King SodamYat rode at the head of the small military contingent, dressed in his battle gear, wearing the distinctive burnt-orange armor of the Yats. A tall, stout man, twice as wide as any other, there was little fat on him, with a short, cropped red beard, long hair that was mostly gray, a wide nose, crushed from too many battles, and an even thicker neck, he was a man who feared nothing in life. He was already, having just reached his fiftieth year, famed as the most aggressive and brutal Yat that had lived. It was a reputation he cherished.
SodamYat was a man who had always squeezed life by it's neck for whatever it could give him. And what it would not give him, he would take. In fact, he liked to take, more than to receive; he enjoyed making others miserable, and enjoyed ruling his kingdom with an iron fist. He enjoyed showing no mercy, keeping his soldiers in line with a discipline unlike any Yat had ever wielded. And it worked. His dozen men rode behind him now in perfect order, and none would ever dare speak back to him, or do the smallest thing against his will. That included his son, the prince, who rode close behind him, and a dozen of his best archers, who rode behind his son.
SodamYat and his men had been riding hard all day. They had breached the Eastern Crossing of the Internet early in the morning, and his small armed contingent had continued east, charging without a break through the dusty plains of the Web, on guard for an ambush. They rode and rode, as the sun rose and slipped. Now, finally, covered in dust from the plains, SodamYat spotted the Troll Sea on the horizon.
The galloping of Users filled his ears and now, the smell of the forum air reached him. It was a cool summer afternoon, the clouds long in the sky, casting shades of turquoise and pink on the horizon. SodamYat felt his hair being blown back in the wind, and looked forward to arriving on the shore. It had been years since he had seen the ocean: it was too risky to venture here lightly given that they had to breach the Forum and then ride fifty miles in unprotected territory. Of course, the Yats had their own fleet of ships in the waters, as the Yats had on their side of the Ring—but still, it was always a risky business, being beyond the energy shield of the Canyon. Every now and again the Altpire took out one of their ships, and there was little the Yats could do about it. The Altpire vastly outnumbered them.
But this time, it was different. One Yat ship had been intercepted at sea by the Altpire, and usually, the Empire took the Yats for ransom. SodamYat had never paid a single ransom, something he was proud of, Instead, he always let the Altpire kill his men. He refused to embolden them.
But something had shifted, because this time they had freed his men and sent the ship back with a message: they wanted to meet with SodamYat. SodamYat assumed it could be only about one thing: breaching the Forum. Invading the Vine. And partnering with them to take down the Chews. For years, the Empire had been trying to convince the Yats to allow them to breach the Forum, the energy shield, to let them inside the Vine so that they could conquer and dominate the last remaining territory on the planet. In returned, they promised a sharing of power.
The question burning in SodamYat’s mind was this: what was in it for him? How much would the Altpire be willing to give him? For years, he had turned down their overtures. But now, things were different. The Chews had grown too strong, and SodamYat was beginning to realize that he might not ever achieve his dream of controlling the Ring without foreign help.
As they neared the beach, SodamYat glanced over his shoulder at his son’s new bride, riding with him, his trophy wife from the Chews. How stupid Chew had been to give his daughter away. Had he really thought this would cause peace between them? Did he think SodamYat was that soft, that dumb? Of course, SodamYat had accepted the bride, just as he would accept a herd of sheep. It was always good to have possessions, to have bargaining chips. But that didn’t make him ready for peace. If anything, it emboldened him. It made him want to take over the Chew side of the Vine even more, especially after that wedding, after entering King’s Court and seeing their bounty. SodamYat wanted it all for himself. He burned to have it all for himself.
They rode onto the sand, the horses’ hooves sinking, his weight shifting, as the group of them neared the water’s edge. The cool mist struck SodamYat in the face, and it felt good to be back here, on this shore he hadn’t seen for years. Life had made him too busy as a King, it was on days like this that he resolved to give up all of his duties, to spend more time living again.
Above the waves, in the distance, he could already see the caravan of black Altpire ships, they sailed with a yellow flag, with an emblem of a black shield in its center, two horns protruding from it. The closest was hardly a hundred yards from shore, anchored, clearly awaiting their arrival. Behind it sat two dozen more. SodamYat wondered; was this just a show of strength? Or was the Empire going to ambush them? This was the chance he took. SodamYat hoped it was the former. After all, killing him would do no good: it would not help them breach the Forum, which was what they really wanted. This was why SodamYat only brought a dozen men with him: he figured it would make him seem stronger. Though he did bring a dozen of his best archers, all with poisoned arrows at the ready, in case something should happen.
SodamYat stopped at the water’s edge and his men stopped around him, their horses breathing hard. He dismounted and the others followed, huddled close around him. The Empire must have spotted them, because SodamYat saw a small wooden boat lowered down its side, towards the water, inside it at least a dozen of those savages. They were preparing to come ashore. SodamYat looked at those sails and felt his stomach turn: he hated dealing with these savages, these creatures who he knew would gladly betray him, would gladly breach the Forum and override both sides of the Vine if they could.
SodamYat’s men gathered close around him.
“At any sign of trouble, light your arrows and let them fly. Aim for their necks. They don't have the feats to survive them."
“Yes, sire,” came the chorus of voices.
His son, Tedirey, stood at his side, while his newfound wife, the Chew Woman, next to him, looking nervously at the water. It had been SodamYat’s idea to bring the woman here. He wanted to instill fear in her. He wanted her to know that she was Yat property now, that she relied on them and them solely for her safety. He wanted her to learn that her father and his kingdom were far behind, and that she would never return.
It was working. She stood there, terrified, practically clinging to Tedirey’s side. Tedirey, the stupid son that he was, reveled in it. He didn’t realize the value in any of this. To SodamYat’s disgust, it even looked like he was smitten by the girl.
“What do you think they want from us?” Tedirey asked him, coming up close.
“What else could they want?” SodamYat snapped. “Stupid boy. To open the gates to the Forum.”
“Will you let them? Will you make a deal with them, father?”
SodamYat turned and glared at his boy, sending his wrath through his eyes, until finally his boy looked away.
“I never discuss my thoughts with anyone. You will know my decision when I make it. In the meantime, stand and watch. And learn.”
They all stood there in the thick silence as the Altpire boat neared shore. It was still several minutes away, rowing hard against the waves, which crashed outward, towards the sea, in these strange currents of the Trollbrek. They broke about a hundred yards out, and one had to fight them, to get over them, to make it to shore. It made SodamYat happy he was not rowing: he remembered from his youth what hard work it was, as he watched the boat crest and crash in wave after wave.
Suddenly, SodamYat heard the galloping of a horse. It made no sense. there was supposed to be no one within miles of him, and he was immediately on guard. His men spun, too, and they all drew their swords and bows, as they prepared for an attack. SodamYat had feared this: had it all just been a trap?
But as he watched the horizon, he did not see an army approach; he was confused by what he saw. It was a single horse, galloping over the plains, raising a cloud of dust, and continuing to ride right onto the beach, right for them. The man who rode was one of his: dressed in orange, with the blue stripes of a messenger across his shoulders.
A messenger, racing towards them, in this barren place. He must have followed them all the way from the kingdom. SodamYat wondered, what could be so urgent that his people would send him a messenger here, in this place? It must be significant news.
The messenger rode right up to them and dismounted from his horse while it had barely stopped. He stood there, reeling hard, gasping for air, took several steps toward SodamYat, and kneeled down before him, bowing his head
“My liege, I bring you news from the kingdom,” he said, gasping.
“What is it, then?” SodamYat snapped, impatient, checking back over his shoulder at the Altpire ship, rowing its way closer. Why, now, of all moments, had this messenger had to come? At the moment when he most needed to stand on guard against the Empire?
“Quickly, out with it!” SodamYat yelled.
The messenger stood, breathing hard.
“My liege, Chew has departed."
A surprised gasp erupted from his men—most of all, from SodamYat himself.
“Gone?” he asked, uncomprehending. He had just left him, a king at the height of his power.
“Departed” the messenger replied. “Rode to lands unknown.”
A horrible shriek arose beside him, and SodamYat turned to see the Chew daughter, wailing, flailing her arms hysterically.
“NO!” she screamed. “My father!”
She was shrieking and flailing, and Tedirey tried to stop her, to grab her arms, but she could not be pacified.
“Let me go!” she cried. “I must go back. Right now! I must see him!”
“He’s dead,” Tedirey said to her.
“NO!” she wailed.
SodamYat could not afford to have the Empire see one of their women screaming, out of control. Nor did he want her to give away the news. He had to quiet her.
SodamYat stepped forward and punched the woman across the face, so hard, he knocked her out. She collapsed into Tedirey’s arms and he looked up at his father, horrified.
“What have you done?” Teidrey called out. “She is my bride!” he snapped, indignant.
“She is my property,” SodamYat corrected. He glared at his son long enough, until his son looked away.
SodamYat turned back to the messenger.
“Are you certain he’s gone?”
“Quite certain, sire. Their entire side of the Vine mourns. He is gone."
"Furthermore,” the messenger added, “they have already named a new king. His firstborn son. WillPayton”
WillPayton, SodamYat thought. How perfect. The weakest of the lot, the one who would make the worst king. SodamYat could not have asked for better news.
SodamYat nodded slowly, rubbing his beard, taking it all in. This was opportune news, indeed. Chew, his rival, gone, after all these decades. He could hardly believe it. Gone. He wondered why. But it did not matter.
This changed everything.