He had rather liked her. But that seldom mattered. Sometimes, he thought that Chandrar was, of all the continents, the most foolish. Not because their people were the most impoverished, the most warlike, or their cultures any more backwards than those of other nations.
All you had to do was look at Izril’s divided continent, or Baleros’ endemic wars or even the hidebound orders of [Knights] in Terandria. Rhir alone was built on a stubborn refusal to abandon a battle without victory. No, what separated Chandrar was ego.
He had liked Nsiia, though they had talked so briefly. But he could admire her kingdom. What it had been. Yet, where she erred was simply in refusing to bow. That was Chandrar’s issue. It’s leaders could be humble, or proud, and pride clashed with pride until only one was left. And that left only expediency.
Magus-Crafter Femithain was tired. Tired of blood and gore. Tired of death, of hounding a foe almost as stubborn as the Golems he crafted. But it was the end. Evening was falling as he stood on the plains surrounding Oliphant, the capital of Tiqr.
The city was built upon one of the few natural rivers in this region, which had given Tiqr its life. It had fed the city. Now, the river was dammed, to starve the defenders of water. And the city’s gates were barred, the sandstone walls held. But it seemed a paltry army compared to the one outside the city.
From where he stood in the coalition’s camp, Femithain could see the vast Nerrhavian army. Nearly three hundred thousand strong; replenished after General Thelican had realized Tiqr would not roll over easily. The Magus-Crafter could also see into Oliphant; his spectacles magnified, zooming in on a crowd of civilians. Badly-armed, being shown the basics of holding a spear.
He grimaced. Oliphant hadn’t been fully evacuated. When the coalition’s army went over the walls—and they would—it might be a slaughter.
“If you had but condemned him…”
Femithain fell silent. Perhaps it would have changed nothing. Tiqr might have been offered up anyways, a target simply by association with the King of Destruction. But even now, they had not begged for Reim’s help. They had not declared themselves for Flos. It made monsters of the armies invading Tiqr; gave them no cause for war. Femithain was well aware of the hypocrisy, but it was join forces or be made a target. And Illivere was not a nation that stood alone.
Still, if these were regrets, they had been had before. Femithain walked through the Nerrhavian camp. He was challenged four times by [Soldiers], the closer he came to the center. But they recognized him and waved him past.
The heart of Nerrhavia’s camp was little like the military discipline of the outside. Slaves and servants attended to the officers, who lounged about, chatting, enjoying themselves while their [Soldiers] attended to the needs of their army. It fit with Nerrhavia’s system; authority was rewarded.
Thus, Femithain only had to steer himself towards the largest tent. Even the war-tent wasn’t as large as General Thelican’s quarters. The magical cloth rustled and warm air—warm instead of the night’s slight chill—instantly surrounded the Magus-Crafter. Femithain looked around.
General Thelican was reclining on a sofa, brought by a bag of holding, attended to by eight servants. He was not alone; a number of his officers were conversing with him. Silk-caste, superior in movement and appearance, if not quite as sturdy as the Stitch-Warriors made of Hemp. Femithain knew he was plain compared to them.
“Magus-Crafter! Ah, your army has arrived. Come! Sit! Any refreshments you wish, partake.”
General Thelican saw Femithain and waved a languid arm. The Magus-Crafter saw two [Slaves] hurry towards him. He paused, and his eyes flicked to the side. A man was crouched in the wide tent, the only other person not reclining. Or rather, a male.
He too was a Stitch-Person, but his skin was rough. Not quite hemp; some thick, plant fiber perhaps. It gave him a rugged, tough look, but the utility clearly set him apart from the silk-fleshed loungers. He was an outcast. But too important to eject from the tent.
Femithain saw the Named Adventurer was crouching over a pot with his gear arrayed in front of him. He was flexing his bow, dipping ivory arrows into the little black pot beside him. Alked Fellbow looked up, his glittering armor—made of the scales of a Basilisk if Femithain was any judge—reflecting the light. He nodded and Femithain inclined his head. And then the leader of Illivere approached the [General].
“General Thelican. My greetings.”
General Thelican did hail from Nerrhavia, but he was respectful of Femithain’s position and sat up to nod to him. Femithain paused as another sofa was arranged in the circle, but he adopted the same lounging position as the Stitch-People. It was not comfortable to Femithain, but it was far more courteous than insisting on sitting.
“I trust you arrived without ambush?”
“Surprisingly, yes. The animals have all fled, it seems. Those that were not eradicated.”
Femithain made small-talk for a moment, but he and Thelican had spoken enough to be comfortable in each other’s presence. Or at least, Thelican assumed that was true. The [General] nodded after Femithain had been given food and drink; he did not wish to be hand-fed.
“It is good of you to join us. We are about to assail Oliphant and your Golems are a key component in my plan of attack.”
“So it will be an attack?”
That was news to Femithain. The coalition had been hesitating. Oliphant was hardly a bastion, but the Empress of Beast’s army would still hold the walls. Thelican grimaced.
“It may be costly, but I have orders, you see?
“Ah. Say no more.”
Queen Yisame, then. Thelican nodded, shrugging casually.
“Costly, but I assure you, my Hemp [Soldiers] will take the first wave at the walls. In truth, I would not consider it amiss for Illivere to hold back its foot soldiers; I have only need of your Golems.”
He glanced up and Femithain nodded. A little favor. Thelican crooked a finger and a [Slave]—Garuda—rushed forwards with a bowl. He choose some nuts, and they were fed to him as he went on.
“We may struggle on the walls, yes, so my [Strategists] tell me. But the Empress of Beasts has no cards left to play. We count eighteen of her Grand Elephants left, virtually none of her [Mages]—the Laughing Brigade was destroyed last night, did you hear?”
“I did. It was a remarkable victory. But not it seems, entirely bloodless.”
Thelican’s face twisted in displeasure. He turned and another bowl was brought for him to spit discretely into. The nuts were suddenly no longer appetizing.
“Ah. That’s the second thing. These—articles. And this [Reporter] who seems to be interviewing [Soldiers]. Have you any idea where they are? Queen Yisame is rather upset about this person, and she has commanded me to find them. Naturally, I leap to her word, but I am fighting a war at the moment.”
He looked irate, as well he might be. Femithain had a copy of the articles and they were astoundingly accurate to what was really going on in Tiqr’s war. It was embarrassing, if not to him personally than the Siren of Savere and Nerrhavia’s [Queen], Yisame. He paused.
“Not personally, General Thelican. Surely locating one outsider is not a difficult task?”
Thelican waved an angry hand, grasping for a goblet of wine.
“You’d imagine so! However, this person seems to be untraceable. Their face? None of my officers can recall it! And they have a rather attractive personality, or so it seems. Skills. I’ve of a mind to set Adventurer Fellbow on the trail, but—”
He looked pointedly at the Named Adventurer. Alked Fellbow raised his head and replied in a gravelly voice.
“I’m not being paid to hunt down civilians. I was contracted for one war. Altering my contract requires a substantial fee.”
“…So he says.”
Thelican dismissed the Named Adventurer with a flick of the fingers. He shook his head, drinking deeply.
“I’ll find this person after the siege is done. They’ll have little to report but our victory in any case! I’ve drawn up our plan of attack. Interested?”
Thelican waved another hand; maps were produced and held up by his attendants. He pointed, and Femithain saw.
“We wait for every army to assemble before beginning the siege. A classic envelopment, I think. The walls will not give us much trouble, so I intend to overwhelm the defenders with sheer numbers rather than attack from any one side. I’d prefer to starve out a surrender, to be frank. But Oliphant’s stores might last them weeks, or even months depending on how well-stocked their larders are.”
“You imagine so?”
“Their city might well be empty save for their army. Hundreds of thousands have already fled west. And more to Pomle. I can’t imagine any would stay in the city knowing what’s coming!”
Some of his officers laughed. Femithain paused. He had seen civilians training, but he nodded anyways. It still wouldn’t matter; Thelican was adopting a simple, but effective tactic. There would be ten full armies assailing Oliphant from all sides. Nerrhavia alone could probably take it over a protracted siege. All together…
“Not to worry, Magus-Crafter. Ere tomorrow, we shall toast each other from Oliphant’s palace, such as it is. And I intend to keep Illivere’s forces back from the fighting! Note the Golems? Your Golems will storm the southern gates, take out any elephants, but you and your [Soldiers] will be well clear of the fighting. Unless you’d prefer to send some in to level them? I can arrange that.”
Thelican mistook Femithain’s scrutiny of the battle plans for worry. Femithain shook his head. he was no [Strategist], but he had noticed some irregularities within Thelican’s plan.
“Illivere’s place is well-set, General Thelican. I was more interested in the positioning of the other armies. I notice Savere is positioned without major support to the west flank. Little [Mage] or [Archer] cover save for their own forces. And no siege ladders.”
The Stitch-[General] paused, and quickly hid his surprise by another gulp of wine.
“Ah, well, Savere’s [Bandit Lady]—dreadful class—has made the same protest. But I am the commanding [General]. And Savere will do well enough alone. They are [Scoundrels] and [Rogues] and so forth, used to city-fighting. In truth, Magus-Crafter, it’s all to do with the conclusion of the battle. The Empress of Beasts. Another order, you see.”
Femithain’s didn’t have to think.
“You want her alive.”
“Alive, most certainly. And it would please me if you would give the same orders to your forces. I have…a plan of battle that involves sending your Golems and some of my elite warriors through the gaps first to secure the Empress of Beasts. Now, I believe the Siren wishes Empress Nsiia alive, but in her grasp. Queen Yisame, our radiant leader, has given me an order to take her first. A matter of pride for Nerrhavia, so it must be.”
The other officers nodded and murmured their agreement. They were all watching Femithain to see if he objected. His nation was comparable to Savere’s after all, and while Nerrhavia was the giant of their coalition, Femithain’s objections could be—tricky. He was a leader of his nation and technically outranked General Thelican. However, the Magus-Crafter only nodded politely.
“I have no objections, General Thelican. I am merely surprised Queen Yisame wishes her enemy captured. Given Tiqr’s resistance.”
The [General] relaxed and laughed.
“Our [Queen] loves trophies, Magus-Crafter! And the Empress of Beasts? Better a royal prisoner or personal slave of Nerrhavia than one of Savere’s lot. It would be merciful. Perhaps she’d even be awarded to me for my efforts! Ah, but one does not dream too mightily.”
He tapped the side of his nose. Femithain looked at him. And he imagined the proud [Empress] who’d dared to speak her mind in chains. No wonder Tiqr had held until the point of annihilation. You couldn’t cage a beast. They had the spark Golems lacked. But that was what he thought. And Femithain seldom said what he thought. So he nodded, politely, and did what was best for Illivere.
“No doubt. Then let us toast your—excuse me—our victory, General Thelican.”
He’d thought he’d laid it on too thickly. But the [General] beamed and raised his own cup, calling Femithain his Stitch-Brother, a high compliment for a flesh-based person to receive. And Femithain waited for dawn, drinking lightly. He had a feeling the Empress of Beasts would not fall quietly. And he was right.
The King of Destruction sat in his quarters, the drapes to his balcony pulled back. The rich fabric was pulled back, the doors thrown open. And the balcony was wet.
It was raining. The sky was dark, the clouds overfull. And from the sky, rain fell, soaking the arid lands of Reim. The King of Destruction watched the rain falling, sitting still in his chair.
He was an imposing man. The image of a [King] of old, his hair red and gold, his eyes emerald-green. His hands, more used to reins or a sword, rested on the arms of his chair. And he was still. Waiting.
Someone knocked on the door to his room. Flos Reimarch looked up. Instantly, he spoke, shifting his posture.
A young girl entered the room. She was young—far younger than he was. She bore a sword on her hip and wore the same light clothing as he did—and nearly as rich. Flos smiled as he saw her looking at him.
“Oh. Teresa, come in. I was expecting someone else.”
Teres, or Teresa Atwood, one of the two twins from Earth, and the King of Destruction’s personal aides, servants, bodyguards, or perhaps, hostages, walked into the room. She was familiar with Flos, and not afraid of him. If anything, she was somewhat challenging, in tone of voice and posture. She was holding something in her hands. Flos glanced at it, puzzled.
“A [Message]. Or perhaps a conversation. What’s that you’re holding?”
Flos was distracted. He glanced back to the window again. Teres waited. She knew he wanted to ask about the pot, but he’d been like this lately. Hence Gazi not-so-subtly encouraging Teres to snap him out of it. She’d done her best, but in truth, the King of Destruction was simply melancholic today.
The war in Tiqr had dominated the last month, and the King of Destruction’s mood. But his ill-tempered fury and restlessness had given way to a somber, quiet mood these last few days. He exhaled, staring out the window.
“I’m admiring the rain, Teresa. Come, sit. Is it not a wonderful sight?”
Teres raised an eyebrow, but she went over and pulled over a chair. Flos blinked and Teres blushed; she was dragging it through what was this world’s equivalent of a Persian rug. He didn’t seem to really care, but Teres hurriedly lifted the chair up and carried it over to him. She sat and looked out the window. After a moment she coughed.
“It’s been raining. For days. Is it that rare in Reim?”
“Out of season? Unheard of. It’s a beautiful sight, no matter how many times I see it.”
Flos was unmoved by her lack of awe. He watched it rain. After a moment, Teres lifted the pot.
“Look at this.”
The King of Destruction stared at the little pot. It was clay, fired from some oven and given some carvings along the bottom. Not a fine work; some apprentice’s piece. It was also filled with dirt. Something green was poking out of the top. A broad-headed leaf. Flos eyed it.
“Is that a Yellat stalk?”
“Yup. Want to see how big it is?”
Flos hesitated, but Teres was tempting him. He paused, then pulled at the stalk. It came up and both he and Teres exclaimed at the large, fat Yellat. The spicy-tasting, vaguely tubular roots were usually long and narrow, but this one hadn’t been able to grow in the pot, so it had curled up on itself.
“What an unusual shape!”
The [King] was highly amused. He shook dirt off the Yellat, onto the aforementioned rich carpet and stone floor. Teres winced, but the [Servants] could probably get it out. And Flos’ laugh was worth the dirt. He stared at it, bemused.
“Are you attempting to be a [Gardener], Teres? There’s little potential for war in the [Gardener] class, I’ll have you know. Although my [Gardener], Tottenval, could grow the most wondrous of plants. Ah, but if he’d been here, Reim would be blooming eternally.”
He sighed. Teres hurriedly pointed to the Yellat to keep him from backsliding into gloom.
“I planted this seven days ago in my room. I watered it, but I didn’t do anything other than put it by my window. Look how big it is.”
“Yes indeed. Quite tasty. I have a mind to eat it. But of course, Yellats taste horrible raw. I’ll hand it to one of my [Chefs] and have it for dinner. Or a snack.”
Flos good-naturedly tossed it back into the bowl. Teres cleared her throat meaningfully.
“It grew in seven days. Don’t Yellats take…longer?”
“Seventy days. It’s just as well our growing seasons are so long. And that Chandrar has little to no winter. But they don’t take much water. What of it?”
Teres folded her arms. Flos paused.
“Oh, well, I told you. I issued an Edict. The [Edict of Bloom]. Hence…that.”
Flos waved a lazy hand. Teres stared out the window. She knew what Edicts were. A [King]’s order that could encompass a kingdom. But she hadn’t thought it would be this powerful.
“Is that why it’s still raining?”
“Most likely, most likely. It’s a happy surprise. It saves my [Farmers] the issue of watering. Their only complaint is that it’s too wet for some crops to crow. Happily, Yellats only get fatter with water. They’re harvesting quickly! They have Skills on top of their natural abilities, Teres. I dare say their Yellats might be as long as my leg!”
He laughed at the thought, then frowned.
“The [Edict of Bloom] will fill Reim’s storehouses. But we must be careful not to overstretch. The soil’s lost some of its potency from all this growing. The [Farmers] are telling Orthenon they must switch crops after this next harvest. I don’t suppose you recall anything more of this crop rotation? My [Farmers] say they have a good system—and of course, some have Skills that replenish the dirt, but…”
He looked at Teres. She could only shrug unhelpfully.
“Sorry. I never grew anything back home.”
“Ah, well. The rain is good enough. I’m glad we could collect so much water as well; it will help for the dry seasons and campaigns.”
The King of Destruction looked pleased. Teres just raised an eyebrow.
“About that. I thought the [Edict of Bloom] only affected plants. That’s what Trey told me you said to him.”
“So did I! But the last time I used it was…ah, twenty levels ago. As I said, Teres. Edicts wear at a kingdom. I try not to use them unless I have need for them. I suppose I’ve become a stronger [King] since then.”
“Wait. So last time you used it, you only got plants to grow faster?”
“And babies to be born quicker. Better harvests. Hm. Energized citizens. Yes, that was what happened last time. No rain.”
“So leveling up gives your edict more power?”
Flos looked like he was explaining why the ground was the ground to a child. Teres stared at him. He elaborated.
“Come now, I’ve taught you about Skills and classes, haven’t I? Why is it a surprise that your level affects the strength of your Skills? Have you ever seen a [Lady] use [Deft Hand]? Well, most of them fled Reim when I entered my slumber. I’ll try to find one and have them show you an example.”
“What can a [Lady] do?”
Teres watched Flos perch the cup with dirt in it by the edge of the table. He flicked his wrist at it. The cup didn’t move.
“See that? [Deft Hand] lets you reach out and touch something. At low levels, say, Level 10, you can knock over something like that cup, or stop one from falling. Useful, in…tea circles, but not for most other things, correct?”
Teres nodded dutifully. Flos leaned back; the poor cup nearly fell over on its own as he nudged the table.
“However, I have heard that during war, high-level [Ladies] can divert a shower of arrows, even change the direction of a cavalry charge. At least, if someone like Orthenon isn’t leading them or Maresar isn’t shooting the arrows.”
“Of course. Have you seen the [Warriors] practicing with [Power Strike]? Ask Mars to do the same and stand back! Strength lies in your level, Teres. Why do you think half the world is so afraid of me and my little kingdom? Then again, strength is also in magical items. Spells. Sheer numbers. Gold.”
Flos sighed again. Teres bit her lip. He was thinking of Tiqr again.
He’d promised not to go to war. Unless a nation gave Reim just cause, the King of Destruction would not make war without reason. That was what Flos had promised, but that had led to other nations declaring war on Tiqr, one of the few countries even remotely sympathetic towards him. It had been nearly a month and Flos hadn’t gone to Tiqr’s aid.
He wanted to, Teres and Trey could see it in every line of his being, the way he hung on reports from Tiqr and discussed strategy with Gazi and Orthenon when he returned from managing Hellios on occasion. But he couldn’t intervene, not without breaking his promise. And that might lead to every nation in Chandrar attacking Reim.
Teres was about to suggest Flos eat the Yellat, or show her one of his Skills, but the King of Destruction had turned to look out the window. She expected him to make some other rain-related comment, but suddenly, he sat up and pointed.
“Look. My people are returning.”
The King of Destruction stood as Teres turned. In the distance, buffeted by the rain, she could see…Teres had to squint. Her eyes weren’t nearly as good as Flos’, but she saw a thin line through the drizzle at last.
“It looks that way. They’re coming from the north. They must be exhausted.”
“The patrols probably already spotted them.”
Teres was sure of it; no one would have made it this far without being seen, but the King of Destruction was already turning. He clapped his hands once.
The door instantly opened and a [Servant] appeared. Flos turned.
“Yes, your Majesty!”
The woman beamed. Flos nodded, smiling.
“Send someone to escort my people into the city. [Healers] should ride out—and [Riders] with wagons to carry them if there are young or old amongst them. Have the [Chefs] prepare food! Oh, and cook this, will you? I want to eat it.”
“At once, sire!”
The [Servant] didn’t even look twice at the Yellat that Flos handed her, although she did notice Teres’ dirty cup. But she rushed out, and another [Servant] replaced her.
“Will there be anything else, your Majesty? Shall I send someone to remove the dirt or cup…?”
“Leave the dirt for later. Do you want your cup back, Teres?”
The [Servant] bowed. Teres found herself alone with the King of Destruction once more. He sat back down; already, someone was riding out from Reim’s gates towards the group of refugees.
“From all across Chandrar they are coming, Teres. It almost makes the news of Tiqr easier to swallow. This is my peace. My people return to me. Do you see?”
Teres nodded. It was one of hundreds of such caravans that had come to Reim this month, and many had numbers in the thousands. Flos’ subjects, all those who still thought well of the King of Destruction, had left their homes and made the long journey to Reim. Many were still coming; they were sheltered by his proclamation of peace.
“So you have an army.”
“I have a kingdom. Some will fight. But many will simply settle in Reim, Germina, or Hellios. My nation was worn away by my slumber; this will return it to its glory.”
Flos corrected Teres, smiling. Then he paused again.
“Tiqr will fall tomorrow. So I feel. Nsiia is cornered in her capital. I have been to Oliphant. Unless it has changed drastically, it will not last long.”
Teres sighed. Flos was worse than a dog with a bone. She fished around in her pocket. She hadn’t wanted to use her trump card just yet, but it was time. Slowly, she pulled out a smooth, rectangular object.
“Your people are nearing the city. Are you going to greet them?”
“In a moment.”
“Well, then why don’t I take a picture? Of your citizens?”
“Take a what? Oh!”
Flos turned. His eyes widened as he saw Teres holding her iPhone. She held it up, the little camera light shining. Teres smiled triumphantly as the King of Destruction did a double-take, looking towards the balcony.
“Your phone! Does it still have its energy?”
“Smartphone. And yes, it does. I told you, it’s got hours left. Ever since Ulyse recharged it.”
Teres held the smartphone up, grinning with pure pleasure at the look on Flos’ face. Of course, she’d had her iPhone from the beginning, like Trey. But both their phones had run out of battery within two days of them arriving in this world. They’d only lasted long enough for a very strange chat message with other people from Earth and then gone dead.
The twins had assumed it would be forever, but one of the [Mages] who had recently come to Reim, Ulyse, leader of the [Mage]-group, Parasol Stroll, had tried to fix Trey’s iPhone. And—miracle of miracles—a simple [Repair] spell had charged the smartphones back to full strength! Teres was still amazed; she’d spent all of yesterday on her iPhone, just…playing with it. She’d listened to all her music, looked at all her pictures—
The ones of her family hurt her most. Her family, and friends. She’d tried not to linger on them and it didn’t bother her now. She was focused on Flos’ expression. He’d seen her and Trey waving the smartphones about, but they’d barely been able to explain them to the [King], so excited they’d been. Now he peered at the glowing screen, frowning.
“You showed me the camera when we first met. And you explained the pictures—similar to a [Mage]-image. This little thing can make one?”
“It can take one. Of you, or your people. Anything I want. See? Look—I’m going to take a picture—”
“Yes, yes. And the little picture is what this camera sees. Fascinating. Very disconcerting, too. You’re going to take a picture of my people returning? That’s very appropriate. Worthy of a…picture.”
Flos peered at the image of the world through the screen. Teres nodded.
“If you’ll just let me—”
She held up the iPhone, trying to get the best resolution. It was hard because the image kept refocusing; Flos was excitedly peering at the lens, then stalking around to watch Teres take the picture. He kept shaking his head as she tapped the iPhone, trying to center the shot and zoom in.
“Incredible. A simple spell gives it it’s…energy back? No, wait. Electricity. Charge. You explained it to me. But you told me it was harnessed lightning, not magic!”
“I don’t know why either. Ulyse just cast [Repair] and it worked. Flos, your face is in the way.”
He pulled it out of the way hurriedly.
“Fascinating. And you can take however many you want? Far more efficient than [Artists] or [Mages]!”
“That’s right. Okay, I have a good image.”
The people were getting closer to the city and Teres had framed the balcony, the city, and them. It was fairly good, if she said so herself. She held up the iPhone and then looked at Flos. He was not-quite-subtly standing next to her view of the people in the distance.
“Do you want to be in it?”
“They are my people. And I am a [King]. Shouldn’t I be?”
Teres rolled her eyes, but didn’t debate the point. It was working.
“Alright then! Get ready!”
She refrained from saying, ‘say cheese!’ because it would take too long to explain. To her surprise, Flos immediately stiffened up. He adopted a straight-backed posture, hands at his side, and an almost expressionless face, chin slightly tilted to the open window. It was so—uncharacteristic that Teres had to grin. Flos paused, seeing it.
“Why are you standing like that?”
He looked like the very same people captured in old photographs from her world. Not someone taking a selfie or just—posing for a picture. Teres tried to explain, but the King of Destruction didn’t understand what was so funny. He frowned.
“Yes! Be more natural! You look far too…serious!”
“The picture is a recollection, a historical marker. Should I be irreverent?”
“Well, I think it would look better. Try smiling, or pointing at them!”
Teres urged the King of Destruction. He hesitated uncertainly, one of the few times she’d ever seen him thusly. Then he tried to take her advice. Flos turned to face the camera, adjusted his posture so he was at a slight angle towards the balcony. Then he held one and hand out, as if gesturing at the influx of people in the distance. He gave the camera the fakest smile Teres had ever seen him make.
She paused, staring through the camera. Flos hesitated, and then spoke through his teeth.
“Is it done?”
“No. One second—”
She hit the camera button and Flos blinked in the flash. That just made the picture…well, not worse—it was already a work of art in the hall of failure. Teres shook her head.
“I take it back. You were right. That’s awful. Come and see what you look like!”
The King of Destruction approached apprehensively. Teres showed him the picture of him, eyes half-closed, fake smile on his face. Flos stared. And then he burst out laughing. He guffawed, slapping his chest, staring wide-eyed, and then choking, trying to hold it in, silently laughing until it burst out of him again. He had to take a few steps back until he was slapping one leg, bracing himself against the table.
The King of Destruction’s hilarity took Teres off-guard. She’d expected him to laugh, but this? It was so infectious that she began giggling, and then laughing herself. Their voices made the servant’s door open, and the [Servants] stared at their [King]. Then they began laughing themselves.
There was no malice in it. But the laughter was long-overdue. Like a pressure cooker, the King of Destruction’s naturally good mood suddenly reflated. And he laughed.
It changed the mood of the room. The quiet silence broke. And the entire castle seemed to light up. Maybe that was how it felt. Or maybe that was just his presence. Even the rain seemed to lessen. But regardless, the King of Destruction left his room, Teres in tow. He held up the iPhone, still chuckling, and went down the hall. And every single person he met in the hall had to see the image of him.
It wasn’t funny. It really wasn’t. Teres stopped laughing after the first four times. But Flos kept laughing, and to her surprise, everyone who saw it started laughing as well. It was like she’d somehow trapped comedy in a single picture.
For a while Teres didn’t understand—until she realized the picture on her iPhone was the clearest photo most people in this world had ever seen. Flos Reimarch himself had probably seen himself only a few times, and then only in a mirror, or with magic. Not like this.
But there he went, holding her iPhone. Laughing. And for a moment he’d forgotten about Tiqr. And Reim, like it’s [King], laughed for a moment in the rain.
Trey Atwood heard the laughter first. It was a booming laugh, but everything about the King of Destruction was large. And love him or hate him—and there were things to hate, for all Trey admired him at times—he was easy to like. And the half-Gazer woman who looked up from her lesson in Trey’s quarters with a bunch of magical scrolls and a textbook smiled. Because she loved him.
Gazi Pathseeker looked up as the door to Trey’s room burst open. Flos, the King of Destruction strode into the room. He was holding Teres’ iPhone in one hand. And on his face was a look of mirth Trey hadn’t seen for over a month.
“Gazi! Gazi, come see this! Could you ever imagine me making such a face?”
Flos thrust the iPhone at Gazi. She blinked, staring at the device. Then she focused on the imagine on screen. It took her a second. But then she grinned. Her sharp teeth and four smaller eyes focused around the large, shut eye in her head. The half-Gazer stared at the image of Flos.
And then she laughed. It was quiet, and instantly drowned out by Flos’ bellow of laughter. Trey saw Teres standing behind Flos. She waved at him, grinning and mouthing something. He nodded.
She’d done it. And Flos was laughing. Gazi looked at Flos, shaking her head.
“You look ridiculous, my lord.”
“I know! What a sight! It’s one of these pictures! Teres took one—Trey! You didn’t tell me these devices were capable of such things!”
“They can do a lot more than that. That’s just a bad picture, your Majesty.”
“What? It’s fantastic! It needs to be kept forever! Can I somehow duplicate this? Is that—where’d it go?”
The screen had timed out and turned dark. Flos looked alarmed. Teres took the smartphone back.
“It’s still here. The screen just went dark. I don’t think there’s a printer in this world, but it’s saved. Maybe an [Artist] can copy this? I told you these can do a lot more than you could imagine.”
“I believe it. But you were so delighted yesterday—by all means, show me one of these devices from your world! And everyone walks around with them?”
“Most people. I told you Earth’s technology was advanced.”
“Yes, but this is astounding! It’s one thing to hear of it, the other to see. Very well, show me something else. I still maintain that magic can work wonders your world lacks. Like creating water. How do you manage in droughts?”
Flos handed the iPhone back. Teres unlocked it and then gave Trey a look he knew all too well.
“Well, we have photos—and video—and all kinds of useful stuff like calculators and so on. But we also have games.”
She elbowed him, hard. Gazi looked at them with one eye; another was fixed on Flos, the other two looking at the people clustered in the doorway, trying not to peek. They vanished as they saw Gazi looking at them. Flos frowned.
Teres grinned wickedly. She was going to try to take Flos down a peg. Trey groaned. Then he groaned louder when he saw where she was going.
“You tap on the screen, like so, see? And that makes the phone do all sorts of things.”
“I see, I see. Not hard at all! Look! I’ve taken a photo!”
“Of my arm. Okay, you can do that later. But look! I have one of the games people play in my world. It’s a competitive game, actually…want to try?”
“Certainly. I enjoy games. But how will it fit on such a small thing, I wonder? No—wait—just show me. I can’t wait.”
Flos smiled. Trey watched with a dull incredulity. She was actually doing it. Teres tapped on the app with a wicked grin that escaped only Flos in the room. She opened the app and the King of Destruction read the name.
“Flappy Bird? Is that a…bird?”
Trey covered his face. Teres smiled wickedly.
“It’s one of the easiest games. All you do is tap on the screen, see? And the bird goes up—”
“What are those green things? Is that…supposed to be the sky behind it? And that is a bird? It looks nothing like—well, I suppose some fish—”
Flos objected as he tried to grasp the game. Teres tried to explain the nature of warp pipes and artificial games to Flos. Trey just watched. Soon, Flos was watching Teres tap on the screen. She had a high score of eighty three, a personal best.
Trey hated that stupid game so much. He didn’t know why she’d kept it on her iPhone. But it was topical to their world, and Flos was fascinated.
“And you play that game to receive the highest score? That is fun! Simple, yes. A children’s game?”
“Oh no. Adults play it too. It’s just for passing the time.”
“I see, I see. How convenient. Well, allow me to try.”
Teres gave it to Flos with the sweetest of smiles. She’d gotten to nine in her little demonstration, but Flos hadn’t missed the number at the top of the screen. He stroked his beard.
“Eighty three? Fascinating. Even your words resemble ours so much. But enough of such questions. This is your best. Well, I will tap to play and—”
The little bird went up. Flos tapped, copying Teres.
“Up, and up, and—ah!”
It ran into the pipe. Not the second pipe, the first one. Flos’ face fell. Teres’ smile grew wider.
“What a fragile bird. Can’t it move properly?”
Flos muttered. The [King] stared at the screen.
“You can start over. See?”
“Of course! A second attempt! Are there penalties for…?”
“Nope. Keep playing!”
He did. Flos tapped, and this time the bird got past the first pipe. The second, the third—it hit the sixth. Flos’ brows furrowed together.
“Hold on. This little bird—”
“Harder than it looks, right?”
Teres asked innocently. The King of Destruction looked up from the phone. This time he saw Trey’s expression and her face. But he stubbornly tapped her iPhone.
“It’s a matter of timing. I’ve played far harder games. Orthenon tried to interest me in chess—this is—”
Tap, tap, tap. Gazi was watching her [King], the ruler of Reim and the man who’d conquered all of Chandrar, tap on the phone and watch his little bird die. Flos made it to thirteen. And then eighteen. And then four. He just didn’t have the rhythm down.
“Move down, you little pest! Why does it always move like—can’t it fly properly? What’s the point of this?”
“To win. And the bird always moves like that. It’s a challenge.”
Teres replied sweetly. She was enjoying Flos’ frustration to no end. The King of Destruction looked up with a huge scowl.
“I’m beginning to think you’ve played some trick on me, Teres.”
“Me? It’s just my iPhone. Nothing special. As simple as magic, right?”
The [King] narrowed his eyes. Then he turned.
“Magic? I never learned to cast it. On the other hand—Gazi, would you like a try with this infernal game?”
“If your Majesty wishes.”
Gazi smiled slightly. Trey looked at her. She took the iPhone cautiously—both she and Flos handled it as if it were glass, which it did look like. And Gazi tapped the screen.
“It’s easy. All you do is tap—”
Teres’ smug voice was cut off as Gazi swiveled one eye to look at her. The half-Gazer gave her a sharp-toothed grin.
“I have seen.”
She began to tap. Her pace was measured, deliberate. She was copying Teres! And unlike Flos, Gazi didn’t get excited. One of her eyes focused on the screen while the other three went roaming. Trey watched. Gazi tapped, tapped, tapped—and hit a pipe.
“Oops! Well done, though, Gazi.”
Flos smiled good-naturedly. The half-Gazer only shrugged. She met Teres’ smile with her own.
“If you’ll allow me to try again, your Majesty?”
Flos waved a hand. This time Gazi focused two eyes on the screen. She began tapping. And her bird died again.
On pipe twelve. And it had missed the edge of the pipe by an invisible pixel. Gazi paused, blinked down at the screen. Then Trey saw three of her four eyes focus on the screen. Teres stopped grinning.
The third time she got to thirty nine but ran into a pipe by tapping too fast. Gazi paused, flexed her hand—her fingers were different from a regular Human’s; there were only four, for one thing, and her orange-brown skin was another feature of her mixed heritage. And the eyes, obviously.
“I think I understand. Now.”
She began tapping. And Teres’ smile faded. Flos watched, nodding to himself and smiling. Trey was just incredulous. Because Gazi started tapping and the bird moved through the pipes perfectly.
Tap, tap, tap. Gazi focused three eyes, then two, and then one. She was counting the score. She passed eighty-three. And then a hundred. And then two hundred. Teres threw up her hands.
“Shh! She’s beating your score, Teres!”
She glared at him. Trey watched, delightedly, as did Flos, but Gazi’s intent focus began to waver. She began glancing at the screen with one of her eyes, not even watching with that one.
After a score of three hundred and fifteen, the bird ran into a pipe. Not, Trey thought, because Gazi had made a mistake. She’d just gotten bored. She handed the iPhone back to her [King]. Teres was still in a state of shock.
“How did you—but—that’s not fair! You’ve never even played it before! Trey, did you give her your phone?”
“I don’t even have that stupid game!”
Gazi just shrugged, her rust-colored armor moving on her shoulders. She gave Trey her small smile.
“Skills. It’s a game about seeing ahead. And timing. My lord, I don’t think there’s much to it besides an idle moment’s relaxation.”
“You might be right. But I have to at least break a hundred! If you can do it, a [King] should do no less! Thirty, at least!”
Flos began tapping the screen. But he didn’t have Gazi’s incredible sense of timing or patience. He’d tap too fast, or expect the bird to, well, not, move like it did. The twins saw Flos’ brow furrowing, his expression getting more annoyed by the second. Gazi gave Teres another long stare with one eye.
“Uh, your Majesty. There are other things you can do—”
“I must reach at least thirty! No, forty!”
Flos snapped at Trey. Teres began to look as though she was regretting her prank.
“It’s just a game. And it’s my phone. Here—”
She tried to reach for it, but Flos simply lifted the phone above her reach as he continued to tap and scowl.
“No, Teres. You have thrown down the gauntlet. I must satisfy my pride or I won’t be able to dwell on anything else!”
“See what you’ve done?”
“Shut it! It was funny!”
It was, Trey had to admit. But Teres had misjudged her audience. Flos hated losing. And he began getting more and more frustrated by the comical sound effects and the bird. He started tapping harder, and losing more quickly, despite Teres trying to give him tips so he’d break thirty and stop playing.
“Just stop tapping so hard!”
“I’m not tapping hard. This bird refuses to move properly!”
Flos growled back. Trey saw him stab at the screen to retry. And then it happened.
Tap, tap, crack. Trey froze when he heard the sound. He looked up and saw the iPhone’s screen crack around Flos’ finger. He paused and Teres shouted in horror.
“What happened? I didn’t tap it too—”
“You shattered it!”
Trey was amazed. He’d seen iPhones break, but never by someone tapping it so hard. But Flos was insanely strong—no, as the King of Destruction lowered the iPhone, Trey saw the metal was slightly bent from where he’d been holding it!
“It’s so weak! What metal is this?”
“I don’t know! How’d you break it?”
“We can fix it. Teres, Ulyse managed to [Repair] it. He can fix the phone. Right?”
Teres was nearly in tears. It was her smartphone, and the screen was shattered. One of her few possessions from earth besides her clothes. Flos took one look at her face and whirled.
“[Repair] fixes most objects. And Ulyse is a master. Gazi, summon Ulyse at once! Run!”
Trey stared in surprise. But the half-Gazer didn’t wait for a second question. She took a running start, ran past Flos, and jumped out Trey’s window.
The young man ran to the window. He saw Gazi hit the ground—four stories down. She landed in a crouch, and then sprinted forwards. She was headed towards the streets. Flos was at Trey’s back.
“Ulyse must be down there. Come! We’ll meet him. Make way!”
He suited action to words. He was running down the hallway, holding the iPhone like a broken bird. Servants leapt out of the way, some shouting an alarm. The King of Destruction just bellowed for them to clear the hall and they did. Trey and Teres ran after him, more confused than anything.
Ulyse met Flos at the palace’s entrance. He was panting; he must have sprinted through the city! Gazi pointed and he strode towards Flos.
“Your Majesty, what is the issue?”
“This device. I’ve broken it. Can you repair it with a spell?”
Ulyse looked alarmed as Flos showed him the cracks and dents. He inspected it.
“I have no idea how it functions, but I can cast the same [Repair] spell, your Majesty. I have a few others I can try if it fails.”
“Then do so.”
Flos handed the iPhone to Ulyse and stood back. The [Mage] levitated it up, lifting his colorful parasol. Trey and Teres, panting, caught up to watch him slowly tap the phone with the tip of his parasol.
The iPhone twirled in the air and then the cracks began to seal. The indented metal pushed outwards, reforming into the original shape. Ulyse caught the phone as it lowered and peered at it.
“It seems normal. But I cannot tell. This spell takes more magic than I would have imagined for such an object. Nevertheless. Your Majesty?”
Flos didn’t take the phone. Teres took her smartphone with shaking hands and pressed the power button. Nothing happened.
“Hold it down, Teres.”
Trey urged her. She did, and after an agonizing second, they both saw the familiar logo appear. They exhaled. Flos looked at them urgently.
“Is it fixed?”
“Let me check—um—um—yes! It’s back! All my apps, my pictures! It’s even kept the high score! Thank you, Ulyse!”
Teres turned to the [Mage]. He wiped sweat from his brow, smiling.
“My pleasure, Miss Teres.”
“And mine. Teres, I apologize for damaging it.”
Flos inclined his head gravely to Teres. The twins stared up at him. He looked truly contrite. And he’d practically set up half the palace in alarm running to get Ulyse. People were still streaming out of the doors asking Gazi what had happened! It was ludicrous—
Until Trey looked at Flos and thought about what he was thinking. Flos was looking at Teres, the relieved look on her face as she swiped through her photos. And at her iPhone. He saw how much it meant to her.
And—it really was valuable. Unique. Even if Trey had one, Teres’ iPhone had data no one else did. Perhaps only she, in the entire world, had that game on her phone. It was a strange thought. Flos nodded, meeting Teres’ eyes.
“It truly is an irreplaceable artifact. And I will not be tapping on it any more. Clearly, some of the…activities have merit. These pictures and video? I would pay the cost of a hundred scrying orbs for such a device! The bird-thing not so much. Teres?”
“It’s okay. I mean, it’s fine. Thank you, Ulyse, again. And you, your Majesty.”
Teres looked up. Relieved, Flos turned. He addressed his people, holding up one hand gravely.
“The crisis is over! Mage Ulyse has righted my error. This fantastic little artifact is too fragile for my hands, it seems!”
He laughed, smiling.
“After that fright, I’ve a mind to eat something. Where’s that Yellat? And my people! Have they been settled?”
“Yes, your Majesty. I have your meal right here. Would you like to take it now?”
“I’ll dine with my subjects! Lead me to them! Teres, would you come with me? And take more of these…pictures? Yourself, of course.”
“I can do that.”
Teres looked up, nodding. She turned to Trey. He lamely pointed back to the castle.
“I’ll find you—later. Gazi’s making me study and I can’t skip out.”
“Sure. I’ll take all the food photos for you.”
“Why would you take a picture of food? What a waste! Unless it was a true banquet.”
Flos and Teres headed into the city followed by a bevy of servants and—Trey stared. Was that some kind of glazed Yellat on a little platter? Why just one? And why was it so…? He looked around and jumped as Gazi put her hand on his shoulder.
“Let us return to your room, Trey Atwood.”
“Gazi! You jumped out a window!”
“Does that surprise you? You know I am capable of much more.”
The half-Gazer looked amused as Trey followed her back to his room. They were studying magic; she was his teacher and he her sometimes reluctant pupil. Trey gloomily sat back down and stared at his desk. A few tiny Sand Golems walked across it; they were his creations. Gazi studied the little Golems.
“You can keep them animated for longer durations. Good. But a waste of magic.”
“They’re just for fun.”
Trey shooed one of the Golems over the edge of the table. It went splat on the ground and reformed, trundling off. Gazi watched it with one eye and then gestured to Teres’ side.
“That phone my Lord broke. You have one too. Show me?”
Trey hesitated, but one of Gazi’s eyes was looking at it. He took it out and handed it to her. At least he had no fear of Gazi breaking his phone. She inspected it, and then turned it on. She even knew his passcode! Her eyes really did see everything. But Gazi paused and just stared at the screen. She frowned, and then pointed at the phone to Trey.
“It hurts my eyes. The little things in the screen. What are they?”
“What? The apps? Er, the icons?”
“No. The little things. This is made up of many, many, tiny things. Almost too small for you to see. But I see them.”
“What? Oh! Pixels. You can see them?”
“They make the screen by changing color. I think. When you say it hurts your eyes, Gazi—”
She shook her head.
“My eyes are too sensitive. I must unfocus to see the picture. Otherwise I simply see it differently. It…flashes.”
“You mean, the screen?”
“Incredibly quickly. It keeps changing. A picture redrawn many times each second to create…”
Gazi trailed off. Trey realized she was seeing the screen refresh. He stared, amazed. Her eyes were powerful! And those were just her four secondary eyes. She’d told him her main eye could see through almost anything. He’d never seen it—or seen her open her main eyelid, though. Apparently her eye had been damaged in a fight before she’d return to Reim. By someone else from Earth.
“I guess it’s just the screen uh, drawing itself, Gazi. The iPhones were made for Humans. I can’t see a thing, but I’ve seen what you’re talking about on old televisions.”
“Hm. And it can do many things like take pictures, or even moving ones? Will you show me?”
“Oh. Of course.”
Trey sat next to Gazi and began explaining the iPhone’s functions. He felt a bit like a tech salesman, and she was an avid customer. She kept pausing to ask him to demonstrate. Even the calculator doing math made her eyes widen.
“Impressive. What else can it do?”
“I can take videos.”
Gazi nodded out the window. Trey turned and saw she was looking across Reim. Flos was in the main street, visible from their window. He was at the center of a gathering, laughing, touching hands, clasping shoulders with the newcomers. Trey looked at Gazi. Then he slowly raised the phone, zoomed in, and pressed record.
He only took a few seconds of video. When he showed it to Gazi she blinked. It was a bit grainy from a distance; Trey didn’t have the newest model. What version of iPhone was out now he’d been gone for months? But Flos was clearly visible.
“It is a wonder. One my lord doesn’t underestimate, for all he boasts of our magic, I think. Is that forever, Trey?”
“Until you delete it, or the phone breaks. But you can save it other ways, Gazi.”
“I see. May I?”
Gazi took the iPhone. She had no problem replaying the clip. She smiled at the little video of Flos. It was so genuine that it made Trey feel bad about his casual usage of the smartphone. It was valuable here. And he sat with the half-Gazer for a while.
“It cheered up his Majesty.”
She nodded at last. Trey looked up at her. Gazi offered him his phone back. And then her smile faded.
“Your sister did well, Trey. But my lord will still have to face it. Tiqr falls. But until that moment, let us distract him from it. I only wish…we had this decades past. Maybe then he would not have slumbered so long.”
She indicated the iPhone. Trey looked at it.
“It would have recaptured his memories of her. And him. And Drevish too. All of us, the ones that fell and linger only in memory.”
Tottenval and Queravia. Two of his Chosen. And Flos had loved Queravia. He loved all of his Seven; they were his family. But Queravia had been special. Of that Trey was sure. He looked up at Gazi’s face.
“Aren’t there pictures of her?”
“There were. But he burned them all. Because they couldn’t capture her. I think he regrets it to this day.”
The young man sat in silence, absorbing this. He looked down at his phone and wondered how much more had been left uncaptured. At last, he looked up.
“She’s his old friend, isn’t she? The Empress of Beasts? And Tiqr’s going to fall.”
“Yes. She was a child when he claimed Tiqr. But he swore to guard Tiqr. Now, it falls because of his oath. So yes, Trey. He is waiting. Waiting for her to ask him for help.”
“And if she does? He swore an oath not to interfere as well. Would he?”
Gazi didn’t reply. She only looked out the window. And then she stood up.
“A message is coming. Follow me, Trey. Hurry.”
The King of Destruction stood with Ulyse, listening to the [Mage] talk. He was the leader of Parasol Stroll, but in Orthenon’s absence, Ulyse and the other leaders like Gazi had begun filling leadership roles. Among them was settling the new arrivals, all of whom were weary from weeks of travel.
“Many of them are hungry. Most of them have nothing but the clothes they carry and few supplies, if any. They were chased from their homes, sometimes with their possessions confiscated.”
“Wounds? Injuries from travel?”
“Few. There were some casualties. Monster attacks, mainly, but people as well.”
“[Bandits]? On my lands?”
Flos’ brows creased. Ulyse shook his head.
“Not Reim, your Majesty. But their homeland. They were safe within Jecrass; King Raelt gave them free passage, even allowed them to barter for supplies. But many have become targets.”
“They must arrive safely, Ulyse. They are my people. Send word to the borders; patrols are to escort any claiming my sanctuary.”
The [Mage] nodded. Flos turned and looked at the [Healer].
“How fare my subjects?”
“Well enough, your Majesty. But some are weak. They will need recovery.”
Flos clicked his fingers.
“Bring out stamina potions!”
“We need not use them, your Majesty. They can recover in time.”
The [Healer] protested. Flos shook his head.
“What use are potions, if not to be used? Split them, by all means, but give any one in need of them a dose. And send word that we require more [Builders] from Hellios and Germina. Send them to colonize all the old villages and richest farmlands first. Speaking of which, how fairs Hellios?”
He addressed that question to Teres. She looked up from taking pictures of some of the refugees.
“Um—Orthenon says the country’s dissidence is mainly taken care of, your Majesty. Queen Calliope—”
“Former Queen. She abdicated.”
“—Is complying. She’s not happy, but Hellios is supplying…supplies. And Germina’s doing the same. Even better, actually. The Quarass has it all under control. She’s been asking to see you, actually.”
“Fair enough. Tell Orthenon I need him free to work elsewhere soon. Have that upstart [Prince] manage his own kingdom, perhaps. Or not, if he cannot be trusted. But I would rather have Hellios supplying resources and soldiers than be a thorn in my side later on. As for the Quarass—no doubt she has her lands under control. She does have the experience of the old Quarasses to draw on. She will seek me out when she is ready. Tell Orthenon to deal with her politely but decline her requests for my audience.”
“I’ll tell him, your Majesty.”
Teres blushed. She was tasked in keeping in touch with the [Steward]. Flos nodded at her, smiling. And then his head turned.
Someone was riding towards them down the street. Teres looked up and Ulyse turned, twirling his parasol. Gazi and Trey were hurrying from the castle at the same time.
“Your Majesty! Your Majesty!”
“What news? A [Message]?”
Flos called at the woman. The [Rider] drew up in front of Flos as Ulyse stepped forwards, shielding the two with his parasol. Some of Flos’ subjects were also wary, but the [Rider] was too panicked to care.
“We’re under attack! An army of twenty thousand to the west! They’ve crossed Reim’s borders!”
Teres turned cold. She fumbled for her phone, staring at Flos. He looked up, his eyes full of alert. And then he paused.
Gazi appeared by his side. Flos turned to look at her.
“I heard, my lord. The west? Was it the message you desired?”
“No. No. Mine comes from further west still. And south. But the west—that can only mean one thing.”
Flos looked at Gazi. He and she chorused at the same time, along with Ulyse.
The [Mage] looked resigned as he lowered his parasol. Flos just frowned absently, Gazi smiled slightly. There was an uneasy murmur from the people around Flos.
“Where? I know the name, but where’s that?”
“It’s—the nation—west—of Reim. Exactly west.”
Trey clutched at a stitch in his side, panting. Gazi looked approving. Flos just sighed. He didn’t look alarmed. If anything, he seemed annoyed.
“King Fetohep is sending me a message, it seems. He had a knack for choosing the worst times. Normally I’d quite enjoy receiving it. But not now. Rider, how fast is the army moving?”
“At a sprint, sir! They’re moving fast—”
Flos was stroking his chin. The [Rider] shook her head. The King of Destruction sighed.
“What’s the message this King Fetohep wants to send, Flos?”
Teres’ question made the people around her stare at her. The King of Destruction turned his head.
“The army is the message, Teres. I should imagine he wishes to force me to speak with him about some issue. I can imagine…but I’m occupied. And I do not care for Fetohep. We do not get along.”
He folded his arms, frowning. The [Rider] looked from Ulyse to Gazi. The half-Gazer held up a hand and turned to Flos. Her eyes were moving, Trey saw. If you wanted to know what was happening next, all you had to do was watch Gazi’s eyes.
One of her eyes always looked at her [King] when he was nearby, but the other three usually roamed, looking for threats or focusing on other people. Now, two were pointed the other way. Through her skull. Trey shuddered, but he traced the path of her gaze and saw—
“My lord, another group of riders. Armed. Forty in number. The Quarass of Germina.”
Flos blinked at Gazi. But then he turned and saw them too. A group of mounted people were riding towards Reim. Trey saw that most of them were adults, but two were small. Child-sized. A boy and a girl, he knew, even if he couldn’t make them out. The King of Destruction nodded.
“It seems this new Quarass isn’t the type to waste time. And her arrival is fortuitous. Ill-timed, but—let us greet her.”
“Your Majesty, what about the army?”
The [Rider] panicked as Flos strode towards the north gate, leading the crowd with him. The [King] glanced back.
“I will deal with it. They are all on foot, aren’t they? Fetohep wouldn’t send twenty thousand riders.”
“Then they will wait while I greet the Quarass. Attend to me. What is your name, [Messenger]?”
“Finl Ulesey, your Majesty! I was born in Hellios, but my father fought in your armies.”
The young woman’s eyes lit up. Flos smiled.
“Well met, Finl! Now, all of you, with me. Trey, Teres, don’t dawdle! Keep up!”
He strode forwards, and like a river, his subjects, Ulyse, Gazi, Finl, Trey, and Teres all followed. Flos spread his arms, smiling, as the Quarass of Germina and her escort entered the gates of his city.
“Quarass of Germina! What brings you to Reim? My greetings upon you!”
The booming voice made the forty-some people look up. They were all citizens of Germina. And months ago, they had been enemies of Flos. He had killed the last Quarass, and the burning gazes some of them gave him were proof of their lingering enmity. But—Trey had been to Quarass. And if their hatred for Flos was a burning candle, it was nothing to their admiration for the Quarass.
The Quarass had died. But she had been found again. And the new Quarass was a young girl. No more than a child. She was dismounting from her horse with the help of two people—a young boy, practically a street tough, and a noblewoman. Two of her sacred protectors, sworn to guard her with their lives.
The third stood before her. The Quarass waited until she was on the ground. Then, her escort moved back, kneeling in the street. And the young girl walked forwards. She paused in front of Flos and inclined her head. Just so.
“King of Destruction. I thank you for your greetings. May the Shield Kingdoms ward you. Germina gives you its greetings, King Reimarch. As do I. I have come to speak with you of matters of state.”
The Quarass’ voice was pitched low, her words chosen with care. But that was not what made Trey and the others shudder. It was the nuance of her tone, the intelligence behind each word. It was as if an adult was speaking through a child’s voice.
And not just any adult. Trey looked at the Quarass’ eyes. He saw a child with eyes as old as forever. Generations of Quarasses before her made up the being in front of her. She had all the knowledge of the past. Centuries, possibly millennia of it. She regarded the crowd behind Flos, her eyes lingering on Teres and Trey’s faces, then Gazi’s, then flicking back to Flos.
The King of Destruction nodded, giving the Quarass the same level nod. They were hardly in a formal setting, but the two had a formality of their own.
“And I am pleased to offer you Reim’s water, Quarass. You are welcome guests. And it is fitting we should speak of such matters; I have been deciding how best to speak with you. I trust Germina is settled to your liking?”
“Yes. It has been some small task. But your [Steward] was most capable. Germina stands ready to aid Reim.”
The Quarass didn’t even blink. Flos nodded, as if it were only natural.
“Hellios is far less amenable than Germina. But that is a topic for a more sedate setting. Quarass, I confess that I cannot give you my fullest attention at this moment. I await a [Message]. And I am told just now that a force of twenty thousand has entered my lands from the west.”
The escort reacted to the news with clear alarm, looking up from their kneeling positions. The Quarass didn’t appear at all surprised. Her eyes flickered for just a moment before she nodded.
“Just so! King Fetohep is riled. It seems I needs must deal with him. Forgive me for the urgency of the task, but you know his nature.”
“Not at all.”
The Quarass inclined her head. Flos nodded once more, and turned. Briskly, he addressed the [Messenger] and his subjects.
“Ulyse, the Quarass’ guests. Find Mizzi; no, I’m sure she’s already seen our guests. Kindly escort them to her.”
“Yes, your Majesty. If the honored guests of Germina will follow me?”
The [Mage] bowed. The Quarass’ escort hesitated, clearly uneasy about leaving them alone. One of them, the noblewoman, bent to whisper to the Quarass, but the girl replied softly. The escort looked at her and she nodded. They followed Ulyse without question. The Quarass stood alone—save for the young boy and six cloaked bodyguards. Flos paid them no mind. He was turning to the [Messenger].
“Now, Khelt. Finl Ulesey, ride to the southern border. Send word to Mars to return from the front at once, to intercept the army and then hold our western border with Khelt. Gazi, join Mars. Take as many [Soldiers] as you need and the Serpent Hunters and Parasol Stroll as well. No casualties.”
“By your leave, my lord.”
Gazi bowed, smiling. Flos waved a hand.
“Very good. I will answer Fetohep in my own time. Now, to the palace! Quarass, my apologies for the delay. Need you any refreshments from your trip? Allow me to introduce you to my aides. Trey and Teres. I believe you know Teres?”
The Quarass’ eyes were unblinking as she stared at Teres. The King of Destruction swept back to the palace as the crowd dispersed, the [Messenger] disappearing in a flurry of hooves. Neither ruler seemed worried by the army. Trey was unnerved by the tiny Quarass, but Teres couldn’t help it.
“Can Gazi and Mars really hold back twenty thousand soldiers without casualties, Flos?”
The Quarass looked back at her sharply. The impropriety of addressing Flos by his name made the others stir, but the King of Destruction only smiled.
“It shouldn’t be difficult. They’ll have to employ potions and we may take some wounds, but we should hack apart the twenty thousand with minimal effort so long as they stay careful.”
“But won’t this King Fetohep be unhappy about that many deaths?”
Flos laughed at the chagrin on Teres and Trey’s face. Even the Quarass looked amused.
“That’s what you thought? Ah, Teres! I forgot you don’t know of Khelt. Fear not! The twenty thousand are fully expendable. They’re just zombies.”
Flos waved the question away.
“Teres, I am sure someone can explain. Ulyse, perhaps. But I am entertaining a guest of state. Quarass, do forgive me. But I trust my two attendants, young though they may be. As much as you and your three.”
“So I see. I take no offense. You must speak to me of them. As well as other matters. Your awakening, for one. And Germina’s future and your ambitions.”
Flos’ gaze sharpened. He was wary of her, Trey realized. Just a bit. He looked up as they approached the palace. Ulyse was striding back to them, Trey saw. He’d been leading the escort, but the [Mage] had abruptly broken off, leaving them there.
Trey saw the [Mage]’s hand was raised. He was heading towards Flos. And the King of Destruction straightened. Premonition flickered in his gaze. And something—some instinct, a feeling in the air, in Flos’ face—told Trey this was what he had been waiting for. He held up a hand.
“Ulyse. What is it?”
He already knew. The leader of Parasol Stroll bowed slightly.
“Your Majesty. I have just been contacted. A communication spell is desired with all haste.”
“It comes from Tiqr. The Empress of Beasts wishes to speak with you, your Majesty.”
“Indeed. Ulyse, I will receive her. Prepare a mirror.”
Flos Reimarch straightened. Teres saw him square his shoulders, and then relax. And suddenly he looked like the same figure she’d seen at the window. And she realized that her phone, the pot with the Yellat, his returning subjects—even the Quarass and Khelt’s army—had been only a distraction. The King of Destruction looked at Ulyse. Then he turned to the small Quarass. She was looking up at him, her eyes knowing and gauging. Watchful.
“We must speak indeed, Quarass. But a more pressing matter calls me. My city is open to you. We shall speak this night, I think. But Nsiia and I have much to say.”
He waited for the Quarass to nod her assent, and then he turned. Trey saw him walk back to the castle. And the rain, which had stopped, began to fall again. The King of Destruction looked up.
“So much to say. And so little time.”
He smelled blood on the wind. Blood and death. And Orjin, Strongest of Pomle knew Tiqr’s end was near. The battle called him. Not for the lust of slaughter, but to see. To see how the Empress of Beasts met her end.
He stood in his little camp, balancing on his toes on a bit of gravel and broken stones. Working on his balance and strength of his toes. And Orjin was aware of everything around him. The sky, the ground. The distant conflict on the wind, the traces of armies, who had marched on Tiqr’s heart. He knew it all.
And he knew the Drake was approaching him from the side before he opened his eyes. Salii, the [Secretary], stopped and cleared her throat. Orjin opened his eyes.
“What is it, Salii?”
“The King of Destruction is communicating with the Empress of Beasts. On the eve of Tiqr’s fall. They have just begun speaking by communication spell.”
The Drake pronounced the words with all the seriousness he had ever heard in her voice. The Strongest of Pomle didn’t blink. He stared ahead, balancing without using his arms.
“How do you know this, Salii?”
Her tail lashed anxiously. She tapped her clipboard, watching his posture, his face.
“I’m a [Secretary], Orjin. It’s my job to know things. I have Skills and contacts.”
The [Martial Artist] frowned. That might be true, but even he was aware of the significance of what Salii was telling him.
“Even within Tiqr’s walls during a siege?”
The Drake paused.
“Let’s just say that there are concerned relatives of the refugees we took in. Pomle might not have fought during the war, but we have given succor to Tiqr’s citizens. And this news isn’t exactly covert. If I know, other nations know. And that conversation won’t be secret either.”
“The conversation. It’s going through Wistram. Tiqr doesn’t have a [Diviner] or [Seer] or anyone capable of sending a [Scrying] spell at the moment. So she has to request a third party to link her scrying mirror with Reim’s.”
Magic. Orjin waited, thinking.
“…How does this reveal the contents of the conversation to other nations?”
Salii shook her head.
“Besides the fact that Wistram needs to maintain the spell? It’s been said that Wistram watches everything, Orjin. That’s the rumor, at least. They can watch you through your scrying orb, and the Mage’s Guilds send every [Message] to the academy. It’s never been proven, of course. If it was, it would be alarming.”
“I’ve never heard of this rumor.”
“You don’t work in the same circles I do. Orjin, this conversation is significant.”
“Reim is far away from Tiqr. Too far for even a Garuda to fly in a day. You told me Oliphant will be besieged by tomorrow morning. How can the King of Destruction aid Tiqr now? Is the Lord of the Skies nearby?”
The Drake shook her head.
“No. But the conversation is significant. Neither Empress Nsiia nor the King of Destruction have communicated once since Tiqr was attacked. I would have known, believe me. It was what everyone was waiting for. And now? Orjin, I think I might know what Nsiia is planning. Or perhaps the King of Destruction. It’s down to refugees.”
Orjin knew Salii wasn’t going to go away until he asked the question. He wished she’d just say things plainly. Pomle’s warriors didn’t waste time.
“What about them?”
“I’ve been running the numbers. You do know that Pomle has taken in over sixty thousand of Tiqr’s citizens during this war?”
Pomle was small, and the sudden influx of people couldn’t be missed. It had only one major oasis, and all the fleeing citizens had naturally settled around that spot. The training grounds felt overly crowded, for all Salii had done to organize the refugees into a single camp that wouldn’t spread out too far and interrupt Pomle’s warriors’ training. Orjin had moved his camp far away, but he still heard them sometimes on the wind.
“So we have sixty thousand citizens. What of it?”
Salii made an impatient sound.
“It may be a lot to Pomle, but Pomle is barely populated. Orjin, do you know how many people live within Tiqr?”
Orjin’s voice was as disinterested as could be. The Drake sighed.
“Hundreds of thousands have fled towards the Kilalle Steppes. And more elsewhere. Many were captured, turned into slaves—many more fought and died. But Tiqr is a nation. If the coalition took all their people as slaves, they’d have their hands completely full just trying to manage that many people. So. If some were killed, joined the army, fled, or were taken captive, what happened to the rest?”
“You know the answer. Tell me.”
Salii flipped through her clipboard. She came to a little map and raised it. She had to walk around to show it to Orjin as he stared ahead, still balancing on the tiny rocks.
“They’re right here. In Oliphant. That’s an army, Orjin. One that outnumbers Nerrhavia’s forces, even with the hundred thousand reinforcements they received. It might even outnumber all the coalition’s armies combined.”
Now Orjin saw what she was getting at. He blinked; it was the best reaction she’d gotten from him so far. He considered the idea.
“A large force, yes. But untrained. They’ll be slaughtered even if they hold the high ground. Against trained [Soldiers]? Without Skills, they will die by the dozen for each [Soldier] that falls.”
“Yes. But they could still force back an army by sheer weight of numbers. It might not work against Illivere’s Golems or the chariots if they break the walls—but think, Orjin! The Empress of Beasts is communicating with the King of Destruction. Do you remember some of his Skills? His three Units? What about his Skill? [Army of the King]?”
She threw up her claws, excited, apprehensive. Orjin thought about that, and the legends of the King of Destruction. He took it all in, what she was suggesting. If Empress Nsiia was petitioning Flos Reimarch on the eve of Tiqr’s fall…
He looked at her. Salii waited. Orjin paused.
Then he turned around and went back to balancing on his toes. Salii stared at his back. After a moment she threw her clipboard on the ground and stalked off to find someone else who would be sufficiently amazed.
And it was the end. It sounded of silence. The beating of her heart. She heard no lamentations in the street, no drums of war. They would come. But the sound of oblivion waiting was silence—and the sounds of her body. Her heart sounded too loud, echoing in her chest.
Her palace was empty. Empress Nsiia sat on her throne, holding a mirror. A scrying device. She waited, as the magic spell connecting her with Reim was established. As the King of Destruction was summoned to give her a fitting end. And what that might be only she and he knew.
But many could imagine. And they feared the timing, just as they feared Flos Reimarch. Perhaps beyond reason; surely, the legend of the [King] had far outstripped the man he once was. But what if it had not? That was the fear that kept those who thought of the world as ‘theirs’ up at night. The fear that they were tiny people who had felt the giant stir.
Empress Nsiia sat by herself. But she was not alone. Not unwatched. As she shifted, adjusting her headband where a single, huge feather hung, the cracked mask of bone sitting on the armrest of her throne, they spoke in quiet voices. But she could not hear them and they were thousands of miles away.
On the isle, in the citadel known as the Academy of Wistram, sat three [Mages]. They were listening, of course, watching Empress Nsiia through their own scrying orb. They could see through her mirror, hijacking the same spell that was about to let her speak with the King of Destruction. She had no idea. It was an ability Wistram kept secret.
The three watchers were all leaders of the academy. Powerful figures known the world over. Archmages, a title that represented the height of magical power and the ambitions of [Mages]. Archmage Feor, Archmage Viltach, and Archmage Nailihuaile were all present, half of the Archmages in the entire world. A rarity given the usual political machinations of the academy.
Feor, the half-Elven Archmage, leader of the most powerful Centrist faction, a master of almost every conceivable school of magic, sat in the center, his brows furrowed his hands steepled. His hair was grey, turning white; he was old, even for a half-Elf, and he had lived in the world for nearly two centuries.
Archmage Nailihuaile sat next to him, on his left. She was a Star Lamia, known most for her skill in the enchanting school of magic and her erratic, scattered, cheerful personality. Leader of the Revivalist faction within Wistram’s walls. Her posture was erect; she used no chair, but a cushion as she played with her staff, watching Nsiia’s face.
Lastly, Archmage Viltach, on Feor’s right. Human, and the head of his Libertarian faction, which was also mostly Human. It was rare to see him in Wistram’s halls—he spent just as much time on Terandria. He had come for this conversation alone, and he rested one arm on the table the three sat at, murmuring little spells to adjust the scrying mirror’s image, enhance it, change the perspective to see the room and Nsiia fully.
Three Archmages were absent, but it mattered little. These three Archmages held the majority of Wistram’s power. Not all Archmages were equal; it was a title that marked them as first among Wistram’s Council, it in itself a ruling body made up of the most influential [Mages]. They were all Archmages. Not [Archmages].
Izril’s lone Archmage and Baleros’ second were absent as befitted their personalities. As for Chandrar’s lone Archmage—well, Archmage Amerys had not been seen since the King of Destruction had announced his return. Rumors were spreading of why she was missing. And none of the Archmages in this room were inclined to speak the truth.
They were waiting, the three. Waiting for Flos Reimarch to connect his scrying mirror and hear what they would say. The anticipation added to the nervousness in the room. No—not nervousness—they were Archmages, far removed from the conflict. But…trepidation. No, speculation. They were concerned, that was all. Concerned.
“Tiqr’s going to lose. Which isn’t ideal, obviously, but it’s better than them being on Flos’ side. There’s nothing he can do about it now; he’d have done it at the start. That’s what we agreed on.”
Archmage Nailihuaile broke the silence after another minute of watching Nsiia sitting. Feor and Viltach looked up. The half-Elven [Mage] paused; it was Viltach who replied testily.
“So we believe, Archmage Nailihuaile. But anything is possible. Does Tiqr have any more surprises left in store? The coalition has already struggled to get this far. Those elephants put up a ferocious defense, as did the Laughing Brigade and Tiqr’s army. Has the Empress of Beasts any artifacts she might use in a last-ditch effort?”
Archmage Naili frowned, flicking her tongue out. Her scales shone, some with stored magical energy.
“Not to my knowledge, no. I know she’s got two artifacts. See the headband she’s wearing? One feather left. And that is her only powerful relic to my knowledge, aside from the spear.”
“She’s used the rest, then. What does the headband do?”
Viltach might have guessed, but he deferred to Naili’s expertise. The Archmage was an [Enchanter] after all. She frowned.
“I don’t know. I didn’t hear reports of her using it in battle and obviously we couldn’t get anyone to watch for us. But that feather is a…Roc’s feather. And that headband looks like a variant of a wildform-type artifact. I’d have to actually be there to analyze the magic, obviously, but I’m betting each feather gives her some magic from the bird it came from. For a little bit. Thirty minutes? Maybe less. Definitely not an hour.”
Feor nodded. That was his appraisal too. He spoke softly, watching Nsiia’s eyes. She looked worn-down. But not despairing; she looked almost feverish as she shifted again. Like someone driven to the brink. A cornered animal. It was a look that told him to be wary.
“And the Roc’s feather?”
“Makes her bigger, obviously. Have you seen a Roc? That’s literally all they are. Huge. Eggs taste nice, though.”
Viltach made a grunting sound. He tapped on his pointed beard, frowning down his nose at Nsiia.
“That settles it from Tiqr’s side alone. Tiqr never had many relic-class artifacts. The King of Destruction plundered most from the nations he defeated; that she has even two is due to Tiqr’s alliance with Reim. The Tusk of Tiqr is a fairly standard spear enchanted with recall and piercing enchantments. It can also summon any elephant species in the region to the wearer’s aid, but it’s largely useless to the Empress.”
“It’s pretty good. She could throw it through General-whats-his-name. Kill the head and the army runs off, maybe?”
Viltach shook his head.
“Thelican. He won’t approach. He’s a conservative attacker. Strategic.”
“Cowardly. He stays behind his army for everything.”
“Archmage Naili, the purpose of a [General] is not to take to the front like some barbarian—”
“Silence. The King of Destruction is here.”
The two bickering Archmages fell silent at once. Feor turned his head. A second scrying orb in the table came to life. They saw Flos Reimarch. He too was sitting on his throne. He looked old. That was always what struck Feor, every single time. Fleethoof, the King of Destruction—he’d seen them when they were young. He kept forgetting how fast everyone else aged.
But Flos Reimarch still brought a moment of silence into the room where the Archmages sat. He stared blankly into the scrying mirror and then his eyes suddenly focused. Empress Nsiia had been staring past her mirror at something. She glanced down. And sat up. The two ruler’s eyes met.
The word was a sigh. Flos Reimarch stared at the Empress of Beasts. She looked at the King of Destruction, her eyes wide. Feor saw the same emotions cross Nsiia’s face for a moment.
“Flos. You look so old.”
“I do? I was barely your age when we met. No. Younger.”
The King of Destruction looked amused. Nsiia blinked at him. She shook her head.
“We have not spoken for over a decade. And then it was so brief. I still remember the [King] who strode into this throne room and stood before my father. Am I the girl you remember?”
Flos paused. His eyes searched Nsiia, and he shook his head slightly.
“No. You look far different than I remember you, Nsiia. I remember a girl. I see now an [Empress]. I greet you, Empress Nsiia of Tiqr. Empress of Beasts.”
She nodded slowly.
“And I you, Flos Reimarch. [King] of Reim. King of Destruction.”
The two held each other’s gazes. The Archmages shifted. They were uninvited voyeurs to this moment. And they could not guess at the emotions conveyed without words. Viltach was tense, a magical quill transcribing the conversation. He cared little for the emotion of the moment. Naili looked as if she were watching a story—and it was. Feor just listened, searching for anything he could use to understand the King of Destruction, that could aid him.
The conversation was intimate and formal by turns. Flos looked past Nsiia, searching.
“I remember an elephant. Your protector and friend, you called him. Where is he? His name was…”
“Thef. Thef is dead. He was slain by an arrow. Alked Fellbow struck him down and Thef died, giving me time to flee.”
Nsiia’s face hardened. Her eyes flashed wild. Flos bowed his head.
“I am sorry.”
At their table, Naili sat up and looked upset.
“He is? I liked that elephant!”
“Archmage Naili, be silent.”
Feor snapped at her. Nsiia was shaking her head.
“…end upon us all. My [General], Vasraf, holds the walls. But the coalition’s armies have all encircled Oliphant. Ten, and Nerrhavia’s the largest by far. They will fall upon us come dawn, or so Vasraf tells me. Hence my conversation. It has been overdue.”
“Yes it has. I have been waiting for it. Let us speak, then, Nsiia.”
The Archmages leaned forwards as one. Nsiia adjusted the mirror. Her eyes found Flos’; the Archmages had trouble looking at her bright eyes. They had all seen death, and this was the gaze of someone on that edge they had all walked. Staring into the depths.
“Tiqr will fall, Flos Reimarch. My people have fled, lie dead or have been enslaved. The animals of Tiqr are likewise gone or fallen, defending this land. These other nations have torn Tiqr apart, and they will beset us at the last. This is Tiqr’s final hour. What say you of it?”
The King of Destruction bowed his head.
“What say I? I knew Tiqr in its glory. When I marched into your lands, your father stood against me and dared me to try to take Tiqr. That every child, animal, and stone would fight me to the end. I did not doubt him and invited Tiqr to my kingdom. Your people fought with mine until my slumber. Proud friends of the wild.”
He gestured at Nsiia’s headband, the single huge feather remaining.
“Your father gave his life, riding Leihfil the Roc, dooming hundreds of Terandria’s [Griffin Riders] in battle when they came to strike a blow at my heart. I mourn it all. But your father’s words hold true. Tiqr has bled them for every step forwards the invaders have taken.”
Empress Nsiia only nodded. Flos continued, heavily.
“And yet, Tiqr dies. You have heard of my vow of peace, which led Tiqr to this moment. Nsiia. Do you hold it against me?”
“Of course. Were you never to issue it, Tiqr might not have fallen.”
Nsiia’s eyes flashed. Flos nodded. She stared at him, biting one lip hard enough to pierce skin.
“Peace. Why would you bother awakening from your slumber just to announce peace?”
“To prove I do not make war without cause, Nsiia. I never did. Or should I do battle with every nation in Chandrar at once? Even I would lose such a war. Probably.”
Flos shook his head. Nsiia closed her eyes.
“So you issue it and your enemies plot to remove your allies.”
“Yes. I did not expect it, Nsiia. You did not ally with Reim. The nations that attack Tiqr have no cause.”
She nodded, distracted. Feor saw Viltach moving impatiently, opening his mouth. The half-Elf gave him a freezing gaze and Viltach subsided. Nsiia was staring absently past the mirror.
“You know, I could have declared Tiqr as yours and asked for your protection. I could have given my people to Reim as we did two decades ago and dared the other nations to violate your sovereignty. And they would have.”
“Most likely. Which is why I did not ask. But if you had requested it after Tiqr was attacked—”
Flos leaned on his throne, his face disturbed. Nsiia snapped at him, sitting up, furious.
“And I would not have offered! Tiqr joined you, King of Destruction. But we are our own nation. Proud! We will not bow to invaders or hide behind your sword! We fought.”
She paused. He looked at her and inclined his head silently. Nsiia sat back, slumping again. Her bare shoulders leaning against her throne of ivory.
“And we died. Thef died. My soldier’s blood waters Tiqr’s soil. My animals, my subjects I was pledged to protect—all lie dead. They died defending their homes. And these armies march onwards, destroying. Slaying us all in the name of—what? Justice? They do not even dare Reim’s borders, so they attack us for not condemning you as a monster.”
“I know. Nsiia. It is a harsh fate. One I would have avoided had I known what consequences my words held.”
She laughed hollowly, shaking her head.
“It is Chandrar’s legacy. Kingdoms rise and fall. Tiqr is but one more. They are waiting. Soon, they will strike. And Tiqr will fall. But enough of grief. Enough! I did not call you to condemn you, Flos Reimarch. Nor was it to wail lamentations. You have something I desire. A fitting end.”
Flos didn’t reply. He was waiting. The Archmages stared at each other, and then the orb. Naili rolled it closer so they could stare down at Nsiia’s face. She gestured past her throne, tilting her scrying orb so they could see the silent city, the rooftops visible from where she sat. Her throne room was open; elephants and animals could enter it freely. None filled it now.
“My beloved citizens hide behind Oliphant’s walls, Flos. They would not flee. Many have, but many more came here. To stand with me in Tiqr’s final hour. Do you know how many?”
“Six hundred thousand.”
Viltach made a sound. Feor looked up.
“Six hundred thousand?”
Flos’ voice was echoed by Vilatch’s in incredulity. He stood up.
“That’s impossible. There were hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing in every direction!”
“Well, Tiqr’s big. No wonder many went to the capital. That’s…a lot more than we thought, though. A lot more. She must have been hiding them! They’re not on the walls!”
Naili’s tale was curling uneasily. Feor looked at them, then waved a hand for silence. Nsiia was nodding, replying to Flos as he leaned forwards, frowning.
“It is good that these armies won’t wait to starve us out. Oliphant’s food stores are already running low from feeding them so long. We could last another two days before starvation sets in.”
“You did not ask them to flee?”
“I asked. They would rather die than flee and risk enslavement, or live without their homes. Most did flee. But this is where they have spent generations!”
The Empress of Beasts snapped back. Flos only nodded. She calmed herself, breathing more quickly. Now there was a stir in the air, a prickle on Feor’s skin. Foreboding.
“Six hundred thousand. And my army still holds my walls, though they have been torn away. Maybe you didn’t predict this, Flos, as you said. Or perhaps you did. If you were so calculating, you were not the man I remember. But a [King] sometimes makes dark choices, so perhaps you only saw the opportunity. I am an [Empress] and I see it now. Dark choices. Branching paths, all of which lead to nothing. Nowhere.”
“The other nations have demanded my surrender. Do you know what the Siren of Savere offered me? Torture, my citizens her slaves. I, a plaything. Yisame dressed her words more prettily, but the end is the same. Tiqr would be caged like animals. I would be leashed. I would prefer death over that. But a worthy death. A fitting end to my home. King of Destruction. Will you listen to my request?”
She sat up. Empress Nsiia gazed at Flos Reimarch as the Archmages waited. She took a deep breath. And then she spoke in a level tone.
“Flos Reimarch. I would swear Tiqr to you. If you are willing, I would pledge my life by blood to serve you until the end of my days. To fight for your dream once more. Make me one of your Seven. And give me my end. Tiqr may die, but we will destroy everything with us.”
Her eyes burned. In their room, Naili dropped her staff. It clattered to the floor. Viltach jerked.
“What did she—”
Feor pointed. The [Complete Hush] spell hit Viltach and enveloped the room in silence. Only the scrying orbs were excluded. Nsiia’s voice continued onwards, growing louder.
“I know the strength you gave your Seven. And I know the power you can give an army! If we are your subjects, you can revive your units of old. The Sorcelled Blades! We have a hundred enchanted weapons. Wasn’t that all you ever needed? There are not any [Illusionists] to recreate the Mirage of Chandrar. But I have my citizens. King of Destruction, turn Tiqr into your weapon of old. Resurrect the Dreamers of Reim! Summon your [Army of the King]!”
There was no sound from the Archmages, spell or not. They watched Flos slowly raise his head. Nsiia’s eyes were wild as she stood. He spoke slowly.
“You wish to turn your army, your people into one of my armies? My Dreamers of Reim?”
“And your Sorcelled Blades. Use your Skill, Flos. As dawn breaks and the armies assault Tiqr, transform us into a sword. Give me destruction! And give them death!”
Nsiia was shouting. The Empress of Beasts stalked her throne room. And she stared at the distant camps in the night.
“I have seen your Dreamers. I know their strength. My people are no less than the Dreamers who brought nations to ruin. Think of it, Flos! Unbreakable. Undefeatable! Tiqr could wipe out the armies besieging it. All of them! Turn every last of my citizens into a Dreamer and use your Skills and we will take them, no matter the cost. I will fight until my dying breath.”
“And then? You might fall, even were I to do all you ask. But what if you won? With Tiqr in ruins, what would be next? Your enemies would still assail you, again and again. The Dreamers are not invincible.”
Flos’ voice was quiet. Nsiia turned on him.
“I know that. Tiqr is already gone, Flos. What remains are our grudges. After this battle, even should I live or fall, we will strike back, until none remain. I will bring down the nations who destroyed Tiqr. Savere first. I will march on the Siren and kill her myself. And then Nerrhavia.”
“You will never conquer Nerrhavia, not with every last citizen. My [Army of the King] will last you a single battle. And Nerrhavia’s armies will drown even the Dreamers of Reim in numbers and the strength of their soldiers.”
“Then we will tear the String People away. Fray them until Nerrhavia is torn. They may not die, but they will bleed for all they are made of cloth. Think of it, King of Destruction. Your foes to the south will be ruined.”
Viltach was trying to speak. Trying to shout in the silence. The horror on his face was a reflection of Feor’s own. Nsiia was pacing. Flos was still.
“These nations made no war on me, Nsiia. If I gave you my strength, I would forswear myself. How would you answer that betrayal?”
For a moment the Empress of Beasts stared into the scrying mirror and the Archmages felt as if she were trying to look for them. Then she shook her head, the same desperate smile upon her face.
“Who would know? We would not write our allegiance on our chests. And why would it matter if we did? Who would gainsay me from asking for your aid today? This is Tiqr’s war. I only ask you to help me end it as I please. I will even declare my loyalty to you tomorrow; give this coalition a chance to flee.”
“They will not. Your words would give them little choice, Nsiia.”
“Just as they gave Tiqr little choice but to be destroyed and enslaved or fight until the end? I call it fair. And I care little for my legacy. My home is already gone. What is your answer, Flos?”
He did not reply. The Archmages sat, frozen. Naili was trying to dispel Feor’s spell, but too rattled to do it properly. Nsiia held out her hand, imploringly.
“I may die tomorrow. Or when I tear the Siren from her throne. Or long after that. Perhaps I will live. But give me the strength, Flos Reimarch. Give me my destruction and Tiqr its end. Do not let us pass from this earth without punishing those who would erase us! You owe us that.”
“That is true.”
The King of Destruction rose. He looked at Nsiia. And he bowed his head. His eyes closed for a long moment. And when he opened them, the King of Destruction’s pupils held a cold depth to them. Feor looked into those depths and saw ruin. Nsiia smiled, baring her teeth. Flos Reimarch paused. And nodded.
“I must think on my reply. You will know my answer by dawn, Empress.”
“Heed my last request, Flos. Ask what you would of me. Name your foe and I will instruct my [General] to follow if I should fall. Let us fall with dignity.”
Nsiia urged Flos. He bowed his head, nodding. Feor barely heard them ending the conversation. He saw Naili fumbling with her staff, then a pop as she dispelled the [Hush] spell. But it was still quiet as both orbs turned clear, empty. The Archmages looked at each other. Then they began to panic.
“She’s going to launch a suicide attack! She’ll destroy the coalition! It’s madness!”
Viltach bellowed, pounding the table. He looked around at Naili and Feor.
“He cannot do this! It violates the spirit of his proclamation of peace!”
“Can’t? All she has to do is declare for him! He can turn her—can he turn her into one of his Seven? He can definitely form a unit. Right? Is she wrong? Tell me she’s wrong.”
Naili was lashing her tail. Feor shook his head.
“He would have said so.”
“He cannot do it. He proclaimed peace!”
“But no one knows about this conversation. And technically, the war against Tiqr was all to curb his power. You could argue that this has always been Reim’s war, fought by proxy—”
Naili was looking at Feor. The Archmage was flicking his fingers, casting [Calm] spells on everyone, including himself. Viltach resisted the spell, but Naili let him cast it on her. Feor sighed as his heartbeat slowed. He thought, employing frigid logic, ignoring his emotions.
“Viltach, calm yourself. The King of Destruction may well grant Empress Nsiia’s request. We should not focus on whether he will, but if he does—we need to send a declaration explaining what has occurred and condemning his actions the instant it occurs.”
“If it occurs. He might say no.”
Viltach was clinging to that. Naili looked at Flos. She shook her head.
“What are the odds when he says yes? The coalition has ten armies outside Oliphant. It’s just one unit, right? The Dreamers of Reim. I’d nearly forgotten about that unit. And the [Army of the King]? Do you know what it does, definitively?”
Feor and Viltach both shook their heads. Viltach muttered, clenching and unclenching his fists.
“Not definitively. But I know it’s his most powerful Skill. And I’ve seen what it does. The Empress of Beasts must know.”
“Can he turn her into one of his Seven? Would that make her even stronger?”
Archmage Feor ignored that. He was recalling the odds, trying to weigh stories about the Dreamers of Reim and historical battles. Six hundred thousand civilians against…he looked up
“We must communicate these facts with our allies. The coalition might be wiped out if they are attacked.”
Viltach and Naili looked at him, palely. The Star Lamia’s tail swished.
“We tell them we know what we heard? Is that wise?”
“If the coalition doesn’t prepare against an attack…fighting the Dreamers on the walls would be suicidal.”
The Human Archmage nodded. He was resigned now, Feor saw.
“Agreed. Who do we warn?”
“Nerrhavia, certainly. The academy has fairly good relations with Queen Yisame and they are the largest check on Reim’s southern borders. Their army is also the one that can shift the battle. Thelican commands. Send a [Message] spell. Highest priority. No—we’ll communicate via speech.”
The other Archmages nodded. Viltach ran a hand through his combed hair, rattled.
“Who else? Illivere.”
“You think so?”
Naili looked at Viltach. He paused.
“Of course. The Federation is a strong ally of Wistram and Magus-Crafter Femithain is a fellow [Mage], even if he never attended the academy.”
“Do you know him?”
“I’ve met him. Very astute. A steadying influence. Willing to make acceptable changes—certainly an ally. Not a powerful one compared to his neighbors, but it would be a heavy loss if he fell. He is in gravest danger since he remains at the front.”
“Agreed, I will handle Thelican. Viltach, Illivere?”
The Star Lamia frowned.
“Savere? The Siren of Tides has…contacts among some of our members.”
The Archmages paused. They looked at each other. Naili’s face twisted. Viltach shook his head, looking much the same. Feor nodded slowly.
“Savere can wait. Archmage Nailihuaile, speak to Demios’ [King]—and then—”
The armies surrounding Tiqr were unusually busy as night began to lighten. Dawn was still an hour or two away, but it was odd to see so much movement.
Not in Savere’s camp of course. The infamous Saverian irregulars had little discipline. They were good fighters, but they were, as noted, made up of disreputable classes. Thus, they drank, enjoyed themselves, and ate even on the eve of battle. Slaves circulated the camps, trying not to attract attention, as the ‘soldiers’ ate from plundered goods.
They had little fear of attack; they were besieging Oliphant and as far as they were concerned, other armies could fight and die for them. If Savere’s army and its leader, the [Bandit Lady] in charge of the army had any concern, it was to secure the Empress of Beasts. The Siren of Savere had demanded it, so they’d have to do the damn thing. If someone else got to her, they might have to arrange a few accidents before she was fully ensnared.
But that was a concern for tomorrow, and even the [Bandit Lady] had her enjoyments. In fact, she was enjoying herself so much that it was only when she stepped outside to relieve herself that she noticed an issue.
The Saverian [Bandit Lady] looked up from her drink and plate full of rich meat as she raided one of the cooking fires. She frowned, perplexed by an oddity.
Savere had been assigned to the western walls of Oliphant without much siege support, much to her ire. She’d protested it to that upstuck General Thelican, but the damned Stitch-Man had refused to budge. He clearly had his own orders regarding the Empress, so Savere had been put behind the ranks of two other nations’ front lines. Deimos and Nerrhavia’s forces flanked Savere, albeit at a distance to avoid accidental ‘accidents’ involving thieves in their supplies or camps. Again. The [Bandit Lady] had been annoyed by the proximity, but now…she stared around.
There were no camps or fires to her right. Or left. She stared around and saw the glow and activity of armies. But not in front of her. Slowly, she set down her wine cup and stared about.
“…Why are we on the front lines?”
The laughing soldiers around her looked up. One of the [Raid Leaders] stood up. Like the [Bandit Lady], she had near-perfect night vision and she saw the same thing. Savere was the closest army to Oliphant by far.
Every other army had pulled back. In fact, many of them had broken the encirclement and moved closer to Nerrhavia’s army, letting them oh-so-slightly take the lead. In fact, Savere’s army was now treacherously exposed on all sides, including the rear.
“What the fuck’s happening?”
The [Raid Leader] looked nervously at the [Bandit Lady]. The Saverian commander turned. Alarm bells were ringing through her head. She knew bad news when she saw it.
“I don’t know! Shut up! Get the army moving! Move back! Get up you maggot-assed bastards! Someone get me the Siren!”
Revine, known as the Siren of Tides, or the Siren of Savere, or unofficially, one of the [Bandit Queens] that plagued the world, was furious. She was screaming at one of her slave-[Mages]. The woman was flinching, the magical collar around her neck shining as she used her magic and ducked the objects Revine was hurling at her.
“What do you mean, all the other nations were warned before me? Me? Those damn Archmages—not one of them told me? I had to wait for one of my people to deliver the information?”
The [Mage] ducked. One of the [Bandit Ladies] in Revine’s almost all-female command ducked, dodging a spray of wine from one of the cups. Revine whirled.
“She’s coming after me? Me? That bitch? That flea-covered—”
She ran out of words and pointed a finger. Everyone ducked as the Siren sent a blast of water into one wall. It blasted a dresser into pieces with the impact of tonnes of water. The Siren made a strangled noise; it had been filled with costly garments. She whirled.
“Queen—Lady Urele wants to know what orders you have.”
The Siren whirled. Her fury subsided a bit. She looked around. And the flash of fear across her face made the [Bandit Lady]’s heart skip her own beat. The King of Destruction was going to give Tiqr his strength? Revine chewed one fingernail.
“Tell them to pull back! And get me every [Pirate Captain] in a week’s sailing distance! Call them in! All the armadas! The Sandwave Fleet, the Bloodtear Pirates—and get everyone on alert! I want my ship ready to go in case of—get my ship stocked and loaded!”
She looked around. And then she whirled back to the slave-[Mage].
“Tell Urele I want the Empress of Beasts dead! Forget capturing her! If she comes out—kill her! Understand?”
The sky was dark, and Femithain had been roused from his sleep. He strode through Nerrhavia’s camp, followed by his [Armsmaster], Dellic. But despite having slept little, he was wide awake.
As was all of the camp. Nerrhavian [Soldiers] were racing back and forth, and teams of [Diggers] were excavating the ground. The camp was in a flurry of activity, and Femithain saw the locus of it. General Thelican looked like he’d barely had any sleep before being woken. He was standing in the center of his camp, shouting orders at his [Strategists], the [Mages] bearing urgent messages for him and the [Commanders] of other nations.
He’d pulled back Nerrhavia’s army nearly six hundred paces from Oliphant! And more—Femithain had seen Nerrhavia’s encirclement breaking. Thelican was recalling them, pulling them back around his personal command. He’d gotten the same news that chilled Femithain’s blood.
The Empress of Beasts had courted the King of Destruction’s aid. He might unleash his Dreamers of Reim and his [Army of the King] through her. Femithain had gotten that straight from Archmage Viltach. He hadn’t questioned it. And neither it seemed had anyone else.
The armies surrounding Oliphant were moving closer together, almost huddling next to the protective bulk of Nerrhavia’s army. Thelican was changing the distribution of his camps, creating fortifications. Suddenly, it looked like his army was the one being besieged. Femithain strode past staggered ranks of foot-soldiers digging trenches and fashioning palisades in the night.
He reached the center of the commotion. This time no one saw him—until one of his personal Golems strode forwards. Then they backed away from the huge metal giant. Femithain walked past the press, straight towards Thelican.
General Thelican was sweating, his silk-turned-flesh skin gleaming palely. He was shouting at a [Mage].
“Are you sure? Tell Yisame that I’m not taking chances! That’s the information I was told—ask them! I’m busy! Tell her I’m fortifying my position! The armies stay where I say they do!”
“I’m not taking a charge on the front lines! Move your soldiers in front of mine!”
Another [General] was bellowing at Thelican. General Heic of Deimos. Thelican whirled on him.
“Your soldiers have armor! You’ll hold the left flank or I’ll break your army myself!”
“If we’re attacked—”
Thelican spotted Femithain. He strode over.
“Did you hear? I just got a communication spell from—”
“It’s the most dire news. Who would have thought? The treachery of it! And we can’t even retreat, damn them! It could be a ruse or—Yisame, my beloved damned [Queen], has ordered me to hold! I need your Golems on the front. They’ll be invaluable. Put your troops with mine. We’ll hold the center.”
“Good, good. Someone has a spine! Move them up. I’ll show you where—”
Thelican shouted for maps. Femithain waited, seeing Heic turn to him. He felt someone touch his arm and turned. Dellic was insistent, pointing back towards Illivere’s army, which had broken camp.
“Magus-Crafter, we must evacuate you as well. You cannot be endangered! You should retreat with your personal Golems. I will send some of our elites as an escort. Allow me command of the Golems.”
“No. My responsibility keeps me at the front.”
Femithain cut Dellic off flatly. The man inhaled, his face pale—and General Heic pushed his way forwards.
“Magus-Crafter! A word! This can’t be serious. We’re running about as if we’re about to fight a battle for our lives! And my soldiers are on the front! Thelican’s put his entire army between him and Oliphant—is the man terrified for his life or—”
Femithain grabbed Heic. Thelican had been accosted by a [Strategist], but panic or not, Heic’s words were a deadly insult. And the String People of Nerrhavia paid insults with blood.
“General Heic, silence. Dellic, with me. Move the army forwards. Golems to the front!”
He practically towed Heic out of the circle of command. Heic spluttered, but fell silent. Femithain strode with him towards the front.
“This can’t be serious. My [King] just sent me a [Message] spell—the King of Destruction? Aiding Tiqr? Now? Is this a serious threat?”
“I heard the same, General Heic. And I take it quite seriously. It is an act of desperation. And consequential—but there is reason for it.”
“But we’ve ten armies! She’s got barely—”
Femithain whirled, out of patience for once. Dellic returned at a trot. The Magus-Crafter looked at both men.
“Have you ever seen the Dreamers of Reim, Armsmaster Dellic? General Heic?”
Deimos’ [General] shook his head uneasily. So did Dellic. Femithain pursed his lips.
“I have. Or rather, I’ve seen their aftermath. They are the strongest of the King of Destruction’s personal units. It is an unbreakable force, who bear the dreams of their fallen comrades. Every Dreamer fights with the strength of their cause, their fallen comrades, friends, and loved ones giving them power. They become faster, harder to kill, and more deadly the stronger their conviction.”
Heic opened his mouth, paling. Femithain spoke over him.
“It was said that when the King of Destruction led them, they could walk through a hail of ordinary arrows without falling. They could shatter stone with their fists and fight for a day without rest!”
“Golems can do that too, Magus-Crafter.”
Dellic gritted his teeth. Femithain looked at him.
“Yes they can, Armsmaster. But we have hundreds of Golems. In theory, we could be fighting six hundred thousand Dreamers, if the King of Destruction’s Skill works on all of them at once.”
The two men fell silent. Femithain looked at them.
“The Dreamers of Reim follow a great cause; once, it was the King of Destruction’s will to unite Chandrar, and the world. The desire of Tiqr’s people to follow their [Empress] into battle might be even stronger at this moment.”
“Then why are we not retreating?”
General Heic finally understood the danger. He looked back at his own force, far to the left. Femithain watched as his Golems marched forwards, giants of stone, sand, and wood.
“Because we are committed, General Heic. And because the Dreamers are not invincible. We can win this battle. The second Unit that I was informed might appear are the Sorcelled Blades. Another of the King of Destruction’s unique forces.”
“He has two?”
Dellic started. He was too young to remember the King of Destruction’s first campaign. Probably just a boy, then. Femithain had lived those times and corrected him.
“Three. I doubt he can form the Mirage of Chandrar, however. The Sorcelled Blades are a weaker unit as a whole. More conventional than an army that cannot be broken. But elites. All of their blades are enchanted and they reinforce each other. They can copy each other’s enchantments, even combine the two. Blades that pierce armor will also freeze those they cut. Nsiia could form a group of warriors with weapons all nearly as powerful as her personal relic.”
“They can be broken as well. This army is one of trained [Soldiers]. Tiqr’s citizens lack levels. They can be killed.”
And if he uses the [Army of the King]? Femithain paused. He looked at the two men.
“Flos Reimarch is not invincible. His Seven made him terrifying and unassailable. And yes, the King of Destruction is fearsome on his own. He can win any one battle even against terrible, terrible odds. Where he loses is when he fights on multiple fronts, when he is outflanked, worn down. A hammer can only strike one spot. But if this is the hammer it is weak. Flawed. We are an anvil. So long as we do not break, Tiqr’s forces will shatter.”
“You need not be here, Magus-Crafter.”
Dellic’s voice was all that was left in the silence. Femithain knew it was true. But he just looked at his [Armsmaster], at Heic as he returned to the safety of Nerrhavia’s lines and shook his head.
“Armsmaster Dellic. I have participated in Tiqr’s destruction. I declared war on Empress Nsiia and broke her kingdom to pieces until she was pushed to this last. For good or ill. I do not leave my tasks undone.”
The man hesitated. But then he looked at Femithain and nodded. He clasped one hand to his shoulder and metal rang.
“Yes, Magus-Crafter. Then let us see it together. I’ve always wondered whether the King of Destruction’s legend matched the truth.”
Femithain smiled bitterly.
“Ill wishes, Armsmaster. Come.”
He turned. And then he raised a finger. He put it to his temple and frowned. A [Message] struck him, a spell from afar. Femithain accepted it as Dellic looked at him. His eyes flickered. And he sighed.
“Ah. I see.”
Archmage Feor was sending [Message] spells and speaking into a scrying orb to a [Queen] on her throne. He held up a hand, cutting off Queen Yisame.
“From the King of Destruction?”
One of the [Mages] doing the same looked up. Teura shook her head. She was monitoring the flurry of [Messages] going out around Oliphant, recording them for analysis later. Even in this situation, Wistram stood to benefit. But one had caught her eye.
“No—to Magus-Crafter Femithain, Archmage! From the Empress of Beasts! It says—”
Archmage Feor snatched the paper from her and read. Teura looked at him. The Archmage dropped the paper and looked out the window. It was dawn. The sun was rising. And if it was rising here—he turned.
Archmage Nailihuaile and Viltach looked up as Feor burst into the room where they were writing Wistram’s declaration. He pointed at them as they turned.
“Send the declaration! Alert General Thelican and the coalition leaders to brace for an attack!”
“Why? Did Flos send something?”
Naili looked up, eyes wide in alarm. Feor shook his head. He brandished the paper.
“This is a message from Empress Nsiia to Magus-Crafter Femithain. It says—”
Viltach snatched the paper. Naili slithered around him, trying to see. Viltach dropped it and turned. He looked at Naili.
“Send it now. We’ll have to scry the battle!”
“What? How do you know? Why are you certain? What did she say?”
The shorter Lamia was snatching at the floating paper in frustration. Viltach paused at the door; Feor was already moving for their scrying room. He looked back at Naili, who was reading Nsiia’s words to Femithain. Viltach pointed at the paper.
“She told him to run.”
Empress Nsiia walked down the steps from her palace. Her head felt light. And her shoulders were thrown back, her spine straight. She walked past her soldiers. They waited. General Vasraf stood down the central street. And her people, an army, waited at the gates.
Nsiia paused once before him. He bowed slightly. There were tears in his eyes. But he didn’t try to stop her. They had spoken all the words that needed to be said. Nsiia reached out and they clasped arms. She looked at him, trying to put words to the emotions in her chest.
“I only wish that I had not been the last [Empress] of Tiqr. I wish to have been a better ruler.”
He shook his head, eyes bright.
“My Empress. It has been a pleasure to serve. From all of us.”
The [Soldiers] bowed. They knelt as Nsiia looked around. She felt her eyes sting. And she bowed her head. She wanted to remember this moment forever. But dawn beckoned. And her people waited. So Nsiia paused. She looked at Vasraf, her army, her city. And then she reached up. With one hand she lifted the Tusk of Tiqr. The other rose to her headdress.
She plucked the Roc’s feather. Vasraf stepped back. And Nsiia looked down at the feather, the last gift of her father. And it shimmered and faded away in her hand. Her headband glowed.
And Nsiia grew. She felt her clothes and spear growing with her. Tall. Taller. She rose over the heads of her soldiers, who looked up, kneeling. Nsiia saw the rooftops moving towards her. She turned, nearly stumbling, as her feet grew.
And then she stopped. She stood as tall as one of her Grand Elephants, the eighteen still armored for war. They blew their trumpets, seeing their Empress. The Empress of Beasts took a tentative step.
Tall. A giant. She looked at her spear, now longer than even a Grand Elephant’s tusk. She stared down at her people and they looked up at her. They screamed her name. Nsiia walked forwards, leaving Vasraf behind, moving towards the southern gates.
Her enemy waited there. They had formed a wall, a semicircle around Oliphant. Even now she could see them, fortifying their position. They looked tiny all of a sudden. She smiled bitterly. Then she walked forwards. Her people moved out of the way and Nsiia took each step carefully.
Was this what Thef had felt like, towering over everyone? It was lonely. She wished he was here, to see her as tall as he was. Her dearest friend. Her wild half. Thef. She looked towards the gates.
“The King of Destruction has given me his answer. Now tremble. People of Tiqr. My subjects! Come with me.”
The citizens looked up. In silence, they followed Nsiia as she ducked under the gates. She strode out of Oliphant. Leaving her city for the last time. But she knew she would remember it in her heart for as long as she lived.
He saw her coming out of the gates. Femithain stood in the dirt. She was distant, but he could see how tall she was. As tall as her elephants. And behind her came—
An army. The people of Tiqr, wearing scavenged armor, holding weapons they weren’t familiar with. But an army nonetheless. They poured out of the gates, outnumbering the army behind Femithain.
Dellic’s voice was tight. Femithain could see the front ranks of Nerrhavia’s soldiers moving back. They’d all heard now. And they saw her.
The Empress of Beasts. Here she came, striding slowly, the ground filling with bodies behind her. From his command in the center of his army, Thelican shuddered. He looked around, searching for the Named Adventurer.
“Can you hit her from this range?”
Alked Fellbow looked up. His bow was strung, but he hadn’t reached for an arrow. He looked at the distant Empress of Beasts. It was far beyond all but his bow range.
“If she gets closer. It’s a big target.”
“The instant she’s in range, then. No—when she begins her attack! Loose at once!”
Thelican ordered the man. Alked Fellbow didn’t reply. He narrowed his eyes at the Empress, then looked at Thelican.
“Did the King of Destruction join with Tiqr?”
“How did you—”
“I have ears.”
Alked lowered his bow. He looked at Thelican and shook his head.
“If he did, I’m out. I forfeit my contract. I’m not sticking around for that battle.”
“You must! You were hired—”
“If I shoot her, that army will tear me to pieces. No thanks.”
The Named Adventurer shook his head. He unstrung his bow, put it on his back. Thelican shouted at him, face pale with fury.
“Don’t you dare—”
On the front, Femithain was watching Nsiia drawing closer. Illivere’s small army was now in front, holding the center line. The Nerrhavian Hemp-[Soldiers] were two dozen feet behind theirs. Dellic was looking around.
“Magus-Crafter, shouldn’t we pull back?”
Femithain looked over his shoulder.
“I pledged Illivere to fight in this war. I do not flee. Someone must stand here or else these armies will retreat until their backs hit the sea.”
He spoke loud enough for his army to hear. The [Artificers], [Mages], and [Soldiers] in Femithain’s army looked up. They stared at him as he turned. The Golems of Illivere waited, unmoving, unflinching. Beautiful. Femithain looked at Dellic.
“Armsmaster Dellic. You will hold this ground. Retreat Illivere’s army when I fall, or when over half of the Golems are destroyed. Inform the Head Artificers that I nominate Artificer Antielle d’Elin as my replacement.”
The man’s voice rose in anguish. Femithain struck his left shoulder with one hand.
“That is an order, [Armsmaster]. Now let us end this. I have intruded on the Empress of Beast’s lands too long. She is wroth with me and all of us.”
He turned. Femithain strode forwards. From his command, General Thelican saw the Magus-Crafter moving. General Heic turned his head, shouting, his voice lost from the distance. Rémi Canada looked up from his hidden vantage point. Slowly, he raised his smartphone as he frantically cribbed notes.
Femithain raised his staff in one hand. His metal Golems flanked him. He shouted.
“I am Magus-Crafter Femithain. Golems of Illivere, forwards!”
They moved. A line of Golems advanced with him. Femithain walked, hearing their footsteps. And ahead of him, the Empress of Beasts advanced. Now her citizens filled the plains. And she towered over him. As tall as a Golem. She was watching him.
Femithain stopped, now forty paces ahead of Nerrhavia’s front line. His Golems came to a standstill. The Empress of Beasts halted, hundreds of feet distant. But now her face was clearly visible. She stood over her subjects as they formed a rough line behind her. She stared contemptuously down at the coalition’s army. And they looked up at her.
Nsiia whirled. She saw the flinch across hundreds of thousands of bodies. She looked back at her people. And they looked up at her. They were burning. The same look in her eyes reflected in hundreds of thousands of eyes. Nsiia raised her spear.
“This is our end! My people! Tell the world who we were!”
They stared up at her. And then the silence broke. Nsiia’s echoing voice was joined by a scream. A wild, howling sound. It came from them. Like beasts, they shouted, shrieking their anguish.
But they were people! Nsiia’s eyes ran with tears. She raised her spear. And she shouted the word at her people.
They bellowed it back. Nsiia turned. The army in front of it flinched. The word came from Nsiia and her people. A roar.
She lifted her spear higher. This time something tore in her throat. The word itself was pain.
The skies shook. Ten nation’s armies quivered. Nsiia looked up at the sky. She pointed and screamed his name.
“King of Destruction! Flos of Reim!”
Thunder. Nsiia moved forwards. Femithain was holding his ground. She strode towards him, slowly. He met her eyes. His Golems readied themselves. And behind her, Tiqr’s last army prepared to charge. She could see [Archers] in Nerrhavia’s ranks drawing back, preparing to loose. Nsiia was two hundred feet away. She raised her spear, and Femithain lifted his staff.
Nsiia raised her spear over her head. She grasped the Tusk of Tiqr with both hands.
And then she flung it on the ground. She saw the ivory spear bounce on the hard dirt. And she looked up. Femithain paused. Empress Nsiia plucked the headband from her head. The enchantment broke and she shrank.
She walked towards him. Her people watched. The army in front of her had frozen uncertainly. Nsiia closed the distance. Femithain moved forwards.
They met in silence. He waited. Nsiia raised her voice. She tasted blood. But each word was clear in the silence.
“I am Empress Nsiia of Tiqr. I accept Magus-Crafter Femithain’s demand of unconditional surrender. Tiqr surrenders completely to the Illivere Federation.”
She looked up at him. Femithain blinked. Behind him, Thelican fell off his command pedestal. His army turned into a field of statues. From their room, the Archmages looked up, waxworks.
Nsiia raised one hand. Behind her, Tiqr’s citizens threw down their weapons. They wept, removing the armor, looking at their [Empress].
Femithain looked at Nsiia. Her eyes were bright. He stared at the citizens of Tiqr, surrendering. It occurred to him he’d never had a full conversation with just him and Nsiia. And this was a poor time for it. Still, he looked at her.
“You told me to flee.”
“I did not take you for a coward. Why did you stay after my [Message]?”
She half-smiled, looking at him. Femithain shrugged.
“I don’t believe you would have told me to flee if you planned to attack. You would have made me pay for Illivere’s part in this war.”
That was all they said. Nerrhavia’s ranks were moving, advancing uncertainly. Illivere could see Armsmaster Dellic staring at his back, advancing with Illivere’s tiny army. The Magus-Crafter looked at Nsiia.
“You spoke to the King of Destruction. You asked for his strength. What did he tell you?”
Nsiia shook her head. She looked northeast, towards the rising sun.
“I thought he would give it to me. But he didn’t. He told me—he had seen enough pointless death. He told me to wait. To live. Until the day he returned Tiqr to itself.”
Femithain saw Nsiia nod. She tried to say something. And then her eyes filled with tears. She looked at him and he bowed. She turned her head. And Femithain looked upon Oliphant. He let the Empress of Beasts grieve. And he shed his own tears in his heart.
Tiqr had fallen.