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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.

Dear Diary

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Town Guard, Regulus

“The moon above Meridia breaks through the clouds, and for the third night in a row, the outline of a dragon silhouettes against it. From atop his perch on a rampart, his long snout points directly at me, and my ballista directly at him. We dare not fire first, and he seems to know it.

On the first night, the King offered a wagon full of gold in hopes that it would persuade him to leave. He did leave, clutching the wagon in his long talons, gold sprinkling out like rain along his path. And on the next night, he returned.

On the next night, the call came to take up arms, and all night I stood here, at my post, bolt readied. All night he perched on the rampart as if he wanted us to fire. But the order never came.

Tonight, the King has called in reinforcements and told us to be prepared for anything, and I am scared. The full complement of the town’s soldiers are at the ready, and those from nearby forts have traveled day and night. They still trickle through the gates, one company at a time, and the dragon watches.”

Barkeep, The Harpy’s Head

“We all heard the horn that signaled that Steelarrow is lost, but we were already miles away and running as fast as we could. The boys gave a good fight, I’m sure, but those… things. I’m no apprentice bread cook, I know werewolves when I see ‘em. We’ve even had a couple over the years stop in on their way to Greycott. But there were so many of ‘em… too many to count, and they tore the walls down brick by brick.

The men we had were truly outmatched. Damned King called all the real soldiers to Meridia for “training drills” or something, so the civilians that didn’t stay to fight, well, they just scattered. Call me a coward if you like, but I’m still here. Think I’ll head to Meridia and give the King a piece of my mind…”

Treasurer, Mittani Oasis (White Sea)

“As much as I hate Mel, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and for half a million gold for some soldiers and ships, it was an easy decision. Guess the vapor trade is doing better than we thought. They’ll be in Septentrion in a fortnight, though most have never left Mittani, and only a handful will even survive the journey across the Sea.

The General assures me that the intensity of the ordeal will be a formative experience for those who do survive, and they should return the greatest fighting force the world has ever seen. I suppose if he’d rather have a hundred great mercs than a hundred thousand lousy ones, who am I to argue?”

Crystal Implants for Employees? One Company Says Yes.

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At first blush, it sounds like the talk of a conspiracy theorist: a company implanting magical crystals in employees’ skin. But it’s not a conspiracy, and employees are lining up for the opportunity.

Next month, employees at Alychemy, an alchemical company in Greycott, can choose to have a quartz the size of a grain of rice injected between their thumb and index finger. Once that is done, any task involving the arcane — passing by wards, conjuring creatures, or casting spells — can be accomplished with a wave of the hand.

The program is not mandatory, but as of Monday, more than 50 out of 80 employees at Alychemy’s headquarters in Greycott had volunteered.

“It was pretty much 100 percent yes right from the get-go for me,” said Sam Bengtson, a potion engineer. “In the next five to 10 years, this is going to be something that isn’t scoffed at so much, or is more normal. So I like to jump on the bandwagon with these kind of things early, just to say that I have it.”

Jon Krusell, another potion engineer, and Melissa Timmins, the company’s sales director, were more hesitant. Mr. Krusell, who said he was excited about the potential but leery of an implanted device, might get a ring with a quartz instead.

“Because it’s new, I don’t know enough about it yet,” Ms. Timmins said. “I’m a little nervous about implanting something into my body.”

Still, “I think it’s pretty exciting to be part of something new like this,” she said. “I know down the road, it’s going to be the next big thing, and we’re on the cutting edge of it.”

The program — a partnership between Alychemy and the Meridian company Biohax International — is believed to be the first of its kind in the Empire. It raises a variety of questions, both privacy- and health-related.

“Companies often claim that these crystals are safe,” said Alessandro Acquisti, a professor of the arcane at Rithpen’s Mage College. But “safe” is “a pretty vague term,” he said, “which could include anything from a truly secure product to something that is easily manipulable.”

Another potential problem, Dr. Acquisti said, is that crystals designed for one purpose may later be used for another. A quartz implanted today to allow for easy building access could, in theory, be used later in more invasive ways: to track the length of employees’ bathroom or lunch breaks, for instance, without their consent or even their knowledge.

“Once they are implanted, it’s very hard to predict or stop a future widening of their usage,” Dr. Acquisti said.

Todd Westby, the chief executive of Alychemy, emphasized that the crystal’s capabilities were limited. “All it is is a magic focus,” he said. “It’s not a tracking device. It’s a passive device and can only be activated when requested.”

“Nobody can track you with it,” Mr. Westby added. “Scrying is hundreds of times more effective at tracking.”

Health concerns are more difficult to assess. Implantable quartz systems, the technical name for the crystal, were approved by the Meridian Empire a decade ago for medical uses. But in rare cases, the implantation site may become infected, or the quartz may migrate elsewhere in the body.

Dewey Wahlin, general manager of Alychemy, emphasized that the crystals are Meridian Empire-approved and removable. “I’m going to have it implanted in me, and I don’t see any concerns,” he said.

While that sentiment is not universal at Alychemy, the response among employees was mostly positive.

“Much to my surprise, when we had our initial meeting to ask if this was something we wanted to look at doing, it was an overwhelming majority of people that said yes,” Mr. Westby said, noting that he had expected more reluctance. “It exceeded my expectations. Friends, they want to be crystaled. My whole family is being crystaled — my two sons, my wife and myself.”

If the devices are going to be introduced anywhere, Mr. Wahlin noted, employees like Alychemy’s might be most receptive.

“We are an alchemy company, when all is said and done, and they’re excited about it,” he said. “They see this as the future.”

The King’s Speech

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A large crowd is gathered around the steps of Tidebreak’s Municipal Offices. King Hadakura ascends the steps and cups a gauntleted hand around his mouth. His voice travels clearly, without effort, to all your ears as he says,

My fellow Meridians,

It is with mixed emotions that I join you here in Tidebreak on this momentous occasion. On one hand, your courage and sacrifice in the pursuit of glory, honor, valor, and riches for the Kingdom of Meridia, delving time and again into the deepest, darkest dungeons, is a commendable testament to the highest ideals we all share. Ideals like safety, for ourselves and our loved ones, and courage, and the will to fight back from the doorstep of death to return to the fray. It is our duty to exemplify these ideals til the day we die.

But, I am saddened as well, in that now, I must ask you for more. Now I must ask you to fight for these ideals even in the life hereafter. To join the brave men and women who have taken the Last Sojourn and continue carrying the banner of Meridia into the next world.

Not only must I ask for more in death, but I ask for more in life. It is imperative that our armies march into the outermost reaches of this land. We must secure the Evergreen Shallows, bordering the trade roads to both Septentrion and Greycott as well as a major waterway necessary for circumnavigating the kingdom. We must secure the Evergreen Foothills, so close to home for all of you here at Tidebreak; just the other side of the fort of Steelarrow to the north. We must secure the Southern Savannah; just a short ferry ride from Meridia herself.

I am sure that, in the course of these events, I will ask you all for more sacrifices, and I am sure that the glory, honor, valor, and riches you will gain in return will allow you to share the same mixed emotions that I feel this very morning.

King Hadakura makes first trip to Tidebreak in 10 years

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King Hadakura woke up yesterday morning in a bed he hadn’t slept in for over 10 years.

It was the start of his first full day of festivities for recognizing the Tidebreak adventurers.

With the King slated to spend two days in Tidebreak, the international spotlight now shines on the small town where Hadakura reportedly could spend the occasional weekend over the coming seasons.

Meridia and Tidebreak could be cousins.

Both are legacy locations for the rich and famous, with Tidebreak counting among its ranks such wealthy residents as eccentric publishing magnate Alfred Cerf, the publisher of Hadakura’s memoirs in the new novel “Tidebreak,” and M. X. Braun, the owner of hunting and adventuring gear store “Provisions.” Meridia, of course, has its own share of in-the-money society members, including members of the Board of Commerce, Phoenix faction leader “Mama,” and the inventor of the island levitation technology (“Manaforge”) that has allowed Meridia’s shipping lanes to expand year after year. And, of course, there’s the King himself.

Where Meridia is largely single-family residences and commercial space, Tidebreak has a mix of rural and suburban development. “Of course, the King will be staying in the east side of town where security is tighter and there are more amenities,” said Tidebreak Mayor Steve Parker, “though we won’t be able to stop him from exploring the west if he chooses. A lot of the residents in that part of town have horses,” he added, jokingly.

Festival-goers interested in seeing, perhaps even meeting, the King should be certain to attend his public speech tomorrow morning.

Regarding The Last Sojourn

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In an elven burial ground in the Moonrise Woodlands, one tomb marked “Here Lies the Father of the Elves” was opened with a passphrase, “He Is Watching You.” Inside, a coffin containing papers. Here is the sum content of the relevant notes.

On a paper ledger, in Sylvan:

  • Party of fourteen (dated 20 Winters ago)
  • Party of twenty (dated 18 Winters ago)
  • Party of one (dated 15 Winters ago)
  • Party of thirteen (dated 15 Winters ago)
  • Party of eleven (dated 13 Winters ago)
  • Party of sixteen (dated 12 Winters ago)
  • Party of one (dated 10 Winters ago)
  • Party of seventeen (dated 10 Winters ago)

A map of the forest west of Tidebreak with three locations:

  • Sacrificial site (marked)
  • Heart of the Forest (marked)
  • The Last Sojourn (path)

A letter handwritten in Common bearing the stamp of King Hadakura:

“As much as I disagree with the solution, Am’li’yala is convinced that the threats from the White Sea grow stronger each year. There is no way to know whether or not our elderly will provide the necessary supply to sate the appetite of the evil within, but we have no choice. The White Sea continues to represent the greatest threat to our civilization and the people within, and we must make whatever sacrifices her immense wisdom deems necessary. The elves can no longer bear this burden on their own: Am’li’yala reports that their numbers have dwindled to just dozens.”

On a scrap of paper, a hastily-drawn illustration: several humans dressed in white robes being escorted into a circle of trees; the first is being led by the hand to an open, hollow trunk. Probably the work of a scout or ranger.