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Gav Thorpe

The Crown of the Conqueror

Askh

Spring, 210th year of Askh

I

The Crown lay in the pool of blood, glaring at Ullsaard like a golden eye. The new king wiped the sweat from his face and sat back on his haunches, casting about the throne room for another source of the voice.

He was alone.

He nervously looked at the Crown again. The gold glimmered in the last rays of dusk streaming through the window. Ullsaard noticed the smears, left by his fingers with the blood of Lutaar.

In the stillness he could hear the noises of the city beyond the palace. The coming night brought with it a last effort of looting from his legions before they would return to their camps. Even after three days it seemed that there were still doors left to be broken in, women to scream and defiant citizens to shout their protests.

The distant commotion served only to highlight the unreality of the throne room. A chill gripped Ullsaard as he stood. He backed away from the Crown, keeping one eye on it as if it were a serpent ready to strike. Trailing bloody footprints, Ullsaard crossed back to the throne and the slumped corpse of his predecessor. Lutaar's body had not moved, yet Ullsaard inspected it closely, fearful of some trick.

There was no mistake, Lutaar was most definitely dead. Most of his blood was on the floor, for a start.

With a growl, Ullsaard pulled the former king from the throne and pushed the body to the floor. Kneading his temples, Ullsaard sat down. He was tired, that was the obvious explanation for the voice he thought he had heard. Tired, not just from these past few days, but more than a year of fighting; such worry would take its toll on the hardiest constitution. Now that he was king, he could rest for a while to gather his spent strength.

The argument failed to convince Ullsaard. It was not a nagging inner voice that he had heard, not a vocalisation of his own thoughts. It had been as clear as another person in the room speaking to him, though not through his ears.

Ullsaard returned to his first thought: he was imagining things. While not a desirable development at this moment, it was more palatable than any other explanations; explanations that were halfformed in Ullsaard's mind and thankfully so. The voice had claimed to be Askhos, the first king, founder of the Askhan Empire, but that was impossible. That had been two hundred years ago.

It was far better to contemplate madness than the notion that somehow Askhos lived on two centuries after his death. And so Ullsaard's thoughts came full circle and he resolved to get some sorely needed sleep. The palace was deserted; he would return to his camp and tomorrow enter the city again as its rightful ruler.

"Just a piece of metal," Ullsaard muttered.

He pushed himself up, stalked a few paces from the throne to snatch up the Crown. He looked at it, turning it over and over in his hands. It was quite plain, the type of crown that could be fitted over a helmet. Ullsaard could tell by the weight that it was not even solid gold; more likely it was mostly made of bronze; iron had been even rarer two hundred years ago. It was nothing special. Ullsaard owned parade helms that were worth more in raw material. There was not even a gem or other decoration.

The value of the Crown is not in gold or jewels, Ullsaard.

He flung the crown away as if stung. Ullsaard staggered back, but this time there had been no pain. The king whirled around, convinced that there was another person with him, but the throne room was empty.

I am in the Crown and I am in you.

The voice was softly spoken, calm and assured.

"You are a trick of my mind," said Ullsaard. He strode to a window and took a deep lungful of evening air to calm himself. The smoke of cooking fires carried on the breeze, tinged with the reek of abadas from the legion camps beyond the walls.

I am real. I am Askhos.

Ullsaard shook his head and said nothing. He was not going to indulge this fantasy by speaking to it.

Ignoring me will not make me go away.

"Get out of my thoughts," said Ullsaard, eyes roving the city around the palace, seeking something real to latch on to.

He saw a group of soldiers pulling a heavily laden handcart across the Maarmes bloodfields. At first he thought it was piled with loot, but as they approached he saw more clearly that the cart was heaped with corpses, stripped of everything. There was a captain with them and as they reached the road circling the palace, the soldiers turned towards the street leading to the main gate of the city.

Legionnaires never change. There was a laugh in the voice. Three days to loot the city and they spend the last night tidying up. You have led them well.

Ullsaard could ignore the voice no longer; it clearly wasn't going to leave any time soon. Perhaps it was better to confront the voice, show it to be the madness it was.

"You cannot be Askhos," said Ullsaard, turning from the window. "Askhos died a long time ago."

My body died, but my spirit lives on. A body is nothing, just a collec tion of bones and fat, organs and muscle, nerves and veins. What makes a man is more than just flesh.

"How can that be?" said Ullsaard. "How can a spirit live on without the flesh to sustain it?"

It cannot. The Crown has been my temporary refuge, but I have lived again in each king that has worn it.

Ullsaard shook his head. The voice made no sense. He reverted to his earlier tactic of denial.

"You are just a trick of my mind, nothing more."

Could a trick of your mind tell you about the founding of this city? For instance, this hall took three years to build. The stone for the walls came from a quarry seventy miles to coldwards. The overseer was a short, fat man called Heraales. The marble of the floor came from even further away, in the mountains between Askhor and Maasra. A caravan of seven hundred abadas was needed to bring it to this place. Seventeen masons fashioned the dome above you. Three of them died during the construction, falling when the scaffolding collapsed. I can tell you their names as well, if you like.

"Stop it!" Ullsaard surprised himself, his shout ringing back from the walls. "This is nonsense. This cannot be."

Yes it can, and it is. Listen to me carefully, because you have done a very foolish thing and it is important that you believe me. I am Askhos. I am the spirit of the founding king, given immortal life through the bodies of my offspring. As each body died, I returned to the Crown, ready to take over the body of the next.

"The eldest heir of every generation. That is why Lutaar was adamant that Aalun could not become king."

Not Lutaar. Me. The Crown and the Blood are linked; are as one. The Blood holds the key to my immortality, and that bond is strongest in the eldest living son.

"I still cannot understand how such a thing is possible."

And you never will, Ullsaard. Think of it as sorcery, or perhaps the gift of the spirits the Salphors insist on worshipping. It is an alignment of many different things that enabled me to separate my being from the con fines of a single mortal shell. It is not the only way that immortality can be attained, my brother took another, but it suited my purposes the best.

"Purposes? What purposes? And why would you keep such a thing secret?"

My purpose was to build this empire. Everything in the Book of Askhos is true. It is my grand plan, and it must be fulfilled. I could not risk the faltering of this great project, and so I took steps and made bar gains to ensure that I would remain to guide it to completion. You have put that plan at risk and we must act to set things right.

Ullsaard picked up on something the voice — Askhos, if it was to be believed — had said.

"You said you made bargains. Bargains with whom?"

It does not matter, Ullsaard. It is ancient history, more ancient even than the two hundred years of this empire. I suppose I should thank you for one thing.