Chapter One – In Need of a Hero
Once upon a time, in a kingdom whose name was lost long before even this tale, there lived a princess. A princess whose story is perhaps the only remnant of the world as it was back then, despite how far the truth of her tale has been twisted and misshapen throughout countless retellings over countless centuries. You may know this princess as Rapunzel, although most of what you have heard about her is wrong. She was indeed locked in a tower from a young age, as most stories correctly recall, although the reasoning for her banishment was never truly understood. Some speculated that she may have been cursed, and as such was locked away for the good of both herself and others. Some believed that she was being held captive by a malefic witch who was using her for the magical properties of which her hair was believed to have possessed. Then there were those daft dreamers who thought the reason may have been something more romantic, who thought she was waiting for her one true love to come and rescue her so that the pair could live happily ever after. In a way, all of these tales held some truth to them, though the tellers were never quite sure where that truth lay. Since the inhabitants of her kingdom had all vanished many centuries ago, the only way most would have a chance of learning the full story would be to find Rapunzel in her lonely little tower, right at the heart of her desolate home. Of course, a smart person would have questioned how she could live for just one hundred years in her tower, let alone several centuries, and perhaps many did wonder just that. Yet, one of the key attributes of humanity is the possession of endless hope. As long as there is the slightest hope that something could succeed, humanity will almost certainly give it a go, and these humans in particular were filled to the brim with hope for this rescue mission of theirs, despite having no clue as to the horrors that lay ahead of them. The person in charge, a man who was known as “Sir Ethan, The Indomitable Prince of New Divitomae”, was especially hopeful on this day. For you see, this was the perfect chance for him to prove himself to his father, King Cyrus. Despite being next in line to the throne, Ethan was always told that he would never claim the title of king until he had performed an act of immense bravery to bring glory upon both himself and his family, an act that would prove him worthy to rule his father’s kingdom. So, that was exactly what he was going to do. He and his closest allies would slay the monster that was rumoured to roam Rapunzel’s lost kingdom, they would scale the sky-high tower to rescue the princess, and then they would become the most revered knights in all the lands! Perhaps Ethan would even find his queen in Rapunzel if things were to go especially well.
But before all of that, they had to find both the monster and the tower, which was no easy task considering the size of the lost kingdom. Although the location of the tower was rather obvious, owing to how obscenely large it was, getting there would prove rather tricky. The entire kingdom was built like a maze, with concrete walls too thick to break through and too tall for even a team of strong soldiers to climb over. With so many twists and turns, so many traps, so long a distance to travel, one might have wondered why the kingdom was ever built this way. Was it to stop potential enemies from getting in? Or perhaps it could have been to stop something from getting out… Alas, hope can often blind one to these possibilities if not tempered early enough. The five knights continued their adventure regardless of what stood in their path, until they finally came across the kingdom’s palace, which, unsurprisingly, was also built remarkably awkwardly. The palace sat in a perfect square around Rapunzel’s tower and was surrounded by a water-filled moat, perhaps acting as the last piece of protection for those who feared enemies, or perhaps acting as a last warning to those who should truly be afraid. The knights, ever unaware of what lay ahead, walked along the drawbridge that sat over the water, all filled with nothing but confidence. That was until they saw what remained. It was only one at first. A lone skeleton, still clutching onto the lever that let the bridge down. His failed escape helped lead others to their doom and would seemingly continue to do so. As the knights walked on through the endless corridors of the palace, all they found were more skeletons. Dozens of them, all stacked in piles, the armour of many still covered in the blood they had shed in battle. With the formation of the palace forcing the knights to walk around the entire building before reaching the courtyard, they had no choice but to walk amongst those who had failed in the quest they wished to conquer.
“Well, isn’t this just delightful?” chuckled Sir Wilfred, the oldest and most cynical of the knights present, bearing a bushy white beard, as well as massive eyebrows to match it.
“Maybe it’s just jam?” suggested sir Ike, the youngest and slimmest of the knights present, half joking to ease the tension, half praying for his joke to be true.
Ethan, a man with dashing brown eyes, flowing brown hair, and clearly the best physique of the group, continued walking onwards with no change in either pace or the stoic expression that often sat on his face in moments of determination. Slowly but surely, everyone else decided to follow on behind him, somewhat encouraged by his apparent lack of fear. Although, things only got worse as they ventured deeper into the palace. As they walked through the endless hallways of this once-lively castle, all they came across was more death and more violent deaths at that. Blood splattered against all surfaces, old weapons snapped, shattered, and rusted away, and worst of all, the ever-growing number of skeletons, their armour pierced and torn apart, their bones cracked and shattered, most missing at least two limbs. Whatever did this wasn’t your typical soldier or beast. This was definitely done by a monster, a powerful one too.
“Maybe… Maybe this wasn’t the b, b, best of ideas…” stammered Sir Aiden, a knight with a deep purple scar across his right eye that often twinged whenever the memories of his past experiences with beasts came rushing back.
“What do you think, Ethan?” asked Sir Aryn unflinchingly, the knight closest to Ethan in both friendship and skill in battle.
Ethan stopped and looked around pensively. He was still yet to show any hint of fear, though there was clearly something bothering him about this place.
“Look at these men”, he started, pointing specifically at the chest plates of some of the nearby skeletons. “The emblems on their armours are all different. These men all came here alone in the foolish delusion that they could achieve success without help. To become great at anything you must be able to both understand and respect your limits. A monster wouldn’t be named as such if a single person were capable of taking it down, hence why I have brought with me the finest warriors my kingdom has ever had the pleasure of raising. I respect that alone I would never be able to finish this quest and claim the glory that I so verily desire, yet with all of you at my side, we will all claim victory and become the great men we have always aspired to be!”
Ethan turned to continue walking, allowing each of the knights to absorb his wise words in their own ways. Though it calmed them at first, his speech was quickly overshadowed by a sound in the distance. A horrible scraping noise bounced across the walls of the palace, the sound of two swords being sharpened against each other in the distance. Then came the screams. The screams of a man whose life was about to come to an abrupt end, then the deafening crack that finished it. The knights all looked at each other in shock, unsure of what they should do. All except Ethan, his pace remaining as stable and determined as before.
“Maybe we…” started Ike.
“There is no dishonour in fear, just as there is no glory in cowardice. If you leave now, I will not look down on you, though your name will be forgotten when this story is told in years to come”, Ethan said coldly. “I intend to carry on regardless of that noise. All I heard was one man, another lone fool fighting a battle he couldn’t hope to win. We together are five and stand a far better chance than he ever had”.
Aiden threw up against a wall, clutching his eye as the memories tormented his scar. Ike went over to comfort him, while the other three just stared ahead at their goal.
“Better now than on the battlefield, lad. Wouldn’t want you to slip on that when the claws of a monster are swinging towards you”, smirked Wilfred.
“You’ve always had such a way with words, old man. It’s almost like you’re taking us on another one of those ridiculous training missions you used to love when the four of us were kids”, chuckled Aryn. “My sword stands with you as always, Ethan. You haven’t led it astray thus far, so I see no reason as to why this time would be any different”.
“I appreciate it”, Ethan smiled, clasping hands with Aryn. “And what of the rest of you?”
“Aye, I’m in. Today’s as good a day to die as any!” bellowed Wilfred, raising his sword to the air with pride.
“How… How do we know the princess even exists?” asked Aiden, fear tearing down the veneer of hope at last. “There is no way somebody could live for over a hundred years, let alone several hundred. What if this is all just a trap!?”
“Magic”, whispered Aryn, flourishing his hands like a magician. “It was that old mage Veteras Divinos who told us about this place after all. If anyone knows where there’s magic, it would be a magic man from beyond the ocean like him!”
“Girl or no girl, we know there’s a monster who has killed countless fools”, Wilfred chimed in, grasping Aiden’s shoulder with his massive, battle-scarred hand. “There is still glory for us even if all we do is slay the monster, and of course we will grant peace to those who were slain by it, as well as to their families”.
“I’ll… I’ll come with you”, whispered Ike weakly.
Aiden looked at him in shock, almost as if he had been betrayed. Maybe if somebody else wanted to stay behind, the peer pressure wouldn’t have been so great.
“Thank you, Ike” smiled Ethan. “What of you, Aiden? You may go home if you wish, or you can join us in our glory. Which would you prefer?”
Aiden remained silent for a moment, collecting his thoughts. He slowly nodded his head, much to the jubilance of everyone else, while silently whispering prayers under his breath as the others turned to face the direction the screams came from.
“Good! Onwards then!” ordered Ethan enthusiastically, drawing his sword and pointing it forwards.
The five slowly walked on towards their destination, trying to ignore the vast number of fallen warriors that littered the hallways, as well as the putrid smell that was radiating from those who weren’t quite fully rotted yet. Fear was growing in the souls of all of them, yet when they reached the courtyard that sat beneath the princess’ tower, they were all rather underwhelmed. This monster, this terrifying creature that had killed thousands of warriors, this beast that had crushed the bones of all who opposed it, this being of untold power. After all of the anticipation leading up to this moment, the creature guarding Rapunzel’s tower was nothing more than… A horse. A horse! Albeit a rather daunting horse, with fur blacker than the night, and eyes glowing red as the blood that was seeping both out of its victim and between its teeth.
“That’s… That’s the monster!?” yelled Wilfred in disbelief. “I’ve slain bigger beasts in my sleep!”
“Looks can be deceiving. Don’t let your guard down”, warned Ethan.
Ethan looked closely at the body that lay crumpled beside the horse. A hole twice the width of an arm had been pierced through the knight’s chest, yet the horse didn’t seem to possess anything that could make that kind of wound. It was clearly hiding something. The problem was, Ethan had no idea as to what it was. To make a wound of that size and shape it would require something reminiscent of a spear, though there wasn’t a single weapon in sight apart from the sword that was held in the hand of the dead knight. That meant that the horse either had some kind of strange ability or that it wasn’t alone. Either way, the horse didn’t seem very interested in Ethan and his fellow knights just yet. It was reasonably happy just chewing away at the flesh of the knight it had already killed, appearing as resolute as if it were totally alone. This lack of fear told Ethan that this horse was incredibly confident, and that likely meant it was equally dangerous. He signalled Ike and Aiden to each go to opposite sides of the horse, Wilfred to go behind it, and for himself and Aryn to attack it from the front. This was when the horse finally noticed them. Completely surrounded, it finally showed a semblance of concern. It slowly raised its head, its mouth still dripping with blood, it tucked back its ears and it flared its nostrils aggressively, all while adjusting its stance to prepare for the oncoming assault.
“Together!” shouted Ethan.
Together the knights charged. Together the knights fell. The horse rose onto its hind legs to kick back Ethan and Aryn with its front legs, denting both of their shields as they fell to the ground, then quickly swapped legs to kick Wilfred in the chest as well. This could have been expected, though they never would have anticipated how it chose to deal with those attacking from the sides. A mysterious dark energy erupted from out of the monster’s back, flying right through Aiden and Ike and tossing them into the air like paper bags in a hurricane. Unperturbed by this demonstration of power, Ethan and Aryn quickly rose to their feet again to continue their assault. Aryn went first, allowing himself to be kicked down once more to give Ethan a clear shot, which he used to stab his sword into the monster’s leg. A strike that would be deadly to any normal horse, yet it proved to be merely an inconvenience to this beast. As Ethan removed his sword to prepare for the finishing blow, a thick, black vapour was emitted from the wound, obscuring Ethan’s vision while it healed itself within a matter of seconds. Though it created a perfect opportunity for a counterattack with its smoke, the monster did nothing. As the smoke faded, Ethan found himself face to face with the monster, its teeth almost looking like they were smiling. It nodded its head slowly and exposed its neck, as if telling Ethan to try again. Ethan did nothing. He wanted to take the opportunity of his opponent’s arrogance to think over a new strategy. His team on the other hand wanted to take advantage of its apparent lack of awareness of them to attack. While it was still focused on Ethan, the other four knights all stabbed their swords into the hind legs of the beast, only to find the same results Ethan had found. This time, however, the black vapour erupted in a massive explosion of dark energy, toppling all of the knights to the ground, while the horse whinnied in delight. They quickly rose back to their feet and regrouped to prepare another attack, yet the horse didn’t seem to care. It merely stared at them, subtly tilting its head towards the exit. It was trying to tell them that if they didn’t attack it, it would allow them to leave and live to fight another day. After all, the knight it had already slain was sufficient to feed it for one evening, and the five of them likely wouldn’t stay fresh for very long anyway. With none of the knights moving an inch, the horse sighed and turned its back on them, walking back to the fallen knight to continue its feast. Ethan hated this overconfidence. He had his best knights with him, the men who he had trained with and fought alongside ever since he was just a young boy, and they couldn’t even scratch this monster without causing injury to themselves. Although he had come too far to achieve nothing, so he had no intention of backing down just yet. He had one last idea that might kill even this monster.
“We need to go for the head”, he declared. “It doesn’t matter how good its regeneration is, if it doesn’t have a head, it isn’t going to get back up”.
“But… How are we going to do that?” asked Aiden, a slight shake in his voice and a much more noticeable shake in his hands.
“We just need to keep running around and rushing at it from all angles. It can’t keep defending if it doesn’t know where we’ll come from next”, suggested Aryn.
“Of course you youngins would choose cardio over skill or strength”, chuckled Wilfred, stretching his legs and grasping his already aching chest. “I suppose this old man has the energy for one last run. By your lead, Prince Ethan!”
“Right behind you…” whimpered Ike.
First charged Ethan and Aryn, both dodging to the sides as the beast turned around and rose to its hind legs to kick them, both slashing at the grounded legs to bring it crashing painfully to the ground. Then came Wilfred, thrusting his sword towards the beast’s throat, being deflected at the last second by a blast of dark energy that rocketed him to the other side of the courtyard. Ethan attacking once more from behind, Ike and Aiden from the front, all frantically dodging left and right to avoid being kicked by the wildly flailing legs of the monster, its first signs of fear finally appearing. Another blast of dark energy knocked everyone to the ground, Ethan and Aryn quickly rising back to the battle. They had both noticed that the beast needed a second to recompose itself after every use of its dark powers, and that second was all they needed. Aryn knelt down, Ethan jumped onto his back and flipped over the beast, then with one skilful strike, his sword was lodged in its neck. It wasn’t enough. Outraged, the monster fought more furiously than ever, reaching its head around to grab Ethan’s arm in its jaws and slamming him onto the ground. The monster’s enormous hoof pinned Ethan to the floor with more strength than any amount of skill from him could ever hope to counter, almost crushing his ribs, while he gave all the energy he had to try to punch it off. His struggles were meaningless. This was exactly what the beast wanted. It gave a facade of fear to lure Ethan in, allowing it to finish him off with ease. His allies tried to rescue him, yet all were kicked aside as if they were naught more than flies. The beast slowly lowered its head, opening its jaws as wide as they would go, dripping blood over the neck it was about to devour. Ethan, still giving every remaining ounce of his strength in a vain struggle to regain his freedom, felt the warmth of the beast’s breath latching onto the side of his face, sending intense shivers down his spine. There was nothing he could do now. As he in his own words claimed a warrior should do, he accepted his limitations. He didn’t have the strength to escape, nor did he have a weapon to fight with. It was time for him to die. He took a deep breath and relaxed his body, smiling as he closed his eyes to embrace the end. At least after all of this time, after all of his adventures, after all the foes he faced, he would be slain by a worthy opponent during a noble quest. A fine end for a warrior prince.
Ethan opened his eyes. A shield thrown by Aiden knocked the beast’s head away from Ethan’s demise, and the sword in its neck was now low enough for Ethan to reach. He had one chance and no time for hesitation. He ripped the sword out of the beast’s neck, he rolled back onto his feet as the pain forced the beast to release its grip, then he did what needed to be done. With a courageous shout and a single powerful strike, head was removed from body, and both fell to the ground in a cloud of black smoke. The battle was finally over. The knights regrouped once more to admire their work, all panting heavily, all struggling to walk through their injuries, all astounded by what they had managed to accomplish together against all odds.
“We… We did it!” screamed Aiden in excitement when he had finally recaptured his breath.
“We did… And we couldn’t have done it without you, Sir Aiden”, Ethan smiled, patting Aiden on the shoulder. “You conquered your fear and saved my life through your quick thinking. Without you, perhaps none of us would have survived. Your father will be proud! But of course, our quest isn’t over yet”.
Suddenly remembering why they were there in the first place, all of the knights looked up to the tower in the middle of the courtyard. Though all were reasonable climbers, none could imagine how they would get to the top of the tower, nor how they would be able to get the princess back down. It was so high that it almost seemed to pierce the sky itself, leading each knight to slowly come to the conclusion that it might just be impossible to scale by normal means. Each knight sat to ponder the situation, all coming up with their own unique ideas, though none creating a plan that could feasibly work. Alas, they didn’t realise that it wouldn’t matter anyway. While they conjured images of success in their heads, a new obstacle that would destroy any chance they might have had brewed behind them. The crackling of bones regrowing and reshaping, the oozing of liquifying flesh that moulded into a new form, the resurrection of a foe they thought defeated. Ike screamed in horror, alerting the others to the terror that was growing a mere few metres behind them. The front half of the horse’s body snapped back with a deafening crack as new flesh and two new legs grew at its front, almost mimicking a headless man riding a headless horse. The hooves of the two legs that would now act as arms atop of this newly formed body extended and sharpened into blades of bone, while a whole new head emerged on top of its shoulders, baring a brand-new set of teeth that were sharp enough to slice through stone like butter.
“I’ve… I’ve read about this monster” gasped Wilfred, his face turning extremely pale. “Aikomortus was what they called it back then. The Icon of Death. Only those who were fortunate enough to be outside of the cities it attacked ever survived its rampages, though even they were soon hunted down by the monster’s shades”.
As if to emphasize Wilfred’s point, Aikomortus screeched with a sound that could only be described as the tortured screams of all of its past victims, making all of the knights drop to their knees in agony as their eardrums pounded, threatening to explode. Pure, black energy erupted from all over Aikomortus’ body, spreading over all over the courtyard, covering every inch of the ground aside from a small circle around where the knights were kneeling and suffering. From this dark energy rose dozens of small, black horses, each perfectly identical to Aikomortus’ original form, and each just as deadly. They clearly outnumbered the knights, and one alone could likely kill them in their current states, yet the shades didn’t advance. Instead, they lined up against the walls of the courtyard, blocking every possible route of escape. Now that it was enraged, Aikomortus created an ultimatum for the knights; Die by its claws or die by their jaws.
“How can we possibly fight all of them?” choked Aiden, his knees shaking so violently that he had to lean on his sword to balance himself”.
Ethan and Aryn looked meaningfully into each other’s eyes.
“Together”, they agreed.
“We fight with all of our spirits until the end”, continued Ethan. “We can at least take solace in the fact that even if we die here, we die with our pride still intact”.
“It has been an honour serving with you, gentlemen”, said Aryn, turning his head back to the monster in front of them and raising his sword. “I look forward to drinking with you all once more when we meet in the afterlife”.
“I’m going to miss these endearing little pre-battle chats”, chuckled Wilfred, raising his sword as well. “Last man standing gets a drink on me when we get to hell. Let’s go!”
“It’s preparing to attack!” yelled Ike.
Aikomortus sharpened its new bone swords against one another, flinging sparks of flames close to the knight’s feet, keeping them at a safe distance while it prepared its first attack. Now that it had unleashed its true form, Aikomortus yearned for violence. It yearned for blood, and it could no longer wait. With another deafening screech, it charged towards the knights faster than any thought possible, throwing out one of its blades in a strike of unyielding fury. Three knights managed to dodge to the side, Wilfred was saved by a push, and Ike… Blood dripped down his chest as he hung limply from the blade of the monster. Before he even had the chance to attempt an escape, the second blade tucked itself under his chin and quickly pushed up, snapping his neck in one swift motion. His body now useless, the monster tossed it at Ethan’s feet, telling him that this man died because Ethan led him to this battle. This, however, was only the beginning of the carnage. Aikomortus slashed its blades relentlessly against the swords and shields of the living knights, not giving any of them a second to counter. Lacking both the strength and the speed that made this monster so formidable, all the knights could do was hide behind their shields until it gave up or they died, and they were all reasonably certain of which option would happen sooner. All four tried to coordinate an attack together in a last-ditch effort to injure the monster enough to slow it down just enough for them to escape. All four charged at once, swords raised to the air, ready to strike at their foe. Three were casually swept aside. One was not so lucky. With his leg torn clean off, it wouldn’t take long for Wilfred to bleed out. Then came the turn of Aiden. He gave into fear in his last moments and tried to run from the battle. This would be his final mistake. A sword of Aikomortus extended and pierced through his chest, casually holding him in the air while the shades feasted on his screaming body, blood and guts pooling beneath him to feed the shades not quite close enough to claim the flesh. It wasn’t until his limbs had been devoured that Aikomortus finally ended his misery with a slight twist of the neck. With silence once again falling over the battlefield, Aikomortus stood completely still, delighting in the agony that overtook Ethan and Aryn’s faces. The friends they had grown up with were all dead while the two of them lived on, and it was all their fault. They would never see their families ever again. They would never hug their wives or say goodbye to their children. They were just gone. This enraged the pair beyond any anger either had ever felt before. They wanted to give these men honour that would last a lifetime, yet this monster, this demon, only granted them painful deaths. They wouldn’t stand for this. To Aikomortus’ surprise, the two remaining knights took off all of their armour, stripping down to their basic leather clothing. Both had realised that having armour only served to weigh them down if it wasn’t strong enough to withstand a single strike from the monster’s blades. Now considerably faster, the pair charged at their foe, both abandoning their shields to focus purely on attacking in their final, furious assault. Both dodged the incoming blades, both attacked the same leg, slicing through it together before rolling over to the other side of the monster. Infuriated, the top part of Aikomortus’ body twisted around to meet them, swinging both blades around at the same time. Ethan and Aryn both ducked, then removed a second leg, toppling the monster onto its side. The moment Aikomortus stabbed its blades into the ground to stabilize itself, Ethan and Aryn went for the head together, both swords easily slamming through the neck to remove it from the body. Hacking and slashing with their blades, both knights struck every inch of the monster’s fallen body, ignoring the screams of agony from the severed head. At last, they found the beast’s heart, a pulsating black rock emanating a mist of dark energy. One final strike was all they needed. The heart shattered, the body and its shades dissipating into black smoke, blowing away in a gust of wind. It was finally over. Both knights fell onto their backs, gasping for air harder than they had ever done before, hurting all over worse than any quest had ever made them. Yet none of this mattered, for they had finally achieved victory.
“We’ve still got that bloody tower yet”, Aryn laughed, choking slightly as he coughed up a small amount of blood.
“Oh, we’ll find a way”, groaned Ethan every muscle screaming in pain as he tried to sit up. “There has to be a secret passage or something. How else would the princess get supplies?”
“Magic”, whispered Aryn, flourishing his hands like a magician again, wiping a tear from his eyes as he realised what this quest had cost him.
“Maybe…” pondered Ethan, slowly returning to his feet to inspect the base of the tower. “What did old Veteras say was a sign of a secret portal? Was that the whole ‘breathing walls’ thing, or was that for illusions?”
Ethan looked around the tower for a while, tapping every stone but finding no such portal. It was really starting to look like the only way up was to climb.
“You getting any ideas yet, Aryn?” he asked, quickly losing hope. “Aryn?”
What he saw as he turned around would haunt him for the rest of his life. Aikomortus had returned in its second form, and Aryn was impaled on both of its blades.
“Don’t… Waste… Our sacrifices…” choked Aryn, coughing up blood.
By merely raising its arms to the sky and slowly pulling them apart, Aryn was ripped vertically in half, his blood and guts dripping directly into the monster’s mouth before the two halves of the body were carelessly thrown to the side as if naught more than litter. Ethan just stood still and stared vacantly at what remained. He wasn’t even afraid anymore. With his entire world shattering around him, he felt nothing but pain. Then he felt warmth as the blade of Aikomortus lightly cut the top of his shoulder, the blood released quickly dripping down his body. Another cut to his other shoulder, a cut to both shins, and he dropped to his knees, staring at the ground. He knew Aikomortus was just playing with its food, and he didn’t want to give the monster who killed his friends the satisfaction of enjoying his fear. Though of course, he knew this would only bring about his death far sooner. At this point, he welcomed it. Perhaps he would be able to see his friends again when his body lay on the same floor as they did. Growing bored at the lack of screams, Aikomortus lifted Ethan’s chin with one of its blades so that it could stare into his eyes as he died. It raised its other blade into the air. It was time. Aiming for the neck, the blade was swung. Ethan’s time had ended. Or rather, it had been paused.
“My, my, to see the spirit of a warrior so thoroughly crushed, and a prince at that! Things haven’t gone well for you, have they, Ethan?”
Ethan looked to his left. The blade was right by his neck, perhaps a few milliseconds away from claiming his life, yet it no longer moved. He looked to his right. A stranger whose entire body and all of his face, aside from his devious smile, were obscured by black robes stood beside him.
“Who… What are you?” asked Ethan, sensing that this most likely wasn’t just a normal human.
The stranger merely laughed at this question.
“Something funny?” asked Ethan.
“Oh, nothing that would amuse you. It’s just that usually when people meet me, they tend to skip the questions you asked and go straight to… Why? But enough about me, we’re all here for your glory as always, are we not? Well, those of us who are still breathing are at least. I can’t speak much for the dead, though I do often wonder what they would say if given one last chance to talk”.
The stranger lifted his head just enough to be able to see the growing disdain in Ethan’s eyes, yet not enough to reveal his own face.
“Ahh, I see you’re easily bored, so I’ll just cut to the chase. Do you wish to live?”
“What would I have left to live for? My greatest allies are dead, and even if I do return to my kingdom, my honour has been destroyed by this defeat”.
“Well yes, you’ve read that part of this situation exceedingly well, as one may have expected”, sniggered the stranger. “But you have a noble heart, do you not. That girl up there. Rapunzel, they once called her. If you don’t save her here and now, she’s never going to leave that tower”.
Ethan looked up at the endless tower behind him. The looming threat of death had temporarily erased the memory of what he came here for in the first place. Perhaps he could still salvage a scrap of his honour if he were to save her. But why was this man saving his life?
“You’re not doing this for free, are you?” he asked, already knowing the answer in his heart.
“Why of course not”, chuckled the stranger. “A life is a thing beyond value, especially one with as much destiny tied to it as yours has”.
“So what do you want?”
“Alas, I cannot tell you that just yet. Telling you now would only do bad for us both. Once this is all over, we shall meet again at your favourite pub to share your favourite drink, and only then shall I tell you what is that I desire most. If, that is, you allow me to save your life here. The choice is yours of course”.
Ethan stayed silent for a moment. Considering the blade that sat by his neck, he could easily guarantee that he wouldn’t get another chance to survive if he declined this offer. Yet, what could this man possibly want? If he could stop time, he must already be powerful enough that fame and riches would mean little to him. Perhaps something more sinister…
“Okay…” Ethan agreed at last. “If you can guarantee that none of my friends, my family, my subjects, or myself will get hurt by whatever it is you demand of me, I will allow you to save my life. If not, just let me die”.
“Naturally”, agreed the stranger, his smile widening. “First, the horse. Then we tend to you…”
The stranger clicked his fingers; Aikomortus disintegrated in an explosion of black blood that stained most of the courtyard. He then pointed a finger at Ethan.
“Wouldn’t want to meet a princess looking like that, would you?”
The stranger clicked his fingers again. Ethan felt a comforting heat radiating throughout his entire body, fixing every bone, sowing up every torn muscle, even cleaning the dust from his face and the blood from his clothes.
“Now, the tower”, continued the stranger. “All you have to do is shout the words, ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your golden hair’. If she deems you worthy, which of course she will, especially considering she will think you’ve destroyed her least favourite horse, she will throw down her hair and use it to pull you up into her chamber”.
“She must have some bloody long hair…” thought Ethan.
“Oh no, it’s magical hair, you see. She can extend and retract it at will. Quite remarkable really”, said the stranger, trying to hold in his laughter when Ethan realised his thoughts weren’t as private as he always believed them to be. “Well, you have all you need from me. Don’t fret, I’ll be back in your life soon enough. I look forward to hearing your tale of how this next part goes!”
Within the blink of an eye he arrived, within the blink of an eye he disappeared, leaving Ethan all alone once more. He stayed on his knees for a few moments in total disbelief. Though he never expected his quest to go without problems, everything that had happened was out of the realms of what he believed to be possible. He didn’t want to think about it for too long however, especially considering the fact that Aikomortus had already been resurrected twice before. He didn’t want to stick around long enough to find out what would happen after a third resurrection, so instead he rose to his feet and turned to face the tower.
“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your golden hair!”
It took a few seconds, but a massive bundle of golden hair came crashing down in front of his feet, cracking the ground with its sheer weight. Just a quick tug and Ethan was suddenly rocketing into the sky, quickly reaching heights he wouldn’t be able to survive a fall from. He rose so high that he probably could have just about made out his own kingdom in the distance, that is if he wasn’t too busy clinging onto the hair for dear life. Alas, those views wouldn’t have compared to what he was going to see when he finally slowed to a halt anyway. Eyes as deep and blue as the sea, hair that was gold and shone like the sun, skin smoother than marble. But what struck him most was that smile. A smile so delightful that it sent a shiver throughout his entire body, spreading a warmth that made him feel like he was back home at last.
“Could you be my knight in shining armour?” The woman asked, tickling Ethan’s chin with her fingers. “The monster down there. Is it dead?”
Ethan tried to answer with words, though all that escaped his mouth was a high-pitched croak, eliciting an adorable giggle from the woman. Seemingly unable to speak through his infatuation, he instead chose to answer her question with a nod of the head.
“Perfect”, she purred, her smile growing wider, revealing her shining, white teeth. “My name is Rapunzel, and… I want to reward you for all you’ve done”.
Rapunzel grabbed Ethan’s hand and pulled him into the tower. For a princess, she wasn’t exactly given much in her single room. Walls of stone, a basic wooden bed, and a raggedy, red rug on the floor were all she had for comfort. Had his mind been less burdened by the traumatic battle, as well as a little less lustful, Ethan might have questioned certain aspects of what he saw. For example, where did Rapunzel’s food come from? Where did her waste go? How had she survived up here for so long? How was he supposed to get both her and himself back down to the ground? Well, none of that mattered in this moment. Rapunzel was leading him over to her bed, and he knew exactly what that meant. She forcefully pushed him onto the mattress, and when he tried to sit back up, she knelt over him and pushed his chest back down. She untied his leather tunic and removed it, before kissing her way up his chest, stopping her lips just in front of his, the smell of strawberries tantalizing his nostrils. She stayed there for a moment to tease him, pulling her head back when he tried to kiss her. She bit his lip playfully, then moved down to kiss his neck. Then she whispered a single word into his ear.
Ethan looked at Rapunzel in confusion. Then he understood. His muscles turned to jelly, and his vision was fading to black. There was nothing he could do to fight this. He fell asleep as he was commanded, leaving him completely vulnerable to Rapunzel’s whims.
To be continued…
Copyright © by A. L. Plumb 2021. All rights reserved. This book and any portion thereof may not be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the express permission of the publisher or the copyright holder, except in the case of brief quotations