The Seleucarian Empire, Part 2: The Wars of Succession

Four hundred years after the Black Wave, the Empire faces a crisis of succession. Read about the epic struggle between Catarin and Castomira for the crown of Seleucar.

Chapter List

Foreward

Four hundred years after the founding of the glorious Seleucarian Empire, it encountered one of its greatest crises: the Wars of Succession. Although a time of great peril for Seleucar, and possibly the entire continent of Sapience, the Wars of Succession also gave rise to one of the most enduring stories of history—the legendary romance of Catarin deSangre and Lucaine Pyramides, its bitter result, and Catarin's meteoric rise to power from the deepest level of despair.

As before, I tell this story as a librarian, not as a historian: I call on the voices of literature to speak for me, for I myself have little skill for writing. If you have read my compilation detailing the founding of the Seleucarian Empire, you will notice that the following texts call less upon the abilities of historians (with the exception of the famed Meleus Travner, and my own scholarly nephew Orson), and more upon the personal writings of the principal figures themselves. How better to detail the love of Lucaine Pyramides than through his own poetry? How better to detail Catarin's uncertainty and hope than through her own letters? How better to show the breadth of Castomira's evil than through her own gloating journals?

After decades of research, this tome is complete. I welcome your commentary. Address your missives to Tancred Lasalle, 15 Stagira Blvd., Ashtan. The Great Library of Nicator was destroyed by divine wrath after one of my legendary delays in publication, or I would simply direct you to my offices there. With a bitter smile, I hope that in time I may be redeemed, through quality if not through diligence.

Tancred Lasalle, Exiled Librarian

A Series of Beginnings

From Meleus Travner, Urban Tactical Confrontation Throughout History: Case Studies, vol. 2: Seleucar

To call it the First War of Succession is historically apt, but technically inaccurate. War was never declared, as there was no formal monarch to declare it. Although Castomira pushed to have her puppet Mycale accede to the throne, the Church refused to bless the coronation before the gods, and even Castomira was not so reckless as to risk divine disfavor during her dangerous bid for power.

The war began by accident, as such conflicts often do. The perspective of history shows that when Castomira realized her assassin Pyramides had thrown in his lot with his onetime target Catarin, she pressed her consort Lord Errikale to move the Royal Guard more vigorously against Catarin's rebel faction. Although Lord Errikale gave the order only reluctantly, the fanatical Guard Captain Maxim Everhardt used the opportunity to place extreme pressure on the areas of the city held by Catarin.

The war could have been far bloodier than it was. The Seleucarian armies, although much smaller than they were at the time of the Black Wave, were still large enough to have reduced the city of Imperial Seleucar to a wasteland if Castomira had been able to manipulate her faction into enlarging the conflict as much as she wished. Instead of being a contained urban conflict, the First War of Succession could have been even larger and more destructive than the Second. That it was not is due almost entirely to the peacemaking abilities of the two reluctant titular generals, Lucius Errikale and Orin Grandier.

Lucius Errikale is now considered one of history's most tragic victims, a noble idealist whose ideals were twisted to the service of Seleucar's greatest enemy since the Tsol'teth, the evil Castomira. The Duke of Seleucar, Lucius Errikale was the feudal leader of the duchy whose capitol was Imperial Seleucar, and therefore was considered first among the dukes. In theory, he was second in power only to the Prime Minister, Orin Grandier. In recent times, however, the office of Prime Minister had weakened relative to the Council of Lords, and so the political might of Lucius Errikale and Orin Grandier was roughly equal. Lucius Errikale gained his position by accident of birth, like all nobles; also by accident of birth, he was of the serpent folk. It is still poorly understood how a Serpentlord can be born of two normal human parents, or how ophidian traits can emerge in a person of any race even after years of seeming normality. Since Lord Errikale hid his serpent nature until minutes before his death, it's a matter of historical debate whether he was a serpent for his entire life, or whether he gained serpent attributes through study of the secret Serpentlord disciplines. What is known is that for much of his political career, he championed the cause of the Serpent people, despite public opposition. For seven years before the First War of Succession, he had spent a few weeks each year at a resort in far Hashan that is now known to have been a front for the brave but ineffective Coiled Cobra Cult, a pro-serpent terrorist group. It is there that he secretly learned his Serpentlord fighting skills. (The Coiled Cobra Cult was wiped out in a bloody series of crusades by Seleucarian Myrmidons a few years before the Seleucarian Empire's collapse; the cry "Let's go bash some CCCs!" is still used by warriors around the world to initiate morally ambiguous bloodshed in the name of personal gain.) Lord Errikale was called "The Man with No Smile" by many, and was considered humorless and cold. He never smiled for fear of revealing his serpent-like fangs.

Prime Minister Orin Grandier was Lord Errikale's friend for many years, until the First War of Succession forced them apart. A wise and intelligent man, he restored much of the power that the prime ministry had once held, but was unable to fully balance the great political power of the Council of Lords. Furthermore, he was the personal mentor of Princess Catarin, teaching her the political networks and backroom dealings that made the empire work. When the succession troubles began, Orin Grandier strove to hold the empire together, and had surprising success in convincing the empire at large that the succession troubles were a minor upheaval, involving only riots, instead of a major armed conflict. By the time the underkings of Ashtan and Shallam received word from the Church that a civil war was taking place within Seleucar's walls, the hostilities were already over, and the quest for the Staff had begun.

That Ashtan, Shallam, and the other city-states that composed the Seleucarian Empire did not involve themselves in the First War of Succession is due to the diplomatic phrasing, elegant reassurances, and outright lies of Orin Grandier. But the highly limited nature of the war within Imperial Seleucar itself is due to the cooperative effort of Orin Grandier and his opposite number Lucius Errikale. While Castomira and Catarin were bitter enemies, their generals were loath to fight, and loath to place the citizens of Seleucar at risk. All the time during the four weeks of warfare, Grandier and Errikale organized steady evacuations of their sectors of the city, loading the churches and poor-houses of the outlying villages and towns with refugees. Whether Grandier and Errikale were in direct communication is a matter of speculation, but it is certain that they held each other in high respect, and strove to oppose each other only in strictly military matters.

The fighting itself was unique at the time (previous urban combat had been between small groups; see Case Studies, vol 1). A war within a city requires tactics far different from those employed in the field. Only one battle of the war was fought between units any larger than a few hundred men each, and snipers, traps, and hit-and-fade tactics were deciding factors in the early successes of Castomira's faction, as Lord Errikale was exceptionally adept at such techniques. Using these tactics, soldiers loyal to Mycale were able to capture and hold the Imperial Palace for days at a time before being driven out by counter-sorties.

The emphasis each side placed on capturing the Imperial Palace is one of the ironies of the war. Originally designed for war by the visionary Nicator, and reinforced by his son Piraeus, the palace had been expanded and altered in peacetime until it was virtually indefensible from any position. Each door required extensive barricading to be secured; in many places, terraces and walkways made it impossible to shield a group of men from missile fire. Although control of the Palace was essential to the political meta-struggle, it was infeasible from a military standpoint, and heavy losses were inevitable on both sides.

The war began with its only large-scale confrontation, the Battle of the Parades.

Varos Devlin, The Battle of the Parades

Darkness hung over the city, low clouds roamed
As civil war was preached in streets and homes,
Debated in courts, proven in maps of troops and arms,
That showed the loyal firmly in two camps,
A split city, partisan enmity brewing slow like ale,
Turning dark and potent in casks, intoxicating and poisoning
Friend against friend, lord against knight, might against might,
With no concern for wrong, no thought of right.
The two queens, true queens uncrowned,
Catarin and Castomira, fighting through will, beauty, glamour, glory,
Each seeking, and destined to find, a place in story, legend, history,
For one, infamy. For one, majesty. For a hundred others, death.

Success in succession is more than just lords' acclaim,
More than just law's color, more than martial fame.
Liege lords lacking loyalty fall from royalty by revolution,
The torches and pitchforks of the common choice, the people's voice,
Never long to be rejected. So wise suitors to crowns long to be respected,
And give that into the common weal they'll later take in taxes paid,
In fine parades they ride in state, their lordly manner on display,
Their knights beplumed, their soldiers trim, their wizards conjuring lights on high,
In hopes that show of sword and bow will prove their worth in doubting eyes.

A fine day dawned, a holy day, a day when Churchmen raised their songs
And poured out wine and poured out oil, entreating gods for fruitful soil,
Entreating gods for strength of breath, for long, full life, for peaceful death.
A fine day dawned, a day of rest, a day when children flocked the streets
And begged their parents for copper's shine to trade for peddlers' fresh-baked treats,
And revelers bought the vendors' wine and feasted well on roasted meats.
A fine day dawned, a day of parades; Lord Errikale decreed a march,
From Green Snake Way to the Beggars' Arch, all through the Royal Square.
And all unwitting, Lord Grandier did also sense the festive air
And called his men to polish shields, tighten drums,
Dress in richest martial wear and march around the Royal Square,
And hand out coins to beggars there, rich gold to match their lady's hair,
The flowing locks of Catarin deSangre, youngest noble heir.
A fine day dawned, a fateful day, a day when two parades of hope
Would clash in battle small in scope, large in implication;
A day when violent civil strife would slash the city, unkind knife,
Cut the bonds of brotherhood that formed the basis of the nation.

Through peaceful parks and sunlit streets Lord Lucius led one thousand men,
A hundred drummers and clarion-players, two hundred archers and bandit-slayers,
Three hundred pikemen, sturdy sons, four hundred swordsmen, hot to fight
To save the honor of their lord, Mycale, who rode in state that day,
Waving brightly to the crowd, giving no sign of his soul's decay.
Lord Errikale rode very nigh, to school his lord if by any sign
He showed the weakness Lucius feared and used, the idiot moral brain confused.
And Castomira Brangwin rode by Mycale's side, and whispered to him
Words of mother's love, sister's comfort, lover's bliss,
The cruel web she'd snared him in, the love his family never gave.
Cruel irony, that lack of love is grip for evil!

At Castomira's urging, Mycale spoke ill of Catarin,
Addressing crowds who cheered for him, his glassy eyes and wooden grin
Took nothing from his eloquence, and nothing from the fire he roused;
His words, poetry of honey and blood, sweet anger, cold ash,
As he raved, his eyes did glint in spearheads' flash.
He had the look that day of noble kings
Who fight and die to keep their country dreaming
Of warmth and bread, songs and crops,
And take on themselves unwholesome scheming.
But a cunning king Mycale was not, nor even sly�

As soldiers hot for loyal killing followed Mycale's royal train,
So too did armsmen fresh and willing travel with brave Catarin.
Her smile was bright as suns that day, her eyes diamonds,
Unearthly and solid, enthralling all with sparks of grace.
And people called out fealty: "Golden hair, steel polished soul,
"Forever we support you, lady! Fight! And make our kingdom whole!"
Swords and shields of hardened steel cast sunbeams into cheering crowds
And in the streets and on the walks the people gathered by.

The flagstones of the Royal Square, like stove-lids, bent and warped the air.
So fierce were summer's light and heat that hard-eyed archers flinched away
From endless pinpoint suns and stars that shone from triply-polished arms.
The people's cheers, an endless roar; and shimmering light, a blinding rain;
Little wonder is it, then, that Catarin's troops met Mycale's men
Before each high commander saw his nemesis approach.
And full of patriotic verve, of noble thoughts, of warlike nerve,
The frontmost soldiers took it as their destiny to fight.
No warcries here, no trumpet-sound; the grisly painters worked the ground
With harsh motifs of red on red, the living blood of newly dead.
Errikale called retreat in vain, as soldiers vied to join the slain,
Heedless of their training now, responding to their foremost vows,
To stand and cut their foemen down to win their lord his rightful crown.

On the side of Catarin, as well, chaos reigned alone. Shouting to his regiment,
Grandier struggled to defend his fore and flanks against the rage
Of Castomira's bitter force (good men betrayed by evil words)
And muster order, praying to remove his queen from battle's reach.
The crowds of townsfolk churned like stormy seas,
Some struggling to flee, some taking arms, some standing near to yell and jeer,
And in an eyeblink, deadly havoc reigned among the common folk
As surely as in soldiers' eyes, soldiers' arms and soldiers' minds.

By half past noon, the two commanders knew that they were even matched,
And locked, unwilling, in a deadly combat, deadly game of chess;
If only chess were played with dice, and loss meant instant butchery,
For true war owes to table games what Tsol'teth owe to forest sprites.
The noontime heat, sticky sweat and blood, cries of pain and fear
Caused only greater hatred in these men who'd marched as one last year.

Twilight settled on scenes of woe: unspoken truce as families buried dead,
Though stricken with partisan hate; soldiers vowing vengeance on their friends,
For striking adverse blows in self-defense; Catarin and Castomira, blessing the dead,
One with bitter sadness, one only with its semblance�
And city boundaries drawn in bloody strokes: north for Mycale, south for Catarin.
Morning's gay parades were now a funeral march,
And warrior's dirges now rang half as strong,
As stout-backed pipers dug their fellows' graves.
Buried with their instruments, the proud marshals of the march
Stared up through one man's height in dirt to sorrow at the sight of martial feet
Once locked in formal order, now trudging past the funeral fires.

Lucaine Pyramides, Catarin (Poem 10)

Blue hope, her eyes, too true to deny--
An order, her smile, too strong to defy--
Her lips are a question; I dare not reply.

Lord Damen Kephry, Collected Correspondence

My dearest Margaux,

Be assured, my love, that your concern for my well-being is matched only by my own. Though the fighting is fierce in this sector of the city, I am sure that we shall prevail, and place Prince Mycale on his rightful throne. I can only pray that once Mycale's coronation is complete, his noble sister will capitulate, and support her brother as is her duty. Even among the supporters of Mycale, the Princess is respected and loved, and it breaks our hearts to oppose her ill-conceived rebellion against the natural order of succession.

We lost possession of the Castle of Twelve today. Praise be to Sarapis, no member of the Guild of Knights struck a personal blow against another, but the fact remains that the Guild is broken now, perhaps forever, by this passing political feud. The supporters of Catarin believe that they are doing what is best for the Empire, as their guild oath demands, and I am certain that they believe they are right, so I cannot hate them. But when men under my command pulled Lord Kyralos from his horse and beheaded him, I was forced to commend them for putting the enemy temporarily to rout, even as I shed tears for my oldest friend.

This street-fighting is the worst sort of combat. Even my ventures in the swamps of Mannaseh and the mountains of Vashnar never prepared me for this hellish funhouse of sharp corners and rooftop snipers; and aside from physical peril, nothing is more taxing to sanity than to cut down one's own countrymen, in one's own neighborhood. Civil war is an abomination, and I pray daily to all the gods that they deliver us from it.

For us, the day started early. We were to depart the Castle of Twelve before dawn, hurrying through the side streets in a party of fifty, to blockade the Road of Snows and lay ambush for the party that Grandier would inevitably send against the Palace. Simply to walk the streets of Seleucar is torture in a time like this: to see the rows and rows of buildings, shuttered tight with fear. The few citizens out and about fled into alleys at the sound of marching feet. I understand the war is already hard on them; the "foresightful" hoarding by the few has caused food shortages for the many, and the soup kitchens seldom have enough to feed all. Soldiers ransack homes, with the noble goal of redistributing any hoards they find, but too often those hoards are redistributed only to the soldiers. Are you eating well? I can only hope our family's name is sufficient to keep you from hardship. It is well that our manor is in the far north of the city; Catarin's men are unlikely to penetrate there.

Near midday, we engaged an enemy element, perhaps a hundred men, as they advanced up the Road of Snows. Our plan was successful; fighting fiercely, then repeatedly falling back into alleys, we slowed the enemy advance long enough for Mycale's corresponding sortie to fortify the intersection between Royal Circle Road and the Road of Snows. Lord Errikale has shown an astonishing talent for such devious tactics; though he has no formal military rank, the man proves to be a cunning leader, walking a fine line between flexibility and treachery. Perhaps he has been consulting with our distasteful Serpentlord allies, although I've no clue how he might stomach their smell. Our mission complete, we returned to the Castle of Twelve... only to find it already under heavy assault.

Built a hundred years after the Black Wave, the Castle of Twelve is a ceremonial fortress, not a practical one. After all, the Guild of Knights was meant to defend the Empire through individual adventure and knight-errantry. We never considered that there might ever be fighting in the streets, as even the Tsol'teth were unable to breach the city walls. As a result, my allies were hard-pressed to defend the Castle and its many windows and doors, even with the aid of the barricades we'd cobbled together after the Battle of the Parades. Even so, we might easily have turned back the enemy, were it not for the presence of the infamous criminal, Lucaine Pyramides.

In accounts from his days as a mercenary bandit, the man has been described as a sort of incarnate demon, and now that I've seen him fight, I give those authors the benefit of the doubt. His fighting style wavers between madness and genius. Madness, for he spends half the battle with his sword in its sheath, avoiding blows through speed alone; genius, because when he draws his sword to fight, he turns that very act into a deadly blow. A warrior learns to detect a hundred movements of the blade, a hundred twitches of the body, and when he draws his blade, Pyramides reveals none of them. Even with his sword drawn, the man fights as if possessed. Though his sword clearly is not forged in Bladefire like that of a Knight, nevertheless it glows with arcane power, here setting men ablaze, there freezing them to the bone, there causing them to bleed their life away from a single cut. Each time he draws his blade, men around him die, giving him time to enchant his sword with some new witchery. Just as the Tsol'teth were said to practice some art of destruction unknown to mortal races, so too does this squire of hell, Pyramides. Draw what parallel you will. Mycale's indecent detractors hint that he is "unnatural." I submit that if anyone in this war is unnatural, it is that brigand monster Pyramides.

We fought to our utmost, but though the Avenue of Swords ran with the blood of our foe, it ran twice as deep with our own. When the order to retreat came, however, I was dismayed, for we had succeeded in separating Lucaine Pyramides from the rest of his allies. Surely, with just a little more time, we could have overwhelmed him, and damned be the cost to our own lives. So be it, though. I write this from the Selicande Lycaeum, where the remaining Knights in Mycale's camp have been given a warm welcome. Tomorrow I am to join a sally against the Marcella Library, in the company of Lord Errikale and Prince Mycale. As the Library itself is undefended by Catarin's men, we hope to break through their front and triumphantly invest the Library, thus winning a psychological victory. Pray for me, my love, as I pray every night for you.

Your loving husband,

Lord Damen Kephry,
Artaius Angus Hall, Barracks 104,
Selicande Lycaeum

Lucaine Pyramides, Catarin (Poem 14)

Gold and soft diamond and pearl--
The crown is one with the soul, for her.
Empress, goddess, overarching girl--
The part is one with the whole, for her.
My sword will defend her
My sharp sword will keep her safe
My true sword will keep her safe from harm
I shall make her as immortal as my love.

From Leona Fontaine, Sentinel: The Murder of Lucaine Pyramides

There was a cold fog on the streets, but Deis was colder; he breathed in the dank as a child might smell deeply of fresh bread. His world revolved slowly in his oddly-angled mind: a world of deluded sleepers, where goodness was always a false and fleeting dream, and evil itself the lesser of two wrongs; and he the only wakeful soul, staring insomniac at the full moon. Forward he walked, ever forward, boots clicking on the cobbles like ratchet gears in a clock, moving ever forward to the time when the alarm would go off, jangling the dreaming world awake.

The night was nearing dawn, inevitably, but when Trenton Deis's mechanical footsteps halted the night halted, too. The night halted, as Trenton Deis entered the tiny apartment, coldly glared at the fragile flame of the single candle, coldly glared at the fragile-looking woman who sat motionless on the bed. Her hair, dark beyond night; her eyes, frozen beyond winter; her smile, warm as a heart. Her name was Castomira Brangwin, and she was not thought exceptional.

"Who?" Deis asked.

"Catarin," she replied.

"How?"

"Beyond hope of resurrection."

"She is well guarded."

"Eliminate the warrior first. His betrayal demands it."

"Five hundred thousand pieces of gold," he said.

"Done."

The night began again, and then the dawn began, and then Trenton Deis began.

From Lina Stalfos, Stories of the Past, for Children

Once upon a time, in the great Selucarian Empire, there was a great king called Valerias. Valerias was wise and strong, and he had a sport spot in his heart for his two children. Valerias's son was weak and foolish, even though he was a man, and Valerias's daughter was strong and clever, even though she was a woman. And Valerias often laughed, "Has any man ever had such unusual children?" The son was named Mycale, and the daughter was named Catarin, and King Valerias loved them both.

One day, King Valerias became very sick and died. And Mycale and Catarin were very sad. They were sad because their father was dead. They were sad because their mother joined the Church as a nun, and left them all alone. And they were sad because nobody knew which one of them should be the new ruler of the Empire. Mycale was a man, and usually men become king instead of women. But many people thought that Catarin was a better person than Mycale. They said that Catarin was smart and pretty, unlike Mycale who was foolish and ugly, and that Catarin did good things, while Mycale did bad things.

And they were right. But other people wanted Mycale to be king, because they thought that since he was foolish he would let them do anything they wanted. One of these people was named Lucius Errikale, and he was one of the snake-people, even though nobody knew it then. Lucius was the Duke of Seleucar, and so he was the highest of the lords, and so many of the other lords obeyed him, and helped Mycale. Another was named Castomira Brangwin. She was the Duchess of Aster Malik, which was a tiny province to the north of the city. Even though she did not have much power as a noble, she was secretly the leader of the people who wanted Mycale to be king. Duke Lucius was in love with her, and so was Prince Mycale, so they both did everything she told them to.

Catarin did not want to be a queen. But she knew that if Mycale were king, he would do small bad things, and the people who controlled him would do large bad things. So she got help from her father's prime minister, Orin Grandier, and she tried to convince all the other lords that she should be queen.

Lord Lucius told the other lords that if Catarin were queen, she'd keep them from doing what they wanted to. So some of the other lords called Catarin an outlaw, and threatened to have her killed, and not very many lords wanted to help her. It was very bad. The lords who wanted Mycale to be king moved to one side of the city of Seleucar, and the lords who wanted Catarin to be queen moved to the other, and they both gathered armies. Everyone thought that soon the two sides would fight.

And then a man named Lucaine Pyramides came suddenly to Catarin and drew out his sword.

From The Sealed Files of Castomira Brangwin

The poetry is gone.

When I was younger, I remember writing stanzas and quatrains, staves and verses. I channeled the blaze of my emotions into paper and ink. I wrote to make spirits soar, or sink. I wrote to free myself of the feelings that were too big for me . . . when I felt I would explode with joy, or with sadness, or with anger, I would write.

And now the poetry is gone. And soon I feel I will explode after all . . . with hatred.

There is something blocking the window of my soul, fouling the chapel of my memories. There is something that holds my hatred inside. Nobody can store this much emotion . . . can they? I can feel myself transforming, and I'm terrified. And my fear makes me hate her more.

Catarin. Perfect Catarin. Lovely Catarin. Brilliant Catarin. We were nearly sisters. We played together. We learned to dance together. We went to the same exclusive school, giggled over the same boys. And I would give anything, suffer anything, for the privilege of torturing her to death.

And I don't know why. That is what frightens me more than anything else. Logic is breaking; falling away into madness like a calving glacier. I'm changing.

I broke diamond today. I reached for my grandmother's ring, to put it on, and when I closed my fingers around the stone, it crumbled. I'm changing.

The noon light is growing painfully bright. I wear a broad hat and a dark veil. People ask if I'm in mourning. "The sun is very bright," I tell them. "It's raining," they reply. I'm changing.

Now that the king is dead, my chance is near. I can dominate Lucius so effortlessly that he doesn't realize I'm doing it. My will moves through him. And I dominate Mycale, as if that is difficult at all. In his quest for justice, Lucius will help me bring about the greatest evils I can imagine, and I relish both the irony and the prospect. I never even visited the Chamber of Deliberation until a year ago, and now I toy with the fate of the kingdom like a Carnivalis idly twitching a puppet. I'm changing.

There is a man in Jaru named Lucaine Pyramides, who is said to have the most deadly sword on Sapience, and who will fight any battle for the right price. I have sent for him. I will order her head on a silver platter, with a silver cup to catch her blood. The thought of her clotted veins dangling below a stump of neck is delightful to me. I'm changing.

I hate Catarin. And I would put my hatred down in verse, create words with enough emotion to clear the emotion from my own heart, and be done with it. And I can't. I'm changing.

And I'm afraid that soon, I won't be scared of that anymore.

Lucaine Pyramides, Catarin (Poem 1)

A random encounter
A failure of fate
My cut has been countered,
My sword turned away.
I was a wolf.
Am I now a dog?

Lord Damen Kephry, An Open Letter to the Guild of Knights

Most noble compatriots, warriors of the Guild of Knights; most honored Nobility of Seleucar and its kingdoms; and all the diverse People of this great Empire;

It is with the greatest Concern and Sadness that I apprehend the current Events taking place within the walls of Seleucar. That we, the great Guild of Knights, who have for so long been an Example to both noble and commoner alike of Honor and Chivalry, should fall to such Depths that our inner differences should become matters of Public opinion is a disgrace of the highest order. Lord Drago, are your concerns truly of such Urgency that you felt compelled to distribute handbills throughout the Market Square detailing your grievances? And Lord Rani, despite Lord Drago's breach of Etiquette, is it truly needful to consider breaking the Guild's long-standing Friendship with the Church in such a Spectacular fashion?

The Guild of Knights has the most Noble origins of any private order. Where the Templars originated from the Church's need for self-defense in its earliest days, and where other warrior Organizations (such as the detestable Serpent-Lords) were established sheerly for Profit or Debauchery, or for purposes of individual Training and Meditation, the Guild was formed by Private Citizens for the inestimable goal of preserving the Empire, and forever defending the Honor of its Monarch. In the absence of a clearly-defined Monarch, are we to fall apart into warring Factions?

While the Templars incorporated the sacred Devotions into their martial discipline, we of the secular Knights mastered the arts of Falconry, and instructed the Templars in its use, to the great Benefit of the Common Folk. Are we to cut off all ties with the Church now, simply because it refuses to Involve itself in the Succession?

The founding Master-Smith of the Guild perfected the intricate power of Blade-Fire, which requires the most disciplined and exacting of Training. If we should collapse into Chaos, who shall carry on that Martial Tradition? Shall we allow it to die out, until it is merely a vague memory in the minds of our eldest citizens?

Lord Rani, your speech of Secession from the ways of the Church is convincing. As a Secular order, composed of private warriors, we should not bend so easily to the Requirements of the Church. I submit that the Church's goals should be as one with ours in this Time of Trouble, but your opinion has Merit. However, your treatise encouraging Knights to embark on Study of the Arts of Darkness is a true abomination. I pray that it does not influence the generations of Warriors who may come after us, for surely Evil's pull will be as strong five hundred years hence as it is now.

But this matter of moral alignment is Insignificant in light of our True Peril: we have succumbed, my brothers and sisters. We have Surrendered to Politics. Even now, some fear to enter the Guild Castle, for fear that a fist-fight will occur between supporters of the two honorable Claimants to the crown. Although I have a personal Preference in the matter, I will not air it. Instead, I must beg all of you: let us remain true to our Code! Let us defend the Empire, not help Destroy it! Until such time as open Civil War occurs, let us remain aloof. Let us not pour oil upon the Flames. For if open war becomes reality, and the Guild splits into warring camps, surely it will never recover.

Respectfully,
Lord Damen Kephry

Public Security Document #3551, Seleucar Imperial Guard

Item 1. Lord Errikale has expressed a wish for more compassionate treatment of the serpent folk. In deference to his wish, which certainly must be based on wisdom higher than our own, I command that torture and decimation be used against serpent folk only in punishment for First Order offenses.

Item 2. Wartime demands more exacting standards of conduct. In order to better control the populace, all Third Order infractions will henceforth be punished as Second Order crimes; Second Order crimes will be punished as First Order crimes; and First Order crimes will be punished by death. The impartiality of the judicial system will in no means be compromised, however! All sentences MUST be countersigned by at least one other oath-bound member of the Imperial Armed Forces, or his nominated representative.

Item 3. Swordsman Lucaine Pyramides, though briefly attached to our forces as a mercenary, has betrayed King Mycale, and has joined Catarin's usurpers. Therefore, he has been enemied, and is to be attacked on sight whenever he sets foot in any lawful area of the city. This notice countermands any previous orders.

Item 4. I have made perfectly clear that I will tolerate no rumors among the men regarding the supposed private entertainments of King Mycale. Our ruler is a shining example of noble rectitude and propriety. The recent disappearance of local youths is due to the cannibalistic tendencies of the Catarin-led betrayers, and has absolutely no connection to King Mycale's frequent times of meditative solitude. Any talk to the contrary will henceforth be punished with public lashing and execution.

Item 5. A sortie into the Imperial Palace will commence at 4 am on Friday. Those of you who have been selected to volunteer will receive notice two hours before the mission.

That is all.
Maxim Everhardt, Captain of the Guard

Lucaine Pyramides, Catarin (Poem 9)

A thousand lives I've cut like fragile thread
And sent a thousand souls to last reward
For when my sword is drawn I am the chooser of the dead.

Three Moons, whose strokes a thousand widows grieve
Has drawn its sacred circle all my life
Where all who enter perish, save they enter by my leave.

But once, I drew that circle in the air
And what has been a sacred place of Thoth
Became a ground of worship to azure eyes and golden hair.

Blade, idolatry of death, replaced
By foolish love and foolish loyalty
My bandit's honor, ruthless reputation, now disgraced.

For when I drew my sword to take her life
I glanced into her eyes and saw a way
To justify my anger, redeem my love of strife.

From Leona Fontaine, Sentinel: The Murder of Lucaine Pyramides

For Lucaine, a black fate: love without daring. He polished his poetry the same way he polished his sword, with endless precision and passion, consistent caution. But while his sword held his word, his words had no edge, he was certain. To show her a poem of his to confess his feelings to leave himself defenseless. And which carried his soul now? His sword or his pen? Though he fought for her in a hundred battles, his true war was with himself, over the course of a hundred poems.

For Lucaine, a black fate: fire without warmth, only burning. He knew her for one year. He wrote one hundred poems. He won her heart without believing it, he lost his last battle, lost in passion.

For Lucaine, a black fate: a hopeless dream, a helpless death.

Civil War: A City Divided

From Meleus Travner, Urban Tactical Confrontation Throughout History: Case Studies, vol. 2: Seleucar

To call it the First War of Succession is historically apt, but technically inaccurate. War was never declared, as there was no formal monarch to declare it. Although Castomira pushed to have her puppet Mycale accede to the throne, the Church refused to bless the coronation before the gods, and even Castomira was not so reckless as to risk divine disfavor during her dangerous bid for power.

The war began by accident, as such conflicts often do. The perspective of history shows that when Castomira realized her assassin Pyramides had thrown in his lot with his onetime target Catarin, she pressed her consort Lord Errikale to move the Royal Guard more vigorously against Catarin's rebel faction. Although Lord Errikale gave the order only reluctantly, the fanatical Guard Captain Maxim Everhardt used the opportunity to place extreme pressure on the areas of the city held by Catarin.

The war could have been far bloodier than it was. The Seleucarian armies, although much smaller than they were at the time of the Black Wave, were still large enough to have reduced the city of Imperial Seleucar to a wasteland if Castomira had been able to manipulate her faction into enlarging the conflict as much as she wished. Instead of being a contained urban conflict, the First War of Succession could have been even larger and more destructive than the Second. That it was not is due almost entirely to the peacemaking abilities of the two reluctant titular generals, Lucius Errikale and Orin Grandier.

Lucius Errikale is now considered one of history's most tragic victims, a noble idealist whose ideals were twisted to the service of Seleucar's greatest enemy since the Tsol'teth, the evil Castomira. The Duke of Seleucar, Lucius Errikale was the feudal leader of the duchy whose capitol was Imperial Seleucar, and therefore was considered first among the dukes. In theory, he was second in power only to the Prime Minister, Orin Grandier. In recent times, however, the office of Prime Minister had weakened relative to the Council of Lords, and so the political might of Lucius Errikale and Orin Grandier was roughly equal. Lucius Errikale gained his position by accident of birth, like all nobles; also by accident of birth, he was of the serpent folk. It is still poorly understood how a Serpentlord can be born of two normal human parents, or how ophidian traits can emerge in a person of any race even after years of seeming normality. Since Lord Errikale hid his serpent nature until minutes before his death, it's a matter of historical debate whether he was a serpent for his entire life, or whether he gained serpent attributes through study of the secret Serpentlord disciplines. What is known is that for much of his political career, he championed the cause of the Serpent people, despite public opposition. For seven years before the First War of Succession, he had spent a few weeks each year at a resort in far Hashan that is now known to have been a front for the brave but ineffective Coiled Cobra Cult, a pro-serpent terrorist group. It is there that he secretly learned his Serpentlord fighting skills. (The Coiled Cobra Cult was wiped out in a bloody series of crusades by Seleucarian Myrmidons a few years before the Seleucarian Empire's collapse; the cry "Let's go bash some CCCs!" is still used by warriors around the world to initiate morally ambiguous bloodshed in the name of personal gain.) Lord Errikale was called "The Man with No Smile" by many, and was considered humorless and cold. He never smiled for fear of revealing his serpent-like fangs.

Prime Minister Orin Grandier was Lord Errikale's friend for many years, until the First War of Succession forced them apart. A wise and intelligent man, he restored much of the power that the prime ministry had once held, but was unable to fully balance the great political power of the Council of Lords. Furthermore, he was the personal mentor of Princess Catarin, teaching her the political networks and backroom dealings that made the empire work. When the succession troubles began, Orin Grandier strove to hold the empire together, and had surprising success in convincing the empire at large that the succession troubles were a minor upheaval, involving only riots, instead of a major armed conflict. By the time the underkings of Ashtan and Shallam received word from the Church that a civil war was taking place within Seleucar's walls, the hostilities were already over, and the quest for the Staff had begun.

That Ashtan, Shallam, and the other city-states that composed the Seleucarian Empire did not involve themselves in the First War of Succession is due to the diplomatic phrasing, elegant reassurances, and outright lies of Orin Grandier. But the highly limited nature of the war within Imperial Seleucar itself is due to the cooperative effort of Orin Grandier and his opposite number Lucius Errikale. While Castomira and Catarin were bitter enemies, their generals were loath to fight, and loath to place the citizens of Seleucar at risk. All the time during the four weeks of warfare, Grandier and Errikale organized steady evacuations of their sectors of the city, loading the churches and poor-houses of the outlying villages and towns with refugees. Whether Grandier and Errikale were in direct communication is a matter of speculation, but it is certain that they held each other in high respect, and strove to oppose each other only in strictly military matters.

The fighting itself was unique at the time (previous urban combat had been between small groups; see Case Studies, vol 1). A war within a city requires tactics far different from those employed in the field. Only one battle of the war was fought between units any larger than a few hundred men each, and snipers, traps, and hit-and-fade tactics were deciding factors in the early successes of Castomira's faction, as Lord Errikale was exceptionally adept at such techniques. Using these tactics, soldiers loyal to Mycale were able to capture and hold the Imperial Palace for days at a time before being driven out by counter-sorties.

The emphasis each side placed on capturing the Imperial Palace is one of the ironies of the war. Originally designed for war by the visionary Nicator, and reinforced by his son Piraeus, the palace had been expanded and altered in peacetime until it was virtually indefensible from any position. Each door required extensive barricading to be secured; in many places, terraces and walkways made it impossible to shield a group of men from missile fire. Although control of the Palace was essential to the political meta-struggle, it was infeasible from a military standpoint, and heavy losses were inevitable on both sides.

The war began with its only large-scale confrontation, the Battle of the Parades.

Varos Devlin, The Battle of the Parades

Darkness hung over the city, low clouds roamed
As civil war was preached in streets and homes,
Debated in courts, proven in maps of troops and arms,
That showed the loyal firmly in two camps,
A split city, partisan enmity brewing slow like ale,
Turning dark and potent in casks, intoxicating and poisoning
Friend against friend, lord against knight, might against might,
With no concern for wrong, no thought of right.
The two queens, true queens uncrowned,
Catarin and Castomira, fighting through will, beauty, glamour, glory,
Each seeking, and destined to find, a place in story, legend, history,
For one, infamy. For one, majesty. For a hundred others, death.

Success in succession is more than just lords' acclaim,
More than just law's color, more than martial fame.
Liege lords lacking loyalty fall from royalty by revolution,
The torches and pitchforks of the common choice, the people's voice,
Never long to be rejected. So wise suitors to crowns long to be respected,
And give that into the common weal they'll later take in taxes paid,
In fine parades they ride in state, their lordly manner on display,
Their knights beplumed, their soldiers trim, their wizards conjuring lights on high,
In hopes that show of sword and bow will prove their worth in doubting eyes.

A fine day dawned, a holy day, a day when Churchmen raised their songs
And poured out wine and poured out oil, entreating gods for fruitful soil,
Entreating gods for strength of breath, for long, full life, for peaceful death.
A fine day dawned, a day of rest, a day when children flocked the streets
And begged their parents for copper's shine to trade for peddlers' fresh-baked treats,
And revelers bought the vendors' wine and feasted well on roasted meats.
A fine day dawned, a day of parades; Lord Errikale decreed a march,
From Green Snake Way to the Beggars' Arch, all through the Royal Square.
And all unwitting, Lord Grandier did also sense the festive air
And called his men to polish shields, tighten drums,
Dress in richest martial wear and march around the Royal Square,
And hand out coins to beggars there, rich gold to match their lady's hair,
The flowing locks of Catarin deSangre, youngest noble heir.
A fine day dawned, a fateful day, a day when two parades of hope
Would clash in battle small in scope, large in implication;
A day when violent civil strife would slash the city, unkind knife,
Cut the bonds of brotherhood that formed the basis of the nation.

Through peaceful parks and sunlit streets Lord Lucius led one thousand men,
A hundred drummers and clarion-players, two hundred archers and bandit-slayers,
Three hundred pikemen, sturdy sons, four hundred swordsmen, hot to fight
To save the honor of their lord, Mycale, who rode in state that day,
Waving brightly to the crowd, giving no sign of his soul's decay.
Lord Errikale rode very nigh, to school his lord if by any sign
He showed the weakness Lucius feared and used, the idiot moral brain confused.
And Castomira Brangwin rode by Mycale's side, and whispered to him
Words of mother's love, sister's comfort, lover's bliss,
The cruel web she'd snared him in, the love his family never gave.
Cruel irony, that lack of love is grip for evil!

At Castomira's urging, Mycale spoke ill of Catarin,
Addressing crowds who cheered for him, his glassy eyes and wooden grin
Took nothing from his eloquence, and nothing from the fire he roused;
His words, poetry of honey and blood, sweet anger, cold ash,
As he raved, his eyes did glint in spearheads' flash.
He had the look that day of noble kings
Who fight and die to keep their country dreaming
Of warmth and bread, songs and crops,
And take on themselves unwholesome scheming.
But a cunning king Mycale was not, nor even sly�

As soldiers hot for loyal killing followed Mycale's royal train,
So too did armsmen fresh and willing travel with brave Catarin.
Her smile was bright as suns that day, her eyes diamonds,
Unearthly and solid, enthralling all with sparks of grace.
And people called out fealty: "Golden hair, steel polished soul,
"Forever we support you, lady! Fight! And make our kingdom whole!"
Swords and shields of hardened steel cast sunbeams into cheering crowds
And in the streets and on the walks the people gathered by.

The flagstones of the Royal Square, like stove-lids, bent and warped the air.
So fierce were summer's light and heat that hard-eyed archers flinched away
From endless pinpoint suns and stars that shone from triply-polished arms.
The people's cheers, an endless roar; and shimmering light, a blinding rain;
Little wonder is it, then, that Catarin's troops met Mycale's men
Before each high commander saw his nemesis approach.
And full of patriotic verve, of noble thoughts, of warlike nerve,
The frontmost soldiers took it as their destiny to fight.
No warcries here, no trumpet-sound; the grisly painters worked the ground
With harsh motifs of red on red, the living blood of newly dead.
Errikale called retreat in vain, as soldiers vied to join the slain,
Heedless of their training now, responding to their foremost vows,
To stand and cut their foemen down to win their lord his rightful crown.

On the side of Catarin, as well, chaos reigned alone. Shouting to his regiment,
Grandier struggled to defend his fore and flanks against the rage
Of Castomira's bitter force (good men betrayed by evil words)
And muster order, praying to remove his queen from battle's reach.
The crowds of townsfolk churned like stormy seas,
Some struggling to flee, some taking arms, some standing near to yell and jeer,
And in an eyeblink, deadly havoc reigned among the common folk
As surely as in soldiers' eyes, soldiers' arms and soldiers' minds.

By half past noon, the two commanders knew that they were even matched,
And locked, unwilling, in a deadly combat, deadly game of chess;
If only chess were played with dice, and loss meant instant butchery,
For true war owes to table games what Tsol'teth owe to forest sprites.
The noontime heat, sticky sweat and blood, cries of pain and fear
Caused only greater hatred in these men who'd marched as one last year.

Twilight settled on scenes of woe: unspoken truce as families buried dead,
Though stricken with partisan hate; soldiers vowing vengeance on their friends,
For striking adverse blows in self-defense; Catarin and Castomira, blessing the dead,
One with bitter sadness, one only with its semblance�
And city boundaries drawn in bloody strokes: north for Mycale, south for Catarin.
Morning's gay parades were now a funeral march,
And warrior's dirges now rang half as strong,
As stout-backed pipers dug their fellows' graves.
Buried with their instruments, the proud marshals of the march
Stared up through one man's height in dirt to sorrow at the sight of martial feet
Once locked in formal order, now trudging past the funeral fires.

Lucaine Pyramides, Catarin (Poem 10)

Blue hope, her eyes, too true to deny--
An order, her smile, too strong to defy--
Her lips are a question; I dare not reply.

Lord Damen Kephry, Collected Correspondence

My dearest Margaux,

Be assured, my love, that your concern for my well-being is matched only by my own. Though the fighting is fierce in this sector of the city, I am sure that we shall prevail, and place Prince Mycale on his rightful throne. I can only pray that once Mycale's coronation is complete, his noble sister will capitulate, and support her brother as is her duty. Even among the supporters of Mycale, the Princess is respected and loved, and it breaks our hearts to oppose her ill-conceived rebellion against the natural order of succession.

We lost possession of the Castle of Twelve today. Praise be to Sarapis, no member of the Guild of Knights struck a personal blow against another, but the fact remains that the Guild is broken now, perhaps forever, by this passing political feud. The supporters of Catarin believe that they are doing what is best for the Empire, as their guild oath demands, and I am certain that they believe they are right, so I cannot hate them. But when men under my command pulled Lord Kyralos from his horse and beheaded him, I was forced to commend them for putting the enemy temporarily to rout, even as I shed tears for my oldest friend.

This street-fighting is the worst sort of combat. Even my ventures in the swamps of Mannaseh and the mountains of Vashnar never prepared me for this hellish funhouse of sharp corners and rooftop snipers; and aside from physical peril, nothing is more taxing to sanity than to cut down one's own countrymen, in one's own neighborhood. Civil war is an abomination, and I pray daily to all the gods that they deliver us from it.

For us, the day started early. We were to depart the Castle of Twelve before dawn, hurrying through the side streets in a party of fifty, to blockade the Road of Snows and lay ambush for the party that Grandier would inevitably send against the Palace. Simply to walk the streets of Seleucar is torture in a time like this: to see the rows and rows of buildings, shuttered tight with fear. The few citizens out and about fled into alleys at the sound of marching feet. I understand the war is already hard on them; the "foresightful" hoarding by the few has caused food shortages for the many, and the soup kitchens seldom have enough to feed all. Soldiers ransack homes, with the noble goal of redistributing any hoards they find, but too often those hoards are redistributed only to the soldiers. Are you eating well? I can only hope our family's name is sufficient to keep you from hardship. It is well that our manor is in the far north of the city; Catarin's men are unlikely to penetrate there.

Near midday, we engaged an enemy element, perhaps a hundred men, as they advanced up the Road of Snows. Our plan was successful; fighting fiercely, then repeatedly falling back into alleys, we slowed the enemy advance long enough for Mycale's corresponding sortie to fortify the intersection between Royal Circle Road and the Road of Snows. Lord Errikale has shown an astonishing talent for such devious tactics; though he has no formal military rank, the man proves to be a cunning leader, walking a fine line between flexibility and treachery. Perhaps he has been consulting with our distasteful Serpentlord allies, although I've no clue how he might stomach their smell. Our mission complete, we returned to the Castle of Twelve... only to find it already under heavy assault.

Built a hundred years after the Black Wave, the Castle of Twelve is a ceremonial fortress, not a practical one. After all, the Guild of Knights was meant to defend the Empire through individual adventure and knight-errantry. We never considered that there might ever be fighting in the streets, as even the Tsol'teth were unable to breach the city walls. As a result, my allies were hard-pressed to defend the Castle and its many windows and doors, even with the aid of the barricades we'd cobbled together after the Battle of the Parades. Even so, we might easily have turned back the enemy, were it not for the presence of the infamous criminal, Lucaine Pyramides.

In accounts from his days as a mercenary bandit, the man has been described as a sort of incarnate demon, and now that I've seen him fight, I give those authors the benefit of the doubt. His fighting style wavers between madness and genius. Madness, for he spends half the battle with his sword in its sheath, avoiding blows through speed alone; genius, because when he draws his sword to fight, he turns that very act into a deadly blow. A warrior learns to detect a hundred movements of the blade, a hundred twitches of the body, and when he draws his blade, Pyramides reveals none of them. Even with his sword drawn, the man fights as if possessed. Though his sword clearly is not forged in Bladefire like that of a Knight, nevertheless it glows with arcane power, here setting men ablaze, there freezing them to the bone, there causing them to bleed their life away from a single cut. Each time he draws his blade, men around him die, giving him time to enchant his sword with some new witchery. Just as the Tsol'teth were said to practice some art of destruction unknown to mortal races, so too does this squire of hell, Pyramides. Draw what parallel you will. Mycale's indecent detractors hint that he is "unnatural." I submit that if anyone in this war is unnatural, it is that brigand monster Pyramides.

We fought to our utmost, but though the Avenue of Swords ran with the blood of our foe, it ran twice as deep with our own. When the order to retreat came, however, I was dismayed, for we had succeeded in separating Lucaine Pyramides from the rest of his allies. Surely, with just a little more time, we could have overwhelmed him, and damned be the cost to our own lives. So be it, though. I write this from the Selicande Lycaeum, where the remaining Knights in Mycale's camp have been given a warm welcome. Tomorrow I am to join a sally against the Marcella Library, in the company of Lord Errikale and Prince Mycale. As the Library itself is undefended by Catarin's men, we hope to break through their front and triumphantly invest the Library, thus winning a psychological victory. Pray for me, my love, as I pray every night for you.

Your loving husband,

Lord Damen Kephry,
Artaius Angus Hall, Barracks 104,
Selicande Lycaeum

Lucaine Pyramides, Catarin (Poem 14)

Gold and soft diamond and pearl--
The crown is one with the soul, for her.
Empress, goddess, overarching girl--
The part is one with the whole, for her.
My sword will defend her
My sharp sword will keep her safe
My true sword will keep her safe from harm
I shall make her as immortal as my love.

Combat and Tactics

From Meleus Travner, Urban Tactical Confrontation Throughout History: Case Studies, vol. 2: Seleucar

Following is a summary of the strategic progression of the First War of Succession, with accompanying figures. The subsequent twelve chapters will describe the tactical considerations of the war in exhaustive detail.

The First War of Succession can be divided into four major phases, typically referred to as "Weeks," as each phase lasted between six and eight days. For this section, I have followed that inexact convention; the later chapters will provide a more accurate chronology. The basic street map of Seleucar is Fig. 2.1.

In the first Week of confrontation, the Catarines and Mycalians (as supporters of the warring heirs were called) controlled roughly similar portions of Imperial Seleucar (Fig. 2.2). This was to change abruptly, as each side chose a different offensive focus. Naturally, both armies placed an emphasis on capturing the Palace itself, and as a result, the Palace was never fully occupied. Whenever one side overran the Palace, they built makeshift fortifications that the other side promptly destroyed in the next sortie. Aside from the attacks on the Palace, though, there were three other offensives of note in the first week (Fig 2.3). In the western portion of the city, the Guild of Serpentlords, long masked by a row of nondescript shops, finally made itself known, declaring loyalty to Mycale and immediately deploying in force to clear the surrounding streets. Catarine soldiers, experienced in field maneuvers but inept at urban combat, were rapidly forced into retreat by the unconventional tactics of the Serpentlords, resulting in the loss of the entire western district. The Serpentlords, however, were unable to occupy further territory, due to their relatively small numbers, and so they satisfied themselves with patrolling their immediate surroundings, to an extent of three major city blocks.

Catarin and her military advisor, Orin Grandier, chose to concentrate their forces on the capture of the Castle of Twelve, stronghold of the Guild of Knights. They did not at that time fully appreciate that the Castle of Twelve was not carefully designed for war, and the Knights among them, untrained in urban combat, were equally unaware of the Castle's weakness. Catarin sent a large strike force against the Royal Palace, but had half that strike force split off to attack the Castle of Twelve in a surprise maneuver, while another force proceeded along the Avenue of Swords to attack the Castle from the west. As Mycalian forces were fully committed to their attack on the Royal Palace and on the Marcella Library, the garrison at the Castle of Twelve was reinforced only by a returning group led by Damen Kephry. Quickly, the Mycalians were routed.

Mycale, meanwhile, had committed the majority of his forces to an assault on the Marcella Library. (Be advised that when I say "Mycale" or "Catarin" in any sense referring to military command, I am in fact referring to the entire high command of that faction: Errikale and Castomira on one side, and Catarin and Grandier on the other. It is unlikely that Mycale had a personal hand in any of the stratagems used during the war.) Already in possession of the Selicande Lycaeum and the Castle of Twelve, Mycale sought to take control of yet another major building, to use it as a command post and mustering point. Since the Catarine forces were concentrated in and around the Amphitheatre Kelanium, Mycale anticipated an easy victory; it was necessary simply to break through the defenses at South Riverwalk and then march down White Owl Street and Red Stag Street, destroying any patrols encountered. To turn the assault into a political coup as well, Mycale personally led the strike force. This was certainly the idea of Castomira Brangwin, as Lord Errikale would have overruled anyone else who suggested endangering the prince.

After airborn Druidic spotters reported Mycale's offensive, Catarin sent heavy reinforcements to defend the library. The Catarine force engaged the Mycalians at the intersection of White Owl Street and Eastgate Road, fighting them to a standstill and preserving control of the Library. During this battle, Mycale was wounded by a stray arrow. History shows that this was part of Castomira's hideous plan, for she secluded herself with him for the next two days nursing him to health, and when he emerged, he was horribly changed.

Before, Mycale had been a cretin, physically and mentally unsound, and a pedophile, visitor of the city's most hidden and illegal pleasure-dens; now, he was perceptibly twisted, indulging desires even darker than before. Whether Castomira had unlocked his personal demons, or had implanted sinister suggestions of her own, Mycale began to exhibit a taste for pleasures that should not be indulged, and his closest supporters turned a blind eye as the young boys who habitually "visited" Mycale in his chambers began to disappear. They had refused to believe in Mycale's broken-minded pedarasty; now, they refused to believe that his crippled evil might have deepened much further, to include torture and murder. That such voluntary blindness could exist in people who were otherwise honorable and good is unwelcome testament to the inflexibility of the human mind and spirit. Lord Errikale, Maxim Everhardt, and others all believed in the goodness and propriety of their prince, and so they put themselves under tremendous pressure by continuing in their belief. In the case of Maxim Everhardt, that pressure was to relieve itself in a nightmarish fashion. Some have suggested that the greatest tragedy of the war is that Mycale was never treated with the love and kindness that might have kept him innocent and good. Although this author would never lay claim to moral authority, pragmatism suggests that the greatest tragedy is that Mycale was not drowned as an infant, preventing the succession issue from arising at all.

It is clear, moreover, that Castomira was not simply corrupting Mycale for personal entertainment, but as part of her scheme for total domination of Seleucar. As youths disappeared within the depths of Mycale's rooms at Selicande Lycaeum, Mycale himself began to take on a powerful aura of majesty, such that wherever he took the field, the morale of his soldiers increased a hundredfold. And when he spoke, though he often broke into a form of half-witted glossolalia, the very sound of his voice filled his men with the strength of ten, and he invariably led his soldiers to resounding victory. Mycale's speeches were never transcribed, so it is impossible to perform a comparison, but given what later emerged regarding Castomira, it is well within the realm of possibility that she seeded Mycale's speech with a weakened version of the Tsol'teth Litany of Obedience, its arcane powers fueled by the lives of innocents.

At the beginning of Week Two, Catarin's control of the Castle of Twelve had cut off the Serpentlord territory from Mycale's main zone of control (see Fig. 2.4). Although they could still communicate through Tell magic, which was widespread in Achaea even then, the Catarine patrols along the Avenue of Heroes and their random sorties into Heroes' Park ensured that the Serpentlords could not receive tactical backup from their allies. And the Catarine tactical initiatives during this week (Fig 2.5) sealed the fate of the Serpentlords in Seleucar. Catarin sent a strong force against the Serpentlord-controlled neighborhoods, armed with hastily-prepared plans of urban combat and led by rangers with experience fighting Serpents. Although they did not directly defeat all the Serpentlords in the area, they killed many, and ransacked the hidden guildhouse, throwing the Serpentlords into disarray. As the Catarine forces advanced along rooftops and alleys in tandem, the Serpentlords were forced to evacuate their hiding places, although they left behind traps that claimed many a life. Finally, Catarine wizards destroyed the hidden wormhole located in the center of the neighborhood, just after the last Serpentlords fled through it. With the wormhole closed, the Serpentlords were unable to stage a counterattack to regain their control of the area.

Catarin's forces were not as successful elsewhere on the map. The Serpentlords, unused to battling large numbers of opponents, retreated in the face of a well-organized force of soldiers, and so they lived on, as they always have, despite adversity. Mycale's men, however, coming straight from the invigorating presence of their newly-charismatic ruler, were without fear, and eager to do battle. A large force made directly for the Royal Palace, and was met there by Catarin's men as they sallied from the Castle of Twelve and from the Amphitheatre Kelanium. A second force, composed of three hundred men, paralleled the Mnemosyne before splitting into two groups, one to attack the Castle of Twelve, and one to rush the Royal Palace from the north. The Castle assault group succeeded, capturing the Castle of Twelve after a brief but bloody fight.

The force from the north would have decided the Palace battle in Mycale's favor as well, but for the intervention of Lucaine Pyramides. As if launched from an arrow, Pyramides hurtled through the Palace and directly into the opposing force, intercepting them just as they passed through the main gate into the northern courtyard. Using this choke-point to his advantage, Lucaine killed the entire vanguard (drawing his sword and resheathing it for each kill, according to legend), then advanced northward, cutting down the entire invading group like a field of wheat, including several powerful commanders, masters of their respective fighting professions.

This was the first time Pyramides had revealed the full extent of his incredible powers, and it led to much speculation in both camps as to his true origin, be it demonic, divine, or simply alien. Pyramides never deviated from his story of being an escaped slave from a far-off land, student of a secret fighting art; however, dozens of very plausible theories give him a more arcane background. Only the monks seriously consider the possibility that Pyramides' powers were thoroughly explained by physical discipline alone, and even they consider him to have been a supreme master of the suspiciously magic-like Kaido. At any rate, it is clear that the abilities of Lucaine Pyramides were supernatural in the sense of having no counterpart in nature or the works of man.

During the havoc surrounding the Castle of Twelve and the Royal Palace, Lord Errikale sent a small group of rangers and Serpentlords to the Marcella Library, infiltrating the enemy line. Once in position, the infiltrators launched blinding fireworks along the main streets, diverting the Catarine lines long enough for Duke Errikale to lead an infantry charge down the side streets between White Owl Street and Red Stag Street. While Catarin's men had heavily guarded the larger intersections, these side streets held only token resistance, and Errikale was able to sweep through to the Library, occupying it completely. From there, he was able to solidify his control over the entire city sector.

Although the Catarines took control of the Royal Palace for the majority of the week, they realized that their position was untenable now that the Castle of Twelve and the Marcella Library had been captured. At the end of the week, they began an ordered withdrawal to the Halls of Justice, there to launch an assault on the Marcella Library, using the friendly Smiths' Guild as a staging point. So as not to prompt a rapid assault on the Amphitheatre, they chose to split their forces between the Amphitheatre and the Halls of Justice, with both attacking the Library only at the last possible hour. This way, the troops stationed in the Amphitheatre would move directly from there to the Library, hopefully just as Mycale committed his forces to an attack on the Amphitheatre.

In Week Three, after four days of tense waiting and occasional skirmishes, they executed that plan (Fig. 2.6), and it succeeded perfectly. Just as Mycale mounted an attack from the Castle of Twelve and the Royal Palace, both units of Catarines began to move. Orin Grandier led the defense of the Amphitheatre, fighting alongside his men, waiting to be the very last person to exit the building before supervising the rear-guard action. Further battle consolidated each group's territory as Fig. 2.7: a considerable loss for Catarin's side.

Week Four saw little combat, but what did occur was highly significant. Hoping to lure the enemy into a bad tactical decision, Orin Grandier intentionally relaxed patrols along South Riverwalk near the Beggars' Arch while increasing the guards at the bridges, hinting that he did not expect an amphibious attack. Lord Errikale, who had been winning many battles so far by using unexpected tactics, assumed that Grandier's weakness was real, and immediately drew up plans for a simultaneous feint from all corners, masking an amphibious movement across the river between the Red Stag Street and Green Snake Way bridges (Fig. 2.8). This played directly into Grandier's plans. For days previous, under cover of night, divers had taken kegs of fuel oil weighted with heavy iron and left them at the bottom of the river, fashioned so that they could be ripped asunder by pulling on a chain leading up to shore. Upon hearing the first splash of soldiers diving into the Mnemosyne, Grandier's men pulled on their chains and emptied the contents of the barrels into the river. By the time Mycale's men had swum halfway across the river, the oil had risen to the surface, and a single hurled torch transformed the Mnemosyne into the Phlegeton, the mythical River of Fire. This was the beginning and the end of the so-called Battle of Beggars' Arch; the other Mycalian attacks proved toothless, as Errikale had committed his main forces to the water-borne attack, and now one-third were dead and two-thirds stared helplessly at the river of fire.

Such events are dramatic, but for the most part, the specifics of warfare interest only historians and military buffs. During this abortive "battle," however, an event occurred that would resound on the harp-strings of a hundred thousand bards. Trenton Deis attempted to kill Lucaine Pyramides, and was defeated, then spared.

This event occurred only slightly before the Church proclamation that would inspire Lucaine and Catarin's legendary cross-city dash (Fig 2.9)...

The Battle of King's Tomb

From Leona Fontaine, Sentinel: The Murder of Lucaine Pyramides

(Editor's note: Fontaine's work is a historical novel, not a history, and as such, some of her assumptions are challenged by scientific historians. The physical events of the following passage, however, are upheld by eyewitness accounts. Other narrative elements, such as the specific thoughts and motivations of the principles, are plausible, but open to debate.)

In Seleucar, it rains only at night.

Mages say that local mysteries of air and temperature cause the clouds to release their sorrow only after dark. Priests make holy signs in the air, and thank the benevolent gods for their unwillingness to mar the endless sunny days of jungle-locked Seleucar's noble reign. The skies, indifferent, continue on as they always have; floating blue-white and aloof during Helios' circuit, then falling upon the city with the sound of a hundred rapids. During the season of summer rains, the city becomes a wetland for an hour each midnight. Bearing Catarin deSangre in his arms, Lucaine Pyramides crosses the rainscape like a phantom crane, a half-seen shadow blocking out reflected lamplight for a split-second at a time. By the time ripples spread from his footsteps, he is five yards hence; by the time the crashing rain tears those ripples apart, he is gone.

Trenton Deis knows nothing but the rain. The sun long ago became distasteful to him, a gauche reminder of the idiotic concept of "clarity." Sunlight is as na�ve and mindless as innocence itself, and so Deis has come to embrace the Seleucarian night, and its summer downpour. To him, the night is home, and its varied thieves, gamblers, prostitutes, and drug-sellers are family. But he is apart even from them. Half-mad, he is called, but he is all too sane, crouching atop the Opera Hall, watching the silent progress of Lucaine Pyramides from beneath the broad brim of his pointed hat. And he thought back to the moment when his life had crystallized around him.

The flames, that day, were a wall of light arising from a well of blackness; nothing is so fearsomely contrary to nature as fire creeping across water. Trenton Deis took courage from it. The wheel of the law turns forever, and the wheel of fortune, and Trenton Deis lived from revolution to revolution, revolt hidden deep in his soul. Hidden in his cloak, a long straight sword, anointed with a single drop of the bitter blood of Castomira Brangwin, layered with poisons, enchanted with fell magics.

Pyramides stood alone, that day, gazing into the flames as if into a future of hopeless snows. Fearing his strangeness, his allies kept their distance. Driven by helpless desire, Lucaine's temper flared easily in those days, the days before he found his peace. To speak aloud his love to her was more than he could do, and so his aura of despair drew an empty circle around him as surely as Three Moons did in combat. And into that circle came Trenton Deis.

Trenton Deis was feared, for he was without fear. He met his victims face to face, killed them without ceremony of respect or concern for self-preservation, he left the scene at the same mechanical pace he approached it. Among his associates, he was called the "point-blank assassin," and was regarded as insane, or beloved of the gods . . . or both, each being an apt euphemism for the other.

Lucaine Pyramides was a jet-black icon silhouetted against a towering wall of flame, impossible to miss. Trenton Deis lurched forward, as if tripping, revealing his blade only at the last moment, aimed directly at Pyramides' back. With a hiss, his blade cut through the fabric of Lucaine's three-quarter coat . . . and into open air. Still staring into the ever-shifting flames, Lucaine Pyramides had avoided the opening blow by inches. Still staring into the flames, he swung his sheathed sword directly into Trenton's temple, felling him. "Don't give him a warrior's death. Let him hang at dawn," he said to the soldiers who rushed to subdue the stunned assassin.

As Deis's head cleared, the world resolved itself around him in a slow progression of images: his hands, bound in iron manacles; the roaring flames, waves of heat beating against his face as he approached the lonely swordsman; Castomira's dead eyes as she hired him for this ill-fated contract; the edge of Lucaine's jaw, a bare glint of flame off the oblique lens of his eye, as his peripheral vision targeted Trenton for the disabling blow. And as Trenton Deis's world resolved itself around him, within him arose a new emotion, one that he'd used to his great advantage but never before experienced: hatred.

And now, manacle-cuts still raw on his wrists, Trenton Deis is free, fugitive, hunted and hunter, tracking the rain-swept flight of Lucaine Pyramides and his noble charge. He will not even strike them tonight. His lifetime of uncaring is behind him. No longer does he wish to "get it over with," to kill and stalk away, to attack without taunts or preamble. He can guess, now, what love is, because he knows what hatred is: it is an attraction, a cold fire, a desire to be known and recognized, a twisted desire for respect and acquiescence. For Trenton, it is not enough to kill . . . he will see Lucaine humbled. And for that to happen, he must first see Lucaine rise high.

On White Owl Street, a block from Riverwalk, Lucaine rose high, a single leap carrying him from cobblestone to rooftop, where he settled as quietly as a nesting owl, and set his princess gently on her feet. (Two blocks away, Trenton Deis folded his spyglass and descended a drainpipe, to track his prey from below.) "From here, we enter enemy territory, my lady. Are you certain of your vision?"

"I am certain, Lucaine. The Staff of Nicator has returned to the King's Tomb. And only I may retrieve it."

"Then prepare yourself, for we will move quickly from this point on."

"Quickly? The world was a blur all the way from the Library. Do you intend to move between the raindrops? Outrun the sound of thunder?"

"Yes, I do."

Catarin in his arms again, Lucaine moved. His words were not mere boast; at a dead run, he crossed rooftops, leapt across canyon streets, reading the wind and rain, and only one drop out of ten found its way to Catarin's skin. Whether through careful planning or blind instinct, the outlaw fencer found his way through Mycale's patrols, clearing one in a single stupendous bound that began in the darkness before their torches and ended in the darkness behind. And then they were on the riverbank, nostrils pinched against the lasting reek of expended oil, the legacy of Beggars' Arch. Without slowing pace, Lucaine ran along the very surface of the water, cutting tiny wakes in its rain-tormented surface. The darkness of the river was absolute. If Mycale's guards scanned it idly for silent riverboats, they did not mention the sight of a single swordsman, carrying a woman, running silently across the surface of the black water; for who wants to admit that he is mad, and seeing visions? Lucaine and Catarin passed unnoticed beneath the bridge of the Avenue of Gold, and then up the banks into the Heroes' Park.

"We've bought a lot of time. But they're going to know we're here as soon as I kill the guards outside the tomb. The enemy officers are certain to have Deathsight."

"I know, Lucaine . . . I'll move quickly."

Scattering wet leaves in his wake, Lucaine rushed through the woods of the Heroes' Park, one arm cocked to shield Catarin's face from whip-like twigs. At lethal speed, Lucaine wove between tree-trunks, avoiding the few soldiers who patrolled the woods. As he broke into the open facing North Bastion Road, he picked up speed again, traveling as quickly as a diving hawk, feet barely touching the ground. Sighting an oncoming trio of guardsmen, Lucaine took flight, literally running up the city wall to attain the northern battlements. This time, he cursed his luck as he heard cries of alarm and disbelief, quickly left behind at ground level. Speed poured upon speed, Lucaine began to breathe heavily, as the continuous run began to tax him. Flitting along the parapet, he encountered another of Mycale's soldiers, fruitlessly attempting to shelter a tobacco-filled pipe from the rain. Lucaine sprinted past him, a moving blur in the darkness, and the startled guard slipped on the rain-slick stone and fell to his death on the ground below. Lucaine had eaten a skullcap mushroom that day, and the guard's death sounded in his consciousness; he knew that every military officer on duty must surely have experienced the same thing. He heard Catarin utter a quiet prayer for the man's soul, and echoed it. Then he whispered a prayer for himself, as well, for he knew he would kill more of Mycale's innocent loyalists before the night was done.

Lucaine dropped fifty feet to land gently back within the city. The entrance of the King's Tomb was brightly lit, and even from the other side of Bastion Road, Lucaine could tell that the guards had not yet been alerted.

"None of the guards have Deathsight, it seems. Are you ready? As I take them, you run past me into the tomb. I'll cover you."

"Thank you. Good luck, Lucaine," Catarin whispered in his ear. Lucaine . . . her bold defender. Soon, every Mycalian soldier in the city would converge on the King's Tomb. She kissed him on the cheek, knowing she might never see him again save as a corpse. "Let's begin."

For weeks, fruitless battle had painted streets with blood, turned heart against mind, friend against friend. The Church deliberated long in crystal halls, and prayed for long hours. Church officials held closed Mass to beg the gods for guidance. Their neutrality was required by long tradition. The Seleucarian Empire existed by grace of Sarapis, not by grace of the Church, and so the Church held no sway in governance. But when it seemed that the Empire's fate might be decided by force of arms, the Church was divided as well. In spite of the continuous debate over shrine placement, the Church was known for impartiality: in many places, priests were called as judges, for their honor was above reproach. It was this honor that forced the Church to bitter dispute. Was it nobler to back Catarin, obviously the better ruler? Or to allow Mycale's victory by remaining neutral? For three weeks, the elders of the Church begged Sarapis for insight.

And insight they received, in mighty vision that caused the temple halls to ring with divine echoes for a full day afterward. The Staff of Nicator, thought lost during the Black Wave, was once again within the boundaries of Sapience. Whoever found the symbol of Nicator's reign would take on the patriarch's majesty as the indisputable monarch of Seleucar. The Church sent emissaries far and wide, to all the cities, proclaiming the news.

The news that the succession had led to warfare was a shock to Ashtan and Shallam alike. They had heard news of riots only, for Grandier and Errikale had shared in the work of hiding the civil strife, holding the peace of Seleucar far higher than personal victory. But the Church's vision was a message of peace, as well; breaking off all battle, supporters of each contender spread out into the countryside, searching for the legendary Staff.

The questers followed a hundred rumors, legends, bardic tales. At times they did come to blows; private museums were ransacked, castles looted, travelers searched at knife-point. But the Quest for the Staff, in all its turmoil, claimed no lives, caused little lasting damage. One week after the Church's proclamation, the Staff had not been found, and no one knew just where it might reside . . .

Except for Catarin deSangre, even now walking through the darkness of the tomb, past ranks of royal relatives sealed in gold-inlaid sarcophagi. Awakened by the presence of their sister, regal shades arose, saying "Catarin, my dear, go further on; what you seek is just a little ways away, down the Hall of Years, further in the past." Time moves differently within the Tomb of Kings; the centuries of Seleucar's blood tumble in upon one another. One who would reach the tomb of the First must stride backwards along the branches of history, must feel the kingdom's history unravel itself around her, until she stands in the center of a small city with a giant army, and sees the million lights collected against the Black Wave.

No Tsol'teth, Lucaine Pyramides was all too human, yet a thousand lights smashed and swirled around him. Despairingly human, he cut and slashed endlessly, deftly blocking the entrance to the tomb, but suffering a hundred minor wounds in the progress. His style relied on dodging blows, but here he could only stand his ground, ensuring that Mycale's frantic troops could not reach his only love. Twelve empty wooden vials were scattered at his feet, and only three remained clipped to his belt. His pouches of defensive herbs were slim, his pipes near empty. Soon, he would be forced to submit, even as the bodies of his foes piled up against the pillars of the tomb entrance.

The enemy fell back, and Lucaine sheathed his sword, breathing deep, ragged breaths. He drank another draft of healing elixir, then wiped blood from his brow where cuts had been a moment before. Mycale's troops looked at him with suspicious awe. A few brave souls moved in to drag away the bodies of their fallen friends, flirting with the edges of Lucaine's circle of death. To husband his energy, Lucaine let them do their work. When the corpses were cleared away, the soldiers yet hesitated. "He weakens. Look at him sweat! Look at him gasp! See how he hoards his healing, gauges his defenses! One more attack, and he will surely fall!" The voice was that of Duke Lucius Errikale.

"I knew you'd come after me, Errikale. Since you never smile, I had you pegged as a suicidal sort."

"Ironic words from one who stands in plain torchlight behind enemy lines! Don't you know that you're doomed?"

"When you count up how many of your men I've killed so far, tell me. It's either two hundred seventy-three or two hundred seventy-five, but there was this stretch where I was killing so many people at a stroke that I sort of lost count. Oh, wait, it doesn't matter, because I'm doomed. How silly of me!" Lucaine grinned amiably, desperately masking his exhaustion. Two more waves of enemies. He predicted he could handle only that many, perhaps another fifty men, and then he would finally succumb, dropping his guard for just the critical moment needed for them to split his skull. Every second he could rest before they swarmed him again was another second in which Catarin might return from the Tomb, Nicator's Staff blazing in her hand.

And swarm him they did, at Errikale's command. Lucaine killed four of them as he drew his blade, slashing in a great diagonal from sky to ground. Then, holding Three Moons before him with both hands, he summoned the power of fire to his blade, and his attackers fell back from the sudden furnace blast of heat. Three Moons shone like a tiny sun as Lucaine attacked, casting fiery rainbows in all directions, driving his opponents away from the doorway as a goodwife might shoo rats with a broom. But Mycale's men were enraged, and scented victory in Lucaine's trembling stance; they attacked again, tenacious as hunting dogs, giving their very lives to put a single nick in Pyramides' skin.

At every fresh attack, Lucaine caught an enemy stroke with his blade, snaked around it, and counter-attacked with a deadly blow. But during each capture and counter, three other attacks landed, and Lucaine suffered. But he did not die. Already, once, he had exchanged inner energy for physical health; he could not do this again. But he sustained himself through this battle on determination alone, and drank from his final elixir of healing like a man fresh from a desert.

Slashing in eight directions, he blessed the points of the compass with blood, and another Mycalian soldier fell . . . and Lucaine was, again, alone in the doorway of the royal crypt. "Is that all?" he asked, and was unable to banish irony from his tone of voice. He was very nearly dead. He raised his last elixir to his lips, and found it empty. "Here," he said, tossing it in the direction of Lucius Errikale. "Could you go get me a refill?" Conserving the last of his inner power, Lucaine allowed the flames of his sword to fade and die. Blood from unhealed wounds stained Lucaine's skin. The very beating of his heart was turned against him, as it forced precious blood out of his body and into hostile air.

"You are remarkably amusing, Pyramides," said Duke Errikale, stepping into the torch-lit circle before the Tomb. And for the first time in his life, Duke Lucius Errikale smiled. His venomous fangs glistened in the flickering light, and a murmur of shock ran through his loyal ranks. "I will regret killing you."

"I will regret dying," Lucaine said, with weary honesty.

Lucius produced a slim knife from within his clothing, a bone-white dirk that glowed faintly green even in the orange torchlight. "I am curious to see how your Three Moons fares against the Arsenic Fang. The holy weapons of two ancient traditions, pitted one against the other . . . it is poetic, is it not?"

"Do you have any last words, Lord Errikale? Since you've revealed yourself as a Serpentlord, you might want to make some pithy little statement before you die. You know, to sort of set your affairs in order."

"I'll write a whole memoir, Pyramides, after this is over."

"I'm sure that memoir will be a best-seller in Hell, then."

Lucaine Pyramides is a master of The Two Arts, a sword style surrounded with the utmost secrecy. Only once did he mention the name of one of his techniques: the Desperate Angel, the ultimate expression of defiance.

Drawing upon his deepest reserves of hope and fear, passion and regret, Lucaine took all his exhaustion, all his helpless rage, all his futile dreams, and sent them roaring into his blade. The silvery light of heaven, that beckons the dying as they cross death's threshold, suffused Lucaine's living features as his sword began to burn with pure silver. Realizing his peril too late, Lucius raised his dirk in feeble self-defense. He sensed even then that his gesture was worthless.

Lucaine's feet seemed not even to move, yet in an instant Lucaine was behind Errikale, then to one side, then the other, then behind him again. Three Moons left a brilliant trail that briefly formed a broken star, four stellar lines drawn sharp in the dim torchlight. Lucaine shook blood from his sword with a movement of his wrist. Duke Lucius Errikale fell to the ground in pieces, and the Arsenic Fang, shattered by the first blow, sprayed poisonous acid over the body.

Lucaine slowly sheathed his sword, knowing that come what may, he had no strength to draw it again that night. His legs shook beneath him. As Three Moons came to rest in its sheath, Lucaine fell to his knees, then toppled face-forward onto the stones of the entryway of King's Tomb.

The last thing he saw before he blacked out was the pale blue slipper of Catarin deSangre, and the hem of her dress, lit from above by the Staff of Nicator, as if by a hundred suns.

Unrequited Love, Unquenched Hatred

Public Security Document #3573, Seleucar Imperial Guard

Item 1. Guard Captain Maxim Everhardt has been relieved of his duties. I am quite aware of the rumors, and wish to make this extremely clear: Prince Mycale did NOT engage in unnatural practices. Captain Everhardt murdered the prince due to temporary insanity of unknown cause, not on the basis of some fictitious "discovery" of the Prince's fictitious habits.

Item 2. The guards who carried out the "cleansing" of Prince Mycale's chamber after his death are not to discuss the circumstances of that assignment or the condition of the chamber. All guardsmen will receive an additional bonus contingent on their obedience to this directive.

Item 3. Should Captain Everhardt be convicted, his execution and burial are to be private, by command of Princess Catarin.

Item 4. Castomira Brangwin disappeared after Catarin's retrieval of the Staff of Nicator. As she has not made a formal surrender to our victorious forces, she has been declared a city enemy. Apprehend her alive if possible.

Item 5. Princess Catarin has chosen to spend a year in mourning for her brother, before formally taking the crown. However, she is the heir, and all guardsmen are to behave as if she were already Empress, in every respect. Infractions will be punished. The succession troubles are over now, and we must put them firmly behind us.

That is all.
Eteocles Tarraquene, Captain of the Guard

From Queen Catarin I, Footnotes

(Editor's Note: Footnotes is a queer book to begin with. Catarin intended it as her last word on many issues that had arisen during her reign, ranging from controversial tax reforms, to rebel uprisings, to her behavior at the funeral of Castomira Brangwin. The book is most important to historians as the only source of information on Lucaine Pyramides' past, and the mysterious country from which he came. The following eleven paragraphs are the only reliable account of Pyramides' history; the few other accounts come from mercenary acquaintances of Lucaine's, and are widely considered to be tall tales. This text also contains the only knowledge extant of the mysterious nation of Kashar.)

Chapter XIV: The Past of Lucaine Pyramides, As He Told It to Me

Lucaine Pyramides was born in the country of Kashar, far to the southwest, across a violent and dangerous ocean. His parents were slaves, themselves descendants of humans who had been shipwrecked on that continent perhaps a hundred years ago. Although Lucaine was largely of Sapience stock, his muddy hazel eyes and bronzed skin are evidence of several foreign ancestors. Even his direct father may have been one of the Kashari taskmasters who ruled the slave pits with whip and shout; among the slaves, there was no way to be assured of paternity, and no need.

Lucaine was sold away when he was very young, and raised as a house slave for a noble master. In this he was very lucky; many slaves were ill-used, and died in their prime, but if he served well, a house slave might live into old age, and when he could work no more he might ascend to heaven as a sacrifice to the gods.

As a small child, Lucaine had some chores, but was allowed to run free for much of his day. He was taught the basics of reading, writing, and maths, as shopping and contracting were to be a part of his duties. Watching the other slaves, he learned some of the essentials of gardening, and carpentry, and other crafts. But the most important thing that ever happened to him, the one thing that set him on the path that he would follow for the rest of his life, occurred when he was seven, and just about to become a full-time slave, with a full day's schedule of duties.

Even among the house slaves, life was often harsh. The stronger or more intelligent dominated the weak, taking the easiest work, or the lion's share of the mess. And although as children the bullying had been "good-natured", as Lucaine put it, when he was seven he was deemed "worthy" of the interest of one of the older slaves, a lad of thirteen years or more. Lucaine did not remember the exact cause of the fight, but he does remember being forced into a corner of the slaves' kitchen, shouting defiance even after receiving blow after blow. One of the adult slaves, the old guard captain, watched the fight impassively, making no move to rescue young Lucaine. Only when Lucaine picked up a carving knife and slashed his oppressor to the bone did the captain step in and stop the fight. Lucaine expected to be scourged, or maybe even executed, for using deadly force against an older and more valuable slave, but instead the captain began teaching him the secret Kashar sword style, a fighting system so covered in secrecy that it has no name other than "The Two Arts."

The noble house which owned Lucaine had needed a house slave, but they needed a new warrior slave even more. They accepted the captain's suggestion that Lucaine be promoted to the house guard, and that was when Lucaine was given his sword "Three Moons"; for in Kashar every sword has a name, even those given to slaves, and each is hand-crafted differently.

The Two Arts, Lucaine tells me, are the Draw Art and the Blade Art. If both are practiced to their utmost, it is easier to kill a man by drawing the blade from its sheath than by swinging it while it is naked. I would never have believed this if I had not seen him kill dozens of people in single motions, unsheathing his sword for only a second at a time. Furthermore, the Two Arts require a deep understanding of the inner rhythms and energies of the human body. To my ears, this resembled the Kai disciplines practiced by the Sentaari, and Lucaine admitted that I am probably correct.

When he was seventeen, Lucaine did the unheard-of: he fled his master's residence, killing his teacher in the process. As he tells it, he did not wish to fight his captain and instructor, but when he was caught in the act of escape, the captain forced Lucaine to fight for his life. And Lucaine is certain that his teacher allowed him to win. By pausing each deadly gambit just short of a killing blow, Lucaine's teacher silently gave away the last secrets of the style. Every time I saw Lucaine meditating and asked what was on his mind, he said, "My teacher's last battle."

There is nowhere in Kashar that an escaped slave can flee to. The nation is limited entirely by its natural boundaries: impassable mountains, rocky shoals, bottomless chasms, everlasting storms. Navigation is unknown there, so sailors rightly fear to leave sight of land. Lucaine dared, however. Reaching a northern port, with dogs and men hot on his trail, he boarded a ship and forced the sailors to embark, killing half of them before they surrendered to him. As they set out to sea, he was forced to kill even more of them, until he was sailing with only a skeleton crew. He didn't sleep or eat for three days, fearful of mutiny or poison; fortunately, his ship was overtaken by deep-sea pirates who used a form of celestial navigation to hide outside view of shore and prey on the coastal sea-lanes. When the pirates boarded Lucaine's ship, Lucaine immediately challenged and killed their captain in single combat, and forced their ship to sail northeastward, on the promise of rich spoils should they reach Lucaine's rumored ancestral homeland.

In the end, the pirates did make land on those shores of Sapience furthest from human habitation; and as they made their final harbor, their ship, weakened by storms, struck a reef and sank. The pirates who escaped drowning turned on Lucaine, demanding that he lead them to the "rich cities and defenseless mansions" he had promised them. Upon realizing that he'd been lying to them from the start, they rushed at him, and he killed them to the man.

Thus Lucaine Pyramides was left alone and friendless in the barest wilds of Sapience. Eventually he made his way inland, and learned the language of our continent, and became a common mercenary of most uncommon ability; and there his more well-known history begins.

From Morlana ni'Choya, Convergence: Annotated Letters of Catarin I

This letter, written in the first month after Catarin's discovery of the Staff of Nicator, is the first recorded instance of her feelings for Lucaine Pyramides. Although of course Leona Fontaine's famous novel describes Catarin as being attracted to him at first sight, Catarin's own words hint at a somewhat later starting point for her emotions.

Riana Galford was the second daughter of the Earl of Jaru, one of Catarin's most dedicated supporters. However, Catarin's friendship with her dates from the three years they roomed together at the Lesser Shrine of Vastar, a nunnery that also housed an exclusive girls' academy. Although Catarin made friends easily, and tended to keep them even after years of separation, Riana Galford is one of only three with whom she shared her feelings about Lucaine.

Like all nobles of that or any other time, Catarin had an ingrained habit of circumspection. Although she speaks in detail about her feelings, she never names names, lest the letter surface and cause embarrassment. This habit was inflexible and nearly subconscious. The consequences of indiscretion are known all too well; she never thought for a moment that her obliqueness might in itself cause pain.

Dear Riana,

I'm sorry my letters have been so serious lately. Affairs of state press hard on me. Even with all of Lord Grandier's help, I don't feel truly fit to take the throne. I've been using this time as much to prepare for rulership as to grieve for my poor brother. Since Mycale was so sickly as a child, Father made sure I learned some statesmanship in case Mycale should succumb to some childhood illness . . . but he never taught me exactly how complex and brutal politics can be. The people who backed Mycale are still stubborn about me. I wish I could pass on this burden to someone else, but it is mine alone to bear. The Staff chose me.

That's something I'm worried about. I'm sworn never to relate the visions that came to me in the King's Tomb, but I can say that for the first few hours after I received the Staff, it glowed with all its storied radiance. I was told that "the true blood of Nicator, who was born on the Sangre Plains and whose parents were slain there; the child of the regal blood will unlock the power of the Staff in time of greatest need, and of greatest strength and defiance." And the Staff did shine, and all bowed before it, but soon after I'd secured the reluctant fealty of the opposing armies, the Staff flickered out and grew cold. Where Nicator used its divine glow as a constant reminder of his foreordained dominion, I can rely only on myself and my allies. I fear that perhaps I lack the strength that my ancestors had. I can only pray to the gods for guidance.

And I thank the gods that I have good friends to rely on. Lord Grandier has proven as true a friend to me as he was to my father. He's helped me negotiate the minefields of court, to such extent that I'm beginning to feel like the ruler I know I must become. Moreover, he's taken most of the responsibilities on himself, dealing with the Council of Lords and the Hall of Patricians, clearing the way for my coronation. Ashtan and Shallam have dithered over whether to acknowledge me formally. There has never been a female ruler of Seleucar. There's not even really a word for such a person; Lord Grandier has coined the word "empress," but it's much more likely that history will remember me as a queen, even though it remembers my ancestors as emperors.

Lord Grandier has been a solid stone in the past month's quicksand, but I've got another person to rely on, too. I don't want to say too much . . . there might be a man in my life before long. Remember the boys we swooned over when we were fifteen? They were nothing before this man. Every time I acknowledge his bow, I'm amazed that he's sworn service to me, when he is clearly without peer. I fear to commit too much to paper, for I know too well that these feelings can quickly prove empty, or be destroyed by some sudden revelation. Remember my brief affair with that dashing young nobleman? The one who sent me the lilies? The sting of that foolishness still resides in my heart.

Historical perspective reveals this "dashing young nobleman" to be the future Earl of Tomaque, Zoltan deChalce. His journal entries suggest that he courted Catarin for his personal advancement, but unwittingly led her to overestimate the depth of his feelings for her. Given the extremely rigid rules of social conduct that pertained at that level of society, it is unlikely that any physical impropriety took place. Nonetheless, when Zoltan broke off the affair, Catarin was heartbroken. Details such as this have been glossed over in formal histories, but the real Catarin was far more interesting and human than the storybook heroine.

I will tell you more as I become more sure of my feelings, and the worthiness of their object. Wish me luck!

Yours,
Catarin deSangre

Lucaine Pyramides, Catarin (Poem 21)

"The sword shines death . . . without mercy . . . kill!"
(warrior chant of Kashar)

My only poetry is my sword:
Strike and counter, thrust, riposte,
Direct, sinister, heavenly.
From earth to sky I draw my blade,
Watch it glitter in the light;
Beauty lives from fight to fight—
All is one; the fight is all.
Yet Catarin wakes poetry in me
That needs no streak of blood to earn its pay
And Catarin wakes poetry in me
That melds my words with yearning, learns the way
To soar up skyward, freer than my sword,
Freer than my earthbound soul:
For Catarin wakes heresy in me.
My soul was dead for years, pledged for years to a dead god,
My every deed a burnt offering to Combat, Matsuhama.
And now my faith is shaken by this girl I could not kill.
For once, for love, for a moment or two, my dancing blade is still.

From Morlana ni'Choya, Convergence: Annotated Letters of Catarin I

Dear Alkiera,

I'm becoming more and more convinced that this man is the one for me. In my position, I must give my heart only with greatest caution, so I must still hold back until I am absolutely certain; but sometimes I'm nearly overwhelmed. Even at fifteen, glancing across a ballroom floor at my momentary crush, I never felt so completely . . . idiotic? Yes, and wonderful!

When infatuation is a cart of bricks barreling downhill, reason makes a poor handbrake. When we took that walk through Kephry Park last month, I whispered in your ear who I loved. You met him at the ball, didn't you? Do you understand how I feel? Do you think he's as wonderful as I do? I hope not, for then I would have to exile you out of jealousy.

The ball Catarin mentions is the crowning event in the annual Festival of the Gates in Imperial Seleucar. The four gates of the city, each believed sacred to a different god, are blessed in rituals throughout the day, then two parades march through the city, one from east to west and one from north to south, intersecting at the Royal Square in an elaborate rehearsed interchange. That year, the parades' routes had been changed, as the traditional meeting at the Royal Square might have been considered tasteless. The ball, however, was held at the Palace as usual, and even the socially awkward Lucaine Pyramides was in attendance. Though he politely danced with the many women who sought his attention, and did so with exceptional grace (being a quick study of complex physical movements), he spoke no more than five words at a time. In her own diaries, Lady Alkiera described him as "silent, verging on sullen . . . unexceptional except perhaps in dexterity," and was astonished to learn of Catarin's attraction to him.

The rebuilding of the national polity proceeds apace. My preliminary visits to Ashtan and Shallam suggest that a great deal of bridge-building must occur before they are prepared to fully accept me as sovereign. Lord Grandier still insists that I should "expedite coronation," but I feel in my heart that if I assume the throne now, without the express support of all my countrymen, I will be little more than an usurper. To win the loyalty of the underkings under such a circumstance would be thrice as difficult. I will carry out the rest of my year of mourning for Mycale; that, at least, is an honest reason for my delay, if not the only one. Please give your father and mother my love, but save some for yourself. I miss you, and will surely arrange to visit you the next time I travel to Tasur'ke.

Yours,
Catarin deSangre

Lucaine Pyramides, Catarin (Poem 32)

Floating lilies cross the marble floor
White dress petals shine with sequin dew
Reed-strong men, broken, quick to heal
The water is brackish with plots and dreams.

Floating lilies swirl in gossip's wake
Dashing men, like reeds at water's edge
I dare the current: move me if you can.
I walk the surface of the lake of schemes.

Floating lilies look to me for love
Swaying reeds envision my defeat
Their words are fabrication, water silk
But if lies are fabric, I can see the seams.

I walk the surface of the lake, unaware
Catarin walks the bottom, as if water were air.
Once, for a moment, we dance;
We speak of knights and strangers, plots and danger...
This lake drowns romance.

From Alain, One Thousand Haiku, Five with Names

Castomira

Rain mist is brilliance
Omen bird fulfills itself
In full emptiness

From The Sealed Files of Castomira Brangwin

It's been six months since I went into hiding. Mycale is dead, killed by his most trusted servant, just as I planned. While I was in the city, I layered Everhardt in enchantments of blindness. As soon as I left, Everhardt understood what had been happening in Mycale's rooms all along, and he conveniently killed the only person who could link Mycale's evil to my own.

To the lords who supported Mycale, I'm still a hero. Mycale was a monster, Lucius was a Serpentlord, but they have no such label for sweet, brave Castomira. I'm their mascot, as Catarin was to her side. Men love to have a defenseless woman to protect. They fight harder. Most of the lords outside Seleucar are willing to fight on my side. A hundred thousand men await my call to muster. I've been reading history. The speeches of Nicator are unintentionally hilarious. He speaks of a nation without internal conflict or war, existing only to fight evil. It seems he has failed, for now the evil is within.

I expected a challenge, but Catarin has simply given me the opportunity I need. She hasn't ascended to the throne! Out of mourning for Mycale, yet! Even I could not have cut her throat as beautifully as she's done for herself. In six months, she will rise to become Empress of Seleucar. But I am already six months pregnant, and before Catarin can lay a finger on the crown, I will lodge the claim of Mycale's son. My powers have assured that the baby will be male.

Many supported Mycale, for he was a man, while Catarin most evidently was not. And Mycale was ill-formed and useless! How many more will support my darling baby Parni, whom they can mold to their own will as he grows up? And they must come to me, for it is I who will control the child. Finally, I will have what I have sought for so long: Seleucar in the palm of my hand, and Catarin's throat beneath my heel.

Deis failed at Beggar's Arch, but I have spoken to him at length since then. Our plans are well-laid. Trenton has many associates, and the right amount of gold can orchestrate any number of assassins, like a conductor's baton. Tune your ears: there will be a symphony of death.

From Morlana ni'Choya, Convergence: Annotated Letters of Catarin I

Dear Alkiera,

It is final. I have fallen firmly in love. Perhaps my emotion will prove to be the utmost foolishness, but I care not a bit: it is true, and it will last. When first he presented me his sword, I did not suspect what power he would come to have over my heart. But through the battles that followed, physical and spiritual, he remained at my side. He guarded me, took fierce wounds for me, listened to me when I thought aloud, sympathized with my causes, supported me in my angers, commiserated with me in my moments of sadness. And I must come to admit that I love him for it, more than mere infatuation can explain. It is too perfect, and too tragic . . . I the princess, he the noble knight, casting longing glances at each other across a crowded room.

How can you understand my emotion now, though? You are newly wed, married scarce a year, and you and your husband knew as children that you were made for one another. Your story is so perfectly charming that no bard could ever make more than a cinquain of it. But I am lost and burning, weighted with destiny as with heavy stones, and until my true love speaks his mind and heart aloud, I cannot be free. Perhaps I shall die of a broken heart, and when historians view these letters, perhaps my love, by then gray-haired and dour, will read these words and cry, seeing at last that it truly was him that I loved, and for his own sake I could not be the first to voice my emotions. But I can at least let you know. There is one man who has served me better than any other, and he deserves my love more than any man alive.

Your loving friend,
Catarin deSangre

P.S. Here is the locket you lent me those many months ago. I'm sorry for the delay in returning it.

This letter describes no one but Lucaine Pyramides. Although Catarin never for a moment lacked ardent suitors, she showed none of them even a fifth of the favor that she showed Lucaine, and none of the suitors, in their turn, served Catarin even a twentieth as well as he. Lucaine was named head of her personal bodyguard. Off-duty, Lucaine was invited to every function Catarin attended. Lucaine and Catarin often conversed in private, behind closed doors: a practice that might have been considered scandalous if the recent wars had not birthed an atmosphere of daring and romance.

The common folk assumed that the two were lovers already. The court was close enough to the princess to know that matters were not so clear-cut; but those who claimed to be in the know, whether they claimed the princess a virgin or a vixen, were unconvincing. In any case, this fact is indisputable: if the princess proclaimed her love for "the one man who has served me better than any other," that man could only be Lucaine. But if Catarin had only understood just how unworthy Lucaine considered himself, she might have made her phrasing even more explicit.

Dear Alkiera,

I struggle to avoid the sin of pride. My royal blood and upbringing guarantees that no matter what I do, I will always have an overtone of haughtiness. In recognizing this, I strive to minimize it. Even an empress should not be imperious, in defiance of all logic.

Catarin's best attempts at humility only made her look condescending, in truth. Fortunately, it was not long before she learned that it is possible, even preferable, for a queen to be gracious and compassionate without being polite or approachable.

But peasants and princesses alike must sometimes boast, and this time I believe I've truly trounced my troubles. Surely, my knightly beloved must express his feelings to me now!

For so long, he has been silent, yet I can see in his eyes and his stance that he loves me. I'm almost positive. But I can't quite be sure... and it would be improper for me to speak to him of love before he has broached the topic. Not only would it be unladylike, but my position as heiress would place him under pressure to submit to me even if he did not love me in his heart. I would never know for certain that he truly loved me back! And yet, surely he is silent only because he fears rejection? I try to encourage him in small ways, but men are sometimes blind and stubborn in matters of the heart.

So I have outflanked his self-imposed ignorance. My knight had business to attend to in Tasur'ke, and so I gave him a note to take to you. Surely you've already received it, for none can travel overland as swiftly as he. In that note, I declare my love for him in the most unmistakable of terms. And, as you've already noticed, the envelope was not sealed. An "oversight" on my part. You got your locket back? It was folded into the letter in such a way that the weight of the locket would pull the note out of the envelope, causing it to flutter open. A tiny enchantment purchased from a local wizard should have drawn his eye inescapably to the sentence, "I have fallen firmly in love." And, reading that, if he truly loves me, he would be unable to avoid reading the rest of the letter, regardless of my privacy. Surely he must know now that I love him . . . I can only hope I am correct, and he loves me back. I will tell you more when I hear it.

Your devoted friend,
Catarin deSangre

Lucaine Pyramides, Catarin (Poem 36)

Twenty years of darkness made my eyes sharp
I sought the single sun among myriad stars
As I killed for shining gold, I sought the true light.
True light of

dreams that I
could not deny.

Twenty years of darkness; never to love,
Never to touch solid stone; never to breathe.
The more evil I became, the greater my need
For redemption,

perfection
an end to deceit.

Twenty years of self-deceit: Catarin, the truth.
In her name I hear the words "Lucaine, your soul is clear."
And I am bound to her with golden wire, sick with desire
For her, and I know

all too well
that she cannot be mine.

Twenty years of darkness.
How many more in light?
The sinner Pyramides lurks in darkness
Hound of justice, strong right hand . . .
She should not stoop to pick me up.
I leave her to her "noble knight"
And dream that I am happy,
That I rest within the light.

From Morlana ni'Choya, Convergence: Annotated Letters of Catarin I

Dear Portia,

I told you before of my stratagem with the note. Alkiera had a psychometrist examine the note, when I requested it, and she reports that my guardian did read it, and reacted to it with strong emotions. And he has responded only with subtle rejections, one after another, in response to all of my subtle invitations. It is clear that although he has received my message, he does not share my feelings.

"Psychometry" was the art, now lost to all but the most learned psychics, of reading the past and future of a material object. Emotions and events connected to the object could be divined by an experienced mystic. But in the case of the strongest emotions—hatred, thwarted love, desperation—only the presence of emotion could be detected, not its exact nature.

Forgive my emotionless prose. Know that I feel loss, and anger, and desire. But should I use a more expressive style in this letter, I would blur the ink with tears. I am visiting Nicopolis soon. I can cry on your shoulder then. And perhaps in time, I'll quit loving him after all. I have many responsibilities. I can't spend too much time staring out the window like a lovesick girl . . . lovesick girl though I may be.

Yours in despair,
Catarin deSangre

Lucaine Pyramides, Catarin (Poem 37)

She looked at me today and asked to know the pain I hold inside
"I know you're strong, but not from pride—what do you hide?"
With sword in hand I never doubt, but here . . .
I cannot let my feelings out. "Nothing . . ."
. . .dear.

From Lord Damen Kephry, Collected Correspondence

My dearest Margaux,

It seems that the danger has not fully passed. Only when Catarin is crowned will I feel comfortable having you in the city. For now, please remain at our family estates in Aster Malik, and know that my thoughts are forever with you. Within Seleucar, you may yet be at risk; but in remote Aster Malik, you are out of the way of whatever battles may still await.

Why do I speak of battles, even ten months after the bloody War of Succession? I hold no bitterness as to the war's outcome. I realize now that Catarin truly was the better successor, and although I do not regret my support of Mycale, I am willing to embrace Catarin as my queen and give her my undying loyalty. Unfortunately, Catarin's period of grieving, however appropriate and fitting, has allowed for unsettling portents. The underkings of Ashtan and Shallam refuse to formally recognize Catarin's authority until she is crowned. They bow only grudgingly to the diplomatic soothing of Prime Minister Orin Grandier. Leophine Errikale, the new Duke of Seleucar, has gone to great lengths to disassociate himself from his elder brother, the late Lucius Errikale, but Leophine has not gone so far as to formally align himself with Catarin. As a former supporter of Mycale, and as a highly-respected veteran of the now-dissolved Guild of Knights, I have been privy to frequent rumors: that Castomira Brangwin, although a wanted outlaw, has been visiting the homes of various noblemen, those who were most interested in using Prince Mycale for their own ends. Although I have sometimes been accused of using my sword-arm before using my brain, even I can guess that Castomira is planning further mischief.

When he opposed me, I spoke of Lucaine Pyramides as a demon in human form. However, in these past months, I have come to respect him, if not to know him. He is a difficult man to come to know. The only person to whom he speaks on a regular basis is Catarin herself, and he receives his orders only from her. He is so well-behaved and silent, now, that it is hard to believe he was once the most amoral and mercenary brigand on Sapience. He spends all of his free time alone. He practices his sword arts in a locked cellar of the palace, where none may learn by observing him. I agree with this practice, as I would cheerfully retire from the business of combat upon learning that there were two warriors in the world like Lucaine Pyramides (farming being greatly preferable to death). When he is not training, however, he is locked in his own room, doing what, only the gods know. The word among the palace staff is that he writes; the soft sounds of a fountain pen can be heard from behind his door, day or night, and his fireplace is filled with the gray dust of burned paper. Perhaps he records the secrets of his swordsmanship, to pass on to descendants. Perhaps he writes his memoir. He might as easily be writing a cookbook, but speculation runs wild.

Lucaine Pyramides is easily the object of half the rumors in Sapience at this moment, and his very reticence makes him all the more intriguing . . . even, I admit, to me. But my attempts to engage him in conversation have all been met with intense awkwardness. He is not a social person, and although I can tell that he is quite intelligent, he has no talent for speaking the right words at the right moment. And after all, his areas of expertise are not good topics for idle chit-chat. I can't ask him about his fighting style. I don't wish to talk to him about the best ways to ambush travelers and take their valuables. And discussing the strengths and weaknesses of Catarin's personal guard, of whom Lucaine has assumed command, would likely be misinterpreted. I wonder what Lucaine himself thinks of his newfound estate. Is it strange for him, to have changed so quickly from dreaded brigand to honored champion? What could possibly have motivated him? A persistent rumor suggests that he has fallen in love with the princess, but surely a man of his bravery would have confessed his love to her by now, and been either accepted or rejected.

I have been quite busy myself, as you already know. The rebuilding of the Castle of Twelve has been progressing quite well. I hope to re-establish the Guild of Knights, although it seems that the stars are against such an endeavor. Failing that, perhaps I will join the Templars; they have already said that they would welcome me as an instructor, to further introduce the skills of the Knights into their practice. I'm not certain that a life of unending worship appeals to me, however. There is a continuous covert struggle in progress between Ashtan and Shallam. Even in this time of peace, they are constantly bickering over the boundaries formed by Shallam's shrines. Do I really want to spend every waking hour sacrificing goats over the Shallamese shrines to strengthen them against some hypothetical Ashtanian incursion?

I think I can spend my time more productively at home with you. I will try to arrange a visit to Aster Malik soon. Until then, my love, hold tight, and do not forget me. Give my love to the children.

Your loving husband,
Lord Damen Kephry

Lucaine Pyramides, Catarin (Poem 51)

I would remember the wilds by howling at the moon . . .
But it would wake her.

Lucaine Pyramides, Catarin (Poem 79)

if at this very point she were to tell me she loved me what then would i be able to say that i've always loved her back or would she be shocked scared compassionate that i'd so long been lost on her lost for her lost to her lost in her

a lost soul her dog warrior killing to help her bring life from death sending life to death in ironic alchemy a chimerical marriage of steel and heart blood

and i know i could kiss her and die the next day

but if she said that she loved me then what would i say

my blood is still red but my heart has turned gray

and although i can kill i don't know how to pray for her to stay with me and if she said she loved me i might die

because what if we love and our love dies quick abrupt like killing a man on icy plains to watch his last breath ghost away and turn to fight the next in battle last man living wins

but if this love dies under swords of fate or failure then there are no more foes to fight there's no more light

From Leona Fontaine, Sentinel: The Murder of Lucaine Pyramides

Of late, he had tried to be as quiet and undemanding as possible. Her every glance had come to be a form of torture. He could accept that she had secretly given her heart to one of her many noble suitors, but he could come to no accommodation with the gas-flame blue of her eyes. He wanted to avoid her, to be free to dream of her in peace, to be with her every moment, and the paradox slowly bore down upon his mind like a heavy weight.

"Your Highness." He knocked softly at the open door of Catarin's study, where she sat penning a letter.

"Lucaine. Thank you for coming to see me before you leave. Please, be seated." Her smile was sincere. It touched Lucaine's heart like a thorn.

"I would never leave without your blessing." Lucaine was grave.

"You've been so serious lately, Lucaine. I assumed this would be a vacation for you. You've never even been to Ashtan proper, have you? There's a lot to see."

"The Tournament of Blades sounds like fun," Lucaine said drably. "And if a show of personal power is what it'll take to make Ashtan's nobility respect you, then I'll be glad to provide one."

"Then why so sad, Lucaine? You've been unhappy for the past five months, despite my best attempts to cheer you. I know better than to throw you a ball. But it's been weeks since you rode with me, and you didn't attend the joust at all. I thought it would interest you."

"You held that joust on my account?"

"Well, I hinted that you might want to go. I kept a seat free in the royal box."

"I'm sorry. If you had asked outright, I would have attended."

"But then it would be a command, Lucaine, and I would never wish to command you."

"But Catarin . . . I am at your command." Lucaine held her gaze for a long moment, during which Catarin's heart began to pound.

She looked away, suddenly. Lucaine interpreted her motion as reticence, and stood straighter. "At any rate, I must depart soon if I am to reach Ashtan by nightfall. Will you bless my sword?"

"Yes," she said. Lucaine placed the sword upon the desk. Catarin placed her hand upon the lacquered sheath. "Lucaine?"

"Your Highness?"

Catarin was silent for long seconds. Lucaine searched her face as if memorizing it, as if he had not already done so long ago.

"Lucaine. What would you do if I told you that I loved you?"

A million daydreams froze and shattered in Lucaine's mind. He did not pause to think.

"I asked myself that, only two weeks ago."

Catarin waited for him to go on, but saw with apprehension that he was lost in thought, staring at a point somewhere beyond her.

"What . . . what did you decide?"

Lucaine focused on her, suddenly, with an intensity, a ferocity, that nearly made her flinch. "First, tell me."

"Tell you . . . oh." Suddenly, for some reason, Catarin was more afraid than she had ever been. Afraid that in reaching for him, she would lose him. Afraid that he might gain total power over her. Afraid of the sound of her own voice.

Catarin started to speak, but choked on her own words. She swallowed hard. Took a breath. "Yes," she managed at last. "I love you. I have loved you ever since King's Tomb."

Lucaine stood upright as suddenly as if gravity had been reversed, so explosively that he actually hung in the air for a second before landing on his feet. Fine dust exploded from the bookshelves as Lucaine's inner power surged as if for battle. In a blur, Lucaine moved himself to the balcony outside the study. There, he gripped the rail so hard that his fingers crushed marks in the wood.

It seemed as though he'd longed for Catarin his entire life, and now he could not conceivably express the full scope of his feelings; could not belittle her uniqueness with commonplace words of love. The realization of all his dreams left him electrified, and like a man being electrocuted, he could not move, for every nerve was on fire. Catarin stared, wide-eyed, uncertain what she'd unleashed.

Five minutes passed. Lucaine's inner turmoil paralyzed him, and Catarin was frozen, afraid to disturb his reverie. Then the study clock chimed the quarter-hour, and Lucaine was distracted from his paralysis. "Catarin," he said, as if the word were a wish.

"Lucaine?" she said, disaster and desire writ double on her face.

"I'm going to Ashtan."

Catarin blinked in anticipation of tears, stricken.

"Catarin, there's nothing I can say right now that is . . . that is worthy of you. When I get back . . ." Lucaine trailed off, completely helpless. She must read his poems. But first, he had to write the last one, the perfect one, the one that would express once and for all the depth of his love. The one that would make her love him back just as much. The one . . . "Please promise you'll wait for me. I don't want you to be hurt." And with those completely ambiguous comments, Lucaine Pyramides left Catarin, to set out on the long road to Ashtan, to compete in the Tournament of Blades.

Lucaine Pyramides, Catarin (Poem 99)

She just told me she loved me. And my words have failed me . . . utterly.

Endless Rain

From Trenton Deis, Last Will and Testament

Some hold that "good" and "evil" are realities higher and more substantial than human actions. However, the merit of this view is directly linked to the optimistic belief that the attributes of mortal actions (e.g., bravery, foolishness, goodness, cruelty) are somehow capable of being considered independent of mortal actions. I do not share this belief.

Some will hold that since Lucaine Pyramides spared me at the Battle of Beggar's Arch, it will be an act of "evil" to kill him today. Let them think as they wish. It is being noised that he freed me out of compassion; this is propaganda. He did not kill me on the spot, but sent me to the gallows. The jailers being less competent than Pyramides, I escaped them. Small wonder that Catarin now speaks of "the mercy of Lucaine Pyramides." The weakness of mercy is far more noble than weak guardsmen, and a lie at the right time is not so "evil" as one might think.

So be it: as Mycale's men rode into the trap at Beggar's Arch, I tried to kill Lucaine Pyramides and was defeated. Now Catarin has won her first war . . . and Lucaine Pyramides rides into my own trap. And I will kill him.

This I, Trenton Deis, do attest.

From Leona Fontaine, Sentinel: The Murder of Lucaine Pyramides

Editor's note: The following account is pure conjecture on the part of the novelist. Although it is based on historical supposition, no reliable record exists, only a forest of competing hypotheses.

Shredded by leaves, the noontide sun cast mosaic shadows on the notepad of Lucaine Pyramides, as he sat against a tree by the roadside. Hastily, intently, his fountain pen skated and glided across the coarse paper, filling the page with his dense yet haphazard handwriting. Three Moons lay forgotten to his side as he wrote, gripped by a soul-wracking inspiration, the strongest emotion he'd ever committed to paper. Catarin loved him. That love was deadly and elating, like the energy singing between the earth and the moon, like bonds of pure sunlight, like fifty lightning bolts forged into a sword. With this, his final poem, he could capture that energy forever . . . he could prove to her that his love was strong enough to last beyond life. He could say to her, in ink on paper, what he could not say to her using the flawed and impermanent canvas of expression and voice. His mind was a thousand miles above the ground, his body tingled and grew numb, his clenched hand could not even cramp due to its furious motion, and his immortal soul passed entirely into his pen, its salvation absolutely dependent on the perfection of his written words.

He wrote the final word. His breath left his lungs in a great sigh. His head came to rest against the rough bark. Carefully, he blew on the paper to dry it, then capped his pen and returned it to its case. Then, about to stand, he reached for his sword, and touched only grass.

"A fine blade indeed, Pyramides."

Lucaine's senses were alive again, belatedly. Through minute signs, he detected a dozen men hidden in the forest around him, all within easy sprinting distance. He turned slowly, and with absolute assurance, to confront Trenton Deis. Clad in a cloak the color of aged bone, the assassin drew Lucaine's sword and stared coldly at its delicate curve and fine grain.

"You haven't the skill to use it," Lucaine said, and began to walk towards his nemesis with a steady and confident pace.

"I don't plan to use this sword, Pyramides." Deis took a deep breath, then swung Three Moons, backhand, at a mighty oak. The blade sank two feet deep into the wood, cutting halfway through the trunk. "You've said time and again that your sword is your word." Placing both hands on the hilt, Deis pushed downward with all his might, bending the fragile steel beyond until it hummed with tension. The blade broke with a sound like a spike being driven into a wooden block. "What words do you have for that?"

Without words, Lucaine broke into a run, but Trenton Deis flitted back away from him, as if carried on the breeze. No master swordsman, no Serpentlord, Trenton Deis nonetheless carried deadly knowledge with him; he could move as abruptly as a lizard, strike without giving warning of his intent, scale buildings, spot motion at a mile's distance, blend into his surroundings as if he'd been there since the Creation. And even without the secrets of poison or magic, he had powerful cards to play; as he fell back from his hated adversary, he drew a small waxed envelope from his sleeve, and flung its mixture of pepper oil and lye in Lucaine's face.

Though he flung up his hands, still the vile melange found Lucaine's eyes. Blinded and agonized, Lucaine did not so much as twitch; he calmed his breathing, cast forth his senses, and prepared to fight, unarmed, by sound and feel. He summoned the power of fire to his hands, as Trenton Deis's hired jackals encircled him. As his flesh began to scorch and burn, they attacked.

Lucaine struck, lashing out to every side with blows worthy of a master monk, setting men ablaze with every strike. But without his sword, he could not kill with every stroke. His blows brought cries of pain and anger, and the assault redoubled. By instinct, he dodged blows, but for every one he dodged, another struck home. Spears pierced his flesh, pinning him in place. He reached for a healing elixir, but his hands set the pinewood vial afire. He struggled, but only drove the barbs deeper into his body. His power was in speed and spirit, not in physical strength, and he could not win free.

With a supreme effort, he brought fire to his entire body, and pushed it outward in a mighty wave, an exploding hurricane of blazing heat, and his enemies fell back, screaming. Lucaine choked back a scream himself, as he felt his skin wither and crack in the blast. He was almost dead. With an effort, he calmed his spirit, and began to invoke the power of ice, trying to quench the flames that fed on his body.

"Pyramides. You're entirely amazing, you know that, don't you? I'd meant to make you suffer, and now you've burned yourself alive just for my entertainment." Lucaine's seared ears couldn't make out the direction of Deis's voice, but he knew the assassin was close. "I'm sorry to cut this short, but I seem to hear a royal patrol approaching. I'll leave them a special present."

Lucaine brought to his blistered face a semblance of his devil's grin, and began to rip spears from his flesh and hurl them in random directions. Perhaps one would strike true. All his powers were expended, leaving him only defiance.

And the long straight sword of Trenton Deis slid gently, almost lovingly, under his breastbone and through his heart. As the final drops of Lucaine's blood began to strike the ground, storm clouds knotted like a fist above the site of his death.

From Alain, One Thousand Haiku, Five with Names

Spine-weary sadness
Endless rain revives earth's dust
But Lucaine's, never.

Crowned by a symbol
She reigns in death's fell shadow
Her foe is patient.

Lucaine Pyramides, Catarin (Final)

Driven low by driving rain, it's easy to be born again, cracking like a fallen leaf that falls before its time is done, and now I know my time has come 'cause there's an iceberg on my tongue, melting slow in driving rain whose echoes form the dim refrain — Bind yourself and you can be the one soul who is truly free and if your eyes won't let you see then trust your pulse and follow me — Driving blind in blinding rain that turns to hail and back again I'm driven by the driving rain, I am the winter's melting dream, the final human carved of ice that turns to steam, carved of ice that shatters sunrays peeking through the parting clouds, shatters sun to rainbow shackles, binding me to final heaven, lightning calling to me saying — Bind yourself and you can be the one soul who is one with me and if your mind won't let you see then trust your feet and walk with me — Thunderheads embrace the world like battle flags that flow and swirl and snap when sending men to war to fight and fall and hope to rise with silent glory bleeding off them, shining like the falling rain that sweeps the lake with rippling waves, shining like the dancing eyes that sparkle as she dances free, dances spirals 'cross the waves, her rain-dark dress a battle flag that flies the colors of my hope, flies the letters of belief, spells the words that keep me trying, fighting free of slowly dying, spells the words she whispered to me — Bind yourself in love to me and maybe then we'll both be free and if your mask won't let you see then trust your lips and come to me —

Awakening

From Morlana ni'Choya, Convergence: Annotated Letters of Catarin deSangre

Dear Riana,

I write this in the dim hope that you will receive it safely. Castomira's so-called "Royal Elites" are rapidly becoming a hazard for couriers. I've hired an independent, a Serpentlord named Caprian Zyle, to bear this message quickly to Jaru. I have instructions for your father; they're enclosed.

The situation in Imperial Seleucar is desperate. Leophine Errikale continues to express a pious neutrality, but he must eventually be swayed by the weight of Castomira's supporters. I'm sure you're up to date on the news? Castomira bore a son by Mycale, and named him Parni. The child's claim is weakened by illegitimacy only as much as my claim is weakened by my gender. Law and tradition interact torturously, but in the end, the empire must follow whomever is crowned, and in my absence, Castomira might crown the child within a few months. Her legal status as a war criminal does not affect Parni's personal claim, but it does hinder Castomira in advancing it; that small mercy is the only thing that gives me hope.

I'm traveling from manor to manor, trying to gain support, trying to learn who my friends are. Orin Grandier taught me much, and introduced me to a great many people, before he was assassinated, but with Imperial Seleucar in Castomira's grip, under martial law, most of the lords who would have supported me are reluctant to make a commitment. Many have joined Castomira's cause, and they send levies of soldiers to the city. An army is slowly amassing, to forestall any military move I might make. That, too, makes it difficult for me to gain material assistance from lords who once backed me wholeheartedly, even though I hear a waterfall of empty words.

My political position is growing closer to hopeless each day, and execution or exile are distinct possibilities. But I might welcome failure, for my heart has been broken in a hundred places. Lucaine Pyramides is dead.

I was the first to find him, since I fled the palace to follow his route. The assassinations at the palace must have been timed to coincide with Lucaine's murder, robbing me of all my closest supporters. They . . . they burned him alive, before stabbing him to death. I can't imagine by what treachery they overpowered him. At the scene of the murder, they left his sword, in two pieces. The end of the blade is buried in an ancient oak, and the tree will surely grow around it, preserving it forever. The hilt and the other half of the blade are with me, along a notebook full of poems, written on bloodstained paper. Now tearstained, as well. I read it every day, and every day I waver between suicide and revenge. It will have to be one or the other.

I never knew how much he loved me. And now that I know, I don't think that I can ever love again. He wrote one hundred poems, and in them I can track the progress of a love I never got a chance to return. It's been raining for weeks now. I feel certain that the skies themselves mourn, as I do. The jewels in the Staff of Nicator have changed from white diamond to smoky quartz. Does this mean that the Staff shares my grief, as well? Is the Staff causing the rain? Or is the Staff weakening, along with my inner resolve, warping along with my soul?

Pray for my victory, for I will need the help of all the gods.

Yours,
Catarin

From Lord Damen Kephry, Collected Correspondence

My dearest Margaux,

My astonishment is complete, but my loyalties are not so baffled. A Second War of Succession is inevitable now, and I cannot wait to fight for my rightful ruler! But this story does not merit a haphazard telling, and so I must begin at the beginning.

I'd been invited to take command of the newly-formed Royal Elites. Leophine Errikale had created the Elites as a peacekeeping force, and intended it to be a fully neutral one. However, in the wake of the assassinations of Catarin's key supporters, the Royal Elites "coincidentally" came to be commanded entirely by officers who had fought on Mycale's side in the recent War of Succession. Leophine Errikale might have wished to distance himself from his late brother, but he also held a keen knowledge of which way the wind was blowing.

As I'd been a vocal supporter of Mycale during the War, and since my reputation is one of integrity and courage, the new Duke of Seleucar was only too eager to have me as Knight-Commander of the Royal Elites: a figurehead position, no doubt, but still one that interested me. Perhaps as official leader of the Royal Elites, I could take steps to make them truly neutral, instead of simply puppets to Castomira's hidden will. For there could be no doubt who was behind the recent assassinations, and Catarin's flight from the city. The other lords, greedy though they might be, were also craven. Only Castomira had both the ruthlessness and the bravery to unleash such a concerted attack.

Remembering that fell night, I am tremendously glad that I asked you to stay at our country home with the children. Assassination is always a fear among prominent nobles, but for seventeen to die in a single night is unheard-of. Some were poisoned. Some fell prey to convincing "accidents." Some were killed by stealth, some were killed openly by masked mercenaries, and one was even killed by the suspicious explosion of his alchemical laboratory. Lord Orin Grandier, Catarin's strong voice in the circles of power, was found hanged in his bedchamber, with spikes driven through his eyes. Early that morning, Catarin fled the city with a tiny retinue, and even she barely escaped an assassin's knife. Only the alertness of her personal guard saved her from the black-clad Serpentlords who attempted to infiltrate her room by night. I understand her bodyguards were hand-picked by Lucaine Pyramides. He chose well. I was aggrieved to learn of his death. He was a good man, in the end.

The new turmoil in the city is tragic. I'd been certain that Catarin would quietly assume the throne, and so I'd never declared personal loyalty to her, thinking my support unnecessary. Perhaps if I, and others in my situation, had lent Catarin the legitimacy she needed, Castomira would never have dared to carry out her vengeful plot. However, since the former Mycale supporters assumed that I would support the infant Parni against his noble aunt, I found myself in a position to subvert Castomira's faction from within. In resorting to assassination, Castomira had proven herself without honor. The Code of Knights requires that honesty be met with honesty, deceit with deceit; honor with honor, treachery with treachery. Those without honor must be extinguished without mercy. I resolved to attain a high position within Castomira's evil alliance, that I might bring it down around her ears.

So it was that I found myself at the provincial mansion of Count Xenius Kyra, a former supporter of Catarin, now eagerly on what he perceived to be the winning side. So it was that I found myself sitting to a seven-course meal with none other than Castomira Brangwin herself! I'd met her before, during my service to Mycale. Where before, her face had been pleasant enough, if not pretty, and her eyes had been cool, but not cold, now her face was as perfectly beautiful as a marble statue, but her eyes were as emotionless and as fixed as those of a corpse. The table was set for ten, yet only nine were present: Count Xenius, at the head; myself, to his left hand; Castomira, to his right; one of Castomira's henchmen, a joyless sort with a beak nose and a permanent scowl; and five minor nobles, vassals of the Count. The seat to my right, across from Castomira's henchman (introduced to me as one Trenton Deis), was empty, and had no place-card.

I had little time to wonder about the empty seat, however, for no sooner had we exchanged pleasantries than a footman announced the arrival of Princess Catarin deSangre. I was astonished. Surely the princess would not have come to this mansion knowing who guested there? Or had Catarin come to plead for peace? Castomira's expression betrayed little, but there was no peace in it.

Catarin's shock as she surveyed the guests was quickly stifled by her courtly training, but it was clear to me that she had not expected to see Castomira Brangwin dining there that night. Then there was only one possibility: she had walked into a trap. I was prepared for anything, even outright murder at the dinner table. I had set aside my sword, but I was prepared to fight for my rightful queen, even if only with a butter knife. But I had to wait for the trap to spring shut. I had to await my moment.

Catarin played her part well. She sat, she spread a napkin on her lap, she traded polite greetings with all present. She complimented the wine. She casually inquired as to the reason for Castomira's visit to Count Xenius's lands.

"Ah, Count Xenius was just about to formally announce his support for my pet cause. You know, the coronation of the rightful heir, Parni?" Castomira was the very image of calm. I felt cold just watching her.

Catarin turned to the Count. "Then, Count Xenius, you believe that Lady Brangwin will be a suitable regent for the child?"

A smile oozed across the Count's face. "Surely, your Highness, when a new Prime Minister is appointed . . ."

". . . surely the new Prime Minister will be hand-picked by Castomira. Do you doubt that?"

"Regardless, your Highness, I've chosen to back Prince Parni with my life, if need be."

"The need may well arise, Xenius," Catarin said, in an admirable, if ill-advised, display of defiance.

Then the hammer fell. I shall describe each event in exact sequence, and see if you are not suitably amazed! If you are reading this to the children, you may wish to read ahead and then decide whether it is fit for their ears.

Like a black sun coming from behind frozen clouds, Castomira smiled, and such was the unrepentant evil in that smile that the wine I'd just sipped lost all its flavor. "Dear Catarin," she said with consummately false sweetness, "what possible reason might we have to fear you? You believe that your personal bodyguard stands outside waiting for your voice, holding the Staff of Nicator safe for your return. But in fact, they are poisoned to death as of this very moment, and the Staff shall be my son's sigil of office. For after all, my sweet, my alliance with the Guild of Serpentlords persists. And my dear friend Trenton Deis is a master of assassins himself. After all, did he not succeed in slaying your lovely knight, Pyramides?"

Catarin's hands trembled as she folded her napkin and placed it on the table before her, as if readying to excuse herself. "I cannot believe that he was overcome by anything less than a regiment of dragons. Certainly not by a single despondent ruffian."

The scowling one, Trenton Deis, at last spoke, a faint smile on his lips. "In his defense, my lady, he was distracted. I believe he was . . . writing something that was very important to him."

A half-second later, Catarin's hands stopped trembling. As a warrior, I knew what that meant, and I shifted my weight so that I could quickly spring to her defense. Deis, master assassin though he might be, either did not notice this sign, or he discounted it. And so he was astonished, and I was not, when Catarin threw herself across the dinner table, sending food and drink flying in all directions, diving full-length across the tablecloth to plunge her dessert fork into Trenton Deis's throat and through one of the arteries in his neck.

Bursting to my feet, I swatted Count Xenius to the ground with my left hand. Then, chivalry be damned, I grabbed for Castomira, intending to hold her hostage against Catarin's safe escape. But Castomira's skin was like stone, and her body was literally immovable. To my amazement, she pushed me aside as if I were a small child, and then, as an afterthought, knocked me to the ground with a magical explosion of dark thunder. I'd never known she was a sorceress. I feared for Catarin's life.

As I struggled to regain my feet amidst a wave of dizziness, I saw Catarin on the floor as well, repeatedly stabbing the lifeless body of Trenton Deis, face and white dress flecked with blood. I've seen that happen, on the battlefield, among those who have never killed: the pent-up hatreds and angers of a lifetime focus on one target, and then death is simply not enough for them. And especially if, as I suspected, Catarin had loved Lucaine after all, I could understand her blind rage. But there was no time for that. No time at all.

"Catarin!" I yelled. Too late. Castomira moved her hands as if caressing an imaginary ball, and where her hands moved, a sphere of black lightning formed. As Catarin came to herself, and suddenly grasped the horror of the bloody justice she'd done, Castomira sent the energy forth. It struck Catarin like a battering ram, and threw her up helpless against the far wall. Castomira advanced slowly, hatred and killing lust written upon her face. The Count and his vassals fled the room, terrified, willing to let the witch and the princess settle their fate unassisted. I ran to the door as well, under a bright and overwhelming inspiration.

"The Staff!" I yelled to the outer hall. "Castomira requires the Staff! Nicator's blood rebels against her power!" I hoped that Castomira's assassins had not seen my actions in the dining hall. I hoped that they would accept my "authority" as nominated commander of the Royal Elites. I hoped that Castomira was too busy luxuriating in her victory to decipher my intent.

Castomira's Serpentlords were well-trained. One appeared before me almost instantly, holding the Staff of Nicator in leather-gloved hands. Before he could speak, I wrenched the Staff from his grip and immediately hurled it in Catarin's direction. And prayed to Sarapis as devoutly as Nicator must have when he first received the Staff . . . if not at such great length.

I kept my attention on the Serpentlord, and my attention was rewarded when he lurched forward with a poisonous bite. But as I struck at him with my bare hands, time seemed to slow. The very air around me took on a syrupy quality, and the high-pitched hiss of my attacker shifted eerily to a low drawn-out rasp. From behind me, a brilliant light shone forth, drenching the world in white and black. The Serpentlord threw up his hand to shield his eyes, but his motion was slow, and slowing by the second. Then there was nothing but white and black, and then there was nothing but white. And then there was a great sense of movement.

When I regained my sight, I was outside, in the rain, the same rain that had fallen ever since the night of the assassinations. The mansion of Count Xenius was before me: five ruined walls, several shattered fireplaces, and great mounds of rubble. Debris had been flung in all directions. The air was alive with dust, slowly settling in the driving rain. The dust itself glowed like the clouds of heaven, lit from within by some impossible radiance, swirling with a powerful vibration. Like a foul omen, a panicked raven flew out from the settling dust, trailing black feathers. But when I blinked, I saw that the raven was actually a white-skinned woman in a tattered black dress, and the black feathers were shreds of some dark residue, that melted away to nothing before they touched the ground. Castomira Brangwin had fled. And Catarin deSangre slowly approached me from the wreckage of the mansion, Staff held aloft, shining, hair plastered against the sides of her face, and her shoulders, by the downpour. She appeared to me as a vision; she appeared to me as she must have appeared to Lucaine Pyramides, when he, too, lay half-dead, outside the King's Tomb. But whereas then Catarin had been the picture of triumph, now she was at the lowest level of defeat, for the Staff of Nicator was her only crutch, and I her only retainer.

"My Queen," I said. I did not need to kneel, for I was still on hands and knees, where I'd been thrown by the silent destruction of the manor house. I swore my oath of fealty to her there, and then I could speak no more, for the Staff had, once more, gone dead and dark, and the rain was cold, and Catarin's face held nothing but empty sorrow, and I could not meet her eyes.

I touched my forehead to the ground, and then she crouched over me, and put her hand upon my head, and said, "The Seleucarian Empire begins again, here."

My love, I cannot tell you where we are going, and I cannot tell you when we will be back. Know that even if I die in the service of my queen, I will always love you. Know that even though my vows of service, and my life as a Knight, require me to fight against all the odds, nonetheless it is my wife and children that will keep me alive. The desperation I face only makes me love you the more.

I have but one wish before I go incommunicado: quickly sell what possessions you can, and then move with the family to Delos. Stay with cousin Kale. Surely no danger will reach there, and if it does, the impenetrable sanctuary of the Chrysalis Basilica is nearby.

Your loving husband,
Lord Damen Kephry

Blood and Lives

From Ashtan Journal of Warcraft and Tactics, Valnuary I Edition

The yearly of Blades is always an event of high drama and high stakes, but this year's tourney was historically monumental. City gossip has already woven a hundred different descriptions of the events of the tourney, but this journal's readership is surely dissatisfied with the uneducated yarns of non-fighters. You wish to know what styles were used, how the battles progressed, and what decisive blows were struck. Be assured, the Journal was there, and every detail was carefully recorded. The routine list of tournament standings is published toward the end of this issue, as it is every month. This special segment contains a first-hand account of Princess Catarin deSangre's part in the most recent Tournament, exactly as it happened, from tournament correspondent Callisto Vereth.

Princess Issues Challenge in Tournament of Blades

ASHTAN - The opening ceremonies had ended. Jesters and clowns had finished their mock battles. Fighting masters had demonstrated their might in a crescendo of broken barrels, slashed straw dummies, shattered tiles, and punctured bullseyes. Cavalrymen had unhorsed each other in a series of jousts. It was time for the true business of the Tournament of Blades: the duels.

As the crowd slowly became quiet, the master of ceremonies bellowed his traditional invitation: "All ye who may wish to challenge, an ye are not yet inscribed upon the register, speak ye now! Who will test himself against the mightiest blades of Ashtan and beyond?"

With a sound like ringing crystal, a blinding light appeared in the air at the center of the great arena. The light slowly dimmed as it settled earthward, and as our vision returned we could see that it came from the tip of a golden staff, held aloft by a stately woman in a voluminous white robe. She faced the royal box with a stare of such intensity that even the king allowed his eyes to drop. "I will be tested, but not for your prize of gold and fame, men of Ashtan. I am Catarin deSangre, right Empress of Seleucar, I intend to crush the false rebellion caused by Castomira Brangwin, and when I win this tourney, King Tephicles, my prize shall not be gold or fame, but an army."

While the king reflected upon this unprecedented demand, one of his guests moved to the fore of the royal box. It was Lord Odysseus Rani, a supporter of Mycale who had fled to Ashtan in the wake of Catarin's original victory at King's Tomb. As a famed fighter, he had found favor in the king's court. And as a fighter, his favor was dependent solely upon his personal might, requiring him to continually assert his skill. "Your Imperial Highness," he called out to Catarin, "please accept my apology, for I cannot recognize you as my Empress. You have not been crowned. All your supporters are dead. And as you have entered the Tournament of Blades, where death duels are commonplace, I believe that you may shortly join them." With that, Lord Rani leaped from the royal box to the arena floor just below. He was not dressed in his battle armor, but his great broadsword was very much in evidence.

The master of ceremonies looked to the king for guidance, and at the king's small nod, cried out, "People of Ashtan! A special match! Between Lord Odysseus Rani of King's Field and Princess Catarin, of the Imperial House deSangre!" Raucous cheers rose from the massed spectators. Ashtan values nothing more than personal strength. Our readers are not all of Ashtan, and so I should explain what went unsaid that day: Should Catarin win against such a mighty foe, Ashtan would surely follow her to the ends of the earth. Should she fail, then surely she could not be worthy to rule at all. Such reasoning may sound foolish to philosophers, yet it is the Ashtanian way: a group is only as strong as its leader.

Lord Rani slowly advanced, without drawing his sword. As he strolled, he taunted the princess, saying, "It must be true that royal bloodlines gradually run to cretinism. You seem to have lost your native wit, your Highness. You are lost and helpless. You are without followers. Even if you fled in exile to Hashan, you would eventually be beheaded for your crimes."

"Crimes?" Catarin asked, half-horrified, half-amused.

"Every royal soul has crimes. The deaths of a thousand Seleucarian men can be laid at your hands, for your part in the city war."

"Not on Castomira's?"

Lord Rani stopped a scant three feet away from his delicate foe. "Castomira has won."

Catarin smiled sweetly, and swung the Staff of Nicator at Lord Rani's head. The ex-Knight batted it away with one gloved hand, but Catarin instantly followed his motion and bounced the other end off his kneecap, then struck him sharply in the forehead with the jeweled top of the Staff. The warrior reeled for a moment.

Catarin spun the staff in alternating circles, two to the right, one to the left, two to the right, then down to a ready position. The pattern was unmistakable to one of my experience: Sentaari staff style, Grove of Winds variant, Tykonos form. "Castomira faces a different challenge than the fragile butterfly who fled the city two months ago. I am Catarin deSangre of the Grove of Winds, Initiate of the Sentaari monks, and I will defeat her if I must shed my last drop of blood to do it!"

Lord Rani began to open his mouth, but Catarin cut him off. "I know, I know. 'You're about to.' Right? I've said what I need to." And with that, Catarin launched herself bodily at her opponent, spinning the Staff of Nicator in an alternate version of Willows Shaken by the Wind.

Editor's Note: For much of their history, the peaceful Sentaari monks used a number of edgeless weapons, including the staff and the cane. These weapons allowed them to defend themselves against attackers without killing them, while still letting them strike mighty blows in the defense of humanity, as during the Black Wave. However, during Castomira's occupation of Seleucar, her Royal Elites confiscated all weapons in the area of Imperial Seleucar, including those held by the monks of Judgment Mountain, then the headquarters of the Sentaari order. While his guildsmen were held under martial law, the Grandmaster of Flowers meditated for a month, then unveiled the unarmed art of Tekura, vowing that the Sentaari monks would never again be made helpless against evil. Combining Tekura with his pre-existing mastery of Kaido and Telepathy, the Grandmaster drove the Royal Elites from the area around the monastery. After the war, he disseminated the art to all the other monasteries. Within ten years, the armed arts had fallen into disuse. Within a hundred, they had been largely forgotten.

Drawing his sword, Lord Rani countered with a series of vertical ascending blocks. "Now we know where you disappeared to these past months. You were presumed dead. Are you aware that the succession has already been formally decided against you?"

As Lord Rani refused to back away from her attack, Catarin assumed a deep stance and went to the third level of the Grove of Winds style, "Willows in Rain Storm," striking rapid blows from above and below. Though he clearly meant to toy with her, Lord Rani took painful hits, and was forced to regain initiative with an artless but brutal swing of his sword. Catarin blocked the attack, but was driven backwards. At that point, I got a good look at her face, and realized that for all her brave words, she was teetering on the edge of panic. I suspect that she had never before fought for her life. The noise of the crowd was deafening.

"The child cannot be crowned until he is five years old! Tradition and law demand it. And until that happens, any decision can be reversed!"

Lord Rani assumed the fighting stance of the Eternal Capital style, unique to the Guild of Knights, and rolled up his sleeves to reveal his magical tattoos: a tower shield and a smith's hammer. "Make ready then."

Catarin threw off her robe, revealing the light and flexible summer war garb of the Sentaari monks. The shield and hammer were tattooed prominently on her arms as well. She touched the shield, invoking a sparkling aura of protection, and then planted the Staff of Nicator firmly on the ground. Her posture was similar to that of the Blue Dragon Prayer, from the Judgment Mountain Revised style, and I assumed the motion had the same purpose: to focus Kai energy and bring it to the limbs and chest, invigorating her for the battle to come.

Lord Rani used the classic opening attack. Touching his hammer tattoo briefly, he destroyed Catarin's protective shield, then struck out at chest level with his sword, hoping to run her through. Catarin blocked, then countered with the Tykonos form. The Sentaari staff forms are like chess openings: every possible counterattack is accounted for in the study of the form. Lord Rani was too experienced to be hit by the simplistic attacks of the low-level form, but seemingly could not penetrate its solid defensive motions. For a full minute, Catarin fought Lord Rani to a standstill with the traditional Tykonos form, until the warrior laughed and knocked her to the ground with a single mighty blow. The attack was so heavy that even blocked, it sent Catarin sprawling. "Bah!" he cried. "I should have expected no better from a barely-trained Sentaari initiate. How foolish of me to hope for a challenge."

The ex-Knight strode forward, intending to crush Catarin's guard with another stroke, but his blade was deflected by a rapidly erected magical shield. As Lord Rani broke the shield with a blast from his hammer tattoo, Catarin lunged through the harmless mystic sparks and jabbed the Staff of Nicator into Lord Rani's throat, forestalling his next attack. Immediately, she used another distinctive attack pattern, True Strike of the Live Oak, stabbing the Staff into the center of his chest. Slightly winded, Lord Rani brought his blade up to the defensive.

At the beginning of the fight, Catarin had been somewhat unsteady, wavering between too hesitant and too fierce a strategy. As Lord Rani threw up the famed "Seleucar hard defense," however, she seemed to gain her footing. I now know that Catarin learned to fight the Eternal Capital style while sparring with Damen Kephry, but at the time it was startling to watch her slip her staff into every seam in Lord Rani's defenses, scoring minor hit after minor hit. As Lord Rani's powerful defense began to fall apart, Catarin smoothly transitioned into the fifth form of the Grove of Winds variant, Gaital. Clearly Lord Rani had never seen that beautifully deceptive form, as his every counterattack simply led him to take another blow from the Staff of Nicator.

Even though she was not using the magical powers of the Staff of Nicator, it was clearly as heavy as steel, and its blows commensurately damaging. Its head, studded with divinely unbreakable gems, must have had the effect of a mace. As Catarin tired from the effort of spinning and swinging the Staff, her opponent showed the pain of a dozen bruises, and all his efforts at a deadly final blow had earned him only a single blood-red line along Catarin's pale forearm. This time it was Lord Rani who touched his shield tattoo, gaining a second of precious breathing time.

As Catarin smashed the shield with her own hammer tattoo, Lord Rani advanced on her, sword arm held behind him. Catarin moved in with another attack, aiming at the side of Lord Rani's neck. If successful, the strike might temporarily paralyze one side of his body. Lord Rani was too quick for her, however, and dodged the blow, then clamped his free hand around Catarin's neck and lifted her into the air.

Before Catarin could react, Lord Rani yelled aloud a spellword, and suddenly Catarin's face filled with agony. The thin cut on her forearm suddenly paled to white, as if her blood were being drawn back into her body, and a low hum filled the air with unnerving harmonies. The Staff of Nicator dropped from her hands as they involuntarily twitched in pain.

Almost all eyes, including those of this journalist, were riveted to the combat. However, reliable reports say that the king stood up at this point, with a troubled look on his face. He is rumored to have mouthed, "Necromancy?" One of his advisors, a prominent Occultist, spoke in his ear for a moment, and the king retook his seat, still unhappy.

For a long moment, the princess struggled to twist free of Lord Rani's rigid grip. At length, though her movements seemed to be growing weaker, she reached with one hand to her belt, withdrew a long knife, and plunged it into her captor's wrist once, then twice. At the second stab, Lord Rani violently wrenched his hand away, the knife stuck in his wrist. Immediately he swung his sword, intending to quickly decapitate his unarmed opponent. But Catarin was not moving away from him. Instead, she put one foot on his flexed knee and physically scrambled up his body, grabbing his head from behind and driving her forehead forcefully into his nose. Yet again, the warrior was sent staggering by the unexpected tenacity of his slender opponent.

Catarin herself staggered, and collapsed to her hands and knees atop the Staff of Nicator, rising to her feet only slowly with Staff in hand. And still she did not invoke the Staff's holy power, even though she had clearly demonstrated her mastery of it. Lord Rani, sensing a clear advantage, decided to make the kill, without mercy. He pointed his off-hand at Catarin, disregarding the knife that still protruded from his wrist. Dark magic swirled, and suddenly Catarin's legs were encased in separate blocks of ice, and the rest of her body sealed in a thick sheath of frost. Then, at last, he launched his final attack, the Eternal Capital technique known as Knight's Honor. After gathering power for seven seconds, the blow would penetrate any defense to behead its target . . . and Catarin was immobilized by the icy sheath.

Astonishingly, Lord Rani had underestimated his opponent yet again. Exhausted, beaten, drained of vital essence, and chilled to the bone, Catarin deSangre broke her upper body free of the ice with a mighty effort. By this time, the huge crowds were cheering only for her. For his use of evil magic, Lord Odysseus Rani had been condemned by the spectators; ironic, considering that many Occultists have grown to be well-loved competitors in the Tournament. Many thousands of voices shouted as one for Catarin to use the Staff of Nicator to seal her enemy away in a golden sphere, as Nicator had done to the King of Shallam four centuries ago.

As Lord Rani advanced, swinging his sword in advancing spirals, working up to the deadly and unblockable Knight's Honor, Catarin struck at the ice block around her legs. She succeeded only in splitting it in two. I felt despair. With each leg encased in solid ice, she could not possibly dodge Lord Rani's fatal blow. And then I was amazed. She simply stood in the path of Lord Rani's attack for three more seconds, watching the path of his blade, judging its motion . . . did she mean to use timing to deflect the critical strike? I'd seen the move before, and knew that the final blow would come too quickly to see, and would simply cleave through any weapon or shield held up to block it.

She made no attempt at deflection. Instead, a half-second before the end of the technique, she twisted her entire body into a knee-level kick, bringing twenty pounds of solid ice into direct contact with Lord Rani's knee. The ice shattered, almost masking the audible twisting crack of the knight's bones breaking and ligaments tearing. Lord Rani was master of his own body. Giving no sign of pain, he completed the Knight's Honor, sending his sword lightning-fast at the princess's neck. His ruined knee betrayed him, and the blade flashed high and wide of its target, severing only a lock of hair, which floated on the wind like a summer cloud.

Instantly, Catarin countered, desperation and innovation combining in an unheard-of stratagem. With the end of the Staff of Nicator, she struck Lord Rani's off-arm from below, snapping it up to shoulder height. In the same motion, she spun the Staff and struck the hilt of her knife where it jutted from Lord Rani's wrist, driving the point clean through his hand and into his throat.

With his hand pinned to his neck by Catarin's astounding attack, the dark knight stepped back, shock and horror in his eyes. His damaged knee buckled under his weight, and he twisted to the ground. When he instinctively threw out his hands to catch himself, he pulled the knife from his throat, bringing a pulsing spray of blood. Lord Odysseus Rani, oathbound to Castomira Brangwin and once of the Guild of Knights, spasmed, choked loudly on his own blood, and was still.

Then, and only then, did Catarin summon light and warmth from the Staff of Nicator. For a second, the Staff outshone the sun, and when the light faded, she was whole and strong again. And the King of Ashtan, Tephicles I, vaulted out of the royal box to bow before his imperial princess.

"Vitem et sanguinem," he cried, the legendary oath of eternal fealty. "Our blood and lives."

Civil War: A Nation Divided

From Orson Lasalle, The Second War of Succession: A History

Editor's note: Within the ranks of the Ashtan intelligentsia, Orson Lasalle has become the most respected current chronicler of the Second War of Succession and the Catarine Dominion. Therefore, his two most general and popular works are used as primary sources for this section of history. If pressed, this librarian must admit nepotism as a secondary and justified motivation.

While Catarin trained with the Sentaari, Castomira made clear her plans for her son's empire. Seemingly in defiance of all wisdom, she proposed herself as Parni's regent, a suggestion that was met with surprisingly little resistance. Although custom rebelled against a female monarch, there were numerous precedents for a female regent. And Castomira's propositions were very influential: her paper, "Seven Intentions for a More Transparent Monarchy," detailed a revised imperial system in which local lords would gain more power and independence, imperial taxes would be reduced, Piraeus's ancient but troublesome Act for the Preservation of Integral Human Dignities would be abridged, and various restrictions on resource exploitation would be eliminated. In exchange for these limitations on day-to-day imperial authority, the Emperor would gain certain "emergency powers" allowing him to "unite" the Empire in case of "national turmoil." Cool heads pointed out that Castomira could quite easily use those "emergency powers" along with her rapidly-growing Royal Elites to take direct and personal control of most of the Seleucarian Empire. But despite being on the losing side of the First War of Succession, or perhaps because of her previous defeat, Castomira was viewed by many as a sort of pro-nobility folk hero. After all, she had never committed any public crime. She had managed to side-step responsibility for the assassinations of Catarin's supporters, using several of her underlings as scapegoats. And so her proposals gained wide support in the capital, especially as lords loyal to Catarin slowly began to leave the province, heading across the Vashnar Range to the more sympathetic city of Shallam.

Although the Church had sent mediators to all three great cities, their efforts to preserve unity in the face of Castomira's divisive political actions had been futile. The Ashtanians had, for the most part, supported Castomira's political platform of oligarchic indulgence and martial empowerment, even as they angled to ensure a new era of Ashtanian autonomy. Castomira had attained a level of influence with Ashtan's King Tephicles that only an act of incredible daring and determination could override. With her reckless open challenge at the Tournament of Blades, and her one-in-a-million victory, Catarin provided that act, and won the loyalty and adoration of the city-state of Ashtan.

Winning the approval of iconoclastic Ashtan was Catarin's greatest obstacle. Shallam's King Dalles VI had been watching developments in Imperial Seleucar with growing concern, and had already mobilized his military in hopes of discouraging an opportunistic invasion by either of the major cities. Although technically loyal to the imperial throne, King Dalles had said, in an acclaimed public address, "We are part of the Seleucar that Nicator and Piraeus created. We are part of the Seleucar of King Valerias. But in the name of the Logos, we are not part of the Seleucar of Castomira Brangwin! The essential doctrines of human dignity and just rulership shall not be overturned within our shining walls." When Catarin and a delegation of Ashtanian nobles arrived at gates of Shallam to plead for Shallam's assistance, King Dalles was overjoyed to unite with them.

But Catarin had information of the direst import, information that had won her the whole-hearted support of even the most intransigent of the Ashtanian lords. While in boarding school with Castomira, as children, Catarin had heard Castomira hint vaguely at a portentous ancestry. In the Great Library of Nicator, Catarin studied the records of noble births and deaths, and followed a paper trail from there to the sealed archives of the Guild of Occultists, to find out a horrible and revealing truth: Castomira Brangwin was a direct descendant of Adchachel, called "the Rose of Pain." Adchachel, a former Demiurge of the Guild of Occultists. Adchachel, who had gone mad after eating the heart and absorbing the spiritual essence of the Tsol'teth Master Agith'maal. Adchachel had been killed, but only after four years in which his insanity slowly grew apparent . . . and during which time he sired a son, whose descendants had eventually risen into the nobility. Castomira Brangwin was tainted by the black power of the Tsol'teth, passed down by bloodline for hundreds of years. Castomira's magical duel with Catarin at the manor of Count Xenius was all the confirmation Catarin needed: Castomira, willing or not, was carrying out the long-delayed revenge of the Tsol'teth, who had been repelled by the Seleucarian Empire so long ago.

Catarin's plan was simple: ride at the head of the full Shallamese army toward the capital, claiming right of proper succession. Law and tradition agreed: unless directly denounced by the ruling monarch, any direct heir to the throne was permitted safe passage through all the lands ruled by Seleucar, as long as their honor guard was not "exceeding the amount required by their station, or the requirements of the imperial heir's personal safety." Catarin judged that to ensure her personal safety, she'd have to bring at least ten thousand heavily armed soldiers. If the presence of the Shallamese army was met with resistance, that would mean that Imperial Seleucar, not Shallam, had assumed a hostile stance. The fact that Catarin's army was approaching at a quick march, in attack formation, was technically irrelevant. In fact, to follow the very letter of the law, Catarin was in the right even if her men struck the first blow. A poorly-worded paragraph, originally intended to expedite the destruction of bandits, allowed soldiers under command of the royal blood to "terminate armed elements at their full discretion" within any Seleucarian territory, regardless of jurisdiction. Since none of Castomira's own troops were directly commanded by a member of the royal family, she had no legal standing to halt Catarin's advancing army.

In practice, of course, issues of law and tradition were strictly rhetorical. Catarin's march was a power play, pure and simple, and since Castomira's Royal Elites were at the core of every Seleucarian division, there was no chance that the defending armies would defer to Catarin's royal banner. The march on the capital was certain to be a full-scale war from the very beginning, and all Catarin's troops were ordered to engage at the first sign of hostility. For that reason, Catarin ordered the full army of Ashtan to begin an advance on Imperial Seleucar two days later, in hopes of securing the city while the main Seleucarian forces were occupied with the Shallamese. Using the Staff of Nicator, Catarin could transport herself into the presence of either of the two kings, or their children, and so she should take command of either army at will.

The powers of the Staff of Nicator have manifested differently for every person who has taken control of it, from the first Emperor of Seleucar to the last. For Nicator himself, its powers were designed for conquest: it inspired tremendous loyalty in his followers, it increased the fighting power of entire divisions of troops at once, it could heal large numbers of people instantly, and it had once been used to capture the King of Shallam out from the center of his army. For Catarin, its powers were different, though no less impressive: she could move herself instantly to any person of royal blood, she could open giant wormholes large enough to transport armies, she could heal herself of any wound, and in the presence of Tsol'teth power, the Staff became a mighty magical weapon.

Catarin feared that aspect of the power of the Staff. The last time she faced Castomira, she had destroyed an entire building with a single motion. In an extended battle, what havoc might her uncontrolled power wreak? For that reason, Catarin dared not use Parni's royal blood to teleport herself to the Imperial Palace and confront Castomira directly. A war might cost twenty thousand lives, lives of soldiers who had chosen to live on borrowed time. But Imperial Seleucar held more than two hundred thousand souls, who Catarin could not sacrifice.

Throughout history, this decision has been disputed: who was to say that Castomira would not attempt to destroy the city on her own if her bid for power was thwarted? Who was to say that it might not become necessary for Catarin to fight Castomira in the end? In the end, Catarin was forced into single combat against her nemesis, and during that battle, the Staff's power did prove uncontrollable. The arguments for and against Catarin's military approach have been discussed in depth; for more information, refer to the later works of Ashtar von Muir and Talena Leiden, and to Catarin's own secret journal, recently declassified. Whether correct or not, Catarin weighed her options, and chose to invade.

During the Seleucarian Empire, the Vashnar Range had two major passes, which had been enlarged and deepened and paved until they allowed easy trade between Seleucar and its subject nations of Ashtan and Shallam. These passes were large enough for an army to pass in a single column, but that army would be entirely vulnerable to attack from above during its passage, and would be at a huge disadvantage against the guarding forces Castomira had deployed at the Seleucarian mouth of each pass. Catarin's solution was to use the Staff of Nicator to create mighty portals across the mountains, letting her troops leapfrog directly into Imperial Seleucar. Just as Sarapis had required Nicator to win his empire by great effort, the Staff's power was limited in range. Catarin was forced to bridge the mountain range at its narrowest points: the two passes. Although the advantage of surprise was hers, there would still be a violent battle. However, Catarin's plans were well-formed; through a minor deception, and a major innovation, she intended to take the initiative in the most decisive fashion possible.

From General Norij Gaston, Personal Journal

And so the plan has been revealed. I always knew the woman was mad. And brilliant.

Still, the plan may work. I'm Ashtanian born and bred, so I've a life's experience with remorseless cunning. Catarin's plan is as twisted, deceitful, underhanded, and unexpected as anything I've yet seen in my life, and even more impressive because of the scale of it all. And that witch in Seleucar has no idea it's coming.

I've spoken with Lord Kephry, and, while I am impressed with his skill, I must say he worries me somewhat, especially since his story of Castomira's display of power. He was her lapdog for far too long for my own comfort, and I wonder if Catarin, or any of us, can truly trust his motives.

But none of that will matter tomorrow. Tomorrow Catarin opens the Portal, and the First Ashtanian Cavalry will begin its assault. I must admit, I am excited to be spilling Seleucarian blood, though I would never admit that to Catarin or her followers. Their sparkling Myrmidons will prove no match for Ashtanian swords.

The Pass of Shadow's Mourning . . . I would never have thought to see it as a military commander in my lifetime. A trap devised by the gods themselves. Narrow, rocky, twisting. An army could be decimated by anyone coming through there. And yet it is the only navigable pass of requisite size to reach Imperial Seleucar. And Castomira's troops must know that. We've already received reports of their scouts near our lines, running like cowards when someone approaches.

But with the Staff of Nicator . . . It may be possible. I only hope the Shallamese play their part without a fumble.

From Josiah Lasalle, elements of seleucarian history, in verse (unfinished)

Vashnar Crossing (fragment)

The holy staff, a bar of lightning-tortured reality
Fantastically, Imperial rapture shatters the galaxy
The air smashes like shimmering windowpanes
It's as though winter came
And turned the air to breakable ice
And the mountains creak and groan
Like iron under a vise
We run through the portal: colors swirling in rage
We prepare to engage; this is the staging point of an age:
We've got blood to spill,
We've got a murderous will,
And you couldn't find a soul among us frightened to kill.
We trust this justice, time to fight, right hand
Clenched around our weapons, we're secure in our might.
Our leader yells the orders, we break into a run,
And then we dash into the portal as it glows like the sun.
As we emerge and surge forward, there's blood on the ground,
Distant trumpets sound, men are down and dying.
The cry and tumult of battle, our brave banneret flying
Is the rally point. We were appointed by fate
And now it's time to start a sprint toward the heavenly gate.
We know we're going to die, but we've no need for tears,
We're an engine of redemption, we're not men, we're gears,
We lower our spears, grinning, we quiet our fears,
And then we sprint from mortal life into the pages of years.
Blood flows like tears as steel strikes our foes,
And blood energy fills me from my head to my toes.
Most of us have never killed, but weak-willed we're not:
Without a second thought we leave our foemen to rot.
We draw sparks from armor with swords like deadly flints,
We turns shields to splinters, we turn spears to scraps
We turn men to corpses, there's no going back after that,
Lo, you kill one man, then you can put it in the past,
But if you kill one more, then you're a killer to the last.
For the banner of deSangre we will give up our soul.
To save the queen, we'll gladly be consumed like coal.

From Orson Lasalle, Blood and Roses: New Theories Regarding the Wars of Succession

Editor's note: This volume, a companion to Lasalle's The Second War of Succession: A History, comprises source material and analysis that has emerged within the past fifteen years. Unlike the History, many sections are hypothetical, and cannot be taken as undisputed historical truth.

The Ashtanian forces poured from the portal Catarin deSangre had opened, taking the waiting Royal Elites completely by surprise. Accounts say that the unit was killed to the last man, but later journals speak of information gathered from a captured soldier from that first battle. It is unclear as to which version is truth, or if there are simply errors in the interpretation of the archaic texts.

This battle would later be called the Battle of Mourning, and not only because it was fought at the mouth of the Pass of Shadow's Mourning. This was the first of many battles during which Catarin wielded the broken sword, Three Moons, as her scepter of command. The symbolism was explicit: Catarin blamed Castomira for the murder of Lucaine Pyramides, and she intended to deliver the harshest possible justice.

Recent research into the family lines of Lord Damen Kephry has revealed this fragment, part of a first draft of one of the last letters he would write to his wife. The absolute authenticity of this document has not yet been established (see endnotes).

". . . kneeling in the blood-soaked grass. I'm not sure if what I saw was real or not, but my eyes have rarely deceived me.

"The Staff lay next to her, seemingly forgotten, and she held Three Moons in both hands before her as if was an anchor in the midst of some terrible storm. She was whispering, and her shoulders shook, so I approached cautiously, afraid that the strain had taken its toll.

"'It's begun, Lucaine,' I heard her say. 'I've started what I promised. And we'll win. Please, tell me you see. Let me know you're still there.'

"My darling, I have ever been a man of pragmatism in most things. Where gods and the like are concerned, I give my tithe, and leave the rest up the Priests and Templars. But what I saw next makes me wonder if I might not be better off living a more pious life.

"The Staff, with its clouded gems, seemed to glow from where it lay at her side, surrounding her in a pearlescent aura. I had seen such before, but was still surprised to see it now, especially without her hand on the Staff.

"But then Three Moons began to glow, and I swear that the blade suddenly seemed whole again. It was translucent, ghostly, but whole nonetheless. Catarin gasped in surprise and lifted the blade up to look at it. I stepped around to the side slightly, and I saw a look of such wonder in her eyes that I felt my own breath freeze.

"Her hair flowed back from her face as if in a brisk wind, though the air was still around me. And then, almost on the edge of hearing, I heard a scratching noise, like that of quill on coarse paper. Her eyes widened, and then the glow, the wind, all of it ceased as if it had never been.

"I left her there, not wanting her to know that I saw the tears that followed."

This account lends credence to the idea that Catarin's right to rule was favored by the gods, as only a deity would have allowed her such a moment. Whatever the case, the Battle of Mourning marks not only the first battle of the Second War of Succession, but also the first indication that Catarin's struggle was to resound in every dimension: political, social, physical, emotional, and spiritual.

From General Norij Gaston, Personal Journal

These first few battles have gone well, I would say. The Elites are not as dangerous as I had thought they would be, but that may be because we consistently attack them from unexpected directions. And, as far as I can tell, they still believe that Catarin's forces are small and spread thin.

Every three days, we advance the main force by Portal, leaving token units behind to help convince the majority of the Seleucarian army that we don't have the capability of winning this campaign. And after that token unit has been "routed," Catarin brings them in via another, smaller Portal.

We could perhaps move faster, using larger Portals to cover more distance, but Catarin insists that Castomira would then know what we are doing. I sense that she fears to attract Castomira's direct intervention. Does she fear that the Staff of Nicator lacks the power to quash the witch? If so, then either the fairy tales give the Staff too much credit, or the witch Castomira is as strong as hellfire. She walks a fine line, the princess does. We must move quickly if we are to win, yet too quickly and all our plans become useless. And she must also take the time to speak with the Shallamese, though I have little word from her on their progress.

It is their portion of the plan that I wonder about. They have the boats, and the necessary sailors, but no one has ever attempted a full-scale attack by sea since Ashtan's abortive invasion of Shallam. If this gambit works, the city will fall almost overnight. But if it doesn't, we will lose half our army almost instantly, and the rest of us will be left to fight a retreat back to Ashtan.

Who knows how it will happen?

From Jorin Hornblade, Tactics and Diplomacy: Seleucarian Art

Editor's note: The following is a fictionalized account based strongly on journals, letters, and other historical documents. There is a minimum of authorial speculation. Although considered "historical fiction," Hornblade's work is correct and substantiated in a way that Leona Fontaine's novel, for example, is not.

General Argan deSoral pounded his fist into the table. "There is no way this will work!"

Catarin stood at the end of the map table, her eyes cool as she stared at the general, her mouth in a slight frown. Argan glanced at Kephry, who stood by her side, but saw no support there, just as he saw none from the others around the table.

"Are you all mad?" he asked incredulously. "You want me to take my Lancers onto a boat, sail around most of the continent, come into Ralshev's Bay under cover of night, never mind the reefs and shoals, and attack the city from the harbor?"

"Yes," was Catarin's only reply.

"It won't work!" Argan said again. "Our horses will be in holds for days, and we'd need time to prepare them to fight after that kind of confinement. Supplies will have to be rationed, which means my men won't be at full fighting strength when we finally get there. Not to mention what happens if anyone in the city figures out what's going on! We'll be slaughtered!"

"Are you afraid?" Kephry said, silencing the General. "What about Shallamese courage? You will be supported, by Catarin and by Ashtan."

"You haven't convinced me of Ashtan's reliability," Argan said. "And I am in command of this army. We—"

"Listen," Catarin said, and the whispered word seemed to echo for miles. Argan's mouth moved, but no sound emerged, and he froze in shock.

"You are wrong on several accounts," she said. "This will work. They will never see this coming. I will provide full rations for your men, and fresh mounts just before the attack. And I am in command of this army, General deSoral, not you. If this is a problem, I will replace you. Your own king has given me full authority."

Argan stared at her for a long moment, and then slowly nodded. He spoke softly, surprised his words were audible again. "I understand, your highness."

"I have others to speak with. Good day, General. And make sure your men are on those ships by nightfall. There shall be no further delay."

With those words, she turned and left the tent.

From Orson Lasalle, The Second War of Succession: A History

It wasn't until after the war that Catarin's use of the Staff was made public. She had indeed been using it to move the Ashtanian forces forward much faster than Castomira could predict, and, combined with her use of feints and false battles, she had convinced the Seleucarian generals that her own forces were weak, scattered, and ineffective.

But, unknown to many even on Catarin's side, two separate Shallamese forces were also on the march. One was a ground force comprised of main-line units, such as foot soldiers and cavalry, along with two platoons of the elite Shallamese Lancers. It was discovered that not only had Catarin been moving the Ashtanian army via Portal, she had been doing the same for the much smaller Shallamese forces.

But it is the second force that deserves close attention. Shallam had commandeered a dozen private merchant ships in the name of the imperial crown. These ships were then loaded with the remaining bulk of the Lancers, totaling nearly six hundred soldiers. This left Shallam itself woefully open to attack, but, as Catarin said, "If Castomira is not stopped now, then no city is safe, no matter how well-defended. Given the regency, she would conquer by law, not by arms."

As the two-pronged attack from land came closer to the Imperial City, these dozen ships, masquerading as members of various merchant houses, came to dock in the Imperial Harbor. As Castomira had placed an moratorium on unsanctioned trade during the conflict, these ships were told to stay in port, and not to offload their goods until they had passed a formal inspection. It is interesting to note, however, that not one Seleucarian inspector ever set foot on the boats to verify their contents. Catarin still had a thin network of supporters within the city, despite Castomira's purges, and the Imperial Harbormaster was one of them.

From Jorin Hornblade, Tactics and Diplomacy: Seleucarian Art

Jerold slid his blade into its sheath as he stood up, stretching his stiff muscles. He, along with his fellow Lancers, had been in the hold of the Magenta Spray for nearly two weeks now, and he worried that he was beginning to lose his fighting edge to boredom. He no longer noticed the sway of the ship, and the occasional bump against the dock no longer sent him to his feet in alarm.

But the waiting was nearly over. When Catarin's Portal had last opened (and what a stir that had caused the first time it happened), a message had come through with the supplies. Catarin's forces were near Imperial Seleucar, and the true size of her attack force had not been discovered.

General Argan, who was on the Iridescent Moon, had issued the order to prepare for battle. Short bows, swords, and armor had been broken out, and, under threat of "keel-hauling," whatever that was, they had made sure to clean and repair their equipment with extreme quiet.

"Tonight," Jerold said softly. "Tonight we take back our Empire."

From General Norij Gaston, Personal Journal

I've never heard of such an audacious, outrageous, doomed-to-failure plan working so well before. None of the Seleucarian military seem to have any idea of where we are, or even how numerous we are. Tomorrow, Catarin will close the vise on the Imperial City, and let the hammer pound its Royal Elites flat.

A day worth living for, I suppose. Although some of us, especially Damen Kephry, would disagree. I was there when he heard about his wife and family. I must admit, as much as I dislike the man, now I have every reason to trust him. It was Caprian Zyle who brought the message, and that's one Serpentlord I have reason to trust a great deal.

To think, Castomira would sink so low. And to commit such atrocity in the very shadow of the Chrysalis Basilica! I wonder how many of her supporters know of this. It would have been better had she killed them outright, but to do what she did . . . I am amazed that Kephry's response was so calm. I don't know what mine would have been under similar circumstances.

The Church had declared that all refugees in Delos would be under divine protection. The destruction of Lord Kephry's family has enraged them. The last I heard, every Templar on Sapience was moving to reinforce us. They're not privy to our true plans, and they don't know that we've been leapfrogging Castomira's armies . . . they're in for a nasty shock when they try to follow in our path. I can't feel too bad for the Churchies, but I hope they deal a few good blows to those Seleucarian scum. One batch of prigs smiting another, as far as I'm concerned, but for once I'd rather the Templars win out in the end. And as long as the Templars are fighting the Royal Elites in the east, the enemy won't be able to fall on us from behind when we hit the capital.

Catarin is calling. Time for the battle to begin. I pray I live through this day, at least long enough to spit Castomira and her goons with my sword.

From Lord Damen Kephry, Collected Correspondence

Catarin,

I thank you for your heart-felt condolences, but yet again I feel I must refuse your offer to become First General in your army. The reunification of Guild of Knights is my one dream, though I know it to be a foolish one. After this war is done, and your rule established, I shall endeavor to make that dream a reality.

I do wish you would spend less time with the Ashtanian forces, or allow me to accompany you more often, instead of relying on these letters. Still, I understand your reasons, though I am not overly fond of them. Do keep yourself safe, and watch your back.

I have received word from Judgment Mountain, and you will be pleased to know that the Sentaari are free. Even though they were stripped of their weapons by Castomira's occupying forces, they launched an incredible attack against their oppressors, defeating seasoned swordsmen with their bare hands. For my part, I do not know how this can be, but if they can indeed stand unarmed and unarmored against Royal Elites, then clearly they will make potent allies. And allies they are, for they have sworn to aid you in your crusade against Castomira. I've learned that Prince Remeer of Ashtan, fifth son of King Tephicles, is present in the monastery; you may wish to use the Staff to visit Judgment Mountain and speak with the monks there.

As to your other request . . . while I am honored beyond words, I would rather my family be buried in our family plot. There can be no true solution for my grief at this time, but nonetheless

I've just received word that a contingent of infantry, led by Royal Elites, is advancing upon our position. I will send this off and hope you receive it soon. We may need the help.

Vitem et sanguinem,
Lord Damen Kephry

From Jorin Hornblade, Tactics and Diplomacy: Seleucarian Art

"CHARGE!"

With those words, the magick that had cloaked them from sight fell, and the Ashtanian army boiled up from the ground like liquid magma, it's heat searing away the Seleucarian forces before them. At the forefront rode Catarin, her hair held under a small leather cap, wearing only the monk's travelling clothes she'd worn during the Tournament of Blades. With each foot of ground gained, she left another dead soldier behind her, her staff rising and falling with mechanical, deadly efficiency.

Castomira's army included wielders of magic, as well, but as soon as they began to direct their spells against Catarin, she burned them to ash with reactive lightning from the Staff, and reflected their magic into their own troops.

And, at the same time, Lord Damen Kephry led his own charge against the city's smaller eastern gate. His forces, having barely defeated the surprise attack less than an hour before, were weakened, but not even the infamous Royal Elites would stop him. His great sword, which would one day be known as Bringer of Tears, slew countless of the enemy, leading his forces to push them back against their own walls.

And there the city stood, caught between two halves of the mill, slowly being ground down. But this did not bother the great Castomira, who had foreseen such an attack, and had prepared for it.

She stood at the balcony of her private rooms, and looked out at the walls, smiling. She turned to the man standing behind her, and whispered softly.

"They chose to attack at night, the fools. Are you ready?"

The man, whose name to this day is still unknown, nodded and stepped forward. Castomira drew forth a black dagger from its sheath and held it over the man's heart.

"Life's blood freely given is a powerful thing," she whispered to the man, who shivered in excitement. "I shall show Catarin the true power that one can wield if she is willing."

She plunged the dagger home.

From Orson Lasalle, Blood and Roses: New Theories Regarding the Wars of Succession

While clearly Castomira Brangwin was a force for evil, her efforts during the Second War of Succession led to considerable progress for the Seleucarian Empire. In order to form a powerful coalition army, she set new standards for strategic unification of infantry, cavalry, and bowmen. Her Royal Elites were rightly feared; in only a few months, she took the top ten percent of the standing armies, and formed them into combined-arms units of exceptional training and coherence, under her seven High Commanders. After the war, scattered former Royal Elites contributed to an overall improvement in the quality of the imperial armed forces, guaranteeing a long period of peace and security.

Furthermore, Castomira's rapid military expansion within the province of Seleucar required extensive logistical support. By emptying the coffers of her supporters, Castomira turned Seleucar's somewhat haphazard infrastructure into a streamlined transport and staging system. Although the lords who financed her went bankrupt, merchants of the next few decades received an economic boost from the rapid improvements Castomira had pushed through.

Catarin's reign came to be known as a golden age, most especially for its military security and its economic prosperity . . . boons which were the direct result of Castomira's ruthless bid for power. Had Castomira's threat never arisen, Catarin's reign might have been entirely unexceptional. In particular, the renaissance of culture initiated by Catarin's extravagant Imperial Bardic Endowment might never have occurred, nor the expansion of Tasur'ke, nor the construction of the lost and legendary Floating Temples of Shar'ilian.

However, was the price of such peace and prosperity worth the loss of life? This author does not know.

Queen of the Broken Sword

From General Norij Gaston, Personal Journal

We were winning when it happened. The sky went from clear to stormy in the course of five minutes, and thunderbolts flickered within the gathering clouds. The battle lost intensity as more and more men backed away, spooked by the unnatural display. I ordered my division to engage, but soldiers are a superstitious lot: even in this age of magic, many will not dare to challenge the unearthly.

And suddenly, lightning fell to the ground in sheets, ripping through Seleucarian and Ashtanian alike. The storm of lightning ignited waves of fire that tore across the ground; spot tornadoes hurled men and horses to the afterlife; hailstones the size of billiard balls pummeled men to death. In the space of ten breaths, I watched a thousand people die, and even my battle-hardened senses felt the first stirrings of terror. As the destruction slowly began to focus on our side of the battleground, it became clear that this was a battle we could not win by force of arms.

And then I saw Catarin urge her horse to a gallop, knocking her own men aside as she raced to the front line. A hundred bolts of lightning struck at her, and all were repelled by a dome of golden light, one that grew larger with each attack it deflected. At her side was Damen Kephry, swinging his mighty sword to clear her path through the broken Seleucarian lines. As I watched, Catarin raised the Staff of Nicator above her head with one hand, and Three Moons with the other. Her skull cap had fallen in her headlong gallop, leaving her hair free in the wind, and I swear she was the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. By the time she neared the center of the Seleucarian force, the golden shield was large enough to cover the entire battlefield, and the mystic storm overhead raged uselessly.

"See how the witch Castomira would spend your lives to win this battle!" Catarin yelled out to the Seleucarian armies that surrounded her. "Decide for yourselves whether her cause is your own!" The Seleucarian soldiers at the front line, already unsure of themselves, seemed as though they might be receptive to her outcry, but the Royal Elites at the center of the Seleucarian division fanned out to surround her and Lord Kephry. "You are the citizens of the city of Nicator and Piraeus! But this time, the Black Wave comes from the center of the city. Know this! Castomira Brangwin holds the evil of the Tsol'teth within her, and now you see its fruit! The choice is yours, but know that if you side with Castomira, you will share her fate."

The storm front had reached each horizon, and in every quarter, death reigned. Catarin's dome of protection covered only a small portion of the dark storm's ravage. Even as the Royal Elites closed in, and Lord Kephry prepared to make a valiant stand, Catarin visibly came to a decision. She said something to Kephry, then both of them disappeared in a brilliant flash of white. The golden dome of light remained, as Ashtanian and Seleucarian troops engaged the Royal Elites. In this area, at least, the battle could be won. But my spyglass showed Ashtanian and Shallamese armies crushed to bits, and Royal Elites chasing the stragglers through a hellish playground of fire and ice.

From The Sealed Files of Castomira Brangwin

Win or lose, history will cast me as a villain. Even if I reign for a thousand years, and my empire reveres me for ten thousand more, all things must topple, and when the pendulum of dominion swings back to good and light and happiness, my name will be remembered with hatred and fear.

This prospect fills me with satisfaction.

It's only been a year and a half that I've held these dreams of destruction and domination, and yet I must concentrate to remember how my dark wishes evolved. At first, I wanted only to kill Catarin. Then, I thought to destroy the entire nation of Seleucar. And now, I've hit upon a combination that seems perfect to me: kill Catarin, and then rule over Seleucar with such unrelenting cruelty that even in Heaven, Catarin and all her ancestors will feel the agony of loss. Perhaps I shall hold seances solely that I might gloat. Perhaps I shall invade the sacrosanct Tomb of Kings and raise them all as zombies to do my bidding. My son Parni is partly of their blood. That means that in his hands, the Staff of Nicator will take on royal power. But if his soul is black enough, that power will be twisted and vile to match. Perhaps I can spit in the eyes of the gods themselves, for it is said that what is made by the Logos cannot be unmade.

My son. I truly do have a mother's instincts. I want to protect him, nurture him, raise him to be as powerful and fearless as he can be. I want to mold him in my image, make of him what I wish that I could be. Might a human mother cringe to think that I wish to raise Parni as a monster? He is of my blood, he has drunk my milk. Already his soul is a dark shade of gray. I am hard as diamond, dyed in evil, fed richly on souls and heartbreak. With my power and the blood of holy kings, what might Parni become? The nemesis of a thousand states. The murderer of a thousand dreams.

I no longer think of myself as human. Word has it that Catarin claims I've inherited the evil power of the Tsol'teth. I've no reason to doubt her; I've never researched my own lineage. Perhaps I am an unwitting pawn to the Dark Masters, long after their deaths. If so, then they have crafted a perfect tool, for I feel nothing but joy at the imminent fruition of my plans.

Yet I feel fear, as well. For now, Catarin still holds the Staff. If I can place it in Parni's infant hands, Catarin's bond with it will be broken; but until then, she is a very real threat to me. I must keep Parni near me, to steal the Staff from Catarin. But that means that Catarin can find me in an eyeblink, if she uses the Staff to travel to Parni. It is a measured risk I take. And in this journal, no braggadocio: this may be my final entry. To kill Trenton Deis was far more than I expected of her. Have I underestimated Catarin yet again?

From The Sealed Files of Catarin the Just

Editor's note: This single text, written on the first few pages of an otherwise blank journal, was found embedded in the cornerstone of the Second Imperial Palace after it was demolished by the Sapience League. It was contained in a box, along with a slip of parchment lettered "To be read after the fall of the Empire." Under the circumstances, it was deemed appropriate to open it on the spot.

The light faded. We were in the Palace. I could tell that she was near. At the last second, she had knocked me aside, preventing me from reaching her son directly. I knew that she was gathering her power. I could feel it in the stones around me. The entire Palace throbbed with ill, like an infected cut pulsing pain. Damen felt it, but could not sense its full scope. I could. The scars of battle left by the first war had been hastily repaired, but the violent wrong possessing the palace now would not be so easily erased.

"A very interesting way of getting into the Palace," Damen said quietly.

"The only way. I did not mean to bring you with me. You should escape to the streets. You won't have a chance against Castomira."

Damen nodded. "I remember the last time. Listen. I can hear fighting out there. Castomira hasn't aimed that storm at the city yet. If you can defeat her, we might win, even with our main forces crippled."

I remember how he looked at that moment, hopeful, the first to truly believe in me since Lucaine died. All the others had bowed to my force of will, or my threats, or my reasoning, but only Damen Kephry had truly given me his fealty. I had begun to understand why his wife had loved him so. But he and I were far too wrapped up in our personal griefs ever to consider letting them go, for years yet, perhaps. "Perhaps" is the best I can say, for at that moment Castomira killed him.

As the violent crackle of her spell faded, Damen slumped to the ground. Steam rose from the gruesome hole in his back. The air shifted slightly, and Castomira Brangwin was no longer invisible. She held a tiny babe in one arm, and her other hand still rippled with the sinuous afterglow of her magic.

"Catarin, my dear. Ah, there should be a special word, a word for someone you hate so much that it's stronger than love. Were we lovers, I could say, 'Catarin, my love,' and perhaps your heart would leap with anticipation. But there's nothing I can say like that right now."

For just a moment, I was drawn in by her posturing. Foolishly, I started to reply. "Why not say, 'Goodbye?' Because—" but this battle was not to follow bardic conventions, and there was to be no lengthy exchange of threats. My mistake. The moment I became distracted with speech, Castomira lunged toward me, arm out, almost too quickly to see. Only my Sentaari training allowed me to pivot around her, reaching out blindly to swing the Staff at her throat. My blow struck home. There was a blinding flash, and she flew backwards into a pillar, striking it so hard that it cracked. The infant flew from her grasp, falling head-first toward the floor.

Again, I could only react on instinct. I dove toward the child, both arms out, letting the Staff fall to the ground. I hit the ground hard, but I managed to catch the baby. Was I foolish to preserve his life? He was the heir of the Tsol'teth. But I could not let an infant die, and claim to be in the right.

As I struggled to my feet, I saw without surprise that Castomira had claimed the Staff.

"Interesting," Castomira said, gesturing with the Staff. "I had thought it would refuse me. Destroy me even. Yet here I stand, untouched."

"The Staff does as I will," I said softly. "This is your final chance to repent. The Tsol'teth power might still be cleansed."

"What will you do? Kill my child? He makes a poor hostage for you, Catarin. Why not return him to his mother?"

I stood there for a long moment, looking at the woman who had once been my friend, someone with whom I had shared my childhood secrets, someone I had once called sister in my heart. And all that was left was a walking ruin of a woman, an intelligent monster twisted out of shape by a cruel and ancient power. "Your evil was an accident of birth. I hope to save him from the same."

"Brainless wench, you cannot raise him in the light when your soul is damned in darkness!" Castomira clenched her fist, and chaotic vapors steamed forth from it, and began to glow. But before she could unleash her magic, the Staff of Nicator shone with a tremendous brilliance, far greater than anything I had seen before. I was later told that the light shone directly through rock, and even hundreds of miles away over the horizon it was visible as a bright spot on the ground itself. My eyes were not harmed, although after the war the Church had to spend months magically restoring the vision of every person within twenty miles of Seleucar.

I had willed the Staff, "Destroy Castomira." But its manifestation of power was beyond my intent or, indeed, my imagination. From the Staff, a beam of light reached up and down, boring into the ceiling and the floor, then widened to a pillar ten feet across. After a long moment, the beam collapsed . . . and Castomira laughed in the middle of it, floating in the air, unhurt.

"I am stronger than the Staff! Look how its power bathes me in light!" And indeed, the residual glow that rippled along Castomira's ebony gown seemed like a ghastly extension of her evil power. In my arms, the baby gurgled contentedly, utterly unaffected by the chaos surrounding him.

Then hell truly broke loose. From the unimaginable depths of the earth, flaming liquid rock spewed up in a geyser. The Staff of Nicator had made a cut miles deep, and the very blood of the earth was jetting forth. With reactions faster than any human's, Castomira instantly summoned arctic cold to freeze the spurting magma in place as quickly as it flowed, but she was not fast enough to stem the eruption, and she found herself scrambling up a growing mound of steaming volcanic rock, spraying lethal cold from her hands in all directions.

If I left her to fight the rage of the earth alone, however, she might prevail. But if I commanded the Staff again to destroy her, what havoc might it wreak? I could not control the Staff of Nicator.

I had one option left. One that felt insanely foolish, yet perfectly right. I charged. I had heard a hundred times in the last month, "Vitem et sanguinem." Blood and lives, indeed. For Seleucar, at last, my blood and life . . . or Castomira's.

Every time Castomira froze the magma beneath her, another section of the rising volcanic mass would explode into flaming shrapnel and liquid rock, defying her every attempt to leap down from the igneous hill she was creating. It was only by luck that I hadn't already been killed by flying rock. But now, after setting my helpless nephew on the ground behind the scant protection of a marble column, I scrambled up toward Castomira, leaping over rivulets of lava, ignoring the flying rocks that whizzed closely past my head.

Castomira's face was pale white and glowing. Spots of darkness moved around her skin, like shifting leaf-shadows. Even as she froze another spray of magma in midair with one hand, she raised the other to meet my advance. But the hand she raised to me was the one that held the Staff, and when she tried to channel her evil magic through it, the Staff pulsed white, once, and blew her hand off. Castomira stared with disbelief at the stump of her wrist, and she still wore that expression when the broken blade of Three Moons took off her head. The Staff of Nicator fell, and with my free hand I snatched it out of the air. Castomira's blood was as red and bright as anyone's. For the last time, Three Moons had drawn its sacred circle of death.

Immediately the Staff quieted the roaring earth, and the lava flow ceased. The Staff's power was mine again, and I used it to bring my nephew back into my arms. I thought it was over. And then Castomira's severed head began to speak, softly and weakly at first, but transforming at the last into an inhuman, demonic shriek.

"This Empire will stretch out for hundreds of years more, hated blood of Nicator. But when the Staff of Nicator comes into Parni's grip, it will end once and for all time. Pray now, for in the end, all that you have fought for is damned. Run now, for in moments, the heart of your city will be consumed! As long as there are humans, our hatred can never die . . . . Tezlari'tarin shall be destroyed, despite every human effort! The Tsol'teth will not be denied!"

For all my reign, I have claimed that the bright light and the opening of the magma well were the result of Castomira's magic. May the gods forgive this small untruth. I write this to set the record straight; I write this in hope that whoever seeks to revive the Empire will realize that the Staff is more than just an artifact for personal aggrandizement, more than just a prize for earning credit with the gods, more than just a trophy of personal might: it is a mystery, subject only to the will of Sarapis. I fear the role it may play in the future of the Empire. I do not doubt Castomira's final prophecy for a moment, although I've sought to delay it. I hope that this may serve as a warning to whoever comes to wield the Staff in the far future.

Castomira's corpse exploded into an acidic wave of black light that consumed the entire Palace, leaving a pitted and uneven crater half a mile across. At its bottom was the geometrically smooth hole that the Staff had burned into the center of the earth. I have always said that the Staff was lost in the battle. It was. In order to avoid the fulfillment of Castomira's prophecy, I dropped the Staff into the hole. I would rather it rest forever in the depths.

The palace was rebuilt in the crater, and the hole was covered by masonry at my request. I've heard them talking behind my back about building a special shrine there after my death, to commemorate the battle. They're calling it the Well of Fire. I can't explain to them why I wanted it sealed. Parni is a moody boy, and rebellious, and although he's never shown a glimmer of hatred or cruelty, I won't risk giving him any ideas that he is destined to destroy the Empire. True or false, it's simply not the sort of thing a thirteen-year-old needs to know.

From Shigen Galuade, A Thousand Happy Endings: The Unexplored Tragedies of the Second War of Succession

Therefore, it becomes clear that Prince Parni showed no resentment whatsoever for the deaths of his mother or his father, having been raised, like all children of the time, in the afterglow of Catarin's glorious victory. Every memory that he had was of his foster parents, who showed him nothing but love and devotion. And he had been raised as a prince, potentially an heir to the imperial throne, and was given an education commensurate with this responsibility. Certainly he could not have felt abandoned. How, then, to explain his disappearance?

Historians have provided a dozen theories, but only a few carry any weight. Consider the facts, sparse though they may be: he went with a group of huntsmen and retainers on a routine game outing in an imperial preserve. He did not return after dark. A search party was sent out the next day, expecting simply to find that the hunting party had camped for the night. Instead, the searchers found the prince's companions scattered through the woods, each ripped limb from limb. Of the prince, there was nothing to be found, then or ever.

There are only four plausible explanations. First, something killed the hunting party and kidnapped the prince. Second, something killed the hunting party and destroyed the prince entirely. Third, something killed the hunting party, and the prince escaped, and has either been unable or unwilling to return to the known areas of Sapience. Fourth, the prince himself killed the hunting party, then disappeared or went undercover.

I am a historian, not a detective. I refuse to endorse one theory over another. However, among less exacting scholars, the prevailing opinion is that Parni's past caught up with him . . . one way or another.

From The Sealed Files of Catarin the Just

So, for better or for worse, this is it: the real story. I've marked this journal to be opened only after the end of the Empire. If my instructions have been followed, and the Empire has already fallen, then tell me: was it worthwhile for me to preserve it?

Last Words of the Librarian

From Retsu Nienhalt, The Age of Conquest

Although there was much popular protest against Nicator and Seleucar in Shallam, the fact was incontrovertible: Seleucar's small force had demolished the mighty Shallamese army, and forced the city to unconditional surrender in a period of two hours.

The ease of the victory was due in part to the fact that Nicator's force was so small that it was not even perceived as an army until there was only a quarter of a mile to the main gate of the city. Shallam was forced to field its army with little preparation and no room to maneuver. Had the Shallamese thought to simply close the gate and wait for Nicator to leave, the Selucarian plans might have stopped right there, but Nicator and his strategists had planned it exactly: counting on Shallam's reluctance to close their shipping lanes, and the fact that Shallam had no inkling of Seleucar's existence up to now, they attacked with a force of a size calculated to bring only a half-hearted Shallamese response.

Meeting Shallam's army with great ferocity, the Selucarian army, only a thousand strong, defeated three thousand men in close combat right in front of the city's main gate. Selucarian Templars unhorsed Shallamese Knights; Selucarian trolls chopped Shallamese soldiers like weeds; and the Selucarian Occultists, many of whom had fled to Seleucar to escape Shallamese persecution, took great pleasure in using their flaming chariots to clear the parapets.

And in the end, the Emperor of Shallam took the field personally, struggling through the city gate on his noble charger, and a great cheer came up from his warriors… which turned to a great cry of dismay when Nicator froze him in a globe of golden light using the Staff of Nicator, and levitated him into the center of the Selucarian army. Entering the globe himself, Nicator held a long discussion with the Emperor, while the two armies battled furiously. When the discussion was over, the Emperor was given safe passage back to his army. The Emperor ordered his men to retreat into the city. Fifteen minutes later, white flags rose all over Shallam, to indicate the city's complete surrender.

When asked what he had talked about with the Emperor, Nicator simply replied, "I convinced him that Shallam would do better as part of Seleucar." It is widely believed that Nicator did not relate the full story.

From our viewpoint, the fall of the Seleucarian Empire happened impossibly long ago, and its Wars of Succession are more like an ancient myth than a real event. In these fast-moving times, memories rarely last longer than a few decades, and history is written haphazardly, and seldom preserved. In all honesty, it's a bad time to be a librarian. But this account that I have assembled of the Second War of Succession is, I believe, the best and most complete that you will find anywhere on Sapience. I hope it proves both useful and educational.

I did not include a summary of the events of the Catarine Dominion, on the flawed assumption that all readers would be familiar with this period of history. Allow me to briefly redress my error. Catarin eventually married Prince Evander Christin, of the royal line of Shallam, and bore two sons and a daughter. Catarin was, indeed, remembered by history as a "Queen," even though her son became the next Emperor. Catarin used Three Moons as her scepter of office, and after her death it was enshrined at the entrance to King's Tomb, to guard her eternal soul. The Catarine Dominion, which is the common name for her period of rule, was considered a golden age, during which the Seleucarian Empire reached a new level of peace, prosperity, and cooperation. Some of Catarin's policies held the seeds of decay, but these seeds did not reach fruition until hundreds of years later. And, finally, there is the famed disappearance of Castomira's son Parni; although if you know anything at all about the Seleucarian Empire, you quite likely know of that, and his spectacular later reappearance.

Long ago, longer than the memories of most now living, I received a divine commission to gather these histories. My commission is not fully discharged, for the final fate of the Seleucarian Empire remains untold. My nephews have sworn to take up this work; I trust that they will perform admirably. For myself, my days grow short. Soon I will Transcend for the last time. Wish me well.

It is incumbent upon me to offer thanks to those who have assisted in the gathering and editing of these sources. My heartfelt thanks go to Sarapis the Logos, without whom nothing is possible; Vail Mayonet; Saracen, Krizzik, Xander, and Etakk; Morlana ni'Choya; my nephews, Orson and Josiah; Alain; all deLeons, but particularly Ariel; Averroes the Prophet; Eregast; Steel Heaven; Daine of Michael; Hermit; Blade; Ander Kurtzweil; and especially, more than anyone, my beloved Lucrecia. Rest in peace, Lucrecia. And I'll see you soon.

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