The Red King dreamed upon his ebon throne, at the end of the world beneath the fires of a darkling sky. His kingdom was empty and silent, his palace thrall to ghosts and empty echoes, and his throne room a place of darkness save for the glow of the ruby upon his iron crown. He was old, and the ages passed slowly, the world growing colder beneath the dying sun.
He waited now for the passing of his age, for he had ruled long, since the world was young. He had come to this world a king when it was green and new, the earth still scarred by the passing of the glaciers like glass mountains, the land roved by monstrous beasts and primitive men. Here he made himself their lord, with the power of his great sword and the sorcery in his red stone. Nations rose and bowed to him, empires paid him homage. He was the overlord of the whole earth.
Now his time was ending, as he had always known it must. Now the sun grew colder in the sky, and day was like night. The sky was always black and filled with a billion fiery stars. The silver moon was broken into pieces and they tumbled through the dark overhead in a great arc, slow and cold like a corpse in the sky. Now and again bright lances of fire came down as pieces of the moon fell to earth in fire. He heard them sometimes when he tried to sleep. Thunder in the dark.
He watched, always, for the sign of his deliverance. The peak of his darkened throne hall was broken, laid open to the sky, and there he looked for the sign of the red star from whence he came. It would return for him, following its long trail around the dying sun, and he would go back, and sleep, and then fall upon some other young world. His cycle would begin again, as it always did.
Yet he doubted. It had been long, and he grew weak. His immortal flesh turned pale and sunken, his vision dark, and his body felt weak and ephemeral. His armor lay heavy on him, and he let his sword lie across his knees, too weary to raise it. There were no wars any longer, no battles or glory. There was only the tightening grasp of eternal winter, closing upon the throat of the world.
He bowed his head beneath of the weight of his crown, and then the red jewel flared brighter, and he came fully to wakefulness. There were men in his palace; he sensed them. After an age, men had come again, and they did not come to make obeisance or to render tribute. No, they came to kill. He smelled the iron of their swords and the blood rushing in their hearts. He had believed, perhaps, that no more men lived in the cold world, but now they came again, to try and slay him. The thought quickened his ancient heart.
The Red King heaved himself up from his throne. Ice shattered from his limbs and snow fell from his shoulders. Beneath the shadows of his crown, his eyes glowed with a hungering fire. It had been a hundred years or more since he scented blood, ten times that long since he lifted his sword in his hands. The runes scribed on the metal writhed and changed as he knotted his fingers around the long bone hilt and held the blade up to gleam in the light of the dead moon. He was so weary, and so weak, but even now mortal men could not match him. Now he would drink hot blood, and remember lost ages when he was the heart of the living world.
He passed down the long stair that led from his throne room, his tattered robe sweeping the dust behind him. He touched the walls, feeling the carved stone, the etched figures depicting the ages of his reign. The great conquest of the Shaar people, the extermination of the Alemites, the destruction of Laru. He remembered them all. He remembered the heads piled in heaps like mountains, the rivers of blood that flowed over the parched earth. He remembered the city of gold aflame, the treasures of a kingdom melting and searing away while her people wailed. He remembered the long lines of naked slaves driven through the wastelands to build here his palace, raising stone on stone, watering them with their blood. He remembered so much that he knew no other lived to recall, and he knew he himself had forgotten a great deal. It had been so long, and he was losing his strength.
He crossed the length of a high-columned hall, where he trod the dust of fallen warriors who had stood guard and fallen where they stood, long since withered away. He came to another long stair, and there he found them. There were a dozen of them, savage-looking men wrapped in furs against the cold, their faces dark and marked with ritual scars. They wore dark armor and carried spears and axes of black iron. At their head stood a mountain of a man, and he bore no weapon in hand, his sword sheathed at his side, and on his head was a helm crowned with jagged antlers.
They saw the Red King and they lifted their voices in terror and rage, and he laughed at them as they came rushing toward him. He flung back his crimson cloak, and the light of the far sky blazed on his gilded armor. Their spear-points smote upon his breastplate and splintered, and their hafts broke to pieces in their hands. They struck at him with axes and he felt the blows like gentle rainfall, saw the iron heads split apart and ring upon the floor in shards. Even now, so close to his long sleep, no world-forged weapon could pierce him.
Then he lifted up his long white sword, and the runes upon it chanted choruses of lost war-epics in the howling silence. He brought it down, and the man he struck put his sword up in both hands as if to prevent the stroke. Instead the deadly blade shattered his sword and then rove through him from skull to hip, sent him down the stair in a rush of blood that froze where it struck the stone floor, steaming and dark as rubies.
He laughed, and the sound of it filled them with a fear he saw in their bestial faces. What brutish, hideous mockeries of men they must be, to still live in this dying, blighted world that he had sucked dry of all warmth and all life. Soon it would crack apart and remain still and silent in the eternal night. The cenotaph of a world.
He struck again, and his heavy battle-blade sheared through another man, splattering his red life upon the cold walls where it turned to fingers of crimson ice. The men had courage, he would grant that, for even now they threw themselves against him, striking with their useless blades, trying to bear him down. Their swords perished when they touched him, and their flesh burned when they dared touch him with their hands.
The Red King killed again, and again. Glad for the smell of hot blood, glad to see terror and hear it in their screams, glad to see the mist of their lives pour out into the cold air and turn to frost. It had been so many years since he lived in the flicker of battle, since he killed and trod upon the fallen. It had been an age of the world since there were men for him to slaughter, and now he breathed in their fear and felt renewed again.
The horn-crowned chief stood at the foot of the stair, not advancing as his men died, but now, as they drew back around him, half their number cut down, he set his hand upon his dark sword and drew it forth, and the Red King felt a clamor of fear inside him like he had never known. The sword was not steel, not iron, nor any metal dug from the soil. The sword was red, and the radiance of it stung him inside like a keen blade against his heart.
The horned one held up his red blade, and the King hesitated. Aeons of mastery urged him to fearlessness, and yet the light of that red blade gave him pause. He saw the eyes of the chieftain, glinting behind the slits of his great helm, and they challenged him. The Red King lifted his sword and howled, and the war-chief answered with his own bellowing war-cry.
The King heard the thunder of footfalls, many footfalls, and then an army flooded into the hall below and rushed upon the bloody stair. There were hundreds of them, dark, brute, fierce men molded by this dying earth, and they came for him like a tide.
He held up his frozen white sword, and it called down curses on them as they rushed up the blood-frozen stair. They became like a single thing, a hungry beast of many parts, and with loathing in him he hewed at them when they came within his reach. His arms felt heavy and slow, and his blows did not tear through them as they once had. He crushed armor and bone, but he did not reave them apart as he once had. They died, and their fellows trod them underfoot.
Blows fell on him like a rain of stones, and he tried to shrug them off, but there was too much force gathered behind them. He was pushed back, and he gave a step, and then another. A thousand ages howled in outrage as the lord of the world was forced back.
He tried to stop, to gather himself, but the red glow of the sword beat upon him like the long years, and he could not. He killed, and left a tide-mark of the slain at every step, but they came on, and would not cease, no matter how he slew them. They forced him back, up and up the wide stair, until he retreated into the grand hall, where pillars like bones jutted up to the star-gilded roof high above. Dust lay in drifts and whorls upon the floor, and it rose up in a cloud as they trampled it.
The Red King howled, and he struck at them with his great sword, reaping them like grain, but there were always more. He turned and hewed down a pillar, fell back as it crashed down upon them and broke them under the weight of stone, but they climbed over and around, rushed on him again, and this time he felt the sting of their blows. His armor dented and scarred under their strokes, and their blades and spears did not break and shatter when they touched him. He was weakened, and he could not stop them all. He knew it in his heavy bones, as he had never thought to.
He cut down another pillar, and another, trying to block the archway with the ruin, but there were too many. Like vermin they crawled through, climbing over whatever he put in their path. Their blood gushed over the dust and the stone, but the hot scent of it brought him no pleasure.
Then the horned one came through the archway, shoving the wrecked stone aside with hideous strength, and the red glow of the blazing sword fell on the Red King and he felt weakness assail him in his blood, like a stain of poison burning through him. He staggered away, and hurled spears and axes smote on his armor and his helm.
The Red King fled, reeling through the funeral hall, scattering dust in his wake, leaving a field of slain behind, and a horned king with a red sword following behind. He saw the others hold back as their champion held up his hand, and alone he followed, the red glow coming with him like a sunrise heralding death.
He felt weak now, and his age hung upon him like burial earth or the stones of a cairn. He dragged his sword behind him, leaving a trail carved into the floor, like the mark of a plow. He felt cold, and he reached the stairs and climbed, clawing his way back to the throne hall, back to where the stars shone down and he might look for the hopeful gleam of his red star. He set his teeth and ground them in fury. Never before had he been forced to flee, never before had he retreated. Even weakened, his might was too great for a mortal to slay him. It was only the red sword that gave him pause. That radiance so painful and yet familiar.
He held at the top of the long stair, his crown blazing on his brow, his white sword in his long hands, and he watched the red glow of the bitter blade come up from below, like something fell rising through sea deeps. The light fell on him and wounded him, and he felt his life go weak and sour in his veins, and then he and the horned one came to blows there in the sepulchral hall.
The Red King struck, and the swords met with a scream like horror and the sound of it bent him back from it like a bow-stave. He struck again, and again, and then he saw that his ancient white sword was chewed and notched from the blows. The horned one smote on it again and the red sword split the white one in two, and the king fell away from the shattering. He struck the floor and looked up, held up his hand against the death-stroke, and it did not come.
The horned one loomed over him, the red sword seeming to drip with hungry red light. The Red King spat on the frozen floor. “Cold-blooded. You send hundreds to die, when there was no need.”
“Yes,” the horned one said. “How much greater will the story arise. That an army came against the Red King in his palace, and hundreds were slain, before I met him in single battle, and prevailed.”
“And who are you? Who walks upon the graves of giants, who treads the halls of the mighty as a brute?” The Red King looked at the dread sword, saw the metal was jagged and torn, as if the blade had been wrenched from something with crude force.
“I am your heir,” said the horned one. “You have ruled this world since time was born, since before my race existed. But now the world is ending. Now the hatred of ages has come to haunt you. You are weak, and I have here the author of your unmaking.”
“What is it?” the King asked. “What is this power that undoes me?”
“It is your own,” the horned one said. “You look for the return of the red star, as was foretold.” He pointed up through the fallen roof, and the King himself looked into the jeweled darkness, beyond the shattered moon, seeking.
“Do not look for it,” the horned one said. “It fell years ago, generations to my people. We sought it for an age, and then we dug deep to reveal it. It was your star, all of red metal and mysteries now broken. Poisoned, it yielded up the shard of itself that I hold. This sword, made from your last hope, and wrought in blood to destroy you.” The sword rose up, and the Red King cried out as it fell and struck his brow. The red jewel there split apart and the light of it died. His crown fell riven from his head, and black blood ran over his face. It dripped upon the floor and he stared at it, touched it. His own blood. He had never seen it.
He looked up as the horned one raised the red sword. “This has been the reign of the Red King, now shall come the reign of the Horned King. With your blood, I shall be anointed, and crowned in glory by your death.”
The red sword swept down, and the king felt it cleave his neck. He felt the cold rush in and his head fell, and he waited for the darkness to come. He looked up to the stars, the broken sky from which no deliverance now could come, and he cursed his fate in his final moment. And so passed the age of the Red King.