Once upon a time, there lived a fantastic beast; a horned bird that tormented a city by the sea. Nothing could stand before it, and only the winter storm could slay it. But that was long ago, and unremembered, and it has long since died.
Once upon a time, the city by the sea found itself a mighty king, who ruled over great lands. He lived among them, and there he built his palace, overlooking the western shore. Beneath it there were catacombs, dungeons, and darkness. But that was long ago, and he has long since died.
Once upon a time, a monk was falsely accused of murder, and imprisoned beneath the castle. His order built a shrine upon a hillside, on the site of an old spring that had run dry, where they waited and prayed for him. The monks dug into the hillside to build it, and paved a great road with the stone. Two years later, the accused monk appeared in the shrine; the people of the city took it as a miracle and let him go free. But that was long ago, and the little shrine has fallen into disrepair; the monk it saved has long since died.
Once upon a time, the city by the sea was blessed. A man who might have been a prophet said that they would forever prosper, if they never forgot who they were. A great storm blew all around, but never touched the city, and the white walls of the palace shone like a beacon out to the sea. They blessed the man who might have been a prophet, and welcomed in the hundreds of swamped boats as he commanded them. The city became known for kindness, and beauty, and wealth. But the might-be-prophet's words have been almost forgotten, still whispered in proverbs and by old women in their last days. He himself has long since died.
Once upon a time, a selfish king inherited the throne. The city by the sea struggled under his rule. There were whispers that burned through the city like fire, and they forgot how to trust their king, or the nobles, or even themselves. Grief marked them, fear ground their hearts to dust. Their kindness was beaten into obedience, the high-held heads were cut down. Their hearts were burning as they forgot. But that king has died, perhaps not so long ago.
Once upon a time, there was an actor, with great skill in his craft; he made worlds spring to life with his voice, and moved like a dancer in a dream. He knew the powders of the street magicians and the stories of the city, the beast and the monks and the might-have-been-prophet. The court was entranced by him, and he walked among them for a time. But he learned what he should not have learned, watching as he did. And he was falsely accused, and cast down from the light, to the lowest cell of the dungeon to starve.
And perhaps he died.
Once upon a time, a black spirit appeared in his place, clothed in torn robes and wearing the skull of a fantastic beast. It spoke in riddles, could not be caught, blew away like smoke. It brought forth a bleached human skull, and the skull burned.
It called itself the Dead Spirit; it walked in darkness.
Once upon a time was now.