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The Prize

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Prince Edmund awoke slowly, blinking upwards at the pale blue sky. It was dawn, and for some reason he had woken up outside. Strange, but he couldn't remember how he had gotten out here -- chilly and rather uncomfortable, as he was lying on something lumpy.

Something peculiar had happened, he was sure, but he couldn't quite put his finger on what it was.

Frowning, he raised his arm to shield his eyes from the morning sun. Perhaps he'd been drunk and stumbled out here and passed out. Funny, but he didn't have a hangover. In fact, he felt wonderful.

He tried to remember the events of yesterday evening. Yes, he did recall having something to drink, but not enough to send him into a drunken stupor. It was just a glass of wine.

Just a glass of wine.

Something about this wasn't right.

He thought back to the night before, his memories becoming slightly clearer. Hadn't the wine he'd drunk been poisoned? But if that were true, how could he be here, outside? Hadn't something else happened before that? Something really really unpleasant? He tried to think harder...

How odd.

He stared in wonder at his hand, wrapped loosely in bloody bandages that fell away as he turned it over to examine it more closely. It was whole, it was still attached, and it didn't have a scratch on it. The other one was the same.

A dream. It must have all been a dream. Thank goodness for that. Back to sleep then.

He turned over, hoping to find a more comfortable position. And found himself face to face with a bloody corpse.

With a loud scream, he pushed himself up from the pile of bodies and leapt backwards. It was then that he heard laughter, and felt himself being grabbed by the shoulders. Spinning around wildly, he stared into the eyes of the
strangely-dressed man who by this point was practically holding him up.

"Now, now, son, calm down. There's nothing to fear from me."

"Who...who are you?" he spluttered, his panic telling him to flee as far and as fast as possible.

"Calm yourself, boy, and I'll tell you."

Something about the man's tone and expression made him listen...even though he had the strangest accent Edmund had ever heard. Sort of Spanish, sort of Egyptian, sort of...Scottish? No, it couldn't be. He swallowed, struggling to regain his composure.

"All better? That's good. There may be hope for you yet, but by God, I pray it doesn't come down to you at the End. We may all be doomed if the world must depend on you for its salvation."

"Who are you?" Prince Edmund demanded again, feeling somewhat foolish at his display of sheer terror in front of the completely unruffled and vaguely insulting man. He pulled away from the foreigner, trying to regain some of his dignity.

The man released his grip on his shoulders, still chuckling a bit. "Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez...and I am at your service."

Prince Edmund stared dubiously at the man's flamboyant clothing, the garish and overlarge hat, and the peacock feathers. "Uh-huh." He took a step backwards. "What do you want?"

The man grinned, and pointed at him. "You."

"You're not like the Duke of Beaufort, are you?" Edmund asked warily.

"You are Edmund Plantagenet, son of King Richard IV and Queen Gertrude, who beheaded his uncle Richard III after his battle with Henry Tudor?"

"How did you know about that?" he hissed, trying to quiet the man before someone else heard.

"Even at that young age, you'd already learned your first and most important lesson -- that if your head comes away from your neck, it's over. You showed your potential even then. But your technique is crude and slow; and there is still much for you to learn, before we see what sort of swordsman you'll become."

"What the hell are you talking about?" he replied.

Ramirez gazed at him with an expression of utmost seriousness. "Edmund, listen to me. You cannot die. You are immortal."

The prince stared at him blankly.

"You cannot be killed."

A perplexed pause. "Uh-huh."

Ramirez frowned. He had the feeling he just wasn't getting through to the younger man. Or maybe the younger man was just extremely dull-witted. "Listen very carefully, Edmund. You are immortal, just as I am."

He was rewarded with the same blank stare.

"We are the same, you and I -- we are brothers."

"...okay..."

"I am over two thousand years old."

He nodded in an overexaggerated way. "Right..."

Ramirez pinched his eyebrows together. He was using all his best "you are immortal" lines, and the prince still refused to believe. Usually they caught on after they'd survived something that would have killed a normal man...this one had had his hands chopped off, a spike through his head, the contents of his codpiece ground to bits, and to top it all off he'd been poisoned afterwards. And he still didn't get it. Perhaps it would be easier just to behead him now, he thought with a sigh. The quality of immortals these days just wasn't what it used to be.

"Edmund, when we first met, you felt ill. That was because you sensed another immortal's presence."

"I thought it was because I was lying on my brother's dead body."

"That wasn't the first time you felt that sensation, was it...you felt it before, just prior to taking the head of your uncle, did you not?"

"I thought it was the bad mutton."

Ramirez could feel a headache coming on. Perhaps the Kurgan would accidentally cut his head off while shaving, and then he wouldn't have to worry about training any more nitwits like Prince Edmund to fight him. This one was definitely not the sharpest sword in the armory. Ramirez steeled himself, determined to make the young man understand, or die trying.

"Edmund?"

"Yes?"

"Think back to what happened to you last night. Do you remember?"

He made a face. "Yes."

"Yet here you are, the next morning, completely whole and healthy. No signs of any wounds, save the bandages you wore. How could you have lived, if what I'm telling you isn't true?"

Prince Edmund paused, unable to think of a satisfactory answer. "This is the devil's work," he asserted.

"Nonsense. It's merely the way you and I were born."

"But this is impossible."

"Accept it. You cannot deny the evidence of your own eyes."

"My eyes, as well as the rest of me, tell me that you're insane."

"Edmund. You know very well that you should be dead right now. But you are alive."

He didn't have an answer for that, or for any of this...this madness that he'd woken to. "But how did this happen?" he asked helplessly.

The older man shrugged. "Why does the sun come up each morning? Why is the sky blue? Who knows?" He put a companionly arm around Edmund's shoulders. "What I do know is that you have to get away from here. People will be coming soon, to bury the bodies of those poisoned last night. They must not see you here."

"Why not?"

"Because you were born different, as I was, people will fear you. They will see you alive today and they will say you are in league with Lucifer, and they will try to drive you away. But most importantly, because Henry Tudor has already returned to claim the throne."

"Oh."

"You must learn to conceal your special gift, and to harness its power. Until the time of the Gathering."

"What Gathering?"

"When only a few of us are left, we will feel an irresistible pull towards a faraway land...to fight for the Prize." He began to walk towards the castle gates.

Edmund hurried after him. "What prize? What are we supposed to be fighting for? I don't understand...why can't I stay and take the throne myself? How can there be a time when only a few of us are left, if we're supposed to be immortal?"

"Our kind can only be killed by the separation of the head from the body. Anything other than decapitation, we survive...be it loss of blood, drowning, burning, disease...we are even immune to the effects of old age. As the only surviving member of King Richard's family, Henry Tudor would surely have you beheaded, whether he knows of your true nature or not. And he knows that you were supposed to have been killed last night."

Prince Edmund considered this for a while, then looked to Ramirez. "What do I do now?" he asked.

"I will teach you...how to fight, how to keep your head. How to realize your potential," he replied. "Those of us who are immortal come from all backgrounds, all places, all times. Some are unimaginably evil. We must fight until only one remains -- that one will win the Prize. And gain incredible
power." He fixed Edmund with a steely glare. "We cannot allow an evil immortal to attain the Prize. The world would fall to chaos and darkness...perhaps never to recover."

This was all a bit much to absorb, this early in the morning. Edmund looked a bit overwhelmed, and Ramirez laughed again.

"Don't worry, lad. Until you're better able to defend yourself, we'll go to a place where we won't need to fear being attacked. We're safe only on holy ground -- none of us will violate that law."

"Oh good," he replied weakly. He glanced over his shoulder for one last look at the castle, now far in the distance. "Do you think it will ever be safe to come back here?"

"Give it a few years, lad. Or decades. When they've forgotten about you, then come back. Returning as a long-lost relative has always been a popular choice for our kind."

"Come back as my own descendant?"

"Yes. As a grandson, for instance...or perhaps a great-grandson, if training you is going to take as long as I think it will."

"What if any real descendants are about, and they've never heard of me?"

"Highly unlikely -- we immortals cannot have children." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Which in your case, is probably for the best."

"Do you insult all the new immortals you claim to be helping, or have I somehow done something to deserve it?"

"Only the best of training for you, my boy," said Ramirez. "Now repeat after me: There can be Only One."

"There can be only Juan," Edmund replied dutifully. "Who's Juan? Is he another immortal? Is he evil, or is he someone you trained? And is he--"

Ramirez felt a sharp pain behind his eyes, and rubbed his brow wearily. Yes, definitely a great-grandson for this one. Definitely...