1 - Prologue

King Drayton sat on his throne in full armor. His personal guard, ten of the finest women and men he'd ever known, were spread across his hall, waiting for death to come knocking.
The castle's gate were breached an hour ago, but his soldiers would fight to hold every piece of ground. The Emperor's war machine had lain waste to three kingdoms. His would be fourth, but not last.
Eleven heads turned as the gate opened with a creak. The screams of his people dying grew louder, but not different. It was the new normal ever since the siege started one month ago.
"My king." The soldier said, remaining in the opening. He wore leathers specked with blood; his, his enemy's and his friend's. His sword was in its sheath, but coated just the same. No one wants to see their friend suffer in their last moments. "The market has fallen. Troops are falling back into the inner keep."
Twenty-one eyes watched the man, but the king spoke.
"Bar the inner gates and open all the kegs. Make sure no one suffers unnecessary. We know they leave no survivors. Tell the men and women they fought like bulls. Tell them their king is proud to have lived, and died, among them." The king got up from his throne, the metal pieces gliding easily. He'd never worn the armor before, but it fit him just like his father. "The guests?" The king asked. The soldier's face turned sour. He regained his composure when he saw the king frown.
"They scaled the north wall and were seen in your chambers a few minutes ago, as you said. Here any minute." A few sets of uneasy eyes glared at the king, but none reopened their argument.
"Good." The king said. "Speak my words to the soldiers and tell them to stay away from this hall. None are to enter or engage with anyone entering. That's my final command." The soldier looked struck, his eyes growing wet. "Thank you for your service, Grenn. Now go enjoy yourself while you still can. You're dismissed." The king said, turning away, his eyes blinking quickly.
The soldier didn't reply, but the sniff he released just before closing the door made more eyes blink rapidly. All knew the finality of this final.

The group waited uneasily for some time before a real knock at the gate came. No one inside the hall replied, but the gates were thrown open.
Six entered the throne hall of the king, covered in blood;
Five wearing armor of leather, helmets of iron;
Four with packs, ropes, and hooks on their back;
Three wielding swords, axes, and hammers;
Two armed with bows, one short, one cross;
One, with a crown on its head.
"King Drayton, it's been a while." The crowned one said as he walked inside. The others followed, closing the doors of the hall. The king's protectors were in formation at the foot of the throne. The king stood beyond it.
"I didn't know you wore a crown yet, Sym." The king said. The crowned one let out a laugh. The smile on his face looked morose with the spray of the blood that covered his cheeks.
"Couldn't believe it myself. He made me 'Crown-Prince Symean, The Exalted'. You know how he gets with names." Symean said as he walked closer to the formation in front of the king. He made eye contact with them, but kept his distance. He wore a stronger armor than the five others with him, but he knew they were outmatched. "Father or—".
"Who?" King Drayton interjected. Symean sighed.
"Emperor Vazeas The Seraphic, ruler of all the upper lands," He said, waiting expectantly. King Drayton didn't react. "Ordered me to capture you and your family alive. He expected I'd come even without his order. If you tell me where your family is, I can get them out after we're finished here." He said. King Drayton remained silent. "Look, Drayton, they don't have to die here or later, I can get them on a ship to the west. We'll tell them they died in a fire. Father won't look into it any further."
Drayton stepped forward then, one of his protectors moved aside so he could stand between them, closer to Symean.
"You come in here covered in the blood of my people, and tell me you'll save my family? Hard to believe, Symean."
"If there was another way, I would have come that way." He said, maintaining eye contact with the king. "You know I won't harm them. We brought extra equipment to get them down the wall we came in by." Symean dared stepping closer. The king's protectors had their sword ready, but they held back. "Please, Drayton. I can still do something for them. Just tell me where they are."
"They're right here." Drayton said. Symean looked confused for a second, then his eyes went over the king's protectors, growing wider as they crossed over both young and old faces, male and female, but all with a glare fixated at him. "And they'll stay here, together, until the end." Symean looked them all over again before his eyes locked with Drayton's again. He swallowed slowly and nodded before taking a step back.
"Shall we get to it then?" Symean asked. Drayton pointed to his left, at crates set out against the side of the room.
"There's an armor set there, a weapon of your choice, too. No one will disturb us." Drayton said before walking back to his throne and sitting down. His family joined around him. Symean and his five went over to the crates.

The armored knight dropped to a knee. Vibrations shocked through his left shoulder as he deflected the axe's blade.
The axe went up, came down once more. The knight's gauntleted hand grabbed his sword's blade at the front to catch the shock.
But the axe went up again, and again, and again until the sword shattered into pieces. The axe caught in his shoulder, piercing his pauldron, and the knight dropped to his other knee. Drayton released a deep sigh, spittle flying wildly from his mouth. Symean's breath staggered, straining himself to get the words out.
"You won, Drayton." Drayton dropped to a knee too.
"No, Sym. We both lost. I did years ago, you only now." He smiled at his friend. Symean returned the smile, his teeth red, blood dripping from the corner of his mouth. He dropped backward, to his butt, more pain lancing across his face.
"Knew you'd be a pain with that axe of yours. Your father was right to have you chopping wood all seasons."
Drayton got up and fell to his butt beside Symean. His face was a big mess from the diagonal slice across his forehead and left eye. He threw off his gauntlet and wiped away some of the mess. It didn't help.
"Your sword skills also improved over the years. Seeing you get beaten up by Kallun never got old." Symean laughed.
"Yeah, he got me good every time. Was a real fucker, you know. After you'd gone, he'd get even worse… and always laughing. Glad I had the last laugh with him." Symean tried laughing but only came up with a mouth of blood. "Those were the time, Drayton. Just us, playing, jesting, getting in trouble. Not this stinking shit. Well, literally now." He smiled, another mouth full of blood. "Sorry to shit your hall, my liege." Drayton smiled, but he looked sad for his friend.
"You didn't choose your father." Symean blinked rapidly for a few times.
"But you choose your friends." Symean swallowed hard. "I'm really happy it's you, Drayton. Seeing you here, after all this time, with your family around you." Symean coughed and swallowed what came up. "I wish I had that, but I'm glad you did.
"You were right to step away from my father. I knew it then, and I'll regret it for a few more minutes at least. All this death, for one man. It's wrong."
Drayton sighed through his nose. He laid a hand on his friend's shoulder, the one without his axe stuck in it. "Nothing any of us can do about it."
Symean's mouth started leaking again. This time he let it out, spitting until it was empty.
"What if there was?"

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