It is said that power corrodes men. Some would do anything to claim it, no matter how horrifying the cost.

Once, there were two kingdoms who fought savagely for dominance in a land that had not seen peace in over a century. During a particularly brutal battle, a world-weary soldier fell through a hole in the battlefield, and into a murky cavern. He watched the ground shake above, as the two armies destroyed each other. He roared furiously, but his compatriots continued to die. “Why must my brothers die, never to see their families again, while our wicked lords are safe and sound in their fortified nests? Do they not know what happens here? Do they not care? They are not men, but monsters – cruel and hollow!”

From behind, he heard a noise he could not identify. He carefully walked in the direction of the noise until he came upon a large pool; it was not filled with water, but was a mire of sludge, as dark as the night itself. Suddenly, a figure rose from the pool and hovered above it. The soldier was startled. He readied his sword to strike it down. The figure glared at the soldier with white, soulless eyes. It was eerily thin, and its face was difficult for the soldier to decipher. Black sludge continued to drip from of its body.

“What are you?” the soldier screamed at the creature. The being replied in a dead, pained whisper, “I am the Listener. I listen to the cries of men when they are at their wit’s end.”

The soldier lowered his sword. “You know nothing of my burden. To lead men into battle, under the command of crowned fools who are more wild beasts than noble lords.”

The fiend folded its arms. “Do you think you could do better?” The Listener’s raspy voice croaked.

The soldier paused for a second. He then nodded his head vigorously up and down. “Yes, I do!”

The Listener smiled. “What would you sacrifice for such a title?”

Without hesitation, the soldier replied, “Everything I knew of, if it meant saving my countrymen’s lives!”

The Listener was clearly pleased, and nodded its head. “Very well.”

The Listener pointed one of its skeletal fingers below. “Jump into the pool and your desires will be satisfied.” The soldier sheathed his sword, and looked down into the abyss. He held his breath, and jumped through.

The soldier awoke back on the battle field. He was startled to be back amidst an endless sea of dead soldiers. Swarms of crows had engulfed the bodies, and circled above. He realized he was the only one left alive. He stood up, and began the long journey back to the kingdom.

The soldier was welcomed as a hero, the only survivor of the Great War. The kingdom celebrated his return. He felt proud, but slightly disappointed the Listener had not listened to him. He wondered if it had all been a strange dream. However, soon the king and members of the royal family mysteriously died, one by one. Before the kingdom fell into complete chaos, the nobles nominated the soldier to be their new ruler. He was, after all, their symbol of strength and resilience.

For years, the new king maintained peace and prosperity in his kingdom. Harvests were plentiful, threats to the kingdom were dealt with swiftly and surely, and harmony prevailed throughout. The king secretly thanked the spectral Listener for its help.

One brisk night, the king was visited by a witch, shrouded in torn robes. As she approached, he could see her sickening blistered skin, talon-like nails, and empty eyes. “Your time is coming good king, for the Listener’s promises are weak and fruitless,” she said. “Soon the harmonious silence of peace will be deafened by shrieks and cries of pain and anger.” The witch cackled as she came closer and closer to the king, who became more and more furious. He grabbed his sword, and plunged it into her heart. She gasped one final breath, and fell to the floor.

Soon, the witch’s prophecy came true. Brutal winters left the people without food. Invaders from other shores caused violent wars that forced the king’s hand. He made ghastly decisions that resulted in the deaths of many men. The king’s legacy was tarnished, and his hopes for a peaceful kingdom were dashed. He began to curse the very name of the Listener.

After many years of bloodshed, famine, and suffering, the people began to turn on the king. There were whispers that the king’s closed confidants were preparing to kill him and seize the throne. Every whisper or hushed tone terrified the king. His trust in the men sworn to protect him dwindled. He spent his final days closeted in a tower. He peered out over hordes of his people who wanted to see his head on a stake.

On the anniversary of his tenth year as king, the soldier planned to take his own life. He had no illusion of being able to justify his actions; he knew that, sooner or later, he would be forced to repent for his sins. He drank a vile of poison he made for himself, and sat in his chair; his eyes became heavy, his pulse raced. Suddenly, he was greeted by a figure he hadn’t seen in many years. The Listener floated over the dying king, arms folded, black slime still covering his body.

“Why? Why did you do this to me? I only had good intentions in my heart…and now you have punished me,” the king moaned.

The Listener shook his head, “No, No, No. I did not promise you peace…I promised you the throne. The end result was entirely of your own making.”

The king was defeated, hopeless, and helpless. “I will not be known for what I wanted to do, but for what I did do. And you…you malevolent fiend! I take back the accolades I paid to you every time I remembered our meeting.” The king tried to fight the poison overtaking his body.

The Listener floated down until it gazed directly into the fearful eyes of the king. “Go now, my king. Do not waste your final moments on bitterness,” said the brittle voice of the Listener. As the king drifted away, his final memory was of the vacant eyes that had promised him everything, and yet left him with nothing.

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Samantha Henry

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