way I can. We can fix this. Together."
The hope of breaking through to him was bright, but so fragile. When Mark pulled his hand away from Dan's touch, that hope began to fail. Before it could be lost all together, the Wolf King rose his hand to cup at the prince's cheek. His thumb was soft as it brushed across Dan's skin.
"You always were the best part of me, Daniel," Mark rumbled. His eyes fell hooded and jaded. "Even after everything I've done, you still see a chance for me. How did I ever get lucky enough to call you mine?"
Dan turned in to that touch. It was better to feel heat than cold silver, he thought. "You were a good man, once," he told his counterpart, softly, "and there's still time for you to be that good man again. Call off the horde, Mark. You and me... we don't need to fight."
Mark's face fell into a sorrowing state. He held a little firmer at Dan's cheek, almost as if he feared he may never feel him again. "Could it really be that simple, Daniel?"
Words tumbled over the prince's tongue as his hand rose to hold that of his husband's. Before he was able to speak a word, he caught a glimmer in the darkness. It happened all too fast for him to react. The composure, the shred of sanity, that warmed Mark's dark eyes was quickly displaced as a sudden dart split through the shadows and drove deep into the Wolf King's back. Mark rocked forward, nearly falling into Dan's arms. It happened too fast, Dan thought. But still he was able to see in terrifying measures how the clouds of wrath overcame his husband's eyes once more, and the brief glimpse of the man he once was disappear. Over Mark's shoulder, standing tall and defiant in the shadows, was Brian, captain of the chevaliers, and the archer whose bow was still held up and aimed.
A creeping gloom of horror filled Dan like a breath as he matched the fierce gaze of his captain who stood firm on a balcony overlooking the throne room. Realization settled in as the ring on Dan's finger burned more ferociously than it ever had before. He took a step back, almost as if he expected Mark to combust in that very moment. When the Wolf King finally steadied himself, he reached his gauntlet over his shoulder and tugged at the arrow's shaft, tearing it out from skin and muscle. A snarl escaped him and he swiftly turned, seeking out the secret assassin in the shadows. When Mark saw Brian, Dan knew that the hope for a peaceful surrender was gone.
The Wolf King hurled the arrow away, disgusted at its existence. "Was this all part of your plan then? Lower my guard so your pet has a clean shot at me?"
Dan retreated, his hands raised. "No, that's not-- please, Mark, listen to me-- he wasn't supposed to be here!"
Brian threaded another arrow and drew back the string, resting the feathered tail of the dart against the corner of his mouth. There was pain on his face. Sweat glistened on his cheeks. The arrow was unsteady, but he did not allow his aim to falter. At the rise of their alpha's anger, the wolves came to life. The entrance to the balcony was not one found in this room. While some first tried their luck at clawing up the wall to snap at the captain's legs, others bolted out the chamber door, thundering their way down the corridors in hunt for blood.
"Back away from Danny," Brian demanded.
"Brian, put down the bow!" Dan pleaded, still retreating from the Wolf King's growing fury.
"It was all just a game," Mark seethed. His mind was unraveling. He was lost again to his own darkness. "Just a trick, wasn't it? You want me dead, just like everyone else. Those things you said... you didn't mean them at all."
Dan's face twisted in pain as his ring burned deeper. "No, I meant them, Mark, I swear to God, I meant them! I'm so sorry. Please, calm down and we can talk--"
"I said back away," Brian boomed.
"Would you just fuck off and die!" Mark barked as he turned toward the balcony.
In one, fluid movement, he bent down and snatched a chunk of stone debris in the deathly grasp of his silver talons. His body twisted, the stone lifted, and with a shout he lobbed the remnant of a column up to shatter the railing and floor of the upper balcony. Brian dove out of the way just after loosing an arrow that missed ending the Wolf King. The razored edge of the arrow tip kissed at his cheek causing a line of crimson to bead through the slight gash. This did not stop Mark, who stormed closer to the side of the throne to retrieve his heavy claymore.
"No more talking," Mark seethed. "I want to paint these walls red. I'll start with you, captain."
Brian rose back to his feet and slipped another arrow from his quiver. He retreated into the curtains of shadows behind him as the sound of howling and snarls drew nearer. His crystal, blue eyes flitted over to Dan for only a moment before he spoke out to the furious Wolf King. "Let's end this, Fischbach. Once and for all."
With Mark's attention solely on the captain, Dan slipped the dagger out from his belt and gripped tight to the leather bound hilt. His heart was pounding like war drums. A roll of thunder overhead urged him forward. He floated closer to the Wolf King, and with each step he took he had to force down the memories they made together.
The first gala they attended. Dan wore blue, Mark wore red.
It was raining the first time Dan found the white lily on his pillow.
He swore they'd be together forever. Forever, and always.
"Gladly," Mark rumbled as he turned toward the chamber's exit.
And as he turned, Dan made his last step forward. He closed his eyes, he couldn't bear to see the outcome. Tears slipped down his cheeks as with one, quick thrust, he forced the dagger's tip deep into Mark's chest. Their bodies came flush. The sound of pierced leather and splitting skin was enough to make the prince wince.
Time stood still in the throne room, though the storm outside still roared. Despite the chaos in the cursed lands, it was now silent and calm.
Dan buried his teeth into his lips, biting hard enough to break skin when he heard the claymore fall and hit the floor. With a deep breath, he retreated from Mark and took with him the edge of his dagger. Blood seeped out in a waterfall of gushes. Life's dark liquor curled and dripped over each bind of wrapped leather, each buckle and belt that circled and clenched at the Wolf King's waist. There was no anger left on his face. He was emotionless in shock as his talons lifted to touch at the wound just above his stomach, tainting the pristine silver to run red with blood.
From his bloodied gauntlet, Mark's eyes rose to look at Dan. In silence, he spoke volumes. For the pain that twisted over his face and brought his eyes to shimmer was not due to the fatal wound, but from the betrayal and heartbreak of who it was that bestowed him with it. His knees buckled beneath him, forcing him to kneel down on the pool of fleeting life below.
Dan dropped the dagger, ashamed and horrified.
"I'm so sorry," he wept. "I'm so, so sorry."
Mark's breathing became labored and deep. Blood rolled down the corner of his lips as he gasped for air. Each second was agony for Dan to watch as the fervent gasps slowed and Mark slumped. With a last long and deep breath, Dan was certain:
The Wolf King, Mark Fischbach, was dead.
Still, Dan stood here, staring down on his husband's body. He heard the distant howls of the wolves and thought they almost seemed softer now, somewhat sadder. Maybe they knew. Maybe they could feel their king was gone. Atop the balcony, Brian shouldered his bow before lowering down the crumbled platform to drop down into the throne room below. With a weakened walk, he limped over to the prince.
"We need to go," Brian urged. "The wolves are coming. If you want to get Arin out here, now's the time to do it."
Dan remained silent, staring at Mark.
"Danny, we need to go. Barry and Ross might need us. We have to find them."
Slowly, the prince nodded.
He couldn't remember if he walked willingly toward the exit of the throne room, or if it was the captain who guided him. Despite their greatest threat vanquished, there still stood so much opposition before they could call this journey over. Dan knew he needed to think of his plan, but currently, his head felt empty. His body felt empty. Anyone else would be cheering, they'd be singing songs, but Dan felt sick at the thought of what he'd done, he felt wrong.
Just as they came to the threshold of the throne room, a soft and grating sound brought captain and prince to slow to a stop. It was the sound of metal scraping against stone. If there was any other noise, they might not have heard it, but the sudden sound of it brought both men to freeze where they stood. Together, they turned back to look down the stretch of the throne room. The metal they heard was the sound of the claymore being lifted from the stone floor. Its tip buried into the bricks below as its wielder used its blade to stand.
Warmth abandoned Dan just as his hope had done. Nothing else mattered in this moment as he stared down the chamber to see Mark returning back to his feet. The waterfall of red had since turned black like tar. There was no color to his skin, no glimpse of life that still clung to what should be a spiritless carcass. Still, he rose. Beneath his pallid skin wove cobwebs of blackened veins. A bracing breath filled his chest, forcing out more of that dark ooze to seep through his chest wound.
The air around them grew tense and heavy. Shadows danced and darkened as the throne room began to change. The shades around them were thick and tangible, much like the tar dripping out from the Wolf King's mouth. Before Dan could find the need to scream, Mark's black eyes flickered up to greet the captain and prince. From the shadows of the throne, the two remaining black knights appeared. Their eyes were soulless, their faces trapped in apathy. Jack carried a bladed whip. Arin held his bloodied sword.
Mark plucked the claymore from the bricks. As the knights drew nearer, he cocked his head back and spoke to them. A gravelly voice seeped through undead lips in an ethereal breath.
"Jack, kill the captain," he said. "Arin, kill the prince."
Chapter 22: The Tower of Broken Hearts
Hey there! I hope you're enjoying the story. I promised that this chapter would be the last one, but I had the problem that it was way too incredibly long. (Going on 30 pages and still not done) So, I'm breaking my promise and making the ending two parts. This one, and then the final, final part after it. Anyways, it's coming to a close soon and I'm really happy with the way things have gone, and I hope you've had as much fun as me. Thanks for everything! Enjoy!
"Run, Danny," Brian breathed. He turned, blue eyes lit with desperation. "Run!"
But run, he could not, for seeing Arin dressed in the black armor of the king's Jacks was something too petrifying to bear. Scars covered his face. Some were pale and thin, while others were deep and silver. Etched, no doubt, by the hand of the sovereign of this cursed land. The rich warmth of Arin's brown eyes was taken over by black. A similar shade to that of Mark's. The corruption was in him. What strode toward him now, determined to take him, was not the man that saved him from the tower. Dan's face contorted as he fought through wave upon wave of emotions. Anger, despair, heartbreak-- mere flashes of what battles his heart fought at the sight of the man he came to save. Brian retreated from the throne room, grabbing Dan's arm to try and take him with. The prince, however, stood firm.
"Arin," he called as tears slipped through his lashes. "Don't do this."
His pleas held no match against the spirit-breaking torments inflicted upon the once noble knight. He was only a shell. If there were any part of Arin that still resided in that husk, it was dying.
"Danny, run!" Brian urged with a strong tug.
The prince gave one last look to Arin, forcing himself to remember that this was not the man he fell in love with. Before turning to flee with the captain, Dan cast a fiery glare to Mark. There were no words left to say. No hope of any surrender, no hope of overpowering both black knights and their king. The howls of the wolves were upon them now. Filled with the ferocity of anger, the prince joined his captain in a quick retreat. The shadows still danced around them as they sprinted down the narrowing corridor that led to the courtyard beyond the castle walls. It was as if the corruption pulsing through Mark had somehow brought the castle to life. It was a living beast, eager to trap in its shadowy web the ill fated Skyhillians. Their run only quickened as anger fueled them. Fear might have taken hold of them, but even in such darkness their hatred for the Wolf King and this damned place burned bright.
"We need to get back to Skyhill." Brian gasped for breath. "We need to rally the knights and ready our defenses."
"No," Dan snapped. "This ends here."
"Oh, and I'm guessing you have a plan for that? I might be a little headstrong sometimes, but I know a losing fight when I see one. We can't fight them, Danny. If we do, we'll just be another two for Fischbach's-- or whatever that thing is back there's-- army. Then who's going to tell the people of Skyhill what's coming for them?"
They came to a stop just before the doors that led out to the ashen wasteland as the prince stood firm before the captain. A fire burned in his eyes, a fire that raged with no end. His head shook, tousling the weighted and wet coils of his dark hair.
"I'm not leaving here until I have Arin and Mark is fucking dead."
"And how did that go the last time, exactly?" Brian pushed. "I don't know what that thing is, but he's not human, I know that much. And I'm going to take a stab in the dark and say that death didn't exactly calm his temper. You go back in there, Dan, he'll kill you."
The shadows pulsed like a heart. The sound of darkness grew louder. The black knights were coming.
"There are worse things than death, Brian," Dan said as he faced the shadows. "If you don't want to fight with me, that's fine. But it's because of me that all this happened, and it's time I face what I helped create."
Brian stared at him, weighing the scales of life and death. The fight in him was failing. With past efforts exhausting him, and the countless wounds he endured to get to this point slowing him, the age of the royal captain was more apparent now than it had ever been before. The wrinkles at his eyes were deeper somehow. The fire in him was nothing more than smoldering embers at this point, but he still remained at Dan's side. A breath rushed out of him and he gave a subtle nod. Though he didn't look quite sure of himself, he spoke out quickly, maybe before he could change his mind.
"How can I help?"
"Can you fight?" the prince asked just as quick, knowing it wouldn't be long until the wolves found them.
"Barely-- but that's not what you want to hear, is it?"
"And what about Barry and Ross? Do you know where they are?"
"Last I saw of them, they were in the sewers. Haven't seen them since."
"We need to find them, both of them," Dan said. "It's the only way we stand a chance. Whatever happens, I want Arin alive. Whatever Mark did to him, it can be fixed."
"Are you sure of that?" Brian pushed.
He wasn't. Of course he wasn't, but he had to have hope. And he had to make sure that his captain believed him. There was no part of him that was able to summon the courage to speak his lie, so for now, he nodded.
"Find them, Brian," Dan told him, nearly begging. "I can hold them off until then."
The captain didn't believe him, but saying anything else would waste the precious time they had. Brian shouldered his bow and with the hand of his good arm, he unsheathed his sword and slipped into the thriving shadows, allowing them to swallow him whole. Dan wasn't sure just how long he had until they would see each other again, but he had to do his best to hold off the beasts that chased after his doom. The prince took up his sword and tightened his trembling fingers over its handle. He heard the haunting howls of the wolves and with a bracing breath, he sprinted out the open arena of the courtyard.
This was the final stand.
The darkness veiled Brian's path, but it did not stop him from seeking out the heart of the castle. He scaled winding staircases, traversed corridors left in disarray, never allowing his fears to catch him. Torch sconces were few and far between and burned with an unholy light of sickening green. They were the eyes of the castle, ever watching, ever following him as he pushed further and further into the castle depths. A labyrinth of ruin laid out before him. A titan of stone and shade that tricked him at every turn. The corridors seemed to be changing. Whether or not this was a dark magic that the castle succumbed to at the rebirth of its master, Brian didn't know. So many questions flashed through his thoughts, but he did not allow them to take hold. He focused himself. Ross and Barry. Their faces were branded behind his eyes. He had to focus on them. No matter what happened, he had to find them.
He crossed into a new corridor and was greeted by strays from the Wolf King's pack. Teeth and eyes gleamed at him. All he had was a moment before they tore across carpets and rugs. His sword swung, knocking the first one aside. He heard the blade slice through its jaw before it fell lifeless to the side. The next was not so easily dispatched as it drove its teeth deep into the captain's arm. A cry escaped Brian as he tried to stand firm though the beast tried dragging him off to die in the darkness.
Gritting through pain, he swung his injured arm and bashed the muzzle of the monstrous wolf again and again. He felt the bones of his knuckles break and skin tear. Still, he bashed the wolf until its maws loosened long enough for him to retract before engaging with the upper hand. A shout boomed out of him, drenched in anger, as he swung down his sword with pure fury. Blood spurted, deep growls died to silence as the weight of the beast collapsed to the ground. Heavy breaths heaved in and out of the captain as he pried out his sword from bone and meat. He struggled forward, unable to run. His armor weighed him down like boulders. Just another burden for him to bear.
Curtains came to life beside shattered windows, catching wind to billow and dance like phantoms against the dark hall. Brian pushed forward. He curved down a hall. Dead end. Double back. His nerves were on fire, his frustration at its peak. A nervous sweat coated his skin and caught light from one of the sconces he passed. It took everything in him to suppress the need to call out for the two younger men. Maybe it would help his insanity to hear something other than the moaning storm outside the walls. He came to a stairwell and skipped down its steps on the tips of his toes. Round and round, it led him, further and further into the living darkness. Ghosts of his fears followed him. The walls closed in on him and the air fell thick. Horrible abominations could be inches before his eyes and he would never know. There was never darkness such as this. It smothered him, drowned him in its veils.
The stone beneath his boots became slick with some foul secretion. A putrid stench rose to curl up his nose, making him wince and turn his head away. Suddenly, he felt heat. Someone was here, right beside him. He pulled away, raising his sword as he nearly cried out in fright. Just then, a spark from a match. Light nearly blinded him.
"Brian?" Barry rushed, near to tears. "Oh my God, it's... it's really you."
"Barry," Brian breathed.
Before he knew it, the Rune-Maker was in his arms, gripping him tight. It was as if he feared him to be a ghost. Brian relished the moment together before pulling back and squaring off with Barry's frightened gaze.
"Where's Ross?" His whispered voice echoed around him.
"I-I don't know," Barry's voice trembled. "I couldn't find anyone-- I lost, I lost where I was. After the sewers, it was just, just darkness. This was my last match. I used all the others. I thought I would trapped down here forever. I think, I think someone else-- something else, is down here. It's been following me. I hear it. We need to get out of here."
"First, we need to find Ross. Dan needs us, all of us. Everything has gone to hell. We just need to..."
Brian's voice trailed away as he saw the terror widen Barry's eyes to gape. His words hung on the tip of his tongue, fearful to leave. Behind the sound of his heart pounding in his ears, he heard the rough gasping breath of something behind him. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end as he slowly turned to face off with the monster in the shadows.
The flickering light of Barry's match barely carved the edges of what loomed behind him, but those soulless white eyes were hard to misplace. With the last glimpse of light the match gave off, Barry and Brian stared in horror at Ross's ravenous eyes.
The light died, shrouding them once more in the weight of shadows.
Dan ran out into the courtyard where thunder roared and light birthed in violent streaks across the tempestuous sky. Freezing rain pelted him, driving needles into his skin. In the center of the yard, he waited. For the first sign of the wolves, for the approach of the dark knights. Pain riddled each moment that passed, that he waited, for something to unveil from the castle's shadows. He saw fur and teeth first as two wolves slipped into the rain and parted at the top of the staircase. Smiles pulled across their snarling muzzles as the two knights came next. The prince steadied himself and gripped tighter at his sword. Lunacy brought Jack's eyes to glow.
"There's nowhere to be running," the one-armed knight called out as he unfurled his razored whip. "Nowhere you can hide that we can't find you."
"I'm not hiding," Dan called back. "Not anymore."
Jacked throated a laugh as he came to the bottom steps. "Good boy! Now, where is your dear friend at?"
"It doesn't matter," the prince said. "He's gone."
Jack's smile fell for a moment and was replaced with a pout. "Well, that's a pity."
Beside him, the lumbering height of Arin stalked. There were no words for him to speak, but the ever constant glare he held against the prince spoke volumes. As they began to close in on him, Dan tried one more time to reach through the corruption and save Arin.
"Please," he pushed, the courage of his voice beginning to fail. "You don't have to do this, Arin."
"Oh, but he does," Jack answered. "We all got our role in this to play, don't we? You had your chance at being a part of the new world order. Now it's time for you to fall like all the others."
"Like I would make it that easy." Dan sneered. "You want me, then come fucking get me."
A twisted and crazed smile spread across Jack's face as he drew back his whip. "Gladly."
Ferocity riddled the lash of Jack's whip, sending razor tips to slice through the air in hunt for the prince's skin. Dan dove from its path, avoiding the initial strike, but not the second. The wicked tongue of needles curved after him, slicing clean against his leg. A cry escaped Dan and his eyes fell to the gash against his calf. He realized his momentary lapse in focus before it was too late and turned quick to the swiftly advancing Arin. His heavy sword swung at him and nearly caught him off guard. Their blades clashed and Dan was allowed his closest moment to the possessed knight.
"Fight through this, Arin," Dan demanded as he tried to push back against him, but found the black knight's strength unmatched. "Fight it!"
Arin forced down the contact of their swords and threw himself forward, rocketing his shoulder against the prince's chest. Dan teetered and stumbled backwards with only a moment to prepare for the next assault. Another lash of the demon whip. This time, its leather and metal tongue coiled around the blade of his sword. With one swift tug on the pommel, Dan was relieved of his weapon and stood against the two knights and two wolves unarmed. Lightning flickered overhead, further illuminating Jack's crazed face. The wolves behind him came to life and bound down the steps to race for the prince.
Dan spat a curse and turned toward the wall of the outer keep. With long strides, he sprinted for the remnants of a stable and leapt up to grab at its roof. Fingers dug into the clay plates as he hoisted himself up and away from the wolves' snapping jaws. Further still he ran, leaping up to claw his way up the wall whose walkways led to the spiraling towers at the castle's sides. His boots dug into footholds as he blindly reached for cracks and breaks in the bricks. He heard the quickened leather of the whip snap out against his heels, eager to dig into him and drag him back down to the courtyard below.
"Get back here!" Jack barked at him. "We'll make it quick and painless, Your Highness! You won't even feel a thing!"
Dan's breathed rushed out in misty coils through the torrents overhead. He turned his eyes back down to the courtyard to see Arin's eyes still driving daggers toward him. The anger slowly dissipated from Dan's face, leaving him with nothing but sorrow. The wolves howled and the two black knights stormed toward the stairwell that would lead to the walkway where Dan stood. Without a moment to spare, the prince ran across the cracking cobblestone, seeking the sanctuary of the towers.
"Barry, the matches! Light a fucking match!"
Ross leapt at the captain, forcing him down against the damp stones at their feet. He felt nails scratch against his neck and face. The cool air of heatless breaths rushed against his face, telling him that the dead bard was far closer to him than he would like.
"I-I can't!" Barry cried out, somewhere behind him. "That was my last one!"
"Goddamnit," Brian snarled before kneeing Ross and shoving him to the side.
He scrambled to his feet. Ross reached for him, his fingers just skimming his ankle, but Brian was fast to put distance between them. Along the way, he found the Rune-Maker by running straight into him. They had a disorienting moment before Brian snatched his shoulder and dragged him along from where he came. They fought through the shifting shadows, the pulsing pit of this hellish place, with Ross's screams bouncing between the walls as he gave chase. Up and up, they took to the stairs. Just before they were free from the horrors of the dungeons, Brian felt Barry slip from him. His weight tumbled and hit hard against the stone steps. Enough light crept into this stairwell, illuminating the white eyes of Ross and the black ooze slipping between his broadening grin. Barry cried out. He scrambled and pulled, but Ross was dragging him back down, back into the darkness.
"Brian!" he cried out, tears streaming down his face. "Please, don't leave me!"
The captain shifted his sword in his good hand and bound back down the steps. The blade rose as his eyes fell down to the bard. His face sorrowed. There was no anger, only sadness.
"I'm sorry," he told Ross.
His sword swung, again and again, until it separated the hand from Ross's arm. Before the living dead was able to rise and follow after them, Brian drove down his blade into Ross's chest, slipping it into the black hole that once ended his life. A wince of pain contorted Brian's face as he pushed it further and further until the screaming stopped. He lifted a boot and placed it upon the bard's shoulder and kicked him free of the blade. His body tumbled down the stairs, falling back into the darkness. Before Brian could allow this moment to plague his thoughts, he stooped down and helped Barry climb back up to his feet.
"Thank you," Barry breathed, tears still in his eyes. "Thank you."
"Just..." Brian struggled with the words lodged in his throat. Tears came to his eyes. "Just don't make me do that to you, too. All right?"
Together, they raced down the corridor in search for their prince.
Dan pried open the weight of the tower's heavy wooden door and stole away inside. It was quiet in the confines of this towering titan, but not for long. He gulped his breaths and slowly stepped away from the door face, knowing he would not be alone for much longer. His long fingers raked through his hair, pulling it away from his face to slick down against his scalp. His eyes fluttered closed, relishing the peace he was permitted to find. When he at last calmed himself, he turned his eyes upward to the creaking stairs that led further and further up. At the top, he would find another walkway leading out in branches to the other towers standing like guardians to the heart of the castle. The wolves would not be able to traverse such treacherous heights. It was the only way Dan knew he could level the playing field.
He made the ascent.
The only companion he had as he ran up the creaking boards was his thoughts. So many things burdened him, causing his faint light of hope to flicker and dim. He thought of the moments leading up to this. He thought of the comfortable loneliness of his tower in the hollows. He wasn't happy there, but he was content. The prince that resided in that tower would never think of defying the Wolf King like this-- never think of driving a knife through his heart. But here he was. They were so close to being free, but the last remaining obstacles would not fall easily. It would take every ounce of strength and faith they had. And even then...
He thought of Arin.
Those eyes didn't belong to him. That festering anger wasn't his-- it was Mark's. The question was if it could be undone. What if he couldn't save him? What if the only way to end this was to fight Arin? Dread twisted Dan's stomach into knots, making him feel the need to be sick. He couldn't think about that, he wouldn't let it come down to that. Right now, he needed to focus. Below, he heard the heavy, wooden door open. The knights had followed him. He gained enough ground to not fear their chase, but that did not slow his stride up the decrepit tower steps. It was one thing to face off against Jack, who in his current state hardly seemed a threat, so long as his whip was kept at bay-- but what sort of fight would Arin hold? If Brian was able to find the others and come to his aid, could they restrain him? And even if that were possible, they would still need to go after Mark.
Freeing his corruption from the moral dilemmas of his human soul only proved a greater threat. With the old Mark, no matter how angry he was, there was a chance of backing him down-- soothing him until he was in the right state of mind. With this new... creature-- no, there was no hope for that. It would take all of them to bring him down. There was no other way around it.
At last, Dan came to the upper landing. The air was damp and aged, leaving the prince to believe this place hadn't seen care for many, many years. His eyes strained in the dimness, hoping that a streak of lightning might creep through the cracking bricks to illuminate this round chamber. He took a slow step forward, fearing the floor might give out beneath him, before he was graced with that single flash of light.
His eyes rose just as it struck light to the room and he realized he was not alone.
It was then he realized why this tower had been left as a grave to the sole resident of its spire. Dan's stomach plummeted as he saw again a face that plagued his fondest of memories. Frozen, he faced the stitched together corpse of Skyhill's forgotten princess.
"Hello, Dana," the prince whispered.
"This way," Brian called as he cautiously led Barry through the maze of the castle's corridors.
No matter how far they traveled from the pit of the dungeons, the Rune-Maker's knees never stopped rattling. A fog overcame his eyes, turning the vibrant life in him to ruin. Brian looked back at him a time or two, wondering how much more this innocent soul could take before breaking. It would go unsaid how much the captain worried over his companion's state of mind. He needed him to stay strong. For his own sake, and for Dan's. Not knowing what to say to inspire the younger man, Brian held his tongue and stayed strong for the both of them. The last he had saw of the prince was out by the castle courtyard. With luck, they would be able to find him without stumbling upon the wolves or their demonic king. It was then that Brian began to wonder what to do about the black knights.
Jack was expendable, that much was for certain. After all that he had done since being sworn in under Brian's supervision, sworn to protect Skyhill and her people and abandoning them to serve a darker purpose, Brian would be happy to dispatch him himself. As for Arin...
"Were you, were you able to find him, find Arin?" Barry whispered out to the darkness. "I got lost after the tunnels, so... I--"
"Yeah," Brian distantly replied. "I found him."
The tone of the captain's voice worsened the state of worry over the Rune-Maker's face, causing his step to hasten. "Is he all right? Where is he?"
Brian sighed out a deep and heavy breath. "Fischbach did something to him-- he changed him. He's not on our side anymore."
Barry's widened eyes fell downcast, his lips sealed in a tight line.
"I don't think we can bring him back," the captain continued. "Danny might see hope in him, but we can't be idealisitic with this. I know he's your friend, but I can't risk Danny's life over the reaching hope that we can fix what that psychotic bastard broke. I swore an oath to protect Skyhill and I will abandon that for no one."
"What are you saying?" Barry softly asked, his face already fighting back tears.
Brian looked back to the Rune-Maker, apathetic and cold-- as he needed to be. "Killing them all is the only way, Barry. Leaving any of them alive is too high a risk. If I can get the chance at taking down Arin, I'll do it. It's the only way."
Barry wanted to fight, to beg, for the captain to reconsider-- of course he did, Brian could see it on his face. He could see his mouth open with a waterfall of words churning over his tongue, but those words never came. The steadfast determination of the decision burning in Brian's eyes was one that no alternative could extinguish. His mind was made, his course set. Surrender overcame Barry, and he followed silently behind the captain, attempting to hide his tears.
Whether or not it meant the prince hating him for the rest of their lives, the captain knew what he had to do. Brian was the only one who would not hesitate. With heavy grief, he would bring mercy to the corrupted knight by ending his life.
For peace, for the safety of his prince, and for Skyhill.
Light flickered between the bricks as Dan carefully rounded the dead husk of what he once called his sister. Her eyes were bulbous and white, just like every other soulless creature Mark created. A creak of the boards beneath his feet brought her gaze over to him. She leapt, reaching frayed nails to scratch and cling, but their touch never met. A chain chimed and pulled tight at her feet, stopping her mere inches from the prince. There was no surprise on Dan's face, no horror. The sight of her was nothing new to him, for she had been hidden away in this castle just as long as Mark. She was Mark's first ragdoll creation, the first success of stripping power away from God and giving it back to Man. A gift, that's what she was.
She can go back to Skyhill, Mark had said with the brightest of smiles. He was proud. So very, very proud. All Dan could do was stare at the stitches, at the body parts that didn't belong to his little sister. What stood before him was a monster, an abomination that never should have been given life.
I had to use other materials to reconstruct her, the wolf left little behind-- but she's still the princess. This way, she can go back to King Avi-- she can be the heir of Skyhill. You can stay with me now, Daniel. Forever and always, remember?
"I never forgot," Dan whispered out to his sister who still fought at her restraints. "I'm so sorry, Dana. I never wanted this for you."
Slowly, the prince inched his way along the wall until he found the door at the other side of the chamber. His hand fell atop its lever and he hesitated before escaping back out to the mercy of the elements. He looked back to Dana.
"This ends tonight, Dana. If there's any part of you left in there, I want you to know how much I love you. I never forgot you, never, and I never will. I know I couldn't save you back then, but I promise I will save you now."
The husk of the princess watched him. She no longer lunged for him, no longer cried out in anger or hunger. Somehow, Dan felt as though she could understand.
"Goodbye, Dana," he whispered to her as the sound of the knights grew closer. "Tell Avi I'm sorry I wasn't there for him."
There was a part of him that wanted to stay, that wanted to protect her from what Jack and Arin might do to her, but there was hardly anything left of her to save. He forced his eyes away and pried open the tower door. A gale of wind and rain washed against him, chilling him to the bone. Dan kept his eyes forward and focused on the connecting tower as he made his way out onto the narrow bridge. Walls of wind pulled and pushed him. Moss and grime brought slickness to the stones, forcing him to proceed with dire caution. It took everything in him not to look down. His nerves were shot and his blood ran cold as he knew how deep the drop was from this height. The ground below was a distant death, but one that he would ultimately find if he could not balance on this decaying thread over the barren cursed lands. It was when he found himself in the center of the walkway that the knights at last found him.
"Where do you think you can go?" Jack called out to him over the howling wind. "I told you, there's nowhere you can hide that we won't find you!"
The prince slowed to a stop on the bridge. The coils of his long hair clung to his jaw, bringing rain droplets to course down the length of his neck. He breathed in courage and strength before turning to face the two knights who stood shoulder to shoulder, weapons readied.
"And I told you," Dan snarled back, fire burning in his eyes. "I'm done hiding."
"Good," Jack said. His eyes flitted over to Arin. With a smirk tugging at the corners of his lips, he nodded his head. "Tear him to pieces."
Arin stormed out across the walkway. There was no fear in his eyes over whether or not the raging storm would push him to his death. There was no emotion at all behind those black eyes that bore holes through the prince's skin. Dan did not back down even as the shadow of death reached out to claim him. He stood tall, he stood firm, and with his failing hope he matched Arin's glare and called out to him.
"Is this really what you want, Arin? Is this what you fought so hard for? When the wolves came, you fought them. When the horde came, you fought them. When Mark found us in that village, you fought him. I need you to keep fighting this, Arin. I need you to come back to me. You're not his knight, Arin, you're mine. "
The sword rose and swung, but the prince leapt back and avoided its nick. His boots slipped against the stone and he caught himself before falling. Like a war drum, his heart raged, but he lifted his eyes back up to the sight of the black knight, Arin, silhouetted by a strike of lightning.
"I'm not going to fight you, Arin," Dan cried out. "I never, ever want to hurt you and I know you never wanted to hurt me-- he's making you do this!"
Again the sword swung and again the prince moved to avoid its blow, but he was not so fortunate. A lick of pain shot through his chest as the edge of Arin's blade grazed his skin and sliced clean through his tunic. To the bridge, he fell. A hiss escaped him as he fought through the pain and returned his pleading eyes back to the man standing over him. Rain slicked down Arin's hair against his cheeks, bringing it to frame his dark eyes and ever lowering scowl.
"Come back to me, Arin," Dan begged. "I need you now more than ever."
As Dan lay there, waiting for the final blow that would extinguish the hope he had for reaching through to break this terrible spell, Arin stood over him, hesitating. He stood frozen in his place, but there was something behind those eyes. A flash of lightning illuminated the black-- no, the rich brown-- the warmth and life that lay hidden in such darkness. The anger fell and for a brief moment, something changed.
"Kill him," Jack boomed as he started forward. "What are you waiting for?"
"Arin," Dan called out in so soft a voice. "I promised you I would never leave you, just like you promised me. Come back to me."
"Do it, Arin," Jack snarled.
"Arin, don't-- you can fight through this--"
"He's the reason you're like this," Jack shouted. "It's because of him that all of this happened. Do it now!"
"Remember your promise, Arin. Remember our promise."
"Obey your king!"
"Keep fighting, you can beat this."
"Just kill him!"
Torn from the sickness of his corruption, Arin cried out as he rose his sword and brought it back to strike. Below him, Dan lay defeated. His shoulders slumped and the emotion drained from his face as he realized that he had lost this war. The last breath of warmth he had escaped him as he watched the blade deliver its last and final blow. It happened all too fast for him to react. Rain slipped down the sword and trickled off in a quick spray as Arin spun around and in one, quick blow severed Jack's head from his shoulders. Blood poured out over the black metal of his armor. The headless corpse crumpled and dropped off the side of the bridge, falling far to the rocks below.
All Dan could do was lay there, weighted by rain and disbelief, as only he and Arin remained between the two towers.
The black sword fell and clanged against the stone at the dark knight's feet. Arin's breaths rushed in and out and his eyes darted across the horizon as horrors overcame him.
"What's... happening to me?" he asked as tears shimmered in his dark eyes. Before Arin fell lost to his grief and terrors, he looked down at the prince. His face contorted in overwhelming emotion at the sight of Dan's blood. "I... did I do that to you?"
"Arin." Dan gasped, forcing himself forward to his knees. He grabbed the cold metal of Arin's gauntlet and held firm. "Fuck, Arin-- it's, it's all right. Just keep calm, okay? Everything's all right."
Arin shook his head and tried to pull away, but Dan held tighter. "It's not, though. I... oh my God, I, I... fuck, I think I killed someone, Dan. They begged me to stop, but I... I fucking didn't. I can't... I can't remember. Why can't I fucking remember?"
The prince stood and raised his hands to cup at Arin's cheeks, steadying his head. "Arin. Arin, look at me. Look at me. Mark did something to you, all right? He fucked with your head. You can fight this, I know you can. I need you to keep fighting this."
Arin's shoulders shook as his breaths became labored and uneven. "I just want it to stop. Make it stop. Please, just make it all stop."
The prince bit into his lips as he forced back his own tears. Of all the things he saw in this castle, of all the horrors he lived and nightmares he faced, they all paled before the sight of the sickness taking hold in Arin. He gripped tighter, eager to keep him here, to keep him sane, but he feared it would not be enough. He already knew the ending to the tale of this dark corruption.
Swallowing back his sobs, Dan forced a soft smile. "It's going to be all right, okay? It's going to be over soon and, and... we don't have to fight anymore. We don't have to be scared or, or alone anymore, okay?"
Arin bowed his head against Dan's. Together, they held each other beneath the malevolent tempest. There was nothing now but them. There was no horde and no corruption. There was no king or wolf that lay as dormant fears in their mind. In this moment, it was only them. Through countless fights and over untold lands, through perils and terrors and every obstacle that stood in their path, they had found each other. There was hope after all, no matter how small. Standing now in Arin's arms, Dan feared nothing.
Arin's thumbs brushed over Dan's cheeks. His misty eyes flitted back and forth across the prince's face. "I don't want to hurt you."
"You won't." Dan laughed, masking a sob.
"Yes," Arin whispered. "I will."
Dan was silent.
"You need to go," Arin begged. "You have to leave-- if you, if you don't, I'm going to hurt you, I know I am. Please, I don't want to hurt you."
"I'm not leaving you." Dan snapped. "I promised you--"
"--I know, Dan. And you have no idea how fucking happy I am to hear you say that. Back in the woods, before this, I wanted-- I wanted to tell you--"
"Arin, you don't need to--"
"--yes, I do," he rushed before Dan could finish. "I have to tell you, because I don't think I'm ever going to get this chance again. There is nothing I wouldn't do for you, Dan. If I had to go through all of this again, just to be able to meet you, I would... in a heartbeat, I would. You are the only thing in this fucked up world that makes any sense to me. You are the most beautiful, kind-hearted, wonderful person that I have ever met, and I need you to know how crazy you make me." His voice cracked and he stopped to steady himself. "I love you, Dan. I loved you from the very beginning. I love you so much that I want you to break your promise and leave."
"What? Arin, no. No, I won't, I won't do it," Dan breathed, weightless.
"I'm going to hurt you-- he's going to make me hurt you, and if I do, I... I don't know how I could live with myself, Dan. Please, don't be here when I'm not me anymore."
The prince's fingers gripped tighter on Arin, anchoring him in this embrace, fearing what it might mean if he were to let go. Tears blinded him and his lips trembled. His eyes fluttered closed and he pushed their foreheads against each other. "I can't lose you. I didn't come this far to lose you."
"You'll always have me, Dan," Arin said. "No matter what happens, I'm always going to be yours."
A bittersweet smile almost broke out across the prince's face, if even for a moment, but the weight of torment lowering his heart into the pit of his stomach was too burdensome. His sanity fell to shreds; the sole victim of the war his mind now waged. His mouth opened, lips parted, eager to sway the knight away from his damning decision. Before Dan was able to mutter the words he believed may change their fate, he felt Arin shift forward and shroud him with his heat. His eyes rose just as their bodies came flush and melted beneath the torrent of rain. The soft scars on Arin's mouth molded over Dan's quivering lips. The prince weakened in the knight's arms as they bid their haunting farewells in the form of a kiss.
When Arin withdrew far enough to speak, his fingers gripped onto the sides of Dan's head.
"You don't have much time," the knight told him. "You have to go, Dan."
The prince held on for a moment longer. He looked over Arin's face and drew every detail vividly in his mind. Rings ran beneath his eyes, darkening and exhausting his once lively face. This was not the same man that climbed that tower in the hollows. He wanted to hold him, to soothe the scars and banish the horrors those dark eyes had seen, but Dan knew his fantasies could no longer delay the inevitable. His hands retreated from Arin, hesitantly so, until they stood before each other with matching somber stares.
"This isn't goodbye," Dan told Arin just before a soft smile dispelled the sorrow on his face. "I still haven't taught you how to dance."
Arin smiled back, just as weak. "Maybe someday, Your Highness."
"Someday," Dan echoed.
Unable to look at Arin any longer without being forced to remain by his side, Dan lowered his eyes and quickly rushed past him to the crooked tower. He felt the knight brush against him, just as unwilling to let the other go. He couldn't look back. No matter how much he wanted to, he knew it would only make this more difficult a burden to bear. This wasn't goodbye, Dan thought as he opened the door and slipped back into the still darkness.
Before the night met its end, Dan would strike down the Wolf King and claim back Arin's soul. Whether or not it meant sacrificing himself to do so.
Chapter 23: Last Stand at Skyhill
I'm splitting this last bit into two chapters. Life has been crazy since I last updated, and I wanted to give you guys at least a glimpse of the end. I do plan to finish this story soon. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy!
Dan was quick to descend the tower where he abandoned his heart. Each step was agonizing to take. No matter how much distance he put between he and his broken promise, the warmth of Arin never left him. He wore it like armor. With it, maybe he could find the strength to overcome what kept them apart. Just maybe he could put an end to the madness he helped create. Down, down, down the staircase he went. The sound of his boots against the planked steps harmonized with his pounding heart. The state of which worsened as the stairs slowly turned to stone slabs. The prince slowed until he at last came to a stop in the deep darkness. This was not the same tower he had entered before. Something changed. The sounds of the windstorm had since fallen silent. Surely, in the time it took for Dan to enter back into the tower's hold, the storm did not find its peace. He continued onward, hesitantly so.
Down, down, down he went. Each step he took more lingering than the last. Something foul twisted in his stomach. Premonitions brought his eyes to flicker through the darkness, searching for some telling sign as to why fear begged him to go no further. A foul stench wafted over him, nearly petrifying him in his place. His face contorted in the dark, a hand rose to cover his mouth and nose in the hopes to barricade the horrid smell from his senses.
A glimmer of a sickening green light flickered to life in the darkness, attracting Dan's eye quick to its flame. Further down he followed it. No matter how far he went, it remained just out of reach. He thought of turning back, for a time, but upon turning his eyes upwards to the platform that should be awaiting above, he saw nothing but black. He came to the end of the spiral before the mysteries of this wicked work plagued him any further. The soft sound of dripping echoed in this chamber. Whether it was droplets of rain or something more sinister, Dan didn't know. Just when he thought he walked alone in this infinite night, a voice spoke out to him.
"You've been busy," the deep voice wheezed.
The prince reached the source of the flickering, green light; a bowl, shallow with oil, sat atop a stone pedestal. The severed head of the Wolf King's disciple, Jack, leaned against the bowl as tribute. His wide, lifeless eyes still clung to his last emotion of anger before ultimately meeting his end. Dan did not look to the head for long, but turned back toward the darkness beyond and continued forward.
"You're next, Mark," he called out to those shadows. "You can hide all you want, but that isn't going to change how this ends."
"Oh?" The rolling rumble sounded intrigued. "And how is that?"
"With you, dead. That's the only way." Dan pressed on. He could feel the building of sweat on his neck, dripping and mixing in with the rain water that still weighed him. "Even if you were to kill me, you'd still be hunted, Mark. By Skyhill and the other kingdoms, by knights and kings and any other fucking person in this world who has any ounce of decency left in them. Besides, you're dead already, aren't you? It's only a matter of time before your body rots away, leaving nothing behind but your hate. Your corrupted soul can't change that."
The shadows moved and drew back like a veil and behind their cover crept what remained of the Wolf King. What Dan looked upon now was not the familiar face of the man who knew him best, but a stranger. Those black veins twitched beneath his skin. They branched at the corners of his scowl and wove into his muscles, disappearing deep inside him. The space between them dwindled as Mark neared, his black eyes narrowing to slits.
"You are gravely underestimating what you're dealing with, Daniel," he said as calmly as he could, though his face was betrayed by the anger tensing his jaw.
The shadows around them turned to needles. Dan felt them prod into his skin, digging deep like claws to hold him where he stood. His throat contracted and forced down a swallow as he looked down upon the Wolf King. His lips were parched when they finally parted. "Is that why you brought me here? To remind me of how stupid I am, just like you always do? Or did you trap me here to kill me?"
Mark hesitated a moment. He at last shook his head and reached his corrupted hand up to touch at the prince's cheek. The feeling of his bones were chilling.
"Oh, Daniel," Mark breathed. His voice almost warm. "I want your death to mean something. Before the walls of Skyhill, when my Horde overcomes your soldiers and citizens alike, when your people cry out for you to save them-- that is when you will die. Your kingdom will look upon you in their time of need and you will fail them. And when you have fallen and your last breath leaves you, I will be there to raise you again."
"What?" Dan whispered, fearing the bitter edges of the Wolf King's smirk.
"You say 'until death do we part'," Mark growled, shifting nearer. "And I say, it will never have us. Forever... and always. Just like we promised. You're afterlife has already started, Danny. I'm your personal hell."
The prince and king kept their gazes matched as Dan slowly began to retreat. The shades drew between them like rivers. The vision of his sister, Dana, was quick to his mind. Her stitched together seams, her white, gaping eyes-- never blinking, never alive-- these were the promises waiting for him. A prisoner in his own skin. No matter how he screamed, his undead lips would never allow his anguish through. A lifetime-- no, an eternity-- chained to the monster before him. It was not only Skyhill he fought for now. If he fell, if he dared sacrifice himself, Mark would only bring him back as something horrid and wrong. The further he slipped away, the darker the Wolf King became, but his words were at his ears, whispered and close.
"I wonder, are you aware how much of your precious time you have already wasted? The Horde is not outside these walls, my dear, not anymore. Their eyes are on Skyhill, as are mine. Meet me before your ivory walls. We will end this as Kings."
The darkness swallowed the prince.
Into the black, he fell.
The first thing he felt before he saw light again was the soft and cold patter of rain against his cheek. He shivered in his own pale skin. Clothes clung against him, heavy with rain. There was no way of telling how long he had been kneeling in the muck and water of the castle's courtyard. He felt fevered and sick as he came back to life and stirred to look at the world around him. His mind was reduced to pieces, as was his sanity. Knees wobbled as he rose to his feet and cast his eyes up to the staring windows lining the Wolf King's castle walls. A great question strung the air above his head and hung ominous like a guillotine's steel. He swore to save Arin, he promised himself that. Turning his back on the hope of seeing his knight again was a death sentence to what little of Arin remained. But if he chose to stay, if he sided with his heart and fought for the man who stole it, Skyhill would be lost.
A promise laid on Avi's grave. Dan promised to fix this, to right the wrongs he committed. If he let his kingdom burn, he would be a king to nothing but ashes. Turning his back on Skyhill would be a disgrace to the legacy Avi fought to build. Tears blinded Dan's eyes. For the majority of his life, Dan was led by his heart. He followed his own desires and the consequences for doing so were great. Despite how much he wanted to follow it now, to save Arin, he knew he would never forgive himself if he did. He was King Leigh Daniel Avidan, and it was time he acted as such.
He did not remain alone in the courtyards for long. He did not hear the approach of others, but their sudden presence did not seem to startle him at all.
"Danny," Brian cried out at the sight of his kingdom's heir. Though the captain was injured and exhausted, he sprinted down the castle steps and raced to Dan's side. His hands grabbed at his shoulders, as if he were almost afraid he wasn't real. "Christ, what happened to you? Are you all right?"
It took a moment for Dan to swim through his thoughts and come back to reality. His eyes rolled over to the frantic captain before him. Tension strung between his every muscle. The gleam of fear was bright in his blue eyes.
"We need to go now," Dan said in a distant and airy voice. He calmly removed Brian's hands from his shoulders and began toward the gates.
His companions were slow to follow. It seemed what horrors resided in the Wolf King's castle had swept the life from Barry's face. The Rune-Maker's eyes had since darkened, clouded now by an unmistakable fog of traumatizing sights. Before the prince could set himself to the path back to the magic door, he did a double-take at who all joined him, and who did not.
"Where's Ross?" he asked, just before feeling the weight of dread weigh down his stomach.
Barry's stoic face began to crumble. The answer would not come from him, but the captain.
"He didn't make it through." Brian's eyes fell downcast.
Dan's lips sealed into a tight line as he rushed himself along his path. Sickness churned in him and his belly burned. So many words fell lodged in his throat. Apologies, declarations of anger and grief-- these were just glimpses of what he could not find the strength to say. His storming stride hastened as anger drove him. He did not feel the cool of the rain or the cutting kiss of the vicious gale. All Dan could feel was anger.
"What of Arin?" Brian called out as he and Barry gave chase. "Has he been corrupted for too long?"
That once determined stride fell weak for a time. Muscles, once tensed, began to loosen as Dan flitted his eyes up to the distant horizon. It was the way back to Skyhill. The way back to his home that he swore to protect. He closed his eyes. "It doesn't matter anymore. Mark and the Horde are on their way to Skyhill. If we don't leave now, we could never hope to warn our people in time."
"To Skyhill," the captain growled. "And then we end this once and for all."
"Once and for all," Barry's soft voice echoed.
Dan and Brian matched gazes. A flash overheard illuminated their eyes. The prince saw finality in his sworn captain's stare. Whether or not they would all live to see the end of this, Brian would not fall before seeing the Wolf King and his last remaining knight vanquished. This knight of Justice would never forgive this corruption, Dan knew it.
He swallowed down the dry patch in his throat before giving a nod.
"Once and for all," he said.
They shimmied down the makeshift rope of Dan's tower, one after another. As Dan and Brian collected what they needed to make the journey back through the ghostlands, Barry relinquished Ross's horse of its saddle and contents. Holding still to the bridle and reins, Barry watched as the horse took off through the ghostlands, free forever of its rider. Dan wanted to be there for Barry. He wanted to help him through this, but he couldn't. Instead, he hastened his work. Atop a horse of their own, they took off through the rambles of the hollows to save the only thing that Mark's darkness had not yet corrupted. So long as an Avidan breathed, the kingdom of Skyhill would not fall under reign of the Wolf King. Their horses raced through sweltering heats and frigid nights. Adrenaline kept Dan awake. Fear and Fate kept him awake.
"It's our last chance to end this," Dan told his counterparts over their campfire. "It's our last chance to save our home."
He swore he caught glimpses of the soulless undead marching through the morning fogs. One by one in harmonious step, they went. Their jaunt seemed aimless, but their dead gaze was locked on Skyhill. The final grains of sand were slipping through the hourglass. The weight of thousands of souls bore down on his shoulders. He could already hear their screams. Amongst the pandemonium stood a black knight. The horrors were rampant around him, but all Dan could focus on was him. He could feel the curve of his cheek. He could feel his heat. Once more he felt those arms encircle him. Once more he felt those lips.
Dan closed his eyes.
No, he needed to focus.
He is Leigh Daniel Avidan, King of Skyhill and Her People, the one True King to the throne. His life for the country. His duty to his rule.
Still, those dark eyes haunted him.
As he lay near the remnants of a campfire, one day's journey from his home, his eyes stared up at the stars, searching for divine intervention. His hands rose to tuck behind his neck and he caught the glint from his crumpled ring. He was almost surprised to see it. He had nearly forgotten about its existence upon leaving the castle. Dan looked over the once beautiful, gold ring. He expected to be washed over by memories and broken promises, but he felt nothing. Whatever remained of his love for Mark died on this journey. There was nothing stopping him now from ending this. His tether to the Wolf King was severed. All that he looked at now was nothing but a broken, gold ring. It held no meaning for him anymore. It no longer burned with hatred or fell cool with the prince’s cold memories, so there was hardly a reason to keep the cursed thing. Gritting his teeth, Dan wiggled the ring back and forth against his bruised and swollen finger. The pain was immense as jagged metal bits nipped into his skin, but after some effort, he was free of its binding grip. He gave the thing one, final lasting glance before chucking it far into the forest depths where it would remain lost until it rusted away. He thought that would be the end to his evening. Relieved of the ring’s weight, both physically and emotionally, Dan thought he would lay back down and drift off to the last peaceful place he would find before the battlefield in the morning. Instead, as he turned back to rest against his bedroll, he noticed he was not the only one who was awake.
Barry laid on his side, clutching tight in his hands a precious and small thing. The Rune-Maker tried his hardest to hush his sobs, but his efforts were in vain. Dan knew what tormenting path his mind was on. He could almost hear the terrible thoughts of ‘what if’, ‘if only’, and ‘I should have’. Perhaps he should have given him space, Dan thought. The pain of losing someone so close could not be soothed by apologies and cheerful dreams. But he knew also that being alone after such a loss was even worse a thing.
“He loved you, Barry,” Dan whispered so soft, as to not stir their sleeping captain. “In his crazy Ross way, he loved you.”
“I know,” returned the Rune-Maker who pressed shut his eyes to stall the newest wave of tears. “He said after this he was going back to that village. Said he met a girl. Holly, I… I think. He was going to start a life with her. We go through there in the morning. She’ll be waiting for him.” Barry’s face contorted as he no longer could control himself. “How am I suppose to look her in the eye? How do I tell her he’s never coming back?”
Barry’s body shuddered with sobs. He clutched tighter at the small item in his hands. At the sight of him reduced to rubble, the prince’s chest felt empty and deep. These were the untold stories of the heroes. While their armor glistened in the light, the night haunted them. Nightmares from years of torment, the loss of loved ones, the fear of losing what little remained: the valiant heroes’ happy ending. To shoulder the horrors of this world so others may live in peace. This was not the life for someone with their heart on their sleeve.
“What do you have?” asked Dan in the attempts to take his thoughts away from the dark future waiting for the Rune-Maker. “In your hand, I mean.”
Barry’s fingers uncurled, allowing the brief glimpses of moonlight to illuminate the rounded edges of a small piece of charcoal. To anyone else, it was undistinguishable from any other piece, but to Barry, it was treasure.
“He would draw pictures when he thought no one was watching. Art was the only thing in this world that could calm him down. This is all I have left of him.”
Slowly, Barry’s fingers curled back over the piece as he clutched it to his heart, as if it might be able to warm him. It might be the only thing that could on this cold night. That was until the breath of light took over their once slumbering campfire. Sitting up and now kindling its embers was Brian.
As the captain prodded the limbs and tinder he placed on the campfire, he spoke. “You have more than just that, Barry. You have your memories. He isn’t gone from you so long as you keep him in your thoughts.” Brian watched the fire come to life with a languid gaze. “No matter how far it seems you are from him, he’s always with you. Honor those memories you have and draw strength. Tomorrow, we will avenge him and all others Fischbach threatens. Tomorrow, we will make Ross proud.”
Warmth filled the Rune-Maker. His words he kept silent, but he gave a firm nod.
Just then, Dan remembered.
“Brian,” he breathed out over the flames. “Rachel and Audrey.”
“Skyhill isn’t the only thing I fight for tomorrow.” Brian glanced up, his blue eyes aflame by the fire light.
“Brian.” Barry frowned. “Look at yourself. You’re in bad enough shape to move, let alone fight.”
“Say whatever you want, but my decision is made up.”
“But, you’ll die.”
“Then I die,” Brian agreed. “I can’t turn my back on this injustice. This isn’t just about Skyhill and our people. This is about Audrey and what kind of future I want her to live in. Cowering under a witch king is not something I would ever want for her. So, I’ll fight. I’ll go down fighting. For Skyhill, for Audrey, for our future.”
“I wish I could be that brave,” Barry said as he looked down on the piece of charcoal. “I just… I’m so afraid.”
“Being brave doesn’t mean not being afraid,” Brian softly said back, a weak smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “If we’re being honest here, I’ve never been so scared. I’m terrified, Barry. There is so much that will be lost if we can’t end this now. But those memories I have of Rach and Audrey, just like your memories of Ross, will give me strength. Even if I never get to see them again, I can be brave enough to make sure other fathers don’t have to say goodbye to their little girls.”
The three of them looked to the campfire and its softly crackling wood. The doom of tomorrow loomed over their heads like a fog, but that didn’t stop Dan from finding a shred of happiness in this dark time. A smile crooked over his face at the light-hearted thought that went through his head. He turned his eyes up and looked back and forth between his silent companions.
“If everything worked out,” he said to them, shifting where he sat on his bedroll. “If we were actually able to do it… and survive. What would you do first after it all?”
“First?” Brian echoed before huffing a laugh. “There’s only one thing I plan to do after we put Fischbach in the ground.”
“Yeah?” Dan prodded.
“I’m going to go home and make love to my wife until neither of us can walk.”
A surprised laugh slipped out of Barry. The sound of it brought a warm smile to the prince.
“And you then?” Brian asked Dan. “What in the world could the new king of Skyhill possibly want to do after his victory?”
“If everything worked out?” His eyes fell to the soothing dance of the flames. Dan lost himself to his thoughts for only a moment before he smiled fondly. “I would throw a ball. Everyone in all the kingdoms would be there. There would be food and music… and dancing. Every day would be like that if tomorrow was ours.”
“Oh, great,” the captain mumbled. “Another fucking royal waste of time.”
“Fuck off, Brian.” Dan laughed.
“And how about you, Barry?” the eldest of them asked. “What does your perfect future hold?”
The Rune-Maker sat in thought for a while. His lips pinched together behind the wires of his dark beard. When his innocent eyes finally lifted, he answered. “I can barely think that far ahead right now. I… I don’t even know what I want to do. I don’t think I can go back to traveling. And at this point, I don’t even remember which way is home.”
Dan’s smile fell as he watched Barry mull over his thoughts by biting into his lips. It was such a curious thing to see his own insecurities mirrored on the Rune-Maker before him. Quietly, he rose from his bedroll and crossed the cold dark ground between them. Dan sat himself down beside Barry.
“When we win tomorrow,” he began. “I’m going to be king and… I have no idea how to do that. I’m going to need all the help I can get.”
Barry looked up at him with misty eyes.
“You wouldn’t have to stay in Skyhill forever. I mean, you’d get a home and horse and anything else you might want, but you could still do your traveling. And when you get tired of the road, you know you always have a home and friends to come back to.”
A mix of emotions fought for control over Barry’s face. Words struggled on the way over his tongue, bringing Dan to feel a pull at his heartstrings.
“I… I would love that, Dan,” Barry answered, smiling through the tears.
“But before that,” Brian began, his light-hearted expression falling to crumble in the flames, “we have a war to win.”
Barry and Dan lost their smiles and nodded at the severity of their captain’s words.
“We can do it, can’t we?” asked Barry as he turned to look at the prince.
“We have to,” Dan answered.
Together, they watched the fire slowly die and the night dwindle away. Before they knew it, or prepared for it, it was their last morning of peace before the last face off between the rival kings.
Today was their day of war.
They awoke before dawn and arrived at the ruined village by daybreak.
There were little supplies they needed, but the pressing concerns for the captain's wellbeing led them to find a doctor. Bones were set back into place and wounds were wrapped. The threshold Brian had for pain was unlike anything Dan had ever saw. As needles pushed in and out of his skin as the nurse stitched a wound, the captain hardly winced. The sight of so much blood and discolored bruises was enough to send Dan's stomach rolling. He stepped outside to let the doctors finish their work and saw down the street a sorrowing sight.
Waves of survivors aimlessly wandered past Barry and Holly, who stood still in the street. Dan could not make out the words, but nothing was clearer than seeing the exact moment her heart shattered. Before the tears were able to swallow up her eyes, Barry pulled out from his pocket the small piece of drawing charcoal. He took her hand and placed the charcoal against her palm before curling her fingers over it. Even as tears filled Barry's eyes, he smiled at her. They embraced one another, turning to ruins in each other's arms. When they bid goodbye and Barry left her side, Holly looked down to that simple piece of charcoal and smiled on it as though it were the greatest gift in the world.
With Brian mended and Barry relieved of grief, the three companions took to the road again, destined for Skyhill.
Their horses speed never waned as one by one they raced down the winding path to the gates of their kingdom. Seeing the city just over the hillside brought them great relief. They all shared the fear that the Wolf King had beat them here only to watch them return to the still smoking rubble. Despite the doom hanging over their heads, it was a small enough blessing that his people were alive and well. Their voices rose from atop the walls and the gate lowered for their entry. Brian wasted no time and rode to greet the gateman and posted guards.
“Round up the men,” the captain barked. “Call people to the castle. We’re under attack.”
"Attack?” the guard echoed in horror. “B-but, by who?”
"Just do what I say!”
“And what should we do?” Barry asked as he neared Brian.
"Barry, I need you to grab a group of people and begin fortification. Use whatever you can find, I need barricades at the other gates. No one in and no one out. We can't risk any of his vermin to get inside.”
“Got it.” The Rune-Maker urged his horse forward and took off.
"Danny, you need to speak to the people here in the main district. I’ll head off to get messengers to spread the word. If I know Fischbach, he’s not going to be generous and give us much time to prepare.”
The prince looked up and watched as the heavy gate was drawn up and secured. The fear in the guardsmen’s eyes was almost luminescent. “You’re wrong,” Dan replied. “He’d give us all the time in the world.”
Brian stared at him, confused.
“Mark would want us to give our best, just to prove how not even that could stop him.”
A deep breath puffed out Brian’s chest as his puzzlement melted into anger. Without a word, he struck his heels into the belly of his horse and raced down the street to prepare for battle. Meanwhile, Dan remained, trying to understand how he was meant to inspire his people when all he could do was think of how useless he was against the corruption that took Arin from him.
Waves of people gathered before the castle gates. They were led closer by horse mounted knights. Voices clashed in this heaping crowd. There was fear here, even anger. From atop the castle’s outer keep, Dan watched the unease grow wild. Besides the howling voices below, it was quiet. The prince’s long fingers smoothed out over the porous stone wall. He took deep breaths, steady and slow. Amongst this chaos, Dan withdrew to a serene thought. He felt again the icy rain of the cursed lands mist over his cheeks and neck. The rough, worn leather of black gloves kissed at the corners of his mouth. The wind groaned and lightning screamed, but all he could see were Arin’s eyes.
The prince took a deeper breath.
“It’s time,” Brian called out as he approached the prince’s side. “My men are blockading the outer gates as we speak. Word is spreading and people are gathering. No point in drawing it out now.”
Dan was silent for a moment. His lips pursed in a tight line, as if to keep down the fear crawling up his throat. How was he meant to stand before these people as a leader when all he felt like was a child? The weight of Brian’s hand fell on his shoulder, beckoning his attention to turn.
"You’re not in this alone anymore,” Brian told him. “It’s not just me standing behind you, Danny. Our kingdom stands behind you, but every man, woman, and child here needs us just as much as we need them. What I’m trying to say here is… don’t fuck this up.”
A shocked laugh escaped Dan, bringing the captain to smile.
The intimate moment swiftly passed them as Brian came to stand at attention by his kingdom’s heir. Dan’s shoulders squared and his head lifted high. A breeze greeted him, twisting and twirling his long, dark curls. Composed as much as he could be, he gave a nod to his captain. Brian turned himself to one of the bannerman and gave him a signal. A trumpet sounded, splitting the pandemonium with a brassy blare. Silence fell over the crowds who now turned up their eyes to Dan.
“The Wolf King and his Horde are coming to Skyhill, with the intent of war.” The crowds erupted into noise, but Dan patiently waited. The trumpet sounded again and the knights closed in around the people. When it calmed again, he continued, “If there was ever a time to fight, that time is now. I know you are frightened. I know that this is a bad dream that haunts you every night, because it haunts me, too—but… we are now given the chance to end this nightmare once and for all. You might see this as an impossible endeavor. Our circumstances are dire and when they arrive, it will be the darkest day we have ever known, but it will also be the day we revere for generations to come.
“This is a day of independence from the tyranny of the Wolf King. We will no longer fear the shadows. We will no longer kneel to injustice and corruption. Imagine a world where you don’t need to be afraid for your children. Imagine a world where we can be free. That dream is now in our grasps. When Mark Fischbach and his army comes to our gates, we will stand on the battlefield together—shoulder to shoulder, as one. We fight for our freedom. We fight for our families. We fight for Skyhill.”
Dan’s roaring passion ignited the masses and infected them with his verve. The air was energized, pulsating. It was almost enough to banish away what worries the prince had. The captain made his way down to the lower gate and approached what knights returned to him. He directed the crowd to follow him and further their preparations. Mothers stayed behind with their children, shrouding them in an embrace and watching with hopeless eyes as their husbands took up arms to fight. Above, he watched on, feeling the cold creep of wintry air sweep over him. His eyes flickered up to the horizon and the sun that drifted down to the rolling hills and trees. They were in the eye of the hurricane now. It was still and quiet, but Dan knew what waited on that horizon.
Twilight was meant to be their greatest hour.
When night fell, and Skyhill succumbed to darkness, the Wolf King would come.
A bonfire raged in the square of the main district. Shops, quaint and peaceful, were turned into stations for Skyhill’s soldiers. Swords gleamed in the firelight and crowds of men and women sat down and whittled arrows. Children grouped together to lift logs needed for fortification and those too old to fight would be used as nurses and doctors to the wounded. These people rushed to prepare. Shouts echoed across every street webbing out through the kingdom. While others bustled with life and drive, Dan withdrew to the dark of his throne room where he stood facing the empty throne where his father would always sit. The empty chamber he stood in would soon become the infirmary. The gold threaded rugs would be turned to mats for the wounded. The tables that once held glorious feasts would become stretchers. The thought of such horror soon befalling this quiet place unnerved the prince. The number of dead would be too great to count. The only thing that kept Dan from falling apart was the hope of seeing Skyhill freed and doing so with Arin by his side.
The great doors opened, rumbling like thunder, before the prince was no longer alone. He turned at the sound of their approach and saw Brian and Barry with a lead of knights and priests. Volunteers flooded into the room with supplies, but Dan could not seem to take his eyes off his nearing captain.
"This isn’t exactly what we had in mind,” Brian told him as one of the priests unwrapped a swath of blue satin. Hiding behind its deep sapphire fabric was an all too familiar item.
Dan felt a sob catch in his throat at the sight of his father’s crown. Jewels adorned each gilded point. He used to dream of wearing it. The vision of that day was one of his fondest childhood memories. Sunlight would glow through the windows. The faces of all his friends would be on him as he knelt before Avi and accepted the weight of his family’s legacy. It was a day full of color and life. It was meant to be a celebration. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
“No,” Dan said in retreat as the priest rose the crown to place on his wild mane of hair. “Not now.”
"Yes, now,” Brian urged.
“Dan,” Barry began. “If there is one thing that will inspire your people, it’s marching into battle as their king.”
"This isn’t how Avi wanted it to be,” Dan fought. His father’s name was almost too heavy for him to say. His throat swallowed down another sob.
“I know it isn’t, but Skyill needs a king,” the captain said. “You haven’t been back long enough to see that we are a kingdom that feels lost. I’m sorry I’m belittling the symbolism of this, but your people… we all need to see you as our king.”
“We can redo it after the war,” Barry offered. “We don’t have much time to fight over this. A sentry just returned after spotting the beginning of the Horde. It’s now or never, Dan.”
The prince paused and looked to the crown held before him. If he accepted it, it meant the end of his father’s reign. It was the last part of Avi that remained, and Dan wasn’t sure if he was ready to be the man Skyhill needed him to be. So many eyes looked to him now in anticipation.
Dan thought of Arin and his sacrifice.
“You’re right,” he breathed. “It’s time.”
The priest came forward again, and this time, the prince knelt before him. His heart was pounding between his ears, making it difficult for him to hear the words bonding him to the title he wasn’t ready to bear. There was no choir or grand symphony, but the thundering sound of boots as he and his people readied for war. Dan’s dark eyes turned downcast as he heard the priest proclaim.
“All Hail King Leigh Daniel Avidan.”
The troop of knights who stood silver and steeled fell to their knees. Brian and Barry also took knee before him, sharing the same hopeful smile. He thought that was the end of it. A ceremony whispered in quiet like his marriage to the Wolf King. But before Dan moved from his place before the throne, he looked up to see the crowd of people watching on. They were so silent that he hadn’t even known they were there. And just as soon as he saw them, they lowered in waves to kneel before their king.
Dan’s eyes became misty as he turned back to Brian, filled with a new purpose.
“We suit our soldiers and get them on the frontline. Elderly and children will be protected here in the castle.”
"And how much time do we have to do that?” Barry pressed.
Dan flickered his eyes up and out the stained-glass windows. The fractured colors were hardly luminescent anymore. Night was falling. “We don’t.”
The great doors shot open and a man scrambled inside. His face was red and covered in sweat. Hair clung to his cheeks and his chest puffed and fell with rushed breath.
"--He’s… he’s here. The… the Wolf King… he’s here.”
Dan’s chest felt hollow. The devil was on their doorstep now. As he walked down the length of this chamber, he tried his best not to listen to the restless murmurs. Titans of doubt rose in the throne room and loomed over him like the castle spires above. He could not show any sign of weakness. He was king and he must be strong.
“Let us greet him then,” Dan told the messenger as he swept out into the hall.
Composure was his elegant mask, and he wore it well as he strode from the castle keep with his captain and Rune-Maker in tow.
“You can’t go out there and meet him,” Brian hissed at his side. “The last thing we can do is trust him not to make foul play.”
“He’s expecting me, captain. It’s my duty as the King, remember?”
Brian fell to bitter silence.
There wasn’t a thought in Dan’s head as he mounted his horse and began his approach to fate’s gate. Brian had broken from their group to finalize the placement for the troops of the main district. It was now only Barry and Dan that continued forward. Bonfires raged to bring light to such shadow. Spikes jutted from the ground like teeth, standing as hopeful barriers between the soldiers and the incoming Horde. The main gate lowered as Dan approached. It was customary for the kings to meet on the battlefield, a last chance to end this dispute without bloodshed, though Dan had no hope for peace. The heroic stories of his father and grandfather riding alone out to the field were inspirational as a child, but as Dan repeated the same warpath of his forefathers, he did not feel as glorious. At least he could grip tight at his horse’s reins to steady his trembling hands. It made him wonder, was Avi ever as afraid as he was now? They watched the gate open.
“Be safe, Danny.”
“You too, Barry.”
Dan nudged his heels into his horse’s side and left the walls of Skyhill. The soon-to-be battlefield was peaceful and lush with green. A gentle breeze kissed at his cheek as he continued forward. He kept his eyes locked on a brilliant, green light blazing in the dark. Thousands of stars speckled the horizon. Eyes, he realized. They were eyes. And somewhere among the darkness ahead was Arin.
The sick glow hovered in the air with dancing gleams. Dan slowed his approach as he came to reside in this light alone. Hooves tramped the ground as he looked around through the curtains of darkness, fearing this may be a trick.
“Have you come to surrender?” a deep rumble split the dark.
The wheezing sound of air slipping through Mark’s punctured lung was enough to bring Dan to cower back. A web work of black veins wove beneath his grey and rotting skin as he stepped out into the light. Blackness took place where eyes were meant to be, but even with such shadow, Dan knew they never once left him.
“I come to meet you as king.” Dan said back. “And warn you that any further action will lead to your undoing. Skyhill is not afraid of you anymore… and neither am I. We will fight for this land and the hope of living to see a day where you are returned to hell.”
“Strong words,” Mark mused as he circled the Skyhillian king’s horse. “Do you actually believe them?”
“Turn over Arin and leave Skyhill. This is your very last chance to be the man I used to know.”
“That man is gone, Daniel, but his anger and heartbreak remain. Skyhill will fall and so shall you. This play of ours has been drawn out long enough. Let us end this now as kings.”
“You will not take this kingdom from us. Skyhill will outlast you.”
"We shall see." Mark’s lips curled into a smile. "To war, then?"
"To war," Dan echoed.
Chapter 24: The War of Kings
He was beautiful as a king.
Something was different about the now ruler of Skyhill that Mark couldn’t quite place. A radiance birthed inside him as if he swallowed a star. He was sunlight. It was almost difficult for him to take his eyes off the only living thing that took claim of his heart. Dan was entrancing, intoxicating—even after all they had been through. Mark was hardly a man anymore, but that did not end his insatiable lust for the new king. Atop his pale horse, Dan straightened himself and pulled at the reins. A true paragon from the legends of old. A shout escaped him, and he and his stallion darted back over the land between the Horde and Skyhill. Like a moth to the flame, Mark was unable to take his eyes off him. Dan had finally transformed into his most beautiful form. He was a butterfly, and pins were the only way to preserve a butterfly’s untouchable beauty.
A curling smile rolled over the Wolf King’s face. The jagged tips of teeth gleamed in the sick, magic light, and so did the sudden teardrop that streaked his cheek.
A deep and heavy breath puffed out his chest as he relished this one quiet moment.
Overcome with such a tempest of awe and anger, the Wolf King could be patient no longer, and from the hollow depths of his rotten core, he released a howl unlike any the world had heard before. The air trembled at its presence, the ground shook in fear. Thousands of soulless eyes burned brighter, now filled with his emanating bloodlust. The Horde came to life.
Hooves thundered and drummed against the battlefield. Dan banished out all the foul thoughts that poisoned his fragile courage. Eyes forward, he rode toward his kingdom’s gate knowing all too well what carnage would befall his people. But before he could close the distance between he and his home, he heard the howl of the Wolf King and the following whistle on the back of the wind. It overwhelmed the air around him, surrounding him at every side. Dread bubbled up in the new king’s stomach, bringing his wide, frightened eyes to turn and look to the sky behind him. They were barely visible against the blue moonlight and countless burning stars. Like a fog of pestilence, thousands of arrows drove through the curtains of night’s sky and rained down on the battlefield and lone king.
Dan shouted and struck his heels against his horse, begging it to ride faster. The needlelike arrows pricked the landscape, but not all missed their mark.
A cry split through Dan’s lips as he felt the hot, piercing burn of iron drill into his shoulder. His sight darkened and he swayed forward, losing the grip he held at the reins. More arrows came. Blood spurted and splattered across his pale horse’s coat. It screamed. The world twisted and spun as the stallion flipped and fell lifeless, sending Dan tumbling across the battlefield. Rock ripped at his face and hands, his clothes tattered and the shaft jutting from his back splintered.
More arrows came.
Dan struggled to stand. He gripped the soil to hoist himself up, but another bolt drove through his hand, pinning him to the ground.
Suddenly, the ground trembled as the incoming Horde of ten thousand hellish beasts gave charge. All Dan could do was turn and watch as his fate was sealed and his life lost so easily to the Wolf King’s plague. A shadow overcame the new king just then and hooves thundered at his sides. A dark horse gave approach and its rider leapt off its back.
There were no words of warning as Brian snapped the bolt in Dan’s hand and hoisted him up over his shoulder, ignoring his king’s screams of pain. Dan’s head was reeling, the world spinning, as his captain snatched the horn of his horse’s saddle and swung them both up to be swept away. Arrows rained, but Brian paid no heed as he let out a shout and rode back to the opened castle gates. Behind them, Dan saw the storming Horde and the remnants of Mark’s hand-raised wolves.
Relief was hardly a familiar face as the captain and king rode through the gate and behind the cover of Skyhill’s walls. Archers atop the outer keep loosed their arrows, one after another, but Dan knew it would not be enough to stop the Horde.
“Hold the gate,” Brian barked as they neared the first wave of their soldiers. “Whatever happens, do not let it fall!”
Dan watched as men half his age rushed forward with mismatched armor. They barred the great, wooden gateway and stood their ground. Further and further he was taken from the battlefield. They took winding streets and quick turns to the heart of Skyhill. Words clumsily fell out from the king’s mouth. Nonsense, though he intended to demand the captain to take him back. Despite his condition, he would stand on the frontline and meet his husband head-on. There was no force in this world that could prevent their fateful encounter on the battlefield, but Brian did not listen.
Children and women huddled inside the halls of the castle keep. Babies cried and mothers hushed them with soft words. They made false promises of safety. Just go to sleep, they whispered to their babes, everything will be all right.
Brian carried Dan in his arms as best he could, as the captain still ached from his injuries received in the cursed lands. His stride never waned, though he was betrayed by the gritting wince he made with each step he took. Once inside the throne room, Barry quickly came to their side, along with a flock of doctors and nurses. Voices turned to a rush of noise as Dan was lowered to a mat and quickly worked on.
“We need something to stop the bleeding,” a man said.
The doctor took out a simple, hunting knife to cut out the arrowhead lodged in Dan’s back.
“Just look at me,” Barry soothed Dan, gripping tight at his good hand. “Look at me.”
Tears welled in Dan’s eyes as he braced himself. Skin pulled and ripped. He felt like a fish being flayed. If this was the only price he would pay to end Mark once and for all, it would be well worth it.
“Y-you’re doing good,” the Rune-Maker told him in a rush. “Just a little bit more.”
“Motherfucking Fischbach,” Brian seethed. “I told you we couldn’t trust him.”
“It doesn’t matter now,” Barry fought.
“Doesn’t matter?” echoed the captain, his electric blue eyes wide and furious. “Oh, I’m sorry, Barry. I wasn’t aware that the life of our fucking king doesn’t matter.”
“That’s not what I meant—!”
“Shut up,” Dan wheezed as he fought through the pain of the remnants of the arrow being removed from his shoulder. “Please, just shut up.”
Barry and Brian shared a glare that was only broken when a nurse rushed between them. The captain turned and stormed toward the doors. Before he could leave, he called back to the Rune-Maker. “Keep Danny inside at all costs. No one else is going to play the hero and get killed on my watch, do you understand?”
The younger man did not respond, as his silence was answer enough.
“Barry,” Dan hissed through a failing breath. “I have to fight.”
“You have to live,” Barry returned, his eyes misty. “We can’t lose you now, Danny.”
“What does my life matter if we can’t stop him?” A weak and sad laugh escaped the new king. “It’s now or never.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Don’t make me lose you.” Tears slipped down Barry’s cheeks and disappeared among the wires of his dark beard. “I can’t lose you, too.”
Dan held a little tighter at Barry’s hand.
The two wept.
“Hold your position,” Brian roared atop the outer wall. “If we die tonight, we die for Skyhill.”
The snarls and screams of the Horde below were deafening as they clawed their way up the walls like spiders. Mouths opened wide and jagged teeth jutted from the abyss, hungry for Skyhillian blood. Some made their way up to where the archers stood, but were quickly cut down by the soldiers stationed behind the captain’s marksmen. His words were strong and his blade stronger, but Brian’s muscles burned and his sword-arm grew almost too heavy to bear. He thought of Audrey playing in the meadow. She would race past the grain fields with a giggle bubbling through her toothless grin, all to show her father the world’s most precious ladybug. Her wide, wondrous eyes stared up at him as if he were the only light in an otherwise shadowy world.
“Go back to hell,” Brian snarled as he drove his blade through one of the beast’s eyes.
On early autumn mornings, Rachel would bring pastries to the training ring where he honed the skills of his men. She was a rose among ivy. What did he ever do to deserve her unending love?
“There’s too many of them!” a soldier no older than fifteen screamed. He staggered back as another one of Fischbach’s beasts made way over the wall.
“Keep in line,” Brian snapped. He kicked the beast to fall into the darkness below. “Their numbers are no match for our strength. We will endure.”
He thought of Audrey’s first thunderstorm. The little pitter patter of her tiny feet raced to their bedroom. Little sobs slipped out of her as she came to the side of their bed. She climbed up over the mountainous sheets until she found his arms. He held her through the night, never letting go of his little girl.
The gate shook with every strike the Horde made. Splinters and dust fell as the thunder of fate found them. Brian rushed down the stairwell at the sound of screams. To his horror, the one barrier between life and death had been breached. The Horde was inside the walls.
“Fall back to the second defense,” he shouted to the archers above. “The wall is lost.”
Monstrosities screamed and clawed against each other, writhing like maggots, as they fought through the broken gate. Brian faced them beside a handful of his fellow knights. They were all that stood against the Horde now as the marksmen rushed to escape the overwhelming undead. Black blood splattered Brian’s armor and sword. The men at his sides fell one by one, and just as their last breath escaped them, they rose again. They were losing this fight.
Searing unnatural heat exploded at the entry and blasted what remained of the gate to hail down in fiery, emerald splinters. Bodies caught fire and screams rose. Through the ash and green flame came the Wolf King. Brian swallowed down the dry patch in his throat and stood firm. The undead that had breached their wall were lost to the infernos, leaving only those that came behind the necromancer.
A soldier bolted forward, his halberd aimed to strike down their greatest foe, but Fischbach fluidly evaded. He moved uncannily and airy, like smoke, grabbing the shaft of the halberd and ripping it free from the soldier’s hands. Everything happened too fast, but in the end, the soldier was split in two and crumpled lifeless to the ground. It was then that those empty, demon eyes turned to the archers still attempting to escape the top of the wall. Dread fell deep into Brian’s stomach.
“Fischbach,” he bellowed out to the raging flames.
A smile, wicked and malicious, curled amidst the weave of black veins. He continued forward, the mighty claymore grasped tight in his charred, skeletal hand.
“Captain Wecht,” the Wolf King rumbled.
Brian held up his sword and widened his stance.
The smiles of Audrey and Rachel were quick to his thoughts as the Wolf King hastened his approach. Their weapons clashed and sparks flew.
The two titans collided.
Dan stood on the balcony of his father’s chamber, overlooking the whole of Skyhill. Even at such great a distance, he heard the screams coming from the wall and watched as the fire grew wild. Infection wrought his city now, and all he could do was watch. He stayed in silence for a time, before Barry came out and joined him. They stood shoulder to shoulder, watching as the kingdom began to burn.
“They need me,” Dan breathed.
Barry did not respond.
Was this his punishment for abandoning Skyhill to be with Mark? Was he meant to stand and watch it fall? How many men and women laid down their lives just to keep him safe? How much more would he lose before the night was over?
Sickness churned his stomach. He wanted to scream. He wanted to cry. He wanted to march out there and confront this corruption, but all he could do was stand idle and watch.
“They need me,” he said again, feeling the tears start to well in his eyes.
It was a wonder that he even made it this far in his condition. The fall from his horse had left countless bruises on his legs that throbbed with ache. His arm could hardly move, let alone raise a weapon to fight. His hand, now bound with linen and smeared with poultices could scarcely make a fist. If he went out there right now, he would surely die, but his life meant nothing if he survived while Skyhill fell. Dan sniffed back the tears and looked to Barry. He expected to see the Rune-Maker suffering the same woe, instead, he faced the new king with a sword offered out. An unnatural sheen glistened on the metal. It was enchanted.
Dan fell still.
“I was able to replicate the runes on Jack’s whip,” Barry told him. “Plus, I added a few of my own. If you’re planning on taking Mark down, you’ll need this.”
Tears slipped between Dan’s eyelashes. As he reached out to grab the sword, Barry drew it back.
“Wherever you go,” he continued, voice grave, “I go. All for one and one for all.”
“You don’t have to do that. Barry, this isn’t your fight.”
“I’m not fighting for you.” Barry stopped and pinked. “Well, I am—but I’m doing it more for me. And for Ross. If he were here right now, he’d already be out there. It didn’t matter what the risks were. Ross would never turn away from protecting those who need it. The least I can do is the very same.”
Barry handed over the sword and Dan graciously accepted its weight with his off-hand. He turned it over and examined the intricate markings of a language few knew.
“It’s a lot stronger than it looks,” the Rune-Maker told him. “I put on… uh, a counter spell, of sorts. Whatever magic is in Mark’s sword should be stopped by this. It may not be as strong as his, but it should hold its own.” He hesitated for a while as he looked over the enchanted blade in the new king’s hands. “If… if you can stop him, the Horde will die, won’t it? It's only a spell that's keeping the Horde alive. If we cut it at the source, we could end it all.”
“There’s only one way to find out.” Dan’s dark eyes flitted up to his companion.
Barry breathed in deep, now filled with perseverance. “Then let’s find out.”
There was little else to say, but so much more to do, as Dan and Barry prepared themselves for a fight. It wasn’t difficult to move through the castle unnoticed, as more and more injured soldiers were brought into the keep. Blood began to run like rivers, but it would not be in vain. The royal armory was their first stop. With help, Dan was able to put on his father’s armor. Ornate carvings adorned the polished silver. He tried not to think of the last time Avi wore this raiment. The thought of his father doing his best to conceal his fear as he marched to war would be enough to bring Dan to cry, but there was no time for that. His lips sealed in a tight line as he pulled on the taloned gauntlets. When he had finished his work, his eyes flickered up to watch Barry. The Rune-Maker struggled with his cuirass and couldn’t seem to stable his trembling hands long enough to tighten the leather belts.
When the time came that they were ready, Dan and Barry left the castle keep. There were no horses left to take in the stables, so they made their way on foot. Their eyes kept forward and their stride never failed. Dan kept his hand gripped tight at the hilt of his sword, and from it, he drew strength. The fire had spread and crawled its way up to the main district. Plumes of smoke enveloped the sky, blotting out the stars that once burned bright. Glowing sparks danced through the air as the Horde began its ascent to the castle keep. The sounds of fighting were all around them now. Pieces of bodies littered the streets. One such horrific sight of mangled limbs and charred skin brought their journey to a standstill as Barry retched. Dan could not look at the dead. He needed to stay focused. He needed to find Mark among this chaos and put this all to an end.
Dan suddenly came to a stop.
Barry looked back at him.
The new king looked about the destruction around them. Fires cackled and the distant sound of snarling undead was far from where they stood. There were no soldiers, no civilians. This street was left desolate, but why?
Dan gripped tighter at his sword.
“Who?” Barry breathed, unsheathing his sword. “Mark?”
“No.” Tears filled Dan’s eyes.
A man approach from down the street, his walk calm and calculated. The fire brought his black armor to shine, as well as his bloodied broadsword. All the confidence Dan had built up along this journey was lost upon seeing the adversary who now approached. The same foe that stole away his heart and now came for his blood.
An abandoned cart shattered as Brian was thrown back off his feet. The once valiant armor he bore had been reduced to shreds with each malicious strike it suffered. A deep gash cut into his face and split the skin clean from cheek to chin. Wood shards became his bed as he laid still for only a moment, attempting to catch the breath that rushed out of him. Vision blurred and his head swayed. He swore he heard Rachel and Audrey calling him. He felt miles away, back in the golden meadow speckled red with ladybugs. Sweat coated every inch of his skin and glistened in the unnatural infernos that raged around him. Sick, green light birthed from those flames, turning the once warm sight of Skyhill into a living nightmare. With one corpse at a time, Brian’s homeland was mirroring the destruction and ruin of the forgotten castle in the cursed lands. His arms shook from weakness as he forced himself to stand up one last time.
“Oh, Captain Wecht.” Mark sighed, still smiling. “You just don’t know when to quit, do you?”
Brian’s legs barely held him straight. The Wolf King took a quick step forward and swung his claymore. He deflected, but was forced back by the blow. Metal snarled and sparked as this demon wrapped in rotting, human flesh flowed through to his next attack. The sword was thrown from Brian’s hand to be lost among the flames. Time slowed as for the first time in a long time, fear became visible in his eyes. Mark’s demented grin only broadened.
Lifetimes of visions overcame the captain as he faced his fate. In a single moment, he relived all that he had been through, all that he underwent, just to fail here. He thought of Audrey and the life she would lead that he would never know. He would never see her grow up. He wouldn’t be there to protect her from thunderstorms or marvel at ladybugs. He would never see her become a bride. He would never see the day that she became a mother. And just now he began to wonder, would she even be able to remember how much he loved her?
Brian’s arms fell to his sides. His breaths were slow. Acceptance.
“You finally understand,” Mark said as he spun his claymore. “You were never a threat to me.”
The captain closed his eyes.
As the claymore swung, Brian imagined a world where fathers never had to say goodbye to their little girls.
Barry tried his hardest to keep pace, but unlike Arin, he was no trained knight. The two who fought for Skyhill took turns pushing back the dark foe that met them in this desolate street, but no matter what they tried, they could not succeed in bringing him down. As weapons clashed and fires raged, they tried coaxing him out from the twisted spell placed on their friend by the Wolf King.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” Barry rushed, as he attempted to push back against the dark knight’s unmatched strength.
Arin broke the engagement of their crossed blades with a shout. His elbow rose and bashed across Barry’s face, busting his nose to spray with blood. Before he could deliver the fatal blow, Dan darted forward and shielded the Rune-Maker.
“Arin, you don’t have to do this,” he begged, trying to hold his own against his counterpart’s furious might. “Fight through it! You did it once, you can do it again!”
The howls of the Horde rose. It wouldn’t be long until those undead abominations stormed the main district and took the castle keep. The roaring sound of soldiers protecting their homeland surrounded them. Screams of anger and pain claimed the air. Their future hinged on this moment. If they could not end this now, the kingdom would be lost. Barry clutched at his bleeding face with one hand, as with the other he clawed against the ground to escape the violet fray. Once he was far enough away from Arin and Dan’s encounter, the new king broke free and leapt back. Arin wasted no time and followed.
“I don’t want to fight you,” Dan bellowed out, in anger and heartbreak. “Please, Arin, don’t make me fight you. I love you-- I love you and I don't want to hurt you.”
The daunting tower of black armor and brawn stormed forward with only hate burning in those dark eyes. For the briefest of moments, Dan thought he saw his old companion through the corruption. There was some piece left of Arin in there that fought against Mark's spell. There was hope for him, Dan believed it, but just before Arin snapped out of it, the corruption took over once more and he was gone. Again, they collided, and again Dan fought to hold him off. Arin was too strong—too great a foe for the new king to stand against. Too precious a life for Dan to try and take. It seemed so long ago now that he laid to sleep in that tower, thinking his life would be nothing more than those familiar and cold, stone walls. If he knew upon seeing Arin what fate they would find, he gladly would have stayed Mark’s pet. Skyhill deserved more than this. Arin deserved more.
“Dan,” Barry frightfully sputtered through a mouthful of blood, but his words fell mute to any ear.
Arin shouted and charged into the king, knocking him clear off his feet. The enchanted blade slipped from his failing grasp and clanged against the cobblestone street. Dan spun where he lay, turning his wide and fearful eyes up to Arin as he once again was bested by the dark knight. The final blow did not come as Arin stared down on him, silent and still. Before he could begin to wonder why, the knight stepped aside and allowed the new king view of the approaching Horde. The rotting husks swarmed the street and focused their bulbous eyes to the looming castle behind Dan. They should have been enough to force out every ounce of fear from him, but it was who led their ranks that turned his blood ice cold.
With his bloodied claymore rested up against his shoulder, Mark led their march forward. Their thunderous footfalls called like war drums that counted down to the last breath of the Avidan’s Skyhill and its rebirth as the Wolf King’s tormented domain. The Skyhillian king weakly rose to stand against him. Their eyes locked and turned the air between them to burn hotter than the flames swallowing the kingdom. Barry limped to Dan’s side.
“S-secure the keep,” he sputtered through blood and spit. “P-protect the people.”
Unstable breaths brought Dan’s chest to rise and fall with urgency. His eyes never broke from his approaching husband and his intention to conqueror all that his people fought and died for. Dan lifted his hand and dropped it to hang heavy on Barry’s shoulder.
“Go,” he breathed.
Barry gaped up at him, silent.
Dan looked down at him. He took in a deep breath and stabled himself. As he sighed out, he felt his fears flee him. A smile lit his face ever so softly as he gripped at his friend's shoulder. “Barry, go.”
Barry’s lips pinched together to stop their trembling. Words bubbled up in his throat, eager to make their release, but the resolute gleam in the king’s eye was enough for him to swallow down his fight. Hesitantly, he withdrew, fearful to take his eyes away from Dan, as he realized now that this was their final goodbye. There was so much that Dan wanted to tell him, but that time was past them now, as he turned his attention back to Mark and his ever-growing grin.
“Daniel,” the Wolf-King purred, fondly.
Arin returned to his master’s side. A faithful pet.
“Mark,” Dan returned, cold and low.
The black-veined monstrosity before the new king motioned his skeletal hand toward the fallen, enchanted blade. “Take up your weapon, my love. It’s time we settle this.”
The Horde behind the necromancer came to a standstill. They froze in time, their gaping eyes latched on the Skyhillian king, as if they anticipated his next move. Dan’s gaze then flitted to Arin, before he called out, “Am I all yours, or will your cowardice prevent you from fighting me alone?”
Mark smirked, but behind that smile Dan could see fury brewing. He struck a nerve.
“You were always mine,” the Wolf King returned, his voice dark and low. “The satisfaction of your death is a delight I alone shall enjoy.”
“Swear off your monsters,” Dan called as he cautiously walked toward his enchanted sword. “They don’t move until this comes to an end.”
“You’re not entirely in a position to make demands, Your Highness.”
“And here I thought you’d want an audience. It’s not like you to dismiss a crowd in your moment of glory.”
Mark’s lips fell into a frown. Hunger for fame was his greatest fault.
“Very well,” he returned. “On one condition.”
“Go on,” Dan lowered for the sword, his eyes never leaving Mark.
“Remove your armor.”
Dan’s hand hesitated on the hilt.
Mark’s smile returned.
“You’re not fooling me, Daniel,” he began as he stepped forward out of the crowd. “There’s no one in this world that knows you like I do. You’re injured. If I were to guess, I would say that my arrows found you. It must be so exhausting wearing that armor. It’s only a burden, really. What good is it doing you? Rather Skyhill has protection from me, or you do, which is it?”
Dan rose with sword in hand. If his lips were not pursed in a thin line, he might have let slip a thousand foul words he had for the monster before him. There was no fighting this. There was nothing he could offer that would deter Mark. Without a word, he sheathed his sword and began unfastening his armor’s restraints. The more that fell off him, the more devious Mark’s smile became, until all that Dan wore was the sweat-drenched cloth of a tunic and roughed leather leggings. The swaths of linen that wrapped his chest and arm to protect the wound on his back peeked out from under the collar of his tunic—a folly he should not have made. Mark instantaneously saw it. His weakness lay bare.
As Dan tossed the last bit of his armor aside, he asked, “Shall we start?”
Mark held his claymore low, allowing the tip to scrape against the stone as he stormed forward.
“What I wouldn’t give to have you one last time,” Mark growled as he made his first swing.
Dan wove through the attack, glancing the blow with his own blade. Sparks ignited the air, battling back the intensity of the mighty and fearsome claymore. They exchanged positions. The last thing he wanted was for his back to be at the Horde, but there was little he could do about that now. He needed to keep his eyes on Mark. He knew all too well how sudden the Wolf King’s heavy attacks could become an unrivaled chain of furious strikes. He must be prepared for that moment when Mark no longer wished to toy with him.
“To hear you beg for me,” Mark snarled as he swung again, nearly forcing Dan off his feet.
The enchanted sword took blow after blow, absorbing each malevolent bash with ease. Any other sword would have shattered by now, scattering to the stone below like glass shards. The runes emitted a blue glow. Magic was his armor now. The two kings stood as stark contrasts, but they danced in perfect union. Dan evaded a swing by having faith in his footwork. So long as he kept his head, he could resist each attack by flowing like wind around it. He may not have the ferocity of a fighter, but his serenity granted him the unparalleled power of elusion. He just needed to keep his mind clear of distraction. If he let Mark’s venom corrupt his peace, his life was lost.
“After everything we’ve been through, do you honestly believe you can best me?” They clashed, inches apart. “If this is all for my attention, you have it, Daniel.”
Dan kept his silence and pushed back against his husband.
Mark forced them closer.
“Skyhill belongs to me, and so do you. End this now and I shall be merciful. You could be whore to a king. Imagine the rest of eternity chained to my bed. I would relish each moment before your skin rotted away.”
“I am no one’s whore,” Dan snarled back.
“Not even Arin’s?”
And that was all it took for Dan’s peace to be broken. The mere mention of one name broke his senses and rendered him defenseless. His hesitation was slight, but that was all Mark needed to break their embrace and spin around Dan’s side to raise up his claymore and pound its heavy pommel into the fresh wound of Dan’s back. A cry roared out of the Skyhillian king as he was forced down to the ground to writhe in pain. The enchanted blade clanged against the stone and abandoned him.
By the time he regained himself, Dan realized it was too late.
A deep and rumbling laugh wheezed out of Mark’s punctured lung.
Dan’s eyes widened in disbelief as he stared down at the ground where he knelt.
“It's over, Daniel." Mark announced. "Skyhill has a new king.”
Dan didn’t need to turn to know the claymore rose for the final swing. He gave his best. He fought with all he had in him, but that wasn’t enough. Skyhill was lost. His people were lost. Countless deaths were on his conscious as he failed to be the king his kingdom needed him to be. This was the punishment meant for him. He was not the hero in this story. His sins were not to be redeemed. Hell was his eternity. It was what he deserved. Acceptance.
His eyes closed.
The claymore swung.
Mark’s eyes widened, his unsteady breaths heaved. All his force, all his might, was forced down into this last, wicked blow. Black veins bulged. The corruption pushed through him, desperately trying to force down the blade the inch it lacked from taking Dan’s life. There was nothing more he wanted. There was nothing more he needed than to see blood stain the ground where the king of Skyhill knelt in defeat. What kept this moment of victory just out of his clutches was the clutch of a hand that grabbed his claymore’s hilt mid-swing. The black gauntlet that stopped his triumph gripped all the more tighter as Mark furiously looked up to meet the towering opposition at his side who glared down on him with dark brown eyes.
"Skyhill only has one true king," Arin said. "And it's not you."
Chapter 25: Ashes to Ashes, The End, Part I
Mark was paralyzed.
The white pit of his eyes darted back and forth as his mouth hung aghast. Screams filled the emptiness between his ears when Arin threw a fast and heavy punch into the side of his head, making his vision dance. The world swayed as he stumbled aside, nearly thrown off his feet. Weight left his hand. When his senses came back to him, Mark spun his head to the black knight who now wielded the corrupted claymore and his own black blade.
Arin held them against him, his dark eyes burning, standing now as guardian and shield to the kneeling Skyhillian king. Hell knew no fury like the one now raging in the Wolf King’s entirety. Black veins writhed at the sweltering infernos of hate now claiming his heart. Words were struck quick from his lips, leaving him bitter and speechless. Meanwhile, Arin glanced down at Dan, peeking at him through the curtains of his long, straight hair.
“Are you all right?” he asked, voice broken and weak, as if he had spent these last few hours screaming.
Dan was just as speechless as Mark. The king’s chest rose and fell with heavy breaths before he softly nodded his head, sending the mane of curls on his head to bounce. Arin then turned back to Mark, exchanging his kind gaze for one of malice. Despite the strength in those rich eyes, there was a gleam of weakness. It may not have been as evident as an arrow wound, but the Wolf King saw it all the same. Those black eyes widened in surprise as Mark realized:
He was still fighting the corruption.
The claymore faintly trembled. Perhaps he would not have seen it before, but now that the thought struck him that the knight was not as indestructible as he feared, a twisting smirk came to his lips. A new game begun.
“And just what do you think you’re doing?” asked Mark, eyes narrowing on his corrupted knight. The Wolf King stalked around him, examining every pronounced curve of his armor, each welded segment and sharp edge. There was a source of weakness. He just need find it. The Horde buzzed with unrest, but Mark stabled them. His skeletal hand rose against them, effectively hushing their unstill snarls. Arin’s eyes flitted to them only for a second. He feared them. Good.
“If you want Danny, you’re going to have to go through me.”
Dan looked up at Arin’s back, stars in his eyes.
It was disgusting.
“You make it sound difficult,” Mark sneered, still circling. He may not have had his beloved weapon, but his unpredictability was far more dangerous than any blade. “Strike at me then. Why hesitate?”
Arin’s scowl shifted as he forced down a swallow. Sweat beaded on his brow. His scarred skin glistened like diamonds in the growing hellfire. This fool was fighting a losing battle. Mark wasn’t just about to let him take this time to recuperate. His boots were light on the stone below. He was a dancer. Arin might have been a titan to him, but he was also clumsy. He was a butcher that swung cleavers at chickens, but now he was fighting a fox. Mark’s body rolled, his head cocked back as he dodged a near connect with the claymore’s wicked fang. The fate of this brute did not matter, it was the king he was after. Time and again he danced around Arin to strike down Dan. He fantasized pushing his thumbs through his husband’s eyes, squishing them like grapes, but Dan did not stay idle for long. With Arin constantly pushing Mark back, the new king scrambled to his feet and went after his fallen sword. He could not be allowed to have it again.
Suddenly, the Horde came to life with their starving roars and violent howls. They dashed forward, twisting and clamoring over one another. Arin spun, swinging wide the broad blade. Black blood splattered and the lifeless fell.
“You can’t win this,” Mark boomed as he gave chase to his king. “You’re already dead, Daniel.”
Dan lost his footing and fell. Dust and dirt embraced him. Knees knocked hard against stone. He yelped in pain. The sound was intoxicating. Mark tore through the space between them, lusting for the rapture of strangling the last breath out of the king’s beautiful throat. Eyes would bulge. Skin turned blue. He needed it more now than ever. A shine of silver split his fantasy in two as Dan struggled to swing up the sword. Mark’s skeletal claw caught it. The enchanted blade hummed with light, engulfing the Wolf King’s corrupted hand in flames. Shock shot between both kings at the blinding illumination and searing pain that now brought Mark to scream.
This new flame burned through his veins, consuming every bit of him. He tore away, curling his shaking claw into a jagged fist as he tried to endure the pain. By the time he regained himself, Dan was back on his feet with that fearsome, fiery fang raised and ready. He might have been able to take him. To dance around the blade. To weave a web that might ensnare Dan, but they were alone no longer. Arin cut paths through the undead. When enough space was put between them, he turned on Mark.
It was now the betrayed against the betrayers.
Arin and Dan attacked him from either side. Silver hissed through the air. The three became snakes entwined, desperately trying to sink venom in each other’s veins. Mark separated the two then struck for the weakest link. His eyes locked on Dan. A furious shout shot out between his jagged teeth as he swung his arm to knock the king off his feet, but the act was intervened. Arin heaved the claymore into an arc before bringing it down to slice Mark’s arm clean off. Black oozed from the wound as he stumbled back, anger rising. The tendrils inside him twisted. He felt his veins shift and pull like strings. The ooze bubbled and burst, allowing a dark craft of black bones to replace his arm. His jagged fingertips curled in and out of a fist. He marveled at it.
“Have you come to terms with it yet?” asked Mark before the stretch of a broad grin curled over his lips. “There’s nothing you can do to stop me.”
Arin and Dan stared at him in horror. The fight was fleeting from them. If he could only crumble their hope further, he may be able to drown the knight once more in his perversion. The Horde began to return to this street now stained black by the fallen, but Mark needed more. He slipped back among his army. Their moist, rotten skin licked against him as they pushed forward; their loyalty second to the being the Wolf King now called.
The white wolf howled back.
Arin snatched the torn and sweat-ridden tunic the king wore. Fight filled Dan. It burned in his eyes and sparked the air. The endless waves came at them now, and he was ready to die against them in a blaze of glory, but Arin wouldn’t allow that. The knight jerked the king away and dragged him up the street in a near sprint. Dan clamored. He cursed and yelled, but Arin kept pulling him. He had to get him to safety. He didn’t have much of his own mind left. Time was running out. Each second that passed thundered like doom between his ears. The corruption was rising like a tide to drown out his senses. Every action he made was a fight against it, but he wasn’t sure how long he would be able to keep resisting that hypnotizing call.
“Arin, let me go,” snarled Dan, who still fought at the knight’s steadfast grip. “I have to finish this—I have to end this!”
“Everyone is dying!”
“And their deaths won’t mean shit if you die, too.” Arin spun Dan down into an alleyway and pressed his back flush with the cobbled wall. His trembling, black gauntlet planted beside the king’s head as his knight peeked out into the main street to see how far they were followed. When he turned back to match glares with Dan, Arin said, “So long as I have Mark’s sword, he’s going to fall back and watch those undead pricks pick away the survivors. Try going after him head on and you’ll never reach him. Get the soldiers in the area to start wearing out the numbers surrounding him. Find anyone who can fight and get them back on their feet. If we can get him alone, we can finish him.”
“Where are you going to be?”
“Buying us some time,” Arin told him, voice dropping low. There was a moment of silence between them as their gazes locked. Dan’s mouth opened, words rumbled and fumbled, but did not come out. “This isn’t goodbye, Dan.”
He hesitantly nodded.
“I promise,” his knight swore, which brought a soft smile to the new king’s face.
“I know, Arin.”
“Grab anyone you can. Force a chokepoint at the castle gate. If we can trick him into believing he actually has a chance at winning, we can surprise attack the fucker back into his grave. Get ready to end this.”
Before Arin could slip out of the alleyway and face again the source of his corruption, Dan’s hand lightly touched at the knight’s black chest piece, right over his heart. Brilliance burned in his dark eyes as he added, “Together.”
Arin stole closer, crashing like a wave against the king. Metal crushed against Dan, forcing out his breath, but in return, he felt the knight’s hot mouth melt over his own. Urgency bit at the tail of their romantic embrace, and yet, they clung to one another as fate’s hands pulled them apart. This encounter was too familiar to the one they last shared.
“If you keep letting me hold you like this, we’re never going to get anything done,” Arin told Dan in a low breath, with the playful curl of a smile.
Dan twittered a laugh, but his eyes were misty and turning red from smoke and tears. “I guess we won’t, will we?”
Arin bowed his head into Dan’s and stayed the chaos a moment longer.
“I will do whatever it takes to end this. You still owe me that dance, remember?”
“I remember.” Dan let slip a soft smile as he held a little tighter onto Arin. “Give those bastards hell.”
A smirk curled the corners of Arin’s lips before he took off into the street, spinning both of his corrupted blades as his fervor blazed. Dan hesitated to move as he lingered to watch him go. Fires burned around him, but he marched on. He was a lone star in the night sky. It was as if he came straight out from the fairytales of the king’s youth. He was a knight in shining armor, and together they would finally put an end to this horror.
There were no safe paths for Arin to take back toward the whole of the Horde. They scattered through the kingdom like roaches. The first batch were easy to take on as they were only stragglers that strayed from the group. Cutting them down was simple enough, but he hesitated to put his back to them. It would only be a matter of time before what remained of their corpses rose again, but he couldn’t linger. Skyhill crumbled every second he wasted.
Arin’s forward stride fell wounded as his knees buckled. A dizzy haze overwhelmed his head and forced him to draw to a standstill, as if he walked headfirst into a wall. His arms became weak and heavy. The breath in his lungs was stolen away as an unseen hand tightened its hold on his chest, constricting him like some cruel snake. The world around him darkened and pulsed. The shadows came to life and the warmth of the heated air was swept away.
No, not now.
A green light ignited a few feet before him, cutting through the blackness with a sickening blaze. Shadows danced. A figure formed.
Arin struggled to stand. Life slipped out through his lips, through his skin, and was drawn into the hellfire like breath—sustaining it. The world melted, colors smeared, as the sickness inside the knight was too rampant to cure. His skin went cool with sweat and his hands trembled. The sound of chains chiming and metal scraping was quick to his ears. He felt like he was back in the dungeon. He felt like he never truly left.
“It must be so painful to delay the inevitable,” that figure called out amidst the hellfire. Arin’s vision danced, but he saw the jagged edges of the silhouette near. When the blackness retreated, he saw Mark staring back at him. “Just succumb and let it take you. It’s easy if you try. Accept and know that you will die.”
“If I die, I’m taking your sorry ass down with me,” he snarled back, sputtering through his forced breath and coat of sweat. He tried to raise his weapons, to fight, but his arms were useless at his sides.
There was something unnerving about the breath Mark took in. It was slow, sorrowful, almost empathetic, before he released his wheezing sigh and spoke with a much kinder voice than any Arin had heard before. “Holding fast to your false mask of bravery will not save you, Arin.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?” he shot back. “I know what’s happening to me. I know I don’t have long, but I’m not leaving this world until Dan is safe and your ass is back in the coldest pit of hell.”
“What good will that do?” the vision of Mark asked. “I’ll only come back. It will never matter how many pieces you put me in. Toss them to the sea, burn them to ashes—it’s useless. I will come back and take what is rightfully mine.”
“No, you won’t.” Arin’s heart raced. He didn’t want to believe that, he couldn’t, but still—in the base of his stomach, his insides rolled and twisted. A part of him, however slight that might be, feared him immortal.
“Yes, I will.” Mark started forward. “And you will be long gone when I do.”
The vision of the corrupted necromancer turned to smoke. A dancing play of shadows, a maddening lie, to distract and confuse and maybe even bash down the walls of Arin’s fragile resolve. But that was all secondary. The world came back to focus just as the wide, hungry maw of the white wolf neared. Arin was too focused on Mark, too obsessed with the idea of striking him down, then and there, that he never saw the assassin in the shadows. He retreated as quick as he could, but it wasn’t quick enough.
Teeth sunk deep. Blood gushed.
“We need to keep together,” Dan called out to the first soldiers he found.
They were ragged and bloody, but they could still fight. The new king rushed through the streets and continued to collect the scattered remnants of his kingdom’s forces. Numbers doubled. He had no idea so many were still alive. Buildings burned and so much was destroyed, but the Skyhillian people outlasted these horrors. The streets were littered with corpses too mangled to return to life. He saw faces of friends, of people that he held in fondest memories, contorted in terror—lifeless and gaping at the smoke-filled sky. He feared for Barry and Brian. Had they made it out from the first attack? Emotions welled in him. His senses were frayed and torn further every dead body he saw, but he could not stop now. Soldiers surrounded him. They were his wall of steel and verve that kept the Horde at bay. Dan was useless now to fight. Exertion and strain ruined him, but still he kept his trembling hand gripped to the hilt of his gifted blade. Dan needed to hold out hope that Arin would stand beside him and fight back the beast that came to claim this land.
Soldiers hoisted up recovered fighters. They were weak, bloody, broken, but alive.
They couldn’t be left this way, and splitting up the group now would only lead to more casualties. Their time was running out, but Dan knew where his obligations were.
“Grab whatever you can for stretchers,” he told the soldiers. “We need to get them back to the castle.”
One by one, the wounded were lifted from the ruins of the street. The most able stood as a guard as they made their way back to the inner keep. A hush fell on the kingdom as the hour grew late and the sound of fighting fell silent. With hope, it was because of the enemy being battled back. On their way, the state of one of the soldiers worsened at an alarming rate. Dan rushed to his side and pried off the torn leather around his stomach to reveal a gaping and gushing wound. Dizziness swam through the new king’s head as he watched the muscle and meat tense and ooze with every gasping breath the young man made.
“I don’t want to die,” sobbed the soldier—no, he was hardly old enough to be considered a man. This soldier was just a boy.
“You’re not going to die,” Dan told him as he rushed alongside the makeshift stretcher.
The bleeding needed to be stopped at any cost. There were no bandages, no doctors or nurses anywhere near where the soldiers fought, so Dan used what was at hand. The tunic he wore was reduced to shreds, but it would be good enough. He tore the fabric further, freeing his own lean and bloodied torso from the weight of his clothing, to ball in a grip, and hold against the boy’s wound.
“It’s going to be all right,” Dan soothed him. “We’re almost inside. You’re going to be all right.”
More injured were found on the way back and their group grew. Children who could not make it out of the fray were recovered from rubble. The soldiers who had lost their weapons now carried these young and terrified souls who had seen too much. The gates were opened on their return to the castle and they slipped inside. The last time Dan saw the outer keep it was desolate and quiet, but that was before, and this was now. Pandemonium raged behind the towers and walls as more injured flooded out into the courtyard. Shouts and sobs lashed back and forth across the yard now stained red as more and more soldiers and innocents were lost to their wounds.
Dan followed the stretcher as it found its place among the yard. His hands were drenched and dark as he continued to press down the rags of his tunic on the gaping wound. The soldiers left them. Most would venture back out to the waste of the city, searching for wounded and fighting back the Horde, while others remained here, petrified and hopeless that they would ever see the light of day again.
“I need a doctor,” Dan bellowed out over his shoulder at the masses, hoping someone might hear him.
The young soldier gripped at his king’s arm. “I’m not ready to go,” he sobbed. “Don’t leave me. Please, don’t leave me.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Dan returned as he raised a hand to hold at the one on his arm. “And neither are you. You can fight through this. Just stay with me. What’s your name?”
“M-Matt… Matt W-Watson.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Matt,” Dan said with a soft smile. “I’m going to stay with you, all right? You’re going to be fine. I’m not leaving you.”
Matt slowly nodded before laying his head back and closing his eyes. His breathing slowed, he calmed, but that alone would not save him. The new king held still to the soldier’s hand as he looked over his shoulder and called out again for a doctor, but his voice was lost among the mayhem. He needed to go back out to the city. He needed to make sure all the survivors made it back to the keep. He needed to put an end to all this madness, but so long as Matt needed him, he would not go.
The new king turned back to look down on the young soldier who was now staring blankly at the night sky. The sounds around them that seemed so deafening before began to fade. The courtyard fell to silence as the hand that gripped Dan’s arm tightened.
“Can you hear it?” Matt asked, his voice faint.
“Hear what?” Dan returned in a soft and fearful breath.
Matt’s head turned toward his king. A soft smile lit his face, banishing out the distress that once claimed him.
“That beautiful song.”
Across the courtyard, a fallen soldier rose again and struck at the priest praying over him. Blood spurted between the teeth that dug so viciously in the priest’s neck. Others rushed the area and pried the two apart. Swords brandished and the risen soldier was struck down, but not before another rose from down the line. Dan tried to pull away, to run and help, but Matt’s hold held him in place to watch the horrific display as more of the undead rose from where they lay.
“You can’t save them,” Matt said with a smile as Dan tried harder to pull away. “You can’t save any of us.” Fear illuminated in the new king’s wide eyes as he gaped down at the paling soldier and the inky black that pulsed beneath his skin through wicked veins. The sight of it petrified Dan. He wanted to scream, he begged the sound to come, but all he could do was stare in terror at the closeness of he and this tainted soldier. The cruel tips of that haunting smile faded as Matt pulled Dan closer, to use his last wheezing breath to whisper over the rising sound of dying screams, “Skyhill belongs to the Horde now.”
White fur spun against black armor. Teeth, enormous and sharp, dug deep into the meat and bone of the forearm Arin rose to shield his throat. He suppressed a scream, sputtered through the pain, as the monstrous, white wolf clamped shut its jaw and mangled his arm without effort. His vision danced as the humming black void of unconsciousness beckoned him. His face contorted and his dark eyes burned. A shout of fury and pain broke out past his barred teeth as he bashed the beast’s head with the gem pommel of the Wolf King’s claymore. Again and again, he struck. Each vicious blow followed by a furious scream. The world around them shifted and pulsed, slowly drawing him back to the brink of insanity. The throes of Mark’s curse beckoned him, but he would not fall so willingly to its call again.
The wolf ripped him off his feet, sending Arin weightless until gravity pulled him back down again with a jealous hand. Stone struck his head as he tumbled and rolled. Stripped skin burned and throbbed. Broken bones brought his hand to be useless and limp.
Arin’s eyes flitted up from where he lay to see the wolf turn on him. Snow white fur stood on end as it matched gazes with him. The bewitched beast snarled and sneered as it stood against the black knight as the guardian to the Horde. The only threat left to protect the wounded Wolf King. Between them on the ground lay the necromancer’s enchanted claymore. Both their eyes found its malevolent gleam.
There was no shared hesitation between them. The reaction was instinctive and swift as they collided above the cursed blade. Barks snapped between the dagger-like maw of the wolf as it hungered still for the black knight’s throat. Claws the size of swords swiped and shredded through what remained of Arin’s armor. What he lacked in strength to match the monstrous wolf, he substituted resolve. The pain was of no consequence to him, as he dove beneath the belly of the beast and snatched the claymore. His body twisted, his last strength exerted, as he swung up the blackened blade and held it firm. The wolf moved against it, unwillingly—unknowingly, but the damage was done and the act was over. Death was instantaneous and the white fur remained pristine no longer.
Breaths rushed in and out of Arin’s mouth as he stared upon the corpse of the great wolf. Just then, his eyes lowered to the burning flesh of his flayed forearm to find buried between the bones one of the wolf’s large fangs. Arin grit his teeth as he dug his fingers into his wound and pried out the remnant of their fight. A cry of pain ghosted out through his lips as he freed the tooth and held it with deliberation. No feelings of pride found him. What remained when this street fell silent again was the bitter emptiness of regret. In silent and still death, the wolf lay an innocent life taken not only by Arin’s hand, but by Mark’s unending hatred for the land and people they now fought over.
The wolf acted not out of the same anger that took its master, but out of loyalty—of devotion—to its king.
The thought rose in him like that bitterness claiming his mind and tormenting it so wholly.
Was he not the same as this creature?
Arin collapsed to the ground, holding tight to broken fang as he tried to steady himself. His throat constricted. He forced down a rising sob. Tears shimmered in the dark of his eyes, brought on by smoke and repentance, and he began to wonder for a moment if victory would be able to take away the haunting sight before him; a wolf, pure and white, fought and died for a senseless war. Now it laid a corpse in the ruins of a city where it never first belonged—soon to be forgotten, to be discarded, without anyone knowing how fervently it fought for the king it so adored.
Maybe it was the sickness turning his thoughts to rot. Maybe he had taken one too many lives in the pursuit of his own selfish desires and survival, but still the question churned endless in his mind.
Was he not the same?
Black veins writhed as the corrupted soldier succumbed to the soundless song of the Wolf King’s curse. Teeth bared and fingers clawed against Dan’s skin. The world spun when Matt lunged from his dying spot on the bloodstained yard to spread further the necromancer’s plague. Their bodies twisted as they fought for control over one another. They collided, battling their titans of fear and hunger. There was no time for coaxing. No time for trying to cure the incurable. Pain throbbed through Dan’s back as it hit the ground. He cried out. He tried to think, but his head was swimming. Horror paled him.
Matt pushed him down into the blood and dirt. The corrupted darkness, the black ooze, dripped between his teeth. It was venom. Mark’s venom. If he didn’t fight now, it would take him.
Dan swung up his elbow and knocked it against Matt’s jaw. His body teetered. Control relinquished. It was all that he needed to force off the abomination above him and make way for the safety of the castle keep. Few others survived their attacks. The bodies of priests and doctors littered the yard as the beasts masquerading behind masks of the fallen Skyhillians feasted on the meat of the deceived. Thoughts were wild and fear blazed as Dan dodged between arms and teeth. He was surrounded at every side as his risen soldiers formed a wall between he and the safety of the castle keep. Choppy breaths shuddered his heaving chest. Sweat and blood, both red from the living and black from the undead, coated his torso and brought it to shine sickeningly in the flickering flames of torchlight nearby—accentuating every dip and curve of muscle that trembled in the closeness shared with these monsters.
He stood alone between the wounded survivors and the harbingers of a necromantic doom. They were cornered against the keep’s wall. Few survivors had any weapons at hand. Of those that did, their injuries and exhaustion kept them back from entering a losing fight. There was only one now that still could raise their sword and fight.
Dan held up the enchanted blade against the nearing Horde. His arm was weak, his hand unsteady, bringing the length of steel to falter in his hold, but that didn’t matter.
“Stay back,” he warned with flames burning in his eyes.
The eyes of the beasts began to change to milky white as their souls slipped away to oblivion. It was only a matter of time before they struck without thought, senselessly slaughtering the last of the Skyhillian forces, and the countless children and elderly that were protected behind the castle’s walls. If Dan could not end this now, all was lost. Everything his people fought for, what they died for, would be for nothing and Mark and his hellish Horde would win. Screams and cries erupted behind him from the hopeless who were not ready to face their fate as before him came the muddled noise of hungry snarls from the gaping maws of the beasts. The battle could be stayed no longer and the tainted soldiers made their move.
Flesh would be torn, screams would curdle from the lips of the last of the Skyhillians, but such horrible things did not come to be.
The corrupted had their eyes on the new king and the ones he tried to protect. They were too focused on their easy feast that they did not expect an attack at their rank’s rear. Twenty or so fighters, maybe more, collided against the backs of the undead with anything and everything they could use to fight. Shock struck through the Horde that they hardly had time to turn, let alone fight, against those brave souls that came to save the wounded. As more of these risen monsters fell, the faces of the cavalry came into focus. They were not the armored knights sworn beneath the king’s sword. They were not the blacksmiths or the doctors, or even the few wounded still left in the castle keep.
They were women.
Young and old, they took up the swords of their fathers, husbands, and brothers, and fought off the undead that plagued the courtyard, and heading their charge was a young, blonde woman with burning, dark eyes. Black blood smeared across her face and the long tangles of her hair as she let off a battle cry so fearsome, Dan himself felt terrified of its fury. A swath was cut through the ranks of the undead that would lead the wounded back to the safety of the keep.
“Hurry,” the young blonde shouted as she grabbed the king’s arm. “This way!”
Dan didn’t hesitate. Countless thanks collected amongst the sobs in his throat as these women formed a barrier around them. The insides of the castle keep were never a more pleasant sight. Children greeted them with gleeful screams. Dan stood aside, remaining still in the blonde’s relentless hold, as he watched wounded soldiers fall to their knees and catch their daughters and sons in longing arms. This brief glimpse of happiness was enough to wholly banish the fear that claimed the king’s heart.
“The doctors are in the throne room,” the blonde told him. “You’ve done enough, Your Highness. We’ll handle the rest.”
She and the other women made short and silent goodbyes before heading back out to the fray. Dan took a quick step closer before they were gone and the doors shut behind them.
“I need to know who to thank after this is over,” he called to her. “Please, tell me your name?”
The great doors of the castle keep began to close just as the young woman looked back. A proud breath filled her chest.
“You’ll need all our names, Your Highness, but I’m Amy, daughter of the Nelson artists—and don’t you forget it.”
Arin swung the claymore and severed another head from undead shoulders. Each step he took back toward the castle was one met head-on by the opposition. To take on one at a time was hard enough a task in his current state, but to take on the full force of the Horde was impossible. He kept to the backstreets. The only time he strayed close enough to the main road was to see where at the castle loomed. He knew Dan was there, fortifying the final defense. He hoped it would never come down to this. He wanted this all to end at the main gate. He wanted the people of Skyhill to be safe from the Wolf King—to be safe from his own possible corruption, but that time was past them now. He felt the black closing in on him. His heart drummed slow and low inside him. The only thing that kept him moving forward was the thought of seeing Dan, if only for the last time.
The restless, snarling sound of Mark’s minions dominated the rising smoke and heat, so there was no shock that when Arin heard the clash and shouts of fighting soldiers, he rushed back out to the open street. Surprise struck him even further when he saw a group of women leading the charge against the front of the Horde. While the fearsome and bloodthirsty pushed back against the plague that came to take their home, others collected the wounded they found to take back to the keep.
Arin struggled to rush closer, still gripping tight to the stolen claymore.
A woman or two turned on him with brandished weapons. He knew they saw his armor, the token, black wolf engraved in his chest piece—branding him the knight and property of the Wolf King—but his hurt hand rose and he lowered the claymore to hang at his side.
“Arin Hanson,” he told them. “I made a promise to King Avidan that I would fight for Skyhill. I am not one of them.” And least, not yet, anyway.
Despite the desperation smoldering in his eyes, they were wary.
But, he was alive, and willing to help
The only knights they knew that belonged to Mark were the Jacks who betrayed their Skyhillian chevaliers. Bitterness soured their expressions for him, but they did not speak out their hate for anything Wolven. To further prove his alliance to them, Arin strapped the claymore to his side and came to the aid of the wounded. The warriors happened upon a fallen troop of soldiers when the Horde attacked. They struggled to pull them from the rubble and ruin while keeping the incoming death at bay. Arin strained and grit through his pain as he helped hoist up a broken piece of building while two women pulled out the man beneath. The undead began to collect in piles, and before they could rise again, a blonde doused them with oil and swung down a torch to ignite the mass. Bodies seized and screamed, but the sounds died in the rising flames.
“Amy, there’s too many of them,” one of the warriors cried out. “We can’t keep going much longer.”
“Fall back to the castle,” their leader called back. “We’ve done our part. Let’s move!”
Arin groaned as he dropped the stone slab and staggered back. He took a moment to catch his breath, to focus himself again on keeping down the corruption that crawled up his throat. A few more men were lifted from the area. A lone survivor remained. Amy looked back at the Horde that closed in, attempting to judge whether she would be able to save him, it seemed. There was almost no hesitation, she ran for him.
“Hold on,” she said in a rush as she knelt by his side. “I’ll get you out of here.”
The Horde was at her back. She wouldn’t make it.
Arin stumbled closer and removed the claymore from his side. He came between the warrior and the wicked. With what strength remained, he guarded her attempts to pick up the fully suited soldier. The man’s armor was splattered black and red, much like the ground where they fought. A full helm, dented and drenched in blood, pressed down over his head. Amy sheathed her sword and scattered the rubble around the soldier before she could lift him up. For such a small thing, she was strong, Arin thought as he glanced back to see her progress.
“Let’s get out of here,” she called to the black knight who finished his own work and staggered after her.
“How far is it?” Arin asked as the other warriors came and aided them in fleeing. Some still fought, and for that he was grateful. Any deterrence was a blessing, as he found himself unable to do anything but limp away.
“Up the hill,” Amy said as she shifted the arm of the man she carried over her shoulder. He was weak and limp, but heated breaths wheezed against his helmet’s visor. “A mile, maybe less.”
“Is Dan all right?” Arin pushed. “Is he at the castle?”
“He’s fine—better than most.”
Arin looked among the wounded the women carried. “And, and Captain Wecht? Is he there, too? There should be others. Barry Kramer. And, and Ross O’Donovan. They should be there. They all should be there.”
“You know, we really didn’t take roll-call while we were waiting.” Amy huffed. “Anyone who survived is at the castle. If anyone is left in the city, they’re dead. Now, keep moving.”
Arin let off a deep breath and struggled to keep pace after her. It wouldn’t be long, just a few more steps, he told himself. When this was all over, he could rest. He would find somewhere untainted. A garden, maybe. Somewhere quiet and green, somewhere he could forget all the blackness. Dan would be by his side. They would sit in silence, but their quietness spoke volumes. Their hands would hold and Arin would rest. He just needed to keep moving right now. The sight of the great gates almost brought tears to his eyes. They were opened wide, welcoming them, and one by one they filed through before they were shut and barred for the final attack. The remaining archers lined the wall and stood as a beautiful blend of classes and ages, where men and women stood shoulder to shoulder, not divided, but as one. Knights, blacksmiths, bakers, farmers, teachers—these titles did not burden them now. They were Skyhillians, and they threaded their arrows and fought for their land all the same.
The warriors kept to the courtyard, readying for the moment the undead breached the gate—knowing too well that they would. A great bonfire began in the center of the yard, where the bodies of the dead were tossed so they would not come back as the Wolf King’s demented pets. The fortifications were strong, and the people stronger, leaving Arin with the astonished thought that they might endure. The first of the wounded that once swarmed the throne room now flooded out into the courtyard, bandaged and ready to fight again. It did not matter what limbs they missed, what wounds they sustained, they would stand now and fight until the end.
Amy and the soldiers they just retrieved were brought inside the castle, where they would be mended and hopefully rejoin the frontline with their brothers and sisters. Arin followed quickly after her, or at least, as quick as he could. The man she helped carry was taken to the remaining doctors in the dining room, where the last of the soldiers would be bandaged. It was a room away from all others, providing the doctors a quiet place to work. Arin remained at her side as the nurses and doctors quickly went to work on their newest patients. Their wounds didn’t seem too severe, so with luck, they would take place back on the battlefield shortly, only strengthening the numbers of fighting Skyhillians.
“They’ll be with you soon,” Amy told the soldier she aided, as he laid down across a wooden bench.
His weak hand rose and touched gently at her arm, just before his voice struggled out through his broken visor in a wheeze. “Thank you… my dear.”
Amy’s smile was soft as she laid her hand on his. “Rest now.”
It was a charming display, Arin thought. To see compassion between these strangers was inspiring, in a way, but there was only one person here he cared to see. If it wasn’t for the wary gazes that followed him between these walls, he might have just gone off in silent search, but every movement he made was judged. The last thing he needed was a wary chevalier to cut him down just for turning his back.
“I need to find Dan,” he announced before looking toward Amy. “Where is he?”
Amy sighed a groan as she straightened herself to stand. “Jeeze, would you just calm down already? He’s here, probably in the throne room.” She made her way over. He expected her to shoulder him as she walked past, she seemed like the sort to do that. “We need to make this quick. We don’t have a lot of time to waste.”
“Then point the way and I’ll find him myself.”
Amy glanced back at him, unamused. “And leave my king with some stranger wearing Jack armor? Yeah, I don’t think so. How’d you get that anyway?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I think it does.”
“Well, I don’t give a fuck what you think.” Arin tried to calm himself, but his only focus was on making sure his sanity stayed intact, not the feelings of whoever this was. “Look, I saved Dan from the tower and pissed off his piece of shit husband in the process. I’ve been through hell, so, how about we not play twenty questions right now?”
“Wow, aren’t you a charming guy.” Amy mumbled.
Once the throne room doors were in sight, Arin rushed forward and stole inside. A few chevaliers lingered here, speaking quickly over defenses. Armor and weapons were hastily repaired by a blacksmith, but none of this caught the knight’s eye. His sight was forward, locked on the throne, and who it was that sat there. Emotions filled him at the sight of Dan. Wounds and bruises covered him. His skin seemed paler, his eyes duller. A doctor at his side wrapped him with bandages wetted with poultices, while a small group of elders stood in discourse before him.
“—and under circumstances, you would be correct, Your Highness—but the fact remains that there is no heir to assume the throne in the event of your passing. We cannot under good conscious send you to fight.”
“I am not asking you to send me,” Dan shot back, voice dark and heavy, just like his stern gaze. “I am telling you, as your King—”
It was then that Dan’s eyes shifted between the men, fell through the gap of their shoulders, and found his knight. The next breath that filled Arin’s chest was warm and deep. It was as if the sun broke through the clouds of this storm and fell solely on him. Dan quickly rose, forcing the doctor to lose hold of his swaths of bandages. There were no words between them, there didn’t need to be. Arin struggled forward. His legs were heavy, his muscles burned, but he pushed himself. These moments apart were agony now. He was grateful that Dan was much quicker than he.
They collided in the center of the throne room. Dan, normally a feather in weight compared to him, barreled into his chest with the force of a thousand worries. Arin still couldn’t manage to lift his mangled arm, but the other stole quickly around the new king. His face buried deep in those crazy, coils of brown hair. Arin’s eyes closed. In this moment, there was no war outside the gates, there was only this embrace.
“I didn’t think you were coming back,” Dan began to sob as he slid his fingers through Arin’s hair, anchoring him here, never to leave again.
Tears slipped down Arin’s face as he held even tighter. “I made a promise, didn’t I?”
“Jesus, Arin, don’t you ever scare me like that again.”
“Have a little faith in me next time, huh? I came back, didn’t I?”
Their cheeks brushed as they pulled apart just far enough to look each other in the eye as two, elated grins spanned their beaten and bloodied faces. Dan swallowed. Arin imagined he tried to think of something to say, but his smile was enough.
“Tell them to let me fight,” Dan pled. “Together, we can end this.”
Arin’s smile softly fell. He cupped the side of his king’s head and brushed his thumb against his warming cheek. The words that were spoken around him seemed to dull and go muffled. All he focused on now were the details of Dan’s face. He traced it in his thoughts, carving it forever to remain in what little of himself was left.
Amy joined their side, her eyes up and on the king.
“You’ve done more than enough, Your Highness,” she told him, firmly. “Let us finish this. We burned countless of their ranks. A few of the wolves slipped past us, but the only true opposition left is the Wolf King himself!”
“I’ve told them just like I’m going to tell you,” Dan motioned back toward the elders. “You cannot beat him down. He is not like the Horde. I will not sit here and watch as other people put down their lives for me in the chance that I might be wrong. The only way this ends is if Arin and I face him together. We have his sword!” At this, Amy looked down to Arin’s belt to see the claymore. A hushed murmured flooded the room. Dan looked up to Arin. “Barry enchanted mine. He replicated the rune on Jack’s whip, he added something else, too. When we fought Mark, he tried to grab the blade and it burned him. I have never seen him in pain like that, Arin. There’s something to this magic that could put an end to this once and for all. I think by using them together, we can do this!”
Arin was quiet.
“Then someone else will use the sword,” Amy started, voice rising. “You are not going out there to fight! Your Highness! Take a look in the mirror, you’re falling apart!”
“I’m the reason this all started,” Dan shot back with a glare. “This is my fight.”
“This is all our fight!” Amy glared back. “We have been fighting this plague since you disappeared. You have no idea what it’s been like here!”
“Hold your tongue, girl,” one of the elders snapped. “Show respect to your king!”
“By letting him go out there and get himself killed? All you nobles ever do is hand everything to the king, no matter what it is. All of you are cowards. You were afraid to stand up to King Avi when this all started and you’re too afraid to do it now to save Skyhill. It’s time someone has the decency to tell our king that he’s being a selfish idiot! Your Highness, put aside your pride and for once do what your people tell you! Stop treating us like our opinions—our lives—don’t matter!”
“Amy,” Dan breathed. “That’s not at all—”
“She’s right.” Arin finally said.
The words fell silent out of the king’s mouth as he looked back to Arin. His dark eyes flitted back and forth across his face. “What?”
Both their right hands were wounded and weak, so Arin took up the king’s left hand in his own and gripped it tightly. “I love you, but I do not want you to be there when he comes. Amy seems capable enough. She can take your sword and she can fight him with me.”
“—Arin, please, you can’t do this to me—”
“Dan, Skyhill needs you. I know this is personal, I get it, but I love you and… and I can’t imagine losing you now. I’m yours—to use, to command, to… to do anything. I’m not stopping you from being my king, so please, Dan, don’t stop me from being your knight. Let me end this for you.”
Silence strung heavy between them as Dan’s eyes went misty. His lips trembled as he cast those shimmering eyes down in thought. Before an answer came, the ground below them shuddered. All the eyes in the throne room turned now for the door as the realization struck them all simultaneously.
The great gate had fallen.
“We don’t have time for this,” Amy snapped. “Give me your sword, Your Highness.”
Dan quickly looked back to Arin. He imagined the king hoped for reconsideration. There was nothing Arin wanted more than to face Mark again with Dan at his side, but such romanticized thoughts could very well lead to their ruin. He nodded. “It’ll be okay, Dan. Give her the sword.”
While the king unfastened his belt and handed over the weight of his weapon, Arin glanced down to his wounded arm where a sudden burning pain began. The skin was flayed and the meat mashed, but the savagery of his wound was not what drew his eye. Where sanguine once pooled amid the torn and severed veins, now reigned the corruption. A chill coursed down Arin’s back and sweat began to bead on his brow at the sight of his blood no longer bearing a rich, red tint, but the same black ooze found dripping out from the mouths of the undead. He thought he heard the elders bid them well wishes on the battlefield. Amy returned with hardly suppressed sass, but he couldn’t hear it at all. The only sound that filled his ears was the drum of his heart, pounding deep and low. It was a clock, counting down the few moments he had left until his mind would unravel at the Wolf King’s curse.
“We need to go,” said Amy as she drew out the enchanted blade.
Arin gave a quick nod, but stayed a moment longer before releasing the hand he so desperately held onto.
“Don’t forget our promise, Arin.”
He looked up to see Dan staring at him with those wide, pleading eyes.
A soft smile lit Arin’s face.
“I won’t,” he whispered.
Their hands parted and Arin turned to follow Amy.
He wouldn’t forget their promise, how could he?
But that didn’t mean he would keep it.
The doors closed behind him.
“Hold the left side,” the chevalier cried out as they pushed against the Horde.
Swords swung, shields blocked, and the undead shrieked their hellish screams. Ever so slowly, the Skyhillians were forced back, one step at a time, until the doors of the castle keep were right at their heels. The bonfire grew untamed and consumed any and every living thing in its path. Soldiers fell trapped in its snare. Armor glowed red and cooked alive its wearer. Skin dripped like wax until the screaming at last came to its end. It was a fairer fate, it seemed. To rise again within the masses of the Wolf King’s army was to be trapped forever in a rotting corpse you could not control. Mothers turned on their children. Husbands turned on their wives. There was no morality to the Horde, there was no regret. They were the perfect soldier, that obeyed any command and cared nothing for the lives they stole away. This was why Skyhill stood little chance against them. As familiar faces stared back at the soldiers, they found themselves ill-prepared to strike down their undead loved ones—yet, they must. It was the only way.
Amy was a hurricane whose fury knew no bounds. Armed with the king’s enchanted blade, she became a force too great for this world. It was lucky she was on their side, Arin thought, as he tried to keep pace behind her.
Barry’s notion of cutting this magic at the source was what drove the knight and warrior away from the Skyhillian forces. Of course, Arin and Amy aided the fight in any way they could, but their focus was for who hid among the masks of the undead.
Mark was here. Arin could feel him.
His eyes flickered across the courtyard and raging flames, searching for some sign of the master that pulled these puppets’ strings. If they could just find him, they could end this. No matter the cost.
The front of the castle keep was where much of the fighting took place, but not all. The Horde spread within the innermost walls. They clawed at windows, scaled walling, and even in some cases attempted to bash away the stone. Arin could hear the children screaming inside. With hope, the chevaliers would be able to keep them safe from what nightmares came for them. Amy led the way, scouting the field and picking off the monsters before them with great ease. Arin lingered just behind. He wasn’t sure if Amy knew of Mark—if she would be able to tell him from the other abominations, or if she was just going to kill anything that didn’t remotely look alive. It was one thing to take out a hundred of these minions, but it would be for nothing if they could not find the Wolf King.
“I see something,” Amy called after ripping out her sword from one of the undead. “The bastards are in the royal graveyard.”
“Probably raising more soldiers,” Arin commented before freezing in place.
Amy and Arin shared a quick glance before thundering their way forward.
There were no smoke plumes over the graveyard which allowed moonlight to curtain down in silver veils. There was no need for torches as their path was lit by moon and starlight above. More undead appeared as they went, only cementing Arin’s belief that Mark was truly here. Every moment or so, Amy would look back at him, ensuring that he was still following her, that he hadn’t fallen from his obvious injuries. It was endearing, he supposed, but he wasn’t some maiden in need of aid. The last fight was nearing him now. He needed to keep his wits about him, conserve his strength for the moment he would stand in front of that sick bastard again. The fear was foremost on his mind that he would slip back into the memory of that dark cell and feel again the tormenting cuts and precise slashes of a hunting knife against his skin. The scars riddled him now. Every inch of his skin was covered in the Wolf King’s ire.
It was time he returned the favor.
The sound of fighting followed Dan no matter where he went. The elders warned him not to stray too close to the doors, which were fortified and guarded heavily by remaining chevaliers. Even after so many wounded had come and gone, he still could not find Barry or Brian. The sickening realization that they were probably among the undead that laid siege to the castle soured his stomach. It took everything within him not to scream and break apart the throne room. He felt useless. He was in better shape than most of the men and women out there fighting now. After the assault began, most of the elderly and children were taken down below to the armory and undercroft. It would be safe for them there. It was quiet and untouched, allowing them the peace of rest. It was better they were down there anyway, for they were unable to see the fit of fury their king caused.
“Do you have any fucking idea how this makes me look?” Dan snapped on the noble elders. “Avi rode to battle countless times. My grandfather rode to battle. Every fucking king before me met their enemy on the battlefield.”
“That was then and this is now, Your Highness. The circumstances—”
“Yes! I know!” Dan threw up his arms. “So you’ve said, countless fucking times! It’s not the same, I get it—but I am still the king, or did that change at some point when I wasn’t looking?”
“Your Highness, please, you must calm down—”
“My people are dying. Don’t you fucking tell me to calm down!”
“Your people are fighting to make sure you are safe!”
“Well, they shouldn’t be! I should be fighting for them. I am replaceable. There will be other kings, and queens, and princes, and princesses—but there will never be another Skyhill if it falls to the hands of that psychopathic, murderous, tyrannical—”
The doors of the throne room shot open, cutting off Dan’s furious rant. A single soldier stole inside. His armor was bloody and broken.
“Your Highness—the captain… he’s been found.”
There was no hesitation as Dan rose from the throne. The elders were silent.
“Where is he?”
“In the dining hall,” the soldier said. “He was just brought in. He’s asking for you. I’m… I’m afraid he hasn’t much time left.”
A sob caught in the king’s throat, but he kept himself composed. The elders did not speak out against him as he strode down the stretch of the throne room and made way for the door. They probably knew that any spoken word now would lead to him throwing them off the castle’s tower. Brian was here. He was alive. That was all Dan needed to know. The soldier bowed the full of his helm as he passed, in respect and sorrow. He should have stopped to thank him, but Dan needed to be by his captain’s side.
The throne room doors closed behind him.
Dan wasn’t ready to prepare a farewell to his closest and dearest friend.
Ivory mausoleums dotted the rolling emerald hills. Names, forgotten to time, etched across marble stone to commemorate the life and duty of these ancient rulers. A sickening, green blaze caught Arin’s eye and brought him to turn. It was faint, almost unseen, but from seeing it so many times before—it was unmistakable to him. Sickness welled in his stomach as he nodded toward the shadowed depths of the royal burial grounds.
“There,” he whispered out to Amy.
She looked out to where he saw the light, but shook her head.
“What? Do you see something?”
“The light,” Arin stressed, struggling closer to her side. “Don’t you see it?”
“What light?” her eyes turned up to him, concerned and wary. “There’s nothing there, Arin.”
A heated snort left him as he trudged forward. “Damnit, just follow me.”
The warrior lingered a second longer before releasing a groan and chasing after him. Moonlight fell in curtains past the canopies, granting them brief moments of reprieve from the night’s heavy shadows. Arin never took his eyes off the dancing light. He could hear it humming between his ears. Maybe it was the sickness calling him—maybe Mark just wanted to summon him far from the castle keep, where no one would be able to give aid if a fight did ensue. Whatever the case, Arin did not stop his stride for anything. The soft snarls of the straying monsters whispered out around them. He felt Amy slowly draw nearer—almost fearfully so. It was odd, he thought. From the moment he first saw her out in the city, fear was something he hadn’t thought burdened her.
“Where are we going?” she asked in a whisper, still clutching tight at Dan’s sword.
“How can you not see it?”
“See what?” she snapped back. “There’s nothing here!”
The light was so close now. It was only yards ahead of them. It was small, yes—but shining vividly through the shades like some demonic star. Arin couldn’t take his eyes off it if he tried. It teased him through the tree line and played among the weeping vines of an old willow. Just as they began to near it, Amy looked behind them.
“We’re leaving the graveyard,” she told him. “Arin, we need to go back.”
“No. He’s here.”
“There’s nothing here. If this is some game to freak me out, it’s working. Arin, please, we need to go back. We don’t have time—”
He turned on her.
“Time?” he echoed, eyes wide and crazed. “You have all the time in the world—but I do not. Amy, I’m dying. But before I do, I’m going to find Mark and I’m going to cut him down into pieces—I’m going to make him pay for what he put me through—what he put Dan and I through—and there’s no one in this damned, fucking hellhole that is going to stop me!”
An airy laugh rumbled through the leaves of the willow, turning Arin’s blood ice cold.
“Spoken like a true Wolf King,” that haunting voice called from the sick, green light. “All you need now is a pack to call your own. I believe I can help with that.”
“Arin,” Amy breathed as she put her back to the light she could not see.
The black knight looked around them. As the haunting wisp faded and left them in darkness, he could see the shimmering light of golden eyes peeking through the shadows, watching them vigilantly. He forced up the claymore and placed himself back to back with Amy, as the two fell surrounded by monstrous, corrupted wolves.
Dan’s heart and footfalls pattered in perfect harmony.
The walk from the throne room to the dining hall was one he used to make in no time at all, but now, he feared each new step he took. Of course, he held out hope that the doctors and nurses could save his life. The thought of seeing such a strong man—such an intelligent mentor, such a fearless fighter, such a dear friend—wounded so gravely…
The sobs could not be held back.
His hand rose to cover his mouth and he stopped for only a moment. The wall was his support, as he found his legs hardly able to carry his weight anymore. Wild and wicked thoughts came over him, as he realized that Rachel and Audrey were not here to say goodbye. When Skyhill would win this war, who would be sent out to the Eastern farmlands to tell his wife and child that they could never see him again? Who would hand Rachel her husband’s sword and tell her that Brian died fighting for his country, his people? Dan wanted to be by Brian’s side. He wanted to stay there for as long as he was needed, and tell Brian all the things he never could in his foolish youth, but he was scared. By doing so, he was admitting that this was the end. He was admitting that this was their goodbye, and Dan wasn’t ready for that.
He composed himself the best he could and freed himself from the wall’s embrace. His hands rose and wiped away the tear trails that stained his reddened cheeks. Even if he did his best to pull his pieces back together, he knew that seeing Brian would break him apart all over again. Dan couldn’t delay this any further. His captain needed him, and he needed Brian, too.
The dining hall’s doors were closed, allowing Dan one last moment to regain himself. There was nothing that could prepare him for what waited in that room when he finally took that stable breath and pushed open the door.
Jaws and claws, countless in numbers, ferocious in capability, all came for them at once. While Arin moved slow but swung each strike like an executioner’s axe, Amy was swift and darting. Arin was her shield, her tower, and more than once he took a blow for her. Again he was meant to face off with these loyal creatures—to steal away the lives they were willing to lay down for the brutality of their master. The yelps were like needles in his ears. He didn’t want to hurt them—he didn’t want to hurt anyone anymore, but if he intended to survive long enough to see Mark fall—he must.
His body couldn’t take much more. One ill place of footing, one more blow, and he would fall. A lapse in thought, in sanity, left him unaware of the beast that lunged for the warrior at his back. He heard her scream as the beast latched onto the sword and ripped it from her hands. She was defenseless as another beast barreled into her, knocking her to the ground to be easily maimed. One snatched Arin’s wounded arm, forcing out a cry of pain as fire raged in his veins and skin tore further.
“Arin!” Amy gaped with pure terror gasping in her voice as she stared up at the wolf whose maw lusted for the taste of her blood.
He kicked at the wolf’s head that bit into him and freed himself from its grasp. Anger, pain, terror, rage—a rising hurricane that he no longer could control. He felt the laughter of the Wolf King echo endlessly between his ears. Mouthless voices whispered to him to give in, to give up.
Hopeless, hopeless, hopeless.
Hopeless, hopeless, hopeless.
Sweltering heat of unrivaled fury came to build infernos in Arin’s eyes as he let go of the last shred of his sanity and accepted the full, powerful gale of the corruption’s power. A bellow came out of him, a near animalistic scream as he swung around the claymore now burning bright with a blood red glow.
There was no resistance as it connected and severed clean the wolf’s head. A sudden wave of fright passed through the pack and they retreated from the all-too familiar blade and its devastating destruction. They cowered and whined—turning quick to timid and pitiful beasts. The curtains of his hair fell to shroud his face as these new breaths he took were deep and invigorating. The pain that once hummed in his veins was no more. He felt light. He felt alive. There was no sadness, no regret—just anger.
Undying, unending, undead fury.
His eyes lowered to Amy, to see the same fear riddled in her gaping eyes. For some reason, seeing it in her made him feel… disgusted.
“What… are you?” she asked, petrified.
His once wounded hand took the claymore in a death grip as he roughly raked the fingers of his other hand through his hair, freeing his black-veined face of its curtains. A smile twisted on his lips as a rumble of a laugh contracted his throat.
Bodies filled the dining hall.
Countless, mutilated bodies.
Perversion and dread hung like doom as Dan stood petrified at the sight of slashed throats and gouged out eyes. Soldiers hung from the rafters above by their own meaty, dripping entrails. Bodies swayed, limbs were shredded like parchment. Color ran swift from the king’s face as he realized that the Horde was not responsible for such depravity. As blood dripped down from the bodies above, pattering against the floor like a mellow, Spring rain, Dan caught sight of the lone item perched atop the stretch of the great table. Its pristine petals were unnatural and out of place in this nightmarish world of unimaginable terrors, but still it remained. It was no trick of the eye, no stressed hallucination from the otherwise weary mind of the single, living soul in this death chamber.
A beautiful, white lily.
Dan staggered back. His hands covered his mouth, holding back the spew of sick and screams that rushed to escape him. He wasn’t sure how he managed to do it—he wasn’t sure how he managed anything at all—but his memory lapsed and suddenly he was sprinting down the hall. The realization of what this meant was too horrible for him to say, but he must. The elders needed to know—the few, armored chevaliers in the throne room needed to hear what horrors he saw—what soon would come for them. Dan became a blur within his ancestral home, eager to warn the others of the unthinkable. His shoulder nearly shattered as it collided with the throne room door. He didn’t have time to be genteel—there was no time at all. The words were just on the tip of his tongue the moment he entered. But those words never came. The deep, sapphire blue of the rugs were freshly stained. The faces of the elders stared up at him from that bloody ground where they laid eviscerated and flayed like some common game from a hunt. The chevaliers that once stood guard were among the dead. Thirst claimed the weapons his knights bore, for their blades never once struck the horror that attacked them. A deep shuddering moan escaped Dan, taking with it the core of his soul, as his eyes turned upward to the throne.
The bloodied soldier who brought word of the vanished captain stood there, his back facing the room’s new arrival. His claws, now free of the constraints of his stolen gloves, rose to lift off the battle-worn helm. Black hair, wet with life’s liquor, clung against the false-soldier’s spider-veined cheeks as he now turned to greet the new king.
“It’s over now, Dan,” Mark began with a rumble. “Skyhill is mine.”
It was just a nightmare.
At any moment, Dan would open his eyes and he’d be back in that abandoned tower lost somewhere in the depths of the cursed land. All the friends he lost to the wrath of the abomination now before him were nothing more than figments of his caged and crazed imagination. All the horrors, all the terrors, all the unimaginable monstrosities that tore apart his sanity and left him weathered and worn like a seaside stone were a moment away from being the hazy remnants of a bad dream. He was sure of it. Dan was so sure.
Mark lowered in quiet steps from the throne he very well intended to call his own. His walk was calm and each step calculated. His eyes, black like oil, corrupted and fathomless like his rotten heart, never once strayed from the man he once vowed to always protect and love, but there was no love behind that narrowed gaze. The faint sounds of fighting were still pricking needles into Dan’s ears. He heard shouts and screams as the last of the Skyhillian forces were thinned by the hellish beasts who fought under the spell of the corrupted king’s undying wrath. Dan’s hand instinctively fell for the sword at his side only to feel an empty void. Realization and regret collided. Amy had the enchanted sword. Dan was left unarmed.
Entrails from past endeavors coated Mark’s charred, skeletal hands now slick with drips of both black and red blood. The moment of calm that kept the black veins from writhing restless beneath grey skin was only brought on by the quick outburst of murderous mayhem that befell the throne room in its king’s absence. It must have happened so fast—like letting a starving wolf into a pen of lambs.
“There is only one loose end left,” Mark growled low and foretelling as he hastened his approach. The gleam of lunacy that burned in those demonic, dark eyes pierced Dan like pins. Just like those claws intended to do. “Make this fun for me, Daniel. Run from me. Run like the coward you are.”
Naturally, he wanted to deny him, as he had done so many days before. Pride, as frail and fickle as it was, told him to rush the beast now and fight. Fight like his brothers and sisters, and lay down his life for the honor of dying as one of the last Skyhillians—but that would not save his people. It would not save Arin or Amy, or even Barry and Brian—if they survived somewhere out there in the wastes of what once was their city. Suffocation was the end of Dan’s voice of defiance as death was now nearing an arm’s reach away. He thought no more on the matter.
Biting back the onslaught of ten thousand curses sheltered for the beast before him, Dan broke from his stillness and fled to the hallway behind him. The labyrinth that was Castle Avidan now became a hunting ground. The devilish grin curled over Mark’s face was the last thing Dan saw before he put his back to the bloodthirst of this beast and ran.
The chase began.
Metal clanged and hissed as again and again Amy blocked the brutal force of the corrupted claymore. The wolves kept their distance, but she could hear them in the shadows. They mocked her with yips and yelps. Cackles danced between the branches that ripped against Amy’s face as she fled—desperately trying to hold her back, to make her lose focus for just long enough for the black knight’s reaching hand to grab hold of the tangles in her hair and drag her back into the darkness. Breaths sputtered out through her lips as she slipped away into the garden’s grove to hide. A river birch became her haven until she heard her name being called from where the wolves walked.
“Give it up, Amy.” Arin stalked, searched, seethed. “You can either follow me or fall. It’s the only way this will end.”
She closed her eyes and tried to silence the thousands of fearful voices battling back and forth in her head. Amy gripped the sword she held a little tighter.
“I’ll make it quick. You won’t feel a thing,” he told her. “You’ll need to make a sacrifice. I can guide you through it. I can help you, but only if you decide to help me.”
She heard the grass crunch beneath his boots. His shadow wrought cold wherever it traveled. He was just on the other side of the birch now. It was run or stay. She needed to decide. But how? She would be found, or she would not. There was no correct answer. There was only chance.
“I can hear your heartbeat,” Arin’s voice deepened. The tail of his words growled. “It’s calling to me.”
The leaves scattered beneath her feet. Fear kept her from turning back, but she knew he followed. The earthen underbed quaked at his chase. The shadows were suffocating. Illumination from the runes dimmed now and dimmed further as the darkness ignored her prays for safety. The undead marched in unmatched numbers. Their gaping, gawking eyes turned heavenward as howls of unrest rose in waves. The jagged silhouette of the castle keep blurred in drenching moonlight. It was a beacon of hate to the Horde, and one of hope to the weary warrior. She needed to make it back to the safety inside—she needed to make it back to the king.
Strain and stress crooked her ankle, sending Amy to plummet down on the stone of the courtyard, a mere twenty feet from where the last of the soldiers fought. Her body twisted in descent. Bones bashed against the cobbled stone and forced an unheard cry to shatter through her gritted teeth. The sword she carried was lost and clanged ahead of her. Amy clawed for it, but it was just out of reach.
A chilling shadow overcame her.
“It’s hopeless,” he told her, near sneer. “You’re not strong enough to kill him.”
“I have to try,” she snarled back.
His face darkened.
“I already told you, Amy.”
Words filled her mouth, a fight ready and willing on the tip of her tongue, but those words fell to silence when the black knight planted the weight of the claymore’s fang in her stomach with one, quick stab. Searing pain engulfed her senses. Heat pooled and dripped through what armor she wore. The world began to blur as she struggled to breathe.
The last she felt was the pull of the blackened silver against her insides and the rush of faintness that followed. Vision dimmed. Her light faded. As all sound came roaring to end soundless in the empty void, she heard Arin whisper through the corruption’s dark embrace.
“Follow me, or fall with Skyhill.”
No matter where it was Dan went, he felt Mark’s eyes follow him. Desolation damned this domain. Even if others came, they would be torn to pieces as so many had been before. Frantic flashes of the scene in the dining room came to haunt his hectic thoughts. The sight of hanging bodies. Those bulging, bruised eyes. If he could not escape him now, he would meet the same, terrifying end. Forced focus stayed on the winding corridors and stairwells of his childhood home, as he tried to recall what hallways intersected and what stairwells led to decorated but dead ends. The monster that followed was a hunter, and would use any advantage it could get to put an end to this game—if Dan couldn’t remember this, he was dead.
He slipped behind a column and pressed his bandaged back flush with the cold stone. Trembling hands rose and raked through his hair—sweeping it away from his face drenched with sweat—as he tried to think, think, think. A weapon. He needed a weapon.
His head cocked back. Eyes clenched shut. He calmed, if only for a moment. A swallow of a breath contracted his throat. The armory was stripped clean—he remembered now. Going there would lead to a dead end. Somewhere else—he had to think.
A soft sound stripped Dan of all thought. Had he not closed his eyes and took this one, quiet moment to recover his senses, he may not have heard it at all. It was unmistakable now, and just on the other side of the column, as the steps Mark took fell back to silence. The air tensed just then, as if the shadows shrouding the fallen king turned to sentinels for the beast. He waited. Not even when the silence coated thick around him did Dan even dare to dream of continuing his flight—but he did not have the luxury of wasting precious time. The sand in the hourglass of Skyhill’s life still fell. A breath, deep and bracing, swelled his chest. His skin caressed the smooth, cold column as he peeked out into the corridor with eyes wide, wondering, worried. The moonlight drew in silver veils from the ironwork bars that caged each high-paned window to cut swaths from the abysmal dark. Each inch was agony to make as Dan crept further and further still. His mind created the image of those fathomless eyes, too fearsome and foreign to be real. He expected to see them—knew that he would—but they were gone. That silver light embraced him in gifted grace. His eyes cast far down the hall, but he refused to tarry.
Dan tore his eyes from the devious dark and started back down the hall from where he came. He took a step, perhaps another, before being stopped quick by the face of the beast he tried so hard to fool. He struck like a viper and the world tumbled and tossed in flashes of white and black as Dan was thrown off his feet. His body contorted and the air was stolen from his lips. Pain erupted across the length of his body—but he could not stop now. Heels clacked—thundering almost—as the corrupted king rushed him again with intent to collide. Claws outreached, but Dan fought off their hold. He kicked—connected. A snarled reaction. The shadows pulsed and dripped around them. A nightmare—that’s what this was. It was all just a nightmare.
A moment left reeling was all the reprieve Dan needed to find his footing and sprint off down the hall. His heart pounded with the like of war drums. The cruelty was just a step behind him. His search for a weapon to battle back the corrupted king was lost. He gripped the railing of the royal staircase and flung himself over. The stone below caught his weight and made him buckle. A bark of pain flew out from him, but he did not stop. Bones bruised and muscles burned—but he pushed on. The snarls of the undead were all around him now. He heard windows breaking as they struggled through the shattered shards to enter the keep. The front door was barricaded from the outside by countless dead. He could see the hellfire consuming the courtyard through the cracks of wood and knew escape through the flames was futile. A black form approached the crack. Another undead to break down what little remained.
He wasted no time to shuffle down the length of the hall. He took a left, whereas the throne room was on the right. The rooms were connected by a long and narrow side passage, but he did not dare risk chance of facing the risen ranks of chevaliers and elders. Down a small flight of stairs, through the doubled archways, he ran. Curtains hung to conceal the room, as he imagined this place saw little use since his departure however long ago. Dan swiped a hand and threw back the silken, sapphire cloth to expose the empty enormity of the royal ballroom. Marbled masterpieces decorated the length of the floor. Gilded sconces, lost without their flames, provided him no breath of safety from the dark—just like the colossal, crystal chandelier that slumbered above on its leash held by the chamber’s domed ceiling. What once were favored relics of his fondest memories became nothing more than ghosts to his frantic thoughts.
The balcony to the gardens was just across the way. If it was another fall he would need make to survive the night, he would do so. The last breath of moonlight swept in waves across the marble floor and accepted him into its kind embrace. His hand grabbed the crystal knob of the trellis doors—but they refused him. He tried again, fervently, furious—but still they refused. Fear lit in his eyes. He tossed his weight into the wood—barreled, bashed, bruised—but still he could not break its lock. His heart raced.
“When will you learn, Daniel?”
Dan glanced back to the wall of darkness and the king that reigned it. Heels clacked, slow and sure, as Mark approached to meet him. There was still the side passage to the throne room. Perhaps he alone remembered the cramped corridor the servants so often took. Could he even make it if he tried?
Mark’s voice was low, rumbling, like distant thunder from an incoming storm. “I have already won.”
“Only you believe that,” Dan returned with heated breath. “So long as one Skyhillian lives to stand against you, you’re nothing more than a bad dream that will die before dawn.”
A smile curled amidst corruption.
“There’s no one left in your kingdom to fight me, Daniel. You are all that’s left.”
“He’s not the only one.”
The shadows split like smoke at the approach of the black knight. Black armor plated Arin a juggernaut. In one hand was the flourished wickedness of the corrupted claymore and its vast opposite, the enchanted king’s blade, was held in the other. The sight of him swept away Dan’s breath and nearly brought him down to his knees. He caught the knight’s eye for only a moment—it was dark and black, but something more. Behind that mask of death was a glimmer of familiarity that Dan had feared he lost in this war—but it lived. Oh, how it lived.
“It’s… not possible.” Mark struggled as Arin approached. “The corruption… it’s meant to control—you’re meant to be mine to control.”
“Fear controls,” Arin returned in a growl. “You manipulated my fear of you once, but you won’t do it again.”
“You underestimate me,” the corrupted king sneered.
“No, you underestimate me,” Arin shot back. “I fear losing Danny more than I could ever fear you.”
The vacancy of emotion from the Mark’s face was broken as a laugh crept out from his now growing smile. His eyes were wide, crazed. Something in him snapped, and the sight of it only chilled Dan further. “Well,” he rumbled—low, disbelieving, furious. “You should have feared me more.”
Arin hardly had the time to toss Dan his returned weapon before Mark collided with him. The severed thread that rose lunacy in the corrupted king was abandonment of humanity, as now, more than ever, he became an untamed beast in hunt for blood. It was unnatural how he moved—how fluid and ferocious the unarmed could be. Dan scrambled for the sword. Each moment wasted was one more that Arin stood alone against Mark’s madness, at least, until his soulless eyes flickered back to his first prize. The runes captured his attention and he broke from the hold he and Arin kept to dash madly after the sword. If he took weapon against them, it would be impossible to beat him down. Dan could not allow him to take it. He needed to keep it away. It was now or never. They collided. Bodies twisted and Mark’s claws dug deep into Dan’s ribs—forcing out a cry. The sword dropped again, scattered, but Mark bashed his boot into Dan’s stomach and took off after it. There was no second their attention could fall—no moment they could pause from this unending fight, though Dan’s arms and legs strained exhaustingly so. His chest burned with each breath he tried to take. He was unsure for how much longer he could stay in combat with the endurance of the corrupted. The sword was finally in his hand, after struggling for so long of trying to steal it away, but Mark was not afraid of their weapons. His claws were weapons of their own and could do too great of damage if they let him get too close. He tried to rush Dan, but Arin intervened and swept up the corrupted king into his arm before slamming him down onto the marble floor. The claymore cleaved, but Mark rolled and the silver imbedded in stone. He lunged. Arin cried out in pain.
The beautiful embellishments in the marble below fell tainted by quick drips of black blood. Arin staggered back, hand clutching at his midsection, as more and more dark liquor began to gush out from between his fingers.
“Arin.” Dan gasped and rushed forward to stable the black knight’s wavering stance.
A deep guttural laugh rolled out through Mark’s smile as admired his claw now coated with the knight’s foul blood. That smug smile curled only further when he looked up to both Dan and Arin. “Your attempts are pitiful, at best, but at least you can be satisfied with the knowledge that you will die together. A poetic end to your tragic affair, my dear, how sad.”
“We’re not done fighting yet,” Dan said through a pant.
“Oh, but you are.” Mark started forward. “The two of you are no match against me.”
Arin forced himself to straighten and square his shoulders. The claymore was freed from the stone with a quick pull. “The two of us? No. But coupled with all of them? We just might be.”
Dan’s focus was solely on Mark that he neglected to see the shift in shadows. They were almost indistinguishable, almost undetectable, but in waves they stepped forward. Shoulder to shoulder, spanning the length of the room—maybe further—were the remaining people that fought for Skyhill. Classes and colors clashed across their ranks, but the flames of defiance in their eyes all burned just as brilliantly.
“It’s over, Mark.” Arin said as he stepped closer. “You’ve lost.”
Mark was silent.
The whole of the ballroom was silent.
At least, that was until the corrupted king began to laugh.
“Do you honestly believe any of these people can take me down? They are weak—even more than you.”
Arin was quiet then, and Dan could almost feel the air tremble with questioning fear. The sound of footsteps approached through the remaining Skyhillians as a single fighter parted from the masses. The pale length of her hair framed the web work of corruption in her face. Her eyes lost their warmth, much like Arin’s, but kept in them her fiery rage. The women and men at her sides were fearful to match her fearsome gaze, but the sight of Amy filled Dan with nothing but overpowering awe. The armed daughter of the Nelson artists stood ever defiant to the cruelty of the Wolf King, and became the shield her people needed.
Opposition surrounded the corrupted king at every side. The glare he gave the people who would not follow him now turned to Arin. The black veins writhed and contorted as anger tensed his face. His deep voice dripped with venom. “You fucking cowardly piece of shit.”
Mark was frozen no longer as he bolted toward his once black knight. Sound and roars of anger erupted in the ballroom as the Skyhillian people gave charge, but they would not be able to stop this dark act in time. Arin took a quick, pained step forward to collide with the claws of the beast, but collide, they never did. Dan was faster—more able—and let the corrupted king crash into his chest, as well as the tip of his sword. The hilt was nearly lost in Mark’s gut by the time he barreled into Dan’s arms. Shock and horror paled his face. His black eyes gleamed in the light of dawn that now crept through the ballroom windows to banish back night’s veils. The two kings matched gazes, silent, as blood began to pool on the ground between them. It would not be enough to end him, Dan knew better than that, but it would take time for him to be a threat again.
“Take him to the dungeons where he can rot,” the Skyhillian king demanded of the room.
Amy came forward, as well as many others too eager to see the Wolf King in chains. Bitter pain twisted across Mark’s face when Dan finally released him from their fatal embrace, but when he withdrew the sword from his husband’s stomach, so retreated the claw from his. He was able to watch for only a moment as Mark fell to the pool of red and black blood below, before feeling his own weight become too heavy to bear.
Arin’s voice sounded so far away.
The colors of the ballroom began to melt and blur. Edges were lost in Dan’s dancing vision. His knees buckled and he fell into a kneel.
Voices mended into a muddle of noise. Shadows overcame him. They were warm, where he was cold. Hands grabbed at his body just as he toppled over. The last sight he saw before the blackness took him was Arin’s face.
That was all he needed to see to know it would be okay to let go.
As knight-errant Ser Arin Hanson rushed out into the hall of Castle Avidan, he thought of what he faced to get to this point. The murky, dying woods of the cursed lands and its stale fog were foremost in his thoughts. He traveled to hell and back, just to save the last heir to a kingdom left now in ruins. Obstacles of nightmares unimaginable were his opposition. He fought wolves, and Jacks, and countless undead. He succumbed to the will-bending terrors of torture at the hands of a mad king, and for a time, he even fought himself and the control this corruption had over him. All these horrors—every traumatizing thread that wove him a story of woe and darkness, paled in comparison to the fear he now found at cradling the dying king of Skyhill in his arms. Pleas and prayers escaped him as he clutched Dan all the more tighter—refusing to let death take him away.
“Stay alive,” Arin begged. “Please, Danny, don’t leave me now.”
A group of Skyhillians followed in tow. Some scattered to side corridors, in search for supplies, while others scouted ahead to rid the lingering undead that breached the castle keep. The sight of them sickened Arin. The fact that they still swarmed and staggered and killed meant one thing and one thing only.
The captured necromancer was not yet dead.
The black knight could not let his hate fester now. His concerns needed to be elsewhere, as he carried his king all the way to the imperial suite—far from any roaming undead and the plague they wrought on this place. The bedding was vast and beautiful. Ornate designs brought the silver and sapphire silk to captivate any who might have once looked upon it, but now, its only worth was to hold the bloodied body of its master as the fight for his life began. Midwives were the only doctors left now, and tailors the only ones to stitch his wounds. Arin stayed knelt by the king’s side as the strangers around him rushed back and forth. Their voices fell muffled to his ears, as all he could focus on was Dan’s paling face. Grave concern hushed the midwives. The wound was worse than they realized. Arin couldn’t bring himself to look. There was nothing more he needed than to stay here. His fingers lingered beneath the nook of Dan’s neck when he lowered him down from his arms. The touch of his skin was addicting, but Arin found the space between them split as aides came with bandages and poultices. He felt himself pushed away—blockaded—as worry wept over the wounded from his peoples’ lips. Each step he took in retreat was made with his gaze still locked to that peaceful face, slumbering so sweetly in death’s spell, until the door closed and the sweet sight of his king was taken away.
That face haunted him in the hours to come as he kept just before the king’s door. That beautiful face was reminiscent to a time not so long ago, when he climbed a tower and stood over the bedside of a handsome prince. The world had changed since then. Everything changed. If it meant saving Dan, he would do it all again. He would sacrifice it all again, just know he could live. To hold Dan in a way he never thought himself worthy enough to do. He didn’t know what forces there were to battle back the undead in Skyhill. He wasn’t sure if more survivors were found, or if they were all that was left. Nothing mattered but what was beyond this door. His own injuries that he neglected finally caught up to him and brought the knight to take rest against the wall and floor across from the imperial suite. His hands gripped at the slashes in his stomach as he lowered to sit. A silent wince was the only reaction he gave the pain. His eyes rose to the dark hallway around him. Shadows shifted and danced, settling a growing dread in the pit of his stomach. Now that everything was quiet, the whispers between his ears came back to him.
Hopeless, hopeless, hopeless.
Arin closed his eyes and tried to push back those wicked thoughts. The only thing that kept the insanity at bay was the memory of a campfire made on desert sand. Even though the hallway air was bitter and cold, his thoughts kept him warm. He could remember the soft patter of Dan’s heart against his ear, as they lay embraced. It had been the first time anyone had held him like that. He felt safe in Dan’s arms. He felt like he belonged.
These memories were enough to keep the demons at bay. The darkness around him was no longer that frightening. As his wounds bettered in this time of rest, Arin found himself patient to wait to see his king and feel his embrace once again. Hope. He needed to keep hope.
He waited until the day met its end and night fell.
He waited for morning light and again for another day.
It was on the third morning the door finally opened for him. There were no words for the tailor to speak, and Arin asked nothing as he carefully stepped into the room. A midwife collected bloodied linens in a basket. Others were here too, cleaning up the efforts exerted these days prior. Again, he took knee by the bedside and looked onto that captivating beauty of a king in peaceful slumber. A glow came from him that only Arin saw. He was like a star burning through the blackest night. A soft smile pulled beneath the wires of Arin’s mustache as he leaned against the bed and held tight the king’s hand. One of the midwives spoke up.
“He… has been asking for you. We’ll give you a moment alone.”
The pins of fearful eyes pricked against the black knight’s back. They didn’t trust him, he never expected them to, but he had no care to win their approval as his thoughts were solely on his king. Curtains of hair fell over his face as he lowered his cheek to rest against the mattress and cleaned sheets. He took a deep breath in and smelled faint the scent of cologne and wildflowers. The hand he so fondly held softly held back.
“What are… you doing?”
Arin stirred at the frail voice and looked up to see Dan looking back at him. The words he wanted to say were stolen from him by the king’s weak smile.
“Why aren’t you… trying to kiss me awake, Arin?”
The knight struggled to laugh over a sob. “Don’t you think I learned my lesson the first time?”
The mattress dipped and bent as Dan carefully shifted. Bandages wrapped the entirety of his torso. Bruises bloomed in auras over his arms, but he lived. “I had a dream,” Dan distantly said as he turned his eyes toward the balcony.
“What was it?”
Dan looked back. “I don’t remember, but… I haven’t been able to dream for so long. It was always just nightmares before, but… I think the nightmares are gone now.”
“I think they are, Dan.”
“Are we… dead, Arin? Or did we actually win?”
“You won.” He nodded. “Mark can’t hurt you anymore.”
Dan swallowed and turned his misty eyes away.
Exhaustion ran circles beneath the king’s eyes. He would lie and say he was fine if asked, Arin was certain. He gripped Dan’s hand a little tighter.
“Get some rest, Dan.”
“Only if you promise to stay.”
Arin smiled. His heart warmed. “Always.”
Their hands never parted, even when their eyes grew too heavy to open. Sleep found them soon enough and the dreams they had could not compare to the beauty of what waited for them in the waking world.
Skyhill was safe at last.
Kingdoms across the world came to give aid when the war with the Wolf King came to its end. King Felix and King Link personally sent their greatest stone and woodworkers to rebuild all that had been destroyed. Gifts of gold came from the East, and abundant harvests rose from the South. Skyhill was far from being back to its glory, but there was hope among them, and that was all they needed to start again. More survivors were found in the streets as the days passed. Some had fallen trapped in rubble, while others kept silent in hiding. There was a group of wounded that took shelter in a nearby inn when the fighting spread through the city. They were found among the chaos and all saved by the same, brave man who fought to protect them.
He hardly looked himself when they found him. His face was swollen with bruises and his beard was unkempt and matted, but he persevered. The survival of many wounded could be accredited to him. For his services, he was named Hand to the king, and hero to all. But not everything was as beautiful, as families collected to claim their dead. Candles burned all through the month and mounds of tributes were left on the graves of those honorable and selfless soldiers who fought for those who could not. Captain Brian Wecht was among those recovered from the battlefield. To watch Rachel explain to Audrey what that meant would be something Arin would never forget. In honor of those that fought, Dan used the rest of the kingdom’s treasury to pay for the burial rights and wages to the families who lost too much. To celebrate their memory, a festival was held in the heart of Skyhill—and there was no soul in the land that wasn’t welcomed.
Suzy and Holly of the Howling Harpies came to supply the unending flow of ales and wine. There was entertainment, companionship, and dedications made to the departed. There were tears, but also smiles—as the hope for a better tomorrow was never as bright as it stayed now.
Arin lingered on the outer keep’s wall and watched the festival from afar. The people in the city were still wary of what he and Amy were; however, there was no blame for it. For too long, they had feared the curse that kept the near dead alive. It would take time, and patience, but he chose to believe that one day, they might just belong among them.
“You know,” a voice started from behind the knight. “You’re really missing out down there.”
Arin turned from the half-wall to see the steady approach of the king. His wounds were nearly healed now, but the scars would always remain. He was joined at his side and their eyes turned back to the countless glowing lanterns and lights down below. A soft smile ticked over the knight’s face. “Never been much for parties.”
Dan hummed a laugh before it fell silent again. It was a comfortable silence, an appreciated one. Despite all the frivolity rising from the land below, Arin’s thought kept to all the trials ahead of them. A caged monster was kept in the dark of the dungeons below the castle. There was no method that they hadn’t tried, no force they didn’t use, he could not be killed. The more his body healed from those vicious wounds, the more corrupted he began to look. Arin glanced down at his own hands, somewhat paler than what they used to be. The veins in him were visible, dark grey, but not nearly as black as those that rooted deep in the Wolf King. It made him wonder how long he had left—if very long at all.
“There’s something I’ve been thinking about since all this ended,” Arin softly started as he looked away from his hands and back down to the party below. “I think it would be best if I were to leave Skyhill… for a while.”
Dan was quiet, so Arin continued.
“The corruption must have started somewhere. There has to be someone in this world that knows how to get rid of it, or… at the very least, manage it. There’s a chance I could become like him one day.”
“You won’t,” Dan said with conviction.
“You don’t know that, Danny.”
“Yes, Arin, I do. You’re nothing like him. You are a good man. You saved Skyhill.”
“I’ve also done a lot of bad things. I’ve killed people, Dan. Some of them I can remember, and… some I can’t. Some of those graves down there? I’m the one who put them there. How am I supposed to pretend that there’s not the chance I can make a slip? That I become a monster? I just want to make sure that any of us—Mark, Amy, me—we never have the chance to hurt anyone again.”
Before Arin fell too far in those worried thoughts, he felt a hand fall on his own and beckon up his gaze. Dan’s grip encouraged him to turn, to face fully the Skyhillian king that held nothing but a loving smile for him.
“Those are worries for tomorrow, Arin. Tonight—let’s be grateful for what we were able to save.”
Arin sighed and bowed his head to fall on Dan’s shoulder. It was a pleasant change to be the one who needed to be saved from his fears. From down below, the soft sound of strings and songs rose. He felt Dan pull away, if only barely, to offer him a hand.
“I believe I promised you a dance, Ser Hanson.”
A warm smile pulled across the knight’s face as he accepted the hand and drew Dan into his arms. The soft color that claimed the king’s face at the sudden closeness was worth the long wait.
“I thought you would never ask, Your Highness.”
They moved slow on the secluded stone high on the keep’s wall, but even if they were down below with the countless dancers, they would have felt alone. They only had eyes for each other, and no force or fear would be able to pull them apart. Their bodies came flush, their warm cheeks brushed. Arin knew no better place to be than this.
“We’ll find a cure for you, Arin,” whispered Dan against the knight’s jaw. “But we will do it together. I guess our adventure isn’t quite over yet, is it?”
Their dance slowed as they stopped to look at one another.
Arin’s hand rose and brushed back the hair from Dan’s face. His smile only broadened. “It’s only just started, Dan.”
The distance closed between them, their embrace deepened, as the knight stole a longing kiss from his king’s lips. Maybe one day, if fate was kind, they would find their happily ever after. But for now, they were together at last, and that was all that mattered.
I would like to thank you for all the wonderful words I've gotten from you guys. I know this took me a very long time to complete, but I promised I would see it through. This is probably the last fanfic I will ever write, so I'm glad you were able to take this last journey with me. And here's my permission for AUs, fanart, and whatever else you'd like to do with any of my writings. I love seeing other people enjoy my worlds, so have at it! And let me know if you choose to do anything-- because I will always admire, share, and read what you guys do. Thanks again, guys. You mean a lot to me.