Queen Eliza Weyland thumbed the lacquered red token between her fingers, worrying away at the smooth game piece as she watched the battle play out before her. Upon her parlor table, her court advisors had arranged a detailed map of the Kingdom and the surrounding lands out to the reaches of Cerilia. Amandor had conjured up important details – the dense trees of the Spiderfells, the sharp bends of the Tuor and the Maesil complete with trickling water, tiny living cities that rose proudly from the grasslands, covering the table like hairs on an insect’s leg. But for all these masterful illusions it was the black discs, very real and so close like their worldly antecedents, that drew her perturbed stare. Her red pieces were not outnumbered, but like the black-pearl necklace of Ungwaith, the onyx pieces drew together on her position and threatened to strangle her. When the clasp that was Tuornen was filled in, the suffocation would likely be complete. She watched as another black token was moved down the Maesil, its notched facing-mark pointed towards those forbidden northern lands and sighed.
“Borog the Bold’s Stihl unit has proceeded south, along the river, here, according to our reports, Your Majesty. He leads his own division, and Ansibar Trinellian’s in reserve, a master of siege operations.” Marov was speaking both to her and the other generals and functionaries as they received new information by both sorcery and the mundane. Young pages rushed in and out, carrying scroll tubes with official seals; some were even wounded, perhaps riding hard from Endier.
“Shelita of Esden and Durthen Urendoin are still engaged at Endier, Your Majesty.” Fellock joined in. His capricious noble family had proven unerringly patriotic once the war had begun, and their sons and daughters were excellent generals and agents. Fellock himself had taken an arrow for her when the Kiergardian plot in the Landhouse had been revealed. “The Endiers have no love for Kiergard and help where they can. I hate to admit it, but if it weren’t for the genius of Bittertongue, we’d have been looking at an occupied city on our border by now.”
The assembled chuckled darkly at Fellock’s friendly jab and acknowledgment of a family rival. Marcello Stormmantle had won a dozen or more battles all the way from Mhoried after other more well bred generals had cracked. It was even said the silver-haired harlot had offered five-hundred acres to any that killed Bittertongue.
“On the seas, the Zikalan’s have proven as inept as they are at running a Church,” Admiral Omen said. “Their ships were outdated and outgunned, and the attempt at a blockade has been swept aside. At the very least, we can still access goods and allies by sea.”
“If the Khoranian’s and Trade Nations had half the courage as they had gold, they’d join against this illegitimate Church aggression.” Amandor rumbled, “but as it is we still have only been able to convince them of a policy of…Your Majesty?”
Eliza looked up from the table to match the gaze of a dozen or more pairs of eyes locked on her, some alarmed, some curious, others annoyed. She held the red token in front of her face, saw the vague reflection of her glowing eyes in that crimson mirror, and chose the latter for herself. She stood in a burst, and wheeled around behind her, sneering.
“What is it, Imp?” She said, her voice rising with disdain and frustration. And there was a red garbed figure, with a red mask, and sharp taloned fingers drawn up in a steeple standing near the entrance to the room, always there and not.
“That seems no way to treat a treasured advisor,” Faustus advised, though it was impossible to tell what his tone of voice implied. Despite Eliza’s Fae gifts or bloodline, this man or creature was as alien to her as any other. “I bring terrible news, but I am honor bound to deliver it.”
You could almost feel the mood in the room grow icy at this proclamation. A sound of steel behind her must have been someone drawing their sword, so fed up was Avanil with Fae “proclamations,” but Eliza held up her hand for calm. Faustus was glancing towards the direction of the drawn blade, and perhaps now she could sense a deadly amusement behind that blank mask which choked up her throat, but she cleared her voice and drew the Fae’s attention. “So what is it you have for us Faustus. Avanil is paying its debt; we have little left to offer at this late hour.”
“Well, Eliza,” Gasps and hollers from those behind her again, but she put up a fist to silence it. “Unfortunately, I must release you from your oath at this time. Avanil is free to enter Tuornen, and in fact free to choose as you will how to conduct this little game you are playing with the other creatures. There was great glory to be had, an empire to be ruled to be sure, but now /they’ve/ gone and ruined it.”
Eliza was almost dumbstruck. The idea of being out from under the thumb of Faustus, to have a chance to turn the war around had moments ago not been within comprehension. And suddenly, in these few seconds, all of her fortunes and the fortunes of Avanil and Cerilia had been turned completely around. “Who?” She heard her voice as a surprised croak. “Who ruined it?” It was all she could think to ask, meaningless really, and again, she could sense a profane delight in Faustus, like a child pulling the wings off a butterfly.
“You have Wulfric Valanir, Mbatye of the Path, Tamarind Alighieri, and Wistvan Lowdul to thank for this ill turn of events.” He said. “Well, I suppose Willow of the Woods and Merlkin Bramblefoot had some responsibility in this calamity as well. I am ever so sorry, Eliza.”
She leaned against the side of her chair to take it all in, wondering how those, what had seemed incompetent soldiers of fortune and pretenders to rulership, had done so much. As she did, another figure appeared. This one was like Faustus, but wore greens and blacks that shimmered like heat off the lands of the Prophet. But in place of a face or head, a field of stars and void were inscribed between a high collar.
“This cannot stand,” this new fae being said, musical like the notes of a clarino in the Avanese concert halls, though of deeper tone. “The fulcrum has been removed, the Whisperers are without a guide, and the succession is intended to be mine. You have no right to make these changes, and they had no right to use our Engine.”
“Lord Oberon,” Faustus bowed obsequiously, “I am humbled to have you here as my guest, and Eliza is as well, I am sure, as well as all of her little creatures she keeps for entertainment. Aren’t you my dear?” The court must have been pushed beyond their demand for manners of state, for there was no protest this time. “I suppose,” she muttered and bowed, curious what creature would have Faustus fawning so, and truthfully frightened. Avanil’s “patron” went on. “Forgiveness, My Lord, but this was all very by the rules. I am ever so sorry things have changed, and the Whisperers are so rudderless, the fulcrum so missing, Church less likely to realize your ends, but such are the dangers and thrill of such pieces and assets with their free will and all. Don’t you agree?”
“I want it reverted by Morganna. This was an appalling breakdown of decorum,” the one named Oberon spoke again. “And the succession MUST take place. As it is now, that may not occur. There is no defining moment, no crucible of the soul, nothing. I am to win.”
“Perhaps, if I may, Lord,” Another fae had appeared, this one more traditional, like the storybooks she had read as a child. A handsome, elven face. High cheeked and imperious.
Faustus gave a smaller bow this time. “Archimago, how nice to see you. We didn’t get to spend time together in the Engine,”
“Actually I prefer to go by Archie now,” Archimago said.
“Archie? That is positively delightful and unexpected! However did you come by such a title?”
“The very same pieces you speak of invented it on a whim. I do always choose only the best, dear Faustus.”
Faustus’ voice became pained. “Eliza, I am hurt. You never provided me with a name such as this. Except ‘Imp’ but that seemed more an invective.” He turned back to Archimago. “Archie, do you think I could borrow a new name?”
“Nothing would please me more, what shall we call you?”
“I’d like to use Archie as well, if I may?”
“A fine choice my friend.”
“Ah, thank you Archie.”
“Thanks to you, Archie.”
“These creatures are truly the cure for boredom,” Oberon said, as Eliza was trying to determine what she was witnessing. “But the succession, both of you! There are matters at hand. Archie, you had something to say?”
“Ah yes, My Lord.” Archimago dipped his head in assent. “I have examined a number of futures you might not have thought to yourself, and I think this might keep the game going, as well as satisfy the desired outcomes all at once. You see, when I was in and out of the Engine I learned of a new player that might be of some use to us…” And with a wave of Archimago’s hand they vanished, engrossed in some unknowable scheme.
Eliza pulled herself around the edge of her seat and sat down heavily, the rest of the men and women around the war table having done so some time previous. Finally, she spoke.
“If Faustus has released us from the oath,” she reached out and snapped the red token onto the table, in the middle of the Tuornen lands, her voice gaining strength, building to a crescendo. “We can push back. We can stop Kiergard from encircling us, and if we are fast enough, surprise them and wrap around them at Endier.” The other generals and advisors were nodding grimly now, the intruders almost forgotten. “Fellock, can you do this? I want us in Tuornen and wheeling through Alamie in three days time.”
“I will make it two, Your Majesty!”
“Good, then you all know what you have to do. Get in touch with that absurd little halfling Bramblefoot and tell him Queen Eliza Weyland is coming. For Avanil!”
The end of her shout was drowned by the cheers rising to meet her own.
In a forest that borders one of the great nations, a lonely keep rises out of the dense gloom, though not so tall as to breach the towering trees of that verdant stronghold. The thick undergrowth of the forest is treacherous and thick, prone to unstable footing for the unwary traveler, for the weeds and brush slither up through the bones and skulls of hundreds of warriors that once tried to take these walls. A hundred hundred more innocents feed the plants as well, their numbers still growing from time to time, though much more slowly than in years past. The resident of this keep has slept for some time, and welcomes so few guests.
Archimago has no trouble navigating the ossuary garden, walks through the gates and walls as if not there, and arrives in the throne room of the keep. The room is aphotic, but both he and the ruler on the throne can see each other even absent light. The seated ruler makes no move, trapped for decades in deep thought. At opportunities and loves lost, conquests failed.
“I bid you awake,” says Archimago, “for a new heir has been found.” The still head now stirs, chin lifting from chest. “You know of the Court, and its many members. An inheritor to your kingdom has joined the Court – a descendant of House Valnor. Do what you will with this information, but it seems too fine an opportunity to pass up.”
And Archimago is gone. In the darkness which no one sees, cold flesh and pale lips curl into a smile for the first time in centuries.