In the past, there have been rulers who were demons among men, and yet achieved great fame and adoration during their reigns by manipulating the minds of the people... likewise, there have been good men whose names were demonized, and whose great and noble deeds were returned only with hatred and contempt during their lifetimes—some, even after.
I was born and raised in an arid region in the western part of my country. I never knew either of my parents... I don't even know who my father was. My mother, I was eventually told, was banished to the farthest reaches of our homeland for the very act of giving birth to me, and I was instead raised by the townsfolk. It was... not a happy childhood. I was shunned by the villagers from the day I was born. Their façade of gentle words was betrayed by what I saw in their eyes... it was always a strange look, somewhere between contempt and respect, and to this day, I know not why they loathed me so. It was as if they all despised me simply for existing, but at the same time realized that they needed me. And so, I was isolated among my own kind.
Still, in retrospect, I don't believe this was such an uncommon feeling in my country. At a glance, one might think it was harmonious enough, with many diverse peoples inhabiting its lands. But I knew better. Each tribe kept itself isolated from the others, laying claim to their own part of the country, where they could keep to their own kind and customs, warding outsiders away with every kind of geographical barrier—anything they felt would protect them from their neighbors, and my people were no different. And worse, the fact that even I, one of their own, was shunned and rejected... if my own people would not accept me, it was certain that none of the others would. Where, then, was I to go?
I grew up under this frame of mind. I was determined not to allow any adversity to hold me back, and would instead change the world for the better. I would act as an emissary, promoting peace and harmony among the many peoples of our land... I dreamt of a world, far from our own, in which all tribes would gather together under a common flag—north, south, east, and west, all in common borders. But first things first. If I wanted to make this dream a reality, I had but one great barrier: our land's current ruler.
Being a small country with little influence, it should be no surprise that we were a monarchy. Our king, however, was notoriously aloof, and separated himself from the people as much as they separated themselves from each other. He was the type of king who would rather spend his time polishing his crown than he would acting for the benefit of his people... so reputed was his manner that it was said, even, that none of his subjects had ever seen his face. Such a ruler could not remain in power if my country was to be changed for the better.
I determined to gain an audience with him, in an effort to make him see the need for reform. This would be no easy task, however, and I fully expected that, despite my efforts, he would see no reason to change his habits and instead continue with his comfortable life. I needed a contingency in the likely circumstance that this would happen. I had heard of a relic prized by His Royal Majesty above all things, a relic which was rumored to have magical powers... I had studied a bit of the occult during my childhood, and was surprised with some of my findings, but still, part of me doubted the existence of such power. Surely, it was just an old wives' tale. Still, magic or not, this treasure held great value in the eyes of the king—if I could obtain it, he would undoubtedly be more inclined to hear my words.
The area in which the relic was kept, however, was kept under strict lock and key... the king kept one of the four keys himself, while the other three had, over time, been used as bartering tools to get what he wanted from the surrounding tribes of people. He had given to them as acts of "trust," in the spirit of making peace offerings... but it was all a façade, and the only reason he hadn't mounted an attack on these tribes in order to retrieve the keys once more was his own sloth. This was fortunate for me, as, I hoped, reasoning with the leader of each of these tribes would prove more fruitful than trying to reason with the king himself.
The first key was held by an old tribesman who kept his people hidden away in the depths of an expansive forest. So great was this forest that, not only did it prevent outsiders from entering this tribe's territory, but the tribesmen themselves could not leave, for fear of getting lost in the dark wood. It was a trial in and of itself, but with determination, I was able to reach the small settlement, and gained an audience with the tribe's leader. He was a stubborn old fellow... he cared not about the king or the state of the country, so long as his own people were safe. My presence, he felt, threatened this ideal, and he demanded that I leave immediately.
I suppose I couldn't blame him. These were troubled times we lived in—unable to bear the weight of the world and all those residing in it, he took it upon himself to ensure his own people's safety first and foremost. I tried to argue that this was detrimental to his own people, as well as to others, but he remained firmly rooted in his ideals, and would not give me the key he possessed, instead insisting once again that I leave his settlement. It was at this time that I noted he had been wheezing heavily throughout our conversation, and he informed me that his health was rapidly deteriorating due to an infection he had recently contracted.
I thought, perhaps, that alleviating his illness might earn his trust, and grant me the prize I sought after. I was well-versed in the medicine of my own people, and was quickly able to concoct something to aid him. The tribe's leader was wary of my methods, as he was not familiar with this foreign medicine, but I gave him my assurance and handed him the bottle. The taste was fiercely bitter, and the texture grainy... these seemed to offend him, as he informed me soon after taking it. He demanded to know what it was made of. I was reluctant to tell him all of the ingredients for fear of giving the wrong impression (my people's medicine is rather unorthodox, and I had put in some live spiders from the nearby forest which have medicinal effects when swallowed whole), but his prodding forced me into doing so. As soon as he learned of the ingredients, he became furious—he was no longer wheezing, which told me the concoction had worked; he, however, was too livid to realize this, and I was driven from the forest with little say in the matter.
I had failed in obtaining this first of the keys, but still had hope in the other two. I made my way to the tribe which held the second key—a people who isolated themselves on a steep mountain, far from other civilization. They shared the mountain with another people, and there was an understandable amount of unrest between the two tribes... the point of contention was an issue which had plagued all creatures since the dawn of time, that most essential necessity that supercedes all others: food. The key-holding tribe had grown arrogant, and began to steal their food from the neighboring tribe, as it was considered a delicacy. The neighbor tribe wanted, above all things, to avoid a confrontation, and quietly submit themselves to this abuse for years. This led the first tribe to feel entitled; superior—soon, they were refusing any food other than the delicacies which they had scavenged from their neighbors, and even went so far as to plot their annihilation so that they would be able to claim all of these rare crops for themselves.
It was during this period of unrest that I entered the settlement of the key-holding tribe and spoke to their leader, a man of great stature—if little else. He fed me the story that his people were suffering due to the avarice of their neighbors; how their only acceptable food source was being hoarded from them by the "greedy savages," and that if nothing were done to alleviate the situation, his people would surely starve. He consented to giving me the key willingly if I could provide a permanent solution to his people's plight, and against my better judgement, I agreed.
It was obvious what he wanted me to do. He was hoping that I would annihilate the neighboring tribe in its entirety, thus avoiding besmirching the name of his own tribe. As capable a combatant as I was, this would not be an impossible task for me... but even if I were to follow through with this ghastly plan, I knew that it would be no permanent solution, and that if the two tribes were to live in peace, only one thing could be done. With a mighty display of power, I collapsed the only path connecting the two tribes, isolating them from each other completely—the tyrant's own tribe would now have no access to their neighbors at all, and would be forced to abandon their "refined tastes" in favor of their own perfectly viable crops rather than ransacking those of their neighbors.
It should be no surprise, I suppose, that the tribe leader was furious. I explained my logic to him repeatedly, attempting to appeal to his sense of decency, but my words were lost on him—he and his tribe cared only for their own benefit, and harbored no interest in the needs of others. I thought to myself, "How can men like this exist? Certainly the world would be better off without them." I had an overwhelming urge to end this tyrant as I now stood before him... but my compassion got the better of me. I left the settlement, sparing him and his people—if he learned from his mistakes and never again mounted an offensive against other peoples, I would leave him and his tribe be.
I had failed to procure the first two of the keys. Without them, I would be unable to obtain the artifact I sought after, and so I saw little point in pursuing the third. It was useless to me without those two. I had been left with no option: I would have to confront the king without my contingency in effect, and if he should scorn me as the past two tribe leaders had, then... well, I wasn't quite sure what I would do. I hoped that it would not come to this, but... I suppose that was naive of me.
Upon reaching the royal castle, I introduced myself as a diplomat, a representative of my people who sought an audience with the king. I was surprised at how cooperative the guards were, as I was quickly led into the throne room... of course, I later found out that this was merely complacency, as the only reason the king had granted me an audience was because he had been sitting upon his throne with "nothing better to do." Upon my first sight of him, I was stunned—part of me surprised that he could be exactly as I imagined him to be, the other not surprised that this was exactly as he was. He was a terribly overweight man who didn't look as if he had ever moved from his seat. As I spoke to him, he spent his time gnawing on a leg of mutton, and showed a blatant disinterest in my words.
Nevertheless, I poured my heart into every syllable that left my mouth, hoping that something I said would break through to him. I told him of the plights of my own people, of the deteriorating health of the first tribe leader and of the atrocities committed by the second. All I wanted was for this man to care about the kingdom he led, and after a few minutes, it felt like I was making some real progress. I couldn't help but grin to myself. Then, I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye, as if something was watching me—I turned to face it, but saw nothing. Just a passerby, I thought.
I continued my speech, but as it progressed, my hopes dwindled more and more. I noticed that he lost his apparent enthusiasm as soon as I had left the topic of the mountain tribe's delicacies. Before long, the king stated outright that he was "bored" with me, and ordered me removed from his sight. My heart dropped. All of my efforts had been for absolutely nothing, as this old warthog had no interest in anything that didn't serve his own pompous self.
I lost control. I don't know what was running through my mind, I only knew that I couldn't allow a man like this to continue on as the acting head of my country. I blacked out. When I returned to my senses, I saw the king clutching his plentiful gut as blood seeped through his hands; I was gripping my sword firmly. I was surrounded by the castle's guards, all arming themselves against me... there was no way I was going to be able to talk my way out of what I had just done. With an explosive display of power and cunning, I managed to break through the guards' enclosure and flee the castle. The guards standing out front had not been informed of my actions, and were confused to see me sprinting—all the better for my escape, I suppose.
I knew that, even if I fled the castle, they would pursue me to the ends of the earth. I had to find sanctuary somewhere... and I found it in a temple, deep in the heart of the forest. I would be able to avoid capture here, thanks to the maze of the forest, and spend some much-needed time thinking about my next course of action. I knew that I had now eliminated any and all hope for changing the kingdom through civil means; I eventually came to the conclusion that there was no option left but to wage war on the capital itself. But how could I, a single man, challenge the might of the entirety of the military singlehandedly?
It was then that I began to think once more of that fabled artifact, which the king treasured above all things... perhaps if I could somehow just obtain it as a bartering chip, then violence could be avoided. But having made the enemies I had in both the mountain and forest tribes, not to mention the castle guard placed in charge of the fourth key, there was no hope of collecting all of the keys necessary for obtaining it.
Out of nowhere, I suddenly heard voices... one voice, actually, but I assume there must have been another, as she sounded as if she was having a discussion with someone. I heard mention of a person who was gathering the keys which I had failed to obtain—this person already possessed two, and was in the process of obtaining the third. I recoiled in horror at the thought that this person might have actually followed through with the mountain tribe's wishes and committed genocide on their neighboring tribe... and what might he have done to the cave and forest tribes?
My own ideals aside, I recognized an opportunity when I saw one. There was only one reason a person would collect the four keys, and that would be to gain access to the royal vault... whoever this man was, he was quite the ambitious thief. But I was even moreso. If I allowed this person to gather the keys in my place (whatever means he may be employing), then my opponent would be but a single man, not an entire military force. I decided on this final course of action, and planned my movements carefully—the conversations I overheard from beyond the temple's walls helped greatly in timing my departure. In the meantime, I built my strength, practicing my crafts within the walls of the temple, until the day came that this person had only the royal key left to obtain.
I wasted no time, and made haste to the castle. I thought to "supervise" the exchange, in order to ensure that the fourth key was obtained, and perhaps put to rest my concerns about this person's methods... however, upon reaching the castle (in a clever disguise purchased from a local merchant), I learned that the king was no longer with us—presumably, he had succumbed to his injuries. To everyone's surprise, at that moment, his daughter came forth, asking if what the guard had said was the truth. I deduced that they must have kept the king's passing from the princess, and the poor girl had just overheard our conversation.
Without waiting for an answer, she fell to tears and fled the scene. She wasn't acting rationally, mounting a horse and immediately fleeing the scene. Myself and the guard did the same, but we must have been too much for the horse, as the guard was promptly bucked off. Hoping he was all right, I went in pursuit of the young girl, but was stopped at the city's gates. A young boy stood before me, though I knew not why. When I asked where the girl had fled, he refused to reply, and challenged me to a fight. The thought then occurred to me... surely, this weak little child couldn't be the one whom I had heard about, could he?
I was worried about the princess, mind, but I now had more important matters to attend. I made myself scarce. At some point during the whole commotion, the final key must have been lost... by the princess, perhaps? Or was it the guard? In any case, it was clear from the boy's countenance that he now held it, which confirmed all of my suspicions about him—this was the thief. I suppose this was a good thing... such a child surely couldn't have obtained the keys through means of violence, and now, I would not have to duel a honed warrior over possession of the artifact. I could simply incapacitate the boy and leave him to recover shortly after.
I carefully tailed him as he made his way to the royal vault. Employing all four of the keys, he successfully opened the door and, instead of taking the artifact, took his time exploring... and before I could mount a surprise attack on him, he inexplicably vanished. It defied all logical sense, but worked out in my favor—there was now nothing at all standing between myself and my target. I seized the relic and felt a peculiar rush of power—confidence, it was. With this, I could take back the kingdom in the name of the people.
Wasting no time, I proceeded to do exactly that. I marched upon the castle, now free of any silly disguise, and when challenged by the guards, displayed the relic. My theory had been correct—though it was doubtful that they knew why, they recognized that the object was more valuable to the royal family than the guards' own lives. So long as I held it in my hands, I was allowed to pass, and, upon reaching the throne room, the royal magistrate took little convincing. They had recognized the impotency of the king, but had been unable to do anything about it. What's more, it was revealed that whosoever held the artifact was to be considered the kingdom's royal family. Tradition is a funny thing, but occasionally, it can work out in one's favor, I suppose. I took my seat at the throne and assured the magistrate and their servants that we were now embarking towards a bright new age of peace and prosperity.
Years passed. As it turns out, leading a kingdom, much less restoring a collapsing one, is a far greater task than I had anticipated. I learned, to my dismay, that the weak-looking boy I had encountered had, in fact, committed genocide on one of the mountain peoples in accordance with the key-holding tribe's wishes, and even gone so far as to kill the forest tribe leader in order to obtain his key. I was not present for his obtaining the key from the eastern cave tribe, but eventually heard rumors that their protector, whom they revered as a god, had passed, and that the boy was to blame.
I could not believe that these rumors were true, and that such a child could have enacted such atrocities... but the evidence piled up, as numerous other peoples began to rise up against the kingdom, angered that such a criminal had been allowed to run free for so long. Even the castle town was overrun, and its inhabitants forced to flee—I was forced to isolate my own castle from the town beneath it, keeping the attacking forces at bay. It seemed as if, from the moment my rule began, nothing but disaster and misfortune befell our good kingdom.
I say this not only because of the castle town calamity—tragedies befell the entire kingdom. The cave people, now without their protector, were sadly unable to survive the harsh winter of the previous year. The forest tribe was lost without their leader to guide them, and the mountain tribe—now alone on their rocky summit—drew battle plans for plunging the kingdom into anarchy and reaping the rewards... they had learned nothing, and I was left with no choice but to personally quell their ambitions once more. Even my own tribesmen entertained doubts about remaining loyal to the kingdom, now that I—the child they had shunned—had risen to power.
All felt as if the kingdom had literally gone to Hell; and for all I know, it very well may have. It was around this time, however, that I heard of a noble young "hero" resolving these issues throughout the kingdom. The word came from one of my few remaining followers, and at first, I was appreciative—"What a noble soul," I thought, "to take it upon himself to revive this fallen kingdom, just as I did so long ago." It was not long, however, before I learned of his methods... his solution to every obstacle, it seemed, was to slaughter the offending party, and given that he was obtaining his information from the people of the kingdom, more often than not, it was painted to be myself and my followers.
I lost so many good men, all because of this brute's idealistic view of the nature of the world. As more information was made available to me through my dwindling number of loyals, I began to suspect... could this be the same person who committed those atrocities all those years ago? The one who had inexplicably vanished before my eyes? I never had learned of what happened to him, and the more information I received, the more probable this conclusion seemed. Certainly this brute had the ability and the frame of mind for such an M.O. When I received word that he had even gone so far as to attack my people and slay my mother in cold blood, all doubt vanished: I would be his next target.
I struggled to contain my rage. This barbarian, this murderer had been taking lives across the kingdom... my own mother, even! I'd not known her, but what right had he to take her from me? And still, despite these acts, he was regarded by survivors as a hero? I awaited his challenge eagerly. I couldn't wait to get ahold of him. I knew this was no way for the benevolent ruler of a peace-loving kingdom to act, but I had lost myself, and would not find myself again until this man was eternally silenced. I planned my moves carefully, built my power... the day of his inevitable challenge drew closer by the second, and I would not waste a single moment prior.
I assigned my last remaining followers to posts throughout the kingdom, trying to gather any information I could. Most of them returned fairly mundane reports of the man's looting and pillaging, but one... one returned with a gem of information which may well have decided the tides of our battle. This man had an ally, someone who had guided him throughout his rampage—which, in retrospect, I should have suspected. Clearly this man lacked the mental capacity to build his own status as a hero of the people. He had somebody, a conman, working behind the scenes. Whoever it was, this person did not want me on the throne, as had been made clear by his blatant slander.
It took all the remaining manpower I had, but I was finally able to locate and capture the informant... and who did it turn out to be, but the king's old daughter? She chastised me, cursed my name... she knew that I had been the one to end his reign, and I knew it, too. Not a day passed that his dying image did not still haunt me, that the blood on my hands did not fail to wash off. However, my words of sympathy were lost on her. It seemed as if she had gone mad since her father's death, and demanded that I surrender the throne to her under the pretext that the right to rule was determined by blood rather than by whether or not one is suited to the role. I continually tried to reason with her, to make her see the absurdity of her claim... but, it was a futile effort. When she threatened suicide upon my refusal of her demands, I was forced to detain the poor girl.
She was left in a holding cell, as I returned to my chambers alone. After what had just transpired, and knowing that the brute would soon be on his way to challenge me, I couldn't help but feel overwhelmed. Thus, I did what I always do to calm my nerves in times of anxiety—I relaxed with some music. I remained in this state for what seemed like hours, trying to regain my composure as much as possible, hoping, perhaps, that the coming duel would simply go away if I wished enough. As if my entire life had been one great, big, unpleasant dream that I might suddenly awaken from... but unfortunately, my rational mind knew that this was not the case, and that I would soon have to fight for my kingdom—possibly, for the last time.
No sooner had that realization crossed my mind that my sanctuary was invaded by the man I had been waiting for, violently prying open the door behind me. I gathered my nerves and turned to face him. As I had suspected, it was the same boy I had encountered all those years ago. What a facade he had been playing. I knew why he was here, and he knew that I knew. Words between us served no purpose, and our climactic showdown began.
Every second felt like an eternity. I had never before exerted myself to the extent that I was forced to at this, the final confrontation, and despite my superior strength and size, it quickly became an uphill battle. I had no idea how this man had attained the level of skill which he possessed, but I, who had not seen the battlefront in all the years since I had seized power, was no longer a match. After a brutal series of blows from his sword, I fell, unable to continue. In all my life, I had not once seen my own blood until this moment... it felt somehow peculiar, looking at it now.
My life flashed before my eyes. All that I had suffered, all I had endured... everything that I had worked for, desperately trying to save this kingdom from itself, was now about to be smashed to pieces. My qualms subsided. "Let this miserable kingdom succumb to its own vile tendencies," I thought. "If my land is to become a fool's paradise, I have no desire to linger in it..." But I knew this was not how I felt. Deep in my heart of hearts, my soul cried... I had truly wanted to save the people of this land, to show them their own bright futures, show them that they didn't have to live in abject squalor, rejecting each other in the name of fear and loathing.
My vision began to fade. I had lost too much blood, and I knew, no matter how noble my goals, that this castle was to be my grave. The youth must have been able to free the princess on his way to my chamber, as I heard her footsteps fast approaching, and saw her behind him just before my vision went black. He stood above me, sword drawn, dripping with my blood... there was nothing left for me here. As I felt my life slipping away, the last words I heard were the princess's: "Thank you, Link! Thank you!"
Written by Xelrog T. Apocalypse