3.

The drive to the kingdom of Palthory, or His Majesty called it “Paltry”, was three days by train, then two days by car and then another three days by horseback. Landing any type of aircraft in the city would be pointless.

Palthory, in the grand scheme of things, sat on a patch of land that was barely liveable. The soil was tough, the air was thick and grey because of all the many factories that littered the kingdom. The one of two good things about Palthory was that the ground was filled with iron. The other was the mystical tree the citizens called Hardship, as it was the only tree that stood in all the city.

As the horses continued to march down the barren roads, the two things one would notice would be the heavy cloud of smoke and ash above the city and the giant, barren branches that stretched out from the top, like fingers breaking through soil.

The trainee looked out over the wasteland, a constant frown on their face.

“How sad,” they commented.

“And it’s illegal to drive again, because–?”

“The ecosystem is very fragile here that the noise and the emissions our convoy would have make this place practically unusable. The new growth you think is pitiful is actually a few years of hard, yet quiet work. But, I agree with, you this place is quite terrible,” His Majesty replied.

“Explain the tree,” the trainee said, slowly blinking in disgust.

“It grows but it hasn’t bloomed before.”

“And they named it–“

“Hardship.”

“Tasteless bastards.”

As they arrived at the gates at sunset, they were greeted by the Sovereign’s men.

“Your Majesty, welcome to Palthory once more. I regret to inform you that Sovereign Addam has fallen asleep for the night and will not be able to meet with you until lunch tomorrow.”

His Majesty faked a frown.

“I understand. He and I are both older than we feel. May Hardship protect him.”

“May Hardship protect him,” the guards parroted back.

The trainee rolled their eyes.

Most of the convoy were taken away by the guards, since there would be no way to house 500 people in the Sovereign’s manse.

The next day, the 450 men His Majesty had brought with him had started to patrol the streets of Palthory. The citizens stayed indoors, closing their blinds, ushering their playing children inside. They patrolled in all black, their faces covered, a bloody black hand holding a small red flame pushing through a green background adorned their back as the sigil for His Majesty. Even though it was full steam ahead, the factories seemed rather quiet.

When lunch came around, His Majesty and his trainee walked the halls of Sovereign Addam’s manse. A thick layer of dust adorned everything, the last time anyone had willingly walked the halls was decades ago. His Majesty was dressed in an emerald suit that glistened in the low lights of the hallways. His knuckles were also dressed with emeralds, the color almost neon against his dark skin. He wore a scarf that protected his hair and covered his mouth, tinted goggles covering his eyes. Even in his ancient age, he stood tall as he did in his prime, the white hair making him seem more regal. His trainee followed behind, draped in a cloak that looked and moved like blood on a hospital floor. A black mask covered their entire face, the hood attached to the cloak creating a deeper shadow along their eyes. Ten of His Majesty’s soldiers lagged behind, the other 40 spreading themselves out on each floor of the manse and outside.

Sovereign Addam’s room was magnificently depressing. In a room that held much color and life once, it was rather dingy and dark now. The Sovereign laid in the middle of the room, in a bed that sunk into the floor. Even with the curtains open to shine a bit of sun onto the withering old man, he still looked like a corpse on display. The machinery to keep him barely alive still didn’t beep loud enough to cover his wheezing breaths.

The trainer stood at the top of the stairs as His Majesty made his way down to talk to Sovereign Addam.

“Your Majesty,” the old man gasped, his lips pulling across his face into a small, gummy smile.

“Sovereign Addam,” His Majesty replied, putting a hand to his chest and bowing.

“Please, n-n… no formalities. Seeing y-you… do that hurts… my bones,” Addam joked. His Majesty chuckled, his trainee frowned. “I assume… You… Brought your… Imperial Bride with you?”

A shudder of annoyance went through the trainee’s body.

“As promised. Then you’ll be back to your old self. Imperial Bride. Come.” His Majesty snapped his fingers.

The trainee hesitated before heading down to the bed. They stared at His Majesty before turning their attention to the dying man. He reached up with a frail hand, taking theirs and trying to squeeze it. The trainee snatched their hand back, eyeing Addam.

“Feisty… isn’t she?”

The trainee took a step forward, His Majesty putting a hand out to stop them from going further.

“Yes, they are,” His Majesty replied. “We’re going to send away your doctors now, they won’t be needed after this.” With a snap of his fingers, his soldiers were on the Sovereign’s doctors, covering their mouths and snapping their necks. His Majesty gently started to pull the tubing and breathing machines from Addam, the rattling of his chest even louder now as the machines stopped beeping as they were unplugged. The trainee slowly crawled onto the decrepit body, squatting over the man’s chest. They pulled off their mask, skin the color of clove, head balder than an initiated monk, their black eyes dripping onto the old man’s face.

He started to panic, his twig legs shifting as fast as they could, trying to get away from whatever hellion the Gods had sent to punish him. The trainee grabbed his face in their hands and squeezed, sucking the years away. His face started to lose wrinkles, the muscle and fat coming to his limbs and face, the green came back to his eyes, his hair started to grow thick once more, the pure white locs turning black once more, his oak colored skin retaining moisture.

The trainee grinned, giving the Sovereign a bit of hope as they removed the hand from his face only to thrust it into his chest and out of his back, his beating heart clutched between their fingers.

“ENOUGH!” His Majesty called out.

The trainee dropped the Sovereign’s body onto the floor, his heart still in their hand.

Fuck you,” was the retort. With a flick of their wrist, the heart went into the air and landed on the bed before bursting into flame. The sound of a thousand souls erupted from the Imperial Bride’s mouth, laughing so loud, it shattered the windows in the room. Wings sprouted from their back, ugly, sharp things that were the color of pure nothing, as wide as the day is long. His Majesty watched as the Imperial Bride flew out of the room, cackling throughout the streets. The Bride howled, a stream of fire coming from their mouth, destroying homes and lives. As people tried to flee, the Imperial Bride was on top of them, sticking their teeth into necks, ripping out throats, dismembering people as if they were dolls. His Majesty watched the town go up in flames from the window before signaling for his men to head out.

All 500 of His Majesty’s men were accounted for as they watched the kingdom of Palthory burn to the ground from the dying fields.

He smirked when he saw his sigil in the sky.

The fingers from the Tree of Hardship were finally blooming.

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