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KHI FABLES - "The Recovery" - {RP Thread}



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Ordeith

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- The Ritual of Recovery -
| KHI FABLES |


The Circle has been drawn.
Young voices mingle with old,
So that lost hearts might be found.
As the Library commands, so shall it be.



Arthur Rackham, "Grimm's Fairy Tales"

Since the advent of writing, the Secret Library of Story-Keepers has preserved the lore of humankind. Without our intervention, much of collective culture and memory would now be lost—and with it, the true hearts of old. Our eyes have now been drawn to the lands of King Dragonsbane, wiped from history in every way but in name. Given my interest in the Age of Fairy-Tales, I have been placed at the head of this project, and have assembled the necessary pieces.

Storytellers have been gathered, the Circle has been formed, and the ritual of Recovery begins.
I search for two hearts in the long-lost kingdom:

One, scorched in shame, harbors a heart of tarnished silver. He waits in solitude, for memories forgotten and forgiveness that will never come. The other sits in splendor, surrounded by his many victories. He leans upon a stolen crutch, whole in flesh but disfigured in spirit. Damndest demon, lauded lord, tell your tales through me!

images

Once upon a time, a now-forgotten kingdom was home to a beautiful wild wood.

Though their home stood not far from His Majesty’s farmland, the denizens of the wood—large, small, hoofed, and winged—paid little heed to the realm of men. Huntsmen and woodcutters would sometimes wander between the trees, taking as they needed, but the heart of the forest lay untouched. There, the animals would chat amidst the laughter of the trees; any small event was newsworthy, and when the distant human world trickled into theirs, it caused quite a bustle...

On one particular afternoon, the chatter was most eventful indeed.
It began as Hare and Badger scampered from under the brush, noses quivering with excitement.

"The forest is unwell!" Hare shrieked, her long foot thumping. "Badger and I have seen it ourselves, in the heart of the wood. Bad winds are stirring, and the King is not feeling well!" Worked into such a nervous temper, she danced from nose to tail. The other creatures had heard similar tales from Hare before, and would normally have paid her little mind—but Badger seemed to support her claims.

He lumbered into the clearing, raising his striped head to meet the gazes of his friends. "Aye," Badger said, "I've felt the bad winds, too. I went with Hare to see the King, and he looked rather troubled. He is never wrong; while I am not sure about what this might be, it cannot bode well for—"

"Oh, pish-and-tush!"

With a flourish of wings, Songbird came swooping in from above. A little vain in the head, he never sat on low branches until he wanted to be seen, and he always made a point of his entrance.

Puffing his spotted chest, Songbird tittered at Hare and Badger. "Those aren't 'bad winds', you fools. 'Tis a foreign wind, from parts unknown! The King is hosting every prince and lordling from the lands afar—perhaps from all over the world! A great festival is to be held, for King Dragonsbane is finding a husband for his daughter." The entire clearing voiced its approval, more or less:

"Oh, how lovely! I'm so happy for them."
"Hooray for Princess Dragonsbane!"​

"I wondered why the forest edge seemed so busy of late!"​

"Oh, I'll need to dig an extra mound, to get a closer look!"​

"Should we bring a gift?"

"Oh, I'll gather some fresh fruit! The royal kitchen always likes those."​

"How are humans betrothed, anyway?"
"And what do they do at weddings, for that matter?"​

"Oh, be quiet, you ninnies!" The forest abruptly snapped into silence. Badger stood upon his hind legs, black nose quivering with frustration. His gruff voice could carry far, when he wished; presently, it was directed at Songbird. "You spend too much time with humans, Songbird! I was not speaking of King Dragonsbane, though I certainly wish no ill upon him."

A hollow stump echoed with the thick smack of his paw. "I am speaking of our king, the King who protects this forest! Surely none of you have forgotten him!" Suddenly the discussion took its gravest turn yet. If the King of the Forest, as the animals knew him, had taken ill . . . the wood could no longer be very safe.

A low murmuring followed, in which none cared to have his voice heard above the others—save for Badger and Songbird, the latter of whom was making an effort to apologize, in his own way. The former was already dismissing it as nothing to be apologized over, and was trying his hardest to rally the others into order. Hare, however, had worked herself into such a state that all the other creatures began to feel giddy as well.

Then little Doe, who had scarcely uttered a word that afternoon, added her voice to the conversation. "Perhaps we could ask Owl? He is almost as wise as the King..."

Badger stopped, and raised his paw to quiet the others. "Why, yes," he replied. "That sounds like a fine idea, Doe. He may be fond of his sleep, but Owl certainly knows quite a bit about the forest and the King. Owl could add quite a bit to this discussion."

"I'll see if I can wake him," offered Songbird. "He just turns into an old buffoon when he wakes during day, but nevertheless..."

The tiny bird fluttered up to Owl's hollowed-out home, at a high point on a tall oak. His bright plumage could be seen through a filter of leaves, gently poking inside the tree's irregular hole. The animals all craned their necks to see what was happening. Songbird was half inside, and half out. He offered a small "Good Morning" whistle for Owl—and when that failed, he followed with a sharp trill.

A puff of brown feathers sent Songbird flying out of the hollow, looking pleased and discomforted at the same time. In a few moments Owl followed, drowsily plopping through the air, almost missing his perch in the center of the clearing.

Owl's perch was an old metal thing from the human world, which some unknown traveler had apparently dropped on a stump and forgotten. None of the woodland creatures knew how it had come to rest there—but in any case, it stood at the perfect height, and had a stark black color that no one could mistake.

Squatting atop his perch, Owl ruffled himself into wakefulness, blinking his large yellow eyes many times. "I hope that the occasion is an urgent one," he hooted. "I cannot stand being up at such an ungodly hour."

Badger explained the situation with the King of the Forest. Owl nodded knowingly, tapping his claws against the metal of the perch. "Aye," he said, "I've felt a stir in the night air as well, and the King has made a few remarks to me on the subject. There are travelers marching through these parts; perhaps they have brought some foul easterly winds with them? In any case, it is too early to say what has placed His Wooded Majesty out of his usual tempers.

"If it is the traveling princes, it shall pass—but if not, we cannot be sure until the princes have left or settled, and the winds are back in their native order. I propose," said he, "that we take this matter to the King himself. In an orderly fashion, mind you! His Wooded Majesty prefers to speak with the trees, most often, but he will listen if we all come to him politely."

images

So, as decided by Owl and Badger, the animals of the forest gathered to speak with their king, as they called him. Afternoon sloped into evening, lazy streaks of orange smearing across the clouds.

The animals were all gathered in the innermost part of the wood, leaving the Black Knight all alone.

He had settled in his current spot some years ago, and chosen not to move as the seasons passed. It provided him no rest, as he was ever-aware, but something almost pleasant could be said of simple repose. The Knight's spirit lay in a lethargic calm, numb from everything save the chatter of trees and animals. He had not seen a living man in many a year.

Gone were the days of proud challengers, scraping their pitiful tools against his iron skin. Countless times, the Black Knight had watched men sputter and extinguish before his blade—taunting him with life, taunting him in death. The forest offered such a stark difference that the Knight had resolved to stay there, for the rest of his existence. Birds and beasts did not flaunt their life, grossly; they merely lived, and for that he was grateful.

His owl, however—the one who sat on his helm—had troubled him that afternoon, and continued to trouble him. The Knight had never met the "King of the Forest", though he felt him often; he felt him in the nest of creepers that entangled his feet, and the moss that clung to his breastplate. His Wooded Majesty was gradually becoming distant to the Black Knight, though he hadn't drawn any conclusion from it prior.

The owl's words resonated deep in his helm, as did the blue jay's.
Lords, princes, and knights . . . Bringing foul wind . . .

The image roused the Knight from his daydreams, accompanied by a familiar ache. A confusing mixture of loathing, rage, envy, and fascination, he could not find a name for it. For centuries prior, it had enveloped him in a painful cloud—compelling him to kill. The familiar bite of emotion gnawed at his spirit again. Go . . . Fly. Take thy bride; take the queen herself, whoever she may be. Take the king of this land . . . and raze his keep to the ground. But . . . I beg . . .

. . . Do not come here.
 
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Ordeith

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In the keep of King Dragonsbane, not a single body lay at rest; the princess's festival required every able hand. The kitchens had been slaving since before dawn, preparing enough fare to feed every prince and his entourage—plus any additional guests. Every manservant and handmaid was helping the royal family prepare, while the general staff bedecked every hall in livery.

Outside, the keep entrance had already been prepared for the suitors' procession. Hired workmen from local farms set up the fairgrounds in a swift, orderly manner, and had now been tasked with carting supplies for the tournaments. A procession of carts, hauling barrels of ale and flagons of wine, circuited between the tent rows. As Princess Cecilia could accept only one suitor's plea, the king was determined to give his guests a memorable three days of revelry. No one would depart feeling dissatisfied.

Finding a moment of freedom in the afternoon, His Majesty watched the setup from a balcony. The thought of Cecilia's impending marriage was sometimes surreal, and a little worrisome—but the present-day festivities were enough to make him glad. For all her vanity, Cecilia had tact and grace enough to make the next three days pleasant for everyone.

"Husband! I hope you plan to see your daughter before the festivities, no?" The queen's voice called him away from the railing. Dressed in a new embroidered gown, his wife was radiant with pride and excitement.

Arnaud smiled broadly. "I reckon that everyone will see all that they can bear of Cecilia in the days to come. Let her a few moments of privacy; she'll appreciate it later." He beckoned for his cane—which readily obeyed, coiling around his forearm in the accustomed manner—and accompanied the queen through their chambers.

"Regardless, you should speak with her," she persisted. "The both of you have been occupied during these past few days—she, with the festivities; you, consulting with Goros in your usual manner. I know that mother and daughter are closest, but you share a special relationship with her as well, Arnaud!"

"Aye. I shall speak with her, Eleanor. First, a few last matters of state. I'll be up here again shortly!"

He embraced her fondly, and proceeded down the steps towards the main hall—where Arnaud and Eleanor were m'lord and m'lady, to one other. At the swift tapping of his cane, the servants immediately halted in their work, to bow in unison as their lord passed. King Dragonsbane nodded encouragingly. Every hall and vestibule was appropriately bedecked; from the wafting kitchen smells, today's feasting would be equally splendid.

With wizard Goros ready to mingle amongst the suitors as "Prince Gerre", only one festival matter required his personal attention. And even this one matter required only a few simple sentences:

Striding into the knights' courtyard, Dragonsbane immediately arrested every knight and squire's attention. They raised their enchanted swords in salute, then bowed their heads low. At the raise of their liege's hand, they all rose and relaxed again. "Sir Godfry," the king hailed, "I trust that every disturbance has now been addressed? Your squire has yet to enlighten me on the region's present status."

"I apologize, my liege. The lad shall be spoken to." Godfry wore his ever-stern expression, coal eyes respectfully meeting his king's. "My liege needn't worry, though. Any witchcraft or foul activity has been expunged from the region. As you know, I don't consider recent years to be any guarantee of present safety, so I have continued to send searchers until the present day."

"Excellent as always! I appreciate your humoring your liege's worries, Godfry. The festival shall not likely be interrupted, heaven help my daughter's suitors . . ."

Meanwhile, every main stretch of road was being traveled, charged with the laughing sounds of anticipation. Every lesser lord hosted a guest, and every peasant's table was shared with a traveler or bard. The entire kingdom of Dragonsbane boiled with readiness; soon, their beloved princess would be betrothed to one of the princes from far away...
 
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OmniChaos

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Led by Owl and Badger, the animals travelled into the heart of the forest, breaking through the thicket and coming upon a large clearing. The trees had pulled away from the sky, allowing sunlight to rain down upon and warm the clearing. At its center stood a massive tree, its branches all but bare and its bark darkened. The animals gathered at the base of the tree.

"Great and wise king of the forest!" Badger called in his loudest voice. He took a few steps forward and placed himself before the animals. "Please hear us, for we seek an audience with you!"

Badger's plead faded into echoes and, at first, seemed to go unanswered. However, shortly, the tree's barren branches spurred to life. The trunk of the tree twisted and disfigured, turning from nothing into shape. Two knots twisted and opened wide, blackened bark falling from around them. The trunk tore open and revealed a gaping cavity, a darkened air of rot pouring from it. The trunk pushed out further and gave shape to a large face.

The gaping hole opened wide to speak, but from it came no words. Instead, the old Ent let out a harsh, cracked cough, which pungent air knocked Songbird from Doe's back and flung him back into the thicket amidst a cloud of feathers. The forest king shut his eyes and seemed to return to sleep before he finally spoke with a voice as harsh and cracked as his cough.

"Welcome, Badger. Welcome, Owl. Welcome, friends. I assume your day to be well? And greater days to come. Yes... Hmm... You ask for an audience and an audience I shall provide, little ones. Speak loud and speak quick, for I have already begun to tire again."

"Your majesty," Owl proclaimed, taking a branch the Ent kindly extended. "We have noticed that your greatness has not been himself. Have you taken ill? Have the foul easterly winds blown through your branches?"

The old Ent groaned. "My friends, I fear tis true. I have indeed grown ill. Worse yet, I fear I may be dying."

The news silenced the animals in pure shock, leaving all but Songbird quiet. "Dying!?" The unmistakable color of the tiny bird blurred from the thicket and darted toward the forest king. "It can't be! How can you be dying? Why? What's causing it?" However, before his questions could be answered, the Ent let loose another harsh cough and sent Songbird flying back into the thicket.

"Yes, my friends, I am indeed dying. I'm afraid I have been for quite some time now. My hibernation has delayed it, to be sure, but death has come for me all the same and I fear I am not much longer for this world."

"But Great King, what has caused this?" Badger asked. "Is it the foul winds that have blown in?"

"Nay, nay," the Ent responded, a small flurry of dead bark falling from his trunk. "My fate has been sewn by a greedy thief who took from me and has left me to slowly bleed out and die. Nay, the foul wind is not the cause, but a concern all the same.

"The wind... It carries with it sorrow... It carries shame and suffering... But further, it carries greed. Pure avarice. And an evil so great and unwavering--an evil that hungers for what it does not have--that should it find its way into these lands, that I fear not even Dragonsbane could stand against it."

"What is this evil?" Doe quietly asked.

"That, child, I do not know. All I do know is that it is not the only force in play. In my weakened state, a malignant force has found its way into my forest and I am unable to confront it. It cannot be swayed by power or gold and will not stop unless stopped. There is another, as well. Not malignant, as the other, but a powerful force that will be played."

"Then what do we do?" Badger asked. "What can we do?"

"Wait," the Ent replied, his eyes slowly closing. "Wait and pray."
 

Professor Ven

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The morning was still as the corpse that laid in rigor mortis before his ever-smiling, dark gaze. Blood dribbled from the delicate slashing of the victim's throat, as the nobleman sputtered and gurgled out a final, meaningless, unintelligent few words. The final moments of life were always so sweet, so tender to watch. He enjoyed watching them writhe, struggle, attempt to grasp their meager thread of existence, only for it to vanish with the appearance of his blade.

Fear would wrap them in its terrible embrace, then. His harsh, tremendous laughter would echo, as the Mask warped in sheer glee, and their life force would be his to take. The Joyful Jester only felt mused by the recollection of his past works into the human world. The body he now had was fresh, new, so full of life, though he never bothered to wonder where it came from. Or the others, for that matter.

He had covered so many faces with his ever-smiling Mask, man and woman alike. Their flesh always contorted and filled out, so to speak, and gave him essentially the same body he had once had, long ago. The Fiddler of Fear never questioned why or how such occurrences happened, for his soul was locked into the Mask. Time was meaningless to him - his game was Chaos, the churning of all things at once. The Vicar of Violence simply waited for when he would be bonded to the next participant in his ever-changing game.

Gibyr Witticus ran the back of his hand along the victim's face, the Mask wildy wrought with deranged happiness, as Witticus felt the chilling grip of Death upon the man's final breath. He rose from squatting over the dead nobleman - was his name Belfore or Tellindral? Gibyr only briefly recalled a name being uttered by the eight guards that littered the gilded marble floor, as Witticus had made himself welcome earlier.

Wiping the blade of the sole knife he carried, the nine bells atop his traditional hat tinkling softly, the Master of Malevolence strolled out of the fortress complex, passing by the murder hole slits and various booby traps, the place littered with the dead. Well, except for a young boy, who sat waiting with a donkey.

Witticus thought himself to be quite the genteel companion, in his purple, green, and gold suit. In some rucksack village a few miles somewhere from here, he had come across the child, who had been oddly entranced by the King of Fools. The boy was just a simple farm-straddled, pitied peasant. Gibyr simply rubbed the Child's head with his blackened glove, as the Child continued to pack sacks of gold and silver and jewels onto the donkey. The Minstrel of Madness simply went with the flow of the World's tick-tocking, and leered as the Child hitched himself up into the saddle, munching on a round, green apple from a nearby basket.

Gibyr took the reins, and led his menagerie of marauding onward, into the Old Forest. Time was kept only by the amount of apples the Child ate, the clip-clop of the Donkey's hooves. They meandered and milled about through the Old Forest, stopping to rest next to a ancient, once gallant Knight. His armor was black as sin, charred by what might have been his own lust. Tap-tapping the great pitch-colored helm with a great knocking, Witticus ignored the reactions of the Forest's inhabitants.​



Time to get up, blind man, ye jackdaw fool. The Lord of Chaos has returned.
 
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Prophet

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Thud... thud...

There are forces of good: those brave souls that have decided to dedicate their lives to the pursuit of justice and strive to create a world better than the one they were born into. There are forces of evil: those dark minds who have seen the blackness in humanity’s heart and decided to eat their fill. There are forces of chaos: those poor bodies who have witnessed the true disorder of existence and chosen to laugh in the face of futile rules and pointless ideologies.

Thud... thud...

And then, there be monsters.

Somewhere on the edge of the Old Forest, a flock of birds took flight. This was not the peaceful launching of a migratory exercise. This was a panicked retreat. Sparrows screeched and doves wailed as they burst into the air with all the force their little wings could muster. The earth shook with a subtle thud, one that only those with keen ears would pick up. The thuds continued periodically, one after the other, like a mysterious metronome vibrating through the soil. Animals would tremble, for they knew the truth of what these foreboding noises meant.

Thud.... thud...

These be footsteps.

Deep in the thick of the forest, the Behemoth stalked. Feet the size of wine barrels snapped branches underfoot like dry leaves. Dark gray skin brushed against tree trunks, scraping the bark off the mighty oaks and littering it on the earth. Bone protruded from the back and shoulderblades, with dried blood crusting over the places it had obviously burst through skin. Huge shoulders and upper body tensed with muscle as the Behemoth’s path was blocked by a fallen oak; about the size of a small castle turret. The beast’s momentum barely changed. Gigantic arms, like battering rams, shot forward. Fingers the size of small dogs forced their way into the tree, broken dirty nails finding purchase in the fallen tree. The massive trunk tore apart with the ease of shredding parchment. Splinters of wood exploded into the air, and the beast moved forward, letting its gargantuan arms touch the ground, walking on its knuckles like an enormous ape.

The actions of the beast were not malevolent. It bore no ill will to the forest. It did not smash its way wanton into the heart of the woods. It simply walked forward, tearing only what lay in its way asunder. Then, it reached the path.

It was a small path, barely cut through the wooden glade. It wasn’t traveled much. However, this day, voices drifted from around the corner.

“Jonathan, you said this way would be faster!”

“Yes, my Lord, we should be cutting out a few days travel going this way.”

“We better not be lost, squire. I will not lose the hand of the fair Cecelia because of your incompetence. Sir Roderick, what ails the horses?”

“Not sure sire, they’ve never been spooked like this before. Easy girl, hey!”

A small caravan of men rounded the corner. A small carriage surrounded by a band of knights struggled into sight. The horses were in frenzy, darting back and forth, neighing in uncontrolled panic. The knights were barely holding them at bay while the squire puzzled over a handdrawn map in the front of the crew. The horses gave an hopeless neigh, and threw their knights off with little grace before bolting deep into the forest, vanishing like ghosts into the trees.

“What the blazes is going on Sir Roderick?”

“I don’t know sire, bu- dear go-“

The Behemoth hit the caravan like a boulder from a catapult. The knights flew in all directions, like bowling pins, as the beast smashed one hand into the carriage. There was a petrified scream as the carriage was lifted off the ground five feet and torn in half, dumping the prince onto the ground with a terrified squeal. The squire shrunk into a ball, staring at the beast stand at its full height. Propped up on two trunk-like legs, the Behemoth held the carriage up like a cracked coconut, trying to peer inside. It stood a grand total of about 9 feet tall. The Behemoth’s head was fearsome, roughly humanoid with a fearsome jaw that held tombstone-like teeth. Dirty-black matted hair hung wildly from its head, caught with twigs and branches. But it was its eyes that the squire could not stare away from. Burning coals, smoldering in that boulder-like head, they seemed to burn with a dark fury any ocean could not extinguish. The Behemoth dropped the remnants of the carriage like toys it was bored of playing with and leaned forward on its knuckles. It sniffed, taking a deep intake of air into two dark holes that looked more like deep black tunnels into hell than nostrils. It bared its teeth, leaning forward toward the prince, who breathed quickly, pushing himself back until the Behemoth’s head stood mere feet from his face.

One knight had managed to get to his feet and drew his sword. He yelled fiercely and leaped to stab his blade into the back of the gray beast. The sword barely sank into its skin and the Behemoth reached one goliath hand over its back, grabbed the knight by the torso, and hurled him into the forest with the ease of skipping a stone. The beast leaned even closer, and the prince began to plead desperately.


“Please, please, there’s no gold here. We have no maidens, no treasure to loot. Please, please, take the squire, take the men, but pleas-“

The Behemoth roared. A single, earth-shaking, forest-trembling, roar. The remnants of the carriage shook, some branches dislodged from the beast’s hair and fell to the ground, and the squire covered his ears and shut his eyes desperately, but could not drown out the ungodly crescendo. When he opened his eyes, the prince was no longer there. A bloody stain began to soak into the soil. With horror, he saw the Behemoth picking apart one half of the prince, examining and sniffing it just like it had done the carriage. It made a snort of dissatisfaction and tossed the half-corpse behind him. The squire let out a dry sqeak, not daring to make a sound as the princes left arm, torso, and left leg crunches to the ground beside him, spraying him with a layer of warm blood. His eyes could not close as the blood spurted over him. The Behemoth sniffed at the other half, sniffing at the exposed bones before pausing at the blood-soaked royal jacket worn by the prince. It paused, sniffing once more near the torso. It tossed the same body behind it and turned, leaping in a single bound toward the squire.

The squire shut his eyes tightly, clutching himself in what he was sure the last second he had of life, but there was a huge crunch behind him. He opened his eyes tentatively. The other half of the body had fallen beside him and he watched the Behemoth bound into the woods, smashing directly through a grove of trees as the beast smashed its way in a new path through the forest. He let out a single breath, frozen in place as his eyes fell on the second bloody half of his former master. In the breast-pocket of the newly dumped body lay a single bloody slip of paper. The words “Royal Invitation” glowed for a single moment before being completely covered in deep crimson. The squire’s eyes rolled up in his head and he passed out, fallen among the bones of the prince.
 
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Ordeith

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The Black Knight's daydreams were broken yet again;
a rude, unfamiliar voice tugged him back to the physical world.

"What . . . fool steppeth into this grove . . . ?"

Produced by spirit alone, the Knight's voice scraped through the air like metal against stone. The few remaining animals shrank back from the sound, dismayed to hear such a noise coming from old Owl's perch. He tried to ignore their sounds of fright. Damnable—! The familiar rage glowed inside his breastplate; his sanctuary, already threatened, was faced with sudden ruination.

He still sat upright after these stagnant years, and needed only to pivot an inch to meet the trespasser's gaze. Moss and lichen crumbled from the armor's shoulder joints. A grotesque, silver-cast smile filled his vision.

"What be thee," he rumbled, "a motley clown, playing as a woman?"

The Black Knight made no effort to suppress his disgust at the jester—waking him with brazen voice, grossly flaunting the shape of a woman. "Away! Take thy forged merriment elsewhere. Whole armies have perished at the point of my lance; thy crass self may certainly do the same! Begone, to thy prince's camp . . . !"

Though he was not aware of it, the rage in his tone mingled with despair.
His only threat was founded in desperation.

"Leave in silence, clown, and no harm shall come to thee. Disturb this clearing, defile it . . . and I shall carve thee into pieces." The scorched broadsword and lance lay amidst the creepers. "I fear no pain or death. If thou seek my exit from this place, it shall be upon thy corpse."

A frenzied flutter of wings, multiplied several times over, sounded in the distance. The forest denizens scrambled for their lives, as limbs splintered and snapped. Some other part of the forest was being torn and broken—pillaged, no doubt, by some atheling lord and his posse of men. The Black Knight's gauntlet jerked involuntarily; his wrath, left cold for so long, had been irrevocably stirred.

There was no stopping the foul wind proclaimed by the badger, he realized. This mule-toting jester was only the first snap of the breeze. I fear no pain or death; I shall withstand thee.
 
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Passion

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The Royal Kingdom was in a bustle from the moment the sun rose up until the very moment it would fall. Every hand in the Kingdom played a role in welcoming the princess’s potential suitors from faraway lands. Although the method in which the princess and King Dragonsbane would choose the “lucky” husband was rather unorthodox, multiple princes and men of high honor received the invitation with welcoming hands. It was quite well-known that Princess Cecilia was perhaps the fairest maiden in all the land and winning her hand in marriage was a feat to be conquered.

In preparation for the upcoming festivities and trials, men, women, and children all united as one to make the Kingdom as presentable as possible. Feasts were prepared, game was caught, and entertainment was crafted to the utmost detail.

In the royal castle itself, Princess Cecilia’s handmaidens were hard at work attempting to both ready the castle for the influx of visitors as well as meeting the demanding needs of the princess. As soon as some headway was made in preparations, the princess demanded one thing after another. After quite some time, one of the eldest handmaidens found herself in the kitchen readying a meal for the princess…

Her hands were worn from years of experience living in the Royal Castle and her hair was a silvery gray that further accentuated the gradual loss of her youth. “Honestly, I don’t know how all these men want to marry her.” The old woman whined as she began to decorate the plate. “Thy Princes and Noblemen mustn’t know all of the labour required just to keep thy fair Cecilia satisfied!”

One of the youngest handmaids, with a very youthful beauty, suppressed a smile caused by the truth found in the old woman’s words. “May God grant those men patience and luck in order to handle Princess Cecilia,” the young girl chuckled.

All the handmaidens found a certain comfort in poking fun at the ridiculous demands of the princess. In spite of all the work required of them to satisfy both the needs of the incoming visitors and Princess Cecilia, the handmaidens exchanged lighthearted laughter for a brief moment before a familiar, icy voice ceased all forms of merriment amongst the handmaids.

“It is capital punishment to speak ill of the royal family my dear ladies.” The room grew eerily quiet for a brief moment in time as the voice slightly echoed in the large kitchen. All of the handmaidens were afraid to see the source of the comment, although they knew who it was rather well.

It was none other than the princess herself, standing atop the staircase looking down at all the mortified women below. Her expression wasn’t filled with hatred or distain but rather full of satisfaction. In an odd way, Cecilia relished in the sorry pleads that came from the kitchen bellow. She began her decent into the kitchen as the maids sought her approval for the remedial tasks she requested. She dismissed each with a contemptuous smile and wave but remained highly aware of the one handmaiden who refused to beg for Princess Cecilia’s forgiveness or even attention.

She knew this maid rather well; after all, this one in particular had been with the princess since she was born. She was an old graying woman, the one who started complaining and speaking “ill” of the princess. It didn’t take long before the gorgeous, desirable princess was standing before the eldest maid in the castle. Cecilia first looked down at the plate of food only to see that it was exactly the way she wanted it. She should have known that the elderly woman wouldn’t make even a mistake in something she had been forced to do every day for quite some time.

Nonetheless, this did not excuse the old woman from saying such things about the princess. “Have you anything to say for yourself and your loose tongue?” Cecilia inquired in an attempt to provoke the eldest maid.

“You my dear, of all people, should know how I personally feel about you,” the old woman replied without fear, unlike the other maidens who were terrified of what consequences may lay in the princess’s wrath. “If you wish to banish me, kill me, then so be it. I am of old age anyway; however, think of this. Who will prepare your meals, sew your clothing, and all of the other things you require in order to maintain satisfaction?”

Cecilia’s perfect lips curved into a mischievous smirk before she continued to eat her meal. She admired the old woman’s tenacity and boldness that all the other maids lacked. Still, the woman was growing far too old and her use would soon be out of practice unless…

The maidens were shocked to see Princess Cecilia merely finish her meal and then leave without a single reply to the old woman. The youngest handmaiden looked upon the old woman with awe thinking that maybe, someday, someone could truly stand up to the princess and demand a better life worth living.

Cecilia, on the other hand, was wearing a wicked grin upon exiting the kitchen. She now approached one of the palace guards and his peers standing at their post, almost begging for something to do. Wonderful. The main guard clearly mistook her wicked expression for an elegant smile of beauty (as did everyone else in the kingdom) and he quickly stood at attention for the regal beauty.

“M’Lady, is there anything I can do for you?” The superior guard queried.

The princess fiddled with her hair for a brief moment whilst looking back and forth between the main guard and those around him. “I need a favor, its rather important.” The men gathered closer to the princess and some could not keep their eyes off of her exposed midriff. Perfect. “The eldest handmaiden, Eleanor,” she began. “I want you to kill her.”

The main guard, although willing to do so, was curious as to why. “Dear Princess, I’ll be more than happy to assist you from any threat. But Lady Eleanor? What has she done as of late to merit such a punishment?”

“Her rebellious nature has gone on long enough. She thinks she can speak ill of the royal family and continue to live? Pish-posh. We cannot have an upheaval by the work staff and, after all, she is an old woman now with not much life left to live.” Cecilia thought of the countless times Eleanor said that the princess would never find someone to replace her. Times are changing and the princess knew of one handmaiden who would attend to her no matter what. The newest handmaiden was considered to be a humble peasant girl with a pretty face. She would be the one to take Eleanor’s place with no problem. At least Cecilia would be able to look at this maid without wanting to roll her eyes in disgust.

“Princess, who will take Eleanor’s place? She’s done everything for you since you were but a child?” The guard asked.

“Everyone is replaceable.”
 

Athel

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The people of the West had a set way of life. It's culture, customs, and traditions had been perfected through generations. Their systems -- of lords and servants, masters and apprentices -- were crafted to suit their way of life. Even the smallest details, like how butchers were expected to prepare their meat, had customs attached to them. "Things are as they should be," was what they believed, and they accepted no changes to their order.

In the West, the preferred mount of choice was the horse. In the East, it was different.

The beast was both horrible and fascinating to the people of the kingdom. It had four legs like the more familiar animal, but walked in a disjointed and irregular manner. It's body was covered in fur more like a rug than the fine sheen of the horse. A long, prehensile neck took wide swings back and forth, and the citizens shrunk back in disgust when it leaned its face with a smashed snout near them. Its body was amorphous, disfigured by a large lump of flash along its back. And the most unusual feature of the animal was the man riding it.

"None have seen a camel before now," the man thought. "Should anything else surprise me?"

When the streets became too crowded with people, the man dismounted from the camel and started walking beside it. He was a man of the East, like his animal, and that showed in his tribal garb. His dark skin contrasted with the people of the kingdom, as did his great stature. He was a large man, not immediately imposing, but carrying a sense of restrained power with him. His dark hair grew into a thick beard on his chin. Everything about him radiated a foreign air that caused the crowd to part almost as much as the camel did.

But most of all, it was because of the sword. The bone sword, unlike any other in the East or West. The sword of his father. The Gnasher. It hung at his hip, without a sheath, still polished to a gleaming white, coated in special oils to keep it from degrading. This was a weapon of horrible power, that made its wielder a force of nature.

The man walked through the city and out again, continuing on the clearly cut path to the outer gates of the castle. Servants ran back and forth along the road, men and women, young and old, on every possible manner of business. Some of them paused or at least looked up at the man and his mount as they passed by, but others were too occupied with their tasks and continued past him. He was in no hurry.

The outer gates were open to allow people through, but at its entrance stood four armored guards, two on the inside and two on the outside. The ones of the inside were arguing with a small, fat man.

"I've already told you!" he exclaimed, tired from explaining himself many times. "I haven't enough for all of the festivities!"

"Why didn't you get them earlier when you were checked in on?"

"I thought I had enough then! I was wrong, I admit it! Is that enough to satisfy you??"

"This sounds more like your business than ours. If you need more, fetch them yourself."

"Ah! You pinheads are impossible!" the man said in a shrill, worn-out voice. He glanced past the guards and let out a thin, tight squeak that was supposed to be a scream. "Good Lord, what is that monster!?"

All four guards spun around after a brief pause, and lowered spears towards the man and his camel. The animal was unflustered, and leaned down to sniff one of the guards faces, who leaned back in disgust. (The camel also had an atrocious and overpowering smell.)

"Halt!" one of the guards said. "Only servants can come and go from the castle grounds, and only if we approve them."

"I am no servant," the man said. "I come in peace. Where are your stables?"

"Come in peace, huh? You look like a rascal to me!" another one of the guards stepped forward, and raised the tip of his spear to the man's throat. "What business have you here, then?"

Before he finished his sentence, the man had reached down to his hip and pulled out his monstrous sword with a single hand. He swung the blade in an sharp arc upward, and the spines on its edge clashed with the wooden handle of the spear. The spear lost the battle easily, shattering into fragments of wood and tossing the guard to his feet from the sheer force. The small, fat man shrieked again. The camel spat onto the ground, apathetic. The other guards were frozen for a moment, and it was a long time before they had recovered from the shock and pointed their weapons futilely towards the man again.

A dark fire twinkled in the man's eye, and that feel of restrained power was even more apparent in his body. He slowly reached inside of a bag on the camel's hide, and pulled out a piece of parchment. It was crumbled, splotched with yellow and brown, and the faded crest of King Dragonsbane was only barely visible on it.

"I have been invited. I am Gilead the Jepthite, prince of the East. I repeat; where are your stables?"
 
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Ordeith

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In the midst of the mercantile procession, the suitors entered with their entourages—a motley march of pennants, banners, and coats-of-arms. Within half an hour, the outermost courtyard of Dragonsbane Keep would be filled to the last square of pavement. The royal family would issue a statement of welcome, and the suitors would then present themselves in the audience hall. Not even an hour remained until Princess Cecilia met her husband eternal…

King Arnaud returned to the royal suites to find his daughter absent.
Cecelia's handmaid, however, seemed to have been waiting for him.

"Your Majesty. Her Royal Highness has briefly stepped into the kitchens, to oversee her meal's preparation. She should be back momentarily, m'lord." The words were innocuous enough, but the maid relied on subtext to carry her message, as good servants do. She made a nervous gesture around her throat.

Ah, well. The king nodded in understanding. He normally distanced himself from domestic squabbles—but time was growing short. I still mean to speak with her, regardless of the setting.

Thanking the maid, Arnaud promptly set off whither he had come, down the broad staircase that separated the keep's private and public quarters. While the kitchens sat far enough away from the royal chambers, he already harbored some expectations:

Ever mindful of her birth, Princess Cecilia rarely graced the servants' stations with her presence—and when she did so, it usually resulted in a total upheaval of the day's work. No man, woman, or child could pass beneath her eyes unscathed. It was hardly a new occurrence to the denizens of Dragonsbane Keep, and they had since learned to accept these outbursts in stride. The queen would not tolerate any unhappiness in her daughter.

With so much of his time offered to bettering the nation, King Arnaud was always struck by the dilemma of Cecilia; how to approach her fairly, while respecting his wife's wishes. The princess absorbed every nuance of court and politics, but the moral aspect of governing remained distant; in fact, she seemed to willingly push it aside. Hence all this pomp and ceremony, he thought. She needs a husband to shepherd her as no one else can . . . and to channel her efforts in a goodly direction.

The other Eleanor—the matron who had raised Cecilia from birth—was strong-willed and level-headed enough to carry the princess to this day. Arnaud was taken aback, therefore, to see her surrounded by the guards and master of servants, visibly shaken. Matron Eleanor stood firmly as always, but there was no mistaking the tremble in her jaw and fingers. Her Royal Highness Cecilia of Dragonsbane watched the proceedings, looking satisfied.

At the familiar tap-tapping of the dragon cane, all faces turned in His Majesty’s direction; all heads bowed, save one.

"I hope our princess can be spared elsewhere, yes?" Dragonsbane entered the foyer with his usual academic calm, showing no signs of concern. Indeed, he smiled warmly. "The suitors' parties have been arriving in droves—and Her Royal Highness shall soon appear at her father's side. Are you well?"

He directed this at Cecilia, whose discomfort showed only to those who knew her well.
A fatherly hand on her shoulder, accompanied by the briefest of glances, told her the king's mind.

"Whatever this incident might be," he said, "it can surely wait for a formal hearing, as usual. No?" He turned to the master of servants, who nodded in understanding. Arnaud continued: "The princess appears to be ready, so Eleanor may retire to the servants' quarters until she is needed again—for her hearing, or otherwise.

"Let's step aside then, daughter. Good Day, gentlemen!" King Arnaud exchanged a few brief words with the master of servants; and with that, the entire matter was finished.

________________________________________________________________________​


The two royals, father and daughter, took their conversation through the liveried halls. On the quiet upper floors, King Arnaud's cane was the most pronounced sound, Cecilia's fluid gait making no noise.

"Ever since she forgave you for killing the hound, your mother has been totally lenient about your killing things—but I need to draw the boundary here, young lady. Matron Eleanor is old; she'll make a mess." King Arnaud smirked, tapping Cecilia's forehead with his index finger; it always irked her when he did that, he knew. "More earnestly, though . . . You couldn't have expected me to let Eleanor be executed.

"I hold the final say over all executions, especially of those who live inside this keep. The woman shares your mother's name, Cecilia, and raised you from birth; I'd expect some recognition of the fact, at least." Eyes trained ahead, he let the flatness of his voice show his heart on the matter.

The two proceeded to the outermost rooms of the main keep, where the balcony antechamber had been prepared for the royal family's sitting. Three gilt chairs and a small settee lay out of view from the courtyard. Arnaud took a seat and motioned for his daughter to do the same. His cane, reptilian face grinning eerily, remained upright while its master sat.

The king held his jaw pensively. "I pray that you find a husband who cultivates the best in you, Cecilia. I've never thought you lacking in skill and sharpness—but without the wise heart of a queen, you'll be nothing more than . . . chief among courtesans. That is the truth, told as frankly as I know how to tell it.

"But let us set this aside," he said, "for a less hectic time. I don't wish to argue before we bid our guests welcome. Of the suitors you know, which strikes your eye as a good husband?"

King Dragonsbane had probed the background of every suitor present, through his couriers and through court mage Goros. Any slight inclination of Cecilia's would tell His Majesty quite a bit, and give him a context for sorting the suitors in his mind.
 
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Prophet

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The terrifying roar shook the forest clearing. With a building crescendo of thuds that seemed to grow closer and closer, like an impending tidal swell, the earth began to shake. Stones on the ground quivered, and even the air seemed to become thinner in fear. The animals scattered, fleeing in every direction, parting like the Red Sea before the staff of Moses. However, there was nothing holy about this malignant force.

Trees snapped like toothpicks as the Behemoth barreled into the clearing. Smoldering ember eyes twisted in their sockets as monstrous knuckles dug into the ground. The soil seemed to retreat from the dark gray skin, and as massive shoulders heaved, it seemed like the bone protruding from them cut deeper against the rough skin it had broken through. The Behemoth sniffed. Two figures stood before it. The beast did not see like mortal humans did, but it smelled. And the stench of darkness lay on these too.

The Behemoth let out a low growl. A reverberating rumble that sounded like it came from deep in the bowels of a great abyss. The ember eyes seemed to burn a bit brighter, and its fists tightened. It lowered its head, leaning forward like a wolf baring its teeth. The growl continued, building in intensity in a slow increase of decibels...

Until it broke. The growl became a roar, and the air shook with the wave of pure malicious sound. The Behemoth charged at the two figures, knuckles and feet smashing against the earth as it propelled itself like a monstrous juggernaut. The earth cracked beneath it and the trees seemed to bend under the sound.
 

Ordeith

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Everything, he thought, had suddenly gone to wrack and ruin—yet the Black Knight still refused move. The reverberations grew louder with proximity, shaking the wood from bough to root. The earth shuddered with sound, buckling under the footfalls of an enormous beast. And the Black Knight refused to move.

He yearned for sleep, or the stillness he called "sleep". He could not remember ever sleeping, but he knew the concept of rest; the forest was the closest thing to rest that he had ever known. Something inside the Knight clenched involuntarily. Anger—painful awareness—flared in the cavern of his breastplate.

For nearly one-hundred years, the Black Knight had known quiet and calm. He had witnessed the births and deaths of forest generations; he'd watched saplings reach the canopy, and grow a layer of moss. In stillness, the creepers entangled his feet. The owl perched on his helm, and the squirrels ran along his leg. The Black Knight, an ancient herald of death, had briefly enjoyed being witness to life.

Lost within moments . . . And now the world returns for me.
There is no escape . . .
The forest shuddered.

I cannot escape . . . How they hound me! They rejoice in my misery!
It continued, growing louder; it rattled loose pieces of his armor.

The Knight still refused to move.

Come, then! If thou hast committed it to will, come hither. At last, the wooden curtain parted with a snapping of timbers. To the Black Knight's far left, a mountainous demon stood, shaking the entire grove with its noise. As thou hast murdered my sleep, I shall extinguish thee. I fear neither pain nor death.

The monster charged—and the Black Knight’s instincts reared up in defiance. Tearing his heavy plate body from the undergrowth, he seized his lance at an impossible angle for a living man. Weeds and ivy still whipped about the charred weapon, which he planted into the ground with cursed strength. Using it as a makeshift lever, he propelled himself wide of the behemoth’s charge. It stopped its charge with massive leathery hands, pushing the trees back with its weight.

The jester’s mule appeared to have fled, along with the boy; the jester himself (herself?) had somehow avoided the monster’s lunge. "Hm," the Knight growled. "'Tis a pity, that!"

He left the lance buried in the dirt, and instead snatched his longsword from the brush. He could not afford for to recover, lest he be faced with its enormous palms. The Black Knight needed no shield, and fought better without one: His gauntlets slipped into the familiar grooves of his longsword, worn into the hilt by a thousand long battles. With a surprising leap, he drove the sword point-first into the monster’s skin.

Into the monster’s skin it went, not through. Its thick hide was so leathery-tough that his ancient blade had only lodged itself inside. His opponent did not seem hurt, only perturbed. It flung him about with demonic strength, whipping the body of plate as if it were a feather pillow. The longsword barely held; the Knight was flung against the behemoth’s body, onto his back.

Seeking a handhold, he dug his gauntlet fingers into the shaft of bone protruding from the monster’s shoulder. He freed his sword, and wickedly lodged it inside the wound—between flesh and bone. With some resistance, it slid inside, and the Knight pried outward with all his might.

The monster’s reaction gave him a jolt of spiteful satisfaction. Dost thou think me so weak and stupid, demon? Hah! The old fires stoked by rage, his inner furnace clamored for more.

But the behemoth was equally enraged: It wrenched the Knight and sword from its shoulder, crushing the metal in a giant fist. The Knight only survived being warped out-of-shape by tucking his limbs tightly against his armored torso, sword clutched between his shins. His gargantuan opponent, apparently dissatisfied with the outcome of its first charge, hurled the Black Knight into the thicket—and lunged forward again.

The Black Knight careened through the wood, snapping limbs and uprooting small trees. His metal shell of a body landed with a scraping crunch! The monster continued its charge about halfway, then suddenly halted. It spun about to face the clearing, where something else had somehow managed to ensnare its senses...
 
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OmniChaos

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A man who hid his face beneath a black cloak--a man who had secrets to hide--quietly led his horse through the bustling crowds of excited people. Though his reasons for being in the kingdom upon this most special occasion was unknown, the large sword that hung across his back cast a grim shade upon his arrival. Such a man could not have rode in upon a good wind. No, such a man would have rode in upon a foul wind.

A sparse glimmer of tarnished metal shone from beneath his cloak and the man tightened his grip on the cloth to cover it up, eying the passing people for anyone who noticed it. None did. A shining light of good fortune for the man, for the armor he bore was none other than that of Dragonsbane's kingdom; a kingdom the shrouded man once took up arm for, that he called home. But that was another time and another man.

Now he was different and marched beneath the banner of another kingdom. Once called the Vigilant, the man was nothing but a dastard who turned his back upon his country. His name was Barneby and he walked these streets for the Fell King. That was made known to him very clearly.

~*~

"What rabble hath thou brought before me?"

Barneby was thrown to a charred, stone floor, only to have his head violently jerked upward by the hair. A pair of pale, boney hands ran across the knight's face, steadying it and prying open his eyes with long, wrinkled fingers to set them upon a dark figure before him. Barneby pulled away, tried to shut his eyes, anything to advert his gaze. But the boney fingers held strong and dug their yellowed fingernails into his skin, drawing a trickle of blood.

The figure was a horrid sight, much like a hellish corpse drawn from the deepest of nightmares. It--his--skin was a pale, chalky white, much like the bone the skin tightly wrapped. His eyes were blackened, like two pieces of coal. A tarnished crown sat, embedded, in his head. A large robe encased the man, if he could truly be called such, giving him a great, imposing figure. But the frail, withered hands that stuck out from beneath the robe showed him for what he truly was: withered and frail.

"Show some respect, weakling," a voice hissed from behind the knight, no doubt the creature currently holding him still. The hands jerked Barneby's head back down, in a bowing manner. "Before you sits the mighty Fell King, ruler of a thousand kingdoms!"

"Rabble, speak thy name, less I free myself of thou sooner."

"Barneby," the knight mumbled through his lips, still held firm by the pale fingers. His eyes twitched with fear, tears welling up as if a pungent smell had hit his nose.

"Louder, Rabble, less I strike thee dead where thou are!" The Fell King's voice erupted into an enraged growl and the pale king beat the ground with the bottom of his staff. "Speak now or I swearist upon all the gods that have ever been, I will--"

"Barneby!" the knight cried, tears pouring from his eyes. "Sir Barneby of the kingdom of Dragonsbane!"

Barneby's head was jerked upward once again. His eyes met with the king's, which were filled--or the knight assumed--with interest, but the Fell King's lips turned into a greater grimace.

"Does thou believe me for a fool, Barneby?" His voice was filled with insult, but the dark, coldness in his tone sent a chill up Barneby's spine. The Fell King rose from his throne--a throne of blood and bone--and walked toward the knight, leaning on his staff--little more than a broken branch from a great tree--to support the frail being that hid behind his facade of greatness. "Does thou believe me a simpleton?"

The Fell King grabbed the knight's chin with a great harshness, freeing the man's head from the fingers that kept him still. The king jerked Barneby's face in toward his, bringing it in closer. A nausiating smell poured from the Fell King's mouth and the knight nearly upheaved.

"I have claimed every known kingdom in these lands! From sea to sea, from the cold south to the mountains of the north! I own them all and never among them was a kingdom of Dragonsbane! So, Barneby, pray tell, why does thou lie to me!?"

"I'm not lying!"

"Thou are!"

"I'm not!" Tears poured down the man's cheeks and in his eyes could be seen the frightened squire that had been sent to slay the warlock all those years ago. And just as he had betrayed his knight, the coward now betrayed his kingdom. "It lies beyond the mountains! Many other kingdoms do as well!"

The Fell King smiled.

"Does they, now?" The king's grip softened and he ran a boney finger across the knight's chin. "And how might I trust thine words to be true?"

In his anger and his fear, the knight recalled how he ended in this situation. He remembered why he was set adrift into the world, where he was captured by the servants of this monster. He remembered the person who shattered his heart and sent him from the kingdom he served. He remembered and he wanted her to suffer.

"Send me."

"So thou can escape and foretell of my coming? Nay."

"No." Barneby gave the Fell King an evil smile, yet his eyes still cried out in fear. "So I can usher your coming. So I can obtain the vengeance I seek. Make me your servant, your knight. Send me to kill in your honor. I pledge my loyalty to you, my king. You can trust me."

"Nay, I can't. But my trust can be earned, knight." The king pried open Barneby's right eye with his boney thumb and index finger.

"With the right guidance--" The Fell King lifted his staff over the knight's eye and a trickle of thick blood poured from the staff into the eye. Barneby let loose a bloodcurdling cry, intense pain pouring from his eye and engulfing his entire being. It was great, overwhelming, and the knight felt as if his entire body was collapsing in on itself. "--I believe thou might prove useful."

The Fell King released the knight and Barneby doubled forward, grasping at his eye. He let out terrified shreeks as his struggled and failed to catch his breath.

"What have you done to me!?"

"I have assured your loyalty, Sir Barneby." The king returned to his throne with some obvious effort and took his seat, releasing a sigh once he was off his feet. "For thou are a coward, Barneby. Thou betrayed thine own kingdom and would not think twice to do to me the same. Thou gave me thine loyalty, and coward or not, I shall have what is mine.

"As such, my knight, I have taken thine eye for my own. Stand, Barneby, and see me well."

Barneby staggered to his feet, his right hand still grasping his eye. The knight dropped his hand and slowly opened his right eye. No longer an eye, what sat in his right socket was a ball of brilliant white light that illuminated the knight's darkened face.

"All thou sees, so shall I, too, see. Through thine eye, I shall see this land of Dragonsbane myself, and I would see this man, Dragonsbane, as well.

"I shall send thee, my harbinger. Go forth to the kingdom and foretell my coming so that Dragonsbane might hear himself. Go, Barneby, the Dastard, Sword of the Fell. But first, hold." The Fell King looked beyond the knight. "Servant! Bring forth his blade!"

A small, hunched creature--which at one point, may have been human, staggered forward, dragging Barneby's sword--the crest of Dragonsbane still proudly shone on the blade--behind him. The stout creature presented the blade to the Fell King, holding it along its flat edge.

"A fragment of my power, I thus give to thee, Barneby!" the king chanted, almost ceremonially. He tipped his staff once more and from it flowed the thick blood. It engulfed the blade, tainting the silver black and warping the hilt into something most unholy. The Fell King retracted his staff and pointed the small creature in Barneby's direction. "Take this gift, my knight. Use it to embed the stake of fear deep into Dragonsbane heart. This is my command."

The knight, uncertain at first, hardened his face and bowed before the Fell King. He took his sword from the small creature and sheathed it in the scabbard across his back. Barneby spun on the heel of his foot and began out of the chamber before the Fell King called out again.

"And Barneby. Should thou betray me as well--" The Fell King smiled a most horrible smile. "--I will bestow upon thee, forever, a deathless suffering unlike any other.

"For, thou belongs to me, now."

~*~

As Barneby led his horse to the outer gates, his eyes fell upon four guards--all fairly unarmed, from the look of it--and a man with a great, bone-forged sword. The latter piqued his interst slightly, the sword, more than anything, really, but the man crossed the knight as no true concern.

"I have come upon request of King Dragonsbane," Barneby spoke, minding the guards' curiosity of his face beneath the cloak. He presented an invitation that bore Dragonsbane's crest. "I am Ericks the third, prince from beyond the mountain. My journey was great and with much peril, so I ask that I may rest my horse in your stables and enter the castle."
 
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FairSovereign

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Goros Desidarius Caelum sat quietly within his private study located deep within Castle Dragonsbane. The man meditated atop the center of a large and intricate rune carved into the stone floor beneath his feet. The mage's study was a secret place, accessible by none but himself, and of course, the King and few even knew of its existence. Goros' sanctuary was heavily enchanted to deter intrusion, and could not be seen by anyone lest he wished them to. The room also had a tendency to change locations within the castle grounds. That last spell he cast primarily for his own amusement. He could spend hours simply laughing at the confused expressions on people's faces when he emerged out of a corridor which had been previously empty, or perhaps, that had no rooms.

The study was given to him by Dragonsbane long ago upon their first meeting, and initially, it had been just as finely decorated as the rest of the estate. Goros, who lived much of his life in rustic, minimalist surroundings, detested the extravagance of many parts of the castle, though he rarely let that opinion show. Once the mage was given leave to do what he wished with the room, Goros immediately stripped it of its overbearing finery. The lavish carpeting and beautiful tapestries were gone, the golden torch racks were removed, and the elaborate candelabra were exiled from the room almost instantly. The room was transformed into a place of function and necessity. Most of the walls in the room were covered by bookshelves, magical diagrams and maps of far off locations. There were numerous runes imbedded into the walls at key points of the structure, and to replace the torches, the mage placed orbs of permanent starlight about the room, giving the place a more surreal atmosphere.

The rune beneath Goros began to give of a faint, blue white light and his silver hair began move slowly upward, as if the man were submerged in water. The intensity of the light then began to escalate, and a droplet of glowing clear liquid rose up out of the ground before the rune. A virtual fount of these droplets began to form from nothing and once enough of them were extant, they began to move of their own accord and take shape. They rose, higher and higher until they seemed to take on the form of a thin, rectangular mirror. Goros smiled and stood up to face the magical pane of reflective material, brushing down his robes as he did so. Snapping his fingers, his robes began to shift and change upon his skin. Fabric warped and changed shape, moving upon him almost like tendrils polychrome mist. Colors inverted and distorted, until what was left was not the ceremonial garb of a master wizard, but the boastful guard of princely royalty.

Before the mirror, he turned and admired his new ensemble. For a man approaching his third century he couldn’t have appeared any older than his early twenties. It was thanks to Veznamiza that he was able to discover the secrets to eternal youth. By stealing the witch’s magical knowledge, he was capable of later bestowing a fair bit of it unto himself. Whilst the woman was a master in the arts of Dark Magic, it was useful understanding it in order to discover how to counter act it and retool it to his own purposes. The magical energies that surged through him were the inherent antithesis to dark magic, and with his now massive collection of magical knowhow, Goros ensured that his power was surging throughout the entirety of the city. Any being of evil that stepped foot within the city limits would weaken considerably, especially the closer they got to the castle. These defenses took some time to put into place, but they have long since sunk into the stones of the city, the woods of the houses, even the very air itself.

Yet, his part as a protector did not end with simple spellcraft and quiet vigilance. The mage made a vow long ago to protect the royal family until the day he died, and to do whatever was deemed necessary to abide by this vow. So, by the King’s request, Goros was also to take on the role of a deceiver. The young princess Cecilia was soon to be betrothed to a one of many princes from across the world, and under the quaint guise of Prince Gerre, he was going to mingle amongst these perspective princes and ensure that only the very best of them were capable of winning the hand of the Princess. To assume the role of a foreign prince, he would be using a little bit of magic, and a lot of smoke and mirrors. All he needed to do was weed out those who were unworthy, or not suited to the task of being the successor to King Dragonsbane.

Walking forward, he strolled up to the mirror until he was literally nose to nose with his reflection. Then, taking in a deep breath, he walked into the glassy substance. The surface of the glass rippled at his touch, as if a small stone were dropped into a pool of still water. Emerging from the other side, he looked unlike himself. His skin darkened to an exotic tan, his eyes lightened from midnight blue to a gold not seen in the lands of Dragonsbane. The silver stands of hair upon his head inverted in their hue, becoming jet black and straight. Small details also changed, such as dentistry, complexion, the size and orientation of his ears, the color and fullness of his lips. For all intents and purposes he was a different person.

“Peculiar.” Goros said a voice and accent that was not his own coming from his lips. The only thing that remained unchanged was the ring upon his finger. That would never change, as it was an item as timeless as the seasons. Turning once, he nodded curtly at his new visage, and then turned to leave his room. Reaching out, his arm disappeared up to the shoulder and a cloak emerged from nothingness to rest in his hand. With a sweeping motion, he pulled the cloak over his shoulder and stepped out of his door.

 

Orion

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Solomon crept slowly and carefully through the forest. He had passed through it once before, in a hurry, feeling only a tantalising fraction of the thrilling hum that now seemed to echo through him to his very bones. In haste his past visit constituted an endeavour that was little more than snatch-and-run. Some gnarled branch for an arcane ruler who sought a staff.

Now, with time on his hands, he bathed in the exquisite sensation. He wasn't sure when exactly he picked up this particular sixth sense, but it was working in overdrive right now, the loot and treasure of dozens of kingdoms buried around and beneath him. Entangled by roots, covered in moss, sitting amongst the ivory bones of great beasts that had long ago swallowed whole foolish knights and brave nobility.

His own ivory mask was beaded with dew, adding a glistening to the unsettling visage that took in every visible detail of its surrounds. Long, spider-like fingers glided over foliage, trunk and branches, rings on every finger tinkling against their neighbours. Each one did something, but Solomon wore them so often they were as much a part of his body as his eyes or skin. Perhaps more so: The rings were hardly rotted through.

As his journey dragged on, he became aware of the sounds of battle, and a grand one at that - something like a giant stomping and grunting about. He continued his walk in the same direction, and ultimately came to a clearing that may have been natural just as much as it may have been cleaved clean by the monstrous demon currently warring against a knight in black-clad armour. The smaller figure fought mightily, with athleticism and flexibility that bellied the weight of his armour.

Still hidden among bushes and between trunks, he had an opportunity to observe the conflict. The black knight fought like a demon, with movements fast and fluid, strikes precise and harsh. He lost a sword but just readily brought a lance into the fray. He fought far greater than any normal man could, and this naturally invited Solomon's curiosity and, potentially, his list for treasure.

He drew out a monocle on a tiny golden chain that was wrapped around his neck. With a perfectly curved lens of diamond, and a frame of platinum wrought upon gold, it granted to sight of the unseen. It could not envision everything, but it always showed the single most significant secret of an individual. In the minds of otherwise faithful husbands he had seen the wives of other men, in knights the slaughter of innocents, in kings the deeds they committed to ascend to the throne.

In the black knight, he saw and felt through the lens, literally nothing. Not the abstract nothing of a mind pure or unoccupied, but literal emptiness. This knight had no regrets - or at least remembered none - had nothing to hide beneath his armour. Quite specifically nothing, for as sure as the armour had been peeled back or rent open, Solomon saw nothing within.

He wondered how much armour like that might be worth. He it might be persuaded to manipulation by others. A warrior unfailing in flesh or mind would be welcome and feared by a good many powerful people. Solomon at least wanted a closer look, but wished to do so without the giant interfering.

Solomon stepped into the clearing, drawing a small hourglass filled with golden sand from his waist. It had proved useful on many occasions, especially as a means to disable traps or stop the advance of dangerous beasts and guards. Solomon could never establish a consistent idea of how long the stuff worked for, but items sprinkled with the sand became frozen in time. He unscrewed the top of the hourglass, took a good-sized pinch of salt, and held it in the palm of his hand.

He advanced towards the behemoth. He knew not its nature, whether it be arcane or mundane, natural or magical, but he guessed his sand would affect it in some way. With a single, long sweep of his arm, Solomon let the sand loose at the side of the giant, who appeared more concerned with the armed knight before him than the random, frail figure who had entered the clearing.
 

Prophet

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The Behemoth snarled as the Black Knight propelled himself out of the way. Nails the size of small shovels dug into the earth, tearing up the soil as the beast turned in place. It glared at the warrior, burning eyes locking on the blade drawn by the armored individual. It did not truly see the blade, but the agony this blade had wrought smoldered on it like burning coals, releasing the pain into the air akin to waves of heat. Dark eyes glimmered, narrowing as the Behemoth took another whiff. There were three scents in the air... aside from the one great stench that constantly burned in its nostrils. It snorted, expelling the darkness from its nostrils for a moment as its muscles tensed. The threat was here now...

The warrior lunged at it and the Behemoth roared as it rushed forward to meet it. The tiny knight swung the blade, barely registering in the beast's skin. The Behemoth barely noticed the agony-reeking blade push into its gray hide. However, as the small warrior held on, there was a sudden pain by its shoulderblade.

The Behemoth howled as sharp pain shot through where bone broke through flesh. It reacted instantly, grabbing the warrior by the torso, and hurling him to the earth. The dark crimson scab through which the bone protruded had burst open under the blade, gushing fresh scarlet liquid onto the gray skin. The pain was a sharp sting, nerves afire with the raw hurt that comes with an old wound bursting anew. The Behemoth's breath rose faster, and the low grumble seemed to shake the very air. The Behemoth leaned forward, putting weight on its knuckles as it lowered its head, great maw opening in an obviously threatening rumble. A bit of the scarlet blood dripped down from the shoulder crack and ran along its neck and down its chin. The blood almost glowed next to the beaten, scarred gray skin. The Behemoth was angry... so when the third stench entered the clearing, it almost didn't notice.

Suddenly, there was an odd tingle in the air. The Behemoth reacted subtely, like an animal that has noticed something has changed in the wind. It shrank slightly, lowering it's weight onto it's haunches as something strange threatened its environment. It grumbled from deep within it's throat, blood beginning to slow it's flow. Somehow, the recognition that this strange change was coming from the third scent struck the beast. It roared and leaped toward the third figure... only to find it gone.

The Behemoth landed with a crunch, but something was odd about it. The ground did not move the same way it did normally. It was sluggish, like the earth was frozen. The Behemoth turned, but the figures were now merely blurs, rushing about. It growled, this time the deep reverberating noise seeming more cautiously confused then angry.

The Behemoth would appear to the others to be moving at about a sixth of its normal speed... time had slowed for the monster.
 

Athel

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“You said you were from what parts?”

“The East,” Gilead repeated. “I know not what your names for it are. Every one of a thousand places has a hundred names.”

“Aye, you need to pull your act together, sir. Wouldn’t a single king do you a world of good?”

Since Gilead had stepped into the foyer of the castle, the company of men there had responded one of two ways; either by ignoring him completely or doing a bad job of hiding their interest. A small crowd had gathered around him as he sat near the edge of the room, and the man talking to him seemed to be their spokesman. He was a somewhat short, barrel-chested man, likely the build of a wrestler. His clothes were of a rich, dark green, embroidered with brilliant green thread in the shape of leaves along the sleeves. He faced Gilead with a charisma that seemed to cause claustrophobia to those around him.

Gilead was reserved. Since he had arrived, been approached inhospitably, and been subjected to what a kind person might call interrogation. They seemed to have no end of interest in him -- but like this man, they seemed to twist it to praise themselves.

"We have had kings," Gilead continued, "but they were chosen by the people. They served as long as their were needed, and never would become tyrants."

"You speak like monarchy is a curse," the forest man said. "On the contrary! Monarchy is a blessing. A single power of God and country. Peasants should be lucky to have a king, not the other way around. A king can guide his people on the proper course, towards a moral life. Your people...are proof of what can become a peasants without rule."

Gilead did not look at him. When he rose to his feet, he kept his eyes down. When he tapped his sword against the ground to remind him of its presence, he never locked eyes, not even when the man shied away and Gilead grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt and held him there. "I once heard a story about your land, a story about a king. They said that the health of the king was the health of the land. When he flourished, it flourished. You are not a king, but I wonder what would happen to your land if a maimed king ruled. I would rather not find out."

The forest man chuckled not quite sheepishly. "If you thought so poorly of kings, why are you even here, sir?"

There was only silence for many heartbeats. Gilead let his hand go, and the forest man stepped backwards. Gilead sat back down, but kept his hand on his sword. He never looked at the man once. If he had, his hold on the blood lust may have broken.

"I need company," he thought, "more than these dogs can offer me. I hope there are some good men in this country."
 

Passion

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The Princess was never intimidated by anyone. In fact, she was often considered the daunting side of any argument; however, this time it was different. Cecilia's plan was going so well until her cursed father came into the picture. She loved him, honestly, but he never let her enact justice the way she deemed fit. It made her frustrated, more than anything. If she was expected to rule the kingdom, he had to eventually trust her judgement concerning matters such as Eleanor's fate.

Cecilia knew she was more than fit to deal out her own capitol punishment without her father analyzing her every move. She was more than capable with court and politics; nonetheless, it all meant nothing if she had no support or trust from the king. From her own father...

Her eyes narrowed in frustration as she heard the familiar tapping of her father's cane. She knew he had heard; she knew that he was more than disapproving of her actions. She knew. She paid no mind to his comment but located the firmness in her father's grasp of her shoulder. Her eyes found Eleanor's trembling frame. This was a matter she'd attend to later.

Cecilia released the evident tension in her body and responded to her father's wishes. However, as soon as her father began to speak with the master of servants, Cecilia glided over to Eleanor. She placed a delicate hand on the old woman's cold arm as a faint smile appeared on her face. "Your judgement has been postponed, God is in your favor today. However, I shan't see you near my chambers ever again. If I do, I will not hesitate to resume where we've left off. Consider this your resignation, yes?"

~*~

"Ever since she forgave you for killing the hound, your mother has been totally lenient about your killing things—but I need to draw the boundary here, young lady. Matron Eleanor is old; she'll make a mess."

Her father proceeded to tap his finger on her forehead, an action that she always despised. She clearly remembered the day she killed the "Royal Hound" (as they always referred to it). The whole castle, supposedly, felt as though they lost a member of the family. She knew better. How could the castle care more for a dog than its own princess? Cecilia was about seven years of age when the dog ceased to live.

She was neither happy nor sad. Rather, she was numb. She felt no true emotion in regards to the dog's death. No guilt, just numbness. This feeling carried through with each lawbreaker, traitor, or prisoner she executed. Her punishment was justified in the eyes of the law. The cold, everlasting law.

"I hold the final say over all executions, especially of those who live inside this keep." Her father said matter-of-factly. Cecilia tried her best to withhold the anger boiling inside of her. This was entirely unfair. She was justified! Treason is a capitol offence. Did he not understand this? No. Of course he wouldn't. King Dragonsbane was compassionate and "moral." If anything, she saw this as his weakness.

"The woman shares your mother's name, Cecilia, and raised you from birth; I'd expect some recognition of the fact, at least."

"She may have some uncanny details about her, but that does not excuse her from having such a fowl tongue, father." Cecilia responded. Soon thereafter, the Royals seated themselves on the balcony overseeing the numbers below in the courtyard. Today was the day. Today she would meet her potential suitors (although she was highly disinterested).

"But let us set this aside," he said, "for a less hectic time. I don't wish to argue before we bid our guests welcome. Of the suitors you know, which strikes your eye as a good husband?"

"You know how I feel about marriage in general father. I am clearly not an avid supporter in regards to my situation. I can rule this kingdom on my own without the need of a man." She played with a few tousles of her hair before smiling at her father. "However, if I knew a suitor that I already approved of, wouldn't I have married him by now?"

At this moment, the coordinator of the event (and the one responsible for the arrival of the potential husbands) and her Majesty appeared before the balcony. "Your Majesty, Princess," the man bowed before the seated Royals. "Most all of the suitors are accounted for save one. Shall we proceed without him?"
 

Ordeith

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The Black Knight tore through the sticks and grasses before the familiar hilt brushed against his gauntlet. Using the longsword as a prop, he rose with the same inhuman speed as before—ready to tackle his gargantuan opponent again.

"Once more, beast..." Ghostly breath rattled in his helm. The empty visor scanned through the trees, in search of the Behemoth. No movement flashed between the branches; no vibrations reached the knight, save for a low, constant thrum.

He wasted no time in using this pause to his advantage. Making a wide circle around the clearing, he returned to his initial spot, where the charred lance had been left embedded in the ground. He tore it loose with a heavy jerk, and smacked it once against a tree to remove the clods of dirt. Both his weapons now freed, the knight cut straight across the clearing—towards the fallen copse of trees where the monster surely stood. Thou shalt understand pain, and the price of challenging one undefeated. The Black Knight prepared his lance to strike at the beast, whose back remained facing him...

...And when it made no move to oppose him, he stopped. The heat of his rage dimmed for just a moment, and the knight merely stood there, perplexed. The low humming which he had heard earlier—dismissed in the heat of the moment—now struck him oddly. It was vibrating off the Behemoth in low waves, and the creature itself moved as though the air had thickened to porridge.

The Black Knight crunched his gauntlet around the lance in frustration. "What sorcery...!"

Then his gaze fell upon the wraithlike figure, masked and clad in a coat of chain. The knight, an enchanted being himself, could sense a faint tinge of magicks about the man. "Hmph," the knight grated, "sorcery indeed. Thou deprive me of an earnest kill, and so deprive me of victory. Was the jester's intent to announce thine arrival? It seems that ye should be in league, magician—ye being meddlers both!"

He spat the word with disgust—if such a being could be said to have spit in him. Not even bothering to hear the newcomer's reply, he strode away with a rueful glance at the Behemoth. "Whatever thy purpose, I care not. Begone, or meet the same fate that would have befallen the giant."

________________________________________________________________________​


Watching his daughter then, King Dragonsbane could hardly suppress a smirk. Cecilia had as sharp a wit as any courtesan, yet no more worldly experience than the scullery maid, and it showed. All the patience in the world to her husband . . . and may he be rewarded for it.

He made no further comment to her, instead addressing the Master Courier. "Well, it would hardly be just to keep them all waiting for the sake of one competitor. We'll usher the suitors inside once Her Majesty enters, with or without this fellow." Arnaud stole a brief glance at the entrance; his wife would be arriving in minutes. "Send somebody to find him, though. I'd hate to see the young man lose before he can even present his case."

The Master Courier bobbed his head in agreement. "My feelings exactly, Majesty. I'll dispatch a man forthwith!" He did not leave immediately, however. The cranelike man paused a moment over the small parchment inscribed with king's notes, and fussed over a tasseled pillow that lay flat. Arnaud grinned openly, then; some people were born to perform a single role in life, and perform it well.

Then a thought occurred to him. "Hold a moment, Ricard," he said. "What is this suitor's name? Is he from a land afar?"
This was a coded reference to wizard Goros' disguise—one 'Prince Gerre'. The Master Courier was one of the few who knew of it.

Without batting an eyelash, Ricard replied: "Aye, sire. But not a Southern prince. A Far-Easterner, if I recall—so I can't imagine he will be difficult to find." He took the opportunity to better fluff another pillow. "The local princes have each arrived as expected, my men have told me."

Dragonsbane nodded. Not a Southerner—so my eyes are in place, then.

At that moment, Queen Eleanor entered the balcony antechamber, taking a seat next to her daughter. She smiled at Ricard, who bobbed his head to the royals and offered his usual assurances to King Arnaud. The spindly Master Courier closed the door gingerly, leaving the royal family to themselves.

King Arnaud Dragonsbane looked over his family, and felt a swell of affection. Eleanor had since accented her new gown with a smooth silver pendant and circlet, and a brilliant smile. Next to Cecilia's searingly white mermaid gown, the queen looked equally beautiful—in an elegant, matronly way that befit the occasion. She carefully smoothed the front of her dress. "I hope the suitors haven't been waiting for long. I'd expected to be ready before the both of you, believe it or not!" She clasped Cecilia's hand fondly, her face beaming with pride. "But I suppose it was foolish of me to think you would miss this—if only for the gown and jewels."

Eleanor gave her husband a significant look then, but not one without a touch of gratitude. Arnaud's stance on Cecilia's indulgences was hardly unknown to her, despite how rarely he voiced it. The fact that the contest existed at all, however, proved that he was more than willing to compromise.

"I should think not," Arnaud replied with a chuckle. "But now I think our lordlings deserve a reward for their patience."

The royal family rose to welcome the crowd of suitors.

________________________________________________________________________​

Not a paving stone of the courtyard was visible from above, so great was the gathering of suitors. They ached, behind their silks and leathers, their chain mail and plate. Every leg was stiff from walking, every back sore from standing; and when King Arnaud Dragonsbane appeared on the balcony above, every head rose. Every knee bent.

His Majesty looked every bit the famed magician-king, clad in dragon scale mantle—the legendary dragon staff in hand. His visage lay calm as a stone; his eyes glinted with a sorcerer's wily light. Beside him, Queen Eleanor walked with the serenity of Mother Nature in her step.

The princess remained unseen, as King Dragonsbane began his address:

"Chosen elect! Sons of empires, scions of kingdoms! Young masters of lands afar, I welcome ye. My keep and all its surrounding lands lie open to you, as do my larders and my vassals." He spoke without any visible strain, yet his voice projected throughout the courtyard. The air was rich with magic, and the king's voice all the richer.

"Though we have never once laid eyes upon one another, I have seen all your faces. I have heard all your stories, and spoken all your names. With only these clumsy tools—these scraps of a whole person—I searched for the man who would guide this kingdom after my inevitable passing. The man who would rule alongside my daughter, this realm's future queen.

"You each have shown great potential; to know such honorable men was reason enough for me to invite you here, and test your mettle. May the bonds of friendship formed here endure for ages to come. But he who shows mastery of words, wit, and weapons—the foundations on which this kingdom was built—deserves even more. Such a paragon among men, as I am sure exists among you, deserves a place by Princess Cecilia's side." With the first smile of the evening to come, he subdued the growing tension. "I hope to see you enjoy the festivities, and wish you each Fortune's blessing, alongside my own. Suitors! With your procession, the search begins! May you do honor to your homes and houses!"

At this, Dragonsbane raised his hand aloft; the dragon cane had shrunken, and coiled around his forearm. The dark wooden head, wearing a serpentine grin, lay in his palm. With a flourish of the king's fingers, a gout of fire leaped from its mouth, arcing high over the suitors' heads. The entrance to Dragonsbane Keep swung wide, flanked by His Majesty's Guard.

King Arnaud stepped aside. Officially welcoming the suitors was none other than Princess Cecilia Dragonsbane, a youthful goddess in white. Her appearance was enough to raise a shout of devoted applause—and with that, the entourages processed inward.
 
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Orion

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Solomon let out a huff as the towering warrior strode away. The merchant's faced twitched momentarily into angered contortion, but his ivory mask wrought with silver betrayed none of it. He directed the hate in his eyes - filtered through black gems - over his shoulder to the jester who still remained, and appeared to be making a pathetic attempt at hiding the satisfaction of his humour. With Solomon's simple initial gesture, it must have become so obvious to the jester that the merchant wanted something out the knight - information, treasure, something. And by simply being there, the jester had dampened all chances Solomon might have at such an opportunity.

Turning on his heel, Solomon's cape flowed about him and was accompanied by a continuous jingling of treasures rubbing together as he started off after the knight, setting himself a fast pace. It looked and sounded like his feet hardly touched the ground, and not a bend blade of grass was left in his wake. Solomon made sure to approach the knight from a safe distance parallel to him - no doubt he might expect an ambush when suddenly approached from behind and in utter silence. With the knight's departure, Solomon wondered what he might do about the temporarily-slowed behemoth. If anything, the jester might be taunting it right now.

Solomon looked down at the hourglass, still in his hands and merely closed, not locked. Once locked, the sands of time would be disconnected from their source, and the beast would roam freely and wreak havoc once more. Solomon liked the idea of letting the behemoth move once more - perhaps with its most recent and greatest irritation in the form of the black knight leaving would see it redirect its ire upon the gesture. A thin-lipped smile formed under the mask, but he kept his hands fixed on the hourglass' lid: with the promise of fully re-animating the beast, he could yet get something out of the warrior.

"Terrible warrior," he said walking parallel to the knight, but several metres distant, "I assure you that as that clown is a league below me, I too am below you. He and I are not in collusion, nor would I ever hope for it. 'Tis clear he has no appreciation for your prowess nor any of the wares I possess. He is a man of empty jokes and tricks, and deserves no serious consideration."

"I hail from a distant land, and I deal in wondrous items. Your armour utterly fascinates me so - what might I be able to trade you that you might tell me some secret of it, gods willing allow me to inspect it? A weapon? I can grant you the Hundred Spear - once thrown and stopped in the ground or the hide of an enemy, it returns at once to your hand. Just keep throwing! Something defensive perhaps, not that you lack in sheer ability to dodge - a shield of dragon hide or cape of leviathan scales?"

The knight looked to be brushing off his offers, but it was hard to tell. At least when it came to Solomon something could be discerned, for his clothes fit his body well, and the dropping of shoulders or rising of the chest could still be perceived. The black knight was infinitely more inscrutable, so Solomon spoke one tactic while thinking another: "What if I were to grant you the battle and victory that I deprived you of through the most sincere misunderstanding? A twist of the lid and the beast returns to its natural state, maybe even thumping the bastard jester before coming for you. What say you about that in exchange for a closer look at that armour?"

At the same time, Solomon's thoughts were more sinister. He didn't doubt the sand might have a similar effect if applied to the black knight himself. But even in that slowed state he might still have the strength and speed to dreadfully maim the merchant. His mind wandered over what he had on his person, and quickly settled on an ideal item: A small bottle with platinum frame and crystal faces, when exposed to the arcane would drain its essence until all that was left was the mundane. Conversely, one could pour that essence back out into something new.

It had been especially useful for Solomon, because it allowed him to take the mystical properties of many items he would never sell because of personal need, and condense them down into just a few accessories. If ever he found an item of mundane or ugly appearance but bountiful in power, the bottle could drain that essence, and re-place it in something far more beautiful, reaping much greater profits. He wondered what he could do with the knight's essence if he proved ultimately uncooperative when it come to letting Solomon examine his armour. Solomon concluded that, if he were to feel especially spited, he would take the knight's soul and put him in a flesh body. See how he liked that.
 

FairSovereign

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People underestimate just how powerful an impression a well-crafted cloak can make. The cloak is perhaps, the single most incredible piece of clothing ever devised in the history of mankind. A cloak paradoxically drew the eye of all those around, whilst also concealing the wearer and anything they may wish to hide. It kept one warm, and could double as a blanket at night. Goros could remember many a time where the only comfort he could find in the middle of the cold winter darkness, where he slept upon the icy stones, was his tattered old cloak. There was a magic in the garment that couldn't be explained or properly replicated by anything else. The thing however that Goros loved most about his newest cloak, a beautiful thing of black and white which had inverted colors on the inside, was that it looked dramatic. In fact, it was such a cloak that made heads turn and storytellers spin tales. It was crafted, per his request, by the finest seamstresses in the King's service. Then, on the night of the full moon, Goros allowed the fabric to soak in the light of the moon and the stars, giving it a powerful ward against evil. Suffice to say, it was a very nice piece of clothing and he had yet to wear it in public.

Goros, or rather Prince Gerre, strolled gracefully through the courtyard towards the gathering of Suitors, wearing an air of nobility. Arnaud was making his speech, and the men to whom he spoke all seemed to have taken great pains to look their best for the occasion. The air was indeed filled with magic. He could feel it. It brushed against his skin, making it prickle somewhat, the power of the "dragon staff" standing out above his own magic in a manner all too familiar. His cloak billowed about him, shining white in the golden sun and his arrival did indeed cause the other suitors to turn their heads. The exotic, far-eastern features of Prince Gerre, and the foreign style of dress that the man bore was specially selected to give off the strongest impression.

When the speech was finished, the Suitors began to file into the Castle of Dragonsbane. Goros locked eyes with Arnaud for the briefest of moments, and information passed through that gaze. The looked seemed to say, this should be interesting. The man applauded along with the rest of the Suitors when Cecilia appeared before them. Then, the men began their inward trek into the depths of the fortress. Goros stepped into the castle, and put on the perfect air of having never been there before. The disguised wizard looked around at the gaudy decorum and lavish tapestries with an outward expression of wonder, whilst inwardly concealing a desire to hire a new decorator.

Many of the men stood apart from one another. They saw one another as nothing more than other competitors, but the purpose of this contest was not only to find a victor, but to build bonds, and forge partnerships. Goros began to speak, his voice deeper than normal and altered further than that by the far-eastern accent.

“I never imagined that the Castle of Lord Dragonsbane would be quite so…majestic!”
 
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