Twenty years earlier
"Arakhum guide me," Edith closed her eyes and sighed.
Having at last put her infant daughter Helen to bed after a long day of teaching, she was ready to relax. She planned on pouring a cup of her favorite wine and sitting on the porch with a good book, but first she needed to pick one out from her basement library. Tonight called for an old favorite, but which? Medicinal Applications of Redazar? A Comprehensive Account of the Bartering and Trade Union?
Then, it found her. The Legend of Cassandra Silvercloak and the Sword of Sunlight. One of the defining volumes of her childhood, as easy and comforting as a warm, freshly cooked meal from her mother. Edith grabbed it off the shelf only to drop it with a terrified yell when she turned and found King Edward Harrison standing before her.
"M-my lord!" she dropped to one knee. "I apologize, you startled me."
"It's quite alright, Edith," the King looked tired, like he'd been surviving on a few hours of sleep every night for at least a few weeks. His once vibrant eyes were heavy and his lips were drained of color. "Forgive me for being blunt, but I need your help."
She wasn't sure how he got into the house and down the basement without her hearing him, but no one refused a king. "Anything for you, my Lord."
"I've been told you're the wisest person in two hundred miles and your collection holds texts on just about every subject."
Edith nodded. "Yes, I can provide insight on almost anything."
"Does that include magic?"
"Magic? But magic is only a myth, my Lord. Even if it did exist, no one's used magic in hundreds of years."
He chuckled to try and ease the tension. "Come now, Edith. There's no need for deception," she found little reassurance in his eerily calm voice. "I'm not here to threaten you. In fact, I believe we can cooperate to achieve a mutually beneficial end. I've heard you have a very insightful book hidden somewhere among your volumes, and you can also translate it."
"My Lord, if this about," Discussing deceased relatives was never a good idea, but they supposedly turned fatal when it came to the King. "Queen Abigail, I must warn you that this path will only beget further suffering."
"You know nothing about what I want or what I've suffered."
"What about Prince Nicholas and Princess Mary?" she asked. "Right now, they need you more than ever, and you won't help them if you-"
"Enough!" The veneer of civility was shattered by a low scream that shook the shelves and almost made Edith jump. His rage dissipated as quickly as it arrived, and King Edward's expression of unnatural calmness was back. "I'd hoped for us to work in a partnership of mutual understanding. I was going to reunite you with your husband, but clearly kindness is lost on you."
"Are you going to torture me?" she asked, her voice firm and plain.
"Do you take me for some uncultured barbarian who responds to every setback with torture? No, no, Miss Martin," he said. "There are far more effective methods of persuasion, especially in your case."
Edith's heart stopped. It took everything in her power not to strike him. "Don't you even think about harming her you sick-"
"You are in no position to make threats, Edith. You can either help me return my Queen to this cursed earth or you can condemn yourself to a life of despair without respite."
The hate in King Edward's heart burned.
Things varied day to day. Sometimes, he felt a boiling frustration that compelled him to scream until it pained him to speak, other times it was a gnawing, dull ache in the pit of his stomach that made him question the point of life's basic needs. The one constant was that hatred was always directed at himself. If he'd been smarter, wiser, more perceptive, he could've taken some preventative step to protect his Queen. He believed that he was willing to lay down his life to keep his family safe, but the cruel irony was that the opportunity never prevented itself. That reality did little to change Edward's belief that he was a failure and a coward. A worthless, cowardly weakling who couldn't protect those closest to him.
But one day, there was a revelation. Edward realized he was not to blame. The coward responsible for Queen Abigail's death was Arakhum. Despite three centuries of his ancestors sacrificing everything in his name; despite Edward's three decades of unwavering service to Him and Amorado. Arakhum was either a cruel, uncaring sadist that abandoned His subjects in a world without meaning or purpose, or nonexistent.
Taking vengeance on a deity was like trying to halt the wind or rain, but if Arakhum couldn't be conquered, perhaps He could be defied.
Having convinced Edith to see things from his point of view, she voluntarily returned with him to the castle. He hoped for at least a little bit of gratitude, considering he chose the most dignified, least harmful option of enlistment. Instead, Miss Martin chose to sulk all the way. Not that it mattered. Once Edward had what he needed from her, she could return to whatever drudgery these plebeian types endured on a daily basis.
"Fancy anything to eat or drink?" he offered as they ascended the stairs to the throne room. "Magic can be quite strenuous work from what I've read."
"I'd rather starve."
He conceded that petty victory with a snort. If his Auburn Blade was here, he probably would've smacked her for that remark, but Edward no longer has a need for such protection. Nothing in the physical realm could threaten him anymore.
He pushed through the steel doors and into the throne room; spacious, high-ceilinged, and adorned with all manner of war trophies and knightly tableaux; armor, swords, and jewelry, each forming a fragment of Edward's legacy. The windows to the east provided a landscape of greater Amorado, while the windows on the west end were dominated by the Imanese Mountain.
As he and Edith continued to march through the ruby red carpeting, Edward happened upon a memory from years ago, when his children were taking their first steps to becoming the warriors they are today. He looked to a marble pillar to his right, where a twelve year old Mary and Nicholas emerged with their small, wooden swords. Nicholas had his black hair, but his mother's eyes and sense of humor and wonder. Mary had his tenacity and focus, but her mother's auburn curls, presently kept in a tight bun.
Mary swung left, then right, but Nicholas blocked both strikes. Nicholas sidestepped to attack her from behind, but Mary whipped around and parried, catching her brother just in time. The fight continues with neither able to gain an advantage. Even then, Edward was pleased with their progress. They possessed the same preternatural affinity for combat he developed at their age. Soon enough, they would surpass him, and bring a new level of fear to their enemies. His children disappeared behind a pillar and the memory concluded.
"Are we going to get started?" Edith asked.
"Soon," Edward walked to the wall behind his throne, running his hand along the brickwork. He moved a few more feet and disappeared inside. As he predicted, Edith followed, undisturbed by his use of illusions. He kept the entrance small to minimize risk of discovery. So far, no one had discovered his private chamber without his permission.
Her eyes roamed over the small, barren space, presumably searching for a window or some other form of ingress. "Where is the light coming from?"
Edward lowered himself to the floor, crossed his legs, and shut his eyes, a perfect picture of serenity. "We all must keep secrets, Miss Martin. Begin the translation, and I want everything; every word, every detail, every footnote."
He didn't need his magical abilities to sense some lingering confusion. "You don't need a translator? You don't want to write any of this down?"
"There is no need to worry about that, Miss Martin. We can begin when you are ready," He held the book out for her, but something broke his concentration. Nicholas and Mary were on their way to the throne room. And they weren't alone. He laid the book down gingerly and rose like a lithe predator. "It appears we're about to be interrupted, but I believe this can work in our favor; you'll want to see a proper demonstration."
Across the throne room, Nicholas and Mary marched in beside her husband, Benjamin Faraday. All three wore full armor and were flanked by around twenty of Amorado's finest soldiers. Some Edward personally noted for skill and bravery on the battlefield.
"Quite the coalition you two have assembled," Edward sat on his throne with Edith beside him. He hoped against all logic that his intuition was wrong, that his children still believed in him. "I take it there's some miscreant who needs gutting and you wanted to invite your father along."
The coalition continued marching unabated. Mary never was one to joke around, but Nicholas's stern expression confirmed his fear. When they were only a few feet away, Nicholas spoke: "In the name of Arakhum and the people of Amorado, you are under arrest, King Edward Harrison the Fourth."
"Is that supposed to be a threat?" Edward lets out a bemused sort. "Come now, son, this prank is far too simplistic for your standards."
"This is no joke, my Lord," Benjamin said. "Surrender, and this ends without any more unnecessary violence."
"Unnecessary violence?" Edward's gaze shifted to the simpleton. "The suffering of my enemies doesn't trouble me."
"Enemies?" Mary spat. "They are your people! People you took an oath to protect! People you've condemned to torture and death!"
Edward could feel the hate begin to flare in his mind. The situation was far worse than he thought: Mary's husband was not just a coward, he was also a traitor. He found no joy in vindication. "With what lies has he filled your heads?" he spat back at Mary. "Can you not see that this common filth wishes to supplant the throne? To take the power that is your birthright? He will undo everything I've done for you two, for your mother!"
The two were shaken at the mention of their mother, but the shock turned into resolve, just as he trained them.
"That's enough," Nicholas said plainly. "Surrender, or we'll do what needs to be done."
Just like Edith, Edward concludes, words aren't sufficient. He recalls being pleased he very rarely needed to discipline his children in their younger years. Such duties were Abigail's purview, but she isn't here at the moment. Regardless, he will take great pleasure in finally killing Benjamin, along with his treasonous ilk.
"You will try." Edward once again calls upon his hate. He allowed it to envelope him, to surround him, until it grew into an all-consuming flame that blinded him. He brought Willbreaker from his scabbard, and the great, silver blade glistened in the morning light. Edward leapt higher and farther than any normal man could, somersaulted in mid-air, and landed between his children and the traitors. Edward rushed forward, blade held high. He effortlessly dodged one sword, ducked under another, and parried another traitor. He began cutting them down, moving with the grace and speed of a dancer and striking with the ferocity of a berserker's rage. The King became a blaze of fury, years of rage exploding into a whirlwind of death and crunching metal. Edward sensed danger behind him and whirled around to see one of the traitors brandishing a bow and arrow. He fired, but Edward brought Willbreaker up lengthwise to intercept it, and the arrow split in two against his blade. Edward took out a dagger from his sheath and returned the favor with a flick of the wrist.
He turned to his right and saw Mary and Benjamin charging into the fray. He blocked their initial flurry of strikes before his unarmored fist grabbed Mary's sword and tossed it aside. She could only gape at her discarded weapon for a moment before Edward's open palm slammed against her chest, sending her sliding towards his throne
"Mary!" The fool looked back in horror at his wife. Edward took the opportunity to grab Benjamin by the throat, securing him in a terrific grip. He tightened the hold for just a moment before hurling him in the other direction.
Edward paused to reflect as the carnage continued. Ending the short-lived rebellion was enjoyable, but he actively looked forward to watching the life drain from his son-in-law's eyes. He found it liberating that he no longer had to hide barely disguised contempt he harbored for far too long. Mary would likely resent him, but, in time, she would be thankful for having been liberated from the folly of youthful mistakes. She deserved so much better than some-
A cry from Mary shattered his concentration. Edward discovered that, in his bloodlust, he drove Willbreaker through Nicholas's chest. His son's face was startled and his jaw was slack, and Edward realized his first child's last moments will be of pain and dread.
Because of him.
"No," a quiet word escaped his lips. "No, no, no, Nicholas. I-I-I'm sorry, please, you can't." With infinite care, he laid Nicholas down, cradling the back of his head. Edward placed the other over the gaping wound in his son's chest, but he was already gone. "You can't leave me, too."
The throne room fell into silence as warm tears formed in Edward's eyes. The quiet was shattered when he let out a rising scream, low and hoarse. He looked up and saw Benjamin through the tears. "This," he whispered before rising to his feet. "This is all your fault! You turned them against me!"
He heard another impact of metal ripping through flesh, only this time he felt it in his torso; Edward looked down to see a sword jutting from his chest. He moved his hands in a futile attempt to grab at it, but he then fell to his knees.
As his strength faded, the magnitude of Edward's failure came into view. His years of training, his decades of discipline and sacrifice, his vision of a world ruled by a family unbound from the will of Arakhum or the demands of time, have been for nothing. Distant illusions of a man who may have never truly existed. His legacy has become one of cruelty and filicide.
Most sickeningly of all, it is not, as Edward previously believed, the fault of Arakhum or Benjamin Faraday or even human mortality: only he is to blame. His anger, his grief and his lust for power have led, perhaps inexorably, to this. A singular moment in time in which a violent, amoral sadist was struck down by his own daughter.
Edward took comfort in the knowledge that, if there was truly a life after this one, he will not live in Paradise with Abigail and Nicholas. He will never have to confront his Queen or the son he failed so miserably. His well-deserved torment will never come to pass. Whatever he suffers next would be nothing by comparison.
With his last ounce of strength, Edward whispered:
"Lay me down to rest."