Blanrus raged against the night.
It had taken nearly his whole supply of emergency potions to heal the wounds he’d suffered in the fight with those thrice-damned interlopers, the Knights of Gaia, they called themselves. Plus he’d had to use his one and only teleportation spell to open a doorway in space for the canoe to sail through to get him to the outer markers around the docks at Harpel.
They were a ragged, good for nothing, bunch of adventurers. Rundown, out of luck, broke, and vile-smelling to boot.
He’d raged at the pain all the way back to the docks, his ruined eye nearly causing him to crash several times. He’d taken his anger out on Illene, beating her senseless every time she awoke. Seeing the fear and pain in her eyes was the only way to assuage the agony in his own body.
When he’d finally made it to the private dock provided by The Sword, the throbbing pain of his wounds had nearly reached the point of driving him mad. Kasrah ToeFeathers greeted him merrily before spluttering to a halt at the sight of his blood-soaked robes and burned face. It was one of the few times Blanrus could remember the talkative halfling being at a loss for words.
Snarling at Kasrah and Roget to take the girl, he staggered into the waiting carriage and collapsed on the soft cushions, unmindful of his blood staining them. He heard the crack of the whip and the horses started forward with a jerk, tearing a painful hiss out of him despite his iron determination to show no pain before his servants.
Through the red fog that was descending on him, he dug through the cushions to the wooden seat beneath. He pressed a certain board and the ceiling overhead opened up to reveal a hidden compartment filled with potions, wands, rings, and other items of art. By the time he was healed, all but one of the potions were gone.
He settled back in the carriage with a sigh of relief, letting his head drop back on the headrest behind him. His body swayed gently with the rhythm of the carriage and he stared unseeingly out the window at the streets.
Harpel had been civilized for about 140 years, if you could call it that, he thought absently. Before a grizzled old pirate named One Eye Harpel took over, it had been a haven for pirates, slavers, smugglers, the worst scum in space. One Eye had been one of the most notorious of them, wanted everywhere he ventured. His ambitions went beyond mere piracy though and the day came when he amassed his forces and conquered all the other pirates on Harpel.
Consolidating his position in the aftermath of the attack, he renamed the place after himself and proclaimed the royal house of Harpel. The asteroid was roughly saucer-shaped, flat on one side, rising to a peak in the center on the other side. One Eye erected a stout fortress on the peak, naming that side of the asteroid “Top” and the flat side “Bottom”.
Creativity hadn’t been one of his strong points.
The rival pirate lords that chose to throw their in lot with him became the new nobility of Harpel, setting up houses and estates around Castle Mount, their proximity indicating their status. Slavery was (nominally) outlawed, treaties were signed and diplomatic relations established with the nearest kingdoms. Harpel joined the ranks of civilized society.
More or less.
One Eye’s eldest son, Bozrik, was a fat, wine-guzzling, fanny-pinching, empty-headed oaf. When One Eye died and Bozrik ascended the throne, things took a turn for the worse. The various noble houses began openly vying for position and power. A royal council, advisory only at first, was established and soon became the law of the land, with Bozrik reduced from king to prince and relegated to the status of a mere figurehead. For 70 years this state of affairs was the norm, and during that time the population of Harpel boomed.
Ambassadors from the various states that opened relations with Harpel were sent to the asteroid along with their families, attendants, retainers, servants, and spies. Workers were brought in to construct appropriate quarters for them. The laborers themselves needed food and shelter, stores to buy things from, banks to hold their money, bars to drink in, and temples for worship. Harpel’s strategic location soon led to it becoming a major shipping point.
Warehouses and shipping companies sprang up. Shipbuilding also became a large part of the local economy. By the time Bozrik died in a drunken accident and Urdan took over, Harpel had become a major metropolis.
Unlike his father though, Urdan was ambitious, greedy, and brilliant. He wasn’t content to merely preside drunkenly as his father had; he wanted to rule. There were even rumors that Bozrik’s sudden death hadn’t been entirely accidental.
The new Prince Urdan found his ambitions stunted, however. Under Bozrik, the various merchants, nobles, adventurers, and other factions had increased their power and influence in the city to the point where the prince found that he was merely one more player in a byzantine maze of politics. He had his own agents and forces loyal to him, but he had move carefully, as there were those who would see Harpel ruled by a more ineffectual leader so the council could more easily dominate the throne and the city with it.
One of the other players in this maze was The Sword, a military brotherhood, small but very well organized and dangerous. They were warriors to a man, cold and hard. After years of fruitless maneuvering in the political arena, they had decided to mount a frontal attack and take Harpel at sword point. The attempt failed badly and more than half their number met death in the battle, or later, at the end of a rope.
Withdrawing into the countless tunnels, passages, and caverns inside the asteroid they slowly began to rebuild their strength and plan for another assault. During this time a new recruit brought with him a fascinating scrap of parchment that described a spell that could put them in control overnight. After much debate, the ruling council of The Sword approached Blanrus and offered him the job of casting the complicated spell as it was beyond any of the brotherhood. It would be his task as well to collect the various ingredients required for the magical ceremony.
For a princely sum, Blanrus had agreed to accept the job. The spell, when properly cast, would forcibly exchange the prince’s soul with that of someone else. The prince would suddenly find himself in the body of one of The Sword, and the volunteer would be in the prince's body. After that it was just a matter of the right decree, the proper gates and doors left unguarded, and The Sword could launch a coup that would leave them ruling the city with an iron fist.
What the brotherhood didn’t know was that Blanrus had no intention of letting one of them be exchanged with the prince. He was going to exchange himself with Prince Urdan. He would have a new, young body, command of all the Prince’s armies, and an inside knowledge of all the entrances to The Sword’ armories and barracks. He would also retain all of his spellcasting abilities. In short, he would have everything he needed to make himself the uncontested ruler of Harpel.
Blanrus sat in his darkened study and felt his upper lip curling with disdain for the tiny band that had tried, and failed, to stop him. Of course, they had failed! Wasn’t he destined to rule Harpel? Wasn’t he a genius without peer? Wasn’t he a wizard of true and terrible power?
And, yes again.
So it was only natural, perhaps even, ordained that the ill-begotten group should fail. There was simply no other possibility.
‘But what about the Claw?’ a tiny voice inside kept asking. ‘They got the ship. What about that?’
He wanted to smash that voice, tear it asunder, and force it to shut up. He didn’t want to listen to it, couldn’t listen to it. It was infuriatingly persistent; going on and on and on, making a mockery of his grand aspirations and dreams.
Alright then, he’d do something about it; make his boasting the truth, take back the ship and string up those hell-spawned bravado’s in the darkest, deepest dungeon on Harpel.
For the next week or more, he turned all his vast intellect and power towards devising a trap for the groundling vermin. They would follow him to Harpel in pursuit of the girl, of that much he was certain. Adventurers could always be counted on to do something forthright, heroic, brave, and of course, unutterably stupid.
They were so obvious.
A few days after his ignominious return, his Art indicated that true to his predictions, the little band had succeeded in launching the ship and were on their way. How soon they would arrive at Harpel was an open question. Skyships were uncommon and starships were rare as hen’s teeth on Gaia. Outside of Carrzulm and a few other kingdoms, most people hadn’t heard of either. The interlopers’ ability to navigate would depend on how quickly they deciphered his left-behind books and journals.
They would pay for that too, he vowed.
Those books represented a small fortune and almost ten years worth of notes, research, and dreary questioning of anyone who might have pertinent information. If any of them were damaged, he’d take special pleasure in skinning them alive for that little transgression.
He didn't plan on killing them though, that would be too easy, too painless. He wanted them to suffer, but more importantly, he wanted to watch them suffer. He wanted them to know they had been utterly defeated, to know their situation was hopeless, that the pain and agony would be unending, that there was no possibility of escape . . . not even through death. And he wanted to be there to watch every last exquisite moment of their agony.