The sun was just rising to the apex of its journey through the sky as the massive city of Bolborough opened its gates to let Tekoa through. Behind him, a long line of carts and wagons attempting to enter, but being thoroughly inspected. The ivory-colored missive in his hand bore the insignia of the skeletal hand holding a globe, the seal of High King Algan, King of Kings. It was the only reason that he had been expedited through the process of entry.
The outer ring, as the guards had called it, seemed to be mostly decrepit wooden structures with thatched roofs. The people all looked dirty and hungry, giving this portion of the city an air of despair that sank through to Tekoa’s core. There were no vendors or businesses that he could see, which surprised him as the outer ring of most cities made up the trade districts and were often the pride of the economy locally.
“Traveler, please, help me,” a beggar pleaded, holding out a clay cup as Tekoa passed.
Tekoa dropped two copper in it, “Sorry, I can’t do more.”
“May the gods bless you!” the beggar cried after him, nearly in tears.
Tekoa saw more beggars, and each seemed more destitute than the last. Faded rags of clothing that once looked as though it could have belonged to a noble clung to the thinning bodies of the pathetic people squabbling with each other. He felt a stab of guilt. He had felt so angry when Algan had removed him from his throne, but he was clearly luckier than these poor creatures.
Rising from the center of the city, the massive grey tower that sat at the center of Algan’s castle seemed to be an impossible feat of architecture. He had seen it from more than a hundred miles away and had assumed it to be some grand illusion, but looking up at it from within the city walls proved that it was a physical structure.
Tekoa approached the inner wall, where the lower ramparts were kept separate from those more fortunate.
“Halt,” a guard said, almost yawning through the word. “What’s your business?”
Tekoa held out the missive to the guard. The guard took one look at the seal and stepped aside.
“Don’t you want to look at it?” Tekoa asked.
“No one would be foolish enough to attempt passage with a false seal in the King of Kings’ city,” the guard replied, pulling the iron-barred door open.
Tekoa nodded and stepped through the door, walked ten feet to the secondary door that was already opening, leading to the inner city. The buildings here stood in stark contrast to the outer ring. The buildings were immaculately maintained whitewashed masonry with black clay tiles on their roofs. Gardens appeared near almost every home as though insulting those that would spy them from the massive gate that allowed horses through. The people strolled here at a leisurely pace that gave him a sick feeling.
Tekoa increased his pace, not wanting to talk with anyone here. He wasn’t sure that he would be able to stop himself from commenting on the state of things in the outer ring. The road he walked on led to the impossibly large portcullis of the keep where only a single guard patrolled.
“Excuse me,” Tekoa said, drawing the guard’s attention. He held up the letter once more. “I have a letter here from the High King.”
“Proceed,” the guard replied, continuing his patrol.
Tekoa watched the guard walk away in disbelief. He shook his head as he walked to the door to the right of the portcullis. When he attempted to grab the handle, his hand passed straight through it.
“What?” Tekoa muttered as he tried again, once again passing his hand through the handle. He looked up at the door and put his hand out. It passed through the apparent facade of the door with no resistance. “I guess I’ll go in then.”
Tekoa stepped through the door, and, rather than finding himself in the courtyard of the keep, he was standing at the end of a throne room. The white marble pillars extended hundreds of feet into the air, where they met the painted ceiling. He craned his neck and squinted his eyes to see the images painted were the various campaigns that he knew. At the center of each was the white-robed man that adorned every temple he had ever seen. The pale skin, dark hair, and pointed chin outlined the sapphire eyes that looked coldly back at him.
Tekoa saw the conquering of Dostra, the most recent conquest. Further on, Algan stood triumphant on top of Baswea Castle, the seven heads of the kings that wouldn’t surrender to him lying on the ground before him. He saw the kings of the entire northern continent on their knees bowing to Algan.
“Tekoa Helmuth,” a voice echoed through the room barely audible, drawing his attention to the throne. “Come.”
Tekoa walked forward and dropped prostrate before the King of Kings without looking up. His heartbeat furiously in his chest as his stomach twisted from his nerves. He hadn’t seen him on the throne and had gawked at the ceiling instead of walking forward.
“I apologize, my King,” Tekoa said. Even knowing that he had no power, the words still felt like acid flowing over his tongue.
“Rise, Tekoa. There isn’t much time for us to speak,” Algan said.
Tekoa climbed to his feet but kept his eyes no higher than the boots of the King of Kings.
“Look at me,” Algan said.
Tekoa took a deep breath and lifted his chin. What he saw nearly took his breath away. The man from the paintings on the ceiling was not who sat before him. Instead, it was some creature with flesh sloughing off its bones. The sapphire eyes still looked at him, but not coldly. They had a fire to them that told him something else entirely. The King of Kings was panicking.
“Do you understand what you are seeing?” Algan asked. The sinew of the jaw moved oddly. The voice didn’t entirely match the movement of the bones.
“What has happened to you?” Tekoa asked, forgetting niceties and stepping forward to inspect Algan closer. “Is this some kind of curse?”
“This is the price of my arrogance,” Algan said, his body unmoving. “I have brought you here because I need your help.”
Tekoa couldn’t hold it back. A great bellow of a laugh escaped his lips before he could stop it. He clamped his hand over his mouth, his heart skipping a beat in his chest.
“I can understand your reaction,” Algan said. “I’ve brought you here to ask for your help in a very particular plan that must be finished, or the world will fall into chaos.”
“You have my attention,” Tekoa said.
“I need you to organize a rebellion against me,” Algan said.
“I’m not going to lead men to their death standing against you. You can kill me now if that’s your goal. I’ll not help you uncover those who would stand against you,” Tekoa said. He opened his mouth to say more as the fire in his belly had been lit, but Algan lifted a hand, silencing him.
“You misunderstand, Tekoa. You are the last King that I removed. I know you were loved by your people fiercely. Many still whisper of you, not knowing that you have remained in opposition to the government I established in your kingdom ten years ago. You still have the respect of much of the surrounding countries for holding out so long against me.
“I am not asking you to uncover would-be usurpers around the world. I’m asking you to overthrow me,” Algan finished, lowering his hand.
“W-What?” Tekoa replied. “You can’t be serious.”
“I’ve put a lot of thought into this. I am tired, and my body is becoming something that I don’t understand any longer. I considered simply giving you the power to kill me yourself, but it would only create the opportunity for another, such as me, to claim the world as their own. I don’t want anyone ever to claim what is rightfully mine again. Instead, I wish to leave and have the world have some semblance of balance when I go. For this, there must be unity between most-”
“You’ve lost your mind,” Tekoa snapped. “Even if I agree to this, how can I be sure you are telling the truth? What guarantees do I have that you won’t change your mind and kill us all?”
“My plan depends entirely on you, Tekoa,” Algan said, taking a deep, shaky breath. “I want you to attack my city, and drive the undead forces back and destroy my tower. I want you, with the help of the support you can undoubtedly find, to overthrow me, and use that agreement between you and your support to keep the world from falling in my absence.”
“You conquered everything! You slew millions that fought against you and then used their corpses to fight their brethren until you won. Now that you have it all, you’re just walking away?” Tekoa bellowed. His rage boiled over. “You are the most selfish, arrogant, fu-”
“You will control yourself, or I will destroy you where you stand,” Algan replied as the light in the room dimmed. “I am not without enough power to destroy everything you have ever held dear to you.”
Tekoa bit his tongue.
“I realize how this looks to you. No one understood my plans when I began my campaigns. My goal was never to be the supreme leader of the world, though it is a pleasant result, my goal was to stop the world from destroying itself. Before I came along, every kingdom fought incessantly over borders and resources. They bickered and squabbled and killed many more in a year than I did throughout completing my goal.” Algan said, leaning forward. “I need the world to come together to overthrow me so they have a common enemy and can remember that alliance after I’m gone. You don’t have to answer me now. I’ll give you a month, and whatever you decide, I’ll respect your decision.”
“You speak of wanting the world to see peace, and that you never wanted to be the ruler of everything, yet you also speak of you being the only rightful ruler of the world. You are a hypocrite and a liar. I don’t trust what you’re saying, but it seems that I have no choice but to accept,” Tekoa said.
“Even a slim chance that I am speaking the truth is something worth pursuing. I can feel the hate flowing through you. Keep that. Use it. Become its master and rise against me. I will warn you of this, however. Do not tell anyone of this conversation. If I catch wind of anything on this agreement, I will destroy everyone that knows, including you. Do you understand?” Algan asked.
Tekoa nodded, turned on heel, and walked back for the door, “I’ll see you in a year.”
Artist Credit: Seb McKinnon