Assistance granted. Favors exchanged. Help provided. Lives saved. From the shadows these interactions have been as small as providing food when in need, to prophecies that toppled nations. All with the cryptic reply that one day a mysterious "employer" would need something in return. That day has finally come.
Arifos, the greatest Madrew warrior who ever lived is pulled away from his mission of vengeance against the legions of Zoldex as he fights to keep the Suspintian Forest free.
Kai, the Madrew protector of the Child of Prophecy is overseeing her recovery after she was dealt a near-fatal blow in a confrontation against Zoldex.
Kabilian, the collector of mystical items and self-proclaimed assassin is seeking his own fate before being swept up in the machinations of others.
Rawthorne, the tyrant who butchered his own family to claim the Falestian throne now serves Zoldex, but finds doubts and has many questions about just how he got here.
These four and their companions all have their own goals, their own agendas, their own sense of honor, yet all four must come together and form an uneasy alliance as their markers are all called in and they are forced together to deal with a threat from the past that they all thought was dead and buried. If they can work together, the debt will be paid. If not, an old enemy threatens to undermine everything that they work so hard to achieve.
In all of the Seven Kingdoms, there was no place that was dreaded more than the lair of the Hidden Empire. Tried and true warriors would even admit that it was safer to enter the homeland of a warring nation than it was to walk into the lair of Lady Salaman. It was dubbed “hidden,” but that was not necessarily true since many knew of its location. However, those swearing allegiance to Lady Salaman did her bidding behind the scenes, toppling governments, profiting from all aspects of civilized and criminal society, and ruling the more shady elements of the realm.
Lady Salaman had grown the Hidden Empire with nothing more than an insatiable hunger for power, a certain flexibility when it came to her ethical values, and the uncanny ability to terrorize others so much that they were petrified of incurring her wrath. Just how far her reach truly extended was little more than speculation, for she trusted none enough to divulge her secrets. But even her lieutenants knew that the crime-lord controlled and influenced far more than she ever let become apparent.
It was widely believed that even the common street peddler or beggar paid tribute to Lady Salaman, offering her a significant percentage of their takes. No assassin in their right mind would even think of accepting a contract that did not have the blessing of the Hidden Empire or else they knew that they would then be the next target. Every bounty hunter, enforcer, information broker, and thief in the realm could be hired or contacted through the Hidden Empire. Even a pair of Kings, as well as a former King, owed their allegiance to Lady Salaman personally.
Before the arrival of Zoldex, those upstanding citizens felt that Empress Karleena was the strongest and most powerful woman in the Imperium. They would be surprised to know that quite a few of Karleena’s most trusted advisors and aids offered the advice that Lady Salaman whispered into their ears. Those who knew of the Hidden Empire, and rightly feared the organization, suspected that even the Empress paled in comparison to the gorn crimelord.
It was all of this, her history, her accomplishments, her arrogance, that led to her complete shock at what she was witnessing. The sheer audacity of those who were here fighting in her lair. At first she thought that it was pathetic. Then she was insulted by their actions. As the fight continued, she grew infuriated by the scene. Heroes—champions of the realm—had invaded her home and were destroying everything that she built.
She knew as her lair burned around her that even if this structure collapsed that the Hidden Empire would live on. There was nothing to stop her from rebuilding her power base elsewhere, but if she left, she wanted it to be of her own choosing. These heroes had taken the choice away from her.
Some she recognized, others she did not. There were a pair of mystral, including Solara, the lover of Warlord Braksis and a woman bent on claiming vengeance for the death of her mate. There was the infernal sons of Thron—Thamar and Theiler—she would recognized their red beards and bluster anywhere. The son of King Kendall of Tregador was also with them—Baldock—who was more annoying and destructive than any dwarf she had even met to date. The elven daughter of King Echalas—Ashwin—was struggling to live up to the companions that she was fighting with, though her inexperience was telling as she fought. The pink-skinned elf Lady Salaman had learned of by his growing reputation—Arifos. He fought with purpose and grim determination. He would be a wonderful asset to her organization, but one she could never trust. The last of their group—other than the wolf and white tigers—was a Frost elf; one who wielded a Xylona honorblade. In fact, as she looked around, Ashwin, Arifos, and the Frost elf all wielded honor blades.
It seemed so unlikely that this select few could breach the defenses of the Hidden Empire and wreck such havoc, but as she looked at the chaos of her people, the bodies strewn about her lair, and the crackling flames cascading along the ceiling, she knew that this group of companions was worthy of her attention. Whether it was here and now, or years from now when her agents taught them that none may defy Lady Salaman, she knew that she would have her retribution for what they were costing her this day.
“We should get you to safety,” her photon guardian said, trying to convince Lady Salaman to leave before the combatants could harm her.
“No,” she sternly replied. “We are not leaving until I see exactly what I need to.”
At her decision, the photon signaled a pair of his kind and the three stood defensively around the crimelord, ready to sacrifice their own lives in service to her. Of all of her servants, the photons were the most trustworthy. Others, she knew, would flee rather than die for her—that is, unless they were more afraid of what she would do to them. Not the photons though. They had sworn an oath of allegiance to her, and for them, that was more important than anything. They were hers for as long as she needed them or until they were dead.
Lady Salaman peered through the flames, searching for those she considered her more capable servants. She watched as Larude struck one of the dwarves down—Theiler if she was not mistaken. His brother charged forward, attacking viciously, but also recklessly in his agitated state.
Kabilian, who was using his magical scepters to launch icicles as the heavily armored dwarf, was keeping the other dwarf—Baldock—busy. Lady Salaman watched him closely for a minute, seeing the elven princess crawling along the ground near the combatants. Kabilian began shouting out to his hobgoblin companions—Crick. “Crick, get the damned ring!” She watched as the hobgoblin turned to help him, getting a scolding shout: “Not me, the ring!” Undoubtedly, the ring was what Ashwin was crawling around and searching for.
The former King of Falestia—Rawthorne—was fighting against Solara with the sword of Larude. She had known Larude for a long time and was well aware of the fact that the blade, Zloreskalaza, hungered for blood and mayhem. Larude could control it. She doubted that Rawthorne could resist the impulses that would drive him into an insatiable bloodlust and frenzy until the sword was satisfied.
Her other lieutenant, the chiroptera Mage Xyphin, had fled long ago. He had been wounded fighting on the mystral—the blonde haired one—and left rather than remained. She did not award cowardice and would need to consider a worthy fate for him. She could recall when those she trusted most had been truly loyal to her. Perhaps it was time to find more lieutenants like Kr’Thia—now she was truly an artist when it came to dealing with threats to the Hidden Empire.
The fire was beginning to pick up in intensity, and Lady Salaman began wondering if it was time to consider leaving. She wanted nothing more than to enter the fray herself, striking down these champions with such swiftness and ferocity that the legend of the crimelord would only grow, but she was beyond giving in to such desires. She had an entire criminal organization to consider, and taking personal pleasures out of a kill was beneath her. Though lashing out at those who dared attack her was quite alluring.
The smoke was beginning to fill the lair, making it more difficult to see. Through the billowing smoke, she managed to spot Kabilian again, and saw that he was no longer fighting the dwarf, but the pink-skinned elf. The two of them were dueling—four blades moving so swiftly that they were little more than a blur with sparks dancing of of them with each impact. The skill of the two warriors was magnificent; inspirational even. It was a shame that both would likely perish as the lair began crumbling down around them.
A scream drew her attention: “Rawthorne!” It was full of such primal fury and agony that Lady Salaman knew that it could only be from Braksis’s lover. She had failed to kill the former King and claim vengeance.
From the smoke, Rawthorne emerged, his eyes staring at Larude’s sword hungrily. Lady Salaman knew what that meant. The sword was controlling him, guiding him. Though she was curious as to why he left the mystral behind, especially if he was under the influence of Zloreskalaza.
Stepping past her photon guards, Lady Salaman reached out and grabbed Rawthorne’s wrist in a viselike grip. Even then, Rawthorne seemed reluctant to pull his gaze away from the sword, but ultimately glanced over at her, seeing the intensity in her eyes as she stared at him.
“She is not dead yet.”
“She will be when next we meet,” Rawthorne said, holding her gaze defiantly.
Lady Salaman studied him, wondering what the sword was trying to convince him to do. Perhaps he did have a strong enough will to master the blade. He was no Larude, but he walked away from Solara, and she suspected Zloreskalaza was screaming in his mind even now to strike her down for daring to touch him.
“Very well,” she said, releasing his wrist. “After this is over, I want you on your way to Trespias immediately, as planned.”
Before he could answer her, Lady Salaman heard the cracking of the flames above her, and glanced up just in time to see the ceiling caving in on them. Her photon guards did not even hesitate, lunging towards her and trying to push her from the debris. As the ceiling collapsed on her, she roared as the flames seared her flesh, the weight pressing in on her.
Her symbiote shifted, moving down to where her legs were pinned, covering her and helping to shield her from the flames, but she could still feel the burns. It would be a long time healing from this ordeal. Her defeat—her humiliation—was complete.
She looked around her, seeing Neuss, the leader of her photons with his head caved in. She searched for Rawthorne, but saw nothing but a mound of debris and flames. She had to get out or she would be trapped here and burn to the death just as her lair was burning around her.
She heard the clanging blades of Kabilian and Arifos fighting, realizing that their duel had grown closer to her. With his magical items, he could easily help her. His scepter Blizzard could put out the fire. One of his potions could heal her. He was the perfect solution to her plight.
Summoning all of her strength, she shouted out as loudly as she could. “Kabilian!” She tried to shout again, but began coughing as the smoke filled her lungs. He was not coming, and as the minutes passed, she knew that she could not trust in the hope that he would save her. She was, after all, the crimelord. She had never needed anyone before in her life. That was why she was boss.
Pushing one of the dead photons away from her, Lady Salaman frowned at the loss of her most loyal servants. It had been six photons who had sworn their allegiance to her. All had perished either fighting the champions or trying to save her from the cave in. It would be many years before she found bodyguards that trustworthy again.
Lady Salaman spotted the doorway that led to the arena and reached for it. The strain was intense, but she refused to let the pain hinder her. The effort was agony as sharp, shooting pain flashed through her trapped leg and almost overwhelmed her. Even with her symbiote helping, she could not help but grit her teeth and growl as she tried to pull herself up.
Her hand reached the door, and she held onto it tight. She stopped pulling, giving herself a chance to catch her breath, though as she took a deep breath she began coughing again. If the flames did not kill her, the smoke inhalation definitely would. Pulling again with all of her might, she saw the world around her begin to go blurry and white as she teetered on unconsciousness, but then she felt her pinned legs pull through the debris.
She could not help herself but lift her head and cry out. If any of her servants had heard her at that moment, they would have lost respect for her. She was no longer so fearsome, but weak and vulnerable. It was not a condition she fancied, and one she hoped never to be again.
Pulling herself further away from the collapsed debris, Lady Salaman examined her leg. Not only was her fur scorched and her legs black and red, but one was lopsided at the knee—badly broken. Once she got away from here, she would need to find a Mage Healer to treat her injuries. Even one of Kabilian’s healing potions would be ineffective to injuries such as these. Even if she took months of rest after the bone was reset, without a Mage Healer she doubted she would ever be as swift and strong as she had been. Injuries like this, to lesser individuals, would quite often be fatal. But she was no lesser individual.
Glancing around her crumbling domain, Lady Salaman wondered if she would be able to find her way to safety to even try to find a Mage Healer. This morning she had been a crimelord, one of the most feared women in the entire realm; now she was little more than a cripple trying to claw her way to safety. Oh, how easily the might have fallen!
The rubble before her began to shift, and Lady Salaman watched as Rawthorne came bursting through the flaming debris, his arms outstretched as he reached for freedom. Unlike her shriek of agony, he let out a roar of defiance, informing the gods that they failed in their attempt to kill him. His entire body was covered with soot. His hair had been slightly scorched, but his injuries were nowhere near as severe as hers.
Putting all of her strength into her words so that she did not betray her true condition, Lady Salaman addressed the former King. “Rawthorne, I believe it is time to leave.”
She could see the scorn in his eyes as he stared down at her. He was no ally, but an opportunist. She visualized her symbiote shifting into a blade, ready to ram it into the former King’s stomach if he tried anything against her. Her connection with her symbiote was weak—she could feel it struggling to do as she wished, injured by trying to portect her legs—but it would do this one last thing for her if needed.
Rawthorne turned away and began searching for the debris. He stood back up straight, holding Zloreskalaza in his grasp, staring at it hungrily again.
“She is,” he said to the sword.
Lady Salaman tensed, willing her symbiote to be ready. “Rawthorne?”
“Yes,” Rawthorne said, though she doubted very much that he was answering her. He turned, stepping closer to her, the sentient blade firmly clutched in his hands. Her symbiote could feel the danger, and she knew it was building up its reserves to protect her.
“To whom are you speaking?” Lady Salaman demanded, knowing that he was now a servant of the overpowering sword.
“It no longer matters,” Rawthorne said.
Lady Salaman did not need to know about the influence of Zloreskalaza to grasp the intentions of the man as he glared down at her. She had taken many lives in her time, and had seen many people take the lives of others. Rawthorne was about to take hers, possibly even claiming her position in the Hidden Empire. But she did not become a crimelord by falling prey to any opportunist.
“You cannot harm me!” Lady Salaman shouted challengingly, her symbiote leaping to her defense, expanding into a hardened, thorn-encased armor.
“Your symbiote can’t save you,” Rawthorne said. “You are injured. Weak. You can’t even defend yourself.”
The symbiote extended a blade, ready for Lady Salaman to lean forward and strike, claiming the life of the former King. Before she could, Larude leapt through the flames, crashing into Rawthorne from behind, knocking the man to the ground.
“You will pay for that!”
“I will not let you harm Lady Salaman!” Larude said. “My sword has corrupted you.”
“I am not corrupted by anyone,” Rawthorne growled as he slashed the sword at Larude.
Larude caught the blade and held on tightly. Lady Salaman watched Larude’s blood begin dripping down his gauntlet, but her lieutenant refused to let go of the blade no matter how hard Rawthorne tried to move the sword. Larude then shot out with his second hand and punched Rawthorne in the nose, dropping him down, blood seeping down to his lip.
Lady Salaman watched as Rawthorne fell backwards, and then as Larude reclaimed his sentient sword. He stared at it for several moments, and she knew he was waging an internal war inside his mind with the sword—the blade must be controlled, and he had to remind Zloreskalaza just who its master was. His body eased, and then he lowered the sword so that the tip of the blade rested under Rawthorne’s chin.
“The sword has influenced you. Do not let it dictate your fate. Lady Salaman still has need of you, and if you accept that, you will be spared this day.”
Lady Salaman glared at Larude, shocked by the boldness of his declaration. Rawthorne wished to kill her. He would be eliminated along with all of the others who had failed her on this day. Turning her gaze on the former King, her eyes peering at him icily, she was shocked to see him slowly nod.
“Very well, I will not fall victim to the sword’s influence.”
“Excellent,” Larude said as he removed the sword from Rawthorne’s neck. Turning to Lady Salaman, he added, “What are your orders?”
Lady Salaman considered them both. Larude had overstepped his bounds, and Rawthorne dared to attack her. Both would need to learn their place. If her leg was not in the state it was, even with her lair crumbling around her, she would strike both men down where they stood for what they had done. But she also was wise enough to understand the state she was in.
“It is time to leave,” she replied. “I will need help walking.”
“I’ll help her,” Rawthorne said.
Lady Salaman willed her symbiote to lower its defenses, and as Rawthorne reached over to lift her up, the thorns shrank back into the symbiote and vanished within her body, allowing him to pick her up.
“Larude, make sure you don’t forget Kargle on your way out.” Kargle was a torsneg, a rare and deadly creature of the swamps, her pet, and a source of great entertainment for those who failed her. As Rawthorne carried her from her lair, she closed her eyes and visualized the former King screaming in terror as Kargle closed in on him, took a bite of him, and tore his body into three pieces.
“As you wish it, so it shall be,” Larude bowed, interrupting her reverie.
Before they left the lair she built and presided over behind, she heard the unmistakable roar of a dragon, and managed to see through the flames and smoke just enough to glimpse a forty-foot silver dragon. Standing nearby was Kabilian and Crick, showing no interest in helping her at all. The assassin moved his hand up to the amulet he wore around his neck, and just like that, he and his hobgoblin companion were gone.
Lady Salaman’s eyes narrowed menacingly. She had seen enough. She knew who had disappointed her. She would rebuild her base of operations and the Hidden Empire would be stronger than ever. But first, she would make sure that those who disappointed her were dealt with. All of those who disappointed her.
In all of the Seven Kingdoms, none are as poverty-stricken or disadvantaged as those of Tenalong. The people of Frocomon may complain more because they once had a grand fleet and were forced to struggle with a new—and oftentimes failing—trade following the Great Wars, but that could never compare to the life that plagued those of Tenalong.
The people of Tenalong—the Tenalonians—have always been a very poor and disadvantaged group of individuals. The Kingdom is largely split into three basic classes: those who were criminals and malcontents by choice, those who were forced into a life of crime by circumstance, or those who fell victim to the criminal elements around them. Regardless of which group a Tenalonian fell into, all groups lived lives of fear, caution, and struggled to survive more than any. A wise Tenalonian would even doubt the actions of their own siblings, preparing for a moment when their true colors will show in an attempt at backstabbing and betraying them. There was no Kingdom of more suspicious, more conniving, or more duplicitous citizens. A Tenalonian could never be trusted, and never would trust.
This was one of the main reasons Tenalong was the ideal locale for the Hidden Empire to thrive. Lady Salaman’s vast organization did not even have to mask their presence, being accepted as a consequence of life in the Kingdom. The acceptance of the Hidden Empire only enforced the disreputable image of Tenalong in the eyes of the other six Kingdoms of the Imperium.
But the Hidden Empire did not create the image of disorder in Tenalong, only enhanced it. Even so far back as the Age of the Dragon, Tenalong was the home of the underworld of society—criminals, assassins, murderers, bounty hunters, thieves, and more found the undesirable region of the Tenalong Everglades to be a safe haven.
At the time, the Tenalong Everglades were a portion of Suspinti—vast swamplands that encompassed most of the land, making it difficult and hard to expand to the west for the Suspintians, and a destination where those who did not wish to be caught could hide out. Disease was rampant in the Tenalong Everglades, another deterrent for pursuers from entering the swamps to go after their quarry.
During the reign of King Dintor, during the Age of the Dragon, the Suspintian ruler was growing weary of the criminals plaguing his Kingdom and always seeking refuge in the swamps. Too often his soldiers would track the criminals to the Tenalong Everglades and then abandon the pursuit. Even with the assistance of the mystral and dragons, those hiding in the swamps always managed to find a way to elude pursuit.
A thief known only as Trin one day offered King Dintor to take the Tenalong Everglades off of his hands. For a mere dozen diamonds, Trin purchased the entire swamps and region to the west. Dintor was hesitant, but Trin spoke of legitimizing the kingdom and removing the headache and hassle from Suspinti. At the same time, Dintor was planning to marry Kessta, the fourth daughter of Kring Renwald of Falestia. The removal of the ongoing criminal elements would be beneficial to his reign with his bride to be, and the diamonds would be a magnificent wedding present. Ultimately, he decided both reasons were significant and agreed to the purchase of land, creating the Seventh and final Kingdom of the realm.
Trin found the price to be quite reasonable, and was frankly amazed that the sale of the western lands went through. With the oversight of the mystral and dragons to make sure the sale was not coerced, Trin became the first King of the newest Kingdom—Tenalong, named after the everglades. With the protection of the mystral and dragons now that he was viewed as a royal—even if he bought the title—he declared that all criminals, no matter how severe the crime, could come to Tenalong and be pardoned and free as long as they abided by his rules and reign.
Over the years under Trin’s rule, Tenalong grew rapidly, becoming a home to all manner of creatures and individuals that considered themselves to be roguish in nature. The Kingdom grew in power, but never in prestige and influence. None of the other royal families—nor even the mystral and dragons in actuality—accepted Tenalong as a viable government entity. As far as the rest of the realm was concerned, Tenalong was a Kingdom of criminals, and not worthy of being considered legitimate. Even King Dintor received backlash from other royal families, the blame set on him for allowing the mockery of a Kingdom to be formed for a mere dozen diamonds.
Even against all odds, King Trin spent most of his life trying to legitimize his Kingdom, but ultimately failed. On his fiftieth birthday, his grandson—Gungtar, who was not even fully human but the offspring of his son and an orc concubine mother—poisoned him during his celebration feast. Gungtar then challenged his parents, uncles, and aunts for the throne of the Kingdom, taking control by force.
Under the rule of Tenalong’s second King, the kingdom began a campaign to undermine the royal families of every other Kingdom and claim superiority over all of the realm. Gungtar’s ambition was brought to a halt by the mystral and dragons who brought him before a tribunal to answer for his crimes against the other royal families, where the first member of royalty in the history of the realm was sentenced to death.
Following the sentencing, Gungtar was hung and the mystral and dragons decreed that no descendent of Gungtar may ever claim the throne of Tenalong. His offspring cried foul, arguing that it was not the place of the mystral and dragons to intervene in the leadership of a specific Kingdom. Even if any of the other royal families agreed, none would listen to the arguments, and all of Gungtar’s descendents found themselves the victims of their relatives to prevent future treachery.
With a void for leadership in Tenalong, the great grandchildren of Trin began vying for power in their attempts to claim the throne. Like the descendents of Gungtar, many cousins were murdered or found dead after what appeared to be a fatal accident. Anyone that claimed the throne soon found themselves poisoned and replaced, resulting in a lingering power struggle and lack of leadership. The rest of the realm watched with distaste, believing that Tenalong was getting exactly what they deserved, and the kingdom of criminals was soon to be dissolved.
But after nearly twenty-five years of Trin’s descendents killing each other for power, his great granddaughter, Venarra, finally managed to unite the remaining descendents, end the bloodshed, and claim the throne. Although Venarra was never accused of any crimes or wrongdoing—a fact that somewhat appeased the mystral, dragons, and other royal families of the realm—it was evident that everyone else who had survived in the house of Trin feared her enough to be forced into submission.
She ruled for sixty-eight years, finally managing to do what Trin had desperately tried for so long: managing to gain some headway in improving the stature of Tenalong in the midst of the other Kingdoms. The Kingdom was still far from prestigious, something that eludes them even to the current day, but under Queen Venarra’s rule they were at least accepted as a Kingdom and her as a royal.
The descendents of Venarra have ruled Tenalong for nearly eleven millennia—a staggering number considering the number of family members over the generations who have plotted to seize the throne. Even with such deception, duplicity, and hostility, the throne has remained much as Venarra had designed it—accepted, tolerated even, but never with much influence over the affairs of the Seven Kingdoms.
The current presiding King—Garum—was no stranger to his roots and how he had claimed the throne. Much like his ancestors, Garum is suspected of murdering both his father and elder brother. He, however, had close ties to the Hidden Empire, and since most of the authorities of Tenalong were corrupt and under the influence of Lady Salaman, no investigation could really ascertain the validity of such accusations.
Garum’s only other living relative—his younger brother, Roen—strongly believes that Garum did indeed murder the rest of their family, or, if not that, was directly responsible for hiring whoever had claimed their lives. As the third son, he had no claim to the Tenalong throne, but wished to challenge his brother to prove that he had risen to power legitimately under unfortunate circumstances, and not through manipulation and criminal deeds.
Unlike Garum, Roen had never been corrupt. In fact, since he never had any thoughts of becoming King as the third son, he spent most of his formative years away from Tenalong and explored the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, learning as much as he could from other lands and cultures. It was then he had met and fell in love with a Xylona elf, Analiel, who he married under elven tradition and lived happily with. The two gave birth to three children—Rindinel, Enoria, and Atarin.
After the conspiracy to claim the throne, and his challenge to his brother’s rule, Roen became concerned for the lives of his family, certain that a Hidden Empire assassin would strike at them to silence him. If they were to kill him alone, he would have continued to go after his brother, but he would not jeopardize the lives of his loved ones. He also was certain that Analiel and the children would be the victims of another plot—after all, if he were killed after making his challenge, Garum’s rule might be questioned by Emperor Conrad and the rest of the Imperium. Rather than staying and fighting, Roen took his family and fled, knowing that there was no place they could go to evade the Hidden Empire, but hoping that if they were gone Garum would not press the matter. Their current whereabouts and fate remain a mystery.
Satisfied that there was no further challenge to his rule, Garum grew comfortable in his position, but was never really accepted outside of Tenalong. Everything that his ancestors had done to improve the stature of Tenalong Garum managed to destroy, his kingdom seen as little more than a figurehead for the power that is Lady Salaman and the Hidden Empire. It was no secret that Garum cowered beneath the direction of the crimelord. Every action—whether in reality or merely perception—is considered little more than an extension of Salaman’s corruption.
Even the Regional Overseers, the advisors and leaders of Tenalong who serve beneath King Garum, were pawns of the Hidden Empire. Historically, the Overseers were appointed by the throne as advisors, tax collectors, and administrators for provinces within the Kingdom. But Garum did not appoint a single Overseer; Lady Salaman did. Each received their instructions from her, and through them, King Garum was controlled like a puppet.
Three years after the lair of the Hidden Empire burned to the ground, and Lady Salaman was suspected to be dead, King Garum ruled on his own. Even though he had been involved in the assassination of his father and brother as Roen accused, he never desired the power. Instead, he was the brother who was easily manipulated and controlled by Lady Salaman. Without her guidance, he was left to his own volition, and his Kingdom suffered for his lack of enthusiasm and vision.
The Regional Overseers were all without direction as well, and each vied for power, trying to claim the remnants of the Hidden Empire for their own. Not only them, but other lieutenants of the once mighty organization all began assembling followers and trying to take over even portions of what Lady Salaman had once controlled by herself.
Garum let them have their struggles without interference. He figured that sooner or later one of the lieutenants or overseers would claim the vast power of the Hidden Empire and then he would no longer need to make decisions on his own. He longed for the day when he was told what to do once again. Even under the new leadership of the Imperium, under the oversight of Zoldex, Garum felt that he had too much independence and did not know what to do with it.
Sitting in his throne room, Garum was presiding over the monthly ritual that bored him. Each of his Regional Overseers would bring their tax collections and present them to him. But, those who failed to pay taxes would also be rounded up and brought in to suffer whatever fate the King decreed. Those fates had always been dictated by Lady Salaman. What did he care about the poverty stricken people of his Kingdom? Why should we be bothered by them?
But, when possible, he did take the few joys he could from these days. There were moments he could find something to amuse himself. Looking out at the lines and lines of people in tattered rags, their skin filthy, their teeth rotted to the core, and their bodies stinking so badly that it would take weeks to clean the throne room—just in time for them to return and smell it up again.
“I bring before you Tobin, father of four, husband, and innkeeper in Border Town.”
Garum glanced at Tobin, already bored with the day and ready to leave. “Why have you not paid your taxes, Tobin?”
“My King, since the war began, people are not coming to Border Town to stay,” Tobin explained. “I have had no patrons.”
“You still owe payment for the privilege of not being impacted from the war,” Garum replied, hardly caring about the message he was relaying.
“But the taxes are so high. We cannot afford them, my King. I cannot even afford to feed my own family.”
“Everyone must pay,” Garum said, dismissing the argument. “Take an eye as payment.”
“My eye?” Tobin gasped. “My King, surely you cannot be serious!”
“It will be a reminder of your debts every time you wake up.”
The Regional Overseer leaned over and whispered into Garum’s ear. Garum held his finger up to silence Tobin and those around as he listened. “His daughters are quite lovely.”
“Are they now?” Licking his lips, Garum imagined just what he could do to lovely daughters. Focusing on Tobin, he asked, “You said you had four children?”
“I do, my King. They are depending upon me to feed, clothe, and house them.”
“Yes,” Tobin confirmed, shifting uncomfortably.
“Bring them to me. They will pay your debt. One week’s service.”
Tobin’s eyes widened, and Garum suspected in that moment that the innkeeper would rather lose his eye than hand over his daughters. “My King, please, I beg of you!”
The Regional Overseer gestured to several guards in the back, who opened the door and dragged the four daughters of Tobin into the throne room, struggling as they were brought before the King and their father.
“These are your daughters?” Garum asked, licking his lips. The Overseer was right, they were quite lovely. The week of service for the four of them would be worth several months of taxes, though undoubtedly Tobin would be brought before him again next month—no use letting the people think they could get away with not paying their dues so easily.
“My King, please!” Tobin pleaded.
“Remove him,” Garum said with a wave of his hand. “Bring the girls to my chambers after they have been cleaned up and made more…presentable.”
The guards grabbed Tobin and dragged him away as he reached for his daughters, crying their names, each girl reaching for him as they too were dragged off. Garum’s lip creased into a grin. There were moments of pleasure even in his life.
v v v
In all of his years, he knew how to blend into a crowd and remain hidden. The magical pearl that dug into his forehead and allowed him to shift his appearance into anything he wished merely helped him with the illusion. He was disgusted by what he was witnessing since returning to Tenalong, and knew that he would be forced to intervene.
He had never wished to return to Tenalong. In fact, if an ally of his—Kaden—had never been threatened by Lady Salaman and the Hidden Empire, he likely never would have been affiliated with the gorn crimelord at all. He had lived a long life, longer than most, and his career path had shifted more than once. Playing the part of a criminal assassin seemed like as good a role as any, keeping him entertained for a time while also helping to make sure that any contract sent out against Kaden and his uncle Mek met with disaster—at least, those sent after them met with disaster: they met with him.
In his time with the Hidden Empire, he watched, learned as much as he could, and waited for the time when his interests would pull him away from the criminal organization. Perhaps he had been foolish to ignore the cries for help from Lady Salaman, but it was those same self interests that pulled him away—his true craving: magical items.
He did not regret his decision, and even if he were back in the burning lair of the Hidden Empire, he would not go to the aid of Lady Salaman if she called his name again. But he was wise enough to know that one did not walk away from the Hidden Empire so easily—at least, not if Lady Salaman were still alive.
He had been here for a time, observing the remnants of the Hidden Empire vying for power, and wondered if they even knew whether Lady Salaman was alive or not. A few more influential Hidden Empire operatives learned that he had returned, finding themselves victims to his inquiries. None of them knew anything. He was not sure why he was in the throne room watching King Garum, other than the fact that he knew the man was little more than a pawn to Lady Salaman’s wishes. He doubted that Garum would know anything more than the others he had already killed, but removing the man from power would be his privilege, and a great service to the realm.
Unlike those here though, he knew first hand that Lady Salaman had survived the fire and was seeking retribution against those she felt betrayed her. He, unfortunately, was one of her targets. The wraith bounty hunter Rhyne was sent after him. The blademaster traveled all the way to Egziard in pursuit to fulfill the crimelords wishes. That was where he fell. But the fact remained that Lady Salaman was alive and holding a grudge, and she wanted his head for not coming to her aid.
He was not accustomed to being hunted, but being the hunter. If she wanted him, she would only have to look in the mirror, because ultimately, one day, he would be there ready to end her life and plague upon the realm. He would have been content to leave her alone, but she went after him. Now her life was forfeit. He did not leave enemies behind. Ever.
But this was also something he needed to do alone. At least for now. He knew he would be successful in his attempts. The flashes and images that the Orb of Prophecy showed him let him know that much at least. Even if he was somewhat confused by everything he saw, certain images were undeniable. He and Lady Salaman would cross paths again, and then she would trouble nobody ever again.
To get to that point though, he needed information. He could not do what needed to be done without learning more about where she had gone. After one more attempt to claim the magical weapons of the annoying dwarf Baldock, he had brought his companion to Liodden’s Legacy to be trained by the Falestian Monks. The felidae had long been his ally and had come to his aid in the past—the most recent time against the trolls in service of King Worren. Now, if they could train Crick to be more patient, to foster internal strength, and to master his own form, then his companion would become even more valuable than he already was.
While Crick was being retrained, he had been searching for information. With his resources and contacts, he had quite a few places he could go, but nothing panned out. He knew she was alive, but none of the others did. It was as if Lady Salaman had truly died in that fire. At least, she gave off the perception that she had died.
King Garum stood up, offering a few words to the people about their need to pay their taxes and how he could not protect them without their contributions, and then left the room. There was no doubt where he was going or what he intended to do. At least the man would die happy.
v v v
King Garum had waited long enough. The daughters of Tobin should have been scrubbed and dressed accordingly by now. His own slave girls would have seen to it. There was nothing he enjoyed more than new flesh to play with. He prayed that the daughters were virgins—at least some of them.
There were a pair of guards standing by the doors to his chambers to make certain that the daughters did not manage to get away. Garum licked his lips as he walked past them, into the room, and saw the young women waiting for them.
“Hello, ladies,” he said.
“Please, let us go,” one of the girls pleaded. She looked to be the oldest of the group, maybe twenty if that, with raven-black hair, a face that could have belonged to an angel, and in the lace outfit her slavegirls dressed her in with a body that instantly excited him. She was curved in all of the right places, and for a daughter who her father claimed was starving, she looked perfect.
“You all belong to me, now,” Garum said. “You will serve me, my every whim and desire as you pay off the debts your family has accumulated. Then, and only then, will I decide whether you can go free or not.”
“You are a monster,” the raven-haired girl snarled.
“You are mistaken. I am your King.” He took another step into the room, removing his overcoat and then tugging at the ropes of his tunic as he approached them. Removing his tunic, he scanned each of the daughters trying to decide which one he would taste first. Deciding to go for the spirited one, he pointed at her: “You.”
“You will never have me.”
“Remove your clothes and get on the bed or I will summon my guards and have one of your sisters executed before your eyes.”
The woman glanced at her sisters, each of them looking terrified. Relenting, she lifted the see-through lace garment she had been given, leaving herself as naked as the day she was born, and walked over to the bed.
Garum snickered delightedly as he unfastened his pants, letting the fabric fall down to his ankles. Before he could remove his boots and the fabric, he heard something slam against the door and spun around, glaring at it, wondering who would dare interrupt him.
The door burst open, one of his guards falling through onto the floor, bloody and battered. Behind him, an unremarkable man in the gard of a Tenalonian Guard stood.
“What is the meaning of this?” Garum barked.
The man stepped into the room, never taking his eyes from Garum.
“I demand an answer! Who dares disturb me?”
The man reached up to his forehead, almost as if he was placing his finger within the very flesh of his head, and pulled something small, round, and with tendrils that had been digging into his flesh away. As the object was removed, his features began to change. The roguish guard shifted into a clean-shaven man with auburn hair tied back into a ponytail. His dark and tattered garments knitted back together into a crisp and clean sea-blue shirt with a deep brown brigandine over it, brown gloves, and lighter brown pants that tucked into black boots.
The unremarkable man had shifted and turned from the guard, to a look that Garum was all too familiar with: Kabilian.
v v v
“Hello Garum,” Kabilian said, walking toward the King and glancing at the mostly naked man. “It looks like I caught you with your pants down.”
“Kabilian. What do you want?”
Garum reached to pull his pants up, but Kabilian drew his Xylona honorblade and stopped him with an “Uh, uh, ah.”
Rising back up, Garum glared at the assassin. Kabilian could see in his eyes that he thought that Lady Salaman had finally returned to exact her vengeance for him not remaining loyal to her. How wrong he was.
“Ladies, I do believe you can get dressed and leave now. Consider your debt to your King paid in full.”
“How dare you,” spat Garum.
“Come now, Garum, do you really think that you’ll be in any condition to entertain a lady when we’re done?” Kabilian laughed at the absurdity, seeing Garum’s spirits only sag more.
The raven-haired daughter put the lace garments back on and stopped next to Garum. “We’re free to go?”
“You are,” Kabilian confirmed.
“What about him?”
“He will be in no position to go after you or your family again.”
“Do you mind?” she asked, looking at him hesitantly.
“By all means,” Kabilian shrugged.
The woman then brought her knee up with all of her might into Garum’s stomach. As he dropped to the ground, struggling for air, she brought her foot slamming down on his genitals, taking some satisfaction in his pain as he was writhing in agony, tears flowing from his eyes, and pleading for mercy.
“Thank you,” she said.
“No, that little spectacle was worth its weight in gold,” Kabilian said as he reached into his Mage’s satchel, producing a small leather pouch. He rattled it to let everyone hear that there were goins within, and then tossed it to the raven-haired girl. “There should be enough in there to secure passage to Falestia. Leave Tenalong. You’re not safe here.”
“Why Falestia?” she asked.
“Garum may be swine, but the one he serves is worse,” Kabilian said. “Zoldex controls six of the Seven Kingdoms. Only Falestia remains free. At least for now. Begin there, and then decide where your fate brings you.”
“We shall,” she said. “Thank you…was it Kabilian?”
“Guilty as charged,” Kabilian said with a disarming grin that made him look more like a flamboyant playboy than an assassin.
“Thank you, Kabilian.” The four sisters then left the room, leaving Kabilian alone with the King of Tenalong.
Kabilian crouched down, amused at how much pain Garum was in. “You know, you haven’t been very good on the mortal world. If you believe in such things, you’re probably going to spend your afterlife suffering in Tanorus.”
“Then I’ll see you there,” gasped Garum.
“Ooh, some spirit,” Kabilian replied, rolling his eyes. “Where was that spirit when you were committing attrocities for Lady Salaman?”
“Just like you,” Garum said.
“We all have our parts to play, I guess,” Kabilian shrugged.
“Why are you here?” Garum asked, no longer as defiant or confrontational with his tone. “I never betrayed Lady Salaman. She vanished. I thought she was dead.”
“A shame for you she is not,” Kabilian said.
“Then she wishes me dead,” Garum sighed. “After all I have done for her.”
“She does not know that I am here,” Kabilian said. “But it also sounds like you cannot help me to find her.”
“You thought she was dead, right?”
“You mean…you’re not here to kill me for her?”
“No,” Kabilian confirmed.
“Then…I’m going to live?”
“No,” Kabilian laughed. “No you’re not.”
“I don’t understand,” Garum said, trying to crawl away from Kabilian.
“You are a wicked man, Garum. One whom I have long believed deserves to suffer for what you have done. You do not rule your people well. They suffer, and you turn a blind eye. You would rape a man’s four daughters because he does not have enough money to pay your excessive taxes. You do not deserve to live.
“I wish you could have given me information about Lady Salaman. Something to tell me where she is or how to find her, but alas, you are of no use to me.”
“Wait, wait, I do know something!” Garum said, seeking some kind of way out of his predicament.
Kabilian got up, sheathed his sword, and walked away from Garum, his arms folded. “I’m listening. Amuse me.”
“I can lead you to Xyphin.”
Xyphin peaked Kabilian’s interest. The Mage was one of her trusted lieutenants. Though he doubted Xyphin could help him any more than Garum did, the Mage was closer to Lady Salaman in the hierarchy of the Hidden Empire.
“Where is he?”
“No, I’ll bring you to him,” Garum said. “If you promise to let me live.”
“You are in no position to bargain.”
“I lead you or no deal,” Garum said.
“Then no deal,” Kabilian said, stifling a yawn. “I’ll find Xyphin on my own. I don’t need you.”
“What? No! Wait!” Garum said, looking behind Kabilian as if praying that more guards would come. “Fine, I will tell you.”
“He’s not far. He’s here. In the city. In the ruins that used to be the mystral citadel before the dragons fled the land for Darnak.”
“I’ll check it out,” Kabilian said. “Thank you for the information.”
“Then you’ll let me live?”
Kabilian laughed deeply. “I never agreed to that.” He raised his right hand and flicked his wrist, activating his mystical bracer and launching a small drug-topped dart at the King. Kabilian knew that Garum only had seconds to live. To taunt him one final time, he walked back over and crouched down beside the gasping man. “I trust Roen will be a far better and wiser King than you. Long live the King.”
Garum emitted a pained gurgle, and then his body stopped trembling as the poison on the dart finished its work, leaving the King dead. Without a backwards glance, Kabilian walked out of the room and out of Castle Venarra, hoping that he would never need return again.
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