Venith heard the messenger out in silence. His teeth ground together and the mounted soldiers watched him cautiously. They were eighteen, and though Venith’s own soldiers were present in the courtyard, they would have the advantage in the seconds following.
But Venith Crusand had a hand on his sword. He gripped it with knuckles that slowly turned white as he glared at the man who had delivered the demand.
“This was not what I agreed to.”
“Your oath was to prevent the King of Destruction’s return. All you must do is stand aside.”
Venith heard something crack as his grip tightened even further on his sword’s hilt. He relaxed his grip slightly. Too much strength would dull his thrusts. If it came to that.
“Those are my subjects you intend to slaughter out there!”
“They abandoned you, did they not?”
It was true. They had left. So had Mares. His wife. The very thought made Venith want to lash out, but he couldn’t. The soldiers standing before him had come in peace, and offered no insult he could claim. And he had sworn an oath.
“It is not honorable. If you want to kill Flos, take your army and lay siege to his capital. Using tricks is the act of a coward.”
The messenger’s face didn’t change, nor did those of the soldiers behind them. Venith knew his words had little sting for them. They were from Hellios, and their hatred of the King of Destruction ran deep.
“It is one plan. If it fails, the coalition army will crush Flos and burn Reim to the ground. But it would be simpler if his head could be taken before so many lives are lost. Is that not the best result?”
It might have been. But Venith’s soul revolted at the thought.
“It is not honorable.”
The mounted man’s face twisted in annoyance. He snapped down at Venith.
“Honorable or not, all you must do is not interfere. If your patrols had not clashed with ours, we would not be having this conversation!”
“Had you decided to avoid cutting through my lands, I wouldn’t have paid attention. But even a small army is my business. And your forces didn’t cover their tracks well enough. They were sloppy.”
Venith relished the flash of anger in the man’s eyes. But the messenger controlled himself. He shook his head coldly.
“You have sworn an oath, Venith Crusand. Your wife, Lady Maresar—”
He paused. Venith’s blade had inched out a bit from his scabbard. The men tensed. The messenger continued, choosing his words carefully.
“Your subjects have renounced their homes and joined the King of Destruction. But you fought and attempted to uphold your oath. The kingdoms see you as an ally, which is why your lands have been spared.”
Ally? The word was insulting. The other kingdoms saw Venith as someone they could ignore. They didn’t need to waste men on him if they could just let him be.
“This ambush will fail. All it will do is slay more innocent lives. Those refugees are not soldiers.”
“One day they might be. It has already begun. Do not interfere.”
The messenger was tired of the argument. He wheeled his mount. The escort followed him, keeping together, watching Venith’s soldiers warily.
Now would be the time. To stop them, to call out their dishonorable actions and fight. Venith knew it. He felt the blood pumping through his veins. His hand was on his sword.
He let them go.
Half an hour later, Venith was in his war room. It was just a small cubicle in his keep really, a place for him to survey the terrain. It wasn’t as if he had ridden to war since he had taken his oath against his former King. All he had ever done was slay the occasional monster or crush a group of bandits.
Now Venith stared at a map covered with small flags. A vast army was on the march, to the north east, winding down the long road towards Reim. But his eyes were on the patch of land to the west of the capital, where a second road led to other crossroads and kingdoms.
There were more flags there. Venith could only guess the ambushing force’s location, but there were only so many places they could hide. They were camped in the foothills, waiting for the King of Destruction to ride out to save the refugees being attacked by raiders. They would swoop down on him and encircle his position.
And kill him. It was a sensible measure. Without him, his kingdom would fall apart, despite Orthenon, Mars, and Gazi. But it was not honorable. Those butchers would kill hundreds of men, women and children just to kill a single King.
But Venith had sworn an oath to do just that. So he could not do anything about it.
Venith had a cool drink of grape wine from his cellars. He was not thirsty, but the thought of drinking himself into a stupor was enticing. He had never done it, but now—
The door to his small war room opened. Venith turned, about to curtly dismiss whoever had opened the door and paused.
His son stood in the doorway, armed for war. The plate armor had to be hot in the sun’s rays, but Venith had ordered every man and women to ready themselves for battle when he’d seen the armed force approaching. He wondered why Calac hadn’t taken off his armor yet.
“What’s the matter, son? Is there news?”
“No news. Nothing’s happening here. The soldiers are leaving.”
Calac’s face was blank. He stared at his father, eyes searching Venith’s face. Then he shifted his attention to the map. He looked at Venith.
“Is this the kind of man you are?”
Something about his tone made Venith angry. It was insubordinate, the prelude to a fight. He glared at his son. But Calac didn’t flinch.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“You heard what they’re going to do. They’re going to kill the King of Destruction. Lure him out by killing innocent people. And you didn’t stop them.”
The words twisted into Venith’s heart. He turned away roughly, staring down at the map.
“So? I swore an oath—”
“Is that the kind of man you are? The kind of man who hides behind oaths when injustice is done?”
Those words. Venith spun. He hurled something—the cup of wine. Calac flinched as the liquid sprayed across his face and armor. But he didn’t back down.
“I swore an oath. Are you suggesting I break it? I have never gone back on my word, never lied. That is the kind of man I am!”
He snarled at his only son. But Calac just wiped away dripping wine from his face.
“So it’s fine if everyone else breaks their oath, just not you? That man—Hellios is sending an army out to kill our people. If they’re on the road, they’ll die. They’d dishonor themselves and break the rules of war just to kill the King of Destruction. And what happens if he dies? Does that mean mother and everyone else get slaughtered too?”
“It won’t come to that. They’ll lay down their arms.”
Venith felt the words twist in his mouth. Calac made a sound that wasn’t a laugh.
That was true too. It was true. But Venith had—he clenched his fists.
“The King of Des—Flos broke his oath long ago. I owe him nothing.”
“You told me that all my life. Every time mother told me about him, you’d always say he was a fool. An oathbreaker. A coward who abandoned his kingdom. And I believed you. I thought he didn’t have a shred of pride or honor.”
Calac’s voice was quiet. He stared at his father.
“But now I see the truth. These kingdoms, and these other [Rulers] have no honor either. Less. At least the King of Destruction was willing to fight his own battle. And he spared you.”
“I was prepared to die. I did not ask him for mercy.”
Venith wanted his son to shout back at him, to make it an argument—but Calac’s voice was level. It wasn’t angry; there was too much of his mother’s voice, Mares’ voice in the way he spoke.
“I admire my father. The man who raised me taught me how to be honorable, to keep my word. He taught me to defend the innocent and never bow to injustice. He taught me to do what was right.”
Arrows at his heart. Venith’s voice rose and he shouted at his son.
“Not to obey orders, apparently! You disgraced yourself in battle not a day ago!”
It was a petty thing to say. Calac’s head lowered, and then he looked up at his father.
“I did. I thought I could end things easily, even if it meant being dishonorable. That was the wrong thing to do, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. It was dishonorable. There is no excuse for such actions, regardless of the reason.”
Finally, something Venith could say with conviction. Calac nodded slowly.
“Then why are you lecturing me and not stopping those men?”
Silence. Venith searched for words, and found none. Calac turned.
“I’m going. Me and some of the soldiers are going to ride to the King of Destruction’s side. We’ll probably die, but at least we’ll die doing the right thing. Like you taught me.”
“You cannot—you’d abandon your post?”
Venith forced the words out, a gasp through his suddenly tight chest. Calac nodded.
“It’s the right thing to do, father. Mom was right.”
“Then you’re a traitor too! You—abandoning your home, your people!”
“What people, father? What home? There’s just you here, and some soldiers. Everyone is with the King of Destruction. Flos. Mother’s King. Our King. Your King.”
Calac turned and began walking down the narrow corridors of the keep. Venith stumbled after him. He felt drunk, disoriented. He shouted at his son’s back.
“You swore to obey my orders! Come back!”
For a second, Calac turned. He stared at his father and Venith felt a surge of hope. But then he spoke.
“I’m sorry. You taught me how to be proud, how to keep my word. How to be honorable. But father, I guess I never learned what loyalty meant.”
Then he turned and walked away. Leaving Venith with nothing at all.
The air was hot. Uleth, the [General] leading the coalition army of six nations, stared ahead at the small army barring their way.
“Not even five thousand soldiers? Is the King of Destruction mad?”
“Drunk on his own fame, perhaps. But he’s not even with this army, so perhaps it’s his [Steward] who’s made the decision.”
One of the strategists from Germina commented as he squinted at the army ahead of Uleth’s forces. Uleth shook his head.
“I’ve studied the battle tactics used by Orthenon. He’s no fool. Regardless of their reasons, they’ve come to us. Ready yourselves! I want [Mages] and [Archers] to begin firing as soon as they come within range!”
“And the formation?”
The [Strategist] frowned. Uleth glared at him.
“As I ordered.”
The man hesitated, which annoyed Uleth. But he wasn’t one of Uleth’s subordinates. The [General] wouldn’t have worked with him at all, save for his level. But the orders were passed down and Uleth saw his forces begin to rearrange themselves out of the long column they’d been marching in.
The [General] had a Skill. [Battlefield Eye]. It allowed Uleth to see, or rather, create an image of the battlefield from any angle based on his own line of sight and the reports he received. With it, he saw his army spreading out, encircling his position while his mages and the siege weapons he’d brought moved into the center.
They weren’t all bunched up in the center; that was an invitation for a mage strike, and Uleth wasn’t about to risk it, for all that Flos wasn’t supposed to have any strong mages in the field. Rather, his valuable units such as [Mages] and the two trebuchets were scattered around him, buffered by soldiers. At the center of what was a giant ellipse of soldiers lay Uleth’s command and the [General] himself. From there he could issue any order and the dozens of [Tacticians] and [Strategists] he’d brought could assume command of individual groups of soldiers.
Uleth knew it was not an orthodox formation. He didn’t care. Against an army of equal size, his deployment would leave him understrength if the enemy committed to any one side. But he was up against an army a fraction of his size.
“The instant the enemy comes within range, bombard them. When they attack, we will seal their exits with cavalry and envelop them.”
He repeated the plan to his gathered officers, making sure they could move even without orders. Uleth had [Sergeants], [Captains], and so forth, but his [Strategists] could provide incredible benefits to a battalion by using their Skills at the right moment.
That was what would tip the scales here. Not grand strategy but Skills. Uleth knew he was outmatched in terms of levels by Orthenon, known far and wide as the King of Destruction’s Left Hand. But he was only one leader. Uleth had brought dozens to match him.
And he had the numbers on his side. So many it wasn’t a fair battle, however many of the King’s Seven were on the field. Uleth kept repeating that to himself. His plan was solid. Overwhelm with sheer numbers. So long as Uleth kept his most valuable assets shielded by his soldiers, he would triumph, regardless of the King of Destruction’s superior individual might.
But the army of four thousand wasn’t moving. Uleth squinted at them. He could have had a [Mage] use a spell to enhance his sight, but they were visible in the distance. A good deal of cavalry; far fewer foot soldiers than Uleth had expected. Were some defending the city? Why? Why split up forces?
They weren’t moving. That wasn’t what Uleth expected of Orthenon. The man should have launched a surprise attack while Uleth’s army was on the move. Fast, lightning strikes were what he was known for. Why was he—
Someone blew a horn. A warning. Uleth saw a distant figure move in Orthenon’s army, but saw nothing happen. He turned to the [Strategist] from Germina.
“Someone’s firing an arrow.”
The man had a Skill and he was shading his eyes to see. His gaze traced the flight of the arrow—Uleth, watching, saw only a blur and then heard a scream.
“A lone archer? Are they targeting someone?”
“No—they didn’t aim at any of our [Mages].”
“Well then, send a volley back! Have our highest-level [Archers]—”
The man cried out. Uleth turned and saw fog. It was billowing up. Fog. Despite the harsh sunlight, it rose out of the ground to the surprised shouts of the soldiers. From where the arrow had landed.
They were falling amid Uleth’s army, releasing fog which obscured all vision. Uleth gritted his teeth. He turned his head and roared.
“[Mages]! Lift the fog!”
For a few minutes he heard no response. Then one of his messengers ran towards him.
“The [Mages] are attempting to lift the fog, but it will take them several minutes! The arrows are high-Tier magic—”
Someone shouted it. Uleth’s head turned as he heard the horn calls from the side. They were unmistakable.
“The army has charged us in the fog! They’re engaged with our left flank!”
“I will move our forces out to engage—”
Uleth stopped everyone with a word. He stood still, heart pounding. But he was certain.
“Do not move. Let Orthenon attack. He is attempting to force us to break formation. But we will hold position.”
“[General], the casualties—”
“We will hold position until the [Mages] lift the fog. Even if Orthenon charges his army, he will only be fighting a fraction of this army. When the air clears we will encircle him and destroy his army. You, you, you—go and reinforce the battle zone. Everyone else will hold position.”
There was no argument on the battlefield. Not with the [General]. Uleth saw men and women running and waited. Minutes until the mists cleared. All he had to do was wait. Orthenon was famous for mind-games, for striking an enemy’s weak spot when they reacted to his provocations. All he had to do was wait—
The sound of clashing arms was distant, and Uleth could hear shouts, screams, horn calls in the distance. He fancied he could even smell the blood pouring already, metallic. Sharp.
But then he heard something. It wasn’t loud, but it was deep. So deep it cut below the sounds in the distance. Uleth began to rub at his ears.
“What’s making that sound?”
He turned his head, but could barely see his command, let alone the soldiers in the dense fog. He could see faint shapes in the mist, but they turned into shadows and then nothing. But the sound continued.
“I said, what in the name of sands is—”
And then it grew louder and Uleth realized what it was.
Ahead of Uleth, the fog parted. A slim silhouette emerged from the white oblivion. A stranger holding a huge sword in one hand. She walked forwards, humming that haunting melody under her breath.
Dark shadows ran towards her, and Uleth heard the voices of men and women shouting. The figure swung her sword. Shadows fell to the ground. She walked on.
Someone shouted. But more voices were yelling the same thing. And the soldiers weren’t moving. They couldn’t see in the fog and they were a force of many nations. If they rushed to attack, they might find themselves locked in combat with their own forces.
Some were. Uleth heard the clash of arms behind him, where no one was attacking. But he only had eyes for the advancing shape. No one could see in this damned fog. No one. Except perhaps someone who had earned her title for doing just that.
Uleth felt a chill. He knew she was on the battlefield. He knew she was here. But it was one thing to hear of her, and another to see her. He whispered her name.
“Gazi the Omniscient.”
The half-Gazer walked into view. Her sword was red. Her armor was dyed crimson. Her central, main eye was closed, but all four of her smaller eyes were focused on him. On Uleth.
He drew his sword. His command formed up, [Tacticians] shouting, Uleth’s elite soldiers forming a wall between him and one of the King’s Seven. Two [Mages] strode forwards, grasping wands nervously. They were all staring at Gazi.
She could not hope to kill them all herself. Uleth’s mind babbled it as he froze, trying to think of orders. But all he could remember were the tales of entire commands slain in the middle of battle, of night ambushes that left no one alive.
His men were staring at him. But Uleth couldn’t form the words properly. How had she come here? They were at the heart of his army! She would have had to cut her way through all those soldiers? Alone?
And then Uleth heard galloping horses and more screams. He saw a second figure appear out of the fog. A man on horseback, a spear in hand. More shapes broke out of the mist behind him. Mounted soldiers. They had cut their way through the stationary troops, led by the leader of the army himself.
Orthenon. Uleth stared at him. The King’s [Steward] raised his spear, and Uleth tried to make his mouth work.
The King’s [Steward] kicked his horse forwards, and his entire army, cavalry and screaming soldiers, rushed out of the fog straight towards Uleth.
There was a war going on. Trey knew he should be hiding in the city of Reim, away from it. He was no soldier, no fighter. He could barely use a sword. But he rode across the barren ground, following a King.
Flos rode like the wind. No—the wind was weightless. In that case, Flos rode like thunder. He was mounted, riding hard and fast down the road, past groups of people.
And bodies. Some were collapsed, bundles of rags on first glance, until you saw the blood. They flashed past Trey, but he could smell the death as he passed.
And then he saw the people on horseback. He must have turned past a mound of dirt or else there was some gradient to the landscape, because there they were. Trey saw it in a flash. A huge crowd of screaming people fleeing. A knot of armed men and women—barely armored. Flashing swords, and the riders breaking away from the fighting to ride down on some of the fleeing refugees.
They barely saw Flos before it was too late. A man wearing scale armor and holding a spear was riding towards a young woman who’d fallen. He raised the spear, and his head turned as he spotted Flos, riding towards him.
He tried to turn his horse. But too slow. Flos’ sword cut up, through the man’s armpit. The arm holding the spear fell; the second cut went halfway through the man’s neck, between the gap of helmet and armor.
Flos yanked his sword away as the man fell. He turned and rode at the other riders without pausing. They paused, uncertain. Then they recognized him. The King of Destruction.
Some tried to flee. Flos rode down on a slimmer shape on horseback. A female warrior? His sword flashed and one of the riders fell, headless. Flos turned and his sword shot out, stabbing at another rider’s chest.
The man or woman blocked, but the thrust carried them out of the saddle. Flos rode his mount forwards and trampled the fallen rider as he cut at the third man on horseback as he rode at Flos, curved scimitar raised, screaming.
The man was wearing armor, but Flos’ blow knocked his sword aside and smashed into the pauldron the man was wearing. The armor bent around the blow. So did flesh and bone. Trey heard the man cry out in agony. He died reaching for his crushed shoulder as Flos’ second blow crushed his skull and helmet.
Seconds. Trey was still riding towards the dead rider as the last toppled from his horse when he realized he was riding straight into the battle. He pulled desperately at his horse’s reins and the horse reared.
Trey had to clutch desperately at the horse to keep from falling off. He heard someone shout his name.
His sister rode past him, only managing to slow her horse after several more yards. She turned and he saw she’d drawn her sword.
He reached for her. Trey couldn’t have said why. He just knew he couldn’t let his sister, Teres, ride into the heart of that battle. She stared at him, and then turned her head.
There was no need for Teres. Flos was enough. He rode at the group of fighting men and women, aimed straight at the attackers on horseback. They too saw him too late.
It was like a red whirlwind. Flos’ sword moved in flashes, each time slicing through skin, bone, and even armor, or crushing the very same. There were two dozen mounted soldiers—Flos rode into them from behind and they began falling from their saddles. In pieces.
Trey saw the blood. He saw people dying, in ways he couldn’t have dreamed of. He saw a man raise a shield and Flos’ blow split his helm and expose his shattered skull.
Trey leaned over and threw up on the ground. That felt appropriate. There wasn’t any glory in this, any excitement.
But there was vengeance. And there was hope, when the fleeing people and those who had tried to fight looked up and saw their King, holding his bloody sword in the air.
The twins couldn’t bring themselves to ride towards the carnage, but Flos rode back towards them. Trey flinched when he saw the blood spattered along his arm and chest. Flos just looked at him and nodded.
“This is my world. See it with your own two eyes.”
Then he turned to the people who were flocking around him. They shouted his name.
“Our King has come to save us!”
“Long live Flos!”
Flos said one word.
And there was. He turned to one of the few refugees holding a weapon. Trey was surprised to see it was a balding man, hair white and wispy, with a wide hat on his head. He didn’t look like a warrior, but there was blood on the short axe he carried, and none on his body.
“You. Tell me what is happening.”
This man wasn’t weeping. He stared up at Flos with a huge, face-splitting grin. He bowed his head, but spoke clearly.
“My King. I don’t know how many of ‘em are out there, but there’s dozens of these fiends chopping anyone on the road to bits. We were marching when they came out of the blue, like. We tried to fend them off, but they were choppin’ us to bits before you charged into them.”
Flos nodded. His eyes found the other people holding weapons. They were all older men and women, Trey saw. Some were much older. Grandparents. An elderly woman had a shortbow in one hand. But what was surprising was how natural it seemed in her grip.
“There are elite warriors among you. Few, but I see it. I know you, don’t I?”
The man looked startled and then grinned, exposing a few teeth.
“I was an [Axe Guard], a [Sergeant] in your army, my King! I retired after you went into slumber, but I kept my levels and my axe.”
“I remember you. I remember not your name, but your face. You have more levels than these soldiers did. How have these raiders managed to overwhelm you?”
The man bowed his head.
“My King, there is a [Leader] of some kind out there. His Skills are aiding them. Without a commander of our own, we cannot match their tactics! And they outnumber us, us that can fight, that is.”
Flos looked surprised.
“There are no [Strategists] among you? Not a single one?”
There was a shaking of heads. Flos closed his eyes.
“Of course. [Strategists] may find work regardless of age.”
He turned, looked about the steep inclines. There were hills, rising out of the ground, obscuring vision. Flos’ eyes narrowed.
“More of my subjects are trapped in these passes. I must find them. Those of you with arms who can fight on horseback—mount up! You will ride with me! The rest of you—hold this position.”
He looked down at the retired [Axe Guard], the old man.
“Tengrip? Is that your name?”
“My King. You remember.”
Flos smiled. He reached down from his horse and Tengrip caught his hand. Flos turned and pointed at the twins.
“These two are my sworn followers. Trey and Teres. Guard them with your life. They can tell you what passes. Hold this spot, Tengrip. I will return shortly.”
He turned. The attacker’s horses had scattered, but someone in the crowd raised their fingers to their mouth and uttered a piercing whistle. The horses immediately turned and raced towards him.
Men and women followed Flos. Some paused to grasp weapons and even armor from the fallen; the rest mounted up. It was old men, pot-bellied adults, mothers and grandmothers who raced with Flos away from them.
Trey stared. Then he heard Tengrip’s voice.
“You heard the King! Grab weapons! Grab stones if you need to and form up! Children in the back—you lot with classes, front!”
People rushed to do as he said. Trey jolted when Tengrip turned towards him. The old man peered at Trey.
“You there, lad. Trey, was it? Do you have any classes in fighting?”
“N-no. Not really. I can use a sword. Sort of.”
“Best you’d give that horse to someone who can use it, then. Here! Reddy!”
He called out to another old man, and Trey found himself getting off the horse and letting an elderly man who looked like he was all skin and bones mount up. He only had a staff in his hands, but he looked more at ease sitting in the saddle of Trey’s horse than he had standing.
“You, girl. Give your horse up.”
Teres stared at Tengrip, but let herself be persuaded to give up her mount as well. The twins stood standing with hearts racing as the people around them rushed about, arming themselves, helping the wounded—or mourning the dead.
“This your first battle, boy?”
Tengrip’s hand startled Trey as he stared at the dead bodies. The boy turned to him. Tengrip made Trey face him.
“Looks like it. Blue as an unripe Yellat, aren’t you? Well just look at me. Breathe. You said you can use that sword?”
Tengrip watched as Trey unsteadily unsheathed his sword. He made Trey swing a few times for him, and nodded. By the time that was done, Trey had forgotten about the bodies. Or rather, he’d begun to focus on more pressing issues.
“The King is awake! And he’s riding to save us, alone no less! Why ain’t Orthenon with him, or Lady Mars? Or Lady Gazi? I heard they were all at the capital!”
Tengrip was interrogating Teres. She was trying to explain about the army, and how Mars had to stay at Reim and Orthenon and Gazi were leading an army against one ten times their size.
“Can’t worry about that! Can’t worry—soon as the King hunts down the rest of the raiders we’ll be at the city! There’s thousands of us headed towards Reim—enough to hold the walls. You’ll see. The King’s back. He even remembered me! Tengrip!”
“That’s not your name, is it?”
Trey felt it was a silly question as he stared at the bloody axe Tengrip still hadn’t bothered to wipe. The [Sergeant] grinned at him.
“‘Swhat the fellows in the army called me. And if the King says it’s my name, well, it’s better than my old one!”
Then he turned to shout at the people milling about.
“Don’t break formation, you sand-cursed idiots! Hold your ground!”
They reacted to the voice of command. Tengrip eyed Teres and Trey, and put them well behind the ranks of people he’d spread out in a box formation. Not close to the center, where those without weapons and the ability to fight were, but far back.
Trey felt that was fair, but Teres protested.
“We can fight.”
Trey wasn’t sure about that, but Tengrip was adamant.
“You two are the King’s servants. If he says you’re to be defended, you’ll stay back. Don’t worry—if we’re attacked, you’ll see fighting.”
And they were. At first it was tense, Trey feeling every second go by as he held his sword awkwardly in a sweaty hand. And then he was bored, talking with Teres, watching Tengrip show some people how to strike. And then he heard screams and saw riders coming over the hill.
There were ten of them. No—nine. One rider was just a horse, galloping with saddle half torn-off. Trey saw some of them had bows. They loosed arrows the instant they were in sight, and he heard a scream as someone was hit.
It was terrifying. The armored people were riding straight at them. But the refugees weren’t idle either. Bows raised. Several people had them, and arrows forced the riders to raise their shields. One struck a horse and made it rear, throwing its rider off—another caught a man in the shoulder, punching through chain links.
The rest were getting closer, though. It seemed as though they’d be right on top of Trey and Teres! He saw a man raising a sword and forgot he was behind several rows of people. Trey began to move along with a mass of people, but a voice stopped him.
“Hold your position!”
Tengrip’s voice made his feet obey. Trey halted, and the riders crashed into the rows of people.
It was a terrible sound and sight. Two of the riders were stopped by the first person—one literally thrown back by a man with a huge tower shield, the second impaling both horse and rider on a pike that was thrust into their path despite the rider’s attempts to swerve.
But the rest, six riders, charged straight into the ranks of people. Trey saw flashing hooves as horses reared, saw people beating at the people on horses. Someone was riding towards him. He raised a sword and then Tengrip was in the way. The old man hacked at the horse’s neck, and there was blood—
In seconds, it was done. The horse fell, to die in moments and the rider was beaten to death, stomped into the dirt. The other attackers were also dead.
But the broken bones and dead people who’d taken the charge were a testament to the cost. Trey wanted to run or throw down his sword, but Tengrip shouted, and soon the square changed. The wounded were taken to the center, and Trey was closer to the front.
Minutes passed. Hours? Trey heard more shouts and saw more riders. He held a sword as his heart and stomach lurched, but he had passed beyond throwing up. But this time the riders weren’t alone.
Cheers rang out as Flos rode towards them, at the head of a huge column of people, most on foot, clutching weapons. His arm was drenched in blood and gore, but he wasn’t wounded.
“It is a trap.”
He rode straight towards Tengrip and said the words so all could hear. Flos silenced the voices and pointed back the way he had come with Trey and Teres.
“The raiders are breaking off. They’re reforming and making for the pass. There’s more behind us as well—keeping their distance.”
Tengrip asked apprehensively, eying the foothills in the distance. Flos shook his head.
“Many. Many more than there should be for [Bandits] or [Raiders]. These aren’t ordinary brigands either, but soldiers. This is a trap, meant for me.”
“In that case, we’ll hold them off while you escape, my King!”
Tengrip raised his axe, but Flos shook his head.
“I am their target. And I will not abandon my people. No, we will fight here and win or die. Now, assemble! [Archers], to the center of the formation! Those of you with the highest levels and mounts, to me! Tengrip, take charge of the rest and form a line. You will be fighting.”
“Aye, my King!”
Trey wanted to speak with Flos. But for once the King had no time for him. He was organizing the frightened people like soldiers. No, turning them into soldiers. The desperate, fleeing people had weapons now, and a leader. They were inexperienced, but there were hundreds of them, thousands. They were ready to beat their enemy to death with rocks or their fists if they had to.
For their King.
But it might not be enough. Trey heard the thumping in his bones before he saw the army. It was a thud, like a drumbeat. But what drum could make the very earth shake?
He got his answer when he saw the army. They emerged from the hills, surrounding the square of people and the mounted group led by Flos. Trey saw archers taking positions on the hilltops and soldiers waiting in clusters. But the main force of the army came down the road they had travelled, hundreds of soldiers, and mounted warriors.
And at their head, a man dressed in bright yellow robes, standing next to an armored man with a purple feather on his helm. But it was the robed figure the thumping was coming from. Every time he took a fourth step, the earth shook around him.
“[Mage]. High level one, it looks like.”
Tengrip spat the words as the army slowed, blocking the pass. Flos stared at the enemy commander, glancing to the hills. He nodded to Tengrip.
“Have the highest-level archers pick off those on the hilltops. Don’t engage them unless they come down; focus on those ahead.”
“Yes, my King.”
“Flos of Reim! You are surrounded and outmatched! Give yourself up and we will spare your subjects!”
The commander had begun to shout. His voice was faint; he didn’t have Flos’ incredible lungs or a Skill. Flos glanced at him and then at the mage. The man in bright yellow robes was staring at Flos, and there was a grim look in the King’s eyes as he stared back.
They were the true centers of this moment, Trey felt. The [Commander] was barely a speck in Flos’ eye. He kept shouting though.
“—Surrender yourself now, or your people shall be slaughtered! You cannot—”
“Riders! On me!”
Flos turned, ignoring the man and raised his sword. The old men and women following him shouted and raised their weapons. Flos pointed—not at the [Commander], but at the [Mage].
“Ride with me! You are my blade, my spear! My [Royal Vanguard]! Charge!”
He kicked his warhorse forwards and the people screamed as they followed him. The stunned [Commander] had to withdraw into the lines of soldiers as the sixty or so riders raced after Flos, into the ranks of the soldiers.
“Charge! For the King!”
Tengrip ran forwards and the group of men and women with warrior classes ran forwards. People around Trey and Teres began firing arrows at the soldiers on the hilltops. The twins stared at Flos as he raced across the dusty ground, aimed straight for the [Mage] in yellow robes. They saw the magic-user grin, and then twist his hands.
The earth split. Stone walls rose in front of Flos, knocking aside the [Mage]’s own soldiers, forming a wall between him and Flos. The King swerved, cutting left into the army. Stone shards exploded from the [Mage]’s grip, cutting through the air. The [King] swung his sword and cut several from the air.
A woman riding behind him fell, a spike sticking out of her stomach. Then the soldiers were clashing with Tengrip’s warriors, and Trey saw the old man’s axe biting. The ground was red with blood already and screams filled the air. The smell of fear and sweat was in Trey’s grip, and the smell of iron too.
The battle had begun.
They were losing the battle. But then, Maresar knew that was the point.
Mounted, loosing arrows into the fog with her group of archers, Maresar turned when she saw the figure appearing out of the fog. She had an arrow ready, but relaxed it when she saw Gazi.
The half-Gazer staggered towards Maresar, and the woman saw the black smoke rising from Gazi’s armor before she felt the heat. Gazi gasped.
“[Mage]. Got me. Hit me with a [Flare Orb].”
Her armor wasn’t brown anymore. It was black with soot in places, but red blood had painted it liberally as well. Gazi’s two-handed sword was also crimson and dripping. Maresar’s hands moved and she kept loosing arrows as she spoke.
“Two minutes. Orthenon needs more time.”
“He needs to retreat. Tell me where.”
Gazi was still panting, but Maresar saw two of her eyes turn, roving the clouded battlefield. She pointed.
“There. She’s mounted—aim up.”
Maresar aimed, calculating for the arc of her arrow, and loosed in an instant. Gazi waited a heartbeat and then shook her head.
“No. To the left two feet and down half a foot. That’s their head.”
Maresar loosed a second arrow. Gazi nodded.
“Down. Straight through the chest. Next—over here. They’ve got a barrier spell up.”
“So what am I supposed to do? I don’t have any enchanted arrows.”
“Hit the horse.”
Gazi’s rasped commands let Maresar target three more mages in the mist. She killed one more, and only distracted two, but it was enough. The fog persisted a few more minutes as the [Mages] were forced to scramble for cover rather than focus on dispelling the enchantment.
That done, Maresar turned back to firing into the mist. She couldn’t see anything, even with her Skills, but she didn’t have to look. There were so many soldiers all she had to do was loose arrows and she’d hit someone.
“How are we doing?”
“We’re being cut up. We can’t hold much longer.”
Gazi was staring at the place in the fog she’d come from. The place where she’d gone with Orthenon, leading them straight to the center of the army.
It was a tactic that required the fog arrows to occupy the army. It could only work on a coalition army, too. The soldiers didn’t recognize each other, and some were too afraid to enter the fighting for fear they’d attack each other. Some did, and began killing their allies. But it was all to get to the enemy command, Maresar knew.
They’d charged the entire army in, save for the archers led by Maresar. A wedge had been driven into the enemy army, a spear aimed straight at the center. But it was a thin, brittle spear. Maresar knew the lines of soldiers were collapsing, struggling to fight an enemy on both sides that vastly outnumbered them.
“I’m going back in.”
Gazi gripped her sword, coughing. Maresar kicked her mount and blocked the Gazer’s way.
“Not a chance. You’re too weak without your main eye.”
“Orthenon needs help.”
“He can do without you. You just took a spell to the chest. Even with your armor, it nearly got you. If you can’t dodge that, you’ll just get killed.”
Gazi opened her mouth to protest, and then all four eyes swiveled across the battlefield at once.
“The fog’s lifting! Orthenon’s…a few more seconds. He’s nearly killed half—he’s moving! Be ready!”
Maresar turned her horse and raced down the line of her archers, shooting.
“Volley the soldiers to the right and left of the formation! Loose!”
Her archers turned. They began to shoot, avoiding the patch of fog where their own soldiers lay. Maresar put an arrow to her own bow and began loosing arrow after arrow, as fast she could.
They only had a few more seconds to do as much damage as possible. And then…it would depend on Orthenon whether the plan had worked as well as not. If he could kill the enemy [General], excellent. But that wasn’t the plan. The plan…
Was simpler than that.
He had truly thought he was going to die. But as Uleth stared at the heavy ranks of soldiers between him and the struggling warriors on horseback, he knew he would live.
Orthenon was fighting in the center of the scrum of soldiers, slashing with his spear as if it were a sword. He’d killed a score of Uleth’s finest soldiers, but it wasn’t enough. Uleth gripped his sword’s hilt, but made himself let go. A [General] didn’t need to fight and risk his life. He had mobilized the nearby regiments and they were all converging on this position. A few seconds and he’d have Orthenon cornered—
The tall, gaunt man on horseback raised his spear. There was no mistaking his voice, even over the clash of arms.
He shouted and turned his mount. To Uleth’s disbelief, the soldiers began withdrawing, falling back, disappearing back into the fog.
But it was lifting too. And as Uleth stared, he saw the battlefield swim back into focus. Only now did he see the huge line of soldiers, like an arrow, penetrating the ranks of his soldiers, pulling back. It was insanity. If they had tried that in the daylight, they would have been overrun from every side. But in the fog, where no one could see who was friend or foe—
“Crush them! Don’t let Orthenon escape!”
The order came too late. As the soldiers returned to their formations, Orthenon and his riders raced past. Uleth saw the [Steward] stab a soldier through the helmet as he charged his mount down the pathway he had created, back towards safety.
Uleth turned, almost blinded by fury.
“I want every mounted warrior out there hunting him down! Now!”
He looked for the [Strategist] from Germina, but the man was nowhere to be found. Uleth had to shout before one of the [Tacticians] ran towards him, face pale. Uleth screamed at him.
“Where are my [Strategists]?”
“They’re all dead! All—there’s only the lesser [Tacticians] alive!”
But it was true. Caught so close together, without their shields of soldiers, Orthenon’s men and the [Steward] himself had cut right through the [Strategists] and [Tacticians]. That was why he’d attacked, surely.
An army without [Strategists] was slower. Weaker. Uleth could feel his blood boiling in his veins. But they were still outnumbered. He snapped at the frightened [Tactician].
“What are you waiting for? Surround them and kill them all!”
His [Horncaller] raised the horn and blew the call to attack. But it was too late. Uleth stared in disbelief as Orthenon’s mounted cavalry retreated. As did the [Archers]. And the foot. The entire force of the King of Destruction’s army began to retreat as fast as they could from the battlefield.
This was war. Trey found himself hacking at a man with a shield, screaming as he tried to strike the man, stab him through the faceguard. Then someone cut into the man’s side. Teres shoved her blade deep as the soldier screamed and fell back.
They were alive. For a few more seconds. Trey turned, shaking, from the group of soldiers who’d attacked the square of refugees from the rear. He looked back towards the real battle.
With Flos. The King of Destruction was racing through the heart of the soldiers as if they were grass, cutting left and right, arm moving almost too fast to see. And behind him rode the vanguard, the old men and women. And they were…slaughtering the soldiers.
Trey whispered it. He saw a woman who could have been anyone’s mother crack someone’s head open like an egg with a mace, and then smash someone in the chest. The people behind Flos were fighting like you saw in movies, like they were untouchable!
“It’s his Skill! It has to be!”
Teres screamed it in Trey’s ear. [Royal Vanguard]. But that couldn’t be it. Not just that. Because across the battlefield, the refugees were giving the enemy army an incredible battle.
The group of people on foot had charged into the ranks of soldiers and begun hacking them apart with the same incredible display. Trey saw Tengrip, slashing about him with an axe.
“He’s old! How can he do that!?”
“Because he’s old!”
Trey stared at his sister. She stared at the battle, her sword wet with blood, a look of—excitement?—on her face.
“They’re old! Retired! But they were all warriors! Think of how many levels they have!”
Trey thought. Then he saw Tengrip struggling with a huge man. He was darting back as the other man, holding a much larger axe, tried to cut Tengrip in half with it. But the [Axe Guard] slid forwards, and then he did something with his axe—
Teres clapped a hand to her mouth and Trey’s stomach lurched as Tengrip cut sideways with one hand. The huge soldier had a shield, but it was like it didn’t exist. The axe struck the shield. The metal deformed, and then the blade of the axe cut into the man’s body, through his armor, into his side, rending skin, tearing his body in half—
The huge soldier fell without a word. Tengrip staggered away. He’d lost his axe. He limped away from the battle, towards the square of refugees. He was bloody, but grinning as he saw Trey and Teres.
“Where are you going?”
Teres stared at Tengrip, as if he hadn’t just killed at least eight soldiers himself. The old man wrinkled his nose and lifted his right hand.
“I’m tired and I think I sprained my wrist. I’ll leave the rest of the fighting to you lot.”
His wrist was hanging loosely, as if it wasn’t…attached properly. Trey stared at it.
Then someone grabbed his arm. Trey stared into a woman’s face and saw more soldiers were breaking off towards them.
The fighting was reaching their position in the line. Trey saw bodies pressed together, hacking at each other, and then he was in the middle of it again. Tengrip was hacking at someone with his off-hand, and Trey was trying to block something—and then—
The world went dark. Trey looked up, and saw something huge pass overhead. He felt the earth shake. He looked up.
A huge boulder, bloodied, three times as large as a horse, had just landed. It had crushed dozens of people and—and rolled.
There was blood and…and…Trey stared at what was left of the people after the boulder had hit them. He turned, forgetting about the battle and saw the [Mage].
He was standing alone now, at the center of the clashing soldiers. His hands were raised, and he was pointing. Every time he pointed, a spire of stone would shoot up from the ground, impaling those above. Then the [Mage] put his fingers together and another spray of rock fragments shot out, shredding a group of people that had tried to charge him.
Two figures dominated the battle. Flos, racing through the soldiers, cutting them down like grain. And the [Mage], casually killing everyone he saw with a gesture.
And they were aiming for each other, the King and the [Mage]. Flos turned his mount, beheading a man and rode straight at the [Mage], ignoring the people in his way. But the [Mage] raised a finger and Flos threw himself from the saddle. Jagged spears of stone shot from the earth, impaling the soldiers around Flos and his horse—his own side.
But he was still aiming for Flos. The King leapt sideways, as more stone darts shot across the ground like hail. He deflected some with his sword, but more struck him on the chest and arm. Trey saw Flos stagger and cried out.
A huge boulder rose from the ground in front of the mage. It hovered and then shot at Flos like some ancient cannonball. The King dodged by a hair’s breath. The boulder shot through the ranks of soldiers, sending bodies flying like bowling pins. But there was difference between pins and bodies crushed, turned to red paste by the [Mage]’s spell.
He was doing as much damage to his side as Flos’. But he was closing in on the King. And so, for the first time, Trey saw Flos run. The King darted through the ranks of soldiers. He leapt—at least six feet into the air!—and kicked a horseman out of the saddle. Flos kicked the horse and ran as more stone spires burst out of the ground behind him.
He roared it and the people broke away, running across the ground towards the refugees. Far less. Far fewer. And the [Mage] still kept casting spells.
The earth broke around the fleeing people. Spears of stone stabbed up—stone arrows struck their backs. The spellcasting only stopped when one of the archers around Trey began shooting at the [Mage]. The first few swerved before hitting him, but the [Mage] immediately raised stone slabs, covering him from attack.
Trey saw Flos riding towards them, gripping his side. He had a potion in his hands, but he thrust it at a man who was trying to hold his insides in. He had jagged bits of stone embedded in his very skin. Flos was holding a hand over his ribs and he was bleeding.
He stopped before his subjects. They called out to him, but Flos stared until he saw the twins. He slowly walked his horse towards Trey. He coughed and Trey heard a wheezing sound as Flos spoke.
“I fear…I may have been outmatched. By a single [Geomancer], no less.”
There was no despair in his eyes, no denial either. Only grim determination, and…acceptance. He would go down fighting.
Trey looked at Flos, and then stared at the other army. They were forming into ranks. Fewer of them…far fewer. But still several hundred. And the [Mage] stood in an open space in the center of that army.
They weren’t moving to attack. They had taken up the same formation as the refugees, in fact. A close box around the [Mage]. They were going to let him kill everyone.
The man in yellow robes wasn’t casting spells. Not yet. He was drinking from a bottle. A mana potion? He tossed it aside and raised a hand. An arrow flying at him broke on a second shield of stone.
Flos turned his mount. He looked around, and saw only a dozen of the people who’d charged with him. But they rode towards their King, holding their weapons at the ready, not a trace of fear in their eyes.
“I have one Skill I could use. If this were an army. But it is not. These are my people. Not soldiers. If I had an enchanted blade, or armor like Gazi…but I do not. And I have few Skills that can be activated.”
Flos looked at Trey, eyes full of regret. He sighed, and raised his sword. All was silent as Flos shouted.
“The King of Destruction rides! Who will come with me?”
This time everyone shouted. They raised their blades, and Trey found himself raising his sword. The refugees, thousands of them, prepared to charge. Together they could—
The [Mage] clapped his hands. The ground turned to mud ahead of him, a wet, deep bog. Flos’ eyes narrowed. He pointed to the hills.
“Around, then. If he cuts us down by the hundreds, we must still charge. Do you understand?”
Trey’s heart was beating out of his chest. This was it then. Flos sighed. He looked at the twins and then raised his sword.
“One last time, then.”
He opened his mouth to shout the command to charge, and halted. His eyes widened. Trey saw the King’s grim expression change. He stared past the army of soldiers, past the [Mage] in yellow robes and breathed one word.
They were running. In full retreat. Gazi was on horseback and she felt her burnt skin screaming every time her horse took a step. But she had to run. They all had to run.
An army of tens of thousands was hot on their heels.
They had done it. The enemy [General] was enraged beyond belief. He didn’t have any clever strategies, any schemes. He wasn’t using his [Mages] or siege weapons. He was just trying to crush their small force with his own.
His soldiers were charging, but they weren’t faster than the soldiers that Orthenon had picked. And he had his own Skills that let them race across the ground. Even a foot soldier could cover miles in full armor with Orthenon leading them. It was the cavalry that was the true danger. Gazi’s head turned and she snapped at the man riding ahead of her.
“Another group. Two hundred, coming from the left!”
“The Second Horse, on me! Crush them!”
Orthenon turned his mount and a group of riders broke away. They shot back, meeting the armed [Lancers] in a clash of weapons. Gazi saw Orthenon’s sword blur. He’d tossed away his spear to use his Skills.
[Sword Art: The Tide Breaks]. Five warriors racing at Orthenon crumpled from their saddles, cut straight through their armor by devastating slashes. Orthenon cut again and his blade scythed through a lance. It was enchanted.
But it wasn’t enough. Not alone. Not against an army. Orthenon used a second Skill even as Gazi watched, striking all around him.
[Sword Art: Scattering Petals on the Wind]. This too killed as his enchanted blade cut in every direction. But he was running out of Skills to use.
Someone rode past her. Maresar was still loosing arrows from her bow, picking off riders on their trail. She shouted at the half-Gazer.
“How many more miles?”
They raced across the dry ground as an army poured across the flat landscape after them. Gazi felt her horse panting for breath. Would they die before they reached the city? She didn’t know. She saw a group of warriors—elites by the look of them—riding camels and bearing down on a group of fleeing soldiers. Gazi gritted her teeth and turned her mount. She rode back, unsheathing her sword.
It was one word. A whisper that carried. Flos stared at a hilltop. Trey followed his gaze.
“Mars? But isn’t she—”
“Guarding the city. But if she heard of the battle she would have come.”
“She’d need an army! What about the city?”
“No. She wouldn’t need an army. Look.”
Flos pointed and Trey saw her at last. A figure in shining armor on a hilltop, red hair blowing in the wind.
“She came alone.”
It was like a dream. There stood Mars, her silver armor buffed, her hair caught by the setting sun. But this was also reality, and Trey’s blood ran cold.
She couldn’t be. No one could be that stupid. But Mars raised her sword and took the shield from her back, and Trey saw she was indeed alone. And now the enemy had seen her too.
A cry went up as the [Mage] lowered his stone shield, preparing to cast a spell. He had a staff in his hands now, and the orb at the top shone with a bright light. He turned his head with a look of irritation and went still when he saw the figure on the hill.
“My loyal Mars. Yes.”
“What is she doing? She’s not even wearing a helmet!”
Teres fought her way over to Flos, pale with fear. Flos laughed.
“She has a helmet.”
But she wasn’t wearing one. Trey watched as Mars raised her sword to point at the [Mage], standing in the center of the ranks of soldiers. She struck her shield with her blade, and then Flos raised his voice.
“One of my Seven is here!”
Many hadn’t seen her. Trey heard shouts and exclamations as heads turned up, and people spotted Mars. Flos shouted over the cheers.
“Who is my [Vanguard]? Who strikes fear into the hearts of my foes?”
He rode down the line of people, and they shouted.
“Who is my champion?”
They screamed her name. The enemy was turning, forming into ranks to face the [Vanguard], the lone member of the King’s Seven. They were treating her like an army herself. But Trey looked at Mars’ bare head. He saw the [Mage] raising his staff.
And he feared what would happen next.
It started slowly. Mars began racing down the hilltop. She was a distant figure, armor flashing silver as she ran. Her shield was raised, her sword held at her side. She looked like a surging wall of metal.
A group of cavalry rode to meet her. Each warrior had a lance. They thundered at Mars as she hit flat ground, aiming their lances at her heart.
Trey cried out as they met her. The lances struck Mars’ shield. Four lancers struck her with all the weight of a horse behind them. And Mars—
She didn’t move. The lances broke and two of the riders were thrown from their saddles by the impact. The other two galloped past Mars, riders knocked back by the force of the blow. Mars raised her sword and stabbed the two fallen warriors almost perfunctorily. Then she ran on.
Teres breathed the words. The soldiers were just as stunned. Then the archers began to loose arrows. They rained down on Mars but she didn’t bother to lift her shield. They struck her armor, breaking and bouncing off the shining metal. And they struck her head.
And those arrows broke too. Trey’s jaw fell open as Mars ran on. He saw an arrow strike her in the eye and shatter as if it had hit steel.
“Prepare to charge.”
Flos’ voice broke him out of the moment. He was staring at Mars, and someone else.
The [Mage]. The [Geomancer] watched Mars racing towards him, eyes narrowed. She struck the first line of soldiers with a clash that Trey heard even from a distance. Mars’ shield swung like a mace, edge striking a man’s face and caving it in. Her sword flashed, and two warriors stumbled back, falling. But she didn’t stop.
Swords cut her. A mace fell towards her face and Mars blocked it. She charged into the ranks of soldiers, and they were forced back. They couldn’t stop her. A pike snapped as Mars ran onto it. She ran on, soldiers falling back, tossed aside, helpless to block her way.
But the [Mage] just watched Mars come. He gestured with his staff, and a hail of stone shards burst out of the orb, striking Mars. The stone tips broke on her armor.
The man frowned. A boulder rose out of the earth, forming itself from bits of stone, and shot towards Mars. She stopped then, and braced herself. The huge stone struck her shield and Trey felt the impact. It was stone that broke. Not Mars.
She ran on. Now the [Mage] had lost his confidence. He sent a wave of spikes shooting upwards, but they could have been grass for all they hindered her. He tried to hit Mars with another boulder, but she blocked again.
“She’s going to get him.”
“Not quite. He has one stronger spell.”
Flos’ voice was quiet. He was watching Mars as she cut through a group of soldiers trying to protect the [Geomancer]. And he was right.
The [Mage] raised his staff and struck the earth with it. Suddenly, Mars was wading through mud as the earth turned to sludge beneath her. The [Mage] raised his staff over his head, mouthing words, and now Trey felt uneasy. Something was happening.
A huge stone formed out of the dirt, the earth caving in around it and drifting upwards, compacting into a mass of stone and dust. The same thing that the [Mage] had thrown towards Trey earlier.
It was bigger than a car—the size of a small bus. Trey could see the [Mage] struggling to lift it. But he had an easy target. Mars was stuck, trying to reach the edge of the mud pit. She halted and raised her shield as the stone rose. The [Mage] threw it with one motion. It shot towards Mars and the impact shook the earth.
And this time Mars didn’t block. The boulder crashed into the mud, sending it shooting up around it. When it fell, there was no silver figure. No Mars.
A groan went up from the people around Flos. They cried out, and the soldiers around the [Mage] raised a cheer. He turned, arms held high as they cried out in victory. Trey looked at Flos—
And saw the King was smiling.
She walked out of the air itself as the [Mage] was laughing in delight. Mars appeared, her form fading into existence, rather than out of it. The [Mage] hadn’t seen. He heard the cries of alarm too late. Mars ran him through and he stared at her, completely surprised.
Flos’ voice rose and he shouted as Mars spun away from the [Mage], raising her sword. Flos raised his and bellowed.
“For Mars and glory! To me!”
They ran forwards, shouting. And Trey was right behind Flos until they met the enemy. He saw the King riding towards Mars as she fought, surrounded by soldiers on all sides. He thought he saw Mars laughing. He knew Flos was.
They weren’t going to make it. Gazi slashed left and someone cut her on the cheek. She hadn’t seen it coming.
Maresar shot the person who’d wounded her. Her fingers were a blur as she nocked arrows and loosed in one motion. One arrow. Two arrows. Five…seven…each time she loosed, another soldier on horseback fell.
They were so close. Gazi kicked at her horse, but the animal was wheezing. It was at the end of its tether. She leapt from her steed and stumbled.
Someone caught her. Orthenon spurred his mount, his bloody sword in hand. There was the wild fury of battle in his eyes.
“What are you waiting for!? We’re nearly there! Run, damn you all! Run!”
They ran. Reim’s gates were in the distance. They were so close. But they were too slow. The enemy caught them at last.
Afterwards, Trey realized he was standing on the dead [Mage]’s body, a staff in his hands. He was panting. He had a deep, deep cut on one arm—if he looked he could see something like bone. The staff shone in Trey’s grip as he bled on it.
“I think it’s his. But I took it.”
He babbled at Teres when she found him, sword bloody. She stared at his arm and screamed for help.
Flos ran towards them and covered Trey’s arm with his, pinching the flesh together. That hurt and Trey told him so. But then Mars was running over, armor pristine, hair still blowing like an action hero. She didn’t even have a speck of blood on her. Not a bit. Trey found that weird.
“I have a potion. Here.”
She took a small bottle out of…somewhere, and uncorked it. Trey gasped as it was poured over his wound and then he saw the cut on his arm close. He blinked at Mars and then his head cleared a bit.
“Are you injured anywhere else Trey? Teres?”
“No. I don’t think—no.”
Teres wasn’t injured either. Flos stared around the battlefield. The enemy soldiers were either dead or fled. Their [Commander] might have been among them—it didn’t seem to matter. Their spirits had broken when the [Mage] had been killed, and between Flos and Mars, they had carved up the soldiers.
Now Trey stared at Mars. Mars the Illusionist. The [Vanguard]. The most useless of the King’s Seven when it came to anything but war. But war…she was pretty good at war.
There was not a scratch on her. Not a bit. And no blood, although it was practically matted in Flos’ beard. It was a mystery that Trey was on the verge of solving. And then Flos solved it for him.
“Mars. You have my deepest gratitude.”
“I disobeyed your orders, my King. I wouldn’t have come, but I received a message from a certain son of a certain vassal you might know.”
“No. Venith’s boy?”
“He told me you were in danger. So I rode out against your command. I apologize, my King.”
She bowed to him. Flos laughed softly.
“I am a fool. Were it not for you, I would be dead, I think. And if the city still stands, this will be a victory on all fronts.”
“There were no other enemies nearby, which I found odd. So I took a horse—I left it somewhere so I wouldn’t get it killed.”
Mars was still smiling, looking as beautiful and sounding as nonchalant as ever. But she was surprised when Flos dismounted and came towards her.
“Mars. Enough modesty. You saved my life. I would look on your face now, and speak my thanks to my vassal myself. Your true face.”
She hesitated. Mars lost her usual swagger, and glanced at Trey and Teres.
“In front of them?”
“If you are uncomfortable, they will turn away. But I want to see you, Mars.”
Flos’ voice was gentle. Trey took hold of Teres’ arm, but Mars shook her head.
“No, I—they can—”
She hesitated, and then raised her right hand. She was wearing silver gauntlets, but she twisted at her ring finger. There was nothing there that Trey could see. And then—
The illusion vanished. Mars vanished. The tall, buxom redhead in silver armor vanished. A shorter figure, spattered in blood, grime, and wearing armor that was just grey stood in her place. She had a helmet on her head with the visor down. She wasn’t thin, and her breastplate could have been made for a man or a woman.
And then she took off her helmet and Trey saw a woman’s face. It wasn’t hideous—it was a bit plain, that was all. Mars had pale skin from lack of sunlight, and a few faint freckles. Her hair was brown. And her nose was a bit snubbed. She was sweating heavily. She looked down at the ground, rather than meet anyone’s eye.
And Flos bent and kissed Mars on the forehead. She went still. Her eyes were wide. And Flos kissed her again.
“My [Vanguard]. My beautiful vassal.”
That was all. Flos stared into Mars’ eyes and she looked up at him with tears in hers. By the time Tengrip came over, his broken hand splinted and the people began cheering, Mars was standing next to Flos with her illusion back in place, laughing loudly and waving to the people who cheered for her.
But for a second Trey had seen the truth. And it changed everything. He’d seen the ring she twisted to change her appearance, and remembered the broach she’d given Flos. Mars was no good at magic. But she had a lot of magic on her.
Mars the Illusionist. And Flos turned towards her, looking at his vassal with pride that had nothing to do with looks. He held out a hand towards her and she grasped it.
“Come, Mars. You too, Trey, Teres. This was only one battle. It’s time to win another.”
They caught Orthenon’s army four miles from their destination. Venith saw the struggling lines of soldiers, trying to fight and run before the rest of the army caught up. They were on the verge of being overrun.
By his side, Calac was staring in horror at the endless sea of soldiers. He had probably never seen so many people in his life, and they were all the enemy. But Venith could close his eyes and remember greater armies. But his eyes were open now.
“It’s a trap. Not for Orthenon and the others. That army’s in the middle of his trap.”
“How? There are so many—”
Venith glanced at the city of Reim in the distance, the sixteen towers piercing the sky.
“I know what they’re doing. Stay back, Calac. Take the foot and archers to your mother.”
“No arguments. You won’t die today. This—is my duty.”
Venith rode forwards. His retainers, his sworn friends and companions from another war, rode with him, shouting. They were a handful, but it was enough. Venith found his heart was beating harder, harder than it had beat for many years.
The soldiers had noticed him now. Venith saw a four-eyed stare, a gaunt man turning his head in disbelief, and a woman on horseback, more beautiful than one of Mars’ lies, staring at him. It was the only thing Venith had ever wanted to see. That, and one more face.
He raised his sword and shouted.
“In the name of the King of Destruction! Charge!”
His soldiers raced with him, cheering and broke upon the startled enemy. Venith rode into them, deep, cutting, slashing, blocking every strike with his shield. He heard a wild sound and realized it was coming from him.
He was laughing.
Flos and the small army of refugees reached the city. The King and Mars raced towards the northeastern gate. They saw the army fighting in the distance, and the soldiers running for the city with the last of their energy.
The King cried out when he saw the man locked in combat, holding the enemy back. Gazi and Orthenon were riding back towards him, but it was Venith’s wife who turned first.
Maresar nocked one arrow and loosed it. She had a second arrow at the string in an instant. She loosed.
In Trey’s vision, two soldiers rushing towards Venith fell. One staggered and clawed at an arrow in his chest; the other fell soundlessly, an arrow protruding from one cheek. More arrows flew, and the people trying to kill Venith fell from their saddles.
“Retreat, you idiot!”
Mars shouted it from the battlements at Venith, as if he could hear. She turned to Flos.
“He doesn’t know about the plan!”
“Oh, but he does. This is Venith. He knows the nature of my city. He knows what we would do.”
Flos answered calmly, but his hands were gripping the stone so tightly Trey feared it might break. His eyes were on Venith.
It looked as if Venith’s thin line of soldiers might buckle and break at any moment. They were falling, but the last of Orthenon’s army was breaking away. Trey waited for Venith, searching for him amid the fighting. And then—
A man was riding backwards, fending off slashes with a shield, several wounded men around him. He rode at breakneck pace towards the gates, his fresh mount outdistancing his pursuers.
Flos turned from the battlements, a huge grin on his face. He leapt down the stairs and Mars was by his side. They ran towards the gates, where an exhausted group of soldiers had collapsed just inside the city.
“Orthenon! Gazi! Maresar! To me!”
Flos shouted and the three ran towards him. Each one looked battered. Trey had never seen Orthenon looking so haggard, and even Gazi looked tired. But as they reached their King, their faces changed.
“It’s time. Form up the rest of the army.”
From his position, Trey could see more soldiers, fresh soldiers, standing at attention. They were ready for battle. But the army approaching Reim was enormous.
“We slew a number of their [Mages]. Most of their [Strategists]—couldn’t reach the artillery.”
Orthenon gasped at Flos as he drank from a flask. Flos nodded.
“They chased you here. That is what matters. They are too close to the city.”
“They’ll be right behind Venith and climbing the walls in seconds. It needs to be now, my King. Gazi—”
“I’ll do it.”
Gazi stumbled towards the stairs. Trey saw her climbing with speed towards him. Flos turned towards the gates and bellowed.
“Lower the gates!”
The portcullis began to drop. Shapes galloped through before it closed. Venith leapt from his saddle and hit the ground hard. He strode towards Flos.
The man tried to kneel, but Flos seized him before he could. Flos wrapped his arms around Venith and hugged him to his chest. There were tears in Venith’s eyes.
“I do not deserve—”
“Do not speak to me of that! A [King] does not remember such things. You are back, my vassal. And now, let us put an end to this.”
Venith stepped back lifting his sword and shield. Maresar joined him, and they stood together.
Mars grinned and raised her sword and shield, shouting, and a thousand voices echoed hers. Orthenon raised his blade.
“For the King of Destruction!”
On the wall, Trey realized he was in danger when the first soldiers began firing at the walls, and more began pounding at the gates. He would have run or ducked, but a hand grabbed him.
Gazi pulled him and Teres towards the watch tower. She sprinted up the steps and the twins raced after her. They couldn’t see the soldiers, but they could hear an incredible din through the echoing tower.
“There are too many! We can’t hold them off!”
“That is not needed. We just had to get them to attack the city rather than stay away and lay siege from a distance.”
Trey shouted. He caught up to Gazi at the top of the tower. The half-Gazer was panting, but her four eyes were steady. She grinned and then pointed.
There was something on the walls of the tower. Some kind of…drawing. Trey squinted, and then he saw, partially obscured by dust and filth, a symbol.
No…was it a rune? It was some kind of diagram, a circle, only each line was in fact made of smaller lines, writing that hurt just to look at. It wasn’t proper words. It was shapes. Meaning made into written word.
Gazi slowly walked over and pressed her hand to the center of the diagram. Slowly, the runes lit up. They glowed faintly at first, and then began to shine. Yellow, the color of the sun, and then brighter still. They became searing white lines, tinged with gold. Like—
Uleth snarled as he screamed for ladders, battering rams, anything to break open the damned walls of Reim. The city’s wall were short, the defenders less than ten thousand in number. He would kill them all now—they had nowhere to run!
“Set up the damn trebuchets!”
He shouted at one of his remaining aides, a low-level [Tactician], before remembering he’d left all of his artillery behind in the chase. Even his foot soldiers were barely catching up, winded and exhausted from the run as they were. If they’d had [Strategists], they could have used Skills to reduce the effort of the chase, move faster. Damn Orthenon!
Lacking siege weapons, Uleth spurred his exhausted mount to one of his [Mages].
“I want you to blow down the gates! Now!”
“We’ll try, but it will take—”
The [Mage] turned to the others, still panting from their ride and they began to link hands in preparation for the spell. Then one of them turned pale and pointed up.
“Someone on the castle walls is casting a massive spell!”
“There! On the tower!”
Uleth spun. He couldn’t see any signs of magical activity—he could barely make out the top of the tower amid the gathering storm clouds. Where had his cursed clear skies gone? It wouldn’t save the King of Destruction though, nothing would.
“Kill the [Mage], then! Bring down that tower!”
Someone threw a [Fireball]. It burst harmlessly on the wall, as did the arrows of magic which failed to even damage the stones they struck.
“The towers are heavily enchanted! And the mage—it’s a Tier 6 spell! At least!”
Uleth felt fear worm its way into his stomach. He stared at the tower.
“Impossible. There are no powerful mages present. Amerys is at Wistram. She has to be!”
“No! It’s not one person. It’s—the towers!”
Another mage cried out, and now Uleth could see signs of magic. Each one of the sixteen towers of Reim was glowing now, and light was shining from the tips. No—not light.
Electricity was crackling around the tower’s tips. As Uleth watched in horror, it began to shoot out, flickering, reaching out. Not down towards the ground, but towards the center of the city. Towards the palace.
Gazi stood with one hand on the magical sigil, tracing complex patterns on it. It wasn’t just a circle, Trey now realized. It was a map of the city, formed by the runic writing.
And now he could see the magic working. Trey glanced out the window as lightning flashed.
Gazi whispered it, all four eyes focused on the runes. She traced a line towards the center of the city, and Trey saw lightning shoot towards the center. It was gathering there. It was impossible for lightning to do that of course, but it was arching towards the palace, crackling as it danced across the stone exterior. And now Gazi’s hand had stopped.
Outside, the electricity gathered into one spot. High above the city, all sixteen towers shot lightning up, towards a…ball of lightning. Gazi paused, and looked at Trey. There was a wild grin on her face.
“Drevish made this.”
“Yes. He studied Drake architecture. They build their cities to fight back even without defenders.”
She gestured at the lightning.
“Amerys and Drevish both worked on this enchantment. They called it [Storm Keep]. A spell to destroy entire armies. It was never used. There was never a need.”
No army has ever attacked Reim. Trey stared at Gazi and then realized the plan. It was so simple. Lure the enemy close. Only it wouldn’t work if they stayed back and knocked the towers down with trebuchets.
Now Gazi turned. She stared out one of the windows, down at the army surrounding Reim. The dark shapes were moving. Fleeing. Running away from the city now the trap had been sprung.
But they were too slow. Too late. Too tired to run fast, and too disorganized. Gazi smiled.
“This is for you, Drevish.”
Then she touched the map. And lightning rained down from the heavens.
Venith watched the lightning fall. He could close his eyes and remember Amerys laughing and coming up with the idea and convincing Drevish to work on the enchantment.
Lightning for a King of Destruction. Lightning for his crown. From his crown. It was something only they could make, something only Drevish could engineer and Amerys could enchant.
Now the thunder rolled nonstop, and the flashes of light split the earth. Electricity arced from soldier to soldier, seeking their metal weapons. And the light fell and men died.
In silence, the King of Destruction and his vassals watched the storm bring down its wrath. Even Amerys couldn’t have done as much. Not alone. But as Drevish would have pointed out, this was architecture. It was grand and terrible.
And it was merciless. From her tower, Gazi pinpointed [Mages]. Even the best of them on the field couldn’t stand more than three strikes of lightning. Then she struck the enemy [General] as he ran, brought down clusters of elite soldiers, and then hit any group she could find. And when it was over, Flos raised his sword.
“You are my army! My army! The [Army of the King]!”
Thousands of soldiers roared. Venith felt the exhaustion in his arms disappear in an instant. He lifted his sword and shield and felt as light as a feather. The gates opened and Flos led the charge. Venith rode at the King’s back, Maresar by his side. Orthenon and Mars flanked the King and they charged the remnants of the army. They were still outnumbered.
But their King was back. And Venith laughed and laughed. Because he was finally happy.
The King of Destruction had returned.
Destruction. It was fitting name for it. When he had first heard the title, Trey had thought it was a rather silly name. A title for someone pretending to be a King maybe, or a mocking name. Not something literal.
But now he stood in a tower, and all he saw was just that. Destruction. The earth was blackened. Fires had started and had to be put out. But it was the bodies that Trey focused on. The broken bodies. The burnt armor.
And the captives. There were thousands of them. More captives than captors, possibly. But they had thrown down their arms rather than face Flos, face his vassals or his army.
Gazi walked slowly down the stairs with Trey and Teres. They had to help her; Trey was the one to notice how gingerly she walked, and the burn marks on her armor. They supported her down the long, winding stairs, awkwardly taking her weight. But Gazi insisted on walking alone to meet her King as he rode back into the city.
Flos was covered in blood. His eyes were still wild with battle, and his soldiers and vassals shouted with victory. Trey stared at them and then saw Teres with that same smile.
But he didn’t smile. He felt like a stranger, even more so now than before. A stranger, staring at something he couldn’t quite understand. Something that called to Trey. Something wonderful, horrible, enticing, revolting. Something foreign.
Flos dismounted, patting his warhorse as his vassals and subjects crowded around him. He seemed larger than life, the center of the world. Trey heard people praising him, asking him questions. But it was Orthenon’s voice that rose above the others.
“The captives, my King. What shall we do with them?”
“We can guard them for a short while. But not for long. They will solve our issue of funding and food for the winter.”
Flos was speaking to Orthenon, smiling broadly. Trey saw Gazi halt as she approached her King. There was a strange look on her face. Flos turned, calling out for someone with magical skill to send a [Message] spell.
“To Roshal! To the Traders! Tell them to send the nearest caravan they have. One should already be close by if they have been watching the battle. Tell them I want all the food and supplies they can sell to me!”
It was strange. Maresar grinned slightly at Flos’ words. Mars didn’t react. Orthenon just nodded calmly as if he’d expected it. Even Venith nodded, looking steadfast. But Gazi looked away.
“The Traders? Who are they?”
Teres whispered to Trey. He shrugged. But a small pit was emptying itself in his stomach.
And it was Gazi who heard. She looked at them, and there was no laughter, no smile in her gaze.
She answered them with one word. One word that changed the world that Trey thought he’d understood.
Above them, the sky changed. Something flew through the air, and snow began to fall. Just for a moment. Then it melted on the burning ground.
Winter had begun.