The Wandering Inn had breakfast. It had breakfast every day, in fact, except on rare days that involved calamity, monster attacks, or breakfast turning into brunch because everyone had been up last night partying. It happened every single day.
And it generally wasn’t interesting. It was, in the scheme of the day, a quiet opening to the more interesting events that took place. For example, this morning the inn’s customers had breakfast.
Lyonette was serving a yogurt mixed with sweet blue fruits. There were toast and butter if anyone wanted any. The Horns of Hammerad were there. Seborn and Moore were eating with Lyonette and Mrsha. Jelaqua had not returned last night. There were a few other regular guests, including Bevussa, alone, who had come for the blue fruits. She had a sweet…beak.
Relc was here. He wasn’t talking about drinking or moaning about his familial relations. He was eating two huge bowls of yogurt and fruit after a late-night of patrol and yawning. He was drinking it down with a tankard of mead, but that was about it.
At his table, Pisces the [Necromancer] was eating just fruits. He was reading from a parchment scroll and frowning as he ate. Ceria yawned as she picked at her toast.
“So, yeah. We’ll have to go into Liscor with the other teams tomorrow for the Bloodfields briefing.”
Yvlon ate with a fork, maneuvering it with some grace despite the metal armguards she now almost always wore. She only took them off when the skin underneath needed washing and then—carefully. She had an infection, just a bit of red swelling and pus along where the metal was fused with her flesh she hadn’t told anyone about. She chewed as Ceria went on.
“I think we’ll take it easy today. I’ll practice. Obviously.”
“Got it. Need help with the hot tub?”
“That’d be good.”
“I will heat the water, Captain Ceria.”
Not even that was funny. Pisces kept eating. After a few minutes, a familiar voice echoed through the room.
Erin Solstice bounded into the inn. Everyone looked up. Erin turned around, beaming. She’d been out this morning. To get her hair cut. She turned.
“How do I look?”
Erin wavered. Her inn’s guests had all looked up and some had suffered from that instinctive rectal and stomach-clenching that they had learned to associate with Erin and sudden and often dangerous events. But her cut hair? They went back to eating. It was almost a letdown. Erin sulked as she went over to the table.
“It looks nice.”
Lyonette tried her best as she let Mrsha feed her slices of blue fruit. The Gnoll waved a paw and nodded encouragingly. Erin sighed.
“Thanks. I mean, I’m not expecting applause or anything—I just got it cut. But it’s nice to see people noticing.”
She looked around meaningfully. Seborn looked up from his bowl. He stared at Erin, nodded once, and went back to eating. Erin sighed. She sat back at the table, yawning.
It wasn’t that she’d had an eventful morning; she’d gone to the [Barber], and sure, he’d been a snazzy Gnoll (since Drakes didn’t have hair, obviously, that was a real issue Erin hadn’t thought about), but he’d been very excited to do her hair! It had been a fun experience, but…Erin yawned again. She’d had a more interesting yesterday.
Not that anyone cared. She’d told them a bit last night, but it was still low-brow stuff compared to the usual. It was sometimes good that way. Erin stared at Mrsha, feeding a smiling Lyonette, Relc, yawning and muttering about sleeping for twelve hours until his next shift, Pisces reading while he kept missing his bowl, and Bevussa using her talons to eat.
Erin frowned—she was going to talk to Pisces later for that thing this morning—and then noticed a shivering Drake sitting at a table as far away from hers as possible. Erin called out cheerfully to him.
“Hey Teliv! What’s wrong? Want more breakfast? I can get you other food if you don’t like yogurt!”
Teliv the Drake [Host] and sometimes [Negotiator] jumped at Erin’s voice. He looked up.
“What? No! No, no thank you, Miss Erin. No more food. I’m not hungry.”
He pushed his barely-touched bowl back unsteadily. Ceria looked up, her mouth full, and glanced at Erin. Teliv had a familiar look in his eye; she knew it because she’d had it about half a year ago when she first visited the inn.
“Erin, did you do something to Teliv?”
Erin tried to look innocent. She shrugged.
“No…we just went to Esthelm. Nothing big.”
Teliv’s bark of laughter made some of the other diners look up. Relc scooted his chair closer, looking sleepily interested.
“Ooh, I know Erin went to Esthelm yesterday with some of the Watch. I didn’t get to go. Captain Z said I was unsuitable for diplomatic missions. What’d Erin do? Burn it down?”
“Relc! I wouldn’t do that! It was fine! We went, they loved us, especially the food and the stuff we gave them, and we signed a deal! Liscor’ll get some ore and we’ll even get visitors!”
Erin protested. Ceria raised her brows and the guests in the inn looked at Teliv for his take. He shook his head.
“That happened, but—the Hobgoblin entered the city! He snuck in after following us! That was only the start!”
He pointed at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin looked up and grumbled something. This time Seborn glanced at Erin.
“That wasn’t a huge incident?”
“Whaaat? No! I mean, Esthelm’s cool. Cooler than Liscor. They didn’t get that upset. In fact, some of them knew Numbtongue!”
Erin smiled at Numbtongue.
“He was like a hero! Only, he didn’t get a parade and it was mostly awkward. But they let him in! And they liked me and him. They even gave me a hat. Let me get it!”
She hurried into the kitchen, remembered she lived upstairs, and came down in a clatter with a wreath on her head. The flowers were still fairly fresh, but showing the first signs of wilting after being outside so long. Now, in the inn, they’d be preserved forever in their near-freshness.
“See? I got one for Numbtongue, but he must have lost his. It was only a bit of a fuss.”
The Hobgoblin had left it with the graves. But that wasn’t a breakfast topic. Nor did he speak. He just folded his arms, content in silence. Teliv shuddered.
“Only a bit of a fuss? We came so close to a diplomatic incident. Four times! The Hobgoblin wasn’t even the worst of it. She encouraged a near riot!”
He pointed a claw at Erin. She tried to look innocent. Bevussa opened her beak in a grin. She turned as Relc began munching on some toast and sipping his drink happily. Erin hesitated as Lyonette, Mrsha, and Moore stared at her. Seborn drained half his mug of water and went back to polishing one of his daggers.
“I wouldn’t say a riot. Look, there was a jerk. He was all about stealing people’s money and charging ‘travel fees’ and stuff. Like [Bandits]. I…helped get rid of him.”
“She organized a coup.”
“Well, not really—”
Ceria raised her eyebrows and nodded to Yvlon. The woman nodded back. They had the same thought as most of the guests. Definitely a coup.
Well it sounded like Esthelm had been interesting. Noteworthy, even. But this was breakfast. Erin’s protests became weaker as Teliv found himself recounting the tale to those who were interested in the story. He began relaxing as they shared their first ‘Erin moments’, and he found someone had bought him a round. They began talking over breakfast.
And that was about it. Nothing interesting was happening. No one cared about her hair. Erin sighed. It wasn’t a fancy cut. Neither she nor her [Barber] had quite trusted that; he was good at styling fur, not Erin’s mane. She edged away from the conversation around Teliv so she wouldn’t have to hear all the embarrassing and mainly accurate things they were saying about her.
What to do? Well, she could clean a pot in the kitchen that had some caramelized sugar stuck to the bottom of it. Or get ready for lunch; Lyonette had her in the kitchen to replenish their food stocks. And maybe later today Erin would see about getting a nice bath since she was somewhat hairy from the cutting. Then she could visit some people in Pallass, maybe. But Erin wasn’t intending to stir up trouble.
“Some days are quiet. Nice.”
Erin sighed wistfully. She was done with trouble. Even Esthelm had been pushing it. And she really hadn’t started a coup. She wandered across the inn, and came to an almost abandoned table. The Horns had all left Pisces to go about their business; the [Necromancer] was still absently eating.
“Hey. Pisces. Psst. Pisces. Whatcha reading?”
Pisces looked up. He blinked as Erin slid into a chair next to him. He rubbed at one eye, yawned; Erin yawned too since she’d had a late night.
“Ah, Erin. Merely refreshing myself with a summary of the latest events. This is just a small collection of newsworthy topics I purchased at the Mage’s Guild.”
Erin blinked blankly at Pisces. He sighed and lowered the scroll, keeping it unraveled with one hand. She noted cramped handwriting and what looked like dates.
“So, you’re reading a newspaper?”
Pisces paused a moment and his sleepy gaze flicked up towards Erin’s face before relaxing. He spoke casually as he speared a bit of fruit.
“I have no idea what you mean. But if you are referring to something similar to Olesm’s chess newsletter, you could say so, yes. However, the difference is that I requested the requisite information and paid a nominal fee for it. Normally I could get some information from [Criers] or gossip, but I prefer it to be tabulated and organized.”
Erin frowned. Newspapers were still a thing of mystery to this world, probably because paper was still somewhat expensive.
“I don’t get it. Explain it to me again. And does this have anything to do with the reason you woke us all up this morning by screaming?”
Pisces flushed. He had indeed woken the inn up with an ear-piercing shout, another pre-breakfast oddity. But he’d rushed out of his room to assure everyone that nothing was wrong. Erin assumed he’d stubbed his toe. Now she glanced sideways at the [Necromancer] and detected a bit of embarrassment and—Pisces coughed.
“That was purely an accident, Miss Solstice. A happy one, I assure you. I was simply unprepared for…well, a happy accident.”
“Does it have anything to do with the huge bone thing in your room?”
He jumped and stared at Erin. She shrugged.
“Mrsha peeked. I did too. It’s filling the entire room! What if we need to clean it?”
“I’ll thank you to respect my privacy! And it’s an ongoing project. A rather…tricky one.”
Erin bet he’d scared himself. And no wonder, with all those bones jumbled up! But she let Pisces collect himself and sniff haughtily a few times.
“Okay, so what you bought from the Mage’s Guild for…how much? It’s a…news…parchment. That has all the latest events?”
“No. It cost me, let me see—nine copper pieces, since I provided the parchment. Hardly expensive, although then again, fairly steep to the layperson given how simple the task is. But I suppose that is how the Mage’s Guild earns some of its revenue.”
“Spare me the economics! How’s it different?”
Erin waved a hand. Pisces sighed, longer this time.
“I asked them to write down all the information they had on the Tiqr conflict and they did. Happy? This is all the information on the event publically available for the last—”
He checked the parchment.
“—month. I am refreshing myself. Of course, I knew some of the information already, but one must keep up with the latest events to be truly cosmopolitan.”
“You just want to be a know-it-all. What does it matter what’s happening in Chandrar?”
Erin narrowed her eyes at Pisces. He looked mildly offended.
“Erin, Chandrar is an entire continent. It is also home to the King of Destruction, who was once in a position to threaten the entire world. I believe even you know of him? Why would I not care what is happening in the world outside of my immediate area?”
The young woman hesitated, and this time guiltily. That sounded a bit too much like her…her mind fuzzed for a second. Her dad…? She skipped over that fact to reply to Pisces.
“Well—okay. Sure! Being globally aware is great. Sorry, I take it back.”
“Even if you do like being a know-it-all. But that Flos dude won’t really affect Liscor, will he?”
“Time can only tell. The odds of him reconquering Chandrar are remote, or so I feel. But other continents can affect ours. Just look at Terandria.”
Erin dutifully looked around the room. She needed to get a map for the walls. That would be a great decoration when the inn’s remodeling was done!
The young [Mage] sat back in his chair, looking pleased at his audience. He spoke in his lecturing tone that Erin had first hated so much, now much improved. It was lecturing, but not sneering.
“Well, Terandria has always had a rocky relationship with Izril. I could delve into the ancient blood ties that link the Five Families and other noble houses of Izril to Terandria’s own gentry, but to be brief—and simple—sometimes Terandria makes war with Izril. Northern Izril, since they are closest, but they have been known to send armies against the Drakes as well. The last occasion they landed along a coast and, well, invaded for nearly a decade. They expanded and attempted to claim part of Izril.”
“Why? I bet all the Drakes joined up to get rid of them. That sounds like a stupid idea.”
The [Innkeeper] wrinkled her nose. Pisces nodded, smiling.
“Oh, assuredly they did. But Terandria reaped a number of benefits. And incurred heavy losses when they were smashed by an expedition led by the Walled Cities, including Archmage Zelkyr—”
“Zelkyr? Wait, when was this?”
“Nearly a century and a half ago. It was an instructive example! In practice, nations trade with each other all the time and wars can even be fought across oceans, although this is generally reserved for only larger conflicts. But [Pirates] raid Izril’s coasts, and sometimes a nation will send forces to other lands. All this to say that other continents might well affect Izril, as they did in the Second Antinium War.”
Pisces sat back, waiting for a response. Erin pondered for a moment and shrugged.
He looked askance. Erin rested her chin on the table.
“It’s got nothing to do with the inn. I dunno, I know I should keep up with it, but it’s not my…”
“…interest. I mean, I just don’t know enough about the history. Yeah.”
Pisces eyed Erin. She tried to look innocent and he let it slide, much to her relief.
“Well, I could always educate you on the relevant subjects. But this is simply a little update for myself. The war against Tiqr is coming to a close and I thought I should review the facts. It was interesting—there was a longer section here that I haven’t read yet—”
He tried to roll the scroll down to a section at the bottom, but he was blocked as Erin poked her head over.
“Alright, you’ve got me, you sly dog. Lay it on me. Where’s Tiqr and why do I care? It’s got to do with the Dental King, right? The King of Destruction?”
Either Erin was truly bored, or she actually cared about world news. Pisces narrowed his eyes, trying to figure out which it was. He sighed, and unrolled the parchment, tracing his way back to the top.
“The conflict in Tiqr is an ongoing war between the nation of Tiqr, and a coalition of nations. About eleven or ten in all, all opposed to the King of Destruction.”
“Right, right. Because he’s a jerk.”
Erin nodded agreeably. Pisces paused.
“That is a simple reading of him, but he is dangerous, yes. In any case, this is the twenty seventh day of the conflict between the Empire of Tiqr and the Nerrhavian-led Coalition. They are attacking Tiqr—”
“Wait, not the King of Destruction?”
“No, not him. They are attacking Tiqr, one of the few nations openly sympathetic to his cause, or at least truly neutral and not opposed to him. Three major nations and a number of smaller ones have entered the conflict. The largest by far is Nerrhavia’s Fallen, hence their designation as the ‘leader’. In truth, they are simply the largest power by far.”
“Nerrhavia’s Fallen? That’s a name of a country?”
Erin was lost at sea. Pisces looked at her and nodded slowly. He flicked his fingers and produced a quill from a bag of holding.
“Geography. Reim is here. Northeast of Tiqr by a fair margin. This conflict is happening along the south of Chandrar, these nations here, here, here, and here.”
He outlined four nations, all close together. One was decidedly larger than the rest. Erin blinked at them. Pisces tapped one.
“Right. Got it. So all these nations have ganged up on Tiqr because Tiqr liked the King of Destruction?”
“The reasons are slightly more complex. But yes. They took the King of Destruction’s proclamation of peace-without-provocation as a chance to attack one of his allies. If he makes a move, he is forsworn. On the other hand, if he does nothing, Tiqr falls, and the other nations happily claim it.”
Now it was making sense. Erin exhaled.
“Ooh. That’s dirty. Uh—what’s this proclamation of peace?”
The [Necromancer] stared at Erin. She raised her hands.
It took a minute for him to explain what Flos’ declaration was and why it was so significant. Then Pisces went back to his crude map. He pointed.
“A number of kingdoms have joined the coalition against Tiqr for hopes of gaining land, but in practice, there are only four major powers. Tiqr is one of them. The empire is fairly prosperous, if not in monetary wealth, then in wildlife. Savannas and a number of oases make up the nation, and they are renowned for their [Beastmasters] and connection with animals. Their [Empress] is even known as the Empress of Beasts. Empress…Nsiia.”
He had to check his notes for that. Erin nodded. She tried to imagine it, but…all she could imagine was a female Elirr with a crown. She smirked.
“Wait, what species are they?”
Now Erin frowned. She was imagining…no, it was still too hard. She had never met someone from Chandrar. Maybe Octavia? But she had no idea what it looked like. How they lived. It was far away. She looked at Pisces helplessly and he tried to elaborate. But he had never been there either.
“It is a proud nation by all accounts. They are not to be taken lightly. And their [Empress], though young, is thought to be as capable a leader as a warrior. However, she erred by allowing the other nations reason to declare war on Tiqr. She stands alone.”
“No one’s coming to help her?”
“No one has. In the beginning, I believe, the world was watching to see whether the King of Destruction would ride to her aid. He could have, perhaps, if he declared Tiqr his subjects. But many would see it as him breaking his vow. Or—perhaps—if other nations would aid Tiqr. They are allied with the Garuda-led nation of Killale to the east, but Killale is militarily inferior. And the odds against Tiqr…”
Pisces pursed his lips. Erin looked at his face.
“No one came.”
A pause. Erin looked at the crude map and tried to imagine the landscape.
“Tell me about Tiqr, then.”
“I am told it is—was—very beautiful. The processions of Tiqr’s [Beast Tamers] are famed, their animals friendly. Many are wild still, but they exist with the people of Tiqr in relative peace. It was one of the nations spared the ravages of war during the King of Destruction’s rise, for all they fought at his side. Until now…”
[Empress] Nsiia stood upon the ramp leading up to the palace. She commanded the highest view from Tiqr’s capital city, Oliphant. But even her palace was shorter than the buildings of other cities. Oliphant was sprawling, not built to heights. And it had few stairs. Gentle ramps and open streets dominated the sandstone of her beloved home. All to allow the animals that were Tiqr’s children access to the city.
Now, though, she looked at her city and wished for towering walls. For fortifications built into the sky, like the Drake Cities, or the cold Dullahan structures of Baleros. Even Terandria’s ancient castles. She had seen so few. But she had dreamed of them.
A voice called to her. She turned and saw a man approaching. Her [Wild General], Vasraf. He walked forwards, dressed not in ceremonial armor, colorfully bedecked with flowers, but leather and steel. He carried a curved shortsword at his hip, but his true weapon, the bow that few warriors, men or women, could draw, was not with him. It was not time for battle.
Yet she saw it everywhere. Her people were not out and about, but spending what time they had with their families. Her army was readying itself for war. Already, the formal declarations had been sent. Nsiia looked at them. She had tossed them from the steps of her palace, but a few still fluttered, caught by the dry wind on the bottom of the ramp.
Vasraf bowed. His voice was grave. Deep. He looked at her and she saw a reflection of the worry that must be crossing her own face. She saw a hand touch his shoulder, dark skin, with quivering fingers. Her hand? She couldn’t show that.
The quivering stopped. Empress Nsiia looked at Vasraf.
“They are all coming. I will be at the council shortly. Has the Wildkeeper arrived?”
“They are all on their way. Nsiia. We cannot stop them all.”
The Empress of Beasts ducked her head. She wore no crown—at least, none that other rulers would consider one. Her headband danced with colors, feathers of birds she had caught. Even a Roc’s feather. It was magical, an heirloom of Tiqr.
Absently, Nsiia raised her hand, touching a bright yellow feather from the sparkling shock-birds that were so elusive. One of her subjects had given it to her. If she plucked it, for a moment she could use the powers of the bird she had caught. In times of peace, it was her delight to do so for the enjoyment of all.
Now, though, she thought that every feather would be used for war. And every tool, every trick in Tiqr’s armories. She looked at her [General]. His eyes were pale green, alight in his face. His skin was darker than even hers, from years spent out under Tiqr’s sun. She had seen him fight. And she had known him all her life. He did not lie.
“Vasraf. Killale is not coming. Their flocks send only regrets.”
The news struck him, but not hard. Not now.
“All of them?”
“Every one. They have counted.”
He nodded, a muscle moving in his cheek.
“Then the King of Destruction—will he come?”
“I do not think so.”
It was too far. Too far, for Reim to leave their borders. Even if he sent some of his Seven, he would be under attack from all sides. Forsworn. It was a neat trap he’d placed himself in. Or had found himself in. Nsiia looked east, as if she could see him. Vasraf waited.
“Will you ask him?”
And that was it. He did not ask why. It was only a dream in any case. They both looked across the city. And then Nsiia saw something move. A giant, a grey shape. She watched it approaching, moving up the ramp with slow, calm steps.
She reached out as the Grand Elephant approached. Thef, her friend, the elephant she had grown up alongside, reached out his huge trunk and she touched it. He was a giant among elephants; his species could grow to be twice as large as a regular elephant. A giant species, rarely seen even in Chandrar. The effort of feeding just one group could be immense. But Tiqr had always had a bond with this species. Now, he lowered his head, his tusks glinting with ornamentation.
“You have come because I am worried. Thef.”
Nsiia touched his leg, but did not reach up to let him place her on his back. She knew the animals of Tiqr were restless, the hyenas snapping, the birds in flight. They could sense war as well.
“Thef. You will have to wear the armor you hate so much. And fight. We must all fight, it seems. Though I did not ask for war. He warned me, that Femithain of Illivere. But he marches on us too, with his things of stone and magic.”
Vasraf watched his [Empress] speaking softly to Thef. He made a sound and she turned.
“My Empress. We cannot hold them. Tiqr has not enough choke points. Our army is not vast enough. Nerrhavia alone is sending an army two hundred thousand strong.”
The Empress of Beasts turned. She looked at him, young for her throne. Mortally afraid. But then she nodded. And she stood straighter. Thef made a small trumpeting sound. He followed her as she turned, walking back into her open palace.
“Then we will hold, Vasraf. And ask any of our allies for a miracle. We will hold and break Nerrhavia, Savere, Illivere, and all the other armies to pieces. Unless my [General] disagrees?”
His eyes flashed.
“Never. They will regret crossing our borders.”
“Then let us go.”
Nsiia turned and looked back once across her home. Peaceful. And she touched the feather in her headband. Then she turned, as the first drums of war began to echo across Tiqr. Summoning war.
“Couldn’t they win? I mean, if they made fortifications and stuff?”
Erin was listening to Pisces. He looked amused. But then, he had been keeping up on what the war had been like.
“How? Tiqr is not as defensible as, say, Liscor. The geography is not advantageous to castles. Nor do many nations build them in Chandrar. No. And the nations arranged against Tiqr gave them no time. See—on the second day.”
He showed Erin a line on the parchment. It was short. All it read was—Erin squinted.
“Armies from Savere, the Illivere Federation, enter Tiqr’s borders. Nerrhavia sends two hundred—two hundred thousand?”
She stared at the parchment. Pisces nodded. He tapped the large nation.
“This is Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”
“That’s…big. Why’s it so much bigger than the others?”
“It is a powerful nation. String People. Their armies began crossing into Tiqr’s borders. Dozens of them.”
“And Savere? This federation?”
“Two other prominent nations. Savere is known for, well, it’s relationship with [Pirates] among other things. Illivere is more complex. It is a mage-state. And it produces Golems.”
“Oh yes. They have traditionally been diplomatic, but their leader, Magus-Crafter Femithain, declared war on Tiqr along with the other nations. He may have been reluctant to do so; he is, by all accounts, a cautious and pragmatic ruler. Compared to Savere’s ruler, at least.”
“But they went to war. How many did Illivere send? Oh! It says only eight thousand! Hey, that’s tiny!”
Pisces pointed. Erin’s face fell.
“And four hundred Golems. Oh.”
The air was unnaturally still. Magus-Crafter Femithain had ridden through Tiqr before. And he was accustomed to more life. The savannas of Tiqr benefitted from the rains that made Savere so prosperous. Normally, he expected to see more life. But it had all fled.
So the silence was only broken by the footsteps of [Soldiers]. The Magus-Crafter glanced up as he walked. He was on foot, as was his entire army. Illivere had sent eight thousand of its small army. But they were experienced [Soldiers], not raw recruits. Moreover, Illivere’s strength did not lie in its warriors of flesh and blood. No. That came from the huge shapes plodding ahead of the Humans.
Golems. Tools of labor and war. They marched ahead of the troops, carved legs of stone or wood or in a few places, simply sand, moving forwards in huge, laborious strides. Most were uncovered, unadorned save for clothing or features sculpted into the Golem’s bodies themselves. Some carried weapons, or pulled carts along.
That was the Illivere Federation’s strength. Golems. Golems for labor, for protection. And yes, for war. Four hundred of them might be a small number at a glance, but who would take down one of those towering giants? Some were as tall as half-Giants; a few had been made even taller. Although the ancient techniques of creating titans and more advanced Golems was a faded art.
Femithain’s [Armsmaster of Steel] strode towards the Magus-Crafter. He paused as the Magus-Crafter’s escort turned. It was a practiced move; the two huge, steel figures walking besides Femithain were programmed to guard him with their lives. Femithain looked up and saw a huge, steel face staring down at him.
Flanking him were the two Golems he had crafted himself to earn his title. They were metal. Steel. One was armed with a maul nearly as tall as it was, a terror of a weapon. The other carried a shield and sword, his personal bodyguard.
“Armsmaster Dellic. What news?”
The [Armsmaster], lower in rank than a [General], but one of the few officers that Illivere employed, clapped a hand to his breast.
“Magus-Crafter. I request we slow our pace. I have riders from Nerrhavia stating their army is advancing past ours. And Savere’s forces are somewhere in the vicinity. I have sent a Golem-patrol to keep us aware of their movements.”
His face twisted a bit as he delivered the request. Nerrhavia had stated they were advancing, not requested. Femithain understood the man’s feelings. But his face was smooth, calm. The Magus-Crafter was a deft [Diplomat] as well as mage.
“We will slow to let Nerrhavia’s forces pass. Armsmaster, break for a meal.”
The man clapped a hand to his left shoulder. Metal struck metal as Femithain turned. He raised a staff, concentrated. The Golems next to him slowed their pace, came to a stop. In his army, he knew, the other [Artificers], the mages specializing in Golem-creation and control were ordering their Golems to slow. The Human [Soldiers] came to a stop smoothly and the wagons unloaded. They took their ease more or less comfortably, for all they were in enemy territory. After all, their Golems were standing sentry.
Femithain stopped where he was, and pulled a chair from his bag of holding to sit. It was, perhaps, unmilitary of him. And as his [Armsmaster] returned, he saw the man was uncomfortable.
“An issue, Armsmaster Dellic?”
“Not as such, Magus-Crafter. Will you allow me a seat?”
“By all means.”
The [Armsmaster] produced his own seat from his bag of holding. If it was odd for a commander and the leader of a nation to be so casual, well, there was reason for it. The Illivere Federation elected its Magus-Crafter and it was made of smaller states; hardly the same as a monarchy. Femithain could be a normal citizen if he failed to be elected next year. He had held his position each year for the last eleven years however.
In the same way, Dellic was hardly a mere soldier. He was certainly educated; the Illivere Federation required a leader to have passed through their education systems. It made Dellic something of an outsider to many officers, as well as his odd rank, however, and Femithain was aware of the conflicts that had already arisen.
“Tell me of what troubles you, Armsmaster Dellic.,”
“Not much yet, Magus-Crafter. We have received…correspondence from Savere’s [General]. She protests our slow pace.”
“In those words?”
Femithain nodded sympathetically. Savere, the nation that bordered Tiqr, ruled by the Siren of Tides, was often thought to be lawless. Certainly, they allowed more criminal elements to infiltrate their armies and even sponsored raids against other nations. They held their power because of their relationship with [Bandit Lords], [Pirate Captains], and so on. And the fact that the Siren of Savere was not to be trifled with.
“We were first to march, Armsmaster. Inform Savere’s [General] that our pace is unavoidable. We will take to the front if they wish it.”
Dellic nodded, casting a glance back at the Golems. It wasn’t just them that made Illivere’s army so slow. Golems could march all night, after all. In truth, Illivere’s army was moving slowest of all the nations that had sent armies against Tiqr, their army smallest. And their leader, Magus-Crafter Femithain, the most troubled. After a moment, Dellic cut in delicately.
“Magus-Crafter, you do not need to be at the front. I am capable of leading in your stead. Even if Tiqr is outnumbered, risking your life is not necessary.”
Femithain glanced at Dellic. The man was of the same opinion as the rest of the world. Tiqr was doomed. Ultimately, Femithain had no doubt of that, but he had met Nsiia. And he could not imagine she would roll over after seeing even Nerrhavia’s army. He shook his head.
“Illivere has voted to bring war to Tiqr. As Magus-Crafter, I am bound to lead my nation in the attack.”
“But you argued against—”
Dellic began, but shut his mouth. Femithain rose. He had heard it too. Illivere’s [Soldiers] looked around and then got up. They stared.
In the distance, another army was approaching. At first, it appeared to be a tiny force. But it kept growing, kept streaming forth. Dellic paled and ordered Illivere’s army to move back, giving the other army space. Femithain only watched. He saw the chariots first, and then ranks of marching soldiers. Thousands. Tens of thousands. Over two hundred thousand.
The Stitch-People of Nerrhavia’s Fallen had arrived. Nerrhavia’s chariot-led armies streamed past Illivere’s slow march, thousands of chariots driven by the impossibly beautiful, almost radiant Stitch-Warriors whose bodies were made of silk. They practically radiated the sun and their skin had a luster and attractiveness to it that matched, well, silk. Their flesh seemed to have been just oiled, smoothed without age or wear to detract from it.
The drivers and riders whooped and called out to Illivere’s army, some flirting, others laughing at the Golems or Humans. A few broke formation until their officers called them back, riding around the Humans. Femithain did not move, standing flanked by his personal Golems. Dellic shifted until a silk-flesh officer rode towards them.
He was beautiful, worthy of being a model in another world, just like his kin. He called out as he swung himself down from his saddle.
“Magus-Crafter, our regards! We thought to see you further along!”
His voice was condescending. Femithain nodded towards him calmly, ignoring Deliic’s shifting posture.
“Our apologies, First-Chariot Bereid. Our pace has been slowed due to our Golems. We will recover the ground over the course of the day. I will attend any meeting of the coalition’s leaders tonight, regardless of the location.”
The First-Chariot officer blinked, unarmed by Femithain’s knowledge of his rank and title. He adopted a more diplomatic tone.
“We appreciate the message, but I doubt we will require a formal meeting. [General] Thelican, he wishes to deliver Tiqr to Queen Yisame by the end of the week! We look forwards to seeing you on the battlefield! Our hope is that we can all join the first battle together! If you would wish it, we would be honored to have your company on our march!”
“It would be my pleasure. But perhaps at a later time. Tender my regards to General Thelican.”
Femithain bowed his head. The First-Chariot officer gave him a sweeping bow, and then leapt back on his horse, racing back towards his command. Dellic made a disgusted sound.
“I know. Be quiet, Dellic. Some may be listening.”
In silence, the two watched the army pass them by. Nerrhavia’s army was certainly a sight to see. The beautiful chariot-drivers were leaders, but as they passed, Femithain saw a different type of Stitch-Person appear.
By contrast, the foot-soldiers marching in the dust generated by the chariots were crude, their skin rough, callused-looking. Closer to hide than skin, in fact. Dellic made a sound as he watched them pass, seeing some of the bright silk officers shouting at them, hurling insults.
“I’ve never seen Stitch-People like that before.”
Femithain had. He spoke quietly, motioning one of the Golems to block their conversation.
“The warriors are what I understand to be Hemp—or some variety thereof. The strongest materials go into making them, which leads to their rough appearance. Nerrhavia—no, String People’s society is caste-based. One of the few societies that practices such systems. The islanders do, and perhaps Lizardfolk and Drakes, to some extent. Not so uncommon, then.”
“Minos or Drath?”
Femithain didn’t respond. He was too busy watching the Hemp [Soldiers] marching. They looked tired. Nerrhavia must have pushed them hard to have made it all the way here so quickly.
Theirs was not the only army that Femithain witnessed that day. Not by far. Dellic had been informed that Savere’s forces were already ahead of them, but one of their forces nearly ran into his army. Dellic called a halt, aghast, as a band of riders several thousand strong raced past theirs.
There was no organization in this group, or noticeably, supply wagons. They could have been using bags of holding, but—Femithain noticed the disorganized appearance of the riders, listened to their jeers as they raced past. Dellic looked at him. Femithain watched them go.
“Savere’s irregulars. Pitch camp away from them.”
One of the mage-officers in Illivere’s army looked disgusted. She flushed as Femithaim looked at her. But he just nodded.
“Or [Pirates]. [Rogues], perhaps; keep an eye on our supplies. Savere’s raiders will not hesitate to poach from our stocks to keep themselves fed.”
Their army moved on. Savere and Nerrhavia were the two powerhouses along with Illivere who had gone to war with Tiqr, but theirs were hardly the only armies. Nearly half a dozen smaller nations had contributed their forces. Femithain greeted Deimos’ [General], leading a group of camel-riders and lightly-armored infantry.
That was fine. Pleasurable, even. Deimos’ [General] was delighted to dine with Femithain that night. He had brought a large number of slaves with his army, to serve them. Femithain, a leader of a Golem-state, had none, but was accustomed to the practice of lounging while everything was done for him.
“I worry our armies will hardly have the chance to make the first strike, Magus-Crafter. We are marching quickly, but Nerrhavia and Savere seem determined to make the first strike. To the victors the spoils, but my [King] wishes at least a piece of Tiqr.”
The [General] confided in Femithain over a cup of wine. The Magus-Crafter drank sparingly, shaking his head.
“I believe you will have your chance to war, General Heic. Tiqr will not surrender easily.”
“You believe so? I would have tendered my resignation if I were defending against all this.”
Heic waved a hand to indicate the armies currently camping in the outer regions of Tiqr’s borders. Femithain paused.
“It is true that Tiqr has little chance. Even if the King of Destruction should move—”
“Dead gods perish the thought. We’ve left more than half our forces at home just for that eventuality.”
Heic shuddered. Femithain nodded. So had Illivere’s forces.
“Even should he move, the odds still favor the coalition. But if Tiqr should resist despite the odds—”
“Why would they do that? It will be a slaughter.”
Heic looked bemused. Femithain took his time in replying.
“Empress Nsiia is known as the Empress of Beasts. And she is much like her people, General Heic. I have no doubt she is aware of the odds stacked against her. But—you speak of surrendering? Tell me, have you ever known an animal to surrender?”
“I’ve seen some roll over.”
“In a fight to the death?”
The [General] paused.
“No. Never that.”
“Just so. Have no fear, General. Your time will come. And I do fear Tiqr will fall. If not easily.”
He’d said too much. Heic was silent, watching him. Femithain sipped from his cup. Even he had no idea how prophetic his words were.
“Alright. I see there’s a lot of armies moving in.”
Erin was nodding. It was barely a few minutes into her talk with Pisces; she was getting a refill of blue fruit slices. He levitated one out of her bowl, speared it on a fork.
“Indeed. The armies were marching on Tiqr’s capital, plundering outlying settlements—mainly Savere’s doing.”
“[Raider] jerks, right?”
“You have a remarkable ability to distill the information down to the fundamental points. Yes. Meanwhile, the world waited on Reim to move.”
“And did they?”
“No. As I said, the King of Destruction swore an oath. Oh, he kept some forces on the border, but Nerrhavia blocks Reim from moving. And as I said, King of Destruction or not, his army does not match the man himself at the moment.”
Pisces tapped the map. Erin nodded. It was like…Risk. Not chess. She stared at a note.
“Standing forces on Nerrhavia’s border at least twelve thousand strong. About one thousand of Reim’s [Soldiers] spotted on their borders, led by Mars the Illusionist. No movement on either side.”
The land between Reim and Nerrhavia was owned, by local tribes, smaller cities, even claimed by other nations. But no one stopped Nerrhavia’s forces from setting up across from Reim’s borders. It was a small force, at least, in terms of what Nerrhavia could field. But it wasn’t there to do battle.
Just threaten. The Stitch-Warriors were resplendent in their armor, camped across a flat expanse that separated their army from Reim’s borders. If they had had the chance, would they have advanced? Dared to cross into Reim, to test the King of Destruction’s mettle?
Perhaps. Perhaps they would have. Nerrhavia was bold. But a small force had camped opposite theirs, across the no-man’s land that was in fact, someone else’s land. But no one would have angrily protested this small force’s presence either. For the thousand or so warriors were led by a woman dressed in glittering armor.
Mars the Illusionist. She wore purple hair today, and she strode down the line of her soldiers, a smile on her face. Mars, the [Vanguard]. One of the King of Destruction’s Seven.
It was enough to make Nerrhavia wary; they’d reinforced their lines twice already, until they had over ten times her number. She could see them in the distance, far out of bow-shot or even most mage spells. They were waiting. Waiting to see if the King of Destruction would come to Tiqr’s aide.
“And if he does, are you going to stop them?”
Mars sighed as she drank from a bottle of wine. She was bored. This was guard-duty, plain and simple. Flos hadn’t ordered her to do anything other than provoke Nerrhavia. It was necessary, but she wished she were with Orthenon in Hellios, quelling dissent, or with Flos himself in Reim. She envied Gazi. But she wasn’t about to poke out her own eyes so she was crippled. Who had poked Gazi’s eye out, anyways? Some [Innkeeper] in Izril? How?
It boggled the mind. Mars sighed as she heard a distant sound, blown by the wind. They were doing it again.
Across the gap, Nerrhavia’s forces were making noise. The String-Warriors blew on their horns, a wailing, mocking call that reached across the no-man’s land. From this distance, it was impossible to make out any one individual voice, but the distant chanting and cheers were still audible. They were taunting Reim’s forces, the third day in a row.
Reim’s [Soldiers] shifted uncomfortably. They might have shouted back, like they did on the first day, but they would have been drowned out. A young [Lieutenant] looked at Mars. She was antsy, unhappy with facing off against the vaster, contemptuous String-Warriors.
The [Vanguard] looked up. She had a headache. She tossed the bottle of wine onto the ground and yawned. Only then did she look over at Nerrhavia’s elites.
“I hear it. Looks like they’re trying to make music. Keep calm, girls and boys. Nobody scare them or they’ll stretch their shiny silk backsides.”
The [Soldiers] around her laughed. They relaxed, and Mars headed back to her tent.
“At ease. Let me find a drink and we’ll do some sparring. You all might as well level. Don’t bother with formations, [Lieutenant].”
The woman looked uneasy.
“Lady Mars? Is that wise?”
The [Vanguard] looked back at her. Nerrhavia was making more noise, unhappy with Reim relaxing its ranks and setting up for training. Mars scratched her head.
“What if Nerrhavia attacks us? Shouldn’t we keep some kind of guard?”
The [Lieutenant] looked nervous. Mars just stared at her, and then back at Nerrhavia’s soldiers. They were jeering even louder. Idiots were using a spell to make more noise. She smirked.
“You mean, if Nerrhavia attacks Reim, provoking his Majesty?”
The young woman blushed a bit. Mars grinned too.
“They’re only here to run away if we attack, [Lieutenant]. If I run at them, they’ll probably run away and come back with a real army. Let them attack us. It would be hilarious.”
She laughed, and the [Lieutenant] laughed, relieved, relaxing. Mars smiled all the way into her tent. Then she paused, and the smile faded. She looked blankly at the wine bottles scattered on the floor of her tent. Tiqr was going to war. And here she was. Reim was silent. They had to be; her [King] had explained it to her. But still. That bothered her far more than all the jeering.
“Tiqr’s forces meet a joint-army led by Savere and Nerrhavia at the edges of the Reen Plains. Both forces withdraw at sundown.”
Erin read the first mention of battle slowly. She looked at Pisces.
“What, no numbers? Who won?”
“These are basic snippets of information, Erin. [Mages] reporting facts to their rulers might know more, but this is what was factually confirmed. However, we know the winner. See?”
He pointed to another entry. Erin read that one.
“Tiqr’s army cedes Reen Plains. Savere, Nerrhavia, occupy. Illivere, Deimos…joining…okay. They won.”
The [Necromancer] nodded.
“Exactly. Not that it was a surprising result. As we stated, Nerrhavia’s forces alone could push Tiqr’s entire military. Now, see how they’re occupying other areas? Slowly taking Tiqr?”
“Yeah. They’re pushing in from all sides.”
Erin nodded absently. She didn’t like strategy games like this. She’d tried videogames, but she really was a board-game type of person. Real time strategy got too real for her. But she could see more reports. The Mage’s Guild didn’t list battles won, only who was retreating. And it was all one-way.
“I guess Tiqr just kept losing and losing.”
“Yes, but by increments. Note how it took two days for the first battle to resolve. They put up a stiff defense. Commendable, in its own way.”
“And there was no, uh, [Mages] watching the battle? Doing that thing like when the Face-Eater Moths attacked?”
Pisces paused. He shook his head slowly.
“I believe neither side wished to reveal their movements to the world. Moreover, if a [Mage] was present, their abilities would have best been suited in battle. Wistram would not be interested in ah, sending observers either. They are opposed to Flos, and a view of the battle—”
“Might make it seem like Tiqr was being attacked by a bunch of people who just want to invade it?”
“Precisely. Well, and there is the possibility of embarrassment. No ruler wants that. Tiqr lost, obviously. However, if they had a moment or two of victory?”
Pisces flicked his fingers as if to indicate how embarrassing that might be. He trailed off, absently working his way down the list of battles. Erin stared at the first entry.
Nerrhavia’s forces meet a joint-army led by Savere and Nerrhavia at the edges of the Reen Plains. Both forces withdraw at sundown.
The Reen Plains echoed with voices. Screaming. [Soldiers] met in the dirt and grass, struggling, stabbing at each other, slashing, pulling back. Colliding.
Blood ran down from the Humans. Drowned People bled the same color of red. Even the String People bled. But they grabbed at their limbs, retreating, sewing themselves closed. And their ranks held steady as Savere’s irregulars dueled Tiqr’s warriors on the edges of the fray.
“Push them! Send the 5th Hemp battalion forwards!”
[General] Thelican stood atop his mobile command center. He scowled, watching with a cup of water in hand as someone fanned cool air towards him. He drank, his eyes alight on the battle.
Tiqr’s forces had met the bulk of Nerrhavia’s army. And despite the tough Hemp foot-soldiers possessing superior numbers and gear, they were stalemated. Tiqr’s colorful warriors were doing well, withdrawing and charging, refusing to hold their lines.
But that wasn’t what gave them their strength. Thelican saw darting shapes amid the soldiers. And then a bloom of magic. Not fire; the Stitch-Mages didn’t use that element. But Tiqr would. Their [Mages] were trying to set fire to the String People. It was difficult to do to the thick skins of the String Warriors of the Hemp caste, but it was still possible.
And String People feared fire. Even this far away, Thelican felt a lurch of fear. It almost made him miss the snarling animals that leapt, taking advantage of the flinching [Soldiers] as they backed away from the fire. A hyena bore down a String Warrior, powerful jaws tearing, and then bounded away as a warrior of Tiqr stabbed the String Warrior through the neck.
Dead. Thelican felt nothing for the fallen Hemp warrior, for all that beheading was death for a String Person if they weren’t saved immediately. He was more concerned with the battle.
“Where is Savere’s [Commander]? Find them! Order a [Daring Charge] there—overrun those damn animals before they can pull back!”
One of the [Tacticians] did so. The Stitch-Warriors surged forwards, charging at the retreating hyenas. Thelican scowled as the animals darted into the ranks of Tiqr’s soldiers and they took the charge instead.
They had so many animals. Thelican wasn’t a stranger to wardogs or so on, but Tiqr’s armies were using hyenas. He had seen a lion fighting before it was brought down—the [Beast Tamers] were an actual standing force in their military. It made fighting them—tricky.
But he had yet to unleash Nerrhavia’s dreaded chariots. Thelican knew his chariots were itching to move in, but he wanted the right moment. He waited, turning to see a [Rider] bearing down on him. His escort drew their swords, but Thelican lifted one hand.
“Let her pass.”
He looked disapprovingly at Savere’s [Commander], a woman. It was apparently the Siren of Tide’s wish that all her officers be female. The woman spat as she climbed the dais. She grabbed a cup and drank. She’d been fighting.
“Those bastards have too many animals! What’re you waiting for? Unleash the fucking chariots! My people are getting torn apart on the wings!”
She snapped at him. Thelican bristled at her tone, and some of his guards half-unsheathed their blades. But he shook his head after a moment.
“I am intending to. Pull your wings back, [Commander]. Our chariots will take the flanks.”
“Watch out. The [Empress] is here. And she’s got those—”
The Saverian [Commander] jerked her head. Thelican smiled tightly. He saw them, waiting behind the ranks of their soldiers. Tiqr’s army had yet to unleash their trump card as well.
Grand Elephants. They were armored beasts, ridden by [Beast Tamers] and crews of archers. Some of the animals were bare of passengers, just armored with spikes on their tusks. Thelican could see the [Commander] from Savere eying them nervously. But they were a paltry number in front of his chariots.
“Send word to the First-Chariots. Order them to begin their assault. Drive from each wing—order the Hemp to charge!”
The order went out. Thelican watched with satisfaction as his chariots drove up in two wedges alongside the main ranks of his army. They were going to hit Tiqr’s forces in a classic pincer formation! Their infantry and beasts weren’t armored elites; they couldn’t stop the chariots.
And then Thelican saw Tiqr’s forces pulling back. The foot streamed backwards, the beasts racing alongside the Humans. He frowned and saw the elephants moving. They were advancing in a line. Tiqr had deployed nearly a thousand to this battle.
Only a thousand. But…Thelican paused.
“They’re moving up without support?”
“They’ll get crushed. You can take them down, right? We’re not getting near those things.”
The woman looked uneasy. Thelican paused and then snapped at his [Strategists].
“Tell the chariots to circle. Bring them down with javelins and archers! Move the Hemp forwards in pike formation!”
His army scrambled to obey. The Hemp warriors moved back, letting rows of pikes forwards along with archers. Thelican watched, uneasily. The [Commander] pointed.
There she was. The Empress of Beasts. She had taken to the field herself. She sat atop one of the largest elephants. The huge Grand Elephant wore silvery armor, and the Empress of Beasts was holding a javelin. Thelican frowned.
“Magic. Returning. Tiqr’s heirloom—Tiqr’s Tusk.”
“Hm. I want her taken down. Surround her—bring her in. Twenty thousand gold to the chariot that captures her alive!”
Even the Saverian woman looked up at that bounty. Thelican settled back, sitting down in the chair. His army was moving forwards, bracing for the charge. He felt a flutter of unease and dismissed it. It was fine.
The first rain of arrows struck the Grand Elephants from afar. Archers drew back and loosed. The elephants and riders both screamed, and Thelican smiled. But—he saw arrows embedding themselves in the outer hide of the elephants or even bouncing off. And the riders, experienced, were taking shelter behind cover built into their saddles for that purpose. He scowled.
“Order the [Archers] to use [Piercing Shot]—”
Across the battlefield, the Empress of Beasts raised her spear. Nsiia’s face was covered by a mask of carved elephant bone. She saw the warriors of Nerrhavia drawing back for another hail of arrows. The Stitch-Warriors were braced, safe behind a line of spears and pikes. The chariots were waiting. She pointed forwards and screamed one word.
Beneath her, Thef raised his trunk and blew. The sound was echoed a thousand times. Tiqr’s elephants raced forwards, bellowing. They came straight at the foot soldiers, at the chariots, ignoring the arrows, the pikes.
“[Bodies of Iron]!”
Vasraf bellowed behind her. Nsiia threw her spear, saw it go through a line of Hemp warriors. It flew back towards her and she braced, grabbing it. Thef charged. The spears were aimed at his unprotected underbelly. But the skill had turned his thick hide to iron. And the Nerrhavian forces had made another mistake. They had brought horse-killers. Boar-spears, even.
Not elephant killers. Thef swung his head and the first rank disappeared. Nsiia saw a figure flying past her head, twisted, threw her spear. Ahead of her, an [Archer Captain] fell, headless. Vasraf loosed an arrow from his bow and a magical explosion tore ranks of Stitch-Soldiers apart.
And Thef charged. Straight through the first rank, the second. He lowered his head and his tusks came up. Nsiia and Vasraf held on, and more bodies landed around her. The elephant was still running. His feet crushed warriors into paste. He wasn’t stopping.
The first charge had gone straight through the ranks of Hemp warriors. The elephants had gone through the pikes like—Thelican looked around. Three of the smaller elephants had gone down. Some were injured, but the rest were charging forwards. One of his [Strategists] made a strangled noise.
“Drive them in! Ignore the Hemp! Stop that charge!”
On the battlefield, the order was unnecessary. The chariots were already moving, cutting off the elephant’s backs. [Chariot Drivers] drove their horses closer as their passengers threw javelins and lashed out with blades, shot bows, aiming at the elephants. Nsiia saw and pointed.
Vasraf blew a horn and half the elephants turned. They charged, some catching chariots and pulverizing the riders and carriages. But the rest were pulling out of range, moving around the slower giants. Vasraf blew another horn.
Among the foot soldiers, one of Tiqr’s [Strategists] pointed. She aimed at a flank of elephants charging a circling group of chariots keeping their distance.
The elephants sped up. First-Chariot Bereid looked up as the first elephant aimed straight at his chariot. He raised an enchanted javelin, desperately ordering his driver to dodge. Too late. He looked up into a huge face, a screaming mouth.
“Hit those elephants! All battalions, loose!”
“Sir, our soldiers are—”
“Loose! Stitch-Warriors fear no arrows!”
The [Captains] were desperately ordering their archers to fire. But the elephants were charging at them. General Thelican watched in disbelief. His neat formations were disappearing. The elephants just wouldn’t stop. Even horses had to halt after hitting infantry. But the elephants just rammed through them. Savere’s [Commander] was shouting.
“They’re pushing with their army!”
“Then push back! Bring up the reserves! [Mages], concentrate on those elephants! Bring them down one at a time!”
Thelican roared in a fury. He saw the Empress of Beasts screaming atop her mount, her mask of bone turning her face into a horrific visage.
“Bring her down!”
Arrows flew. Javelins struck Thef, breaking past his armor. Magefire was hitting her beloved friend. Nsiia could hear him screaming. She was screaming too. But neither stopped. They kept coming. She threw her spear and it went through a [Mage]. Then she turned.
The words turned the ranks of elephants. The [Riders] leapt from their positions, tearing at satchels of potions. They began splashing them on the elephants, some feeding the liquid into trunks. And the elephants stampeded back, healing, as Tiqr’s foot charged.
Nsiia did not do the same. She just bent low, hugging Thef. And her skin was torn, her arms and legs and body broken, stabbed in dozens of places. She reached for the potion Vasraf handed her and drank it. And her wounds began to close.
Below her, Thef’s wounds healed with the same rapidity. He raised his trunk and blew a furious call. Nsiia patted him. As he bled, she bled. As he healed—
She looked back. General Thelican stared at her. He slowly sat back down.
Of course. You could heal elephants. And the [Beast Tamers]—he watched as the battle rejoined. The Saverian [Commander] was licking her lips. One of Thelican’s [Strategists] looked at him very nervously.
The Stitch-[General] paused. And then his voice was calm. Measured.
“This is the report I will be tending Queen Yisame. Tiqr’s vanguard is yet considerable. I would prefer to surround them and wear them down with a joint-force. Their main force are the Grand Elephants and their riders. They give Tiqr a powerful vanguard, even outnumbered. We must slowly kill each one to prevent them healing. When they are gone, Tiqr’s hammer is gone. Compose a message to that effect.”
The [Strategist] nodded silently. A slave rushed forwards and Thelican turned.
“Additionally—I request the usage of the Named Adventurer, Alked Fellbow. Consult the [Quartermaster]. Arm our best [Archers] with poisoned arrows. Our [Javelineers] on chariots likewise. The Hemp will advance using pole arms. Pike formations. Withdraw the 1st and 3rd divisions. Move forwards the 8th, the 9th, and the 10th. Commander Calin, Savere’s forces will supplement ours. I assume your irregulars have poisons?”
“You’re going to keep fighting after that?”
Commander Calin pointed at the carnage, her face disbelieving. Thelican frowned.
“The chariots were a loss. But the foot were only Hemp. Tiqr’s army will tire. Mine has yet to bleed. We will be wearing down their elephants first. This was one setback. The battle is far from over.”
He sat back down, deliberately took a cup of water and drained it. And he did not look at the Empress of Beasts. She was riding down the ranks of her warriors, screaming as she held her spear aloft. And they roared, and the animals howled.
They charged again, like thunder. The Reen Plains ran with blood. The String Warriors turned to thread. And they fell. Flesh, thread. The dead.
“They’re stalemated across these battle lines. Multiple armies fighting, forcing Tiqr’s forces to split or cede ground. The main forces are fighting and retreating here.”
Pisces pointed. Erin nodded. The other armies were advancing. Surrounding the opponent, like an army of pawns. They couldn’t jump or do much that was special, but they could bring down even a queen. Slowly, one by one.
But—slowly. She looked at the parchment.
“It’s six days since the fighting began and they only got that far? They were here when they started fighting.”
She pointed to a position on the map, Reen Fields, barely past the current lines. Pisces nodded.
“Tiqr is posing a sturdy defense. A systematic withdrawal; guerilla tactics. That is what their troops excel at, given their animal components. We can infer that from the reading. But look here.”
“Battle at the Yov Oasis. This time between Deimos’ army and Tiqr’s. Tiqr holds it. The Laughing Brigade confirmed spotted on the front. They begin winning some battles. Wait, who are the Laughing Brigade? Is that a mercenary group or something?”
“No. A unit. A royal force. It is a Skill of the Empress of Beasts.”
Pisces paused to explain the concept of a unit to Erin. She had never met the Darksky Riders, but she got it after a minute.
“Units. Huh. So they’re like, elites?”
“Not quite. Say rather that they all possess an ability granted to them by nature of being in their unit.”
“I don’t get it.”
Pisces drummed a hand on the table.
“Units are…special existences. They are granted power just for existing. Some have magical abilities each [Soldier] may call upon. For instance? The ability to ignite their blades at will, regardless of the enchantment on the blade or their own magical ability.”
The [Innkeeper] frowned.
“What, any time they want?”
“Any [Soldier]. In the unit.”
“The Scorchblades were a Terandrian force numbering six thousand who all possessed that ability. Ordinary commoners without a shred of magic inducted into the unit could ignite their blades for twenty minutes at a time. Not just in battle. A unit can be astoundingly versatile or powerful. There are limits. But it is essentially a free Skill granted to them simply be being part of that unit.”
Erin considered this. The hair on her neck tried to rise.
“That’s not fair.”
The [Necromancer] shrugged, trying not to look too jealous.
“That would be the difference between a [King] and lesser classes. Royalty provides benefits. Of course, I have heard of [Commander]-type classes gaining such Skills. Even examples of, high-level [Captains] who could lead a unit themselves. But a [King] may have multiple such forces among their Skills. The King of Destruction notably had three.”
Erin whistled. She was beginning to see why people didn’t like this Flos guy. She looked down at the parchment.
“This Laughing Brigade. What can they do?”
Pisces frowned. He raised a finger and consulted the notes.
“…I don’t know.”
“Are they funny?”
The Laughing Brigade struck during the night. Demios’ army was resting after a day of skirmishing. To his credit, [General] Heic had deployed sentries and fortified the camp. It still did no good.
The first sound that broke the night was laughter. Giggling. It was coming from the [Sentries]. Their reliefs found them standing at their posts, laughing uncontrollably. It was uncontrollably chuckling. And their howling, hysterical laughter. They laughed uncontrollably as they tried to blow into the warning horns.
The warning came too late. General Heic awoke to the sounds of laughter. Loud, harsh, echoing through his camp. He struggled out of his bedding as his slaves found him his armor.
The camp was under attack. Dark shapes and bounding animals tore through the camp. The laughter was everywhere. It wore at Heic’s ears. He felt at them, shouting questions. And then he realized the laughter wasn’t just auditory. It was in his head.
He couldn’t hear anything. That was it. His hands came away, bleeding. The laughter was all he heard. He saw [Soldiers] fighting, unorganized, some even attacking each other in the darkness. Their [Officers] couldn’t restore order with their voices.
And the laughter. A hyena leapt out of the darkness, bringing down a man. Others attacked the camels, fighting alongside the Humans who leapt forwards, attacking and retreating in the confusion. They were laughing too. But it wasn’t laughter. It was mocking. A hyena’s high-pitched cackle. It drove at Heic’s ears. He screamed orders, grabbing his sword and donning his armor.
The Laughing Brigade fell back as dawn rose. And they left their dead among Deimos’ wounded. Not enough, but they had died, hyenas and men. It was only a Skill, a trick. But the laughter stayed in Heic’s ears, long after they had left. And no one in his camp laughed, or smiled long after that.
“Hit-and-run tactics, I see. They might have been quite effective; you see here this gap stating that the fighting did not advance past Tiqr’s borders for the first six days? Ultimately, however, they could only slow the inevitable. It was one unit, one nation against nearly a dozen others. And some of them had their specialist forces deployed too. Note this line.”
Time was accelerating. Erin had heard of the war progressing. Now she saw the lines break in places. Pisces calmly noted dates, showing her the coalition advancing slowly.
“Illivere’s army breaks lines; Savere’s [Queen] takes to the front. Lines broken.”
“What’s so special about Savere’s Queen? Does she have a unit?”
“None as far as I know. Her army is mostly irregular. What makes Savere dangerous is their [Queen] herself. She commands a very powerful water magic.”
“The Illivere Federation must send two hundred more Golems to the front. We have lost nearly as many. However. Report to General Thelican that Tiqr has lost eighty-six Grand Elephants this day.”
Femithain leaned on a staff. The words rasped in his throat. For all he hadn’t taken a single blow, he felt—wounded. Armsmaster Dellic nodded. He moved slowly, assessing the battlefield.
Tiqr and Illivere had met in battle. And Illivere had won. But what a victory. Femithain looked across the battlefield. All he saw was gore.
Illivere’s Golems stood silent, unmoving after the battle. The [Artificers] were tending to them, repairing cracks in their bodies, replacing entire limbs. Some Golems couldn’t be salvaged. Many were broken, the command spells shattered to the extent that it would be easier to make a new one. And most had fallen to—Femithain saw a fallen mound, grey, mixed with red.
An elephant. It had died ramming into a stone Golem. The Golem was snapped in half. But the elephant’s skull was crushed. More had died, their riders and the animal falling as the Golems bore it down. Femithain’s two Steel Golems had killed four themselves.
The Magus-Crafter felt no joy in it. He looked at the dead elephants and spat bile out of his mouth. He turned.
“What news from Savere’s front?”
“Magus-Crafter. The Siren of Tides has pushed through Tiqr’s lines.”
A weary [Mage-Artificer] raised her head. Femithain paused.
“She killed the elephants. And the [Soldiers]. Animals too. [Water Shot]. A tidal wave, apparently. Her [Pirates] can fight in the tide.”
“But the elephants. How…?”
“She drowned them. Encased them in water.”
The [Mage] shook her head. Femithain paused.
That was all he said. But he looked at the ones who had died here and couldn’t say anything more. At last, Dellic came back.
“Magus-Crafter. General Thelican sends his most sincere regards.”
“I suppose he does.”
Cynically, Femithain wondered if Illivere and Savere had done better than Nerrhavia in these two engagements. He leaned on his staff, shook his head.
“We will wait for reinforcements before pushing in. Instruct Illivere to march the golems without pause to our location.”
“Magus-Crafter. Will we see more fighting like today’s? Those elephants—”
One of the younger [Artificers] began hesitantly. He was nearly silenced by Dellic, but Femithain shook his head. Today’s battle had been—gruesome. Illivere’s Golems had gone to war with a huge wing of Tiqr’s elephants. And despite losing nearly half their animals, Tiqr had managed to do an incredible amount of damage.
“Possibly, Artificer Azef. But that determination I will discuss with General Thelican. Tiqr’s forces are slowly reducing in number, however. Their war animals cannot be replaced like our Golems.”
“Yes, Magus-Crafter. It—it seems to be a shame.”
Femithain didn’t respond. He looked at the dead elephants. And he remembered seeing one on parade. The Empress of Beasts riding hers.
“Repair the Golems, [Artificers]. Illivere will need them in the days to come.”
“Battle at Be’neld Oasis. Tiqr retreats. That was ten days ago, right?”
Erin looked up. Pisces nodded. Tiqr had just lost another oasis. And they were in full retreat, trying to guard the land around their capital city. Erin shook her head.
“How do they keep fighting? Don’t their armies get…killed?”
Pisces shook his head.
“I suspect as the war winds on, more citizens of Tiqr’s cities join their army. They are either conscripted or volunteer. They would be low-level, but they would fill the losses in Tiqr’s armies.”
“But they don’t have [Soldier] levels. I mean, if you went into Liscor and got like, a thousand Selys’, they’d be weak. Right?”
Pisces’ lips twitched at the idea. But then he shook his head.
“I believe this can be attributed to the Counter-level Effect.”
“The what? Are you making that up?”
“Not at all. It is a well-known fact that during war or in disadvantageous conflicts, the defending side will level faster than the superior aggressors. Zel Shivertail was one example of it.”
The young women went quiet. Then she looked up. Her interest in Tiqr’s war had stopped being a silly exercise to pass the time. Now it felt—
“But that only works if they’re losing.”
The [Necromancer] straightened his robes, pushing his bowl back.
“True. For every new [Soldier] who survives the fighting, dozens will perish. This is an act of desperation. And see. Not everyone is fighting. This is where some of the other nations take part.”
He tapped another line. Erin read it. And this time—she could imagine it.
Tiqr’s citizens fleeing conflict shelter at Pomle. Standoff at Pomle’s borders between Savere, Nerrhavia. Pursuit not attempted. Pomle continues to accept fleeing citizens.
Orjin, the Strongest of Pomle, stood at the borders of Pomle. At least, the borders in any way that mattered. Sometimes they changed, but this time, the ring of colored stones that connected two canyon walls meant more than an arbitrary concept.
It was a boundary. And the two small armies that had come had halted a stone’s throw in front of it. They both bore banners he recognized—well, one did. The other looked more like [Bandits] to Orjin.
Savere’s raiders. But the second army, led by a group of chariots were distinctly Stitch-People. Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Orjin counted.
About six thousand from Nerrhavia. Two thousand from Savere. They would account for a good amount of Pomle’s population alone. They had been moving fast; they were all mounted. Pursuing Tiqr’s fleeing citizens.
They were behind Orjin. Several thousand…people. Many carrying packs, some without anything. They’d nearly collapsed after passing through Pomle’s borders. Now, it was a standoff. Orjin stood at the border as one of Nerrhavia’s [Commanders] called out cautiously to him.
“By the order of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, we request that Pomle gives up Tiqr’s citizens! They are formal enemies to Nerrhavia!”
There was a bark of laughter, and then the [Raid Leader] from Savere rode forwards. She glared at both the String-Warrior and Orjin.
“Those are our captives. Savere takes them, by order of the Siren of Tides. Move aside!”
Orjin didn’t reply to either leader. He was still looking at the refugees. The [Martial Artist] stood, his arms folded, his posture perfect. The First-Chariot hesitated. Savere’s [Raid Leader] spat.
“Hey! You! Muscles-for-brains! Did you hear me?”
Orjin didn’t even turn his head. He’d been standing like this for about ten minutes. Thinking. He had no doubt that Savere and Nerrhavia were after the people here for one reason: slaves. There was no benefit otherwise. Well, perhaps they intended to kill them or ransom them, use them against Tiqr.
Orjin turned his head at last. The woman was glaring at him. She was in fact, a Drowned Woman, half her body armored. And one arm looked like—Orjin frowned. Half-shrimp? A beady eye and antennae-like whisker twitched at him. The other half of her face was snarling teeth.
“We have two armies here. Hand them over. Now.”
The Nerrhavian officer looked uneasy. It was true. Both armies were armed for a fight and they outnumbered the few warriors. But he also knew why Pomle was independent. His eyes flicked behind Orjin.
Pomle’s warriors stood silently in the gap that sheltered the nation of martial artists from the rest of the world. The canyons were stiff, tall, and there was a natural choke-point that Orjin held. Some of the warriors stood on the cliffs, armed with spears or slings or just their bare hands and rocks.
The rest were lined up behind him. Barely a hundred [Martial Artists] and [Warrior] classes. But they had the high ground and the Nerrhavian [Commander] knew it. He was more intelligent than the Savere [Raid Leader], or at least, more aware of Pomle’s legend. He waited while she swore at him, losing her patience. And Orjin just thought.
Not about what to do next. More—about how he’d attack if it came to a reply. He’d probably have to split Nerrhavia’s charge first. It would be a nasty fight, but they could break the chariots in this pass. Reinforcements would arrive fast, but—Orjin narrowed his eyes. Yes. He could kill both leaders if they moved back. Then—straight into the chariots while the others held this ground and the refugees fled. It was a working plan.
The [Martial Artist] moved at last. Savere’s [Commander] rode back a pace and the Nerrhavian officer placed a hand on his sword. But Orjin kept his arms crossed. First, the message. He’d had to give the speech about Pomle’s peace a lot recently.
“This is Pomle. I am the Strongest of Pomle, Orjin. Thirty years ago, we claimed this land and fought every nation who tried to impose their rules on us. For thirty years, Pomle has known peace. We have little, but any who wish to train are welcome within our land. Pomle is neutral. This is our peace.”
Both leaders stared at him. Orjin went on, gesturing at the citizens huddled behind him.
“These are guests of Pomle, regardless of their identity. They have claimed Pomle’s peace. If they say they wish to train, or rest, or merely step within our boundaries, they may do so without fear.”
“Do they wish that?”
The Nerrhavian [Commander] began uncertainly. Orjin turned his head. The refugees nodded rapidly. Orjin paused.
“They say they do. Therefore, they are guests. As for your armies…”
He stared at the lines of [Soldiers] and shook his head.
“Begone. The peace of Pomle does not extend to foreign armies.”
That was it. Savere’s [Raid Leader]’s eyes bulged.
“That’s all you have to say?”
Orjin didn’t reply. He waited. She looked at the Nerrhavian commander. He was sweating.
“We have orders not to violate Pomle’s peace—”
“Bullshit. There are a hundred of them. They’re not some legendary army, just a bunch of tree-punching idiots.”
The woman rode forwards and the Nerrhavian [Commander] tensed. Orjin did not; tensing was a bad move. He was relaxed. As the woman rode forwards, he spoke.
“Step across that line and we will remind you why Pomle is free.”
She paused incredulously. And then the [Martial Artists] behind Orjin picked up the stone spears. They aimed—past her at Savere’s armies. The [Raiders] looked up as Pomle’s warriors aimed bows at them. They began to laugh. And then it died away when they realized Orjin was serious.
The Strongest of Pomle waited for the woman to move. He hadn’t moved. She was eying him, eying the line of colored stones. He could see she wanted to dare it. But—she might have had [Dangersense]. Certainly, some of her [Raiders] did, because they were whispering among their ranks. And the eager attitude among her force vanished. Some even began looking over their shoulders.
The confidence drained out of the [Raid Leader]’s face. She looked at Orjin, assessing them, and more blood fled her hands and face. She backed up, turning her horse roughly. Then she spat on the ground and rode away. The Nerrhavian First-Chariot hesitated. But when Orjin turned to him he shook his head.
Without a word, both armies withdrew. Orjin sighed. He stared as they kicked up a dust storm as they rode away. Pomle’s warriors waited for his nod, and then walked off, returning to their tasks. Casually, as if nothing had happened. The refugees watched as Orjin walked past them, shaken.
“Excuse me! This way!”
A voice called out in the newfound silence. The refugees turned, and saw a Drake striding towards them. Salii, Pomle’s only [Receptionist], was hurrying forwards with her clipboard.
“Everyone, with me. You are quite safe now; please form an orderly line.”
“All questions later, please! We will bring you to one of the temporary camps. Excuse me, follow me. My name is Salii. Come to me if you have any questions or issues. That is Orjin, the Strongest of Pomle. Now—”
The people found themselves obediently shuffling after Salii before they quite knew what was happening. Orjin left the Drake to do whatever she wanted. Pomle had guests. And that was as far as he intended to deal with the matter. For that matter, most of Pomle’s warriors ignored the new influx of people. There was only one thing that concerned them, and so Orjin sighed. More work to do.
That night, Orjin sat on the ground in the darkness, waiting. It was at roughly the same spot he had been. The line of colored pebbles was still there. This time, though, he was looking down on them from a height.
The canyon’s walls were steep. High. But any [Martial Artist] could climb them. And so could a number of other classes, it seemed. Shadowy figures, dressed in black clothing to hide themselves in the night scaled the canyons. They carried blades, and they were fairly stealthy.
Not stealthy enough, though. A few had Skills; Orjin knew from the breathing that one was invisible. He was trying to locate the invisible one by their posture in the dust. The figures paused, then they crossed the line that separated Pomle from the rest of the world.
Normally that mattered little. Normally people got a second or third chance and guests, even armed ones, were welcome in Pomle. But these ones had already been warned.
The first [Martial Artist] dropped out of the skies where she had been hovering. Her [Axe Kick] shattered the skull of the invisible [Rogue] and the Garuda took wing, hunting for her next target. Orjin sighed. He’d been off on the Drowned Woman’s position. Oh well. He saw more of the properly hidden [Martial Artists] rise up.
One of them was a Dullahan armed with the crude spears of this morning. She threw the spear and it went through one of the shadowed figures and buried itself in the stomach of the next. The shocked infiltrators shouted, drew their weapons; Pomle’s warriors closed in.
It was a brisk fight. Orjin only moved once. He kicked a [Rogue] off the canyon before he could slash one of the [Martial Artists] with a blade. The man fell, screaming, and hit the ground. He survived the fall, although Orjin was sure he’d broken an arm, and got up. He ran surprisingly fast. Orjin stopped the shamefaced Garuda from going after him. Orjin looked around and shook his head.
The rest of the attack group was dead. A few [Martial Artists] had been tagged, and one might have been poisoned. The others were inspecting the injury, debating remedies. They dispersed again, a few pausing to check the bodies for valuables. Many, like Orjin, didn’t care and left them to be devoured by animals or the elements.
Savere’s [Pirates] and [Rogues] might have all the experience in the world in fighting in darkness, but Pomle’s warriors had trained for it. Orjin returned to his space near Pomle’s oasis. He found Salii waiting for him.
“Dead. One fled.”
The Drake nodded and made a note of this for some reason Orjin didn’t understand. She took a breath. Orjin was stretching before he meditated and slept.
“Orjin, this latest group was a thousand two hundred and eighteen strong. They were over five times that number when they set out; the rest were captured or killed.”
The Strongest of Pomle kept stretching. Salii tapped her clipboard.
“Many have failed to bring enough food. If more continue arriving, Pomle will be out of food soon.”
The Strongest of Pomle paused. That was a problem. However—he looked around.
“It is not Pomle’s duty to feed these people. Nor can we.”
It would mean Pomle’s warriors would have to go hunting as the oasis’ resources were depleted. Perhaps even the water would be used up. That would be an inconvenience, but one Pomle’s people could handle. The refugees on the other hand, well, they’d starve. Orjin saw Salii pause.
“I’m aware of that, Orjin. However—I can handle it. I think. There are people among the refugees with useful classes and Skills.”
“Can you feed twice Pomle’s numbers? How?”
Orjin was fairly certain Salii couldn’t make food appear out of the thin air. And she would need to. But the [Secretary] only tapped her clipboard.
“Trading. Scavenging. Organization. Orjin, let me try. If you’re the strongest [Martial Artist] in Pomle, I’m the greatest [Secretary] in all the Walled Cities. Give me access to Pomle’s stores and I’ll barter for food and clothing and everything else we need and secure the rest.”
The boast made Orjin smile. He paused, and then nodded to Salii.
“Do what you wish. You created Pomle’s stores to begin with.”
She smiled and left. Orjin wondered if she’d succeed. Perhaps. She was certainly good at ordering people around. But if she didn’t, Pomle would endure. The [Martial Artists] had survived times when the oasis had run dry, starvation. It was part of their training.
However, one thing did keep Orjin up as he tried to meditate, calm himself and order his thoughts before he slept. He kept staring west. He could smell blood on the wind. And it made him restless. But he held his ground, stilled his thoughts. This was not his war.
Yet, he was the Strongest of Pomle. It was a duty. One no one who truly belonged to Pomle wanted, but it was important. He had to guard Pomle. That was the sum of his duties, and Orjin had always thought of it as simple. Remove murderers and those who caused trouble. Kill monsters, sometimes people. Organize Pomle’s warriors in case of an attack.
But what if an army came? Pomle would fight, of course. But this war bothered Orjin. All these other nations attacking Tiqr, which bordered Pomle. They had come for Tiqr as a result of the peace he had helped to offer. Tiqr had done nothing wrong as Orjin understood it. If they came for Tiqr, would those same armies one day march on Pomle?
He was no [King]. But those thoughts weighed heaviest of all. Orjin sat in silence late into the night. He stared ahead blankly. And then he realized there was another invisible intruder in camp he’d somehow missed. It had been a mistake to sneak up on him of all the others. The person might be [Muffled], but they smelled of blood. Orjin got up with a sigh.
Tiqr was falling. City by city, part by part. Like a plague, the invading armies took it apart, slowly working their way to the capital city. Now Tiqr’s armies were retreating every battle, moving further and further back.
No one had come to help them. And the other nations were continuing onwards. Why not? They were winning.
“The nation of Reim continues to refrain from movements on any border. Only naturally.”
Pisces read the note, which seemed to emphasize…nothing. But nothing was apparently significant with the King of Destruction. Erin read one little addendum.
King of Destruction appears on southern border with Gazi the Omniscient and Mars the Illusionist. No movement. Nerrhavia reinforces border.
But he’d done nothing.
By now, the jeering from Nerrhavia’s side was background noise to Mars. But today the chanting went silent. The Stitch-Warriors froze. And their [Commander] sent word back on [Message] spell, shouting orders. They formed a double line, setting themselves.
He was here. The King of Destruction. Flos Reimarch regarded the force across his borders. He looked at Mars. His expression was intense. He was not happy.
News of Tiqr reached Reim as well as the rest of the world. Now—Mars looked around. Flos had not ridden here unaccompanied. Three hundred [Riders] flanked him, and Gazi, her main eye closed, had followed him. Flos jerked his head at Mars.
“My [Vanguard]. Ride with me.”
Nerrhavia’s forces reacted as Flos began to ride across the border of Reim. They pivoted, setting themselves, watching as Flos rode—not towards them but perpendicular. Just…riding.
He rode with Mars, Gazi, Venith, and Maresar at his back. Two of his Seven. Three hundred [Riders] followed him. And Nerrhavia’s army was silent.
If he charged, it would be forty-to-one. If you added the infantry, then thirteen-to-one. Still a vast difference in numbers. Some began to jeer, taunting the King of Destruction. He turned his head and they fell silent.
If he charged he’d forswear every oath. Fight a battle against thousands of Nerrhavia’s elite. The King of Destruction rode, turning his head, regarding his land. And Nerrhavia’s borders. In the distance were the garrisons, fortifications of actual stone. Beyond them, cities, garrisons of hundreds of thousands of warriors.
The King of Destruction paused. And he turned his horse towards Nerrhavia. For a moment he leaned on the saddle. And he stared past the army on the border. Then he turned and rode back the way he’d come. Without another word.
None of Nerrhavia’s warriors made a sound after that. The two armies withdrew further in silence. Mars, who remained, stared across the vast distance and leaned on the horse she’d borrowed. She heard nothing from the other army for a long time. They could have laughed. They could have jeered or taunted him. Her [King]. But if they had, neither she nor they were certain he wouldn’t have charged. He probably wouldn’t. But the world still watched.
“Remember that, you arrogant silk handkerchiefs.”
Mars spat in the dust. But she turned. He wouldn’t have charged. Her [King] had made up his mind. He just hated it.
Tiqr was falling. And now, Erin could see it. Almost. In the dry, factual sentences, an entire empire breaking apart. People fleeing. An army reeling from—what? Defeat? No, just breaking under too many casualties. Giving ground. Pulling back. The citizens fleeing.
“Tiqr’s alliance with the local [Druid] factions collapses. Mass exodus west towards the Killale Steppes.”
Mrsha looked up at Erin. She was sitting on Erin’s lap, now. Watching Erin and Pisces’ faces more than understanding the abstract concepts. Erin looked at Pisces.
“I didn’t know they had [Druids]. Aren’t they solitary?”
“Some. But Tiqr is a place of animals. Why wouldn’t they have [Druids]?”
“They left yesterday. When I was at Esthelm.”
Empress Nsiia sat on her throne. She had not eaten. She had not moved. General Vasraf had taken to the front, to lead a retreat. She didn’t rise as the congregations of [Druids] entered the throne room. Nor when they told her she was leaving.
Thef was dead. Slain. Alked Fellbow, the Named Adventurer, had brought him down. Nsiia only moved once. And it was to look up. Wildkeeper Jvaile looked at her. The woman was a [Druid]. First of her circle.
“You are leaving.”
“Yes, Empress. We cannot remain. Half our circle has perished in this war. We have given all we can. No more. We are leaving.”
The Wildkeeper bowed. The other [Druids] knelt. Nsiia looked at her. Her throat worked; she coughed. Dry from lack of water. A servant hurried forwards and she drank from the bowl. She coughed again.
“The Killale Steppes. The Garuda tribes will allow our presence. Further still, perhaps. Empress. We beg your pardon—”
“Good. Take my people with you.”
Nsiia saw the Wildkeeper looked up. The Empress of Beasts moved. She looked out of her throne room.
“The herds too. The young. The elephants. All the animals. Take them with you. All that will go.”
Wildkeeper Jvaile hesitated.
“You intend to keep fighting, Empress?”
“Yes. This is Tiqr. We will not yield.”
The [Druid] hesitated. She was no politician.
“I have heard it said Savere extended an offer of surrender to Tiqr.”
“Yes. And Nerrhavia. Our surrender would be absolute. We would give our people to slavery.”
The [Empress]’s eyes flashed. The Siren would see her in chains, groveling. Nerrhavia’s Queen was little better. The Wildkeeper bowed her head. She and Nsiia were of one mind of her answer to that.
“Empress, this war cannot be won. The herds have fallen.”
Thef. Was. Dead. The [Druid] paused.
“We will take the young. There are Grand Elephants young, and regular ones. They will not end. But—Empress—”
She looked up, meeting Nsiia’s hollow gaze.
“—the elephants have seen the blood. They know the death.”
Nsiia nodded. Elephants remembered.
“The elephant’s memory is long as ours. Longer, sometimes, I think. This is their home. And they will remember it forever.”
The [Druid] whispered. Some of her fellow Wildkeepers were stirring. They had wept for the dead of Tiqr. Animals. Ah—they had died for their home along with the people.
“Just so. But this war has changed them. Many of the young have felt the death of their kin. If they grow to maturity, they will be wild. They will remember death, Empress. Death, and what people have brought.”
Another [Druid] murmured. He waited for a response. But all the Empress of Beasts did was reach for her side.
The war-mask was cracked. Fellbow had aimed for her head as well. Slowly, Nsiia put it on and rose. She looked down as Jvaile shuddered.
“The herds remember death? Then they remember it properly, Wildkeeper. As I live it. Tiqr will not forget these days so easily. I only hope that some remain to remember it. Go.”
They left. Nsiia walked through her throne room. Her honor guard fell in beside her. Over half of them had fallen. Only a few war elephants remained to Tiqr. The army had been beaten back again and again. Now the last citizens were choosing to fight.
Nsiia stood at steppes of her palace. She spoke from behind her bone mask, looking at each of her warriors in turn.
“If you wish it, you may leave with my blessing. If any so ask, let them go now.”
None of them moved. Nsiia nodded. She looked around.
“This is our home. We cannot leave it like the [Druids] do. For this land had been our home. It is our home. Can we surrender? Give ourselves to slavery? Let all that Tiqr has built fade without fighting to the last?”
No. In the silence, Nsiia raised her hand. She could see the Wildkeepers moving. They had already prepared a caravan. Better they go now. The [Empress of Beasts] raised her hand.
“[Empire: Wild Riot].”
A detachment of Nerrhavian [Soldiers] paused as they patrolled Yov Oasis. This area was far from the front lines by now. And it had been taken, almost completely intact. Tiqr’s army had refused to fight near the oasis, refused to destroy it.
All the better for Nerrhavia. It would be some work establishing a foothold in Tiqr, but this oasis was worth more than gold to the Chandrarian kingdoms. It was a source of water, vital and precious. Which was why Nerrhavia had left a garrison here, to claim it before the end of the battle.
The [Commander] was still alert for guerilla strikes, though, for all even they had been pushed back to around Tiqr’s capital. He sat on horseback, talking to another [Mage] of the Silk caste. The [Mage] was frowning at the water.
The [Mage] glanced up at the alert tone in the [Commander]’s voice. He chuckled and shook his head.
“Nothing magical, [Commander]. It is simply—I have never seen the quail-birds flying in that formation.”
He pointed. The Stitch-[Commander] looked and saw there were indeed a number of small quail flying in an odd spiral around the oasis. He frowned.
“Is that truly unusual?”
“Well, only insofar—”
The [Mage] got no further. Both Stitch-Men felt the Skill pass through the earth. It was a shudder, a lurch in his stomach. The [Commander] looked around.
Then he heard the shrieks. The quail dove, beaks open. They flew down, attacking his patrol. The [Commander] was so stunned at first he didn’t bring his shield up. Then the first beaks tore at his flesh, tearing at the silk of his body, drawing blood and pecking flesh that turned to thread.
“Dead gods! What’s—”
“Animal attack! Kill the birds!”
One of his officers screamed, and the Stitch-Warriors drew their blades. They began slashing at the birds, but they were everywhere and the blades were useless against so many. The [Commander] screamed at the [Mage].
“Cast a spell! Cast a spell!”
The Stitch-[Mage] was trying. He raised a hand and lightning burst outwards. Dozens of birds screamed and the lightning crackled off the [Commander]’s armor.
“[Lightning Bolt]! [Stone Arm—”
The [Mage]’s voice cut off in a scream of agony. The [Commander] turned. He didn’t see where the [Mage] was until he tripped over the fallen Stitch-Man. He was dead. His face was torn away, his eyeballs removed. The [Commander] raised his shield.
“Form up! Backs to each other!”
His warriors did. They slashed at the sky, shielding their eyes. Slowly, the birds fell. The last of them lay on the ground, and the Stitch-Warriors stomped, cursing. More than one was eyeless. That was only a temporary injury, but their faces had been torn apart. They would need to be sewn together.
But mostly, everyone was shaken. The [Commander] stared around. What had happened? Some—powerful [Druid] spell? A [Beast Master] nearby? Then he heard a shout.
“Commander! The horses have gone mad!”
“One patrol is under attack! From—termites!”
“One of the pet parrots took the eye of—”
It was coming from across the camp. No—across Tiqr. [Messages] were pouring in of horses going insane, birds attacking—even the insects! The [Commander] listened, and then began to give orders.
“[Mages]. Any swarm of animals you see, destroy at range with spells. Understood? Kill every animal you see. Every last one.”
He shuddered. The Stitch-Warriors stared at him. But the [Commander] didn’t have anything else to say. Tiqr had gone mad. The Empress of Beasts—
Stood alone. She watched as the last of the animals fled. Not all of them had listened to her Skill. But those that weren’t were fleeing. It was a choice. It was always a choice.
Like this one. She stood on her palace, addressing her soldiers. They were fortifying the gates and walls of her city, trying to build them up. This would be their last stand. The war elephants blew their trumpeting calls, screams of fury. But not yet. Not yet. The other nations would surround this place. And then it would be the truest end.
They wanted her to surrender. Savere’s Siren had threats of how Nsiia would live. Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia offered more amicable terms. Nsiia left the letters unopened. They had made their decision. And so had she.
“For generations, this has been our land. When he rode through Tiqr with his armies and a force large enough to topple nations, my father sat here. On this very throne. And he dared the King of Destruction to take Tiqr, for we would bleed him to the last. Instead, the King of Destruction offered us an alliance and we followed him to war because he left our home ours. Do we bend now, and let them tear this land apart, each nation devouring a piece? Will they leave anything that is us?”
Her army stood before her. Waiting, knowing the answer. Nsiia shook her head. She raised her headdress. Only the Roc’s feather was left. One last battle.
“Never. Let them crawl over the dead to claim this place. We do not bow to these traitorous monsters. We offered no war. All we did was remember friendship. So let us die. Tiqr will be empty before it falls.”
They screamed at her words. And Nsiia raised her spear. Soon. These other nations would count this victory in the blood of their own. Tiqr would fight to the last before it fell.
But it was falling.
The end of the updates was sobering. Erin sat at the table and read the last lines in silence with Pisces.
Tiqr’s army retreats to the capital, Oliphant. Illivere’s army begins a siege. Savere’s army moves to reinforce. Nerrhavia’s army moves to reinforce.
The Laughing Brigade is defeated in battle by a joint attack led by Savere and Nerrhavian forces supplemented by soldiers from Deimos and Relaaquil.
[Druids] fleeing Tiqr confirmed to have left the border. Large number of animals and people in company. No pursuit given.
That was today. Today, the siege had begun. Erin looked at Pisces. He raised his brows. Reached for a last slice of blue fruit.
It was breakfast. And all this war was so far away. Erin was now caught up on Tiqr. But what happened next? She stared at the parchment.
“So we don’t know what happens next?”
“Presumably, the other armies would initiate the final battle. If not today, then certainly tomorrow. Tiqr will no doubt have a final stand, but they lack the ah, position for a protracted siege. Few walls, you see, no choke points. I imagine today or tomorrow we will receive news of Tiqr’s fall. Quite interesting that the King of Destruction never intervened. But in the end, I suppose it was not expedient.”
The [Necromancer] sighed as he chewed and swallowed. Erin nodded slowly. She blinked down, and then frowned.
“Hold on, we’ve missed something.”
Pisces blinked. Erin pointed at a little note at the very bottom of the parchment.
“It says there was an addendum to the report about the Laughing Brigade. But it was extra and you didn’t pay it. See?”
The young man leaned over the parchment.
“An addendum at extra cost? They bothered to write this, but not include the actual information? What did I pay for? I specifically requested all information! The Mage’s Guild does not decide what is superfluous to my interests!”
Pisces was outraged. He stood up. Erin stood up with him.
“Yeah! What happened with them? Can we find out?”
“I intend to.”
The [Necromancer] straightened his robes huffily. He stalked towards the door to Liscor and Erin followed him. Lyonette looked up.
“Erin. Where are you going? I need you in the kitchen.”
The [Innkeeper]’s shoulders hunched. She looked over her shoulder and then hurried Pisces out the door.
Lyonette got up, but Erin had already swung the door closed. The [Princess] scowled, but sat back down as Mrsha scampered over to her.
“She’s going to be making food all day when she gets back.”
“Excuse me. What exactly do you call this?”
The [Scribe] working day-shift at the Mage’s Guild looked up as Pisces thrust the parchment in front of her. She was a Gnoll, which surprised Erin for someone working in the Mage’s Guild—until she saw the ink stains on the Gnoll’s fur. The [Scribe] sighed.
She seemed to know Pisces, from the snappish tone she had. Pisces sniffed.
“I requested all the relevant news on Tiqr, did I not? What is this—this extortionate nonsense about an addendum?”
The Gnoll bared her teeth at him as she sat up at her desk.
“Exactly what it says. Sir. The addendum is not necessarily verifiable, but it is being offered by the Mage’s Guild. Which is why it was not included. If you would like to read it, I can easily copy you the relevant information.”
Pisces paused huffily. Erin peeked around behind him. The Mage’s Guild wasn’t a place she used often.
“I suppose that would be acceptable. How much?”
“One silver coin and two copper.”
“One silver coin? That is more than I paid for the information on Tiqr! Preposterous!”
The outraged voice made the other employees and visitors looked around. Erin winced, but Pisces was in full indignation mode. He placed both hands on the counter and tried to glare at the Gnoll. She was taller than he was and just narrowed her eyes.
“One silver coin and two copper is the price…sir. The length of the report alone justifies the cost. Do you want it or not?”
Pisces hesitated. Erin poked him in the side. That was a very Gnollish action. She smiled at the Gnoll [Scribe] apologetically.
“Sorry about him. Pisces, just pay her!”
“It’s an indignity!”
“You don’t even know what it says. Pay her! And say sorry!”
“Very well, but if it is not sufficiently worthy of the price…”
Pisces passed the coins over. Then, when Erin poked him harder, muttered what might have been an apology. The Gnoll smiled at Erin, who smiled back, and reached for a quill. She produced a roll of parchment, placed it on a writing board and clamped it, then picked up another bit of parchment and began to copy with a practiced hand. Erin was impressed; the Gnoll’s writing was very good and very fast! Pisces just sniffed and folded his arms, the picture of pique.
When she was done, the Gnoll [Scribe] lifted her quill, blew on the ink, and handed it to Erin, not Pisces.
Erin beamed at her, and pulled Pisces out of line. She investigated the parchment. It was, much to her surprise, packed with writing. More like a page from a book than the factual reports. She whistled.
“Hey Pisces, look at this! It’s a lot of writing.”
Pisces stopped harrumphing long enough to look at the parchment. He blinked and snatched it from Erin.
“Strange. This isn’t a typical report verified by the Mage’s Guild. What is this?”
“Uh—can I see?”
Erin peeked over Pisces’ shoulder. He absently lowered it and both read together. The parchment was strange. Stranger to Pisces than Erin; after a moment, she understood what was so familiar about it to her.
*The Mage’s Guild takes no responsibility for the authenticity of this information.
Laughing Brigade’s end marks another ‘complete victory’ against Tiqr
Today, the Laughing Brigade, one of Tiqr’s final remaining forces not withdrawn around their capital of Oliphant was defeated in battle. The estimated eight hundred remaining [Soldiers] and hyenas that made up the Laughing Brigade were cornered in the canyon known as Heda’s Valley by a combined force of warriors led by the nations of Savere and Nerrhavia’s Fallen.
The Laughing Brigade, once a designated ‘Unit’ numbering just over three thousand, had fought an ongoing war of attrition with the nations invading Tiqr, launching a number of surprise attacks on enemy forces thanks to their mobility and unique effect—maddening, deafening, or simply infectious laughter that was due to the Empress of Beast’s Skill.
After nearly a month of successful fighting, they were at last cornered as Tiqr’s remaining army withdraws to the capital. Surrounded and unable to retreat, a combined army of Savere’s irregulars and Nerrhavian elites of the Silk-caste, the Laughing Brigade fought and perished to the last soldier. There were no survivors or captives.
These are the facts of the matter, which have been reported via Mage’s Guild to the rest of the world. They were indisputable, easily verifiable via [Detect Lies] spell as an absolute truth. However, they fail to tell the story of Tiqr, which has not been reported on for the duration of the conflict, a little less than a month’s worth of fighting.
You may have read that the Laughing Brigade was defeated. Crushed utterly by a superior force. That is a summation of the events that does not reflect the reality I witnessed. It is the line the anti-Tiqr alliance wishes to propagate.
I witnessed the end of the Laughing Brigade. They were indeed cornered by Savere and Nerrhavian troops. Worn down, depleted from weeks of fighting and without supply or reinforcement, they were offered no quarter and sought none themselves. They died, with their backs to the cliffs. But they did not die easily.
Throughout the night, I was able to hear the fighting take place as the Laughing Brigade made its last stand. I was unable to move closer due to the active spellcasting and danger to myself, but I was able to hear quite well from afar.
Heda’s Valley was alight with magelight and the flashes of magic. I heard laughter throughout the night sometimes mixed with the screams. Not normal laughter either; I was forced to stay at a great remove lest my ears begin to bleed or I suffer the auditory hallucinations and madness gripping some of the [Soldiers] on the front.
The final battle took place over four hours, despite the vastly-outnumbered brigade’s forces, due to them holding the treacherous rocks leading up to the backdrop of the canyon. Walking among the bodies in the light of day, I count only their bodies; the rest have been removed.
There is no way of knowing how many Saverian or Nerrhavian forces fell, but gaps within their lines leads me to estimate that at least a thousand Nerrhavian [Soldiers] were killed or otherwise wounded. Savere is harder to estimate, but their ranks seem equally thinned.
This is one of the final landmark victories in the war against Tiqr. The Laughing Brigade, while never numerous, constituted a decisive force in the field due to their unique abilities. However, I can count no smiles here, among Savere’s irregular forces comprised of what I understand to be [Bandits], [Pirates], and other rogue elements. Instead, they swear as I pass, clutching ears still bloody, or sit in silence, not in the raucous good spirits I witnessed during the first stages of the war.
Their excellence in raiding and experience in night-fighting, ambushes, and so on has not prepared them for the ferocity of Tiqr’s warriors or its animals. Even Nerrhavia’s countless forces cannot celebrate overloud; many Stitch-Warriors were torn to shreds despite their superior arms and numbers. This was a victory, but, like much of Tiqr’s defeat, has come at what these other nations must surely feel is too high a cost.
I am unable to secure an interview with the leaders of either force, however, the [Soldiers] willing to gossip with me inform me that the final battle on Oliphant, Tiqr’s capital, is not one they look forwards to. Most of the Grand Elephants that have plagued Tiqr’s foes are now fallen, and Tiqr’s army is a remnant of itself. However, it is the belief of all present that Tiqr’s citizens will join their army and fight to the last.
Oliphant, before the war, was estimated at a population of four hundred thousand, small perhaps for a capital city, but the thought of even a hundred thousand [Soldiers] willing to fight an enduring siege battle without quarter seems to evoke fear in even the most battle-hardened [Soldier]. They have seen how far Tiqr is willing to go, and one [Sergeant] from Nerrhavia expresses his desire not to be sent to the final siege. He is in fact hopeful the siege will end before he is called with his squad to the front, but his resigned tone makes it clear to me that he fears this will not be the case.
It seems this is Tiqr’s last hour, and it may indeed pass only as a news snippet in the eyes of the world, a summary fact of defeat. However, from the front lines, it is clear that regardless of the King of Destruction’s involvement, Tiqr has proven to be far more costly than any of its opponents ever dreamed it could be.
I will attempt to journey to Oliphant to report on the end of Tiqr, although I fear my articles have now attracted a bounty on my own head. If the final siege is half as costly as the end of the Laughing Brigade, it is small wonder the allied nations hesitate before bringing the final battle to the Empress of Beasts.
Whatever the case, Tiqr’s legacy will be one of bloodshed—one not soon forgotten by the other nations who may indeed be watching their borders for fear of becoming a second Tiqr.
–Rémi Canada, [Reporter].
The piece of parchment stayed in Pisces’ hands another moment. And then he turned it over and looked at the backside. Erin was frozen where she stood. Pisces sniffed.
“Well, I suppose that was an interesting tale. Unverified, of course. No wonder the price I suppose; the [Scribe] did not undersell the cost given how much writing needed to be done. I er, probably should apologize. But—fascinating. This person did more reports? I wonder why—I should be delighted to hear their take on the start of the war.”
He chuckled, rubbing his hands together with academic interest. Erin was still frozen. She stared down at the name as Pisces turned the page over again.
“Hm? Oh, yes. Interesting name I suppose. And [Reporter]—similar to [Crier] I think? Odd, but certainly fascinating! If what they say is true, I imagine these other nations are attempting to keep this blunder secret. I can only imagine this fellow has a sizeable bounty, as they said. Or is it female? Fascinating indeed…”
Pisces’ chuckle stopped as he noticed the look on Erin’s face. She was pale, suddenly, and he saw her lips shaping a word.
Canada. It was such a…people didn’t have that as a last name. Did they? In this world? No, how could it be that kind of coincidence? And that class.
[Reporter]. Erin stared at the parchment. Then she looked up. She started as she saw Pisces looking at her.
“I—uh—Canada? No, I was just saying, what a weird name. Canada. Sounds, foreign, doesn’t it?”
She stumbled over her words, unable to fake anything. The [Necromancer] paused. But then he raised his eyebrows nonchalantly, pretending not to notice her expression or the way she looked.
“It may be vaguely Chandrarian. But—what is a name, after all?”
“Yeah. Yeah. But it’s um, amazing work. Journalism. I mean—amazing.”
“Yes it is.”
Pisces watched Erin’s face. She reached for the parchment, hesitated, and then snatched it, affecting a casual grin.
“Hey! We should find the other things this person wrote, huh? Isn’t it interesting? It makes the war come to life!”
“It does at that.”
“…Do you think people can send [Messages] to this person? I mean, obviously they must have access to the Mage’s Guild if they’re able to send this around, right?”
She looked so hopeful. So desperate. Pisces paused. He turned his head for a moment, responded casually.
“I would not.”
“This…[Reporter] has undoubtedly incurred the wrath of all the nations mentioned in this article. It would be unwise to contact them on an unsecured [Message] spell sent through the Mage’s Guild. They read your correspondence. Believe me.”
Erin deflated. Pisces hesitated, and then carefully placed a hand on her shoulder. She looked up, but he only smiled slightly, and then tilted his head upwards and sniffed.
“I suppose we could read more of these ah, articles. They are interesting and provide a different take on Chandrar! Perhaps this character will report on the end. And no doubt one might find out more about them. I certainly would like to know more about this class.”
“Yes. Yes, let’s ask.”
Pisces walked Erin back into the Mage’s Guild. Thinking hard. And he was far from the only one. The news article that cost so much hadn’t been read—much. At first. But like a growing wave, it had traction. The [Necromancer] and [Innkeeper] weren’t the only ones poring over the words that day.
Archmage Feor put down the newspaper and looked at his aide, Teura. The half-Elf focused on the name.
“Canada. One of the countries from the other world. Send a team to find this Remi and retrieve them. Before they are assassinated or taken captive.”
“At once, Archmage. Should the team be ready for conflict?”
“Yes. The Siren of Songs is furious. As are a number of other rulers who have become aware of the article. The Mage’s Guilds are not being subtle about how they advertise this…journalism. Send word—carefully—to instruct the Mage’s Guilds not to reveal the location of this [Reporter].”
Teura bowed slightly. Feor looked down at the article. Of course, he knew what was going on even if he hadn’t read the news. But the concept of someone simply going into a warzone and…telling people what was happening? Everyone? Not a [Spy], or [Informant]?
“A strange concept.”
And bothersome. Archmage Feor rose with a sigh. This was Tiqr’s final hour indeed. And the Empress of Beasts still had not tried to contact the King of Destruction. If she did, it would be now. Wistram was watching.
But for now there was only silence. Empress Nsiia sat on her throne, waiting. Her army and her people waited, as the armies gathered outside her home. Her city was silent before the end. The Empress of Beasts paused.
“General Vasraf. The scrying mirror. Bring it to me. It is time Flos Reimarch and I spoke.”
The man started. He looked up, wearily, war-torn. He raised his voice angrily, furiously, even.
“Now? At this hour? It is too late, Empress.”
Nsiia raised her head.
“I know that. But it was too late the moment the other nations declared war. He and I knew that. Bring me the mirror. It is not for Tiqr’s salvation I ask. But to make an end to this. He could not save Tiqr. But he can give me destruction.”
Vasraf looked at his [Empress]. Then he bowed silently. The Empress of Beasts sat on her throne. She looked ahead, east.
And there he stood. Silent, staring out across his nation. The same article fluttered from Flos Reimarch’s grasp. He let it float to the floor and turned. He leaned across the window, looking across Reim. Staring blankly, remembering a girl who laughed and rode a little elephant around, decades past. Flos, the King of Destruction stared out the window. After a moment he looked up.