|Image courtesy of my favorite artist, Frank Frazetta|
Beams of sunlight angled through openings in unseen walls forming an illuminated square about a raised platform. At the periphery of this square were four arcades, each to a domed ceiling, flanked by pairs of narrow pillars. Impressions marked every wall, arch, and dome, a matrix of such perfect symmetry and detail as to boggle the mind, to make envious the greatest of architects, rivaling in smallness the awe one experiences before the immense. But it was the negative spaces that gave the throne room its texture and form, where substance receded to absence.
A dozen magistrates stood along the arcade, in the same black robes and hats, with the same white beards. They could be heard mumbling over legalities. Beside the raised throne, dark skinned slaves used long shafts of bundled peacock feathers to fan the sultry queen.
Frazetta was middle-aged, with skin like chalk and a figure like an hourglass. Her eyes were murky and feline, with black lines drawn thickly about the lids and across her face. Gold hung about her ears like tiny chandeliers and her ample bosom lay buried beneath meshes of gold. Pearls, jewels, and other trinkets adorned her wrists and ankles, and a long dress extended from her broad hips to the steps of her dais. An enormous black panther sprawled lazily about her knees, her one hand grazing the back of its ear.
“Bring in the next one,” she said, suppressing a yawn.
A soldier came into the light, wearing bright Hedonian armor with a scarlet cape and plume. His face was like a slab of raw meat, large and red made up of sharp angles, the stubble of his chin was like spikes. Following him were a pair of guards and a gray-bearded man.
“This fisherman, your Highness, is accused of conspiring with the terrorists.”
“Is that so?” she said. “What proof do you have, Cambses?”
“He does not deny it. And the proof, your Highness, is here with me. Would you permit me to bring it in?”
She slouched against her cheek. “So be it.”
Cambses gestured to the guards and a human-shaped thing was brought forward. At the mere sight of it, the magistrates gasped, some even recoiling in horror. Even Xandr was unprepared, who looked on, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. It was short, like a boy of about eight, its limbs thin as bones, and it hunched forward. Unlike a human, the creature was covered in greenish-gray scales, and its hands and feet were flat and webbed. Where its head met the shoulders was difficult to guess, as its neck was amorphous with pink and pulsing gills. If its face were human, it would appear as though someone had flattened it, as it possessed no noticeable profile, no lips or nose of any kind, just openings for similar organs to function and fins where ears would be. But its eyes were the most disturbing, large and round as teacups, and black as polished obsidian. With no eyelids, the boy-creature seemed to stare and stare perpetually.
Even the queen sat up in her throne with sudden interest. “Is this the merquid the fisherman has been conspiring with?”
“Yes, your Highness,” said Cambses. “We caught him at the docks. He appeared to be . . . speaking to it.”
The fisherman stumbled forward, kneeling at the steps of the dais. “Please, your Majesty, let me explain–”
Cambses drew his sword with remarkable speed, pressing the man’s back. “You have not been given permission to speak!”
“Oh, let’s hear what he has to say,” she replied. “Speak, old man, but only if you have something worthy to say. My time is not to be wasted.”
The fisherman cupped his hands together prayerfully. “Thank you, your Highness, thank you! This merquid you see here,” and he gestured to the creature, “is no terrorist. He is my son!”
The queen sounded surprised. “What?”
“It is true—he is . . . like my son. Years ago, I cast my net wide and far, and Sargon smiled on me that day and the fish were plentiful. But in my net I also found a giant pearl. I knew them in Hedonia to be prized, but a fellow of mine, an appraiser, told me it was worthless because of its odd shape and color, so I kept it for myself.”
The queen reclined in her throne. “Does this tale have a purpose, or should I have you executed now?”
“No!” he cried. “Hear me out! The pearl . . . the pearl, it broke and a merquid was inside! A merquid infant! The pearl was no pearl, see—it was an egg! My wife departed this world ages ago, and I am without sons or daughters, so in my loneliness I raised the infant to health, feeding him from my catch, letting him swim alongside my boat. Just look at him! He is only a child. He knows nothing of his own kind. He does not understand the trouble between our two peoples. How can he be called a terrorist?”
The man’s tale touched the hearts of Emma and Thelana and even Xandr, who had slaughtered his share of merquid. Even the magistrates looked to show pity. But the queen’s face was impassive as the panther at her feet. The man waited, in silence, for a sign of understanding and compassion that would not come.
“Did you not know the law?” she said, “that it is forbidden to be seen cavorting with merquid, to commune with or aid a merquid in any way? Did you not know that any act other than killing a merquid on sight is treason?”
“But–,” the fisherman muttered, “but he was only an infant–”
“You should have smashed it with a rock then! Cambses, execute them both.”
“No!” the man screamed. “I beg you, take my life, but let the merquid boy alone! He is not to blame! He knows nothing . . . nothing!”
The fisherman’s voice could be heard resonating throughout the halls as he and the merquid were taken away.
Queen Frazetta suddenly looked bored again. “Who’s next?”
“A man here is claiming to work miracles,” Cambses replied, “claims to be the Batal of Legend. He is an outsider, and there are two others with him. They caused quite the riot in the streets today.”
“Let him come forward.”
Xandr did not hesitate. Upon seeing him, she straightened, and for the first time, let loose a wicked smile. She was no longer the cruel judge sending men to their deaths, but a woman aroused. “So, you claim to be the Batal?”
“I am,” he replied.
“And you very well might be,” she added. “Tell me, stranger, do you have any proof of this claim?”
“I do indeed,” said he. “If your Highness will permit me?”
He reached into his backpack, removing a round, bandaged object. Slowly, he proceeded to unravel the bandages. When all the wrapping lay strewn about the floor, he lifted the object from its top, and thrust it into the light for all to see. For the second time that day, the magistrates gasped with wonder. But Thelana and Emma were well aware of that which had been hidden, and been carried, for so long amongst their belongings. It was slightly decayed, but the expression on the obsidian face was preserved, the horror and disbelief. From a clump of red hair, the severed head dangled from his hand. “Look closely, your Highness, it is the head of Nessus, the Dark Centaur, the bane of empires.”
“Is it truly?” she asked, marveling at the sight.
“I offer it as a gift,” he said, “as proof of my identity, and my good will.”
One of the magistrates came forward at her behest, and took the head away. “And what,” said she, “is your intention in coming to Thetis?”
“I come to act upon my destiny, to prepare you, your citizens, of the coming peril.”
“And what would be the form of this peril?”
“War,” he replied somberly.
She laughed. “We are already involved in war, and are preparing for a second! Now you bring news of a third?”
“What wars are these you speak of?”
“We war with the merquid, of course. Do not imagine that the destruction of Hedonia will go unanswered.”
“And the other?”
“We must deal with . . . rebels.”
“You heard me! There are those who refuse to accept my birthright! The High Priest Urukagina was my brother, and there are no other heirs to the Suppilumiuma dynasty. After the fall of Hedonia, the local governor of Thalassar assumed power! He and his followers are traitors to the Empire and I will destroy them, raze Thalassar to its foundations should they refute me.”
Xandr paused, and thought, and chose his words carefully. “With all due respect, your Highness, these wars are as spats between comrades, compared to the horrors that march on us from the Dark Side. I come to you as an emissary from the Kingdom of Mythradanaiil, to fulfill the oath that I have taken. I am here to rally the kingdoms of Enya to confront the Dark Queen Hatshepsut and her goblin legions.”
Frazetta glared at him coolly, weighing his words. “Does not the prophecy of Batal speak of one king to unite all Enya? One world under one ruler?”
“It does indeed.”
“And is it not convenient for you, that you now stand before me claiming to be Batal, seeking a way to unite Enya against some presumed threat?”
“Do you doubt the prophecy?”
“I doubt whatever would have me surrender power. Hedonia is the greatest empire this world has ever known, and I am its master. Would you challenge my rule to fulfill this prophecy?”
“Ruling Enya is not my desire, but protecting its people.”
“And how are we to know whether this so-called Dark Queen even exists?”
“You have heard of the destruction of Nibia and Kratos, have you not? You know of the sieges in Northendell? My own homeland, Ilmarinen, was lost to the evil growing in the East. I have fought the goblin hordes; I have ventured into the Dark Side myself, seen whole battalions decimated by horrors unthinkable.”
“You have just brought me the head of Nessus,” she answered. “The centaur is the only creature known to human eyes. Perhaps, with his demise, the armies of the East are scattered to the four winds; perhaps there is no other tyrant brooding from the time of the Great Cataclysm to retake the bright lands; perhaps there is only you, seeking fame and glory with the severed head of a notorious marauder.
“But even if what you say is true, and there is a monstrous host marching to our ruin, Hedonia cannot stand divided. I must regain Thalassar, as it is second only to Thetis in power, and then united we must deal still with the merquid.”
Xandr sighed. “Your dealings with Thalassar are your own. But I have fought the merquid. I have witnessed the crumbling of Hedonia’s proud walls. Hedonia was doomed by its own hubris; it was the will of the gods that it be unmade. Now that the city is no more, there will be no merquid raids. Let it remain so.”
Queen Frazetta crossed her arms defiantly. “No! Their treachery will not go unpunished. We will root out all the merquid that have gone into hiding.”
“And upon finding them, what shall you do?”
“What must be done with terrorists! Enslave them, interrogate them, eliminate them.” Her icy demeanor reminded him of her late brother.
“What of mercy?” he asked quietly.
“Mercy? What mercy did they show us? As they murdered our innocents, so shall we slaughter theirs!”
“You belie the meaning of innocence, your Highness. Even enemy warriors are shown mercy when the fighting is ended. And the merquid, they are not fighting. There is peace now.”
“Peace must be maintained through aggression. If we show weakness, it will only spur them to strike again. I will never allow what happened in Hedonia to happen here. I will not fail as my brother did. I shall strike them at the root!” And with that she gestured as if uprooting a flower.
Xandr’s eyes narrowed, laboring to keep his annoyance in check. Still, he could not help but object. “Violence begets more violence. Seeking to destroy the merquid will only give them cause to retaliate.”
“I did not expect this coming from such a renowned warrior!”
“Even a just war must be carried out with the heaviest of hearts. The bards who sing its praises have never seen battle, and the queens who persist in pursuing it do not suffer from it, only their people. Of those who have known war in its most gruesome guise, few live to speak of it. There is no honor in genocide. Only the gods can decide such heavy-handed vengeance. To believe otherwise is hubris.”
“You speak of genocide when tens of thousands perished at the hands of those cruel barbarians! What god can show them pity after what they’ve done?”
Xandr gazed at her in frustration, torn between rage and despair. “You Hedonians were not without blame . . . In labeling the merquid evil, none can judge your actions against them. But know this; your brother plundered thousands of merquid eggs, to use as currency! These acts continued for decades and the merquid retaliated in kind.”
Frazetta stood angrily, her earrings jostling in place. “Your tongue strays too closely, I fear, to treason. Lies are not tolerated in Thetis! Besides, I know that the merquid killed my brother, and so there shall be no mercy for them. Wherever they are hiding, they shall be found, and wherever they are running, they shall be hunted. And if you are not with us, Batal, you are against us, and I will show no more tolerance for you than for them!” With a wave of her hand she dismissed him. It had become quite clear that she was unwilling to listen. The tragedy at Hedonia clouded all of her thoughts. Now there was only hatred and fear.
With that, Cambses came forward. “Shall I escort them to the dungeons?”
She turned suddenly, as if remembering some important matter. “No! No,” she added more softly, “take them to the guest rooms, but make sure they are well guarded.”