Chapter 7. Magic (Part 3)

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The Gnome King had given up. After all his scheming, his public relations campaign, his decades underground overseeing the construction of tunnel after tunnel, the Return was a failure. He knew deep in his core that he'd never see the surface again. This makeshift throne room he'd carved out for himself down in the bedrock would be his tomb. Ozghard belonged to Zenith Azama with her throngs of devoted followers and her army of toms.

And who was he to stand in the way of progress? The people seemed happy enough. Who could complain about life in the glorious Shadow City of Ozghard? That is to say, who would be allowed to complain? Through her goblin magic, the Zenith had the whole place under her thumb. This wasn't likely to change in the Gnome King's lifetime—especially since that lifetime was nearing its end.

Roqash was an old man now, much older than he'd ever hoped to be. His hair and beard had gone stark white and grown to their natural terminal length. Something about this fact depressed him more than anything else. No matter how many more years he managed to go on living, his hair wouldn't grow even an inch longer.

"Your Opulence, if I may interrupt..." Lt. Caliyo bowed reverently. The simpering worm.

"You've already interrupted, haven't you? So get on with it!" Roqash was in no mood for false humility.

"We have a visitor from the surface who wishes to meet with you," Caliyo began. And then, as if unsure of whether he should, he added, "A Yili, Your Opulence."

This caught the Gnome King's interest. "A Yili... down here? What— That is, what—" And this last part was almost whispered: "What does it look like?"

Lt. Caliyo, relieved at the King's acceptance of his ordinarily taboo racial language, took a deep breath and cautiously described the woman: "She is... of a fair complexion... somewhat pallid. Very large eyes... dark. Her head is... Well, her features are rather slight... No hair..." By the end of this, his tone seemed to be begging the King for permission to stop.

"It's a woman, you say?" Roqash was at once fascinated and terrified.

"I believe the visitor is a woman," Caliyo hedged.

Roqash wasn't sure what to make of this. "Show her in. Or... him. The Yili."

Before Caliyo had even turned to leave the throne room, Ada stepped through the curtain which served as its door. She was wearing a long, hooded robe of Tyrian purple velvet. "So you are the Gnome King," she said after looking Roqash up and down. This was the first time in decades anyone had dared to use the term to his face. But actually, it didn't sound insulting in this instance. Rather impressive, really.

"I am Roqash of Zendalda," he said grandly. And then, "Yes, I am the Gnome King."

"You've really gotten old," Ada mused. Caliyo almost stumbled as he pushed through the curtain to leave the room. Roqash eyed the Yili as if trying to decide whether to be insulted or flattered by her familiarity. Before he could settle on an appropriate response, Ada continued, "You may find this difficult to believe, but I am Azama of Thlowdyn."

"Azama..." Roqash was incredulous. "You are the Zenith?"

"I am not," replied Ada. "The Widow Queen has deceived the people and rules Ozghard in my name."

"I knew it!" Roqash exclaimed, raising a finger into the air. In truth, he hadn't exactly known anything, but it did make a great deal of sense now that he thought of it. He'd always believed that Isala was pulling the strings in one form or another, and since Yilis had the power to change their form, who could tell one from another?

"Listen," continued Ada, "I know you've been trying to invade the City, and I know why it hasn't worked."

The Gnome King's face fell into a bitter grimace. It ain't worked 'cause we all a bunch o' cowards, he thought.

"Your people are not at fault," Ada answered, as if reading his mind. "Isala has filled the City with a vaporized form of floodtea. This fog has already spread through most of Ozghard. Your tunnels are fairly well insulated since snakefern grows so well in the—"

"Floodtea?" Roqash interrupted. "Like what we give the animals?!" He'd never felt so insulted. And it wasn't just him alone suffering the insult but his people, his entire world! Isala had reduced them all to livestock.

Seeing how readily the Gnome King had accepted her explanation of the problem, Ada moved right along to the solution: "I've developed a substance that counteracts the effects of floodtea. So far, I've observed no side effects—apart from a rather interesting effect on Yilis, which shouldn't concern you. The point is that you and your people will be able to return to the surface without fear of the fog."

Being what he considered "a realist," Roqash found it much more difficult to accept good news than bad. "So you've come down here to tell me all my problems are solved? You're going to save us from Zenith Az— from Isala... and all we have to do is trust you? Well, pardon me, but I do not. Why in the Void should I?!"

Before he could go any further with his tirade, perhaps alerting the guards posted outside the room, Ada stretched out her fingers and projected herself into Roqash's mind. In a moment, he understood it all. He knew the substance would do its job, and he knew why Ada was offering it to him. Their interests dovetailed nicely. Even the Shadow girl Adelaide had her part to play. She was back after all these years... along with...

Before Roqash could finish the thought, Ada withdrew, leaving the King to consider what he'd just experienced. Things he'd understood clearly a moment ago were now fading like a dream upon waking. "That girl Adelaide..." he began after some time. "Is she the same child who... Was she at the table when my mother... No, I'm sorry. I've lost my train of thought."

"Do you understand now that the substance I offer will protect you from the floodtea vapor?" asked Ada.

"Yes..." answered the King. "Yes, of course, but what is it?"

"It acts primarily on the epithalamus to strengthen the receptive potential of the limbic system while—"

"No, I don't mean how does it work," Roqash interrupted. "I mean what is it?"

Ada smiled. "In all honesty, I'm not entirely sure. It comes from the Void. What I can say for certain is that this substance is our only hope of taking power away from Isala. As long as she keeps dosing the City with floodtea, resistance from within is impossible, and invasion from without is... As you've seen, it's not easy. But if we can interfere with her primary means of control, then we having a good chance of toppling her whole regime with very little bloodshed."

The Gnome King frowned and stroked his beard. He scrutinized Ada awhile longer and then concluded finally, "I reckon it'll have to do. I'm in."

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