Story: Gentle Fury
An ancient castle loomed over the heart of an unforgiving mountain range. Nestled within its granite walls was the den of the infamous villain, Lord Mallory. Despite his fearsome reputation, those who knew him best could see past the villainous façade and into the heart of a man tired and weary of the world's relentless wheel. There, in the dim-lit throne room, a young hero lay battered and bruised at Lord Mallory's feet. The hero's spirit was as fiery as ever, but his body was weak, and his movements were sluggish. Barely out of his adolescence, he had been sent to fight an ancient force that had weathered countless ages. "Shh, it's alright," Lord Mallory said, his voice reverberating off the stone walls. He bent down, his aging but still robust form casting a long shadow over the young hero. His eyes, bright despite his years, carried an empathetic glow. "You're doing beautifully and I'm so proud of you. But that's enough now. It was cruel of them to make you fight me - you could never have won. It's not your fault." Despite his reassuring words, a simmering rage bubbled within him, not directed at the boy struggling to rise to his feet, but at the celestial beings who continuously enlisted children and adolescents to wage their battles. Their tactics were cowardly, and their disregard for mortal life, infuriating. Mallory remembered all too well the first time a child hero had been sent to face him, a naïve maiden who barely reached her fifteenth spring. That confrontation had shattered something within him, filling him with a profound sorrow that only deepened with each passing decade. Now, facing yet another child thrown into the fray, his sorrow transformed into a quiet, simmering fury. "Listen to me," Mallory said, his voice gentle but firm. He extended a hand, helping the boy rise to his feet. The boy swayed, a testament to his fatigue and the futility of his task. "Go back to your village, to your family and friends. Live your life, child. Don't let them rob you of your youth." The boy looked up, surprise flickering in his eyes. He had been prepared to face a monster, a heartless beast. He had not expected kindness or concern from his supposed enemy. Mallory's words shook him, but he also saw the truth in them. Mallory watched as the boy left his castle, a heavy weight lifting from his heart. He knew the gods would send another, they always did. But until then, he would continue to fight, not just for his sake but for all those who were too young, too innocent to be drawn into a battle they were not ready for. After all, the world often forgot that villains were heroes too, once upon a time. And sometimes, a villain's fight was not against the world but against the true injustice lurking behind the veil of righteousness.