At the center of the realms there is a world, and at the center of the world there is a nation, and at the center of the nation there is a city, and at the center of the city there is a palace, and at the center of the palace there is a man, and at the center of the man there is a heart.
And it is failing.
King Vathaal’s health was waning and though the specter of death was not so fearsome in the Kingdom of Melyn, especially to those of noble standing, the king wished for more time. For in the world of Vanoree the dead passed into the realm of memory to join the ghosts of their forebears and all the stories that had been lived. From their watchful theater on the moon above, that great marble eye, the dead kept their vigil and often by means of magic spoke to the oracles of Melyn. In keeping with the traditions of the kingdom, death was a rite of passage. An opportunity to join those who came before, and counsel those who were yet to come. King Vathaal himself had been advised by all the Vathaal’s who came before him, all the way back to the first of his line and the founding of the city of fountains in the wake of the Reaving.
All of this Vathaal knew, and knew well and still he was afraid. The clutching dread, his heart beats like knives in his chest, whispered a truth he could not ignore. That the dead of Vanoree, though near at hand through the power of Melyn’s oracles, could not grow or change beyond the person that they were when they died. All the faults and vices and regrets of a life, preserved forever in the shape of an ashen ghost. King Vathaal had many regrets, they accumulated throughout his reign like coins in a coffer and the vast horde of them now was more than he could spend in the time that he had left.
At his disposal were a great many resources, the Bronze Legion, the Colloquium of Melythis and its scholars and field magicians, the great oracles of Melyn upon whose power the might of the kingdom had been built. All his, and yet none of them could buy him so much as a single extra second. He could practically see Old Aiden’s hounds stalking him between the seconds as they passed. Wolves that were not wolves. It was in this state that something like an idea crept into the mind of the King. If time enough to assuage his regrets could be purchased, then perhaps a regrettable choice could be made to obtain the time and that regret as well could be amended in the passing.
So it was that the idea took root and on a moonless night, when the eyes of the dead were blind to the world of the living, King Vathaal entered his throne room alone. There among the columns, with trembling hands, he set fire to the palace and from that baleful act called to his side the Cinder Court of Kunufe, Ever-Dying, an archfey of ill repute and indolent affinities. Now in the center of the palace with the man there was a fiend, and in the center of the fiend there was a heart made out of coal.
Kunufe, the old salamander, slunk upon her funerary altar like a dead thing. Cloaked in a blanket of ash with the barest smoldering hint of flame behind her eyes. All about her lay the gifts and offerings of her cackling subjects, quick to earn her favor with a shallow word and a sweet glittering prize. Her preference was for such things, to consider as little as possible, and those that needed respite from the ravages of time and the laws of other courts well knew the grace of her Ever-Dying power. No other lords of the realm cared to intervene in her affairs. So too was it with King Vathaal, though in disgrace he had chosen the night of the new moon when his ancestors could not see the deed.
Gathered all around, the mocking-mourners, fiery vakune eager to drawn the palace in flames to sate their hunger, and mischievous dihga of all assembled varieties, goblins and firestarters, arsonists all, champions of negligence, some no bigger than a human fist, but others had to bow their bloated heads to avoid scraping the vaulted ceilings of the throne room. Their gloomy blackened forms scattered the light of the dancing vakune about like wild torches, and everywhere the air caught them golden fireflies sparked into life and drifted lazily about.
The master of this ceremony, for Kunufe herself preferred to play the part of the deceased, was the mother of all Vanoree’s pyrewitches, a towering twig thin thing with kindling hair and charcoal nails. She sat at the head of an ebony table, laden with treasure and meats and brought the crackling procession to order with a raised goblet full of smoke.
“By the rites has the wake been invited to this home, set ablaze by the hand that tends it. You are now our guest, o’King, and what have you to offer the Ever-Dying upon her passage?”
The King, alone in this descent, observed all with watery, stinging eyes. He looked past the hag at the sullen fairy queen, skulking in her languid soot pile.
“I am the king of the great nation of Melyn, I have many things at my disposal. Great scholars and magicians, the might of the Bronze Legion, the wealth and riches of all my subjects. I…”
“A king you say, but have you no decorum?!” The hag slammed her twisted fist against the table and Vathaal saw that it was not made of ebony, but coated in a thick layer of soot, “Speak no more to the dying, lest you wish to join her on the pyre.”
“My apologies…” whispered Vathaal, and the gathered fay erupted into a raucous laughter, “forestall my passing, this I ask, and in exchange I shall offer your court one boon from all that I possess. For even those as mighty as…” he felt his eyes drifting to Kunufe, but quickly returned them to the hag, “the dying could use the service of so many.”
“One request?” the hag smiled and the mourning court fell silent, “One request for fifteen years of extra life?”
“Yes, yes!” the King stammered, “Fifteen…yes, I could do so much with fifteen.”
“We agree.” Kunufe’s voice settled on the throne room like a log collapsing in a fire. She hauled herself from the soot, shrouded except for her eyes, “My uncles hounds will haunt you yet, mortal king, they do not give up so easily, but my vakune will keep them from you until their flames give out.”
“A…and the request?” King Vathaal more nervous now, unsure of whether to look at the hag or the queen, “My armies and my nation, what would you have them do?”