Blackened ruins were all that remained of the mighty kingdom Ernloheim. The land had been scourged of all life and turned to grey barrens. For miles no living thing stirred and a foul wind whipped up dust and ash as it howled across the land.
Ernloheim once led the last alliance against the forces of darkness, against the witch. In the end they had fallen, as all the cities of the world fell to her evil powers. Death lay scattered everywhere, the bones of heroes and monsters covering the earth, some still clutched the weapons that failed to save them in life.
Wicked magic blotted out the sun, fouled the land, and poisoned the rivers. An ever present cloud of blackness hung in the sky, never raining nor thundering, forever casting the land in a frozen eternal darkness. The whole of the world, called Cordemna, suffered the same curse, where green things no longer grew and the songs of birds fell silent. Overall not a great place to honeymoon.
A crystal palace had been erected where Ernloheim’s shining castle had stood. It looked like a twisted hand clawing at all angles towards the sky. Thousands of pastel hues covered the facets of its warped fingers creating an ethereal aura which was the only light in the desolate land.
Inside of the palace the crystals did not glow. Torches provided light, each one reflecting a hundred times and lighting entire hallways. The soot could gather on the ceiling, but there was no shortage of slaves to clean it up.
One part of the palace saw no light at all most of the time, for as the palace stretched upward, it also plunged into the earth. In its deepest bowels was a cell built for a single man. He was Alteem, the last prince of Ernloheim. The man had fought till his till his legs could no longer stand and his arms could no longer raise his sword. His father had a spear plunged through his heart, his younger brother was stabbed a dozen times, his younger sister and mother had been beheaded in front of him. Alteem’s eyes watched his entire kingdom leveled to the ground and all the world come to ruin. All he had ever known, or ever loved, was gone.
While the room existed in darkness most often, it was not without light now. A pale purple flame flickered in the witch’s delicate hands. She rolled it over them idly as if it was a ball, her nails black, her skin so ghostly pale that in better light it was hard to see the features of her face. She was pretty, unnaturally so. The like that could drive people to madness to win her over. Maybe even to tear out their beating hearts from their own chest and offer it to her. It hadn’t happened yet, but the witch was sure it could any day now.
Her hair had been like wildfire once, and still was in places, but the magics she so casually toyed with had turned it white at the roots and black at the tips, with strong highlights of green among its natural color. She was a small thing, for one who wielded such terrifying power, a couple of inches shy of five feet.
Pretty as she was, there was something unsettling about her face. The sort of thing a person couldn’t quite put their finger on. If they stared long enough, and paid enough attention, they might notice her eyes did not quite match. They were both green, but one was slightly darker than the other. If you were close enough, as few ever were, you would see the patterns of the eyes were different. One looked like a starburst, while the other had three concentric circles.
She lounged in a satin couch, a blend of pink and purple. The witch ordered it dragged in after her visits to the cell became regular.
When Alteem had first been imprisoned they had tortured him once a week, dragging him out of the cell to be flogged while she watched and smiled. Then, she’d gotten bored of that, and left him rotting in the dungeon. More recently, however, she’d found a new way to torture him.
“I think it all started with my mother,” she said. “Nothing was ever good enough for her.” Her voice was lilting, with tremulous vowels.
“You had my mother executed in front of me,” said Alteem.
“Could we not make this about you right now, I’m really having a tough time here.”
Alteem said nothing, but stared blankly at the wall. The light from her flame reached just far enough to cast bars of shadow across his form.
“Where was I? Oh yes, my mother, horrid woman. It was one thing after another with her. ‘Don’t shake so much when you’re sacrificing an animal to summon a demon,’ it was my first time, surely I was allowed to be a bit a nervous. ‘Shouldn’t you be watching your figure?’ ‘You’re supposed to smear blood left to right.’ ‘Don’t play with your demonic minions.’ ‘Why don’t you have a boyfriend?’ I don’t know mother, maybe because we live in a sentient swamp that opens up its thousand tooth maw to swallow anyone who doesn’t know the secret paths. Maybe that’s why I don’t have a boyfriend, mother."
“Even when I killed her it wasn’t good enough. I thought I’d do it out in the open, you know, the fair thing, give her a fighting chance, but no. ‘Why aren’t you killing me peacefully in my sleep? I guess you don’t really love me. After all I’ve done for you,’ No mother, I don’t love you!”
The witch sat up in her couch. “Oh wow, I’ve never said that out loud before, if feels so good to finally admit it to someone. Talking to you always makes me feel better Alty, I’m so glad we started having these little chats.”
“I loved my mother, she used to sing me to sleep when I was little,” Alteem said, his body unmoving in the dark.
“My mother used to summon demons to invade my dreams and give me nightmares,” she paused, not saying anything for a moment. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this, you know, conquering the world. There was supposed to be parties, fun, parades. Everything the way I wanted it to be. I don’t remember the last time I had fun, and I still don’t have a boyfriend. I haven’t had the time, what with running the world and such. It’s nothing but work, work, work. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but, I think I’m beginning to regret conquering the world and covering it in eternal darkness.”
Alteem looked up from the wall to her, “You could always abdicate, give it all up.”
The witch considered it. “Oh no I couldn’t, imagine the embarrassment. Going to all that trouble and then just walking away. Raising an army of evil, marching it across the world, laying waste to my enemies, desecrating the land as we went, all for nothing, I’d never live it down. Then there’s all the innocent people I’ve killed, am I just supposed to have let them die for nothing. How do you think I’d feel, knowing I’d killed them all, then just changed my mind after it was too late? It’s just not fair.”
“They already died in vain, trying to stop you.”
The witch scoffed. “You’re always so gloomy. You really should try and cheer up Alty. I know! How does double rations sound, hmmm? Two slices of bread? Bet that sounds pretty good.”
Alteem went back to staring at the wall.
“There’s just no pleasing you.”
A knock came on the door. “This is supposed to be me time,” the witch said, the hint of a threat on her voice.
“It’s been an hour my dark Empress,” Came a hoarse voice from the other side of the door. “It’s almost time for you to hold audience in the throne room.”
“Already?” The witch looked with pleading eyes up to the ceiling while sighing. “Fine, but this is exactly what I’m talking about. My life isn’t my own anymore.”
The witch got to her feet and walked towards the door, “I’ll see you tomorrow Alty, you know, if you’re still alive.” The door opened, and her advisor Krekatin waited for her. It was a Holdorf, one of many beastly races she’d united in her conquest of the world. They had grey skin so tough it looked like leather, and milky eyes. No hair ever adorned their heads but black or white beards often grew on the chins of both men and women. The witch did not know if Krekatin was a man or woman, she had never cared to ask. The Holdorf appeared more diminutive than the other beastly races, matching the witches short height, but this was only due to the fact they hunched themselves over.
If there was one thing the Holdorf loved it was organizing things. They often didn’t get very far when traveling since they’d frequently stop along the roads to organize pebbles or rocks. At the best of times they loved to organize parties, at the worst, armies. The witch had employed them for both of these talents. If there was one downside to their behavior, it’s that they could be pretty catty about people’s clothing choices.
In his rare free time, Krekatin could often be seen outside the palace organizing the bones outside. As a result, a radius of neatly aligned bones stretched out from the entrance.
Her guardsmen were comprised mostly of the wandering herds. They had no name for their own race, though humans called them Goatmen. They referred to themselves only by the name of their tribe and their rank within. This often confused the witch but she’d quickly found a way around it by referring to them simply as, “You there.”
The heads of the Goatmen were, as one might expect, goat like. Upon their faces short muzzles protruded, covered in black fur. Dark crimson horns curled on the sides of their heads. They had feet but they were bestial, a cross between a wolf and man. They wore black plate mail and held long serrated halberds. A war-like people, they bickered with each other in blood feuds for thousands of years. The feuds stopped only long enough to raid villages and towns for supplies. They burned crops, caring nothing for agriculture, stealing livestock and people for their food. Only ash and destruction was left in their wake. It was all around agreed, however, that they were nice enough chaps once you got to know them.
The hallways of the crystal palace were much the same colors as its outside. They twisted and turned at random. Doors were mirrors that rippled and vanished when touched. There were no stairs, but passages ascended and descended at certain forks.
After traversing the mad labyrinth, Krekatin and the witch came to the throne room. She plopped down on her throne, a black metal claw forged in the fires of the flags and thrones of all those she had conquered. It had not been long in her rule, when she’d decided that metal chair was “dreadfully uncomfortable” and added several throw pillows. This somewhat diminished its effect. Most recently, she’d added an ottoman.
Two columns of guards lined either side of the court hall. It sloped gently downwards towards the large opening at its end.
The witch sighed, then sighed again, then pouted. “Send them in,” she said with a hand wave. A long line of peasants, clothed in rags and covered in dirt, approached the throne. “Wasn’t there some talk about washing them before letting them into the palace?”
“We hadn’t come to final a decision about that. You said you liked them to be reminded of how pitiful they were before you,” said Krekatin.
“That does sound like me. Next time just wash them, I’m tired of the smell.”
“Step forward,” the witch said, settling back into her pillows.
A woman stepped forward, stout and thick, but somehow still gaunt. Krekatin pounded a staff on the ground three time, “You are now addressing her Majesty, the Empress of all the Lands, Conqueror of the world, witch Supreme, Princess of Darkness, Master of all evil, Queen of Nations-“
“Skip it! Just, skip the introduction,” the witch said. “What do you want peasant?”
“My name is Martha, and the people of my village are starving-“
“Ugh, this again,” The witch rolled her eyes, “It never ends. Why are you people always starving?”
“Because you burned all our fields, blighted our livestock, and desecrated the land,” said Martha.
The room grew still, the guards half flinching in preparation for what was to come. Everyone knew the danger of rousing the witch’s wrath. She did not show mercy, she did not have patience, and she brooked no insolence.
“It was a rhetorical question,” the witch said, her eyes narrowing.
Martha stepped forward, “Well it’s true. It’s your fault everyone’s starving. If you’re tired of the complaints then do something about it.”
“How dare you speak to me like to me like that?” The witch got to her feet marched towards the woman, getting in her face. Well, she tried to, but the woman was a good half a foot taller than her and much wider. “I’ve killed people for less.”
“Go ahead and kill me then, it’s no worse than what you’ve already done.”
“Maybe if you’re village hadn’t opposed me I wouldn’t have desecrated your land.”
“My village didn’t oppose you, we surrendered immediately on the promise you’d spare us. You desecrated the land of ally and enemy alike.”
The witch turned to Krekatin, “Did I?”
“Not all of them,” said Krekatin.
“Hah,” The witch turned back to Martha and pointed her finger with triumph, “not, all of them.”
Martha put her hands on her hips and frowned at the witch.
“Okay fine,” The witch twirled her hand and a decanter appeared with a purple liquid inside. “Take this is and sprinkle three drops, and only three drops, on your land. The desecration should clear up in about a week.”
“What happens if I use more than three?” Asked Martha.
“Nothing, it’s just wasteful. Now get out of here before I kill you or whatever.” The witch returned to her throne and sat down. “Who’s next?”
The woman left, her life intact, and everyone exchanging surprised glances.
A man stepped forward, his clothes brown rags dripping off of him. His skin was stretched thin across his bones. “My name is Taylor, the people of my village are starving.”
The witch wailed, pounding her fists repeatedly on her throne. Then, she let out a whining moan as she sank deeper into her pillows, plopping her feet up on the ottoman. “Who’s here about food?” The whole line of peasants raised their hands. “Fine then, I’ll fix it, okay, if you all promise not to whine about it anymore.”
The peasants nodded their heads with a few mutterings of “I promise.”
“Fine, fine, FINE! I will remove the corruption from the land. Green things will grow again, rivers will run blue. The sun shall shine and birds sing once more. It will be spring again and all things shall be fertile and bear fruit. Bleh. Never mind how much of an inconvenience this is for me. It’s not like anybody ever cared about how much work I had to do in order to corrupt the land in the first place. Who’s next?”
“That was everybody,” said Krekatin.
“Oh,” said the witch. “So I have some free time?”
“There are several other things that could use your attention, your majesty.”
The witch moaned, “Why didn’t anyone tell me ruling the world would be so much work? And to think, I gave away that decanter for nothing now. Do you think I made it clear enough I wanted it back?”