Jurdes 28, 5682---The bells of Atalan pealed an urgent but melodious welcome in the late summer afternoon. Great King Derkias stood up, goblet in hand, and stepped out onto his balcony. The same tune welcomed the return of his fleet only a week before, so today he guessed the bells were welcoming the return of Prince Nomolo from Eranithon.

Sure enough, the ships sailing through the bay toward Atalan bore the Prince’s banner. In the courtyard below, palace guards were beginning to prepare for a welcoming ceremony, and farther out in the city, children were running toward the port to watch the ships dock. He arrived to the same scene the week before, and several other times throughout his life on the few expeditions that took him from Atalan. The solders would disembark with a parade. Many soldiers would return to their homes and families in Atalan, but others would continue on to other parts of Tanarad. Some of the soldiers would remain in the barracks, and attend a feast late that evening.

The Great King took a sip of his wine. He was eager to talk with Nomolo, and hear about the expedition to Eranithon. He stepped back into the room, and rang a bell to call in a servant. The man briefly bowed when he entered.

“Go to the docks,” the Great King ordered. “When my son docks, send him to me right away.”

“But the parade, my King?” the servant reminded him.

The Great King motioned to silence the man. “There will be plenty of time before then,” he said. “All the other ships will need to dock, and the soldiers need time to start forming up. Nomolo can visit me, and be back to his parade with plenty of time to spare.” The servant bowed quickly, and left the room.

Two hours later, Prince Nomolo finally entered the Great King’s chamber. “Father,” he greeted. “We achieved a victory!”

“I expected nothing less, Nomolo” the Great King told him, pouring wine into a second goblet. “I am curious, though, about what you found.” He handed the goblet to the Prince.

“We found the entrance to the Underground, as suggested, along with the people living in the darkness of the caves,” the Prince answered. “We found nothing to link the survivors to the Underground or Irata. Anything that happened back then has since been lost and forgotten.”

The Great King smiled. “Perhaps it would interest you to learn Irata had a Dark Magician sitting on the throne. We removed him, of course, but that was a link, however elusive, between Irata and the Underground.”

Prince Nomolo sipped his wine while he considered the information. “There is a lot of land and sea between Irata and Eranithon. What if we missed something?”

The Great King shrugged. “If we did, it shouldn’t matter. We cut off both ends of the snake, so anything in between should wither, and die. If a new head attempts to emerge, there is nothing left to support it.”

“Nothing left is right,” Nomolo grinned. “That blind old woman from the Sisterhood, Rarla’Nun, did something that caused the Underground to cave in on itself as far as the eye could see. Seawater was still flowing into the hole a month later when we finally left.”

The Great King raised his eyebrows in surprise. “And how many brave men and women did you lose to such a foolish move? How many will never see again? You are fortunate not to be among them, but still, permitting that old woman to have her revenge was a bad decision.”

“Father, it was our last resort,” Prince Nomolo argued. “I took fourteen thousand troops into the Underground. They were waiting for us with fifteen armies, dragons, and giant bats.”

“That sounds like a fantasy story,” the Great King interrupted, sitting in a chair beside the small table in the room.

“We fought, but had to retreat,” Prince Nomolo continued with a scowl. “Rarla’Nun destroyed that threat to us. If you would do differently, tell me how.”

The Great King set down his goblet. “Actually, son, I am proud of you. I may question the means, but the fact that you’re standing here proves you succeeded. How many casualties did you suffer?”

“A little more than three thousand,” Prince Nomolo answered. “From what I understand, most of those were lost during battle and retreat, not the subsequent collapse of the land.”

The Great King leaned back, and stroked his beard as he quickly contemplated the losses. “What happened to the blind people living in the caves?”

“Most, if not all of them, escaped,” Prince Nomolo answered. “I was told Tora’Sor gave them enough warning to leave the caves before she did something to protect the rest of us. Now those people are living on the surface, although we repurposed some extra ships to build them shelters from the sun, and left them what supplies we could. They will survive, but we’ll be sending them fresh supplies as soon as possible.”

The Great King sipped his wine. “It sounds like Tora’Sor is the reason you’re standing here today. I’ll have to thank the Supreme Mistress for sending you her best.”

“You may have a problem doing that,” Prince Nomolo said, feeling rather embarrassed. “I still don’t know how or why, but the Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar removed their Supreme Mistress and their High Council. I think the best you could do now would be to thank Tora’Sor herself.”

The Great King buried his face in his palm. “What is the world coming to!?”

“A lot is happening,” Prince Nomolo said. “I may not plan for it, but I will use changes like this to advance my own plans.”

“You have plans?” the Great King wondered, looking up at his son. “You need to plan on raising your son to rule, and leaving him an intact kingdom.” He started to take another sip of his wine.

“My plan is to defeat the Dark Magicians for good by the end of the decade,” Prince Nomolo stated.

The Great King choked in surprise. He let Prince Nomolo take his goblet. When he finished coughing, he looked up again. “If anyone can do it, you can,” he decided quickly, “but I will not allow it while I am still the Great King.” He paused briefly before adding, “Which might not be much longer.”

“Are you sick, father?” Prince Nomolo asked.

The Great King shook his head. “Not really, no,” he answered, “but my heart will not last forever, especially with all the surprises over the past few years.”

“Should I fetch a doctor?”

The Great King regained his composure. “I will survive for now, perhaps even for a few more years,” he decided, but in whatever time I have left, I have one wish for you. Rather than run off adventuring, stay in Atalan until I pass. By all means, make your plans, but save them until later.”

“I will do what I can,” Prince Nomolo agreed.

“Good,” the Great King said with a smile. “Now, speaking of surprises, there is something I should tell you.” Prince Nomolo perked up, but didn’t interrupt. “You should be able to obtain full cooperation and assistance in your exploits from my cousin, who I expect is more capable of some things than the royal navy.”

“You have a cousin?” Prince Nomolo wondered. “Grandfather only had one sibling, and he was killed childless at sea by the first Queen of the Sea.”

The Great King grinned. “Yes, that is the official story, but the truth is she lured him aboard her ship with promises to expose any Dark Magician among her crew, and took him hostage. I do not know what caused him to give up hope of escape, most definitely lies of some kind, but eventually he was the father of her daughter before she killed him.”

Prince Nomolo’s mouth opened in surprise, and it took him a moment to find his voice. “The Queen of the Sea is my cousin!?”

“Once removed,” the Great King corrected.

“Does she know?” Prince Nomolo asked.

“She learned it during our trip to Irata, but very few others know about it, and she prefers to keep it that way. I prefer to keep it secret too, so don’t go spreading the news.”

“I won’t,” Prince Nomolo affirmed.

“Good,” the Great King said. “I’ve heard enough of your trip for now, and there’s plenty of time to talk about things later. Go say hello to your wife and son, and then have your parade.”

Prince Nomolo bowed with a grin, and quickly ran out of the room.