By David Hoffman
The mists were rolling in just as the boat arrived at Seastone’s only port. Mercari stepped out onto the deck under a grey sky and a grey ocean. He waited for three people in particular to leave the boat before he too disembarked.
The three weren’t a united band of mercenaries or adventurers, but they come to Seastone for the same reason. Mercari knew this because he shared that reason.
The procession was headed by the gladiator, then the rifleman, then the wizard, and lastly, at the rear, was Mercari himself. They continued through the streets as misty dusk became night, stopping only once they reached their destination, one that was the facilitator of the world’s heroic tales and fables – the tavern.
It was there that the four newcomers of Seastone heard of the town’s problems, though they already knew. It was why they were there, after all.
Seastone had the unfortunate fate of having been built near the ancient necropolis of Solav – a still thriving undead city. The townsfolk had sent word for help and had received none. Years before, adventurers had tried to save them, but none succeeded. In desperation, the townsfolk had even taken up their own weapons to try to eradicate the undead, but the undead were very much against their own eradication.
Yet over the years, the town had remained intact. Other than children being frightened when they dared enter the crypts, and other than loose farm animals finding themselves too terrified to enter the swamps again, the undead had largely left the town alone. But for those of Seastone, that wasn’t enough.
The call for aid had brought the four newcomers to the town – the three heroes, and Mercari.
Once the men and women of the tavern had told their stories, one of the heroes stood. His form was that of a demigod towering over normal men. The scars across his face and arms spoke of heinous battles of Victora City’s arena. His fame had spread so far into the world that even a few in that town suspected, and suspected rightly, that he was the great Lorton the Unmovable. When he unveiled his body and his famous shield, there was no denying that he was the true hero before them. Lorton raised a glass of beer, hailed the strength of the townsfolk for keeping up the fight, and apologized to the two other heroes for not allowing them the chance to exterminate the undead, for Lorton would do it that very night.
Mercari simply sat back to watch the events unfold.
Lorton left for Solav with a stomach full of beer and his trusty shield in hand.
The next morning, his flayed body was found hanging from a tree in the swamp. His famous shield lay in two pieces at his feet.
The next night, the two heroes and Mercari returned to the tavern to listen to the town’s mourning. But the townsfolk’s sorrow did not last long, for Varlus the rifleman, former scout of the Greyland Army and famous treasure hunter, stood and toasted for the loss of Lorton. He assured the scared people of Seastone that where brute force could not win, cunning and subversion would. If anyone could sneak into Solav and find a way to kill the undead from the inside out, it was him. After he drank and took a woman to bed, he escaped into the night, determined to end the blight of the necropolis.
Varlus was able to make it back to the swamps with what he believed was an essential artifact, up until the totem released its power, and thus released Varlus from the living world.
On the third night, there was only one hero left, one that had remained silent through all the events thus far. He didn’t boast or claim glory when he reassured the townsfolk that their problem would surely end by his hand. The sorcerer Gellion preferred to let deeds speak for themselves, and his deeds of course were world-renowned, at least within the circles of magic. With a flick of his hand, he could summon the blue holy flame that disintegrated undead. The townsfolk cheered him on as Gellion left for the swamps that night.
And indeed, Gellion could turn undead to ash with barely a touch, but the lich of Solav knew ancient magic from before the fall of the Arcadia School, when spells were edited and concentrated in their power.
Gellion, or rather his frozen corpse, was placed at the entrance of the swamps to serve as a warning to any future adventurers who dared enter the territory of the undead.
And so only Mercari remained. He noted that the dispute between the undead of Solav Necropolis and the townsfolk of Seastone was similar to the trials he had faced in his home of the Many Isles. The problem required more tact than the late adventurers possessed, but a solution could indeed be found. Before he left for the marshes, Mercari decided to delve into his encyclopedias as well as the town’s local collection of classical manuscripts in order to learn more of these particular undead.
Centuries ago, the undead were normal men, warriors, who had come from a far off land to fight for a noble cause, only to never return. The enemy who had bested them hastily buried their bodies in a cavern without markers of their names and without gold to cross the aftershores. The fallen’s disillusioned and hateful souls were all too easily raised by a necromancer who arrived many decades later. Continuing on through the manuscripts, Mercari learned of the customs of the undead’s homeland. It was within those scrolls that he found the key to entering the crypts.
The next morning, he went to one of the flower vendors at the harbor and purchased a single white rose. Then, after dusk, he left town alone, carrying no weapons or magic which could defend him, nor did he tell anyone that he would leave that night.
The undead spotted him as he walked through the marshes, their eyes shining blue from behind the trees. Their bones creaked as they stalked Mercari. At any moment, the undead could kill him if they really desired it. At the gates of the city, the undead appeared out of the shadows, holding swords and staffs of ancient craftsmanship. Still, they did not attack.
Mercari removed the white rose that had been pinned to his chest and held it out to the guards.
They noticed the flower and sheathed their weapons. “What do you want?” One hissed.
“Do you have a leader? If you have a leader, I’d like to speak with them,” Mercari said.
“You have one chance to leave alive. We will no longer forgive any other transgressions. We will reserve no power in killing more adventurers that come here. In fact, if any others arrive, we will turn our attention to the innocents. Vicken’s tolerance is gone.”
“Then may I speak with him? I come to offer a solution.”
“He is not interested in negotiations,” said the undead.
“I would prefer to hear so from him personally.”
“It would be the last thing you hear.”
“I came holding the rose, didn’t I?” Mercari smiled.
“Fine, see him, I take no responsibility for your mistake.”
One of the guards took Mercari’s flower and led him down into the necropolis. Half-living corpses trudged through the streets, slumped in despair, dragging tattered funeral wrappings behind. Undead smiths sharpened weapons on dusty grindstones while others scraped rust off armor. Surprisingly, the place didn’t smell of rotting flesh.
The guard stayed with him to the throne room of Lord Vicken, where the ancient lich ruled. The corpse-king appeared like a sickly old man on the verge of death, but for an undead still warded against decay, he was healthy and pulsing with void energy. Looking down from his throne, Vicken could have disintegrated the delicate human with just a single thought. But something kept him from destroying Mercari.
The guard bowed and held out the white flour to Vicken.
“What do you want?” The lich whispered.
“I want to talk.” Mercari said.
“Yes, I’m a trader of… various things. I’ve come to do business.”
The lich peered at him. “Business? We don’t want business. We want to be left alone.”
“I understand. I’ll give you that, if that is what you truly want. My quest is to simply give you want you want.”
Vicken tapped his fingers on the side of the throne, all the while being absorbed by the beauty of the flower. “Strange…” he said.
“Strange, sir?” Mercari asked.
“You’re a strange being. No one would dare ask such a question of us.”
“And yet here I am. So, is there anything you want, that you need? I’d be glad to trade with you.”
Vicken the lich leaned down and took the flower from one of his guards. The vortex of energy around his body made the petals dance in the strands of red mana. The lich’s face wrinkled as he frowned. “I never thought I’d hold a white rose again. It’s been so long.”
“I can get some for you,” Mercari said.
“And why would you do that?”
The lich’s spine cracked as he leaned back on his throne. “Are you here take my artifacts?”
“Only if you want to trade them. Otherwise, we can make a deal on something else. I’m sure you have pottery or tools around here that you’ll part with. I’d even accept songs and stories if you’re willing to write them down.”
“What is it you’re trying to do here?” the lich asked.
“As I said, I’d like to trade with you. You want flowers. I’d like something in return.”
“I know you’re from the town by the sea. The last humans to come here wanted us dead. I’m sure you’re here to plunder us too.”
“If that were the case, then why would I stand here alone and unarmed at your mercy?” Mercari smiled. “You have my oath that I’ll be fair. I did bring you the rose after all.”
The lich stood from his throne and floated down to Mercari, then handed him the flower. “You will have one chance,” the lich said. “If you betray me, I will inflict upon you worse things than death.”
Mercari put out his hand for a handshake. “You have my word.”
The town was still sleeping when Mercari returned. No one had known he was gone. He went to the market the next day and purchased all the flowers he could and told the petalmongers to bring more tomorrow. The townsfolk watched with curiosity as he loaded his goods on a cart and pulled it out of town.
The undead met him again at the marshes, but instead of simply watching as he slogged through the mud, the corpses helped to push the cart into the city. Mercari didn’t need to show the flower again at the entrance of the necropolis. The guards let him through without a word. As Marcari and his protectors walked through the streets, the sound of grindstones suddenly stopped. The undead who had hobbled through the city the day before stopped to watch the procession of wondrous colors that sat atop Mercari’s cart. Even the lich-lord Vicken stood surprised when he saw Mercari entered his chamber with a trove of bright, living flowers.
“Wondrous,” Vicken the lich said.
“As I promised. Now, I’d like to trade.”
Vicken was more amiable now that he saw the beautiful flowers, and the two quickly came to a deal. The flowers on Mercari’s cart were replaced by songs and fables that had lay dormant in old tomes for centuries along with ancient pottery and artwork that had been made with techniques long forgotten. Each item carried the signature of the undead’s past.
Mercari brought his cart back to Seastone and set up a stall in the market square. The townsfolk were immediately drawn to the exquisite and foreign goods. Librarians came for the ancient books and bards bought up the songs of old, while nobles collected the fine pottery and trinkets. Almost every gold piece that Mercari received from selling his goods went to buy more flowers, though he still kept some for his troubles.
When Mercari’s cart was once again full of flowers, he returned to the necropolis to trade. Soon, the undead wanted more things: jewelry, carpets, tapestries of gold and red like the colors of the sun. Eventually the smiths stopped sharpening swords and began making the works of art they had once crafted centuries ago in their homeland.
For weeks, this continued until the town’s guards started to inspect Mercari’s wares every time he left Seastone. While the people of Seastone were happy with the new goods, the Duke still had the undead on his mind. The newfound wealth of his town gave him the money to raise a proper army. More and more guards came to the barracks as the ships unloaded dozens of new fighters every day. Mercari knew something would happen soon, and that if he wasn’t careful, all his planning would amount to nothing. He didn’t have much time.
The undead were quick to notice the threat, as they had not ceased in watching the town. The smiths were quick to return to forging weapons and repairing armor. The lich avoided Mercari and instead spent his time preparing for war. The flowers, carpets and tapestries of the town went ignored by the undead lord. Despite that, Mercari persisted in making trades. There were numbers of undead who stopped their preparations for battle to buy from him, usually exchanging personal effects from their past that they didn’t desire anymore. Mercari hoped that all would go well, but the increasing presence of military might on both sides began to complicate his plans.
Mercari, now that he was well-known in the town and had a small bit of wealth, was able to meet with the duke in the new Seaston palace to discuss his apprehension . “Duke Rorik, it’s about the guards,” Mercari said, even before he was seated at one of the ancient tables that, unbeknownst to the duke, had come from the very necropolis that he sought to eradicate.
“If this is about the checks,” Rorik said, “then I must restate that I can’t make an exception in your case.”
“I understand, sir. May I ask what the preparations are for?”
“You know of our troubles with the undead from the marshes.”
“I do. Nevertheless, I must be upfront with you. I don’t think I can do business here if you decide to attack them,” Mercari said.
“Nonsense. You’re always welcome to trade here.”
“I understand, but if open conflict does arise, I’ll have to leave. It is a personal philosophy of mine.”
“No one will stop you,” the duke said.
“I’m glad to have that privilege. However, I would prefer to stay. I’ve contributed greatly to the welfare of the town. Scholars and artisans come to Seastone to purchase the goods that I bring. They spend their foreign gold at the inn and buy the farmer’s food. Work is plentiful and work pays well. Seastone has prospered because of my goods, but those goods are dependent on peace.”
“Don’t worry. We will have peace.” That was all the duke said before he adjourned the session.
Vicken was also preparing for conflict by summoning energy from the void realm, filling the necropolis with the discordant cries of spirits from the plane beyond. Mercari met with the lich in his chambers, hoping that at least one side would hear him out.
“I know you’re busy, lord Vicken,” Mercari said as he stood next to his empty cart.
The lich sat on his throne, now adorned with golden flowers and fine plush carpets. “I am, but speak.”
“It’s about the town. I know you’re arming your forces against them.”
Vicken rose in his chair. “You haven’t been spying for them, have you?”
“I swear I haven’t. I’ve kept my oath.”
“Then what is your business here?”
“I’ll be frank. I don’t think I can keep trading if you go to war with them.”
“Are you a coward?” Vicken asked.
“No, I’m not, but if fighting breaks out between you and them, I’ll have to leave.”
“Fine,” the lich grumbled.
“Lord Vicken, I don’t think you understand. If I leave, no flowers will be delivered. Where will you get your silk and paintings?”
The lich looked around at the sparkling tapestries on the walls. The old crypt appeared quite homely now. “Are you trying to force my hand?” the lich said.
“No. I’m not forcing anything. I’m here because I choose to be. However, I will not trade in times of war. That is a personal principal which I do not waver on. You understand how oaths cannot be broken.”
“Yes, that I do.”
“The same oath that prevents me from taking advantage of you also prevents me from being here if conflict starts between you and the town.”
Vicken brushed the flowers on his throne with his worn, grey hand. “I understand and I will take your absence into account, but as much as I appreciate your wares, I also must defend my people. That is of prime importance, for all the possessions in the world mean nothing if one does no longer exists.”
“I understand,” said Mercari, “my only plea is that there is another way found to resolve this.”
“If there were another way, I would have used it decades ago, but there is none that I can think of. I will take your pleas as they are and I will think on them. Right now, however, I must concentrate on more pressing matters.
And with that, Marcari left, though with more doubt than before. He knew his plans would have succeeded if the duke had not received reinforcements from the mainland. He had hoped that the new wealth would have made each faction forget about the other, but it seemed that leaders had their own desires.
As the conflict loomed in the minds of the townsfolk and in the undead of the necropolis, Mercari sold the rest of his things. He did not buy anything more, from anyone.
The petalmongers saw their business wane. The royals who desired Mercari’s treasures wanted more, but there was nothing to buy. The flowers that had given the undead the most solace in their living afterlife were the first things to die. The dried up and brittle petals reminded the corpses of their nature, and soon their city reverted back into a crypt. The citizens of Seastone and Solav began to see their livelihoods collapse by the coming of war. The duke, however, would not stop his plans. Despite the pleas from his people to stop the expenditures of war, the duke rallied his forces to finally destroy the undead.
The duke’s army left after sunset and headed toward the marshes, their ranks filled with paladins and bane wizards from the mainland who specialized in holy magic. The lich called for his foot soldiers and void callers to assemble outside the necropolis. Each army was hundreds strong, carrying with them destructive magic and enchanted weapons which could efficiently obliterate the other. To the warriors of Seastone, peace was at hand if they could finally destroy the undead. To the guardians of Solav, their survival depended on victory.
The Seastone military entered the marshes under blue flames of a hundred holy torches. The undead stood outside their city under the crimson light of the summoned void moon. Upon seeing the forces against them, the armies waited to assess the opposition. Both could see the power of the other. Hundreds would die that night by magic and blade, but there was no turning back. The duke raised his sword. With a swing he could send his soldiers charging into battle, but just then, something stopped him.
A man with a lantern walked into the marshes and stood between the two armies.
“What is he doing? Is he mad?” The duke muttered under his breath.
Across the battlefield, lich Vicken noticed as well. “Bah, get out of there, fool,” he said.
Mercari did not back away from the rows of combatants on either side. “Warriors of Seastone, solders of Solav, stop this now,” he yelled.
“What are you doing, liveling? You have no place to give me orders. Do not tell me to accept oblivion,” the lich shouted back.
“Lord Vicken, please, hear my words. All the flowers you desire come from that town. Every painting in your halls was crafted by a resident of Seastone.”
The lich ascended above them all, draping curtains of red mana from his ancient robes. “To fight is not my choice,” he said. “We merely wish to be left alone, but you livelings have forced my hand.”
“I know,” said Mercari. He then turned to the forces of Seastone. “Duke Rorik, listen to me. The artifacts that make your town famous come from the undead. The pottery your port is famous for was formed by their hands. The songs your bards sing once came from their mouths. Seastone’s wealth and prosperity were created by the undead.”
“None of that matters when my people are in danger,” the duke said.
“There isn’t any danger. They haven’t attacked you.”
“Of course there is danger. How can we ever be safe with them walking this plane?” the duke shouted.
“Why would they want to attack you?” Mercari said. “You’re giving them something they want. Your town increases their well-being, so they would only harm themselves by destroying you. By that same notion, you would lose much by attacking the source of your wealth. The gains you have seen in the past weeks are because I have traded between both of your cities. Now if you decide to fight here, Seastone will return to being another anonymous port while Solav will revert to a crypt once again. Neither side wants that to happen. Both sides are only harmed by this conflict.”
“That may be true, but I do not trust the living anymore,” Vicken said.
“You trusted me,” Mercari returned.
“What will ensure that they don’t kill us in our sleep?” the duke yelled.
“If they value happiness and you provide it, then they have no reason to harm you,” Mercari said. “Neither of you truly wants this to happen, and you both know it.”
The sound of shifting armor echoed off the trees as the combatants on both sides lowered their weapons and shields. The duke reluctantly walked through the ranks of his men while the lich descended to the ground.
And the three met in the middle of the battlefield. Mercari smiled at both of them. “This is the reasonable choice. We all know you don’t want to sacrifice your cities when the alternative helps both prosper at the same time.”
“I suppose,” Vicken said.
The duke nodded shyly. ““If what you say is true, merchant, then this would be foolish. As much as I resist this, I have to think about my people.”
“As do I, liveling,” said the lich.
“You won’t harm us?” the duke asked.
“If you do not harm us in return.”
“I suppose it’s a truce then?” The duke raised his hand.
Vicken shook it. “I suppose… If you promise to leave us be. That was all we ever wanted.”
Mercari put his hand on top of theirs. “I’m glad,” he said. “Now that all this is behind us, you two can trade with each other, and since my purpose of facilitating that partnership is complete, I shall take my leave.”
“Why?” asked the lich.
“Because you don’t need me anymore.”
“You’re welcome to stay,” the duke said.
“I know, however I believe my services are best used elsewhere. Thank you, both of you. I look forward to seeing your future.” With that, Mercari walked back to Seastone to collect his things.
The town of Seastone and the necropolis of Solav flourished after that. Living afterlife for the undead was filled with the treasures of Seastone. In return, the long-dead warriors used their ancient knowledge and artistic skill to make goods for the townsfolk. Seastone grew into a bustling city that specialized in artistry and history from the long forgotten age. Solav became a haven for the benevolent undead of the world as a place where they could live in peace and prosperity before they passed into the next plane.
Today the square of each town has a monument to the other, and on the marshes between them, a marker stands on the spot where Mercari defied both armies. The stone is looked after by the undead of Solav and the citizens of Seastone. From their diligent care, the inscription remains to this day:
“Those who stand here with weapons sheathed,
Take to heart the last words of Mercari:
‘When merchants do not cross borders, armies will.’”