When Gazi saw the castle’s spires in the distance, she knew she was close to her destination. She had travelled long and far across these arid lands, alone, tired, wounded and hungry. But she had never slowed her pace, barely paused to rest.
She was nearly home.
The city was much as Gazi had remembered it, but it was a mix of two memories. She remembered once, when she had returned in confusion and defeat to her liege, to beg him to reconsider. The city had been deathly quiet then; full of scared people listening to the sound of an empire’s collapse.
But the streets had been smooth, the buildings soaring high and each stall in each shop stocked with exotic goods from around the world. The citizens had been hearty and hale—some trending towards fat even—and surely no other city in the world had been greater.
Then. But Gazi also remembered when she’d left. She had ridden out, out through a broken place filled with empty-eyed people whose gaunt, vacant expressions bore no hope for tomorrow, let alone the future. The pavement had been cracked, and the first signs of decay had begun to touch even the magnificent structures Drevish had built.
Then, and then. But now was different.
As Gazi moved through the gates she heard a call from the battlements. She looked up with her four good eyes and grinned.
In truth, the walls had crumbled so much that there was little point to manning them. But someone did stand on the walls! Young boys and old retired veterans; hardly the ideal soldiers, but they stood anyways, wearing salvaged armor corroded by rust, or exquisitely maintained heirlooms.
They shouted down to Gazi, a person they recognized. She waved at them, but her feet did not stop moving. She sped through the city, and saw the faces of the people.
Theirs were gaunt, yes, and they were even thinner than when Gazi had left. But their eyes were different. They held what had been missing. Fire. Hope. That spark of life that could never be extinguished. It was that, more than anything that hastened Gazi’s steps even more, and told her the time had come at last.
Her King had returned.
Gazi looked with each of her four eyes, one watching the road while the other three looked in every direction, trying to assess the city, the bustling people. Everyone was moving with purpose, which told her that much work was going on. And more work would need to be done, if the ruined buildings she saw were any indication of the state of the city.
It was such a shame she couldn’t look further than the street she was on, though. If she could she would be able to look into the palace ahead of her, and see—
Well, perhaps her blindness was good for one thing. Gazi was conscious of her closed eye as she made her way down the street. It was attracting as much attention as her presence itself was. It made people hesitate.
For why would Gazi the Omniscient close her eye? It was her greatest weapon and defense; the gift of Gazers which Gazi had in turn honed and made even stronger than normal. While her four peripheral eyes could still see at great distance and even through objects at close range, they were nothing compared to her main eye.
But it was still damaged, still blind. Gazi still remembered the girl, standing in front of her, and her teeth ground together in fury, and her hand reached towards the sword on her back unconsciously.
But only for a moment. And even the pain and shame of defeat couldn’t take away the feeling in Gazi’s chest. She was at the massive gates of the palace. They stood open, and the guards there did not dare block her way. She was close.
A crowd of people stood at the entrance, waiting no doubt for a sign of her lord. But they cheered her loudly, as well they might. She was one of the Seven; her return was a herald of the times.
Gazi waved once, and then her armored feet were crossing marble, rather than dusty brick. She walked through a palace just as worn down as the rest of the city. True, this place had been better maintained than the rest of the city, no doubt thanks to Orthenon and those who had stayed. But even this place was in need of repairs.
And they were underway. Gazi walked through rooms bustling with people cleaning, rushing about with supplies, arms, parchment—it was a sight that moved her heart. This is what she had longed to see all these long years! But even so, she couldn’t stop. She had to see for herself, with her own eyes.
“The Omniscient has returned! Tell the Steward! Bring word to the King!”
“Lady Gazer, do you need a drink? Food?”
Gazi waved or nodded at them all, not slowing, not stopping. No one stopped her either, and many wisely got out of the way since Gazi was moving at a speed few creatures—humans, Gazers, or otherwise—could hope to match. They knew that she had returned, and they knew where she was going. Where she had to go.
Only one person moved next to her. Gazi’s leftmost eye swiveled and she nodded her head once as a tall, serious man walked away from a conversation with a baker to join her. He had once been gaunt, but flesh had filled withered skin again, and now he walked with a lord’s grace and the poise and surety of his station.
One long mustache met well with his dark, somber clothing. Only an edge of faded gold brought any life to his garments. He looked much as Gazi remembered him; stern, unwavering, and formal. It was good to see him too, but she did not slow her pace, only nodded her head.
“Lady Gazi. You have been away for a very long time.”
“Longer than most?”
“That remains to be seen. You are not the only one who has returned this day.”
That surprised Gazi. She turned her face so all four eyes could focus on him for a second.
“Who else has returned? Amerys? Drevish?”
“Lord Drevish and Lady Amerys have not yet made their way back. But Lady Mars and Lord Takhatres have both joined us. Mars arrived mere hours before you.”
Gazi wasn’t happy to hear that. Part of her was of course overjoyed that more had returned to lend their strength to her liege for the trials ahead. And yet, at the same time, a large part of her wanted her return to be the only event of the day.
And yet, not for one second did Gazi think of slowing, or having delayed her arrival. It was far more important to see him, to be there. And yet—
“How is he? How has he—changed since that time?”
Gazi stumbled over her words, uncharacteristically for her. She tried to ask the question that wormed its way through her heart, drowning out even the hope.
To answer, Orthenon just smiled. Their quick progress through the massive castle and winding corridors had taken them to the place both knew most well. The massive throne room.
“He is as he has always been—only more.”
It was a word that banished shadows, a word to cling to, to light a fire from. Orthenon smiled, and she saw the flames burning brightest in his eyes.
“He has returned, and it was as if he never left.”
And then, they were there. Gazi stood in front of the massive doors, and heard her heart pounding. If she had use of her large eye, she could have looked inside herself to see that odd event for herself. And yet, Gazi was sure that even if she had her main eye, she would still not know what lay beyond those doors. She would have been too afraid to look.
Orthenon waited, silent, patient, waiting for Gazi to make the first move. She stood in front of the door and drew a few deep breaths. Then she placed her hands on the wood, and pushed the doors open.
The first thing Gazi heard was laughter. Deep, booming laughter that filled the massive room. It stopped her heart in her chest, and it might well have done the same for Orthenon.
How long? How long since she had heard that sound? Gazi moved forwards slowly, as if in a dream, feet taking her into the room. To see—
Flos, King of Destruction, her liege and sole light in the world, stood in the center of the throne room and laughed. He was six years older than when she had last laid eyes on him, yet those years had only made him more vivid to behold.
His golden-red hair was still like the sun, and age had only faded the colors slightly. He still moved with all the passion and vigor of a younger man, and despite his long slumber, his body had not given way to fat or decay. And his eyes—
Gazi halted as Flos laughed, nearly doubled over from mirth. He was standing in the room, with four people surrounding him. Two—an armored woman with a massive round shield strapped to her back and a sword at her hip and a bird-man, blue and green feathers mixed with light clothing and a bird’s face with a curved beak—were known to her. But the other two people Gazi had never seen before.
One was a girl, the other was a boy. Perhaps it should be ‘young man and young woman’, but to Gazi, they were still children. Their features were similar; enough so that she automatically assumed they were twins, or at the very least, brother and sister. But there was another quality to them that made Gazi instinctively think they were like Erin and Ryoka.
They had that aspect to them, in the way they stood, the way they watched her lord, and their very presence in this sacred space that made Gazi think they were not from this world. If she had her eye she could have verified the truth of that at a glance, but all of her gaze was focused on one man, and one alone.
He laughed and laughed, caught up in mirth. And then he turned. He strode towards the massive windows that faced out onto the city and threw his arms out wide. Nothing had changed.
“‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’”
Flos roared the words to the heavens, and laughed again, deep and long. He whirled, eyes full of fire.
“And naught remains. Nothing left but rubble and dust and words. How wondrous. I have not heard such words to stir my soul in years! And you say that was written by a poet? Would that I had the privilege of meeting her once.”
Still chuckling, the King went back towards the two small humans. And then he caught sight of Gazi, and the world stopped. For her, and for him.
Gazi did not remember kneeling, did not know when he crossed the distance between them. It felt like an instant, but then she sensed his presence. A hand reached down and placed itself on her shoulder as she stared on the ground, too timid to look up.
“Gazi. Faithful Gazi. I beg of you; rise.”
And she did. She would have followed that voice into oblivion, obeyed any command. Gazi looked up, and saw the face of her King.
He was smiling, even as tears stood out in his eyes. He said not a word, but enfolded her in a crushing embrace. She held very still, memorizing it, inhaling his scent. She wished this moment would last forever.
But then he released her, and she opened her eyes again. He was there. In front of her. She could reach out and touch him. And he was back. Yes, she felt it in her bones, in her very soul and every beat of her heart now.
He was back. Her lord had awoken once more.
She smiled up at him, noting the way his eyes flicked from her closed eye, crusted with yellow liquid, to her dusty armor and face with concern. She savored it.
“It is good to see you again. But your eye—”
Gazi shook her head. An eye? What was her eye in this moment?
“A minor thing, my lord. I wish to tell you of it, and more.”
He smiled, and her heart skipped again.
“And I wish to hear every second of it. Come; Mars has just arrived, and I wish to hear your story with all to listen. Orthenon?”
The other man approached, bowing efficiently. Flos walked with Gazi across the long room, and she walked with him. Her King.
The two who knew her nodded as they approached. Mars the Illusionist, and Takhatres, Lord of the Skies, inclined their heads and Gazi did likewise. It was odd; she was almost glad to see both of them as well.
Perhaps Gazi frightened them, because the twins only stared at her. If that was the case, Gazi would have assumed Takhatres’ bird-like form and long, wicked beak would be more frightening, but perhaps they had become accustomed to him. She was hardly more different, with her orange-brown skin and odd, four-fingered hands, but perhaps it was the eyes. Humans always stared at her eyes.
“Gazi, I present to you Mars and Takhatres, who have both travelled countless miles to rejoin me. But also to Trey and Teresa, two twins who I have chosen to be my attendants. To all, this is Gazi, my eye and one of my hands and dearest friend to me. Returned at last.”
The others murmured their greetings, and Gazi heard a cracked voice from the boy. The girl just stared at her, wide-eyed and fearful. She looked at them pleasantly for her lord’s sake, but instantly, Gazi decided she did not like the two humans.
They had made her lord laugh. They stood here, in this place, at this time, and that meant they were trusted, favorites even of her King. For that, and that alone, Gazi hated them with all her soul.
But that was nothing. Nothing at all. Gazi turned her attention back to her King, and smiled again. He smiled back, full of life, and she knew that he would never go. A decade stood between them. Now, and then. One decade they had fought together, and she had been his sworn sword and led his armies to victory. Another decade he had lain quiet, slumbering, and her heart had broken and she had searched for that which might bring him back.
Now he had awoken. And so Gazi could finally say the words that she had carried in her heart for years. She looked into his eyes, and felt her own eyes growing blurry.
“My lord. I have returned.”
How both of their souls thrilled to hear the words! But her King only smiled. He placed one hand on her shoulder.
“Yes. And just in time. We have much to do.”
His name was Trey, and he was afraid and confused. That was normal to him, but today, especially today, he was even more so. Normally, he would have loved to talk to his sister quietly by themselves in their private language, but they stood in front of a King.
His name was Flos, and he had come into Trey’s life and shattered everything the young man had believed in. True, it was Trey and Teresa who had been summoned to this world by magic or…or something, but Flos had pulled them out of the skies, and taken their lives in the palm of his hand. Like a current he had swept them along with them.
The massive man stood in the center of the throne room, larger than life, talking to the strange woman he’d introduced as Gazi. She looked…vaguely human. She had no nose, but she had long black hair turned into dreadlocks and she had a humanoid form. Her skin was dark orange, what Trey could see of it around her segmented, dark brown armor. It looked vaguely like scales, and it rippled and flexed as she moved, like a second skin more than metal.
She had four—no, five eyes. Four eyes surrounded a central eye, but that one was closed, and a yellowish substance had crusted it shut. And yet, the four eyes that did work were pupil-less, or perhaps the pupils were so faint that they couldn’t be seen. Because Trey was sure that at least one eye was looking at him.
He shivered, and felt his other half, his sister and twin, Teresa, do the same. She was just like him, and the two mirrored each other’s emotions and thoughts quite often.
It was an odd thing. Not all twins had their depth of connection at such a late age. They were both sixteen, although nearly seventeen in truth. And they were two of a kind, separated only by gender.
Both Trey and Teresa were from England, which their features clearly indicated. They had moderately dark blonde hair, fair skin, and they were the exact same height of 5’10. That was odd again; because they weren’t identical twins, at least genetically.
The correct term was fraternal twins, which just meant that they’d been born together, two babies growing in the womb instead of one. But that was vastly different from identical twins, who were the same egg that split into two.
No, Trey and Terasa were simply two children from the same mother and father who happened to look disconcertingly close to each other even late in life. The doctors had simply called it an unusual set of coincidences that their chromosomes aligned in so many ways; Trey thought of it as luck.
Because they were alike. The twins still remembered the secret language that they’d invented as kids, and they still shared thoughts even as they had slowly become different with age. Of the two, Trey was most likely to speak up, and Teresa was most likely to wait and observe. She had the good ideas and he usually ended up being the one to try and carry them out while she helped.
She preferred being called Teres, which was a better sounding name anyways, in Trey’s opinion. It was also the name of some muscle in the shoulder, but that wasn’t important.
They were alike. Alike and different. Trey liked video games; Teres preferred to draw and read. Both could play sports fairly well, which meant Teres was popular in team sports since she could keep up with her brother.
Neither one liked cricket, and they both preferred to leave jams in the fridge, way in the back where they could rot forever. They both liked movies, and music, and normal things, and both agreed that this world was terrifyingly scary.
Trey could see Teres’ pale face out of the corner of his eye. She was handling all these sudden changes a little worse than he was, which meant that she might start screaming at any second, really. Flos kept them in the throne room and by his side most of the time, but both twins could really have used a few days—weeks, months, really—to sit in a corner and try to make sense of everything.
But they had to be attentive. If they had not sensed it already, the surge of life that had flooded into the city and palace over the last month had told them that something big was happening, and Flos was at the heart of it all. He was a King, one that had woken up a city full of despairing people and dying hopes with words alone.
No offense to the Queen, or the royal family, but Flos was a character out of legends for Trey. He resembled the image the young man had of Alexander the Great, or perhaps King Arthur himself if Trey was honest. He seemed to radiate a massive presence at all times, and you couldn’t help but hang on his every word.
Now Flos was done speaking to Gazi. Trey jerked, and felt Teres nudge him ever-so-slightly. He hadn’t heard a word the King had said, but hopefully she could tell him later. Flos put both hands on Gazi’s shoulders and stared into her eyes with genuine warmth and love.
“You must tell me all of it—all!—later. But for now let us speak of this kingdom’s future and what has happened in my absence. I had not yet done so with Mars, and now is an opportune time.”
He turned, and looked at the twins. They felt a jolt down their spines, but no fear in their stomachs. This wasn’t an angry adult or boss to be afraid of; it was just that his stare was electric.
“Trey, Teres. To me.”
Obediently, they walked over, and Trey chanced another glance at the Gazer—no, half-Gazer named Gazi. She stared impassively back at him, and he shivered and looked away.
Flos clapped his hands together, and Trey thought he might actually wet himself. Everything the King did was so loud.
“There is much that has changed since you left, Gazi. These two who stand before you come from another world. I will explain more, but they have told me of another land, filled with armies and weapons which would humble even the greatest monsters of our world. It is they who reignited my flame, and so I have chosen to make them my wards and personal attendants. Treat them kindly, and teach them, I ask of all of you.”
Mars nodded immediately, as did Takhatres. Trey tried to avoid looking at Mars; he was still wary of the bird man, or Garuda as his species was known, but he’d gotten used to the calm Takhatres over the last few days.
But Mars on the other hand…Mars was not easy for Trey to talk to. He kept looking down. It was really hard! Teres had already kicked him twice, but—but—
Mars had huge breasts. There was just no way around it. But more than that, she had an amazing figure—she looked like a supermodel altered in photo shop. Her long, bouncing red curls of hair, her slender frame and unscarred skin, her luscious, bouncing—
Teres kicked Trey again, and he looked away. Mars gave him a smile and he turned beet red. Flos chuckled as Orthenon rolled his eyes and Takhatres smiled quietly. And Gazi—
She was staring at the twins. She’d nodded when Flos had spoken his request, but she didn’t have the open air Mars did or the quiet acceptance of Takhatres. She stared at Trey, and he felt uncomfortable. Her eyes were like a laser peering into his head. Trey moved slightly back so he was closer to Teres. He could feel her shiver, and hoped she could draw the same support he was getting from her.
“Now, a formal council will be in order later, as will much discussion. Over dinner, I believe. A banquet is out of the question until we have replenished our stocks, but I would dine with all of you and speak with Mars and Gazi later.”
Flos began speaking again, and Gazi’s eyes shifted away. Trey looked at Flos too; he couldn’t help it. Whenever the man moved, he became the center of the room.
“My kingdom is weak. I have let everything go, in my despair and apathy. Only Orthenon has kept everything from crumbling, and yet my kingdom is still broken. And all of you—I let you down. That you have come back is a gift I do not deserve.”
Flos looked Mars, Takhatres, Gazi, and Orthenon each in the eyes, and they each returned his stare, silent, smiling, bowing their heads. The silence around them was intimate and deep as they hung on his words.
At last the King turned to the twins and smiled again, but with a trace of sadness. He bowed his head.
“I abandoned my throne and my people. For a King, there can be no greater shame. And yet—I would have lost all in any case had I continued on my journey. My kingdom would have been shattered by blood and fire. Perhaps it was best to let it fall away. We may never know. But I have returned, and so we will begin again. I only ask you this: are you with me?”
Mars was the first to speak, and the others were right behind her. Gazi smiled and bowed like a courtier, one hand to her stomach, the other flung out behind her as her leg moved back.
“Our lives are yours to use, my King. If you desire your kingdom, ask, and we shall deliver it to you.”
Flos smiled. He looked at the four in turn, and nodded.
“Very well. We shall begin here. When Takhatres arrived, we had enough to begin rebuilding. Now that two more of my Seven have arrived, we may make a start of this.”
He turned and strode towards the windows. Everyone followed, as Flos stopped to point out at the distant horizon. Chandrar, the continent they were on, was a hot, dry place, much like Egypt or some middle-eastern country, Trey imagined. Even though it was winter, the sky outside was bright blue, and it was warm enough that he was glad to be indoors.
“Bear this in mind. While my kingdom has waned, powerful new empires have risen. Even in my slumber I heard whispers of coalitions, and a powerful new ruler who had conquered the desert cities.”
Flos frowned as he pointed out, towards the massive desert that lay in the distance. It was close enough to see, but the rolling sands and dunes disappeared forever into the horizon. Trey couldn’t even imagine how far this land stretched.
Orthenon coughed into one hand.
“Assassins and armies will soon be sent against you, my King. Your allies may rejoice at your return, but your enemies are numerous.”
“Word has already reached Izril, my lord, although I know not how. It was how I gained news of your return. If it has spread all the way there—”
Mars shrugged, letting the armor on her shoulders roll as she gestured to the sword at her side and the massive round shield on her back.
“Let assassins come. I will protect my King. It’s armies that will pose the greater threat. But how did news spread so far so quickly? I barely got word of your return a week ago, and I was close by.”
Flos smiled, and Trey felt the iPhone in his pocket, cold and hard. He’d kept it switched off ever since the call, but it had come as a surprise that he’d been allowed to keep it. Yet the King, for all he claimed Trey and Teres as his unwilling subjects, had insisted it was theirs.
“I believe I know how, and I would not be surprised if most nations had heard word of my return by now. No matter; I would hardly have kept it secret in any case. A King does not hide. And perhaps this way word will reach my farthest-flung allies.”
“But will they march to you or stay where they are? Either way, I would not count on this aid before the first enemy strikes.”
Takhatres said it bluntly, and Flos nodded. The King smiled, tugging lightly at his beard as he surveyed his city, bustling with activity.
“How to proceed, then? My kingdom is wasted; it will take much gold to cure their long sickness, and yet my treasury is empty. Those who could fight left to serve in other wars to feed their families, and my armory has only a few relics left in it.”
“You gave arms and armor to the soldiers who left.”
Gazi said it, and Flos nodded without a hint of regret.
“They earned it, and such things would have been useless to me as I was. No, I merely state facts, Gazi. And if arms were my only concern I would be lucky. But the walls crumble, and food is scarce.”
He turned towards the others, spreading his arms wide.
“If I have no army, no coin, few weapons and fewer supplies to feed my people, how should I move?”
It sounded dire, but the twins saw a smile on his face. His eyes were twinkling, and Trey realized that Flos was happy. The King looked at Gazi.
“Is it not wonderful? To be faced with such adversity from the start?”
She smiled a slight, enigmatic smile.
“As you say, my King. It is a fitting challenge for a beginning.”
“Would that life were thus.”
Flos sighed, and looked at Orthenon.
“We must exceed ourselves. For now, my Skills will help mobilize the people, but we must find a source of food to last us through this winter. It may never snow except in the desert, but we may still starve soon enough.”
Orthenon nodded. He gestured out the window at a small line of people, far below. Trey squinted, and saw an orderly group of people waiting to receive food from a wagon. No soldiers were guarding the wagon though, and it looked like the people helping unload the wagon were just volunteers.
“The stores from merchants we have seized will help, and more still have offered us goods at extremely generous rates, or for free outright.”
“For free? Why?”
Mars looked astonished, but Orthenon was not. He looked at Flos.
“They remember your kindness of years past, or they hope to earn favor with the kingdom. But it will still not be enough.”
The King frowned slightly, pondering the problem. He spoke into the air.
“‘Money is the root of all evil’, is that not one of the quotes from your world? Well, perhaps it is evil it engenders, for money itself would save lives and feed the empty bellies of children.”
Trey blinked at him and Teres shrank back even more as Flos looked at them. Were they supposed to reply? Sometimes Flos wanted a response just to hear their perspectives, or to know what people from their world thought. But now wasn’t one of those times. He turned back to the others and gestured out the windows.
“I am no peaceful King who waits and builds up his kingdom. I understand war; if it is a matter of funds, arms, or aught else, then we will simply have to take it.”
The others nodded as if this were the most natural thing in the world. Mars grinned, showing off a mouth full of perfect, white teeth.
“From whom? Do you have a preference, sire?”
Flos nodded, stroking the beard on his chin.
“There are several large bandit groups that have the might of a small army behind them. And there may be individuals of worth among them as well. Now that Gazi and Mars have arrived, it would be safe to send Mars and Takhatres out while Gazi remains. Her name alone would ward off most threats in your absence.”
Mars and the bird-man seemed pleased by this, but Gazi was not. She turned to her King and spread her hands out, protesting mildly.
“I can still fight, my lord. The loss of one eye—”
Flos was shaking his head, and Gazi fell silent. He looked at her with sympathy and affection, placing one hand again on her shoulder.
“I would never doubt your courage, Gazi. But I will not risk you yet, not over such a trivial matter. We must find a scroll or potion to regenerate your eye, and soon. Mars—Takhatres—”
“It will be a priority, my lord.”
Mars bowed, and gave Flos a sultry smile that made Trey’s heart skip a beat. But Flos just smiled at her, and the tall woman blushed instead.
“My thanks. Now—”
Someone knocked at the double doors. It was a slight sound, quickly swallowed up by the cavernous room, but Orthenon was at the doors in moments. He opened them, and admitted a man covered in dust and grit.
A construction worker—a [Builder] of some kind? Trey was surprised he was allowed in, but Flos strode over and spoke familiarly to the man as if it were only natural. He returned in moments, and spoke to the others.
“It seems there are matters I must attend to. Construction, a few emissaries—no, Gazi, Mars, I would hardly wish for you to bestir yourselves after your long journey. Rest here. We will have a short break! Orthenon, I will deal with this myself.”
Orthenon nodded as Flos strode out of the room. The tall man went back to stand with the other three, and Trey edged away from them slightly.
Now the mood in the vast throne room had changed again. In Flos’ absence, the smiles on the faces of his four vassals changed. They were still smiling; but differently towards each other.
Teres didn’t have to tell Trey that there was some tension between them. Mars was the first to break the silence. She shifted slightly, leaning down so her breasts were more obvious as she spoke to Gazi.
“It’s good to see you again, Gazi. A pity you didn’t come earlier; I would have dearly loved to see our lord’s face had we walked in together.”
Gazi smiled back at Mars, without a hint of actual joy in her expression. She had sharp teeth.
“I would not wish to sully the joy of meeting our King with your presence. He deserves someone by his side with the least amount of confidence and competence.”
“Oh? And I see you are as impatient as ever, Gazi. You might have waited; our lord was enjoying the poem of the long-dead king.”
The half-Gazer shrugged, almost regretfully and shook her head.
“What a shame he must listen to children from another world for entertainment. It seems the novelty of your presence has worn off already, Mars.”
The other woman’s eyes narrowed and her hand twitched towards the hilt of her sword. Gazi smiled smugly, but before the two could exchange another round of insults, Takhatres clicked his tongue softly. He spread his ‘arms’, two long wings with long feathers and nimble talons at each end.
“Do you two intend to exchange insults the instant you meet? Or am I so invisible that you don’t wish to ask me about how I have been, Gazi?”
Gazi looked at him, and her expression softened somewhat. Mars looked abashed, and scratched at her head as the two turned to Takhatres.
“My apologies, Takhatres. How is your tribe?”
“Right, sorry. How are your sons and daughter? Did your wives lay any more eggs since I last saw you?”
Orthenon moved over towards Teres and Trey as the three began to converse in earnest. Trey was relieved he was the one talking to them; his head was spinning again, and he desperately needed someone to talk to if he and Teres couldn’t get away to discuss things. And if there was someone Trey had to talk to, he’d choose Orthenon.
“How are you two doing, Trey, Teresa? It has been a long day and I believe my lord forgot that you two require food, even if he does not. Should I have something brought for you to eat?”
“What? No—I’m good, thanks.”
“I’m fine, thank you. I had a big breakfast.”
Teres smiled up at Orthenon. Apart from Flos, and Trey he was pretty much the only person she was comfortable talking to.
The tall, mustached man was kind, strict, and absolutely formal at all times. Trey admired him, and he knew Teres did…for more reasons than Trey did. Most importantly though, Orthenon was one of the few people the twins were comfortable talking to. He’d explained most of how this world worked to them, and his advice was always good.
As were his warnings. Orthenon lowered his voice as the three people behind him began to chat, Mars and Gazi trading the occasionally catty remark.
“A word of warning for you two: stay away from Gazi. She may be the weakest of the three, at least without her eye, but she is the most feared, and perhaps the most possessive of our King.”
Trey didn’t know how to respond to that. Was Orthenon saying Gazi might hate them because Flos had made them his attendants? But wasn’t she more important anyways?
Teres was clearly thinking the same thing.
“Isn’t she one of the Seven? I heard someone mention that.”
Trey hadn’t heard that, but Orthenon nodded. He frowned at the two of them.
“Has no one told you of the Seven? Takhatres—no, I don’t believe he cares for boasting and I suppose it is considered common knowledge.”
He sighed, and tapped lightly on his pants as he thought.
“The Seven were once King Flos’ personal circle with whom he consulted and relied on. They were his generals, his leaders who each managed part of his kingdom. They were the strongest and best of his subjects. See the three before you; despite their squabbling, their names are known across this world.”
Trey felt a shiver go down his spine as he looked at Gazi, Mars, and Takhatres. Teres looked curiously at Orthenon.
“Aren’t you one of them?”
He smiled briefly.
“My role is different. I am the King’s steward; I can hardly leave his side.”
“In that case, who’s the strongest?”
It was a stupid question to say, but Trey was curious. He could feel Teres’ disapproval and blushed, but Orthenon treated it like a normal question.
“Mars is the highest-leveled, if that’s what you define as strongest. She’s Level 66; the second-highest level warrior class on the continent.”
That was certainly the highest number Trey had ever heard. Teres also looked impressed, and for good reason. Both twins had learned the conventions of this world by now, and they understood what that meant.
“In Chandrar she is second-highest, but in terms of levels, you would still be able to count those in the world with a level close or higher than hers between the two of you.
“So she’s stronger than Gazi?”
Orthenon hesitated. He looked uncomfortable.
“If the four of us were to fight here and now, Mars would likely be the one who walked away. But I would not place money on such a bet. The Seven were chosen because they excelled beyond all others at some aspect.”
“And why are they called the Seven? Do you mean they’re like the Seven Deadly Sins or something?”
Teres had clearly been thinking the same thing, but the look she gave Trey reminded him that not everything was a manga. Orthenon looked perplexed.
“Seven Deadly…? No. No names. Just the Seven. There was no history of them before Flos named the first four. And then he slowly added to their ranks. The number has no meaning; if there were another worthy of it, we would have been eight. As it stands, we might as well call ourselves the Five.”
“Two of the Seven are dead. They perished before our King went into his slumber. And two more have yet to return. Amerys, the Calm Flower of the Battlefield and Drevish, the Architect.”
“Why do they have those titles? I mean, sorry, what do they mean?”
Orthenon paused, and a rueful look appeared on his face.
“I believe they would not like me to tell you. If you must know, it would be wiser to ask them yourselves.”
He nodded, and Trey unwillingly walked over to join the three with Teres. He hadn’t asked because he wanted to put the question to those three themselves. But Teres wanted to know, and she was going to make him ask, he just knew it.
Mars was speaking to the others as the twins and Orthenon moved back into earshot.
“—Still surprised Amerys isn’t here. Drevish I could see; if he’s got some sort of project going on he wouldn’t abandon it even for our lord, but Amerys?”
She paused, and smiled at the twins as they approached. Trey tried to smile at her and meet her eyes and nothing else while Teres ducked her head.
“You two are the ones who woke my liege lord, aren’t you? I owe you a huge debt, Trey and Teres, was it?”
She bowed formally to Trey, and he shifted awkwardly with Tres. He took Mars’ hand as she offered it and felt a callused, strong grip that nearly crushed his fingers.
“Um, it’s really nice to meet you.”
Mars gave Trey another smile. He blushed and tried to keep his eyes…anywhere above her shoulders, really. She looked exactly like someone out of an anime or video game, which was to say, stylized, unrealistic perfection of the female form…according to males.
His head was confused, and he was about to do something stupid, so Tres kicked him. Trey blurted out the question on his mind.
“Why—why do they call you the Illusionist? Can you do magic?”
Mars blinked in surprise, and Takhatres chuckled lightly in amusement. He saw Teres edging away from Gazi, towards him.
Trey knew Teres liked the bird-man, and he’d been nothing but kind to them in the week since he’d arrived. But still, the curved beak and predatory look of the Garuda bird-man made him look ten thousand times scarier than Falco. He had a habit of moving his wing arms out slightly and shifting from one clawed foot to another when talking.
Mars scratched at one bright red lock of hair in embarrassment. The others chuckled.
“I’m no [Mage], if that’s what you’re asking. My class is [Vanguard]—a variation of [Warrior]. I can’t do any magic, actually, although I have several magical items. That’s what the name refers to.”
That sort of made sense. Did she use illusions in combat? Trey wanted to ask more, but Mars looked uncomfortable, and Takhatres stepped in. He bowed his head so he could look down at Trey—the Garuda was quite a bit taller than he was.
“Most of our titles were given to us by our enemies. They’re true, but only to an extent. You might learn the full meaning behind them later, but for now—”
Takhatres smiled, and gestured towards the window.
“—Pressing matters await.”
It was as if a switch had flipped in the group. They looked towards the doors, and then abandoned the quiet bantering and casual conversations. They spoke quickly and decisively, as the twins listened. And the two realized they were having their own council before Flos got back.
“It is good you two are here. I’ve brought my warriors, but even with Orthenon here I was deeply troubled. Now that you two are here I believe we might truly begin to fulfill our lord’s ambitions.”
Takhatres spoke to Mars and Gazi frankly. Mars nodded.
“It’s good I didn’t stick around to confirm the rumors either. When I heard he was back—I was overjoyed, of course, but concerned. Now that I’ve gotten here, things are worse than I feared. Our forces are so weak any army could walk in here. Aside from us, who could protect our King?”
“We must simply fight and defeat our enemies. Now that our King has returned, what other choice is there?”
Gazi shrugged, as if unconcerned. Takhatres frowned at her.
“There is a difference between confidence and foolishness, Gazi. Perhaps alone you could slay an army, but can you protect our lord in the midst of battle by yourself?”
“Especially with your injured eye.”
Mars gestured at Gazi’s eye, and the half-Gazer frowned but made no retort. Takhatres nodded slowly.
“We must simply build up our strength as quickly as we can. I’ve brought my finest warriors here to act as security for now and my tribe is preparing to move into this area. In a few days’ time we’ll have an army.”
“But we need a legion to take this continent, let alone the world.”
“So? When he first began his conquest, our lord had little more than this.”
Mars frowned at Takhatres, but the bird-man did not look reassured.
“That was then. Now, the world knows of his might and our enemies will come at us full-force from the beginning. If we do not act, we may be wiped out before we even begin.”
“We have a few veterans from old wars, and the staff within the palace can aid us. But they hardly constitute a battalion. I tried to hold on to some soldiers, but there was no food or pay for them. If our King has asked it, they might have stayed but I alone…”
Orthenon sighed, shoulders slumping. Mars patted him on the back and even Gazi shook her head.
“You kept him safe and the kingdom intact. We must simply restore what has been lost. And we are four, here. Enough to defeat any army.”
Mars nodded cheerfully.
“Who could stand against our lord at the height of his power? He could rally the people here by himself if need be. Even now, between us, what force would be able to overwhelm us? That’s what we should be concerned with.”
Orthenon began listing names as the others nodded or shook their heads.
“In terms of major powers? The Four Companies of Baleros, Wistram, a coalition of Terandrian kingdoms perhaps, the Blighted King, the House of Minos…”
“Foreign powers. What about this continent?”
“There’s an alliance of nations to the north that formed after the empire fell. They’ll come for us.”
“But they’re fearful. Hm. We might have time there. No, I think it’s the Empire of Sands.”
“I heard of a growing nation before I left. What is the Empire of Sands?”
“A new [Emperor] emerged a while back. He absorbed many of the nations in our lord’s empire and created a vast army. He’s sweeping across the continent, and his soldiers are strong.”
“And our armies are all scattered or gone. That may be our greatest loss.”
Orthenon spoke the words quietly, and the other three nodded. He looked at the twins, explaining.
“The might of our lord never lay with one particular army, or even his generals. At the height of our power we had countless armies and individuals fighting underneath our banner.”
Mars nodded. She counted off on her fingers.
“The Rustängmarder, the Forgotten Legion, and the Silent Marchers are lost to us for now. But the Sunless Ghosts might rejoin us if we take the coast. And the Grave Wardens—“
“We don’t have the gold to hire them.”
“They owe us a debt. Is honor nothing to them?”
“No, but they swore a vow. And fighting wars isn’t part of that. If we could offer them support as well—”
“What about the Mad Ones? They’re staying in…Averach? They would surely send a delegation if asked. No other ruler puts up with them as our lord does.”
“Mad Ones? Who are they?”
Surprisingly, it was Teresa who asked that question. Orthenon nodded.
“[Alchemists], mainly. But also a new class—[Engineer]. They’re a group of walking disasters that create wondrous inventions and chaos. Having one of them in your city practically guarantees destruction and loss of life, but under our lord they worked to create miracles for us.”
Mars looked distressed. She tugged at her long hair.
“I can’t say I’d look to them first for help. Maybe some of them might provide funds, items—but they’re hardly the army we need.”
Takhatres broke off and looked towards the door. The other three fell silent, and then the doors opened.
Flos strode into the room, smiling as he rejoined the group. And the discussion was suddenly over. His vassals put aside their concerns to listen to the words of their king. And more—
“My lord. I had not the chance to offer you this earlier, but I wish to present you with the labor of my travels.”
Mars spoke first, bowing to Flos and withdrawing a strange black bag with glowing symbols etched on it. Flos blinked, and smiled.
“A gift? You alone are one. But if it will help my kingdom, I will accept with gratitude. What have you found?”
“Weapons, my lord. Weapons, and armor and magical items for an army.”
The woman reached into the bag and pulled out a sword. It was curved, like a scimitar, but double-edged and it glowed purple in the light. Flos took it and admired the blade, talking with Mars.
Trey was captivated by the magical blade—and the other weapons Mars began to pull out of the magical bag, but Teres nudged him and he looked and saw what she did.
Gazi was staring at Mars and so was Takhatres, and Orthenon for that matter. They didn’t look…angry, but there was a hint of challenge in their eyes. And then he understood.
It was not a contest, and yet it absolutely was. Each of the four wanted nothing more than to please their King, and be the one who did it best. For Orthenon, he had nothing to offer, and yet his contribution—staying loyally by Flos’ side these long ten years—was a heavy thing to surpass.
Mars kept pulling magical weapons out of the bag until she had a small armory at her feet.
“It will be enough to give to lieutenants and officers, or make one small group. I offer it to you for war, my lord.”
“More I could not ask for. Thank you Mars; it is a foundation to rebuild our armies upon.”
Flos smiled again at Mars and she bowed her head, blushing. Takhatres cleared his throat; it was his turn now.
“I have brought my tribe, and we have quadrupled our numbers since I last led them to war. Now my warriors are trained to fight fiercer, harder than before. We shall fly from the skies and blot out the sun on your enemies, my King.”
“I remember your tribe’s power before. I would not trade five armies for them, and I know they will spearhead the war. Takhatres, I offer you my thanks.”
Flos traded an arm-clasps with Takhatres and bowed his head slightly. Then it was Gazi’s turn. Trey could see the other three watching her, but the half-Gazer had not taken anything out. The half-Gazer spread her hands wide, smiling slightly.
“My lord, I regret to say I have brought nothing. What magic I have found, what treasures I have brought are not worth bringing to your attention. I can offer nothing but an amusing tale.”
Flos’ brows shot up as Mars smirked and Takhatres covered his mouth briefly with a wing. They thought they’d won the contest, but Orthenon was frowning slightly at Gazi. And she had that slight smile on her face.
“Yes, my lord. You may know that I left this kingdom, and indeed this continent, to search for something that would wake your passions once more.”
“Indeed. And did you find it?”
“No, lord. Not at first. I searched countless places for creatures and monsters, but found nothing worthy. Until I came to a small inn in the city of Liscor on the continent of Izril.”
Trey listened with keen interest as Gazi described her first encounter with Erin. And he noticed that Flos was hanging on the half-Gazer’s words, his eyes alight with interest. And that Mars and Takhatres were growing less smug as the story went on.
“She—like the two here—comes from another world.”
Gazi gestured to the twins, and Trey and Teres exchanged a glance. Was she one of the people in the call? Could they meet Erin Solstice?
“A young woman who would leap into a burning pit to save a spider. And then toss it back.”
Flos stroked his beard and shook his head.
“—But I know you, Gazi. There is more to this story, is there not? Something about this girl is even more unique.”
The Gazer smiled.
“Yes, my King. When I looked at her, I saw that she had one skill I had never seen in my many years of travel. It is called [Immortal Moment].”
Now Flos’ undivided attention was on Gazi. He grinned, eyes alight with curiosity.
“[Immortal Moment]. An odd name for a skill. And…intriguing. I wonder what it does. Did you ever see her use it, Gazi?”
“I did not. I am not even sure Erin herself knew the nature of her skill.”
Flos frowned, and began to pace across the wide room, walking past the group.
“I know something of the nature of this world and classes and levels, and take a keen interest as you well know, Gazi. When one creates that which has never been before, they learn the skill automatically. It may be this young woman discovered a skill not of this world, and by doing so, earned it. If so—”
“She is special. She alone has befriended Antinium and owns a skeleton as a servant. She talks with Drakes and Gnolls as equals, and she weeps to kill monsters. In and around her inn, she has forbidden slaying Goblins, and she teaches one how to play chess. And—”
She smiled, and touched her crusted eye gently with one gauntleted finger.
“—And she is the one who injured my eye.”
The others stared at her. And then Flos burst out laughing.
“An [Innkeeper]? A girl below Level 20? She struck you?”
Mars looked incredulous and Takhatres was frowning, but Gazi smiled with her lord.
“Yes. The other girl I mentioned who went to rescue the doomed adventurers—Ryoka Griffin—she told me you lived. I hesitated, but it was Erin who dared strike the blow.”
“A girl who blinded one of my Seven, who slew a Flesh Worm, who comes from another world and befriends even monsters and plays chess…”
Flos shook his head and then laughed again, long and loud. He stared up at the ceiling, and then sighed, slowly.
“What a fool I have been. That so many people and wonders were right under my nose while I despaired.”
He looked at Gazi, and chuckled again.
“You have given me no arms to fight with, nor a soldier to raise my banner. But your story has lit a fire in my chest Gazi, and for that I thank you.”
She bowed her head, smiling wider.
“Thank you, my King.”
“But even if you had brought nothing but yourself and a host of enemies to my gates, I would have welcomed you with joy beyond joy. I trust you know that, Gazi.”
Flos looked at Gazi, and she raised her head. The look she gave her King was open, honest, and sincere, and Trey understood then that this was a side of Gazi few saw.
“I do, lord. I do.”
“Then let us celebrate!”
Flos whirled, and threw his arms out wide. He looked at Mars and Takhatres and then whirled both into an embrace.
“Two of my Seven have returned to me on this day; this is cause for feasting if we had food. But without, we shall simply drink of each other and let the stories of the past be our banquet. The council may wait. Let us sit, friends, and you will tell me all that has passed.”
He nodded at Orthenon, and the man moved smoothly into action. He gestured Trey and Teres towards the doors; they often helped him organize the staff. Trey already knew they would be using one of the smaller dining rooms and telling the chefs to prepare the best meals they could with what they had.
Orthenon opened the doors and paused. Trey nearly walked into him. Someone was waiting—a travel stained Courier who spoke quietly to the King’s steward.
Trey and Teres didn’t hear what was spoken, but Orthenon’s own smile promptly vanished. As he confirmed the delivery, he slowly accepted the package the courier had brought.
It was a large box of plain wood, nearly the size of Trey’s chest. And it was heavy, judging by the way the weary Courier held it.
Orthenon took the box without any difficulty, and slowly walked back towards Flos. The King paused in his laughter and let go of Gazi as his steward approached.
“Orthenon. What is this?”
“A delivery, my King. It came just now by Courier. It is from the Emperor of Sands.”
It was as if he’d poured cold water over a fire. Mars and Takhatres immediately lost their smiles, and Gazi’s eyes focused on the box, and she touched the sword at her back.
Flos’ smile slowly faded, and he stared at the box in Orthenon’s hand. Slowly, the king took it. He had no fear of a trap, but he studied the plain wood and heavy box with a troubled expression—one of the few Trey had ever seen on his face.
The box was plain wood, but it had a hairline crack around the top. Flos put his hand to the lid, and hesitated.
“Perhaps it is only a figment of my imagination. But Orthenon—I fear to open this box.”
The steward looked at his King. Flos returned the stare gravely.
“I have never met this Emperor of Sands. But it is no difficult thing to imagine that he bears me no good will. And this box—”
“My lord. I cannot see into it with my lesser eyes. Let me open it. It may be trapped.”
Gazi reached for the box, but Flos stayed her hand.
“No—no. It is not that I fear. This Emperor is not such a petty man, I think. But I do not believe he is kind, either. No…my instincts tell me I will regret knowing what is inside of this.”
He gestured to the wood box, and then sighed.
“And yet, I must open it. If I were ruled by fear, I would not be a King. So. Let us see what this Emperor of Sands sends me.”
Slowly, he put his fingers on the lid and slowly pulled the wood upwards. Trey saw the wood come away, and then…was it ice?
Yes, it was ice! Slowly, the box slid off of a cube of ice, perfectly fit inside the wooden frame. It was clouded from condensation, but slowly it slid away from the rest of the box as the wood fell to the ground.
Flos held the clouded cube of ice in his hands and looked down at it grimly. Trey was confused. It was just ice. Was it a gift of some kind? Magical? But then he noticed the others had gone silent, and Gazi’s eyes were fixed on the block.
Slowly, Flos wiped away the clouded front of the block of ice. Teres screamed. Trey thought he would puke.
Encased inside the block of ice was a man’s head. His hair was short and wavy, and his skin tanned and dark. He had grey hair, and many wrinkles, and stern features. They had been made even more stern with his last expression; one of bitter, deep regret. His mouth was twisted sideways and down, and his eyes were closed.
Flos looked at the head and said not one word. Takhatres, Mars, Orthenon, all were silent. But Gazi spoke. She said one word. A name.
The Architect. One of the Seven. Now Trey realized the significance of the message, and his stomach roiled even harder.
“Oh my friend. Oh, my dear friend, builder of marvels.”
Flos whispered the words as his hands shook. He stared down at Drevish’s head, his face twisted in anguish and grief.
“What have they done to you?”
Drevish had died from a swift chop to the neck. The blood still flecked around his neck as Flos slowly held the dripping cube of ice. Everyone was staring at him. Mars was gripping her sword, tears falling from her eyes even as they burned with rage. Takhatres bowed his head, crossing his wings together and murmuring what sounded like a prayer. Orthenon’s hand was clenched so hard Trey saw a streak of blood running down and staining his perfect clothing. And Gazi—
Gazi watched her King. There was no smile on her face. Only expectation. She was waiting.
Slowly, Flos sat down on the ground. He sat cross-legged, ignoring the water staining his clothing. He paid no attention to the melting ice block; he just sat, staring at his dead friend.
He spoke quietly.
“We are not ready.”
His vassals stirred. Flos spoke on.
“We are not ready. Not to cross swords with the Empire of Sands. We have no army; we barely have a garrison here. My people still starve. That is why we must wait.”
He slowly lowered his head until it was touching the block of ice.
“Even this greatest of insult must be borne, for our army is not even gathered. Those vassals who might join us still waver, and our old allies still know nothing of my return. Wisdom dictates we wait.”
Trey held his breath. He’d never seen Flos look so dispirited. Only once—only when they’d first walked across worlds and into that room and seen the man sitting in the small chair, weary and old.
Now Flos looked the same. He looked aged, grey and tired and weary. He stared at Drevish’s head and sighed. And then he spoke one more word.
The word was everything. The word was more than just sound. It echoed in the vast room, and Trey felt the same thunder in the air he’d heard once before. Flos slowly stood up, and looked down at the melting ice in his hands. His voice rolled and broke over those listening.
“But I hold in my hands, in my hands, the head of one of my dearest friends. A man I loved as much as any son, slain. On this day of great joy. And I am to bear this insult quietly? No, no. If I did not act, I would not be worthy to live, much less a King.”
He stared down at the head in his hands, and tears fell from Flos’ eyes. But his voice was steady. And it was growing louder. It was beginning to echo across the palace, through the kingdom.
“My friend, my brother, my comrade in arms. Drevish. You built me my cities and weapons of war when you desired naught but to create works of art. And now you are slain. I will meet this Emperor of the Sands and take his head for this, I swear it.”
Trey felt something trembling. He wasn’t sure if it was the ground or—himself. He clung to Teres as Flos slowly walked back to his throne. He placed the block of ice on the golden throne, facing him. The King bowed his head once, and when he turned, his voice was a roar.
“The Emperor of Sands has spilled my blood! He has taken from me, and so I will bring him to his knees. He thinks I will bear this insult and wait, but he does not know the nature of a King. He does not know me.”
He stood on the dais and pointed down at his four vassals and the two cowering twins.
“Tell me, my Seven! Does the King of Destruction suffer an insult to his people?”
They shouted the words as one. Flos nodded.
“Does he run and hide from any enemy?”
“Does he fear any being under the heavens?”
They roared the answer as one. Gazi, Orthenon, Takhatres, Mars—their eyes were fire and they shuddered with rage.
The King drew his sword, and then his voice boomed through the castle; fury made incarnate.
“Then to war! Bring me my horse, my armor and armies! We will ride forth until the Empire of Sands is dust in the wind! To me! For vengeance and fury!”
He leapt off the dais and thundered down the steps. He moved so fast that Trey saw him at one end of the room and then throwing open the doors. Orthenon was right behind him, and Mars was already holding the massive shield and her sword, shouting in fury as she followed.
Takhatres was right behind them, and Gazi was last. But she stopped. Gazi paused at the door, and her four eyes found the twins. She smiled, briefly, and touched the sword on her back.
“To victory, children. Victory, and the glory of our King.”
Her tone said quite clearly there could be no other option.