"He was but a boy then, perchance having weathered fourteen winters, brazenly and defiantly clutching his father's sword, his guardsmen dead, and yet there was ferocity in his eyes, not one inch would he move from the throne room's portal, would not let one of the Usurper's knights enter.
For all the good it did him, he even managed to land a resounding blow, yet they overwhelmed him then; I saw him locked in his own dungeons, the boy-king of Eversea, who ruled a whole seventeen days after his father's demise.
Khazeed the Usurper had all of the royal blood slain, yet kept the youth for entertainment, if one can call torture so. I was but the servant who cleansed his wounds back then, but I knew that he saw things beyond this world even back then, through the spectacles of despair, indignity and pain.
After the new sovereign grew weary of the blooded plaything, he had his wizards open a gate to the netherworlds, and cast the young king into the eternal dark.
You ask whether this Aerazad is the same as the boy back then? Yes and no. It is him, that I swear - but whether anything remains of the child I knew, I cannot tell."
Fifteen years had passed since the final stand at Kronberg, and with the former royalty dead and nobility likewise, the populace grew to accept the usurper in the absence of other options.
Then, the stars stood in patterns unseen before.
In what came to be known as the Year of the Hungry Night, assassinations, desertions, suicides and madness began to gnaw at emperor Khazeed's forces; the asylums overflowed with the insane, graveyards with contorted corpses and trash heaps with army uniforms.
At last, the usurper locked himself up in the castle with those he believed to be faithful - how mistaken was he!
"I was there when Khazeed's lords and retainers went insane. What triggered it I cannot tell, but paranoia and fear were ripe, and when lady Halia was found dead, tempers flared up, accusations were cast with wild abandon, then swords drawn. Alliances and suspicions shifted hence and forth, then lord Khelot's dalliance with the countess of Alderbridge was revealed, but all hell broke loose when they found the emperor's wine was poisoned, though accidentally, it was drunk by another. None were safe, and in the search for the assassin, they turned on the staff, their soldiers and another. Foul sorcery was at play, with monsters in human guise amongst us - when the glamers of Melika the chambermaid faded, she revealed herself to be something else entirely, and fled laughing into the night.
The tempers flared then, perchance there was something else in the wine as well, for suddenly, the new nobility were reduced to wild beasts desperate to kill; don't blame me that I did not stand by my lord, but I hid in a cupboard. All night I shook with fear as the castle echoed with sounds of slaughter; sometimes, even they passed by, like us yet strange, glowing, eerie, and I know they knew I was there, and they knew that I knew, but they just smiled, in my direction, and went on.
As dawn approached, all fell silent. I dared venture forth, to discover the emperor in the Great Hall, amidst corpses, gnawing his fingers, and the shining females were dancing around him, in the nude, laughing like fey children, glowing ever brighter."
The once and future king Aerazad rode into the capitol that day on the back of a mountain drake, accompanied by an army; yet, he was unopposed, the guards stood by, and none would raise a weapon in defiance.
"There he rode, astride that reptilian beast, clad in armor as if poured from liquid glass, flying the banner of the Dragon-above-Eversea, the personal standard of the dead king Aervenore, and the three-fanged crest of Kronberg was proudly displayed on his chest. I recognized the golden hair and sapphire eyes of the line of Aerander, and knew: our king had returned.
Beside him walked the Forsaken, three-eyed mountain folk driven into the Vales by our ancestors, and they looked up to him in rapture and awe, as if he was a god. Yet, all the eyes were not upon them in their drab stone armor, but upon the Shining Ones, who walked at the forefront of that army, procession or pilgrimage, I cannot tell. Clad in but their beauty, they glowed with an inner light, the brighter the closer they were to their sovereign. Those that fawned at his legs verily shone as the sun.
All stood in awe as he rode up the Dawn's Path to the castle gates, and knocked with his mail-wreathed fist but once. There was silence, then - until the gates flew open, and Khazeed the Usurper walked out. He seemed terrified of the returned king before him, but more so of whatever lied behind. Quivering and barely in control of his stride, he stood there, and gazed into Aerazad's eyes. What he saw there, we may never know, but he died in the Kronberg asylum not long thereafter, having gnawed the flesh off his own bones."
The returned king had the usurper's nobles and magistrates removed the very next day, the day thereafter, the clergy were given a simple choice - to build a set of shrines and decorative gardens in strange patterns that would span the kingdom, or the gallows.
Amongst them, he had statues of pastel crystal placed, each evoking emotions we no longer have words for.
A year later, envoys and missionaries marched to those who would welcome them, while covertly, the agents of the Returned King entered the realms of many less hospitable rulers; against a few, armies marched, both Forsaken and men, led by the Shining Ones.
"Eversea has taken Frostbite Pass, sire; the battle for the Heights is lost. It was those witches and their foul magic! Our men knew not friend from foe, could not remember their training, nor why they were there, facing the invaders.
My agents tell me there are hundreds of the witches, and they are not of this world. King Aerazad brought them with him upon his return. The spies tell me that they attend to his needs instead of servants, entertain him instead of bards and play the role of his messengers and magistrates; the closer to him they are, the brighter their glow. To one and every of them, he can relay his orders apparently with but a thought - or do they know his mind? I cannot tell.
I have been told that the king of Eversea eats and drinks nothing save the milk of their breast, that he touches no woman besides these luminous harlots, and that they alternate in his chambers all night; indeed, he does not seem to sleep at all. They treat him like their father, their god, their one desire and salvation.
I hear that in his land, the people fawn like lunatics at the attention of the witches, eager to please like puppy dogs, their very touch is considered blessing. My liege, we have seized a dead witch in the battle. Shall you do the honor and lead with a knife, to learn what we are up against?"
Indeed, the Witches of Eversea are as human as a wolf is kin to the hound; the first thing to strike one's attention is - beside the fact that they look like sisters, and sometimes glow - that they are incredibly flexible, their motions fluid, and their bones not only flexible, but capable of incredible extension, along with their flesh - indeed, they have little trouble reaching the top shelf, even if it's ten feet above ground.
While capable of subtle sorcery, their greatest asset though is the fact that they are veritable alchemist labs - each one brews various concoctions, beneficial or malicious, inside her body, and can set them free through their bite, their sweat, their milk or even a fine mist rising from their pores. No two of the sisters are entirely alike in their repertoire of wondrous draughts they can create. With a kiss or a touch, or even through their presence, they can cure, poison, invigorate or intoxicate.
All the energy for their abilities has to come from somewhere - as thaumivores, the witch-sisters feed on magical wellsprings, the ambient mana, but their greatest feast is the vigor of mages or creatures of sorcery; with their powers, they will keep them docile, and burrow their foot-long tongues into their flesh, where they open tiny ravenous mouths and drain their prize of the spark.
Their light glows dimly through the flesh, but in proximity to their king, it will be ever brighter, with their hair turning into a tide of flowing light, and markings become visible on their bodies, strange star-charts with constellations that never come to pass and excerpts from the unintelligible visions of the Keeper of Forbidden Prophecies, Phul-Kun; luckily the writing is separated on their flesh, for in one place, as is with the book where they are all penned, the concentrated madness sunders reality itself. Indeed, every Shining One carries one tiny seed of chaos from the un-worlds; it is this essence that allows them to shape their bodies.
"I feel that another monument of Eversea stands at the Wyldern nexus, my queen" the misty-eyed redhead whispered into her liege's ear, then brushed it gently with her lip.
"What would they have of it, for Heaven's sake?" the sovereign threw up her hands in frustration. Indeed, a foe you could not understand was the most frustrating one, indeed.
"Last night, I walked Aerazad's dreams, and though they are like an endless garden with all seasons and times of day locked in furious competition, I learned of him. I *knew* him then, and I will share."
She embraced her and shivered as she recalled memories, then proceeded in a fevered whisper: "We cannot fathom how long king Aerazad wandered the un-worlds, for time is mad there, and without meaning. Even as he finally began to sublimate into the chaos, there was a presence, and called to him as a beacon, and I know her name - it was Alesta, a name forbidden from mortal mouths for aeons since the shaping of the world. Why, you ask? I felt it was a creature unhallowed yet divine in its own right, a force of creation without an existence to govern. The high priests fear her approach, for their masters whispered to them their secret dark: there was one god more at the onset of time, before the cradle of the world, and it was Alesta. Yet, strange was she, and while of no ill intent, her power and alien inspiration awakened fear in the divine flock. Despite her divine birthright, they cast her out from reality and forbade her from participating in creation, forever damning her to the un-worlds behind the Silver Veil.
There, she found Aerazad, and shared her dreams, wishes and desires with the young king, and showed him all the wonders sprung from her inspired mind, all the marvel the world was forbidden to see.
She loved him and he loved her, with a passion few souls can muster. Yet, with determination he returned to the world of mortals once he learnt how, his radiant daughters at his side, filled with the unworldly light of their mother."
"But what is goal, pray tell. Why would he cross worlds and time to return here, and wage war?" the noblewoman inquired, confusion and fear in her voice.
"They are both outcasts, denied what is their right. In that, their souls are indeed akin; he has reclaimed his - now the Returned King is wishing to return hers. And why? Out of love, why else?"
The seer caressed the queen's cheek; then, their lips touched.
The shining witches, the Daughters of Alesta, are the priesthood of the goddess who never was. Indeed, the task of the daughters is no less than to bring a banished deity back into reality; while she is not malevolent, per se, her appearance would certainly upset creation with no telling what the consequences would be. Also, hoping that the reaction of Alesta's divine brethren to her appearance would be anything else than catastrophic is a wishful dream. While Alesta's return may be just, she might change the world enough that it ceases to exist as we know it.
*Rogue squadron: a trio of Daughters has gone AWOL, with plans of their own. For the king of Eversea, you must learn what befell them, and retrieve or stop them. If their plans are nefarious, the matter is simpler - at least morally - than if they just settled down and try to found families.
*Deadly flowers: for a subtler approach, the Daughters wish to facilitate the return of their mother with subterfuge and trickery, The spy game against them is like wrestling a poisonous viper - or rather, several hundred of them.
*The Deadliest Catch: Eversea has fallen - but its minions hide in our midst. Dare you hunt this poisonous prey?
*For the Fatherland! (1): a vital magic node in the global pattern lies inside your small mountain nation. Can you defend it against the Daughters and the army of their father?
*For the Fatherland! (2): a king has returned to your glorious nation of Eversea, which you served long and well as a secret order. But these new minions - is he controlling them, or is it the other way around? Where do all these mages vanish? And what is best for Eversea?
*The Year of the Hungry Night: you served Aerazad's father, and now the young king returns, with strange accomplices. Will you help him retake the throne, or will you learn of the nature of his progeny and his quest and oppose him?
*In a future not so distant: Alesta has arrived; much has changed, but most for her daughters - the great task is complete. Yet, what course shall the children take now that they are free?
*A glowing rot: ever since that regime change down in Eversea, someone has been subverting your populace, strange cults springing up everywhere, previously unseen drug addictions and madness soaring likewise.
*A table turned: with love, sacrifice, diligence and over many a corpse, you and your sisters have paved your mother's entrance to reality. Yet, what is that? She seeks to devour you all to retrieve the power invested in your creation? Then back to the un-worlds with her!
*Like stars gone bad: apparently, the loyalty of the daughters of Alesta to their parents and their agendas was less than perfect, and they made off, one and all. Years later, they thrive in the shadows, manipulating with poison and guile.