Reign of the Lich-King, Chapter 1
This one’s written in the Blue Rose campaign setting. It’s very D&D-like, but with its own romantic fantasy flavor. I like it, but as you can see below, I probably shouldn’t be allowed to run a campaign in it.
The zombie bird flew mechanically, each wingbeat exactly like the last, each providing just enough lift to keep the bird aloft. It flew at extremely high altitude, high enough that it would have suffocated had it not been quite dead already. As it was, it would arrive at its destination bearing its message quite dry and preserved, which suited the sender of the message quite well indeed.
Onward the bird flew. As a zombie, it had no real mind, just a formless, amorphous set of instincts related almost entirely to slaying the living. It retained enough motor function to move, however. Not enough to recognize its destination. But if someone very clever and very patient were to calculate the distance between two points on a map and translate that into a precise number of wing-beats, then give the zombie bird something it could recognize…
The bird flew high over the wall of the capital, far above the pair of rhy-owls who were keeping watch that night. Flew, until it reached a set number of wing-beats…then dove, pulling only at the last moment.
That drew alarms, and noise, but the zombie bird was heedless of this. It was aware, in a vague, empty sense, of the living things around it, and felt, in a vague, empty way, a desire to claw at them, to peck their eyes, to make them dead things like itself, but its orders constrained it. It remained, hovering, as humans surrounded it. Then one of the rhy-owls picked out its pale plumage against the great enlaid seal of Hart in front of the Royal Palace, and dove, and the bird’s vague, empty malice ended shortly thereafter.
One of the things Queen Jaellin, Sovereign of Aldis, had learned early in her reign was that it took surprisingly little disturbance to rouse the monarch from her bed. At least this incident, whatever it meant, had happened so late at night some extremely dedicated early risers would call it morning. She listened with half an ear to the chatter of her advisers. They all knew that they had the basest speculation now, and that it would be wisest to simply sit and wait for the Artificer’s Guild to examine the scroll attached to the messenger bird’s leg, but that didn’t stop any of her advisers from twittering back and forth.
“-draw a straight line back from its path to Kern, clearly it’s a message-”
“-what does a the plumage mean? Why a pigeon? Why an albino? We should have burnt it, it might be carrying a plague-”
“-just a glimpse of it, but I was certain there was magic on the parchment, I just hope the artificers are careful. Jarek’s evil magics know no-”
The doors to the meeting room crashed open. The night-shift duty artificer and duty artificer assistant stood, then bowed clumsily. It looked like they had ran all the way from their secure workshop to this meeting room.
“Your highness…” began the senior artificer, drawing his breath in slightly more measured gasps than his assistance. “The scroll was enchanted with basic preservation Arcana only. It was a message. A message to you, your highness.”
“What did the message say?” Queen Jaellin asked. If the message was meant to be confidential, it was long past that point now. The senior artificer took another steadying breath, then pulled out the scroll in question.
“I do hereby offer a provisional armistice and preliminary trade agreement to the nation of Aldis, and wish to meet with Queen Jaellin or her duly appointed representatives at Sylvan Ford, 30 miles southeast of the Black Gate, in three week’s time, under the noonday sun, that we may bring lasting peace and prosperity to both Kern and Aldis.
Signed and sealed,
Lich-King Jarek, Wizard of the Ninth Circle, Monarch of Kern.”
“This is a trap. This can’t not be a trap.” said Shari.
“But what kind of a trap is it?” asked Jorth. “We have escape routes straight into the woods, and with Nycillia here, not even werebeasts can catch us there.”
“For all we know, he’s simply developed some new kind of magical horror and plans to obliterate this area in its entirety.” said Albus, shivering. Field work was definitely not agreeing with him so far.
“Have faith, my friend.” said Nycillia. “Whatever the Lich-King has done, he has done without bringing the taint of undeath here. Of that, at least, I am certain.”
“The lich-king has many mortal allies.” mused Jorth. “But if they came early, we’ve seen neither foul hide nor stinking hair of…ah! There! On the river!”
A lone figure walked up the river, as easily as though it were a garden path, illuminated by the rising sun. Silently, the Queen’s Own watched. Clearly the figure was a mage of some sort. But who was it?
As the figure came closer, Shari breathed out, Nycillia pursed her lips, and Albus let out a quiet cry.
“There!” moaned Albus. “It’s him! It’s-”
“-not the Lich King. I’ve seen him before.” said Shari. “Look at him. The robe’s wrong, the face has flesh on it-”
“-whoever he is, he is undead, and very powerful. And making no effort to conceal himself.” said Nycillia.
“The crown!” whispered Albus. “I can feel it from here! That is Jarek’s crown!”
The man idly hopped from the river to dry land, looked up at the sun, then pulled a book from the sleeve of his black robe, and began to read. From this distance, it could clearly be seen that the man was undead. But freshly so, apparently. And although the black robe he wore looked nothing like the ancient, decaying finery Jarek was known to prefer, he wore a simple black robe. However, the gold crown of the monarch of Kern, studded with priceless black shas stones (or a very skillful replica) sat atop the dead man’s brow.
“Well.” said Jorth. “No sense in waiting.” He gave his fellows a quick once-over. Shari was sneering slightly, and her hands were playing about her sword-hilts; she clearly thought this was a trick, and was waiting for the trap to spring shut so she could stab it back open. Nycillia was frowning, but could be relied on to act instantly if whoever that was out there tried any sorcerous arcana. And Albus…
“Come on, man.” he said, hauling Albus back upright. “If that is the crown of Jarek and Jarek’s not wearing it, doesn’t that make you a little curious?”
He had chosen the right lever. Albus stood, and steadied himself.
“Greetings!” called Jorth.
“Oh, good!” called the dead man. Jorth suppressed a shudder. He’d heard vampires talk, and they you could barely tell from the living. But the dead man’s voice was a harsh croak. “You’re here early. I, Jarek the Lich-King-”
“You’re not Jarek.” called Shari.
“Is that Shari! It is!” called the man. His rictus grin turned up. “I knew that cave-in wouldn’t be the end of you! That was a very daring raid, by the way. I suppose I can say that now, since we’re going to be on the same side-”
“Pardon me for asking, but you…don’t look much like the Jarek we know. Nor are you acting like him.”
“Ah, then who’s crown am I wearing?” asked the dead man. “I see you brought an artificer! Well, you’re welcome to examine the crown, as well as myself, but I’d strongly advise you to refrain from touching either with anything organic, including bare skin…”
Albus scrutinized the crown. “That crown…well, it’s an ancient magical artifact far beyond my ken. It could be a replica. But it’s a replica someone spent hundreds of thousands on, at least.”
“I can explain, of course.” said the dead man. “I had been planning on it. I’d actually wanted to offer you some food and drink about now, because this is a slightly long explanation, but I figured you wouldn’t accept it. Also, I couldn’t find any on short notice. In any case, I am, as you surmise, not the Lich-King you know me to be. Neither was the last Jarek.”
“The last Jarek?” asked Shari.
“Yes. It’s ironic, isn’t it? The first Jarek Lich-King won his kingdom by betraying his master, back in the days of the Sorceror-Kings of old. Disrupted his magical rituals, tore his soul apart, claimed his kingdom, and made of his new crown a phylactery.”
Jorth couldn’t help but let out a grunt. Now he was with Shari. This had to be a lie. Because if it wasn’t, then Jarek – or whoever this was – had just confirmed the one weakness of the undying lich-king, and there it was in front of him…
“But it turns out that betraying a sorceror-king is a chancy thing. The Dark Arising didn’t take, whether due to a death-curse from his master, a mistake in the ritual, or just bad luck. Jarek, Lich-King, discovered that in an attempt to gain eternal life, he’d doomed himself. He’d have a few decades at most as a lich, then the crown would consume him.”
“So he worked to stave it off, of course. He beggared his kingdom, looking for a way. Of course, he needed to keep up appearances. He spent even more on keeping his kingdom in line, on keeping you and the Jarzoni crusaders out. Eventually, he even brought in apprentices, to contribute their living blood and magic to stave off his own decay. He knew damn well that they’d betray him eventually, so he kept them under the strongest magical compulsions he could devise. It wasn’t enough, of course.”
“So that was you?”
“Oh, not at all! I’m at least King Jarek the Eighth. And I know for a fact at least one of them was a queen. All of us apprentices who figured we’d walk in the path of our dark master, and only when the crown had hollowed him out did we snatch it up, never guessing or speculating why we had succeeded when so many others had failed…and there we were. There I was, a few months ago, in fact.”
“So, Jarek is a title?” asked Albus.
“Well, that and my predecessor flensed my name and a good portion of my identity from me before accepting me as his apprentice.” said the dead man casually. “So, Jarek is as good a name as any for me, now.”
“How do you remember me, then?” asked Shari.
“One of the Jareks experimented with using Mind Shaping to recreate his memories directly in his apprentices, as a supplement. And as a measure of security, I imagine. I mean, from one point of view, my predecessor isn’t really gone at all. I remember far more of his unlife than my own life.”
Shari shuddered. “I guess we’re both victims of him, then. And…if you really did kill him…”
“Technically the crown did. I just assisted.”
“Right, then. Your highness.” Jorth gave a little bow. “So, you want peace with Aldis?”
“Yes. You see, although my memories, my personality, are altered, essentially lost, I have something that no Jarek before me ever had. I have learned economics. I was prepared to adopt the robe, shrivel my flesh, make my appearance identical to the old Jarek so that none would suspect. But first, I had to be sure. So I ran the numbers, then ran them again, and came to an inescapable conclusion. Kern is dying.”
“Kern’s been dying for a long time.” retorted Shari.
“Yes. And unless something is done within a few decades at most, Kern will be rendered unlivable. The ancient places of power that I require to stave off the crown’s hunger will be rendered inaccessible to me. I will die, and there will be no apprentice after me to take up the crown. From one perspective, the long war between Kern and the world will be over.”
“Of course, from another perspective, it would be as though the Shadow Wars had begun anew. I do not have the resources to conquer Aldis, but I can raze it. I have, locked away in vaults, flesh-shaped horrors such as the world has never seen. I have ancient engines of destruction dating back to the Empire of Thorns, kept hidden because they would ruin the delicate patterns of nodes I need to harvest to remain alive. I have toxins and plagues which I will scatter hither and yon. And if I am conquered, or boxed in and left to rot, I will lay waste to this world, and go to oblivion with the cold comfort of spite, if nothing else.”
Jarek looked back and forth to the Queen’s Own, smiling his rictus grin again. “Oh dear. Did I give the wrong impression earlier, with my politeness and my tale of sympathetic woe? Please understand that I am deeply, unforgivably evil. I pledged myself to the side of Shadow long before I found myself in Kern.”
“Right. You’re evil.” said Jorth. “So what do you want, then?”
“Peace and prosperity, as I said in my letter. I cannot rip the power I need from the soil of Kern, and my capacity for statistical literacy is stopping me from calling forth more apprentices, to replace me as so many before me have been replaced. So I intend to transform Kern from a blighted wasteland of misery and oppression into a mercantile powerhouse, and then I will simply buy what I require to survive. I, as long as I manage my kingdom well and fairly, will endure, and my kingdom will thrive. And Aldis will profit greatly thereby. Right now, all I ask for is peace. Have your queen withdraw her spies and cease her raids. You will of course noticed that I have offered you the same courtesy.”
“Jarek. Your highness.” said Nycillia. “Tell me, how many in Kern would you classify as Master Adepts of nature?”
“None. Why do you ask?” replied Jarek.
“How much, then, would the services for one such as this be? For, oh, say, three month’s service, cleansing poison from the land, sweeping the metal dust from the waters and the air…”
“Let us say I’d pay…oh, ten thousand gold for such a service.” said Jarek. “In fact, in deference to the fact that I’m in a very un-lich-king-like hurry, let’s say that we bargained, you raised me to twelve thousand, and move on.”
“Ny, no!” said Shari. “This is it! He asked for this meeting near a woods because he knew we’d bring you to scout-”
“Shari, I know. But we need information. The Queen needs to know what has changed. And if I do not return in three months precisely, with twelve thousand gold worth of freed Kernish slaves, then she will know exactly how much the word of King Jalek is worth, and how much regard to give his future threats of ancient weapons and sealed horrors.”
“Actually, there aren’t any Kernish slaves. Slavery is incredibly inefficient. Of course, the people of Kern do owe a debt to the state that they must repay before being allowed to emigrate, which is about one twenty gold per head for adults, but depending on whose debts you wish to cancel…”
Nycillia turned, embraced each of her companions. “I will see you soon.” she promised.
“One of us should come with you-” began Jorth.
“Friends, I figure better-than-even odds that this is a trap. And I am counting on you to save me or avenge me, but you can only do this if you are not caught with me. No offense, your highness.”
“None taken.” said Jalek cheerfully. “I can also send letters out on more zombie doves, if you give me a fixed location to drop the mail.” said Jarek. “For a small fee, of course.”
“Doves and pigeons are basically the same, yes? I distinctly remember learning that. So, as a symbol of peace, I bleached one after reanimating it to send my initial missive.”
“Your highness, I believe you have much to learn about the ways of nature. Shall we go and do so, then?”
“With great delight. I shall hopefully see you all at the Black Gate in three month’s time! And I’ll send a zombie dove to the palace again if anything changes in the mean time.”
And with that, Jerek strode forward with sudden speed, laid a hand on Nycillia’s shoulder, made a brief gesture with his free hand, and suddenly both were gone.