"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.”
“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.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“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.
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