(Gravesong is out now on Yonder! Read the first part of the book here!)
The names of the dead began to ring across Izril. Such old names, they provoked echoes. In the new colony of the half-Elves, Zedalien, formerly in service to Maviola El, raised his head. The white-haired half-Elf was watching the first great tree being sown into the ground.
Well…‘sown’ implied saplings. Not a giant tree that had been literally carried in one of the colony ships. Half-Elves were clustering around it, doing everything from moisturizing the roots, making sure the soil roughly matched the new home for the tree, to even patting the tree to make sure it didn’t die of stress and the trauma of relocation.
From these first trees…the half-Elf sighed as he saw his people focus more upon the tree than, say, a port. Or houses.
The temporary magical and Skill-based housing was dueling with the berthed ships out at sea for living space. They could have been building more—although the majority of the wood they had was actually the trees they were importing—out of stone, for instance, or the odd local fauna.
But half-Elves had to have trees and a forest. He feared for the success of this colony—if only because the traditionalists and more forward-thinking half-Elf groups were already clashing about purpose.
Yet that name.
He said it and felt a chill running down his arms as he carried a load of stones over to begin the foundation work. Half-Elves were making a sturdy cement mixture, but a number of the older ones had abandoned their jobs. Not, this time, to protest someone cutting down a tree or harvesting the wild ocean pigs, but to speak.
“Who is Sprigaena? How does a Human claim…”
“Skystrall. Falene Skystrall made the inquiry, and she is of sound character. Who…I feel as though I know the name. I almost certainly do. But if it is who I think it is—nothing else makes sense. A ‘traitor’? Ridiculous. Queen Sprithae ruled across Terandria, the last Elf—we have that on the records. She wed one of the Humans—the Kingdom of Myth, Erribathe, claims to be a direct descendant from her, but we know that is almost certainly a lie…”
A number of the Treespeakers and their associates were in communication with home, no doubt wishing they had their private records and libraries to search through. Half-Elves were doubtless scrubbing through their records at home.
Zedalien cleared his throat to remind them to get back to work, and the half-Elves reluctantly broke up, but he heard that name again and again. Murmured, as if trying to remember…
Was it a distraction? Was this a pointless waste of time when the new lands awaited? Zedalien wavered between thoughts. After all…Maviola El’s name could be called mere history. The past influenced the present.
The ghosts of great Gnolls had raised these new lands. So—once again—the oldest names began to echo. The dead’s legacy gained weight and a presence in the world.
This was right and proper. For, as one nation knew above all others—the dead mattered. And that nation now occupied Zedalien’s thoughts. It preyed on the minds of rulers far and wide when they considered great powers and names to note. Tread careful, for this was no sleeping Giant, and they were old and knew more names of the deceased than most. What might they do? That kingdom of death and—
Well, it had been one of ghosts.
Now it stood lonely, but it grew in the thoughts of all others with every passing day.
Khelt. Glorious Khelt, Eternal Khelt. Its ruler, Fetohep, heard the name of the last Elf coming from the inn at the end of another long day.
Predictably, the sun set faster upon the eve of winter. It dipped below the horizon not long after most had dined, and in this city, the open shutters let the scents of the day’s fancy waft upon the breeze.
It smelled, then, of dates, sweet and newly-dried, mixed in with a bounty of white rice, changed in color by the host of spices mixed into them. That was the food of the city—there were ten thousand [Chefs] and [Cooks], or those with the passion, if not the class, but any so desiring could approach the great kitchens and receive this dish in plates and bowls without limit.
The portions would be carelessly piled over the worked gold, or bowls sometimes lined with jade or other semi-precious stones, and silverware or hand-carved objects of beautiful soft pewter or hardwoods—some actual ironwood from eras long past—were handed over.
Most so hungry ate without noticing the decor, for it was part and parcel to everything they saw, and only new visitors or immigrants to this land paused and handled the cutlery with the reverence they might accord it in another nation. But—then—if they stopped at the very dishes they ate upon, they would never stop staring.
For this was Khelt, and riches never ended. Food for any visitor was provided such that no one would die of hunger or thirst. Their cities had no true crime—any petty thefts or misdemeanors were dealt with. Murders, mugging, assault of any kind nearly unheard of over the course of decades. One had to but simply raise their voice and call out, and be safe from harm no matter where they were. This was paradise, and the capital city was a representation of that idea.
For instance, each street that led to Khelt’s palace was safe to walk but one. The great main walk of which a hundred thousand citizens might pass every single day stretched out without compromise, an arrow within the capital of Koirezune, creeping up to the two thousand stairs upon the palace’s front.
Each step glowed to eyes of magic with a warning etched tiny upon black marble, death and magic contained in miniature and linked, like an ever-expanding [Fisher]’s net in a sea black as obsidian, the dark marble quarried from Chandrar’s lightless ore-mines of Zethe. The mines had long-since closed now, buried for fifteen hundred years, deep, with Orebu-Beetles nesting by the thousands in the forsaken tunnels.
The beetles were midnight-hewn and huge enough to drag horses to their graves, and countless [Miners] had died to quarry the stones that had once adorned every monarch’s palaces. The precious marble looked like nothing but waves of midnight, even under the sun, until the magic flared—and the spells of protection and wrath glittered like the watchful eyes of the palace upon the city below, one facade among a hundred that the palace presented to the city and its world.
Past those stairs of Chameth marble lay a jade arch worked into the hallway. No pest nor animal nor even cat dared enter lightly despite the open visage, inviting all to seemingly stroll in. Each part of the carved jade and stone bore a different language of magic, written by Drath’s great [Mages] and shipped twice across a sea filled with storms during the age of Serept.
The first of the jade archways had fallen to storms and been lost to the deeps, then recovered and placed in Nombernaught, crusted still with barnacles and coral. The second now sat here.
Through this most-used corridor lay the palace of Khelt, and this was the walk which had seen [Kings], adventurers, and commonfolk of Khelt, children tripping inwards and monarchs treading lightly surrounded by bodyguards, gazing upwards with their mortal attempts at pride.
The least-used walk twined humbly around the palace’s side-entrances, marked with redwood soaked as if wet, gleaming upwards until wavy ivy overtook floor, always twisting up over walls until they met and descended the tunnel. The vines grew constantly and—if forgotten—they covered the tunnel until they were cleared by enchanted blades.
Even then, they were beautiful acts of nature. Walls of ivy precious enough to gift or sell to those who desired the thickened fiber, sometimes pearlescent, sometimes mottled and studded with dots of color like yellow plague upon green.
The vines were never sick, the walkway out of this entrance blooming in spring and hanging regal in winter like a cloak of nature. From this tunnel, you could walk out the palace and onto the street least-used.
The garden itself was placed along the street, a stone plain upon which strange sculptures dotted the landscape. A misshapen Garuda’s beak hung, ill-shaped compared to another statue, the bird woman upon one of Khelt’s larger parks, a Named-rank Hero, Voielth Hoeneifeathers. His red-gold plumage fogged with umber brown still gleamed eight thousand years later like the feathers might blow at any second in the passing breeze. He carried the stavesword with which he had cut down the last Golem-Dragon in the age of His-Xe.
This Garuda was made of commoner granite and lesser skill, and joined nigh a hundred sculptures placed with the meanest skill. The artwork here had been made with sometimes gifted grace but never surpassing, never exceeding the meanest work elsewhere upon the city. The masterpieces littering the walks and placed at every angle without end were all superior to the pieces here. This street’s paving stones were likewise the worst in the city by far, though swept nightly by undead servants, seldom trod by the living.
Sun-worn bricks, mud-made and each hewn by fingers as tiny as the meekest dirt worms, unskilledly made against inquisitorial sun and burning air, sometimes laced with actual flame. Each brick in its form, shaped by generations of children’s hands, was never meant for actual feet to cross.
Little tyrants had molded that clay with no care to foot nor accessibility nor even basic geometry, the constraints of reality and their strainings at images only seen within their minds. They sat, half-formed and half-thought, joined as best as could be by mortar which sometimes filled the gaps like eddies of concrete in a sea of childish dreams, the creators of which are long dead and whose bones lie buried, aged, beneath this land.
Few walk here. More twisted ankles and broken legs have come from this street than any other. It is not beautiful compared to any other street, even the ones that neighbor it. Those have been made both for beauty’s sake, by masters, and to be lived in. The childish brickwork ends abruptly, and true craft begins, as if setting an example, here. The first feet past this treacherous street glow with glass and the magic of Thurthdei’s Street.
Blown glass placed over burnished coals that burn with subdued impotent heat against the night’s chill. The captive embers stared up from beetle shells of glass—paving stones rounded and joined together to form a comfortable, even surface such that one need not watch how they walked.
Aglow, the street warms the walls of Thurthdei’s Street, the homes of which rise in mimicry of the street—frosted glass it seems, each one painted in such gaudy and vivid dyes that they form walls of soft color. Newcomers often stare upon their first visit for hours on end, mesmerized like the moths and other lesser insects drawn into the hanging light-traps, and the rats and larger pests into similar humane cages which are emptied each morning into the desert.
Yet the houses are not glass like the street below but frosted ice, each one painted and held solid by magic written across the layers of walls, each one placed inwards such that two walls formed a whole that revealed not the inner lining. The words still scribbled themselves across the houses’ walls, a layer of enchantments, magical writing keeping ice from melting and the houses contained, words filling the houses unseen even if the owners themselves never read a word nor kept a single page within.
These words often affected the minds of those within so they dreamed of stories, and a hundred [Writers] had been born here, their stories sometimes written as if to drown out the words filling the houses. Thus—this street was often uncrowded and the houses lay abandoned for decades despite their proximity to the city’s center. Credit was awarded by the local magistrates for occupancy, and each week, the denizens would be checked upon and resettled if needed.
The proximity to the inner city and the street of children’s bricks was another hindrance to health and feet, and the street of ill-made bricks stretched out, a kind of treacherous garden where only a single path of sanely-made stones led a traveller through that garden of statues and a million child’s creations bearing their names.
Each one enchanted. Each one surviving time despite their owner’s best attempts to affront nature and the integrity of the fired bricks. Khelt’s children of the first ten generations under Khelta had made each clay brick.
She and her [Mages] had enchanted each one such that this street would never be torn up and the art remade, never be removed and the houses made by great [Elementalists], and the streets adjacent would be destroyed and the resources reused before the first mud-brick ever torn.
The children had made the street. The hands of Khelt’s rulers the statues. King Dolenm’s rougher hand had created the Garuda hidden away like a shame until his successors uncovered and displayed it with a pride never exhibited by the rulers—like every single creation here placed in pride in the most uncomfortable street to tread.
All of this was perfect. Perfect—and perfectly ignored by Khelt’s populace. Only occasionally would you get a [Poet] or the most bored citizen idly peering down at the stones or admiring the statues. There wasn’t much inspiration to be had here either, in truth. Not compared to the looming Jaw of Zeikhal standing watch at the borders of Khelt, for instance, or one of Khelt’s many oases in the desert, from which gleaming stones bled drops of water, life out of sandy oblivion.
Yet there was something to see here. And that something was the oddest thing yet, especially in Khelt. It was…
Bugs. Bugs and an interloper to this safe city.
A trail of beetle’s wings led a little sand-rat from outside the walls to nests of the insects placed in alcoves of buildings, lees of gutters and out across the city until they stopped upon the bronzed sands which led across Khelt. Dry and waterless until they reached a lake ever-filled from aquifers that drained water into dusty air without end.
They were notable in the city because their existence was not tolerated. Elsewhere in Khelt, the local fauna had some leeway. Even bugs.
Around the lake, for instance, flowering bushes and plants attracted all kinds of wildlife. They had been planted from seeds seven continents called native, feeding local animals, pests, and insects who flocked and fought for the bounties, unless citizens came, wherein they fled or begged for scraps depending upon their loveliness.
Beetles were not beloved now as they had been during Queen Emrist’s age, where swarms of hives—not bees—were kept. Far less lovely creatures like centipede swarms, or beetles and their ilk, had grown up around the city. Their buzzing—reportedly—filled night and dawn with a thrum that got into the head and soul more than the words of the ice-houses.
That was another ruler. And while she might have tolerated these beetles, they were an aberration to the heart of Khelt, one that would have actually attracted a crowd of fascinated citizens just to point out the oddity. Beetles, pests? How delightfully strange!
These small beetles with their sand-beige shells and orange underbellies fed upon scraps of food carelessly left-out by citizens. The beetles had no competition. The city was scoured of even flies by the enchantments. But these beetles cared neither for light nor the particular magical allure and had grown until the rat had tracked them down and devoured them without end.
Imagine it. This burgeoning swarm of the little beetles bested by a predator a hundred times their size. Casually chewing them down, helplessly, nest upon nest. The rat had gorged upon this bounty, leading it to its final place upon this ill-used street where it lay bloated and so corpulent it could not move to flee.
This rat was no pet with intelligence or foresight. It hadn’t understood how dangerous this city was for its kind. Nor did it understand how rare a sight it was that a rat not made a pet should be here in this city so incautious to pests. The sand-rat did not see what had trained generations of its predecessors away—bone-hands and nets and fists, which would hunt the streets and stamp each pest out, from the meanest beetle and numerous rat-swarms, until even mites were hunted down by glowing-eyed corpses worn to only sand-bleached bone without time or rest.
Ten thousand skeletons swept these streets each night from dusk till dawn. Yet somehow, incredibly, they had missed both beetles and this rat.
The humble sand-rat lay there, burping out beetle-viscera onto the children’s bricks. It truly was a fool of fools, an insult even to the rodential kind from which it had been spawned and meaner still in nature and majesty. Even the most pathetic vermin clinging to the sides of ships had more wherewithal and dignity than this craven rodent.
As proof—the sand-rat was oblivious to the true danger of this street. Occasionally, it would look around as one of the citizens of Khelt moved in the distance and peek its head up warily. It feared the living and not the dead.
In Khelt, that was the most idiotic of perspectives to have. The rat eyed the breathing people and never noticed the sandals, which held mummified feet that still flexed and moved.
Then again—[Assassins] had often missed the figure who paused to observe the rat outside of the palace. Even when the feet moved—the body was silent, and the whispering wind was far louder.
Each footstep was traced with purpose honed on a battlefield such that a blow from falling blade might fall next without hesitation or remorse—but the silence thereof was also born of cloth of birchsand color racing like the sandstorms banned from Khelt’s borders.
Each line of the long-sleeved tunic and pants was never-stitched, but the entire piece woven of Kolsand cloth tailored to the form who bore them, such that neither foot nor action would produce any sound louder than that of the natural world unless the bearer so intended.
A gift from the Shield Kingdom of Qualvekkaras. Expensive beyond belief in this modern age when it had been made, six hundred years ago. Yet the rulers of the Kingdom of Winds had considered it worth the expense that had taken ten decades of preparation to harvest enough Kolsand.
It had been, of course, repaid over a dozen times in Khelt’s own generosity, proving the foresight of that particular ruler.
Nor did the figure who wore this cloth gifted to him wear blade or badge of office, not in his city. His eyes were proof enough.
Two flames like the spark of an army’s torches in a midnight cavern, like defiance glowing upon a golden Dragon’s scales, burned amongst withered flesh. In eye-sockets hollowed by time. Water and wear had devoured almost every feature of the man who had been.
Nevertheless—he was Fetohep of Khelt, and he stared upon the sand-rat lying in this street as evening fell over his city, in Khelt, the great paradise of Chandrar. Fetohep, nineteenth ruler of Khelt, gazed upon the trail of beetle wings and a single survivor of the rat’s purge of the streets.
That was the first thing he said after about thirty-three minutes of standing there in silence. Yes, so silently had he been standing there that the rat had never noticed him.
Nor did he employ the high-language, often florid words of his station. He could, of course, use the royal ‘we’ and speak in gracious refrain with any ruler in the world.
Even in Drathian, he had once been given a standing ovation by the Emperor of Drath’s court for a nine-minute speech welcoming them to his kingdom. But you must remember—this was Fetohep of Khelt.
Not…Fetohep the man. Death had changed Fetohep, and still, he quite remembered that, as a man, he had been less—eloquent. The heat of battle had often led him to a rougher sort of diction, and his manners now were learned, practiced, refined because of necessity.
Like all the rulers of Khelt, he had time to practice. Six hundred years made a fine speaker out of even the meanest discourse. So, his casual tone and language were meant just for him.
And the rat. Fetohep saw its head whirl around and two beady eyes bulge as they saw an undead monster staring him down with burning eyes of gold.
He watched the rat soil itself then try to drag its corpulent belly across the street laid by the founders of Khelt. Khelta herself might have enchanted those bricks.
Fetohep took appropriate action. He strode forwards without bothering to twist a ring on his fingers. He could have called for a scroll from his armory or his guards or retrieved Razzimir’s Arrows and blasted a hole through a thousand rats. He could have called the Jaw of Zeikhal to lay waste to the warren of rat-kind in unceasing war.
Fetohep bent down, scooped the rat up, and held it as it continued to excrete and squeak. He held it—then turned.
He stood in the center of his city. Khelt’s capital of Koirezune was not the most sprawling of cities, but he was probably several miles inside the city’s heart.
So Fetohep aimed up, then threw the rat. It went screaming through the air, a comet, and Fetohep wondered if it would survive.
Small creatures often did. He had once seen a Fraerling attack his company by anchoring himself to an arrow a [Bowman] shot across the battlefield. It had nearly killed the Fraerling from the sheer velocity—but the Fraerling had then wiped out an entire archery battalion before vanishing.
The life of the rat did not trouble Fetohep unduly. He was more outraged about the detritus on the street. In fact, Fetohep’s next action was to bend over and, with his fingers, remove the wings and excrement as best he could. It was mostly dry, and he carried it away.
“Rats. And beetles. Servant.”
Fetohep’s eyes glowed as he entered his palace. His voice rose, and one of Khelt’s daily servants, citizens honored to be chosen for a day of work, appeared.
“There is detritus on the Street of Foundation. Clean it. Summon an expert in pest management. [Mage] or other class. Have them eliminate any rats or beetles. There is a…pest issue.”
The man instantly bowed. He practically sprang away with delight, Fetohep thought, at being able to do something so useful. Fetohep tossed the waste he had picked up onto the floor as he strode into his place.
Not maliciously; the other servants barely glanced at it as they shadowed their ruler. Fetohep knew every part of his palace, and the jade walks that encompassed most of the entrances to the palace…
The beetle wings and rat crap slowly began to vaporize in the bright, bright room that let the purifying magic cleanse it of toxins, dirt, and even disease. Not actual infection, but Fetohep had actually used these rooms to help contain the Yellow Rivers disease when it appeared on his borders. The family he had admitted in had been forced to camp in the hallway, and no more infections had spread.
At any point, a reasonable observer of Fetohep might well have concluded that the King of Khelt was a stickler for minor details. That he was no stranger to getting his hands dirty—and valued the legacy of his kingdom. Also, that he did not have much empathy for rodents.
All this was true. If anything—this was an understatement.
Consider Fetohep of Khelt as the rest of the world knew him. There were two faces. The first was the Fetohep that had been known—to mostly Chandrarian kingdoms and places that were just aware of the rest of the world.
He had been Fetohep, the ruler of isolationist Khelt, a rich paradise that suffered neither war nor much in the way of contact with anyone else. Rich, powerful, haughty—and completely content to let the world pass by.
Not a threat, in short, unless you were to attack him, whereupon so many undead would rise that even the King of Destruction had never gone to war with Khelt. Leave him alone and all would be well. You could sell water or goods to Khelt at great profits and…that was about it.
Fetohep of that time period—around six hundred years—had been a known quantity. Not a good one, either. He was fiercely protective of his people, and it meant he put them over others. Refugees seeking Khelt’s borders were not allowed in on pain of death. Trade was limited. Travel was forbidden to all but trusted [Merchants], and to leave Khelt was to be excommunicated forever.
Of course, that wasn’t always the case. Fetohep cared for his people, so, for instance, when the Yellow Rivers plague had swept across many cities, one family had begged to be returned to Khelt. He had allowed it and even bought a cure for them at great cost, because Khelt’s children were to be praised and cared for, even the ones who made mistakes and strayed from home.
Now, the less-happy part of that tale was that in order to gain the rare and vital cure…Fetohep had paid [Pirates] to raid ships sending the cure out. He had effectively stolen enough medication for tens of thousands to cure one family and held the rest in his vaults in case the disease spread.
He had done this without hesitation, because he was King of Khelt and Khelt must endure. That was how he had operated, and he had been a known quantity, if rarely talked about.
Now—consider the Fetohep that the rest of the world now knew. And the world did know his name. He was arguably one of the most famous monarchs to exist—perhaps more than even the Blighted King or many rulers of Terandria, Fetohep’s visage and deeds had been made known to the world in no uncertain terms.
The Fetohep of the modern day was no isolationist snob. He had marched upon Medain with an army so vast it had set the nations of Chandrar trembling. He had mocked Terandria’s [Knights], Medain’s ruler, and the power of the Claiven Earth, all great powers, and demonstrated Khelt’s war weapons and powers of old.
He had unleashed the Revenants of Khelt, all of them, and the Vizir Hecrelunn, the Half-Giants of Serept, and his will had humbled his foes.
Then he had threatened the Walled Cities of Izril as they advanced upon the Gnolls with fury and the wrath of Khelt if they did not relent. When they, predictably, ignored him, he had marched on Medain, seized a navy, and sailed upon Zeres.
After leaving a gigantic halberd made of gems embedded in their walls, Fetohep had made landfall with the King of Destruction, the King and Queen of Jecrass, the Hero of Zethe, and other famous individuals and attacked every army in sight. He had ported thousands of undead across the sea and then, only after attacking the Walled Cities’ forces, declared victory and a return home.
Oh, and he’d warned the world of a Seamwalker invasion, insulted Wistram in no uncertain terms, and rung the Dragonward bells. And annexed a third of Jecrass.
It was safe to say that Fetohep had demonstrated that Khelt was no nation of sanctimonious utopia-dwellers, and that he was an undead monarch with wisdom, strategic acumen, and enough firepower to drown half the nations around him in slag and ash—if he wanted to. And he was now active, and so it behooved anyone to walk wide of him.
Even the Walled Cities. In fact, of the accomplishments Fetohep had achieved while making war on the Walled Cities, he had actually obtained two vassal nations. The Claiven Earth and Medain had surrendered—unconditionally—and several cities had declared loyalty to Khelt.
Right now it was safe to say that, if he wanted to, Fetohep could have started an empire of his own; he practically owned the north of this region of Chandrar. Jecrass was in his debt, he owned a third of it, and two nations were so badly beaten in war they had pledged their surrender. He was a popular icon as well for being on the right side of a number of issues, at least as most of the world saw it.
Fetohep of Khelt.
It turned out that undead could get headaches. It wasn’t quite the same—there were no pain receptors for Fetohep. Only magic could really harm an undead in that way.
The headache was more like a pressing annoyance, and because he wasn’t actually physically processing emotions in a chemical sense, it could build without limit. Mortals tended to have a kind of threshold for this kind of thing. At some point, their noses would bleed, they’d faint, or have a heart-attack.
He did not. Nor was he that weak. Yet, Fetohep had once been tortured by enemy soldiers after being captured in battle. He considered that agony somewhat equivalent to reading a letter from King Perric of Medain.
To His Exalted Majesty of Khelt,
Protector of Jecrass,
Conqueror of Medain and the Claiven Earth,
Heir to the Dragonward Bells,
Nemesis of the Walled Cities,
Savior of the Gnollish Tribes,
Sovereign of the Will of Khelta and Great Ruler of the Nations of Chandrar,
Horselord of the Windswept Lands…
There was such a thing as too many titles. Some of them were made up—some were actually able to be reasonably accorded to Fetohep. For instance, ‘Nemesis of the Walled Cities’ was pure fluff. But Perric was being interestingly cunning…or at least something like it with the last one.
‘Horselord’ was a Centaur-themed title. The Windswept Lands was how you’d refer to Chandrar. So Perric was implying that because the Nomads of Zair had pledged allegiance to him, Fetohep was a Centaur power.
The duality of Perric was this. Either he was clever enough to actually imply Fetohep’s authority had dominance over other species in a bid to Fetohep’s ego—
Or he’d told his [Historians] and other [Scribes] to just come up with as many applicable titles as possible in his letter and this was the result.
It was possibly both. Fetohep detested the ‘High King’ of the coastal kingdom of Medain, but he was not contemptuous of the man’s abilities. Not completely. You did not keep power that long without some insight.
“A King of Rats is still a king. In theory.”
Fetohep unfolded another page of the lengthy letter to get to the content, ignoring the titles. Then he folded the page. Then he unfolded another page.
Ah. Here we were. Fetohep sighed louder.
“Your statues have been greeted with multiple-day celebrations…in your honor, if you could care to dictate any holidays or…christening a warship…children named after Khelt’s rulers?”
Then the undead king stopped. He normally ignored the High King, but that last part offended him. All of these bountiful praises were being orchestrated by Perric, he knew. But that last one—
“Pen a missive to High King Perric at once. He is not to name children after Khelta. Nor any of my predecessors. Certainly not as part of some vanity.”
Fetohep tossed the scroll aside and snapped. A nervous [Scribe] bent over and instantly began writing as one of the [Mages] assigned to the palace—also very nervous—began casting an immediate [Message] spell to Medain.
“Yes, Your Majesty. If we delay, we apologize for…”
Fetohep calmed himself. He forgot, sometimes, that his people were not used to his displeasure. He had been—annoyed—at his Mage’s Guild in the past, and those present were serving him as best they could.
“My displeasure is only upon the High King of Median. You are my citizens. Have peace and work at your pace.”
Relieved, the staff in his throne room bowed with huge smiles. Fetohep stared at the [Mage] with bright green hair.
“You…are Mage Efieth today, are you not? We spoke when you worked first two days ago. Have you rested or dined? And you, Scribe Joehns?”
The two looked astonished that he remembered. They bowed.
“Yes, Your Majesty! We are ready to work the rest of the night.”
“I shall not keep you that long. Your replacements will arrive in two hours. Yet your service is noted.”
They bowed, murmuring thanks, but Fetohep noted—a moment of discontent. Not anger, nor sadness, but the purity of the emotion. Efieth tried to hide it, but Fetohep had seen countless faces. His did not move, but his voice echoed.
“Speak, Efieth. Are you displeased by the service or something else?”
“Absolutely not, Your Majesty! But we could work for you more than three hours! Please, make use of it, especially for matters of state! W-with respect, Your Majesty.”
The young woman—well, she was forty—protested. They were all so young, and Fetohep suspected he had managed to get a level of relaxation out of his servants attending him that they were able to say this.
He sat upon the throne that had held thirteen rulers of Khelt before him and rested his chin upon two fingers, just so. Like diction, he had practiced posture.
Now, why would she object to this system? He had so carefully made sure he would not overwork his servants—and the fact that he needed mortal aides was purely due to how many people desired his attention. Even great relics like the floating Orb of the Diviner had limits to, say, writing out formal address.
Ah. Of course. Fetohep thought but a moment. He had seen this before. She wanted to work harder in service of something she loved. Had he not done the same thing, resented being called back when he had more to give?
“Ah. I see. Your words do not offend me, Mage Efieth. Are you of the same will, Scribe Joehns?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Fetohep lifted a hand.
“Love of your kingdom is a great thing upon you two. If you and others wish it—I may ask more of you. Your experience as you work with me will bear fruit—and I shall reward and acknowledge it.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
That smile told him he had probably done the right thing. You could be made to feel unneeded, a cog within a Golem’s unthinking, unfeeling body even if the system was designed not to burden others.
They must be allowed to push themselves. To strain and strive and try.
That was the lesson he had learned from King Izimire of Khelt. There had been times when Khelt’s protection and fulfilling of their citizen’s needs had turned into more than coddling, and provoked hedonism and a wasting of the spirit. It was very tough to find a balance, after all.
Some nations, some peoples, let people live freely, make their mistakes, and only dealt with great issues like war or famine. Magnolia Reinhart was one such deterministic approach—and he respected the fact that even her coffers were not nearly deep enough to create utopia over large scale like Khelt.
But, having the means, Khelt erred upon fulfilment for its people. Still—Fetohep did sometimes inspire his citizens to competition or rouse their spirits. He had imported games and art and the like to keep them from wasting.
These days, it felt like his citizens were more active than ever. They had seen his battle abroad, and the scrying orbs revealed a world that tantalized them. Many, Fetohep knew, were thinking of leaving the borders, but he had encouraged them to stay and hone their abilities first, promising them that they might go to Jecrass’ new colony first, to test themselves.
I shall need them. I shall need them more than ever, and these gentle pushes shall become a fearsome tug of currents upon a merciless sea. I…shall be known as that by my successors. A king harsher by need than even Khelta.
That thought struck Fetohep as he saw his two servants smiling and getting to work. It filled him with a moroseness he had scarcely encountered before. A dark gloom.
Yet he did not show it. Fetohep merely continued sorting through his correspondence.
“Your Majesty. High King Perric apologizes…profusely—for the misunderstanding and error among his people. He wishes to assure you that the issue of naming was in error, and they were tributes to your predecessors, not children named after Khelta…”
“Yes, I have no doubt. Reassure him.”
Fetohep lifted a hand. He began writing on a [Message] scroll, then decided it was better done in person.
“Queen Bennis of Zethe.”
He spoke and waited as a spell was sent requesting communication. One of his many scrying orbs lifted, and Fetohep faced it fully, sitting tall. He only noticed—out of the corner of his vision—one of the arena matches in Nerrhavia’s Fallen concluding.
Ah, the [Gladiator] won. That was six thousand gold coins up.
He should…stop betting on those events. The Pomle matches had halted due to the war, but Nerrhavia and a few other arenas were always open.
Or should he continue if it made a profit? Fetohep knew the extent of most of his coffers. But now he wondered…he had never had to count coins before. Only how much of a yearly profit Khelt was drawing in.
The scrying orb’s connection cleared, and the Queen of Zethe appeared. The formalities took a bit—she was surprised by the King of Khelt’s greeting appropriate to Zethe’s culture. He, for his turn, noted that she referenced Queen Xierca in her address to him.
Zethe was another nation that Flos of Reim would run into should he continue expanding. Not one openly hostile to him for his previous reign or his current rise.
They had other issues. Zethe hadn’t even gone to war with Flos after the one battle in which their greatest champion had quit the field.
However, they had enough power, as a nation who had lived through calamity did. Yet it seemed Zethe’s ancient Golems and their famous spell-artillery might not need to stem Flos of Reim’s mad rampage.
If anything…the Queen of Zethe might well believe that it was Khelt she needed to fear and a Necrocracy of New Khelt.
Fetohep did his utmost to assure her this was not the case. He watched her face carefully, and the Stitch-woman’s painted expressions looked relieved, as he could see behind her facade.
“…it is our intention that Medain and the Claiven Earth not become subsidiaries of Khelt. They shall return to autonomous nations as soon as we have such assurances they shall not trouble Khelt again.”
“Your benevolence we note, King Fetohep. Your words—the integrity of such, unquestionable.”
“Please reassure any who doubt Khelt’s intentions of our neutrality. The city-states who have pledged to Khelt I have returned to their owners. It is a passing craze to seek out authority. Khelt shall not rule nations. Jecrass’ lands are but the one exception. Even Khelt thirsts for endless bounties of water.”
He hoped he was not being unsubtle in hinting that he had purely taken Jecrass’ side in the war out of greed for water. Queen Bennis clearly picked up on it, and she exhaled some colorful smoke—which was not rude in Zethe’s culture.
“We hesitated to bring up such matters indecorously ere we took our deathless cousin’s time.”
“Not at all.”
Zethe had an odd pattern of speech. The Queen was leaning into it, and she took another draft from the long, long pipe before she spoke. Wisps of black smog trailed from her lips.
“Doubte. Do you know where he resides?”
Fetohep had been prepared for this. His only response was for his flaming eyes to brighten slightly—and no matter how hard the Queen and her court tried, there was no breaking through his gambling face. Not a muscle moved as Fetohep replied in the exact same tone of voice.
“The Hero of Zethe’s matters are his own, Queen Bennis. I would not wish to supercede his will had I any inkling to the contrary.”
“Ah. Did he indicate—? No. We heard your answer and accede. Your time, Fetohep of Khelt, we trust was well spent. Per Zethe, onwards to Khelt.”
He inclined his head. Privately, as the connection broke up, Fetohep felt for Zethe.
The Hero of Zethe, Doubte, had come when his nation was in a pure crisis. Neighboring kingdoms declaring war, monster swarms, and a creeping, insidious wave of monsters heralded by the aforementioned Orebu-Beetles from Zethe had spelled doom for the kingdom.
Two monarchs killed in rapid succession—and the land cried out as it seemed it would be torn to pieces by the unrest. Then had come Doubte.
He had plunged into the mines, slain the Orebu’s Queen, won three wars, and put Zethe back on the map as a regional power. With him, a [Hero], Zethe might have become the superpower of Chandrar instead of Reim.
But he had lost his affection for his role and quit his duties, going into hiding. Now, Zethe was still riding on his achievements…but Bennis was a young queen.
Fetohep could practically see one of her [Counselors] holding up the talking points and rehearsed scroll reflected off her decorative face-paint. He wondered if she were in fear for her position—or life.
Yisame was another kind of ruler like that. Although she, at least, had survived the courts of Nerrhavia’s Fallen well enough by remaining aloof. When Fetohep looked at the many world leaders—he saw flaws.
Even in rulers considered canny, like Reclis du Marquin, or powerful figures like Archmage Feor, Tyrion Veltras—they had weaknesses. They might be fine warriors or [Mages] or leaders, but they were not strong rulers, necessarily.
And how would they be? Many were born into their roles like the King of Avel. They might have tutors, but the weight of a crown was difficult, your mistakes were amplified and your judgment clouded by your advisors, well-intentioned though they might be.
Few had Fetohep’s experience. And even he…
Even he had problems.
The King of Khelt spent another two hours on the affairs of state that night. If High King Perric was too noisome in showing his loyalty to the conquering king—for all Fetohep had promised to release him from the surrender with little done—
The Claiven Earth were quiet. Fetohep had not missed how many had left for the new lands, but he had not stopped them.
He was truthful when he claimed he did not want to rule. It was just—
Flos of Reim. Now there was a poor king. A pure warmonger who propelled his nation forwards upon the slicked blood of his foes. His nation was beginning to restore itself as it threw its attention south towards Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Like a predator, it would grow as it ate.
If Flos could have regained his splendor without needing to loot it, Fetohep would have applauded him. That man had no dignity—or if he did, it was all innate, the dignity of a warlord, not a king who ruled himself as well as others.
The Quarass was young; Hellios had been poorly ruled by Calliope, and worse so by her husband dreaming of glory. Fetohep had little expectations of Calliope’s son if he ever took the throne. Belchan? Belchan had fallen due to one man’s idiocy and arrogance playing politics.
Politics before people. Jecrass…Jecrass’ king, Raelt, had been a lion in disguise. But his people had needed a king.
Jecaina was more promising than Raelt. But would she rule now that her father was returned?
Fetohep rose as his two servants changed positions with their replacements. He left them to manage any incoming messages for him and walked the palace. He shouldn’t criticize other nations. It was too easy to do so and not remember they did not take the throne with a fortune of hoarded gold, artifacts, and armies of the dead.
A month had been enough to restore a modicum of order in Khelt after all this upheaval. Fetohep had needed to count expenditures, assure the other nations he was not coming after them, and crucially, settle the three tribes of Gnolls he had admitted into his lands.
And grieve the fallen.
He had done this mostly by being silent, by speaking but not acting. His actions informed Khelt, and they had returned to their utopian dream, watching the world rather than clamoring, and the other rulers had grown less wary of his forces now that they had vanished behind his borders.
In fact, the only monument to his army’s might was the Jaw of Zeikhal, one of which stood sentinel on the border of Khelt. The others were, respectively, either destroyed or stationary elsewhere.
One Jaw was at the Claiven Earth, another at Medain, and two more at Jecrass, parked upon their borders. That was all of the mightiest undead Fetohep had left at his command.
Two Jaws of Zeikhal and the Ash-Giant, Zirconia, had fallen at A’ctelios Salash. Emrist’s Scourgeriders…gone.
A number of Serept’s half-Giants also had died, and of the Revenants remaining, only Sand at Sea, the great warship and its crew, remained under Fetohep’s command.
The mightiest of warriors, His-Xe’s champion, Salui, was dead. Zeres had ended his life as he gave way to grief and rage.
Vizir Hecrelunn had vanished. So had Serept’s half-Giants. Fetohep had feared what Hecrelunn might do, but he had not heard…anything. Not yet.
More problems. And his responsibility. Yet—Fetohep had one great issue on his mind, so he summoned two people to him in the dead of night.
“Bring two, ere dawn rises. I require…Potter Pewerthe. And Farmer Colovt.”
Dawn in Koirezune was delightful to the citizenry. Not just because Khelt wanted for nothing and the city had new sights and entertainments.
But because of the guests.
Well, some were not guests. Some were new citizens like the Gnolls—and they had been at the center of so much!
Obviously it was a tragedy, but the Gnollish tribes were so fascinating, with their odd customs and their tales of lands far less safe than Khelt. Some found so many newcomers to Khelt upsetting, but King Fetohep had ensured the Gnolls had a place.
He had called upon his vaults and given the Chieftains of the Satest Fletching, Decles, and Gembow tribe homes wherever they chose to settle. His first gifts were the gems that pulled water from the air—when they decided upon a spot, they would have an oasis or well such that they would not want for water.
In the interim, their people were being hosted at every town and city, and new buildings had gone up to accommodate them. Naturally, the Gnolls had yurts and such of their own, but Fetohep had still needed to take a long time ensuring they were ready to be citizens of Khelt.
Namely—[Healers] to check for parasites and disease. Potions to tend any wounds, [Thought Healers] for those who had seen so much, and making sure the Gnolls wanted to stay—and that conflict would not resume.
After all. If you remembered the Meeting of Tribes, you might realize that the Decles tribe had fought for the Plain’s Eye tribe. By contrast, Gembow who had fought with the Goblin tribe, had been on the same side as Satest Fletching, led by Chieftain Zicrone, who sided with the Doombearers.
To say there was animosity…was an understatement. In fact, a number of the Decles Tribe also included white-furred Gnolls.
Plain’s Eye. Fetohep had told the survivors of Decles they would be protected and even prevailed on Herdmistress Geraeri to use her Centaurs as intermediaries between the other two tribes.
“Enough Gnolls have died. No more. If there are sins to amend and debts to pay, let it be in deed and time, not blood. I trust the [Shamans] and [Chieftains] of the tribes are wise enough to know how it may be done without more ichor. Not on Khelt’s sands.”
That was Fetohep’s speech to the Chieftains, and so the Gnolls stayed.
There were other guests too. Pewerthe woke up to hear her roommate exclaiming.
“Pewerthe, Pewerthe. Are you going to be here tonight? I have a date with Alked Fellbow’s cousin, and if you are…”
“Isn’t that the fourth date he’s had this week?”
Pewerthe grumpily sat up and yawned. She had elected to have a roommate despite the plentiful housing; their apartment was large enough with even two. But her roommate, a [Painter] named Coyue, just danced around.
“Yes—and he’s far easier to go out with than Alked himself! No one has managed that.”
Khelt was an odd place to outsiders. Things like going out with the cousin of the famous Named-rank adventurer who had ridden with Fetohep to Izril was a kind of social standing. Speaking to the King, winning his favor, all mattered more than gold. Same with making something people wanted.
In a city where you could get whatever you wanted, reputation mattered. Coyue had been angling for this all day, and she was certainly pretty enough to make even Fellbow look twice. Especially since she was a Stitch-girl made of silk herself.
Pewerthe was Human. And she was hardly so fine, if only because her flesh was mortal—and she had scars, like the one visible down the back of her neck and on her arm that no potting wheel would have made.
It made her stand out—though most were simply intrigued, for scars, like everything else, were somewhat exciting. Ironically, Pewerthe’s little shop where she taught pottery to people, and made her own vases and pieces that were sometimes used, attracted little acclaim.
She was one of many citizens of Khelt, and if she had a standing, it was average. The irony of course being that if people knew she was Fetohep’s heir apparent, the mortal chosen to stand in for the King should he perish or his time be up—
Well, sometimes Coyue gave Pewerthe strange looks, and she’d asked all the questions under the sun after Fetohep had ordered Pewerthe to go to the palace when he rode for Izril. But Pewerthe had merely claimed she was entrusted to ring the Dragonward Bell.
That alone made her famous enough that when she lined up for a baked good, the Baker saw her and came out.
“Potter Pewerthe. Try this—and then persuade our guests to have a bite of my newest creation! You see?”
He had made a croissant. But the most incredible croissant Pewerthe had ever seen. The pastry was layers of delicate dough folded hundreds of times over and baked to crisp perfection.
Obviously. Everyone knew that. But what if—and hear Baker Tiyhm out—what if you inserted a layer of something between each layer? All three hundred of them? The slightest, most microscopic layer of a fresh raspberry jam, for instance, or, if you wanted very sweet, a frosting?
Then he’d cut little fresh-made pieces of dough in their own frostings and jam and decorated the croissant with a toothpick. The end result was an image of Fetohep of Khelt riding down on fleeing Drakes as stars fell from the night sky—and the raspberry jam oozed out with each bite Pewerthe took.
She loved it. The baker had labored over fifty such croissants before getting bored, and she agreed to convey one over to a group of bewildered people. Bewildered…as most guests were when they saw something so incredibly complex for little reason more than a moment’s breakfast.
“Hello. Guests of Dovive? Will you take Baker Tiyhm’s treats to eat this morning? He would be delighted—and they are quite beautiful.”
Pewerthe was a bit shy as she approached a group of men and women who were tending to some horses. They looked at her—then stared at the croissant.
“This? This is a piece of art! How much does it c—”
Every citizen of Khelt in earshot laughed at that, as they probably had for the last two weeks. The man caught himself and hesitated. Pewerthe saw the reluctant expression and leaned in.
“Please take some. It costs nothing, and it would make him pleased. More than even baking it—for His Majesty’s guests to enjoy themselves.”
“If you are sure—we will be honored.”
The [Mercenary] spoke and seemed, as always, perplexed by being here. He patted his horse and looked around.
This group of riders were twenty-one in number. They were [Mercenaries], apparently, good fighters who had served their home city of Dovive well. Why were they honored guests of Khelt?
Well, because when Fetohep of Khelt had ridden north—they had joined him. They had ridden out of their city, prepared to face horrors, and he had permitted them to join him in battle. They had not known where they were going, and six had perished on Izril’s shores.
Someone else might have overlooked them, a footnote, a single passage in Fetohep’s accomplishments. He had not. Upon returning, Fetohep had given more gold to a certain [Horse Tamer] and offered the boy and all who had rode with him the delights of Khelt.
“Has His Majesty—asked for us?”
“Not today. But eat, eat! This is my little work I hope you will enjoy.”
The baker twinkled at them, and one of the mercenaries exclaimed as he was told how it had been made.
“Folded within each layer? How long did it take?”
“Ninety hours, the first time! I made so many errors—I threw away so much bad dough! The pigs I gave it to rejoiced! But then I knew how it was done, so I had a helper prepare each layer.”
“What helper would do that?”
“A skeleton. One with washed bones who has much adeptness…you see how it was easy to make more? Of course, I decorated by hand. That night, and the last week, I have been hearing [Baker class obtained]! And I keep saying, ‘no, not again’!”
Tiyhm laughed, and that was when his guests realized he was no [Baker], but a passionate amateur. And they stared more.
Such was the day of Khelt for Pewerthe, and she only reflected that they were lucky not to be Trey or Teresa Atwood. Those two—if Tiyhm would beg these brave warriors to try his pastries, the two twins would be mobbed by every passing citizen so long as it didn’t offend His Majesty. Companionship, food, entertainment—it was well known how Fetohep liked the two.
Regardless. Pewerthe could tell where a guest was staying sometimes just by the citizens who wanted to hear from them—or gain something.
“Careful, careful…don’t scare Konska. How many of you want to feed him?”
A Dullahan woman, Frieke of Khelt, was standing as children begged to pet or feed the Seahawk, who looked slightly vomitous as he was offered a hundred treats made specially for him. But Frieke seemed rather pleased by all the attention.
The [Potter] was just about to open her shop and see if she had any students when someone ran to find her. She saw one of the rarer people in the city—someone who actually did work.
The one thing Khelt needed were people who could keep peace, administer laws, and break up petty arguments. Teveti had two royal guards next to him—Skeleton Champions adorned in fine armor bearing enchanted blades. They never drew them; the halberds were purely ornamental, but it reminded people he had the authority to punish them for being in trouble.
The undead clanked to a halt behind Teveti as he panted to a stop, and Pewerthe frowned. Normally, anyone could outrun Teveti, who was out of shape. The guards seemed slower, and she wondered if he had told them to stop marching ahead of him.
Khelt’s undead could run, bake pies, and do all manner of things lesser undead were incapable of. These two stood to attention as Teveti lifted a finger.
“…sty…farmer…so now…got it?”
“No. What’s going on?”
The [Magistrate] tried again.
“His Majesty wishes you to meet him with a [Farmer] at once! I was looking for you at your apartment—go now!”
He looked at Pewerthe, and she felt a surge of apprehension. But only for a second. The [Magistrates], of everyone in the city, knew Pewerthe’s role. So she gestured at her shop.
“Can you tell anyone looking for me…?”
“Yes, yes. I’ll put up a sign you’re closed. Go now! I have a carriage coming!”
Indeed, he whistled, and a skeletal horse raced around a corner with a small, hooded carriage that citizens could use to get wherever they wanted. Even other cities. Pewerthe could have walked—but apparently Fetohep wanted her now.
It might have just been Teveti being overly-zealous, but of all people, Fetohep did not wait. So Pewerthe climbed in and found she had a guest.
She took the stranger’s hand and realized he was the [Farmer].
Farmer Colovt looked very nervous to be summoned to the palace, more than she, so Pewerthe sat down.
“Are you being summoned to His Majesty too?”
“Yes! Only the second time I’ve ever been graced…I hope it is because I am needed. And not in trouble.”
He looked pale as citizens with guilty consciences sometimes did. Pewerthe, as Fetohep’s heir, knew that it was often in their heads. So she smiled at him. She noticed his eyes on her scarred arm and spoke.
“Bandits? In Khelt? Did you live near a village?”
He was astonished, and she shook her head.
“No. My family was one that left—I was allowed to return after His Majesty heard. No one survived but I.”
“Dead gods. I’m—sorry to hear that. What possessed them to leave Khelt’s borders?”
She got asked that a lot. Pewerthe’s answer was not snappish as it once was. She had heard a good answer from Fetohep, so she used it along with her own understanding.
“They wanted to see the world. And see who they were. His Majesty once did the same.”
“Oh. Oh…well, I am sorry. They’re lovely scars.”
And that was something you only heard from Khelt’s folk. But Colovt seemed like a good man, and he explained.
“His Majesty once honored me by asking me to grow peppermint as he wished for more. I dedicated eight fields to it—and he has sometimes asked me to grow certain crops. I am, by way of a class, a Level 36 [Farmer]. One of Khelt’s best who is not foreign.”
He was good. And by ‘foreign’ they meant anyone who had been offered citizenship for their Skills. Pewerthe knew there was at least one Level 40 [Farmer] who helped mass-produce crops, but Khelt had an inexhaustible source of labor, so they just needed land.
“So high! You must truly have worked hard.”
“I loved it. I grew with skeletons—then by hand. I don’t know why, but I can stand a day in my fields and come out smiling.”
Colovt was embarrassed, but Pewerthe thought he was delightful. Many of her friends flitted from passion to passion like Baker Tiyhm. They made wonderful things, but they did not level and even eschewed classes.
“I’m Pewerthe. A Level 28 [Potter].”
“So very well done! At your age? What do you make?”
He took her hand, astonished, for she was barely twenty-five years of age. Another reason Fetohep had marked her. Pewerthe smiled modestly.
“I teach, mostly. It is hard to make something that matters in Khelt. I don’t try to make something permanent. But I have baked oddities.”
“Oh—I made a clay house and shelter for desert mice. I once baked the lightest pot I could so a vulture’s chick could be carried by its mother—their nest had been damaged, you see. But mostly I make water jugs and things the people from over the border need. Gifts that sell well.”
“For gold…? I know some people do that too. Make items and gift them to friends or penpals. How amazing. Do you know…why His Majesty wants me? Or you?”
Colovt was nervous again, and Pewerthe coaxed the reason for his distress out during their walk up the palace’s two thousand steps. Rows of undead stood to attention in the hot sun on the steps, but neither one paid attention.
“You see—I think it was when His Majesty rode north. You recall when the Jaw of Zeikhal rose and his armies followed?”
Farmer Colovt pointed to Khelt’s borders, and even from here, the two could see the giant bone-scorpion, ancient and stationary, half-buried in the sands. Pewerthe nodded, and Colovt leaned over.
“I was riding to the city—and it came up right in front of me. But for me, I think it would have unearthed itself. I was in the way, and His Majesty’s armies…”
Pewerthe laughed, and it was always deeper than people expected. Full—and she laughed because the poor [Farmer] thought Fetohep was angry at him for that?
She was assuring him this was not the case when Fetohep of Khelt found them. Perhaps he had been there all along, for he stepped out from admiring a painting in one of the endless hallways of the palace. This one showed rulers of old in various reposes and their glories—there were eight hundred paintings lining the walls, most done by Khelt’s citizens.
Fetohep would have just as many—and the best would adorn his hallway on that day he was succeeded. The [King] stepped forwards, and Colovt and Pewerthe jumped, for he was silent. He did not need to breathe.
“Farmer Colovt. I greet you and thank you and Pewerthe for joining me. I wished to find you two after you had breakfasted; my servants were overzealous. Do you require food? And to you, Colovt, I owe an apology.”
The man stuttered as his stomach rumbled loudly. Fetohep turned, and a servant hurried down the hallway.
“A breakfast. Pewerthe?”
She spoke, and Colovt goggled at her in outrage—but Fetohep had told her to be informal if she could. Pewerthe sensed this was an appropriate venue, and Fetohep nodded in approval before turning to the man.
“My apology, Colovt, is warranted. I recall the Jaws of Zeikhal endangered you in some small way when they rose. It has preyed upon me until this moment. They were needed in service to Khelt, yet I am relieved you are not harmed. You are Khelt’s greatest [Farmer] born of these lands and the only son who has risen to this level in a hundred and sixty years. Hence why I have need of your wisdom. Pewerthe is my trusted—advisor. I ask you to treat her with the respect you accord me.”
The man was lost for words. And Pewerthe noted how Fetohep spoke. He remembered too!
“I am humbled, sire. What can I do?”
His cheeks were red, and she thought tears stood out in the corners of his eyes. Fetohep turned, as if embarrassed, and gestured.
“Pray, request your breakfast. This will be a longer task. Pewerthe?”
“I have eaten, Your Majesty. A croissant.”
“Hardly fitting for a full day if memory serves. Are those not…flaky and buttery?”
Fetohep’s one quirk was that he didn’t remember food. So he often inquired what foods were and how nourishing they were. Pewerthe was convinced to have a fresh banana and cup of soup.
“And coffee. I am assured this is a ‘caffè latte’ by Teresa Atwood. The quality of it…debatable. Before I serve any important guest, I will hear your judgment. My [Gourmets] have declared it innovative, if lacking in nuance.”
Fetohep’s golden flames actually rolled slightly in their sockets. The gourmet’s tasting habits were exceptionally high, even in Khelt’s society. If anything, Pewerthe and Colovt were better metrics for foods, so they tasted the coffee gingerly.
An abundance of good food gave them a sophisticated palate, and Pewerthe grimaced.
“Too much sugar in mine, Your Majesty.”
“I can see it being a drink for work. Is it a replacement for tea?”
“One assumes. Eighteen wagons shall be distributed amongst the cities. Supply shall be limited, but I have the—berry plants ready for planting, and thirty [Gardeners] have volunteered to attempt to germinate them. Yes…that will be suitably entertaining for about fourteen days. No doubt I shall be having ‘coffee cake’ in the next month. Bean-related activities and foodstuffs.”
Something was off about Fetohep today. He was…musing to himself. Colovt didn’t notice, fascinated as he was by the newest treat, but Pewerthe glanced at Fetohep. He was also pacing a bit.
“What did Your Majesty need of us?”
Now that they had dined, Fetohep clicked his fingers.
“We shall leave for Farmer Colovt’s farm and other areas within Khelt. A carriage awaits.”
No regular horses were waiting for them when they descended the palace, but a personal carriage—and the bones of two magical horses. The dead Nightmares pawed at the ground, and when they got in, the carriage shot out of the city at lightning speed.
It only slowed once as a man raised his hand and stepped out of a crowd with a nervous family who bowed again and again. Fetohep emerged.
Colovt and Pewerthe stared at the famous Named-rank, who carried the bow he had been given by Fetohep on his back. He and his family, new to Khelt, stood in the street as the man looked at the carriage.
“Are you leaving the city? Do you wish me to accompany you, King Fetohep?”
“Not as of yet, Fellbow. As I have said—your deeds entitle you to rest. Have you spoken with Adventurer Frieke? Any others?”
Silently, the man bowed.
“Herdmistress Geraeri seems well. The—Revenants of Sand at Sea are occupied fixing the damage to their ship, but their [Captain] seems bored.”
“No doubt. Then I shall request your presence in my palace at evening. If you have the energy, we shall act through the night. This is all contingent upon your interests, Fellbow. You have earned your citizenship already. I do not require continual pledges of loyalty as Nerrhavia’s Fallen or Medain might.”
Fetohep’s golden gaze studied the Named-rank. In reply, Alked Fellbow simply bowed.
“I will rest up, then. I am merely interested in serving Khelt.”
Pewerthe saw Fetohep nod to the rest of Alked’s family, greet his citizens, and step into the carriage. He sat back, and Pewerthe frowned.
“Your Majesty. What happened to the other Revenants?”
She knew about Hecrelunn and Serept’s half-Giants. The Scourgeriders…she still felt uneasy because Fetohep had told her how they had perished to quiet A’ctelios Salash.
She did not always like knowing what Khelt had to do—or that there were things even Fetohep feared. The King simply sat there.
“I do not know. The leader of the half-Giants, Thuermenon, came to me, and requested the right to leave. I granted it. Hecrelunn did not ask. Of the two, I trust Hecrelunn will be an issue. But I have little time for him.”
The third oddity. Fetohep did not like stray issues. And since Khelt ran so smoothly, he had all the time in the world to deal with even the slightest of problems.
One time, famously, he had realized that a statue of King His-Xe was not geometrically aligned in the center of a plaza. So he had the entire plaza re-bricked and then decided to move two streets and fifteen houses over two and a half feet.
Today, though—Khelt was busy. Perhaps that was why Fetohep seemed so impatient. But then—he only began speaking when he was outside of the capital. Pewerthe’s ears popped as she noticed him twisting a ring, and a veil of silence enveloped the carriage.
“What I am about to say will not leave the three of us. You, Colovt, are here due to your expertise in the matter. Pewerthe is my trusted advisor who may need to act in my stead on matters of state. She is my heir apparent, you see.”
The [Farmer] gave her a wide-eyed look. Pewerthe nodded, and Fetohep went on.
“It has come to my attention that there is an…issue within Khelt. Due to the worsening shortages of the world, trade lines across the sea—we are critically low on a resource. Steps must be taken to secure a supply. Therefore, you, Colovt, as a loyal son of Khelt, are the first I turn to.”
“Your Majesty? What are we low on?”
Khelt’s ruler leaned over in the carriage, and his voice lowered more.
Pewerthe and Colovt exchanged a look. Did he mean…the red, glowing berries that were deliciously sweet, famously loved by even the Quarass, and popular in many expensive dishes?
They were a noble’s fancy, but also—Fetohep looked at Colovt.
“What do you know about them?”
“They’re…a cash crop of Baleros, Your Majesty. A farmer’s great crop. It’s beloved by the rich and poor alike for they’re filling. Tasty, too, but it’s said eight can fill a working man up half a day. Two handfuls could keep you for two days if you ration ‘em. Why, the mercenary companies use them as rations…and we’re low on them?”
“The [Bakers] have used quite a number. I would like you to tell me, candidly, what it would take to produce tens of thousands. Possibly even hundreds of thousands.”
Colovt’s jaw dropped.
“By the end of this year, Your Majesty?”
“No. Monthly. One assumes you would need more space. Fields of it. Perhaps for other crops as well? Khelt has always produced enough for itself to thrive, but we import countless crops. If we do not have the sweetberries within…two months at the minimum…”
Fetohep’s voice trailed off. Pewerthe stared at him and felt like this was the oddest conversation she’d had.
“Then what, Your Majesty?”
“—Then we shall have to do without. The same for peppermint, Colovt, and Nali-sticks. I will require your fields to produce a plethora of all such goods.”
That made the two Kheltians stare. Not because of the tall order—if anything, that fit. But the words.
‘Do without’. Inconceivable, even to Pewerthe, really. In what scenario would they do without…anything? The only thing that would bother Khelt was the lack of Eir Gel, which was a worldwide-concern.
But if it could be bought, or stolen and paid for, Khelt would have it. It did not ‘run low’ on Sweetberries. If every plantation of the bushes burned up tomorrow, Fetohep would buy the remaining supplies at a hundred gold per pound.
“I—can see why you wished to be private, Your Majesty. There will be grief and arguments across the cities if the [Bakers] think there might be a shortage.”
Sweetberries would become the instant fad—which would probably burn through Khelt’s supply. Then everyone would be talking about how it used to be so glorious to have one. They’d probably begin complaining a day after the supply ran out and talk about the ‘famines’ Khelt had endured where all they had was half the foodstuffs of the rest of the world dying in need.
Colovt rose to the challenge with a will.
“It will not be easy, Your Majesty. Even with Khelt’s resources, Sweetberries grow in far different soil and temperature…but perhaps if we irrigated it properly and we had the undead skeletons—I’m speaking out loud, forgive me.”
Fetohep lifted a hand.
“Speak and think and do what you will. I am—ignorant in the ways of farming. I have studied crop rotation, balance of fields, the pests and magical means to accelerate growth, and spoken to [Druids], but I am no expert.”
By that, he probably was an expert compared to anyone but Colovt. The man was thinking instantly.
“The—the only places I know to produce crops in great quantity, Your Majesty? If I might list them to think?”
“Yes. You think of Reim, in a sense, Noelictus, Samal, perhaps?”
Other paradises and famous breadbaskets. Colovt nodded.
“Also, the Paradise of Heiste, the Archmage’s Isle.”
“Troubled, I know now. But yes. Go on.”
The [Farmer] spread his hands.
“There’s two ways about it. Reim was—is—rich in crops so long as the King of Destruction lives. Either it’s a Skill, or like Noelictus, like Samal, it’s the richness of their soil. Noelictus thrives on death magic. Samal? Of all the ways we could copy, Your Majesty, perhaps it’d be Noelictus and Samal and the Paradise of Heiste.”
“…Khelt’s soil is less magical, and despite the buried dead, we do not harvest their power. You must clarify that thought for me.”
Fetohep placed two fingers together, listening. Colovt tried and then pulled out a wand. He must have had one just because it was useful—and probably because of his job. He drew in the air, the magical tip leaving a line he could pluck at and show them what he meant.
“Noelictus is different as far as I know, but the concept is similar. Samal and Heiste, paradises, grow within their own sanctums. Behind the key-doors or within Heiste’s growing houses. Sweetberries and many plants hate the weather of Chandrar. So in order to grow them, if we first made a vast place where they could winter and grow despite any issues…”
Fetohep murmured a word unfamiliar to even Colovt. He lifted a hand.
“Your idea, Farmer Colovt, is doubly sound. Go on. Though I must now remark that my knowledge of these greenhouses implies a fortune in glass. A slower process, to blow enough to fill…miles of space. Many miles.”
Colovt looked surprised.
“No, Your Majesty—that is—we need not use glass. I have seen it done more simply. Walls of magic will do—you may not even see them. Just so long as the temperature and water in the air is separate from the outside…”
“Ah. Then stone might work? Or some other material?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Fetohep seemed to brighten.
“Good. Excellent. Then, I require first the blueprints—then seeds. We have a bounty, which I have purchased from overseas. They will arrive in two weeks. I require you, Colovt, to oversee the entire production of these fields.”
“Me, Your Majesty? But I don’t know how the greenhouses—these magical houses work.”
Fetohep dismissed the concerns.
“I shall not leave you wanting. You will have [Architects] and the expertise needed for the buildings—focus only upon the conditions that the seeds germinate and grow fast. Will you need to enrich the soil?”
“Yes…if I’m to produce hundreds of thousands of sweetberries per month. I don’t know if the [Bakers] could use that many, even in a frenzy, Your Majesty.”
Colovt hesitated, but Fetohep’s voice sounded like a smile.
“I will not be beholden to petty currents and the woes of a market twice, Farmer Colovt. We shall establish a vast stockpile to rectify the issue for later generations. As for enrichment of the soil…if you can permanently enrich the soil, or do so for the span of decades, I will spend what is needed. I would dislike to waste too much gold on a temporary measure for a few harvests.”
“Of course, Your Majesty. Forgive my ignorance. Permanent soil…”
The man lapsed into silence, but the carriage was slowing, and soon they were walking out across Colovt’s farms. Fetohep paused to admire the fields that Colovt already had.
“This, Colovt. I would like to expand this and these greenhouses. I will grant forty square miles to begin with—more in Jecrass, perhaps, if this succeeds.”
Forty miles? Pewerthe and Colovt’s jaws dropped. The man wiped at his brow.
“We may export Sweetberries to the rest of Chandrar, sire! Even with a stockpile. I—I can do that. I may need an army of skeletons, though.”
He laughed, looking delighted by the challenge, and why not? He was going to level. But then Pewerthe saw the final thing. The thing that made her really focus on the oddities of Fetohep’s speech, because the Revenant King stood there and he didn’t look at Colovt, but his voice developed an odd…tone.
“Ah. Yes. Colovt, I shall send to you volunteers and perhaps familiars, if the appropriate spell can be researched. I was reminded of the usage from an inn I saw recently. More crucially—do any of these nations make use of other magical tools or spells that…automate this labor?”
The [Farmer] looked blank.
“I am sure they must, in Samal and Heiste. I could inquire, Your Majesty? The skeletons do a fine job.”
“I would prefer to keep a smaller number in the fields, Colovt. War has threatened Khelt once—every skeleton might be needed, and I would not wish to keep the fields unoccupied.”
“So less skeletons…I shall ask, Your Majesty. Perhaps familiar-farming…? I know they have other techniques—may I beg leave to use a [Mage] to ask a number of [Farmers]?”
“At once, Colovt. But first, let us pick out a suitable location for this first attempt. Do you have a preference? Access to a watershed is important, and I have several maps…”
It turned out so did Colovt, and the man hurried inside his home to tell his family that the King of Khelt was here and to help on this great project. He was beaming.
Fetohep was not. For all the undead wore that rictus—somehow, Pewerthe, who had been growing more and more silent, did not think he was smiling. Nor was she.
“Fetohep. Might I have a word?”
She had noticed the spell that kept them from being overhead hadn’t waned since he put it on in the carriage. Fetohep turned to her, and his golden eyes flashed, but his tone was light.
“Do you have any views on farming I have lacked, Pewerthe? I shall ask Trey Atwood or his sister if they next visit.”
“No, Fetohep. But I did have questions about everything else. That I noticed.”
Then—she thought she did see his eyes flash approvingly. Fetohep gestured, and they walked around one field growing huge stalks of bright pumpkins and, yes, the peppermint.
“What could I have said that wasn’t innocuous?”
“Many things, Your Majesty.”
Pewerthe tried to lay them out as if she were planning a pot in her head. She spoke, counting them off.
“You claim that the currents and markets mean there are not enough sweetberries in Khelt. I have not heard of it—but I can believe it. Yet you just said there would be a shipment of seeds from Baleros. That surely means there is at least one ship who makes the journey.”
“Seeds are not berries, Pewerthe.”
The Revenant walked silently, his robes brushing the sands. His hands clasped behind his back, he looked stoic, a king of dignity. Yet Pewerthe went on.
“But why would you care, Your Majesty? Care enough to plant this many? It is one thing to fix a lack like Colovt did with peppermint. This…this is more berries than I can imagine. That would be fine in and of itself, but you suggested not using skeletons? Why that?”
“There are efficiencies beyond even undead. Much as I dislike to admit it, a Djinni can work a larger area. Or familiars, at the cost of mana, or spells.”
“You say that? In Khelt?”
She challenged him, and the King of Khelt faced down the [Potter]. He did not loom or intimidate, but he seemed pleased she did not shrink to face down her ruler.
Pewerthe had seen worse. Yet a different kind of fear twisted her stomach now.
“Fetohep. Will you answer me a question truthfully?”
Then he paused, and the Revenant dipped his head slowly.
“…Yes. Of course.”
Pewerthe took a breath.
“What…what is the real reason you want sweetberries to be grown in such numbers? To not use skeletons? We have always bought whatever we wanted—if we lacked for either, it is only because the world lacks for them. Are the whims of confectioners in Khelt so crucial? Now, as Khelt is famous?”
Fetohep of Khelt stood there as the sand blew across Colovt’s farms, changing to dirt where the precious water irrigated the soil. He looked across his kingdom, back towards his shining city, and then at Pewerthe.
“Later today, Pewerthe, I will convene a few magical experts in my throne room. I will tell them—some cunning beetles have laid nests within the city that even my cleaners cannot deal with. Rats, as well. I discovered one just outside my palace this morning.”
Pewerthe couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen one. A pet was different, obviously. Fetohep nodded. His golden gaze focused on her.
“I will tell them to ward the city—perhaps to have a few volunteers hunt down the nests. A small inconvenience. Like Colovt growing his farms. And perhaps I shall hear complaints. Then, Pewerthe, I shall lie as I do not lie to you now. I shall claim they are virulent pests such as to escape even my undead. By the time the greenhouses are producing hopefully countless bushels of crops, I shall ask Colovt to switch some to common Yellats. The volunteers I send him—the children I encourage to take up the [Farmer] class—will be able to tend the fields with familiars, spells, and even Djinni.”
They had not had Djinni in Khelt—Fetohep stared past her.
“If the Shield Kingdom of Merreid will sell me any. Perhaps. If I did that, I think…this is all the future, Pewerthe. It is all in flux. But at some point, there will be complaints. There might even be a need for my citizens to eat only sweetberries, for they are filling and one of the best crops, along with Yellats, to eat.”
Something was dawning on Pewerthe. She gave voice to it as Fetohep stood there.
“But Fetohep, Your Majesty…surely something is off. Why not task your skeletons with doing it? Khelt’s protectors could turn every inch of this kingdom into farmland if we had enough water. If there are beetles, double the number of them cleaning the streets each night. Why…why not do that?”
Fetohep of Khelt stood there for a long moment, staring into the horizon. And then Pewerthe saw what he was staring at.
The Jaw of Zeikhal lay in the sand, silently staring out across Chandrar. Fetohep’s head slowly turned from it, and his golden eyes burned with an ominous—pained light.
“Ah, Pewerthe. On that day, not far off—when my citizens complain and come to me, I will first lie. Then, when I have no more left, when our enemies begin to scent blood in the water and I arm my citizens in artifacts and put them at the border and build walls—then I will tell them. I have no more to send.”
The hair on the back of the [Potter]’s neck rose. She looked around—then tried to see if there were less skeletons laboring in the fields. She tried to remember, this morning, if she’d seen any but the two accompanying the [Magistrate] and the ones standing guard at the palace. Fetohep of Khelt looked at her, and Pewerthe whispered as a beaming Colovt and his family came out.
“What—what happened to them? Your Majesty?”
He spoke in proud tones, ringing with regret and glory to the fallen. Like he had when he called the end of a world, the ending of times. And—as Khelta had told him—
The ending of the lands of the dead. Fetohep looked across Khelt, and it was quiet. Quiet and empty. The citizens of Khelt’s dead lay buried by the millions. He had taken a vast army to Izril…but only a fraction of the ones who remained.
He didn’t feel them. He felt…pockets, ones animated by Khelta, by [Necromancers]. Bound in spell. But the souls were gone.
Khelt’s souls were all gone. So the King of Khelt, feared by his enemies, surrounded by admirers, stood in his kingdom and stood tall. Eyes burning gold, proudly as could be. He turned to his heir, and only to her he spoke.
“If you should succeed me onto my lonely throne, Pewerthe, and I shall try to keep you from that fate—remember this of me, I beg you. For Khelta, for the honor of the dead, our kingdom rode in glory across Chandrar. We made a difference. I could have sat upon my throne, but I did not, for the ending is the same. In this long struggle—Khelt of all nations did all, sacrificed all. I will never be prouder of the fallen. But those that remain—”
He stared at the Jaw of Zeikhal. Stared and stared and reached for it—and he couldn’t tell if it was there. If it was sentient—or if the spells were just dead. Fetohep stared at the Jaw of Zeikhal.
“—We will undergo a time of strife. Such things happen. Even to eternity.”
“What do we do, Your Majesty?”
The girl was almost fallen, almost sinking, tears in her eyes. She looked up, and her king turned. His rictus face fixed on her, his yellowed teeth, his beautiful eyes, and the King of Khelt’s voice rose. He twisted the ring on his finger and turned to the bowing farmer’s family, to his kingdom.
“Smile, Pewerthe. Shine like the illusion of gold. Straight into the heavens above. Watch me, and I shall teach you how to bet a fortune of fortunes with a hand empty of even dust.”
So you knew, then. Why Khelt, kingdom of such greatness, was oddly quiet when any fit ruler, any mete ruler would take this time to consolidate and continue to shine.
Fetohep knew it full well. He knew that glory and fame was a fading star, an ember that would invariably burn out unless you nurtured it. It also meant that his priorities had shifted. Where once he had counted the number of foes to humble Khelt on one hand in every continent—his only danger being a coalition the size of Terandria’s Crusades, and even then, only a protracted war—
Now he craved mundane goods that might soon run out. Khelt had deep stockpiles. Yet food spoiled before gold. And the issue was not feeding his people.
The issue was keeping up the image. As soon as that image cracked…the perceptive would notice. So he could not tell his [Bakers] to stop making layered croissants or to stop Khelt’s appearance now that eyes were on them.
Not without good reason.
He had a few recourses, though. So by the time Fetohep left Farmer Colovt to his job, he had Pewerthe join him in his throne room. She listened, as she sometimes did, to his methods of diplomacy. Statescraft, the running of empire…
She was his heir. And while she might be replaced, even if she was not Khelt’s ruler, her talents would make her valuable to Khelt. Only Fetohep and the dead knew the reasons Pewerthe was a worthy successor.
One of the reasons—one—was that she was a daughter of Khelt who had seen the outside world. She was, then, both foreigner and citizen. She had survived a [Bandit] raid that had slaughtered her family and the next seven months as one of their prisoners. That she had lived—and made her way to Khelt—was not Fetohep’s doing.
He had sent a hundred and fifty riders of Khelt, armed with bow and lance from the era of Dolenm, who had styled entire legions after other cultures. The Knights of Dolenm had cut down her pursuers, the ragged remains of the ‘Sands of Cuzale’, a famous [Bandit] gang that had sprang up in the last fifteen years.
Small things to the ruler of Khelt, but Fetohep had inquired and found that their leader had been a Level 34 [Robber Baron].
Another one of those odd classes. The bandit leader and the gang had not been gentlemen thieves, though. Not at all. Their prisoners, like Pewerthe, were survivors of bloody raids and theft of people as well as gold.
How, then, did a [Potter] escape from the Sands of Cuzale and send a [Message] to Khelt asking for rescue? That was the first time Fetohep had met Pewerthe, and he had summoned her to his palace three months after she was brought to Khelt. There, under truth spell and his gaze, he had asked her the contents of her story.
For he could not believe it until he heard it and looked her in the eyes. Not that she had, by wit, cunning, and deed, brought down this gang of thieves by tricking them to fight one another—until a night came when they drew blades and slaughtered each other.
That was a worthy successor to Khelt. A silver-tongued girl straight out of stories, who had convinced the [Thieves] that she could hide secrets in the clay pots she baked, hide precious gold and loot from each other and bury it in the sands.
The irony was that she could not—had not that Skill until after she began levelling up. And the foolish thieves, in their greed to hide their stolen wealth from each other, had sowed distrust in the gang. The finger-pointing and accusations grew and grew until it spilled over into wanton bloodshed, allowing Pewerthe and some few survivors to flee.
There was cunning even the Quarass had admired when Fetohep relayed the story to her.
For all that, the [Potter] was no great warrior. She had no aptitude or passion for the blade. That was fine. Fetohep had thought she would be a splendid ruler to keep Khelt safe another two thousand years.
Now…he feared this was an age when the basest, most common talents to slaughter would be rewarded. And that should not be.
A ruler should be more than a thug. The King of Destruction inspired, among his few talents, with his martial abilities. With his capability to lead armies. Yes, with some genuine concern for his people, but there was more art to it.
“—Serpentine Matriarch of Zeres. I do not believe our nations have ever formally declared war. A cessation of hostilities is wise.”
Fetohep saw Pewerthe listening in and made sure to even let her get a glimpse of the angry Drake. He made no obvious gesture except to nod, occasionally, but his foot tapped out-of-sight, annoyed.
He was tired of poor rulers. Poor—this was one of the scions of Zeres? Proof hereditary descent was a mistake, and he would ask Pewerthe if she noticed the subtle signs, later, that he took as opposed to Zethe’s ruler or another monarch.
He used the ‘I’, for instance, as Drakes disliked and stumbled over using the royal ‘we’ in parlance. In addition, Fetohep took a far more direct approach, which Drakes, again, reacted better to. Give them an inch and they tended to take yards.
“Then I shall send a formal declaration between our nations to be witnessed by, ah, Manus. A fitting intermediary. After, of course, reparations are made.”
The Serpentine Matriarch stiffened upon her throne. which bore traces of her own Ancestors. Not Dragons, but close enough.
Wyrm. She even bore traces of her lineage, a different kind of Oldblood. Before she could speak, one of the Drakes muted the scrying orb. He lifted an apologetic claw, and Fetohep sighed.
Ridiculous. Offensive—but it forestalled whatever outburst the Serpentine Matriarch was about to make. She was far too young. Thirty-six years old—and her Admiralty were at least able to hold her back and talk to her quickly.
It would not do for Fetohep to be at war with Zeres, who could make trouble at sea. They, of course, feared an army of undead at their gates or another spear through the walls. When the Serpentine Matriarch returned to the orb, her smile was fake.
Unable to control her temper. Unable to lie or put the mask of friendship on. Unable to overcome her wounded pride that her army and her precious Sharkcaptain were bested. Unable to see the plight of the Gnolls when she first made war against them…
Fetohep ran a litany of her faults down as he listened. Her nation was prosperous due to trade, but he knew full well that crime in Zeres was higher. They could use their nation and create better lives for their citizens—instead of the dock-brawls that sometimes claimed lives.
They were no Savere, but was that the bar of any coastal nation? They should have, with their advantages, a thousand bright-eyed youths with great futures like Admiral Asale. The only Drake that Fetohep appreciated—mostly because he had struck Nerrhavia herself in battle. A deed few could ever boast of.
He was tapping his foot too hard, so Fetohep desisted. The Serpentine Matriarch looked like she was having scales pulled off as she agreed.
“Reparations would be…what, exactly, Your Majesty of Khelt?”
Draw her in and like an angry fish—cut the slack when she thrashed. Fetohep let his eyes glow brighter for a moment.
“Why—the dead, of course, Serpentine Matriarch. Per your agreement of a cessation, I shall send suitable remuneration in gold per the soldiers Khelt has slain. My people have completed a rough tally. If Zeres would ratify it—we have estimated generously as to our forces, as Khelt was not the only army upon the field. Thereupon I shall send fifty gold pieces to the families of each soldier and a suitable gift in funereal tribute.”
Fetohep clarified, pretending to sound puzzled. The Drakes were exchanging quick glances.
“Incense. Often a bounty of food—for slain warriors. In this case, a forged sword or other blade, which is passed to the sons or daughters. A brooch in lieu of weaponry.”
“You’re going to send us all of this?”
The Revenant-King’s smile never wavered.
“We were not at war. The dead must have their due, and I shall see to it that the rites for the fallen arrive within two weeks if Zeres consents to escort whatever ship I send. Via Medain’s harbors, I believe.”
That would be something Perric would be happy to oblige. The Serpentine Matriarch floundered a moment then drew herself up with a slight smile.
“I suppose that would be appropriate.”
It was Asale who was watching Fetohep. The King of Khelt raised a hand. And he saw Pewerthe nod as she got it.
Intention. They might well make ‘peace’ with Zeres without the need for this. Even if he did not do this, it was likely the City of Waves would be wary about raiding supply lines to Khelt. So why go to this effort?
“Then, Matriarch of Zeres, I shall send over the specifications and tributes appropriate for the tomb. Per Zeres’ will, it matters not where it is placed exactly, but in suitable repose.”
“Tomb? A monument to the battle? We have one done. And parades…”
“I believe—Matriarch, the King of Khelt is referring to his warrior. Do you then mean Zeres should construct a tomb for your warrior—Salui of His-Xe’s reign?”
He didn’t quite know how to name the Revenant, but Fetohep’s eyes flashed approval.
A tomb for a Revenant? In Zeres? The Admiralty looked at each other, but now Fetohep was speaking, as if oblivious to the consternation.
“It was the practice in His-Xe’s reign to use stones of Chameth-marble, from Zethe, and his motifs included that of scorpions and his own heraldry. I shall provide both, though Zeres’ [Architects] are no doubt surpassing. Twenty tonnes of marble may suffice? Construction does waste material in my experience.”
“Twenty tons of—”
The same marble that made up Khelt’s palace? The Serpentine Matriarch was thinking hard. And now she did show why she ruled Zeres as she replied.
“Of course, we have your Revenant’s remains laid to rest. Nothing—close to a body, but will interring the ashes do?”
No doubt they’d made sure he could not be resurrected. Fetohep thought of the raging warrior, filled with grief and a longing for battle long after his friend and king’s death. He deserved to rest in Khelt—but the ash was not the spirit.
“That will honor Khelt. As we honor Zeres. Then, we have an accord, Matriarch.”
She smiled, then, thinly. But Fetohep could see her counting the costs of that marble. He wondered how large the monument would be, in the end. And the gold for the fallen?
Largesse, when they expected naught but spit and, from fellow Drakes, ridicule. He would not treat the Dragonspeaker so, but she was not as petty.
“We agree, King Fetohep of Khelt. This has been—far more amiable than I thought. Khelt is wise.”
Fetohep smiled and sat back upon this throne.
“Your wisdom, Serpentine Matriarch, is likewise apparent to me. To your Ancestors. Peace.”
Rulers of nations gossiped like any other, you know. If not them, then their royal courts—and even if they did not know each other, they did talk when they had a united enemy or subject of discussion.
Why, Drakes would even chat with Terandrians when it came to the—issue—of Khelt. As in, not making an enemy of the undead superpower.
So word of Khelt’s deal with Zeres would get around. Naturally, it proved what many people knew about Fetohep. A powerful warrior, insightful strategist, and leader of a paradise he might be—
He was also arrogant. Or perhaps it was just that he was so damn wealthy he would send tributes to enemy soldiers because Khelt had such ancient funereal practices on the books. There was something galling about it—the king would defeat you in battle, then pay you a fortune in courtesies.
Then again, wasn’t that to be desired? Better a gracious king than a petty one. Some rulers—like Perric—would not be half so ready to make peace as Fetohep, holding the upper hand. A ruler like Perric might well ask for pressing requirements.
Like hostages. Or brides. Or gifts. And keep asking until something changed.
Naturally, the Claiven Earth were happy to hear that Fetohep was inclined to peace, not a continued rampage. Their Treespeaker and wisest members among them had discussed the issue of their surrender to Khelt for a long time.
They were…well, let’s say they were nervous.
It was fair to say that Fetohep and Khelt in general were not the Claiven Earth’s fondest neighbors at the moment. It might be fair to say that they would welcome Flos of Reim with hugs and kisses before Fetohep if they had a choice.
But they didn’t. They’d lost and surrendered to Khelt—and in the nick of time, too. That mad [Vizir] could have thrown meteors into their forest-home.
The Herald of the Forests, their greatest [Mage]—humbled in battle. Fetohep didn’t have one Jaw of Zeikhal, he had six he could have sent into the half-Elf’s domain, and their forces, as experienced and powerful as they were…
Terrifying. But they were at peace, and Fetohep had not yet punished Medain or the Claiven Earth, and he was known to be a rich and, it seemed, still moderately peaceful ruler.
So all was well, right? Well—no.
Consider the issue. What could you give the undead who had everything? Let’s say you needed to impress upon Khelt friendship. Or Khelt was in a position to ask. What did Fetohep want?
Well…artifacts? No. He had a vault full of them. Gold? He had more gold than possibly any nation on Chandrar. Roshal might beat him and a few nations like Nerrhavia’s Fallen—maybe.
Fetohep was no [Slaver]. In fact, his nation forbade the owning of slaves. Good! The Claiven Earth were the same.
…The issue was, that meant he didn’t care for the living in servitude. Now—dead bodies? He did make use of them. Powerful dead bodies?
The Herald of the Forest, Ierwyn, tried not to think about it. Treespeaker Lastimeth had assured her that the Mage of Rivers, Joreldyn, and she had done Khelt enough of a service to mitigate some of his wrath.
She had gone to battle with Fetohep, and the warrior-king was known to appreciate acts of valor. It was just…
The Claiven Earth would have treated Fetohep warily if everything were all fine between them. Yes, they might dislike undead fiercely, but Khelt’s apparent power would have them fishing out gifts and making suitable pacts. That would be fine, not an issue.
But if you had just waged war on Khelt specifically to kill the King? If you maybe, possibly, had joined with even Medain to bring him down and had refused to make peace until the last moment and signed a contract of unconditional surrender?
Maybe you were sweating a bit. And hoping Khelt was truly as munificent as they seemed.
When Fetohep of Khelt finally prevailed on Treespeaker Lastimeth, Ierwyn thought she might have the first heart attack of her hundreds of years of life. Certainly, every important member of the Claiven Earth was flocking around the Treespeaker’s arboreal house like they were children playing with spinner toys.
They lined the bridges along the vast tree branches, some standing far below amongst the roots, shooing away the animals who tended to the forest of half-Elves with them. Annoyed monkeys poked at the older half-Elves then fled. Butterflies spiraled away, sensing the distress of their friends, and the magical sloths hung there. As they did.
The white-haired half-Elves listened as one of the young ones ferried out responses from Khelt’s ruler. The contents of his discussion were brief—and Ierwyn felt a lurch.
“Herald, he wishes to speak to you as well.”
She strode into the little building where the Treespeaker conducted affairs of state. The King of Khelt was unchanged—if anything, he seemed more surrounded by wealth than ever. He was waving aside a sample of Chameth-marble from Zethe’s mines as he glanced up.
“Herald Ierwyn. Ah, welcome. I trust your wounds have healed?”
“They were very slight, Your Majesty. I am pleased to note you are unharmed despite the furious battle. It will go down in history.”
“Such battles do.”
The King mused, not looking pleased by the compliment. He rested a hand in a bowl of what might have been something to preserve his withered skin. The Treespeaker and Ierwyn tried not to wince, looking at the undead so long. Yet he was more than a monster…would that they’d ignored Perric from the start.
Fetohep lifted a hand lanced with the glowing liquid, and the vapor left a trail of magic in the air.
“Forgive me, Herald, Treespeaker. I am passingly impolite. I have been speaking to dignitaries nonstop for nigh upon a month. This is merely a dram of magic to preserve this wearisome body. Are any other half-Elves so wounded beyond the Claiven Earth’s mighty healing? For such valiant warriors, my Potions of Regeneration may be unstoppered.”
He really was far too rich. The Herald kept her face straight.
“Our own healing is equivalent to the task, Your Majesty. I thank you…and for your forbearance given our struggles.”
“Indeed. Khelt now calls upon us, and we answer. Have you a…decision regarding our end of the war, Your Majesty?”
The Treespeaker was pale with nerves. Fetohep drummed his fingers upon his throne, looking oddly discontented.
“It has weighed upon my mind, Treespeaker, Herald. No less than eighteen of my subjects have died in this war between the Claiven Earth and Khelt. Many, many of my soldiers…and two of Serept’s own Revenant-kind. A cost as grievous as any war. I am aware the Claiven Earth has bled likewise—yet the war between our nations cannot be settled with mere words. Not now. I take the Herald’s aid in my hour of need well. Yet we were at war.”
His eyes flashed, and Ierwyn was glad she did not sweat in the face of any foe. Eighteen dead? It was ridiculous—and it also squared with Fetohep’s monumental protective attitude towards his people.
That was even commendable, but this…
“We are at your mercy, Your Majesty. What is your will?”
They could only wait. They had debated sending gifts or bribes, but decided it was futile. They had counteroffers to make. Ierwyn’s first one was to agree to serve Khelt a hundred years. She hoped it would not come to that, but depending on what he willed…
Fetohep took a long pause to dip his hand in the bowl once more before he spoke. Now he sounded—weary.
“Before I deliver my demands, I will speak once upon the battle of the Meeting of Tribes. It may well go down in history. Perhaps my name shall find itself upon record—but I trust the Gnolls and their tribes would take such pride of place, so that my name is but a footnote. I, knowing the writing of [Historians], doubt this. The battles were necessary, but the slaughter…I rule over dead and send my legions by the tens of thousands into battle without second thought. Yet the living’s wanton death preys upon me. To such little purpose. Did you have thoughts on that matter, Herald?”
Ierwyn hesitated. She spoke honestly.
“It was a shame to see it, Your Majesty. Gnolls being attacked by the Drakes, at odds with each other—the treachery of that Plain’s Eye tribe was beyond belief. I must say, personally, that regardless of anything else, had I known of what you went to stop, I would have ridden with you at any time. Especially if worse had come. Like the Seamwalkers…”
The Treespeaker glanced up, and every ear seemed to listen, but Fetohep spoke no more of the doom he had warned the world of.
“Not yet, Herald. Not yet…and you remind me once more that we are mutual allies against foes of such heinous deed. The Claiven Earth may abhor my nature as undead and my kingdom—but you have stood against true monsters again and again.”
“We are not entirely without reason as to the undead, Your Majesty…”
The Treespeaker protested lightly, but Fetohep just glanced at him, and the half-Elf fell silent. The ruler lifted a finger.
“Eighteen dead. Eighteen, and a war between us. There must be reparation. Thus, I have concluded upon my most—reasonable demands. As follows.”
He leaned forwards, and the half-Elves waited, hearts thumping. Fetohep spoke after a long moment.
“…How many fruits, nuts, and other varieties of produce come from the Claiven Earth’s own orchards? My records in trade have always imported many fine delicacies from your lands, but I am aware the majority of them are never traded.”
Fruits? The Treespeaker shot a quick glance at Ierwyn, and she felt her heart leap.
“You intend our produce, Your Majesty?”
“My subjects have an endless desire for foodstuffs. A delight I, personally, do not share.”
The Revenant’s voice was so dry it actually made Ierwyn smile. He nodded to one side, addressing a young woman in the corner of the screen.
“Just this morning, I was relayed a story of a croissant apparently enjoyed by my people. This—disruption in the seas may continue, and I have lands upon Jecrass to mind. For now, I shall consider the Claiven Earth’s debts to Khelt appeased by a contract to supply a host of its goods to my people. How else to repay the dead save sustenance which engenders new and continued life? Within the Claiven Earth’s reason, of course. Is this amenable, Treespeaker?”
“It—it will serve, especially to bridge the ruined paths between us, Your Majesty.”
The Treespeaker looked ready to swing from branches like a boy, but he managed to stay calm. Ierwyn exhaled as Fetohep nodded slowly.
“Then—let us formalize this pact with a treaty releasing the Claiven Earth from its terms of surrender. I intend to do the same to Medain—pending generous trade agreements and similar requests. Though their gardens are less…appealing than the seafood they catch.”
So that was what he wanted? Ierwyn exhaled hard. Peace! So easily bought! She wondered if Fetohep would ask for more. He would release them from their obligations as surrendered nations.
But he was still King of Khelt. The Claiven Earth had better weigh their relationship to Khelt heavily in the future. But for now—people were quietly celebrating outside. Relieved the King of Khelt was so rich that he traded oranges for laurel branches.
Ierwyn just wondered, privately—and just for a second—why Fetohep had not demanded eighteen statues of his people or a delegation to abase themselves in Khelt or a formal apology. She knew the King of Khelt, being as old as he was. He could be pettier and angrier.
Perhaps he truly did fear something larger. Either way—she was grateful.
Like Ierwyn, Fetohep did not sweat either. But the careful, careful diplomacy he conducted for the rest of the day with the Claiven Earth, Medain, Zeres, and the other nations he had been at odds with left even him tired.
Pewerthe was certainly exhausted, and he sent her out before he spoke to Perric, a far longer and more unctuous meeting than the Treespeaker and Herald. That man…
Well, Fetohep had what he wanted. ‘Simple foodstuffs’ in exchange for peace.
He hoped he could prevail on his people to enjoy the seafood and fruits and vegetables over their regular diets. Both nations expected Fetohep to demand more.
Well, he might. It had occurred to Fetohep that the Claiven Earth had blademasters and experts in archery—and Medain their great adventurers.
But for peace, he only wanted these tokens. Play your hand carefully. And any visitors to Khelt…
Any visitors to Khelt would see too much.
“Jecrass, perhaps. Yes, Jecrass. A suitable place to put any visitors and to…it would seem Jecaina did me a surpassing boon.”
Fetohep was musing upon the new lands he’d annexed that night. When Alked Fellbow arrived, the King of Khelt welcomed him into his palace.
“Let us sit and eat, Fellbow. Have you yet dined?”
“I could work for the rest of the night without, Your Majesty.”
The Hemp-man was not some lumbering ox of a warrior as the Stitch-folk often painted the Hemp-caste. Oh, his features were rougher due to the thick cloth made from the manes of the animals he had hunted, but he was closer to lithe than not.
Not thin—not as agile, but a nimble stalker, like how a tiger could disappear among the brush while hunting. A gifted archer. A fine warrior.
A Named-rank adventurer. Yet Fetohep bade him come to the dining room. He spoke as a servant brought out dishes and asked Fellbow’s fancy.
“Though I am dead, Fellbow, I often invite mortals to dine. It is…customary. It relaxes, it enables difficult conversation. Allow me to prevail upon your needs.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
So, Fellbow dined lightly upon bloody meats and the freshest of leaves, almost like he was a noble predator straight off the plains, pure carnivore and herbivore desires mixed. He did not seem inclined to waste time, and neither did Fetohep.
“I suspect your request to meet with me is more than mere desire to impress, Fellbow. Tell me. How did your prescience come about?”
One quick look confirmed everything. Fellbow stopped eating, reached for a cup of water—then let it rest.
“I observed your guards, Your Majesty. The ones that follow your [Magistrates] around—and the ones on the palace.”
“They have not changed unduly, surely?”
“They’re slower. If I hadn’t been here before, I would never have noticed. Ever since the Meeting of Tribes, I realized they seem to react at half the speed they used to. Almost as if they’re confused. I was not sure, so I tested their reactions a few times.”
He looked up, and all his suspicions lay behind those grey eyes, like splinters of color. Fetohep? His only response was to sigh.
“You are an adventurer among pretenders to the title, Fellbow. Another reason why your services I desired so highly. Though I did not foresee this day when I reached out to you.”
That seemed to surprise Alked. He was—Fetohep realized—slightly tense in his chair. Mostly relaxed, but as he took a long draft of water, he spoke.
“I don’t intend on revealing Khelt’s weakness. I just—wished to know the truth. I could swear upon truth stones, Your Majesty. I would not wish to be silenced if I can prove my sincerity. Nor would I betray Khelt’s trust. I am well aware of your capabilities.”
He said this all very straight-faced, watching Fetohep. Though, like everyone else, Alked Fellbow realized it was hard to tell what Fetohep was thinking. The King of Khelt’s reply was swift, though. He arched one ancient brow.
“Your worries are needless, Fellbow. I am not so poor a ruler as to even intimate the suggestion I would attempt to kill you for fear of my weakness being leaked.”
He lifted a finger as Fellbow opened his mouth to respond.
“That is no mere vanity. You are a man of action. If you planned treachery, it would be before you offered to meet me. Few scoundrels would bring up the notion of treachery themselves; their prevarication is often to cast it upon others. You do not do that.”
“I am a Named-rank adventurer and new to your kingdom, sire. I thought it was worth addressing.”
The man appeared slightly gratified. Fetohep’s eyes flashed brighter in the dim dining hall.
“Oh? For many adventurers, perhaps. Not you. You are mercenary in your jobs, but you are upfront when you cancel your contracts. Never once have you lied, cheated, or betrayed your employers. Actions speak a far louder tale, Fellbow, and your history is known to me. I looked into it before I contacted you. I know people. It is one of my few gifts.”
The Named-rank sat there and, again, was slightly stunned by the fact that an undead ruler of a nation not his own knew him better than the entire Court of Silks had. But then—that was why he had come.
That was why his suspicions being confirmed was such a terrible blow. Alked looked up, and his throat was so hoarse he had to take another drink before he could be heard.
“What…what exactly is the problem, Your Majesty?”
“The souls are gone.”
That was the root, heart, and unfixable issue in Khelt’s soul. Fetohep stood up, and silently, the two left the dining hall so they might speak more privately. Fetohep led Fellbow elsewhere—to the hall of statues.
Eighteen stood there, and it was here he had been able to hear his predecessors most clearly. Each one Fetohep gazed upon.
The eye was drawn to Serept, for they were all made to their likenesses, but he stopped at his beloved Queen Xierca’s and regarded the imperious angle of her nose. Dolenm’s had been broken once. His-Xe’s smile was quirked to one side—he had a scorpion on one shoulder, forever captured in marble.
Fellbow stood there as Fetohep walked before each ruler. The King turned—and his eyes were dim now.
“Even theirs. But the ghosts of each citizen of Khelt—that was the loss. You see, Fellbow—they were what animated the bodies of the skeletons that lie in Khelt. I cannot call upon them. The ones you see were animated by spells of [Necromancers]. The ritual, the pact that Khelta laid down that empowers all of Khelt’s dead?”
Gone. Fellbow hesitated. He said what Pewerthe had, what any clever person would.
“But the bodies are there, Your Majesty. Is there a danger they’ll reanimate? Or—couldn’t a [Necromancer] restore your armies?”
That was the fallacy of thinking to anyone who didn’t study death-magic. Fetohep shook his head.
“I can reanimate a hundred skeletons with a click of my fingers, empowered by my status as Khelt’s king as I am, Fellbow. It is not the same. The dead will not rise unwanted—Khelta ensured that. Only the ones above-ground would be…erratic. I cannot control any of the Jaws of Zeikhal. I hope they are inactive. But one task must be to—control them. Or dismantle them, somehow, without the world watching.”
Fellbow’s pit in his stomach grew.
“And the armies won’t be the same, even if animated?”
Fetohep shook his head. He stood before Khelta, eying the coal-rimmed eyes, her staff. The great [Necromancer Queen].
“The undead a lesser [Necromancer] might raise and bind will be more erratic. But crucially, Fellbow—lesser. You have seen how the undead of Khelt can till a field, clean gutters, and even cook? The souls of Khelt’s citizens allowed that. It gave the warriors a grace upon the battlefield. It gave them loyalty and, yes, even strength to endure without end that lesser undead lacked.”
Alked had never heard of that, but it made sense. For answer, Fetohep turned and bowed before Khelta.
“She, Khelta who founded all of this, knew that the soul of each body informed the mortal remains. She did not create armies of unwilling beings she slaughtered. She asked for service after death, and generations gave it. The dead are used well, for they loved this land well. She was…a great [Necromancer]. Few of her kind understood death so. But now we see a fault not even Khelta could have foreseen. For the souls are gone. And Khelt is empty. Defenseless.”
The day Fetohep summoned Alked Fellbow and made him the generous offer to become an adventurer of Khelt, the Named-rank had wondered if there was a catch.
He had expected it. He had waited for it, and it had never shown up. After a while, he had begun to realize that Fetohep meant what he had promised. That sometimes—
That there was someone who recognized worth and tried to pay it without shorting or gaining more in return. Yet now, Alked was almost relieved.
So this was the catch. He now served a nation held up by nothing inside. And for some reason, Alked felt more of a burning desire not to see Khelt fall than he had Nerrhavia’s Fallen.
“What can I do, Your Majesty? I can’t speak for Frieke, but I think she admires you. Your people do. Herdmistress Geraeri does too. Perhaps some would waver if the truth came out, but it will not come from me. What can be done?”
“Build armies. Replace our workforce with actual laborers and magic—but crucially, keep this illusion up. I shall lean upon you, Fellbow, and Pewerthe and those I can trust as never before.”
Fetohep seemed gratified by the man’s confidence. But that begged a new question from Fellbow, who now felt like some [General] preparing for a war. Did Fetohep have [Generals]? Now he needed ones.
“Your Majesty—who would be Khelt’s enemies? So I know who to watch for.”
The King of Khelt laughed. It was not a pleased laugh, just amused. He turned, and all eighteen statues seemed to have a hint of mirth about them. They got the joke.
“Fellbow. Who would be our enemies? Who not? If you are asking which nations hold a grudge—I would say the dangerous ones are Roshal, the Claiven Earth, Medain. Nations we have wronged—the Walled Cities, nations who hate undead—all of Terandria save Noelictus.”
Not a fun list. But Fetohep just shook his head.
“I do not name names. Yes, some nations spite us like Roshal, which Khelta once made mighty strife against, and would see us fall. But Khelt is…too rich. Let us say our secret leaks tomorrow. The first foe to come against us? It would be Flos of Reim.”
“…I thought he swore in blood never to take up arms against Khelt.”
Fetohep shrugged lightly.
“Even blood can be forsworn. If I were him, I would find a way or risk it. Because, Fellbow—he would have to. He would have to strike at Khelt and sack my cities or else be faced with destruction. Any nation that plunders our relics would be able to turn the tide against him.”
Alked was conscious of the bow on his back. Fetohep had gifted it to him…and he surely had more. More gold, more treasures than almost any nation. Yes, of course. Any nation would come screaming to take Khelt’s wealth.
Damn. No wonder the King of Khelt looked so worn. But then…
“You could arm your citizens with relics, Your Majesty. If it came to it.”
Fetohep shook his head.
“An army of children with relics will have them taken away. The conceit of Khelt was always its champions without end. My predecessors left other contingencies. Khelt’s palace itself could destroy an army. Razzimir’s Arrows still remain, and we have great weapons in the vaults. These are backup plans, however. Could I make mighty war on Flos of Reim if he were to attack tomorrow? The haughty Terandrians upon their steeds, wearing shells of armor like craven beetles crawling upon my sands?”
His eyes flashed as he considered his enemies descending upon Khelt.
“Yes. And I might throw their armies back four times, eight, a dozen! For they are, by and large, forces made up of this era and lesser than Khelt’s safeguards. But the armies that would have risen without end, millions upon millions of undead—are gone. No object, even the Reinhart’s famous Crown of Flowers, could match Khelt’s endless undead. From the wall of might that surrounded and enveloped every inch of Khelt—”
He lifted a clenched fist, and then it opened. The ruler of Khelt laced his hands together and then let them drift apart. Like a solid foundation becoming a net. Porous.
He himself was a warrior that Alked would have refused to try and kill in an unfair fight. But he could not be everywhere. Perhaps another king, a lesser king would claim that a hammer was all that was needed to instill fear.
But other kings did not hold the life of even a single child of Khelt above their own. Now—when they called for help. None might come.
That knowledge weighed on Fetohep, like Farmer Colovt might stare over a precious field of grain now vulnerable to swarms of pests. Rodents, nibbling, sneaking in. Raiding insects…how was he to protect it all, now? And when the great sandstorm came—he had no army to hold it back and build a wall out of bodies. No legions to pave a road over sea or drag the sky down that it might kneel.
“Then—what of the Revenants? Why did Serept’s half-Giants and the Vizir leave?”
Now Fellbow was outraged both parties had gone. Right until Fetohep chuckled again.
“I doubt they knew how Khelt’s armies functioned. They knew their rulers had passed—but even the Vizir is no actual death-mage. Nor can he comprehend a world in which Khelta could ever have a flaw. I would have persuaded both to stay. Had I the time or ability to say it without ears. If possible, I will find them and ask them to return. Sand at Sea remains, and their crew will be invaluable.”
That covered most of Fellbow’s questions. They had undead…but they’d be generic undead, and Khelt had few actual [Necromancers] of talent. Fetohep had riches…and it made him a target. Khelt was famous, powerful—and fragile.
“So what now, Your Majesty? You’ve taken the time to confide in me. What can I do?”
Fetohep looked at the Named-rank adventurer, who had now become one of the pillars upon which Khelt needed to stand. He turned to face the statues, and his voice sunk low to a whisper.
“You know Pewerthe, Alked?”
The man saw Fetohep nod almost imperceptibly. The gloom in this hallway of statues could be alleviated with a thousand lights, but the two stood in darkness. The statues seemed emptier now, emptier of whatever they had been meant to hold. Fetohep reached out—and his fingers nearly brushed Xierca’s stone face.
“If I should ever perish, she must lead. The functions that raise her as a Revenant—well, I should like her to live before serving in death. But I must not fall. I must not die. I will leave her catastrophe, and this is mine to bear. Yet look upon these eighteen, Alked.”
He walked down, reciting names.
“Xierca, Izimire, Akhta, Razzimir. Zushe-Greso, Tkayl…”
He knew all eighteen. And when he reached Khelta, he walked back. And each one seemed taller than him, for all many had been shorter.
“I regret it, Alked Fellbow. I regret I am the one. Not because I am not willing, but because I am incompetent. Lesser. 3/10.”
Fellbow didn’t get that reference, nor could Fetohep truly smile. He looked at the statues.
“I am not Khelta, who could replenish our armies again and again. I do not have His-Xe’s ambitions, which led his armies to wage war like thunder—he could have rebuilt our mortal forces. Dolenm was a visionary who had the techniques of countless nations in mind—Serept forged mighty arms, and he was a warrior surpassing ten of me. Emrist’s scourges would have humbled even Roshal’s dark confidence, Xierca had thrice my age and wisdom; her pacts would have called a fourth of the world to our aid at need. Razzimir threw back Crelers…”
Each one of the rulers seemed to rise before the shrinking Revenant. Fetohep slowed.
“…I am lesser than all my predecessors and their various greatnesses. Mistake me not, Alked. I am a ruler wise enough to know his own worth. I was chosen by Xierca for this age. She did not wish another Izimire. I know…people.”
He touched his chest, as if still remembering how the heart beat.
“I know the hearts of folk and how to rule. I have studied rulership where the other of Khelt’s leaders sometimes did not. Would that I had any one of their talents instead, for this time. I would have made a fine king of peace. Not now. Not this.”
Alked listened to Fetohep talk. And he realized…the undead was having a bad dream. A terrible nightmare, the nightmare of nightmares.
This was what Fetohep had feared. What he had thought would not come to pass, but the thing every ruler since Khelta had feared.
I shall be my kingdom’s end. It shall be my fault because I was incompetent.
“It is not, Your Majesty. You—this was unavoidable. You could not have foreseen this.”
“Does it matter?”
Fetohep looked up. He turned to Alked.
“I will not stop striving until the last grain of dust in Khelt remains, the last soul. But Fellbow. I have no safety to offer you nor your family any longer. No confidence in the future. Knowing this—will you still serve Khelt? None could hold it against you if you changed your mind. My offer to you was false, though neither of us knew it at the time.”
He gazed at Alked, and the Named-rank took a deep breath. Fetohep did know people. So he should have known…the man who had slain monsters and people every day of his life since he was fourteen replied slowly.
“Your Majesty, I grew up in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. It was not kind to a Hemp-boy. But I prospered through work and blood and sweat and tears. When I came to Khelt, I thought I had won a kind of luck I never had before. But that is not why I’m here.”
He pointed down and looked at Fetohep.
“I have thrown myself behind Khelt. When you called, I went, and I rode with a [Hero] and the King of Destruction to save lives a continent away. I saw the end of an age and the kind of magic that even [Archmages] quailed at. I am not going to leave. I have one demand of you, sire. Tell me, truly and honestly. Beyond the threats to Khelt. What are we facing?”
Like the hunter he was, he was straining to see the real quarry, the real monster sneaking up on them. He had not forgotten why Fetohep first raised the alarm. The King of Khelt’s eyes brightened. His reply was simple.
“Soul-devouring monsters, Fellbow. Consumers of spirit who devour even the spawn from beyond the world’s edge. Even legends. They have haunted the lands of the dead for aeons. Now—they have eaten the souls of all who ever died. Khelta told me they will come for us next. They cannot be slain with Skill nor even relics of the kind you possess. Yet they will be fought and brought down. That is our foe.”
Fellbow’s skin crawled as he tried to imagine it. He pressed Fetohep, but the King lifted a hand.
“I know—names. Names I shall never utter. I know a word that cannot be spoken. Nor can I think of it—I will show it to you, but it may injure you just to comprehend it.”
Even now, his mind was trying to blank out the way Khelta had told him to write it. Fetohep shook himself and went on as Fellbow listened.
“There are six—perhaps five, or even four or two, by now. The dead may have exacted their vengeance. But the remaining will still be threats that require our all, everyone’s all to battle.”
“Why not shout the alarm across the entire world? Unify them!”
It was only logical. In response, Fetohep shook his head.
“I have been assured that would be dangerous. The more who know, the stronger they become. And I was told…some will join them. As traitors and cowards do. But some—some will worship them.”
What that meant was beyond Alked’s ken, but the Named-rank felt the weight of Fetohep’s warning upon him. In silence, the two men stood and passed through that dark night.
Dawn would always come.
“So, Your Majesty. What is the first step? What allies…can you call upon if Khelt’s weakness is revealed? Perhaps the King of Destruction might agree to an alliance?”
Fetohep’s chin rose.
“I will not beg nor show weakness, Fellbow. We will begin with what we have. For now—Khelt changes.”
At dawn, Fetohep of Khelt let Alked go, weary from a night of talk. He made a proclamation, as he greeted the dawn, to his people, and it spread through Khelt.
“My people. I shall have you level.”
A crowd of crowds gathered in the place he had chosen. Not the greatest of places, but that treacherous footpath of clay bricks. There were no rats and beetles, and the ground, he knew, was uncomfortable. People shifted as they listened to him, despite their adoration.
It was fitting. Humble, yet Fetohep stood grandly as he spoke. He knew that there were probably people who would report this to the Mage’s Guild—in pride, for there were still few [Spies] in his lands. If he wanted it, he could find himself on television.
What an irony, that. Fetohep had been told he had an unsurpassing number of [Messages] and even physical letters in the night. Apparently, boatloads of letters had come across the sea, and the [Mages] had finally sorted through his royal correspondence…and he had literally thousands of letters from mundane individuals next.
He would attend to it after this. Fetohep’s speech was short and to the point.
“It is my will that the undead who have labored so long in service of us all—rest. I ask you to go and level. As [Bakers], as [Cleaners], even as common laborers in the field. Chafe your hands upon soil. Work—and sweat—and even bleed for the class you find most worthy. There is no class without merit. You have seen how Khelt impresses the rest of the world with its splendor. Now—I will make you the jewels upon Khelt’s crown to lay on Chandrar and the world’s head.”
It was not a bad speech, and they cheered him, but they would have cheered him passing wind. Nor did he lie—not exactly, not as a truth stone picked it up. Any class had merit.
…But they needed them. His subjects took his speech with a will, and his [Magistrates] and other officials gave them ideas to test—from learning the art of swords to all the things that would be needed.
At least they loved it. At least, Fetohep vowed, it would not be them working until their fingers were blistered and bloody. Not here.
He felt like this was good enough. Fellbow had offered to train the most promising of Fetohep’s subjects, organize the best trainers—and Khelt did have many high-level folk—even find worthy people to recruit from elsewhere.
So Fetohep had anticipated the worst was over, for now. He had set every ball rolling…safeguarded Khelt’s interests and hidden their weakness. Now, he could rest.
—He believed that right up until he went back to his throne room, sat down, and the most painful event thus far struck him. Struck him as he had never been wounded, even his death-wounds in battle.
Fetohep got fan-mail.
The letter, well, the first letter that made him realize what was happening was not poorly written.
Alright, it was. The handwriting was decent…and that was all you could say about it. Unlike the [Merchants] begging to do business, the invitations from nobility to come to some ball a continent across and maybe invite them in return or offer them citizenship, a note from Chieftain Feshi—
Fetohep had been smiling until he read this one. It began poorly.
Dear Your Majesty,
The…Fetohep knew people didn’t know how to address rulers most of the time. The endless protocols of how to write from monarch to monarch, duke to lesser lord, and so on were complex. But this? He was intrigued as he saw it was parchment, barely foolscap, not paper.
My name is Luresh Greenpaw. I am a Gnoll in the
Greepaw Greenpaw tribe and my Chieftain is Orelighn. We have not met but I know you from the scrying orbs. You were at the Meeting of Tribes and helped the Doombearers. My tribe helped too. I wasn’t there because I’m only 11 but we were on the Doombearer’s side with Tribe Weatherfur.
You are a good person. My [Shaman] says that even if you are an undead, you are better than a lot of the Drakes and Humans. My father thinks so too. My mother says you look a bit rotten but you saved my people. Thank you.
So can you send your armies back and please protect my tribe? Chieftain Orelighn is worried we’ll be attacked by the Drakes. All the cities still hate us, and our warriors are patrolling all the time. Someone shot arrows at one of our wagons yesterday. And Khelt has lots of gold, my [Shaman] says.
Can Greenpaw have some? Chieftain Orelighn helps us farm, and we have a crashed metal thing, but none of that made us gold. I saw how rich Khelt was and I would like to try some of the cooking you have.
Even if you can’t send food and gold, if you could stop the Drakes from attacking us, I’d sleep a lot better.
The King of Khelt stared at that letter for so long one of his servants asked, timidly, if all was well. Fetohep looked up after sixteen minutes.
“I…are there more letters from civilians, not [Merchants] or ‘important’ individuals? Sort them for me.”
The team of his people did. Fetohep found another letter and opened it.
To King Fetohep of Khelt,
Sire, I’m writing you from Taimaguros. My name I have to withhold because I fear this letter will be found. You may not know Taimaguros, but I believe a king of your wisdom can inquire.
If you are aware—at all—of the strife between Taima and Guros, I implore you to ignore that. That…that is not what is killing our citizens.
Taima and Guros are rich. We are part of a massive empire and yet there are people, good people who work as hard as can be, nevermind what is said about us, who cannot feed ourselves. The classes of [Serfs] and [Peasants] are rife within Terandria.
When I saw Khelt’s paradise, I didn’t believe it with my own eyes. Then I looked up and saw how much gold flows into the coffers and how the laws hold down anyone of our classes. I was lucky enough to be taught how to read and write—and still, I watch my fellow people starving.
We’ve protested. We’ve begged, and soldiers of the Taimaguros Dominion have put down our requests with bloody death. I have asked for anyone to hear us—and good people do, who I will not disclose here for fear of retaliation.
You, surely, are one such. Even the Taimaguros Dominion might listen to the King of Khelt speaking on our matters. Even a word on a scrying orb or the Queen of Arbiters weighing our case—if she asks, there are thousands for her to look into.
I know I may never set foot on Chandrar, but I hope for just a moment of the wisdom and goodness that led you to fight for another people on Izril. Thank you,
It was probably a trap. Or fake. That was Fetohep’s first instinct as a canny ruler. But let’s assume it was fake. This one was fake.
The fourteenth letter had him calling for a rare cup of liquor fit for undead.
—[Mercenaries] will kill everyone in our village without us paying. Can we move to Khelt? We don’t have to live in your kingdom, but we’ll work hard. Our entire village of Lizardfolk have no one to turn to. The Great Companies don’t listen—
—a single squad of undead. Just ten of them would scare away anyone—
—[Lord] has assaulted my daughters. He denies everything, and his men have threatened my life. No one can bring him to justice, but the King of Khelt can—
—-please let us come to Khelt. If not, I can pay for my little brother to go to—
I saw you on the scrying orb. I think you’re a good man.
I need your help.
They were—there were hundreds of them, and Fetohep wondered how many ships had delayed sending mail. It was still cheaper, far cheaper, to send a slow letter than a single [Message] spell. And there were [Messages] too. People with names, identities he could reasonably verify and look into.
He selected twenty for a [Spymaster] to verify and report back on. Fifty-eight letters in and Fetohep was assured that seventeen were real, the last three either false or harder to verify.
He had never considered this. In Jecaina’s scrying orb broadcast, even as prescient as he’d been—Fetohep had not realized that to invite the world’s eyes upon him was to also receive the world’s pleas.
Perhaps the other rulers had received the like. But they were mortals, with limited time and people who filtered their correspondence. Fetohep?
He read and read—and he saw the naked pleas, sometimes gagging with desperation. You could help.
He could. He could speak the name of that [Lord] who had attacked a girl, and an investigation would be launched. It would offend another sovereign nation’s dignity, but Khelt could do it.
The Greenpaw Tribe was not some vast group—a single group of a hundred undead might well scare away most forces.
He did not have a hundred undead to spare. He could not take in even a fraction of the people begging for citizenship.
Of course, Fetohep knew that. He had always been isolationist and placed Khelt’s people above all others.
It was just that he did not always see—no, he had never seen so many reaching out for aid. Nor had they ever spoken to him like this. Him, a Revenant, being begged above their sovereign lords and rulers for mercy, for a scrap of justice.
These rulers. So many letters had people who should have turned to local superiors of some kind for justice, aid, and relief. And so many impugned the character of these [Lords] and [Queens] and…
Too many were Terandrian. Terandria, that continent called so safe? Why were so many people starving or wanting for justice?
The King of Khelt stared at the pile of letters. He’d begun sorting them, unconsciously, into actionable and inactionable piles. Some people he could legitimately not help, unless he wanted to send a ship with undead across the world or hire mercenaries.
But some just required a word. A word such as ‘shame’.
Pheislant. He could address House Havrington within the hour on one of the broadcasting television stations. A five-minute address and the claims—without naming any victims—and it would be done.
But what if House Havrington retaliated? It could well become an issue with Pheislant, and they might fear Khelt. Yes, they certainly did.
…But one ship sunk and he would have to make a point. And he had no armies. He could hire mercenaries, make a show of—
The letters sat there and built up. And built up—until Fetohep had to stand away. Stand away, and stare across his city as he heard voices ringing upon his ears. He made his worst mistake, by asking one of his [Spy]-contacts to send him an image of one of the letter-senders.
Then he could think of nothing at all. Until a [Message] arrived from an important source, one directly to him. And never in his life had Fetohep ever been so grateful to be blackmailed.
Fetohep of Khelt looked—charitably—like someone had taken him, hung him up like a scarecrow, and beaten him with a stick for the last nine hours.
Oh, his garb was immaculate. His body unchanged. But something about the way he slumped, the vacant stare—and he was an undead, it was all technically vacant—
Something about all that had his servants fluttering to ask him if he needed something. Fetohep didn’t even have his perfect posture upon his throne.
Never once before, in Fetohep’s life as a mortal man or as ruler of his nation, had he ever felt so worthless.
Like the beetles the rat had devoured. This emotion, he realized, was shame. Such an odd thing to feel because they were not his people who begged him, who suffered.
Yet he was ashamed because he had the means to help and he did not. Or—had.
No, the King realized. He was ashamed for more than just the people and his inaction.
He was ashamed—outraged—that the men and women who ruled these suffering people dared to call themselves rulers. He was ashamed that their classes and levels didn’t fall from their worthless souls. They were unworthy, and if he could but punish them—
His eyes glowed, trapped lighthouses of glorious intention trapped in the sockets. He ignored his servants until Pewerthe came before him. Then the King stirred—but she just placed something in front of him.
Pewerthe, clever Pewerthe, said no great speeches to her King. The tongue of the [Potter of Secrets] had spoken enough when she saw his suffering.
Now, she placed before him a little stone that spoke, and a voice entered the silence of his throne room as his servants left.
“Hey…is this thing on? Fetohep? How’s it hanging, buddy?”
The King of Khelt’s head rose. He hesitated—and then the banked flames grew, like the fire, like a smile across the world as someone sat in her room and leaned over the speaking stone.
“Erin Solstice. You were not taught to speak to royalty?”
“Yep. But it never took. I heard from Kevin that you needed to talk. I told you—call me any time.”
“I had not thought to. Pewerthe, my heir, contacted you in my place.”
“Well, there you go, then. Smart. I told you I didn’t need to be a [Queen].”
Suddenly, Fetohep was leaning over his throne, speaking in such common parlance, even—chattily—that no one could quite believe it when they first saw it. But then, the King of Khelt had few people he regarded as equals. So no wonder Flos, Orthenon, the Herald of the Forests, the Blighted King, and all the people he had met never heard this side of him.
“I believe I had contacted you before our weekly meeting. Regarding the child.”
“What did Mrsha do this time? Is she still begging for money? Mrshaaaaa—don’t run! You know what you did!”
The exasperated [Innkeeper] made Fetohep chuckle.
“No. My apologies. The other child. Satar.”
“Wh—oh. Satar. Right. All them books you’re sending her. Er—as you were, Mrsha.”
Erin coughed into the scrying stone, and Fetohep decided to expand his lexicon when referring to people he was acquainted with.
“And your doings of late?”
“Um. Well, I told you the Albez stuff is mostly sorted. I just sorta laid Sprigaena down there the other day. Bam. I hit this half-Elf I know with it. She was pretty mad.”
“I believe the Claiven Earth, among other half-Elven enclaves, are in a frenzy. I did not inquire into the matter. Yet.”
“Yeah. It was a thing.”
She said that as if one said the name of Elves regularly. But despite her cheery, if not impertinent and casual tones, the [Innkeeper] and the Revenant were not silly gossipers. Fetohep did that with Kevin.
“What’s wrong, Fetohep? Your heir made it sound bad.”
He hesitated. Relating the entirety of this—of the letters needed a preface. So he began with the easier topic.
“I have just received my first—request. From someone aware of Khelt’s issues.”
The voice became sharp and quiet, and Fetohep replied quickly.
“The same. The Quarass of Germina beseeched Khelt, in light of our mutual alliance during the Meeting of Tribes and the munificence of Khelt to its neighbor in the Shield Kingdom of Germina…”
“…to provide some small relief in the forms of what I took to be lumber, gold, and Water Gems—Ger’s oasis is strained by the increasing population, I gather.”
“So what did you do?”
Fetohep flicked his fingers.
“I answered her request graciously and immediately. It is a trifling favor that I am sure the Quarass will remember.”
Just like she was going to remember Khelt’s weakness. Erin Solstice huffed.
“She’s gonna keep asking, isn’t she?”
“Naturally. But as it comes to neighbors in aid…”
The Quarass was, ironically, the best and worst person to be blackmailing Khelt. Mostly because she was usually good at it. She would ask for whatever she needed—but not drain Khelt. By the same token, though—it was impossible to get her to stop.
The problem with an immortal ruler was that even if you killed her, the next Quarass would remember all your weak points and be holding a grudge. Nevertheless, as Fetohep related, that was the most pleasant part of his morning.
“I’d beat her up, if I were you. I’d be like, ‘hey! You can’t do that!’ And then she’d probably take revenge. Which is why I would have been a terrible Queen of Khelt. Like, a total Izimire.”
Fetohep actually twitched about that. His reply was thoughtful.
“That is your claim, Erin. I see how you would come to it—but I would have placed you as another Emrist. Or Heris.”
She started laughing at that, and he joined in. Because—obviously—the second and eighth rulers of Khelt had both been hugely influential. Great, glorious—and Emrist’s Scourgeriders had blasted entire nations. Heris, after Khelta had passed, had sent the Vizir Hecrelunn and her armies on a collision course with her neighbors and established Kheltian dominance for good.
It was a joke only the two of them and the Quarass would get—and the Quarass wouldn’t be laughing after what Heris had done to her armies.
Then, as Erin stopped giggling, Fetohep spoke.
“My—indisposition was not due to the situation in Khelt. Alked Fellbow was instrumental in assuaging some of my fears on that matter incidentally.”
“Told you that you could trust him. You can always trust archer-guys. Halrac, Bird, Badarrow—they’re my guys.”
Erin was smug, despite her method of vouching for people being entirely inane. Fetohep rolled the flames in his eyes, but he felt—relieved.
Relieved to talk to someone about this. The speaking stone was encrypted, but the two of them were careful to be somewhat secretive. Nevertheless, it was then that Fetohep decided he needed to tell her.
“I received letters. That was why I felt such a—dismay. May I read the first to you? It would illustrate my chagrin.”
It was almost as if she knew what he would get before he did. No—it surprised her for the first few lines. He heard her gasp when he read the young Greenpaw’s letter. Then it seemed like she knew every line of why so many letters had poured in.
“It sounds like home. Only, there aren’t many Fetoheps. There are a lot of King Poos.”
“Please stop giving the High King nicknames.”
Erin chuckled, but suddenly her voice had the same strain as his. Fetohep regretted that—and more words came spilling out of him, though his lungs and throat were long since decayed.
“I regret it. I am sorry, Erin Solstice.”
“For galloping an army across a sea? For saving Mrsha’s life and everyone else’s? Don’t be silly.”
She sniffed—and Fetohep knew that these were great accomplishments. He still felt as alive as the day he had run across Chandrar, racing time to do what had to be done.
Yet now—he clenched one fist upon his throne, and his voice rose. He could not help it. The palace still echoed with his tones, and his subjects looked up. At their king’s impotent emotions. Those flames…
They were the colors that Erin thought of when she thought of Fetohep. More than glory. Not the same as happiness. Great purpose made manifest. Probably, in time—
She had yet to give that emotion a name. But it was his, in every part of his voice as he confessed.
“If Khelta had been wrong, Erin Solstice. If her prediction had not come true, I would have taken my armies and placed them across Izril rather than returning all I could to Khelt. The first thing I would have done would be to send to Magnolia Reinhart. For her, I would have built that bridge between north and south. Sent a hundred thousand laborers to realize that vision.”
He could see it, pointing his armies to march past the Walled Cities with their standards on high. Facing down the haughty Drakes, placing them around tribes and safeguarding the Gnolls’ lands.
“What else would you have done?”
Erin encouraged the undead king, and Fetohep went on, speaking from that dream that would never be.
“The next deed would be Liscor. An army—led by Salui or Hecrelunn.”
“Whoa, whoa. I don’t want—”
“As you have so pettily done, Erin Solstice, I return your ‘shush’. Silence a moment. I would pass by that inn upon the hill or tarry my forces only long enough to see Hecrelunn’s humiliation anon. Then—Khelt’s legions would pour into that dungeon and root out the last monsters. End that place and march onwards.”
Erin was just breathing, but Fetohep knew she was listening. He stared at that image. And then reality. Now, he hesitated, for even the off-chance of saying this next part was dangerous. So he couched his language and knew she understood.
“I would have used my forces to prepare for a war—that great war. I would have prepared by making Khelt the enemy of mortal foes. By destroying those it would be better never to stand with. No matter the cost—I would hammer out that alliance that even Khelta would admire. I would have done these things, you see. If only.”
His voice was so filled with regrets the [Innkeeper] was silent a moment. As if searching for things to say.
“I have let you down, Erin Solstice. And Khelta. I should have apologized to her.”
That was all he said. His head lowered, and the speaking stone threatened to slip from his fingers as Fetohep’s eyes and will faded—until a voice snapped through the speaking stone.
“Don’t be disgraceful.”
Fetohep jerked upright. The female voice who snapped at him sounded young—but older. It sounded—
Well it sounded a bit like Xierca, for all it was a tongue, not the tones of graceful undeath. Erin Solstice’s voice rolled around the throne room.
“Let her down? Let us down? When I despaired and the ghosts stood alone and even legends were afraid—Khelt stood with us. Khelt’s king rode across Chandrar. Not the Mages of Wistram. Not the Walled Cities. Not the Blighted Kingdom or any other. One kingdom fought alongside the dead. And you know something, Fetohep? Khelt’s finest hour wasn’t then. Your people are alive.”
“I have nothing to give them. Nor those reaching for help.”
How ridiculous. He should be encouraging her. But—everyone needed this. Erin Solstice’s voice was firm.
“You don’t? You’re Fetohep of Khelt. You are the last part of Khelt still standing—that’s more than they have. They know it. You’re better than their stupid rulers, and that’s why they’re asking.”
Erin Solstice paused, and then her voice grew softer.
“You—of them all, you would have been a fun king. Even for me.”
She didn’t linger on the words, but they touched him. Erin Solstice went on, her voice growing louder, rushing over the greatest compliment any monarch might ever receive.
“You might not have armies—but you have Khelt’s treasures. Don’t stop now. How much money did you say you had?”
“Enough to destabilize the idea of economy. I have treasures, but no arms to hold them.”
“What? Don’t you have guests? Y’know, Fetohep, it’s better to have friends than a treasury. At least, I think so. Again—bad ruler. I’d leave you all broke. You still have a lot. So, uh—buck up, alright? That means don’t give up. If Mrsha can go to school, anything’s possible.”
Fetohep realized he was sitting up again. He leaned back against his throne and, despite himself, chuckled.
“That cannot have been easy. Tell me about it.”
So she did. They spoke lighter then, and Fetohep felt more himself after that. Indeed…he thought the same held true for her. Especially when his eyes flared and he had an idea.
A poor ruler reacted to situations. He had done a lot of criticizing of late without looking in a mirror. But after speaking to her—Fetohep was reminded who he was.
Ruler of Khelt. King of Khelt. Not the egotistical vanity of someone else. A man, just a man, chosen by Khelta’s hand through the ages to be the best. So—he promised the [Innkeeper] he’d try.
The [Mercenaries] of Dovive arrived in the palace later that morning. They’d been beset, again, by people offering the delicate breakfasts, although today a lot of the subjects were trying their hand at new crafts with a will.
Still, the nervous group of men and women checked their stitching and clothing as they lined up. They were accorded all the hospitality of the palace and offered rooms to visit or fine food of their own to dine on while they waited.
Herdmistress Geraeri and the Gnoll Chieftains were visiting Fetohep first.
Unlike his gloom of before, the King of Khelt was sitting on his throne in dynamic fashion. One leg crossed over another, sitting with the crown of rulers upon his head as a [Fashionista] held up a series of clothing sets he sorted through.
The Centaurs of Zair were nervous—but the Herdmistress had been greatly compensated for her deeds—in levels as well as wealth. Even so, she had to wonder what Fetohep wanted this time.
“Herdmistress Geraeri, have you breakfasted as of yet?”
It was a mark of Fetohep that he did ask the people so conscientiously about something he, personally, would never have issue with. The king waited until she said that she had, then, as the Gnolls listened, he pointed at a suitable garb.
“Have it prepared within the hour. Herdmistress, will you indulge me in the way of the People of Zair with a story?”
Of all the things to ask—she recovered and bowed with a smile.
“The exchange of stories is one great custom of ours. What might I offer you?”
Fetohep rested a finger upon his emaciated lips.
“Tell me, Herdmistress—how did the People of Zair come to Chandrar? Yours are not a native people to this land. It is my understanding a rift forced your departure from Baleros.”
Her smile slipped. That was a sore point, still, but she nodded.
“It is a long and mighty tale. To do it justice, I would convene the lesser clan leaders and storytellers and make it a feasting tale of ten days over a festival. Full of anger, grief, nostalgia, and, of course, reenactments. Should I declare such a day or will you settle for a simpler version?”
The King of Khelt smiled, for she was not without her own pride and pushback. He lifted a hand and seemed to reach—part of his hand vanished as the Herdmistress saw the familiar trick, the Skill.
“My inquiry is not meant of vanity’s sake or to offend. Rather, I candidly ask, Herdmistress, for you are a citizen of Khelt. I regard you as such.”
“The People of Zair—”
She was worried because he had promised them such independence. Fetohep nodded.
“—may choose. But you have done me such services that I am compelled to ask. For you are Khelt’s great champion, Herdmistress. So I ask again—what are the People of Zair’s story? What great grievance is left unchecked? It is the same question I shall ask of the Gnolls.”
He glanced at the Chieftains. Then he withdrew what he had found.
He had offered Geraeri and her people blades to fight at the Meeting of Tribes. This time—even Fetohep’s great strength shifted in order to hold the suit of linked armor aloft. Geraeri blinked, and a Gnoll made a sound.
She had never, ever seen Adamantium chain-mail before. Let alone…her eyes widened as they went over the dangling object. Fetohep needed nine servants to hold the huge, complex piece of armor aloft. In two parts.
It was a kind of torso, helmet, and armpieces—all linked chainmail—and a barding of the same. Barding—for a horse.
Armor for a Centaur.
“It was customary for Serept to make armor for every species. This was the Adamantium piece he forged as proof of his mastery. It was gifted to a Centaur of Baleros he held in great esteem and reclaimed in ages since. Herdmistress, I have no other sets so fine, but my vaults hold many bows. Arrows and blades—yet these are the meanest of my tokens. Far better to have cornucopias and potions to heal, rather than harm. Hence my question. Do the People of Zair still have a dream left unanswered?”
He leaned over upon his throne. The golden eyes glittered—then turned to the Chieftains.
“And you, Chieftains of the Tribes—your peoples are scattered. You stand upon new lands. What will you? Gnolls have walked Chandrar’s soil. Your birthright lies scattered across Izril. Tell me a story, and if it is one that can end without death such as I abhor—then I will arm you with the means to reach the ending.”
Reach the ending? The Centaurs were looking at each other. One whispered.
“We left Baleros an age ago. Our grudge—the other clans are probably dead, some of them.”
“Ships can be arranged. But if it is deed—or reconciliation that awaits—then speak it here, and honestly, Centaur Trall. For Khelt will welcome your people if the Herdmistress settles Zair’s long exile.”
Fetohep’s flaming gaze winked as the Herdmistress was, once again, lost for words. She had to beg a moment to collect her thoughts. The Chieftains were also staring. So, Fetohep summoned the [Mercenaries] of Dovive.
“A time has come, brave warriors, for you to return home.”
“You have been beyond generous, Your Majesty. We shall remember your hospitality—and the wonders of Khelt’s paradise until the end of our days.”
Their leader bowed, but Fetohep lifted a hand.
“Hospitality. Your own bled and died on Izril, Captain Randolen. I have offered you bed and food and friendship—but not my thanks. This is Khelt’s gratitude.”
He clicked a finger, and the [Mercenaries] turned as servants strode forwards. They planted blades on the ground, and the warriors gasped.
Mithril-enchanted glaives and a set of the same metal stood on the proud servants of Khelt, who modeled the armor—a full set for each warrior.
“Your Majesty! For us?”
The King of Khelt nodded.
“It is my understanding you have served Dovive in times of strife. That—lesser enemies still dog your city. Hounds. Should I send you back armed with naught but thanks and trinkets and hear that one of the brave mortals who dared to ride with the Hero of Zethe had been laid low in battle? No. No—you shall go with armor and weapons and gold.”
“We cannot repay that, Your Majesty—”
The [Captain] was getting kicks from his company, but even a [Mercenary]’s greed could be tempered by this much magic and expense. Especially because he feared there was a catch.
Fetohep’s reply was to chuckle. He gazed at the Centaurs and Gnolls, and then pitched his voice low, in a stage-whisper.
“That you are sons and daughters of Dovive—I shall not offend you by offering you citizenship in Khelt, for you have families and your city alone you surely love.”
He ignored the looks from some of the [Mercenaries] that said they might think about it—if he offered. The King of Khelt went on.
“Dovive needs you. They need the courage it took to join me. So if I send you back, arrayed—the cities who have pledged to Khelt cannot be made part of Khelt. I shall not expand Khelt’s borders recklessly and snap up colonies here and there. Rather, I would have proud allies. If, in however long or short it takes, I should receive a familiar face leading a delegation of proud folk—I will remember Dovive’s name.”
He gestured, and the first blade he took as he rose from the throne. The King of Khelt strode down and offered the glaive to the men and women. He turned and looked at his guests.
“I have a fondness for great tales. I should like to see more told. Indulge my request, and return to your homes heads held high. Then—when we next meet, I shall listen to what you have done.”
His eyes met one of the servants, and Pewerthe smiled. Then, Fetohep of Khelt returned to his throne. This was well. This was something.
—But he had more to do. Something far greater that he had come up with. Erin Solstice had heard out his idea as he worked it out, and while she would have ruled differently than he, he listened to her. She was young, and perhaps not as old as he was, and certainly less decorous.
But he trusted it when she laughed.
So it was that the King of Khelt appeared on the scrying orbs. He stood, having booked a time with Wistram News Network and every other television.
For he was Fetohep, and his deeds were legion. He spoke, and a world listened, for it must. Whether it hated him, whether it feared him or admired him or begged for his ear—
He was Fetohep.
They knew him, if not personally, like the little white Gnoll insisting he was her best friend as she sat in school and everyone laughed at her, or the Gnolls like the [Historian] who gathered around and watched him with great expectations—
They knew Fetohep.
He could not answer them directly, the people starving, starving for a blanket or food or security. And it showed. Perhaps, you saw the pinpoints of flame in his eye sockets, his deep regrets as a [Reporter], Drassi, introduced him.
But then they grew, grew with cunning and the knowledge he had learned as a ruler. He could not lift the world upon his shoulders. So this—is what he did.
His robes looked different today. They were golden, to match his eyes. The kind of ostentatious, flashy gold that meant a ray of light hitting them created a sunburst.
Woven truegold, which was not, actually, the most expensive of cloths he had. Yet it was the most showy that even plebian rulers and tasteless mongrels could ‘appreciate’. The High King of Medain was very impressed, for instance, at the sheer gold-cost.
Fetohep had actually replaced his crown with another one that he kept as a spare—that had a massive black diamond embedded in it. It sat too-heavy upon his head, and the flashing rings upon one hand shone as he lifted them.
It was all a show. Such acts, such deeds, might not impress the Quarass, who knew true power and taste, or even the King of Reim, who had seen it too.
But it probably did speak to a petty [Lord] or a young [King].
Duke Rhisveri of Ailendamus stopped dead in his tracks as he saw King Itorin II watching the scrying orb. He had never seen someone glitter like that.
Azemith made a gagging motion in silence behind some of the nobles of Ailendamus’ court. Visophecin glared at her. He watched, wondering what Fetohep of Khelt had decided to say.
There was no reason given for the broadcast—only that he had apparently booked the time. Naturally, if it were worthless, he’d lose credibility. Somehow—the Lucifen thought Fetohep knew exactly what he was doing.
Tone. Posture. Intonation. He did not shout, he boomed. His voice had that sense of being loud without seeming as if he was needing to raise it. Commanding.
Even Lady Zanthia of Izril could not point out a flaw to the [Ladies] she was coaching in such things. Fetohep did not gesture wildly with his hands—he emphasized, every few sentences, using a swift, controlled motion to enhance his words.
Not even Pryde could look more arrogant. And even she stared, reluctantly, at someone who was more famous, more accomplished, than she.
Erin Solstice listened with a twinkle in her eyes. And if you were very clever, like Pisces, you could see her lips moving along with the words Fetohep projected.
“I am Fetohep of Eternal Khelt, Nineteenth Ruler of the Necrocracy of Koirezune! Protector of Jecrass, Conqueror of Medain and the Claiven Earth—Horselord of the Windswept Lands! My titles are endless. My armies without number. I am Fetohep, King of [Kings]. Look upon my visage, ye mighty, and despair! No nation can equal mine, not in wisdom or greatness or worth of rule.”
He spread his arm, and from the palace, the audience could look upon that city of art and wonders, upon streets of banked embers, past orchards blooming next to houses floating in the air. Across murals of the greatest of figures, past rooftops glittering with silver, and mage-lights like contained stars sitting just to illuminate for fancy and joy.
Fetohep turned, and his raiment flashed again.
“I have heard it said—by peonic fools of little worth or perception—that Khelt’s armies alone dignify my nation. That my paradise is merely ‘equivalent’ to a Terandrian kingdom. That I, Fetohep, am not personally superior in every way. I have reserved this moment to prove otherwise. Accompany me, and I shall demonstrate the proof of my words without question.”
He nodded to Drassi, and the [Reporter] bit back a laugh.
“Your Majesty, that is a claim! Khelt is a beautiful paradise, but how can you say you’re better than any city or nation? I think Pallass—and my home city—and about every other nation is about to call in and dispute that!”
Fetohep lifted a ringed finger.
“The proof is indisputable, Miss Drassi. Nor will I be so quaintly absurd as to compare ‘feeling’ or anything as pathetic as the weight of history. Or edifice. What makes a great ruler?”
That threw Drassi for a second. She looked at Fetohep, and he drew himself up.
Arrogance. The king was arrogant. He had always been so—but his true talent was unsurpassing arrogance. And—proving it. That was what he did to visitors of Khelt. Now, Fetohep adopted a tone that was less superior and more lecturing. He produced something from the folds of his robes like a magic trick, but it was not.
Like a [Poet] in repose, he lifted a simple object up. It was a handful of petals, the audience saw, soft and blue. The king poised there.
“Is it levels? Truly, Miss Drassi? Such a simple opinion. Should we look at strutting peacocks of rulers and compare their attire? Their personal qualities? I am a King. No. The weight of monarchs is in the value of their nations.”
“That sounds reasonable. So, do you compare that in landmass, army size, uh, the amount of gold you earn per year?”
Fetohep dismissed this.
“Another misguided notion. The worth of a ruler is reflected, surely, in the quality of his kingdom. To the wagging dogs who claim their steadings are superior to mine—I challenge anyone to do this. Via scrying orb—this is how you tell the worth of a kingdom.”
Then he opened his hand, and the flower petals flew out. They caught along a breeze that may-or-may not have been engineered by a [Mage] in the background, and everyone saw one of the petals was painted gold.
They danced upon the wind, a shower of blue, and that piece of gold flew off towards one of the many streets below. Fetohep pointed.
“There. Chance shall inform our passage. After all—when a ruler tours his nation, he must not follow pre-planned routes. When he goes, it is quietly and in disguise. So—observe.”
He clicked his fingers, and his robes changed to mundane brown. Fetohep covered his face with a scarf, like a veil, and gestured to the camera crew. He descended into the streets, following where the golden petal had landed.
What was he doing? The audience was following along as Fetohep kept up a running monologue, and now the ruler was speaking almost conversationally, but clearly.
“In any city—let alone the capital—walk the streets, unnoticed. For if a [King] is seen to be coming, all he will find is facade and false masks. But here—look at what you see. Do you see elements of crime? Do you see a [Beggar] upon the streets?”
He pointed left and right as they headed down what turned out to be a residential district. Fetohep turned, randomly, and glanced down.
“Trash upon the ground? Do you witness rodents?”
“Is that proof of being a ruler?”
“Is it not? If I searched, I could not, with will, find a starving man or woman. Nor child. Nor am I merely a king who rules from the balcony. Observe—child!”
Fetohep spotted a little boy playing alone. He was probably five, and he seemed unconcerned with danger. When he saw the camera crew—and the undead Revenant staring down at him—the boy froze.
Even knowing his king, the deathly face was probably scary. He put a finger in his mouth—but Fetohep knelt.
“Do you know who I am?”
The boy could speak, and he toddled over with wide eyes. He almost plucked at Fetohep’s robes before perhaps realizing he should not, but the King of Khelt offered him an arm. And the boy, recognizing the gesture, hopped into it.
“Touch what you will. Are you, perchance, bored, child? What is your name?
The boy looked uncertain, and Fetohep lifted a hand. He produced a simple object as he lifted it out of his vaults.
“Indeed so. Then take this and tell me if it spins well. Have you ever seen such a toy?”
The little spinner was painted silver, and when the boy whirled it, he watched it zoom into the air with delight. He hesitated, wanting to squirm out of Fetohep’s grip, but the ruler simply placed the boy down—then leapt up, caught the spinner as it flew over a roof, and landed.
He handed it back to the open-mouthed boy and the camera crew. Then he turned to the audience.
“If one could find a child—any child—as they walked the streets of Khelt who told me they were hungry and showed signs of starvation, I would throw myself into the sea. You, who impugn Khelt—if the youngest in your lands want for food, you are worthless maggots not worthy to be trodden under my boots.”
The little boy looked impressed as Fetohep jabbed a finger at the camera. Then the [King] bent.
“Tell me, child. Would you care to accompany me for ten minutes? Your parents…?”
The boy pointed at a man and another man about to faint into each other’s arms. Fetohep nodded.
“Then allow me to prove another superior quality of a ruler. That—of one who can entertain even a small child by virtue of deed. Even for such a passingly short time as half an hour. A dulcimer.”
He requested the item and was handed it. Then—to everyone’s astonishment, Fetohep sat cross-legged on the ground and played a song to Eithr’s delight. He could play—and he knew the songs of the day.
Even drinking songs. Fetohep let the boy pluck on the strings, showing him how it was done.
“A ruler, Miss Drassi—should be one that can entertain a child. In his or her lands, one should not be able to find one who is hungry for more than half a day. This is but one test of a great nation such as mine.”
“T-there are more?”
For answer, Fetohep produced a ledger and offered it to the camera for inspection. It noted the neat sales and taxes accrued by a [Merchant]—one of those admitted to Khelt.
“Any document within Khelt’s treasury is immediately accessible to me. When we stand, Eithr, we will speak to this [Merchant]—and when we do, the ledger will be correct. A great ruler knows the intricacies of his own laws. Do you see now my point?”
It took some of them a while to do so. But Fetohep slowed, and to the little boy, who seemed interested, and to Drassi and the audience—and his subjects—he halted by an open well.
“Water puts out fires. It feeds a populace. It is one thing to keep a well filled—another from keeping it fouled. Yet in some cities—and I now name Taimaguros, for instance—the city of Bezbekale, I have observed, has no wells in some districts for miles. A pathetic distribution of water. How much time is wasted fetching it for families unlucky enough to live in the ignorance of the ruler’s folly? If a fire breaks out, those nearby are at the mercy of a spellcaster’s presence. Here, one may find water every four thousand feet at most.”
Eithr nodded quickly as Khelt’s king rapidly insulted Taimaguros. Then moved onto another target.
“I have heard it said that some rulers are ignorant to the address of law within their nations as well. They rely on the Watch with the pure cotton-thoughtlessness of a Sariant Lamb. I? I shall demonstrate how to weigh law personally—impartially. For if I do not understand the law, how can I take to task those who induct it? The correctness of governance stems from me.”
Now did you see? Drassi was keeping up, asking questions.
“It sounds like you have an entire—plan set up.”
“I have booked Wistram’s time, Miss Drassi. You need not attend, but I shall demonstrate the qualities of fine rulership. And then—consider the most egregious examples of failure I have witnessed. Let us…speak of Pheislant’s Havrington family. Whom I was recently vouchsafed as having evaded the law on multiple counts. Of course, Terandria is far from the only continent of imperfection. In my visits to Nerrhavia’s Fallen, only my good nature and the grace of my dignity have prevented me from commenting on how they have neglected the dues of their Hemp-caste. Things as mundane as the quality of their housing.”
“Some would say, uh—not me—that it’s a free market. That you’ve gotta rely on a good [Landlord].”
“And who punishes the landlords for ineptitude? I have, in fact, secured several informants who will perform a spot-tour of one of Nerrhavia Fallen’s districts in…eighteen minutes. Where we will see if we can spot a hungry individual. Or perhaps signs of decay in the foundations of a building. Not that I would expect it of a nation equivalent in stature to Khelt.”
The King turned his gaze, and his golden eyes flashed.
“In fact, I have a number of cities we might ask someone with a scrying orb to tour. I have a list of nations claiming superiority over mine. Let me pick a name—unless you have a preference, Miss Drassi? Perhaps Sir Relz’s own Pallass?”
Now you got it. Nerrhavia Fallen’s courts were in a panic—but how could they know which of their countless settlements would have Fetohep’s agents in them?
Yes, he was insulting the nations he was picking out. But it wasn’t an accusation. It was…well.
Quintessential Kheltian ego. So massive it was blotting out the sun. And if you didn’t like it? He had a point. Why wasn’t that person fed? Were the cases of law he indicated correct?
But there was something else. Fetohep was speaking, slowing, and more than one puffed up shroom of outrage listened. They looked at his robes as they shifted back to purest gold, the rings and flash of magic and style, his displays of grandeur, and listened.
“A ruler prioritizes children above sheer monetary gain. One must…one must take the child firmly in hand and feed them a cookie. For how will they learn if they are not fed? Beating, neglect are the acts of barbarous brutes. These children become the foundational soldiers and crafters and adventurers of your nation. Neglect them, and you place weakness into your very kingdom. Want of food is failure. Yet fools who bring corruption into your governance are, I have heard it said, inevitable.”
His tone mocked the very idea.
“I know a hundred ways to identify a worthless bureaucrat or petty noble. The first—is promptness of thought! If they cannot tell you, on the spot, how they have spent a gold budget, they do not know. If they must rely on a servant or subordinate to tell you how a grand project will be executed or the status of it, they are ignorant to the very task they have been entrusted with.”
This was it. The King had a selection of regal clothing he never wore. He had—ironically—all the time in the world, even with ruling a nation.
He did not have armies. They thought he did, but the King had none. But he had a presence. He had Khelt—
So teach them. By example, by haughty superiority if nothing else—but teach them. From arrogant Wyrms to petty [Lords]—
Show them how it should be done. The King of Khelt turned with his arms spread.
“Paradise comes slowly. But it is never impossible. I will see it done a second time. Do as I do—ask me, you who crave Khelt’s splendor. I shall answer and humiliate every flaw. Until every land is as munificent as Khelt.”
He turned and looked out upon them all. An ancient sight, searching out their worth and unveiling it like an archeologist. A million million gazes rested upon him, and the King of Khelt bore them like a cloak to his pride. Fearlessly proud of their judgement, as ever he had been. But no longer aloof.
To the girls and boys, the [Innkeeper], the little [Druid], the countless children of this world over—
He would have been a fun king. Perhaps a better uncle, or grandfather. A meddlesome undead ruler, inquiring into their health and whether they had dined yet. He belonged to that destiny, an age of gracious rule until the first thing that gave out was his flesh, and he left a hundred generations of peace and gratitude behind.
No more. The King’s eyes burned gold like the purest virtue that Erin Solstice knew when she thought of him. The expression of duty, of love and determination and will. Thence, he stood in Koirezune, in the heart of Khelt. Holding onto his shining pride and heart for as long as it still gleamed upon the sands of Chandrar.
Soon, the vermin would crawl in. The nights grow longer, and the foes grow without number, spilling bile onto his sands. The first looked upon Khelt hungrily from afar. But even when that day came—when the mountains crumbled down and the seas heaved, he would be there. Until his end, turning the tide upon itself.
That proud king heard the first ringing of the bells again. His last century, perhaps far less. His end of days. He rose to meet it with his head held high, the world trailing in his wake.
Fetohep of Khelt.
Author’s Note: So. In theory, I’ve still edited 3 chapters of Volume 1 despite going a teensy, a tiny bit over my projectons.
I know I harp on it every single time, but I will have this V1 rewrite done by the end of the year, at least, the first pass because it takes up too much of my writing power.
You can tell by the reduced quality of the chapters…since I began? I feel like some aren’t bad.
The point is, it’s stressful on me! And yes, rewriting probably is improving my writing level. Also, studying other authors.
I hate doing homework. And sometimes trying to improve is homework, but it’s a bad thing for a writer to stay in their specialty too long. You should expand it. Like an undead king learning to play the dulcimer and dance and stuff.
Anyways, hope you enjoy! I am headed for the end of the year and while it might not be the same bang as other volumes—Volume 9 isn’t going too badly. Right? Hmm. Well, I haven’t seen any more rogue rodents in my house. I’m gonna call that a win. pirateaba away!
Backseating, Corn, and Young Rags by LeChatDemon!
Colth and Erin by Fiore!
Death Card by Ravvlet!