Chapter 13 – The Right Tool for the Job

I have often heard it said that it is important to use the right tool for the job, probably because using the wrong tool isn’t very efficient. This obviously makes sense. It must be nice to know what you have to do. If I were a blacksmith, I would have a hammer and anvil. If I were a hunter, I might have a bow. But I am neither of those things. I’m a familiar to two masters, with a bevy of my own familiars, in a dungeon for the very first time. I’m not sure they even make the kind of tool I need. Worse still, if I managed to find this tool, I probably wouldn’t recognize it.

Kalutu, The Book of Lost Wisdom

Seventeenth of Learning 1142

Gallery

Maynor rode with the Misfits of Karmenon. It had been hours since they had set off, and there were still hours to go before dark, when they would be forced to stop. They had gained ground however, and that was all to the good.

Maynor had taken his place at the rear of the party, which had been Striker’s old position. He had his bow out, and made sure to keep checking behind them, while also keeping an eye on either side of the road. Nothing dangerous had come anywhere near them, so there was nothing to do but consider what had happened and, more importantly, what would happen next. The waiting was always the hardest part.

They were moving through sparse woods now, and the leaves had only just started to change color. In another month this place would be an artist’s palette. The wind, when it picked up, carried with it the threat of winter cold. This was new growth forest, probably having burned down at some point, replanted randomly by that same wind. There weren’t many insects about, at least none bothering him, but he saw the occasional small mammal, usually running away. There were birds as well, but they were hard to spot, many of them looking like the trees on which they perched. The few wispy clouds assured him it wasn’t going to start raining anytime soon, for which he was grateful.

When he saw Dreek return, the only member of the party not mounted, he knew something was wrong.

Dreek went to Ressssen, spoke to her and, after a brief conversation, she rode back to him. Though the serpent lord looked awkward sitting in the saddle, she had assured him she was an experienced rider.

“They have started moving faster and are pulling ahead.”

“How is that possible? We’re mounted.”

“I do not know. The kreve has started running.”

“Are there any other tracks?”

“Some of Striker’s, but none of the princes’.”

Did Striker leave them? Kill them? Hand them off to someone else?

“What does Dreek think?”

“He does not believe the princes are still with Striker.”

“Does he have a recommendation?”

“It will involve some backtracking to see if we can pick up the trail, but there’s danger in that course of action, because if we’re wrong, and the princes are still with Striker, then we’ll have lost even more time.”

Maynor sighed. It could never be easy. He didn’t spend much time thinking, though. “Okay, if Striker is moving that fast without mounts, we have to assume she doesn’t have the princes with her. So we backtrack, see if we can pick up their trail and pray that we’ve made the right choice.”

“That is my assessment as well.”

She rode back to Dreek and held a whispered conversation. Then the shadow set off, back the way they had come. Seeing him ride off in the wrong direction, the others gathered around Ressssen, who spoke to them. He could tell she had their trust and respect. She was a good leader. It felt strange for him not to be in charge, but it was also a relief. He’d been running the palace guard for so long, he barely remembered a time when he’d been free of responsibility, not just for himself, but for so many others. He loved serving the king but, at times, he found it draining. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, he needed this time away.

He wasn’t there to lead this team, only to help when they required it, and to provide legitimacy if necessary. Running the Misfits was Ressssen’s domain, and he had no business giving them orders. They had ways of working together he knew nothing about. He intended to try to fit into the existing structure, rather than to try to take it over himself. So far, it hadn’t been that difficult. Rearguard was a position he had often found himself in during the Undead War, and he fell back into the role with relative ease. If it weren’t for the reasons for the trip, he might have even enjoyed it.

Maynor drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to fight the rising feeling of frustration. They’d have to backtrack. More time lost. And all the time, the princes would be getting further and further away. Well, he had known they wouldn’t likely catch them right away. Not with the head start that Striker had. This was always going to take time. What he needed now was the patience of a hunter. It had never really been his strong suit.

In the mean time, he hoped that wherever Prince Eric and Prince Dahr were, they were safe.

*

Eric scrubbed potatoes, while Dahr cut vegetables. Eric was surprised they let Dahr have a knife, but neither of their hosts seemed worried about it. They were treated more like dinner guests than hostages. Eric wondered what was behind it.

It was the evening of the day they had been abducted, and Eric had no idea where they were, only that Striker had left them, and they had ridden in a cart to an undead farm. Well, a farm anyway, that happened to be owned by the undead, though Eldiss had said they called themselves the reborn. Certainly it sounded more friendly, but deep down inside, he didn’t trust them. He had seen undead, fought them. Sheba would not have shown him undead if they weren’t the enemy, whatever they called themselves.

So he did whatever chores had been asked of him but remained vigilant, keeping one eye on Dahr and the other on his hosts.

He felt cold anger simmering within. Anger at Striker for taking them. Anger at himself for falling under her spell and leaving Chari behind on their wedding night. He wondered what she was doing and hoped she wasn’t going to try to come after him. But Dahr had been right about one thing. They were probably where they needed to be. He didn’t understand why that was the case, but Sheba had known and warned them that this danger was coming. If they were supposed to avoid it, they wouldn’t have trained for it. Wouldn’t have leveled as fast as they had. He just wished he knew what they were meant to be doing.

Very little was said while they worked. Aisha issued instructions when needed, but that was about it. She seemed content to hum almost to herself as she worked. She was making a chicken dish, with potatoes and vegetables, much like anyone would. When the preparation was done and the cooking was all that was left, she told them to go rest and she’d call them when it was ready.

Both of the boys walked outside and used a nearby well to get the water to wash. No one had bothered to follow them, so they were alone.

“What do you think?” asked Eric.

“About what?”

Eric frowned. “What do you think I’m asking about? The undead, Striker, any of it? It’s not like we’ve had a chance to talk.”

“True,” said Dahr, “but I’ve been too distracted to really draw any sort of conclusions.”

“Distracted?”

“Trying to figure out my class.”

“Ah. Did you learn anything?”

“Yes, but I’m not ready to talk about it yet. Not here at any rate. I have no idea how good their hearing is, but I wouldn’t make any assumptions.”

“Good point,” said Eric, lowering his voice. “You know, they’re still inside. We’re out here. We could just make a break for it.”

“You can if you want. I’m staying. I told Eldiss I wouldn’t try to run.”

“Why?”

“Because he said he’d hurt us if we did, and I believe him. Anyway, my opinion hasn’t changed since we left Rish. We are where we’re supposed to be.”

“I think so too. I wish I knew why.”

“We’ll figure it out. Just keep your eyes and ears open, and try not to talk about anything you don’t want overheard, at least for now.”

Eric nodded. “Did I do anything bad besides kissing Striker while I was under her control?”

“First of all, you didn’t kiss Striker, she kissed you. I don’t think you can blame yourself. I mean who knows what level Maynor is, and she managed to take control of him, so what chance did you really have? As for anything else, no you didn’t do anything but follow her around like a lovesick puppy.”

“Great. Can we tone that down when telling Chari about it?”

“Why? She’s not going to blame you.”

“Of course not. Nor will she ever let me live it down.”

“Ah.”

So they stood outside, watched the sunset and enjoyed the scenery until Aisha called them for dinner. Once they were all seated and eating, Eric started trying to gather information.

“So, you call yourselves reborn?”

“We do,” said Eldiss, who had only taken a small portion.

“You don’t need to eat, do you?”

“That’s right. We don’t need to eat or sleep. We can, we just process food differently from humans.”

“Why are you so different from other undead I’ve seen?”

Aisha looked amused. “Have you seen many undead then?”

“Just zombies and ghouls.”

Eldiss slammed a fist down on the table. “Abominations. They have nothing to do with us. We are not undead, we’re reborn!”

“Okay,” said Eric. “I hear what you’re saying. I just don’t understand the difference. I didn’t mean to offend.”

Aisha gave Eldiss a reproving glance before turning to Eric and smiling. “Zombies and Ghouls are made by necromancers. They are animated dead, but not the living dead. They no longer have souls. We do. The Undead King heals us and brings us back because he can’t stand to see things die. He cares about each of us deeply.”

“Why?” asked Dahr. “I mean, he’s powerful like a god, right? Why would he care deeply about, well, anyone?”

“It’s his nature. And he’s not a god. He can’t give us levels. He can’t answer prayers.”

“What is he then?”

“We don’t know,” said Eldiss. “But he’s been around for more than eleven hundred years, so we at least believe him to be immortal.”

Eric thought about that. “Why did he attack Death’s Doorstep?”

Eldiss looked like he was about to get angry, but forced himself to calm down before answering. It strangely reminded Eric of his father.

“It was in response to the unrelenting assaults that Death’s Doorstep kept making on our borders and into our territory. They rode in large groups, attacking us on sight and burning our corpses. Did you ever hear of us invading Lorelei or anywhere else?”

Before Eric could answer, Dahr interrupted. “Sorry, but I come from Death’s Doorstep. I hear what you’re saying, but I’m a bit confused. Death’s Doorstep doesn’t have an army big enough to march into Xarinos. I mean, there just aren’t that many people there. My mom used to say we lived in a ghost town.”

It was Aisha who answered, her voice distant as if she were remembering. It occurred to Eric that though she looked young, she was probably much older. “That’s true now, but not before the war. Death’s Doorstep was a city state. There was a large city with a standing army. The small towns scattered across Death’s Doorstep didn’t orchestrate an attack of that scale. The city administrators did. High Councilor Prelez hated us, and used rhetoric to turn the entire population against us. Before his rise to power, we’d never had a problem with Death’s Doorstep. In response to the unprovoked attacks against us, we razed the capital and the towns on the way to make a point. To stop the attacks. When the rest of the world became involved, we knew we were outnumbered and retreated. That’s what happened. The Death’s Doorstep you grew up in, Dahr, was but a shadow of what it had once been. It had been a prosperous nation with a strong capital, that never got rebuilt after the war, since most of the population had moved south to Final Hope.”

There was silence as the Princes digested the information. If it was true, then the Undead King had just been defending himself. Was that possible?

“Why didn’t he try to negotiate a treaty with Death’s Doorstep before attacking?” asked Eric.

“What makes you think he didn’t,” asked Aisha. “You’ve learned everything you know about us from the people of Death’s Doorstep, who waged a war against the Undead King and told no one. Did you really expect them to admit that the attack against them was a reaction to their unwarranted incursion into the Plains of Xarinos? The invasion started small, but when they saw we didn’t respond in force, those attacks grew in size. The roving bands traveled further into our domain each time. And it went on for years. Not days. Not weeks. Years. We haven’t attacked since the end of the Undead War, because they’ve left us alone.”

Eric thought about this, trying to poke holes in what she was saying. “Would the Undead King be open to a treaty now?”

“Of course he would!” Eldiss boomed. “He has ever wanted peace.”

“What about our soldiers who came back from the dead and served him?” asked Eric.

“What about them? They were dead, and the Undead King healed them and brought them back. They were linked to him and knew his heart and knew they had been wrong about him, that’s all. He wasn’t controlling them. He never forced anyone to take up arms.”

Dahr broke in before Eric could rile their hosts further. “We didn’t know. I mean how could we?”

“You could have asked, or accepted our offers to negotiate,” said Aisha.

“I doubt it,” said Dahr. “I was pretty young and no one ever sent me an emissary. It would have been cool though.”

Both of the reborn laughed at that, and the tension was broken. Eric didn’t speak again, as he had enough to think about. Was it possible? Could the reborn really be the victims in all this? If so, what did that make his father and the others? Why hadn’t Sheba said something? Had she not known? If scrying and portals didn’t work, could the gods really have called for an unnecessary war? The thought chilled him.

No one said anything important after that. Everyone seemed happy to enjoy the rest of the meal in peace. After they’d finished both eating and clearing the table of dishes, Eric and Dahr, exhausted from everything that had happened, not just that day but during the weeks of training that had preceded it, opted to go to bed early.

Aisha showed them to a bedroom, which contained a large enough bed for both of them to sleep in. They hadn’t ever slept in the same bed before, but both were too tired to care. They barely spoke a word as they lay down and drifted off to sleep.

But unlike Dahr, Eric didn’t stay in Thysandrika. He closed his eyes in one world, and opened them in another.

*

Queen Treya sat in a chair in front of the fireplace. It was late. She was exhausted but didn’t think she could sleep. Not after what she had seen.

Angel Morrow could do little for Lord Ormund, who still hadn’t regained consciousness. The mage had been cleaned up and moved to quarters near the healer, because his own room was locked and warded, so no one could get in. Angel had checked on him regularly, but there had been no change. He wasn’t able to say if Lord Ormund would come back to them.

Lord Ormund had been a casualty of Treya’s weakness. She had been afraid to tell Terrence about her stillbirth. She wasn’t afraid that he would lay the blame at her feet, she knew him better than that. But the pain of that day, of that moment, it had been her burden and should have remained that way. And Lord Ormund had paid the price for his loyalty. He had kept her secret, and so that too had to be added to the cost of her secrecy. Why hadn’t she just admitted it all publicly? Everything that had happened could trace its way back to her poor decision.

Terrence had been nothing but understanding and supportive. Of course he had. He loved her. And so, probably, had Lord Ormund, which she had suspected, but left alone. She had seen it as his problem. She had been wrong about that too.

How could she help him now? What could she do? She had no idea. But if Lord Ormund was going to need care, she would be the one to care for him. It was the least she could do. And Terrence would understand. More than anyone else, he would get it. That was one thing she didn’t have to worry about.

The decision made, she forced herself to her feet and made her way to the bedroom. Terrence was still off doing king things. She wondered if he had stopped glowing yet. When she’d left him, barely an hour earlier, he’d still been radiating enough light to read by. Everyone felt the difference in him, yet no one dared to comment with everything else going on. She could tell the curiosity was eating at them, but they treated him as they always had.

But he was different, she knew. He had somehow been raised above other kings, maybe even above priests of Sheba, if not the high priest. She would have to have a talk with him at some point, but not tonight. Tonight, she would suffer the pain caused by her poor decisions and tomorrow, she would begin to try to heal the damage she had caused.

She thought about her sons, Eric and Dahr, out there in the wilderness, surrounded by darkness and, perhaps danger. She prayed for their safety as well, though she suspected that in this one case, her prayers would fall on deaf ears. They were doing what Sheba needed of them, and the danger was a part of it, so perhaps she shouldn’t be praying for that at all.

What she really needed was sleep, and tomorrow she would work on setting things right. As she crossed the threshold into the bedroom, she felt a tingling that started in the center of her body and spread outward to the tips of her fingers and toes. The fatigue vanished as if it had never been there. She was riding a wave she had ridden before, marveling at how amazing it remained each time it happened. She could feel warmth spread throughout her body. Sheba’s warmth. She could feel the goddess inside her, changing her, leveling her. It had been a long time, she realized, and she had missed this feeling. And then she heard Sheba’s voice in her head.

Congratulations. You have reached Level 13. New skill unlocked, Soul Salve. Goodnight, Queen Treya.

She froze, unable to understand what was happening. With Ormund lying half dead, she’d leveled? Was she being rewarded for her failures? No, that made no sense at all. But what if Soul Salve was something that could help Lord Ormund.

She had been tired, hopeless, angry, but that was gone now, swept away in the euphoria of leveling. And for the first time since Jericho’s death, she embraced a sliver of hope.

All thoughts of going to bed forgotten, she hurried from the room, past the two guards that Terrence had insisted on posting.

*

King Terrence sat on his throne. He felt taller. Energized. Normally this effect faded after leveling, but it had been hours and he still felt that way. A glance down at his hands told him he was still glowing, if not as brightly. He wondered if the effect would fade eventually, or if it would remain. He’d never heard of that happening, but with everything else going on, that was hardly a determining factor of what could be.

If you didn’t count the ever-present guards, Leata and he were alone in the throne room, talking about the possible replacements for Captain Jericho. It was difficult, because they would need to replace Jericho permanently, as well as Maynor for an indefinite period of time. Which meant deciding whether to choose one or two replacements. Leata laid out the advantages of each path, as she understood them at least. They both knew Maynor would have a far better understanding of the situation than she did, but in his absence, it was her job to advise him as best she could. As it was, she was in the dark about the current situation. She knew that Jericho had attacked him, but nothing else. He would have to remedy that sooner rather than later.

“It seems like the real question is whether or not a single guard who hasn’t been in either position would be capable of running both the wall and the palace at a time like this. Personally, I think either job would be hard enough for a person new to it. Sure Maynor could run the wall and the palace and so could Jericho, if he were still…available. But I’m not sure anyone of the candidates should be put in that kind of position over night. Things would get missed.”

“And you say there are three men who might be up to one or both of those jobs?”

“There are. Ezra Lorko, Gallen Burk, and Cech.”

“Cech?”

“Apparently he only has the one name, but he’s well respected. They all are.”

“I know Gallen but don’t know much about the other two.”

“Older soldiers that have seen some fighting. Both fought in the Undead War. They were inexperienced when it started but leveled quickly during the conflict. Cech is probably the most skilled with the blade, but the least disciplined.”

“He’ll learn discipline when he has to require it of others,” said Terrence. “What’s Lorco like?”

“Hard working, detail oriented, a solid hand in combat but no master. He’s worked hard enough to earn the respect of the entire palace guard.”

“And your take on Gallen?”

“In a lot of ways, he was Maynor’s heir apparent. The one that would have taken over. He’s younger than the other two, but is more solid in combat than Lorko and better at following orders than Cech. Choosing one would be hard, and choosing two would be…tricky.”

“Because?”

“They all would feel like they deserved to be promoted, and as such, one of them would be at very least, let down, but possibly also a thorn in the sides of the others.”

Terrence sighed. “Promote all three of them.”

“Sire?”

“One for the palace guard, one for the wall, one to coordinate between the two. Let them all be captains. We could even have the liaison between the two be in charge of training new guards.”

“That’s a good idea. Which begs the question, what happens when Maynor returns. He’s going to replace one of them.”

King Terrence looked thoughtful. “I don’t think so. I think Maynor will be coming back to a different position, assuming he makes it back at all. We have no real idea what’s going on with him, but I can only assume his task will take weeks if not months. He’ll return eventually though, if Sheba wills it and at that time, I have other plans for Maynor.”

“Your Highness?”

“Clear the room, please,” said King Terrence, loud enough for all to hear. “Leata, you need to stay.”

The guards left, several of them sullen because the information being discussed was important to them personally, but the king had other things to talk about. When they were gone, he lowered his voice, though he was sure the guards wouldn’t be able to hear.

“There are a few other things we need to discuss.”

He could see from the expression on her face, that his chamberlain understood the gravity of the situation, though of course, she couldn’t understand the extent of it. He waited until the last guard had left, and they were alone in the throne room, before rising and walking down the single step to stand beside her.

“Captain Jericho is dead.”

“Dead?”

“By my hand. By Sheba’s order.”

“Your Highness?”

“I’ve obviously leveled, but I didn’t just level. I’ve transitioned.”

Leata’s eyes widened. “Oh?”

“I am now a Supreme Sovereign. Sheba has asked me to be her voice in the dark days ahead. I don’t really understand what all that means, but I do know that from this point forth, I’ll be more like a Priest-King. I am going to be her justice on Thysandrika.”

“That’s…”

But Leata had no words to finish the sentence.

“I felt the same way. It’s a lot to digest. I’m Tier 3, Leata. I’ve been blessed by the goddess with a class that I’ve never heard of. For all I know, it hasn’t been seen since the days of the Empire. I’m honored and humbled and frankly, terrified. I could barely run a kingdom. Treya would have been a much better choice for this, I fear.”

“Maybe so, but then, it’s hard to say that when the goddess has chosen you. We have to trust her judgment. What happened with Jericho?”

“He tortured Lord Ormund with Sarith’s Cloak, which is now safely back in my armory. Lord Ormund is under Angel Morrow’s care, but we don’t know if he’ll pull through. Sheba was so angry that she ordered his execution. He did pull his sword on me, and he had previously attacked me, but in the end, he was kneeling when I struck off his head.”

Leata shuddered. “Where is the body now?”

“With Sheba. She took it. There is no evidence of a struggle. I considered not telling anyone about it, but I don’t feel like it would be good to begin my reign as Sheba’s voice with a lie. Sheba required me to execute someone, and I did.”

“And the rule of law?”

“Doesn’t apply to situations where the gods are involved, and never really has. I was ever Sheba’s servant before I was a king. That, at least, hasn’t changed.”

“Of course, Your Highness.”

“Bring the three guards to the throne room. I’ll speak to them together. I’d like you to be here for that as well. Then…”

The throne room door opened. Terrence stopped what he was saying, but it was Treya who entered, with a spring in her step and…was she glowing?

“Leata, just the person I was looking for,” said the queen.

“You’ve leveled as well,” said Terrence.

“I have. And I have a new skill, which I’d like to try on Leata, if she’ll permit it.”

Leata looked surprised. “What’s it called?”

“Soul Salve. I have no idea what it does, but I think it might be able to help Lord Ormund.”

Leata didn’t hesitate. “I’m all yours, Your Majesty.”

Terrence took a step back and watched as his wife closed her eyes and whispered a couple of words he couldn’t hear. Then she gasped in surprise.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I can see her soul. It’s so…beautiful.”

Terrence could see nothing but, of course, he hadn’t cast the spell, so that made sense.

“It’s perfect.”

“So this spell allows you to see souls?”

“At least that, but I’m hoping it allows me to repair them.”

“What are we waiting for?”

Two glowing royals and their chamberlain made their way to the throne room doors and then out into the corridor.

“Are you going to stop glowing at some point?” asked Treya.

Terrence shrugged. “If I had my guess, you should probably start getting used to it.”

“I’m already used to it. I was hoping you wouldn’t go back to the old boring king.”

Terrence chuckled, happy to see his wife had not been completely consumed by grief over what had happened to Lord Ormund. He knew she wasn’t over it and might never be, but this was a vast improvement over the last time he’d seen her.

“Somehow, I don’t think that boring is anywhere in our immediate future.”

 

The Aptly Named Book of Lost Wisdom Volume 2 continues with Chapter 14 – It’s Not Magic, coming soon