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December 2017

Five

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The castle’s War Room was just as Hadakura left it. Maps scattered across a table were gathering dust. The candles had burned down to nubs. Ura tapped a finger to each of them in turn and they shone with the pastel iridescence of magical flame.

He walked to the great table in the center of the room and dragged a hand across one of the larger maps. He studied it for a moment and recalled the campaign: the White Sea’s armies had surrounded the city of Septentrion, once a part of the Meridian Empire. They had cut off supply wagons from the south, where the greater empire lay, and dammed up the rivers that lay beneath and around the city. Hadakura had sent a force to break the dams, and the power of the rushing water washed nearly a third of the sieging army out to sea. Even this, though, had not been enough to break through the lines of the enemy, and the city had surrendered within weeks. It never rejoined the Meridian Empire, though sympathizers still were rumored to exist.

Ura clicked his tongue and called out to his guards in the hallway. “Send for Igsbean.”

***

The commander shuffled a stack of parchment and moved his fingers across the map.

“Two battalions from here,” he said, and small blue outlines of hundreds of tiny soldiers appeared from thin air and began marching across the landscape. “From the south is the only reasonable vector for the large-scale attack. The army will need support,” he said, “cavalry on either side,” and they appeared.

“The Mage’s College has more power in five men than in your battalions,” said Ura.

“Aye, and the mages between the battalions.” Thirty robed men appeared in the center, anchor that tied the whole of the army together. Ura nodded his approval.

“Will it work?”

“Unlikely, the armies that took the city had a hundred times this many soldiers.”

The Matron offered, “Instead of a marching army, a smaller force could infiltrate the city unnoticed.”

“I suppose you have such a force in mind?” Ura asked.

“For our most critical tasks, I have a team of four of the best that I trust.”

***

Ura uttered a few syllables under his breath and the odor disappeared. “Adventurers,” he thought, “no good to have around until you need them.” He realized almost immediately why his father had relegated their presence to Tidebreak, well outside the city’s walls. But he did need them.

Ura had watched the Matron’s assembled adventurers argue amongst themselves for nearly a half hour when he finally entered the room. “I’m sure you’ll find the task to be simple enough and the pay more than adequate. Shall we discuss who among you is afraid to get their hands dirty?”

One of them, a lizard-looking fellow that Ura recognized as a frail figure long-since removed from its once-mighty dragon ancestors, began to speak. “My first lesson in cruelty came moments after I hatched. My mother was slain mere days before I hatched by an unknown force, her poisoned body rotting just outside my home. My brothers and sisters soon hatched after me, each just as hungry. It was not long before we began devouring the only source of food, our own mother.”

He continued, “Her body was devoured within days. It didn’t take long before we turned on each other, the strongest engulfing the weaker. It wasn’t just a battle of strength, it wasn’t just a lesson in cruelty, it was survival, and I survived, and survive I will continue to do…”

Ura had more important things to do. “That’s enough. Yes, you sound absolutely terrifying. I look forward to seeing your work.” He handed them a slip of parchment and retired back to his office just in time for his spell to wear off.

Four

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The Matron’s safehouse was an older building in the ignoble part of town. Orphans littered the hallways through which Ura and Aismon walked towards the common room. From the outside, the house looked relatively normal, if not in slight disrepair, but inside, the colors of the Phoenix faction decorated the walls, tables, chairs, and even the floors in crayon scribbles of stick figures and chicken scratch.

“You were a Phoenix?” Ura asked Aismon.

“Where did ya think Baldrick plucked me from?”

“I didn’t even know Phoenix was still around,” replied Ura.

“The Matron never left, she just went underground, so to speak.”

The common room at the end of the hall hosted a great fireplace and dining table. At the edge of the room sat a chair, and perched in the chair, looking over the back, a young orphan with maw agape. As Ura entered the room, the little one sprinted off down the hall. Aismon and Ura took seats at the great table and began to nosh on a meager loaf of bread.

“Did you know that man back there?” Ura asked.

“Yes Sire, clumsy clod of mud named Oswall or Oswald or some such.”

“How did Undertow come to operate so openly in Meridia under my father’s watch?”

A voice from the hallway answered. “Of course, had the late King wanted them dead, they would be dead. Perhaps he did not.”

Ura turned around to see a haggish looking woman, bent over a cane. She wore a threadbare set of robes from the Mage’s College. It took him a moment to place her, but as he did, he exclaimed, “Margaret! I haven’t seen you in decades!”

“As was my intention,” she replied, “after my expulsion from the College, I saw no reason to interfere with the affairs of the King. And please, so as not to confuse the children, just call me Matron.”

“All these years, we thought the Phoenixes were dead, and here you are.”

“Appropriate, I suppose, being arisen from the ashes.”

Aismon shifted in his seat as the Matron joined them at the table. “We’ve just come to say hello, of course.”

“Yes, after your incident at the market, I suspect the first thing on your mind was visiting home again. Do not worry, Aismon, I keep my good eye on you even still. All the new King’s scrying orbs saw was a protest, even as he killed poor Oswald.”

“An illusion, then?” asked Ura.

“Yes, one of the earliest tricks I teach the little ones, to confound your silly little monitoring system. I suspect you’ll forgive the offense in this case. In any case, as the King, I suppose you have nothing to worry about. Unless, of course, you consider that a dozen people saw you kill a man in broad daylight. If I may be so bold, this little revolution seems to be boiling over.”

“The Crown has a plan for dealing with the annoyances in the streets.”

Three

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Ura rounded the corner of a tight alleyway, the tail of his black funeral robes trailing behind him and picking up the dirt and mud from the streets. The chants of “Fuck the King” had reached a fever pitch with the crowd. Ura ducked from the alley into the crowd unnoticed, a useful skill to have, and entered the midst of the mob. Aismon followed nearby.

He fidgeted with his implant and the roar of the crowd immediately silenced.

“I wish to say a few words. I consider this demonstration in poor taste.”

A thud interrupted him mid-sentence, and then the familiar surge up his spine of arcane energy welling up inside him. He grasped his stinging head and felt the warm, sticky blood from a cut. The culprit clattered to the ground, a half-empty bottle of ale.

“Who threw that?” Ura shouted.

Aismon drug a man from the crowd. “I saw him with my own eyes, Your Highness,” his tone chastising, as if to scold the entire crowd.

The drunk jerked his arm away from Aismon’s grasp, and overestimating his balance, stumbled forward towards Ura. He took a wild swing as he passed by, falling to the ground.

The crowd quickly dispersed and after a split second, it’s just the three. The drunk climbed to his knees and pulled a shiv from his boot. Before he had a chance to stumble forward again, a blast of heat erupted violently from his chest, instantly cauterizing the now-gaping concavity in his torso. He collapsed, still, on the ground. The few onlookers still remaining began whispering.

“We’d better go, Sire,” says Aismon, “I know a safe place.”

Two

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The sun beamed down through the clear sky onto the ramparts overlooking the castle’s gardens. Ura could feel its warmth on the top of his balding scalp, a recent development that he had intended to fix as soon as he found the spellbook stuffed away somewhere in his office. He watched the people below as they meandered on stone paths through the branches of willow trees and spring’s first rose bushes. He was their King now.

“I knew I might find you here,” said Aismon. He wiped the spittle from his chin and smiled the same jagged smile Ura had known since he first met the urchin as a boy. “I’m surprised you’re not in the markets reveling in your newfound inheritance,” he continued.

“My inheritance is the work left to do around the Kingdom that my father could not complete in his many years,” replied Ura.

“Yes sir,” said Aismon, “your father’s legacy is now written in stone. The bountiful harvests, the security of the City of Meridia from threats inside and out, and the victory over the invading armies from the White Sea. But his victories were born of your efforts, and henceforth so shall you reap your own rewards.”

“So I shall,” Ura said dismissively.

Ura pulled back his sleeves and rubbed the subdermal crystalline implant between his fingers. The view from scrying orb above the streets of the market showed a group of Undertow sympathizers, the detritus of the streets, banners raised high in the air, proclaiming the King’s downfall a “sign from God.”

He motioned Aismon to follow and began heading down the ramparts, towards the center of town.

One

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“With these rites we commend the soul of Hadakura into the life beyond. Long live the King.”

Ura looked down at his father in repose, his body clad in a warrior’s armor, the Crown’s regalia emblazoned across his chest — the symbol of a lion, red and gold. Thousands of mourners huddled within the Hall of the Civil Aspect stared back at him as his eyes swept the crowd. He removed one of his black gloves, reached down into the pyre on which his father lay, and, from his fingertips, a crackle of flame shot forth, setting the pyre ablaze.

“Long live the King!” the audience echoed in celebration.

He should have taken the Sojourn, instead, Ura thought, it would have been proper. But the elves of the Last Sojourn needed living bodies to mutilate for their twisted ends. Hadakura had certainly sent his share of the elderly down that forested path to their death. The former King believed until the end that the sacrifices of the Sojourners were needed to stop some great evil, but in all of his years as the Crown’s Archmage, Ura had seen little to suggest the man had not simply been duped.

As the crowd filtered out of the Hall, Ura’s eyes met with those of Kade, the High Cleric, who had already begun packing his vestments. The old cleric looked away, hunching over to lift the altar from the floor.

“It was a lovely ceremony,” he said, “and I hope you will continue to serve me as you did my father.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” he replied before shuffling away.