Darguun. Heir to an empire long fallen. Forged anew in the fires of the Last War and held together by the iron will of Lhesh Haruuc.
But Lhesh Haruuc is dead, assassinated by a warrior sworn to serve him. His trusted inner circle suspects more than treachery. Something darker is at work. As Dharguun's ancient enemies stoke the flames of a new war and the Five Nations vie for power and influence, the fate of an entire nation rests in the hands of a few desperate heroes.
I am Lhesh Haruuc Shaarat'kor—the High Warlord Haruuc of the Red Blade. I am the ruler and the founder of Darguun—the land of the people, that I carved out of human territories so that the dar, the triple race of hobgoblins, goblins, and bugbears, might claim again the home that has been theirs since the ancient days of the Empire of Dhakaan.
I am the heir to Dhakaan. I am the father of Darguun. But I am father to no heir.
Kings know that the throne and the sword are jealous lovers. A king born to the throne may grow to love another, but the king who fights his way to the throne already has queen and mistress both. There is no room for another in a conqueror's heart.
Common wisdom says that a king's first duty is to produce an heir. See where I sit. See the land that I gave back to the people. See the blood that reddens my sword. I am not common. Darguun was not born by accident, nor will it be passed to someone who becomes lhesh by accident of birth. I feel the weight of years. I know there must be an heir, but I will not be rushed in selecting him. There are those of talent and ability among the assembly of warlords and beyond it, too. Darguun will have a lhesh who will follow in my footsteps and understand my vision.
I have prepared the way. The red blade serves as my symbol, but my heir will have a symbol that joins the bright future of Darguun with the glorious past of Dhakaan. Once emperors held Guulen, called Strength and the Rod of Kings. Now the lhesh of Darguun will hold the rod and those who see him will know that he is the king and that both he and the whole of the goblin race belong to a tradition that stretches across millennia.
I am Lhesh Haruuc Shaarat'kor. I am the father of Darguun. I stand at the head of a new age for the dar, one that will see them stand as equals to the other races of Khorvaire and that will see Darguun take its place among nations. I see a destiny for my people that stretches out like the mighty river Ghaal as it runs past Rhukaan Draal to the sea.
The throne room of Khaar Mbar'ost, the fortress that I ordered built in the heart of Rhukaan Draal to show my power and my sophistication—or what I believed then to be sophistication—fills with people. I look down from my throne upon the warlords of Darguun, upon clan chiefs and battle leaders. Upon the ambassadors sent here by the humans of the Five Nations to win my favor and to spy on me. Upon the envoys and viceroys of the great dragonmarked houses, here for the same reason, but perhaps more blunt about it. Upon the representatives to my court of those clans who dwell within Darguun but who have not yet chosen to become a part of its strength—Dhakaani Clans who bind themselves to the ways of the past or Marguul tribes who have fallen so far from glory that they are less than barbarians. None of those who take their places below dare to look at me. I can sense their fear and their anticipation.
I hold the Rod of Kings, its rune-carved shaft heavy in my hands. Did I think I was sophisticated when I ordered Khaar Mbar'ost constructed? Did I think I was strong when I allowed the Dhakaani Clans and the Marguul tribes to come to me in their own time? Did I think I was clever by securing this ancient artifact as a symbol of power for my successor? The Rod of Kings is no symbol. It is power. It has been held by emperors, and it remembers. It remembers the greatness of Dhakaan in a way that not even the lorekeepers of the Kech Volaar, most learned of the modern Dhakaani clans, can know. It remembers battles of such ferocity and glory that even Marguul chieftains would tremble. It remembers a time when rulers did not seek out symbols to draw the obedience of their people, but simply commanded it as their right.
And it shares these memories with me, day and night. I will never be alone with my thoughts again. It is an inspiration. It is a curse. I loathe the rod, but I cannot be parted from it. It is my strength. I have made it the symbol of the lhesh, and I cannot undo that. And not all of what the rod shows me is wrong. A king must wield power without compromise or hesitation or mercy. How is it I did not understand that before?
There is silence in the throne room. I break it.
"Enter the dead."
The slow beat of a duum begins, brass rods striking stretched skin in a slow pace. I force myself to look up, and the cold rage that has entered my belly burns like ice once more.
Six bugbears enter the great doors of the throne room carrying a silk-draped plank. On the plank lies Vanii of Ja'aram. It is difficult to see him only as a corpse, in spite of the great wound that breaks his chest open. I rise from my throne and step down from my dais to touch the fatal wound and to offer my shava, my sword-brother, the honor he deserves. Paatcha. The bugbears take Vanii to a stone bier erected on the dais and withdraw. I return to my throne. Vengeance gnaws at me.
Heads turn again as two more figures enter the throne room to the beat of the drum. Pushed along by Dagii of Mur Talaan, Keraal, once warlord of the Gan'duur, now the last warrior of a dead clan, comes to sate my hunger. His ears are pressed back against his head and his eyes are open wide in fear. He sees what waits for him: a true Dhakaani grieving tree.
The Rod of Kings approves of my choice of punishment.
The drum falls silent. The hall is still. The only sound comes from Keraal's shackles as he stands beneath the grieving tree, trembling with fear and looking up at his doom. The three words that command the tree are a secret I keep close to my heart. I whisper the first of them.
The white stone tree shivers and moves, the curved segments of its branches grinding. I hear someone in the watching crowd gasp—or perhaps it's a figment of the rod's memories. In my mind's eye, I stand in the place of emperors as they commit criminals and traitors, dissidents and schemers to the embrace of similar trees. The second word of command swells on my tongue and pushes past my lips as I stare deep into the past.
In the present, thick branches stoop down and wrap around Keraal. He screams like a goblin pup. Thrashing and whirling as if caught in a storm, the tree passes Keraal from limb to limb until he hangs above the throne room. Then the thorns on the branches ripple and dig into his flesh. The channels in the stone turn red. Keraal twitches and whimpers as the tree feeds. In the days of the empire, a strong person might linger in the tree's embrace for days.
The faces of my people are enraptured. Hobgoblins betray their eagerness with twitching ears. Bugbears sniff at the air. Goblins crane to get a better view past the taller races that stand around them. They understand the power of blood. Since before the age of Dhakaan, this is how it has been.
The ambassadors from beyond Darguun—humans, elves, half-elves, a dwarf, a gnome—have turned away. Some look outraged. Some look sickened. Some, most sensibly, look frightened. And they should be frightened! I stand, raising the Rod of Kings before me.
"Let all witness," I tell the crowd, "the end of those who stand against Darguun! Haruuc Shaarat'kor fears no one. Darguun fears no one!"
My Darguuls answer me, warlords roaring my name as if they are no more than the lowest of spear-carriers and banner-bearers. Pride and the memories of the rod swell inside me. This is how emperors felt.
Then someone shouts out, "Give us war!"
The words pierce the dreams of the rod. Pride turns to sickness.
The Treaty of Thronehold that ended the Last War and recognized Darguun as a sovereign nation—a treaty I signed—forbids war between nations. Darguun has no real friends. If I dare to lead the nation I forged against Breland, the country that borders it, I will face the wrath of Aundair and Thrane, perhaps even distant Karrnath and shifty Zilargo as well. I proclaimed that Darguun would reclaim the heritage of Dhakaan, but seeking that heritage will doom us.
When Dhakaan ruled Khorvaire, there were no other nations. There were no other challenges to the empire. The rod remembers orcs in the west who were by turns enemies and allies, but they were already a fading race. The rod remembers elves, seeking a foothold on the continent before drawing back to their own mystical island. Humans and all those races they spawned had not yet crossed the Thunder Sea. The emperors of Dhakaan could not have dreamed of the future I face.
The Rod of Kings cannot comprehend it. It twists me to its ends. It tries to make me an emperor in an age that has no room for empires.
I look back at the ambassadors of the nations and the envoys of the dragonmarked houses. For a moment, it seems I can see beyond the fear they show at my punishment of Keraal. I see how they see me, how they will describe me to their sovereigns and patriarchs: not as the heir of a proud tradition, but a monster driven by cruelty and a lust for power.
And I am. The rod will not let me go. It seduces me even as I struggle against it. The crowd is chanting—"War! Haruuc! War! Haruuc! War! War! War!"—and the pleasure of it sweeps through me, joining with the memories of the rod.
I long to stalk the battlefield the way I did as a young warrior, red sword striking down my enemies, rod raised to command them. I know suddenly that if I give in to the memories of the emperors, the full power of the rod will open to me. There is more to the rod than just memories. My commands will be irresistible. All of Khorvaire will bow down. The legacy of Dhakaan does not need to be destruction. It can be a new age of goblin strength!
I speak without thinking. "Darguuls! Was our nation not born in war? Were our people not born in war? From ancient days, have we not spread our power across the land?"
The adoration of the crowd is like a physical thing, catching me up and carrying me aloft. And yet . . .
In the branches of the grieving tree, Keraal gives another slow groan. I look up at the rebel who cost me so much, and another memory comes to me—one of my own, not one of the rod's. Words spoken in this room and on this spot to Geth, the shifter I have taken as a sword-brother. That's the doom of kings. We're men and women when we take the throne, but we lose ourselves to our people. We stop being individuals and become nations. Darguun will not cry for the Gan'duur. It will dance under the grieving trees. It would dance if I hung on the tree.
I will lose myself willingly to Darguun, but I will not lose Darguun to memories of a fallen empire.
Geth seeks out Ashi d'Deneith. The power of her dragonmark may be enough to block the rod's hold on me for a short while at least. But will Geth return in time?
I try to find words to put off my warlords, but the seething assembly has the taste of blood. Warlords, even petty councilors, begin shouting out victims for their aggression.
"Northern Breland and then into Thrane!"
The will of the crowd tears at me. The will of the rod tears at me. Go to war for the glory of Darguun. Go to war for the glory of Dhakaan. There is no time to wait. War will not wait. My ears push down, my lips peel back from my teeth—
—and inspiration comes to me in one of the rod's sweeping memories. Dhakaan never knew humans, but it knew another enemy, one that still exists. One that will find no more friends among the other nations of Khorvaire than would Darguun.
I draw breath and shout as I would over a battlefield.
I look out over my court, choosing my words with care and delivering them as if preparing troops for battle. "You think small! Breland, Thrane . . . what challenge would they be? Ancient blood demands an ancient enemy. As it was in the age of Dhakaan, goblins shall go into battle against elves!" I thrust out the Rod of Kings, sealing my words with the gesture. "Let our blades fall on Valenar!"
The silence holds for the length of time it takes to draw breath, then the throne room explodes into new cheers. In my mind, the rod plays its approval with images of slain elves. The enemies of Dhakaan are suitable enemies for Darguun.
The hand that holds the rune-carved shaft trembles. It is a desperate strategy. The elves will be a bitter enemy, but not so bitter as five nations of humans united. If Darguun and Valenar fight, will other nations care? The devastation of the Mournland and the deep waters of Kraken Bay are barriers. Battle will be limited.
I have called for war to save Darguun from war.
There is movement at the side of the dais. Geth and Ashi stand in a doorway, ready to aid me. For the moment I act as the rod wills and it does not fight me. If Ashi's power can block it, there may yet be time to end this madness.
I let myself hope and raise the rod high in triumph and blessing—
Sharp pain sears through my right shoulder and my chest. I am a warrior. Even as I stumble sideways and collapse against some strange obstruction in my armpit, I recognize the sensation. An arrow—no, a crossbow bolt, buried almost to the fletching in the thin armor of the joint. A fiery burning accompanies the pain. Poison.
I hear Geth shout my name, glimpse the shifter throwing himself out onto the dais, animal eyes shining, sharp teeth bared. The crowd is slower to react. Many of them are still cheering.
The instincts of an old warrior force my eyes up, and I am the first to see the black-clad goblin that launches himself from the observation gallery—supposedly closed—above the throne room. One of the shaarat'khesh, the Silent Blades. One of the clan of assassins.
Chetiin, who called himself my friend, lands on the dais with a rolling tumble, drawing the daggers sheathed on his forearms as he comes to his feet. One of the daggers is curved and ugly. The other is straight and plain but uglier still, with a blue-black crystal winking from its blade like the eye of a great cat.
I put the heavy bulk of the throne between us and grope for my sword, but my right arm is useless. I abandon the attempt and instead raise the heavy rod—it has woken again and memories of ancient betrayals are rushing from it in an angry torrent. I fight back, but it's like swimming against the current of a river. A haze falls over me. There are so many things I want to say to Chetiin but only one word escapes me, bursting out with such force that I can't be sure if it is me or the rod that speaks it.
To Use the Desktop Wallpapers
Mac OS X: If you are using Macintosh OS X, put the desktop pictures into your Pictures folder then open System Preferences. Select "Desktops" then choose the desktop picture you want to use.
Windows: If you are using Windows 95, 98, ME, 2000, or XP, right click on any empty area on your desktop. Select Properties in the menu that appears. Click the Desktop tab. Click the Browse button, then navigate to where you stored your desktop wallpapers, then select the desktop wallpaper you want to use.