[Any resemblance to actual persons, intentional or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.]
“In the old fort.”
Nyra leads me through the bedraggled Undead camp. Skeletons and embalmed dead make way respectfully, but they shoot me glares that send shivers up my spine.
As the creaky drawbridge to the fort lowers ponderously, she briefs me on the Dead King.
“Mencius is a wise and competent king, but he has peculiar ideas about government.”
“He insists that a king is a public servant, and must be – what does he call it – democratically selected by his people on a regular basis.”
“That’s common where I come from.”
She shoots me a queer look.
“That’s him,” Nyra whispers as we enter the courtyard.
The skeleton she points to stands half a head shorter than his attendants, wearing sleek metal armor under a black cape. His left eye is covered by an eye-patch.
“Mencius, I’ve brought the boy.”
“Nyra, welcome home. And you must be Murphy!”
Just to be on the safe side, I bow. “Your Majesty -”
Two firm skeletal hands lift me out of the bow.
“Save the formalities. Here we are all equals, living or dead. Call me Mencius.”
“Nyra told me all about you, sir.”
“Uhoh. You must forgive an old man his crazy ideas.”
The attendants laugh a little too genuinely. A shadow flits across the few remaining sinews of Mencius’s face.
“We have a saying in my homeland: government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Mencius beams widely.
Before he can reply a raven swoops in from the heavens and lands on his outstretched hand. It has only one bulbous eye.
The courtyard falls silent.
“What have you learned, darling?”
Mencius strokes the bird with his bony fingers, and it dissolves into smoke, leaving behind the much-too-large eyeball. He pulls back his eyepatch and pops it into the waiting socket. With a flick of his a finger, the eye spins it into place.
“I’m sorry, but there’s no time for banter. The enemy will be upon us by nightfall. Will you shed blood with us, Murphy?”
In the eyes of the king of the Undead, I see what I can only describe as a triumphant call to life.
“With all my heart, sir!”
Nyra leads me from tent to tent, outfitting me with custom-made equipment. Had we been less pressed for time, I might have befriended the blacksmith brothers LeBrawn and LeBrain despite their heavy accents. I might have acquired a fetch quest or ten from the alchemist Solomon and learned from him the secrets to absinthe and wormwood.
One trip, however, could not be rushed.
The jeweller Penelope’s tent stands out, twice the size of any other tent in the camp, decorated with gaudy silks and gems. Penelope turns out to be the old hag from my dream. That explains why her skin looked like it was melting off.
Penelope unlocks a trunk and picks out a handful of brilliant diamond rings for me.
“You can wear more than two rings at once?” I blurt out in surprise. I expected this universe to prevent such an exploitable mechanic.
Penelope waggles her right hand at me. Each finger fits three identical sapphire rings, for a total of fifteen.
I squeeze a ring onto my forefinger. The next one – refuses to go on my hand. It goes onto my other hand fine, but then the third ring won’t go on either.
“You’re in for a treat, darling.”
Penelope draws my eye to the pentagram on the floor. She whispers the procedure in my ear.
“- It only works with exactly identical rings.”
To say I rolled on the ground laughing would be an understatement.
Wear a Massive Diamond Ring on each hand.
Step into the Summoning Circle.
Chant the incantation and the Demon’s name.
All my equipment is removed by the spell.
A Minor Fell Imp appears in the center of the pentagram.
Chant the Cancel Summoning incantation.
The Minor Fell Imp disappears.
My equipment reappears.
The two Massive Diamond Rings appear together on my right forefinger.
Equip another Massive Diamond Ring on the left.
The Minor Fell Imp pops in and out of the tent.
“Who the -”
“The fuck -”
I kinda feel sorry for the little guy.
Before the final preparations, Nyra pulls me aside.
“Are you sure you can do it?”
“Don’t worry about me.”
“Not too long ago, you seemed awfully shaken up about murder.”
I struggle for words to explain how a sixteen-year-old might understand warfare.
“I was shaken up about killing good men. In war, there are no good men. Only monsters.”
The bells toll the alarm. The army of Undead gathers in the courtyard, spilling out into the camp in a wide circle.
On the ramparts, the Dead King Mencius stands alone.
“Children! Brothers! Sisters! The Valley of the Dead is the eternal resting place of the Undead. The Inquisition dares to disturb our slumber with their blazing crosses and holy swords!
“With their cowardly techniques and overwhelming numbers, they beat us back temporarily. But our enemy is blind! Blind men cowering under the skirts of a blind Goddess.”
“Blind men!” The crowd roars back.
“Yesterday, the Seeing feared the Blind. Yesterday, the Dead feared the Living. But that is not the way of the world. From this day forward, the Blind will fear the Seeing. From this day forward, the Living will fear the Dead!”
The crowd bellows.
“The Living will fear the Dead! The Living will fear the Dead! The Living will fear the Dead!”
Mencius’s left eye flutters to life, shooting out of his socket in the form of a raven.
“I, the One-Eyed Raven, have flown across the kingdoms of Demons and Men looking for the key to this war. Today, I found that key!”
Nyra prods me, and I run up the steps to Mencius’ side.
“This boy will be the Ultimate Weapon in our war against the Blind Inquisition. Bring the prisoner!”
Skeletal guards drag out a man clothed in the red robes of the Inquisition.
“Our sister Skala, out of the kindness of her unbeating heart, nursed this cretin to health. For that mistake, he murdered Skala in cold blood.
“Today you face the judgment of the Ultimate Weapon!”
With a flourish, Mencius turns to stand next to the bound Inquisitor. He nods to me.
I hold up my Chime.
The army of the dead cries out in alarm as a giant purple orb blossoms from my weapon to envelop their king. In the blink of an eye, it clips through almost half the fort, extending ten stories into the sky. The orb travels into the distance.
Mencius appears out of the purple completely unscathed. Of the Inquisitor, only crimson robes remain.
The Dead King turns to face the crowd and lifts my hand to the sky.
“The Ultimate Weapon!”
“The Ultimate Weapon!” The sea of faces chants. “The Ultimate Weapon! The Ultimate Weapon!”