They call me a hero. They call me a leader of men. They, in this case, are my loyal subjects, all 850,000 of them, spread across the grottos, harbors and sparkling blue shores of a chain of islands no bigger than Hawaii. Shipwrights, fishermen, blacksmiths, nobles, commoners, men-at-arms—all drink to my health at their local taverns and regale each other with tales of my exploits, when I was a young man wandering the Woerth in search of fame and fortune. They wonder at my strength and courage. They spend coins with my profile stamped on them. To their eyes, they live in the most enlightened monarchy this side of Kenwood. They go to sleep at night convinced that they rest under the watchful care of a courageous and noble king.
You want titles? I got ‘em. King Elberon, Lord of the Tradewind Isles, Defender of the Faith, President of the Southern Shield, High Admiral of the Seven Fleets, Protector of the Iron Coast, and Friend of the Dolphins. Likely I have other titles of which I am not aware, honorifics bestowed upon me by one High Council or another at elaborate ceremonies at which I may or may not have been present. Who knows? None of them mean shit to me. My Trophy Hall is filled with the dusty relics of my past triumphs. Tapestries recount great battles at which I led my armies and fleets to astounding victories. The hall holds rare and powerful magical items: glowing armor that can turn a frost giant spear, shields that can withstand white dragon breath, swords that burn lustily with arcane powers. My private reserve holds more powerful and dangerous items still. I hardly look at them anymore.
My father, the illustrious and well-storied King Olderon, once told me I have more wisdom than intelligence. It was the closest he ever came to paying me a compliment. When I first received my adventurer’s license, a lifetime ago in Redhauke, the Guild measured both attributes, assigning each a number value: fifteen for my wisdom and eleven for my intelligence. I never quite understood what those numbers measured, or where upon what scale they lay. Wilberd told me to be thankful I hadn’t tried to be a wizard.
“Wizards need at least a fifteen intelligence to stay alive,” he told me.
I never wanted to be a wizard; I was always a fighter by trade. The Wizards’ Code forbids spellcasters to wear armor or wield any weapon but a standard-issue dagger, so they can only lurk in the back of a raiding party, hiding from whatever monster is trying to disembowel them, and then waiting for the right moment to launch a Mystical Missile or a Flamethrower spell and run like hell. It’s not my style. Nothing pleases me more than the trembling thunk of my blade as it bites into the skull of an imp warrior. Always first to wade into battle, I stood like an unfaltering sea-cliff as waves of enemies crashed and broke against the great rock of my strength. I cut a wide arc of death around me. Sometimes I’d roll a critical hit and send some fucker’s head spiraling from his shoulders. If I got into trouble, the great sword of Amabored or the singing bow of Lithaine would haul my ass out of danger. We were badass motherfuckers back then—and we knew it.
So, now I’m the King—even though, as the younger of two sons, I had no chance of inheriting the throne. To end up regent of some little kingdom that needed a man of stature to represent them at elven councils, to preside over feasts and revelries, to knock up a princess and produce an heir—that wouldn’t have been so bad, would it? I never wanted the big chair. Who needs the aggravation? I renounced my father’s kingdom to prove my worth, but it never occurred to me that he really was the smarter man. Now he’s dead, and my ass is warming his seat. Irony is a butcher’s trade.
Olderon never saw it coming. Both he and my brother Eldernon were slain by Garrin, the Grimmreaper, whom I personally beheaded atop the uppermost spire of the Dread Keep to end the Dread Wars and save the Woerth. Even as I await the effects of the Remembrance potion, I can see my father’s headless corpse, blood flowing from his severed neck to mingle with the rain puddling on the stone battlements. The barbed tongues of memory lash my soul like a scourge.
Of our confrontation after he murdered my father, I recall every detail. Garrin and I stood facing each other across the flat roof of the South Tower of Castle Kraken, he wielding the black blade Soulreaver, and me gripping the haft of my notched battle-axe. Garrin wore the cursed colors of the Hand: black leather lined with tanned human flesh, died blood-red. Even unto that night, no one living had ever seen his face. His hooded cloak framed nothing but darkness, negative space where his features should be. In his left hand, he clutched by the crown of its hair my father’s severed head. Fresh blood, ruby-red, streamed from the neck to run with the rivulets of rain on the stones. Olderon’s wild eyes—the eyes that had long ago regarded me most often with cold disapproval or contempt—stared at nothing. They were the eyes of a fish dying in the bottom of a boat.
Curtains of rain swept over Garrin and me. Jagged lightning scarred the black sky. Thunder roiled across Hydra Bay and the port city of Tradewind, huddling below the castle. Around us, the Multiverse came apart at the seams—the chrome mountains and ghastly violet skies of the Last Universe bleeding into our own Woerth, shimmering into being and then vanishing as fast. Moments later, the greensward and turquoise dome of the First Universe winked in and out of being. The pipes of the Machine Elves, blanketing the sky with the music of creation, dissembled into cacophony. Reality itself was worn as thin as parchment. Somewhere close, the Violet Queen was watching.
The bitch had very nearly won, thanks to this worthless turdloaf standing before me. One of us would die that night, I vowed. But first, I needed the truth.
“Who are you?” I snarled, my voice broken by the howling wind.
Then came his laugh—a laugh so familiar that it shattered my mind.
“Don’t you know?” asked Garrin, sounding the doom of my heart. “Haven’t you guessed? Are you so great a fool?”
“All right. We’ll do this the hard way,” I said, and charged.
Yet neither of us died that night. Another year would pass before Garrin got got, and I got my revenge. Somewhere in Valhalla, Dad is wondering why it took me so long.