During the period of consolidation he declared after the Ten Years’ War, King Heriotza II The Desired made a number of changes.

First, in keeping with his pledge, he altered his official name and title. No longer a king, nor a pharaoh, nor even an emperor, he would henceforth be known by no title other than god. Declaring that his ancestor Heriotza I The Pious did not deserve to share a name with his greatness, he further decreed that he would be known as Jainkoa, a word that combined phonemes for “eternal” and “death” in Old Teramytan.

Though the people called him Heriotza II The Despised under their breath, in public he was now simply Jainkoa, the Eternal Death. The death was for his enemies, naturally, but also for himself: Jainkoa did his best to make good on his pledge to rule forever.

Magicians, sorcerers, and other practitioners of the dark arts flooded into the swollen empire of Teramyt, all supported lavishly by Jainkoa. Their directive: research into the line between life and death with an eye toward life eternal. They would be given anything they desired, but in return their liege expected results. Not a few charlatans were caught up in Jainkoa’s nets, living the high life for a year or so before being executed for failing to produce anything of value.

Though Jainkoa himself was not an old man, he seemed to forever regard himself as being near death and took elaborate precautions to protect his life, including rejuvenating baths three times a day and a dazzling variety of poultices and creams designed to stave off aging and mortality. Perhaps it was the strange nature of his resurrection that made him so.

It was not unti his first assassination, though, that the true extent of Jainkoa’s madness was made manifest.

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Four years to the day after his ascension, King Heriotza II the Desired of Teramyt invaded the neighboring county of Labankada, ruled by his godfather the Pharaoh. Labankada had ten times the area and ten times the population of Teramyt; those that still had the ability to do so had councilmen against the campaign but found themselves rejected—or beheaded—for their troubles.

In the first clash, near the border at Gudu-Zelai, it became apparent what Heriotza’s military training regimen had amounted to. The Labankadans found themselves facing an ashen-faced army that knew no fear, knew no mercy, and cared not for any niceties. Well-armed and well-drilled, the Teramyts annihilated a much larger force, killing the Pharaoh and his two sons. Prisoners of the rout were executed to a man, save for a few nobles taken as hostages.

Heriotza, it seems, had been inspired by his own transformation and had killed every recruit to his new army. Resurrected, they became like he: creatures tainted by the underworld, pure malice and bereft of mercy.

Labankada fell swiftly before such a force. King Heriotza raised their own dead against them, and those few well-fortified points that resisted were overcome through canny use of hostages and a few object lessons in which entire garrisons were massacred upon the breach.

Entering their capital city in triumph, with the body of the Pharaoh and his sons dragged behind his chariot, King Heriotza stood on the balcony of the old palace and declared himself Pharaoh-King. Labankadans everywhere would do well to keep their heads down and do what was asked of them, he continued, for the penalty for disobedience was death.

In this way, tiny Teramyt conquered all of its neighbors, and their neighbors after them, in a whirlwind campaign lasting less than ten years. Upon completing these conquests, King Heriotza declared a ten-year period of retrenchment and consolidation of his conquests. He also made it clear that, while pliant local nobles would be allowed to serve in his name, there would be no opposition to his rule, no sharing of power, and—most importantly—no marriage and no heirs. In a move that shocked many, the pharaoh-king included the gods themselves with the nobles. They could continue to be worshipped, but he would be their liege.

Heriotza announced, from the steps of the Labankada palace that he had repurposed, that it was his intent to rule his domain forever as an immortal god-king.

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The king refused to listen, and ordered the ritual to be performed on pain of death. The magician complied, and Prince Heriotza was returned to life. All seemed well, but the populace noticed a definite change in the young man’s attitude. He seemed numb to pain in himself or others, cherished mean-spirited pastimes and jokes, and began studying intently with the court magician despite the latter’s protests.

When the magician, despondent, took his own life, King Gizahilketa confronted his son about his strange behavior. Heriotza responded that the old man was a fool to question his judgment, and that the magician’s death was of no consequence—the man had taught all he knew and another tutor in the black arts had already been dispatched from Labankada.

Legend has it that at this point Gizahilketa, mortified, tried to disinherit his son. The young man, laughing, then struck him down. The official histories simply record that the confrontation was too much for the old man and he perished in a fit.

The people of Teramyt spontaneously erupted in three days of feasting and celebrations for the new king, during which he was lifted on the backs of the populace and carried around joyously. At the conclusion of the festivities, King Heriotza II thanked them for their efforts, and informed them that there would be no need for any more such wastes of time.

Over the next year, the new king gradually undermined and removed every obstacle to his absolute rule. The last queen, the vizier, and the most troublesome nobles all found themselves isolated and executed on charges of conspiring with Labankada. The Pharaoh seems to have been mostly amused by this, and let the incidents pass without comment to his godson.

At the same time, Heriotza quietly introduced military training and conscription, requiring that each family with more than two adult sons furnish one for the army. To bolster the ranks still further he recruited daughters from families with multiple girls to serve as archers and charioteers. The conscripts reported for training and were generally never heard from again. Only those rejected from service for some deformity returned, and spoke of large camps in the desert with black tents, from which scarcely a sound emanated.

The people of Teramyt soon learned what King Heriotza II The Desired had been planning.

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The principality of Teramyt had long awaited the birth of a royal heir, for King Gizahilketa III was elderly and without any legitimate heirs or brothers. As a nominal vassal of the Pharaohs of Labankada, it was feared that Teramyt would lose its independence and submit to foreign rule should Gizahilketa perish with no heirs.

It was thus that there was great, rhapsodic jubilation upon the announcement that Gizahilketa’s third wife, the young Queen Haurtxo, had borne a healthy son. Her death in childbirth scarcely dampened the enthusiasm of the populace, and young Prince Heriotza was declared even before his reign as the future King Heriotza II The Desired.

Even as he tried to produce another child with fourth and eventually fifth wives, King Gizahilketa hired the best tutors from across Teramyt and even Labankada. The Pharaoh had agreed to serve as the young prince’s godfather, and reportedly was fond of the young man, lavishing him with gifts. The hope that Heriotza might marry his daughter likely played a part as well.

Despite his advanced age, Gizahilketa clung to the throne—there was no precedent for a king to abdicate, as he was considered to be a divine personage. He was still on the throne when the prince reached his majority: handsome, well-educated, and well-liked, Heriotza seemed every bit “the desired.”

When the news reached the King that his son had been slain in a hunting accident, the old man was devastated. He approached his court magician and asked if there was not some way to revive the boy, to stave off the encroachment of Labankada and save his kingdom. The magician replied that such a thing was possible but that it should never be done—souls brought back thus always carried the taint of the underworld with them.

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Sid’s Grocery
The last grocery store in town. Named after its owner and operator of 30 years, Sydney “Sid” Buford, Sid’s is currently in the final stages of closing down. Its prices have always been higher than most–thanks to Sid successfully driving away his competitors in town–and a major embezzlement scandal by employees stealing lotto winnings has only brought negative publicity. Once it closes at the end of August, Higbee will be left with no grocery stores at all, forcing locals to drive to a Wal-Mart 15 minutes away or buy from the local Dollar General.

An independent gas station, sliding toward insolvency. It was right on the old highway through town, and was bypassed with the rest of it by the new highway in 1985. The Marathon station out by the highway gets most of its business now, and the few people that do shop at the QuickStop usually do so because of its local jerky or late-night habit of selling alcohol to minors. The gasoline tanks steadily leak into the surrounding soil, which the owner, Ian Lebedev, calls his “retirement policy”–having the state come in and declare the abandoned property a toxic cleanup site.

Richemont Dairies LLC
The major employer in town, famous for Richemont Ice Cream. Approximately 25% of all Richemont Ice Cream in the country, and nearly all of it in the local region, comes from Higbee. This has led the town to have an extremely liberal view toward tax breaks and expansion, and as a result Richemont has doubled in size over the past 15 years–though, thanks to automation, it has not added many jobs. Richemont has been interested in closing the plant for decades thanks to its inconvenient location, but has so far been enticed by increasingly desperate tactics by the city–so much so that it has not paid any local property tax since 1990.

Orville’s Bakery
A small but regionally known bakery, Orville’s is still using the equipment that patriarch James Orville bought in 1950 to establish the business. It is one of the few things that attracts tourists or foodies to Higbee, and a local staple for cookies, birthday cakes, and small-batch bread. James Orville retired in 1990, and his children, Rita and Jim Jr., have been waiting for him to pass away so they can dismember and sell the business–the equipment would bring a quarter-million dollars, and the payday is more enticing to them than running the business.

Grand Tecumseh Hotel
The faded shell of a once-grand Gilded Age hotel. Neglectful owners and ill-fated attempts to modernize have left it moribund, with few guests and nearly all of its income deriving from its liquor license. Nearly half the structure is shut down, and what remains has been quietly overrun with black mold that its owner is trying to keep under wraps.

Movies R Us
Three businesses frankensteined together in an attempt to stave off the 21st century, Movies R Us has a Radio Shack up front, a DVD and video game rental business up in the middle, and a tanning salon in back. Each of them used to be in separate buildings, but hard times have forced them together in a marriage of convenience. The Radio Shack is not technically allowed to use the name and branding anymore, but since the company is bankrupt, it does anyway; it sells prepaid phones and phone cards and the owner still tinkers with electronics on the side. The rental business succeeds because of the terrible availability of broadband in Higbee and its low overhead, while the tanning beds are the most profitable venture by far but are beginning to show their age.

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May’s musical arrival had luckily adapted him for his beloved. Shy, he mentioned his married son; she started speaking of her late daughter. Rose was her name, and she dwelt solely in the past near where the sun-drenched days of childhood abided. To be graceful with the grief, he tried to elegantly, if moderately, speak of his own brother Edward. Was it vulgar, to see Edward with all his baby fat, playing on the jungle gym just before his death as a peer for poor Rose? The smallest thoughts about that peculiar relation bred a certain nervousness in him despite her smile. As loved ones depart, she said, spirits on stairs to eternity, we either have the wisdom to praise the things they were before, or to forget them. Being a mother doesn’t lend itself to the vanity of forgetting, nor does being a brother favor that same ignorance. Later that night, even before the sex had begun, he felt a powerful joy at thinking of her words, and the same relief he had after walks miles long.

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“They are coming, and the planes will howl with their passage. They will drink your blood as wine and find it wanting.” Rosie the abyssal swallowtail’s voice was muffled but quite audible from within the box.

“Hush, or you’ll spoil the surprise!” Randy the incubus said. He’d done his best to wrap her up as a gift, throwing a handful of edelwood leaves into a fancy white box that had once contained Maximillian XX, his very favorite dongle. A beautifully intricate bow of lacy soulcord finished it off–recycled from a garter that Randy had worn, in his female aspect, to try and seduce his way into a noblewoman’s delightfully decadent all-service sauna.

They were both riding up a brass-framed elevator, run by brimstone and steam from below, to see Nuby, Randy’s succubus number one in the whole wide Abyss. He was dressed in what he imagined to be his best finery: black leather pants and boots, with nothing on above the waist but a luxuriant midnight bow tie and a scoop of Curl Up And Dye pomade. It was, Randy would tall anyone who asked (and many who did not) the perfect combination of dressy and casual, showing off his physique while remaining coy.

“No one agrees with your assessment of that outfit,” Rosie spoke again from within her box. “The man who can pull it off has not yet been born, and none now living will witness when that day arrives.”

“Hush and shush,” Randy whispered, bringing the box up to his face. “Save your mean little prophecies for someone who will love them, ‘kay?”

The elevator shuddered to a halt, and Randy traipsed through the sparks that showered on all sides as it opened. Nuby’s latest abode was just down the hall. He didn’t have a key, but that had never stopped him before; he withdrew a pair of forged steel pins from deep within his pants and deftly picked the lock. As the door silently opened on well-greased hinges, Randy bounded inside.

“Nubes! You’ll never guess what I found for you!” His voice echoed harshly off the magnificence that Nuby preferred to swim in. High-piled Persian rugs, fine-wrought ironwood furnishings, and of course bold red and teal and gold.

Nuby the succubus was perched on a setee, with papers fanned out in front of her. Land registration deeds written in dead languages…detailed building plans…even some scrying crystals impregnated with the last conscious thoughts of sacrificed beings. It was always plans within plans, wheels with bladed gears a-twisting in her mind. The only thing transparent about her, Randy was fond of saying, was her negligee.

And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“What is it now, Randy?” The succubus didn’t look up, instead intently studying a testimonial that appeared to have been written in infernal blood upon a parchment of stretched and sentient skin. “You can’t do anything for me right now. Your skills, such as they are, would be wasted on this.”

“Ah, but there’s where you’re wrong, Nubes,” Randy said with a massive, toothy grin. “This’ll give you an edge.”

Nuby turned to him, her eyes calculating. “My edge,” she said, “is that no one thinks a mere succubus focused enough to really scheme. It’s like a rabbit setting snares to catch a hunter, they think.”

“What about…a moth to a flame?” Randy said. With a flourish, he produced the wrapped satin box from behind his back.

“That idiom doesn’t really work for this particular scheme,” Nuby said, blinking. “Credit for trying, I suppose. What’s that?”

“Open it, open it, open it!” Randy squealed, thrusting the box out. It was such a wonderfully Nubian gift for his best gal, he was sure that, once the wrappings fell away, that Nubes would just die

Setting aside her papers with a grimace, Nuby delicately examined the package before suddenly sand savagely perforating the ribbon with her teeth and tearing it off. The lid flapped to the ground, and Rosie fluttered out.

“Nuuuuuuuby,” the moth squeaked, “when your girl leaves your side she starts hitting on the first available low-hanging fruit that comes her way. She’s a little home wrecker! She has learnt from the best.”

Randy squinted. “Girlfriend? You mean like some gal pal?”

“Remember, Randy, they tell scandalous-sounding lies.” Nuby said with a short, sharp laugh.

The succubus held out her arm, and the insect alighted on it. “The wheels of the planes are turning, and you will be as gristle between them for daring to set yourself above your station,” she continued. “And that negligee is absolutely fake, do you think the tailors of the Demonweb Pits would actually use a suture to stitch something so sheer?”

“I know it’s fake,” Nuby said. “Do you think I’d wear real demonwebbery for doing my homework?”

“In fooling others, you fool only yourself.” Rosie fluttered her wings a bit, and stuck out her tongue to begin feeding on a few flecks of blood on Nuby’s arm, presumably from whatever earlier, sharp action had filled the scryers.

“It’s an abyssal swallowtail, isn’t it?” Nuby said with a wan little grin. “They tell uncomfortable truths, amusing lies, and everything in between.”

“Do you love her?” Randy said eagerly. “Do you want to name her your new child and use her in your plans, or just for fun?”

“Rosie,” Nuby said delicately. “Tell me a secret about Randy here. I don’t care if it’s real or made up.”

“He loves you with a child’s love, and will die for you, and that will eventually push you across a Rubicon from which he can love and die no more,” the moth squeaked. “He also has no functional pockets in pants that tight, so you do not want to know where he is keeping his lockpicks and Stabitha the dagger.”

Nuby chuckled. “Well done, Randy,” she said. “Rosie is a fine gift.” The bug was, after all, good for a laugh, and through thorough cross-referencing, the occasional prophecy too.

Randy clapped his hands, delighted beyond all measure. “You mean it?”

Nuby reached up and gave him a brief pat on the head. “You did good.” Then, all business again, she turned back to her scheme. “If you’re going to be hanging around, there’s a chore list on the kitchen wall. Folks that need interrogating, spying on, or stealing from. If you feel up to it.”

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