RATHEGALIA: ENDOWMENT OF BLOOD
Written by Christopher Ikpoh
Illustrations by Junki Sakuraba
“My king…” a voice emerged from underneath an arched doorway. Belmont’s study was made of the same ornate stone and marble design as the meeting chambers of the VOF. Golden fixtures held torches in multiple places along the walls, creating dancing shadows all around him. Plush wood comprised his furniture, as well as the massive bookcases encompassing everything within the study. The greatest wealth of knowledge lived in Belmont’s study regarding everything from ancient magic and galactic philosophies to modern military combat theory. He was as much a historian and student as anything else, a fact which not only propelled him to greatness, but also enabled him to continually grow as a scholar, king, and warrior.
Belmont stopped shuffling through the mound of scrolls and texts on his large, luxurious, candlelit desk. Turning to the guard of Castle Rathegalia in the doorway calling to him, he replied, “Please, enter.”
“Forgive my interruption, but the VOF are gathered in the meeting chambers below,” the guard informed.
“We are not to meet until tomorrow.”
“Yes, my king, but upon hearing of your return they have called for an emergency assembly.”
Belmont sighed with exasperation. The VOF was impeding his singular purpose since arriving home, which was to scour the archived records of Friki’s vampire clans. The sigil he witnessed on the garb of the mysterious caravan menaced his mind from the moment he left the site of his clash with the megathirio. Yet, his efforts yielded no results. Nary a clue nor hint of the sigil’s origin was discovered. It was as if it was unknown to all of history. However, the sensation of malevolence Belmont felt in his spirit upon seeing the figures wearing the symbol refused to let him believe this. There existed a darkness to the sigil, one from eons ago but certainly not completely forgotten.
“Inform the elders I will join them shortly,” Belmont instructed.
“Right away, my king.” The guard immediately bowed his head and placed a closed fist over his heart; the customary decorum of a soldier or guard when greeting or departing from the presence of the king. Then, he turned to alert the VOF of Belmont’s arrival.
Moments later, the giant doors to the Meeting Chambers within Castle Rathegalia began to part. The massive wooden structures roared and creaked the further they parted, signaling to the elders the need to stand while receiving their king. As they did, the elders bowed their heads and placed their fists over their hearts before saying, “My king.”
“Please, please. Be seated,” Belmont responded in a casual manner as he proceeded towards his chair. His feet pressed against a strip of soft, black material extending from the entrance to the table. The path along both sides of the strip shone, reflecting fire from the torches over a lacquered-type finish. The same shiny exterior also outlined all windows, fixtures, and other features of the great hall.
When Belmont took his seat at the exquisite marble table, the rest of the elders followed suit. Then, the most senior elder, Ilikiomenos, spoke. “King Belmont, as you have been briefed, we are facing an unprecedented event of illegal human trafficking.”
Elder Symvoulio chimed in with statistics. “Friki’s unregistered human population has increased to 300%. Unsanctioned feeding offenses are up 90%. In addition, The Order of Blood Farmers are reporting revenue losses up to 24%. These impacts, as predicted, are beginning to bleed into other areas of our economy, as well.”
“Those at the root of this egregious violation must be brought to justice and stopped,” Elder Paratiro stated with her regal voice.
Elder Viologos inserted undeniable commentary. “The threat being posed is both domestic and foreign. In addition to the problems we face here, if Earth’s inhabitants become hostile due to the discovery of the portals and the secret trade agreement between Friki and humans, it undoubtedly will spell disaster for us.”
“We have compiled some strategies we would like to discuss with you on how to resolve the situation,” Elder Symvoulio added while repositioning himself to better read his notes.
Belmont listened intently to the VOF’s concerns and statements, as he fully understood the gravity of the situation. Yet, he could not help but succumb to a distraction during moments throughout the meeting. The ominous memory of the unknown sigil and the proof of aima’s existence infiltrated his mind, destabilizing his concentration.
“My king…” Elder Nomos called out to Belmont as he went silent and became unresponsive within the conversation. His attention drifted afar, leaving him no longer present with the VOF. His mind was in the archives he was studying, and in the remote Friki location he recently departed.
Understanding his absent mindedness, Belmont quickly snapped back to the discussion at hand. “My apologies.”
The elders looked at him with confusion. They did not understand how their king could appear to be so disinterested and unconcerned with one of the greatest threats their society and way of life has ever experienced, and it was not long before one elder verbalized these thoughts.
“Respectfully, King Belmont,” Elder Amvly said with a hint of disdain and frustration, “you must act now. What is your decree?”
Leaning forward with an extended arm to halt the conversation was Elder Syngen Yios. Knowing Belmont better than any other VOF member, he could tell their ruler was not fully engaged. Syngen said, “Anxiousness and worry has overcome us. This will inevitably lead to fear and rash decisions. Our king is fully aware…”
Elder Amvly, emboldened by the opportunity to express his anger with the way Belmont has been ruling indirectly through banter with Syngen, interjected, “That is hard to believe when our king is absent from his duties while indulging in the Rathegalian past time of exploring uncharted terrains.”
Quickly intervening to stave a sharp or vicious response from Belmont, Elder Ilikiomenos interposed, “If King Belmont deems a quest important enough to require his attention away from Vrykolakas and his post, the VOF understands his judgment is unquestionable and shall remain so.”
Belmont raised his hand, immediately drawing silence from the room. The VOF, including Elder Amvly, ceased their banter and awaited their king’s words, which were, “Elder Amvly is not misguided.” The elders expressed a silent shock in response. “I have been absent far too much. I have not been the ruler Friki deserves or needs, especially now.”
Syngen inquired, “My king?” He could sense something profound was weighing on Belmont’s mind, and the moment was presenting the revelation of that very thing.
Belmont reluctantly expressed, “I have kept a secret from you, which I no longer feel I can keep hidden for reasons directly related to the calamity we face as a kingdom.” The VOF sat with bated breath as their ruler spoke, looking at one another in surprise as Belmont’s words registered in their minds. “Long have I yearned for vampires and werewolves alike to be free of our dependency on humans for sustenance. What we are doing to them as a species is wrong, and quite simply, beneath us. Treating sentient, highly intelligent beings as livestock for us to barter for, and slaughter, to fulfill Frikian needs can no longer be our way. Earth’s leaders upholding their part of the Treaty of Worlds have grown beyond avaricious. Our consumption of human blood is no longer a necessity but has become gluttonous. The success of our economy is mainly driven by how adept we are at exploiting humans for their anatomical resources. It must end.”
Loud chatter began to emerge between VOF members. They were flabbergasted by Belmont’s statements, and did not know how to process them. Elder Nomos queried, “If we eliminate the human blood trade, Friki will crumble, will it not?”
Elder Ethnikistis, while resting a hand on his portly stomach, asked excitedly with worry, “Oh no! Are we to feed on the blood of beasts again like our barbaric ancestors?”
Again, hesitation overcame Belmont. His fears born from the thought of revealing his study of aima and its discovery flooded his brain. Listening to the conversational chaos emerging at the table motivated him to summon the resolve to inform the VOF, though, and when he obtained it, he continued by first re-establishing order, “Everyone, please. Listen.” The elders slowly became silent again before Belmont spoke, “I truly do understand your concerns. However, there is nothing to fret over. I have discovered a replacement for human blood. It can fully nourish us, and potentially has the ability to enhance us physiologically.”
“What is this substance?” Elder Epipedo inquired with great interest.
Belmont answered, “It is called aima. Scarcely located within ancient Frikian records are mentions of it and its consumption by werewolves and vampires in lieu of the blood and flesh of our planet’s animals. I came across the knowledge of it after endless research in our archives.”
Elder Ilikiomenos asked, “And you have found this aima?”
Belmont paused for a moment before replying, “I have… in a way.”
“What does that mean exactly?” Elder Paratiro queried next.
“The confidential quests I have embarked on have all been to locate aima. However, it was not until my last outing that I discovered what I am most certain is an aima spring.”
Elder Amvly replied cynically, “Most certain?”
“Was it an aima spring or not, my king?” Syngen inquired.
“It was,” Belmont answered. “However, it was depleted. A megathirio harvested the spring completely, drinking it dry.”
Elder Viologos’ interest was absolutely piqued by his ruler’s words. Being the foremost biological species specialist in all of Friki, he retorted, “I wonder… have you derived your belief aima has the potential to enhance us physiologically from your encounter with the megathirio? I am postulating the ingestion of such a substance by the beast – if it indeed is an ancient, viable source of nourishment – could produce evidence of aima’s ability to enhance a creature’s characteristics.”
“Increased size, strength, agility, and the development of glands producing a venom able to be spewed upon its prey; all changes I encountered in the megathirio I battled,” Belmont stated.
“Magnificent. Absolutely magnificent,” Elder Viologos replied.
“The blood of Earth’s inhabitants is as close to an infinite resource we will find,” Elder Nomos added, “as their species can multiply through reproduction. Anything produced by our planet would be finite by every aspect of the word’s definition. Your proposal would eventually leave our planet depleted of aima and leave us in need of returning to blood farming,” Elder Nomos proclaimed.
Belmont retorted, “Not if the ancient texts are correct, which they have been so far. They state the planet produces aima, as in it is a product of a naturally occurring process. If that is the case, taking into consideration there have been eons of reserves building up, there should be an endless amount of aima to move into circulation immediately, as well as sustain our kind and werewolves for endless generations.” A murmur of doubt with an underlying hint of disapproval emanated through the meeting chambers. Belmont, detecting this, continued his impassioned speech. “This could be the key to unlocking an entirely new future for vampires and werewolves across Friki. Our existence would not be dependent upon another species or planet. We would be gaining a freedom none of us have experienced.”
Elder Symvoulio inquired, “And what about the economic fallout of making this change?”
Belmont answered with conviction. “The harvesting of aima would create a new market for our people to invest in, bolstering our economy with a native resource. The existing merchants within the Order of Blood Farmers, still under our purview, can be granted preferential access to mine and distribute aima. This would support our existing economic infrastructure, lessen the gap within the supply chains, decrease any lapse in revenue streams, and sustain the current delivery model to the consumers. Better yet, this will no longer require us to kill or farm humans. Instead, we can forge an alliance with them and gain a powerful ally. Think of all the things our worlds would benefit from with an open, honest trading relationship.”
“My king,” Elder Perifrono said, “we all know your heart is as tender as your warrior spirit is fierce. It is why we appointed you our ruler; you are fair, mighty, and just. Do you not think your affinity for harboring affection towards other species might be clouding your thinking, though?” Belmont listened to the words of the elder and perused the table to see the reaction of the others. Many agreed with the inquiry’s assessment, and sensing he was backed by almost all of the other elders, Perifrono continued, “You once asked us to support a truce with our mortal enemies, the werewolves. Reluctantly, we obliged once you obtained it, as it created a unified Friki for the betterment of us all. Nevertheless, I believe I can speak for the majority by saying we truly see no upside in aligning as equals with those that are our food.”
Elder Ethnikistis added, “Werewolves were formidable enemies. Humans are, well, just delicious.”
“Besides, they are not to be trusted,” Elder Amvly declared.
Belmont contemplated their words and weighed them against the burning desire to resume his quest for aima; the achievement he honestly believed would usher all Friki into a new age of prosperity. He was also anxious to continue his investigation into the ominous caravan and the sigil adorning their attire. Yet, the elders’ voices carried a hint of desperation to them. The VOF was beyond capable of working to resolve the human trafficking issue. However, guidance from the one they deemed wiser and more tempered than the collective was what they sought most. They needed Belmont. Friki needed their king. This pulled at the familial strings attached to the king’s heart that bonded him with everyone present and all those within his kingdom. Alas, the struggle between what his mind wanted and what his heart yearned to do began to arise with great momentum. It was then, though, the words which would birth a decision in his mind were spoken.
“My king,” Elder Yios spoke before inquiring, “May I speak freely?”
“Of course, my friend,” Belmont answered. The two’s close personal relationship emanated from the tone in their voices.
Syngen continued, “As we all know, the entirety of House Syngen was murdered at the hands of the renegade human faction, the Coalition of Freedom. The cold, calculated attacks those men and women inflicted upon my family after escaping their blood farms was devastating. If it were not for my survival my lineage would be extinct. Nonetheless, my king, while I begged you for sweeping vengeance when I became of age, I eventually came to understand and support your credence of peace. You convinced me the humans on Friki not responsible for the massacre should not suffer more than they already are, for their lot is a hopeless, grueling one. Since then, I have also supported every initiative you have brought to the VOF for the betterment of the human existence here on Friki. Violence begets violence and hate only breeds more hate. You taught me that. Thus, there is none more sympathetic to your desires to replace our blood consumption with aima than me, and you can be certain that what I am about to say next holds no prejudice for the human species.”
King Belmont listened intently as Syngen paused, as did the rest of the VOF. Then, Elder Yios continued, “If we do not make stopping the swell of illegal human trafficking our number one priority, we will be making a grave mistake. Aima is a long-term solution with little evidence to support its viability, and there is no reason to believe its introduction into our society will satiate the desire for vampires to drink human blood. More importantly, though, the chaos consuming our kingdom is right outside the gates of your family’s castle amidst the streets we live upon, and soon it will spread to the nether regions of Friki far beyond the reach of this council.”
A murmur came over the VOF, as they were surprised to hear Syngen’s stance. It was common for them to listen to Elder Yios’s eloquent words craft support for King Belmont’s positions. Yet, to listen to him express opposition to their king was new to them. It was new to the king, as well. He was not angered nor shocked, though. Instead, he was enlightened, for something Yios said sparked a thought in Belmont’s head.
“… spread to the nether regions of Friki far beyond the reach of this council.” Belmont muttered to himself under his breath.
Elder Ilikiomenos leaned forward attempting to listen to his ruler’s words, but they were inaudible. “What was that, my king?”
Belmont stared into his reflection on the marble tabletop as his mind traveled back to where he noticed the caravan. Around the carriage, he recalled the sight of human captives chained to one another being led into the forest. It was then he realized Syngen was right, for the illegal human trafficking had already reached far and beyond. The infection of lawlessness was uncontained, and it was imperative that it be cured before it killed their kingdom.
The king looked up at Lord Yios and said, “You are right, my friend.” Belmont then gazed upon the rest of the VOF as they worked to mask their surprise at his acquiescence. “I can confirm your fear as reality. Just before my return from searching for aima, I witnessed a mysterious caravan transporting humans in chains far from here. It is not just Vrykolakas that is plagued by the illegal trafficking, but all our lands. As much as I covet aima and its discovery, I cannot ignore the immediacy this matter demands as is evident by the words spoken here today.”
Filled with optimism, Elder Nomos queried, “What is your first order, my king?”
Belmont thought for a second, and then answered, “If this situation has spread beyond our gates and walls, the thread has been pulled much too far. Its trail is as entangled and winding as the winds. Thus, trying to cure the trafficking crimes from here would only be treating the symptoms and not the cause of the disease.”
Elder Viologos turned fully toward Belmont. His posture immersed him fully in the discussion, and his expression was one of great interest. “You are going to Earth, aren’t you?”
“I am,” Belmont replied. “We must find the root of the infestation and crush it.”
Elder Amvly enthusiastically interjected, “Yes! Let us take the fight to them! Allow House Amvly the honor of joining you, my king!”
Belmont retorted, “While your accompaniment would surely provide great assistance, your efforts are needed here. All of you are needed to control the chaos spreading through our kingdom. When the people see the elders from the greatest houses of Friki acting as one, working to right the ship with a clear directive and strategy, it will help guide them to follow suit. Together we shall overcome this.”
A unanimous agreement overcame the VOF. Happiness did, as well. The elders were elated their king agreed to table his quest for aima and embraced ending the illegal human trafficking immediately. However, this did not mean Belmont was abandoning his desire to free humans and form an alliance with them. The king knew better than to state this, though. Unity was alive within the VOF, and any mention of furthering the discussion regarding a Friki-Earth partnership as equals would dilute that. Therefore, he decided once he obtained undeniable proof of aima’s existence and its location, he would resume his crusade then.
Belmont continued, “Elder Symvoulio, I am sure the council’s strategic initiative you began detailing earlier is the perfect place to begin for next steps. Let us start with implementing those plans and go from there while I investigate things on Earth.”
“Shall we prepare a company of Vrykolakas warriors to travel with you on your quest?” Elder Paratiro inquired.
Belmont answered, “No. It will only make my presence conspicuous. Whoever is behind this has intimate knowledge of both worlds, the relationship between the two, and the portal system. If they catch wind the VOF and Friki is on to them, it would be disastrous for our efforts. I will travel alone, and if I require assistance I will return for reinforcements.”
“Understood,” Paratiro replied.
“Elders,” Belmont said as he stood from the table signaling the VOF meeting was concluded.
Immediately, all the elders rose to their feet. Placing a fist over their hearts, they stated in semi-unison, “My king.”
Belmont began to walk towards the entrance to the great hall, but before he passed the end of the table he turned and said, “Syngen, walk with me.”
Elder Yios stepped back from the table, excused himself, and joined the king as he walked towards the arched doors. “Yes, my king?” he asked.
“I see you were holding your familial cloth as you spoke to me.” Belmont was referring to the half-torn piece of fabric Syngen kept with him everywhere he went. It was the only remnant he had from his childhood, as all of House Yios’ belongings were burned and destroyed during the massacre his family suffered at the hands of the Coalition of Freedom.
“I was. Yes,” Syngen replied still clutching the piece.
“You only do that when you are nervous,” Belmont stated as he looked upon his dear friend.
“You are very observant, my king.”
Belmont leaned closer to Syngen and said, “When you survived the attack on your family, the VOF wanted you to reside at the Vrykolakas Academy of Vampires to continue your education and training until you were grown and ready to fill the chair of House Yios.”
“And you insisted I come live with you,” Syngen mentioned.
“Yes. I helped you grieve. I helped you mourn. And when you were whole again, I helped you with your studies and training. Not because I felt pity for you, though. I did it because I saw something special in you.”
“I am forever indebted to you, my king. I would not be here today if it were not for your kindness.”
“You have repaid me more than you will ever know just by being who you are, Syngen. We are more than just friends. You are my family. You are like a son to me.”
“Thank you.” Syngen became contemplative as emotion began to flood his mind. The levels of respect and admiration he had for Belmont were immeasurable, and to hear the king speak those words to him resonated profoundly.
“It is for this reason I am entrusting you to lead the VOF in my absence.”
Dumbfounded, Syngen replied, “Me? But there has never been an elder appointed to rule while a king or queen still lived. This is highly irregular.”
“It is my wish.”
“Certainly, Elder Ilikiomenos or Elder Nomos would be more fitting.”
“You are the one I trust above all others, Syngen.” Belmont stopped just before the doorway as they were opened by the castle guards. Placing his hand on Elder Yios’ shoulder, Belmont continued, “Besides, you not only demonstrated command and sound reasoning when you expressed your thoughts to me earlier, but it is clear you are the most objective member of the VOF. I have known this for a long time, and I know of everyone present at that table it is you who is most akin to my sensibilities, whether they are regarding policy or otherwise. I would be a fool to choose anyone else.”
“But why choose anyone at all?” Syngen asked fervently.
Belmont paused. The sigil flashed in his mind, along with the humans in chains around the caravan, and the thoughts of the rampant discord cause by the illegal human trafficking. He also thought about how close he was to discovering aima, and the king could not shake the sudden overwhelming feeling everything was connected somehow. This meant his journey to Earth would be the most perilous quest ever embarked on, which also meant there was a great chance he would not be returning. However, Belmont expressed the simplest version of this to Syngen by saying, “If anything happens to me, it must be you who is in a position for the cleanest transition of power, even if that means you abdicate your claim because you deem someone else more worthy. You are the only one I believe in to make that decision.”
“You surely must take a company of Vrykolakas warriors if you have the slightest feeling you may not return.”
“Again, Syngen, that would only draw more attention to my presence and make achieving our goal exponentially more difficult. The one or ones behind this are as familiar with us as we are with ourselves. They undoubtedly will know an entire company of Frikian militia led by their king has entered Earth’s realm. No, I must go alone.”
Elder Yios was frozen by his imagination playing through the worst-case scenarios presented during their conversation. He quickly gathered himself, though, and realized Belmont was right. A contingency plan must be in place, and there was no elder who would understand what Belmont would have wanted if he were to pass. “I am honored to take this task on for you, my king.”
Belmont pulled his closest companion in close and the two shared a warm embrace. “I love you, Syngen. May our ancestors guide you in my absence.”
Tears began to well in the eyes of the Yios elder. He always knew Belmont loved him and considered him family. Yet, it went mostly unspoken for his entire life living with the king. The sudden rush of emotion and expression of vulnerability from Belmont began filling the void within Syngen born when his family was slaughtered. “I love you, too,” Elder Yios replied.
Once separated, Belmont looked at the elder’s hands. Syngen had subconsciously placed the cloth back in his pocket, signaling he was completely at ease again. The king smiled, and so did the Yios elder once he realized what the king had noticed. Belmont spoke as he was walking away, “I will have an official document naming you as my proxy drafted and read to the entire VOF before I leave.” The doors closed behind him as the king continued down the corridor.