In an age long past, where myths were spun and stories told,
King Stormway stood firm, his heart and spirit bold.
With his noble kin, against the Ossiri he did stand,
A brutal clash of might, over every grain of sand.
The Ossiri came with fire, with fury and with might,
Bolstered by Khorindel, War God, shining bright.
The battlefield was rife, with clashes loud and dire,
Hope seemed but a distant star, a fading, dimming fire.
But as fate’s hand was cast, and the end drew ever near,
Khorindel’s gaze met Stormway’s, cutting through the fear.
In the heart of war’s tempest, a love profound did bloom,
Her allegiance shifted, sealing the Ossiri’s doom.
The tall and mighty king, with scars of battles past,
Had won the heart of a god, a love that’d ever last.
For twenty years she stood, by Stormway’s steadfast side,
Against all threats they’d face, with love they’d not hide.
A land under divine care, blessings did abound,
For with Khorindel’s love, prosperity was found.
Yet the Hall Etherial called, pulling her away,
For in the mortal realm, she could no longer stay.
With heavy heart and teary eye, she bade her love goodbye,
But before she soared to ether’s sky, she made a solemn cry:
“Should the land ever wane, or your heart despair’s embrace,
I’ll return, my love, and stand beside your place.”
For in love and war, promises never fade,
And legends of Stormway and Khorindel will never trade.
In the annals of time, their tale shall forever burn,
A testament of love, and the promise of return.
Father Bolton sat upright in bed, sweat plastering his thinning hair to his face, hie heart pounding rapidly in this chest. The vision that had woken him was already fading, but it left behind a sense of terrible urgency. He threw his bedclothes aside, lurched from bed, and pulled on the vestments he’d worn the day prior. “Northrup!” he cried as he fastened the closures, “Northrup!”
Bolton dashed from his small cell, nearly colliding with his young apprentice as the boy came barreling out of his own tiny room. “Your vestments are on backwards,” he corrected him. “We’re going to have a busy day. Right yourself, and prepare some tea. Idleberry, I think. For two. And if we have any bread left, bring that as well. With some jam.”
“Of course, Father,” Northrup gasped, attempting to turn his garments around while scarring down the hall to the temple’s modest kitchen. “Who are you expecting at this hour?”
Both men paused as a deep bell tolled, the sound rolling through the temple, echoing off its stone walls and finally, reluctantly, fading.
Father Bolton hurried to the temple door, throwing it open. “My liege,” he said quickly, ducking his head in a quick bow. “You honor us with your presence. Please, come in.”
King Senden was still shy of middle age, his close-cropped bears still dark and his face still relatively free of wrinkles and wear. Just now, with the dim light of false dawn glowing behind him, he looked almost otherworldly as he sighed and stepped through the doorway. “I wish I knew why I was here,” he said wearily.
“Please, call me Erich. It’s too early for formalities.”
“Ah… just so…” the priest stammered, not finding the strength to use the king’s given name. “You were, I assume woken by an ominous vision?” He gestured for the king to step into the small sitting room that sat just off the temple’s equally cramped vestibule.
“Nothing so dramatic,” Senden said as he settled into a worn chair. “I was first woken by an overwhelming need to use the toilet. I’d fully intended to return to bed for another hour or so. But…” he stopped and frowned, his brow wrinkling. “Something lingered in my mind. Something… pressing. Go to the temple of Khalindel, it told me.” He looked around for a moment. “I’ve never been here.”
“No, my liege,” Bolton murmured.
Senden’s gaze returned to the aging priest. “So why am I here?”
“One of the Oneiroi, my liege. The gods themselves are not permitted in Khalindel’s claimed land, but the smaller deities of dreams may come and go as they please. One of them will have brought the message.”
The king frowned again. “Message?”
“As you said, my liege, you have never visited our little temple.” Bolton strove to keep any note of judgement from his voice.
Senden shrugged. “I never understood the need.”
“My liege, I’ve seen the news. And I assume an attempt is being made to be honest with your citizens, but to also keep them from panic.” Father Bolton was, in fact, a keen follower of the news, given the near-complete lack of anything else to do in the palace temple. The ordinary populace weren’t even allowed to come here. But the priest was also a keen and critical thinker, and he knew the official news sources weren’t telling the entire story.
“If you’re asking whether we’re about to be overrun by a half-dozen other kingdoms all seeking to control the Starsource, then yes,” the king sighed. “Don’t bruit it about, but we’ve a couple of weeks at most.” His expression sank, and he stared at the floor. “And I don’t know that I can do anything about it.”
“The Shield?” Bolton asked.
Again, Senden shrugged. “We can raise it. I’ve left orders to do so immediately, if any major attack is mounted. When. But can we huddle behind it forever? We’ve managed to keep our enemies’ armies off the mountain slopes that surround us, but if we raise the shield they’ll occupy them. Surround us. Our farms can feed us, provided our population doesn’t grow. But is that it? We hide behind the Shield and stagnate?”
“We have no allies in the Outer Kingdoms?”
Senden shook his head sadly. “None. And every time we raise the Shield, they don’t see protection. They see something to covet. That, and all of our other technology. No, we have no friends. Even those few that will still trade with us want what we have, wholly and without exception. Half of them only trade ”
“And that, my king, is why the Oneiroi sent you here.”
“Why?” the king asked with a dark chuckle. “Does this little temple have some sort of ultimate weapon that will save us all?”
Father Bolton nodded slowly. “Of a sort, yes.”
The king stared for a moment. “Explain yourself.”
“What do you know of your predecessors, my liege?” Bolton asked. “Specifically, King Triberus?”
“He lived, what, two hundred years ago? We’d barely begun our technological revolution at the time.”
“And we were similarly beset by enemies?”
“Oh yes,” the king laughed mirthlessly. “If not worse. Nearly every one of the Outer Kingdoms was against us. They were still using swords and cannon back then, but they came in much greater numbers.”
“And yet we survived and remained free.”
“Triberus pulled off some kind of military miracle,” Senden shrugged. “Or rather Lesenay did.”
Bolton nodded slowly. “Yes, it was very much Queen-General Lesenay. But do you remember how Triberus died?”
“He was poisoned. Something in his tea, I believe. He—“
It was at that moment that Northrup burst into the room, holding a small tray laden with steaming teacups and a few slices of jam-covered bread.
The king raised an eyebrow.
“Not just now, Northrup,” Father Bolton sighed. “Off with you.” The apprentice left with a confused expression. “Poisoned, my liege. Yes. That’s what everyone was told. And Queen-General Lesenay, in his grief and rage, lashed out at our enemies. A ‘military miracle,’ as you said. Only quite literally so.”
“What do you mean, ‘that’s what everyone was told?’”
“Do you recall how the king was supposedly poisoned?”
“An Alethian spy. It’s why we invested so heavily in developing poison detectors.”
“Yes, which led to numerous breakthroughs in chemical sciences and technologies, even when the Outer Kingdoms were still figuring out vaccines.”
“You’re implying it wasn’t a spy.”
“Not yet. Are you familiar with Alethia today?”
“There’s not much there.”
“Interestingly, no. But there’s the Sea of Glass. A fast, undulating wasteland composed of glass. I’m told it reaches down hundreds of feet.”
“Yes, it’s quite the sight. What of it?”
“It’s where Alethia’s capital city was, two hundred years ago.” The priest gave the king a penetrating look.
Senden blinked. “You’re… none of our maps show that.”
It was Bolton’s turn to shrug. “They wouldn’t. We have somewhat older maps here in the temple that show where it stood.”
The king thought for a moment. “We didn’t have weapons capable of doing that, back then. The sheer heat… even modern fusion bombs wouldn’t do that.”
“So what are you telling me, priest?” the king snapped.
“This will be difficult to hear, my liege. I apologize for the circuitous route, but you need to know the history. The precedents. Are you familiar with Khorindel’s Promise?” The priest reached to a wall-mounted control and fiddled with it for a moment. A hologram sprang to life between him and the king, showing a fierce-eyed, long-haired woman wearing medieval armor. She held a long sword in one hand, its blade crossing her armored chest.
“I’ve read the stories, yes. Are you saying this is the God Khorindel?”
Bolton snorted. “No, this is the actress who portrayed her in a holo-movie. It was twenty years back, I think. It told the tale of she and King Stormway, the monarch who founded our nation.”
“I know who Stormway is,” Senden said wryly. “So this is about Khorindel’s Promise? You believe the God of War will return to devastate our enemies and make us safe? She’s long overdue, if so.”
“Which takes us to King Triberus,” Bolton said, his voice suddenly quiet. “The King was not poisoned. There was no spy.”
“How can you possibly know this?” Senden asked, his voice tight and impatient.
“Because this temple—which was rather more well-funded and well-staffed back then, by the way—advised the king, as I will advise you here today. We kept records. We know the truth that no other man or woman in that time knew. Not even Queen-General Lesenay.”
“King Triberus poisoned the tea himself.”
Senden’s eyebrows rose as he stared at the priest. “You’re saying,” he asked after a long moment, “that my predecessor killed himself? That he committed suicide?”
“Why in the gods’ names would he do that?”
“Khorindel’s Promise, my liege.”
“So you’re saying… what are you saying?” Bolton could sense the King’s frustration.
“My liege, we are the land of Khorindel, God of War. And yet she has just one model temple in the city proper, and it’s a modest one at that. And this smaller one, intended to be the private sanctuary of the royal family. Does that not seem odd?”
“Not really,” Senden said. “This isn’t a thousand years ago. We’re a technological people, the most advanced on the planet.”
“And the Centruum?”
“What of it?”
“Altars to every other god, in the center of the very city that Khorindel’s claimed for herself?”
“Some people are still superstitious.”
Bolton sighed. “My liege, the stories you’ve heard about Khorindel’s Promise are half-truths. Truths, but only part of the whole. We, my predecessors and I, believe that Khorindel erred when she made her Promise. The gods live outside time, and her love for King Stormway likely blinded her to the consequences of her actions.”
“Be clear, priest,” the king ordered in a low voice.
“We believe Khorindel, living outside of time as she does, sees everyking of our nation as King Stormway, her love. And we know that she can be summoned by her love’s blood.”
“Sum—you’re saying I can summon Khorindel.”
“As King Triberus did, yes. And for that matter, as Kings Oriel, Princet, and Stomas have done in times past.”
“An actual god.”
“The Sea of Glass was not made by mortal weapons, my liege,” the priest said softly.
“The truth is that the reigning King must die by his own hand, in the presence of his Queen-General, who must believe he was killed by the nation’s enemies,” Bolton said. “And in her rage—and she must be enraged, my liege—she will be possessed by Khorindel, who will lash out at our enemies with all her godly might.”
King Senden stared at Father Bolton for several long, quiet minutes. “Queen-General Lesenay died just months after her husband.”
Bolton nodded. “Consumed by the power of the god, yes. Nine months is the longest we’ve recorded. The gods have always demanded sacrifice.”
“My liege, have you ever encountered any of the queens of the Outer Kingdoms?”
Senden blinked. “Of course. The Queen of Marcia was especially charming.”
“But weren’t they all? Beautiful? Charming?”
“And your own wife, my liege. Would you say she is… beautiful? Charming?”
“I’d challenge any man to tell her differently,” the king chuckled. “But… no. She’s not… ornamental, like the others.”
“Because our Queen is also leader of our armies. A Queen-General cannot be ‘ornamental.’”
“But we have generals. Ones you’re not married to.”
“Of course,” the king allowed.
The king thought about it, and then shrugged. “Tradition, I suppose. It’s worked well.”
“Tradition for this purpose, my liege. So that every king might have a wife, a lover, who was strong. Intelligent. Skilled in war. A worthy vessel for Khorindel, should need arise.”
King and priest held one another’s gaze for a long while. “So you are saying,” Senden said slowly, “that if I kill myself in front of my wife, that—“
“She must be enraged, not saddened,” the priest reminded him.
“Yes, I don’t think that would be a concern,” the King said, “but that she would—yes, in her rage—become possessed by the God of War.”
“And lay waste to our enemies, yes,” the priest said with a nod.
Bolton sighed. “I know it is difficult to believe, my liege. But we have far more miraculous things around us. Not our technology. The Starsource itself. Our Shield has functioned since the earliest days of the kingdom, has it not?”
“It has,” Senden said uncertainly.
“And without doubt, we have recorded four separate instances where ‘military miracles’ have rescued the nation from certain doom at the hands of the Outer Kingdoms.”
“And that those miracles invariably coincided with the death of the reigning king, followed months later by the death of his queen.”
“I suppose, but—“
“This is how it is, my king,” Bolton said, passion filling his voice. “The God is real, and Promise is real, and it can save us. Again.” He paused. “Would you like to see something? An artifact?”
“Will it make any of this make sense?” the king grumbled.
Father Bolton stood and strode out of the room, King Senden reluctantly following. It was a short journey down the hall to the only room that was sealed with an iron-bound stone door.
“Valuables?” Senden guessed.
“Hardly,” Bolton grunted as he began pushing the door inward. “We have a small vault for those. This door doesn’t even lock.”
“There’d be no point.”
After a moment, the king lent his shoulder to the task, and slowly the two men managed to wrestle the door open wide enough to enter the room. With the door open, there wasn’t even much room to stand in the room, and it featured one thing: an enormous broadsword hanging on the wall opposite the entrance.
The sword’s blade was wide, as wide as a man’s leg. Its flat surface was scratched and pitted with use, but its edges gleamed with a bright, implacable sharpness. The hilt was huge, winder around than a person’s forearm, and wrapped with thick, heavy wire. The crosspiece was a simple piece of cast metal, but it stretched wider than a mortal’s head.
“Gods’ hands, it’s huge,” Senden remarked.
“An apt statement,” Bolton acknowledged. “This is Khorindel’s sword.”
“Impossible,” the king scoffed.
“Entirely possible. She is a god, after all.”
“This thing is as long as I am tall.”
“We are given to understand that, once manifested, Khorindel is somewhat larger than a mortal.”
The king reached out to touch the sword, but Bolton stopped him. “You may touch it, my liege, but a touch only. Do not attempt to grasp it. Brush your fingers across the hilt only.” He frowned. “It took us a few losses to figure that out.”
“What will it do?” Senden asked, his fingers still outstretched.
Bolton shrugged. “Possibly nothing. That’s what I get. But I’m told that, for the right person, it will reveal the God’s truths.”
King Senden’s fingers reached slowly for the sword’s hilt, inching closer… closer.
“Brush it only,” Bolton repeated in a whisper.
Two of the king’s fingers touched the wire-wrapped hilt.
His face immediately fell slack, his jaw dropping gently. It lasted for no more than an eyeblink before Senden snatched his hand back, holding it against his chest as if in pain. His eyes had flown wide, and his face was flushed.
“You saw something,” Bolton said. It wasn’t a question.
Senden nodded. “It’s true. All of it.” A lone tear snaked its way out of one eye. “My Katherine…”
“Sacrifice, my liege,” Bolton reminded him softly. “To save your people. Your kingdom.”
“To lay waste to our enemies,” the king breathed.
“I don’t want to lay waste to our enemies!” Senden shouted, whirling on the priest. “I’ve passed up opportunities to do so!” He looked back to the enormous sword, his face covered in guilt. “I’ve probably doomed us in my reluctance to deal such death.”
“Why?” Bolton asked softly.
“Peace,” the king said, the word sounding dirty in his mouth. “I wanted peace. I still do. There’s no reason we can’t trade with the Outer Kingdoms. Convince them we’re more valuable as we are than as vassels or a possession.”
“We’ve focused on medical technology. Things they can’t turn into weapons. Things they need.”
The king sighed. “They firmly believe they can take it from us by force. Take everything.” He gave another grim laugh. “And they’re not wrong, at this point.”
“But if they were struck down?”
Senden shrugged. “A strong enough blow… perhaps. Probably. They’ve overextended themselves in their greed to possess us. A strong enough blow would cripple their militaries for decades. But we no longer have the strength to deal that blow. Our own forces are devastated. We invested so much in defense, that we have little means to reach out and strike.”
“Khorindel’s Promise,” the priest said.
The king sighed. “Of course.” He mused for several moments before asking, “I assume you know the story well? Of King Stormway and the God?”
“It’s something of a vocation for me, yes,” the priest said wryly.
“I always wondered… what made Khorindel turn? The Ossiri were attacking, she was their god, what made her turn to Stormway? He couldn’t possibly have been that good-looking.”
Bolton stared at the king for a long, tense moment. “You don’t know.”
“The true history. They never taught the masses, we knew that, but they were supposed to teach you. Teach the monarchs, the royal families. When did they stop?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”
Bolton stood. “Then follow me. You need to learn the truth about our kingdom. Northrup!” he shouted as he hurried out of the sword room. “Bring warming cloaks!”
The king scrambled to follow the priest further down the short hallway, into another cramped room. Northrup scurried in behind them, warming cloaks draped over both arms, a third already draped around his shoulders and fastened at the neck. This room was empty, save for a stone column that extended from the ceiling to the floor. A doorway was cut into the side of the column, revealing it to be hollow.
Bolton took a cloak from Northrup and pulled it over his shoulders, activating the warming field. “It will be cold, my liege,” he said, nodding to Northrup’s other arm. “I suggest you cover up.”
“It’s hot and humid outside and the sun isn’t even fully up,” Senden said doubtfully, taking the cloak from Northrup anyway.
“Trust me,” Bolton said. The king complied and the priest pointed to the opening in the column. “In you go.”
“I beg your pardon?” Senden asked, confused.
“It’s a whisper tube,” Bolton explained. “One of the last pieces of real magic left in our kingdom. Just step in, you’ll be fine.”
“If you think to summon the God by having me plummet—“
“No, that only works if you do it yourself. Knowingly, intentionally,” Bolton said quickly. “Fine, Northrup, you go first.”
Northup’s expression was full of dismay. “Are you sure you don’t want—“
“Go, boy!” the priest snapped.
Northup’s shoulders drooped and his face fell. He stepped forward, easing himself through the opening. The king’s eyes widened in amazement as the boy’s feet stayed even as if he was standing on solid stone instead of thin air. But when the apprentice was fully inside the tube, he suddenly dropped out of sight.
“He’s fine,” the priest said quickly. “You slow down at the end.”
“Necessary, yes,” the priest insisted. “Please, my liege. Step out quickly at the end, I’ll be right behind you.”
The king gave him an uncertain look, but stepped into the tube. He too was able to step on air as if it was solid, but once he was fully within the column he dropped rapidly out of sight, a quick cry of alarm fading as he fell.
Bolton stepped in after him.
They fell for several long moments, slowing at the end as the priest had promised, stepping quickly out of the column.
“It’s cold,” the king observed. Even through the warming cloak, he could feel the bitter temperature.
“We’re a hundred stories underground,” Bolton said as he pulled his cloak more tightly around himself.
Dim lights were slowly brightening, casting a warm, even glow across the chamber. The king saw that they were at one end of a wide hallways that stretched off into the darkness. The walls were uneven, almost rounded in places. The king stepped closer to examine them, and then leaned back with a gasp. “These are skeletons!”
Bolton stepped beside him, nodding slowly. “But look carefully.”
The king leaned in again, his eyes flicking across the bones that were stacked so tightly they might as well have been mortared in place. “The leg bones are too long. And the arm bones are too short.” He leaned in even closer, his nose almost touching the desiccated bones. “The skulls are all wrong. And they’re all too dark. Were they painted with something? A preservative?” He stood book and turned to the priest. “Or are these fake?”
Bolton shook his head. “These are the Ossiri.”
Senden blinked. “How?”
“This tomb predates King Stormway,” the priest explained. “It stretches all the way to the Starsource. This is how Stormway’s people first found it, in fact.”
“But…” the king started. His face twisted in confusion. “I don’t understand. Why would the Ossiri be buried here? They attacked us.”
Father Bolton shook his head sadly. “Khorindel supported the Ossiri because she’d claimed this place as her own. They were her people. We were the aggressors.”
“Our people came from the grasslands to the East. King Stormway and his people wanted this valley for themselves. The Ossiri objected.”
“But… the East is the end of the valley. It’s… solid. There’s a lake.”
“The Ossiri used the Starsource’s power to collapse that end of the valley. They opened a rent in the earth, flooding the far end to create Lake Inimicum. They’d hoped to cut King Stormway off from reinforcements, from supplies, and to prevent further incursions into their land.”
“And the God Khorindel switched allegiences.”
“I still don’t understand that part.”
Bolton shrugged. “Gods are… fickle. We aren’t their equals, and they don’t see us that way. We’re… playthings. Khorindel was evidently enraptured by King Stormway, and decided she’d rather have his people here. And so the Ossiri were wiped out in a night.”
“A night?” the king exclaimed incredulously.
“And their bodies thrown in the Starsource Forge over the weeks that followed,” Bolton said.
The king turned slowly, taking in the hallway and the thousands of Ossiri skeletons that formed its walls. “This all feels impossible.” He turned back to the priest. “What would you have me do?”
“Sacrifice yourself for your kingdom,” Father Bolton said simply. “The prince is… fifteen?”
The king stared at the priest for a long, quiet moment before nodding. “Still a boy,” he said in a rough voice.
“Appoint a competent Regent. Tell them you’re simply preparing for the worst. Appoint a head ambassador, if you haven’t done so. If you’re able to pull off a ‘military miracle,’ you’ll need to begin negotiating your peace immediately.”
“You’re serious,” the king rasped.
Father Bolton nodded. “As far as we know, if you’re killed by someone else’s hand, Khorindel won’t come. Perhaps she’ll take a fancy to one of the invaders, as she did with King Stormway.”
“You truly believe this?” the king asked quietly, his eyes flicking back to the skeletal walls.
The priest nodded.
“This is madness,” Senden whispered.
“Nobody,” the priest said slowly, “ever said that truth and madness were exclusive.”
A week passed before Father Bolton was again jolted out of his sleep. “Northrup!” he called, though less urgently than the last time. He slid out of bed and began carefully donning the formal vestments he’d assembled a week ago.
Northrup was similarly clad when the two met in the hallway. The air felt charged, heavy, and tense. “Fetch the chain,” Bolton ordered.
Northrup nodded and dashed off to the diminutive vault where the temple’s valuables were stored. Bolton ran down the hall where the door to the sword room still stood partway open. He ducked in, and his heart clenched when he saw that the opposite wall was bare.
He stepped back into the hallway as Northrup returned with a chain that had been welded into a circle. King Senden had sent it down the evening after he’d visited the temple, and the gift was why the priest and his apprentice had begun laying out their formal clothes. It was a Chain of Office, designating that the wearer was to be afforded every courtesy of the palace, including unfettered access to the royal family and the King’s Small Council. It was made from Starsource-Forged steel, and the light played strange tricks as it floated across the Chain’s slick surface.
Nobody would mistake it.
“Come,” Bolton said, draping the Chain over his head and resting it on his shoulders. He led his apprentice to the door of the temple’s library—the largest room in the place.
“Do I have to?” Northrup moaned.
“You’ll have to get used to it eventually,” the priest said, irritation rising in his voice. “I’ve told you to go see the palace medic for a drug.” He threw open the door to the library and strode in.
Northrup took two steps into the room and sneezed so violently that he fell backwards back into the hallway, landing on his bottom.
“When the immediate crisis has passed,” Bolton said firmly, “you’re to get some allergy medications. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Father,” a small voice agreed from the hallway.
“Ridiculous,” the priest muttered. He stepped to a pedestal in the center of the room, grabbing a thin, copper-bound book that lay atop it. The copper was still bright as new, without the slightest sign of patina or corrosion. He tucked it into a pocket within his vestments, strode out, and closed the library door behind him. Northrup was still pulling himself to his feet, sniffing mightily. “I’ll be back in a few hours, I expect. Bar the door. Admit nobody to the temple until I return. Understand?”
It was a walk of under ten minutes to the palace’s main entrance, a fact that made Bolton grind his teeth a bit when he remembered that the King had never bothered to make the trip. Eight guards blocked the entrance, each of them more tense and alert than Bolton had never seen. They parted when they saw the Chain of Office. Although Bolton had spent the past week familiarizing himself with the palace’s layout from floorplans in the temple library, in this moment it had all vacated his mind. He waved to one of the guards. “To the Small Council. Immediately.” The man nodded and dashed off, and Bolton found himself breathing heavily as he struggled to keep up.
“Gentlefolk,” Bolton panted as the guard admitted him to the Council room and closed the door behind him. “Lord Tremblay, General Dossen, Lord Eaton, Lord Romblin, Lord Severus. I am Father Bolton of the Temple of Khorindel.”
The five Council members had turned at his entrance, eyeing him with distrust. But now their gaze settled on the Chain of Office.
“Ah,” Tremblay said, his deep voice echoing a bit in the chamber. “I see.”
“I do not,” Dossen snapped, her voice sharp and he gray eyes flashing. “This is no time for—“
“The Chain, Margharet,” Eaton murmured, nodding toward the priest.
General Dossen blinked a few times before comprehension settled onto her expression. “Of course. Apologies, Father Bolton. This is… a difficult time.”
“The King is dead?” Bolton asked bluntly. The five council members nodded. “Poisoned tea?”
Romblin frowned. “How did you know that?” she asked sharply.
“Where do we expect the spy was from?” Bolton asked, ignoring her.
“Bravicia,” Tremblay answered, his brow creasing in confusion. “But—“
“And how long ago?”
“Barely an hour,” Severus said. “What has this—“
“And the Queen-General?” Bolton asked urgently.
“Missing,” Dossen frowned. “Thought it was her screams that drew the King’s guards.”
Bolton thought quickly. “That’s enough time, then. Tell me, you must have some means of seeing Bravicia. Coastal city, isn’t it? Kingdom of Vaticulus?”
“We do, but—“ Tremblay began.
“Please, Lord Tremblay. All of you. Humor me in this. Just this, and I’ll explain everything. If I’m wrong, I’ll leave you in peace. But I’m not.”
Tremblay looked at the priest for a quick moment, his eyes still tracking down to the Chain of Office. Then he nodded, and tapped a command into the console on the table before him. Around the room, wall-mounted screens lit up. Tremblay strode to one, Bolton and the other Council members gathering behind him.
“What in the gods’ names…” Eaton whispered.
“That plume of black smoke,” Bolton said, pointing to the screen. “Is that the location of Bravicia’s capital?”
“Bravicia is a small country,” Tremblay said quietly. “That is… or rather was, the entire country. And a good portion of Celicios, their neighbor.”
“Does Celicios also produce spies?” Bolton asked.
“High-end prostitutes, actually,” Dossen said. “So… probably.”
“You promised an explanation, priest,” Eaton reminded him.
“I did.” Bolton turned to the table, withdrew the copper-bound book, and laid it gently in the middle. “This is the Promise of Khorindel. The truePromise. My Lords, General, I tell you now that our King was not poisoned. He took his own life, intentionally, and did so in front of his Queen-General. Her anguish, her rage, has made the Promise fulfilled. The Queen-General is gone, and she is possessed by Khorindel, the God of War.”
Nobody said anything.
“This is—“ Eaton began.
“There’s no way he could have known, and there’s no better explanation,” Dossen snapped.
“What?” Bolton asked, suddenly confused.
“Two hours ago,” Tremblay said in his deep, calm voice, “our scanners picked up a fleet of incoming sky carriers. Dispatched from Ruschos.”
“Most likely every damn one they’ve built,” Dossen muttered.
“And at the same time, we detected a fleet of submarines—likely Poltish—approaching our shore,” Tremblay continued. “The King retreated to his chambers, taking the Queen-General with him. Twenty minutes later, her screams drew their guards. But when the guards burst in, the Queen-General was gone, and the King was dead, blood foaming from his mouth.”
“Interregum tea,” Severus said quietly. “A… difficult way to die.”
“And then ten minutes later, no more, the sky carriers vanished. All signals of the submarines likewise disappeared.”
“I’m telling you, they’re stealthing—“ Dossen barked.
“They’re gone,” Bolton sighed. “Destroyed by the God herself. The Promise fulfilled. Are there any other—“
Alarms began blaring, and the General was the first to turn and run to one of the console along the room’s walls. “Launch,” she said grimly. “Three, at least. Ruschos, from their facility outside Moscolia and another from Lensing. I told you that was their backup command and control,” she added.
“Nuclear?” Bolton asked.
“Unlikely,” Dossen snorted. “They’ve perfected a wide-range neutron bomb.”
“I’m unfamiliar with—“ Bolton began.
“Radiation bomb,” Severus said. “Minimal physical damage but it’d poison everyone in our kingdom with a single hit. We’d all be dead in weeks, at the most. But the Shield—“
“Wait a moment,” Dossen said, her voice suddenly subdued. “Something is happening to the missile tracks.”
“They’re turning back,” Bolton said with a sigh.
“They’re—how did you know?”
“The God of War,” he said with a shrug.
“How do you—gods’ eyes, they’ve gone off.” Dossen fell silent as the large monitor above her head painted red icons over the Ruschos kingdom. “Three hits. Well-spread.” She shook her head. “Nobody in that kingdom is going to survive. Their neighbors are going to see a great deal of death along the borders, as well.”
“Father Bolton,” Romblin said, “would you like to fill us in?”
“I will,” Bolton promised. “But there are more urgent concerns. Who was appointed Regent?”
“Again, how did you—oh, never mind. Tremblay,” Eaton said. “We’ve already summoned the Greater Council to proclaim the Accession for Prince Tolbert.”
“My understanding is that our tradition of anointing male kings is just that—a tradition. That, under the law, a female is equally eligible,” Bolton said urgently, his eyes darting from one councilor to the next.
“True,” Tremblay said. “And Princess Talia is only eight months shy of her majority. But it’s a very firm tradition that—“
“Break it,” Bolton said fiercely. “Break it, and break the cycle.”
“Explain,” Dossen snapped.
“The God Khorindel is out of time. Every time we anoint a new king, she sees him as her own lost love, King Stormway. The new king takes a wife, a Queen-General, and leaves open the possibility of using suicide to summon the God. But if we anoint a Queen,” the priest said hurriedly, “we break the cycle. We may release Khorindel from her Promise. I—we, my fellow priests, going back hundreds of years—believe Khorindel may be able to return to us in her own person, instead of simply possessing a Queen-General in a fit of rage.”
The councilors stared.
“You know,” Severus said cooly, “it isn’t a bad idea for other reasons.”
“The boy’s only fifteen, he’ll learn,” Eaton said angrily.
“He’s in his room crying because he knows he can’t handle it. We’ll be overrun by enemies. They all know,” Severus countered.
“As Regent,” Tremblay said, stalling further argument, “the decision to propose a candidate to the Greater Council is mine.”
“I say raise the girl,” Dossen growled.
“I am inclined to do so,” Tremblay said.
“If I’m right,” Father Bolton said, “the faster you do this, the more death you prevent in the Outer Kingdoms. Otherwise, Khorindel will continue to fulfill the Promise.”
“The Greater Council should be taking their places already,” Tremblay said, moving toward the door. “I’ll address them at once.”
“You can’t do this!” Eaton cried, making to follow Tremblay.
General Dossen grabbed his arm. “Don’t push me, man,” she growled in a low voice. “Even his father knew Tolbert’s no king-in-waiting.”
“You believe in all this… religious mumbo-jumbo?” Eaton spat.
Dossen nodded. “Never turned my back on the God of War. And how else do you explain a flight of sky carriers vanishing? A dozen submarines, gone? Bravicia’s destruction? And three neutron bomb missiles turning back of their own accord and wiping Ruschos of the map?” She nodded. “The God is real, man. Accept it. And the priest is right—read your histories. This is the God’s fifth intercession since our people conquered this land.”
Bolton’s eyebrows rose. So someone had been taught the truth. And as Eaton’s expression eased, he realized all the Councilors must know. “You all know,” he said quietly as Lord Tremblay left the room. “But the King didn’t.”
“Man’s father was an idiot,” Severus said easily. “Didn’t want the boy raised feeling guilty, soft-hearted as he was when he was young. But the point you’re making is that if Khorindel left the Ossiri, she’s leave us as well. If something—someone—caught her eye.”
Bolton nodded. “It might. I told the King, you know. Last week. A dream brought him to the temple.”
“He left orders with the exchequer,” Severus said gently. “Your order is to be fully funded again, and those funds are never to be reduced or withdrawn. The only Eternal Edict he made in his reign.”
“Think the Greater Council will resist?” Romblin asked.
Dossen snorted. “They’ve met the children. They’ll be relieved. Gods’ teeth, Senden himself would have put it forward, given enough time to get used to the idea.”
“How long will it take?” Bolton asked.
“Those idiots?” Severus snorted. “A week, in better times. Now? An hour, perhaps. They’ll rail against it, but after they’ve had their posturing they’ll give in.”
Another alarm blared. General Dossen’s attention returned to the console. “Launches from Tuton and Intalium,” she announced. “That’ll be their new bunker-busters.” Her mouth thinned to a line. “This could damage us.”
“How?” Bolton asked. “The Shield—“
“Protects us above and below,” Dossen agreed, “but it doesn’t cover the entirety of the mountains that surround us. We’ve always had a theory that a strong enough blast to the mountain side would collapse them. It can’t hurt us now, but when the Shield is lowered, we’ll be left with a gap in the primary barrier to a land attack. Tuton and Intalium both have substantial armies out there.”
“Won’t our former Queen-General do something?” Eaton quipped.
Dossen nodded. “It seems she has already. The missile tracks are… turning.”
“Back?” Severus asked.
“No,” the old general said, shaking her head. “They’re turning toward Joplin. They’re allies.”
“How long?” Romblin asked.
“Seconds at that range.”
They waited quietly until the monitor began painting hit-marks over the map. Dossen shook her head again. “Capital strikes. But Joplin has always been wise about distributing their armaments. They’ll respond.”
And so they did: over the next thirty minutes the Outer Kingdoms exchanged blow after blow, in the form of missiles, attack craft, and more.
“We need to get to the Centruum,” Bolton muttered as another salvo painted red discs of destruction on the map.
“Whatever for?” Severus asked curiously.
“I have a feeling.”
“We can’t be seen striding down to the Centruum. While the Shield is up, all citizens are ordered to remain in shelter,” Eaton pointed out.
“We have security cameras,” Dossen said, tapping her console. One of the monitors switched to a split view showing two different perspectives of the wide central plaza. At its center, an enormous, eight-sided crystalline pillar stood, glistening in the blue-purple light of the Shield overhead. Each face of the pillar, they all knew, was carved with the countenance of a god. The Altars of the Eight. Ordinarily, the Centruum would be full of people, vendors hawking wares and refreshments from wheeled carts, and buskers performing for tips. At this moment, it was entirely empty.
“So what is it that you—“ Eaton began, when he was interrupted by two things.
The first was a feeling that swept through the room, an icy chill that touched directly on the souls of everyone present.
The second was a bright peal from a bell, high and cheerful.
“The new ki—monarch,” Severus noted.
The monitor showing the security view of the Centruum flared white, causing them all to flinch. The cameras quickly recovered, and the Centruum faded back into view.
The crystalline pillar had shattered, huge chunks still bouncing and settling across the wide, circular space.
“A new Queen,” Bolton whispered.
“Thank the gods nobody was down there,” Romblin observed.
“Thank the God,” Bolton corrected. “Her.”
“What the—“ Eaton said, leaning toward the monitor.
“Zooming in,” Dossen said.
“It’s the Queen-General,” Severus said as the figure, standing amidst the shattered wreckage of the pillar, became clear.
“No,” Father Bolton said. “That is Khorindel, God of War. She holds her sword.”
And with nothing around her to provide scale, the figure did look like the former Queen-General. But she was clad in ancient armor, and she was holding the sword that had gone missing from the temple.
“You will have that chance for peace,” Bolton murmured. “In the meantime, I suspect someone should prepare our new Queen to receive a divine visitor.”
In the twilight of a saga, where legends rise and fall,
Stands a mighty Queen, the fairest of them all.
Centuries of Kings and warrior Queens of might,
Have led to this moment, this auspicious twilight.
From Stormway’s valiant heart to crowns of gold and jade,
The lineage did stretch, a tapestry well-made.
But now atop the throne, with grace and wisdom gleaned,
Resides a ruling Queen, like none the realm has seen.
Khorindel’s Promise, once a beacon in the fray,
Now released and freed, has softly ebbed away.
The God, with a sigh, returns to ethereal sphere,
Her duty done, her conscience clear, no longer bound to here.
The new Queen with outstretched hands, seeks peace in every stead,
Dreams of unity dance, where once was dread.
The Outer Kingdoms gaze, upon this land so fair,
And see a chance for truce, in the cool, inviting air.
The drums of war have ceased, the battle cries now hush,
Replaced with songs of peace, and winds that gently brush.
A realm once torn and scarred, now mends its every seam,
For at the heart of it, stands the Queen of dream.
No longer shadows cast, by old enmities and strife,
The kingdom now embarks, on a bright, renewed life.
And as the annals tell, of this momentous peace,
May the reign of the Queen now never cease.