The Wicked Kings
By tying their life forces together, the trio of monarchs—henceforth referred to as the Wicked Kings, or just the Kings—are constantly aware of one another’s wellbeing. Pain felt by one is felt by the other two, as is pleasure; if one is threatened or hurt (or doing the horizontal waltz, if you catch my drift), the other two experience the same sensation and can react appropriately. Should one of them killed, the other two will die as well. So the Kings have a rather vested interest in keeping one another alive. Furthermore, their lifelink has allowed them to avoid doing something all tyrants and despots must do at one time or another: sleep. You can’t kill a gestalt entity when two-thirds of it is awake, as no small number of unsuccessful assassins have discovered.
Their lifelink also gives the Kings access to each other’s skills and knowledge, so if you’ve met (or earned the ire of) one of the Kings, the other two are aware of you as well, even if they may not know the context. That’s because the one thing they don’t share—or so it is believed—is thought. Those remain private, which has lead in no small part to the Kings’ extreme suspicion of one another.
It’s no great secret that the Wicked Kings hate one another. Human beings aren’t meant to live as long as they have. The magic that ties their lives together has dramatically slowed their ageing—they age perhaps one year in ten—and humans who artificially extend their lives out that long tend to go a bit batty (take your stereo-typically daft but genius wizard, for example). To say the Kings have grown apart is an understatement. They didn’t exactly care for each other to begin with—theirs was an alliance of necessity—and that was before they’d been magically bonded together for 400 years. Breaking the bond is not an option—if the bond breaks, they die—so they’re stuck with one another, and stuck in each other’s heads. It’s why they bicker and spew so much. They’re not only each other’s only peers; they’re their only competition, and they take any opportunity to undermine and embarrass one another. Like the erstwhile Middle Kingdoms, the only time they come together is when they’re facing an external threat. In the last century, no credible threat to their power has arisen, and as a result their interactions have been especially testy.
The Wicked Kings’ domain encompasses nearly all of humanity. Only two independent human states remain: Golden Valley, a small mountain-ringed state south of the Wicked Kingdoms that owes its autonomy to its Switzerland-esque geography, and to Valmarrogandrex, the ancient guardian dragon who dwells there (mainly the dragon); and Transis, the mighty city-state trade port far to the east that is accessible only by sea or caravan through the Afterlands, conquered by the barbarian king Karn the Unpleasant. The Kings’ main goal—apart from preserving their rule—is to conquer these final two holdouts.
The Kings make their home in the Wicked Citadel, a colossal fortress in the heart of Lassax on the River Frael. They have sequestered themselves here in their hidden audience chamber, and it is from here that they pilot the various puppets they’ve spread across the world to do their bidding.
Puppets of the Kings
Early in their reign, the Kings discovered that they could use a variant of their lifelinking magic to seize control of individuals and dominate their will. They used this power to turn willing subjects and captured foes into puppets and mouthpieces. The Kings can see and hear what their puppets experience, and can (somewhat clumsily) control their actions as well. From their hidden antechamber, clustered around the Orb of Control, the Kings pilot their collection of puppets. The Orb they use to speak through their puppets is only designed for one user, which has the effect of making a puppet rapidly shift and jerk when the Kings talk over one another (which happens a lot). The Kings use their puppets to spy on enemies and subjects, and to mete out violence wherever they feel it is warranted.
The Wicked Kings cannot remotely possess someone. A person must be made into a puppet via a process the Kings have only shared with their most trustworthy servants, the priests of the Wicked Cult (who worship the Kings as gods). The process of turning an individual into a vessel of the Kings is dreadfully traumatic, but those who survive (and who are not driven insane during the procedure) are unaware that they’ve been made into a puppet. The ritual erases all memory of the procedure, and newly-made puppets tend to wake from the ordeal believing they’ve had a severe nightmare that they can’t quite remember.
No one knows exactly how many puppets the Kings have, but the Kings are only able to speak through and pilot one puppet at a time. They can put a puppet they’re not using on “hold”, so to speak, which causes said puppet to freeze in whatever position they’re currently holding (an unbalanced puppet on-hold puppet will fall to the ground and hold its position there). The Kings are also able to “hang up” one of their vessels when they’re done using them. This returns mental and physical control to the puppet. Many puppets aren’t aware they are puppets until after the Kings have activated them and taken control. While the Kings are piloting a puppet, the vessel blacks out and retains no memory of events while compelled. However, puppets the Kings release from control do recall that they were controlled, even if they can’t recall the details—such puppets, once released, thus have the opportunity to warn people that they’re not in control of themselves and may be compelled again at any moment. This is why, if the Kings need to use a puppet multiple times, they tend to use zealots or soldiers loyal to them, saving unwilling puppets for critical one-and-done missions. It’s also why the Kings usually kill their unwilling puppets once they’ve had their use of them.
The Prophecy and the Sword of Fighting
The oppressed peoples of the Wicked Kingdoms look to the prophecy of the Sword of Fighting for deliverance: “Whoever draws the Sword shall lead a revolution to topple the Wicked Kings.” That exact expression—Wicked Kings—is translated verbatim from the original text. Since the fall of Archaiad, the elite of the Middle Kingdom would throw that label around to smear their enemies and competitors. When the Triumvirate rose to power, their enemies loudly (and correctly) named them the Wicked Kings of prophecy. The Triumvirate saw this actually working in their favor, so they adopted the label, going so far as to name their empire the Wicked Kingdoms. Several hundred years later, there is no doubt (not even the to Kings themselves) that they are the Wicked Kings of legend, whose rein will be ended by the Sword of Fighting, should it ever be found.
To thwart the prophecy, the Kings have dispatched wave after wave of forces into the Afterlands—most often to chase down and kill those heroes who’ve proclaimed that they will return with the Sword and topple the Kings, but more recently to find the Sword themselves and destroy it. They’ve also sent a horde of bounty hunters and assassins to capture or kill any questors who successfully locate the mythical Sword (the Kings haven’t reigned for 400 years because they’re poor planners). So far, none of the Swordquests—those undertaken by would-be heroes, or those funded by the Kings themselves—have come even remotely close to success. Much of humanity has begun to conclude that the Sword doesn’t actually exist.
Life in the Wicked Kingdoms
Society is striated into a number of castes, and there’s little in the way of upward mobility. The Wicked Subjects (as they half-jokingly, half-despairingly call themselves) are more scared of their rulers than any foreign threat. This keeps insurrection and insubordination down, especially among servants of the state. Additionally, none of their subjects—especially ambassadors or generals or anyone else in power—is ever 100% certain they’re not a puppet waiting to be activated. This threat keeps folks in line. For the rank and file, things really isn’t that bad. As long as serf and citizen don’t rock the boat, they can reasonably expect to live out their lives in uneventful if boring fashion. The Kings themselves are excellent administrators, and while they keep their population under an iron thumb, they’re too smart to enact any policies that would foment rebellion. The Kings may be evil, but famine is rare, roads are free of brigands, markets are stable, justice is brutal but consistent (and does not take rank into account—a baron and a peasant will receive the same punishment for the same crime), and servants of the state are well compensated. Plus, they haven’t been invaded since the Boreal Crusades, an unprecedented stretch for humanity, and the Wicked Kings’ subjects prefer the stability of their current state to the chaos and uncertainty of the late Middle Kingdoms. Sure, the Kings are prone to random bursts of violence and are unanswerable to any law of the land, but the prevailing attitude among their subjects is, “If we have to be conquered, I’ll take the Kings.” The colors of the Wicked Kings are black, gold, and silver. Their symbol is an inverted golden crown on a black field. Military dress is black with gold accoutrements for senior officers, silver for juniors, and white for the rank and file. All members of the military and servants of the state wear too much mascara.