Chapter 1 – The Savior Reborn
It wasn't the first time someone had risen from the dead.
In these dark times? No. Tragically for the living, not by a long shot.
However, when the black magicians that plagued the land performed their rites of grim and unnatural reanimation, the act was usually accompanied by groans and screams and perhaps even maniacal laughter.
But never by tears of thanks, and never by tears of joy.
The atmosphere in the camp was not so much joyous as it was reverent. Perhaps a hundred large tents stood in rows of lazy attention, forming natural thoroughfares of an evanescent city, along which its temporary citizens wandered and whispered. Even the mundane of objects and activities were laced with special significance this morning. Breakfast was a communion. Each morning ablution was a baptism. The dull gleam of polished swords and armour seemed to lend each man a personal halo.
Even the sergeants' infamously vile cussing was as half-hearted as it was half-heard this morning. Grizzled veterans of several wars stumbled absentmindedly about their duties, wearing beatific expressions on their face. Some were even humming. Their lives had just been touched by something unimaginable.
The news had spread like wildfire through the camp, and a large crowd of awed soldiers were already gathered around Prince Charming's tent.
"It's a goddamned miracle," whispered one of the soldiers to another. "Our prince, brought back to life!"
"His love for his country was too great," said another reverently. "He came back, knowing we needed him."
"Yes," said a third in hushed tones, "but no one is allowed to see him."
No fewer than twenty of Charming's Champions, the prince's handpicked retainers, stood guard outside, barring all entry to curious onlookers. The elite knights had turned out in full plate armour in response to news of their leader's resurrection. Each knight was armed to the teeth, a sharp contrast to serenity of the morning. Their forbidding presence gently but firmly dissuaded the gawking men from coming any closer.
Boris, Kalpo and Jacob swaggered up to the prince's tent, bold as brass. They barged right on past the cordon, slapping a few shoulders in a friendly manner as they passed. The other knights stood aside for them wordlessly. Except for Eric, Prince Charming's right hand man and childhood companion, the trio were renowned as the hardest fighting, hardest drinking, and general all round most skilful knights in the army. This naturally earned them positions of high honour in the eyes of their comrades.
Kalpo tore aside the tent flaps to reveal Prince Charming, sitting up in his military cot. Aside from the cot and several portable field chairs, the tent was completely bare. Warm morning light streamed into the tent's interior from large slits in the bright red canvas. The prince himself was dressed in simple linens, as befitted one who had just recovered from a long illness. In his left hand he held a steaming cup of milky tea. Prince Charming wore a gentle frown on his face, and seemed to be in the act of asking a serious question. Sitting by his side, listening attentively, was none other than Eric.
"Charming!" shouted Boris in excitement, catching sight of the prince awake.
"Get out of my way, you stupid tent pole!" exclaimed Kalpo, knocking aside a stupid tent pole that was standing in the way between him and the prince. The entire tent shuddered in protest.
"Idiot!" shrieked Jacob, darting forth to rescue the stupid tent pole. The lean knight grabbed the falling post and righted it in the nick of time, thereby saving the entire tent from collapse.
The prince's eyes widened in surprise and delight as the trio entered.
"Are you sure I'm not in heaven, Eric?" asked Prince Charming with a small smile. "My Valkyries have apparently come to claim me."
Kalpo made an incoherent sound, temporarily overcome by the sight of his leader alive and well again. The large knight lumbered forward impulsively to envelop his leader in a tearful hug. But Jacob pulled him back sharply, snapping: "Don't touch him! He's holy now. You'll sully him with your sweaty body."
But Prince Charming tossed aside his drink and pulled all three close to him in a tight, emotional hug. "You bastards," the prince choked. "I hope you didn't waste any frigging tears on me. I don't remember being gone, but it's good to see you all again. I hope you've all been behaving yourselves. Now, what's this talk about me being holy?"
"Hasn't Eric told you?" asked Boris, seating himself casually on the prince's formerly sheets. "He's been holding candlelight vigil by your bedside all this time."
Eric shook his head. Prince Charming's second in command was a handsome, fair-skinned knight in his mid-thirties with well-defined cheekbones and closely cropped blond hair. He had been gifted since birth with handsome features and a smouldering gaze. In addition to his physical merits, Eric was also soft spoken, gentlemanly and cultured, everything, in fact, that the trio were not. In short, he was the object of every lustful maiden's fantasy and the butt of the trio's teasing. Despite the myriad temptations he constantly received from the opposite gender, the knight had thus far remained pure and virtuous. As the most exalted of Charming's Champions, Eric was unquestioningly loyal to the prince.
"He has only just awakened," said Eric, fixing Boris with a disapproving gaze.
"Well, take a look in a mirror, Charming!" exclaimed Boris.
A small hand mirror was brought before the prince, who snatched it up without hesitation and held it to his face.
"What…" whispered Prince Charming, as he beheld the apparition in the mirror.
It seemed as though a fickle painter had utterly retouched a former work. The prince's hair, once a dirty blond, had turned white as a dove's feathers. Snow white hair alone might have been excusable, but it was the least of his transformations. A stranger stared back at him through the looking glass. Although Prince Charming's features still retained a passing resemblance to his old self, that of a sardonic, contemplative veteran of several wars, his skin had taken on a strange radiance that seemed to shine from within, casting an unearthly white light. Even his eyes had changed. The pupils, once black, had lightened to the point of colourlessness, giving them a pristine quality that was almost divine.
"What the shiv?" Prince Charming exclaimed at last, recoiling from the mirror as though it had bitten him on the nose.
"You've become a frigging god, that's what," explained Kalpo.
"Yes," exclaimed Boris. "Right after you died! Don't you remember?"
The prince shook his head, a wave of uneasiness rising from his chest.
"I remember setting out on this military expedition. But nothing else is clear."
"My prince, it would please me to recount the events of the past two weeks for your benefit," offered Jacob solemnly.
Prince Charming nodded assent. With an irritation borne of confusion he threw the mirror aside and ran his fingers through his hair, cussing softly as he did so. They even felt like dove's feathers. Just what on earth had happened? What cruel trick had been played on him?
Whatever it was, he hoped desperately that it wouldn't be permanent.
"How long have I been… unconscious?" asked the prince.
"Three days. On the second day you started glowing and becoming pretty and stuff, yet your heart only started beating an hour ago, so we officially declare you as having come back to life on the third day," said Boris matter-of-factly.
It appeared that Prince Charming had no recollection of the events leading up to his death. With occasional interruptions and embellishments from Boris and Kalpo, Jacob was able to briefly recount the tale. Gradually, the prince's memory returned.
"Following reports on the re-emergence of the Deathly March, we embarked on an expedition to hunt the necromancer, Vincent Nightingale. We brought him to bay on the plain of Fool's Errand, three days west of our current position, and routed his undead army on the field of battle," said Jacob.
"And then we killed the magical assassin he sent to murder you! Damn assassin had a kick almost as strong as my grandma's," added Kalpo, pouring himself a cup of tea. "That's how Eric got stabbed by my sword."
The large knight jerked a thumb at Eric who clutched at his chest and nodded silently.
"Your extraordinary sword?" sniggered Boris.
"My resistive sword," corrected Kalpo.
Jacob continued his account, pretending that the interruption had not occurred. "Thanks in part to the specialised lethality of the witch hunters who accompanied this expedition, the necromancer's undead army, the Deathly March, was annihilated with little loss of life on our part. Vincent Nightingale himself was gravely wounded by the witch hunter superior and put to inglorious flight."
"On the back of his massive zombie dragon," inserted Boris helpfully. "Say, do you think there's space in this tent for a small prayer altar? So we can pray to you and all."
"Such triumph was not to last," continued Jacob. "While returning from the battle at Fool's Errand, we were waylaid by new foes under the control of a second Deathly Power, who paralyzed the entire army in a harrowing trial of nightmares."
"And because your legs were wounded, you rode a giant ant warrior into battle!" said Boris. "It was the stuff of legends."
"You know, that bugged me quite a bit at that time," said Kalpo sagely.
Prince Charming blinked. Boris's words had triggered a faint memory that shone like a fog light through the mists that clouded his mind.
"You followed the witch hunters on a grim quest, descending into the depths of dark tunnels to hunt and be hunted by the Ghost Council, your supernatural and deadly foe," said Jacob.
("I imagine the prince probably already knows that they're his supernatural and deadly foe," grumbled Boris beneath his breath. "Why bother saying it?")
"And after if-I-may-proceed-without-being-interrupted-each-time-I-take-a-breath an intense subterranean battle in the bowels of the earth against the Ghost Council's army of the Deathly January, you ultimately emerged victorious," said Jacob.
Prince Charming sucked in a breath sharply. Jacob's words had caused yet another memory to surface. He was once more underground, in a nightmarish chamber filled knee deep with human skulls. Green witchlight flickered, garishly illuminating a great storm comprising thousands of screaming skulls hurtling overhead. Ants the size of humans fought alongside a grim band of witch hunters bearing knives and crossbows. In his ears, in the recesses of his mind, he heard once again the Ghost Council's threats and mad laughter.
He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth through the pain, attempting to remember more, but his memories of recent events were like marbles, rolling away just out of reach.
"Wait a minute!" exclaimed Boris in surprise. "Jacob, you weren't even there! How do you know what happened?"
Jacob swallowed. "There was one surviving witness from the encounter."
"Oh yeah? Where is he?" interrogated Boris.
"He… disappeared in the confusion."
"Why didn't you tell us?"
The lanky knight stiffened and fixed the other two with an expression of disdain. "I don't have to tell you louts everything."
This incited a minor uproar from Boris and Kalpo, who angrily demanded that the witness be produced.
"Liar!" scolded Kalpo.
"Bootlicker!" hissed Boris.
"Traitor to your own species!" denounced Kalpo.
Eric, who had been silent up to this point, spoke up at last. "Boris, Kalpo, drop it," the knight said quietly. "Let Jacob finish the story. This is the part where Prince Charming dies."
The atmosphere in the tent intensified. Prince Charming, who had been waiting with all the patience of a soldier-statesman for this moment, leaned forward slightly.
Even Jacob seemed uncertain of how best to proceed. For a few moments, silenced reigned. At last the knight opened his mouth to speak.
"Just when victory seemed within your grasp, Vincent returned, more powerful than before, and killed you and every last witch hunter," he said simply. "The rest of the army, us included, did not reach you in time."
"Vincent!" hissed Boris in anger and shock.
Prince Charming's face twitched. With a jolt, he recalled the bittersweet sensation of bleeding to death. As though a pair of floodgates had been opened, his memory rushed back, bringing with it a deluge of information and emotion. A conversation with a vicious foe, a threat to his nation, a revelation of deceit, a secret he was forced to bear, a prophecy he had to stop at all costs. With the recovery of his memory came the renewal of his burden. The prince clutched at his chest, and his face darkened.
"We found your body, still and cold, lying on a carpet of broken skulls," said Eric.
"You were dead as a tree, Charming," said Kalpo brightly.
"Eric blubbered like a baby," said Boris.
Eric tightened his jaw to keep it from trembling at the memory. "What was I supposed to feel? You were dead."
In truth, virtually every soldier in the army had shed tears. The prince was deeply loved.
"If I'm dead," growled Prince Charming, pointing at himself, "explain this."
Everyone began talking at once.
"The night you died, I had a dream…" started Eric.
"Every last soldier in the camp experienced the same vision…" began Jacob.
"We were forced to make a choice…" exclaimed Boris.
"A white ghost lady visited my tent while I was sleeping," said Kalpo.
"…that if we wanted to see you alive again…" continued Eric.
"…so it must have been some powerful sorcery…" continued Jacob.
"…and we had to choose between you and one precious thing…" continued Boris.
"…offered me sex with ten beautiful women…" continued Kalpo.
"…we could bring you back to life."
"…that brought you back to life."
"…in order to bring you back to life."
"And so I said yes… to bringing you back to life."