Finally, the day of the Hero’s Celebration has come. It’s warm, just as it should be. Ralic gets up next to his wife as usual, but now dawns the garb of “the hero”. It was delivered to him yesterday evening to put on, passed down from generation to generation-- and now it is his turn.
It fastens on easily. Ralic’s surprised; the clothing fits him perfectly, as if it were meant for him. In a way, it is meant for him-- just as it was meant for his great great great great great grandfather; each generation of men given the same task. He leans over to his wife, the daughter of the blacksmith, and kisses her lightly on the cheek.
“Good morning,” he says.
Her features clench, and she opens restful, green eyes and stretches forward her pregnant center.
“Mornin’, Ral’.” She gets out of bed herself, returns the kiss, and prepares for the big day.
Ralic walks up to the mirror, a symbol of his great wealth, and looks himself over. Long, clean, handsome features- he looks just like his father at that age, who looked just like his father, and so on. He smiles the way most handsome men do in front of a mirror, and Tenay notices.
“Must be nice knowing you’ll look like your pa’, huh?” she nudges him gently with a snide look about her, the main reason he chose her to be his bride.
“Eh, yeah. I gotta’ say, it’s kind of a cool feeling knowing you’ll be handsome until like, eighty.”
She kisses him again on the neck. “Well I wouldn’t know. So, do you feel any different putting them on?” she glances over to his armored garb, a black chainmail fitted with a brown tunic, all over a thick white padding. Ralic waves his head about in uncertainty, and raises his brows.
“Well… Well kinda, not really. I’m sure once dad gives me the sword I’ll be feeling it though.” He puts his arm around her and nudges into her neck, causing a quick squeal from his wife.
“Your nose is cold!” she says.
“Should have been ready,” he says.
“You shut up.”
“Spoiled hero kid,” Tenay says, pushing him back playfully.
“Angry smith’s girl,” Ralic returns with another nudge.
“Go get ready, dork!”
“I am ready!”
“Then leave me alone to get ready!”
“Okay smith’s girl.”
This is the extent of their conversation until Ralic gives a loud “goodbye” from the door and takes his leave to the grand plaza.
The grand plaza is a wide place surrounding the great tree the town was built around hundreds of years ago. People have already gathered around the hero’s pedestal, where Ralic’s father, a man that is both the previous hero and now the mayor of the village, waits with the Sword of Destiny in his hands.
A few pleasantries are exchanged, his father gives him a great big hug, and then turns to begin the ceremony just as Tenay arrives.
“People of our town, welcome to the day of the hero!” Ralic’s father begins just as the people uproar in applause and cheering. “The young Ralic the Twelfth, my son, has come of age. Now that he is twenty, he will go off to the forbidden forest of the dark lord, and slay him. As you all know, the dark lord returns every twenty years, and as such must be dealt with by the noble line of heroes that live in this very village. I know that times have been hard, and from some recent mistaken experiments the harvest has been lower than ever this year, but with the hero off to destroy the Overlord, let this feast serve as a ringing in of new prosperity. Join me in delivering the Sword of Destiny to him!” Ralic the Eleventh says amidst ear-churning applause.
Ralic embraces the older Ralic. “Thank you, father,” he says, allowing one moment to gaze into his father’s eyes before he takes the sword from the pedestal, “I won’t disappoint you!”
The father gives the son a strange smile, and says “You won’t.” Young Ralic returns it with a smile more genuine than any he’s made in his life, and takes the blade. It positively surges with power, he feels, as though it’s vibrating in his hand- or he could just be nervous. He pulls up the blade from its sheath a moment to inspect it, and the brightness and sharpness is unlike anything else he’s seen. It’s perfect, this day is perfect, his wife is perfect, his life is perfect, he is perfect.
With a strong, high wave and a glance to his wife, he turns for the gates. Once the guards open them for him, he is on his way out into the dark forest, feeling ready for anything to come his way. Tenay follows him and looks over the wall, while the others go down to enjoy the traditional feast of the hero’s departure.
But this time, unlike all the other times, there is a small stone in the middle of the road, dug in not even an inch. It trips the mighty hero, and he falls right onto his face, cutting it on another rock further down. Tenay gasps, but knows she cannot let herself be seen by him; his pride would be hurt. As much as she likes to stick it to him, she knows his ego is very delicate when it comes to this one, single day in his life-- the one that must go without error.
Ralic pulls himself up from the dirt, his face bleeding with a long gash across his cheek, a serious, scarring injury-- but he continues down the road as if nothing happened. He can’t turn around now.
Hours pass through the dark fir wood, and Ralic finally finds the dark lord’s ruined keep; but something’s off. The matter is, it’s not a ruined keep at all. It’s perfectly maintained and shining with long banners of the colors of burgundy and gold, and etched, artisan stonework. The drawbridge comes down for the scarred Ralic, and once he draws his sword, he enters.
In the hallway, lavished in priceless paintings and statues, he creeps forward with his blade in hand. It’s silent; the bridge has shut behind him, and he can no longer hear nature’s calls around him. He quiets his breath as he starts up the foyer steps, going roundabout and leading up to a large set of doors, carved with images of massive, deadly beasts-- this must be where the dark lord is.
He pushes open the doors, and at a small round table there is an old man sipping wine next to a cloaked figure, who in turn is next to a tall tearing of paper, roughly shaped into the silhouette of a person. The ugly old man begins weeping quietly the moment he sees the strapping Ralic step into the room and point his sword forward.
“Dark Overlord, I have come to slay you with this blade and free my people!” he says, repeating precisely what his father had him memorize over the years. The cloaked figure, only its bright, glowing eyes visible underneath the shadowy guise, breaks out into laughter. The figure smashes its fist against the table, swoops the old man’s glass of wine right up and shatters it against the floor. With one final guffaw, the figure rubs its blacker-than-pitch face, and sighs.
“Just as I told you,” the gravelly-voiced figure says to the old man, who is now beside himself and sobbing loudly. Ralic readies his sword for the awaited epic battle.
“I suppose you’ve been expecting me, but this is not a good time for you to have invited guests, cur!” Ralic brandishes his blade to invite the Overlord forward. The figure scoffs, but keeps its eyes focused on the boy, as if there is something Ralic is about to do that interests it.
“Why yes, I have been expecting you. I suppose you’re Ralic the Twelfth, hero of that insignificant speck you call a town down the road about an hour or two’s way. Is that right?”
“That’s right, and now I’m going to slay you and put an end to your dark designs for the next twenty years, when you will then answer to Ralic the Thirteenth, my so-”
“Please, don’t,” the old man says in a raspy voice to the figure. The figure shakes its head.
“Nice scar, Ralic, where did you get it?” The figure says, ignoring the man next to him.
Ralic glances down to the dried up closure of blood on his face. “Got it while walking here actually. I’ll just tell the people of the town that I got it from you!”
The figure shakes its head. “I’m afraid that won’t work, ‘hero’. Each Ralic is supposed to kill me ‘without a scratch’. But it’s okay considering no one saw you get it,” the figure says as it raises its hand and begins gesturing its fingers over the large piling of paper in the shape of a person. Ralic watches in disbelief as a man that looks exactly like himself manifests over the paper body.
“Wh-what’s that?” Ralic asks, easing into a guard.
Under its cloak, Ralic can see sharp, white teeth shine.
“Why, it’s Ralic the Twelfth- just without the scar, as they would expect. We can’t have the people of the town getting suspicious that the legend could be flawed in some way, can we?”
Just as the fake Ralic rises from his chair with a cruel grin, the real Ralic’s heart drops.
“Hello, Impostor,” the fake Ralic says to the true.
Ralic raises his sword, and starts forward. “I’ll end your ruse, magician!”
“Oh, but the rusing is only about to begin. With a single wave of my hand I’ve prepared this paper body for its many-year performance.
“You see, I’ve just made a doppelgänger more perfect than yourself, and after it beats you in a fight and throws you in a cage with the other yous, it will go and take your place, eventually become mayor, and slowly, year by year, push the town into oblivion- this is their punishment for defying me, lifetimes and lifetimes of misery.”
Ralic had always heard from Tenay’s father that the food shortages were worse than ever, and often the adults had to go without food for a day off and on so that he, the hero, could develop into a strong, energetic man. He sees it now. The man he knows as his father, more properly the thing he knows, was made of paper and magic, lying and making mistakes day after day, but still trusted by the people because of what they thought it had done for them.
He runs forward to the fake Ralic, yelling at the top of lungs.
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