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TJ Lauser


     "Does the Dark Lord fear the doctor?"

     Elleria, Valter, and Oleva cackled. Yalbadek, seated on his Conquest Throne, built from the skulls of his enemies, cracked a half-smile. Like most Fiends, his skin was purple and his hair ghostly white. Dressed in a flowing black robe, he tapped his fingers against the armrest.

     "Today I do," he said grimly.

     "Remember," Valter said. "This doesn't define you."

     His second Blood-Wife, Valter was a Swamp-Kin, the first species he fought on his quest to quench the Ceaseless Burden, the terrible obligation of his office. Her face was a mane of moss, her limbs great logs of darkened wood.

     "We wouldn't let it define us," Oleva said.

     Oleva, his third, was a Metalloid – his longtime adversaries, with whom he'd fought more wars than he cared to remember. A red dress covered her sleek, sparkling iron flesh, and she viewed the world through mechanical obsidian eyes.

     "Not at all," said Elleria. She was his first. "We all love you, Dek. As do your people. No matter what, that will never change."

     Betrothed to him from a young age, Elleria, like Yalbadek, was a Friend. Purple skin, white hair, piercing crimson eyes. She'd stood by him through it all. From his decision to rush into his Duel of Ascension, to his early defeats at the hands of Lurlich the Ever-Living.

     It didn't surprise him to hear them voicing unwavering support now, in his most trying hour. But as the doctor's arrival drew nearer, it made him feel no better.

     Yalbadek spoke no more. He averted his gaze from his Blood-Wives and looked to the stained-glass windows lining his throne room, each depicting one of his ancestors. His mother, grandfather, great grandmother. For thirty generations his family had ruled these lands. In the view of the Council of Vicars, the esteemed priests of the Church of the Edd, he'd eclipsed all predecessors in seventy years as Sovereign.

<  2  >

     But who would follow him?

     "Dark Lord, she has arrived," Gerold, Yalbadek's seneschal, stumbled before the throne. He was a Cretin. The size of a small dog, his skin was a pale orange and his head was far too big for his tiny frame. He wore fine silks and carried a staff adorned with the Thrice Reforged Star, the symbol of the Grand Hierarchy of Metal, the Church of Edd's theological rival.

     "It is time," Yalbadek sighed. He looked again at the stained-glass windows. "Let her in."

     Gerold gave the order. A pair of Cretins turned a mechanism and the throne room doors swung open. Kuuni of Three Thousand floated over the long black carpet, stained with the blood of countless duels. A suit of fine armor covered her translucent blue skin and her green hair flowed down past her knees. She was a Linker – a spirit who inhabited multiple bodies. All of Kuuni's personas were doctors, servicing communities throughout Yalbadek's territory.

     "Kuuni of Three Thousand. You stand before Yalbadek the Unbreakable. Sovereign of Illgaeth, Lord of the Lands Beyond the Ash Desert, Bearer of the Ceaseless Burden, Master of the Tower that Pierced the Sky, King of All Fiends, and Patriarch of the Dekarn Dynasty," Gerold squeaked.

     "Dark Lord," she knelt before him. "I have your results."

     She spoke slowly, sorrowfully. Yalbadek knew what would come next. He'd always known. But he needed to hear her say it. To confirm what had, in recent years, become his greatest fear.

     "Speak, then," he stammered. "Out with it. Please."

     He'd intended it as a command, but it came out as a plea. He clenched his fists, tears welling in his eyes.

     "It is," she said, eyes at the floor. "As you feared."

     The throne room fell silent as Yalbadek wept openly.


<  3  >

     "Papa, I want to see my pal pal."

     "Not now, little one."

     Yalbadek patted his daughter Lestria, a Metalloid, on the head as they made for the Communication Chamber. Gerold was waiting for them when they arrived, pacing the length of the room.

     "I still say you should strike them now," he said.

     "Never," Yalbadek replied. "I'll give him one last chance to surrender."

     "Can I join, papa?"

     "I'm afraid not, little one. This is an adult conversation. Stay there, by the wall."

     "And do what?"

     Yalbadek smiled. He snapped his fingers. A bundle of straw and twigs materialized before him, floating in the air. With a second snap, they formed into a doll, which he then tossed to her.

     "Play with her. Or him. Your choice."

     "Stellia!" she said. She brought it close and began to talk to it as though it were a friend she'd not seen in years.

     Yalbadek turned and stepped onto the Projection Platform. He was met by a sea of colors – red, blue, white – until he arrived at a chasm overlooking a purple river. Lurlich the Second, Metalloid Warlord, stood across the chasm.

     "You look so much like your father," Yalbadek said. "A bit better looking, if you ask me."

     "He was a handsome man until you maimed him!"

     "Maimed him? I cut his face in a duel! I've a million such scars. He was wise enough to capitulate. You should take note."

     "Never!" Lurlich spat. "I won't bow to some conqueror from across the desert. I'll fight you to the last man!"

     Lurlich pumped his axe into the air. Yalbadek folded his hands, paced the length of the chasm.

<  4  >

     "Speaking of your father, he sends his regards. He's doing quite well for himself, you know. He's got two Blood-Wives, seven children. He's now the Officiant of Angork province. I could do the same for you. I'd love to do the same for you!"

     Yalbadek reached across the chasm, channeling his inner orator. Lurlich looked down into the purple river, his mechanical black eyes wavering.

     "No," he said lowly. "We will not join our traitorous brethren and my foolish father at your side! It shall be victory or death!"

     "Very well," Yalbadek replied. "Then I wish you good fortune. May Edd protect you."

     He closed his eyes and exited the projection. Lestria charged him, wrapped her little arms around his knees, tears rushing down her metallic face.

     "Not another war," she wept. "I don't want you to die Papa!"

     Yalbadek leaned over, hoisted his daughter up into his arms.

     "Oh, little one," he carried her out of the Communication Chamber. "No need to worry. It'll be over soon. Two months at most. Your father is great at war!"

     "Then why do you have so many scars?"

     He tilted his head to the side, considering the question.

     "Because no matter how good we are at something, we all make mistakes."

     "But what if your mistakes get you killed!"

     "Someday they will," he said softly. "When you, your brother, or your sister slay me in the Duel of Ascension."

     Lestria's face soured.

     "I don't want to kill you!"

     "And I'd rather not die," he chuckled. "But there's no better end for a Dark Lord of the Dekarn Dynasty than death at the hands of our progeny. Those final seconds will be the proudest moments of my life. I look forward to it, strange as it may sound."

<  5  >

     "You're weird!"

     "There's not a soul in the Blighted Kingdoms who's not weird, Lestria! That's the beauty of our homeland!"

     "Whatever. Is it time to see my pal pal?"

     Yalbadek frowned, turned his gaze away from her.

     "Yes, little one," he said softly. "Let's go."

     "Yay!" she yelped.

     Lestria jumped out of her father's grasp and skipped down the hallway to the elevator. Yalbadek sighed and trudged behind. He'd been dreading this moment for days, worried about how she would respond to the transformation that'd taken place in the bowels of the tower. Yalbadek entered the elevator, closed the gate, and pulled the lever. It lurched and began its slow descent down the tower's three hundred and fifty-three floors.

     "Why does it have to take so long?" she groaned. She sat against the wall, playing with her doll.

     "Someday, I'm going to make you take the stairs."

     "No way! That's mean! Momma would kill you!"

     "You can say that again!"

     "Momma would kill you!" she said, giggling this time. Yalbadek responded with a smile. After about four minutes, the elevator opened to the bottom floor, far beneath the surface.

     A narrow, ancient hallway led to a great iron cage adorned with magic runes. Lestria ran, then stopped suddenly. From behind the bars came a great, ravenous howl, like that of a mad beast in the midst of a battle. Lestria collapsed.

     "What happened to my pal pal? He was so sweet!"

     Yalbadek placed a hand on her head.

     "I'm sorry, little one. Your pal pal was never a pet. He is The Devourer."

     Days earlier, the creature behind the bars had been no larger than a rabbit. Now, it had swelled to the size of a bear and adopted on all the anger of a mother defending her cubs. It had spiked white fur, three heads outfitted with rows of circular fangs, and twelve limbs, each the width of tree trunks. It barked at the bars and tried to squeeze each of its heads through the gaps.

<  6  >

     "He was so cute and cuddly! Why's he all angry now?"

     "It is in his nature, little one," he explained, his tone serious. "He is a monster who's dwelt here for time immemorial. He feeds on the energy of conquest. The longer I go without claiming new lands, the bigger he gets. When fed enough, he reverts to the size he was the other day. But it's been too long now. He grows hungry. If I don't go to conquer, he will continue to grow, until this cage can no longer contain him."

     "It must be so bad," she wiped tears from her eyes. "To live like that."

     "I agree, little one," he knelt beside her, took her by the hand. "I wish I could end his misery."

     "You mean. . ."

     He nodded.

     "It's been tried. The Devourer is unstoppable. Only constant conquest can tame him. Now, do you see why I must go to war?"

     Lestria fell silent. She stared at her feet and tapped them against the cage.

     "I guess so," she sighed. "Can I get a real pal pal?"

     "One pal pal?" he grinned. "How about three?"

     She jumped to her feet and clapped excitedly.

     "Three? Three? I'd have been happy with two!"

     "Come on, little one. Let's pay a visit to the Beastmaster. He's got plenty of pal pals to choose from."


     A family of cretins fled through the night as the town of Sedorett burned behind them. Ten warriors dressed in red and purple armor, the colors of the Dekarn Dynasty, gave chase.

     "Stop running!"

     "We're not gonna hurt you!"

<  7  >

     "Yeah! We're just gonna kill ya!"

     A pair of high pitched roars sounded overhead, loud enough to pierce the din of battle. The cretins stopped, as did the warriors. The latter looked far more afraid.

     "The Sovereign's gonna kill you, the Sovereign's gonna kill you," chanted the family's youngest child, clutching a wooden toy.

     Two more roars. One right after the other. A call and response. It resembled a banshee's wail, though it was far deeper, more guttural.

     Then, they saw it, swooping down from the smoke-laden skies.

     The monstrosity was the span of two full regiments standing side by side. It had thick, leathery, olive-colored scales, six wings that flapped rapidly like those of a bat, and five massive hind legs. Its twin heads, positioned where its hands should've been, each had three mouths that gnashed rows of sharp, bloody teeth. And in place of its neck rose a great tentacle equipped with talon-like appendages.

     Natora-Nahl-Vato. The sacred mount of the Dekarn Dynasty. Blessed by the Risen Edd himself.

     On its back rode Yalbadek, dressed in spiked armor and wielding Duty, his signature curved Blood-Blade.

     Natora landed, howled at the warrior, then spat a volley of spikes at them. All but one fell instantly. He'd been standing in the middle and knew his survival could be no accident. He cowered as Yalbadek stepped off Natora and approached.

     "You! Soldier! What is the meaning of this?"

     The family of cretins hid behind Natora. While the mother and father shivered, their two children approached Natora and pet its tail. One of its heads wheeled around and began nuzzling them, much to their delight.

     "They're the enemy!"

     "They're civilians!" Yalbadek snapped. He sliced the warriors' right arm off with a quick motion; he couldn't have evaded even if he tried. The warrior crumbled, gripping the bloody stump.

<  8  >

     "They – they – they tried to kill us! We had no choice!"

     Yalbadek glanced back at the family. The mother and father had joined their children beside Natora.

     "Which one? The boy? What did he do? Throw his toy at you?"

     "No, the mother! She had a kitchen knife and-"

     Yalbadek snapped his fingers. The warrior floated.

     "Oh, a kitchen knife you say? How intimidating!"

     "Please, Sovereign! Forgive me!"

     "You are a soldier! They are innocents! Now before I send you to the Great Unmaker, tell me, coward, who gave the order? Was it my son? Was it he who put this town to the torch?"


     Yalbadek gritted his teeth and clenched his fist. The warrior exploded, splattering the Sovereign with blood, brains, and bone.

     Riders approached from behind. The cretin family quaked once more. Natora wrapped its wings around them as they formed a semicircle around Yalbadek. The Blood Knights, his elite guard, had arrived. They each rode an Ubrasti – a creature with the body of a horse, a venom-spitting snake for a tail, and the head of a squid.

     "Is it as you feared, Sovereign?"

     "Indeed, Ytor," Yalbadek sighed. "Moadur is responsible for this carnage."

     "I am sorry."

     "Not as sorry as I am," he made his way back to Natora. "We must act. I want two of you to escort this family," he pointed to the cretins, "back to Illgaeth. Bring them to the Tower and show them every kindness. Next week, we shall hold a feast in their honor."

     "And the rest of us?"

     "Surround the town. I'll deal with my son."

<  9  >

     Yalbadek mounted Natora as the Blood Knights did as commanded.

     Natora rose into the skies. It sailed through the smoke as Yalbadek took several deep breaths, preparing himself for the confrontation to come. Above the Sedorett, Natora let out a barrage of cries; warning shots to those down below. Yalbadek shut his eyes, his fingers shimmering as he scried his son's location.

     Down in Sedorett, Moadur, Yalbadek's Swamp-Kin son, headed for the church. He was flanked by his bodyguards, all Fiends and Metalloids about his age. Moadur held his axe close and trembled, aware that the arrival of Natora could mean but one thing – his own doom.

     "You followed his orders to the letter! He can't possibly be upset with you!" said one of his bodyguards.

     The Sovereign's son knew better but said nothing as they ascended the church's front steps.

     A wise move, Yalbadek thought. But it's too late to hide.

     With a whip of the reigns, Yalbadek ordered Natora to descend. The beast landed atop the church, taking a steeple with it. Its tentacle swung like a hammer, breaking the front steps as though they were a child's blocks and crushing most of Moadur's bodyguards. It then seized Moadur himself, coiling around his mossy body.

     "Enough!" amplified by magic, Yalbadek's voice boomed across Sedorett. "It is I, Sovereign Yalbadek! You have five minutes to join me in the town square. All who fail to comply will be cut down by my Blood Knights."

     "Father, you can't do this!" Moadur groaned.

     "You've left me no choice."

     Moadur's army filed into the square. Yalbadek, his voice still booming, ordered the Blood Knights to enter. He listened closely as twenty-two died on their blades. He counted each one, grimaced every time.

     "My son," he said once the Blood Knights had joined them, encircling Moadur's forces. "I could not be more disappointed. I did not raise you this way!"

<  10  >

     "This is war, father! Gulstahn betrayed you! All who follow him deserve to die!"

     "Ah, so the blacksmith of Sedorett should be butchered because his lord made a poor choice? And the children? Shall I hang them too, all because they were unfortunate enough to live in a traitor's town? Look at all the homes you've burned, the lives you've torn apart! The smoke can be seen from Illgaeth!"

     "It's a display of your power! Of what happens to those who rise up against you!"

     "If you spend your days on the Conquest Throne striking fear in your people, you'll never earn their respect," Yalbadek countered. "You must be punished. You shall be the display of my power, Moadur! An example of what happens when you break the Conquest Code!"

     "What about them?" he nodded to his arm. "They followed me! They should suffer as well!"

     "Nonsense! As I told you, a commander bears the full burden of his orders! All the praise and all the blame!"

     "Then do it, father!" Moadur glared up at him. "Finish me!"

     Yalbadek fell silent. He'd been mulling this over all evening, ever since he saw the smoke over Sedorett.

     "My Blood Knights will go through Sedorett and count the bodies of every felled civilian," he pointed at his son with Duty. "You shall make a Walk of Penance across the Ash Desert for each one."

     "For each one?" Moadur stammered. "I'll be walking for thirty years!"

     "And yet it still pales in comparison to all you've taken from them! What is thirty years compared to a life cut short? Nothing! Nothing at all!"

     Natora's tentacle lifted Moadur higher and slammed him down in the center of the square. His body formed an indentation in the stone.

     "Let this be a lesson to all who serve me!" Yalbadek barked. "Not even my own son can break the Conquest Code!"

<  11  >


     Yalbadek sat his Conquest Throne, paging through a ledger Gerold had just handed him.

     "As you see, Sovereign, I don't believe we can afford another triumph. Perhaps we could wait a few months. Your last war was costly indeed."

     "By the time we have the coin to spare," he shut the ledger. "I'll be on the warpath again."

     "I'm relieved you see my point."

     "I do," he handed it back to him. "But the people need a triumph. A victory without celebration is no victory at all. We'll pay for it with funds from my personal coffers."

     "You do this far too much, dark lord."

     "I do what the people deserve, Gerold. As is my duty."

     The throne room doors flung open. Eight vicars from the Church of Edd dressed in death masks and jet black cloaks entered. They made their way down the bloodstained carpet and then parted, making way for Elona, Yalbadek's fiend daughter. She had long blue hair, wore ornately crafted crimson armor, and carried massive war hammer.

     Yalbadek knew at once what her arrival in such company meant. As he rose, he heard his knees creak. His old wounds throbbed. He'd never felt older than he did at that moment.

     Stop that. You've years yet to live; to sit your Conquest Throne. It's not over. You can fight her off!

     "Elona! Am I to presume you are-"

     "Yes," she interrupted. "I am ready for my Duel of Ascension."

     "You're barely twenty," he scoffed. "But a babe to the ancient creatures of the Blighted Kingdoms. You've much still so much to learn!"

     "I'm older than you were when you challenged grandmother."

     He looked at Duty, resting in its scabbard at his side.

<  12  >

     "I see you've come prepared."

     "Then let's begin."

     "Vicar," he pointed to the closest one. "Is she ready?"

     "No," they shook their heads in unison. "But neither were you when you sought our blessing."

     Gerold hoisted Duty up into his tiny arms. He wobbled as he brought it over to Yalbadek and knelt before him, blade held high as he could manage. The Sovereign drew it, gave it a swing.

     "Did any of you think I'd defeat my mother?"


     "And what of Elona?"


     Yalbadek smiled, descended the stairs.

     "Then I accept."

     "Not that you had a choice," she brought her hammer around, adopted a defensive stance.

     "Do your siblings know about this?"

     "Of course. Lestria wants no part of the burden. Moadur doesn't deserve it."

     "What about your mother?" he lowered Duty. "What does she think?"

     "She going to miss you," she grinned.

     Elona lunged, brought her hammer down with a great overhead strike. Yalbadek danced away. Her weapon hit the floor, lodging itself between broken stones. As she yanked it upwards, he drove Duty between her ribs. She let go of the hammer and looked down at the blade, her eyes focused and narrow.

     "I'm sorry, little one," Yalbadek said. He ripped out Duty; a river of blood rushed from the opening in her chest. "But you simply weren't ready."

     "I was hoping you'd say that," she stammered.

     With a wave of her hands, violet magic covered and sealed her wound. Yalbadek gasped – it'd been decades since he'd seen such a powerful healing spell. He readied himself; this duel was far from over. She pointed to the pool of blood on the floor. It flowed up and into her eyes in two great streams. She screamed as a red aura surrounded her; her already large muscles growing exponentially.

<  13  >

     "The best fighters are unpredictable!"

     Elona reached for her war hammer, picked it up with one hand as though it were but a toy. She charged, swinging wildly as her father did his best to parry and backpedal away. In minutes, Yalbadek felt himself slipping up. He couldn't keep up this pace – he needed to do something bold – something unpredictable – or his days on the Conquest Throne would be over.

     Yalbadek rolled, hit the ground with a burst of purple arcana, and launched himself into the air. Soaring over his daughter, he went for a stab, but before he could fully extend his arm, she attacked.

     Her war hammer struck him in the chest, shattering his armor, breaking bones and crushing organs. Blood dripped from his lips as his vision became clouded. He stumbled, fell to his knees.

     "Elona," he struggled to say. Duty, which he'd attempted to use as a crutch, slipped from his fingers. He went prone, his face nearly falling to the bloodstained carpet. "I am so proud of you."

     She knelt beside him, caressed his face with her enlarged hands.

     "Papa, I'll miss you. But it is my time now."

     "Your time it is," he looked up at the stained glass windows. Soon, there'd be one of him to join his ancestors. "I've longed for this day as much as I've dreaded it. I suppose it was I who wasn't ready."

     He tried to laugh, but it came out as a cough.

     "Farewell, Father. Your legacy lives on."

     Yalbadek's eyes turned black and he fell forward into a pool of blood. Elona kissed him on the forehead, picked up her hammer, and broke apart her father's Conquest Throne.


     Mired in his fantasies, Yalbadek buried his head in his hands and sobbed as his court looked on.

<  14  >

     He'd dreamed of those moments for years. Teaching a young one of the Devourer, ensuring his son followed the Conquest Code, and handing his titles over to a deserving daughter. Now, he knew they were not visions of the future, but mirages in the distance.

     For ten minutes he wept. Kuuni bowed her head, apologized profusely. Gerold patted her on the leg and motioned for her to leave.

     "No," Yalbadek rose, his tone serious. Black tears stained his purple face. "Do not be sorry, Kuuni. You are merely a messenger of my failure. I thank you for what you've done. A lesser person would've lied to me. But you spoke the truth."

     "I wish I could've brought you better news."

     "As do I."

     He clenched his fist; the tower quaked. Elleria, Valter, and Oleva rushed to his side.

     "Dek, stop!"

     "It's going to be alright!"

     "You're better than this!"

     "This meant everything to me!" one at a time, he pointed to every person in the room – his knights, Kuuni, Gerold, and his Blood-Wives. Sparkling violet bubble shields sprang from the floor, enveloping them. "Everything! Without progeny, I am nothing! The end of the Dekarn Dynasty will be my legacy!"

     Yalbadek roared. The tower shook with even greater force, until the stained-glass windows shattered, scattering across the blood-stained carpet. Satisfied, he cut the air, ending both spells.

     "So it must be," he said as he stomped away, trampling over the broken images of his ancestors.


     When the rigors of rule wore on him, Yalbadek found it best to Skin-Shift.

     He'd learned the art from his mother, who learned it from her first Blood-Husband, who hailed from the lands west of the Ash Desert. Yalbadek had never met the man – he'd returned to his homeland long before he'd been born, or so she said. His mother was fond of telling tall tales; Yalbadek never knew which of her stories were true, in part because she told them differently every time.

<  15  >

     A shame I won't have any children to tell about her. No, not tonight. No more of this.

     He walked through the streets of Illganok in the guise of a Swamp-Kin. It felt freeing to wander his city in a form no one recognized. He'd talk with everyone from children to beggars, drink Blood-Wine in every tavern on Skull Street, and pray for hours in the Church of Edd.

     It was there he spent most of his evening on this excursion; kneeling before the statue of the Risen Edd, the First Undead, and pleading for a change of fate. He genuflected well into the night until all others had left, and only the light of a few scattered candles offered him company.

     "My fellow demon," said an old, familiar voice. "Might I ask a favor of you?"

     Yalbadek opened his eyes, looked over his shoulder. A vicar stood beside him, his crimson eyes peering from behind his death mask. The disguised Sovereign recognized him as Aandol, the Second Vicar, who'd officiated his last wedding.

     If only he knew who I truly am.

     It was Yalbadek's favorite thing about Skin Shifting. He could find out who others truly were, the way they acted when he wasn't around. More than once, he'd lectured one of his underlings for something he'd seen them do – or worse, done to him – when he was in disguise.

     "Of course," he rose. "How can I help?"

     "Follow me," he said, his voice echoing through the cold and empty church.

     Aandol led Yalbadek outside, down two side streets, and to a ruined mansion on the edge of the district. The Sovereign recognized the place; it was once the home of a wealthy Fiend who'd attempted to summon the Sanctimonious. Out on Conquest at the time, he'd been forced to dispatch a regiment of Blood Knights to deal with the matter.

<  16  >

     "This place is off-limits," Yalbadek growled. He recoiled, worried he'd given himself away.

     "I know. And so do my spawn."

     "Your spawn?"

     Vicars take a vow of celibacy. What have you done Aandol?

     "Yes," he chuckled. "You know. The orphans."

     "Right," Yalbadek nodded.

     In wondering if he'd have to take the Second Vicar to the chopping block, he'd forgotten there was an orphanage attached to every church in Illgaeth. His mother had made it so decades ago, after a series of difficult conquests.

     "What have they done?"

     "Well, despite my best efforts," he sighed. "They snuck out of bed. And if I know them as well as I think I do, I'll bet they're having quite the time in there! Could you go in and find them for me? I'd go myself, but the last time I chased after them I nearly broke both my legs."

     "Well, we can't have that," Yalbadek patted Aandol on the back. "I'll return shortly."

     The disguised Sovereign pushed open the gate and made his way to the mansion's front door, past overgrown plants as tall as a teenager and pet insects larger than he'd seen in years. The state of the place disgusted him.

     Tomorrow, I'm going to have this place destroyed. I'll turn it into something better! A training ground? Public slime fountain for the children? Yes, yes, definitely a slime fountain.

     The mansion door was cracked open. That didn't surprise Yalbadek, but the bizarre chanting and the sharp white light emanating from inside did. Slowly, he stepped inside and snapped his fingers three times, ending the Skin Shift.

     He'd need to be himself for this encounter. It'd been years since he last crossed paths with the Sanctimonious, but he recognized their work as well as anyone. He drew his sword and crept onward, following the light to the basement. There, peering around a corner, he saw five children – two fiends, two metalloids, and a swamp-kin – huddled in front of a shimmering white portal.

<  17  >

     "Teach us, show us, teach us, show us," they chanted in unison, their eyes glowing yellow.

     "The truth is, children, the Blighted Kingdoms do not belong to your people," said an angelic voice. "These lands were ruled by Elves, Dwarves, and Seraphim before the Great Unmaker took everything from us! You're all his descendants. Thus, you share in his sin. Repent and be forgiven by the cleansing light of the Most Holy!"

     Those Sanctimonious bastards! Defiling the minds of these poor children with their talk of sin and holiness! They should be out playing Catch the Tail, Skin the Saint, or watching the Gore-Bowl, not listening to such drivel!

     "Reveal yourself, clown!" Yalbadek stepped fully into the basement, pointed his sword at the portal.

     The entire mansion began to shake. Bits of wood fell from the ceiling; the Sovereign cast a bubble shield around the children.

     "Ah, so the Cursed Sovereign has come to play!"

     From out of the portal stepped an elf in flowing robes. He wore a crown of branches and carried a glass mace.

     Yalbadek lowered his weapon, cocked his head.

     "Cursed? How do you-"

     "We've been after your bloodline for generations! Of all the rulers in the Blighted Kingdoms, you Dekarns have given us the most trouble. But you'll be the last of them! Then what'll happen to Illgaeth? It'll fall to tatters as your underlings fight for control! And in the chaos, we'll reclaim what once was ours! You are powerless to stop it! We've seen it in our world countless times. Now, the same fate will befall you!"

     Yalbadek charged. The elf raised his weapon too late. His severed arm hit the floor, squirting blood like a geyser.

     "Listen to me, whelp," he grabbed the elf by the throat, silencing his screams. "I'm sending you back alive, but not because I am merciful. Listen to me very carefully. I want you to send a message to your kin. My world is not your world. Your ways are not our ways. And no lack of heir will spoil my legacy. We of the Blighted Kingdoms will not be brought down by petty politics. What I have built will carry on throughout the ages," he looked back at the children, still entranced by the portal. "Whoever succeeds me will not be my child. But I will still be a part of them. As these spawn are a part of me."

<  18  >

     He lifted the wounded elf, tossed him into the portal, and fired frantic bursts of magic until it closed. Yalbadek dropped to his knees on the basement floor and wept again as the spawn, free from the call of the Sanctimonious, rushed to him.

     "Sovereign Yalbadek!"

     "You did it!"

     "You made the silly-man's words go away!"

     "You're a hero!"

     "Thank you! Thank you!"

     Yalbadek smiled and wiped the tears from his eyes. Then, he gathered them up in a great embrace and carried them out of the mansion.


     Gerold had been with Yalbadek long enough that he felt comfortable saying he knew him better than anyone, even his Blood-Wives. He'd stood beside him from the beginning. He'd arranged meetings with influential figures, pointed him in the direction of allies, and found him mentors in the arts of war and magic.

     Above all else, he knew how to pick him up when he fell down.

     When he struggled in battle, Gerold recruited volunteers from the Illganok prison for him to practice on. When the Council insisted he was not ready for his Duel of Ascension, he encouraged him to throw tradition to the wayside and go through with it anyway. When he suffered early defeats at the hands of Lurlich the Everliving, he brought him tomes on tactics to study.

     But Yalbadek's inability to produce an heir eclipsed all previous hardships. It'd been a trying month waiting for the results to come in. Gerold did everything he could to raise his Sovereign's spirits, but even Bonaro's Undead Circus, his favorite stage show, brought him little joy.

     After his master's outburst in the throne room, he began preparing for the following morning. He knew he'd not see him for the rest of the night, so there'd be no point in planning anything else until then. It'd take months, perhaps years, for him to move past this. The key, Gerold believed, would be to distract him until he felt comfortable enough to talk through his sorrows.

<  19  >

     Gerold woke up early, well before sunrise, and checked in on the arrangements he'd made the night before. The Spire's chefs would cook his favorite meals, the bard Yanataros would perform a new epic about Yalbadek's many conquests, and his longest-serving Blood Knights would stop by for a few rounds of Uvengaad.

     He waddled to the throne room. There, to his surprise, Yalbadek stood above the shattered pieces of the stained-glass windows. The Sovereign looked nothing like the broken, beaten man whose rage had bested him the night before. Rather, he seemed a rejuvenated soul ready to meet the new day with arms wide open. His white hair had been neatly combed, his beard freshly trimmed, and he wore a robe Gerold had never seen before. Red with gold trim. A gift from Elleria, he surmised. It looked like something she'd buy him.

     "Sovereign," Gerold gulped. He looked around the room frantically, wondering if it was not Yalbadek, but an illusion standing before him. Had he eaten something foul last night? Drank too much? Was he dreaming?

     Yalbadek, who had been looking up at the gaps where the windows once were, turned his head and smiled. Without warning, he rushed to over Gerold, picked him up, and squeezed the cretin in a great bearhug.

     "Gerold, my friend! Thank you, thank you so very much."

     "For, for," Gerold gasped for air. "For what?"

     "For everything you do," he let go. Gerold hit the floor hard. He clutched his chest, breathing heavily. "I have not been myself lately. For that, I am sorry. This whole mess has been one of the foulest periods of my life. I'd sooner fight Lurlich a thousand times than go through it again."

     "Don't apologize, Sovereign. I understand. We all do. Don't forget your Blood-Wives. They've been very supportive."

     "They have," Yalbadek leaned over, picked up a piece of broken glass. "I am planning a party for them tonight. It is the least I can do. I love them dearly, but I've shown it little since this all began."

<  20  >

     "That is wonderful, Sovereign. But I went through the trouble of planning a number of events for you today. After last night, I was concerned that you'd be in a melancholy for months."

     "As was I," he said sorrowfully. He tossed the piece of broken glass to the floor and approached his Conquest Throne. "I've suffered slews of defeats. Nearly bled to death on the battlefield. But nothing broke me so badly as the learning that I'd never have children of my own."

     "Of course, Sovereign. Everyone wants to leave behind a legacy."

     "Indeed," Yalbadek wiped tears from his eyes. "But there's more to legacy than progeny. Many are the men and women who never bore children but were parents all the same. Guardians who rose to the occasion when the world's youth called upon them. This will sting for a while, Gerold. But my kingdom has no shortage of orphans, of children in need of a good home. When the time is right, I will take one, perhaps more, under my wing and raise them as my own."

     Yalbadek snapped his fingers. A violet aura surrounded the broken pieces of the stained-glass windows. He clapped his hands. The windows reformed and sealed together, as though they'd never been shattered at all.

     "My bloodline will die with me. But the Dekarn Dynasty and my legacy will carry on until The Great Unmaker comes again."

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