Photovoltaic

Chapter 
NUMBER

A Narrowing Escape

2.8.2022

By: 

“How did we end up here? A fair question, pet, and one that surely has a thousand answers if you asked a thousand voices. All of the stories begin in one place, though, with one problem, one guardian, one Taciturn. Mine is no different.”

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Roydice. The King’s Word. Celebrated by all as the embodiment of the divine right, the enforcement of royal will. Not just content, but eager to serve, to be the hand of the Law, an exemplar, the proof of the commitment between sovereign and vassal.

During the days in the light, Roydice’s accomplishments were innumerable. Bringing the truth of the Keep to faraway, savage lands by peace more than by sword. Illuminating the petty rulers of negligible hamlets with righteous, humble strength, compelling by example rather than word, finding kinship with the workers of the earth, the incarnation of just rule and its best possible enforcement.

But there was always something bigger.

It began as a small whisper, the idea that Roydice was a more worthy sovereign than the King himself; after all, it was Roydice who advocated for the people he touched on his missions. It was Roydice who shook hands, unafraid to sully himself with grime or toil. The King, in the Keep, far away, had no understanding of the realities of the daily struggles of his subjects, it was claimed. Roydice, at least, helped fashion plows from the confiscated scythes and daggers of the Outland invaders, defending the far reaches by hook, shaped into crook.

It was thus that jealousy stole into the court.

The King grew reticent; Roydice grew by incident.

The King said less; Roydice did more.

Where pride should have abounded, for the King himself won glory and fame through the deeds of his noble knights, instead rankle festered. Whether whispered into his ear by an uncouth, ambitious courtier slyly insinuating, or fated by the threads of destiny themselves, or simply one price of the weary weight of his rank and office, for heavy indeed is the crown, none can say. But jealousy, that worm, once rooted, grows, and twists upon itself, and contorts into worse than worms, into the very serpents of mistrust and wrath, and venomous betrayal.

And as it grew, so grew the court and the kingdom itself more grave and far less joyous. Bad luck seemed to find more purchase, though perhaps it was simply perception—for if one goes looking for trouble, then trouble they’ll find--but the King’s attitude did little to inspire optimism. And as the leader goes, so go his people. Where abundance and prosperity once blessed the land, feuds over boundaries began to happen, each citizen attempted to have more, to get more than his neighbors, viewing them as competitors rather than compatriots.

Roydice, for his part, kept on in his fashion, helping where he was needed, giving of his time and his wealth as he could. He felt it too, though, the cool distance taking root in a once-warm place. And he feared, as a good and just defender of the realm ought, that the enemies of the King and the kingdom would also take notice, and rally their cause to strike when they could. His admission of this worry to his closest friend, his sovereign, proved the first step in his undoing.

One day, a rare day when the King himself seemed to be in a mood of jollity, he spoke before his assembled court, directly to his finest knight, his most loyal servant.

“Roydice, it is said that you desire only to serve your King. Is this true?”

“Of course, my lord. I live to see your will enforced and your throne protected. I swore this bond to you many years ago and have striven only to see it through. I wonder, now, by your very question, if you have not had some cause to doubt my intent. I assure you, highness, my very life is yours to command.”

The King laughed, a mirthless laugh that gave the lie to the perceived mood of the chamber and brought an all-too familiar chill back into the air. “Hah! Your life? Is that all you would offer me, Roydice? So little, when I seek to build a kingdom that will serve not only these subjects, but their children, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren? A paltry sum against the ravages of time, one man’s life, do you not agree? Would you not see my shining realm protected for the generations to come?”

“I would, sire, and would that I had more than one life to give. Paltry I may be, but faithful and true, and stalwart to the end in your service, and the service of this land.”

“But was it not you,” the King continued, “who confided to me in your fear of a threat from the outside?”

“It was, majesty, though I fail to see how that calls my loyalty into question.”

The King’s voice rose, a tremble of anger making its way into his tone, “In saying, there is doing, Sir Knight! Have you no faith in the litanies? Our prayers reach to the heavens and by our words alone, we are blessed with divine protection. Your words of worry are a chink in that armor! By imagining our enemies to be able to come, you have made them so! Worse, you said it to me, the sovereign ruler of this place! As a rumor among the grog-besotten peasants in whatever tavern you post your muddy boots, perhaps it could be overlooked. But you have poisoned my mind with these thoughts of weakness! Your lack of faith has laid me low.”

“My king! It is not so! I said these words to you as a friend, a brother in arms, and a proud servant. The forces that muster against us would have come no matter what I said. Far better for you to know, and to prepare, than to be caught unawares. And even now, I stand ready to fight to my dying breath to protect you, and this place, though your thoughts of me have indeed laid me low this day.”

The king levelled his eyes. “Is that so, Roydice? And these invaders, when they come, will they come through the Narrowing Escape?”

“Of course not, milord, for it is high and tight, impossible to run supply lines through, and easily defensible. A single skilled soldier could hold the pass for days even against a foe of greatly superior numbers.”

The King nodded curtly. “Then it is there you will go. A single skilled soldier to defend against your imaginary hordes, when they come... if they come. You wished for more than your life to give, but give your life you shall. No more shall you traipse the lands making jest of me and spreading vicious rumors. Serve unto your dying breath, a sentinel to stand guard beside the giant’s headstone.”

“Milord, no! I beg you, let me serve where I will soon be needed! Do not do this to me, it is a fate crueler than banishment!”

The king’s gaze remained flat. “Come, knight, lean close to me one final time. Your bond of service in the high pass will be released when I speak this word to you once more, and not a moment sooner.”

A pair of tears rolled down Roydice’s face as he approached his King. Behind a cupped hand, a single whisper, and the knight turned and trudged out of the castle, sights set on the end of the road that is known as the Taciturn.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Here the Verses Discord was offered a choice.

“And there he stands to this day, pet. Had you come to me by the high ravine, you would have had to gain passage past that poor creature. Luckily for us, you have other means of transport. For now, though, a riddle, one that not even I, with my part to play in this tale, truly know the answer to. What word did the King whisper in Roydice’s ear?”

A: GARDEN

B: MANTLE

C: LISTEN

D: NECTAR

(If you’d like to vote on our stories, influence Verses lore, what happens next, game mechanics, and even future cards. Then join our Discord at http://discord.gg/verses)

Chapter 
NUMBER

Entangled

2.9.2022

By: 

“Hmm, yes, that may have been it. Your kind is so clever, so creative! Tell me, then, pet, will you turn your attention to another question? A brief departure from our tale is all, to an earlier time, to ply your nimble mind to a deeper mystery. And perhaps to come to know more of me, when I was a bit less... shocking. Agreed? Then let me spin a yarn.”

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

It began innocently, in a faraway kingdom, as most tales of princesses do. Good fortune and good character had brought the land to blessed times under her father’s reign, and he was equally blessed with a happy marriage to a wonderful queen, who, in due course, bore him a happily gurgling baby daughter. Idyllic and serene were those first years of her precocious ramblings about the palace, first on all fours, then on her own two legs, and always with a singular smile on her face, and a sparkle in her eyes.

As she grew, so grew her parents’ and her subjects’ estimation of her. She seemed to be possessed of her father’s kindness, and her mother’s wit, and even animated by the vigorous zeal for life that many attributed to her grandsire, who had won great glories at tournament in his days as a petit-enfant of the kingdom, when noble men were still inclined to tilt with him for all their worth, before his ascension to the throne became eminent and he was sadly reduced to the indulgence of his athletic spirit by playing at racquets, a far less potentially lethal pastime. By all accounts, though, he made as fine a showing on the clay as he had in the arena, and his granddaughter followed in kind, earning a reputation at twelve years old as a dogged opponent at rally and volley for even experienced adults, made all the more unsettling by her seemingly boundless energy and her ever-present smile.

Those who knew more, though, would have claimed, but only in hushed whispers, that it was the spirit of her mother’s mother that animated the young princess so. Grandmere had, as had the princess’ mother, and eventually the princess herself would be, been brokered as a political bargaining chip, married outside of her own volition to a rich man somewhere by a rich man from somewhere else as the material representation of alliance, or of favor, or of whatever whim came to their mutual minds. Signed, sealed, and delivered in the form of a fancy ceremony, and the uprooting of a young, promising life from the comfort of home, to be transplanted as a symbol into unfamiliar soil, among unfamiliar people and unfamiliar customs, to eat unfamiliar food and sleep in an unfamiliar bed.

The execution of such barbaric arrangements could have been enough (and was enough in many other documented cases, and understandably so) to send the princess’ grandmother into a spiral of deep depression, or a deranged mania, or worse, an uncontrollable vacillation between the two.

But she was for having none of that.

Her ken was of the deep old ways; ‘chieftain’s daughter’ more than ‘princess’ was likely her appropriate title. The sere conditions of her younger years meant that her self-esteem, much like her posterity’s, was based on her capacity for action, and the certainty that no task, monumental or minute, was beyond her ability. So, after she was bartered away in what proved to be a successful attempt to solidify the reputation of a small group of outlying islands, she arrived in her new home, a humble approximation of a castle in the hinterlands of the Ebudaeans and set to work.

In the ten years between her marriage and the birth of her daughter, she had done more to improve the conditions and consideration of the archipelago than the ten generations of men who had come before her. She was considered remarkably even-handed by those who worked for her, though her attention to detail left no room for error—talented chefs whose original recipes eventually saw interpretations in the most fashionable restaurants on the continent had often been promoted from within the lowest ranks of the scullery, but wealthy thatchers whose inherited mortar mixture had been too-often spread too thin onto leaky roofs soon found themselves facing the prospect of forcible remuneration, or worse, revocation of their licensure.

Even the lopsided parody of a castle soon came to be a point of pride. Honest stonemasons and that small segment of thatchers whose mortar was actually worth a damn worked tirelessly to renovate the sagging fortress, a room and a wing at a time, until that Stay’s façade rivalled that of wealthier, more bountiful places’ seats of authority.

Only one detail remained, hidden within the recesses of the royal corners, that would have tied the newly popular and cosmopolitan island kingdom to its not-so-far-off roots—a chamber that the queen insisted be dug out of the earth itself and never finished. It was there that she would retire, to her oafish but exceedingly satisfied husband’s chagrin on frequent occasion, rebuking his cajolement and brutish but charming attempts at romance with the simple explanation that she had to go make her orisons and duties—after all, hadn’t things gotten much better since she arrived? And since they had, and since he loved her, in his way, for all that she was, he relented.

It was then that she went to talk to dragons.

Dragons are not, as frequently assumed by the uninitiated, ruthless, hoarding predators with little on their mind but food and treasure. They are, in fact, exceedingly sentient beings, with ripe imaginations, whose existence is predicated on an environment that produces abundance, that is healthy enough to prepare a hoard in excess of its own needs. The princess’ grandmother knew this, from her initiation into her tribe’s mysteries as a young one. She brought with her a tiny spark of an apex protector, to the Ebudaeans, and nurtured it into something much greater, through the honesty of her give and her take, into a companion as indebted to the realm as it was responsible for it, and with whom she held communion with bare feet and bare hands on bare earth.

But her husband’s advances could not all be staved off, for she loved him, too, in her way, and soon she was with child. And in a blink, her child was born, and raised, and grown, and married away, to be planted, still a sapling, in the name of the Ebudaeans, for the first time ever on the lands of the continent. Luckily, the husband-to-be was kind, and handsome, and his kingdom was healthy, and happy, and abundant. There was no need for the dragon of the isles.

And things went as they did in their course, quite happily, and eventually thrilled with the ongoing results of racquets by match as an alternative to the old ways of bonking sword hilts on helmets in the arena.

But they say that the sight skips a generation.

And whether they say it or not, betrothal of humans to other humans without their consent is no way to abundance.

Thus, during a long day at courts, upon hearing the news that she would soon be married to some foreign master of a foreign Keep, the fundamental princess in question famously served a quoit directly into the face of her opponent, the wildly unpopular Comtesse de Slainet, on the latter's vocal approbation of “such a marvelous match.”

Though lionized by the local rag-sheets for her action, and the event heretofore becoming known in racquets infamy as “The Marvelous Match,” the princess nonetheless was deeply affected. In the scant months before she was to be whisked away to an unknown Keep, her smile faded. Her appearances on the clay were uninspired in defeat, and gleeless in victory.

For she had been confronted by an Absdragtion.

She had been sure of herself, the only child and loved therefore the most regardless of her gender. She had been adored by the crowd, buffetted by joy because of her position. She had only ever given her all, and it had always been enough. But somehow it was not enough; her people, her parents were willing to send her away to some beef-eating inland province and keep the slimy, snobby, broken-nosed Comtesse.

“It’s not fair,” came a voice one night while the princess’ face was swollen red and sniffling.

“No, it’s not,” said the princess, by reflex, without realizing who she was talking to.

“They don’t take you seriously,” said the voice.

“No, they, don’t,” said the princess.

“They took your grandfather seriously,” the voice suggested, taking a position around the room that seemed to be circular.

“Yes, but he was a man. They only ever saw me as a stupid cow to go have stupid calves in some stupid Keep for some stupid King, all because I was born this way!”

“They took him seriously because he was a man of the earth before he was a man of the clay,” said the voice, suddenly earthy and spiral and wobbly. “Why have you never taken up his sword if you wanted to be taken seriously? It’s a serious sword at the end of the day.”

“I... I don’t know. I never wanted to be entangled with all of this. Being royal is ridiculous! I’d much rather just get my feet muddy on the clay on a rainy day than worry about knights and invaders and who married who.”

“Of course you would,” said someone, their voice coming closer, but as if in an embrace, instead of directly into the princess’ ear. “It’s the idiotic pride of men that would be the end of us all. Just ask to take the sword with you, a memento of home and a marker of your heritage. We’ll use it to be done with this foolishness sooner than later, dearest.”

“We.. We will? We will.” The princess wiped her nose as her toes touched the stone of the castle floor.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

“Every repetition of this foolish cycle, I wish that humility had taken my hand. Instead, I took up arms against what I perceived to be an injustice. Knowing what you know, my pet traveler, and knowing that knowing the name of a thing gives you power over it, what would you name the Absdragtion, my temptation, the wrath of the isles?”

Here the Verses Discord was offered a choice.



A. Damethgnadmorr

B. Tuniocre Calot, the Foul

C. Sosleth Soleths

D. Pan’t’Targ Fillash

Chapter 
NUMBER

Undying Love

2.10.2022

By: 

“Hm, yes, perhaps it was so. Tell me, pet, having heard the stories of poor Roydice, and the young princess who I once was, have you come to any conclusions about this neverending cycle? Do you have any ideas for how you and your Initiative might be able to resolve the situation between myself and the lord of the Crumbling Keep? No? More information, I suppose, will be needed, but information I have, pet. Let me say more of the times between, and of undying love.”

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

The princess’ silent rage at the bare inconsideration that her circumstances demonstrated remained, as did her twisting plot to undo the foolish situation altogether, with the help of her grandfather’s sword. Little did she know, however, that both would soon melt away like the last vestiges of winter snow on the hillside in the shining sun of the warm spring.

Her voyage from home was made in appointed splendor; accompanied by a complement of mounted guards and their liveried servants, the carriage itself, drawn by four horses of the famous wild coastal stock, was exquisite cherry wood with silver filigree, and spared no luxury of comfort in its interior, from the plush seat linings to an icebox filled with treats and snacks, and a cleverly designed drainage that simply saw the accumulating moisture out through a hole in the bottom of the floorboard. The princess, too, was resplendent, her emerald-colored dress a gentle contrast to her dark tresses and amber eyes, and well cut to accentuate the fact that her athletic frame had only become less gangly and more lithe, easier and more naturally befitting her during her journey into womanhood.

She had wept, and bitterly, upon her fanfared exit from the city that had been, no, was her only home, believing herself betrayed by the many smiling and cheering faces who had turned out into the streets to bid her godspeed. Her parents, too, had made a show of emotion at their farewells, though it was only to be a short time until they would meet her at her new home in the Keep for the wedding ceremony. Unfortunately, matters of diplomacy required that they stay behind and receive some distinguished guests, presumably to smooth over the ruffled feathers that those nobles had felt at not receiving invitations to the wedding themselves.

At least they had granted her request, though with no small bit of confusion as to why, to allow her to bring the previous king’s sword with her. Attended by her three closest chambermaids, and the Sergeant of the guard company, the princess passed the first part of the journey in sullen silence, staring out of the carriage window as the landscape turned from urban to rural, even going so far as to decline the opportunity to enjoy her favorite pastry, a plum tart, still deliciously chilled, when her attendant ladies broke into the icebox an hour outside of the castle.

Still, the stoniest mountain face is eventually eroded by wind and rain, and so was the princess’ resolve; the journey itself would take four days, and anger, manifested as mood, bears a high cost to upkeep. Staring down a lot of work for little in return, she eventually allowed her demeanor to brighten, especially so as not to offend the noble houses who provided her party overnight lodgings. On arrival at each of the three stops on the long road, she put on her courtly manners, and behaved with the grace and poise that was her reputation.

It was shortly after setting out extremely early after their third overnight stay that the Sergeant marked the river crossing that denoted the line between the kingdoms. “Highness, this is it; on the other side of this bridge, we’ll enter into the kingdom of the Keep. An exciting moment for you and your young ladies, I’d wager; a salty old dog like me has seen his share of borders, but you’ve never left our lands before, have you?”

The princess shook her head no, though for the life of her she couldn’t understand why people seemed to be so obsessed with drawing imaginary lines on the ground. At least in racquets, the lines served a purpose—to determine whether the quoit had landed in or out; the notion that people should be considered in or out because of which side of a line they had been born on was ridiculous. “It looks awfully a lot like our side of the river, the other side of the river, don’t you think, Sergeant?”

“That it does, highness, that it does. And these outskirts of this kingdom likely look much as ours do, as well; hamlets with a tavern and a longhouse, farmland, the occasional donkey in the road. But I think you’ll find that all the similarities in between are there to highlight the differences in the finer places. The Keep and its city is something special, indeed.”

“Hmph. I’ll take your word for it, Sergeant.”

“You need not do that, highness, for you’ll make your own judgement soon enough,” said the Sergeant, with a kind smile. “If you’d been packed away up north to the icy lands, or across the water to the Caliph’s desert, I’d have truly felt sorrow for your fate in my heart. Where we travel now, though, is a sight to behold, and a place I think you may one day come to regard as you do our own home.”

The conversation inside the carriage once again lapsed into silence, but as the day wore on, and the mustard-colored farmlands gave way to more lushly green forest, with gently rolling hills and valleys, the princess began to feel a sense that she was, in fact, in a place that was quite different than anywhere she had been.

As the setting sun painted the sky in the airy swirls of pink and purplish clouds against a deep radiant orange glow, the carriage crested the final rise before beginning its descent into the valley of its destination. “There, highness,” said the Sergeant, with a gentle nudge, pointing his finger askance out the front window of the coach. She leaned to look with her brows furrowed, and startled her ladies-in-waiting as she let out an audible gasp.

The Keep. Its white, asymmetrical spires silhouetted impossibly high against the watercolor backdrop of the beautiful sunset, the city sprawling around its base at least double, likely triple the size of her home, and somehow possessed of a feeling of livelihood, abuzz with the hurried completion of last of the day’s tasks in the face of oncoming night. It was marvelous; a place to die for.

The Sergeant’s lips broke, despite his obvious efforts to control them, into a wide grin.

Some time later, after the party had been welcomed with the usual aplomb, and fed, and showed to their well-appointed chambers by the Head Steward, with his distinct apologies that the king was attending to some pressing business and could not be there personally, and a surprised raised eyebrow at the princess’ insistence on carrying her grandfather’s sword with her, she found herself alone for the first time in a long time. Her attendant ladies were in adjoining rooms, but for the moment she had only the company of her own thoughts.

The idea came, unbidden, that she felt a dizzying excitement at the splendor of the Keep and its bustling city, that she was lucky to have the opportunity to explore it, try new things, and meet new people. But no! It was true, she was fortunate to have wound up in a place as nice as this compared to some of the other possibilities, but it was still unfair, and she had been given no say in the matter. If she had come to this place because she wanted to, then it would be different, but this way, this custom, was not right.

As she wrestled with her warring emotions, she heard a slight rustle outside her door. The dark shadow of a pair of feet was visible through the cracks, and the muffled clink of someone trying to use a key but keep it silent was followed by the slow scrape of it interacting with the metal innards of the lock. The princess sprung to the closest means of defending herself—the heirloom sword, and snatched it up with two hands, pointing its tip toward the door and assuming her best racquets stance.

There was no time to call out, nor any guarantee that the guards in this place would be quick or even willing to come to her defense. Her ladies-in-waiting had less martial training than she did, and would likely be of no use either. No point in bringing them running into harm’s way. As the door slowly began to swing open, she spared a glance in the mirror, to steel her resolve, where the flickering candlelight playing on her expression gave a brief but unsettling impression of a skeletal visage.

She blinked, and it was gone; nodding once to reassure herself she turned her gaze back to the door, which opened wide to reveal... a tall, handsome man with a crown on his head. His quick, intelligent eyes looked to her and opened wide in surprise on registering that she was not only armed, but brandishing the weapon at him!

In his hands he held...

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Here the Verses Discord was offered a choice.

“Oh, I never can remember what that beautiful fool brought with him that first night. Of course, I lambasted him up and down for entering my chambers without so much as a knock, but it was his castle, after all. And I must admit, I wasn’t so embarrassed as to turn down his offering. In fact, it rather quite endeared him to me, though you mustn’t tell him I said so, pet. Hmm... what do you think it might have been?”

A: A racquet; “I’ve never played the game myself, princess, but I’ve heard of your skill and I hope that you’ll teach me on the court that I’ve had installed. With one as lovely as you as an enthusiast, it will probably even take off in popularity across the city!”

B: A tray of plum tarts; “I have heard these are your favorite. The fruits don’t grow here, but I sympathize with how unsettling this whole experience must be for you, so I had some imported. I want you to feel happy and comfortable in my... er.... our home.”

C: A key like the one around his neck; “It can open any door in the Keep. Though we are not wed officially, I want you to know that you have my trust. I see you as a partner and equal, and offer you the same access to everything that I myself possess.”

D: A beautiful golden dress; “The reports of the gorgeous hue of your eyes do not do them justice, milady. The pressing business my Steward referred to was to go pick up this gown from my finest tailors. I apologize for intruding so late, but I wanted to ask you to wear it in the morning to breakfast, to match with my own outfit.”

(If you’d like to vote on our stories, influence Verses lore, what happens next, game mechanics, and even future cards. Then join our Discord at http://discord.gg/verses)


Chapter 
NUMBER

I Knew This Day Would Come

2.11.2022

By: 

"Oh yes, that was certainly it! How silly of me to have forgotten, especially given that it was a skeleton key. These endless cycles in this murky gloom, though, pet, they’ve taken their toll. I’m hardly the woman that I was when this wicked curse began. It flatters me that you would attempt to redeem the bad decisions that led us here, though surely things can never go back to the way they were. But to have any hope of success, you’ll need to hear the saddest part of the tale.”

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

There were halcyon days. Halcyon years, in fact, from that first night that the king showed his fairness and consideration of the princess, who soon became the queen of the Keep. Though her heart still held a tiny sliver of disdain for the system of betrothal that had shaped the course of her life, not even she herself realized it, so loving was her marriage, and so joyful was her relationship with her new home and its citizens. They admired her greatly, not only because she showed genuine interest and appreciation for their land and their customs, but also because she was strong, and just, and unafraid to voice her opinion, though the match with her husband was so harmonious that it was not often the two came to different conclusions.

But time has its way with all things, and fortune’s wheel rises and falls. And eventually, circumstances came to bear upon the happy kingdom of the Keep that gave blame to one and all.

However, the brunt of that blame surely lays upon a conflux of unfortunate events which proceeded, beginning with a secret and unsuccessful attempt to broker a trade deal with the caliph from across the eastern sea. Though no one knew of the king’s inability to secure the rights of neutral passage through the waters and port cities of the caliphate, due to the clandestine nature of the meetings, it was, to his credit, the first and only failure he had faced on such a scale. Sadly, like many men of great intellect, he did not take failure well.

A veritable catalog of potential reasons occupied his inner thoughts constantly, a testament to his acumen in its approximation of scientific method and rational inquiry, but because the attempt had been conducted in secret, he had no one to compare his thoughts with, and more importantly, no one to help soothe his injured pride through commiseration and the assurance that it was the caliph, and not the king himself, who was in the wrong.

And the burdened mind is not a sound mind; it twists and turns in iterations upon itself, and reads implications that don’t exist into innocent actions. It screams its yearning to be right, but whispers to itself of its own error. It follows labyrinthine conjectures of possibility to the worst conclusions, and even, at times, might give birth to the convoluted form of an Absdragtion. The king was too logical for the last, but he surely suffered from nearly all of the former symptoms, including the beginnings of suspicion toward those nearest to him.

What if someone knew? What if they intentionally sabotaged him? Had an advisor told him to wear the wrong color? Had a translator used a turn of phrase that was certain to offend? Had his most trusted knights, his escorts to the covert parleys, sussed out their purpose and given away the secret? Had they all been against him all along? And what of the queen? No. No, not her, never her, his blessed bride, she was true and faithful. But what of all the rest?

What of mother nature, too, though it would be some time before her interference in the situation came to the king’s attention. But her cycles are unpredictable and can be cruel, and though the kingdom surely had a surplus still, and no mouth went without food, it was a poor harvest and a cold winter in that year. It surely was equally as cold and harsh for the kingdom’s enemies to the mountainous west, and thus ensued the surge in raids and attacks that was seen by the locals in the hinterlands, and reported to good Sir Roydice, then by his honest and dutiful conveyance, to the ear of the king.

The end of that sad tale is known all too well. The king’s precarious mental state, brought on by his perfectionism and unwillingness to share his burdens with those who would have happily aided him resulted in the functional banishment of his finest, most loyal servant to the southern high pass, awaiting the whim and word of his liege.

It was too much for the queen.

She had never been one to withhold her opinions, and expected that her husband would listen to reason, as he always had, particularly if it was her reason. It was foolish, and dangerous, and vindictive without cause, what he had done to Roydice, and she told him so in no uncertain terms in their chambers one night. She bade him simply ride out and speak the whispered word to his good man, and bring him back to his rightful place as a trusted advisor and ambassador for the Keep. What happened next, she never could have expected.

The king flew into a fury, his bright eyes suddenly aflash with malice, and his fine features strained in rage across his face forming what she could not help but notice resembled a death’s head. He stomped and stormed around the room, and finally brought the pent-up wrath of seasons of mistrust to bear on her, the faithful one who least deserved any speck of his ire.

“You dare??! You would turn on me? Question me? I knew this day would come! It is I who should be questioning you, my pet,” he spat, turning their private term of endearment against her. “You would see that traitor Roydice on my throne, hm?”

“What is this that possesses you, dear king?” she said, horrified, “You know I love no one more than you, and have lived with you, as partner and equal since the day I arrived and you gave me your key. Little did I know then, but it was the key to my heart, which I have only ever shared with you openly.”

“And as poor a gift as I’ve been fool enough to give!” shouted the man in his mania, “What uses of that key have you made behind my back? What of the other day when you were seen tiptoeing out of the counting-room? Were you there to steal, to alter books, funnel funds to some country knight who’s caught your fancy now that Roydice is where he belongs?”

The queen wept, brutally wounded by such baseless accusations, and shouted back, “No, you idiot! I was there to oversee the dispensation for the racquets tournament as I do every year at this time! And if I was on tiptoe, it was so as not to disturb the alchemists in the laboratory next door to the accountants, which is as stupid an arrangement as I have ever seen. One mistake in the nonsensical quest to turn lead into gold and the entire kingdom’s books and balances will rain down on the city’s upper quarter in a snowstorm of paper!”

“Hah! Racquets! A convenient excuse, and a coarse pastime. A bit of your inherited northisland charm plied to make me trust you by making yourself seem harmless so you could turn on me now, in this critical moment,” replied the king, ignoring the accurate criticism of the laboratory’s location.

“Harmless?!? HARMLESS?” she yelled, “You’ll recall I had you at swordpoint that first night you gave yourself royal permission to enter my chambers, a maiden’s chambers at that! And it’s at swordpoint I’ll have you again tonight if you dare to follow me!” She stormed out of the royal suite, and good to her word, took up her grandfather’s sword from its place of pride, and slept her fitful, tearful sleep with it next to her, back in the room where she had spent her first night in the castle.

Worse came to worse, and worse again.

Rumors of the rift between the couple spread like fire to thatch roof, and soon it came to be that the enemies to the west thought the kingdom to be weak, as Roydice had predicted. They moved in force. The caliph, never one to miss an opportunity, blockaded the eastern coastline with his powerful navy, and when their cannons had cleared the defenses, landed his troops in a snakelike formation designed to strangle the Keep against the wall of invaders from the west.

Eventually, not even the forces of the kingdom could withstand pressure from both sides, and without Roydice to strategize and lead, the city of the Keep itself eventually came under siege. The queen was smuggled out under cover of night, bearing the ancestral blade of the north, just a week before the walls finally gave way, and the city, the Keep, and her once-beloved king were in the hands of the enemy.

She did not know what to do.

In the months of unhappy worry leading up to her furtive escape, the Absdragtion had found more and more purchase in her heart, as her feelings regarding her agency in the entire situation came bubbling back up. The foolish whims of men had ruined not one, but two idyllic lives for her, and she was inclined to take matters into her own hands.

On the road to the northlands, where she hoped to find at least temporary safety in the neutrality of her parents’ home, the voice from her youth came again. “You still have the sword.”

“I do. But what of it?”

“It contains the right of kings. There is a place nearby, where a powerful woman could bend that right to your will, the will you have been denied so long for the conditions of your birth.”

“What woman?”

“The Lady. She dwells in the waters. Bring the sword to her, and your will be done.”

The queen gritted her teeth, and reined her horse hard off the beaten path in a moment of decision. The whisper in her mind guided her for leagues through denser fog and deeper muck, until, at last, she knew she had come to the place, a grove of cypress with pools of water deep and black.

She dismounted, somehow already knowing what she had to do.

She approached the most reflective pool, and extended the sword in two hands. A shimmering image appeared in the water’s surface, unmistakeably her husband, the king of the Keep, but as a skeleton, and it was in that moment that she knew that he was dead, by the hands of his enemies and his own foolishness and pride. Her mind, so set on undoing the harms that had been caused by the callous rules of man’s empire, suddenly felt a pang of remorse. His death was the death of a part of her.

She had not been wiser, nor better than him; her vision alone as absolute would be flawed as his had been, in its own beautiful way. It was as a pair, as equals, as reflections of one another that she, and he, had been happiest, most effective, most powerful. Over the screaming protestations of the Absdragtion, who depended on dichotomy, she made her orison.

“Lady of the dark waters, by the royal right of this sword, I invoke your power. Bring my husband back to me so that we may resume as we once were, joined in our equal partnership in the Keep by the skeleton keys!”

A gentle glow began to emanate from the sword, and shimmering egrets, the patron animal of the coat of arms of the north appeared on either side. The fog began to swirl and darken, and the crackle of static formed by the charged ions in atmospheric moisture sparked luminous. The vision of the king began to take solid form, and as his knee and foot breached the surface of the pool, the mists and their electric field reached a fever pitch.

Suddenly, the sword shattered with a loud CRACK! Then the gentle hiss of sharp metal through air, a series of wet spatters, and a fade to black.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Here the Verses Discord was offered a choice.

“When I came to, it was here. I was in this form, alive with power and these splinters of my legacy embedded in my neck. But I had been tricked! My poor king. He had been brought back to me, indeed, but with all the knowledge of his failure, the weight of countless deaths on his conscience. He sits, gaunt and skeletal, on his throne in the Crumbling Keep, mournful, unable to forgive himself, though I would forgive him a thousand times over. All I can do is shelter him with memories, in the hopes that some fond ones will break him from this gloom. What course of action would you deem worthy to restore the joy I wished for?”

A: Attempt to find the location of the black pools. The Lady and the Absdragtion are unsolved pieces of this mystery, which runs deeper than just the king and queen.  You also almost lost a boot in a swamp not far from here during your first visit, which is a clue

B: Investigate the shards of the Egret sword in the queen’s neck with the Initiative’s technology. They are one half of the equation, and are readily available to study.  The sword's power was also the critical mass of energy that fueled this transformation.

C: Travel to the Crumbling Keep and confront the Cursed King. His actions were wrong, but forgiving oneself is the only way to progress. Restoring his mental health is not only likely to have positive effects in this realm of emotion, but it could also gain the Initiative another ally.

D: Bring in an Initiative team. We may not fully understand Gloom, but we have earned the trust of at least one individual here. We work stronger in collaboration, and can discover more about this place while we pursue other avenues to a solution for the royal couple.

(If you’d like to vote on our stories, influence Verses lore, what happens next, game mechanics, and even future cards. Then join our Discord at http://discord.gg/verses)

Chapter 
NUMBER

Undying Devotion

2.12.2022

By: 

[Archive: Long-term Cursed Kingdom Biome Mission- After review of the clues uncovered by the agent’s in-depth investigation of the area in Gloom centered upon the Crumbling Keep and its ruler, the Initiative’s opinions about what would have been the best option to pursue were strongly divided. 5 votes were registered for investigation of the shards of the Egret Sword that are embedded in the former queen’s neck. 4 votes each were cast in favor of attempting to locate the black pools, and traveling to the Keep itself. Negligible votes were cast for the establishment of a long-term program with multiple capable agents.
A-TL appended note: The last option was presumably avoided due to meta-relevant concerns about the Initiative’s energy reserves at the time. If only there had been some source of renewable power at our immediate disposal.]

“Thank you for being so forthcoming with me about your situation, your highness,” you say, genuinely gratified and moved by her willingness to take you into her confidence. “It’s a sad story, but not one that I think can’t come to a satisfying ending for the people involved. My first line of inquiry should definitely be regarding the shards of the Egret blade that are somehow bound to you. There would be a huge risk to your well-being if we were to try something drastic like extraction, but collecting some readings will be harmless, and might reveal a clue about exactly what’s going on.”

“There’s a chance that what’s happening is magical, but it’s equally likely that there’s a scientific explanation. We know from our contacts in Fantasia that connections to Gloom are possible there, and also definitely exist between here and my home in Synthex. It’s actually probable that Gloom has borders with the other known Verses, too. So, if you’d be so gracious as to grant me your permission, I’m anxious to begin.”

The queen nodded her assent before speaking in her crackling tone. “Yes, of course. You’ve earned my trust, and I also had the opportunity to get to know your... device, I believe you called it, the last time you were here. Inordinately more sophisticated than the alchemists’ attempts to turn everything into gold, and designed with purpose beyond the production of material wealth. Your tools reveal that your people value knowledge, and that is a trustworthy goal. Come, begin.”

You approach the queen and conduct a battery of tests on the metallic slivers protruding from her neck. Spectroscopic analysis is inconclusive, as are the readings of refractory harmonics and electromagnetic field data. You’re disappointed to have to inform her of the results.

“Sorry, highness, but there’s nothing definitive that I can say about the sword itself. Its composition seems pretty standard, though I must admit it was forged by a talented smith; the folds of the metal are very thinly layered and numerous. Still, that doesn’t account for any of the unusual effects that seem to be taking place. The only thing that’s out of the ordinary that my readings show is that there’s potentially a high concentration of Selenium somewhere nearby. There are traces of photovoltaic interactions taking place on the fringes of the meter that wouldn’t otherwise be easily explained.”

“Selenium?” The queen asked, with a note of surprise in her staticky voice. “That’s a memory and word that I haven’t heard in a very long time.”

“What do you mean, a memory?” you ask, a little confused, because there’s no chance that one of the higher-order elements was discovered, much less understood by the alchemists of her time.

“What I mean, my curious traveler, is that in the times before we came to be trapped in this dreary place, I was known as Selena. I haven’t heard that name since I fled from the Keep. It was given to me as a rebuke to the idea that my birth under a full moon was a bad omen; my parents decided to turn that superstition on its head by celebrating it with my name.”

You know better than to consider it to be a coincidence.

Another quick round of readings shows that, in fact, the grey, vaguely lustrous body of the queen is the source of the photovoltaic interference, which not only explains the fact that the metal shards embedded in her neck haven’t caused her significant trauma, but also why she is able to generate and control current, with the ferrous fragments acting as opposite poles. The only thing that’s missing, though, is a light source. In this dreary, sunless landscape, there’s no high-energy photons to power the solid-state interactions that would generate Selenium’s electromagnetic effects. Unless...

Unless the light came from inside the queen!

“Queen Selena!” you shout excitedly, “I think I’m starting to understand the rules of this place! You told me that it revels in misunderstanding, creating unbreakable cycles, and separation. I even experienced that myself, on my first visit here, where it tried to break me with loneliness and despair. But your light guided me, and from my point of view, the only scientific explanation for these readings is that you, Selena, have a powerful source of light inside of you! Its interaction with the strange body that you inhabit not only makes it possible for you to generate electric current, but might even explain the composition of your body itself. Gloom wants us to fear one another because of miscommunication, but if we stay honest, and respect each other’s perspectives, we can figure out the truth of the situation! I doubt anyone else would see you exactly as I do.”

Queen Selena tilts her head as if in search of understanding, looking to the pallid red and green of the sickly approximation of an Aurora, then suddenly seems to have a moment of clarity. “Yes, of course! That would also explain why I have felt the need to refer to you as ‘pet’! I would never intentionally call anyone by that private name which was a deep secret between myself and the king, but the sad conditions of this place made me feel compelled to identify you, the first person who showed me respect and attention, as a suitable candidate for that sweet apellation.”

“It was a little unsettling at first,” you admit, “but I took it as just an unusual deviation from the translator’s capacity. Anyway, we need to get to the Keep as soon as possible, because I think I might have an idea about how to help the king.”

“Then let’s away. We have nothing to fear, and I know the shortest route.”

Traveling through Gloom is significantly less nerve wracking with a friend at your side, especially one who can wield electricity at her own discretion, and it is not long before you arrive at the entrance to the Crumbling Keep.

Its high parapets and low walls are propped up with lichen-covered tombstones, though you would swear that they seem to corrode and fade at a rate that you can almost watch, like the fuel gauge on a heavily modded rocketrod back home. You would be frightened by the unnatural speed of decomposition, but you have a job to do, and helping Selena is much more important than giving in to fear.

The two of you walk through the lower level of the castle, the queen leading the way to the moldering doors of the throne room. As you enter, you are presented with the sight of a skeletal, rotting figure set upon a skeletal, rotting caricature of a seat of power. He raises his gaze to look upon you and the familiar but irrevocably altered form of his queen.

“Your highness,” you begin, but you are interrupted.

“No... no... this can’t be. Why have you come? Are you here to torment me? To tell me again that I am an idiot, a fool? I know all that, and more. Just go, and leave me be, alone here in my darkness.”

“No, majesty,” you say, gesturing at the decaying environs, “all this is just a construct. A manifestation of fears made real, the worst possible outcomes.”

“Ha! What would you know of the worst possible outcomes? I am reduced to a filthy parody of a throne, in a vulgar parody of a kingdom, without my beloved wife, without my trusted friends, without the people who trusted me to protect them, with nothing but my own arrogance and mistrust and guilt. The guilt! My ruination, my abjection is complete! Leave me in my silent shame.”

You are genuinely cut to the heart by his plight, and cannot help but feel a sense of revulsion at the grotesque form that has befallen this once noble man, but you find the courage to continue. “It’s true, you made mistakes. Grave ones. Innocent people were hurt because of your pride and self-righteousness. But it’s not too late to make amends. Queen Selena came with me, because, even after all this time and all this pain, she isn’t willing to give up on you. Roydice still stands guard at the southern pass, according to her information. It would be a meaningful first step for you to speak the word that would free him from his obligation.”

“Oh, Roydice, how wrong I did him,” says the king, “and relieve his burden of service I would, but I do not remember, in my sad mental state, and my perpetual lament, what word I whispered in his ear.”

It is a perplexing development. That is, until you remember what you have come to understand about Gloom. It cannot mute all communication, because otherwise it would be null and void, but it does play tricks in its attempts to limit understanding between individuals. Your training as a linguist keys in on some of the king’s choice of words. His “mental state.” His “perpetual lament.” They must be related...

...And they are! Unscrambled, the words mental and lament could be mantel or mantle! It’s unlikely that the king associated his knight with hearth and home, and much more probable that he dismissed him with a word that symbolizes authority. Even better, the words are homonyms! No matter which one he said, it would sound the same as the other, releasing the bond.

“Your majesty,” you say excitedly, “I think the word you are looking for may be ‘mantle’. When you said it the first time, you stripped Roydice of his rank, and when you say it again, your royal decree will return it to him.”

The king’s ghastly jaw opens in a ghoulish approximation of surprise. “Yes! Yes, that was it! I must hurry to the giant’s headstone and set him free.”

“Wait a second,” you say, “There’s still the question of Selena and this... Crumbling Keep.”

The queen steps in, never one, as you know, to fear to voice her opinion. “It would be a meaningful first step to go do right by Roydice, my king. I will support you in that journey. There are many more problems to consider, however, and I don’t think that we will find our way out of this gloom in a single day. Because I have been guilty too, of attempting to shelter you with memories from the past, instead of confronting the changes that have happened to us both.”

“And for all I loved you, it was a hardness in my heart against the very system that brought us together that made me take the selfish step to wish for things to be as they once had instead of finding ways to move forward. The Lady of the Dark Pools still remains. Tuniocre Calot the Foul is still nothing more than a jumble in my head. Let us find joy in the fact that this curious traveler has set us the first step on the right road, but have the wisdom to take it a step at a time.”

The skeletal king nods his head in humble assent. “I have things to confess as well, my pet, that I should have never kept hidden from you. For now, let us be as happy as we can in our gloomy Keep with our skeleton keys, and count ourselves lucky to have had such a being happen upon our unlucky circumstance and show such undying devotion to helping our cause.”

The three of you walk outside as you prepare to power up retrieval. At least, you think, youll have a part of Selena with you in your Gloomspark Portarray, until you can come back to see how they’re doing. You’re sure that the dreary landscape is a slight shade brighter as you wave goodbye to the strange, fated couple.

Just as you are about to feel the rising crescendo of drab senseless static shift towards the electronic bleeps and wonks of the Gloom to Synthex transition, Selena speaks.

“I hope you won’t be offended, the next time we see each other, if I eschew the ‘pet’ name. I’d much rather call you ‘friend’.”

“Friend,” you say. “I like the sound of that.”

[SHK-E Assessment: The Initiative did powerful detective work in this investigation that gained KNOWLEDGE about the mysterious Gloom, though not as much as would have been possible by investigating the Dark Pools. The decision to scan the shards of the Egret sword are in line with SAFETY ethics, because it did not put the agent or the Queen at risk. Though the agent eventually ended up helping the king, pursuing other steps before confronting his personal issues was not the most HEARTFELT action that could have been taken. No meaningful amount of ENERGY was spent on this solo mission.

SAFETY: Very Poor
HEART: BELOVED
KNOWLEDGE: Very Good
Energy: Dangerous

Para Initiative Reputations:

Interventionist
Friend of the Keep

Para Initiative Inventory:
‍Oystersand’s Illustrated Arcana
Notes on Xavi and 1086
Untranslated Copy of Dear People
‍Gloomspark Portarray]


Photovoltaic

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