Spanning the eastern length of the Homeworld, the kingdoms of Valtaria stretch all the way from the broken peaks of the north down to the florid inlets of the south. Amid great cliffs, ancient forests and majestic fjords, the common folk of Valtaria till the fertile ground in their scattered farmsteads and humble villages. Looking down upon them are the grand citadels and imposing fortresses of the Monarchs, through which all power flows.
As much as its peasantry may strive for a simple life, Valtaria is no quiet backwater. Insults and quarrels levied between the Monarchs quickly spill over into war between kingdoms - each party determined to show their words are backed up by real conviction. The Walkers raid the south for sport, baiting the Monarchs into ill-fated crusades. Opportunity’s agents stoke tensions, arm conflicts, and use destabilised regions as a conduit to sell their contraband wares. And always, the Monarchs-In-Shadow dutifully provide fresh beasts, plagues, and schemes against which the righteous can sharpen their blades. Valtaria is the birthing place of legends, and life there is never dull for long.
Stories from the Kingdoms of Valtaria are likely to feature characters from Valtaria, the Walkers, and Opportunity.
The Final Crusade
"Monarchs of the Valtarian Kingdoms! I stand before you today to make the most important proclamation of my life - the most important in all of Valtaria's proud history.
Days from now, our finest heroes will step through the Worldbreach, and into the Crusading Realm. They carry with them the sagas of Valtaria, our traditions, and their own immaculate Imperative. By their hand, this strange new world will be made in our image: great, and noble, and everlasting.
It is to this purpose that today, I pass on the mantle of Grand High Imperatrix. Whether this falls to the Commander-Vindicate, the Carrion-Queen, or some other hand - that is a matter for our brave crusaders to decide. For under the darkness of villainy, our light shines ever brighter. Beneath the radiance of just rule, it is those in Shadow that keep us honest. Whatever our fate, Valtaria shall prevail.
Our Final Crusade begins. To you, our intrepid crusaders: Valtaria stands behind you. Your victories shall be eternal."
- - Final address of Grand High Imperatrix Villastria, the Most Honourable Witness.
A Dark Bargain
Author: Carrion-Queen Vermilion, The Unrepentant
She is eight years old when the Red Riders come to her village.
She’s heard the adults talking, of course; the Tyrant-Sorceror is on a campaign of conquest, pushing into the lands of the Gryphon Knight while he broods over the death of his beloved. Occasionally the village sees plumes of smoke rise in the distance, and the elders make the ward-signs and spit into the shadows. No-one talks about what will happen when he comes to their quiet village, but she is a bright enough child to have gathered it is ‘when’ rather than ‘if’; her mother’s little inn, under the sign of the one-eyed gryphon, grows busy with travellers fleeing before the Red Riders’ advance.
She is eight years old when the Red Riders come to her village.
The Tyrant-Sorceror is in a whimsically generous mood today, and so the village is offered a choice; bend the knee and submit, offer up fitting tribute, and he will perhaps be moved to spare them. Or defy him in their liege’s name, and be cut down.
They are peasants, simple folk, not warriors. A few of the young folk shift restlessly, but they kneel when the elders tell them, and the village brings out all it has to give; not that it is much. A few pieces of heirloom jewellery, gifts bestowed in a moment of a Monarch’s largesse several generations past and treasured since; a couple of decent weapons; the finest wines from the inn…
The one-eyed gryphon sways in the wind, creaking ominously, as the Tyrant-Sorceror surveys their offerings. Red Riders and villagers both wait silently for his decision.
“Insufficient.” he says at last. “Sanguine.”
One of the Red Riders steps forward, sword sliding smoothly from his sheath. He grabs one of the elders, pulls him into the centre of the circle. The blade comes down.
She stares at the blood, wide eyed, as the crowd erupts into noise, words washing over her. “Please, have mercy-” “-but it’s all we have-” “No, please no-”
“Sanguine,” the Tyrant-Sorceror says again, voice utterly calm, not even sparing a glance to the fallen corpse.
The Red Rider with the bloodied sword steps to the edge of the circle again, glances about for the next victim, and steps back into the centre dragging-
-dragging her mother.
Her heart stops as her mother’s eyes meet hers, as her mother calls her name, tells her to look away. She can’t. Her mother lands on her knees, still reaching out towards her, begging her not to look, not to watch. The blade rises-
-and she is moving before she thinks, rushing forwards into the circle, the little kitchen-knife half forgotten in her hand biting deep into a gap in the Red Rider’s armour, and for a frozen instant as his blood rushes hot over her hand everything is still.
She is eight years old when she stabs the Red Rider. And she knows as soon as she does so that her life has just changed irrevocably.
The Red Rider stares at her in disbelief, blade still upraised, one hand pressed against the bleeding wound. She can see him deciding whether to strike her down, and though he does not look happy about the decision the blade begins to turn towards her, everything moving slower than her racing pulse.
“Hold.” The Tyrant-Sorceror’s voice cuts through the air, the Red Rider freezing mid-strike as he hears it. For a moment, absolutely no-one moves.
And then she hears the Tyrant-Sorceror walk towards her. The knife falls forgotten from her hand as she quakes in terror and fixes her gaze on the points of his jewelled boots; not for the likes of her to look upon the face of a Monarch, she knows that much.
Except he takes her chin in one red-gloved hand and tilts her face upwards, forcing her to meet his eyes. She cannot look away. The air around him shimmers with raw power, like the heat-haze over the hills in summer. Even through the glove, his hand is so warm that it feels like it might burn her.
“Perhaps,” he says, voice soft and thoughtful, “this village does have something worthy to offer up as tribute, after all.”
She blinks in surprise, as his meaning sinks in, and her voice slips out in a startled squeak before she can stop it. “Me?”
“You have spirit. Fire. And that hair...” He coils one lock of it around his finger thoughtfully. “A true alchemical red. Magic in the blood. A good sign.”
The Red Rider shifts uncomfortably, blood seeping through his fingers. The Tyrant-Sorceror barely spares him a glance. “Oh, do stop bleeding, Sanguine.” An irritable flick of the fingers in his general direction, and the Red Rider gasps in sudden pain and fights to remain upright as his wound burns shut. She stares wide-eyed at the casual demonstration of power.
“But I did say, did I not, that on this day I was moved to offer choices.” His lips curve upwards; a surprisingly warm smile, and yet not in the least reassuring. Behind him, her mother softly sobs her name; she dares not look at her, dares not look away from him.
“So, let me offer you a choice, then. You can stay here, with the survivors – for there will be survivors, and I am not about to slaughter children over tribute insufficient rather than refused. You can grow to adulthood as who and what you are, and perhaps that fire of yours will call you to the side of the Gryphon Knight, or another like him, or to a higher calling still. But today, there will be blood, and you will watch.”
He smiles again, colder now, and holds her gaze. “Or you can come with us, and pay your village’s tribute with your service. But make no mistake, girl – this is not a kindness. I will not merely take you from them – I will take them from you. All that you have been, all that you are, I will remake as I see fit, and should you return here in a decade’s time with the Red Riders – assuming that you live so long, for my service is not a safe or easy option – you will look upon it blankly, and not remember that it ever was your home.”
She shivers, hugs herself briefly, and looks around as he releases her, apparently content to wait for her decision. The other villagers shift uneasily as her gaze passes over them, already avoiding her eyes. Her mother is still kneeling in the spreading pool of the elder’s blood, shaking her head and whispering her name, and for a long moment the two of them look at each other.
But she is a daughter of Valtaria, for all she may be a humble peasant. And when she is given the choice to save lives or to flinch from the cost of it… well, that is not so much a choice at all.
“I… I will serve, Majesty.” Her voice trembles. Her mother keens. The Tyrant-Sorceror smiles.
“Incarnadine.” He gestures forward another of the Red Riders, robed as a sorceror, who draws a vial of blood-red liquid from a pouch at his belt and holds it out to her. Hands trembling, movement unsteady, she takes it; the sorceror has to help her open it, and she brings it to her lips, waiting for her new master’s nod.
It fizzes on the way down, burns in the throat; the taste of it is utterly unfamiliar. Stars wheel before her eyes, crimson and hungry, and through them she barely makes out his form as he steps closer.
His fingertips rest lightly on her forehead, ten points of blazing-bright heat and pain. And then, somehow, impossibly (but nothing is truly impossible for the Monarchs, of course) they slide inwards, and her head is all awash with crimson flames.
“Do we have a Vermilion at present, Sanguine?”
“No, my liege. My sister died last autumn.”
“Vermilion it is, then.”
Light, above her.
Incarnadine the sorceror offers her a hand to pull herself back to her feet. She takes it, and rises unsteadily, turning to bow to the Tyrant-Sorceror on instinct. He smiles on her, and her heart sings with joy.
“Well, then,” he says brightly. “I think we’re done here. Vermilion, you’ll ride with Sanguine on the way home.”
“Yes... my liege.” The unfamiliar words are heavy on the tongue, but Incarnadine squeezes her hand in reassurance and her master smiles again.
One of the women is screaming, a name repeated over and over. Her head hurts; she tries to ignore it. It means nothing to her.
Sanguine glowers slightly as he helps her up onto the horse, stab wound not yet quite forgiven. She tries to ignore that, too. Incarnadine guides his own horse close to theirs, smile playing about his lips.
Vermilion is eight years old when she leaves the village with the Red Riders. She does not look back. Behind her, a woman’s voice rises to desperate howling, and a name echoes down the road.
The Tyrant-Sorceror hums idly to himself at the front of the column. Behind him, once the village is out of sight, the Red Riders make conversation amongst themselves; a few drop back to introduce themselves to the new recruit.
Sanguine is still glowering. “Aren’t you going to apologise for knifing me, young lady?”
“But… I’m not sorry.” Vermilion is genuinely confused. Why would she regret the deed that drew their lieges eye?
Incarnadine laughs, a sudden joyous burst of sound. “Oh, you’ll fit in wonderfully, young Vermilion. I do hope you survive the training.”
She manages a nervous smile. “So do I.” He laughs again, and this time even Sanguine joins him.
Vermilion is eight years old when the Red Riders bring her to the Castle of the Crimson Flame. Her tale is just beginning. And the tale of the girl she was is soon forgotten.
Author: By My Crooked Teeth
Many years ago, before the Fall of the Sublime Concord.
The Weeping Fortress, Seat of His Most Malevolent Majesty Aldaris, the King of Sorrows
The Oubliette was dank and dark and the sound of suffering and crying could be heard echoing from the cells. Wynn had been there for two weeks, all for stealing a loaf of bread. He knew he had it better than most, however. The King of Sorrows was a Monarch who believed that all should suffer as he did. He knew that it was only a matter of time before he was to be tortured or executed or both, depending on his King’s whim.
The door opened suddenly. Wynn thought that his time had come and that was when a figure was thrown into the cell. There was a blur of grey as he hit the stone.
“Thank you very much,” said the new occupant, as he got back up to his hands and knees. The guard kicked him in the ribs.
“None of your lip, traitor.”
The prisoner rolled onto his back to look up at his guards with a smile. “But my lip is upon my face, it moves of its own accord.” The guard pulled his sword out an inch. The prisoner opened his palms. “And yet it learns.” The Guard grunted and slammed the door to the cell. The cocky bravado of the prisoner vanished as soon as the footsteps faded away to silence. “Trust me to get the one with steel toe caps,” he grunted, nursing his ribs.
Wynn looked on in shock. He had never seen anyone talk back to the King of Sorrows’ guards. “You are a mad one, friend.”
“Probably.” The Prisoner in Grey cleaned his glasses on his white tunic. “Everything is a matter of perspective.”
“Who in the name of the Gods are you?”
“Do you want the lie or the truth?” he got up, dusted himself off, and began to inspect his surroundings.
“I want to know what to call you?”
“What do you want to call me?”
“Your name or a nickname. I’m just trying to be nice.” Wynn was getting a little defensive.
“Call me Crooked, everyone does.” Crooked probed his ribs to see how injured he was from his transport toward the cells.
“Alright then: nice to meet you Crooked. I’m Wynn.”
“Nice to meet you.” Crooked smiled and shook his hand and went back to investigating the cell. “What are you in for?”
“Stole some bread. You?”
“Oh? Treason, I suppose.”
Wynn was horrified. “How are you so calm?”
“Bit of advice: never show them you’re bleeding. It takes away their power.”
“But they do have power and you are going to be executed.”
“What they hell did you do?”
“Oh, the king found out I was planning on assassinating him. Found some letters and things like that. I think he is executing my confederates as we speak. He’ll want to save me for last, more than likely.” He paused and propped himself against the wall. “Don’t worry, I won’t be here long.” Wynn could not believe his ears. This man was truly insane if he was casually discussing the killing of a monarch – the King of Sorrows, no less. “You’re mad.”
“If you see that who am I to stop you?” Crooked smiled. “So: imprisonment is a bit steep for bread, isn’t it?”
“Repeat offender. It was either lose a hand or offer myself to languish at the King’s mercy, to break my mind until I became a Weeping Guard.”
“I can appreciate not wanting to lose a hand, but why agree to have your mind broken?” Crooked looked at Wynn with a curious eye.
“The Weeping Guard have their families fed and protected. Wouldn’t you do anything to protect your family?”
“I don’t have a family.” Crooked said in a matter-of- fact kind of way. “But, I can understand sacrifice.” An hour passed in this way, Crooked asking questions of Wynn and Wynn remaining constantly confused by this stranger. They were interrupted by the echo of boots striding up the corridor and the sound of someone unlocking the cell.
“Traitor!” The guard barked, “The king will see you and pass judgement.”
“Those were swift executions.” Crooked shrugged, “Good luck, Wynn.”
“May the gods have mercy on you, Crooked.”
“They won’t, but thanks anyway.” Crooked shrugged again and followed the guards out of the cell and toward the king.
Aldaris the King of Sorrows was a thin man, his skin was sallow, his hair lank. Every part of him, from toes to crown, were testament to his melancholy. He sneered when Crooked was pushed into the room. Crooked made a courtly bow.
“Your most Malevolent Majesty, I am honoured by your presence.”
“Pretty words will not save you, Godric. I have found your co-conspirators and I have put them to death, I have sent my armies to cut down your waiting armies, I have taken your foul usurping works and brought them low until you remain my only former advisor to know that the down fall that you were the architect of is nothing but a broken dream. Die knowing that you have failed to snuff out my majesty.” There was a moment’s pause. “They are all dead your Majesty?”
“To the last man.”
“I am glad you took my advice, you have saved me a lot of work.”
“What are you talking about? More lies and falsehoods?”
“The Truth actually. And that is far more dangerous. There was no army, there was no alliance against your rule. I simply named the strongest people to take after you and let your paranoia do the rest. You cut down all who were loyal to you. You sent your army to assault another kingdom, one of the light and you likely told them not to stop until all your enemies were dead. The problem with brainwashed individuals is once you know the programming, they are very easy to direct. Believe me, I know. Most of your palace is empty, all you have is the barest of guards and cells full of prisoners. You are defenseless my king.”
“I do not fear you, trickster. I have you weapons, I have your keys. You will not be able to perform your sorcery.”
“You are right but why would I shoot you? That seems like a rather dull way to tell the story.” Crooked patted himself down until he pulled out a small cylinder with wires sticking roughly out of it. “Do you know what this is, Your Majesty?”
“Nothing that can threaten me.”
“If you see it like that, Your Majesty, that is your choice. Perception is reality. But this is a transponder from a People’s Combine vessel. One that they are actively searching for. A good number of the crew of
which reside in your cells to be broken and made into Weeping Guard.” Crooked threw it to floor, “I activated it around an hour ago, while languishing in your cells. Can you hear the sound of engines, Your Majesty? Because it will get louder and louder the closer they get.” And the king could, the humming of engines and the thud, thud, thudding report of Combine Guns.
The Monarch stood up. “I should kill you where you stand.”
“Yes, but you will want to save your strength. You didn’t keep enough Weeping Guard to protect against a couple of Combine ships.”
“I do not need much strength to end a mortal’s pathetic life.”
“Who said I’m mortal?” Crooked grinned. “THAT’S MINE.” The curved knife flew into Crooked’s hand a guard ran towards him. He caught the blade in the chains and tangled him up with a swift slash across the throat. The guard struck the ground with a look of contentment at his life ending. “Your Majesty, you have been found wanting of your purpose to this new world that will be. You will bring nothing but horrors when they will not be needed. Only challenge and hardship, dispassionate and fair. For that, by the power invested in me by the Sublime Concord, you will be put to death by the ways of narrative and irony.” Crooked walked over to the desk that had his keys and picked them up. He slid a key into the manacles and they clicked loose. “If you want to have a villainous breakdown, now would be the time to have it.” He smiled.
“I am going to destroy you; The Concord have no power here. You will die – no, I will break you. I will make you a tool to me, a tamed pet for my amusement.”
“Good luck with that. Honestly, you shouldn’t talk conditioning with an Ex RevCorp. You will lose.”
The King drew his sword and charged down the steps of his throne. “YOU WILL BREAK, YOU WILL CRY, YOU WILL UNDERSTAND SORROW. YOU WILL DIE AND I WILL MAKE YOU FIND RELEF IN IT.”
At that moment, there was the BOOM of cannons report and the crack of small arms fire. Crooked smiled. “Good luck with that.” And he broke into a run away from the enraged king, Crooked threw open the door to the throne room and yelled, “Comrades! Comrades! A tyrant stands when he should fall! For the Glory of the Combine!”
There was an answering cry from the Combine soldiers. Crooked smiled, bowed and saluted before running away. The King of Sorrows broke into a run after him. He was met with a hail of gun fire from the approaching Combine. The King of Sorrows turned to face the peasants that dared enter his palace.
He would kill them and then find the rat who let them in.
He did not last nearly as long as he expected. A secret that most shapers ignore, though they are powerful and beyond mortals. Even a wolf can be pulled down by enough rats. And so, the King of Sorrows learned the lesson.
Wynn heard rapid footsteps coming down the stairs and the thud of cannon fire. A familiar face appeared at the bars. “Crooked? You’re not dead.”
“More often than not.” Crooked shrugged. There was the rattle of keys and open the doors, Wynn looked surprised when the jailers ring of keys scattered into his hand.
“What happened? Why aren’t you dead?”
“The King had an unexpected guest. You are free now. I would run before you are liberated as well. Free who you want. But live your life.”
“What did you do?”
“Think of me like a gardener, pruning weeds in a beautiful garden. You will likely never see me again, count yourself fortunate of that. Goodbye Wynn – make your life count.” Crooked started out of the door.
“Why not? Don’t get caught stealing.” Crooked walked away.
Chaos filled the castle as Combine fought Weeping Guard. Crooked took off his robe and tossed it away, he crouched, pulled a dead volunteer into a corner, and took their uniform. Without a word By My Crooked Teeth walked out of the castle as it burned behind him. He looked back at his work.
“Have you ever thought that you would have been a better Hellion, Crooked?” said a familiar voice in the shade of a tree next to him.
“Hello Rain. You know I like my job. Besides, I talk too much to be a blade in the night.”
“How did it go?”
“Back to the Summit?”
“Yes. I need to commune with the Oracle to see where to go next. There is still work to do.”
The Last Knight-Errant of the Golden Age
Author: Martel Reynolds
The last knight-errant of the Golden Age
fought the last demon in the Month of Storms,
when the wind screamed above Valtaria;
when the rain fell like knives, when heaven bled,
when sky and earth poured out their armouries
together on the hero's uncrowned head -
as if a Monarch cared for Nature's rage!
If there was warning there, they did not heed it,
but threw aside the rain, laughed at the lightning,
and stood their ground upon the mountain-top.
We have no portraits of that last knight-errant,
not as they were; but you know how they looked,
a dream of power in flesh, a living weapon,
born to the blade and the awaited crown;
the incarnation of the blood immortal,
their hands incarnadine with mortal blood
and all the pride of old Valtaria,
and all the certainty of glory owed.
Say that the fight raged on through night and morning,
say that the sun turned over in the sky;
but say eventually there came an end,
and time did not respect it, but went on.
When did they know that they had killed an era?
Time does not bleed, nor history cry out;
and yet perhaps they felt it nonetheless -
a shiver in the world, a door that closes,
a threshold that cannot be passed again.
They say the last knight-errant, when they knew,
threw down the sword, threw down the shield, and wept,
wept like the heavens in the Month of Storms,
tears like a rain of daggers, tears like lightning,
wept for a world without their enemies,
wept for Valtaria, that still went on,
the rain still coming, fields still ripening,
into a future smaller than before.
The last knight-errant of the Golden Age
vanished one year in summer, when the nights
were scarcely breaths between the dusk and dawn,
and all the realm was haze and golden shadows;
the troubadours lamented for a season,
and then there was another to acclaim:
some other hero, newly in their power,
giddy with youth and immortality,
with head held high and aching for the crown,
hungry for victory, who sought their fate -
and though they searched the demon-haunted woods,
the peaks where great wyrms lurked, the gloomy meres,
the ragged marches of Valtaria,
the gaping sea, the grinding ice, the caves,
the swamps, the sulphur-springs, the crater-lakes,
the wind-carved desert and the frozen waste,
the ruined citadels of kingdoms past,
the tumbled pyramids, the fallen towers,
no foes assailed them but the mortal kind,
and those were little sport, and lesser glory.
Some say they reached a barren plain at last,
and some a field of glass obsidian,
where the young hero threw their sceptre down
and cried aloud, Is this Valtaria?
Is there no slithering or monstrous thing,
corrupted, vile, unnatural or unnamed,
that seeks a Monarch's blood? Is there no foe
left that is worthy of a Monarch's sword?
And from the darkness something answered: Yes.
A thousand portraits claim to show the first,
the very first, and all are different.
Choose one that suits: in armour lacquered black,
tall as the wave that swallows harbours whole;
or regal and diaphanous in ice,
crimson as murder on the untouched snow,
handsome as treason, beautiful as sin,
jewelled with the lightning or consuming fire;
swords like the scythe-edge of the waning moon,
arrows that pierce the heart and tear the soul,
lips that speak death and hands that conjure it -
death that comes heavy-laden-down with chains,
death that comes slowly as the stone wears down,
death without mercy, respite or remorse.
What thing art thou? the Monarch-Errant asked,
Beyond the truth thou art mine enemy?
Monarch-in-Shadow, said the very first,
and a new age broke forth upon the world.
- - fragment attributed to Troubadour-Primarch Maetherian
The Smuggler's Bargain
“A shipwrecked smuggler, you say?” Carrion-Queen Vermilion raised her eyebrows. “And why do you think a smuggler would be of any interest to me?”
Her advisors exchanged nervous glances. Finally Brandelis stepped forward. “We, ah... believe them to be a Shaper, majesty.”
“A Shaper.” She sipped her wine and let the thought roll through her mind. “That could be interesting. If true. Your reasoning?”
“They made it to the shore on this, my liege.” Brandelis gestured at what she had first taken to be a mere heap of wreckage. Looking closer, she realised what she was seeing; a makeshift raft, what seemed to be a metal hull panel with a broken spar driven into it by force and will, and a fluttering cloak of fuschia pink pressed into service as a sail. Remembering the storm that had crashed against her shores, she nodded. Nothing human could have survived the waves and rocks on such a fragile craft.
“Ready my barge, and have them brought aboard. Let it not be said that I brought them into Valtaria in defiance of the Imperatrix’s declaration of exile. And have the dead comb the seafloor. I want to know what exactly our guest was smuggling...”
Three hours later, the limp figure on the deck was still feigning unconsciousness in their puddle of sodden silks. Her advisors had dredged up a name for them – D;zyr – but little other information; it seemed they were a new arrival on the scene in Opportunity. Meanwhile, the undead searching the seafloor had made some interesting discoveries; several crates of weapons, rendered unusable by water damage, and several more of unknown alchemy.
Growing impatient, she signalled Brandelis to haul them to their feet.
Startled eyes flashed vibrant purple beneath an asymmetric fringe, darting across the deck to see as much as possible, as soon as possible. Lips already curving to an insouciant smirk. A duellist’s swagger, and a dancer’s grace.
They spotted her at once, and proffered a quick bow (barely low enough to not be offensive) in her direction, before spinning on their heel to take in the ship. Turning back, she was surprised to see their smile had broadened; not many reacted so to the sight of a black barge crewed by skeletal oarsmen, rowing in time to the beat of drums crafted from the skulls of drakes.
“Ah, splendid,” they walked towards her, nodding to the advisors and companions who tried to interpose themselves and sliding past them with the ease of practice. “You must be the Carrion-Queen. And here I thought that storm blew me off course. Ah – but my manners! I am D;zyr. And I am very pleased to meet you. There is a business proposal I would like to bring to your attention.”
“I am not a woman of business.” She settled back in her chair. “Particularly not with those already exiled from Valtaria. You have... let us say, one minute? to catch my attention before I have you thrown overboard.”
A startled blink, an appraising glance that weighed up the odds that she was serious. A flicker, ever so briefly, in that confident smile, as they realised she was indeed. A couple of seconds of rapid calculation. And a voice that betrayed nothing but the eternal optimism of a snake-oil salesman.
“Euphoria. Desire. And an expansion of the consciousness that can help the shaper’s arts.” D;zyr reached into a pocket of his garments and drew out a vial of green liquid, glowing slightly. “All in one dose. I call it Reverie. And I’m offering a lifetime supply.”
“From the goodness of your heart?”
“Hardly.” They gestured to the skeletal rowers. “I have need of your... particular talents. The process of producing Reverie is... onerous. Quite frankly, we’re running out of indentured debtors.”
“I... see.” Vermilion leaned back and raised her eyebrows. “You work your debtors to death, and now would have me raise their corpses to continue working?”
“Well, what would you do if someone owed you something they were unwilling or unable to repay?” D;zyr’s tone was perfectly reasonable. She shrugged.
“Should anyone ever be so foolish, I will have to let you know.”
“I shall look forwards to it.” D’zyr grinned. “I can’t help noticing I haven’t been thrown overboard just yet. I take it you’re interested?”
“Potentially.” Vermilion reached out and took the vial. “If this... Reverie... is all you claim.”
Two years later...
“No shipment again?” Vermilion sighed. “I am growing bored of this charade.”
“What excuse will D;zyr make this time?” Brandelis asked, lowering the spyglass. “Pirates, storms, sea monsters...”
“Oh, I think D;zyr is past making excuses. It’s been, what – a full month now? Long enough for the withdrawal symptoms D;zyr neglected to mention to have kicked in full-force, if I had not been counteracting the addictive properties from the outset. And did you notice anything... familiar about the weapons that Monarch-Pawn who attacked us last week had armed her little mob with?”
Brandelis thought it over, then swore and kicked the dock. “That Opportunity bastard. They were planning to betray you all along, then?”
“Well, of course.” Vermilion smiled. “That’s exactly what made the game interesting. Still, I was hoping for better. A little more patience, a little more subtlety... a personal touch.” She pouted, glaring out across the ocean.
Knowing the signs of her mood, Brandelis smiled warily. “You have plans of your own, then, my liege?”
“Oh, but of course!” She laughed, and turned away from the sea at last. “Ready the barge, dear boy. Let’s show this little upstart how the art of betrayal is done.”
“Vermilion!” D;zyr hid their consternation at seeing her well, managing to greet her with the warmth due a lover. “Darling, this is an unexpected delight.”
“If this is either, you are more of a fool than I took you for.” Her tone was almost calm. “And do not call me that. You would do well to remember, that I am the Carrion-Queen.”
“You asked me a question, the day we met. Do you remember? About how I would answer a debt unpaid.”
D;zyr frowned, and stepped backwards. Perhaps, she thought, they were finally beginning to realise the depths of their mistake. Too late, of course. “This is the part where I show you.”
Screams rang out below them. D;zyr turned away to look out over the railing to the production area below; stared aghast as the undead workforce turned against their living overseers, lashing out with tools or chemicals or claw-like hands against those who for two years they had obeyed unhesitatingly. Turned back, in time to watch the projected image of Vermilion fall away, leaving in its place a rotting corpse. A mirror on its face showed Vermilion’s smile, as she toasted them from the safety of her barge; a gem embedded in its chest pulsed with unstable power.
Acting on instinct, D;zyr dashed for the nearest window, and threw themselves through it just as Vermilion’s messenger exploded.
“Should we search the water?” Brandelis asked, aiming his spyglass at the coastline beneath the flaming window.
“No, no.” Vermilion waved the thought away. “If the whelp lives, perhaps they may learn something. And do you know... I really cannot be troubled to care.”
“Your orders then, my liege?”
“Bring the undead and the more intact corpses on board – we can always use more new recruits - and as much of the drug as can be salvaged. You have some contacts in Opportunity still, I believe – if the withdrawal symptoms are as bad as our alchemists advise, you should be able to capitalise on this.”
Brandelis blinked. Perhaps his Queen had been spending a little too much time around D;zyr, these past years, if she had thoughts of that kind without careful prompting.
“And when we have taken everything we want from this place,” she continued, lazily drumming her fingers on the rail with a contented smile, “burn it. The whole island. The very rock itself shall blaze...”
Brandelis relaxed. That, he reflected, was rather more like the Carrion-Queen he knew and served.