Chapter 10 – A New Role

The wrath of the gods is terrible to behold, or at least I imagine this to be the case. An enemy can break your body, but the gods can break your soul.

The Book of Lost Wisdom, Kalutu

Seventeenth of Learning 1142

From his knees, Lord Ormund looked up at Captain Jericho, terrified by the madness in his eyes. But the captain’s voice, calm, clear and direct, belied his appearance.

“You were going to tell me what you were doing in the queen’s chambers during the Undead War.”

“I have no intention of telling you that. I will tell you 

The Rending

anything else you want to know, but not that.”

Ormund braced himself against the wrath of a goddess, but he felt not a twinge. That gave him confidence. If he had to die this day, so be it, but he would not betray the queen. Surely Jericho wouldn’t want him to disobey a royal command.

“Captain Jericho, like me you are a servant of Queen Treya. Why would you want me to tell you that which the queen herself asked me to keep secret? Isn’t that hers to tell? Are you not betraying your oath to her by even asking me to reveal what Her Majesty herself wishes to be kept from you?”

“You can not fool me, sorcerer. I know you are up to something. I just haven’t asked the right questions…yet. You have done something to the queen, and I’m fairly certain that when you answer that question, I will know what it is. And you will answer. Sarith will scour your soul for the rest of your miserably short life if you don’t.”

Lord Ormund met his eyes. “Then, unlike you, I will die a loyal subject of the queen, whatever Sarith does to me.”

No pain. Ormund had made a decision and, no matter what it would cost him, he would stick to it.

“Tell me what you were doing with the queen.”

“I can not.”

The pain began deep inside him and tore outward, as if his body was being ripped asunder, but the pain was not physical. His soul was being shredded, and if it continued long enough, there wouldn’t be enough of it left to make it to whatever afterlife might have been waiting.

So be it. For a long time, people had thought him weak, a buffoon, a joke. But this was his moment. He would not speak. He would not betray the queen, even if his silence would cost his soul eternity. Better he should cease to exist altogether than to betray the one pure thing in his long and lonely life.

*

Queen Treya returned to the throne room and immediately had it cleared, except for Leata, who was ordered to remain. While the people filed out, the two stood side by side, whispering.

“Captain Jericho is no longer fit to command the guard. I have no idea who to elevate to take his place.”

“What happened?”

“Captain Jericho attacked the king.”

“Dear gods! Is he all right?”

“I found him unconscious in our chambers and fed him a healing potion. He’ll be okay.”

“And you say Jericho did this?”

“He’s completely snapped. He got it into his head that Lord Ormund was controlling me, and that we’d had an affair while the king was off fighting in the Undead War.”

“I’d heard rumors but didn’t put any stock in them. It was before my time, of course.”

“I wasn’t having an affair with Lord Ormund. I was pregnant and lost the child. Lord Ormund was coming to my chambers because I was under his care. I didn’t tell Terrence because he was going off to war, and I didn’t need him worrying about me or the baby, especially with what was going on at the time. So many still births. It’s still hard to think about those days.”

Leata very rarely displayed emotion, at least in Treya’s presence, but for just a moment, there was anguish in the Chamberlain’s eyes. Unsurprising really. The rash of deaths had gone on for so long and had affected so many that everyone at the palace had known someone who had miscarried or lost a child. Queen Treya hadn’t been alone, though the knowledge provided no comfort.

“I’m so sorry, Your Majesty. I didn’t know.”

“Precious few did. I’m telling you now because I trust you. And because the more information you have, the more effective you can be. I can’t help but think that if I’d told Captain Jericho this, he wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing now.”

“Which is?”

“Using a holy relic to torture Lord Ormund into telling him the truth. Ormund didn’t take the boys. He’s innocent.”

“You’re sure?”

“As sure as I can be. Back to my original question. Who would the men follow without objection in Maynor’s absence?”

“There are a few possibilities. Let me talk to someone before I give you an answer.”

“Go. We need to get this under control fast.”

“Of course, Your Majesty. I’ll return as soon as I can.”

Terrence entered just as Leata reached the throne room doors. Anyone else would have been shocked to see the King in his current condition, but the chamberlain barely batted an eye. She bowed as she passed, but made no comment and didn’t slow her pace. Terrence nodded to her in reply. When Leata closed the door behind her, Treya realized that, for the first time in a long time, she and Terrence were alone in the throne room. Without guards or servants around, it felt different. Almost as if it was a different place altogether.

“How are you feeling?” she asked.

“I’ll live. Where is Leata off to?”

“Figuring out who’s taking Jericho’s place. We’ll need guards for the search. Someone will have to direct them.”

“If only there was some way to do this faster, but I can’t imagine where he took Ormund, or how he might have gotten him there without being seen. Maybe somewhere in the palace dungeons?”

King Terrence opened his mouth to speak, froze for a long moment, then fell to his knees. The movement was so sudden that Treya barely had time to react before he threw back his head and screamed. She tried to approach, but a transparent sphere had formed around him, holding her back. She struggled against it, but it was solid. She tried circling around it, pushing against the barrier, but it was like trying to push through stone. There was no way she could reach her husband.

He doubled over as if in pain and clutched at his stomach. She turned and ran to the door to get help. She pulled on it, but it was locked or stuck. She pounded against it, trying to get the attention of the guards she knew would be standing on the other side, but there was no response. The sound felt muffled as if she were pounding a cushion instead of metal. Whatever held Terrence held her as well.

“Sheba,” he gasped, and she turned to face him.

His body convulsed. He raised his head and seemed to be looking straight at her, but more likely he was just facing her direction. His eyes bulged, his face twisted in ways that seemed to defy reality, and the veins in his neck protruded so far that they reminded her of the chains that held the draw bridge in her father’s castle. His face had grown so red, it was impossible to see the areas where blood had stained it. Sweat rolled over him as he struggled against whatever unknown force held him. Even now, recovering from a recent attack, wracked by pain, powerless against something greater, King Terrence of Twyl strove with all of his being. It was one of the reasons she loved him. There was no quit in her husband.

She started toward him again, determined to help, but froze when she saw the glow begin to build. She had seen many people level, but she had never seen anything like this. Was it possible?

Terrence had been Level 19 for so long, he had given up on ever progressing further. They had talked about it. He had worried that he had somehow offended the goddess, which seemed ridiculous to her, but she couldn’t reassure him as no one could know Sheba’s mind. All she could do was comfort him.

It had come up more than once. He had so badly wanted to break the Level 20 barrier. She could feel how much it bothered him when he started to realize it wasn’t going to happen. And in truth, everyone capped out sooner or later. She was only Level 12 herself, but she hadn’t fought in a war. Very few people reached Tier 3 after all, and there was no shame in capping out at 19.

Terrence was considered a high level warrior. More than that, people called him the warrior king. But Terrence never really cared what people thought about him. More than anything he had wanted acknowledgment from the goddess. No, not acknowledgment. He didn’t care about accolades. He wanted reassurance that he had not done something so wrong that she had turned away from him. Guilt ate away at him, not just the guilt of his affair, but that he had come home when so many others had not. Knowing he felt this way, Sheba could have said something, but the goddess does as the goddess wills. Whatever her reasons, Treya was sure she had them.

The glow grew in intensity until it became so bright, the queen had to shield her eyes against it. It reminded her of the flash of light that had preceded Sheba when she had visited them in the throne room. Despite its intensity, she tried to see what was happening, but eventually was forced to close her eyes completely, afraid she would go blind if she continued to watch. The air hummed with power, another thing she had never heard of or experienced when someone leveled. What if this was something else?

Her Danger Sense, one of her skills, hadn’t triggered, so she waited, unable to watch, content to listen. And then Sheba’s voice filled the throne room.

“Congratulations. You have reached Tier 3. Warrior class has transitioned into Supreme Sovereign. You have reached Supreme Sovereign Level 1. New skill unlocked – Locate Subject. New skill unlocked — Enhanced Detect Lie. New skill unlocked — Channel Sheba. New skill unlocked — Blade of Wrath.”

The light started to fade, and she could see him again, still aglow from the residual energy of the transition. King Terrence looked amazing. The process of leveling had completely healed him, one of the long known benefits of leveling. Sometimes, it happened on the battlefield, and people who were at the edge of death were suddenly well again and able to continue the fight. But Terrence looked larger…more powerful…almost like a demigod. She couldn’t take her eyes off of him.

“Well, you look a lot better.” She couldn’t keep the awe out of her voice.

“I feel better. Come on, we don’t have any time to lose.”

“You know where they are?”

“I do. Let’s go.”

Without another word he moved to the throne room doors. Treya followed.

“We’ll need weapons,” she said.

“No. We won’t.”

She looked surprised but didn’t question him. At any other time she might have, but there was something about the way he spoke, the way he moved, the sheer confidence of his bearing. She followed him from the throne room and whispered a thanks to Sheba that at long last, her husband had leveled.

*

Captain Jericho stared down at the thing that had been Lord Ormund only a short time ago. Covered in vomit, smelling of excrement, eyes vacant and soulless. This man was the enemy. He knew it deep inside, but the man would not confess. The thought enraged him.

“Ormund, I grow weary of your obstinance. You will tell me what I want to know.”

But the mage could no longer even form words. What was left of him wasn’t enough to interrogate. Jericho would have to wait till he recovered to continue. He cursed the delay, but there was nothing for it. This man was the enemy. He would prove it.

The door opened and King Terrence, blazing with light, entered. Queen Treya followed him in a moment later. They both looked at Ormund. Queen Treya looked shocked. King Terrence studied the thing that had been Ormund before raising his eyes to Jericho.

“Captain Jericho, this ends now.”

“My Liege, this man is the enemy. I know it. Give me the chance to prove it.”

“After you attacked me? Stole a holy relic from me? Used it on one of my loyal subjects against my will? How many chances do you think you get, Jericho?”

“My liege, I did it to protect the queen. Surely you can understand that.”

Queen Treya finally looked away from what was left of Lord Ormund. When her eyes found Jericho they were cold and distant.

“Captain Jericho. I no longer need your protection. Release Lord Ormund at once.”

“He did something to you! I can prove it, my queen.”

“Do not call me that. You have lost that right.”

Captain Jericho’s eyes widened and his voice quavered. “Please…no.”

“I don’t know what happened to you, Captain Jericho. I don’t know what made you like this, but it is clear to me that you have lost your way,” she said. “Release Lord Ormund.”

“I will not. You’ll see, Your Highness. I will prove this.”

“Lord Jericho,” said the king firmly. “This is your last chance. As it is, you’ve forfeited your rank and your freedom. Do not make me take your life as well.”

Jericho looked at the king, stunned. “My life, Your Highness? You would kill me for protecting the queen?”

“In the Kingdom of Twyl, people have rights, Jericho. Lord Ormund has rights. He has a right to be tried. He has a right to present evidence in his defense. He has the right to be treated like any other citizen. We don’t torture people to get confessions. What you’ve done here…it’s horrific. You have taken a man I believe to be loyal, and you’ve tortured him based on nothing more than your own groundless theories. This is not how nobles behave. For the last time, Jericho, stand down.”

“No.”

“Then you leave me no choice.”

King Terrence extended his hand in front of him, palm up. He stared at it and a long, jagged black blade appeared.

“This sword is called Sheba’s Justice and no one has seen it in hundreds of years. It is a dark blade to combat the darkness in your soul. Do you have any last words?”

Jericho drew his own blade and stood ready to defend himself. The king shook is head sadly and spoke, his voice compelling, commanding, inhumanly so.

“Kneel!”

At once Jericho dropped to his knees, unable to avoid the command backed by the holy power of Sheba.

“Relinquish your weapon.”

The sword clattered to the ground. Jericho stared at it in astonishment.

“Please, Your Highness,” he was looking at the queen now, “have mercy. I was only trying to protect you.”

The queen’s voice was ice. “I did not judge you, Sheba did. If you wish mercy, beg the goddess. But if it were my choice, I would deny you that mercy. What you’ve done here is abhorrent. The Jericho I knew would never have done this.”

Jericho knelt stricken, staring at the queen, unable to reply.

“So,” said King Terrence, “no final words?”

Jericho shifted his gaze back to the king and shook his head, but spoke anyway. “I only did what I thought was right.”

“And now, I must do what I know is right,” said the king. “In the name of Sheba, the goddess of honor, you will forfeit your life for what you have done. Even this punishment is not enough, but it is all we have time for. Of all days, Captain Jericho, this is the day you chose to betray your oath? The day our sons were kidnapped? Close your eyes, if you need to.”

Jericho just stared up at him.

“So be it.”

With a great sweep of the sword, the king severed Jericho’s head. There was a peal of thunder and the body and head both vanished. Nothing was left except the pervasive smell of ozone, as if lightning had struck, but the room was exactly as it had been before, not even a single drop of blood nor spec of vomit left staining the stone floor.

Queen Treya ran to Ormund and checked his pulse, then arranged him on the floor more comfortably.

“I’ll go get Angel Morrow,” she said, though the sound of her voice suggested she didn’t believe the healer would be much help.”

Terrence nodded, staring down at where Captain Jericho’s body should have lain. When the queen was gone, he spoke.

“Is this what I am now? Your executioner?”

You are my sword when I need you to be, my justice when there is no other choice, but above all, you will be my voice during the hard times to come. As you have already experienced, it will be difficult. You may refuse, if you wish.

“I told Jericho that people in my kingdom had a right to present evidence and defend themselves. Then I summarily took his life. You don’t see that as hypocritical?”

He raised a sword against you, after previously attacking you. Which of your subjects would deny you the right to defend yourself?

“But he was disarmed and kneeling when I killed him. I know he deserved it. But he was still a citizen of Twyl.”

And what do you think holds more weight, being your citizen or being my servant? Your law or my judgment? If I were a witness against someone, what defense do you think they could offer to counter that. Citizens of Twyl have rights, because humans can get it wrong. You have to figure things out. You aren’t present at the scene of most murders. Witnesses don’t remember things correctly sometimes. Human justice depends on determining someone’s innocence or guilt.

If a human commits a murder, I don’t have to try him to know that he has done so, because I was there. I am a witness with perfect recall. I know the motives of those involved. I know the intent. I know if a being intentionally killed another or if it was an accident.

In your kingdom, in your court, you may do as you please, but those tried in my court don’t have the same rights, because there is nothing they can say that I do not already know. I am the goddess of honor. Sometimes, honor makes demands of us that are uncomfortable. Are you my servant first, or the king of Twyl?

“I was hoping I could be both.”

Most of the time, you can. But there will be times when you will have to choose.

“I will always be your servant first. I just wondered if it will always be this hard.”

I wish I could reassure you, dear Terrence, but I fear there will be more days like this. You must remember that this was a victory. You were in time to save Lord Ormund’s soul. He will be different, but he will heal, and that’s thanks to you.

“Actually, My Goddess, it’s thanks to you. I would have never found him in time.”

Of course you would have. You always know where your subjects are. It’s one of your skills.

“That makes about as much sense as the rest of today. What happened to Jericho’s body?”

My sister Iorana will want to examine it. What happened to Captain Jericho is not something I can easily explain. Somehow he was compromised and that shouldn’t be possible. He was under another’s influence.

“Sarith?”

I don’t think so.

“But she tried to turn me from you. She even used my hatred of the Undead King to manipulate me into betraying you.”

She was not telling you about the armies of the Undead King, she was telling me. My sister and I haven’t spoken directly for a long time, but she has ways of letting me know what she wants me to.

“You think she wasn’t trying to turn me?”

Oh, she definitely was. But I doubt she believed you could be turned. It is simply her way to try. Sarith may be reprehensible, but she has no love for the Undead King, of that I am certain.

“But Queen Rhea told me that even the gods can’t see into the Plains of Xarinos. How could she know he is building armies if she isn’t in league with him?”

Sarith has spies in many places. It may even be that she has spies in Xarinos. But if she were truly allied with the Undead King, she would not reveal the existence of his hidden armies.

“Is it possible she lied to me?”

My sister never lies. Whatever is happening in Xarinos, she chose to share that information for a reason. We can surmise she didn’t do it out of any sense of duty. She wants something. But that is my problem, not yours. You have a kingdom to run.

“Of course, my goddess.”

And she was gone from his mind, leaving the king alone with the stricken mage.

*

They met in the other realm, in a shielded glade that guaranteed privacy. The glade, edged with flowers and a hundred species of butterflies that hovered around them, was one that no human had ever seen. This was a private retreat for Iorana, who had created this place for her own enjoyment. As such, she seldom had visitors here, but today was an exception.

“Greetings, sister. You are doing well?”

Iorana frowned. Sheba spoke like the sentients she so adored, but Iorana had no time for banalities. “You came for a reason. Speak.”

If Sheba was offended by the response, she didn’t show it. “Though he was tethered to me, the man called Captain Jericho was under another influence. At first I thought it was Sarith, but I do not believe that is the case. For one thing, Sarith would not risk an outright war with me, but also, this attempt feels like something more manipulative. As if someone is trying to turn me against Sarith.”

“Are you not against Sarith anyway, most of the time?”

“Not directly, no. I don’t like her or what she stands for, but we each have our territory and seldom cross each other. This was very different, as if an entity was attempting to show me what it could do to my people without my consent. It was a display of power.”

“I agree. The Undead King grows dangerous.”

“You still think it’s the Undead King?”

“I do.”

“Inconvenient then that we can’t locate him.”

“But we know where he is.”

“We know where Striker said he is, at least.”

“He is there. On Earth. You should be gaining power there as well.”

“I have been aware of the movement, but it is minimal.”

“I think it might be wise to shift more of your attention to what goes on in that world. They may not have magic, but it is interesting nonetheless. And they need the goddess of honor more than most places.”

“I’ve noticed. What makes you so sure he’s there?”

Iorana smiled for the first time. “That’s the wrong question.”

Sheba sighed. “I don’t suppose you want to tell me what the right question is?”

“Correct.”

Sheba shook her head then laughed. “You remain my favorite sister, only because Sarith is such a pain in my ass.”

“What about Mitra?”

“I like her, but we barely interact. I’m not sure why.”

“The goddess of lore is perpetually busy gaining more knowledge.”

“You don’t think she might benefit from talking to the goddess of honor?”

“You’re probably too biased for her to take seriously.”

Sheba ignored the jibe. “Do you think Sarith knows what’s going on?”

“No. I think she’s as much in the dark as you are.”

“She knows something. I wish I knew how. She’s infuriating sometimes.”

Iorana shrugged. “Right now, it seems entirely possible that Sarith, you and I all have bigger problems than each other.