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Against the King

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Against the King is the nineteenth quest zone, the third and final part of Civil War (Story Volume), and is unlocked by defeating Mayor Hortensia Tarringan in Kingdom Aflame. It is the third zone to be released after the reboot. The zone after it is High Tide, which is unlocked automatically.

EnemiesEdit

Wandering Edit

Stolen Satchel => War Archaeology

EncountersEdit

WalkthroughEdit

Z against the king
Against the King
Against the King
Interactive Map
Interactive Map

Normal Encounters
Boss Encounters
Optional Boss Encounters
Final Boss

Notable LootEdit

Boss Card Reward

Random Drops Edit

Additionally, it has been noted that this zone also drops the following cards from assorted nodes:

TranscriptEdit

The kingdom's people speak your name in hushed tones, or shout it amid the intoxicating fog of vine and victory -- inspired by the incredible events your sword, spells, and courage have brought to pass. Royal soldiers huddle in their encampments and drafty barracks, glancing at the shadows, fearing the day fate throws them into your path and their epitaphs become forgotten footnotes to your tale. Throughout all the provinces, from Derlini's pestilent swamps to the orchards of Rhynhart, the islands of Titar to the frozen wastes, they know the name of %name% Kasan.

And so they should.

Your deeds are legion and legend. You're the adventurer who crossed the Krunan Sea, with the blood of heroes flowing in %his% veins, blade ready to carve out new destinies in %his% ancestral homeland. The %man% who saved Marsonne from a horde of bestial raiders, rending that grim specter of the past before its vicious maw could devour the present. You reddened a liberated square with the marauders' gore, assaulted their lair, then cut their chieftain down in single-combat. And that was only the opening verse of a gathering song. In the next, abominable fiends died beneath the Black Tower's shadow, and the sinister wizard who'd summoned them joined his minions in the underworld. Hands mightier than all his arcane powers and long centuries of life snatched eternity from his grasp. His ashes drifted on the wind, while you marched to Bluselle and stared the gold dragon in the eye. Soldiers who'd come to oppress its people discovered a new enemy. A new terror. And another settlement came to call %name% Kasan its savior.

That sweet, triumphant taste of aureate blood led you towards the savage northern snows. Maybe the bards who sing your song will spare some words for those you destroyed along the way. For the headless king heaped among the dead. For the butchered god whose abominable body lies beneath murky waters, worshipped only by the gnawing minnows. For the shattered war machine cast into history's abyss. For the madmen strewn across the stone or swallowed by the magma. Perhaps they'll find fame in your story, immortality granted by the hand that slaughtered them. But your greatest deeds lay far from their graves.

You broke royal legions on the tundra, and met the gaze of the magnificent drake whose likeness adorns your shield and gave your family its name. His blood slaked a thirst no lesser man could understand. It made you into something greater than the Dragon-Rider %himself%. With fate burning in your breast, now subjugated to your will, you battled your way to new heights of glory. You stormed the gloomy forests of Stromhamre and assailed walls of living bone, cutting your way through undead hordes. You trespassed into the von Malhavens' dread citadel, where a dark master who'd ruled for centuries with bloody fangs finally met his match. Not even the forces of hell could silence your song. A thousand demons struggled to rule Krezzor, yet only one had the blade of %name% Kasan on his side. An infernal realm was won by mortal hands.

And soon you'll slay the golden wyrm, your enemy and destiny, and free the kingdom from its tyranny.

You're an adventurer. A warrior. A champion. A conqueror. A hero. A-

"Sodding maniac!"

"Ralmarthan? You attacked Ralmarthan?"

Their faces are a study in color. Hugh's is pink, almost red. His entire visage matches the customary hue of his nose. Tessa's countenance is pale as a vampire's, whilst her eyes blaze like dark fires. Rakshara looks from them to you, her own orange complexion unaltered, and remains silent.

You glance around. But your caution's unnecessary. The four of you stand alone in the field, bathed in the soft light of a dawning day, beyond earshot of the camp at their backs or the sentries stationed in the trees far behind your own. That's why you wandered out here when watchful eyes spotted the three of them galloping across the countryside, well in advance of their returning force. The coming conversation isn't one you wanted to have with gossiping rebels listening at the tent flap.

"Leave you alone for five bloody minutes and you blooming well burn a city down!"

"We told you we couldn't take Ralmarthan," Tessa says. "We agreed-"

"Things changed," you say. "Their militia was scattered outside the walls. It was the best chance we were going to get. And it worked."

"Worked! Do you know how many we lost?"

"They gave their lives, and because of them, because of Theadric, because of me, others won't have to. No more battles. No more losses. That's what Ralmarthan gave us."

"You mean it's true?" Hugh says. "That bleeding bollocks they told us back there?"

"Yes. The king's challenged me to a duel, and I'm going to kill him. One more death ends the war."

Rakshara's eyes gleam, as you knew they would. What could be more appropriate for a proud oroc warrior than the thought of single-combat between two champions? And even Hugh and Tessa pause. They can't deny what you've done. No one can.

"They said other things too." Tessa's eyes pierce you, unblinking. "They're saying Theadric staged a massacre."

"No," you say. "He was going to evacuate the city and burn it to the ground. But the gold dragons attacked, and it turned into slaughter. Crenus will pay for that. And for Theadric. I promise."

She holds your gaze for long, long seconds.

"So Crenus is putting his whole sodding kingdom on the line? Has everyone gone mental around here?"

"He thinks he can beat me, and break our rebellion. He'll break his own throne instead. With the king dead, how many dragons will have the stomach to fight on? They'll know the Seluthas are finished, and they won't want to be on the wrong side of the dynasty that replaces them."

"What if he does?" Rakshara asks. "Beat you, I mean."

"He won't. Because I'm %name% Kasan."

***

The entire city was hissing. A hydra with a thousand heads and slithering tongues, ferocious roars turned into pain and impotent rage. Sloshing buckets passed from hand to hand, borne by man and woman, youth and elder, soldier and civilian, warrior, priest, and politician. Streams of water splashed against fire. Sibilant flames shied away, bitter and thwarted, fleeing from each quenching torrent. But there was no escape. Mages worked their sorceries, aiding the bucket brigades. A green-robed sorceress perched on a blackened roof, waving two wands like a conductress, invoking an orchestra of shining ice shards that rained down on the wounded conflagration and sliced its shifting flesh. In the street below, a near naked dwarven cleric wore the charred remains of his official garb. Bloody, burned scraps of fabric clung to him, pasted onto his body, islands among flowing rivers of sweat. His eyes were closed. His entire frame shuddered and strained as if his extended palms were pushing against an immense, invisible boulder. The blazing ramshackle building in front of him shook too. Air seemed to harden and almost solidify around it. This time there was no hiss. The flames perished, crushed and smothered beneath the power of Rensha.

All across Ralmarthan, the fires died. Spires of steam snaked into the heavens -- bearing the inferno's shredded soul. But it had fed well. Everywhere Nevis turned, immolated ruins, half-eaten carcasses, told of a settlement that was now a charnel house. A graveyard. Scents of wet wood, charcoal, and cooked flesh blended together to mark the passing of a conflagration and a city alike.

The boy's hands ached. Deep marks, like the bite of a lash, marred both his palms. The buckets had been heavy, and their handles dug hard. When the soldier's gauntlet fell on his shoulder, he'd expected to be run through or hurled to the ground and beheaded. But the goblin had pushed him into one of the lines instead. Nevis' savior, the warrior in golden armor, had been there too -- heaving water alongside the peasants. Now the warrior stood nearby, gazing around at the ravaged buildings. The boy could only do the same. Several times Nevis glanced at the mouth of a street or alley, wondering whether he could slip away and find the city gates, whether any of the teeming soldiers would seize him if he tried. But even if he did make it, what then? Again and again he saw his knife piercing Theadric's flesh. He was a traitor now, to both sides. The thought made the universe spin and bile surge up at the back of his throat.

But as many times as he searched for escape and felt the crushing horror of his new place in the world, he stared at the golden hero. In his head metal still clanged against metal. Theadric's eyes glared murder, while a man wearing gold dragons stepped between Nevis and a brutal death. The warrior wasn't dressed in a uniform like the others. No tabard obscured the glorious aureate panoply. And though the boy knew little of armor, he recognized fine workmanship when he saw it. No common village blacksmith had shaped steel into the exquisite drake heads that guarded the man's shoulders. Was he a general? Some sort of royal champion?

Back in his village, and among the rebels, he'd heard of countless cruelties and atrocities. Of royal soldiers dragging healers off to the army against their will, hanging warriors who fled conscription or stood their ground and refused to wear the king's colors. Of crippling taxes, the seizure of iron, weapons, and food. Of insurrectionists condemned to death or worse... Some of the stories from Stromhamre were the stuff of nightmares. It seemed impossible to imagine such things when he saw the gold man saving the weak, protecting Ralmarthan and Nevis from a so-called hero who was little better than a vicious beast. No... Worse. Because beasts didn't conceal their brutality beneath a veneer of heroism.

"The children are safe," Hortensia Tarringan said.

She flitted across the square, looking more spectral than real. Her eyes were hollow, cheeks sunken and desiccated. Dark patches marred her tunic and breeches. A singed ghost haunting the place of its burning. Purple bruises formed a hideous choker, as though phantom fingers still yearned to crush the life from her throat.

"Your people found them," she told the gold warrior.

The man managed a faint smile.

"I'll have food and blankets taken to them," he said. "Then..."

"Some don't even know they're orphaned yet. And the raiders burned many of their homes. There's little for them to come back to."

"We'll rebuild Ralmarthan. I swear it. They've suffered, but your youngsters are strong, if this one's anything to go by."

He nodded at Nevis. Hortensia turned to him, and the boy's blood froze.

"He's not one of ours," she said. The mayor transfixed him with eyes that were twin abysses, threatening to plunge Nevis into their eternal depths. "He's a rebel."

Mail shirts clinked and rustled, as soldiers loomed up behind him.

"Think it's all bollocks?"

His glowing hand brushed across Rakshara's hair. All the rainbow's colors flowed from his fingers and shimmered along the crystal lengths, transforming them into elaborate chains of rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and amethysts. They spread down the oroc's body, painting the crystalline spurs and clusters one by one. She tilted her head up from the Titaran's soft abdomen and giggled. Then she lay it back down and watched the vivid hues dance on the canvas above them.

"This duel, I mean. Sodding stupid thing for a king to do."

"Brachus is a prince," she said, "and he fought for his kingdom with his own blade, like a true warrior."

Hugh grunted.

"I suppose. But he's a blooming demon. Some of those lot eat their enemies, but I don't see Crenus doing that either."

"They say he killed Dido in a duel."

"Dido's dead?"

"A messenger came from Shrenton. He was telling everyone, before %name% dragged him away to hear the story %himself%."

"Bloody hell... That woman was good. No wonder old Crenus thinks he has a chance."

"After %name% wins, the war's over."

The two of them lay in silence for some minutes, Hugh gazing at his lover's multicolored body, she at the whirling lights above.

"I could get used to it," he said.

"To what?"

"Living in a cavern. What's the sun ever done for me anyway?"

She rolled onto her side. Her head dug into his belly as she turned, and its weight brought a soft bubble from his protesting intestines. The oroc's orange eyes looked into his.

"You'd do that? Live among my people?"

"A bloke could make a nice bit of gold, setting up the first underground pie shop."

She laughed.

"My people don't eat pies."

"That's just cos they haven't tried mine yet."

Rakshara's hand closed around his.

"There's so much of the surface I haven't seen yet."

"I could show you Titar. Wonder what you'd make of a cricket match..."

"I'd like that."

She rolled onto her back again, drawing another bubble from Hugh's guts, and the two of them watched the colors long into the night.

"Help me!" The words hissed from Ranlatta's clenched jaws. Her limbs trembled, back straining, as she tried to lift the sodden beam.

"General..." Carmath grabbed her arm. "General!"

"Help me, damn it!"

"She's-"

"Help! We have to-"

Her knees buckled, but Carmath held her up.

"Ranlatta, she's dead!"

The small, blackened body lay motionless beneath the crushing wooden weight, draped in scorched fabric, surrounded by the shattered remains of a broken bed. Dull eyes stared into space. Ranlatta shrieked and punched the beam. Sergeant Carmath winced, and watched the blood bloom around her friend's knuckles.

"She tried to hide under the blankets." The general's voice was a whisper. "My little girl does that when she's frightened of the dark."

A footstep crunched in the ashes. Carmath turned around, to where Symric stood in the doorway. She mouthed a word. The goblin went to fetch a healer.

Ranlatta growled and hit the beam again.

"Kel! Kel!"

Furry hands grabbed the quartermaster's arm.

"Ow! Careful!" Kel pulled free of the felpuur's grasp and rubbed the place where the cleric's claws had pricked her.

"Where's Nevis?" Ryli asked. "Did you see him? Was he..."

Chumgrak and Yaealina stood behind her. And despite their differences in fur, flesh, and features, all wore near identical expressions. The quartermaster sighed.

"I didn't see him after the fighting started."

"They told us you and the others were taken prisoner," the orc said, "then sent out with missives for the Kasan. Are you certain Nevis wasn't among you?"

Kel stared at him.

"Chumgrak... How... You're talking like..."

"Yes... Yes... I'm a genius. It's a long story and I'll explain later. You're sure you didn't see Nevis?"

"When they captured me, they herded me with a few others. Nevis wasn't with us..."

Ryli hissed. Yaealina fingered the pommels of her knives.

"But there were other survivors. I saw Yip from Fallows on my way here, and he wasn't with us. They must've sent him out before my lot."

"Then he could still be alive?" Ryli said. The sudden brightening of her eyes almost broke Kel's heart.

"Aye. He could..."

The quartermaster wandered away, leaving the three companions alone. Behind her they chattered about all the places their friend might have ended up. Kel couldn't stay and hear it. She couldn't bear to speak of hopes that might be dashed. But she murmured a little prayer to any gods who might be listening, and begged them to keep the boy safe.

The warrior gestured with a golden gauntlet.

"It's okay," he said. "Leave him."

"But, Your Majesty..." one of the soldiers said.

"I saw him risk his life to save Mayor Tarringan. If he's a secret assassin, he's playing his part well."

Majesty... Nevis' eyes widened till he was sure the top of his skull would split open.

"Y... You're King Crenus!"

"Begging your pardon, Majesty," the soldier said, "but that Kasan's a crafty one. And %his% people would do anything for their hero. The lad might-"

"%name% isn't a hero!"

The king, the mayor, and the gathering warriors all stared at him. Nevis glared back. If he was going to be hanged, first he'd damn well say what he'd never dared to say among the rebels...

"%He's% a brute, and a bully, and... and %he's% as bad as Theadric!"

"You know the Kasan?" the king asked.

"Know him? %He% tried to kill me!"

The boy stared into Crenus' eyes, daring him to challenge his word -- to be one more man fooled by the stories and legends and false heroism of %name% Kasan.

"What's your name?"

"Nevis."

"Hortensia, is there somewhere Nevis and I could talk?"

"My residence is still standing. Some of the rooms are ruined, but my office isn't."

The king nodded.

"These men will take your weapons, but you have my word you won't be harmed." He looked to the soldiers. "Give him food and water. There are things I have to attend to first."

"Yes, sire."

Nevis flinched when they reached for his belt, and nearly drew his dagger out of instinct. A mailed hand took his blade. Another reached for his sling. He batted it aside without thinking, and grasped hold of the weapon.

"Give it over, lad," the soldier said.

"I..." He met the king's eyes. "My father gave it to me..."

"Take his bullets, but let him keep the sling."

The warrior nodded and relieved Nevis of his ammunition, then ushered him along behind the mayor. It was only when they were inside the building, and he was left alone in a room lined with bookcases, that the true import of his situation crashed through his bewilderment.

A private meeting with the King of West Kruna... The man who'd saved his life...

Nevis collapsed into a chair. He wondered if, in a village far from Ralmarthan, a fisherman's son lay in bed -- dreaming vivid tales of heroes and tyrants.

Tessa Tullian stared up at the sky, where flocks of dark birds flew in piercing wedges like formations of warriors. She wondered what an augur would glean from their trajectories. Though from her experience with fortunetellers, she assumed it would involve fabricated stories about meeting her husband-to-be rather than anything of genuine value. And the future would be written soon enough.

The ridge commanded a view of the surrounding miles, from whispering cornfields to sleepy villages. In one direction the camp was a hive of activity. The ant-like figures swarming about miniscule tents were too distant to make out, but she was sure %name% was in their midst -- training for the coming duel. %He'd% been battling every worthy swordsman %he% could find to prepare for Crenus. Tessa had watched countless sparring matches before wandering off for peace and quiet, and had to admit she felt confident. %name%'s skill with a blade was impressive.

There was still a niggling disquiet at the back of her brain, warning her that this challenge -- a notion that might have come from the legends of Terracles or Tyranthius -- was too good to be true. Yet thus far the king had given them no cause to suspect subterfuge. His messengers had come back and forth, waving flags of parlay atop their griffins, clutching further missives from Marlus Quent, who'd taken it upon himself to arrange the terms of the coming encounter and all that would precede it. Tessa could only imagine the words which had passed between king and advisor when the latter learned of his monarch's intentions. But whatever Quent thought, he was handling the matter with his customary deftness and ability. And the truce they'd made was holding.

Evidence of this lay on the horizon, where a band of rebels patrolling the edge of their agreed-upon dominion appeared to be speaking with their purple-tabard-wearing counterparts. She tensed, waiting for an ill-chosen word or look to bring about bloodshed and catapult everything into turmoil, but the two sides parted without coming to blows. Tessa exhaled.

A soft, almost silent footstep made her bite down on the departing breath. She spun round, bow and arrow in her hands within the fleetest instant, and stared at the intruder along a notched shaft. A pale face smiled at her with lips the color of blood.

"Impressive," the woman said. "You might even draw that thing faster than Teucer did."

"Von Richten!" Tessa laughed and lowered her bow. "When you didn't meet us, I thought-"

"That I'd snubbed you? It's worse than that, Tullian."

"You..." The mirth died by degrees in Tessa's eyes.

"Yes. I'm with Crenus. If you wondered why you haven't heard word from the von Malhavens, that's my doing. My presence... unsettled... the markgrafin."

The bow and arrow twitched.

"There's no need for that," the vampiress said. "I'm not here to violate the king's truce..."

Tessa Tullian read the rest in Mina's eyes. If the Red Baroness had come to kill her, her blood would already be warming the vampiress' gullet.

"Why?" Tessa asked.

"Because I learned what kind of %man% %name% Kasan is."

"It was Theadric's doing. He's the one who burned-"

"Before Ralmarthan. On the night of your celebration, when %he% played the part of a drunken thug and disgraced the Dragon-Rider's name."

"%He% was an idiot that night, but %he% didn't-"

"I saw %him%, Tullian. I saw %him% batter a young boy."

"%He%... %He% wouldn't. %name% is..." The denial sprang to her lips in a heartbeat, but faded even faster.

"The attack on Ralmarthan just proved what I already knew. %He% can't be allowed to hold power over the kingdom."

"Power? Baroness, %name% doesn't want to replace Crenus. %He% only wants to help us overthrow him. We have others ready to..."

"You have aristocrats who can claim diluted drops of royal blood in their veins, and vague ties to Jamus' old line. Yes. And you intend to see which of them the people will rally around. But with a victorious hero's name on their lips, an old and powerful name, do you really believe they'd adore little known nobles who didn't even fight for the crown they want to wear? A %man% as arrogant and ambitious as %name% Kasan will see the opportunity, even if %he% hasn't seen it yet. See it and seize it. The crown or the power behind it. And %he%'s worthy of neither."

Tessa tried to speak, but no words, no arguments found her tongue. Mina turned and walked away.

"I swore an oath on the day the Kasan family was born," she said, without looking back. "That's why %he%'s still alive. Now it's all up to Crenus..."

"Hail, brothel-born pieces of manticore crap," Sergeant Carmath said.

"Your insult lacks coherence," the orc said. "Are we the offspring of ladies of ill-repute, or fragments of manticore excrement? The two seem mutually exclusive."

Carmath blinked and turned to her comrades. They merely shrugged. Ever since the truce was struck, royal and rebel patrols had been hurling insults at one another whenever their paths crossed. Soldiers would wander back to camp and brag about how they'd outdone their foes with particularly inventive barbs. But this was something new. She stared at the muscular greenskin, and the two people behind him. One was a felpuur wearing a patchwork robe, the other a slim half-elf in leathers, with a pair of daggers at her belt.

"Piss off, orc-breath," Kimon said.

The target of the jibe raised an eyebrow, in lieu of gasping in shock of roaring in outrage. Carmath sighed.

"That-" the orc began.

"I know," the sergeant said. "He's not good at this. You're new on this patch, aren't you? I haven't seen you three before."

"We aren't on patrol duty. We came here because our esteemed colleagues told us your force is the same one that took Ralmarthan back."

"Yeah, that was us. We saved the place after you bastards tried to burn it down."

The half-elf glared and opened her mouth, but the felpuur grabbed her arm and spoke instead.

"One of our friends was in the city."

Grey fur bristled around the feline face, reminding Carmath of a nervous cat she'd owned as a child.

"There were lots of rebels in the city when we got there."

"This one's a boy. Younger than all the others. A human, fourteen years old. With messy fair hair."

"He's a slinger," the half-elf said.

"That sounds like Crenus' boy!" Kimon said.

"You saw him?" The felpuur's pupils expanded into deep, dark circles. "Is he hurt? Was he..."

"He's safe," Carmath said. "He's a... a prisoner, I suppose. The king wanted to talk to him."

Now it was the rebels' turn to stare at one another, dumbfounded.

"What would Crenus want with Nevis?" the orc asked. "He's just a child, not a commander."

Carmath shrugged.

"I don't know," she said. "Something about the Kasan. But he won't be hurt. From what I heard, the king's taken a liking to the kid."

"Thank you," the felpuur said.

Carmath nodded and continued on her patrol.

Nevis milled around the mayor's office, pacing its length and breadth in endless circuits. He sat at the desk and stared at its heaps of parchment (he didn't dare touch them, for fear they'd collapse). He gazed out of the window at the smoking wreck Theadric had left of the city -- the ravaged dwellings, and the Ralmarthians picking through the blackened carcass, seeking pieces of their burned away lives. He even spent a moment or two perusing the books which filled the shelves in orderly rows, flipping through pages that stank of smoke. But their verbosity was well beyond his meagre learning. Chumgrak would have enjoyed this place, he mused. And with that thought came a pang.

Ryli... Yaealina... He sighed. At least they'd left the city before the soldiers arrived, and weren't among the corpses piled in the streets and square. Yet the orc's cheery grin, the half-elf's cynical smile, Ryli's soft fur and deep bright eyes, filled him with a longing that was almost mournful. Would he ever see them again? Or would he end his life in a dungeon, scratching at stone walls like the madman in a bard's tragic song?

"Hungry?"

The soldier in the doorway was so ursine, with his broad shoulders, bulging gut, and bushy beard parted by a huge mouth, that the word sounded like an explanation of why he was about to rend Nevis limb from limb and feast on his dismembered remains.

"Oh... I..."

He realized that he didn't even know. How long had it been since he'd last eaten? His stomach offered no clues, but seemed frozen in a strange, insensible state. Nor did any yearned-for flavors tantalize his tongue. The soldier grunted.

"If ye nae ken, ye need a meal. Trust me." He laughed, and his belly wobbled its agreement.

The man lumbered away, chuckling. His thudding boots disappeared down the stairs. Nevis returned to his aimless perambulations. He was at the window again, watching a uniformed goblin offer a flask to an elderly priestess, when the soldier returned bearing a platter laden down with thick slices of ham and split apples. Nevis stared at it.

"What's the matter, laddie? Ye cannae eat all this?" The soldier set it down on a side table, next to a pitcher of water.

Nevis shook his head.

"Then I'd best be helping ye. 'Twill nae dae t'insult the lady's hospitality."

He handed the boy a silver plate. Nevis stared at his own reflection in the precious metal, the half-familiar face surrounded by an ornate border of embossed swirls. What would Ryli say if she knew he'd eaten off something that could have made a dozen argentine talismans? He vowed that one day he'd tell her and find out. With that resolve firm in his mind, his body seemed to breathe again. His stomach rumbled. Nevis reached out and took a handful of ham, then a cloven apple.

"Good lad, good lad."

The soldier picked up the second plate, looked at it, and shrugged. He set it aside and took the platter instead. He sat on the chair in front of the desk, hunched over his prize -- looking more bear-like than ever. Nevis took the seat on the opposite side, glanced at the assorted papers covering the surface before him, and set the plate down on his lap.

"Cormac," the soldier said. Half-chewed ham churned inside his maw.

"Nevis."

Cormac crunched an apple between his teeth, distributing a shower of little fragments into his beard.

"Ye killed that wee bastard Theadric, daen't ye?

Nevis managed to turn his head before he spluttered, and spat a sliver of meat onto the rug instead of the desk.

"No! I just... I just wounded him."

"That's nae what the lads and lasses are saying."

"The king killed him. He saved me!"

"Aye? That's stories for ye. By the morra they'll be saying ye tore his head off with yer bare hands."

Nevis gawped. Cormac grinned and kept chomping.

"Good ham, this. These nobles ken how tae dae things. And the lady who lives here is just a wee mayor. Ye mark my words, lad, the king must eat... peacocks... and... and..." He waved his hand, describing nebulous circles with the piece of meat he clutched between thumb and forefingers.

"Basilisks?" Crenus asked.

Cormac coughed, swallowed, and stood up. The man in the doorway behind him seemed smaller, less imposing than the golden warrior who'd sent Theadric crashing into the inferno. No magnificent panoply girded and bulked out his frame. Instead he wore a simple jerkin and trousers, garments that might have belonged to a mere peasant. Nevis looked into his eyes. Those held every ounce of his savior's unyielding strength.

"Yer Majesty, I was just..."

"Entertaining our guest?"

"Aye!"

"You may leave us."

"Thank ye, Yer Majesty."

Cormac moved towards a side table, platter held out at arm's length as though he feared the assortment of ham and apples might now bite him in revenge. He put it down, grimaced at Nevis, and left. King Crenus took his vacant seat. Boy and monarch stared at one another.

"How old are you?" the king asked.

"Fourteen."

"It's a brave or foolish young man who chooses to go to war before he can grow a beard."

"I didn't choose..."

And it all came tumbling out, in a sudden, irresistible deluge. The day Theadric tackled him to the ground and took him from the village. Meeting the others in the cart, on their way to the rebel camp. Chumgrak's genius, Ryli's kindness, and Yaealina's smirking but sincere friendship. Exploring the countryside in search of forgotten relics. Their raids against the king's people. The night %name% Kasan's fists battered his face and beat the truth into his skull. Their chaotic, disastrous attack on Ralmarthan.

Crenus said little as the story flowed, and showed no sign of impatience even when the boy dwelled on his treasure hunting exploits or his life in the rebel camp. He coaxed if the tale faltered but allowed it to pour from Nevis' breast uninterrupted. Only when it was over, and the young slinger sat deflated -- feeling as if those weeks of his life had gushed from his body like blood from a mortal wound -- did he ask the question that must have been revolving in his mind for many minutes.

"Roderick's son... That's when you first saw %him% fly into a rage? After %he% spoke with the boy?"

"Yes."

The king nodded, and Nevis swore there was a gleam in his eye, though what reason the monarch could have for being pleased with so trivial a piece of information escaped him.

Crenus asked a few more questions, which the boy answered as best he could. At last the king rose from his chair.

"Thank you, Nevis."

"Can... Can I go now?"

King Crenus sighed.

"I'm afraid not. Whispers and rumors fly fast during war. If the rebels learn about Theadric, or discover you've spoken to me and decide you're an informer..."

"But-"

"In time. All this will soon be over."

Nevis blinked at him.

"Oh..." Crenus said. "Of course. You haven't heard. I've challenged %name% Kasan to single-combat. We can end this accursed bloodshed -- for the good of the kingdom and its people."

The king went to the door, leaving his words hanging in the air and sinking into the slinger's skull. He was in the hallway beyond when Nevis called out to him.

"Wait!"

Crenus stopped. The boy froze too, not quite believing what he'd done.

"Yes?"

"I..."

Nevis' mouth felt blocked, crammed full of molten lead. The words flashed in his brain but couldn't get through to his tongue. King Crenus came back into the room and looked at him as agonizing seconds crawled by.

"You want to ask me something, don't you?"

Nevis nodded.

"Speak," the king said. "I give you my word that you won't be punished for anything you say."

"Why did you save me?"

Crenus' lips twitched in a faint, ghostly smile.

"Did you expect me to watch a boy murdered in front of my eyes?"

"But... You're a... a..." Nevis took a deep breath then blurted it out. "You're a tyrant! Your men go into villages and hang people for not paying their taxes or joining the army!"

The king's lips set in a hard, pursed line. Nevis waited for a blow, for a rain of punches to smash him senseless. Instead Crenus sat back down in his chair and exhaled. This time it was the ruler who looked empty, deflated. The two of them watched one another in silence. The king's gaze felt like a physical thing, a weight pressing against the boy's eyeballs for perhaps a full minute.

"When I was a child, younger than you..."

Even as he began to speak, Crenus didn't know why. Part of his mind screamed that it was madness, that he must be deranged to consider telling this boy, this stranger, this rebel, something he'd almost kept from his beloved bride and queen. He groped for explanations, rationalizations.

Because the boy was a victim of the war, a mere child torn from his home and hurled into the conflict against his will. But so were many others -- conscripted by crown and rebellion alike.

Because he was a hero. He'd thrown himself at Theadric, that fearsome butcher of men, and risked his life to save an enemy. But the conflict teemed with heroes. War brought forth courage and daring even as it crushed legions of corpses beneath its murderous mass.

Because he'd stared at Crenus with confused eyes, unable to comprehend how savior and tyrant could live within the same flesh. But the king had bewildered Ellsaria too. And the thought of enlightening the unicorn, of revealing the secret that weighed in his soul, hadn't crossed his mind for a moment.

Because Nevis had shared his story, opened his life to the monarch's gaze. Because Crenus wanted those young, innocent eyes to know the truth lest they judge him like so many others. Because soon he would face %name% Kasan.

Maybe it was just madness after all. But it was a time for madness...

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