The king adjusted the crown on his head for the seventeenth time in the last ten minutes. It wasn’t that the crown didn’t fit right–it had always been too big for his head–but the frequent adjustments were more of a nervous habit than an actual need to get it properly set on his head. He couldn’t help but be agitated given the circumstances. Any minute now, one of his ‘loyal’ scouts would eagerly, and probably cheerfully, present news of the 8th Legion’s defeat on the eastern front to the White-Horn army. Just perfect. If he couldn’t find the right way to spin the news, then the Human Council, which had been plotting against him for the past four years, would finally have its victory. He needed a way to gain control of the situation before it became out of hand. He desperately needed to keep them from gaining any more footholds with the public against his authority.
Before he could come up with a plan though, the large wooden double doors at the other end of the stone chamber finally opened. The bearer of bad news happily began sauntering across the red carpet that stretched from the door to the throne. A thousand men over Level 20 dead, and this fool is one pep-in-the-step away from a hop, skip and a jump. Traitor. The king just couldn’t get it. He saw the councilmen as rats and fat pigs grubbing over the captain’s chair of a ship they were sinking in order to kill the captain. He didn’t care for the chair. If he thought any of them had the slightest idea of how to save the kingdom, he’d have happily let them take the throne. However, he knew that giving up would only sink the ship quicker, and the White-Horns didn’t share either his sense of mercy or his sense of justice. If they took over, it’d be Hell for the Human kingdom.
“Your Majesty! I bring dire news from the north!” the messenger said, doing his best to fake a solemn tone.
“I trust it is not too dire. I’m sure that, if it were, I would have received word sooner than the standard weekly update,” the king said, half to stall and half to make the happy fool squirm.
“Um, well, that is . . . Your Majesty, the dates just happened to coincide.”
“I see. So the news is that dire, and you waited for the appointment day? I should have you hanged. What if I had wanted to take action upon hearing the report?” The king’s eyes darted around the room desperately looking for inspiration. Minutes. This was only giving him minutes, but it had to be enough.
“Sire, if I am to be punished for delaying word of our losses, then please do not let the punishment grow! May I speak?”
Qasin relented. There wasn’t any hope for him, and these minutes served as nothing more than time used to humiliate an idiot soldier who picked the wrong side. “Fine. Deliver the news, but be brief as I have a revelation of my own to deliver afterwards.”
“Yes, Your Majesty. I’ll be brief then. The 8th Legion has been obliterated. They fought valiantly against the White-Horn threat to Valcrest, but were ultimately defeated. Upon failure, they tried to recoup their forces and retreat to safety. Unfortunately, they were routed and destroyed to the last man by the Black-Wings hidden on their southern flank between them and Valcrest. There were no survivors.”
“Did you survive?” the king asked, finally breaking what little confidence the soldier had left that he would stay out of prison. Qasin knew that the soldier and the councilmen had likely either used their own forces to kill the retreating legion or been in on the Black-Wings’ ambush plot from the beginning.
“Only because I . . . I left the fight early to . . . to make it to this meeting!” The soldier said falteringly and looked at the councilmen who, among the crowds of officials gathered on both sides of the red carpet, stood nearest the throne. They just smiled though. The messenger’s purpose had been served. The king knew they would do nothing to save a used-up pawn.
“But you’re certain it was Black-Wings?” he pressed. Victory was his. If this day was going to deal a death blow to the king’s authority, it would need to end the messenger’s life too.
Yes. Because of the . . .” His lie that had run so far from truth had come full stop against the wall of his stupidity, cornered by his lack of wits.
“Guards, thank this man for his efforts and drag him to the dungeons where he will await execution for desertion during combat.” Unlike the messenger, who had faked it, the king was genuinely solemn as he issued the order. This was a small victory for Qasin, but it would do nothing to stop the effects of the news once it began to spread throughout the hamlets and villages.
“Yes, Your Ma–” one of the guards began to respond as he moved to apprehend the soon-to-be prisoner, but he was shocked into silence before he could finish either. A bright, blinding white light suddenly filled the room. Its source was the gilded summoning circle next to the main doors. A few small gasps and exclamations escaped from the otherwise silent crowd of onlookers. When the light faded, all that could be seen within the golden ring etched into the stone floor was a lone man standing in its center. The summoning circle, usually only used by court’s magicians, had never been activated without at least three mages present to complete the process; and, even then, it had certainly never created such a brilliant display before. Now, however, it had just done both, and the sight of the mysterious robed stranger standing there left even the battle-hardened soldiers surprised and awestruck.
The king, quickly sizing the man up, saw an opportunity. The people needed hope after the bad news, and he needed a distraction to buy him more time–and here was both. The tall, muscular man’s red eyes looked like a devil’s, his feet were covered in so much blood he had obviously just come from an incredibly intense battlefield, and he had shown up without being summoned . . . Or has he? Either way, he will do.
“Ah, the man of the hour has come sooner than expected!” The king shouted, standing up and walking towards the new arrival. “This man, my friends, is the valiant hero I have summoned to win back our front lines! This man will bring us victory where, just moments ago, we had only the taste of defeat in our mouths.”
The unexpected guest in the summoning circle looked even more confused than the councilmen, who, being gathered near the throne on the other side of the room, were all craning their necks to get a better look at the odd interloper over the heads of the assembled crowd.
“I will?” the red-eyed man asked, looking around him in awe like it was his first time ever seen a castle.
“Good. Glad to hear it.” The king, still not certain that the barbarian wasn’t going to murder him on the spot, chose to pretend that it was a declaration and just carried on, ignoring Darwin’s question entirely. He doesn’t have to win. He just has to buy enough time for the 7th Legion to report a victory. If I can make a big enough spectacle of him, the councilmen will be too busy trying to figure out who he is to keep meddling in my army’s affairs. Now I just have to make a scene and make him disappear before the ruse goes awry. “So, great warrior, before we send you on your noble quest, what is your weapon of choice? What tool have you killed the most men with?”
“Killed? . . . I killed a man with a butter knife?” he responded, leaving the entire crowd stricken for words.
“A . . . butter knife, you say? Wondrous! You see, my people, we have nothing to worry about. This man, a man who casually kills with butter knives and salad forks, has traveled great distances to save us from the invading monsters who plague our borders! We have nothing to fear anymore. Breathe easy, and know that fortune has shined on us today. You have all witnessed the brilliant glory of his summoning. You have all seen his dreadful visage. Now go! Spread the word of my champion’s arrival and the coming victory!” The king’s proclamation resounded in the gallant, boastful manner he knew would leave the peasants gossiping for days and the councilmen furious. See, you fools? It’s my kingdom. Even fate doesn’t like the idea of filthy, uncooked bacon wearing the crown.
“And you, brave warrior from afar . . . Do you have any words before we send you out to the battlefield, unfairly resting our burdens on your shoulders?”
“Well . . . about the weapon . . . you see, actually–” he abruptly stopped before finishing his thought. One of the king’s loyal bodyguard had, unbeknownst to anyone, left the throne room and returned with a beautiful, six-piece-set of golden dinnerware laid out neatly on a white silk napkin. He held it out before the red-eyed man so that the mighty stranger could select his preferred implement of war.
You’re going to be eating better than me for a month, you brilliant man, the king thought as he watched the guard present the dinnerware. The guard had saved precious moments that this odd man could have used to say something to discredit the story Qasin was fabricating. Truthfully, that danger had not yet passed: the new champion of the Humans still had to choose a weapon.
“Go ahead. It’s okay. Choose one of your weapons, and take with it our eternal gratitude, hero.” The king wanted to throw up in his own mouth as he spouted out such terrible falsehoods. He did his best to signal the court mages without alerting the man to what was going on while he spoke, but his nervousness didn’t fade until he saw the circle begin to glow with a faint, white light.
As soon as the bewildered stranger grabbed a utensil, the king smiled and said, “To the front lines! To victory!” He quickly cued the mages to finish the final step of the spell and teleport the red-eyed man away. The white flash covered the room; and, when it was gone, so was the king’s anxiety. Today had been fortuitous and not just for him, but also for his kingdom, the people and everyone that wasn’t a filthy, piggish councilman.
“Well, do we have any more business to attend to?” he asked. He addressed everyone in attendance, but no one in the crowd said anything. They were all still shocked by the devil-man’s sudden appearance. “No? Does the Council not even have a request?”
Not one of them spoke either. The noisy gush of loudly-whispered gossip was gone, and everyone was just staring dumbly at the spot Darwin had formerly occupied.
Finally, one of the youngest councilmen found his voice and managed to ask, “What weapon did he take, Your Majesty?”
The king, having forgotten to even check, looked over at the five utensils to see which one was missing. “He took a soup spoon. Is there anything else?” The quiet was broken with muffled murmurs again. If anyone asked another question, Qasin didn’t hear it.
What type of madman goes into battle with a soup spoon? the king pondered, looking at the guard, whose face was just as twisted in thought as his was. He adjusted his crown one more time and left the throne room. I’ve got work to do, and I don’t know how much longer I have to do it.